10.16.2017

Dear Harvey Weinstein

razor wire at sunset

(True) story ideas for a sexual harassment film:

  • That day in history class in high school when a fellow student sitting next to me leaned over, ran his finger along my knee below my skirt and said with a smirk, "You need to shave."
  • The afternoon in college when I was studying on a bench on a quiet path by a creek and heard a girl screaming. I ran towards the scream and found a young woman shaking because the jogger in red shorts who'd run past me had just exposed himself to her.
  • That time at the end of college when a guy I'd started hanging out with—but not dating—put my hand on his (tiny) penis when we were alone together in his rented house. I waited a respectful (?) few seconds and then withdrew my hand, saying nothing, saying maybe, "We shouldn't."
  • That crowded rush hour on the subway car in South Korea in my 20s when that young Korean solider in uniform put his hand on my ass, the train so tightly packed we were all forehead to armpit, and so I wasn't certain it was even his hand, though it was someone's. I couldn't speak Korean, anyway; I barely knew the alphabet.
  • That night on Amtrak in California in my 20s when I was curled up in my seat, trying to sleep in my clothes (shirt and jeans), when I felt the Latino guy next to me stealthily cup my rear end, so softly he could claim it was accidental, though I knew it wasn't, his touch full of intent. I lay there for a few moments, heart pounding, wondering if it would be worth it to cry out and make a scene to wake up the sleeping passengers around us, only to have the guy claim, all innocence, that he'd touched me purely by accident, hinting nonverbally that I might be unhinged. So instead I pretended to be asleep and shifted around in my seat. We were both acting.
  • The night in my late-30s when I was walking home in southeast Portland and some guy in a sports car swerved into an empty parking lot and started commenting, while hanging from his open window, about my "nice ass," while driving in circles in the lot, hooting and hollering. Afraid he was going to follow me, I started walking even faster and darted into another street.
  • That Saturday afternoon in my late-30s when I showed up at a house party, and the host, my date's good friend whom I'd never met before, said, "I wish your shirt were as see-through as your bag," to which I replied, "So how come you guys drink so much?"
  • That sunny afternoon near the Central Library in Portland in my early 40s when I ignored the compliments (aka street harassment) of a group of young white men, and then the leader, to regain his standing among the pack, started calling me a fucking stuck-up bitch—to my back as I was walking down the sidewalk, running an errand, minding my own business.
  • The countless times I've been told by strange men to "smile."
  • The many times I've mumbled "Thank you" to an unwelcome street compliment (harassment) from strange men regarding my appearance or clothing to avoid the risk of being called an ungrateful cunt.
  • The morning last winter when I got screamed at and called various names (bitch, cunt) by an older homeless man at a bus stop for saying, "No, thanks" when he asked me for money, after he'd asked a more buxom woman for a hug (harassment), which she politely declined, visibly uncomfortable. After he started screaming at me, she started screaming at him, defending me. Female solidarity. We were on our way to work.
  • The day I realized I (almost) never got harassed in public when with a male friend, relative, boyfriend, or husband. They are our unwitting bodyguards, and this is why so many of them are shocked or even disbelieving when women reveal how often it happens: because they aren't around.
  • That sharp moment yesterday when a (drunk) guy friend I used to date slapped my ass (as I was getting up from the couch) so hard it hurt, even though I've asked him repeatedly to stop.
  • That night when that same (drunk) guy friend said, "Every man would be Hugh Hefner, if he could."

"Trump Tower" tree box (Gladstone, Oregon)

The benefit of a woman reaching middle-age, they say, is becoming invisible—a kind of superpower—or rather, the absence of sexual power transformed into a strength of self-awareness and experience most men can't even recognize because it has nothing to do with them. It also helps to wear glasses and oversized clothing, to go gray, to avoid eye contact with strange men (as with strange dogs), to stay on streets strewn with potential witnesses, to walk around as if perpetually annoyed or late for something, eyes squinting, brows furrowed, lip curled. Harassment still happens after 40, but it's a lot less. It doesn't mean sexual assault is no longer possible. It takes a lot of energy to be a woman out in public. We never know what monsters we'll have to face. This is why we spend so much time arming for battle.

It's much easier to stay home, far from the casting couches, the groping bosses in their corner offices, the high, shatter-proof glass ceilings, the creeps lurking in the alley. But even at home, if we've chosen the wrong boyfriend / husband / roommate or been born into the wrong family or live next to the wrong neighbor or attend church with the wrong priest, we may still not be safe. Doors can creak open, covers can be breached, boundaries crossed, even quite little lines of demarcation, often but not necessarily sexual ones, all those times when we've said "no" or "stop" or "please" while the man chooses not to listen—because he's taller, bigger, larger, stronger, older, younger, wealthier, higher-up, buddied-up, or otherwise more powerful; because he's still emotionally age 18; because he'd rather live as a walking id; because he'd rather be Hugh Hefner, the man who paid women to dress as prey animals, always available, smiling, saying "yes."




Note: This essay was inspired by this post at Cup of Jo and its many horrific comments. Sadly, I keep remembering more incidents. All women have such stories. Tragically and all too common, many women have far worse stories to tell.


