Greetings from the trenches

We’re six weeks into knowing about my friend with cancer, (see previous entry) and about five weeks into his 6-8 weeks prognosis.

There isn’t much to say about it. Most of the time, because I am not living with this friend nor am I that intimate with his family, life is normal — transcendent and gorgeous, even, in this heightened state where all one’s focus is on the immediate present. It is late spring and it has been a particularly beautiful one here. I find myself weeping with gratitude, not sorrow, when I see than a rose has opened, or the pea plant has a new pod plump and ready for eating.

I have been surprised to find myself more content, clear-eyed and happy than I have been in a long time. There’s just a heaviness — growing or shrinking unexpectedly and triggered by things that seem quite unrelated. The subconscious fights desperately to be heard.

We’ve had a few moments where it has been undeniably forthright.

I don’t yet want to write too freely about this here because it is a ‘developing situation’, and anyway it may not even be a story that is mine to tell in the end.

It is not because I don’t want to talk about it. Quite the contrary — it’s ALL I want to talk about. It is all I can think about, it is all I want to think about, and I can’t find anybody that will indulge me and listen to all of the gritty, morbid, irreverent, frank, unblinking things that are stirring around in the cauldron of my curiosity. Too many people I know are too involved in this to talk about it that directly, that often with me.

I am not a particularly social person and usually do not process things verbally, so this impulse to talk to people has been really interesting. It has bordered on a NEED. It’s like I’m searching for words to pin down what is going on in my own mind.

Furthermore, I like to be able to DO. And when there’s little to DO I get very restless and uneasy. I want to Help, to the extreme that I find myself doing things unasked for, bordering on becoming a nuisance.

I spend a great deal of time feeling blank, like an automaton going through the motions of a day, waiting for orders.

In this altered state of life where not much feels correct, where surfing the web is so clearly a waste of time, when Facebook and Twitter as just saturated with nonsense that I just can’t bring myself to care one iota about, because what is any of that to the pulsing, urgent need to be present when called upon, to comfort a friend who is struggling, to sit quietly with oneself and appreciate the heartbreaking majesty of clouds. Now, instead of sneaking peaks at Instagram or Tumblr in quieter moments when I’m in the bathroom or waiting for the teapot to boil, I endeavor to have a book in my hand. So I can read.

Because death is a subject that books are well versed in. And unlike people’s children, pithy memes or political travesties, death is a subject I have an unending amount of patience with, tolerance for, and interest in right now.

You’ll note the Tolstoy. Somehow, aside from directly topical items, the 19th century really gets me right now. Hard to say what I appreciate more — the slow paced thoughtful characters who seem to prioritize the proper things in life (unlike our hopelessly segmented and compartmentalized 21st century selves,) or merely the numerous instances of consumptives sliding into medically unassisted deaths. People on deathbeds and people attending to those people have obvious appeal, and take up a good portion of the books from this era. Tolstoy in particular is very, very good about writing about this, how messy it all is.

Aside from reading I have been quilting a great deal.

The first quilt I ever made was over a breathless weekend or two when I was home alone because I was working and couldn’t accompany Mom and my brother on a trip to Grandma — was I a junior in high school? Or was it Thanksgiving break my freshman year of college? I can’t remember. I just remember Mom had a pile of her old button-up shirts she’d asked me to take to Goodwill, and instead I cut them into squares and made a quilt out of them, borrowing her sewing machine.

I have made several since then, different kinds and styles, but it’s been a while and I hadn’t made one in my new sewing set-up at this house, which is essentially a little gnome’s cave in our cubby hole / storage space.

I’m making a new one, again out of old shirts and cotton clothes — ours this time, not my mother’s — as a permanent bedspread and ultra-snuggly nap blanket for our room. Most of our quilts — aside from that delicate first one — have been pressed into service throughout the rest of the house. I find them on the porch or in roommate’s rooms — filling out the corners, keeping things cozy.

