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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wishing you a New Year with LESS

Now that the holiday gift giving season is over, how much additional “stuff” do you have in your house? How much of it do you really want or actually need? And how much did your own gift giving add to the clutter and waste in the world? On this last day of the old year, and eve of the new, my biggest resolution for 2009 is to live with LESS. I mean less spending and consumption, less clutter, less to care for and store, and less stress, resulting in MORE of my most precious resources: time and energy to enjoy my life.

As a young child in the late 1950s and early ‘60s I loved looking at the Sears and Roebuck Christmas Catalog and coveting all those new toys. At the same time I’d hear “old” people say they didn’t want any gifts because they already had everything they needed. To me that sounded just plain CRAZY. In my teen years it seemed embarrassing that my mother did things like saving buttons off worn-out garments before tearing them up into cleaning rags, or using vinegar and water to wash windows instead of buying Windex. It took her awhile to accept the idea of paper towels people just threw away after using, and the same with plastic packaging and disposable diapers. If some old apple tree produced nothing but wormy apples she’d cut off the salvageable parts and make applesauce. I blamed it all on the fact that she’d lived through the Great Depression, but wished she’d “get with it”. Mom was so old fashioned.

Oh my, if only she had lived to see me now…

My mother was right. I have my own jar of used buttons and a “rag bag” and more. Sorry Mom, but by now I’ve surpassed even you, in the recycling department, and when I use up this last roll of plastic wrap I’m not buying any more, even though I‘m kind of “clingy” in my relationship with that stuff. My friends and I get excited about discovering bargains and brag to each other about our thrift store and yard sale finds. It’s a big thrill to make something from nothing or find clever ways of reusing things. My husband and I love poking around architectural salvage places like Second Use, where we’ve found old bricks from Seattle’s original streets for a garden path, and a beautiful antique light fixture for our entry. Similar items show up at Tacoma’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore. It feels good to give new life to old things or pass along what you don’t need to someone who can use it.

When I visited Telluride, Colorado a few years ago (where there’s no shortage of money) I discovered the town had a “free box”. People leave things they don’t want or need, like clothing, household goods, books, tools, etc. and anyone who comes along is welcome to take whatever they want. I loved that idea and would like to see other communities start it up. But on the internet I found a bunch of fun and informative sites with the same treasure hunt appeal.

So… in honor of the memory of my mother, here’s a list of some great web resources for recycling, reusing, trading, bartering, and reducing waste, I hope you’ll enjoy.

Second Use Building Materials

Tacoma’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore

Habitat for Humanity U.S. directory of stores
with many in the Pacific Northwest. Look for one near you.

Olympia Salvage



The Re-Store (Bellingham and Seattle, WA)

Hippo Hardware in Portland, OR

Earthwise Salvage

Remember your local used book stores. In Tacoma try:

Kings Books, Culpepper's, Point Defiance Books, and Half Price Books
Book Mooch


Planet Green

Simple Living-"30 days to a simpler life"

More Life Less Stuff

Earth 911

Green Yahoo

And this one is full of fun ideas…
Check out the topics called “Recycled Goods” and “Crafty Recycling” for some interesting projects you can do, some suitable for kids.

Enjoy! Here’s wishing you a great new year with less of what you don’t need and more of the things that matter.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Three Little Words

Dear Readers,

Between snow and Christmas I'm two days late for my weekly blog post, but I've been thinking of you, hoping you and your loved ones are well, warm and happy. I'll be back on schedule next Wednesday and looking forward to all the pleasure coming my way in 2009, through sharing interesting stories, humor, and inspiration with you, and hearing your comments, on Good Life Northwest.

As you drive through slush this weekend, I hope you forget the inconvenience and remember how magical snow can be. My husband snapped this Tacoma photo on his early morning walk a few days ago and discovered an interesting light effect with the falling snowflakes. We wanted to share it with you.

So what "three little words" does this title refer to? They are my wishes for everyone everywhere: Peace, Love, and Joy!

Thank you for reading my blog. I hope the new year brings you many opportunities to appreciate the "Good Life" here in the Northwest or wherever you live.

All the best,

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Toy Rescue Mission could become "Mission Impossible"

Coming through the door of the Tacoma’s Toy Rescue Mission yesterday, from the frigid air outside, I relished the warmth; but next Christmas that space could be cold and empty. For eighteen years TRM has recycled “gently used” toys, inspecting each one for safety, cleaning, disinfecting, repairing, and restoring, bringing joy to thousands of local disadvantaged children. Now Toy Rescue Mission itself, just like the dolls with disjointed limbs, or little trucks with missing wheels, desperately needs to be rescued. The cash reserves of this successful non-profit, this ideal expression of American volunteerism, will run out in about six months unless help arrives. “Do you think you could write about them in your blog? NOW?” my friend Jan asked. As a member of Soroptimist International Tacoma she’s worked with TRM to provide toys for children helped by Shared Housing. “Of course,” I said. I hope by sending out an S.O.S. through Good Life Northwest, my readers and I can throw these valiant volunteers a lifeline before Recession claims another shipwreck.

In the “work room” bins of spare parts and toys yet to be repaired line the walls. TRM provides toys all through the year, not just in December, but despite the invaluable team of volunteers, requests for toys before Christmas make the month pretty intense. They are contacted by over 150 agencies but can only work with about 20. Overhead hurts, little as it is. The benevolent building owners charge a tiny fraction of the rent they could expect from someone else, because they want to support the “mission” of Toy Rescue Mission, and they also did $14,000 worth of repairs to make the space more comfortable and pleasant. Without that generosity it couldn’t exist. But along with lights, heat, phones, garbage, administrative expenses, and minimal salaries the budget exceeds income. If you’ve never heard of Toy Rescue Mission it’s because they don’t have money for fancy advertising like some other charities.

So why should you help Toy Rescue Mission? First of all, for children. As the TRM brochure states, “TOYS are the TOOLS children need to carry out their all-important task of playing. The act of playing is as important to a child’s emotional and mental development as food and shelter are to their physical well being.” Toy Rescue Mission also helps the elderly, providing lap robes and even toys for seniors in care facilities. People suffering from dementia often benefit from dolls and stuffed animals. Other programs give youth the opportunity to do community service projects coordinated through schools, churches, or even families who want to raise their kids with the idea of helping others. TRM gives people a fun place to volunteer, contribute to society, and make friends. It benefits huge numbers of citizens of all ages.

During my visit a group of teens and their adviser, from Truman High School in Federal Way, helped a family select toys, and I spoke with a young man named Nick Lewis as he worked at fixing a toy fire engine. He’d started out through his school but went on past the required time and has contributed about 20 hours of volunteering in the past three weeks.

I also heard, in a conversation with President Karol Barkley, about a local Eagle Scout named Issac Smith. She wants the community to know what he did. Issac independently organized a spaghetti fee, raising an astonishing $4,000.00. The cook graciously donated her time and effort to cook all the food. He used about $3,000 to buy toys for the TRM kids, then donated the remainder (after being reimbursed for his food costs) to TRM.

Another lady kept busy in a back room, bagging up the hundreds of stuffed animals she has personally cleaned by hand. All of them inspired in me the greatest respect and appreciation for good people quietly doing great things, the way Americans have always risen to meet challenges in our society.

Before I left a young mother came in with a baby in her arms and a son about four years old at her side. I’m not sure how she'll explain it, but “Santa” came through for those kids. I left then, hoping I could write words that would make people care about the things I’d seen and heard. The temperature outside remained well below freezing, but the warmth I experienced at Toy Rescue Mission stayed with me all the way home.

