Friday, November 7, 2008

Not giving up on Santa

Alex took today off to stay home with SB because I was at a conference. Later, as we debriefed about each other's day while shopping for a gift for yet another kid's birthday party, Alex mentioned that SB told him she didn't believe in Santa Claus.

"What?" I said, shocked. "She's only four." Somehow, I thought this day would come much later, maybe when she was in grade school (a.k.a. that place where all childhood fancies die).

She'd told Alex that because she couldn't see Santa, he didn't exist. Although I admired her reasoning skills, this really bugged me. I mean, I'm agnostic and a firm believer in science and provable things, but I'm also a grown up; I lost my ability to believe in things I couldn't see slowly and unwillingly.

I was nine years old when I last "tested" the theory of God by praying for a bag full of money. I went to sleep feeling more optimistic than skeptical, half planning on how to spend my cash at the county fair later that week. I woke up and searched my room, wondering where God would put a bag of cash, and only then did disappointment set in. I've never been able to fully shake this feeling of sadness, this sense that life is maybe just what you see in front of you, but part of being a grown up is learning to live with the limitations of reality.

Later, when we were having dinner at our fave conveyor-belt sushi place, I nonchalantly brought up the Santa thing with SB: "So, what did you tell Dada about Santa today?"

"Well," she began, speaking fairly clearly, considering she had a mouthful of inari, "I never see him except on movies and stuff, so I don't think he's real."

"But there are lots of things we can't see that are still real." I hemmed and hawed for a moment, trying to think of a good example, then I blurted out, "Like Saturn. We can't see it, but it's real."

"Yeah," she said, "we can't see it because it's really, really, really, really far away. And because it's dark. It's in the Earth, right?"

Okay. Bad example. I thought of the look on her face when I'd tried to explain the line in the Flaming Lips song, "Do you realize that we're floating in space?" She can't yet handle the idea of space, but really, neither can I.

"Well, I think it's good to believe in things you can't see." I retreated to the admittedly weak parental strategy of issuing an edict: "I say it is so, so it is."

"You mean like the Easter bunny?" she said. I suspected she was testing me because last Easter, she asked why the Easter bunny had hidden the eggs we'd colored the night before rather than his/her own eggs, and, in desperation, I'd made up some complicated story about how the Easter bunny brought candy and asked us to hide the eggs because he had lots of houses to visit.

I decided my only move was to stick to that original story: "Remember, the Easter bunny brings candy."

"But I saw the candy we had and it was the same as the Easter bunny brought," she said, looking me straight in the eye. I flinched. My kid, the investigative reporter.

Instead of helping me, Alex smirked and ate another piece of sushi, then looked expectantly at me.

"Okay," I began, flailing but refusing to give in. "But remember how at Halloween, we went trick or treating and some people gave you Snickers bars but we already had Snickers bars at home? Well, the Easter bunny just happened to have the same candy that we had."

That ended the conversation, but only because we'd digressed from Christmas to Easter to Halloween, and couldn't remember what we were originally discussing.

Maybe I'm being a hypocrite, but I really want my kid to believe in magical things, like the unconditional love of a bearded man in a red suit or a large bunny carrying baskets of candy, for a little while longer. Part of this urge, I'm sure, is about suspending time, of keeping her wide-eyed and open-hearted for as long as possible. But really, some part of me is desperate to again feel--if only through my child--that suspension of disbelief, that light and fleeting feeling that anything, anything, is possible.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Memento Week

Scene 1: Green tomato chutney making on Saturday with the fabulous Harriet Fasenfest and my reliable life domestic pals Kristen and Mel (of What Not fame). In this photo, Kristen and Harriet stir up two large vats of what will ultimately be very yummy chutney--some 40 or so jars of the stuff. It's true: the labors of chopping onions, apples, prunes, and tomatoes are so much more pleasurable with good (albeit at times heated and politcal) conversation. But notice that this picture is taken from behind our range, where once a wall had been. . . .

Scene 2: Look at this spacious combined dining room and kitchen space. Though some would call it a travesty to open up a kitchen in a traditional house to the adjoining dining room, thinking it too modern and disrespectful. But you know what I find more disrespectful? Leaving someone stranded in the kitchen slaving over a meal while family members and guests laugh and drink wine in another room. Plus, the opened space makes it easier for kids to run circles through the house in that crazy way that I mostly don't mind, as long as no one is carrying a stick or pair of scissors (Parenting 101). And though it's not clear yet, the beam will be enclosed and sheetrocked and fitted with molding that matches that of the rest of the house. So there: history respected and modern family life accommodated.

Scene 3: Beam-raising day! After a fair bit of persuasion on my part, Alex made an eleventh-hour call to good buddy (and hubby of What Knot) Brian to ask for help with installing that aforementioned humungous beam where a wall once was. After some let's call it "discussion" between two accomplished and know-it-all handy men, the beam was up and set to do its job of keeping the second floor above the first floor. Not magic or aliens after all: just strong, smart men and math!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A quick pitch for a site that doesn't need my help

I hope you're all reading Tina Brown's latest baby The Daily Beast, because even though I'm supposed to be prepping my manuscript to give to my committee on Thursday, I am! Here's a quick list of why:

1. A picture of Laura from Project Runway breastfeeding one of her thirty kids and offering advice to Sarah Palin. (I repeat: A picture of Laura from Project Runway breastfeeding one of her thirty kids and offering advice to Sarah Palin, ISYN.)

2. A list of how to avoid giving your kid a hipster name, like Mathilda or Daisy (both that, ahem, have been on the short list for my imaginary future second child, who, I guess, better be a girl).

3. On October 10, Christopher Buckley says on DB that he's going to vote for Obama, then today, he quits The National Review because so many conservatives are pissed at him? Maybe The Nation needs a columnist?

While you're digesting this info, please do yourselves a favor and read Christopher Hitchens's not-quite-endorsement-of-Obama-but-definitely-bitch-slapping-of-McPalin in Slate. Scathing. My friend Sarah wonders if this is the last stand of centrist conservatives, the thought of which, in all seriousness, bums me out. At least, I can sometimes understand where Buckley and Hitchens are coming from, unlike the crazies that have been showing up at McCain rallies. Yikes. As Alex says, the bigger problem with homogeneity, which I snarked about in a recent post, is that at extremes, it encourages intractability and fanaticism. We need those centrists and moderates for ballast.

But back to The Daily Beast: it's like Fred Meyer--slightly gaudy and tacky, but you can buy groceries, underwear, and a hammer at one checkstand. Check it out and thank me later.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The unexplainable in home improvement (as explained by the clueless)

Sometimes, I hate living in the city. For example, I came home the other day and found out that someone dropped this 300-pound beam in the middle of our kitchen:

Alex claims he was napping when it happened, but that must have been some REM sleep he was in. Near as I can tell, some high school kids must have hijacked some sort of heavy equipment machinery to get the thing in here and when they backed up to leave, that beep-beep-beeping sound would have normally woken Alex. But he's been going to lots of concerts lately, and using nail guns, so maybe his hearing is going a bit.

This is the kind of thing that can really only happen in the city. Kids in the country do harmless things like tip cows and play mailbox baseball.

On the bright side, this beam will apparently come in handy for our ongoing home remodeling project. At some point, in fact, it will soon hold up the second floor of our house, either through some feat of engineering or magic or both. I wonder if space aliens will use their advanced powers to levitate the thing and hold it place while Alex pounds/glues/staples it into place?

Friday, October 3, 2008

How to make your four-year-old daughter cry

Wake up on a stay-home day and rush your daughter through a breakfast of apples and peanut butter because there are things to do. You've been on an anti-grocery store kick since spring, so, instead of spending time wandering aisles, you spend perhaps more time gathering food from farmers markets, a CSA, and food buying group. This morning, you're supposed to meet the Azure Standard truck at Rebecca's, to pick up, among other things, a gallon of olive oil, gluten-free flours, and assorted frozen goods. Hardly a good time for a kid, but she hangs out on the porch while you and the other moms schlep boxes of food from Jeff's enormous delivery truck through the first serious rain of fall.

Rush her home to unload, and when she kicks off her rainboots, say, "Sorry, we've got to do another errand." She sighs and puts them back on. You drive downtown and circle a block about twenty times before finally parking illegally in a bank lot. Then, drag her up to the graduate studies office on the sixth floor, where a nice woman tells you they have the GO-12 and the GO-16M, but not the GO-19, which makes you laugh but not because it's funny. Your daughter, wearing a green frog raincoat that's one size too big and clutching a Mother Goose book, collapses on the floor and waits.

You try to make up for the morning with a quick lunch at Burgerville, purple balloon and all, but then, it's off to Kuts 4 Kids, where Suzanne cleans up your daughter's curls and ties them up in red and purple ribbons. When asked what she wants to be for Halloween, your daughter glowers. You think about withholding the usual post-haircut lollipop, but instead, smile tightly and lecture her about respecting her elders as you drive home. It's still raining.