This one is also in the kantha quilt style. I was delighted to learn the name of those charming, lightweight quilts that are rapidly gaining popularity; perfect for summer, and, as it turns out, genus for its reuse of old fabrics. Waste naught, want naught.

To do a kantha quilt means one spends a LOT of time hand stitching, which off and on is perfect for what I need right now. There are indeed days where I have a restless, exhausted energy, and nothing feels right but to dial up the iPod with a scene from Anna Karenina and make a running stitch again, again, again, again all up and down the soft, well loved fabrics of old shirts of ours — shirts that exhault at being pressed into service in this new way.

Quilting and reading. And messy ink drawings. That is what these weeks have consisted of, primarily.

Oaks Bottom: Amusement Park or Wildlife Refuge?

It’s both, really. Or at least, both use the name Oaks Bottom. (It’s also a Lompoc pub not far from here.)

I’m not sure how many of the amusement park patrons partake in the wildlife refuge — I know that when I come down here I’m usually much more interested in the nature scene than I am in carnival rides.

Prime tadpole habitat -- both frog and salamander.

Prime tadpole habitat — both frog and salamander.

Pacific chorus frog, the color of spring.

Pacific chorus frog, the color of spring.

So, the proximity seems strange, but you can’t argue with geography. The pond (which will be all dried up by high summer) is almost all that remains of what used to be a series of wetlands and seasonal ponds, fed by tributaries feeding into the main river. There are several signs along the Springwater Corridor that show sobering aerial photographs — first of the original flood plane, and then of the urbanization and cementing over a lot of that habitat. It’s not a story unique to Portland, but it’s rare that you are made aware of this so bluntly, standing on the very concrete slabs that choked Johnson’s Creek.

Nor can you argue with the oldest continually run amusement park in the country. This was one of those parks built by trolley companies — to lure city folks to use the lines on the weekends. So there’s a delightful old-timey feel to the place. It’s not big on rides (there are some, but none of the glossy vomit-o-matics you get with a larger establishment), but it has a dance hall — resevable for events but just a gorgeous building in its own right — as well as picnic pavilions and innumerable picnic tables dotting the walkway by the river. And you can’t argue with the view.

Painted from the picnic tables of Oaks Bottom Amusement Park, in a moment of non-rain in late spring. Painted from the picnic tables of Oaks Bottom Amusement Park, in a moment of non-rain in late spring.

It also has a skating rink, gloriously kept, with the original pipe organ. Occasionally on Sundays an old man will play it intermittently for one of the afternoon sessions. (This is NOT TO BE MISSED. Check their calendar to find out when and go, if you are near enough.)

Summer’s gearing up and now when you go down to look for ospreys and bald eagles you can usually hear carnival sounds echoing through the valley. Sometimes you can even hear the heritage train, chugging along what used to be trolley tracks to bring happy patrons from OMSI on the eastern waterfront down to the amusement park just as they might have back in the 1920s. It’s a lively little area.

Magic at Sauvie Island

So in an impeccable act of anti-climax, our eagerly awaited expedition to Sauvie Island with the Oregon Mycological Society was cancelled at the last minute, owing to another expedition taking place the day before. In fact, when we called the Office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to secure our REMOVAL OF VEGETATION permits, the woman on the phone kept asking if we meant “Saturday” instead of “Sunday”.

Alas, Sunday it was. There were rumors that the overall secrecy of the morel-picking spots have been betrayed, and promises were made that “new spots” would be found in the future.

As we had all requisite permits so we decided to go anyway and try and see what we could find — no easy feat when you have no frame of reference. A good part of the first few hours was spent tramping through undergrowth. Not nettles, as on Kelley Point, but blackberries. Which have thorns.  Delightful.

We eventually gave up and drove to a few other sites, building theories on where the lucky morels might be hidden. And finally, maybe out of luck more than anything else, we did in fact strike gold.