Note: Toy Rescue Mission is located at 607 S. Winnifred St., Tacoma, WA 98465, next to Tacoma Boys on 6th Ave. Please look at the website,, or call the business office, 253-460-6711, to offer your help in the form of money, volunteer time, or gifts-in-kind so this good work can continue. THANK YOU!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eye-Opening Gig as a Street Corner Musician

Sometimes all you can do is choose the least uncomfortable situation, then make the best of it. That thought literally blasted me in the face while I asked my husband, as we set up to play Christmas music on a Tacoma street corner, “Should we be on the west side with sun but more wind, or the north side with cold shade and less wind?” We weren’t “busking”, uninvited and playing only for tips. We’re professional musicians and had been legitimately hired by a local business district, along with several other small groups, to provide seasonal ambiance for shoppers. Playing outdoors is always risky and that day the wind was C-O-L-D. It isn’t easy to play banjo or upright bass with stiff fingers.

As far as I could tell, all the musicians put out containers for tips. We’d been encouraged to do so by the organizer, even though we were being paid. It’s a common practice and usually well supported at places like farmers' markets. But it left us with a lesson in human nature and a few questions, like “Are we seeing some kind of Recession Mentality?” Despite the fact that we played our best, the old tip basket had more open space in it than a mortgage broker’s appointment calendar. Every once in awhile some kind person would drop something in, but not like you would expect.

I know people liked our music. Every time cars stopped for a red light at our corner, windows rolled down and smiles and waves appeared. Some drivers even got honked at when they paid more attention to us than the fact that the light had turned green. But they were safe in their cars and not expected to tip us. In the cold reality of life on the sidewalk we were a little too close for comfort to some people, close enough to maybe require eye contact or greetings. Many, even those who appeared well-off, hurried by. One couple came out of a nice restaurant a few doors down, started in our direction, then stopped and went the other way.

“Maybe we dressed too nicely,” I joked with my husband. “Like we don’t need tips.” He looked good in his layers topped by a corduroy sports coat and wool cap. I wore black slacks and a red wool blazer, a lot warmer looking than it really was. We thought we’d dressed appropriately for the job we’d been hired to do. But I don’t think it would have made any difference. The kind of people who are always “givers” gave, and we did meet some of them, like the nice lady who wanted to treat us to hot coffee. But this year, (and I’m not imagining it) there were more people who just didn’t want to part with a dollar, or even small change. You could see it in their faces and body language. Our presence made them as uncomfortable as the cold made us, even though we didn’t smell bad, look threatening or hassle them. What were they afraid of? That there isn’t enough to go around so they’d better not turn loose of what was theirs?

I can’t say if my eyes started watering from the cold wind or the realization that I at least had a warm house to go home to, and people living on the street do not. I shuddered thinking of spending a night outside in the winter. Then I met two people who might have faced that very thing. A couple got off the bus and came over to listen to us, through several tunes. They smiled and chatted, and offered nice compliments. They looked very, very poor. The man felt around in his pockets. He found two one-dollar bills and I watched him study them, briefly hesitating. Then he looked up at me and smiled and dropped them both in our basket.

“Thanks for the nice music” he said. He gave up money I was pretty sure they badly needed. I wanted to thank him and yet not take it, but seeing in his eyes the dignity with which he’d given the gift, I knew refusing him would be an insult. He was comfortable with his choice. We thanked them both sincerely and watched them go on their way to who-knows-where. I just hoped it was some place warm.

When we finished we spoke with other musicians who’d done about as well or even less so. It wasn’t that any of us were desperate for those tips. But the lack of holiday cheer did surprise us. Is everyone buying into the media hype that the world is coming to an end? We weren’t panhandlers. For less than the cost of a latte’ they could have shown a little appreciation for those struggling to play musical instruments in the cold for their enjoyment, or been a good example to their children, or taken part in a small act of kindness that might have made them feel a bit more like part of humanity. We need not be afraid to share.

Monetary wealth can be shown on a bank statement, but abundance is a state of mind. Times are tough, true. But even if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation you can still be positive and make the best of it, and even share. In this season, this year, when food bank shelves are bare and some families can’t afford gifts, dwell on goodness, generosity, and gratitude for what you do have, and you’ll magically find out that a kind heart makes you feel as comfortable and cozy as the imagined bliss of Eilza in the musical “My Fair Lady", who just wanted a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air. If we could feel safe, comfortable and happy with only what we really need, wouldn't it be lovely?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Best Christmas Shopping in the Northwest- (plus a FREE GIFT for you)

Forget about Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. The best gifts are made right here in the Pacific Northwest, and they’re waiting for you in an old brick building on the corner of 27th and Proctor, in Tacoma, Washington. It’s the Pacific Northwest Shop, one of my favorite places any time of year, but especially now. (Read on to find out about the totally FREE gift you’ll get just for coming in.) I stopped by today, greeted by the bell on the door, and a pretty display of lighted trees in the window, and owner Bill Evans. “Well hello there, Candace!” he said, while giving his usual caring attention to customers, employees, and boxes of new merchandise that keep arriving. I call him a friend, but so do hundreds of other local people, so it’s always “old home week” in the shop. Those four walls contain not only the bounty of the Northwest, but the spirit of this place as well: natural beauty, good taste, friendliness and warmth.

Every year I send gifts with a regional flavor and flare to places as distant as Denmark. It’s easy to find something special at Bill’s shop. If you’re reading this but don’t live near Tacoma you can even browse the vast selection on line and read about the products and their makers. I picked up a basket at the door (that is, a REAL basket, not a dirty plastic one) and started selecting gifts I wish someone would buy for me, and that could mean anything in the store.

Specialty foods tempt shoppers immediately. There’s smoked wild Pacific salmon from Kasilof Fish Company, local preserves, dried fruit, extraordinary chocolate, coffees and teas (try Enchanted Teas made right in Tacoma), soup and baking mixes, Dan the Sausage Man summer sausage, and novelties like Space Needle Pasta, or Huckleberry Salt Water Taffy. I wish I could mention them all. How about a Washington State wine? Delights like these end up in specially chosen or custom made signature gift boxes the shop sends out each year by the hundreds, if not thousands, all over the country. They do the packing and even take them to the post office for you. I love thinking of recipients in far away states, or right in town, opening one of those collections of treasures.

Man cannot live by delicacies alone, but must also feed the soul with art. I am madly in love with the exquisite fused copper and glass creations of Jones Glassworks in Seattle, with their classically Northwest salmon theme. “It’s two brothers, the Jones brothers,” Bill said. Knowing about the vendors means a lot to him. I relished the richly colored pottery by northwest potter Mark Hudak, and tiles by Paul Lewing. These combine form with function, but the shop carries framed artwork as well, with subjects like regional scenery, Native American images, maritime, etc. The artwork extends to greeting cards, calendars and more. How could I forget the jewelry? Oh my! Those silver pieces in Northwest Native American designs call to me every time, and I've bought a lot of the Jody Coyote earrings.

If you love art glass, in addition to Jones Glassworks’ wonders, you'll find a huge selection from Glass Eye Studio. Made from the ash of Mount Saint Helens, these gems are arranged in front of a south-facing window like one huge kaleidoscope in every color and pattern imaginable. Impressive bowls and vases sit on shelves, but for only $22 you can buy one of the hundreds of glass balls displayed hanging or heaped in a trunk. Call them Christmas ornaments if you wish, but I’d hang one in a sunny window all year around, and they’re always available.

Books make great gifts and the Pacific Northwest Shop is loaded with titles from local authors, on a variety of regional subjects: cooking, travel, nature, history, and more, including one written by the store’s owner Bill Evans himself, along with historian Caroline Gallacci. It’s a fascinating history, from the popular Images of America Series, called "Tacoma’s Proctor District".

