The Net [an excerpt].


Eleven men died during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge—an impressive figure considering the bridge industry usually estimated one death for every million dollars spent on building costs (Golden Gate = 35 million). In order to help lower this morbid statistic, bridge engineer Joseph Strauss installed a safety net that hung under the bridge and inched outward as the structure came to life. Although similar nets had previously been proposed by labor unions, Strauss was the first engineer to invest in what was likely a necessary PR strategy for such a highly publicized and widely disputed endeavor. San Franciscans were already skeptical about the bridge’s future safety issues, considering the extreme winds blowing in from the Pacific and, of course, the high incidence of earthquakes in the bay area. Strauss didn’t want a high death toll during construction to further taint the bridge’s already precarious reputation or shroud the project in bad omens, so he dropped $125,000 on an industrial trapeze web that dangled under the bridge’s skeleton like a belly, waiting to catch the inevitably falling men. Strauss believed his net would warm the bridge workers up, ease some of their fears and push them to work a little faster. Bridgemen lived like sailors—at the mercy of the elements, always on the brink of being swallowed into the current and swept away. Part of working a bridge was fully embracing the immediacy of self-preservation. Every gust of wind and foolish glance downward brought reminders of their own mortality. The mesh trap offered some solace, ultimately saving a total of nineteen lives over the course of four years. These nineteen men went on to form an informal group called the “Halfway to Hell Club,” on the premise that they had all cheated death. Another less fortunate group included ten of the bridge’s eleven casualties[1], all of whom fell at once along with a five-ton platform whose scaffolding had given way a mere three months before the bridge’s completion. The platform and the men hit the net and rested there for an instant (two seconds? four?) before the immense weight tore the web from the bridge’s undercarriage, dropping its contents into the bay. A photo taken that day from the shore depicts the net half-detached from the bridge, its far end already submerged in the water. The sheer gauze-like apparatus resembles a chute of liquid pouring from a huge pitcher. Behind it, several indecipherable black dots fall to their destiny.

On May 27, 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public. Eighteen thousand people showed up to be the first pedestrians to cross Strauss’s architectural beast. On opening day the safety net still hung below the structure, then only catching deliberate and accidental debris: trash, hats, purses, cameras. Two young boys climbed down the bridge’s beams and crawled into the net, likely acting half out of mischief and half out of sheer amazement at the experience of hovering over the immense and endless water. They may have been the last to utilize the life-saving device, which was removed sometime between the bridge’s opening ceremony and August 8th of that same year, when a bargeman named Harold Wobber walked across the bridge with a friend he had just met on the bus ride there. Midway over the bay Wobber took off his coat, threw it at his new friend and said, “This is where I get off.” And then he jumped.

[1] The other casualty was a worker named Kermit Moore, who was unable to utilize the safety net. A pin had come loose from a traveling crane sending the machine awry; the device’s leg trapped Moore against a girder and decapitated him. He was actually the Golden Gate’s first victim.

The weight.


The first memory I have of suicide happened sitting cross-legged on the cool grass in my backyard with two girls from Racebrook Elementary School. We were ten or so, arranged in a circle, palms growing damp from the spring dirt as they stretched behind us supporting the weight of our underdeveloped bodies. Jen, my closer friend, had brought Debbie—a large-nosed twig of a girl with a slight learning disability whose family lived in an overgrown home with about two dozen cats. I disliked Debbie because her unselfconscious confidence seemed disproportionate to her rank as the most widely mocked of our classmates. She was the kind of girl who said things like, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and meant it. I did not envy her assurance. She may have been sincere, but her didactic tone sounded as rehearsed as an after-school-special, and I pitied her naïveté. I was the only one of the group whose father wasn’t dead. Jen and Debbie shared this bond and I tried to weasel my way in by interjecting stories of my father’s perpetual absence, the other family he had conveniently overlooked while in bed with my mother, every one of my birthdays he missed—but his transgressions fell limp in comparison to a father loved and then lost, not to negligence, but to death. Their shared loss isolated them into an exclusive pocket of grief and silenced even my desperate need to be accepted into that fold.

