Monday, January 28, 2013

A Word About Portlandia

The statues are gray, too.
Portland is a strange place. I like to call it Planet P because it is not of this Earth. It could be the weather, but I don't think so. This is my second winter in Portland, Oregon, and the weather is not as soul-sucking as the locals make it out to be. The first few months we were here, acquaintances (and the homeless person in the checkout line) told us winter is the pits. Brace yourself, they said. It is long. It is depressing. It is wet.

My assessment is that winter in Portland is best described as gray. If I were the TV weather forecaster in Portland, my standard line would be: "Look for gray skies, followed by more gray skies, and whoa boy, gray is in the five-day outlook." Rain is secondary to the gray cloud cover.

But the weather (excuse me, the gray) is not what makes Portland strange. People make Portland strange. I use the word strange in the broadest sense, not exclusively in the pejorative (negative). Strange can be good. Portland is strange in good ways and bad ways, or shall I say, bizarre ways. 

Strange point #1: The food here is, hands down, tasty, innovative and off-kilter. I've never been more impressed with the use of bacon, artisan salts and macadamia nuts. This city is crazy about those ingredients, and the restaurants use them with flare. I had a fig and bacon sandwich with goat cheese on my birthday from a nondescript breakfast diner. A diner! for God's sake. There's a store across town that specializes in flavored salts (it's part of the niche store scene: there's a lightbulb and typewriter place that are equally cool). The macaroon here is like nothing I've ever eaten before. A macaroon to me is a drop cookie with the shredded coconut mixed in the batter. So far, I've seen nothing of the sort. Here, it's a sandwich cookie made in flavors such as salted (seeeee!) caramel, hazelnut and pistachio. In this case, strange is good. Yet ask a local, especially a local foodie, and he'll likely be hypercritical of the food scene. I could go on about the food carts (my favs are the cheese and cracker carts and the grilled cheese grill on a double-decker bus), but I won't.

Strange point #2: Portlanders don't use umbrellas. If you see someone walking around with an umbrella in Portland, it's me, the only freak in the city who thinks she needs one.

Strange point #3: The show Portlandia is pretty darn close to nailing the strangeness. I'm not exaggerating, and neither is the show. The place is full of young, urban, politically correct, highly educated, garage-band singing, DJ-spinning, writer-types. And loafers. Portlanders are great at loafing (me included). Again, not a criticism, just an observation. Maybe it's the lack of jobs or that within a five-block radius of every corner are five coffee houses, six bars, one or two "community spaces" and a couch in every grocery store. Portlanders walk, but they've got plenty of places to sit down while they do it. Oh, along with their Macs.

Strange point #4: Showing off your creative entrepreneurial spirit or adventurous hobby is very important. What are you into? If you can't tell someone in 15 seconds the latest cool thing you've done (designed a new app for Microsoft, traveled to Thailand to build a school, learned Portuguese or run your third 100-mile race), you are a couch potato. No, you are more than a couch potato, you'll be getting few looks that mean: Next. Or, Wanna join me?

Strange point #5: Clothes are optional.

Strange point #6: Portland bikes. And unicycles. And tricycles. And kiddie cycles. And recumbent cycles ... and never stops. Even in the gray.

I like Portland. It is always surprising me.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cowboys and Musketeers

Randy Severe of Severe Bros. Saddlery.
My end-of-the-year post had an error. I have published in 2012. I freelance for a leather trade magazine. I didn't publish fiction last year, but I wrote many magazine articles for a small publication that covers leather trades -- saddles, tack, boots, Western personalities. It's fun work. I've met many interesting people who make a living doing unusual things. I like to think of myself as a cowgirl reporter. The Pacific NW is prime stomping ground.

I've added my photo of one of the highest profile people whom I interviewed last year, Randy Severe. He is a custom saddlemaker who works out of Pendleton, OR. I had the privilege of meeting him in September during the Pendleton Roundup, the Super Bowl of rodeos. He's been in the saddlemaking business since he was in his early 20s. He is 60 now and makes saddles that go for as much as $40,000 or more. No exaggeration. His saddles are trophies. Heirlooms. A product of a family lineage and a Western aesthetic that runs deep in eastern Oregon.

Really, Randy and his ilk, and there are plenty like him in the West, keep the cowboy way alive. They ranch and wrangle cattle, build fences and go on epic horseback treks. In his case, he also keeps up a lodging house for cowboys who travel on the professional rodeo circuit. The locals have dubbed his bunkhouse the Hotel de Cowpunch. He doesn't charge for a night's stay. He and his wife, Rosemary, and brother Robin, run their workshop and "hotel" and live a life often glamorized by Hollywood. His uncle, Duff, who taught him a few things about saddlemaking, is memorialized in the Smithsonian.

It's not a stretch to say the cowboy life informs my fiction writing. I don't write Westerns, but I see similarities between my Musketeer characters (courtesy Dumas) and the American cowboy. They both practice unique skills; they respect weaponry; they ride horses; they live with bravado, if only in legend. Could Musketeers be considered the French version of cowboys? I don't see why not.