What makes this shop so special is Bill himself. He loves supporting local artists, artisans, writers, photographers, and cottage industries, especially in small towns, with products ranging from foods, like Thorp Prairie Corn Bread to natural soaps and lotions of which he has a large selection. “Look at this,” he said, holding up a bar of handmade soap. “Shepards Soap Company, in Shelton, Washington. Aren’t these great?” What’s also great is the way Bill knows his vendors personally and sincerely wants to help their businesses succeed. ( I too, wish I had space to mention everyone by name.) You can feel the warm and giving spirit of this shopkeeper permeating the store, so if you need a dose of Christmas cheer, unique Northwest gifts, and old-fashioned customer service from a great staff, come on in, and… (here’s the surprise) If you tell him you read this blog post on Good Life Northwest he’ll give you a FREE package of Rocca Thins chocolate coated buttercrunch candy.

Hey Santa, you’d better watch out! With a red hat and a beard, this guy could have your job.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Elusive Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

When today’s kids grow up, what will their Thanksgiving memories be of? I wonder. Probably turkey, hopefully a happy family gathered together, maybe dinner at Grandma’s house. Or maybe not. Maybe the kids will be ignored in favor of football or maybe they’ll play football and love it. I don’t know. Thanks to TV and Hallmark and the world of mass marketing we have an image of what it’s “supposed” to be: an ephemeral swirl of warm pumpkin pie, ruby cranberry sauce, turkey and mashed potatoes covered with gravy, a charming group of congenial relatives in a perfectly clean house decorated with candles, and vases of chrysanthemums. Ah yes… I've had some of those. But how often is it really like that?

I’m not saying the image of the classic Thanksgiving is a fantasy. It must have seemed very real in 1943, when Americans reacted so emotionally to the famous painting by illustrator Norman Rockwell, called “Freedom From Want”. It touched people deeply. Even if you’re young you’ve surely seen it: the view down the dining room table with happy relatives seated on each side, the older parents or grandparents at the head of the table. The hostess is lowering a gigantic platter with a huge turkey on it and her husband, in his Sunday best, looks on in his kindly way, carving tools close at hand. Sixty-five years ago, the Saturday Evening Post magazine published this painting and three others in Rockwell’s series called “The Four Freedoms." The artist was inspired by a speech President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to congress on January 6, 1941, while the Nazi’s dominated western Europe. The government rejected the paintings, when first approached by Rockwell. It wasn’t until they were published in the magazine and became a national sensation, that Uncle Sam decided they were pretty good after all, and made them into war bond posters that became icons of American culture. Like the illustrations of the quintessential 1950’s Santa Claus, these images are burned into my consciousness and the mood of my holidays.

I must say, I’m very lucky. As a kid on Vashon Island, I did have the big happy family, the turkey, and all the trimmings. It wasn’t perfect. I know my mother was sometimes tired and stressed out when she miraculously pulled that dinner together. We lived in an ordinary house, and maybe the silver didn’t get polished in time, or the windows washed. But I do remember wonderful aromas, cutout sugar cookies in the shape of turkeys, massive amounts of food including beautiful pies and special things like real butter and olives. At least they were special back then. Now I have butter all the time and turkey often, and too frequently indulge in olives. I’m old enough to remember when it was a big deal to get oranges in the wintertime. Now foods that used to be a treat, something else to be thankful for, are available all year and have lost their “special” status. In this age of abundant food supplies, as long as you have some money, the exclusive is more elusive. We need to try harder to make a day stand out.

This year our Thanksgiving here in Tacoma will be a very small affair, just the two of us and one good friend. None of our kids can be with us. My Dad will be at my sister’s condo, another party of three. My mother-in-law lives in an adult family home. The other two parents, I'm sad to say, are no longer with us. I lost a dear aunt, just last week. My brothers and sisters are scattered.

I’ll roast a turkey and bake a pie, but won’t go overboard on side dishes and extra sweets. I might light some candles. There won’t be any kids running around, a crowd in the kitchen to get in the way, noisy talk and laughter, and a general commotion. I’ve experienced all that, and yes, I will miss it. But the reality is that over time circumstances change.

Yet I am deeply thankful. I have people in my life to love and be loved by. I’m healthy. I have a home, good food, friends, a great dog, and my writing and music. I’m living Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms and appreciate them and those who have sacrificed for them. Think of people who are spending Thanksgiving sad and alone, with loved ones fighting a war, or those sitting next to the bed of someone dying a hospital, or those are ill and in pain, or homeless. There are families who will drink too much and fight, violent and abusive in front of the kids or even hurting them, and police officers (who are missing dinner with their own families) will come to the door and arrest someone. Not a very pretty picture, is it? Sorry, but those are the realities of Thanksgiving for some people.

We can dream of the ideal version of Thanksgiving if we’ve actually had that, or grieve for what we missed if we haven’t. Or, we can alter our expectations and open ourselves to the possibility of finding new joys and creating new traditions. I see people choosing to spend the day volunteering at a food bank, or inviting someone who is lonely into their homes to share a meal. One friend of mine, whose Thanksgiving will be a quiet and uneventful day, is planning to go to church. She doesn’t expect to see many people there, but it is the way she has chosen to express and experience her own thankfulness. The important thing is to simply BE thankful, for truly, we have so much to be thankful for.

Whatever you are doing, and wherever you’ll be, spend the day with a grateful heart. If you’re grumpy, shape up. If you’re mad, get over it. Call somebody. Share. Remember those who are gone and what is important. Show your love. Laugh. Yours may not be a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving but it could still be the best one yet.

I hope you all, dear readers, have a happy Thanksgiving in your own unique way.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Best Northwest Gardening Book Ever

If you’re a perfectly organized person don’t bother reading this. It’s for the rest of you, the ones (not me, of course) who have experienced things like getting out of the shower fifteen minutes before needing to leave the house, and discovering they had no clean underwear because they forgot to put that laundry in the dryer. Our lives are so busy. We can all use a little help keeping on track now and then, in order to get done the things we really need do. That includes gardening chores. It’s easy to “forget” about, or just not find the time for, all those important seasonal tasks that people with great gardens do. If only a little voice inside us would guide us. In some cases it takes more than the subtle voice of conscience … more like the megaphone yell of no-fail, clear-cut directions.

I think I’ve found just the thing in a great book by local Pacific Northwest gardening experts, Mary Robson and Christina Pfeiffer. It’s called Gardening in Washington & Oregon, subtitled Month by Month-What To Do Each Month To Have a Beautiful Garden All Year, published by Cool Springs Press. This book is one of the best on the market because of the vast amount of information it contains specifically applicable to our region, and especially because of the way it’s organized. After twenty-two pages of great general gardening know-how, the ten chapters begin, each one focused on a single category, everything from Chapter One on annuals & biennials to Chapters Ten on vines and ground covers. In between are chapters on roses, shrubs, trees, lawns, etc., even houseplants. Then it gets better. Each of those chapters is organized month by month. That’s right. No more excuses or confusion. Now you can turn the page on your calendar and then the page in your book, to find out exactly what you should be doing for your plants during that particular month in this particular region.