Jen’s father had died of cancer when we were in the second grade. News of his death had somehow passed through a series of distorted channels and came out in an unrecognizable shape like the way things do at the end of a game of Telephone. One morning Jen was absent from school because her cat got hit by a car. Later that morning the car became a school bus, and by the afternoon everyone was whispering about how Jen had actually witnessed the bus flattening her childhood pet like a sugar cookie. It wasn’t until later that week when Jen returned to school that we learned her cat was still alive in all its catness and it was actually her father that had died in the less startling but more traumatic thralls of lung cancer. Jen’s mother quickly replaced her lost husband with a man named Larry who always wore soiled white crew neck t-shirts and often drank cans of Budweiser from a foldout lawn chair inside their garage. Jen kept an 8x10 black-and-white framed photo of her father on her nightstand. I think it may have been his high school senior portrait. The picture always made me sad. His young gaze wandered off into the distance of a future filled with possibility.

I knew the patriarch in Debbie’s overgrown home was a stepfather who had replaced a dead father, but it wasn’t until that day on the lawn that I learned her original father had shot himself in the head in his home office when she was four or five years old. She claimed with her usual assurance that he had killed himself because of her learning disability. Jen consoled her with something like, “of course he didn’t,” but I couldn’t find any words to say that made any sense.

Debbie remained steadfast. “If I wasn’t born stupid he wouldn’t have done it.” She tore two handfuls of grass from the ground by her knees and threw one at each of us, an otherwise lighthearted gesture that became retaliatory and seemed to suggest it was the end of the discussion. I said nothing and sat only with an image of a father I had never seen, slumped over his desk like an old stuffed animal loved until the point of limpness and left haphazardly on a park bench.

I’ll never know where Debbie got the idea that her father brought his life to an end because of her learning disability. Maybe her mother spit those cruel words at her in a desperate fit of grief. Maybe she had once overheard her parents arguing about it behind a closed door and that memory wedged its way into an explanation. It doesn’t really matter. It seemed to suit Debbie to believe it, and sometimes even the harshest answers are better than no answers at all.

And no, there weren't any sheets on the bed.


Sometime during the summer I was thirteen I wet the bed. This was an anomaly. I had never had issues with bedwetting, even as a small child. I wasn't ill. I didn't drink a two liter bottle of soda before I went to bed, I just woke up in the middle of the night and I was pissing myself. I think I lay there for a minute, stunned and half-asleep in my own urine, just not wanting to take whatever was the next consequential step. The windows were open because it was July and the world sounded like someone had spread crickets over its entire surface with a godlike spatula. I listened for signs of insomnia in my house and heard nothing. After I cleaned myself off and stumbled into a pair of dry underwear, I took my Peanuts® blankets outside onto the second floor deck and spread them out on the sandpaper-like landing. We lived in the rural suburbs and the night was that kind of dark where whites like Peanuts® blankets and fingernails and underwear just barely glowed in whatever pale light reflected off the sky. I sniffed the air a few times to see if I could smell pee but it just smelled like air.

Then there was the problem of the mattress, which I flipped over and commended myself on my logic, although I didn't have much choice in this matter. I had to go back to sleep, and I wasn't going to sleep in excrement or try to lie on the fringes of the bed hoping my dormant body didn't roll into the pis gutter. And now every time I read something suggesting you should flip your mattress as often as the seasons change I laugh a little remembering my thirteen-year-old self revolving a mattress in the middle of the night and thinking only: if you can't see it, it isn't there.

And I was right, I suppose. Surprisingly none of this backfired on me. When asked about the blankets I lied and said they smelled funny and needed airing out and was never asked again. The pis dried. The room didn't smell. Life returned to its ordinary state of non-bed-wetting. The only change I made was making sure I peed before going to bed every night. That was all I could really do.

But I felt sort of betrayed. This may have been the first event that made me realize the human body is wild and precarious. If you can't trust your body won't pis itself in the night, then what can you trust? This random night of bed-pissing set me at odds with my body, convinced we were somehow pitted against each other, as though we were two completely separate entities.

But this is not about dualism; it's actually about drive-in movies.

