Category Archives: working

the white stool — thinking down, not around

white stool

My photo of the white stool, Berkeley Springs, 28 July 2014

Now that I’m not working at a proper day job, I’m spending more time doing manual work, time-consuming, sometimes smelly or otherwise untoward, usually in some way creative – baking bread, pulling weeds, sorting books; the mind has time to wander more deeply. I’m not looking around horizontally — not looking about to see who else is around, wondering why I’m doing the pointless thing at a desk in a cubicle, knowing that it doesn’t matter to me at all, nor much to anyone else either. Instead the thoughts go vertical.

I’m now in the wake of refinishing a piece of furniture, an old stool once owned by partner William’s grandparents, that has been somewhere for all these years, I think with his mother, Sally, who took it up to our Berkeley Springs house when she did some of the initial furnishing there.  It has been sitting in the kitchen or the bathroom there, or traveling between them. I’ve been painting other things here and in Berkeley Springs, and maybe it’s bewitching, because I tend to look around for the next project, so far two chairs on our DC porch (similarly vintage, never upgraded), a canvas ‘rug,’ the kitchen floor. There’s always a little paint left over — or I see where to get more.  I have invested in my own paint can, brushes, roller, so that I don’t have to share with William or suffer through his complaints about my improper cleaning. (I’ve improved at that.)

So I have this odd bench with a strange, u-shaped top shelf.  For sitting?  So that you can set a tall object on the second step, like the vase here?  Was it like a potty chair? It has clearly been painted a few times, so surely it needs to be painted again. First you strip the old paint layers.  For that, I bought that product I knew existed, helpfully called “paint stripper.”  The words on the can suggest that after applying the thick pasty stuff to the surface and waiting a few minutes to an hour, multiple layers of paint, applied even way back when the family had household servants, will just want to jump off the furniture and head out somewhere, job done, leaving bare wood, exposing the tree it once was.

It doesn’t happen that way.  The first application probably cleans the old paint a little, and scraping does little to remove it.  A second application and second scraping reveal that the white stool was once green.  A third application and scraping show some wood.

You see what I mean about the slowness of time and ability to think and ponder. Once you have made such a smelly mess, you cannot stop whenever you feel like it – not like just putting the book down or the knitting aside — because that would mean cleaning it all up and admitting defeat. So you start to observe and wonder, deeper, below the first layers, going vertical instead of horizontal. What is this thing now and what will it be? Who sat here? Who fell off?  Why green? Then why white? It’s not pretty, but sturdy; it wobbles not at all. Was this made by a true craftsperson? Do the screws tell its origin? Why do I care about it?

When will all this paint be gone, if ever?

sex discrimination: check the calendar

On the same day in CE 2013 that the retro-thinking Saudi Arabia was seeing the alarming action of women driving their own cars, this ad appears in a daily Oaxaca paper.  Top of the list of qualifications for a job is “sexo:” masculino.


This enterprise is a fabric store.  I have been in this shop several times, and can tell you that the bulk of the customers are women, who I might guess constitute the bulk of home and commercial seamers. (Though men can and do sew too. I’ve seen it.)


Calle Pino Suarez, near El Llano You’ll notice right away that “signs” in Oaxaca — and not just here — are not free-standing factory creations attached to walls, but are individual bits of artwork painted right on the plaster surface.  … Continue reading


Peek-a-boo, I hear you

Peek-a-boo, I hear you
This guy is presumably blind. But how did he know to frame himself up like that? And when I pulled out the camera, why did he stop to tune up?

I’ve given him money in the past.

On the wheel again: hands on clay in Oaxaca

I have been missing the pottery studio while on a break in DC, and  decided to get back to it.

ImageNo, that’s not me.  This is me.


A few Thursdays back, a door on Calle Cosijopi that had been closed as I passed dozens of times was open, revealing an art studio.  I went in, found out they did clay, and waaaaaaaaaaay in the back had a wheel.  A kickwheel.

I had to ponder trying that, but in fact went back the next afternoon to start a class.  The class started with my having to haul the wheel from the back to this sunnier place right in a doorway and then smearing my own wet clay on a plaster bat to dry in the sun for 15 minutes before I peeled it up and wedged it myself.

When I told some Eastern Market potter friends about the kickwheel, they said, “It’s more meditational,” and “I liked how quiet it was — I could listen to birds and throw.”  Those are both piles of crap, Holly, Sara and Jenny.  Using a kickwheel is not for the uncoordinated.  You want your upper body stable to center the clay and pull it up, and you can’t do that when one leg is flailing about erratically, can you?  By definition you are throwing yourself off balance at 100 RPMs.

All I could manage so far were four small bowls and 10 buckets of sweat.


Since then, while those little masterpieces were drying,  I visited Atzompa, just outside Oaxaca, a town known for its green-glazed pottery (all the industries are segregated that way).  There I walked around a couple of the work yards, behind the shops, and saw the gal at the top there, the mother of a potter who seemed to be doing a lot of work for him, schlepping his pots from the drying lot up to the kiln.  He has worked all his life kicking the wheel.

This is what Oliver Sacks says about Oaxacan pottery:  The clay needs three weeks to dry.  There is not glazing, but rather a sort of polishing, with what looks like a lump of quartz, then the pottery is fired at 800°F in a closed oven, which restricts the oxygen available.  This causes the metallic oxides within the clay to convert to their metallic form, and the pottery will take on a brilliant sheen with this. The ores in the area are especially rich in iron and uranium—I will be interested, when I return home, to see if these pots are magnetic, and to test them for radioactivity with a Geiger counter.

