Scenes from Winter (Tough Times Never Last)

It’s the part of winter that feels like it’s ALWAYS been winter,
She said.

reminding me of when someone else told me,

“I’m in the part of pregnancy that feels like I’ve always been pregnant.”

Endurance
and grinding toil
and holding out
and waiting
waiting waiting.

Even when we reach the destination it can seem too little too late.

Or too much.

It’s been hard, hard, hard for me. Since December.

I could attribute it to legitimate national causes, but actually it’s interpersonal.

A lot of things happened this winter. A lot of things have BEEN happening, of course. But since December a lot of other things happened. Things with close friends — friends who didn’t die and so I cannot freely tell the stories. Not directly anyway.

I will say that one was a brush with death. A major one. A narrow escape. On the tail end of a tragedy we very narrowly escaped another one.

This was actually the THIRD major medical crisis since April, the third time someone I am extremely close to could have died, or almost died. (Or did die, as with Travis.)

Three brushes with death in nine months is rather a lot for a person not living in an active war-zone.

There were other things, too.

These things didn’t happen to me, but came blasting through me. And a month later I washed up on shore, caught up with my external self, and was filled with wonder and sorrow and, for the first time, felt the sharp pang of despair.

I’ve found myself doing things I’d never, ever done before even in my darkest times — finding myself unable to get out of bed, succumbing to numerous strange bodily ailments, feeling no hunger whatsoever, and unable to draw anything, which for me is very, very strange indeed.

I find that I am so disconnected that I scarcely know what I think about the whole thing when I am at my best, and when I am at my worst I am merely blinded by anger, or sometimes sorrow, often fear, and am petrified with dread. (About what has already happened, what MIGHT have happened, and what MIGHT HAPPEN in the coming days.)

These feelings sync up so nicely with the political situation that I often don’t explain it, I just meet others’ bleak outlook with my own and we can carry on nicely.

Or at least, nicely enough.

Lately though ‘nicely enough’ hasn’t been enough. Because there are times when it becomes downright…heavy.

In despair, I talk to Anthony. Because what is a gentle soul supposed to do in times like this?

I am feeling left behind — like if I don’t muster up and do Something About This now I will be irrelevant — because living in such politically significant times yet NOT doing overtly political work is almost like treason. Like you don’t deserve to live where you already are. Like your existence is out of place.

The pace of life is increasing, and I am unwilling or unable to keep up at that speed. “Trying” leaves me exhausted and disconnected, more than I already am.

Anthony reminded me that to preserve the sense of calm in a state of chaos is no cowardly act. Could be considered revolutionary. To be “left behind” in this case might mean one remains unique, interesting, striking, worth hearing. To be different is still useful. Like a breath of fresh air.

At the very least, it means the things that truly interest me are not crowded. Chummy and comfortable is the line outside the Aladdin theatre in the light rain a few weeks ago, presenting my phone eTicket for the first time and for the first time entering this building. To see Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform for the first time with my own eyes.

The founder of the group, Joseph Shabalala, had a series of recurring dreams over a period of six months in 1964, featuring a choir singing in perfect harmony. It was a beautiful sound — very close to the traditional isicathamiya harmonies that he was already performing with his choir at the time — but it was somehow softer, filled with more love, more beauty. He restructured the choir, bringing in some relatives of his (family voices after all blend in ways that friends’ voices cannot.) He strove to teach his choir the harmonies he’d heard in his dream.

I first learned about them on Sesame Street. I have always loved their sound, have always found it soothing, and the recordings of theirs have been a great harbor of solace for me during all these days of turmoil.

We love them and clap so much.

Because they are so different.

Because they are so themselves.

The motions they do during their songs which seems so…right somehow. There is a great general showmanship to their motions onstage, which is a blend of vaudeville and something deeper. To say “childlike” is patronizing and colonial — and anyway it doesn’t capture it. It’s…deeper. Richer. It’s a cultural inheritance where movement and song were never sundered from one another, where people’s spirits were never subjugated to the extent that they internalized “what will people think of me?” as we have in the West.