The evening before the peeing I had spent what felt like (and probably was) hours on the cordless phone with my friend Katy, sitting in the humid dusk on the sandpaper-y deck where I would later spread the pis-blankets. We had discovered the existence of a drive-in movie theatre somewhere in Connecticut and became absurdly preoccupied the way thirteen-year-olds do with the when and how of getting to said drive-in movie theatre. I had never been to a drive-in and believed them to be nostalgic and romantic. I fell in love with the idea in the same way I loved Sunday nights at the donut shop down the street when all the local aficionados would show off their classic cars. I also associated this drive-in magic with the possibility of meeting a BOY even though we would go with Katy's parents and younger siblings in their Ford Explorer and drive-ins were dark and not conducive to meeting and falling in love with other thirteen (or fourteen) year old boys who would likely also be with their families in family-sized vehicles. Even so, she and I talked on the phone until it was late enough to almost be the next day. I fell asleep excited about the possibility of something new and different and woke up pissing myself, which was new and different, just not in the way I expected.

Life is unpredictable. I would never have predicted that the concept of drive-in movies would one day be inextricable from the concept of bed-wetting, but they are forever symbiotic in my head. I will also permanently associate the song "Kumbaya" with Girl Scout Camp and rice crispy treats with Jehovah's witnesses. But these are stories for another day.

Venti Confessions on a Sunday Morning


At the risk of being banished from Portland, I have to admit that I sometimes visit my local Starbucks. In fact, I am currently drinking coffee inside its green and tan and matte black interior, fighting the urge to pull my hood over my head to avoid potential recognition. I even relocated to a less conspicuous table once it freed itself from a family of four so I can worry a little less about some acquaintance sauntering by on their way to the adjacent Fred Meyer, spotting me through the translucent window decals, and trying to avoid letting judgment simmer to the surface of their face. Why we (Portlanders) hate Starbucks: it is corporate; the coffee is burnt, sub-par, or sucks; there's no atmosphere; "I don't want to support X, Y, and Z"; the baristas are too fake or unhappy or underpaid; there are so many other LOCAL places to get BETTER coffee.

Why I sometimes go to Starbucks: there are usually available seats; the coffee is...fine—not as good as local, not as bad as Dunkin Donuts; there is atmosphere: the atmosphere of neighborhood people getting coffee for the sake of getting coffee; the baristas are friendly and never-too-cool; it offers the most diverse opportunities for people-watching; it's the only place where one can find old married couples drinking hot coffee from straws and sharing pastries in silence.

In all fairness: I did not grow up in the Northwest, so I don't exhibit the same pretension about coffee as I do about, say, pizza. I know there is better local coffee. I know Starbucks is the Walmart of caffeine. I know when I visit I'm supporting a giant machine. Sure, the coffee is not nearly as good as the hole-in-the-wall place I usually patronize where everything is organic and the tables are made from old doors and I can doctor my beverage with agave. And I do experience a unique sense of satisfaction placing my earned (and occasionally hard-earned) money directly into the palm of the friendly faced man who built that hole-in-the-wall from scratch.


There is something raw about Starbucks. The more corporate and cookie-cutter the establishment, the more its patrons are there to satisfy only one need: the need said establishment supplies. No one goes to Starbucks because they're supporting any concept, or seeing to be seen, or because the ambience is particularly inviting. People just want their drink. I'm sure there are regulars, but the patronage is fairly anonymous. Like a gas station. And sometimes I just want to be nobody. And everybody.

End of an iEra


After much stubborn deliberation, I recently purchased a new iPod. My former and now ancient iPod had been hanging on by a thin thread, playing music but draining a fully-charged battery in 45 minutes or less. I lived for several months with the ever-looming disappointment of losing my life's soundtrack mid-song and looking down at the device to find a dead battery icon taunting me from behind the little scratched gray screen. I tried to spin this slow death as a positive changea means to ween myself off a technological un-necessity. The original device had been a gift for which I was thankful, but apprehensive. Technology often represents something I will love (learn to depend on) and ultimately lose (it will break, and I will have to learn again to live without). While the general consensus is that it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, I'm not sure this cliché applies to digital technology. After all, I don't need an iPod the way I need, say, food, shelter, hope or a decent pair of galoshes.