Believe it or not, there is yet another layer of organization. For each plant group and each month, you’ll find the following headings: Planning, Planting, Care, Watering, Fertilizing, Grooming, and Problems. I suspect that the last topic, “Problems”, is needed the least, if readers actually follow all this customized advice as given. Then there are the final pages listing garden resources on the web, public gardens, a bibliography and more, including a “Meet the Authors” page. (Robson and Pfeiffer have truly impressive credentials.) If you have any gardeners on your Christmas list, including yourself, buy this book. I got mine at the Pacific Northwest Shop in Tacoma's Proctor business district, but it's widely available. Just think how nice it will be to pour a up of coffee on a cold winter day and spend some time looking at all those gorgeous garden pictures, while vowing to keep the yard up perfectly in 2009. Now remember to start the dryer and don’t let any dust gather on your Martha Stewart Living magazine sitting on the coffee table, but do take time to read, enjoy and put to use, this innovative gardening book. You may not have your entire life perfectly organized, but you CAN be a perfectly organized gardener. They made it easy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Confessions of the Scantily Scandinavian

I never claimed to be Norwegian. In fact, when my friend Chris started campaigning to get me to join the Daughters of Norway I protested.

“But Chris,” I said, hating to disappoint her, “ I’m not Norwegian.”

“It doesn’t matter! You’re part Danish and your husband is half Danish, so you’re more than qualified to join” she said. “Look at me. I’m Swedish!” It’s true that being strictly Norwegian isn’t strictly required. Next I heard (again) about all of the organization’s strong points: wonderful people, a century-long legacy, only one meeting per month, great programs, many fun activities, and all of it involving plenty of scrumptious Scandinavian desserts. That did it. Chris doesn’t lie. Now I’m an officer in the largest Daughters of Norway lodge in the United States, Embla No. 2, in Tacoma, Washington, and I love it. How did this happen?

I never claimed to be Norwegian, and to tell the truth, I'm only one-eighth Danish. But now, not only do I feel accepted, it’s scary how much I’m starting to feel Norwegian. Strangely enough, I learned Hardanger Embroidery years ago, and have always knitted Scandinavian patterns. I love snow, fish, and Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16. I bake beautiful butter cookies. I even felt my heart rate quicken when I saw my Danish family name on genealogy websites as being also found in Norway. Those Vikings did get around. Despite my mostly English heritage, with equal parts of German and Danish thrown in, I can tell I’m becoming more Scandinavian all the time. Now I can’t wait to celebrate Christmas Scandinavian style.

Oh I know… it isn’t even Thanksgiving and I’m talking about Christmas. You’re already cringing when you go into stores where the Christmas cards, candy, and commercialism showed up magically the morning after Halloween. That’s not the kind of Christmas I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind with real evergreens, warm wool sweaters, home baked goodies, fiddle music, singing, wheat weavings, gifts carved of wood or crafted from silver: a more natural and simple Christmas. If you’d like to treat yourself to some of that and experience the holidays in a whole new way, take in one of the Puget Sound region’s many delightful Scandinavian festivals. Here are some good choices and remember, EVERYONE is welcome:

Thursday Nov. 13- Scandinavian Night (food demos, shopping) at the Garfield Book Company next to Pacific Lutheran University

Sat. Nov. 15-Scandinavian Fair at the Hampton Inn, Bellingham WA 10 AM-4 PM

Sat. Nov. 22- Yule Boutique, Pacific Lutheran University, Olson Auditorium

Sat. Nov. 22 and Sun. Nov. 23- Yulefest at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle

Lately we’ve had plenty of bad news. Maybe you aren’t in the mood for holidays. Leave that cynicism behind and discover what warm hearts came from cold climates. It’s fun to be Scandinavian, even in scant amounts, or just your imagination.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Raking in the Memories

On the day of my father's birth the Panama Canal had been open for three weeks. He didn’t know or care. Neither did it matter to him that on his second day, the underdog Notre Dame football team tried out their new “forward pass” on Army, resulting in a gridiron upset never to be forgotten. I doubt if those headlines mattered to his mother either. She cared only about the new life beginning as October ended in 1913, a life during which her son would come to know and care about a great number of things. In October, when red and golden autumn leaves mark the passing of time, I think of my father more than ever. He should go down in history too.

Dad never made the headlines, except maybe on Vashon Island where he spent most of his life. Sometimes the island paper mentioned his many roles beside husband, father of seven, and friend to many. He also contributed to society as a water district commissioner, scoutmaster, PTA president, member of his church, school board, Odd Fellows lodge, and frequent volunteer in all kinds of situations. For example, during World War II he helped man an observation tower, often staying up all night to watch and listen for aircraft and record the direction of travel.

At the same time he worked long, hard hours running an auto freight business which was considered a vital industry. Truck drivers were exempted from military duty. He sometimes made two trips in a day to Tacoma where he picked up meat and other supplies, delivered flowers from Beall's greenhouse, whose blooms he also took into Seattle to the Pike Place Market. He moved people too, or pianos or firewood or somebody’s heifer to be bred or whatever else needed hauling. Over the years he worked at other jobs as well, being many things to many people, but most importantly a good example. 

Have I mentioned life on the home front? Something always needed to be painted, planted, plowed, picked, or patched. My father grew enough fruit and vegetables to feed half the island. I took for granted that he could fix anything. We went on car trips, picnics and outings and no matter how long and tiring his day he’d always listen to a book report, read a story, or help on a math problem. He gave us rides in the wheelbarrow, bouncing along the garden path until we were hysterical with giggles. Through him we learned to make change, balance a checkbook, have a good work ethic. It seemed he could make everything in the world okay.

Sometimes, when I think about Dad, I think about all that has changed since his birth. In that year Ford Motor Company began using the first moving assembly line, and his mother marveled at the news of an electric home refrigerator just out on the market. He lived through several wars, the wackiness of Wall Street, space travel and Spandex and learned to use a computer. At least he's done raking leaves. If only all Americans lived by his ideals of citizenship and kinship, our country would be a better place. Thinking of you, and missing you, Dad. Happy Birthday. That old Panama Canal has nothing on you.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Back in Your Own Backyard- the unstructured childhood

Have you played outside today? I remember when every day, except during extreme weather, included playing outside. It ranked up there with the three main features of life as a child: eating, sleeping and going to school, all of which adults controlled. That fact brings me to the distinction everyone seems to be missing these days: PLAY TIME BELONGED TO US.

We owned that open, unstructured time, to do with as we pleased. It made us aware of something larger than ourselves, a world we all belonged in together. The quality of that time, whether it proved to be fun, or not so fun, depended entirely on our own creative imaginations, social skills, and problem solving abilities. It made us healthy and happy.

I feel lucky. We had plenty of open space, beyond just lawn. a big lawn. Our two-and-a-half acres didn’t include woods but did have a huge hay field with grass tall enough to hide in when you’re little and one of many well compacted paths from one neighbor's house to another. Brush and cattails hid a frog pond. We climbed trees, scraped our knees, dug deep enough in our sandbox to capture wiggly earth worms down where the dampness remained. We got dirt under our fingernails. Our play equipment included old blankets, boards, sticks, barrels, ropes, sand, water, mud puddles, tin cans, hammer and nails, etc. It also helped to have a mother who didn’t care if you got dirty as long as you wore your coat and rubber boots, if needed, and washed up before supper. Wasn’t I lucky?

My own sons had a different childhood than mine, of course, but it still contained some of these elements, the most important being unstructured time. They had woods to play in, built “camps” and explored, could walk to a nearby stream, and had safe places to ride bikes without constant supervision. Sure I worried about them, but with some lessons in safety and common sense, they survived, and like my generation, ended the day with rosy cheeks and a good appetite.

When I walk around my Tacoma neighborhood these days I wonder where all the kids are. I see very few. Sometimes they're on the sidewalks on bikes or skateboards or sometimes walking. Often they’re plugged into an iPod or talking on cell phones. I do see them on city playfields participating in organized sports. True, that means fresh air and exercise, but it isn’t the same thing as chasing each other around playing hide and seek or some other made-up game. The place I see them rarely is in their own backyards. Interestingly enough, research shows that even kids in rural areas now spend as much time indoors as city kids. Is it any wonder we now see so many children, including the youngest, with problems like obesity, symptoms of stress, poor attention spans and sleep disturbances? I worry about them, and I’m not alone.

