The Portland Diaries, Part 1.5

I should be back at the apartment writing The Great American Something right now, but instead I’m in a coffee shop writing yet another blog post. Actual conversation overheard a few minutes ago:

Customer asks what kombucha is. Man and woman behind the counter take turns trying to answer.

It’s…uh….it’s this stuff–

It’s alive, kind of.

Yeah, no, it is alive.  It’s got these things–

They’re supposed to be good for you.

Yeah, they’re like these things that are alive–or really, there’s this one thing–

It’s kind of gross, actually.

Oh, well–yeah, it is kind of.  It’s called the mother, and it lives in–

Well, not in the bottle.  We have the bottled kind.

Oh yeah, the mother’s not in the bottle.

It’s sort of like vinegar, only fizzy, and not–

It’s more like yogurt. I mean, it’s got these living–

It’s very cleansing. It’s something you drink when you need to cleanse.

It’s actually fermented. Like, not alcoholic, really, but it is actually fermenting.

It kind of makes your head go whooosh–

Yeah, it sort of clears you out, and you go, whoa.

I haven’t had one in a while. I should have one.  I think I’ll have one today.

It’s good for you.

You should have one.  You need one.  I need one too.

(Customer decides to have one.)

Good.  You’ll be really glad.

They come in all these colors.  Look how amazing that green is when you hold it up to the light.  Look, I’m going to hold it up–

I am not here to jot down overheard conversations, although that would be a very writerly thing to do–I’m actually here to draw.  Homework for drawing class is to go sit somewhere and do 10 or 20 “gesture drawings”–very quick sketches aimed at just catching a gesture or getting things in place.   So I sat in the corner and drew everybody who came up to the counter for their coffee–or kombucha. (The drawings look like crap, so I’m not going to show them to you. They’re supposed to look like crap, so that’s okay, but I’m still not showing them to you.)

I have totally regressed to my college days.  The only time I sit in a coffee shop and do nothing anymore is when I’m stuck in an airport.

I swear this place is playing my seventies Pandora station. I would just like to say for the record that I started listening to soft rock hits from the seventies during the actual seventies and just never stopped.  I love Hall and Oates and Gerry Rafferty in a completely non-ironic way.  I’m not sure I can say the same of the Kombucha Twins.

Hey, the sun is out!  I’m gonna go check that out.

The Portland Diaries, Part One

So here I am in Portland, occupying a totally charming apartment courtesy of Tin House, whose offices are right next door.  (press release, which explains everything.) Actually, the magazine is on one side and the book publisher is on the other, so I am surrounded by literary wonderfulness.  On Tuesdays I teach a nonfiction workshop in Portland State University’s MFA program; that happened for the first time last night.  Damn, those students are fiercely smart and well-read.

The only book I could recommend to them that they hadn’t all read, hadn’t actually inhaled and absorbed and memorized and considered and reconsidered and probably ultimately rejected, was I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, which I believe every memoirist should read and worship. It is a novel in which the protagonist attempts to write her memoir but can’t get past the first chapter. So she writes it over and over, each time from a wildly different perspective, a totally different version of herself.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, that’s all I’m sayin.

I have equipped the apartment with basic necessities such as bourbon.  The desk, pictured above, is just screaming at me to slam that bottle down upon it and pull up a chair and write a great literary work.  We worked out a compromise and I’m doing this blog post instead.

Attempted painting; wiped it off.

I brought my paints but it’s raining, raining, raining, which means I can’t set up the easel on the porch or leave paintings outside to dry.  Nonetheless I tried this one and it just Did Not Happen. I’ll take another run at it.

I am auditing a drawing class at PSU, which makes me wildly happy.  Hardly anyone in the class has ever drawn before.  I love the idea of going back to the basics, just a pencil and a piece of paper.  The students were shocked when they learned that no electronics would be allowed in class–cell phones off, screens down, earbuds not in ears.  I had somehow settled in with the other 40 year-olds in the class, and we all flashed a victory sign at each other at the thought of three hours without electronics.  Yes, please.

First assignment:  fill out a form with your email address and stuff, and draw a self-portrait on the back.  I cheated and used one of my author photos online.  It was that or stand over the bathroom sink with a sketchpad, looking in the mirror.

yeah well.

