Making Altar-ations

As a child born into a time before TiVo and YouTube, life was unspeakably harsh.  When not playing outside with dirt and other human beings, people of my day were forced to sit through those annoying time-sucks called ‘commercials’.  There seemed to be an endless supply of them.  The act of living was difficult, during those ancient times.  I don’t know how we all made it through those dark days, quite frankly.

There were commercials that told you how “choosy moms across America choose Jiff,” as you shake an empty Wal-Mart brand jar of peanut butter at your mother and accuse her of not loving you enough to choose Jiff, or at the very least, Skippy.  Giant slabs of fleshy pink canned ham filled our wooden TV’s bubble screen, during the holidays.  Spam’s advertising game was so fierce back then, my immigrant parents were convinced that Spam was the meat of choice for that all-American holiday, known as Thanksgiving.

My first Thanksgiving dinner was in 1991.  We ate Spam, pickled cucumbers, toasted French bread and a head of shredded iceberg lettuce, drenched in two bottles of Wishbone dressing.  We then congratulated one another for unraveling the secrets of an authentic American holiday meal.  It wasn’t until Butterball amped up their holiday commercial budget, years later, when we figured out our holiday meats mix-up.

And through the magic of commercial advertisements, I figured out everything I needed to know about that other major holiday called ‘Merry Christmas.’  Or, as I was told later, just ‘Christmas.’  When the big white polar bear started cracking open cans of Coco-Cola during commercial breaks, I knew the holiday season was upon us.

Raised as Buddhists, my parents’ interest in Christmas rarely moved past the question: “How many days do I get off work?”  It was up to me to get the holiday spirit and tree lit. My reason for this was a purely selfish one: presents.  As a child, it took me one Folger’s commercial and two of Hershey’s to realize that presents were given to you by a gentleman named “Santa Claus”, who shimmied down a chimney and stuck wrapped gifts for you, under an extravagantly decorated but dying tree.  Like catching a bear, we needed baits and lures.  I embarked on a search for a cone-shaped tree and chimney.

Year after gift-less year, I asked my parents for a Christmas tree and a place with a fireplace.  We finally purchased a fake tree, in 1991, but there was still no sign of that white-bearded man.  I was convinced that this was because we were a fireplace-less family.  I was devastated.  I spent years campaigning for this wood-burning hole in the wall. Every time I spotted a fireplace in some lucky family’s home, I turned into a child-realtor. With my hands tenderly caressing the sides of the mantle, I would praise the woodwork and verbally note the ample hearth.  I was obsessed, even long after my belief in Santa Claus waned and faltered.  As a grown adult, I still stop and inspect a well-formed fireplace mantle.

When my husband and I moved into our current place, my one disappointment lay in the lack of a fireplace.  Buying a mantle for a faux fireplace was always in the plans, but I never came around to it.  It wasn’t until I started planning for our wedding that I seriously looked into one.  The idea was to find a vintage mantle to use as an altar for the wedding, then mount to our living room wall, later, as a faux fireplace.

The first stop was at Earthwise Salvage, where the vintage wooden mantle I coveted was $2,800.  Another one, that terribly needed refinishing, went for $900.  Nearby, an antique shop called Pacific Galleries, was selling smaller antique mantles for a range of prices. Every one of them was at least $580.  My next stop was Home Depot, where free-standing and unfinished ones were at least $400.  That’s when I decided to do myself a favor and make my own mantle.  The total cost was around $70. I did use some items I already had though (hardware and glue), but the total reflects all of the wood and finishes used.


To keep the cost down, I used cedar fence planks, which ran for about $2 per piece. This variety is porous and uneven but the blemishes worked toward my end goal of a vintage look. As for the molding, the simpler and thinner ones will cost less. I wanted a simpler design, so I chose these, which were a fraction of the cost of the thicker and fancier ones.


After many many hours of sawing and hammering and forgetting to measure, this is how the mantle looked, unfinished.


To achieve an antiqued plaster effect, I used Martha Stewart’s Crackle finish. There are two parts you’ll need, the crackle paint and the sealer. I bought mine in the color ‘Oatmeal’ which were on sale for $5 each, at Home Depot. The thicker you lay it on, the bigger the cracks. I made some areas super thick and others much lighter. The end result was a layered look.


The cedar wood has natural knots, holes and grains worked into it. I made sure to paint those areas lighter, to show off the wood.


I had leftover molding, so I made a fancy thing in the middle, using a mitre box and saw.


For the day, I added some books of mine to the top, along with my collection of vintage glass candleholders. Photography by Shane Macomber.


Then I added some flowers. These are in crystal vases from my personal collection. Photography by Shane Macomber.


Cut firewood was placed in the middle. This was to add style as well as to stabilize the piece. Photography by Shane Macomber.


More flowers and books. These were placed for looks as well as function. The ground was uneven, so this leg of the mantle was an inch above the ground. The flowers and books covered that. Photography by Shane Macomber.


Finished and decorated. Photography by Shane Macomber.


Fireplace altar was placed on a small island in a pond. Photography by Shane Macomber.


View of the altar, from the guests’ point of view. Photography by Shane Macomber.


Wedding day. Photography by Shane Macomber.

Pants Aren’t Meant To Be Pooped In? Why Didn’t You Say So?