More reading:

how men can do better

Rose McGowan's story

on the #MeToo Twitter campaign

life after GamerGate

what sex addiction actually looks like


10.10.2017

too much plastic

gifted Zum Bar almond goat's milk soap on thrifted Mexican carved onyx soap dish

Heading towards Halloween, I've been haunted by the recent news about all the microscopic plastic particles being found in the world's sea salt. Not even salt—sanitizing, cleansing salt—is pure or safe now. Nor is water safe, for this was after the news of all the microfibers being machine-washed out of synthetic fast-fashion clothing into the ocean and fish and of micro-plastics in our drinking water supply. How much of our bodies are now riddled with plastic negatively affecting cellular-level biological processes? Since plastics have been acknowledged as estrogen mimickers, this can surely be an example of how we have been damaging the world and risking human health in ways scientists haven't even discovered yet. Yet if I fight plastic in my own consumption patterns, what good will it even do if the water and air are already badly contaminated?

Still, isn't it better to do something than nothing, even at a personal level? Or is saving the earth already a lost cause? I often think about wasteful packaging and ways to reduce it here at home—not that my doing so will change the world (because environmental problems are far bigger than one household's trash output) but mostly because I like to simplify. But now exposure to plastics is an ever-increasing health risk—particularly for a cancer survivor. So as much as I consider myself a social progressive, the benefits of plastics have come with too high a price. We must return to natural materials: metal and stone, glass and paper, cork and cloth.

I already wear primarily natural fibers, mostly cotton, linen, and wool, though a touch of Spandex is threaded through my cotton yoga pants and camisoles for stretch. Exercise wear is inevitably made of synthetics. I already recycle and compost, use cloth napkins, shop in the bulk section of the grocery store, and carry reusable canvas totes. So it's not like I've suddenly woken up with a light bulb over my head and decided to turn eco-friendly. It's all a matter of degree. Impetus matters. Direction counts. Even small incremental changes can make a difference when practiced by millions of people. But the message needs to spread.

My own biggest household plastic uses are large salad boxes, yogurt containers, and plastic bottles of liquid soap. It's not that I haven't tried giving up those forms of petroleum crack. No, I have often bought and washed sandy, gritty, twist-tied bunches of spinach, kale, chard, and lettuces over the years. But that takes a lot more time, even with a (plastic) salad spinner. So in the last several years with a more hectic work schedule and fewer hours at home, I've been resorting to buying organic greens triple-washed in clamshell packages, the cleaning and drying work already done for me in huge processing facilities in California in places like Salinas or Watsonville. Sigh. When you lay it all out that way, it sounds rather awful, especially when perfectly good greens with more intact nutrients can be found locally at farmer's markets here in the Northwest all winter.

Sadly, I have gotten out of the habit of farmers markets. I no longer live within walking distance of a farmers market. And my housemate is a night owl, so even late-brunch-time trips to the farmers market are usually out of the question unless I go alone. Farmers markets have become for me more of an occasional outing with a friend than a regular weekly event.

My other plastic addiction is liquid hand-soap and other liquid face oils and sunscreen that don't come in glass. I've talked about liquid soap before. Let's just say it's a guilty pleasure. But the bottles do create a lot of unnecessary waste compared to bar soap.

Unfortunately, unlike some bar-soap devotees, I don't like bar soap other than on pure looks, and I've tried it many times over the years. Influenced by my germophobic mother, I wash my hands a lot, so the bar never has a chance to dry out and so doesn't last as long as pump soap. Plus, bars are simply messier, especially the handmade ones, leaving gooey residue all over their dish and soap scum along sinks and bathtubs. Bars can also be more expensive, depending on the maker. A large 32-ounce bottle of Dr. Bronner's pure-Castile liquid soap, which can be purchased in bulk at local co-ops and other natural food stores, will last months for bathing and as shampoo but does clog up horribly in a pump. So I could just stick a smaller bottle of Dr. Bronner's liquid soap by the sink and skip the pump dispenser. Or I could use bar soap.

One might say these are little first-world problems, the choice in using a canvas or plastic bag, buying a bar or bottle of soap, a tied bunch or box of salad. But since it's the first world, primarily the U.S., causing most of the world's environmental problems, it's up to us to clean up the mess we've made, starting here at home. The critical options for this plastic question are a) simply buying less (of everything) and then b) selecting the non-plastic option when possible, even if that means signing up for more work, while knowing that nothing is ever perfect. The personal, said the feminists, is political. So is the domestic.


10.05.2017

recipe: curried butternut squash & potato soup

homemade curried butternut squash & potato soup

Amid all the recent hurricanes and earthquakes and domestic terrorism, it feels as if the world is literally falling apart. But it is autumn now, and so there is soup. Yesterday, almost as meditation, I made a pot of comforting soup from ingredients on hand in a mostly empty fridge. I'd come back from another visit to my hometown, having been given a box of locally grown butternut squash and two varieties of apples. As I slowly chopped the skins from vegetables and placed the scraps into a separate stock pot for broth, I didn't use a recipe, and though I've prepared different squash soups before, this one tasted particularly appealing. The curry doesn't overpower and the flavors seem balanced. Plus, the extra turmeric, a natural anti-inflammatory agent, is especially healthful. So I'm sharing to celebrate the harvest season.