In 2005 a man named Richard Louv published a book of major importance, called Last Child in the Woods-Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. This book became a catalyst for a movement to get kids back outside, and in 2008 Richard Louv was awarded the Audubon Medal. Washington State Parks has joined this cause with its No Child Left Inside program. I've also discovered a great web site called Green Hour, meant as a resource for parents and run by the National Wildlife Federation. Another good one is Let’s Go Outside sponsored by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Just type something like “kids and nature” into your search box and you’ll find more.

I feel sorry for kids living in apartments, but even in the city a vacant lot or stand of trees can mean a place with bugs to catch and rocks and leaves to collect, or room to act out a pretend scenario. Our future depends on the next generation having people who know how to think for themselves, come up with creative solutions, cooperated, and most importantly, care about our planet. All of those come from playing outside. And don’t forget this: it isn’t just for kids. Even if you’re an adult at work when you read this find a minute to GET OUTSIDE and breath some fresh air, feel the refreshing chill of autumn, hear a bird sing. Dig in your garden, rake leaves, go for a walk, have a foot race with a giggling kid. Come on. The sun is shining out there. It’s good for you. Just ask Mom.

Note: Comments are welcome, especially information to share with people living in the Pacific Northwest about this movement in our area. Thanks!
And yes, that's me in the sandbox in 1956.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Discoveries in Unknown Waters

Last Sunday morning the autumn colors of maple trees stood out among evergreens on the hills around the still sleepy town of Gig Harbor, all reflected on calm water. But the focal point of the scene floated out beyond the marina: the ninety-five-year-old wooden schooner Adventuress, peacefully at anchor from the previous night.

I’m a member of Sound Experience, the non-profit that owns the ship, but thought I’d already had my last day of sailing on Adventuress this season. I wrote about it in last week's blog post Setting Sail for the Future (published Oct. 8th) . It explained the Adventuress Self & Sound program, through which girls between the ages of twelve and eighteen had the opportunity to spend ten days on the ship, six of which would take them on a continuous voyage around Puget Sound, learning about sailing, the environment, and most of all about themselves. I said I wished I could be a teenager again. That wish did not come true, but another was granted. I could come back aboard and spend the day sailing with these girls, in the role of reporter. Elizabeth Becker a profession photographer and staff member of Sound Experience, joined me on the dock. Soon we found ourselves in an inflatable boat, gliding rapidly toward Adventuress, while flocks of birds skimmed over the water beside us before curving in one graceful arch, up and away. It seemed a metaphor for the uplifting experience to follow.

Before my eyes girls changed in the course of a day. I watched them overcome fears, face challenges, learn and grow. Those who'd been afraid of heights felt victorious going aloft. Though safe in harnesses and well supervised it still meant daring themselves to take what seemed like a very real risk. No one felt pressure to do it, but most did go up.

"I was afraid to do that before but it was really fun" said one girl, grinning widely, after she came down from climbing the rigging. It came as just one more new experience in a week full of them. Some kids had never been away from home, had so many rules to follow, or chores and responsibilities like doing dishes with a bucket of water, cleaning heads and swabbing decks. They also gathered for classes on everything from marine biology to navigation. All of that still left plenty of "down time" to read, talk, try a new musical instrument, or just daydream. But purpose shaped these six days.

"One of our goals is for them to be able to raise the sails all by themselves," said Captain Mary Beth Armstrong. She and her excellent all-female crew gave these young sailors a safe, warm, and supportive environment in which to try new things and learn more about themselves and their own capabilities. I loved hearing the girls proudly using nautical terms they'd learned, or each take their turns as "trainee watch leaders", calling out orders for handling lines and raising sails, leading the sea shanties to keep the time during hand-over-hand hauling. In fact, except during muster when they had to listen quietly, it seemed a lot of singing went on along with the continuous stream of activity I observed. I kept busy writing and recording comments while Elizabeth took hundreds of pictures, all for a future article we're doing.

Despite a lack of real wind we did have creamy canvas sails arching above our heads as we left Gig Harbor and set a course south through the Narrows. I've lived here all my life and never before saw the houses clustered along the shore at Salmon Beach, or how the train cars look like a string of colored beads disappearing into the tunnel running under Point Defiance. Neither had I seen the underside of the bridge.

Every time I'm at Titlow Beach I gaze off to the southwest and wish I could travel by water to the places on Puget Sound unknown to me. Sunday I did. Along the way I discovered the joy of seeing youth filled with promise, and enthusiasm, a good sign for our future. I gained more respect for the adults who give so much of themselves to help and teach others and thereby make the world a better place. I discovered the exquisite beauty of varnish on old wood in the golden glow of a setting sun, the different designs made by moving water, and the rare pleasure of true quiet. I also learned that being middle-aged or teen-aged doesn't really matter, as long as you keep learning and growing.

We approached Kopachuck State park at twilight. It seemed the only likely spot where Elizabeth and I could rendezvous with my husband Dave for a ride back. After heartfelt goodbyes to our new friends we once again settled into the inflatable and headed for shore. Dave timed it all perfectly, found a trail to the beach and appeared out of the woods just as our feet crunched gravel. I turned to look back at Adventuress, but we'd rounded the point and left her behind. It didn't matter too much. The pictures in my mind will keep as well as any in an album and I'll always be thankful for the gift of such a day.

Photos by Candace Brown

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Setting Sail For the Future- Life's Lessons Learned on a Tall Ship

“I’d like to be teenager again, for just six days”, I said to myself last Sunday. After the long drive from Tacoma to the Everett Marina, I stood once again on the deck of Adventuress, a 95-year-old wooden schooner and sighed. I’m getting to know her and getting attached. The passing of the previous night’s wind and rain storm, made the partly sunny sky feel like a gift. Sea lions poked curious faces up out of the water, and gulls circled above, as if watching our preparations to leave. 

My own curly hair made a good wind gauge, tossed by the fresh salt air. I welcomed the mess. It meant enough of a breeze to cause the canvas to tremble and swell like a living thing, as we hoisted the heavy mainsail through team effort. Sunday marked the last of the season’s three-hour public sails on Adventuress, owned and operated by the non-profit Sound Experience. I’m proud to be a member and felt happy to be back on board. If I were a teenager though, by Thursday I’d be starting a possibly life-changing six day voyage.

On September 27th, twenty-five lucky girls from Pierce County between the ages of twelve and eighteen began taking part in a totally free program called
Adventuress Self & Sound. The crew of Adventuress, usually made up of both men and women, is all female for this program, and will lead these girls through a ten-day-long journey toward a new concept of themselves and their environment.

That first weekend they had an orientation, enjoyed fun activities, spent the night on board, and then began learning the basics of sailing and navigation. They’ll return to the schooner on Oct. 9th, for the second part, to spend six amazing days voyaging from Seattle to Tacoma, getting the chance to actually sail a tall ship, explore Puget Sound, and study the environment and the threats facing it. They’ll rest each night in a cozy cove, being rocked to sleep by the waves. Along with the fun and education come other lessons, life lessons, such as teamwork, responsibility, concern for others and for the world we all share. The folks at Sound Experience like to point out that living on board in close quarters, in this self-contained world, symbolizes life on our planet, where resources are limited and what we do affects everyone else.