People give you free clothes, when you poop in your pants.  At least this was what I told my five-year old self, as I quietly shit my pants, during television hour in Mrs. Sylvester’s classroom.  As the letter S made its round through Sesame Street, I personally made some figure S’s, but in my pants.  Sometimes combined with the letter ‘pee’.  Only when I felt overly ambitious, though.  Sufficed to say, I was the second least popular kid in the class; next to the boy who’s favorite pastimes included sticking sharp objects into the eyes of fellow classmates.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to relieve myself in rooms specifically marked for that sole purpose.  I knew exactly where my S’s and pees were supposed to go, I just didn’t know how to ask permission, to put it there.  On the first day of school, the only English words I knew were ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘N-O means no!’  That last bit was taught to me by my non-English speaking parents, to be used during stranger danger moments.  You know, just in case their favorite child got abducted, and the only means of escape was to host an impromptu spelling bee showdown.

During the first few times in which I sensed an urgency to go, I simply stood up.  The teacher would reluctantly put Reading Rainbow on pause, and I would plead my case, through the long forgotten art of pantomime.  There I was, performing squats and face scrunches, capped off by endless sighs of relief.  Apparently, my acting wasn’t even good enough for Couples’ Night Charades.  Naturally, Mrs. Sylvester assumed I was mocking her and sent me off to stand with my nose pressed to the corner of her crayon-art lined classroom.  Like Ross Perot, in both presidential election attempts, I had failed.  Though, I did I take this opportunity to do some decent stand-up work that involved some rather intense underpants decorating.  All while LeVar Burton read the nation’s children another story that involved lots of pauses, voice changes and sound effects that were supposed to be foot steps, but were obviously adult hands tapping on a studio table.

It took a week or two for me to learn the magic phrase, “May I please use the bathroom?” It was beyond me as to why I had to beg and plead the woman for permission.  You’d think she would have begged me to go, after cleaning up my bottom for the umpteenth time, week after soiled week, behind the classroom’s bookcases.  Either way, by then, I was addicted to all of the free fashion I was allowed to rummage through and wear home. Every time I made poor decisions in my pants, my teacher would haul me off, by my soiled bottom, to the lost and found.  Once there, I would put together an outfit that had “pre-internet Polyvore” written all over it. I was like an 80’s version of Suri Cruise, but with a few more skid marks.

Nowadays, I tend to look back fondly and wonder what’s become of my beloved pre-school teacher.  As an adult, I don’t poop in my pants for free clothes anymore.  You get sent to the loony bin, not the lost and found one, when you pull that stunt, later in life.

Buying clothing, full-priced, isn’t an easy decision for me.  I actually prefer vintage or thrift store pieces that have been tailored to my exact measurements.  If I can’t find a certain piece, somewhere, I end up making it myself.  This was the case with my bridal veil.

I’ve been walking around with window curtain bridal veils, ever since I was tall enough to climb the window sill and unhook the sheer panels off its rod.  Our neighbors probably thought I was some sort of child-bride in training.  After decades of practice, I couldn’t walk down the aisle without a veil.  My head was meant to be shrouded in gauzy bridal perfection.  All I needed was to get my hands on one that didn’t originate from my mom’s guest room.

But veils are expensive.  There are inexpensive ones that sort of poof, in every which way, and resemble a used cotton ball placed atop one’s head.  And then there are these intricate lace numbers that drape for miles and miles to some faraway land where money is no object.  I think they charge those by the mileage, since they will often set you back by hundreds of dollars.  The one I wanted was cathedral length and trimmed with vintage Edwardian lace.  Its purchase price was $800, or two car payments.  And unlike a car, this head decor thing drove you nowhere, except for maybe down to a town called Broke.  I figured I could make my own veil.  It was actually pretty easy and cost a paltry $50. Below are the steps on How To Make A Lace Trimmed Cathedral Veil.


Things You’ll Need: 1 pair of sharp scissors, length of tulle (or synthetic netting that resembles tulle), enough lace to trim the entire piece, old sheer curtain, head comb(s) and thread. I bought the fabric and lace, at Jo-Ann Fabric, using their 40% off mobile coupon. Both are in ivory. The head comb was for $9.99 in their bridal section but are $1.99 in the kids’ bows/bedazzling/t-shirt painting section. I bought two, since I have a big head. That’s another thing, vendors will hike up the price just by saying something is wedding or bridal material.


You’ll be cutting down old sheer curtains to test out the length and width of your veil. The lightness roughly mimics the drape of tulle, so you can try cutting out different measurements to see how it feels. I’m five feet tall, so I ended up cutting the length to about ten feet long. I kept the manufactured width and rounded off the edges.


Once you have the mock veil cut down to your desired size, place it over your uncut tulle. Anchor it down with something heavy and carefully cut away the excess fabrics.


Photography by Shane Macomber. I hand-sewed the lace onto the tulle, using ivory thread. Because I chose a pointed Edwardian lace, it took me awhile longer to sew in each individual point, but the effect was well worth the effort.


Photography by Shane Macomber. I attached two small silver combs to the underside of the veil, using thread.


Photography by Shane Macomber. On your wedding day, make sure to have a handheld steamer available. My bridesmaids helped me steam my veil smooth, on the day of.


Photography by Shane Macomber. When placed on your head, there should be enough width to the veil to allow a gentle draping of the fabric.


Photography by Shane Macomber. Since my gown has a train, I made the veil extra long to make sure it flowed beyond the edge of the dress.


Photography by Shane Macomber. View of the veil, from behind.

