My Uncle Almost Died

On February 10, my paternal uncle called my mother. I didn’t hear the conversation, but I imagine it went something like this:

UNCLE: Is my brother there?
MOTHER: No, but he’ll be home soon, you can call back.
UNCLE: Actually, I can’t because I’m going to have surgery.
MOTHER: ???
UNCLE: I have a dissection.
MOTHER: What’s that?
UNCLE: Tell my brother what’s happening. [hands phone to hospital worker]
MOTHER: What is happening?
HOSPITAL WORKER: Ma’am, he just entered the operating room.
MOTHER: Who are you?

The hospital worker told my mother the name of the hospital and the surgeon who was about to operate on my uncle and explained how to get updates on my uncle’s condition.

My uncle had an aortic dissection. I had never heard of ‘aortic dissections’ before Wednesday. My understanding (courtesy of Mayo Clinic) is this: an aortic dissection is when the inner lining of the aorta (the largest artery connected to the heart) tears. Once the inner lining is torn, it’s usually a matter of hours or days until the aorta itself breaks open, hemorrhaging lots of blood and causing the circulatory system to fail. It’s almost always fatal. The only way to stop this is to surgically repair the aorta before it breaks. Continue reading

Finding Oral History in Print is Validating

I feel like I owe my ancestors an apology, for having the doubts I once had about the history they passed down to me.

My great-great-grandfather Harry served as a soldier in the U.S. Civil War in the Union Army. He was in his late twenties when the war began. I don’t know when he immigrated to the United States, but I know that he was born in Cologne, which at the time of his birth was part of Prussia (now it’s part of Germany). A generation before him, Cologne had been part of France, and Harry’s mother had French ancestry. The oral history I heard is that he left Cologne/Prussia because he was opposed to the political direction that Prussia was going towards. He immigrated to the United States, which he perceived to be much more democratic. What I heard is that German immigrants were so devoted to the Union cause in the Civil War because, after having their political ambitions frustrated in Europe, they valued American democracy. And to them, plantation owners and the institution of slavery represented what they were trying to get away from in Europe. To hear the way it’s been described in my family, German-Americans were responsible for keeping many areas under Union control which otherwise would have become part of the Confederacy, heck, the Union might not have even won the Civil War without the German-Americans.

I’ve never exactly disbelieved this oral history, but…I’ve also questioned it. I could think of ways this could have been distorted through the generations. None of this was every covered in my American history classes in school. I remember learning a little bit about ‘the old immigration’ (i.e. Irish and German immigrants in the middle of the 19th century) but not how that related to the Civil War. I’ve occasionally encountered references to Irish-Americans in the New York Draft Riots (content warning: anti-black racial violence), but the only reference I can recall finding in print to German-Americans in the Civil War was a brief mention in a Civil War memoir.

That is, until now. Continue reading

Gloomy Sky Over San Francisco

The sky is totally dark and orange

Looking towards the Pacific Ocean…at around 11 AM.

On the morning of September 9, 2020, when I woke up, it was so dark that I thought my clock must be wrong. Did Daylight Savings end and I forgot about it? I wondered. But no. The sky really was that dark. Even as late as NOON, it was so dark that it was a major strain on my eyes to read without artificial light.

It did get brighter in the afternoon (I was able to do some reading without artificial light!) And today, September 10, when I’m writing this post, there is a lot more natural light, though still less than a normally-foggy day.

That’s a street light in the upper-right corner, NOT the sun. Yes, it was so dark that the street lights stayed on all day.

As many of you know, there are a lot of wildfires burning through the Pacific coastal region of North America right now. I’ve read in the news that much of the smoke which darkened the sky of San Francisco on September 9 came from the wildfires blazing through Oregon. (It also occurs to me that this post is going to be published on September 11, which is very infamously associated with lethal fire).

I was out walking from around 10 AM to noon on September 9, which is when I took all of the photos in this post. A lot of other people were snapping photos too.

Amazingly, even with all of this smoke in the air, and the layer of ash covering cars and other objects which were left outside all night, the air quality was ‘moderate’. According to the news, the smoke was really high in the air, whereas the air near the ground (which we breathe) is clean air from the ocean. But the air quality varies a lot in the city due to all of the microclimates. According to the map I checked, the closer to sea-level and the further west, the cleaner the air, the further above sea-level and the further east, the worse the air, with the east sides of the tops of hills having the worst air. Continue reading

Thoughts on Renting Out Storage Space (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Our physically closest competition among the big brand self-storage entities is the Public Storage at 2690 Geary Street, which I’ll call ‘Public Storage Geary’. In fact, it’s the only big brand storage facility for a large swath of San Francisco, which is why they often have no units available, and even when units are available they charge more than even the other self-storage facilities in the city, to say nothing of facilities outside of city limits.