After quiet time for her and work time for you, break it to her that, though the day is all but done, you still have to pick up your CSA vegetable share. Her pretty little mouth moves toward a pout, so you desperately offer to let her watch Curious George and eat a popsicle when she gets home, which elicits a cheer from her but makes your stomach twist up in failure because you realize how much you suck--not always, but definitely today.

You keep your end of the bargain when you get home. Your husband is in the kitchen putting soup together and you finish work you didn't finish earlier in the day. When you turn off the TV after her show is over, she gives you a look that reminds you that you suck, so you offer to play hospital with her, using her new birthday ambulance that came complete with a kid, bicycle, and bandages. You remind her to thank her dad for ordering the toy for her, but she blows you off, walks past him, and grabs a handful of trail mix. This enrages you, so you take the raisins away from her, sit her on the "time out" step, and give her another "respecting your elders" lecture. You leave her there but hear her hiccuping and sniffling from the other room.

After she thanks her dad, still hiccuping and sniffling and chewing on the soft fleshy part of her palm (a remnant tic from when she was a baby), you play hospital for a while, but then it's dinnertime. She tries to avoid the meal entirely, knowing it's soup--not her favorite--by asking to watch "the TV show of me"--videos from when she was a baby. You agree, convincing yourself that home movies don't really count as TV.

She chokes down kale and squash, digging around for the bacon and beans, but then you all sit down and watch snippets from 2006. You laugh at her chubby legs and sweet baby voice. You talk about the old house, the trip to Mt. Hood, how young Ella and Zoe and Isaiah look. Then it's bedtime and you turn the TV off and she starts to cry, saying, "Mama, I don't like what I'm doing." When you ask what she means, she says, stammering with the effort of speaking through tears, "I don't like how I haven't had fun this whole day." For a moment, you can't reconcile the images of the toddler on the video and this long-legged girl who speaks in complete sentences. You think of what else you can offer her, but it's almost 8:00, so you promise her a few more minutes of SBTV tomorrow and give her a piggy back ride upstairs.

Later that night, snuggled in bed, you cry while reading the last chapter of Charlotte's Web. Your daughter's head is resting on your chest, so you struggle to control your voice, but the words get gobbed up in your throat, and now, it's you who's hiccuping. She sits up, sees your face, and asks why you're sad. When you say it's because Charlotte died and she was such a good friend to Wilbur, she begins to cry, too.

You wipe your tears on the purple handkerchief that sits on her nightstand, then pass it to her. You pull yourself together and continue reading, but she's listening closely now, not to the words on the page but to the inflections of your voice. You finish the book, tears streaming down your face, but your voice perfectly normal. Your daughter dabs at your cheeks with the handkerchief. Tears stream down her face, too, and when you say, "Why are you sad? Because of the book? Because we had a rough day?" She shakes her head, reaches for you, and says, "No. I'm sad because you're sad."

You turn off the light, settle her in under the covers, and pull her close. Her small body is angular, knobby at the joints, but her face is full and smooth. You kiss her check and forehead over and over again, and sing "Our House" in a hoarse rasp against her sweet-smelling hair.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Swirly, sparkly, addicting things

Is it normal to feel so bereft after being practically done with the project that has consumed every free minute of my life for several months and that has haunted me (the guilt, mostly) for years? I feel out of sorts. I keep thinking of things like public space, private space, house as a symbol of (fill in the blank). That's not just a "green home"--that's a political stand, a sign of the times, a vote with dollars. But maybe it's just a cool house with a living wall and roof, graywater processing system, and solar panels, all backed by someone with more time and money than he/she knows what to do with. Perhaps some things are not more than the sum of their parts.

We have fun family or mama/SB things planned all weekend. I have a stack of magazines, all glossy and undogeared, waiting on the coffee table and nightstand. I even bought two brand-spanking-new books, which I never do, cheapskate that I am (Plenty and House at Sugar Beach). Yet, I'm fighting the urge to sit at my computer or scribble notes on scraps of paper. While eating lunch with SB, I got up and wrote the following on a Working Assets pad of paper I found in the debris of my desk: "Public v. Private lives. Milk on porch. Internet. Green parenting. Risk private for public? Holloran. Losing data and identity theft. Embrace public." Good grief, woman. Let it go for a couple of weeks.

But I'm Type A--can't sit still, have to stay busy. Which is a kind of sickness. Or is it that cliche about scratching at a long-ago amputated limb? One day, if I'm lucky, I'll forget about it. But that day is not today.

When we were out celebrating Alex's birthday the other night, he asked, "So, what are you going to do now that your thesis is mostly done?" I was supposed to say, "I'm going to Disneyland!" but instead my shoulders seized up and I felt a flush of panic flood my body. What am I going to do with all my newfound time?

My acupuncturist says to maybe just let the rest of my life, the stuff that's been crammed into the tight corners of my days, stretch out a bit. Don't fill yourself up again, she gently warned me, as she stuck me with about thirty needles meant to beat back an encroaching cold and get rid of weeks of stress. But she's not like me. She's a mellow, relaxed person. Just being in the same room as her makes me sleepy. I might be lazy, but I'm rarely ever relaxed.

The thing is, I remember a time before full-time work and family and trying to live a greener life and writing in the spare minutes of a day and hanging out with friends. I had less to do, I was more relaxed, but some days, I couldn't even get out of bed. There was nothing to yank me out of own head and into the world. I cried a lot and felt sorry for myself. That was a crappy time of thinking too much and doing too little.

The swirl of sound and color and motion—of SB and her friends running through the house while unwinding a ball of yarn, of jam burning on the stove, of hooting and moaning at the Daily Show, of Twittering about Project Runway, of newspapers and magazines slipping off of every flat surface in the house, of weekends so full that they feel like weekdays—that mess of parts equals the sum total of my life. The energy of this crazy book project can't just disappear, so where will it go? I'm not worried: something else equally sparkly and distracting and addicting will come along. And honestly, I can hardly wait.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Goodbye, goodbye, hello

We're reading Charlotte's Web right now, a chapter or so before bed. Tonight we read the bittersweet chapter about the crickets, how they call "goodbye, summer" and everyone hears it. I hear it, too.

We went to the Eastbank Farmers Market for the last time this season. I'll miss the lovely ritual of stopping there after work to buy fruit for the weekend (peaches are still lovely, and apples are coming in strong) and eat a little dinner (Toddbott Triangles for SB, tamales or lamb sandwiches for Alex and me) and listen to music. We always run into to friends, old and new. Tonight, Todd saw us in line, heard SB asking about the spinach roll with tamari, and had one ready for her when we got to the top of the line. We said goodbye to him until next year.

At the market, we picked up twenty-five pounds of tomatoes to can or freeze. Last week, Alex and SB went to the farm while I worked on my thesis and picked up seventy-plus ears of corn and ten pounds of beans. Later that night, while I continued to work, Alex blanched and prepped the vegetables for the freezer. Though veggies are still rolling into town from the nearby fields, there's a turn in the weather, a chill in the morning air. I think we'll soon be saying goodbye to tomatoes, corn, and beans, too.

But--Hello to football season for Alex. Hello to striped tights, flowered tights, pink tights for SB. Hello to the stack of books and magazines piled on the coffee table that have been waiting for me to finish my thesis. Hello to fall dinners with friends, to stews and soups, to squash of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Hello to reading, guilt-free, on cold, rainy Saturdays.

Goodbye to summer's pleasures and pressures--I'm just about ready for fall.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Whew!

It's done! 113 pages. Finished a draft on Sunday night at 10:30 and turned it in to my advisor on Monday afternoon. Whew.

Next up: a week of revisions in mid-October then I give copies to my committee. A ten-page written exam later (WTF?) and I defend in late October/early November. If all goes well, I'll be a master by December!

On Sunday, the last day of thesis writing, as SB was heading out with Alex to the Children's Museum to meet some friends, I heard her say, "I miss Mama." Almost stopped working to run out and hug her, but realized that I just needed to keep writing so that I could join my family in the real world again.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Passing the blogging buck this week

Here's what my crazy week looks like (full of links o' plenty to compensate for this posting's embarrassing lack of content):

Tomorrow--SB turns four! We had the big bash on Saturday at Kruger's Farm on Sauvie Island, which was fabulous! I haven't gotten around to getting the photos off my camera yet, but my amazing friend over at WhatKnot (who gave us the idea for the place AND made the goody bags AND gave SB the cutest halek of sewn tomatoes) has, so visit her site to ooh and aah!

Wednesday--Two good friends, Miriam Gershow and Debra Gwartney, each have books coming out next year, so they start their first rounds of reading and speaking engagements at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show in Portland. Please do yourselves a solid and read these brilliant writers' books! (I plan to, once the t-word is done: see Monday below.)

Saturday--The Green Home Tour, some of which will make good color for the t-word (again, see Monday below). Join us in checking out the cool eco-conscious stuff Portlanders are doing with their homes.