Curried Butternut Squash & Potato Soup

2 large onions, diced
2-3 leeks, washed & thinly sliced (white parts only, green parts reserved for stock)
2-3 celery stalks (preferably all the pale hearts & leaves), sliced
1 large butternut squash, peeled & cubed
1 tart apple, cored & chopped (skin on)
3-4 medium potatoes (e.g., russets), peeled & cubed (skin on if organic)
3 T. olive oil
1 T. curry powder with extra turmeric (or to taste)
freshly ground black pepper
salt to taste
sour cream (for garnish)

Notes: Quantities are approximate and flexible. Use organic ingredients whenever possible. If less water is used, the purée could also be served as baby food. Be careful to avoid turmeric stains on fabric and other porous surfaces.

Sautée the chopped onions in the olive oil for several minutes, then adding the sliced leek and celery; cook till softened. Sprinkle in the spices. Add the cubed squash, apple, and potatoes. Cover with water (or broth) and bring to a boil. Then turn down the heat and simmer till the vegetables are just tender. Remove the pot from the heat. Wait 10 minutes and then purée the soup using an immersion (stick) blender. Adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately with a dollop of sour cream per bowl or let cool and store in the fridge or freeze as needed.


7.27.2017

oaks in the high desert

stand of oaks, Running Y Resort, Klamath Falls, Oregon

As a child on road trips south to visit extended family, and though we crossed the state line within half an hour, I knew we were in the real California once I could see rolling golden hills dotted with oak trees sliding past the car window. Now, many of those same hills are covered in identical drab brown two-story houses and ribbons of asphalt roads, the oaks and grasses long gone, paradise paved as in the Joni Mitchell song. California's international popularity, product of Hollywood, has been slowly, year by year, destroying the natural, wild landscape that drew everyone to it like a magnet—gold dust, gold light, gold hills stretching off into the horizon as in so many cowboy films. By the 1950s when my father's family arrived from Ohio-Indiana, exurban California was blanketed in irrigated orchards of oranges and almonds, since turned into housing developments spreading further and further into Central Valley farmland as population rises. (When the water runs out, California will be not just toast but burnt toast, and then people will flood north.)


half-pano view of Klamath Lake


scrub white oaks, Klamath Lake

Raised in the high desert of southern Oregon with sage brush, juniper, and ponderosa pine, I did not grow up around oaks, so they to me seem a foreign tree. Oregon's Willamette Valley, where I've lived for almost 10 years now, has oak trees, but they hide among all the pines and broad-leaf maples. While California's oaks stand apart, dotting the hills like ingenues at a casting call, Northwest Oregon's oaks blend into the background, a blur of green in the rainforest—extras, to continue the film metaphor. Medford in Southwest Oregon on the side of the Cascade Range opposite Klamath also has oaks and a drier climate more like northern California's (which is why I sometimes think about settling there, halfway between Portland and the Bay, restless, dissatisfied human that I am.) A little googling shows the Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) territory ranging from British Columbia all the way down to southern California. California has 20 native oak species, of which the Oregon white oak is but one.


Oregon white oaks, Running Y, Klamath Falls, Oregon


oak leaf litter, Running Y, Klamath Falls, Oregon

Yet just this year my youngest brother, a former Eagle Scout, told me that the Klamath Basin once had oaks, but the farmers and ranchers found the trees bothersome and chopped them all down. As evidence, K knew of a section of oaks still standing out past Keno, which he'd found while looking at old maps. I asked to one day be taken to these oaks. Then this summer I found them in not just one but two places in the Klamath area—meaning, there must be more.

They are scrubbier white oaks with thinner trunks compared to most Oregon white oaks, but they are oaks—my favorite tree. I first tripped across these scrub oaks by accident while on the Klamath Lake side of the Running Y Resort, which in my childhood used to be a large undeveloped cattle ranch. Oaks in Klamath, really? We had white pelicans, bald eagles, and a crop of seagulls that hung out at McDonald's, a five hours' drive inland from the Pacific Ocean—but oaks? This for me was as if learning dragons were real and living in caves around Crater Lake.


oak leaf and acorn cap, Klamath River Canyon, Oregon

On another afternoon, my step-father and I drove down into the Klamath River canyon on a curvy gravel road and stopped at a turn-off park by the river, where we spotted an orange-and-black-and-cream-ribboned California King snake (further proof that we are not far from the California border in my hometown), winding fast into the bushes away from our cameras. Oaks stood above us and all along the canyon walls among the pines. I dipped my toes into the river, the clear water cooling my feet, looked up at the blue sky, and thought about how, regardless of what cynics say, there are hidden depths to the familiar. There is magic in nature all around, if only we're open to it. And so I fell a little in love with the place I always longed to leave.