The final motivation (excuse) for my new purchase was an upcoming three-and-a-half-hour train trip to Seattle, during which I wanted the luxury (and it is a luxury) of listening to music for more than thirty minutes. I ventured a few times to the Apple website to work up my courage,  browsing and then X-ing out screens before I fell to temptation. Eventually I turned the volume of my conscience down enough to click through the series: ADD TO CART, CHECK OUT NOW, SIGN IN, CONTINUE, UPDATE ADDRESS, CHOOSE SHIPPING METHOD, PURCHASE, CONFIRM (confirm?) CONFIRM.

This is what I ended up with:

Silver. Classic. 160GB. Refurbished. 3-year AppleCare. And a far cry from its predecessor:

White (ish). Classic (?). 20GB. Old boyfriend won as a prize in a employee sales contest in 2004 and gifted his winnings to me (overcompensation).

During the first three years of this iPod's life I exchanged it three times. Three generations of music lost to the wasteland of intangible information. Lucky for me, I had AppleCare (generational insurance) which allowed me to evenly swap the iPod literally no questions asked. Each time I made an appointment with the Genius Bar (don't take this out of context; it goes too many places), explained my dilemma, and the good-looking folks at Apple swapped my nonfunctional white plastic block for a new identical model. This last generation (pictured above) lasted five years, never once flashing the heartbreaking graphic of a frowning iPod with x's for eyes that marked the deaths of its three antecedents:

Technological Death Mask.

On a basic physical/emotional level, I felt attached to the music-generating-machine that had accompanied me around four or five major cities, two loves, two subsequent broken hearts, a dozen plane rides, and hundreds of long walks. But my attachment went beyond this familiarity and nostalgia, and even beyond my tendency to anthropomorphise inanimate objects (this comes from my mother who ascribed gender and feelings to everything she owned). The precise reason I experienced so much buyer's hesitance has to do with the sad face: I am tricked into believing my iPod has not only a personality but also fairly advanced emotional identification. The frowny face suggests the iPod is able to express sadness at its own demise. It realizes its death and bereaves, both for its own loss of self and the impending dejection its owner is slated to experience. This post-death emotional articulation is beyond human capability, and hence establishes loss on a level almost outside my understanding: The iPod speaks to us from the afterlife.

This may be the closest I can come to a spiritual experience.

The fact that I was unable to live out this iPod's duration says that:

1) I am a coward. I was unable to face this iPod's impending death because

2) I am way more attached to this iPod than the others based on its lifespan, the experiences we have shared, my sentimentality, its assumed personality, and the fact that

3) I spent many childhood afternoons lying on the grass in my mother's backyard, listening to my Sony walkman and dreaming of an imagined future when I had portable access to all of my music all at once. The iPod may represent my only childhood fantasy that actually a) stood the test of time, b) came true, and c) is more awesome than I could have ever imagined, hence

4) I am already in love with the new iPod.

Such is the nature of love and loss, I suppose. I didn't even end up taking the train to Seattle. Severe weather caused mudslides which caused Amtrak to temporarily shut down their rail service. Timing is everything.

An Exclusive Love, Johanna Adorján


“What do people do on the morning that they know will be their last?” Johanna Adorján’s lovely and haunting memoir “An Exclusive Love” (Norton) follows this question into an exploration of her grandparents’ enigmatic double suicide. The narrative is structured around the author’s imagined reconstruction of the last day her grandparents were alive. Although much of this day is fictionalized, she builds the events and interactions out of minute details from the interior of their Danish home, as well as a vast recollection of her grandparents’ idiosyncrasies.

Woven in and out of this imagined day is Adorján’s own very real search for the truth about her grandparents’ lives and deaths. The pair had survived the Holocaust and, like many others, hid those memories away in an attempt to lead normal lives. The author interviews various family members and friends, revisits photographs and letters, and travels to Hungary and Denmark and France in an effort to prod the mystery they left behind.

Her prose often reflects this poignant pursuit: “I walk around Budapest, trying to imagine the city as it once was. Here and there the eastern bloc has left behind ugly brown box-shaped buildings that now accommodate hotel chains, but if you narrow your eyes and let everything blur slightly you can guess at the past.”