I’m also auditing a class on the French Revolution and Napoleon, because I have this particular interest related to this particular thing re: the French Revolution which shall remain nameless for now.  The professor thought the (undergraduate) class would be too basic for me, but he has no idea what a great lazy research technique this is.  When you go interview an expert in a field like French history, you quickly start to feel like you’re taking up too much of their time.  So then I realized–hey!  This guy’s getting paid to stand up there and explain this whole damn thing for three hours every week, and I can go sit there for FREE and soak it all up.

Brilliant. Way easier than reading a bunch of books, too. Plus, it gets me out of the house.

The French Revolution, by the way, is lost on twenty year-olds, who have neither faced their own mortality nor visited Paris.  So.  The five grey-haired women also auditing the class and I are having the times of our lives.  Robespierre, that bad boy! We laugh at all the professor’s jokes. We are the only ones.

So I pretty much have a full course load on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest of the time?  Well, that’s when I’m In Residence.  What does one do when one is In Residence, apart from blogging?  Stay tuned.  I know I will.

(Personal note to my husband:  In Portland there is a product called Kale Joy.  Don’t worry; I didn’t buy any.  I bought bourbon. Still your girl!)


What This Small Business Needs

Dear President and Congress,

I'm so glad to hear everyone talk about small business and job creation.  And by "everyone," I mean everyone except small business owners themselves.  We're too busy running our businesses to take time out to talk policy.  But I was pleased to see this article about how a survey of actual small businesses finds that regulations and taxes aren't our biggest problem.  I couldn't agree more.

I'm part owner of a true Main Street business–a bookstore in our small downtown.  We employ four people and would very much like to hire another person–so put us squarely in the "job creator" category.  Here's my opinion on what a small business like ours really needs–and it's not lower taxes. Honestly, we don't make that much money, so our tax rates are already pretty low. And it's not less regulation that we need, either. Here's what would really help us:

1. Health care for everyone.  We joke that our company health plan is that we'll pay for our staff to get a flu shot, and give them paid leave to go get the shot.  But it's no joke.  We want our staff to be healthy, we want them to be taken care of, and of course we want them to be able to show up for work, even during flu season.  Sorry, but any insurance sold on the private market is more expensive than what a retail employee can afford–and we pay more than most retail businesses in our area.

2.  An educated labor pool.  Our employees don't just have to be well-read.  They also have to be able to tally simple numbers in their head, count back change the old-fashioned way, and recognize when two inexpensive paperbacks are accidentally rung up for $100. Believe it or not, we have had difficulty finding even college-educated applicants who can do these simple tasks.

3.  A fair deal on sales tax.  As you know, Amazon and other Internet retailers are fighting moves by states to collect their fair share of sales tax.  It's time to fix this outdated system.   A simple piece of software can help even the smallest retailer collect and pay sales tax. It can all be automated, and any company that claims otherwise is just making excuses.   The states are looking for national legislation to help fix this once and for all.

4.  A functioning postal system.   Figure something out and keep the post office running.  We do a lot electronically, but we still depend greatly on our local post office.

5.  Better infrastructure.  Our light posts in downtown are beyond the end of their useful life and there is no money to replace them.  We need them for lighting and ambience, and we'd like to be able to hang flower baskets or holiday decorations from them, but they can't support the weight.  This sounds like a small issue, but things like this keep a downtown vibrant–and as one thing after another deteriorates, a shopping district can start to look pretty shabby.

We also have a parking lot paved only in gravel.  We need that lot paved and striped so our customers can have more (free) places to park. 

And while we're at it, our small, underserved airport makes it hard to get people in or get people out.  Our freeways need upgrades to better stand up to mudslides and other adverse weather. We could use some train or bus service. Even a seemingly stationary business like ours involves travel–we want tourists to come here, and we have to ship goods — and people–out of here from time to time.

6.  Help for homeless and mentally ill people.  Bet you weren't expecting this one, were you?  But the fact is that a lot of homeless, nearly-homeless, and mentally ill people wander around downtown and hang out in or in front of our stores.  It's not that we don't welcome people from all walks of life in our store–we do.  We regularly sell our "bargain" books to homeless people for a quarter, and we're happy to do it.  But honestly, I'd rather see them spending their days getting treatment, services, job training, and so on.  And it's a simple fact that sometimes, large crowds of panhandlers or people with obvious mental health issues can be intimidating to shoppers.  I wish I could make this easier and more comfortable for everyone involved, but I can't.  We could use some help with that.