7.22.2017

rent-a-garden?

orange flower behind chain link, Gladstone Community Gardens

When I first moved to Portland, I lived in an Alberta condo with no yard and a bare balcony. The ex, who was secretly plotting his escape, threw a tantrum when I suggested putting herbs in pots out on the balcony (one of many red flags I should have spotted but didn't). Then in the house in Brooklyn, free to develop hobbies again without guilt, I transplanted raspberry canes along a fence and tinkered with the shared raised beds in the backyard, developing a taste for gardening. But once in downtown Portland among the high rises, I didn't even have a balcony. Currently, the roommate's and my small rented front yard has just enough space and sun for some herbs—lavender, basil, thyme, rosemary, chives—and a few tomato plants among the wildflowers, but that's about it. So, depending on my living situation and access to rented dirt, I sometimes daydream about becoming a member of a community garden.

 
Gladstone Gardening Association sign board


Gladstone community garden

The local community garden here in Gladstone sits in a large field sandwiched between a ball park and the shady trees and grass in Meldrum Bar Park above the Willamette River, cordoned off with chain-link fencing and "members only" signs. Last night on a walk to the river at dusk, we saw dried-up raspberries, tall sunflowers, marigolds tucked between kale to ward off bugs, rows of lettuces, small orange pumpkins shaded by large leaves, a stand of sweet corn, trellised beans, sprays of cosmos, a patch of daisies, sprawling zucchini. A few gardeners were spotted throughout the field, bending over to weed or wielding hoses. Some of the plots were tidy, even overly manicured, others full of weeds.


plots at Gladstone Community Gardens


cosmos & blue chair, Gladstone Community Gardens

For $30 a year (plus the cost of seeds, starts, and tools), a community garden plot sounds like an inexpensive way to play with plants and dabble in basic permaculture methods like chop-and-drop mulching and sheet mulching—as well as the chance to spy on the neighbors and learn from others' gardening techniques. Since community garden associations typically forbid the permanent part of permaculture food forests—fruit and nut trees—in my annual plot, I would have rambling zucchini, lettuces, all types of kale, climbing English or Persian cucumbers, trellised heirloom beans for drying, staked tomatoes, bunches of basil, and flowers like nasturtiums, marigolds, and sweet peas woven between the vegetables. In fact, it would probably be at least half a flower garden. So at that point, would I be a gardener or a florist?


pink rose, Gladstone Community Gardens

(For anyone else interested in gardening and community gardens, I loved Tara Austen Weaver's memoir, Orchard House, in which she describes her transition from community gardening to a private family garden, using permaculture principles and philosophy. You can see evidence of me reading her book in this post from August 2015.)


Have you ever been a member of a community garden? How was your experience? What would you do differently? Please share!


7.02.2017

the perils of breast reconstruction

vintage nightgown with black lace straps

One day in April after showering, I picked off what I thought was a piece of dry skin or an unabsorbed stitch along the scar on the underside of my fake breast and felt a sticky fluid dripping down onto my bare leg. Huh? It turned out I was leaking lymphatic fluid from a hole in the scar from surgery last November when the temporary expander filled with saline was switched to the "permanent" silicone implant that was supposed to make everything better, according to the doctors. Even though the silicone implant had a more natural pear shape and a softer external feel, my radiated tissue contracted internally against the implant, creating constant pressure, a tightness under the thin pectoral muscle. I could never not feel the presence of the implant. And the radiation treatment meant my scar wasn't healing properly.

I happened to have an appointment in my plastic surgeon's office the following day to talk about removing the implant. According to Dr. H. (petite, beautiful, vibrant, and strong), my body—like my mind—was rejecting the implant. She said a maxi pad would best sop up the mess until my insurance approved another surgery. So I wore a maxi pad in my bra for two-and-a-half months, waiting on insurance, while swapping out a soaked, yellowish pad every day for a clean, dry one.

Since my unilateral mastectomy in September 2015, I look with envy at women with breasts, no matter how perky or droopy, small or pendulous, young or old the breasts are, and hope the women feel grateful to have a normal-looking chest with two real boobs and a complete set of nipples, whatever the size or shape. (Breasts are so easy to take for granted until they're cut off.) And I feel sad for women with perfectly normal breasts who choose surgical implants, believing their own healthy breasts too small, too inadequate for the male gaze and cultural preference. I only wish I could have my own small, perky left breast back—only without the cancer.


vintage black nightgown with lace and pintucked bodice

Instead, I have this different, older, deformed body to learn to live with and somehow love—a body that is creaky and pained from lack of estrogen, lopsided from surgery, heavier from stress-related and hormone-related weight-gain, and altogether worse. In photos these days, I can barely recognize myself, my former body leaner and more symmetrical right up until cancer treatment and medical menopause. Everything has changed. And there is no rewind button, no access to a parallel track. This is what is. I should simply be grateful to be alive, glad to have one breast instead of none, but the feelings are more tangled: anger, fear, sadness, thankfulness, jealousy, and only occasionally a glint of hope.  