At intermission everyone seems to be talking more with their hands.

There is a kind of warm-spirit awakened by this music. The family in my row shares handfulls of carmel corn with me.

There was something very moving about hearing dream-gentle sounds from a place that has seen apartheid.

It made me hope that perhaps there is still room for gentle wanderers after all.

This is the song I have had stuck in my head for the past few days, and I find it very soothing.

Tough times

never last

(but) strong

people do

North and South and East and West

Up until November 8th, I was preparing a historical piece on Sarah Josepha Hale — my latest historical figure crush, the woman who canvassed for years to secure the Thanksgiving holiday in our national pantheon.

To my (albeit limited) knowledge, she was not an advocate of the Henry Wordsworth Longfellow rubbish about Pilgrims and “Indians” — rather, her interest was in unification. To bring an injured, quarrelsome, partisan country back to the table of togetherness, after such divisive times as the Civil War.

If anything, her efforts are even more relevant now.

I made a point of not entering the fray this year — of paying no attention whatsoever to the lead up, dispute strong, strong urging to do so.

There were other more important things happening this year, and because my workload at the time was light, because my day job was simple and brainless, I was uniquely positioned to really sink in and focus on my sick friend, and I wanted to. So I did. To the utter exclusion of other concerns.

I live with political radicals, and I think they really looked down on me for taking this stance. I had several tense discussions with people in the months leading up to the elections: defending my decision to not put candidate-specific stickers on my car, and not participate in phone banks — things I wouldn’t do anyway in normal life. During the three months of cancer I even found myself indignant at their insistence that this larger issue was more important than my specific one — particularly as many of those people knew Travis a lot better than I did.

I’m trying to really remember this feeling — indigence that a larger issue being deemed “more important” than mine — as I suspect it is very similar to how a conservative voter has felt for the past eight years, and why we are where we are right now.

I project, though. Because I really haven’t had many substantive conversations — and it seems like nobody else has, either. And to walk into a screaming stalemate this late in the game is bewildering, particularly for someone like me that prefers to sit alone and draw. I find myself Googling things like “how to talk to people” , and wondering who to go to for a reading list. There is AMPLE material out there, but as I felt during the three months of cancer – time is of the essence. Is reading up on things and talking to people too little too late? Is that the world we are living in now?

I know deep in my heart of hearts that this will not do. That we must find a way to come together and discuss these issues with one another. I know deep in my heart of hearts that unity is more powerful for EVERYBODY in the long run than different factions at war. I truly believe that.

But it is hard to move towards that openly listening to the people I am listening to on my social media feeds. Hearing the stories of marginalization from the marginalized. The truly horrifying instances of major, blatant things that trigger a blue voter into a frothing rage, and the same event that is just completely under the radar of a red voter. And the anger on both sides, the easy dissemination of false or misleading information. What is real? What is true? How do we find out? How do we ensure justice is done? How do we serve the needs of the people who need it — both the refugee and the rural farmer? The black man and the white woman?

It’s a good thing Facebook wasn’t around in Hale’s day. We would have just gone on killing each other. I worry that’s where we’re headed.

Social media discourages the very thing that I feel is needed — conversations with people with whom we disagree. Not unfollowings, but respectful, earnest questions and uncomfortable silence. Not lectures, not arguments even. Just real conversations, getting a sense of where each side is coming from. Because the stalemate we have reached is too rigid and brittle.

I have been encouraging people to do this, to talk to people. To try it at least, to muster themselves up and get a little brave. To ask questions and listen. (I mean, really listen.) I myself have been doing it, little by little, at a time when I still find myself wandering from room to room, churning my hair around and sobbing. There has been so much to grieve this year and stress is high for everyone, for all kinds of reasons.

But we can’t wait until it feels easy.