In fact, I did “glaze” my little pots, but in a primitive way.  The studio has no kiln, so they’re off being fired at someone else’s place now.

ImageYou’ll never see these again.

collateral complications to the federal shutdown

There must be a special category of ill effects of the federal shutdown — couples in which one partner is furloughed and the other can/needs to keep working.  That messes with the daily household dynamic, right?

How’s that working for you?

Sierra Norte in Oaxaca, on foot

ImageOur local friend Orlandini’s parting words to us were to tell us not, absolutely not, to go to the Sierras hiking as we had planned, because the weather conditions are horrible and with the clouds and rain we would not see anything around us.  “You’ll be at six thousand feet and the cloud ceiling will be at 5,300,” or some specific prediction like that.

As William just told, we did it anyway.  Orlandini was accurate about the clouds, but the sun blasted through on both days anyway, so we had our views too.

We started in Cuajimoloyas, which is in fact at 10,433 feet above sea level. William thought it reminded him of Switzerland, with its roofs sloped steeply in contrast to the flat ones of Oaxaca.  It felt a little cold getting off the bus but I couldn’t admit it because I alone was wearing a short-sleeved (but new!) shirt and local people had a few layers.  It was clear there with spectacular view.  And the little store happened to sell impermeables, rain ponchos…

The guide, Israel, arrived precisely on time, and without delay strode up the road out of town.


We hiked for five hours that day, with a little teeny picnic and a bottle of water in our bags (plus camera and a little other gringo stuff).  Each guide started his shift with the tiniest of bags containing:  an impermeable.  That’s it.  None drank water on the whole sweaty romp*, nor carried a first-aid kit with an Ace bandage or litter for evacuation or extra gear for stupid gringo clients (guides did carry walkie-talkies), or even an extra apple.  I’m not a baby hiker, but wouldn’t you feel a little more secure thinking the leader was dependable for that?

As for the “guides’” knowledge – I don’t know.  When we enlisted and prepaid for the two-day trip, there were no cumbersome release forms with fine print to sign.  The guides were ages mid-twenties to 40, did not speak any English (not their fault) and had sketchy knowledge, I think.  For example, one pointed out ferns, “helechos,” but when I saw another type of fern and asked its name, he just said helecho again, and pressed, did not know a detailed name.  Thus, even I could spot about 10 different kinds of ferns, though not name them, and I’m not sure these young guys would get excited about that.

My hope – fantasy? – is that this organization, Expediciones Sierra Norte, is, as advertised, doing what some will call “god’s work” in promoting preservation of nature, responsible land use, and sound local and indigenous economies.  We passed through communally owned land that allowed small privately managed corn and potato fields on the steep slopes (as I understood the explanations), so different from giant monoculture tracts on flat fields in the US.  We did not see tractors, but horses for transport.  The three small Zapotec pueblos we visited did not have a lot going on to the eye; for example, Latuvi has internet access in two locations, one being the ecotourism office, but  only in the afternoons, and no bank or ATM.  The store was out of beer.  The three guides we had all said they loved their communities, saying they were “tranquillo.”  One said he went to Oaxaca about once a month, none had been outside the state of Oaxaca.  So if guiding on these trails can provide a living and permit constancy in the pueblos, good.

The hiking was strenuous, on trails ranging from excellent – and historic, prehispanic even, if I can believe that – to abysmally in need of maintenance, and through the beautiful range of ecosystems with mosses and lichens and low shrubs to 60-foot pine trees.  We followed an arroyo overtaking its banks after the hurricane conditions last week and baked in the open sun.

Taking a lot of pictures of all the plants would be ridiculous; great photographers have done that.  I include two here, just to show a huge mushroom and a cactus, usually thought of as appearing in moist and sere places, and not together, here just three steps apart.


ImageThe fern thing:  This sent me back to Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, a satisfying little travel book that I recommend. He came here to see Oaxaca’s “seven hundred-odd species of ferns” — to the discerning helechophile, a great destination — and I hope to find the names of at least a few that I have seen. (I’ll keep that to myself, since I sense you’re nodding off now.)  But look to that book for just wonderful intelligent and funny writing that will make you feel smart and want to go traveling.

The cloud bank, however, contributed our favorite aspect of this side trip.  Fog is a cloud that has the base on the earth’s surface, and Tuesday night, up in Latuvi, at 7,943 feet, we watched the clouds slide around a mountain toward us, eventually concealing absolutely everything farther than 10 feet away; I am not making that up.  I could see only to the edge of the patio of our little cabana.  So Orlandini was right.

We were the only customers on our particular night.  The little cabins were spotlessly clean with multiple beds, hot showers, flushing toilets and fireplaces.  A guy came in to build and light a fire.  Heaven.  How much do you tip for that?

Morning brought only a slight thinning of the fog; we were to set out in the same white-out on day two.


* William screams angrily as I read this aloud to him:  No one drinks water! They don’t sweat! They don’t pee! It’s 80 degrees and they’re wearing extra layers and a stupid hat!  I’m drinking three bottles of water and Lisa’s juice and 10 minutes away from heat stroke!