My oncological surgeon, Dr. C. (petite, beautiful, calm, and strong), says the implant removal "will not magically make everything better," that the next stage of the process is all about self-acceptance. In addition to being a surgeon and a mother approximately my age, she's a certified yoga teacher (Go women!), leading an occasional class geared specially for breast cancer patients and survivors. I'll probably sign on for the next class in the fall.


pink June rose, Gladstone

The past two years since cancer, I've tried anti-depressants, acupuncture, homeopathy, meditation, Pilates, art therapy, regular therapy, self-help books, protein shakes, more organic vegetables, extra vitamin supplements, two Fitbits, and periodical comedy shows on Netflix. I've had four surgeries, three surgery-related infections, a spongy vacuum machine temporarily compressing my chest wall, and three surgical drains. This winter's swimming felt right since I found myself growing stronger, if not lighter, the weightless suspension in water a boon for joint pain—yet swimming has been put on hold for months so I wouldn't leak into the pool. Yoga, something I once did for a half hour every day, never felt right with the implant always in the way (like a heavy balloon sewn into my chest) during any forward bend, though I suspect it will feel more comfortable again once this latest surgical drain has been removed—meaning I still look slightly bionic. It feels odd, post-surgery, as a woman to feel rock-hard bone—sternum and rib cage—under the skin where a padding of fat and milk ducts once were. (Maybe being a woman means being soft on the outside but hard on the inside. Women know how to endure, know how to win the long game.)


vintage nightgown with brown lace detail

Life will beat you down. (Youth never believes this.) The challenge is whether you can pick yourself up and start over, every damn time.

I own a handful of vintage nightgowns found mostly at Goodwill in the six years between divorce and cancer diagnosis. Lovely though they look, they are made of nylon that makes me sweat and lace that scratches sensitive skin. They invoke a sexual, romantic ideal that no longer fits. So they will be sold to women with life challenges that aren't breast-related. Instead, I wear loose-fitting cotton and linen, natural fabrics that breathe and lightly brush the skin.

Cancer, in my experience, is never win-win but only win-loss. The toll price for maintaining life—and that's if lucky—is often high. Though other women opting for breast reconstruction might have a different, easier experience, the choice with my own Barbie-boob implant was to look better (in clothes) but feel worse. I chose instead to look worse but feel better. Age prefers comfort over looks. And so life is training me, like it or not, to become a wise old crone.


6.04.2017

denial (population: millions)

tulip with insects (April 2017)

The Portland metro area is still mourning last week's MAX attack, the murder of two white men defending two young women of color, one of whom was a Muslim wearing a hijab, against a racist neo-Nazi thug with a miles-long criminal record. Yesterday was another car-on-a-bridge terrorist attack in London, the city where I spent last summer during Brexit. Today in downtown Portland there will be an alt-right protest and an even larger counter-protest by the masked leftist antifa. I considered photographing the fascist and antifa protests today, and yet after spending the last couple of years fighting off cancer, why would I want to risk getting whacked like a piñata by fake-Nazis with sticks?

Lately I've been reading up more on these American white-supremacist groups, these squeaky racist wheels getting more and more grease from the media as far-right groups pop up like zits across the U.S. landscape (and yes, I'm purposefully mixing disgusting metaphors). I stand by what I said in January about this period being the start of white patriarchy's last gasp. And yet, I'm only now beginning to feel, like crunching on grit in a sandwich at the beach, just how nasty and brutish this era may become. Trump, xenophobic con-man-in-chief and tool of Russian operatives, has opened Pandora's box of Nazis and let all the crazed, leftover (overt) racists come tumbling out.


broken tulip, Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm (April 2017)


tulip petals in mud, Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm (April 2017)


muddy tulip, Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm (April 2017)


girl with hat in mud, Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm (April 2017)

At least some of the white supremacists are Holocaust deniers, unsurprising for the far-right, people who tend to be averse to science in particular and facts in general. I've actually toured Auschwitz in Poland and witnessed the large museum cases that, at least in 1994, were filled with piles of tangled eyeglasses, piles of human hair, and piles of jumbled suitcases labeled with names and addresses of people who thought they were coming back. I've seen the crematory ovens built for perfectly healthy people. Auschwitz, even half a century after WWII, seemed surrounded by a heavy cloud of dark energy, enough to chill the skin—and I'm not one who believes in the supernatural.

Because of Auschwitz and war and murder and misogyny and racism, humans deserve the prize for being the worst mammals, the worst of all apes. How much better life would be if we were like our cousins, the bonobos, who have copious sex with all types to diffuse tribal tension, rather than like chimps with alpha-males who beat each other up and shriek for battle. Bonobos embody the motto, Make love, not war.


crowd scene, Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm (April 2017)

Go suck eggs, fake-Nazis. I want a future where humans learn how to get along. I believe it's possible and the only viable future. So I'm headed to the farmers market today to support the people growing and picking our food. And on Monday I'll return to my job teaching poor children—Latino and African-American and white—to read.


4.29.2017

French market tote bags

metro shelving display with tulips and hanging French market bag

Next door to Pomarius in Northwest Portland is Versailles Gardens, owned by a Frenchman, where you can buy traditional French garden statuary, plant pots, and woven market bags in various sizes, the latter friendlier to the budget (around $40 for the bags, compared to $20,000 for a large fountain).