Sound Experience welcomes anyone interested in getting to know Puget Sound through sailing on Adventuress. It’s their belief that people take better care of something they love, and to many who come aboard it’s their first time to be that intimately connected with the salt water environment and the rich variety of life dependent upon it. But Sound Experience has a tradition of emphasizing youth outreach, and appreciates the partnership of two other organizations in making Self & Sound happen. A most generous grant from the American Sail Training Association (ASTA), through their Youth Adventure initiative, covers the costs, including all food and gear. Girl Scouts of Western Washington is also helping to support the program in several ways, including van transportation. Later in October, Girls Scouts will drive the participants up to Port Townsend, the home of Adventuress, for the third and final portion. The girls will gather for a last sail and overnight on board, followed by a celebration with parents to mark their accomplishments. When it’s over, they can look back on their own personal “Voyage of Discovery,”  not only of Puget Sound, but also of themselves and what they are capable of.

I too was a teenager when I began to learn a little about sailing. I loved it intensely, but as time went on, life’s circumstances didn’t include many chances to do more. During last summer’s Tall Ships Tacoma event, I sailed again for the first time in a decade.* I hadn’t forgotten the feeling. It’s all about freedom. It’s all about getting down to the basics: water, wind, air, sunlight, a sturdy and faithful vessel (hopefully wooden), and your own true self. It’s about learning who you are and what it’s like to feel the power of wind running down a line and right into you, through you, hurling you forward with exhilarating speed. It’s about feeling ALIVE. I wish every young person could have the chance to experience this kind of “high”. They’d never seek any other.

There are many reasons I wouldn’t want to go back to my teen years, bittersweet as they were. But if I’d been able to participate in something like the Adventuress Self & Sound program I might have gained the confidence to live more fully, more faithfully to my true self, than I did for many years. Through the efforts of Executive Director Catherine Collins, and others in Sound Experience, the generous grant from ASTA, the help of the Girl Scouts, and The News Tribune’s John Henrikson, whose article in Tacoma’s leading newspaper gave it publicity, Self & Sound is happening. Who knows how significantly this will impact the lives of these twenty-five girls, and even the future of our country? The Self & Sound program exemplifies the mission of Sound Experience but is only one of many. I may be too old for this one, but the organization offers a wide range of opportunities to learn, grow, and feel that youthful exuberance again, even for those of us well past our youth. Thank Goodness, the laughing teen-aged girl I once was, with the wind tangling her curls, still exists in my heart. We’re getting reacquainted these days.

Note: All photos are the property of Sound Experience and used with permission.

*Please see archived post from 7/9/08 "Adventure on Adventuress: A Tale of Tall Ships"

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Tacoma's Proctor District Featured on San Francisco Website

Writing Good Life Northwest puts me in touch with the most interesting people, like Fred Gillette, from San Francisco. Fred became a regular reader of my blog a few months before we were introduced during one of his visits to Tacoma. Standing in the sunshine outside the Pacific Northwest Shop, with the cheerful commotion of the Proctor Farmers' Market in the background, we finally met face-to-face, thanks to our mutual friend, Bill Evans. Right away Fred and I found ourselves deep in discussion on a favorite topic: neighborhoods.

Fred Gillette and two other dedicated people in San Francisco, run the registered non-profit called Neighborhood Life. They believe that the quality of our neighborhoods is intimately tied to the quality of our lives, and strive to connect people all over America who want to share ideas for enhancing and improving neighborhoods. Four times a year they publish an issue of this online neighborhood improvement journal. With a vast quantity of readers across the country, including hundreds of regular subscribers, it brings people together to share ideas for dealing with problems, highlights successes, explores possibilities, and seeks solutions. Neighborhood Life celebrates the American neighborhood, in all its diversity, character, and uniqueness.

I'm delighted to say that the first article on the "Features" page is called "A Walk Around Proctor", which I wrote for Neighborhood Life at Fred's request. Maybe you already know Proctor, or maybe you don't. Either way, I invite you to wander down those sidewalks with me, to see the sights, meet the people, and learn why this particular neighborhood functions so well. Please come along as I take "A Walk Around Proctor". Here's the link:

Neighborhood Life

I'll meet you on the corner in a minute.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

In Memory of Luke Rogers

Luke Rogers
July 19, 1989-September 20, 2008

Dear Readers,

Two days ago I had an exciting idea for this week’s blog post. Then one phone call changed everything.

Now it’s late Tuesday night. I publish on Wednesday. I sit here alone at my keyboard, hearing the clock tick, hoping I’ll choose the right words, having to trust my heart. There’s only one subject possible now.

Nobody wants to get one of “those” phone calls, the kind that gives you a strange feeling within a few seconds. You sense the weird vibes. What is it? Then the caller says, “I’m afraid I have some bad news…”

You expect to hear that some friend is terminally ill, or has even passed away. Thoughts of people you know, mostly older ones, crowd your mind. But you never expect to hear that the nineteen-year-old son of good friends, a young man you’ve adored and watched grow up, has died. The words sound foreign, incomprehensible.

First, I think of his eyes. Luke Rogers had the bluest eyes of anyone in the world, except maybe his mother, who shared that gene with him. They were the kind of eyes responsible for the expression “windows of the soul.” To look into them, even in the face of a blond little boy, brought a humbling awareness that you stood in the presence of someone extraordinary. In them you saw a deep serenity, a wisdom, unusual in one so young. I will never, ever, forget those blue eyes.

From both his parents, Karin and Terry, he also inherited the ability to sing. Oh, how he could sing. And he could play the drums, and write, and create art, and excel in school and outdoor pursuits, and anything else he tried. But when I think of Luke it is not those things I think of first. Rather it is the essence of him, his sweet soul, his sometimes shy and sometimes mischievous smile, his humor, his respectfulness, that I remember. I see the kid laughing in childhood photos with his sister Cara Beth or his older siblings, Andrew, Tim, and Cynthia. I see a person with a gentle way about him but full of fun, a loving son, grandson, and brother, a guy with a huge number of friends. Included among those friends, and no less important, were the family’s dogs.

Today while we gathered in the kitchen of the Rogers’ Seattle home, there came a moment of intense human suffering, a moment when the heart feels the quick, mean jab of pain. Where conversation had been, only silence remained. In the background of that silence I barely heard the whispered voice of intuition when it said to me, “Look down.” There, in the upturned face of a black Labrador Retriever, a portrait of worry and confusion, I saw another pair of eyes I will never forget. The vibrant and eternal soul we knew as “Luke" touched all our lives.

Tonight, back in Tacoma, I think about his family. I saw how empty a chair can look, how still a car not driven. When the phone is answered his voice will not be on the other end. But I also think of the lessons he learned by his parents’ fine example and the lessons he taught by his own, the way he gave to others, matured and blossomed, realized his own gifts and found joy in them, brightened the world and left it better. Luke Rogers changed many things forever, in such a short, short time.
Next week Tuesday night will come again. I’ll write my blog, trying to remind myself of my purpose. I have much of value to share with you yet and still believe we are all meant to live a “Good Life” with joy and a sense of abundance, like my title says. That’s how Luke lived. Next week his family and friends will have no choice but to try to move on, to begin the long, slow journey called grieving. We will think of them each difficult day.

I told Karin, “I know if he could, Luke would dry your tears.” She agreed. I believe that all those who go before us, all those in millions of families, lost through illness, accidents, or war, would want us to go on living. They would want us to remember them laughing hysterically over a joke at the dinner table, raiding the cookie jar, letting the screen door slam, throwing a stick for a dog. They would want to remind us that it’s the little everyday things, the cooking aromas and smell of mowed grass, the hugs, the sunsets, the music and magic that make up this crazy, wonderful, vivid time we call our lives. They would say to us, “Take it all in. Be happy! Do this for me.”


Goodbye, Luke. We’ll do our best to live as you lived, with joy, full of wonder and a sense of possibility, full of love. And we’ll always remember how it felt when you looked at us with your beautiful eyes.