7.  Better policing downtown.  You would not believe how nice it is to have a cop walking the beat in downtown.  It stops so many problems before they start.  We very much need a properly-funded police department.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  The private sector has not volunteered to solve any of these problems for us.  We want, need, and expect government solutions to the problems we can't solve on our own. Of course, some of the issues I mentioned are local or state issues, but there are federal programs that could help with everything on this list.

Let us worry about how to sell more products, increase our profit margins, and hire more people.   You work on this list–and thanks in advance for your help.

–Amy Stewart 

On to the Pacific Northwest!

And the bug march continues in the Pacific Northwest.  Would love to see you guys.  Details below, but it doesn't hurt to contact the venue ahead of time to confirm dates & times.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011 7 PM
Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing
Beaverton, OR

Thursday, June 23, 2011 7 PM
Auntie's Bookstore
Spokane, WA

Friday, June 24, 2011 6:30 pm
Third Place Books
Lake Forest Park, WA

Saturday, June 25, 2011 11 AM
Village Books
Bellingham, WA

Annie Proulx, Garden Writer

Before Annie Proulx became Annie Proulx, she was a garden writer. She wrote a book about salad gardening and another, called The Gourmet Gardener, about kitchen gardening. She wrote about growing grapes and building walkways and making your own food from dairy products. She wrote what is still the definitive guide to making hard cider. Storey and Rodale were her publishers; Storey has kept three of her titles in print,in part because they are still useful books, and in part, I suspect, because they get a kick out of sending royalty checks to Annie Proulx.

I don’t know much about her personal life–she’s one of those fairly reclusive authors who manages to stay offline and get work done. I can tell you that she lived in Vermont, worked a variety of jobs, got married and divorced a few times, and that, from the age of about 45 to 52, she wrote ten books and booklets on gardening and homesteading.

Then, the year after the publication of The Gourmet Gardener, her collection of short stories Heartsongs and Other Stories was published.  That was followed by a novel, Postcards, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award.  And in 1993–at the age of 58–came The Shipping News, and with it a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Proulx has this to say about her years as a garden writer:

“What interested me at this time was the back-to-the-land movement — communes, gardening, architecture, the difficulty of maintaining a long, dirt-road driveway. Not only could I solve some of those problems in real life … I could write about them and make some money…. But gradually this kind of thing became more and more boring, and my interests changed. I began to move towards fiction for intellectual stimulation.”


“What’s reflected in my fiction did not so much jump from manuals on grape growing and fence mending as from very serious academic hours in libraries and archives and an inborn curiosity about life.”

I’ve become fascinated with this remarkable transformation in her life that came about in her late 50s.  I already had a copy of her book on cider. With the publication of her new memoir, and all the press surrounding it, I got to wondering if she had published any other books back in her cider-making days. It took a little while to compile the list–there are 10 in all, I think, and I’m missing one in the above photo– but once I had the list, it was easy enough to pick up each of these for a few bucks online. They aren’t exactly collectors’ items. (The complete list is after the jump if you’re interested.)

I’ve shown these books to a few friends — all women, although I’m not sure that men wouldn’t have the same response – and every one of them has lit up.  “This gives me hope,” said one friend in her late fifties. “Look at what I can still do.”   “Oh, yes,” another said.  “I’m sort of banking on the fact that my most productive years are ahead of me.”

There is something hopeful and wonderful in the notion that you could go from writing books on fencebuilding to–well, being Annie Proulx. But there’s something weird about it, too.  It’s so strange to see her name on these old gardening books.  I have a recurring publication dream before every book comes out–I’ve already had it for Wicked Bugs–in which the first box of books arrives, fresh from the printer, and it turns out to be a completely different book than I thought it would be.  A different title, a strange cover, chapters inside that I don’t remember writing on subjects I don’t know or care anything about.  I imagine Annie Proulx having a dream that she wrote a novel called The Shipping News, but when it arrives from the publisher, she opens it and finds a box of pamphlets called Making Your Own Insulated Window Shutters.