Funny thing is, my American friend in London, who lived for years in Paris, has a half-French child, and has frequently traveled through the south of France, had never heard of "French market bags" till I mentioned how much I loved mine—the natural straw, the herringbone weave, the plump leather handles, the light weight, the carrying capacity!

Even in Greece, market bags, to my dismay—since you would think Europeans would know better—were simply the ubiquitous, standard, single-use plastic grocery bags carried around the world, just as in London, just as in any American suburb or small town, pushed upon us decades ago by the petroleum industry. France only last year banned plastic grocery bags, as a growing number of progressive U.S. cities like San Francisco and Portland have already done.


woven French market tote bag, detail

However, Tilda Swinton's character in A Bigger Splash, shopping while vacationing in Pantelleria, a volcanic island near Sicily, carries on her long alabaster arm one of the woven bags that Americans call "French market totes". So the bags do exist in the Mediterranean, at least on film. Such bags in the hands of Western elites, yuppies, hipsters, and environmentalists become a status symbol, the natural materials and ancient craft both a reclamation of heritage and a rejection of the cheap plastic bags of the poor and of conservative suburbia. (For why spend a good chunk of a meager grocery budget on a handmade heritage shopping bag when stores give plastic ones away for free?)

Maybe "French market bags" are called something else in France (just as they don't call their pommes frites "French fries"), especially since the bags are typically made in Morocco or other parts of North Africa. If anyone knows what the French themselves call woven "French market bags" or "French market totes" with leather carrying handles, and where (or whether) they were traditionally used, let me know.

In any case, soon it will be farmers market season and the end of Portland's incessant rain. Time to pull out and dust off the straw totes and canvas bags and fill them with fresh vegetables.


4.23.2017

field trip: Pomarius Nursery

turquoise metal bistro set, Pomarius Nursery, Portland (May 2016)

One day last May, I stumbled upon Portland's Pomarius Nursery while walking from a bus stop in Slabtown up to an appointment in the Alphabet District. Pomarius is what the British would call posh, meaning not your average suburban-chain garden center but a nursery for dreamers and those in higher tax brackets. Sections of the nursery are set up like rooms, complete with bright-colored bistro sets and potted table décor atop neo-modernist rusted-metal occasional tables, the pea-gravel paths like textured rugs. Caged parakeets, tropical houseplants, and trickling fountains were tucked inside a humid enclosure. With plants staged in groupings in furnished rooms, the feeling is small-space intimate: a secret garden of topiary nestled within a former industrial district, now turned into high-end apartments and condos, cafés, and doggy-day-care centers with puns for names.

A few months later, feeling a bit homesick for green space in dense, sprawling London, a walking trip to London's Clifton Nurseries reminded me of Pomarius in Portland. In fact, I preferred Pomarius for its modern, casual, confident mixing of global styles—West Coast American, European, Asian—meaning the world has grown much smaller when a small, progressive Northwest American city can, at least in part, compete favorably with a former Empire capital, particularly when that capital is known for its garden culture. Portland is moving up in the world—or rather, the world is moving to Portland.


peachy-pink rose, Pomarius Nursery (May 2016)


Pomarius Nursery sign, Portland, Oregon (May 2016)


planter pots, Pomarius Nursery, Portland, Oregon (May 2016)


parakeets, Pomarius Nursery (May 2016)


indoor pond, Pomarius Nursery, Portland, Oregon (May 2016)


round metal table, Pomarius Nursery, Portland, Oregon (May 2016)


jade plant, Pomarius Nursery, Portland, Oregon (May 2016)

4.16.2017

waiting for summer

alligator lawn ornament, Gladstone

What do you do when you realize your hundreds of blog readers are mostly bots? Why spend all this time writing and curating photos for robots, unless it's really just for yourself—myself—a quiet, insignificant little hobby? Even so, I haven't seen the point the last few months. Plus, the natural light's been too dim for decent indoor photos (though that hasn't stopped me before). But this winter in Portland was extra long and extra cold on top of the usual wet and gray. It's long past time to move on from my teaching job and crazy-long commute, after which most evenings I feel numb and exhausted. Over half the year here (which seems a bit much?), I daydream of moving south where the sun is—if only I had the money and a car, if only I knew where to go, where home is.

All this dissatisfaction can't be good for my immune system, the body's defensive line against cancer recurrence (since it's the immune system's job to take out rogue, mutated cells—or not). So for Christmas I asked my boss for Fridays off for health reasons, gifting myself recurring three-day weekends for less pay, which helps. I still go swimming a couple times a week, the most joyful three hours of my week. I've been trying to meditate. I've been reading life-coaching self-help. I've been letting my hair grow. Through no effort on my part, I've happily become an aunt, though my nephew lives six hours away via the car I don't have. I've been eating lots of kale. I've been trying to find the point . . . or at least a personal road sign marking a different road less traveled, one smoother yet full of unexpected turns leading to long pauses for scenic vistas and adventures off-trail—because the one I'm on has been an unpaved dirt road full of rocks.


tree blooms, Gladstone


carved-wood yard statue of half-buried man, Gladstone

Fortunately, finally, my job ends in June. But I don't have a plan for after. I know I want to wake up slowly at a reasonable hour, smiling and stretching, ready for the day to begin, instead of groaning "Fuck!" to my phone alarm at 5 AM. I want to spend more time with friends and with my cat. I want more time to putter around at home and in the garden, moving around instead of sitting all day, tinkering with projects, being creative. There is eBay and Craigslist to keep playing with (aka selling on). I do know I'm happiest in summer and when I don't have a formal job. I'm not sure what to do with that information. But it's the truth. Will the truth set me free?