Like most memoirs about suicide, Adorján’s is pulled along by a loose set of unanswered questions surrounding her grandparents’ death. She imagines their conversations that day, the tying up of loose ends, the rationalizing of self-murder. The fact that these questions will remain unanswerable allows them to hover over the story, truly embodying the baffling nature of suicide bereavement.

Underlying Adorján’s personal search are the fascinating cultural implications surrounding the increased suicide rate among elderly Holocaust survivors. While not explicitly addressed, the nature of this paradox complicates the author’s emotions toward her grandparents’ self-destruction.

"At any point in life there are always just three possibilities: you can do something, you can do nothing, or you can kill yourself. Is that an idea to give one strength? Because it makes everything, even bad times, seem to be a free choice? Did the idea of determining her own end make my grandmother feel better? Did it give her the certainty that she would never again be at anyone’s mercy?”

Throughout the narrative she admits anger, confusion, sadness, but she never once allows her emotions to take over. Adorján maintains a cool distance from her emotions and her subject matter, allowing the reader to willingly tag along for her journey without being led—especially into sentimentality.

Unlike many memoirs, this story generally points outward toward her grandparents’ experience as opposed to structuring a more inward focus on herself. She is reflective enough establish her credibility, but she doesn’t overburden the narrative with self-exploration. In this work Adorján is the guide, asking all the right questions and maintaining a striking sense of objectivity. She places more of an emphasis on “why did this happen” than “why did this happen to me.”

One intimate personal thread she returns to throughout the piece is the uncovered set of similarities between her and her grandmother. It is clear Adorján has an intense emotional connection and admiration for her father’s mother. As her investigation reveals more and more of their shared ideals and eccentricities, she discovers a fulfilling—and rather sad—kinship, of which she never realized the full extent.

This book is an honest and evocative portrayal of one writer’s search toward the elusive truth about her grandparents’ suicides. Despite the shadow of their deaths, this story is very much a tribute to their rich and complicated lives.

Field Hands


This morning, against the better judgment of my conscience and my wallet, I abandoned a pile of thesis research and decided to get a manicure. After much deliberation and a google search for the most affordable and least creepy nail salon, I landed on a place called Euphoria in Portland's Hollywood district. Euphoria's website promised "a unique sense of creativity and calmness," and more importantly, their prices wouldn't render me meal-less for the next week. On my way out of the house I scraped my left index finger on the doorframe and spent the twenty-five minute walk to Euphoria trying to clot the blood. I suppressed my instinct to read this as a bad omen. I am a thirty-year-old, white, middle-class American woman, and this is only my third manicure ever. My first experience happened when I was twenty-five. It was of the french variety and a requirement for my stint as a close friend's maid of honor. The bride was paying so I hadn't much say in the matter. The second happened two years later after I quit a much-hated job working for a florist. The motivation was to cleanse my fingers of six months worth of dirt that had embedded itself into my skin.

While manicures are undeniably pleasurable, it is difficult for me to justify spending fifteen or twenty dollars getting my hands rubbed and my nails painted. Even if I did have the money, I'm not sure I would indulge in regular nail maintenance—perhaps just on principle. The average manicure runs a dollar a minute, about the same as a full body massage. While the activity does feel good, my guess is that most women engage in manicures because there is a social expectation for us to have lovely, polished and graceful hands. I like to place myself somewhere above this expectation, reasoning that my natural state of being involves caring little about the appearance of my fingertips. Nevertheless, the nail industry is a $6 billion annual venture, and it's likely those who don't participate regularly decline because they can't afford it, not because they're slaves to principle.

When I arrive at Euphoria, six round faces simultaneously greet me and a young man asks me to pick a color from about 300,000 options on a spinning rack. I just want clear. No jazz. Nothing to draw any attention to my temporary lapse in judgment. I sit down at an open nail station and dump my hands into a small bowl filled with warm water and those glass beads people put in the bottom of flower vases.

My "licensed nail technician" wears purple scrubs and a name tag that says Lily. Judging by her age and the authority of her native tone, she is clearly the matriarch of the group. I don't know whether to be intimidated or honored. She smiles and says something barely in English that I think includes the word "water," so I nod and she disappears behind me.