You might be wondering if these straightforward guides to gardening and homesteading give any hint that the author would go on to win every major literary award and be regarded as one of America’s greatest novelists. I’ll let you decide.  Here are a few random bits of garden writing from Annie Proulx:

On cider: “If you make cider with apples that haven’t been washed, that have dirt, manure, grass, and other vegetative matter clinging to them, if your crusher and press are filthy with dust and old pomace, if your bottles and barrels are dirty and encrusted with ancient deposits, if a mouse or rat falls into your fermentation vat, if you add rotten apples or worse to the juice, if you forget to mill the fruit for six weeks after the harvest is in, if you simply do not care enough about the process to keep your equipment clean, you are destined to produce a disgusting and vile liquid that is the result of putrification, not fermentation. The problem is 100 percent avoidable.”

On bartering: “Try to list only skills you enjoy exercising; it’s not much fun swapping bookkeeping chores for the things you need if you loathe ledgers and moved to the country to escape from them. If you prefer knitting fancy, intricate patterns instead of plain socks and mufflers, say so. If making an outrageously luxurious Black Forest cake appeals to you more than canning tomatoes, stick with the cake.”

On salad greens:  “What lettuces there are!  Frilled edges, curly leaves, speckled and freckled, ruffled and folded, shaped like oak leaves and deers’ tongues, growing in tall cones or low rosettes, and in colors from lime green, deep viridian and bronze to ruby, creamy yellow, or variegated combinations such as a delicate green leaf with a dark red border; lettuces with textures that range from a crunchy, crisp snap to a tender, melting smoothness; flavors from the tasty, savory cos to the delicate, buttery Bibbs.”

And–just to prove that there is nothing new under the sun–she wrote this 24 years ago on the subject of kitchen gardening:  “A new kind of gardening has become part of our lives.  It is experimental, specialized, nostalgic, and beautiful when edible plants are part of the aesthetic landscape.  The new gardening parallels our awakened interest in fine food, regional delicacies, and native cooking–hot chiles handed down from generation to generation in the Southwest, New England deep dish apple pie made with Pinkham Pie apples or greenings. We have developed a taste for the choice and unusual products of the garden…”

Well.  There it is, folks.  If Annie Proulx, Garden Writer had been doing her thing in 2011 instead of 1981, she might have been right here, hanging out with us.  Imagine that.

Bibliography after the jump.


Off to Lincoln, NE

I'm off to Nebraska this week!  If you're in the area, maybe I'll see you there.  Here are the details:

What: Amy Stewart, author of four books on
botany and nature, will speak about "The Global Garden: Connecting
the World of Horticulture to Your Own Backyard" and "Wicked Plants:
The Deliciously Dark Side of the Plant Kingdom"

When: March 18, 4 p.m. for "Wicked Plants" and
7 p.m. for "The Global Garden"

Where: Southeast Community College Continuing
Education Center, 301 S. 68th St. Place

Cost: $15 for each lecture; tickets will be sold at the

Note: Registration is encouraged; call

More details here if you need them.

My Health Plan

We take a break from our regularly-scheduled programming to discuss health insurance.  There's no point rehashing what went wrong.  My question is:  Can we come up with one simple five-point plan and actually get it passed? Can it be simple enough to fit on a single sheet of paper?

Here's mine.  It's under 250 words.  What's yours?

  1. All health insurance companies are required to offer the same plan.  It costs $99 per month for people under 30, and $199 per month for people ages 30-65.  No pre-exisiting condition restrictions, and no cancellation except for non-payment.
  2. The plan has a $10,000 annual deductible.  It's a catastrophic plan intended to cover emergencies and serious illnesses.  However, it does cover one free wellness check-up a year that includes a few basic tests and vaccines.
  3. Everyone who signs up for the plan is automatically enrolled in a Health Savings Account (HSA) to pay their basic medical costs.  The monthly premium is paid through the HSA and is tax-deductible.  (HSAs already exist, with rules governing how they operate and limits on annual contributions, but currently the premium is not deductible.)
  4. Anyone can make a tax-deductible contribution to another person's HSA, subject to the annual limits already in place.  Parents, children, siblings, grandparents, employers, churches, community groups, neighbors–if someone wants to help you with your medical bills, they can.
  5. The plan is backed by a federal reinsurance program similar to what the FHA does for home loans.  Insurance companies are unlikely to go broke by offering this plan, but if they did, they'd have backing from the feds.