Ease

It’s October 5, and I just visited my garden to pick some produce and check its progress. Two years into my Pacific Northwest gardening experience, I have finally started moving away from the expectations I had about gardening based on my Midwest experience. Back in Illinois in October, I’d be standing in the middle of my plot staring at the carnage wrought by my tomato over-planting habits, wondering if I could borrow a flame thrower to burn the brown, shriveled bean stalks off the trellis, and contemplating the downside of just walking away from the work involved in cleaning up the mess. Surely the park district had the tools and manpower to handle this, whereas I could barely muster the willpower to look at it.

Instead, I have a basket of beans, tomatoes, basil and my late-season snow pea crop, just producing its first pods now. In October. I am awaiting some gorgeous roasting red peppers, still ripening on the vine, and holding off on harvesting the leeks until I have kitchen space to process them into cheddar leek biscuits and potato leek soup. Kitchen space must be scheduled now, in our downsized apartment with its galley kitchen and regular-sized freezer inhibiting my normally exuberant harvest.

Despite the tininess of my garden plot, I still over-plant tomatoes, although now my excuses are different. Before, I planted extra because I knew I’d lose some baby plants in late frosts, or some fruits to blossom-end rot. Something would happen to reduce my tomato harvest, and, as I wanted enough for sauce and soup, I regularly planted 50 plants and crossed my fingers that 30 would survive. Now that I have discovered the depth of tomato flavors, and have explored the spectrum of possibilities, I can’t seem to limit myself. I planted a dozen San Marzano plants, and then could not resist picking up three more varieties at the farmer’s market (a sausage, a yellow pear, and a delicious large cherry), plus I started nine more Black Prince variety plants, after having fallen in love with that tomato last summer.

And then my garden sprouted about a dozen more volunteer tomatoes, varieties unclear, that I just plucked from their spot at the west end of the plot and plunked into the tomato section at the east end of the plot, in hopes that some of them would survive. So what’s that, three dozen tomato plants?

Whatever the actual number, it’s too many for a small section of a four by eighteen raised bed. There is no way to stake that many tomatoes, and at a certain point, I’ve stopped trying. The tangle of branches is too complex and there is no way to sort out which branch goes with which stem without breaking them off. In August, I stopped trying to manage them and just waited to see how the harvest came in.

One of the volunteers turned into a yellow beefsteak variety, producing two enormous 16″ softball-sized fruits. I shudder to think how many of those bad boys I’d have if I managed the plants properly.

Oh look, bean season has started! MAKE IT STOP

On the bean front, I went from “oh, look! Bean season has started!” to “MAKE IT STOP!” fairly quickly. I simply do not have enough space for all the beans anymore. But I love having a second season in the ground, late-August plantings of peas and arugula and cilantro that promise to keep my garden lush and green for another month at least. My deck garden is overflowing with peas, another example of my overeager planting style, but I expect we’ll get a couple of dinners worth out of it.

Snot peas

In my Oregon garden, I don’t have to rush. I don’t have to get everything in the ground on a precise schedule and then wait for the season to race along, hoping I get most of my food before the first frost in the fall. And I find I don’t have to overload my garden with produce to put up for the winter, because there is so much produce available well into the “cold” months. Instead of six months without good, fresh food, we have about three, maybe four, if it’s a bad winter, and I can sustain food inside through those cold days.

My garden life has always informed my thoughts on the rest of my life. Because of the weather, the growing season, the abundance of produce and activities and opportunities, I’m less concerned about missing something, or rushing to squeeze something in before winter hits, be it vegetables or a swim in the Columbia or camping at the coast. I am starting to see the winter as an opportunity to do inside things, a chance I often forego in the sunny summer months when the rivers beckon. So in January, after a long Saturday planting trees in the rain, I’ll crack open my summer-scented frozen beans, heat up a bowl of potato leek soup, and snuggle in for an afternoon of sewing or research or organizing on a project I laid out for myself way back in September. And come February, I will start seeds that I have already bought in my sunny window overlooking the valley and renew the cycle of digging my hands into the soft earth.

Seasons change, and so did I. I am enjoying the ease and perspective Oregon has brought to my life.

To the Theatre

A couple of months ago, I started writing theatre reviews for a national media company called Edge Media. A friend of mine who works for them reviewing Chicago theatre suggested me for the gig, and I am so glad she did. I had no idea what I was getting into, but these days, I’m up for anything. I can’t think of the last offer for a new experience that I turned down. It was probably about two years ago now.