The salon's interior smells of lavender and its walls are decorated with foam-board posters advertising stock photos of women's manicured hands. There are a couple fake trees and a small waiting area boasting a large bowl of hershey kisses. A handful of women—and one man—dot the rows of cushy black chairs, getting their fingers or toes attended to. I am surprised to see how bored and miserable everyone looks, as though they are all waiting in line at the DMV. This is supposed to be a treat.

Lily returns with a styrofoam cup of water and wraps a scolding hot neck warmer over my shoulders. She smiles and says something else I can't understand at all. Lily speaks with confidence, but what comes out of her mouth doesn't sound like English or anything else. It is like the words are coming out backwards. I nod and smile and hope that's the correct response as she gets down to business with my nails.

The inspiration for this manicure arrived the other night while I was having a beer with a group of female peers. Six of us sat around a table, twelve hands holding pint glasses, toying with paper menus and casually flipping open cell phones to check for updates. I began to fixate on how all of the other women's fingers appeared so smooth, so well-maintained, so...feminine. These are not high-maintenance women, either. We are all writers and grad students—in other words: broke. Yet my hands did not fare as well as theirs. My skin was dry, my cuticles peeling and broken, my knuckles spotted with nicks and scabs. This shouldn't be an issue, but it is. I hate to say it, but my scuffed hands make me feel like less of a woman.

This association dates back to a day in the sixth grade. During the Civil War segment of our social studies class, my teacher made us watch Gone with the Wind, a judgment call that still blows my mind. We were eleven and twelve years old—too young to understand, interpret or care about what the heck was happening in that film. The epic viewing stretched over three class periods, flashing hours of Technicolor images at our bored and disinterested faces. The only scene that stuck out in my young mind occurred post-war, when Scarlett dresses up to visit Rhett in jail to solicit money. She tries to fool him into thinking she is oh-so-terribly unaffected by the Reconstruction, but he sees through her act solely by judging the state of her hands, which are uncharacteristically weathered from working the field (there are several blue-screen parodies of this scene on youtube). "These don't belong to a lady!" he says, casting her off and comparing her to a common field hand.

I remember sitting on the edge of my school desk, looking down at my calloused and cuticle-bitten kid-hands, and feeling totally hopeless.

Lily's reading glasses sit at the edge of her nose and she studies my fingers with the concentration of an archaeologist, buffing and clipping and filing. She notices me sitting on the edge of my seat and pulls the chair closer to the table, gently pressing her hands on my shoulders so I will lean back and relax.

"Better?" she asks.

I smile and laugh and tell her I don't do this often, as though that's an excuse for not knowing how to lean back in a chair.

She laughs and sighs and I translate that to be Mandarin for, "Tell me something I don't know."

The current plight of my hands is probably due to a number of circumstances, the first being that I work in a bakery and my fingers are constantly immersed in water, chocolate, or anti-bacterial soap. I also ride a bike, exposing my raw fingers to twelve- or fifteen-mile-an-hour winds. While I put lotion on...sometimes, I admittedly don't do much else to improve the quality of my skin. I should also mention I am a twenty-some-odd-year veteran to moderate cuticle biting, although I proudly never went for the nails out of an irrational fear that I might break a tooth. All of these factors add up to my present predicament, with which Lily is astutely plugging away.

A woman enters the salon, winded and fraught with a sense of urgency that doesn't seem like it should apply to nail-painting. She has just come from a competitor who "cannot paint for shit." The woman plops down at the station next to mine and practically throws the words, "express manicure," at her technician before the young girl has a chance to try and up-sell her to the $22 "Euphoria," which includes a heated essential oil soak. Lily tried this on me, too, holding out a laminated service menu and speaking backwards while pointing at my options. I went for the "classic," because I'm most comfortable when my porridge is warm.

Lily has to talk me through every step of the procedure, sometimes relying on her cohorts to translate. She is patient and understanding with my circumstances from soak to top coat, and for that I leave her an absurdly large tip. After she places a miniature electric fan in front of my shiny tips, she puts a file and a buffer in a little resealable sandwich bag and slips it into my purse. I don't know if this is par for the course or if she feels sorry for me.

She looks at me and says something involving the words, "next time," and moves on to a pair of feet in the next room.