Sunday--Alex's birthday! Breakfast out (Simpatica? Screen Door?) and maybe a set of speakers are forthcoming, but the official celebration must unfortunately be deferred because . . .

Monday--Thesis due to advisor! Then it's a couple of weeks of normal life before I have to revise and prep for the defense in late October. Almost there. Land, ho!

P.S.: I've been Twittering lately, so you can visit me there, too!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Three things that will help me sleep tonight

I'm one of the millions of worriwart Democrats who's been losing sleep ever since Sarah Palin's speech at the RNC. Here are some natural sleep remedies that, I suspect, will lead to a restful night for me:

1. People who are rallying their networks of friends to help ensure that Obama is elected in November. For example, my friends Rachel and Tony sent a hilarious email out itemizing their “latte-sipping, arugula-munching” liberal ways. They vowed to cut back on things like "Taking the family out for sushi or Vietnamese noodle bowls while ground hamburger goes bad in the fridge" and send the money instead to the Obama campaign. In the weeks between now and November 4, they challenged their friends to "Send all your extra cash that you would have put toward organic bananas to undecided voters in southern Ohio."

So, I accept your challenge, R & T, and vow to skip my morning tea and coffee runs, visit Buffalo Exchange once a month rather than weekly, and resist buying handfuls of glossy new magazines every time I go to Rich's Cigar Shop across the street from my office. And friends in my network: Tag! You're it.

2. Cheri and Brian for sending me a link to the Huffington Post analysis of why polls showing a huge McCain-Palin lead are suspect.

3. Katherine and Brian for passing along their much-needed optimism and encouraging me to read Gail Collins's column in the New York Times, which explains, point by point, why Dems need to calm down.

This Dem is calmer now. Thanks, all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A very, very, very fine house

SB's favorite song right now is Our House by CSNY (not Madness, though I might have to introduce that one to her soon). It's a fun one to sing at bedtime, much better than Puff the Magic Dragon, which Alex and I had to sing for months and months and got so sick of it that when Peter Yarrow was in town for a concert, I almost showed up so I could spit at him.

There's something incredibly fitting about that song as I'm in the last weeks of getting my thesis draft together (due to my advisor on September 22). Because though our house is still torn apart as Alex works on weekends to get the electrical and ductwork done, it is still a very, very, very fine house. And the song remind me that fall is coming, and triggering my nesting instincts. I want to make thick soups full of potatoes and chunks of meat. I want to crack open a jar of strawberries that we canned in June and eat the sweet fruit by the spoonful while I stand at the kitchen window watching leaves fall from the tulip tree. I want to go for a bike ride along the river in early evening, watching the bridges light up one by one, then come home to eat popcorn and drink cocoa while we struggle to keep a fire lit in our fireplace. I want to spend all evening curled up in bed with SB following the adventures of Despereaux or James and his friends in the peach or Ramona.

Our House might just be our family song of the season.

Friday, September 5, 2008

When I'm not slaving away on this %#&^@ book . . .

I'm loving Architecture School on the Sundance Channel. I'd been taping the episodes and finally got around to watching the first two during my thesis-writing marathon last weekend. I felt was legit to watch it since it was sort of related to my project. It turned out to be a great combination of watching Project Runway and reading Dwell magazine.

The set up of the show is that architecture students in Tulane University's Urban Build program first design and then build a prototype house in a low-income neighborhood in New Orleans. The first term is spent designing (under the tutelage of their incredibly smart and sexy professor Byron Mouton, he of the "bold gesture") a 1,200 square-foot, three bedroom house on a practically no budget. At the end of the term, all of the designs are reviewed by a ruthless panel of architects, contractors, design people, and folks from the program's nonprofit partner agency Neighborhood Housing Services. During the review, one student is asked to explain why his concepts and ego should trump the practical needs of a family who would live in his design. Awe-some. Then, in a surprisingly democratic turn for reality TV, the students vote for which design they want to build.

By the third episode, the students show up for the next term of school to build the house--in something like fifteen weeks. While all of this is happening, there's another drama unfolding with the previous year's Urban Build house, which sits vacant only blocks away. The neighbors interviewed seem to the run the gamut from those who like the house's modern design and think it'll help their troubled neighborhood and those who think it's ugly and want it torn down. Drama and architecture, plus hubris, class warfare, and king cakes? Can't. Look. Away.

Fortunately, there are only six half-hour episodes in the entire season, so it's a short, quick, not-too-distracting fix for me, unlike last month's debilitating obsession with Jane Austen: not only did I reread P&P, I also rewatched the 1995 and 2005 movies, as well as Clueless (always good for a laugh) and The Jane Austen Book Club (ugh). That's how I've been filling my insomniac nights. How about you?

Monday, September 1, 2008

A record of what matters to us

Yes, I'm procrastinating again. But this time, the distraction (and my compulsive need to share it) is directly relevant to my book project! As I sit here for the fifth consecutive day trying to stitch my notes and thoughts and journal entries into a coherent chapter (or two), SB is having not-so-quiet time upstairs humming to herself in her bedroom and Alex is in the basement noisily wrestling with lengths of metal ductwork that will help us more efficiently heat the upstairs of our house come fall, which, judging from today's brisk weather, is already upon us.

Against this sensory backdrop, I read this passage in Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness (thanks to SVW for reminding me of this book!):

"There need be nothing preternaturally sweet or homespun about the moods embodied in domestic spaces. These spaces can speak to us of the sombre as readily as they can of the gentle. There is no necessary connection between the concepts of home and of prettiness; what we call a home is merely any place that succeeds in making more consistently available to us the important truths which the wider world ignores, or which our distracted and irresolute selves have trouble holding on to.

"As we write, so we build: to keep a record of what matters to us."

Thank you, Alain de Botton, for reminding me why I'm working on this project in my not-so-pretty, half torn apart house.

And can't help but notice more craziness regarding Sarah Palin in today's more reputable news sources, but I will resist for as long as possible. . . .

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gossip, truth, and spin

Yes, I'm supposed to be working this weekend on my book project, but I am so distracted by Sarah Palin that I can't concentrate. Last-ditch attempt to grab female Clinton supporters? Well-timed splash to distract from the fact that McCain just turned 72? Strategic move to suck the momentum away from the DNC and all the speech analysis clogging up the media and internet? But Palin herself is pretty good news fodder, not just because of these political motivations for thrusting her into the spotlight. A young, powerful working mom in line to be one short step from the presidency? Definitely caught my attention.

There's an interesting discussion going on at urbanMamas right now about Palin going back to work three days after delivering her baby. Personally, I didn't have the brain power to go back to work and edit a magazine four months after having a baby, a failing I chalked up to (1) sleep deprivation, (2) lapsing into my default state of perpetual laziness, and (3) Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls marathons on TV. (#3 especially was an IQ suck.) Not to mention, I had no work clothes that fit me postpartum, mainly because I'd trashed or hidden all the maternity clothes I owned and borrowed on one hormone-induced morning about eight weeks in when cabin fever a la Jack Nicholson had set in.

Which brings me to the most gossipy, unfounded, but still intriguing part of the Palin buzz on the internet today: the accusation that Palin did not actually have a fifth child earlier this year, because the child was born to Palin's teenage daughter instead. In the pictures I found online, she does look pretty good at seven months pregnant and again a few days postpartum--no maternity clothes for her to trash and hide!

No reputable news outlet is picking up this story, and ultimately, the truth doesn't matter much because this sort of Puritanical "save the family name" thing happens all the time (in my extended family, even, more than once). But to some people it matters very much because if the rumors are true, she is a liar--but not just any liar: a public liar, and this is a sin for which many others seeking high posts have been punished.

The fact that much of this gossip is going to play out online before being vetted by "reliable" news media again tests the wisdom of the crowds conceit of Web 2.0: Should a bunch of people with perhaps a reasonable level of common sense, average powers of observation, and, most important, access to the Internet have as much sway as traditional "gatekeepers" of information? (Keep in mind that many of these gatekeepers are going through layoffs and buyouts the likes of which we've never seen in the history of journalism.)

In a recent review of the book Reinventing Knowledge on Salon.com, author Laura Miller asks, "Without a doubt, we've entered an era when the official truth is easier to challenge than ever before, but do we really want to live in a world without any established truths at all, or where every fact must be democratically elected by a horde of individuals whose judgment may not be informed or trustworthy?" Not sure I want to live in a world with stone tablets declaring certain truths as established, because even those based in science (putting aside the more humanistic tools of logic and reason) regularly fall. Nor do I want to have to yield to what the majority believes is true: everyone thought those Magic Eye painting from years ago were amazing, and I thought, and still think, they're incredibly stupid. (But I was never successful in seeing a single hidden image, so maybe that's just sour grapes.)