I don’t think it will ever feel easy.

We just have to start somewhere.

Explorations down the aural canal

THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT THE EAR CANAL IN THE PAST 26 HOURS OR SO

You are apparently not supposed to clean them with Q-tips, not even a little bit, despite the fact that Q-tips look and feel expressly designed for that purpose. (What…are they for then? Can anybody tell me?) My mother did not teach me to clean my ears in any fashion, but neither did she teach me not to, so alas, I do from time to time. What can I say? I have gunky ears, and once had the magical if alarming experience of getting them sort of…douched via turkey baster by a medical professional, and the great wads of sediment that came out of my ears were unlike anything I had ever seen. And I heard clearly for what felt like the first time in my life.

– Speaking of douching: Ears, like vaginas, are self-cleaning organs. No cleaning necessary. Wow! Who knew? And color me surprised and ashamed a little, for not trusting my own body and the nonsense it produces. These things happen for a reason.

What is one to do about the gunk, then, if one has that ears-filled-with-cotton feeling? Place a warm washcloth against your head, over your ear, to allow it to sort of “melt” and “drain” the proper amount. (Which is different for everybody, and depends on how good your system is at fighting disease.)

You can drip in a solution of equal parts hydrogen peroxide and water, but it should be applied via dropper (not Q-tip!) and the solution should be warmed to body temperature, as cold fluid dripped without preamble into the ear canal can cause pain and dizziness. (I had my doubts, but then I thought about Neti Pots, and the various false starts I’ve had with water not QUITE the right temperature, and realized it makes perfect sense. Your tubes. They are not acclimated to climate change.)

You can also just chew your food. According to an article cited by wikipedia: “Cleaning of the ear canal occurs as a result of the “conveyor belt” process of epithelial migration, aided by jaw movement. ” So, just go about your business.

Your eardrums recover if you puncture them, in about a week or two, which I guess makes perfect sense, but to confirm this on WebMD was interesting. I’ve held one of those a since-childhood misconceptions that seem absurd when you examine them with your adult mind but that sticks with you because of the purity of feeling (be that joy or terror) (usually terror) in the original question that led to the formation of the hypothesis. One of these misconceptions was that if you touched the electric cables that go into the ground from a telephone pole, you’ll get a nasty electric shock and probably will die. (This is…almost certainly not true, since the object that inspired this theory was on a playground we would visit on a weekly basis, and the wires were between a distant swing set and a popular slide, and it seems unlikely that EVEN IN TEXAS IN THE 80s a person would build a large playground for children around something so casually lethal. But still to this day I have no idea if its true or not. Touching something to answer the question, “will I die if I touch this?” is not something even my four year old self would have dreamed of doing, and I’m certainly not going to start now. I can live with the uncertainty.)

Another one of these theories? You Only Get One Pair Of Eardrums, And If You Puncture Them, That’s It. Gone Forever. Deafness.

While the body can fail us in many ways, a fit body has a delightful way of healing superficial abrasions, and so it’s neat to learn that “perforation of eardrums” — as it is officially called —  is fairly trivial so long as you don’t, I guess, try for a morsel of inner ear at the same time.

That there are several kinds of “ear infection”. They are impossible to accurately diagnose without a visit to the doctor. I haven’t done that yet, because the folk treatment of warm garlic oil and the washcloth thing helped enough — far better than even ibuprofen. I remain keenly aware of my ear canal, but I can chew food again and can look over my shoulder without needing to fight the urge to meltdown like a toddler with the same affliction.

Q-tips (or cotton swabs to use the non-branded name, though not nearly as vivid to the North American mind,) were originally called “Baby Gays”. They were invented provisionally in 1920 by a woman named Ziuta Gerstenzang, who wrapped cotton wool around the end of a toothpick for what purpose? CLEANING THE BABY’S EARS.