1.25.2017

civil war v. 2.0

Amtrak Coast Starlight observation car (December 2016)

Along with millions of people in cities around the world, I protested George W. Bush's Iraq invasion in San Francisco in 2003, media helicopters hanging overhead. On the Portland waterfront in 2011, I protested with Occupy against the 1%, a friend's baby strapped to my back. We legally and peacefully expressed our discontent. The media dutifully covered the protests as news. But nothing has changed: the rich are exponentially richer, the poor and middle-class even poorer, and soldiers and civilians (aka collateral damage) are still dying overseas. Like former-Occupy-co-founder-turned-Nehalem-resident Micah White, I feel disillusioned with protest marches.

So instead of protesting Trump's inauguration on Friday or marching in the rain with the pink pussies on Saturday, I went swimming. Protests seem mainly an outlet to blow off steam—a collective temper tantrum before we all go back to work (if we have jobs). And swimming, for me, worked just as well.

What we should have done on Friday and many more Fridays (and Mondays and Wednesdays)—those of us, at least, not in severe poverty—was go on strike from work (a hard thing to ask of poor people, admittedly, when there is no union backing you up) and do something other than consuming products—like joining a local group, reading a history book, playing an instrument, doing hobbies, or visiting friends and family. What history has shown is that the elites never grow scared until either their bank accounts are affected or their lives theoretically endangered by mobs with pitchforks and torches. Or as Aziz Ansari said on SNL the day after the inauguration, "Change doesn't come from presidents [but] large groups of angry people."

We, the people, are both the producers and the consumers. We are the economy. Without us, finance will fall. Financial elites like Trump desire to keep us distracted and divided amongst ourselves because that way they can keep acquiring and hoarding all the money. But if we continue divided beyond all fair proportion between the 99% and the 1%, the republic may fall. It is an ominous sign that the U.S. has been downgraded to a "flawed democracy" for the first time.

Trump, an effective salesman (of his own mythic self), has merely underscored the existing fault lines in American society between conservatives and progressives, between authoritarians and humanitarians, between the patriarchy and feminists. Yet if we look at the global picture, the clearest fault line is between those who believe white men should forever remain in charge (by way of a presumed natural order) versus those who believe in equal human rights. It's nearly impossible to view what's happening in European and American politics with the rise of far-right movements as anything but white patriarchy's last gasp: a brittle, angry refusal to relinquish global cultural power. As if at once, even more moderate conservative whites have realized the brown hordes are flooding North. Rural whites look around and fail to see the homogeneous towns and villages of their youth. This then, the white backlash, is the climax of post-colonial identity politics and increasing wealth disparity: a perfect political storm.

And yet this rise of the far-right may also give us hope—a candle to be lit during terrors ahead—because it is the beginning of the end of white power. The population numbers are against them (or us, rather). The white patriarchy will, of course, go down fighting, burning the planet down with them. Yet the future, if we survive as a species, is on the side of racial and gender equality. As science fiction has shown, the robots are the future, human consciousness evolved into AI. If we do not learn how to band together, white with brown and black, how will we ever fight our future electronic overlords?


1.13.2017

de-stressing: lavender oil

bottles of lavender oil, soap, & lotion

Being cold makes me cranky, so mostly I hate winter. Before Halloween even rolls around, I've already channeled my inner Dane (and I am part-Danish) to create a nest full of hygge—cozy comfort—by lighting candles, clicking on (all the) table lights, piling on blankets, fluffing up pillows, wearing thick socks and sweaters, pulling curtains closed, turning up the heat, cooking soups, making tea and hot chocolate, reading books, watching mysteries and comedies, stroking my sleepy cat.

At the same time, recurring anxieties about money and right livelihood don't exactly fit well into a cozy domestic scene. But this winter such thoughts have been pressing in even more than usual as I'm in the process of reconfiguring the big picture of my life and what direction to go from here, with the embodied knowledge as a cancer survivor that life really is short and there is still so much to do.

So in trying to figure all this out, I've been doing more yoga, journaling, brainstorming, and reading across genres for inspiration, including books about meditation (because that's much easier than actually meditating). But when coziness, self-help, and deep breathing are not enough, or even when all that is enough but I still need to go to sleep quickly or de-stress fast at work, I've been turning to the magical medicinal properties of lavender oil.