Yes, in the Palin case, someone, at the very least the OB who delivered the child, knows whose uterus he came from; the horde of individuals, even armed with the best photos culled from the best websites on the internet, have no bearing here. But until that person steps forward, it's hard to ignore the larger point: technology has empowered so many of us to be truth seekers (let's not call them conspiracy theorists just yet) rather than passive receptors who wait for information to trickle down to us from on high. For the most part, I think we wear this new role well.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The home laboratory

I'm busy this weekend getting through the last of my taped interviews for the book, so here's another excerpt from the project, this one from chapter two, "The Home Laboratory":

Within two weeks of moving into the house on NE 70th, Alex cut a hole in the wall between the living room and a bedroom and put in a set of French doors, which nearly doubled our living space. Because of the noise and the dust, he waited until I was out one evening before breaking through the lath and plaster, and I arrived home later that night to a cloud of dust, the sight of wires dangling from open walls, and a new life of plastic tarps and face masks.

The bungalow wasn’t technically a fixer. It was absolutely habitable, according to the bank appraiser and to us. We slept in the roughly finished attic for years before completely remodeling it, though the ceiling was lined with three different sizes of acoustic tiles and the subfloors threw off brown latex paint chips that clung to the soles of our bare feet. The rest of the house was fine: any other homeowners might have merely repainted the main living rooms and perhaps had the kitchen cabinets refaced, and then called it good.

But for Alex and me, the house was a perfect laboratory, a place to try out new ideas and designs—What would the walls look like in bright orange? What if we carved out space for a bathroom upstairs and installed skylights that let eastern light in? What if we added an exterior door at the back of the house where the nook was? Perhaps it’s easier to feel inspired by home remodeling projects that address creative longings rather than necessities.

When we first looked at the bungalow, the living room and adjoining dining room seemed impossibly small. Brad chalked it up to the owners’ clutter and over-large furnishings, but even several weeks later, when we walked through the empty place for the first time after getting the keys, those front rooms felt stingy and tight. In a typical sellers’ market kind of buyers’ remorse, that first walk through was incredibly bittersweet: It was later in the evening and the previous owners had left the place dusty and dank, the smell of basement permeated all the rooms of the main floor. We fumbled in doorways, searching for light switches, but once lit, the deserted rooms seemed too yellow and faded in the glow of cheap fixtures. The house, which had loomed large in memories garnered from only two brief visits, was disappointing: a smaller, sadder replica of itself, shrunken and deflated.

The main problem was the floor plan—there was no drama, no surprise. We knew that would have to be the first thing to change. Many of these modest, 1920s bungalows were designed the same way, so that when you’ve seen one, the others all give a sense of deja vu: a front door that opened directly into the living room, which was divided from the dining room by half walls or a broad archway, with a kitchen through a single door beyond. Also included on the first levels of these small homes were two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a steep set of stairs that led to an attic, which by the end of the twentieth century, more often than not, had been finished to provide more space. In her book Bungalow Nation, Diane Maddex notes that “a bungalow’s universal characteristic is that it is no bigger than it needs to be.”

Increasingly, middle-class Americans are discovering that though they have character and soul, old houses like bungalows don’t always accommodate modern lifestyles. My friends and I chide each other for complaining about how our houses seem barely large enough for our small families of three or four, because we know that much larger families were raised in them, with three or four children to a bedroom. Although the size of the American family has shrunk decade by decade, our need for privacy has inversely grown—and quiet space is a tough thing to find in traditional two-bedroom bungalows. Not to mention that the lifestyles of some modern families seem to require whole rooms for activities such as watching TV, working on a computer, washing clothes, and exercising.

But even for homeowners who creatively use nooks and corners of other larger rooms, including the less-finished spaces of attic and basement, it’s undeniable that our activities today come with a lot of stuff: closets crammed with jackets for every season and equipment for every recreational activity, kitchens full of gadgets and small appliances, basements and garages piled high with unused furniture and boxes of mementos. No longer do our activities swirl mainly within the walls of our homes—sewing, cooking, canning, cleaning, reading to one another, working together in support of the domestic life of the family. As Stewart Brand writes in How Buildings Learn, “Economically, the home has been completely transformed in a hundred years from a place of production to a place of consumption.”

Marjorie Garber notes that it’s easy to be judgmental about materialism and consumption in the modern American home, and pass them off as displays of status. “But take away the sense of invective here,” she writes, “and you will be left with a different kind of ‘reality’: things, commodities, objects, consumable goods, are not only possessions but a kind of language. They are, like it or not, the way we communicate with each other, with ourselves, and with the world.” Though it may be of little comfort when feeling jealous of a friend’s closets or complaining about the lack of a playroom in 1,400-square-foot bungalows, at some level, it makes sense that we want our homes to not only meet our daily needs, but also tell the story of who we are.

Rather than building a new house that does all of this in the suburbs, many Portlanders are turning to major renovations of traditional houses in the urban core. With their sense of history and soul, bungalows can ease the anxious, guilty minds of middle-class intellectuals who feel that through renovation, they can become a part of a house’s history, while actively shaping its future.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Elephant dreams, a la Dumbo

Still not sleeping. The last of the peaches from this weekend's foray are rotting in bags in the kitchen. All that's running through my slippery, hazy mind is the baby elephant story unfolding at the Oregon Zoo this week. If you haven't been following it, the gist is that first-time elephant mom Rose-Tu, delivered her baby after a 36-hour difficult labor and then promptly kicked and stomped on him. Seriously, I'm riveted--and pissed that the zoo hasn't set up at RSS feed so I don't have to keep refreshing the web page for updates. I mean, this has got all the domestic drama of a real news story that's been "ripped from the headlines" by one of the fifteen versions of Law & Order (probably the Vincent D'Onofrio one because of the intense psychological tension).

Besides the larger questions of whether maternal love is innate or learned, and if it really does take a village to raise a child (or at least to teach a new mother that kicking and stomping on her newborn is generally frowned upon by society at large), even more interesting are the ways the citizens of our culturally divided country could be opining on this story:

• Have the natural mamas weighed in on this yet, arguing that Rose-Tu should have had a better birth plan that rejected induction and a doula in the room as an advocate?

• Will the birth of this prominent male public figure fan the flames of the already-heated circumcision debate?

• Are the scientologists who bought my office building (which means we're spending a lot of time this week packing and moving rather than actually doing our jobs, which is one of the causes of my continued insomnia) pressuring Rose-Tu to simply "buck up" rather than seek counseling for post-partum depression?

Though on the surface, this seems to be the story of one little elephant, it is, in fact, a story with something for every American, from the sentimental ("Cute elephant baby!"), to the cynical ("Cute elephant baby on the front page? Really?"), to the political ("An unfit Republican elephant mom during the week of the Democratic National Convention? That's gold."). It seems like just the post-Olympics and pre-presidential election filler we, as a country, need.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Things you'd have done this week if you lived here

1. Jacked up your house: You notice that the front half of your house is sagging, so you tear the walls apart to find out why (no header, see "House archaeology" post), talk your wife into letting you jack the house up yourself, then, jack the house up yourself. You have to build a temporary wall to do this, and then cut the old studs so that the house will actually rise. During the week that you're raising the jacks, quarter-inch by quarter-inch, the continental plates of your house will drift back together into Pangaea: the door to your daughter's room will actually close rather than have a two-inch gap in the frame, and she'll be able to open her jammed closet door herself rather than calling you to do it for her every time she wants her dress-up clothes.

Throughout the whole process, your wife will have a semi-permanent worry furrow on her forehead and may need constant reassurance that you know what you're doing, not merely think you know what you're doing. Though you've been together a long time and have done many difficult tasks simply by reading books, getting advice from friends, and tapping into your bottomless well of confidence, you should just smile and tell her things will be okay. And when you take a day off in the middle of the week to build the new wall, and then run into a moment where the house almost falls down because the temporary wall slips and the old wall is no longer there to hold it, and you have to grab a two-by-four to prop the house up while you run out to the garage and cut more two-by-fours to hold the rest of the house up--you should skip that part when she asks you, "How'd things go today?" Just show her the finished product, accept her congratulations and thanks, and sleep the sleep of angels.

2. Get dragged all over the tricounty area in search of even more fruit: Your parents call you a fruit bat because some summer mornings you want blueberries, peaches, watermelon, and apricots with your yogurt. But by mid-August, even you are tiring of fruit. It's peach season, and your mom's got some unexplainable attraction to stone fruits, so you have to get dragged away from your art table and your back yard kiddie pool to drive hella far east or west to find farmstands and u-pick orchards. It's hot in the car and the air conditioner doesn't really reach you in the back seat, and your carseat feels too small and cramped--Will they just get you a booster seat already? Maybe one with a cup holder like your friend Z. has.

When your mom's friend calls one night and says, "The Veteran peaches are here!" you just know tomorrow is shot. And sure enough, you're on the road at 8:30 a.m. on a stay-home day. You're in the back seat with a grown-up you've just met, so now you've got to make small talk, which is fine, but it's a long drive and your mom and her friend in the front seat are talking about boring things like anti-consumerism and urban homesteading, so you talk to the nice grown up next to you about your favorite color and point out letters you know on the billboards outside.