Cake Toppin’ It Off


Wedding cake topper I made, for about $15. It includes some of our favorite things in life: the dog, books for me, and computers for John.

In college, my roommates and I would gather in the hallowed hallways of our dormitory, sharing empty calories and offering up independent theories on why Room 206 smelled like stale sex and green olives.  Two girls occupied the room in question.  One believed she was a vampire, descended from cats and/or unicorns (she was hoping for both, if I recall correctly).  The other hosted slumber parties with the local high school boys, who tried their hardest to look like college men.  For whatever reason, they ended up looking more like the singer, P!nk, but without her namesake’s hair color.  It was all about the frosted blond tips, back then.  We never could figure out who had the olive fixation.

When not discussing the great olfactory mysteries of our time, we were comparing notes on where we’d like to be, in life.  There was the usual grab bag mix of future lawyers, doctors, doctors’ wives and starving artists.  Because when you’re 18 and living virtually rent-free, being a successful artist is both an oxymoron and insult to the craft.  Other dreams weren’t quite as ambitious.  A few expressed interest in sleeping their way to the middle.  Or at least a free meal.  For myself, I just wanted to be able to afford a cartful of groceries, at Whole Foods, one day.  We were young, with goals to attempt to accomplish and bucket lists to fall into and never make it out of.

My love/hate relationship with Whole Foods began in the summer of 2001.  Every weekend, a friend and I would scavenge enough coins, from between the car seats, and fill up the gas tank, to a level “just above E.”  Then, we’d make our way to the original Whole Foods in Austin, and spend most of the day sampling free food and grazing from the bulk bin section.  At day’s end, I’d stand in line with my dollar’s worth of bulk bin granola and pay with the remainder of my car cushion coins.

I’m 31 now, and have come to the realization that Whole Foods’ appeal is that they make sure that no one can really afford it.  A while ago, I filled my cart up with an impressive array of non-essentials.  Fresh pasta made by the grandma I’d imagine I’d have if I were Italian, vegan pastries made by non-vegan trophy wives in Colorado, cider with an alcohol content so low, it’s probably a great one to share with your underaged children (during BYOB playdates and such), and Seventh Generation cleaning supplies that somehow do less cleaning than a cleaning lady hired with a Groupon.

The total was enough to cover America’s national deficit.   I think.  I can’t remember.  I tend to black out terrible memories involving cash.  The cashier read my total, then asked if I’d like to donate my bag refund to some undisclosed charity.  Then, if I’d like to round up to the nearest dollar for another charity involving kids, somewhere.  Finally, she asked if I’d like to just give a specific dollar amount, anywhere between $5-$500, to another one. Maybe it’s the same charity. Who knows.  I think you get a free calendar, keys to the store and a rescue puppy if you do.

And that’s when I realize that I can never truly afford Whole Foods.  Sure, I can afford the cart of non-essential groceries, but I can never afford to adopt that family of four, in Swaziland, with a weekly check-out line donation of $500.  As the college-aged cashier bags up my fair-trade/shade-grown/free-roamed olives, the look on her face reads I guess not everyone can afford to shop with us.  I just don’t shop there as often anymore.  Only when I feel like I don’t need money anymore, but do need that soy-free/dairy-free/gluten-free gulp of air Whole Foods has packaged in a nice recycled box and selling for $6.99. $7.19, with tax and bag refund donated.  $8, rounded up for those kids you keep hearing about.  $508, for that family of four.

When I began the planning process of our wedding, over a year ago, my Whole Foods’ experience came back to mind.  Weddings can be cheap, but the industry doesn’t want you to ever think so.  Your flowers will never be as fresh as that girl’s bouquet, the one from The Hills.  Unless you hire the florist-to-the-stars.  The same one who makes you put down a deposit of “first child” to secure a date. If you tell a caterer that you have a food budget of $10,000, they’ll push you toward the $15,000 package deal.  The plan that includes two servers per guest.  One to peel and hand-feed seedless grapes to your family and friends.  The other to wipe mouths and any other orifice that needs wiping and tending to.  The dress lady will put you in $9,000 dollar dresses, even when you tell her your budget is for two-thirds that amount.  So, like Whole Foods, I just didn’t go there unless I was felt like I wanted to be taken advantage of.  Every time a vendor pushed me towards a higher spending limit, I walked out the door and never went back.

Instead of depending on the wedding industry to give me my dream wedding, I relied heavily on myself.  Sure, I hired a photographer, who I found at a wedding show (that I attended for free, thanks to a Facebook contest); but everything else was either made by me, collected by John and I, created by my family or bought at a steep discount. For instance, my Jenny Packham dress was purchased for 20% off the ticket price.  The rest of the things were bought at thrift stores or foraged for.  I made virtually everything: my own veil, hangers, fireplace alter and even wrote personal letters to each guest (using vintage paper from Goodwill).

We didn’t hire a wedding planner.  I’m sure they work wonders for their clients, but for us, it wasn’t even an option.  We used the extra cash to fly in our parents for the wedding, instead.  One of the first things I made for our wedding was our cake topper.  Here’s what I made.


List of things to get: 4 wooden balls, about 1 inch in diameter with a large hole on one end. 2 wooden balls, about half an inch in diameter and large hole on one end. 14 wooden beads, about half a centimeter in diameter, with a hole through the center. 4 bamboo skewers. 2 wooden dowels (1/2 centimeter in diameter) and about 1.5-2.5 inches in length. 5 pipe cleaners. Some small rectangular pieces of wood. Unused business cards. Wire thread. Felt and/or scrap fabrics. Drill and glue.