Around noon on Saturday, Sept. 20th, 2008 Luke lost his life in a tragic boating accident on Lake Powell. He lived it with exuberance to the end.

A note from Candace:

To all of you who have read my blog post about Luke, I am humbled and deeply moved, to realize how many people out there loved him. On the first day of publication ten times more readers than usual visited here. Thanks also to those who left comments. I'm not able to answer you personally, because even if you leave a name they come to my email address anonymously. Otherwise I would. I still feel and appreciate the connection we all have, and it illustrates to all of us what a special person he was. I'm so honored that I have had the opportunity to share my heartfelt thoughts with each of you.

Candace Brown

To Luke and the Rogers family: You are in our hearts and minds, always.
May peace be with you.
With love from all your friends.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Walking the beach to "home"

I make my way home, to the beach. It knows me as kin, island born, salt air in my lungs. It waits for me. With my first step down from the end of the wooded path, the clink and crunch of rocks beneath my feet, the scent of seaweed and brine, seagull cries, and the dominant sound of moving water, I am welcomed back. The secret heart seeks it’s own place of repose. This is mine.

Above the clay banks, trunks of old Madronna trees lean at precarious angles, roots exposed, making a bit of shade. Their color of rust against blue sky pleases me. I find shelter in this curve of shore, sitting for awhile on a splintered driftwood log, like I’ve done all my life. One of many gathered here, it once lived, stood tall, in the shadowed forest where brown salamanders darted on damp moss, and ferns grew, and the only sounds came from birds and wind in its upper boughs. Now they all lie in the sun like dinosaur bones exposed, bleached white. I could hide here behind them, on trapped sand, among the bits of shells and dried seaweed, if I wanted to. Instead, I get up and walk. Like the trees, I now lean out to meet life in my own daring way.

We call this place Titlow Beach, named for Aaron Titlow who bought land here in 1903. By 1911 he had opened the grand Hotel Herperides in the Swiss Chalet type building, now shortened in height, owned by Metro Parks Tacoma, and called the Titlow Beach Lodge. Out in the water stand old pilings left from demolished piers. They can only hint at the businesses and commerce, the ferry service, and the steamboats that brought tourists from Seattle and beyond, to this spot of unbelievable beauty. These days the commotion is gone. Though dwellings spread from the railroad track at the beach and right on up the hill, there's only a tavern, a lunch spot, the park, and Steamers Seafood cafe'. Trains come through, too loud and fast, but the moment they pass the peace returns. In the quiet, I think of the Indians who once camped here, and wonder what they called this place.

Shore birds rest on the pilings, cormorants and gulls. In the distance to the north I see the two Tacoma Narrows bridges. To the south are islands, different than my own, that I’ve never been on. The cormorants rise to their feet now and then, to flap their dark wings, or hold them out to the sun. Seagulls take off. Announced by their cries they come gliding down to the picnic tables to walk about on stiff legs, looking for handouts. I walk about too, down by the sea’s edge. At my feet saltwater flings itself over the rocks with a slosh and gurgle, then pulls back again. Surge and recede, surge and recede, it repeats in rhythm, forever. I can see through it like glass, to where patterns on the surface, in the sun, make shadows on the rocks below. Their details seem clear, almost magnified. In this place I can also see clearly what lies beneath the surface of my own life.

A late September day can be so gorgeous on Puget Sound. The poignancy of time passing makes it more so. Fall comes next week. I look at Steamers, squeezed between train tracks and water. People sit outside at their little tables in the shade, but just weeks from now the rain will set in. Then you will find me inside, with my husband and a bowl of chowder. Some cheerful server will bring it to the table where I mumble a thanks while staring out at the beach. Maybe rain will streak down the window glass, or the stillness of fog will blanket the scene. Maybe it will be clear and cold, or dark, with the lights on the bridge glowing in the distance. No matter, I will love to be there, cozy, quiet, and deep in thought, even during conversation.

We all need special places. Why are they so? Is it because of something essential to their nature, a certain vibe, that makes us feel they way we do when there? Or is it our own nature,the combination of memory, experience, and connection, that we bring to it? I can’t answer that question. I just know that to have your own special place, where you can be your true self, is to come back home again. Isn't it time for a visit?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What to serve at a fall Garden Party... how about fertilizer?

When I scooted through the door at Commencement Bay Coffee I saw Geoff Rinehart already at a table in front of the sunny windows, waiting for me. I landed in the chair opposite him, caught my breath and apologized.

“Sorry. I’m ten minutes late. It just took longer than I expected, with traffic and all.”

Geoff smiled from one of those friendly faces that make you feel like he’s your next door neighbor, and assured me it was not a problem. He seemed relaxed. I noticed his bicycle helmet on the chair next to him and realized he probably didn’t even have to care about traffic. Geoff likes to keep life as simple as possible. He lives what he teaches.

Geoff Rinehart has taught me and others a lot already. He brings dedication and enthusiasm to a one-of-a-kind job with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, as their man in charge of outreach and education on the subject of natural yard care. He does this through workshops, staffing booths at fairs and festivals, and much more. We met so he could give me the details on some upcoming events I wanted to share through Good Life Northwest. But even more exciting than that, I’d hear about a pilot project he’s starting: events held in homeowner’s yards with neighbors invited, called Garden Parties. I’d volunteered to host the very first one.

So why would the Health Department be sponsoring garden parties? Well, this is the kind of party where the word “spread” isn’t something on a cracker. It refers to natural organic fertilizer, and while guests relax in lawn chairs, or stand around, Geoff himself will be spreading it on my own lawn. Better yet, all those guests get a free bag to take home, along with a lot of good information. That’s in addition to some of my cookies and coffee. Sounds like a deal to me. What’s more, my husband and I will receive a special gardening gift pack as a thank you for hosting the event.

The lawn treatment and freebies sound great, as does the chance to just get some neighbors together. But the real reason we’re doing this, is to help Geoff get this program going because we think he’s making a difference by using a positive approach. Geoff has faith that most people want to do the right thing, and that results will come through education and encouragement.

“I believe most people do care about the environment” he said. “ And they must care about the health and safety of their own families and pets. But they aren’t always aware of the natural products and ways of managing pests and disease that can be used as alternatives to toxic chemicals. Or they’re just not convinced these things really work. Then there’s also habit, doing what you’ve always done. It’s easier than trying something new.” The idea behind the Garden Parties is that homeowners will see the tangible results in their own neighborhood.

Geoff Rinehart’s goal, which is very personal to him, is threefold. He wants to educate people about the garden management practices best for the environment, provide them with the tools (literature, product samples and sources, visual example, etc.) and lastly, encourage implementation. It’s more than a job. It’s what he loves doing.

I love gardening, but must guiltily admit that my husband tackles most of the heavy work. I’m inclined toward the more ladylike chores, such as daintily cutting flowers for a vase, or pulling weeds, as long as they come out easily, or better yet, just pouring a cup of coffee, sitting down, and writing about gardening. You might say I prefer “spreading the word” over “spreading the manure”. But I have gone to several of Geoff’s excellent Natural Gardening Workshops, and even wrote about them here last spring. I’m excited about this new program.

Now autumn is upon us, and fall lawn and garden care is needed. If you love gardening, and our planet, you’ll want to learn what Geoff can teach. Better yet, if you too would like to host a Garden Party, either this fall or next spring, just call or email him. Here’s his contact information plus dates for upcoming Natural Gardening Workshops in the Pierce Co. area. Happy fall gardening, the natural way.

Geoff Rinehart at Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department: 253-798-4587

Natural Gardening Workshops are presented as a series with a different topic at each one. Call for information or to pre-register, as space is limited. There is a $5 program fee.