The orchard is just another orchard--seen one, seen them all. You make your mom pull you in the wagon and then pick a few peaches that are growing at branches at your height, sneak one and let the juice dribble all over neck and t-shirt and arms. Briefly, you and your mom talk about a book you just read, James and the Giant Peach, but then she is off again, picking, picking, picking. All the grown ups are hunting for the perfect peaches, clucking at the disappointing size and color of the fruit, and talk about coming back next week. Sigh. The high point of the whole excursion is in the car when the friend gives you a tube of lipstick and urges you to put some on, and your mom's grimacing in the rearview miror, so that makes it even better as you slide some of that stuff on your lower lip and most of your chin.

Later that night, spend an hour crawling around naked on all fours meowing. When your parents ask what you're doing, say in kitty broken English, "Me Mucous the cat. Meow." Refuse to answer to your given name, so they have to call you by your kitty name in order to get you to put your jammies on and brush your teeth. You've put up with the peaches this week--the picking and the canning and the jam-making and the sorbet-making. You are Mucous the cat, and this night is yours.

3. Nursed your latest bout of insomnia with Jane Austen: While channel surfing last week, you get caught up in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, particularly the Netherfield Ball scene in which the camera dips and floats through the crowd giving glimpses of 18th social hierarchies, maneuverings, and manipulations. This world of good marriages and important connections, of aristocrats and bourgeoisie figuring out how to fall in love with one another, of spirited daughters, plain daughters, imprudent daughters, and stoic daughters is as familiar and comforting as mac and cheese.

So when you're tossing in bed at 4:30 a.m., fretting over everything from problematic chapter five of your book project, to daunting deadlines at work, to all the slowly rotting fruit in the kitchen downstairs that needs something, anything, done to them, instead of your customary walking of the rooms, you dig out that old marked-up paperback from some undergraduate English class you took eons ago, curl up on the couch, and get swept up all over again by Lizzie, who is you and every woman you know, and Darcy, who is every man you know. But what you love most, what settles your mind enough so you can catch another hour or two of sleep, is how how propriety and expectations and order, as restrictive as they were to the Bennett sisters, provided at least some kind of framework, some kind of boundary, within which their lives were to be lived. Because in the middle of the night, your own world seems shapeless--the edges too far off to be useful in giving you a sense of direction or a hint of what's to come. You know the happy ending for Lizzie and Darcy, know that it all works out for everyone, so the constraints of their lives comfort you. You don't read to critique or to understand--or even to feel grateful to be a modern woman, because at 4:30 a.m., that doesn't seem like such a great thing to be at all.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A hundred little deaths

You know what makes a house feel like a home? No, silly, not a sheetrocked wall! Six quarts of home-preserved peaches, that's what.

First off, WTF? On the way home from our Sunday excursion to "the country" (a.k.a. east Portland), at the tail end of one of the hottest weekends of the year with twenty pounds of peaches and a flat of blueberries in the trunk, Alex and I pondered this very question. We've been together for fifteen years, and I don't think we've ever eaten canned peaches, so why my plan to clutter the kitchen with cauldrons of boiling water and an assembly line (consisting of SB and me) to blanch, cool, peel, cut, pit, cook, and can these summer fruits? I could just cut them up and freeze them, or, crazy thought, just enjoy them while they're in season, for breakfast with yogurt, or off the pit with lunch, or in cobblers or ice cream for dessert. But no, I wanted to preserve them.

The only reason we could come up with was that it would be funny to have canned peaches in winter that we could bust out some cold winter night when we wanted to pretend we were on Deadwood. Other hardcore fans of this most excellent show may remember how saloon/brothel owner Swearingen has one of his lackeys open a can of peaches for important meetings of the town leaders. (SB would be our lackey, of course, scampering down to the basement to receive a jar for our "family meetings.")

Not a compelling reason to spend a couple of hours in the kitchen, but yet, there we were: SB diligently slipping or scraping the fuzzy skins from the pulpy fruit while I managed the things involving heat and knives--so, everything else. When we got home today, we admired our handiwork and SB said, "Let's eat some!"

I responded, with a sharp intake of breath, "Are you kidding? Eat a fresh one. These are . . ."

"For winter," she muttered, remembering some Little House on the Prairie schlock I fed her as motivation while we were slaving away the night before.

"Right," I said, feeling a little silly. For winter? We live in a city that sees maybe two weeks of truly inclement weather--and those are broken up into a couple of days at a time, here and there. We live within ten blocks of three grocery stores, not in the middle of fricking nowhere, some place where you really have to stock up on food or else you might die of starvation. So, again, WTF?

I posed the question to my BFF on the phone this evening and she offered, "They look pretty," doing her job of supporting my whims unconditionally while not pointing out any utter contradictions or personality flaws. But this suggestion, the best effort of an incredibly smart person, was pretty thin, and we both knew it.

Yes, they do look pretty, and I do feel satisfied to see the growing collection of jars in our basement, but that's not the whole story. I also don't think my reasons are as altruistic or political as what Harriet at Preserve (where I learned to can) would say, that growing and preserving our own food is a way of breaking our dependence on both an industrial food production complex and a flawed economic system that has consumers stuck in a cycle of working too much and buying too much toward some unclear end.

This all makes a lot of sense to me, but I think another reason I've spent so much time this summer looking for, eating, and preserving seasonal produce is more emotional. Every summer that I've lived in Oregon, I've marked time through fruit, experiencing each as a mini-lifetime: anticipating the arrival of the first strawberries, then relishing them, preemptively mourning them, and, finally, fully mourning them. And so on, and so on with raspberries, peaches, blueberries, melons, figs, apples, pears--a hundred little births and deaths. Thinking about eating Hood strawberries only once a year is a little bit heartbreaking, especially when I do the math and think about how many more strawberry seasons I have ahead of me.

Sentimental and overly dramatic thoughts, for sure, and more evidence of why rudimentary math skills in the hands of a writer is a dangerous thing. Considering that I'm on the verge of turning forty, this reeks of a pre-midlife crisis, which totally fits. I am the queen of preemptive mourning. I mean, if I let myself mark time like this in other ways--number of family summers we have before SB is an adult, for example--I'd just end up curled up in fetal position in a darkened room for days. So maybe putting up these peaches is a way of stopping time or, at least, messing with it. I don't know about you, but I find that a little denial and delusions of control are helpful in getting through any given day.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Too many "people like me"

In yesterday's Oregonian, there was an article about how homogenous Portland has become. Based on Bill Bishop's book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, complete with photos of urban chickens, bike riders, and coffee shops, the article describes how the majority of Portlanders live in a bubble of liberalism that makes it hard for dissenting voices to be heard. Though more of a feature than a hard news story (only one liberal viewpoint and one conservative viewpoint are represented), the story got me thinking about how the comfort of living among like-minded people can actually lead to complacency and, as my friend T. describes it, smugness.

Alex and I talked at lunch about whether it was good to truly have diversity in your daily life, challenging moments where people don't automatically agree with what you say or how you live. I've become a lazy thinker because of living in such a blue city and if forced to defend my political and social beliefs, couldn't argue my way out of a paper bag. Those oral skills are atrophied. And though a source in the article says that people can find lots of dissenting views thanks to easy access to the internet, do I have conservative media pages bookmarked on my computer? Of course not. I can extend the bubble as far and wide as I need to.

And homogeneity can also lead to a kind of cultish mindlessness, too. Among "people like me," it manifests in the whiff of competition, and subsequent defensiveness, around anything having to do with food, child-raising, and transportation. People like me explain the genesis of our food in great detail: whether it came from a CSA or farmers' market, what farm it's from (bonus points if you talked to the farmer), and whether it's organic or local or free-range or--ka-ching!--all three. People like me either stay at home to raise our kids OR research preschools, visit open houses, agonize during the decision-making process, and then feel guilty about sending our kids to preschool. People like me go to events that include, as part of the invitation, encouragement to not drive and instructions about bus lines and bike parking. People like me can be pretty annoying. Sometimes, I hate those people. I don't want to be those people. But here in homogenous Portland, I am.

On a good day, I bite my tongue when a friend talks about making asparagus for dinner in the middle of August, let my daughter play with a Bratz paper doll at a wedding reception but later embargo it and claim that it must have gotten lost on the plane, and merely give my husband a look rather than scold him when he chooses to drive rather than ride his bike to the hardware store seven blocks away to buy lumber. I won't flatter myself and pretend that these reactions and behaviors have much to do with altruism; they stem, instead, from those old feelings of guilt and insecurity. I look around and see the chicken coops and Priuses and grain mills that litter this fair city and realize that I haven't been working hard enough to be the best enviro-green-socially conscious Portlander that I can be!

If I'm right and my motivation is, at best, equal parts concern for the future of the planet and a need to belong, this supports my theory that we never completely shake off the social experiment/trial by fire that is high school. Am I still Molly Ringwald, wanting to hang out with Andrew McCarthy and the other cool kids?