Step 1: For the bodies, you want to cut a piece of felt into a circle. Take the 1-inch balls and drill two small holes (large enough for the bamboo skewers to fit through) on the opposite end of the large pre-cut hole.


Step 2: Place the ball, large hole side up, on top of the felt. Add glue to the large hole and tuck the edges of the felt fabric into it. Trim the fabric to fit into the opening. Place the half-centimeter dowels into the hole. It should fit snugly.


Step 4: Feel out the two small holes you drilled and poke in two bamboo skewers. You can trim the length later. I stabilized it with a ball of yarn in a pitcher.


Step 5: You will need arms. Take the piper cleaners and twist two together. Place on top of the wooden dowel and add a dab of glue.


Step 6: I added a head by placing a 1-inch ball on top.


Step 7: Because every cake topper needs pants, I sewed a pair out of felt. I took two pieces of fabric, about two centimeters wide and three inches long. I sewed along the length and turned it inside out.


Step 8: Thread each “leg” through a skewer. Then thread a half-centimeter wooden ball to either end. Secure with glue. I wrapped a piece of wire to hold the ball in place while it dried. While that was drying, I cut a piece of felt to form a cylinder around the abdomen of the cake topper. I sewed with a contrasting thread, about two-thirds up the length.


Step 8: Using sharp scissors, I poked two small holes where I wanted the arms to be. Then I pulled out the pipe cleaners. After, I folded the top of the cylindrical fabric over, to form a collar. The same red thread was used to sew a ‘hem’ around the neckline.


Step 9: I sewed on a button to the collar and added in the coat arms, in the same manner as the pant legs. I also folded up the sleeves for a cuff.


Step 10: Using old business cards and wooden rectangles I had, leftover from a past project, I fashioned mini-books and a laptop. Cut the business cards just a bit smaller than the wood pieces. Glue the paper together. Then add one wooden rectangle, to either end. On one side, cut a strip of wood to form the book’s spine.


Step 11: Paint the books. The laptop is just one wood piece, painted.


Step 12: For the dog, I wanted her to peek out from underneath a book. So, I fashioned an “open book” using a business card and three wooden pieces.


Step 13: The dog’s book was “Beo-woof.” For the dog, I used the half inch circles. One for the head and one for the body, under the book. Both were connected with glued pieces of pipe cleaner. The tail and legs were fashioned with the same material, but with small wooden balls glued to the ends. Felt was fashioned into ears and a nose was made from a dark ball and some bamboo skewers.


Step 14: I used the same methods to make the cake topper version of myself. Except, I trimmed by outfit with lace and had my own favorite literature to hold. A few steps ago, I also found an old book by Melville. I drilled two pairs of holes into the book. I then cut the ‘legs’ to about half an inch past the small balls. I put some glue into the holes and poked the ‘legs’ into them. Drill deeper for a more stable hold.


Step 14: I added a messenger bag onto John’s replica, since I accidentally got paint on that side of his coat and needed to cover it. But basically, paint your faces on and you’re done!

When To Share One’s Underwear

My sister and I used to look alike.  Back when all Asians looked alike and dinosaurs roamed Earth.  That was in the early 90s, and George Senior was the reigning president. But now, with the spread of diversity and enough Asians telling non-Asians, “No, we don’t all look alike” my sister and I look, well, only somewhat alike.  In summary, we are virtually identical from the forehead, up.

Once a year, my sister and I take that somewhat likeness show on the road.  We call this our “Sista Sista Trip!”  Oftentimes, a location is determined using a precise algorithm which involves: number of coffee shops per square inch, dog population in relation to human population and absence of chain link fences.  It is an exact science that involves no scientists, whatsoever.

In preparation for this trip, my sister will undoubtedly remember to forget her underwear and toothbrush.  Upon arrival, she will unpack her luggage that’s been filled with every magazine that LaGuardia’s Hudson News, in Terminal B, has to offer.  Then she will announce that she’s forgotten those pesky little fabric pieces for one’s “down under” and that stick instrument that aids in cavity prevention.  If her Tumi had a life story, it would be titled When One Packs Nothing At All.  And thus begins, the one-sided sharing of underwear and toothbrush.

Our last sisters’ trip was to Austin, Texas.  This wonderful southern city is the home of many barbecue pits.  It also serves as the final resting place of thousands more pigs and cows. There’s a special sacrificial offering that the locals like to perform, during the hot summer months.  We believe that this is to appease the angry sun gods, while seeking favor from the rain gods.  A fire pit is built, usually in some sort of black altar fashioned out of metal. The locals refer to this as a ‘grill’.  Marinated flanks of meat are tossed into the fire, after being massaged with seasoning.  We have been told that this is solely to add flavor. Note to self: pagan gods love flavor.

Austin holds a special place in our frigidly cold hearts.  It was home to both of us, for many years, and we absolutely loved it.  Back in the olden days, South Congress was where people would go to score drugs and have their shoes stolen, right from under them.  Or trade in their shoes for some drugs.  You walked home barefoot, either way.  It was a neighborhood of shoeless people, back in its heyday.  Now, non-druggy people go there to people-watch other non-druggy people people-watch.  And they all wear shoes.  Oh, how the times have changed.