Leo Z. Gerstenzang, her husband, is the man who witnessed this miracle and who took the idea, manufactured an object, and produced it for mass consumption, so his name credited for “inventing” them, but really, isn’t he just the production guy? Who was dealing with the baby’s nooks and crannies, who was fretting over filth lurking deep in the baby’s dark crevices, who saw the toothpick and had the flash of inspiration to use it in a way that would confound doctors many decades later? That would be Ziuta Gerstenzang, and not her husband, thank you very much.

(Note: even the “official” version of this origin story is apocryphal, but L.Z. Gerstenzang IS credited with inventing Baby Gays, that much we know. There are numerous anecdotes, and all of the ones I read were along the lines of “he got the idea from his wife”. PRETTY SURE THAT MEANS THE WIFE IS THE INVENTOR, but thanks for the Assertion of Patriarchy, o authors of history.)

Improper use of Q-tips is one of the chief causes of impacted earwax, which leads to one of the various ear infections, and is suspected to be the reason children get so many.  Nervous parents, like the good Ms. Gerstenzang, wanting the best for their off-spring and in so doing causing them more harm.

– Again according to Wikipedia, anthropologists have used earwax to track human migratory patterns! Apparently east Asians and native Americans tend to have “dry type”, which is grey and flaky, and very different from what Africans and Europeans often have, which is the brownish wet stuff. Wet-wax peoples also tend to have more sweat production and body oder, yay us. May or may not have to do with the grey-wax folks historically living in very cold places, where sweat is fairly moot. And I suspect frozen earwax would be intolerable.

NOW YOU KNOW

Day 2: Ann’s tour

GET READY FOR PHOTOS. I was not economical with my snapshots. Partly this was because the weather during my first two days here was incredibly hot, and I alas did not bring either of my straw hats. (I missed them very badly on this trip.)

I also just crammed a lot of sight seeing into this day, and it was not conducive to a lot of sit-and-drawing. I shall remedy that on future outings, because I would have liked to take more time to soak it all in. I was eager to tackle Ann’s list though, and it was a long one.

Most of Ann’s destinations were routed through Union Station, and the first suggestion was to head back there and really look around. It is sort of two buildings in one. The Bus Terminal side is where I came in yesterday (and today), is all golden bricks on the outside, very grand and modern (in an old school way — modern like 1960s).

If you come in at the top, (the floor above the fishtanks) you are greeted by a giant mural.

LA is covered in murals, and I regret that I did not spend lots of time with the ones I saw. (I blame the heat sizzling up my unaccustomed Oregonian skin). There was a particularly beautiful one on a…federal building? mere blocks from here. But they are everywhere, and they are all a sight to behold. This one is domed by a gorgeous ceiling with intricate glasswork.

Underneath we see hints of the true era of the building in the typography of the signage.

The passageway is very interesting because you pass additional passageways that lead to train platforms.

You aren’t supposed to go up through those passageways unless you have a reason — in fact there’s posted signs everywhere telling you NOT TO, so you can’t really see anything other than the main passageway you’re walking through. But you CAN hear the sounds of trains, leaking up through all those passageways. It’s like walking through corridors of possibilities.

Most of the rest of the building is in a high art-deco style, with very ornate embellishments throughout.

Very posh waiting area. (For ticketed rail passengers only) Very posh waiting area. (For ticketed rail passengers only) Gorgeous ceiling Gorgeous ceiling

Every detail was so perfect. I honestly spent an hour on the western side of the building, taking photos and marveling. This is no forlorn wooden bench in an empty room. Union Station here is a major transit hub, servicing Amtrak, inner city rail, city buses, shuttle and express buses to various locations in the metro area, and of course a taxi waiting area. This was the first place I could have picked up an Uber yesterday. It feels more like an airport. There’s lighted lists for departures and arrivals. There’s a little shoe shine stand in the center with a news stand and a few refreshment places.