As I reemerge into the daylight I stop to admire my hands. There really is a noticeable before and after, making me regret I didn't take photos. My nails are shiny, my hands are soft and there aren't weird pieces of renegade skin shooting out from the edges of my cuticles. I walk looking down for a few blocks admiring my newfound loveliness.

I realize the issue of my hands is only a microcosm for a much bigger problem—that many women, including myself, have a warped understanding of femininity. The more I stare at my manicured hands the more I feel like a child trotting around the house wearing my mother's four-inch pumps. I can blame Gone with the Wind all I want, but the only Rhett Butler accusing me of worker's hands is myself. Lucky for me there's no way I will be able upkeep Lily's fantastic finger makeover, and I may not get another manicure until I'm in somebody else's wedding, so I'll have plenty of time to grow comfortable with my natural, bakery-tainted, wind-blown fingers.

For now, though, I'm going to relish in the reflective surface of my lacquered finger nails, and pretend I'm a real lady.

A New American Legacy: Bijijoo’s The Presidential Ham


Like most presidential portraits, Bijijoo's renderings are majestic and prestigious. Each president is figured in a noble stance, gazing righteously at his observer. At first look, you almost don’t even notice the ham. Local artist Bijijoo’s portrait series, The Presidential Ham, began as a prank in 2006. While engaged in a friendly game of “larding” (described as “leaving a chunk of lard on an unsuspecting person’s porch for later discovery”), the artist upped the stakes by leaving a really unsuspecting porch gift—a portrait of Richard Nixon holding a ham. This initial artistic venture spawned the series, and after years of research and technical experimentation he executed the paintings. The entire collection came to fruition in an impressive period of six months in 2010—up to and including Obama.

The 16 x 20” portraits are precise and realistic, evoking Jan van Eyck’s early renaissance paintings. Each distinguished man appears against a solid colored background, surrounded by an oval of regal ornamentation. The subjects are incredibly expressive, each face revealing a piece of the president’s personality, although seemingly indifferent to the ham. Bijijoo clearly did his homework; on his website each portrait’s digital rendering is linked to a comprehensive presidential bio including physical descriptions and personality traits.

I am reminded of an archaic set of presidential flashcards (archaic meaning it stopped at 38th president, Gerald Ford) that belonged to my older brothers. Each card featured a portrait on the front and various memorable stats on the backside. I tried numerous times to memorize the sequence of America’s leading men, but usually lost interest around Lincoln or so. If I had known about the future of Bijijoo’s presidential portraits, I would have tossed the retro flashcards and waited patiently to embrace each of these national icons cradling a robust ham.

Educators have already started to catch on to the edifying benefits of Bijijoo’s art and humor.

“Some social studies teachers have shared it with their students,” he tells me. “I’m hoping (the website) turns into a go-to spot for people to learn about the presidents and share anecdotes.”

The portraits are a creative way to get students interested—a little information plus a little humor usually equals a whole lot of retained knowledge. The bonus is that kids are looking at actual art and not random factoids the back of a cereal box.

This isn’t Bijijoo’s only experiment with art that can be used as an educational tool. A biophysicist by trade, his scientific background inspired a series of portraits of lesser-appreciated scientists and mathematicians like Max Planck, Andreas Vesalius, and Richard Feynman. While the scientists don’t appear with ham, Feynman is flanked by a cherub that looks to be embracing a large sausage.

So, why all the cured meats? I tried to tease out some symbolism. In traditional Dutch still life painting putrid foods are often interpreted as symbols of our own mortality. Perhaps this is the opposite—a statement about cured ham’s longevity. Maybe ham’s permanence reflects the enduring legacy of the American president.

But my search was in vain.

“This is where the larding comes in. There is no real symbolism to it,” Bijijoo says. “It’s not even a real ham.” He modeled the cuts of meat after a papier-mâchéd cornucopia purchased from a thrift store.

The Presidential Ham debuts this Thursday at the Basil Hallward Gallery in the art room of Powell’s Books on Burnside. The paintings aren’t for sale, but there will be prints available. As an added bonus the cornucopia ham model will be present along with a photo booth, encouraging visitors to pose for their own ham portraits.

“I’m hoping people will share such photos with me,” Bijijoo adds.

You, too, can embrace the perseverance of cured meats.