It’s rather nice to take a trip with your sibling; I highly recommend it.  It resembles a romantic vacation, but you aren’t expected to put out at the end of the night.  Or in the morning.  Or ever.  With a sibling, one can share the same bed, skip hand-in-hand and tell the hostess that you’d like a “table for two” in the coziest corner they have to offer.  When you’re finally seated at a 6-top, by the bathroom, with a panoramic view of the bussers’ station; you’ll have the rest of the night to compliment one another over your shared (and obviously, superior) genes.  It’s great.

Here are a few photos (with accompanying commentary) I took, from our 2014 Sista Sista Trip! to Austin, Texas.


Hotel San Jose on South Congress. My favorite hotel, next to the Ace Hotel in Portland. They both offer typewriter rentals, just in case you forget to bring your own and have to travel back in time to retrieve it.


Austin’s Tourism Committee must’ve paid off Al Roker and/or The Weather Channel. The temperature they cited was high 80s. It felt more like 106 degrees with a side of sunstroke.


Quote of the trip: “We’ll be back!” and The Petition Signature Gatherer tells us “That’s what my daddy said, and he ain’t ever come back.”


Is it creepy to take pictures outside of people’s windows? I sure hope so



My sister, on her way to borrow my toothbrush.


Beds feel better when someone else makes them.


The hotel leaves you cryptic poems in your room. I interpreted this one as “You should eat more chicken”.


Bottled rainwater. Next up, prepackaged snow.


Drinking coffee and thinking about how the Aztec pattern, on my hotel robe, brings out the brown in my eyes.



TOMS makes coffee now. From shoes to coffee. They really do know their way into the hipster heart. One might assume that they’ll give you half a cup of coffee and the other half to a kid in a coffee-poor society. But no, they give you a full serving of roasted goodness.


Austin is like Pinterest, but in city-form.


Trying on shoes made by kids in Guatemala. Not the sweatshop kind. The “Make us one pair, and we’ll let you make yourself your own pair to wear (even though you’d rather have a Nike)” type shop.




Skirts & Stairs.

Pennybacker Bridge.

Pennybacker Bridge.



Texas sunset during our drive to the hotel. My sister drove the car like the rental that it is. Windows rolled down and music up, like high schoolers on a Friday night.



Museum that used to be an artist’s home. And every artist’s home needs a moat, a turret and a few grave sites underneath the oak grove.


Trying to order something from a vintage Sears catalog. Maybe some hardtack and a tin of blackstrap molasses. Oh, and a typewriter. Just in case the one at Hotel San Jose doesn’t work properly.


My sister showing me the proper way to sit, like a lady.


Bangles, all day.


Acting our age. Obviously.


Having a romantic dinner with my sister at a farm/restaurant-ish. The kind of place where you can pet your chicken before you eat it.


One word comes to mind and that is ‘Windex.’


Airstream/Funhouse mirror.


Some people use lights to decorate their garden. Others use it to grow their pot farm in the attic.


Chandelier on a tree. Where it belongs.


Our bartender in the airstream, serving up free (FREE!) Deep Eddy booze. Somebody definitely secured his golden ticket into heaven.


Austin summarized in one photo: plaid, red cooler, deer head and airstream bar.


A lesson in font or a farm stand menu. Depends on your perspective.


Mood lighting over the sink, for when you want to sensually wash your hands. It’s fantastic.


Looking into the farmhouse, from outside. It’s exactly how I envisioned a gentrified farmhouse to look like. Low on produce, high on gently weathered decor.


Herb picking by the glow of her iPhone. Just like the days of yore.


Going up the stairs of Mount Bonnell. My sister ran up the stairs; I just shimmied myself up the rail, as evidenced by my position in this photo.


Rose petals strewn on the limestone path. I hope she said yes or else that would’ve been an awkward walk back down the stairs.


Some men get t-shirts, as a souvenir, for when their woman returns back home from a trip. John gets tomatoes and fresh tortillas.


Tomatoes on a window sill, hoping to end up on top of a grilled pizza with some basil and fresh milk mozzarella made in someone’s urban bathtub. Because ending your tomato life in a pasta dish is so last year.


Tomatoes, side by side. Just hanging out.


Chairs everywhere.


Geraldine the Rainey Street Guinea Fowl. She was the neighborhood’s famous feral fowl, until her hit and run death awhile back. Fowl play is suspected.


My sister, in East Austin, taking pictures with a giant flying piece of toast. We couldn’t find anyone to take a photo of the both of us. The only person around was a man, who was too busy stealing someone’s stereo, to lend us a hand.



Stupid Invitations

Ever since I was old enough to help my dad clean a carburetor (age, 5), he told me, “You can be whatever you want in life, you just can’t be stupid.”  I wasn’t expected to become a doctor.  Or even a magician on the side of an infrequently traveled road.  I was given free range to become anything in life, except for stupid.  Speaking from personal experience, that request is harder than it initially sounds.

Me: “Why can’t I be one?”

Dad: “Cause that career has already been taken by too many people.”

Me: “What’s stupid?”

Dad: “Those kids down the street who spend their entire day watching the MTV and painting fake moles above their lips.  That’s stupid.  Pass me my cigarette, will you?  Don’t smoke, either.  That’s stupid, too.”

Like tofu, his definition of ‘stupid’ was never a solid one.  He molded and seasoned it to fit whatever life-learning situation was present.  His recipe for disaster consisted of: 1 part smart and 1 part stupid equals all stupid.  Like SARS, my dad warned us that stupidity was a highly infectious disease that was transmitted when stupid people opened their mouths.