It seems like it has undergone massive renovation in preparations for the 75th anniversary of the building in 2014. Everything is clean, colorful, and beautiful. The waiting area features roomy bench-chairs have upholstered leather cushions. The original ticketing booths were roped off, but I hope to God they actually use those, because what could be better?

As you leave you are greeted with a mess of palm trees, and spread of whitewashed adobe buildings that lead you to Olvera Street — the birthplace of Los Angeles. And the epicenter of cute.

The first thing you actually see (apart from this darling thing, excellent for people-watching) is the Biscailuz Building, built in 1925 as a conference headquarters for the United Methodist Church. Today it searches as the Consulate-General of Mexico. And of course the first thing you really notice see is the mural of St. Francais’ Blessing of the Animals, painted by Leo Politi in 1979.

According to the plaque, the building is named after a county sheriff who ‘assisted Christine Sterling in preserving the area’. I’m not sure how he assisted her exactly, there is surprisingly little information about Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz online. I at first assumed he provided the inmates that served as Sterling’s restoration crew in 1928, but these were actually provided by Police Chief James Davis, who sounds like a fairly ruthless character. Maybe they just didn’t want to name a Christian conference center after a man who “emphasized firearm training” and became entangled with allegations of corruption.

Christine Sterling’s name comes up several times on signs on Olvera Street. She is the reason the oldest building in Los Angeles is still standing, and the person we have to thank for the overall feel of the place — an odd mixture of romanticized historical stereotype and celebration of heritage. Alvaro Parra has a great write up that explains more about Sterling and her vision of “a Mexican Street of yesterday in a city of Today”.

Because the reclamation and rechristening of Wine Street was a calculated act of marketing, it’s a tricky place to wrap your head around. There’s a Disneyland-ish, movie-set-like feeling to the area. It’s beautiful, of course — nice textures and colors and smells everywhere you look. (And what else — that’s precisely how it was designed.)

It’s hard to know what is “real” (that is, original to the 1800s), what is staged to look “real” (that is, inserted in the 1920s), and what has been restored to either state due to earthquakes. And whether any of that matters since it is all part of the complicated timeline of the place.

However, it was a grand place to eat my picnic lunch, and it was fun to stand around in ancient home compounds restored/saved from the days when California was still Mexico.

From here I walked to City Hall, which is of course bustling with official activity. There were hints of something special — more secret paintings tucked in behind blinding white stone — but inside was all grey and official business.

It felt a little weird to breeze into here, all sunshine and floral cotton, and pass through a metal detector just to see some scenery. I was a felt a little sheepish as the security guard asked me to state my purpose.

….I…I’ve been told there is an observation tower on the 27th floor?

He winked at me and said, did anybody tell you to go to the 3rd and 4th floor too? No? Well, make sure you do.

Boy was he right.

In Portland such a dazzling display would come with plaques explaining where all this glamour comes from, or why it exists. I haven’t looked that hard online, but as yet this is all a beautiful mystery to me. The most I have learned about the building was that it was built in 1928, has been retrofitted for earthquakes, and wa featured quite a bit on mid-century television. (It was Clark Kent’s Daily Mirror in the 1950s, and the building played itself in Dragnet, as the show (at least on the radio) took place in Los Angeles and the police officers worked out of…city hall!) I have since learned that the the concrete in the central tower of the was made with sand from each of California’s fifty eight counties and water from its twenty-one historical missions, which is exquisite. But no word on why these floors are dripping with adornment.

These photos were taken from the 4th floor, looking down at the third, and when I got off the elevator on other non-restricted floors briefly it looked like most of the building is not like this, but in fact the sort of Bureaucratic Drab typical of city office buildings.