My landlord is dead.


The other day I received an email from a man named Jim, an in-town friend of my perpetually out-of-town landlord, Corbin. Jim wrote: "Sorry to break the news to you this way, but Corbin passed away last week after a 1.5 yr battle with cancer." Jim's emails are usually typed in blue font. About a year ago Corbin informed me over the phone that Jim would be taking care of maintenance since he lives so much closer. "I'm having some health problems and the distance makes it hard for me to get to the city."

"Health problems" is a vague summary that doesn't invite further questioning, especially toward my landlord who I only physically met three times. It's also a choice of wording that inspires both curiosity and morbidity. The purposeful vagueness suggests a degree of severity, a condition one is not recovering from but enduring.

In June Jim came by to fix a broken pipe under our kitchen sink. I asked him how Corbin was doing.

He moved his head from side to side, not in a head shake, but in gesture of ambivalence. "He has good days and bad days. He's hanging in there."

Once Jim said that, Corbin seemed as good as dead. This is why I wasn't too surprised to receive the blue email. My roommates and I had discussed Corbin's death as an imminent possibility. We talked about it in a distant and disconnected way, as though it were a simple event that may or may not inconvenience the future of our living situation, on par with a raise in the rent or the addition of an annoying neighbor. We were rightfully worried that an unexpected, or expected, death might be immediately followed by a FOR SALE sign impaled into the soggy mound of mulch in between our house and the sidewalk.

Despite our suspicions and the distant and practical concerns around losing a landlord, I was a bit sad. I've dealt with my share of death—most on a level more intimate than I would have wanted. Sometimes I feel hardened, unable to experience loss. But I hardly knew Corbin and surprised myself with the lingering sense of bereavement I experienced. On a purely sympathetic level, his death was poignant. Corbin was a young man, he died at 44. He had a wife and two young children, ages four and one. I found out from an online obituary that it was brain cancer. I don't know his family, but I imagined the long grieving process on which they were about to impart. This is not extraordinary; it would make anyone sad.

On a more selfish level, I found myself dwelling on the minor rifts this death would cause—no longer making my rent checks payable to "Corbin Shays" (I removed a nearly three-year-old faded index card with his name and mailing address from the surface of my fridge) or taking his number out of my phone (I haven't done this yet). These are little changes whose false extremity will fade in weeks, if not less.

The greatest loss seems to be the loss of a connection to some element of my past, as though Corbin's death somehow severs some of the threads binding me to certain memories. I remember the day I met Corbin. The summer of 2008 my roommate Bobbie Sue and I were house hunting, looking to upgrade from the moldy and cramped apartment where we were living. I had seen an ad for this house on craigslist, but it was out of our price range. Weeks later I rediscovered the ad with a considerable drop in the rental price, transforming what was once "keep dreaming" to "doable." I scribbled the stats on a yellow post-it that now lives on my bedroom wall by the mirror. It reads:

The most moving thing is the exclamation point. I remember the excitement of finding that ad. I remember riding my crappy old schwinn to the house in the heat of a Portland July and arriving a half hour before the open house began. I was first. I sat on the front steps, taking deep breaths and saying to myself, "This house is yours. You've got it."

There were at least 30 people at that open house, but I was ready. I filled out an application while I patiently waited for the owner, a short man wearing a plain t-shirt tucked into carpenter pants, to listen to handfuls of people trying to sell themselves as tenants. After some of the crowd had cleared out I walked right up to him with a check written out for $1400 and told him I wanted the place. It was like everyone else melted away. We walked out to his truck to get an advanced copy of the lease. He extended his hand and introduced himself. Corbin.

"I have a good feeling about you," he said. "I usually trust my gut, and I have a good feeling about you."

I rode my bike over the bridge to work to tell Bobbie Sue the good news. Riding in the late afternoon haze I was winded but smiling uncontrollably all the way. This was a moment of hopefulness and possibility.

Corbin's death removes me one more step from this moment, from my own past, from a memory I now seem to have a little less opportunity to retrieve. When we lose people, we are losing some of the tissue that connects us to everything and everyone. He was just my landlord, I barely knew him, but for a few moments I'll float above this loss, slightly less tethered to the world I think I know.