In his eyes, his three children were never stupid.  But some of us toed the line, from time to time, which he was always quick to point out.  In ’96, when I came home crying, because I lost out to a fifth grader at the area spelling bee competition by misspelling ‘insomnia’; he calmly explained to me that the word itself is stupid anyway.  When I had my first serious breakup, he told me the guy was too stupid for us Chhengs and would’ve dumbed down the family line.  And besides, he had stupid looking hair.  But the biggest act of stupidity was paying full price, for anything; especially wedding invitations.

Wedding invitations are a necessary evil.  Little squares and rectangles, usually ranging in price from “too much” to “way too much”; will be stamped, sealed by spit and sent out to wedding-worn guests.  Then into the trash bin, they go. A very popular paper company in Seattle quoted the paper costs for our 50-guest wedding to be in the range of $1,500 to $3,000.  It included Save-the-Dates, invitations with one too many envelopes to lick, RSVP cards that no one ever returns and Thank You cards that the bride and groom dread having to fill and send out.  After fainting from the quote, I realized that what I needed was a No Thank You card to send out to this company.  Like Google Maps, I began searching for alternate routes for invites and other wedding items that involved paper and ink.

For our Save-the-Dates, I was on a time crunch.  The holiday season was fast approaching, and I was having a difficult time locating a living “Dr. Seuss-esque” type Christmas tree for our living room.  We settled on a Nootka cypress, by the way.

Luckily, had a 15% discount for Save-the-Dates.  So, I jumped onto a comfortable spot on the bandwagon and ordered 40 cards for about $55, addressed enveloped included.  The design I ordered was a library card look with an engagement photo shot by Shane Macomber.  It’s my favorite photo of the two of us.


Clockwise, from top: Unlined envelopes from, library card styled Save-The-Dates, pages torn from a book and lichen covered twigs. Not sure why the twigs are there. I collected them, during a walk, and thought they looked Save-the-Date-ish.

The Save-the-Dates came out okay.  I regret not designing it myself, but I did manage to sneak in some personal touches.  I glued lining to each envelope, using pages torn out of old books.  The books I used were from Girl With a Pearl Earring and A Beautiful Mind. The ones I owned were torn already, so it wasn’t a big deal to rip them apart.


Vintage paper-cutter I bought for $8.99, years ago, in anticipation of cutting my own wedding invites. Books to weigh the glued envelopes down, while drying. No bubbling, that way. Coffee to drink and then spill onto said envelopes. Personalized stamps for your envelopes, cause nothing says “I’m getting married” like a $50 stamp from Paper Source. Bird’s nest, for no reason at all.

For our invitations, I spent $35.  I know, I was tempted to marry myself after scoring that deal.  What I did was design my own invites.  I wanted a vintage botanical look.  Simple and pretty.


Drawing of a blueberry sprig. We pick a lot of blueberries. I later added blueberries to my wedding flowers.

For the invitation itself, I started off by sketching a blueberry sprig.  Then I photographed and adjusted it via Lightroom.  After that, I downloaded (for free) Inkscape.  Using Inskcape, I turned the sketch into a vector image.  Then, I added a free font called “Dearest Script” for a handwritten look.  It was finally sent to for printing.


Vector rendered and ready for application.

The invitations were printed on an ivory card, but I wanted a thicker look since nothing screams ‘fancy’ like some 222 pound card stock.  So, I went to Jo-Ann Fabrics and bought a bunch of thick linen-type scrapbook paper in light grey.  I cut the grey paper down to invitation-size and glued it to the back.  While drying, the cards were held down with book stacks, for an even finish.


Thick scrapbook paper (the kind with a rough edge surface, like linen), semi-finished (I guess that’s called unfinished. But semi-finished sounds so much more optimistic, doesn’t it?) invites and paper stamp cutter thing.

I wasn’t going to send out RSVP cards, since no one except unmarried great aunts with multiple poodles, return them anyway.  But after cutting up all of the scrapbook paper, I had a ton left.  So, I made personalized cards with the guests’ names on it.  It’s not useful, but I thought it was cute.  And besides, I had time on my glue-stained hands.  Long ago, I bought a Martha Stewart paper cutout stamp thing from TJMaxx for an amount between pennies and “not much.” I finally put it to good use for the wedding.  I stamped out a bird design on leftover ivory scrapbook paper. Then, I did a backing of grey.  On the grey side, I sketched out ferns and the recipients’ names, with a grey calligraphy pen.


Finished cards, addressed envelopes and invitations.


For the envelopes, I considered outsourcing it to a professional calligrapher and then I thought, “Screw it. I got an A in penmanship, back in the second grade.  I’ll write it out myself.”  So I did.

In all, my Save-the-Dates and invitations totaled a paltry $100.  Pretty good for not being stupid.  Things to make a father proud.







Wikipedia Wedding


Foraged goods. Clockwise, from left: bunchberries, red elderberries, black huckleberries, chicken of the woods, something we have yet to identify (and is collecting its own fungus while sitting in the fridge) and porcini.