And yes, now I spell it “theatre” because all of the theaters out here spell it “theatre” and switching back and forth between “Theater” and “theatre” in the same article was pretty dumb. I have been assimilated.

Anyway, I didn’t mention this to my private readers when I started, unsure as I was about where it was going and what it would be like. But now I know; it’s the coolest gig I’ve ever had. I go to plays and music performances (and dance, when I can make it happen) and then tell people about what I saw.

All of the sudden, my years of analyzing text as part of my English degree are paying off. There’s suddenly a purpose to all that training in observing symbolism and connecting the words of the play to my own human experience. My brief stint as the classical music reporter at the student-run entertainment newspaper in my college town is proving well spent. Those brief semesters as a stagehand at McLeod Theatre now have some meaning. My tendency to dig a little deeper than the superficial is finally — FINALLY! — useful.

Plus it’s just fun to go to plays and then talk about it. It just is.

So now you know what’s up with all those articles I’m posting about plays in Portland. No, I haven’t become a patron of the arts. I just have a built-in way to spend my Friday and Saturday nights, and an audience beyond my husband for my thoughts on the performance I saw.

It really is one helluva good time. I’ve never wanted to be on stage, but I do enjoy watching people who do.

I have a review going up tomorrow. I hope you’ll take a look.

Genevieve

I’ve been working on a longterm project that requires a sewing machine. I was using a borrowed machine, but the lender needed it back to make a Halloween costume, so I’ve been looking for other ways to get this project moving. I could sew by hand, borrow another one, rent space at one of several local craft cooperatives (oh WOW do I love Portland!), or wait until I could afford to buy a new one. My options were bleak, so I turned to my beloved Craigslist.

The other day, I purchased a used sewing machine. The seller had inherited it from her beloved grandmother, but didn’t know how to sew.  The machine had moved with the seller several times, and now, as she prepared to move again, she decided it was time to sell.

The 70s-era machine works very well; it has more settings than I will ever need, and the ability to sew decorative stitches and embroidery I’m unlikely to use. I chose this machine over another one in part because of the accessories this seller advertised in her post; her grandmother’s notions and sewing equipment would be included in the price.

I had expected a little box of thread and bobbins, but instead, the seller presented me with a trunk full of lovingly organized sewing gadgets. Like many people obsess over kitchen gadgets, the uni-taskers I typically eschew, this granny had accummulated sewing toys. Five rolls of tissue tape for sewing delicate fabrics. Fifty invisible-zipper presser feet, for installing the fifty invisible zippers, also included. Fine gauge elastic and elastic thread. So many varieties of fusible interfacing I don’t know what they’re all for. Pocket turners. Pattern marking equipment. Slide-rule gauges for determining buttonholes and seams. A metal template for installing a double-welt pocket. And everything still had the instructions, neatly folded and marked.

Learn to Sew

There’s a lovely brochure included titled “Learn to Sew,” from 1946. It answers some of my more vexing questions in very plain language, better than other sewing manuals I’ve seen. It also describes some techniques that modern people never have to consider, because technology has taken us so far. For instance, before you sew any material, you should wash it first, but in this booklet, written before washing machines and dryers were in every home, the instructions state “run material through a wringer.” Man, am I glad I don’t have to do that.

My favorite items in the bunch, however, are the instruction booklets with notes in the margins, and the slips of paper with handwriting common in women from a different era, writing detailing techniques and tips for streamlining frequent tasks. There’s so much ephemera, so personal in nature, I contacted the seller to ask for her grandmother’s name, so I could attach an identity to the personality evident among the belongings.

Her name was Genevieve, and she was known as Jenny.

I think all of us wish we had a guide, someone to help us understand the world, a mentor who can calm us down when we’re freaking out because life doesn’t make much sense. I lost that when my mom died. I’ve been looking for it ever since. My mom was good at that, at helping me identify the source of confusion, showing me a path over or around a problem, or just listening when I complained about how much adulthood sucked. Life and illness interfered with our ability to sustain that relationship, so I only had her influence for a couple of years before she died. I’ve felt her absence keenly.

But seeing Genevieve’s writing, the notes that explain sewing jargon, the receipt indicating the date her beloved machine was delivered (my birthday, 1974), the highlighted and circled definitions that helped her manage the complex tool she was using — it comforts me. It’s a guide, a light for a dark path, encouragement in knowing that once upon a time, things didn’t make sense to her either, but *she* figured it out, and now she would help me.