But, just like in high school, this sort of cliqueishness also triggers the rebel in me--the side that doesn't want to be one of a faceless mass of people, no matter how right (or righteous) and cool they are. My friend T. and I joked by email about our imaginary next get together: "Let’s be sure to drive wherever we’re going and eat out-of-season food and maybe let our kids play with plastic toy guns, okay?" I wrote. "Sounds like a plan," he responded. "I’ll bring some cold cuts and frozen burger patties from Safeway."

But now, we're feeling smug about not being smug Portlanders, which I mostly am. Just scratch the surface of my tough talk and petulant demeanor and you'll find a neo-hippie do-gooder who feels guilty about not composting, who's worried she's not going to be able to put up enough peaches and blueberries for winter, and who's excited about getting an Xtracycle free radical kit for her bike so she doesn't have to lug her 40-pound daughter to the library in a Burley. In Portland, it's a John Hughes film all over again and nobody wants to be freaky Ally Sheedy, sitting at the corner desk, glowering and dressed in black.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Baby love fells another practical woman

My OB has done a complete about-face, and it freaks me out. I've always liked her because she’s direct and straightforward, but kind—unlike my primary care provider, who is direct and straightforward, but not so kind. (She’s not really unkind, but she glowers a lot; maybe that’s just her default face?) My OB tends to be overly cautious like most doctors, motivated, I’m sure by fear of lawsuits.

But she’s also unapologetically practical. When I showed up at my exam last year hemming and hawing about whether I was going to try and have another baby, she started listing all the reasons I shouldn’t. I’d had some minor complications when I was pregnant with SB, so she rightly mentioned that. Then she started listing off all these others reasons I shouldn’t have another child, primarily because I’d be having a “geriatric pregnancy." (I talked to a friend about this the other day, explaining that I felt like I was in that scene from Knocked Up when the pregnant main character and her sister are trying to get into a club and bouncer tells the sister, “I can’t let you in because you’re old. Not for this earth, but for this club.”)

My OB was very specific in describing how my “advanced maternal age” would put me at increased risk of having twins (an aging woman’s body begins freaking out and spitting out multiple eggs during ovulation) and also of having a baby with birth defects. And two kids aren’t twice as much work, said this woman who didn’t have children of her own, they were, like, three times as much work. And don’t forget gestational diabetes! At one point, she smiled, looked at me with her incredibly kind eyes, and said, “Just get a dog.”

While this exchange would enrage some women, I found it hilarious and refreshing—I prefer when people just lay their opinions out on the line. And I knew that no matter what I chose to do, she’d take excellent care of me. Plus, I don’t know why it’s assumed that OBs are pronatalists; as a magazine editor, I’m pro-magazines, but I don’t think everyone should publish one.

But this year, when I called in April to schedule my annual exam, I was told that my OB was on maternity leave. Uh. Huh. Did I want to schedule with another doctor in the practice? Oh, no, I said. I’ll schedule something for when she’s back in July. Secretly, I imagined sparing her the teasing she so deserved, but smirking just a little when she walked in looking sheepish. I giggled with anticipation.

But when my appointment came last week and she walked into the exam room, she had that classic sleep-deprived look of a new mother and I felt immediately protective of her—big, strong me in my shorty paper robe and drape. I congratulated her and asked how she and her daughter was doing. She gushed about how great her pregnancy was and the delivery, too, and the baby was amazing—a gem—even though she cried for the first three months straight. At one point she said, “It's hard to be away from her. I have a newfound respect for mothers.” This is what a former colleague of mine would call a “come to Jesus.”

She admitted that, as an OB, she was an anxious pregnant woman, convinced that something would go wrong, but nothing did. “It’s amazing,” she said, “that of all the things that could go wrong, most times, nothing does.” It occurred to me to mention that this shouldn’t be amazing because statistically, in the modern industrialized world, pregnancy and childbirth aren't high risks for most of the population.

But a doctor friend, who happens to be a patient of the same OB, explained to me that doctors see a lot of bad things, and, for that reason, it’s hard to shake the sense that something could go wrong at any moment. It’s not the same thing at all, but this is why I no longer watch the TV news or shows set in hospitals. Especially this week, when there have been two tragic accidents—a helicopter crash that killed nine people, including eight firefighters, and a plane that flew into a vacation home on the coast killing not only the two men on board, but also three children who were asleep in the house—an unaffected life feels like a huge blessing when, really, it's the norm.

Though my OB is newly pro-baby and pro-mama, she’s still as practical as ever, telling me that if Alex and I decide to try and conceive but aren't successful within three months, I should look at other options. She explained that my aforementioned complications would make her leery of prescribing the usual hormone-laden drugs. When I suggested acupuncture (I don't make a habit of telling my allopathic care providers about my cadre of alternative care providers because it feels a little like I'm being disloyal), she said, "Good idea. I don't know why it works, but it does." And though she still listed the risks, she didn’t tell me to get a dog. That firsthand mama-love is a powerful thing: it can make a skeptic a believer and a practical person of “advanced age” roll her eyes at statistics.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

What to do with the past?

Alex completely busted me having yet another sentimental moment the other day. It was when we were prying the lath off the studs in the kitchen. I commented that what we were doing was sort of sad because someone more than a hundred years ago had put this house together, nail by nail, strip by strip, and here we were, tearing it all apart in mere hours.

Over lunch today, he said my remark surprised him because, of the two of us, I've always been less concerned about preserving the traditional characteristics of our houses. While Alex digs through piles of old molding in the bowels of Hippo Hardware, I peruse Dwell magazine to figure out how to make our traditional house more modern. In both of the older homes that we've owned and remodeled, I've rallied to open up our floor plans and use modern materials and designs in our updates. But it doesn't mean I don't recognize the symbols of the past as important, too.

As part of my job, I attended a meeting on Wednesday, with about fifty of the state's heritage, history, and preservation folks, to brainstorm ideas for a conference next year. At one point, one gentleman raised the issue of how sustainability, for which Portland is famous, and preservation could work together. He commented that sustainability efforts in urban planning tended to involve tearing down older, historic homes and putting up higher-density new dwellings. It was an interesting observation: how do we move forward to address the way we live now (Drywall and bamboo floors) but also protect and preserve the creations of our past (lathe and hardwoods)?

Is this a line that anyone can really walk? Though many folks I know work hard to preserve or restore the original details of their homes, no one is putting up whole walls of lath instead of sheetrock. Companies like Rejuvenation Hardware and Pottery Barn seem to do this, creating and selling products that nod to the past. And New Urbanist architects and planners develop mixed-use commercial/residential neighborhoods and traditional-looking houses with porches in an effort to recreate an idealized lifestyle--one that my planner husband is quick to point out is no longer a reality. Cities are too big, many Americans can't afford to live close to where they work, communities are built less around neighborhoods and more around common lifestyles and shared interests. So perhaps these gestures to the past are at best nostalgic and at worst marketing.

As we pull our house apart at the seams and find treasures of the past hidden in its walls, I am reminded again of the basic purpose of a house: to shelter a family, no matter when or how they live there. That's continuity--it links our past and our future no matter the materials and politics involved.

Monday, August 4, 2008

House archaeology, anthropology, and projected fortitude

Three finding about the our current remodeling project:

1. Why, yes, that IS NOT a header but a 2 x 4 holding up the entire front half of our house. And, yes, you're again right that one of the "posts" is in fact a couple of scrap pieces of wood spliced together. I thought this must have been a recent patch job gone awry, but Alex assures me that we're looking at original work. Goes to show that sometimes the much-lauded craftsmanship of the olden days wasn't all that different from today's quick-fix "make it work" jobs.




2. A list of cool and gross stuff found behind the walls so far: a doll's comb (circa 1999), a tarnished key to a lock box dangling on a chain, a mouse's nest, a desicated mouse (not found in the nest but, unfortunately, under one of the kitchen base cabinet--eww), and, most cool, a photo of a family sitting in front of the fireplace of this house. Judging from the hairstyles, clothing, and style of photo, and in consultation with our neighbors, we think the photo is dated from perhaps the 1950s.

The most interesting thing about the photo is that the family is Asian. As a multiracial person of Asian descent who's come to accept that fact that I live in a predominantly white city with an unfriendly history of race relations, there's something thrilling about living in a home once occupied by a family of color.

This is a bit of a tangent, but there was an interesting post at Racialious a couple of days ago that explored why humor based on racial stereotypes by a comedian of color, such as Indian Canadian Russell Peters, is acceptable to people of color. To help figure this out, the writer describes Junot Diaz's theory called the wheel of tyranny, in which writers of color set up worlds in which only two races are represented, white and nonwhite, with the latter revolving around and responding to the former. This wheel excludes interactions among communities of color, which can be powerful nexuses of home-making, so the Racialious writer suggests that Peters thwarts that dynamic, creates a common ground, and is thus refreshing and acceptable.