“So, how does it feel to be married?”  Apparently, this is what the masses want to know; after two people kiss in front of a gathering of well-wishers, at the conclusion of an exchanging of rings.  Well, I now have a husband.  Just one.  I know.  There was no BOGO sale with this deal.  And, his name is John.  Not that John, the other one.  The John who is a forager and full-time vegan.  Not to be confused with part-time vegans.  Those are the ones who are vegan, until mealtime, that is.  So, I married a “foraging vegan”; two words that strike fear in the bleeding hearts of artichokes, all over the world.  And this John is a proud Wikipediaphile.  But we’ll get to that last made-up-word, later.

Marrying a forager pretty much guarantees that you get nowhere fast, for the rest of your married life.  There are apple trees to shake the shizzle out of, chestnut trees to terrorize for ripe nuts, and your wife’s patience to test.  So much to pick, so little time.

What I’ve come to realize is that I’ve essentially married a squirrel.  John treats the summer months in Seattle as a time to collect nuts and berries.  He then squirrels them away for a very long, harsh winter; with no hope for a return of spring. In our fridge, there are huckleberries of every variety, picked at various elevations.  Aronia berries that taste like UPS packing peanuts, dipped in Pantone’s “Color of the Year”, from five years ago. Currants that are black, currants that are red and currants with “stink” in its name. Personally, I consider any aggregate with a warning in its name unfit for consumption.  My husband disagrees.  Nuts are lined up like sacrificial lemmings, to be cracked and slaughtered, into nut butter.  At this rate, John has enough fruit and nuts to start his own Harry & David Fruit-of-the-Month club.  He just needs to send out his own colorful ten-page flyers.

When he’s not busy harvesting, John occupies himself with trying to convince me that the radiation-orange mushrooms, picked last weekend, taste “just like chicken!”  I will admit, though.  They do taste like chicken, if chicken tasted like mushrooms.

Aside from the fact that John will pick and eat anything without a face, I’m not too worried about my husband poisoning himself.  He’s pretty smart.  I’d even describe him as somewhat of a genius.  But then again, he thinks I’m one, as well.  In the back of our minds we realize that we’re both, more than quite possibly, terribly wrong.  I, for one, have yet to figure out how to parallel park, even with a backup camera.  Or park, in a regular parking spot, for that matter.  When presented with the task of maneuvering my Subaru between two solid white lines, I end up with a moment that includes a shrug of the shoulders and a look that reads Well, I tried my best.  The end result is that I park my car like a pair of shoes at a sample sale: askew.

So, when it came time for us to set up a wedding website, we knew we wanted something that reflected our personalities.  Something that said, “Love is when you show someone your secret mushroom patch in the woods.”  Or, at the very least, “Hold my drink while I tend to my kombucha batch.”  John is forever on Wikipedia, researching things from twinberries to projectile trajectory.  I am also always on Wikipedia.  But my searches are usually for ‘penguins’, ‘puffins’ and ‘keeping penguins and puffins as pets.”  It was one year and one month, since our engagement, and we still didn’t have a wedding site.  Just a fridge full of nuts and vegan cheese.

One early November morning at 3AM, as a result of the glow of my then-fiancé’s MacBook, I woke up.  I looked over and saw that John was reading a Wikipedia page composed of equations that involved too many letters from the Greek alphabet.  The last time I saw so many gammas and rhos was in college.  And they were on t-shirts combined with other words like ‘rush’ and ‘bid’.  Looking at his page of physics equations put me back to sleep.

Sometime between then and now, we decided that our site will be styled a la Wikipedia. John was busy saving the world, one Amazon web service page at a time, so the technologically inept person (that’s me!) was left to code the page. Here’s what I ended up with:  The links to “Mo” and “Hotels, Things to See, People to Do…” also work and are sort of worth the extra click.

Our wedding page is what happens when Wikipedia-loving boy marries a girl who likes to write about the boy’s love for looking up wild edibles on Wikipedia. It’s perfect. For us.

Growing Up With An Original Hipster

Cheap people have the best ideas.  Just ask my mom.  She’s been cheap before it was cool to be cheap.  The cool kids call it “Going Green” now.  But if you were to tell my mom that she was going green, she’d probably think that she had gangrene.

Hand her a plastic bag with a scallion bunch, held together by a rubber band, and she’s in her element.  First, she’ll cut the roots off of each stalk and replant those in her garden. Once cut, she’ll toss the remaining leafy section of the scallions into a pot.  Rubber bands will go into a bag full of others that she’s collected since the Nixon days.  They’re so old, they snap in half when you tug on them.  I think she’s secretly planning on using them to build some sort of rubber band bomb shelter, in the event of a third world war.  And then the plastic bag is used to hold all of the extra money she’s been saving.

She jangles this bag from time to time when she thinks her spendthrift children are exhibiting extravagant spending behavior.  Like buying bottled water and not repurposing the plastic as a planter.  Or not collecting rainwater, to use as irrigation.  Can’t finish your rice?  Use it as an adhesive.  I used to have a pen pal in Africa who received letters from me, sent in homemade envelopes held together by leftover rice.  Some people guilt-trip their children into finishing their meals because there are “starving children in Africa”.  I literally sent my leftovers to Africa.

For most of my childhood, we kept pet chickens.  Well, they were pets until they would inevitably become “missing”.  These suspicious disappearances would often coincide with my mom cheerfully announcing to the family that the “chicken soup is ready!”  This usually happened a few hours after we had called off the search for the missing fowl.  As a child, I often thought that there was a chicknapper in the neighborhood with a voracious appetite for poultry dishes.  It worried me that someone like that was on the loose, and I thought it was my civic responsibility to bring this to the public’s attention.  Instead of posting up pictures of our missing chickens on the side of milk cartons, I suggested to my mom that we have chicken nugget boxes printed with a colored photo of our missing fowl friend, to alert the neighborhood.  She just laughed and told me to finish my chicken soup cause, unlike rice, it’s no good as an adhesive alternative.