Yes, this is just sewing equipment. It’s not life lessons. But in this little corner of my world, where mentors and mothers are nowhere to be seen, hearing that voice in my ear saying “it’s okay, dear, you’ll figure this out” is bracing, fortifying. Like so many before me, I will get past this little hesitation, this moment of not knowing, this time in my life when pieces don’t automatically fit together. Like them, with time and patience, I’ll get there.

And I think I’ll call my sewing machine “Genevieve.”

 

 

 

 

Things I Miss About Chicago

That I have fallen in love with Portland is a well-established fact. The weather is gorgeous, the scenery and hills and trees and rivers and RAIN all make me happy. The people are funny and welcoming and kind and creative. The opportunities for doing stuff I love are limitless.

But there are moments when I long for some familiar things I can’t find out here, things that only happened or existed in Chicago. As follows…

Heat: this summer got plenty hot in PDX, but it was a very, very dry heat. For a place that earned a reputation for being damp and lush, Oregon becomes a tinder box in the summer; dry, crispy grass, leaves brown in August, the smoke from forest fires dimming the sun even hundreds of miles away. Chicago has a delicious humidity that I miss.

Storms: Yes, it rains in Portland, though not much in summer, and it hardly ever *storms*. My California friend Tonya spent an entire evening gazing at lightning when she visited Chicago, because the West Coast just doesn’t get storms like we did in the Midwest. The way the earth would swell before a storm, readying for the violent explosion of sky, hail or thunder and lightning, water coming down in sheets, the wonderful relief once the system had passed through, Midwest storms have a potent appeal. And boy, do I miss them.

Being in Blackhawks Country: It was quite a shock to see many people wearing this emblem on hats and t-shirts.

 

 

WINTERHAWKS

Unfortunately, that’s the emblem for the Portland Winterhawks, a Western Hockey League team with no NHL affiliation. It looks a lot like the true Indianhead from my beloved Chicago Blackhawks

 

BLACKHAWKS

So while there are hockey fans here, and a true hockey team (Winterhawks have won the Western Conference Championship four years in a row, and several of their players have ended up in the NHL), they aren’t Blackhawks fans. In fact, most Portlanders seem to be soccer fans, a trend about which I am flabbergasted. One main road in the city is regularly clogged with soccer fans wearing (of all things) scarves, even in the heat of summer, to demonstrate their team loyalty.

It’s so weird. I mean, who would wear a fuzzy acrylic scarf in the summer? Crazy. I’ll stick to wearing my Blackhawks jersey.

I miss being in the epicenter of hockey fandom. Chicago is an amazing place during hockey season. No one here gets that. Sigh.

Being Alone in Nature: It seems that EVERYONE in Oregon loves to be outside. I can’t find a quiet place to be alone with my thoughts even when I drive 45 minutes into the Gorge, climb the side of a mini-mountain, and carve my own path through the brush. No matter where I go, some Columbia-sandaled-eco-warrior has already sussed out the same spot and is settling in with binoculars to catch a glimpse of the rare Northern Pygmy-Owl. I used to be able to go to my trail in Leroy Oaks and not see another person for miles. I miss that.

Snow: yeah, I said it.

Pizza: Oh, how I miss pizza. Sure, Portland has pizza, and they make a wonderful game of it, too. All the pizza joints, save the most tony, have cute names obviously concocted by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen. Sizzle Pie. Hot Lips. Pizza Schmizza. Mod Pizza. Come on, guys. Not a single, reliable Italian name you could use?

But the important part is the pies. They’re just so disappointing. From the crust — which is mostly just fluffy bread — to the sauce — can you say Prego, everyone? — none of Portland has cracked the Decent Pizza Code. Typically, when I want pizza, I make it myself from scratch, including the crust, but I don’t always want to do all that work. Sometimes, like yesterday, I just want to go and sit somewhere with my pizza-loving husband and have a satisfying slice. Nothing doing in PDX.

Art Institute of Chicago: I loved wandering the cool halls and drinking in the masterpieces on the walls.

Chicago Symphony: Sigh.

Portillos: my family’s chiming in here to make me add this, but I am content without Portillos. Still, it bears mention; Portillos made wonderful chocolate malts that Sophia and I would get whenever we drove home from a Shriner’s visit.