To get up to the 27th floor — where the observtion deck is — requires a musical-elevator sequence. (Take a floors 1-10 car and then transfer to a 11-22 car, from there a 26 car, which leads you to a grand staircase to the top.) One is briefly on the 22nd floor which appears to exclusively house the Mayor’s office. On his door it also says “gang reduction and youth development”

There is only one big room on the 27th floor and it appears to be where the Mayor gives press conferences. There is a podium with the city seal on the front, and great tall windows that were closed with big red velvet curtains, so it was fairly cool up there. You exit through green doors and enjoy a 360* view of the city, with signs pointing out various landmarks, which helped. LA is a bewildering, vast place, but I could at least see where I had been, and sort of where I am staying.

I am ending this because it is HUGE and I feel like there needs to be a break in the narrative. But we are getting to the most important part of my day: Watts Towers.

In which we consider Kelley Point

During our third mushroom class we were given vague tips on spring mushrooms sites. I say “vague” because mushroom hunters are extremely reticent to disclose information that could lead to the pillaging of cherished hot spots, particularly those containing morels.

Kelley Point Park was among the places mentioned, so as I had some time on my hands yesterday I went out there to see what I could see.

To me, Kelley Point is interesting for its incredible geographic significance. It is at this point, beyond a riot of dandelions and daisies, that the Willamette River feeds into the Columbia River before heading out to sea. The very end of Portland’s river, right here at the viewpoint. (Where is the beginning? I will find out.) 

Kelley Point is named in for Hall Jackson Kelley, a New England school teacher who had a something like an obsession for settling the western territories, and the Pacific Northwest in particular. Reading of Lewis and Clark’s journeys must have sparked something in him. Long before laying eyes on the place he wrote articles encouraging settlement along the Columbia river. He also attempted to secure funds for several expeditions, one of these an attempt to colonize the area around Puget Sound via “expedition by sea”. None of these attempts succeeded.

Finally, in 1833, Kelley set out with a smaller band than his intended group of several hundred, which two years earlier had attracted private investment and left without him. During this expedition, (funded presumably with his own money,) his company simply abandoned the project and stayed on in New Orleans, “at a great personal loss to himself.” From then on the venture looks as though it was a perilous, doom-laden thing — either due to Kelley’s fanatical, God-fearing Manifest Destiny imperialism, or by simple bad luck, it’s unclear to me as yet which.

In the end he was only in the area for about five months before being shipped off home by the fur traders who had claim to the area. The sign at the viewpoint is pretty direct about its feelings towards the man. It ends: “A bit deranged, Kelley visited briefly in 1834. He spent the rest of his life bitterly trying to win notice and payment for having sparked American interest in the Pacific Northwest.”

It seems an odd choice of patrons, but then maybe it just goes with Portland’s sort of scrappy reputation. Reading through his background was like reading a tome of tragic art.

Kelley endears me particularly for the exhaustive nature of his book titles, the last called tellingly, “A History of the Settlement of Oregon and of the Interior of Upper California, and of Persecutions and Afflictions of Forty Years’ Continuance endured by the Author.”

If Kelley had had his way, the city center would have been right here at the confluence of the rivers, where nowadays pilot boats dart about nervously and guide enormous ships into their various ports. Alas, it is about eleven miles southeast of here, and this place is merely a gem at the tip of the far Northern warehouse district. And apparently an excellent place to find mushrooms, if the furtive people walking around with buckets, baskets and brown grocery bags are any indication.

As usual, I was much more interested in the bird situation than the mushrooms, and after sitting and watching ships for a long time I managed to see a pair of red-breasted sap suckers, a white crowned sparrow (among a mess of chickadees, bushtits and song sparrows,) and an osprey eating a fish. The first osprey of the season, for me. Added to this were what appeared to be ominous walls of nettles spread beneath the gnarls of cottonwoods.

No, really. After you.  No, really. After you.

I found interesting specimens, but didn’t collect anything for spore prints, nor did I see any of the elusive morels. Though I did see an old verpa — in the family of false morels. So doubtless they’re out there.

Next Sunday there is an OMS sponsored field trip out to Sauvie Island to pick morels, so there was no need to go overboard here. Hopefully the nettles aren’t as bad out there as they are at Kelley Point.