Tacoma: Thursday, Sept. 25 and Friday Oct. 3, 7-9 PM at the Tacoma Nature Center

Spanaway: Sat. Sept. 13, 9:30 AM -noon at the Spanaway Water Co.

Key Peninsula/ Gig Harbor: Tuesdays, Sept. 16th, 23rd, and 30th, 6:30-8:30 PM at the
Peninsula Light headquarters

Edgewood/Milton/Fife: Wednesdays, Sept. 17 and Oct. 1st and 15th , 6:30-8:30 PM at the Milton City Hall

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


"Smart Monkey wanted to save the planet
but didn't know anything about
environmental science or CAFÉ standards,
and wasn't even rich or powerful.

But Smart Monkey had gone
to fashion school and
one day had an idea…"

So begins a brochure created by Leah Andersson, Tacoma entrepreneur and owner of Smart Monkey Knits. This morning I asked her about the name.

"One day I dropped a pen behind the couch and couldn't reach it with my hand" she said. "Then I thought to turn my hand, twisting it a certain way, and suddenly it worked and I said out loud 'Smart Monkey'. That's how I got the idea but it also means I hope mankind is getting smarter as we continue to evolve."

Leah wakes up every morning focused on her goals. But even with all her intelligence, hard work, long hours, and dedication you could say that Andersson's business is unraveling. Literally. She unravels gently used, natural fiber sweaters and turns them into newly created knit or crochet garments and accessories, or simply gorgeous skeins of what she calls "refurbished" yarn.

How does she do this? It involves buying sweaters at thrift stores or garage sales, taking them apart, unraveling, thoroughly washing the yarn, wrapping onto racks for air drying, and then gathering it into skeins using the skein winder she recently purchased. Before that she wound all the yarns into balls by hand. It's the first step, that most excites the keen eye and imagination of this fiber artist who holds a Certificate of Professional Designation in Clothing Production from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in California. She can see the hidden potential in an ugly sweater, if the yarn and colors hold appeal.

Why does she do this?

" Because our planet is smaller than we think and we should all do our little bit to manage the resources we have. Synthetic/petroleum based fibers and dyes pollute the environment. Imported items take away jobs from Americans and screw up our trade deficit" she says. "The production of even natural yarn leaves a big carbon footprint. It takes fuel to raise the sheep, do the manufacturing, and transporting, sometimes around the world. I can't undo those things but at least I can extend the life of it once it's been made."

Beyond all that, Leah's efforts are a reflection of her philosophy of avoiding waste and "making do", far from a new concept. In my generation I watched my mother save every button and zipper from discarded clothing and then cut it up into rags, typical of women like her, who lived through the Great Depression.

The "whys" also include less tangible benefits, like the delights of creativity. Whether by her hands or those of someone else, seeing the metamorphosis of used garments into stunning new fashions with exciting combinations of colors thrills Andersson.

I met Leah not long after Smart Monkey grew from a fuzzy little idea to a real business. In the beginning she concentrated on creating simple knitted and crocheted items like hats, scarves, shawls, ponchos, and baby blankets to sell as finished products at farmers markets and street fairs. As a knitter I couldn't resist walking up to her booth the first time I saw the rich palate of colors and tactile appeal it presents. I also liked her sign that says "Not made in China".

After finding out I could knit and crochet Leah recruited me to help with production, a growing challenge. In addition to the beauty of the finished items customers loved the whole idea of recycling and reusing and demand soared. I became one of several women who helped Leah keep the inventory coming.

Of course knitters embraced the whole concept of the business, but knitters are always thinking "I'd rather do it myself". Leah soon had requests for just the yarn. She filled a few orders but continued making items to sell. As business increased time available for the needlework seemed to decrease. That's when Smart Monkey had another great idea: emphasizing selling the yarn.

Now when you visit Smart Monkey at the Broadway Farmers Market in Tacoma or the Fremont Market in Seattle, your eyes will go straight for the neat brown paper bags with handles, full of luscious offerings: wool, cotton, silk and ramie, with a richness of color only natural fibers can attain. The hues and textures will delight you and so will the prices. A bag of yarn averaging 1,000 yards, plenty for a sweater (after all it WAS a sweater) will cost you about $35. Where could you ever find such a deal on good yarn, much less a finished garment?

I love the tags tied to the handles. In addition to telling "The Story of Smart Monkey" they show a photo of the original sweater that particular bag of yarn came from and the original fiber content and care label is attached. Custom orders are also available. You can even bring in a used sweater of your own and let Leah work her metamorphosis magic on it.

Leah still sells plenty of finished items too. One of her most popular with shoppers is the reusable "market bag", perfect for all that fresh produce. She can't seem to make enough of those and sells many for gifts.

"Remember, there are only about 114 days until Christmas" she said to me today. Thanks Leah. That isn't necessarily what I wanted to hear, but I know this much. When I do get around to Christmas shopping I'll be doing some at Smart Monkey, especially for myself. Hey, I've been good this year.

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Leah Andersson can be reached at (253) 229-2841 or
Coming soon:
Smart Monkey will be at Tacoma's Broadway Farmers Market every Thursday until it closes on Oct. 16th and at the Fremont Farmers Market in Seattle every Sunday all year long.

Also be sure to check out the radio interview Leah gave about her business on the KUOW program "Sound Focus".

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ode to the end of August

August can’t leave without long good-byes. Another year of life, a year now pregnant with the consequences of my thoughts and deeds, rounds out in the fullness of her eighth month. In these last few days, I wander through the garden, unhurried. Around me linger faded roses and blackberries, overripe, and the perfume of fallen apples rises from the ground. Corn stalks rustle in a slight breeze. Under the cornhusks golden kernels hide, swollen and crowed. This eighth month feels heavy with memories of Augusts past.

On a rare quiet afternoon in my Tacoma home I daydream in a chair by an open window. The unread book slips from my hand. A wind chime tinkles and I hear a lawn mower down the street. In my mind I am back in my mother’s kitchen on Vashon Island, forty-five years ago, releasing kidney beans from their dry tan shells. Plink. Plink. Plink. They hit the enameled bowl while the pressure cooker whistles on the stove. The canning never ends. I would rather look again through the new Sears and Roebuck catalog, at the school clothes we might order. Now I think of my mother in her apron, filling the clean Mason jars.

August means brown lawns, grasshoppers and ripe tomatoes. Leaves float in the wading pool. The porch furniture needs cleaning. The petunias look scraggly. Shorter days seem to symbolize its sense of impending change, from one season to another, from child to adult. In this eighth month, under a full moon, the first poignant summer romances of youth, ended. The memories of youth became never ending.

This August I pondered that same moon while riding the last ferry of the night from Vashon Island back to Tacoma. That moon never abandons me, witness to my years. It always seems biggest at this time of year. With my car parked far out on the open deck, I relished having a front row seat. I opened the windows to the warm air, the scent and sounds of the water. In the distance, on all sides, from Des Moines to Gig Harbor, the scattered lights of the human domain lit up the darkness, but it pleased me to see the great expanse of black that is Point Defiance Park, and to know that wild creatures, with their all-seeing eyes, still crept among the trees. The moon watches them too, and shines down on the pathways I walk, soon to be covered with autumn leaves.

Good-byes can be long or quick and painful, but to the human heart, never final. They are but chapters in the book that has dropped from the hand. We pick it up and read again, over and over, for as long as memory lasts, as long as the heart feels. The year that now reaches its fullness will give birth to more memories, but also new opportunities and dreams as the seasons change and the year goes ‘round again. Good-bye August. You are always bittersweet. Next year when the apples hang ready to fall, and butter slides over an ear of corn, my life may have changed, but you and I, the past and the present, and the moon, will all meet again.