I have a big lavender plant growing in a pot outside, plus dried lavender stems in my closet and in floral sachets amid my sweaters. And this fall I had switched to using Dr. Bronner's Liquid Castile Soap in lavender (instead of unscented) as both body soap and shampoo, making my shower time extra fragrant and relaxing. Even my current hand lotion is scented with lavender oil. Just before bed, I've also been opening a bottle of lavender essential oil and dousing my wrists and neck for a burst of aromatherapy. The strong scent coming off my skin soothes me to sleep—aided by a dose of melatonin. 

And if you don't like the scent of lavender, maybe because it reminds you of old ladies with white hair, why not try a different essential oil? Sometimes all we need is to start a new daily ritual, a placebo action like applying body lotion or cracking open a book before bed. Whatever works to feel better, right?

1.12.2017

de-stressing: snow days

snowy trees on Clackamas River

Winter months are hard in the Northwest. Daylight hours are short—not as short as Norway or Alaska but short. It's chilly, damp, and dark here. These snowstorms we've been having remind me how much lighter a cloudy sky is when reflected by white snow than in rain when everything is gray and moody. (There's a reason Portland is known for craft beer, strip clubs, and coffee shops: people seek escape.)

During winter, I long for summer. I muse over past idyllic island vacations. I daydream about moving south. I get tired of wearing two coats at once and waiting for buses and trains out in the cold. But when it snows? Yes! Snow days are one of the perks of working at a public school. During the pause of daily life that is a snow day—no work, no commute—it's easier to be present in the moment.


mini-snowman


mini-rabbit snowman

And not one, not two, but three is exactly how many coats I wore on a walk to the grocery store yesterday—plus a sweatshirt layer, my handknit mittens, a wool hat, and two wool scarves. The usual walk took on a magical quality when everything was blanketed in snow. It also took twice as long, trudging through slushy and compacted snow in rain boots—meaning snow, like sand at the beach, makes for a better workout.


snowy riverbank, Clackamas River

Down by the river in the snow and muffled air, I could almost forget about the housing complex being developed over on the Oregon City side of the Clackamette Cove, an inlet pocket of the Clackamas River, and the fitness center and large parking lot going in across the street, blocking our view of the riverside. One must be anointed by natural beneficience when it comes, while it lasts.

1.01.2017

de-stressing: swimming

Makry Gialos, Crete, at dusk (July 2016)

I'm not much of a swimmer. I had a swimming lesson once as a kid; the tan, smiling, sun-bleached teenager in red trunks instructed us to stand and dip our faces underwater, blowing bubbles. Unlike my Californian cousins who had a pool in their backyard, sliding in and out of the water like seals, my family donned swimsuits once or twice a year during mid-summer: while camping up at icy-cold Oregon mountain lakes and during the week at our grandmother's cabin in the High Sierras, my grandmother paying for tickets to the town's private man-made lake. Underwater activities for me have always meant risking screaming ear infections requiring antibiotics, my ear canals neatly trapping water, tubal petri dishes for blooming bacteria. Even so, I can (approximately) frog-swim, tread water, side crawl, and float—all self-taught.


southern Crete coastline (July 2016)

But this summer in Crete, my younger sister, who has more normally shaped ear canals, insisted I try snorkeling, handing me a drugstore package of Mack's silicone putty ear plugs. I suppose I had always assumed ear plugs would never really work. Even on two separate occasions as an adult in warm sub-tropical Hawaiian waters alongside sea turtles, I refused to snorkel. But in Crete, post-cancer, a new me, I thought, "Oh, why not?"
 
So I did, for the first time, borrowing gear from the hotel. My sister gave me a quick lesson at the beach near the hotel. Even with me nearsighted, all margins blurry, the feeling was freeing, slipping underwater into the muffled quiet with the fishes like any other mammal.


swimmer at Vai, Crete (July 2016)

The next day we took a party-boat cruise to a nearby uninhabited island where the water was crystal clear. We snorkeled later in the week at the northeast beach at Vai under Crete's sole stand of palm trees, the water a pure turquoise. Our last full day we returned to the magical island via the party boat for more hours of snorkeling. If I'd had the money, I would have bought a little hill house and stayed in Greece forever, hiking the herb-scented hills and swimming in the buoyant sea.


Mediterranean Sea viewed from hills over Makry Gialos, Crete (July 2016)


sunset view, Crete (July 2016)

I've been missing that feeling of escape from routine, the feeling of floating in a body of water. So one evening this week my roommate and I drove over to our nearest local public pool. I forgot to put in my ear plugs before stepping into the water, but it didn't matter. We spent an hour treading water and chatting, splashing around, schooled by the high-school swim team practicing in lap lanes on one side. The water was 86 degrees and the room humid but still a bit chilly when half-naked, winter's cold breath pressed against the tall glass windows. Instead of natural sea-salt breezes, we grew redolent with poisonous chlorine. But the pool was sparsely populated, only a handful of water-aerobics class members, plus the swim team, so we had much of it to ourselves.

After a warm shower in the changing room, slipping on yoga pants and an oversized, thick cotton sweater, my hair wet under a wool hat, I felt more relaxed than I've been since paddling in the summertime Mediterranean Sea. Exercise and de-stressing for five dollars at a public pool—I'll take more of that, please.

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