It's kind of a shaky argument, but I have to admit that something about this rings true in my response to the photo of the Asian family. Because the majority of my daily experiences involves interacting with white folks, the possibility that people of color owned this house makes me feel more at home here--sentimental, but entirely characteristic of me, despite my public bravado and default posture of skepticism.

3. Check out how spacious the dining room and kitchen look (use your imagination and ignore the studs and dangling electrical)! Question: How long can we live in this state of unrest? Answer: A surprisingly long time. I'm sure it will get old fast, but the truth is, we both work full time so this stuff gets done when it gets done. And we're still waiting on the engineer, so this rustic cabin look could be our milieu for weeks to come. Question #2: Which will come first, the completion of the project or my disinterest in writing about it? Place your bets, people.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

That wall's dead. Wrapped in plastic.

(Any Twin Peaks fans out there? If not, just disregard the title of this posting and move on to the next paragraph. Thank you.)

That's how it goes: one day, you're just an innocent, well-meaning wall, doing your part in holding up a house, providing a buffer between the working-class kitchen and the showy dining room, and the next, WHAM! You're out of there, stripped and left down to your bones. Goes to show, you've absolutely got to live each day as if it was your last, because, especially if you're a wall in our house, it might be. (Yep, this is the same wall that I posted earlier this week, only, naked.)

Alex scheduled an enormous Dumpster for delivery on Friday morning and was ch-ch-chomping at the bit to get started, but we had dear friends in town on Thursday night so we spent a fun evening out with them and our families hung out together on Friday (puzzles and pretend picnic for the kids, chortling and guffawing for the adults, followed by lunch at Clyde Common for all). And the minute we got home, I took SB up for quiet time and Alex got to work. Poor SB came downstairs, yet again (see the posting "Where It Begins") to life in a hazmat zone: the entire house tarped off and all the floors papered to isolate kitchen, dining room, part of the living room, and entry hall. Any comparisons here to a surgical procedure would be accurate.

We're still waiting for the engineer to approve our plans and size a couple of beams (the walls in question are load bearing), but we started demo to see what we had ahead of us. We pulled most of the lath and plaster off the kitchen side last night after SB went to bed--really disgusting, dirty, but yet satisfying work. Nothing makes you respect the craftsmanship of an old house like tearing it apart, bit by bit.

I was on kid-duty for most of today while Alex spent the morning removing ducts and beginning to pull apart the ceiling in the dining room while SB and I were at swim lessons, garage sales, and the library. He took a little "break" at midday to run a leg in the Rockin Relay marathon relay, then joined SB and I for Ten Tiny Dances, part of Linda K. Johnson's innovative artist in residence project down in the South Waterfront in Portland, before coming home to straighten up a bit and prepare for another day of demo tomorrow. Yes, Alex gives that other renaissance man DaVinci a run for the money.

Me? I'll keep taping floors and taking the kid to swimming lessons and schlepping buckets of plaster out to the Dumpster and arranging our social calendar. And, of course, I'll write about all of it. It's like that old saying, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, blog."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Remove a wall, invigorate a marriage

The tension is palpable. Can you feel it? Gaze upon this pristine expanse of white wall between our dated but functional kitchen and our dark and dreary dining room--but don't get attached to it because starting tomorrow, it'll be gone.

Not entirely gone. We're very noncommittal remodelers and like to draw out the decision-making process for as long as possible, so we're only taking out the top half of the wall, enough to move ductwork and wiring and experiment with just how open we want the space to be. We're on the verge of compromise here: I like an open floor plan, and Alex prefers a bit of separation between kitchen and dining. In this particular case, he should certainly have more say because he's the primary cook in the house. Look at the difference between his sliced cucumbers on the right and mine:



He etched in a pretty design on the skin of the cuke using a lemon zester or something. And this was just for a family dinner, not for guests! I don't bust out the fancy gadgets except when company comes over.

Cucumbers aside, remodeling is one of those things couples do that really smacks of optimism--or naivete. But in our case, let's call it optimism, because Alex and I have been down this road many times before, from the back-breaking work of constructing a brick patio at our first house to the huge tasks of refinishing the attic and remodeling the kitchen in our second house, with myriad other projects of varying complexity in between. Alex does the bulk of the work because he has a better idea of what he's doing. I help with things like planning, prep, demo, clean up, and painting, but he does pretty much everything else--with me at his shoulder asking questions, being annoying, and generally getting on his nerves. And when the going gets particularly dirty, I whisk SB away to safer, cleaner climes. Again, it seems like domestic work falling along gender lines (see my earlier post "Home-living over books and snack?")

But one thing in our marriage that seems to be genderless is the way that our dreams play out on the very structure of our houses. In much the same way that we daydreamed aloud about our shared future before we moved to Portland and while I was pregnant, we also dream (and argue and disagree and concede) together about our houses. We've done this so many times that we can predict each other's concerns before they're voiced, and sometimes rush into a quarrel without even articulating the problem. We know each other's aesthetics, politely acknowledge them, then make impassioned pleas for our own. We bicker and hold grudges and make up--or agree to disagree for the time being: when Alex showed me a mock up for how our new kitchen layout would look, I bit my lip and grimaced, and he smiled and closed his laptop. Remodeling has become a kind of proving ground for our marriage.

And this is where optimism comes in: We don't just move forward again on another project with the simple faith that we'll weather several weeks of disarray, of cracked moldings and shards of plaster, of the inevitable hurt feelings and misunderstandings followed by cold stony silences. We move forward in the face of all that. We move forward anticipating how the eastern light from the kitchen windows will dance on the dining room table at breakfast, whether by way of a large pass-through or a completely opened space. We move forward feeling grateful and lucky that after fifteen years together we're still in motion at all--moving in roughly the same direction, toward the same general end.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Koyaanisqatsi: when trashy magazines make you think

I don't know if it was the bliss of being on vacation--the blinding white sandy shores of Lake Take beaches, the lack of concern about time of day or day of week, the endless array of high calorie foods at my fingertips--but the trashy magazines I read last week were particularly good. Okay, so InStyle and Glamour were as mindlessly entertaining as usual, but I dogeared several pages of Domino (homemade tortillas! assembling a low-key picnic basket! exposed plywood and Formica countertops!) and got completely engrossed in Esquire's "Portrait of a School Shooter as a Young Man" and Stephen Marche's "A Thousand Words About Our Culture" column in which he posits that violence is innate to human existence and that "purification through violence" is a "necessary inheritance, perhaps, of a revolutionary nation's birth in blood."

Not exactly beach reading, nor was it very surprising that Esquire would publish such good stuff since the magazine's been eminently readable and thoughtful for years--especially if you skip the sillier bits about the world record for kicking oneself in the head (FYI: 77 times in one minute). So, instead, the award for most surprisingly satisfying beach reading goes to ... the August issue of Cookie magazine.

The thing is I started getting a free subscription to Cookie as a thank you gift for something that I don't even remember right now. And I've always treated the magazine like InStyle or my public broadcasting member's magazine: something to flip through while waiting for the dentist or as something to look at while eating breakfast at the kitchen counter. So I was surprised to find the magazine addressing the following "hot" topics in the parenting world:

1. No gift parties ("Party Police"): SB has had three birthday parties and all of them have been "no gifts, please" events. Though part of my motivation was so our friends wouldn't feel pressured to run out and buy a gift but could just come and celebrate with us, I sheepishly have to admit that writer Sally Schultheiss called a spade a spade when she writes that these parties are really "control masquerading as consideration." Personally, I love attending no gift parties because I am one of the most disorganized and indecisive moms on the planet. But on the birthday home front, would I mind so much if SB received only books and cute clothes made by indie designers? Of course, not. But I also get that the jig (i.e., controlling every aspect of my kid's life) will soon be up. The girl's getting savvy to the ways of the world, including the tradition of receiving loot wrapped in shiny paper a couple of times a year.

2. Gender disappointment ("Girl Crazy"): Okay, this piece about a woman who wanted a daughter but got sons wasn't particularly fresh or revelatory, but it made me wonder if it's not merely the fact of having children that changes people--what changes us most profoundly is that we have the children that we have.

When I was twenty weeks pregnant, Alex and I stood beside our car in the parking lot of my doctor's office discussing whether we should find out our baby's sex. We both felt sure it would be a boy and were stunned to hear an hour later that we were wrong. There was no lasting disappointment, but in that moment, I felt my imagined future shift along assumed gender lines: instead of having a son who would adore and champion me for all time, I'd have a daughter who would hate me in fourteen years but, if I was lucky, would then find her way back to me in twenty years. I became a mother of a daughter that day--my posture more protective and watchful, my efforts geared toward preparing her for future challenges. I don't think that I would have been more carefree as the mother of a son, but because parent-child relationships are intuitive and responsive--not only to children as people but also to the way they are positioned in the world--I'm certain that I would be a different person today in ways that I can't fully imagine.