Having a pet chicken is only fun in theory.  They poop.  A lot.  They poop while running away from you.  They poop while they eat.  They poop while you’re petting them.  And you can only pet them in one direction, if you want to avoid ruffling their feathers.  Then you feel guilty when you crave chicken nuggets after playing with them.

Besides, no matter how good your pet chicken is, it will always run away from you.  Nothing is more traumatizing than being thirteen years of age, and running down a busy road, trying to unsuccessfully lure your pet chicken home, with a limp piece of lettuce. To make matters worse, our house was near several schools, so if it was during peak traffic hours, your chicken run performance was guaranteed to have a fellow classmate in the audience.  If you’re wondering, chickens don’t respond to its name or commands.  It’s not like searching for a dog and all you have to say is “Hello Pet Dog, are you hungry?  Please come to me if you are.”  Chickens aren’t stupid but they are technically birdbrained.  To catch a chicken on the lam, all you can do is hope that it’ll run into a wall or wide pole so that you can swoop in and carry it home, underneath your shirt.

Fast forward to a year ago.  During a visit to Portland, I came across a booth advertising “urban homesteading” services to the general public.  This phrase was new to me but when I read the bullet points of what constitutes urban homesteading e.g. edible landscaping, pickling, raising farm animals; it was like reading an exalted description of my childhood.

I picked up the phone and called my mom.  “Mom!  Remember how I used to complain about gathering chicken shit to use as fertilizer?  How, every time I drop off the dog with you, I’m a bit surprised that you haven’t attached a yoke and plow to her back and implemented her as a beast of burden?  I take it all back.  You’re cooler than 95% of America now.  The word to describe you is ‘hipster’ and you being cheap is called “urban homesteading’”.  There was a bit of silence on the phone and she finally replied, “You’re speaking with too many English words, I couldn’t understand a word you said.  Are you trying to tell me that I need my hips replaced?”  Oh mom, you’re so cool, you don’t even know it.  And that’s what every hipster strives to be.  That, and have good hair.

So, it probably comes as no surprise that I chose to forage and thrift my way into making bridesmaids gifts.  I even added chicken wire as a sort of tribute to all of my past chicken friends/dinners.  Here’s how I made everything:

Step 1:  Walk outside.  Collect some rocks.  Walk back inside and take a nap.  You’ll need it for your Goodwill trip, later in the day.  I think Goodwill is one of the rare places where you routinely hear, over the intercom, “Will the parents of the two year old, who’s currently filling his basket with toys, please come and claim him before CPS does?”  But that’s where I found the lace (99 cents apiece), blueish grey teacups ($1.99 each) and blank cards + envelopes ($1.99).  I then stopped by Jo-Ann Fabric to see what else I could find. I left with these chicken wire boxes, which were $3 each, after being marked down at 70% off.  I don’t remember how much the scrapbooking paper was but it was probably under 70 cents apiece.


Step 2:  Cut out the scrapbook paper in fancy shapes and glue it onto the blank cards. Write on top of it, let it dry and glue on the lace fabric.  You’ll probably mess up a few times.  I sure did.


Step 3:  Paint the copper colored chicken wire box with off white paint.  I deliberately left some areas “distressed” to make it look like as if it had been pecked at by a bunch of hungry chickens.  Then, line the box, with the rest of the scrapbook paper, to give it that “sophisticated henpecked” look.


Step 4:  While the box dries off, tear out some pages from a book and glue it onto the insides of the envelopes.  I used a book that was falling apart, but you can use whatever book you’re not reading.  Just scan the page before glueing it on.  You don’t want to be sending your grandma steamy scenes from a grocery aisle novel.  Unless she was the one who gave you the book in the first place.  While the glue dries, I took embroidering thread and sewed on a border to my cards.



Step 5:  Put on some pants and go back outside to collect some branches.  I got these off of the beach.  Then I burned the wedding date into each piece.  I also wrote the names of each bridesmaid with white ink because nothing impresses people more than their names written on random objects.


Step 6:  Cut out a piece of sponge and glue it onto the bottom of each teacup.  You’ll want to make sure that the sponge is dry and the teacup is clean, when you adhere the two together.


Step 7:  There’s a lot of moss in Seattle.  It grows everywhere.  Roof tops, abandoned cars, sidewalk cracks.  So, I gathered some while on a walk with the dog.  It was growing on the sidewalk.  I thought about sending a bill for “moss removal services” to the CIty of Seattle but that requires too much effort.  But use whatever is abundant, around you.


Step 8:  Water the moss and fashion some tags out of the scrapbook paper you’ve been cutting off of.  I wrote down the city where the wedding will take place at.


Step 9:  Add something sweet.  I baked some sugar cookies.  Then I ate half.  But six remained.  Oh, I cut them out in the shapes of each bridesmaids’ state of residence.  For some reason, I had a Texas shaped cookie cutter.  For Arizona and New York, I cut the shapes out, freehand.  The first picture is unfrosted and the second is frosted, even though you can barely tell.  I would’ve re-frosted them in a darker color but after eating a dozen of them, it kind of grew on me. So I left them, as is.