We came away with two by the end of the day, and in comparing stories with other mushroomers it seems is a fairly typical morel score at Sauvie Island. Better luck up in the hills, which we’ll have to go attempt because now that we have tasted the meaty goodness that is a morel (a first for both of us) we are hooked. There is a reason people tramp through nettles and blackberries to look for these things, and it is because they are delicious.

A triumph of surgery

I mentioned this on twitter not long ago, but the sunshine season is coming to Bridgetown (in a few months, anyway) and it’s time to get outside. I have been thinking a lot lately about how I can paint outside, something I’d like to do more often. Specifically I want to be able to carry my paints around with me at the Oregon Country Fair, and be able to be in full art-making mode rather than willfully limited as I was last year. The way I want to input things is always in flux and recently I’ve been itching to do more painting studies out in the world, and yearn for something that blends portability with simplicity. I want all the painting objects to be in one thing. Pallets, brushes, water cup, reading glasses and paper.

The pallets I use are plastic, and two of them are the fold up “travel” kind, though the large one doesn’t snap together like you’d want it to. Usually if my paints need to go somewhere I wrap a cloth around the cover-less pallet, close the close-able ones, tie them all together and stuff them into a bag. It works.

The brushes are of course the real problem. How in the world can one safely get brushes from point A to point B? For a long time I’ve had an ArtBin brand box that has foam holders specifically designed to keep brushes totally immobile — honestly the best solution I have seen. Those bamboo roll-’em-up mats really don’t work with small brushes and letting them jangle around loose in a pencil box is no solution at all. So the foam-in-the-box is great. However the box itself is not great. It is huge — intended for meaty acrylic and oil painting brushes, not the minute brushes we watercolor-type painters use. A lot of unusable space. Nothing apart from paintbrushes could go inside it yet the box itself is large than my largest pallet, and longer indeed than my normal bag could accommodate.

My big pallet actually has a space for brushes. In the past I’ve made a little tube out of paper, taped it shut, and slipped it over the bristles of the brush. That works fairly well except I can only carry about three brushes in this way and in order to actually work on something I need my full range. That’s still only about 5-8 brushes, but it exceeds my travel-pallet’s capacity.

For a long time my solution has been to not bring brushes out at all, partly for the impossibility and partly in an effort to simplify my art-making experience on outings. If I bring too many things I am apt to try and USE them and not pay attention to what I’m seeing. But I have seen some very amazing things, (the Museum of Man building in San Diego for instance,) that — for me — really cannot be captured in any other way than paint and brush. The last time I was visiting home I actually bought a paintbrush and a tube of paint somewhere because I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to express bigger than pen, more colorful than pen. And add to this my last-summer’s work-in-the-park sessions of just sketching when I had actual real painting to do. OR the countless days spent woefully indoors when I could have easily been outside working if only I’d had the means.

So it is that I’ve been in the market for a painter’s box. Nothing fancy, nothing pre-packed with gear I didn’t need. Just an old beat up thing I could trick out to suit my needs. And sure enough, whilst sifting through my favorite antique place for something else entirely, squashed between a fine ceramic bowl and a statue of St. Francis, was my dilapidated painter’s box. It was like destiny.

The ladies behind the counter looked at me with a trace of benevolent doubt as I gushed about my find, clutching it as though it were the a rare bone-china teacup. That saying about one man’s trash is another man’s treasure couldn’t be more true at antique stores. It’s okay. All the better if it was kind of battered — nothing to hold me back from really using it.

And the largest kick I get out of a thing like this is the resurrection of a thing left for dead. With a few modifications it would perfectly suit my needs.

A happy side-effect of this project was that it got me into Hippo Hardware for the very first time. It certainly won’t be the last time. If ever you need to spend an hour digging through a bin of luggage hardware, opening hinges, flexing latches, and solving the puzzle of what is this, and, how might it fit with another piece, and where is that other piece, I have the perfect place.

(This may not sound like flattery to you, but I can’t think of a better way to spend a rainy afternoon.)

And there you have it! A solution to the problem of the bag-full-of-crap. Now it’s a box filled more neatly with crap. Important crap. Time to go put it to the test.