3. How many children to have ("More or Less"): Four writers explain the number of children that they have. This one resonates with me on so many levels, so much so that I have to save it for another post. . . .

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Parenting on the fly (yet again)

Ever since she was a baby, we've taken SB to art museums--mostly Portland Art Museum, where we have a membership, but we also try to visit them when we're in other cities. She's a pretty observant kid (read: she likes to stare at things and people) and also loves drawing and doodling; the other day, she told me she was an "artitect."

Anyway, so we stopped in at MOMA when we were in SF last week and when the guy in the ticket booth said, "Do you want to buy tickets to the Frida Kahlo exhibit?" without thinking, I said, "Sure," and shelled out a few extra bucks. After all, when she was about a year old, we'd dressed her up as Frida Cow-lo for Halloween, complete with the unibrow, so it seemed fitting in some way.

But that was because we'd forgotten about some of Kahlo's more disturbing paintings. Once we'd made it past the relatively innocuous self portraits, we got mired in the throng of visitors and SB quickly spied the more gruesome pieces, including A Few Small Nips and Henry Ford Hospital. Anyone ever have to explain to a not-quite-four-year-old an image of a woman lying on a bed covered in small wounds, or perhaps one of a woman attached to a fetus and a snail? We cruised by those as quickly as possible, but our kid's eagle eye didn't miss a thing. At one point, I asked her why she liked those images more than, say, the still life images of fruit, and she explained, "I like stuff with people in hospitals." Seems a little, I don't know, specific, but okay.

Alex gave me dirty looks through most of the exhibit, but I didn't want to make a big deal of the whole thing because I knew she'd be even more intrigued. So instead we explained that the paintings were "pretend" and then took her to see the black and white photos of Kahlo and Diego Rivera and explained that those were "real." (Leaving out the "real" part of their troubled relationship, natch.)

At the end of the exhibit, the nice people at SFMOMA set up a gift shop where SB found a set of tattoos that included the aforementioned disturbing images. I tried to talk her out of them and offered up some harmless photo postcards, but she insisted. Her fascination was persuasive, so I bought them for her, but then promptly hid them away. She's asked about them a couple of times, but I tell her that I haven't unpacked them yet and try to distract her: Today, we biked to a nearby street fair where we made paper hats, ate grilled corn, and drank root beer--unambiguously kid activities. I also bought her a new puzzle and one of those necklace and bracelet making kits. Denial, deception, and overcompensation: the hallmarks of excellent parenting.

This kind of parenting on the fly, which is really the only kind of parenting I know how to do, was easier when SB was younger and more of a passive, slow-moving creature. Now that she's a part of the world--alert and inquisitive and observant--it's harder to avoid these edgier encounters with the world. I watch many of my friends struggle with this, too, whether explaining (or avoiding explaining) to their kids why some people live under bridges or why some people have only one leg. Maybe there should be some sort of chart, like those milestone development charts for infants, that recommend when a child can handle hearing about life's harder truths: "At age eight, explain that life isn't fair and that some people don't have homes. At age ten, explain that some people have accidents and lose their body parts. At age twelve, explain that war has always been, and will likely always be, a part of the human experience."

But, of course, our kids are all so different from one another. They're each on their own paths that, while certainly influenced by parental steps and missteps, also seem to have built-in twists and turns. My "artitect" kid likes paintings of people in hospitals? Good to know.

Friday, July 25, 2008

House-hunting season

I'm exhausted from a week of fun, frolicking, and not sleeping in my own bed (yes, this could be a rather risque list, but I'm a mom, so you know what it really means--borderline insomnia, tossing, turning, etc.). Instead of a witty and insightful post, here, instead, is a gratuitous photo of a Lake Tahoe beach where we whiled away a few hours and also another few paragraphs from my thesis project. This is the opening section of Chapter One: A Piece of the Rock:

When we headed out in the evenings after work or first thing on weekend mornings that spring, we assumed classic drive-by positions: Alex behind the wheel and I riding shotgun, in charge of holding coffee cups and half-eaten jelly donuts. With the Thomas Guide open on my lap, I navigated us through the more affordable sections of Portland and kept my eyes peeled for “For sale” signs dangling from hangman-style posts. At promising houses, we pulled over and I jumped out to grab flyers from their flimsy plastic holders. On each I wrote the date and quick notes—“busy st.” “cute!” “backs up to parking lot”—then organized them in an expanding folder so we could pore over them at home like trading cards.

We knew exactly what we wanted—a pre–World War II house with at least two bedrooms, hardwood floors, original fixtures—but what we didn’t know, what we never asked each other, was why. Neither of us had lived in an early-1900 house, though we somehow had a shared longing for one. Alex grew up in a ranch house in a suburb of Denver. I grew up in a series of rentals—none of them architecturally distinctive—in Hawaii. And the house we’d owned together in Eugene—the first for both of us—was a simple ranch with wood floors and a yard that went on and on.

Where did this love of nine-foot ceilings and crown moldings came from? This need for period light fixtures and glass doorknobs, honey-colored wood floors and leaded glass windows? We wanted all of this on decent-sized lot on a quiet, treed street in a good neighborhood near parks and shops and restaurants, all for well under $200,000. And a fireplace and porch would be swell. Our realtor, Brad, stifled a yawn when we gave him the list. We were, after all, describing 90 percent of the housing stock on Portland’s inner eastside, which was steadily and efficiently developed, borough by borough, over the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bungalows and Craftsman houses line up, one after another on every street on the grid, with handfuls of Colonials, Tudors, and Victorians thrown in for good measure. Brad tried to talk us into looking at a “tricked out” ranch he’d seen up in Cully, complete with finished basement, hot tub and a wet bar, but our minds were made up. We should have felt more at home in such a house, but instead, we spent weeks looking for those telltale period details that comprised what we imagined as the perfect house.

Seattle architect Grant Hildebrand says that Americans are innately attracted to these homes built before World War II when development was small scale and craftsmanship was inexpensive. What this means is that though many of these houses look alike and have many of the same characteristics, they were, for the most part, designed and built individually, unlike the rapid-rise of suburban homes, described by singer Malvina Reynolds: “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same.” Reynolds’s song critiques not only the architecture of these houses, but also the lives of the people who choose to live them, as homogenous and uninspired.

The early 1900s American bungalow has come to represent a strange combination of individuality and mass-market appeal. Diane Maddex, author of Bungalow Nation, says that bungalows allowed middle class Americans to have “an affordable paradise of their own,” and between the early 1900s and 1930s, bungalows became the most popular house style in America, exceeding the number of other types of cottages built in 125 years. She explains that the form was a kind of rejection of and response to Victorians, which were seen as ostentatious. Bungalows, on the other hand, were simple, artistic, and democratic—altogether more reflective of middle class values. She writes, “The lowly bungalow in fact became America’s first national house type. Inexpensive, simple to build, modern, and sited on a private plot of land, it was architecture for a democracy as envisioned by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1910: ‘America, more than any other nation, presents a new architectural proposition, her ideal is democracy.’”

The suburban ranch house developments that followed at mid-century were created in a similar spirit of democracy but more so in appreciating the needs of the American family to be away from the “ills” of the city in a home that came complete with a two-car garage and fenced back yard. But the bungalow and its craftsmanship, no matter how simple and inexpensive, still evokes a deeper and more respectable history to middle-class Portlanders, who, compared to their counterparts in other urban areas across the country, are more inclined to buy old houses within miles of downtown.

Knowing Portland had entered the new millennium at the peak of a booming sellers’ market, where the best of these period houses were selling within days at tens of thousands of dollars above listing prices, I asked Brad, “Are we completely crazy? Do we even have a chance?”

“Oh sure,” he said, doing his best to sound sincere. “But you’d better be ready to jump.”

We were ready. We’d been warming up for weeks. By May, we knew the neighborhoods as if we’d platted the eastside ourselves: Humboldt, Boise-Eliot, Kenton. King, Concordia, Beaumont. Richmond, Sunnyside, Buckman. We knew where to look. We knew what we wanted. But what we didn’t really know was why, not only “Why a period house?” but “Why now?” Why jump into fray when one of us was newly out of grad school and in the first years of a new job and other was working part-time and cobbling together freelance work on the side?

After all, most of the economic news in 2002 was bad: Interest rates were dropping but housing prices were creeping up. Oregon boasted the highest unemployment rate in the country as well as having some of the highest home prices. Nationally, the recent period of record home sales was the same period of record mortgage foreclosures. But there we were, caught up in the frenzied spring ritual of open houses and drive bys, ready to jump into the offers-clauses-counteroffers-exclusions-inspections-exceptions fray. On TV, Fannie Mae’s commercials reminded us that they were “in the American Dream business.” Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation discussed the rising costs of houses and asked listeners, “What are you willing to give up to afford your piece of the American Dream?” Newspapers reported that home ownership was at an all-time high—68 percent of Americans had their piece of the rock. We didn’t want another day to go by without having ours.