The list of things I miss is short, and comprises things without which I can happily live. Every once in a while, I jones for one of these, and then I look around and see a Douglas fir or a waterfall or hear an owl just outside my deck, and I forget all about it.

 

 

Parke Diem

Yesterday, my husband and I participated in a city-wide event called Parke Diem, involving hundreds of volunteers working at sites across the city on different projects. According to the website, projects ranged from repairing playing fields to removing invasive species. There must have been activities within that range, but I don’t know specifically what they were.

Tim signed us up for the event closest to our house, a pond cleanup at the local Audubon Society facility three miles away.

Let me pause for a moment: I have an Audubon Society facility THREE MILES FROM MY HOUSE!

We geared up earlyish Saturday morning and drove to the Audubon Society, a beautiful facility nestled on the side of a mountain on the edges of Forest Park. While we were driving there, we both marveled at the fact that this incredible wildness exists within five minutes of downtown Portland. To get to the facility, we drove steep, winding roads fringed by pines and maples, lush ferns and moss. The entire road is clothed in green, and there’s not even a hint of a nearby city to be seen.

We met the organizers, signed up for our free t-shirts, picked up our Implements of Destruction and hiked down the trail to the pond in need of assistance. The hike was unlike any I went on in the Midwest; steep trails, mud-slicked rocks, overhanging branches wearing sleeves of moss, sky barely visible above the canopy. The pine trees here grow taller than we’re used to even in Canada; the trunk of these behemoths is easily as wide as our car is long. As I found with driving around Portland, I put myself in danger because I was looking up at the trees and foliage and not watching where I was going. I have got to get a handle on that, or I’ll end up at the bottom of a ravine.

Our task was clearing out the agreeably named but pernicious weed Canary Reed Grass. Sounds lovely, right? It grows four to five feet tall, has a root system that creates a tangled mat that chokes out everything around it, and provides zero habitat value. Nothing eats this grass or lives in it or benefits from it in an way. Greg, the native plant specialist, said it might as well be a plastic plant, for all the benefit is provides. It tangles with the native plants and flops over, matting into an ugly, destructive mass. Our small group decided to rename it Donald Trump Grass.

We worked for three hours killing plants. To my great chagrin, I also managed to kill a garter snake with the blade of my shovel. Cut him right in two. I’m still shaken by that.

Our location at the side of the pond was wet and muddy, and we stripped the 40 X 60 area pretty clean. In the process, we revealed some baby red cedar trees still fighting for position. Toward the end of our time, Tim and I discovered we could accomplish quite a bit if we worked in tandem, with me sorting out and holding on to the grass while he dug out the roots. Far less chance to kill snakes that way, too.

We got to know Greg and Tom, another Audubon staffer, and Jill, a frequent volunteer invasive species killer, and another volunteer and his son, Campbell, a 6-7 year old who worked his little butt off right alongside the rest of us. Everyone except Jill came from the east coast, and we swapped stories of winter and snowstorms, and dealing with Portland weather conditions, and how hilarious it is to watch Portlanders try to drive in the “snow”.

Greg patiently answered my questions about the different plant species, and even agreed to allow me to volunteer. I wasn’t sure that was possible after I had killed a native animal in cold blood. Apparently, the Audubon Society is all about forgiveness.

When no one was looking, I hugged a moss-covered tree. It feels just as soft and comforting as you would expect, and smells so good and clean I could have stood there and held it forever. Tim said I couldn’t take it home. I didn’t want to take it home, I wanted to make my home right there in the swamp.

Tim was responsible for finding this event and signing us up. His workplace is very involved in Portland events, and when the email came through announcing their participation in this, he signed us up immediately. I give him a lot of credit for volunteering his early Saturday morning hours to get muddy and sweaty, trudging through a swamp to kill a plant he’s never heard of, and for knowing this would make me so incredibly happy.

After the event, Greg showed me the native plant nursery where I will be volunteering, and answered even more questions about plants that look like plants I’m familiar with but they’re really not. He and Jill also guided me toward an amazing local nursery, Cistus, about which my dear friend at Midwest Groundcovers had already told me.

I have found some fellow plant geeks, and that makes me extraordinarily happy. And I have finally started my long walk into the forests of Oregon, a trek I’ve been impatient to begin.

I am the boy running through the trees to find the only peace I know.