We don’t charge nearly as much per square foot as the big brand self-storage facilities within city limits. We can’t, mainly for two reasons. Continue reading

Thoughts on Renting Out Storage Space (Part 1)

A while ago, I was listening to this interview with Gretchen Rubin, and she made some comment about how, if she had money to invest, she’d want to invest in the self-storage industry. My reaction is ‘I am involved in the storage business, and that’s not where I’d put money if I had a lot of money to invest.’

That’s not to say that the storage business is bad. It’s been a great side hustle for my mother for decades. But I also know that renting space to people for storage isn’t all rainbows and unicorns.

When I say we are in the storage business, I mean that my mother rents out much of the basement, including the garage, to outsiders (and in recent years I’ve been helping her). When I wrote about the ‘storage room’ in this post, I was being a bit misleading. The reason that room was empty was that it was available for rent. It has since been rented, and currently is full of the tenant’s stuff.

When my mother bought this building, she needed a mortgage. The only mortgage she could get came with an 18% interest rate. That means paying almost 1/5 of the outstanding balance of the loan every year. It was a time of high inflation, but it was still a steep interest rate. On top of that, because the house wasn’t inhabitable when she bought it, she also have to pay for a renovation, which ended up costing ten times more than the initial estimated cost. Suffice to say, she was under a lot of financial pressure. Of course she got roommates who paid rent as soon as she could, but she also wanted to make money off the basement to help pay the mortgage. Thus, she started renting out the garages and some of the rooms, and has been doing it ever since. The only room in the basement which has never been rented out, other than the basement corridor, is the furnace room.

So what are the costs of renting out basement space as storage? Continue reading

On Cooking Smells (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

In the book If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley claims “We live today in an age of deadened senses. People in the past could be shocked or transformed by a smell, something that rarely even registers in our sanitised world.” She then goes on to describe how, in the past, that bad smells themselves were believed to be a cause of disease, and that pregnant and other physically vulnerable people should avoid them (in other words, this was part of a different mental model of hygiene than we have today).

Cooking smells were considered ‘bad’ smells.
Continue reading

Where did the notes go?

As I went through the KonMari thing earlier this year, I peeled back layer after layer of accumulated material possessions. It was like doing an archaeological study on myself. I could ‘date’ many of the layers of my stuff, going back to when I was a toddler (which is when I started living in this house).

The most abrupt transition was between the layer from right before I went to Asia, and the layer from when I returned to Asia. That is partially because that is the longest period of time (almost four years) that I have been away from this house. The layers before and I after I lived in Mountain View were also distinct.

When my dad or I find old stuff in the basement that we remember but haven’t seen in years, we call it an ‘archaeological find’ (and he’s the one who started using the word ‘archaeological’ not me). Two examples of archaeological finds from my past are the 3D Taj Mahal puzzle (which was found in the basement) and these writings from when I was 7 years old (which was found in my bedroom).

Recently, we’ve were working on a household project in the basement which involved objects which might not have ever been moved since before I was born. For example, literally today (the day I starting writing the first draft, not the day this post is published) we finally got rid of some materials which were left over from the renovation – and had not been moved between the renovation and when we decided to move them a couple weeks ago. The renovation of the house happened in the early 1980s. Yeah, that stuff had been sitting there for more than 35 years. (The reason there was a time delay between when we initially moved the materials and when we finally discarded them was that we had to schedule for someone to come by our home and take them away).

I find it hard to imagine that we’ll find much in the house which has been in place since before the renovation (unless it’s fixed to a wall), but maybe something has eluded the renovators and us. But there are older layers in the sense that my parents have stuff which they’ve possessed for a lot more than 35 years. For example, during the very same project, I also found some of my mother’s really old documents, such as her graduation diploma … from her elementary school. Continue reading

Alaska, My Mother

When I was in Cooper Landing, a woman asked me why I wanted to visit Alaska. I gave some vague answer like ‘why wouldn’t I want to come to Alaska?’ She said that most people don’t think of traveling around Alaska. I pointed out the tons of tourists, and she said that most of them come on cruise ships. I think she is underestimating just how many tourists there are in Alaska (she lives in a small settlement on Kachemak Bay that is only accessible by water taxi or private boat), but her question was still a good one: why was I visiting Alaska?

As I’ve already said on this blog, I want to see and experience things which I cannot see and experience in California. But there are many places I can do that, so why Alaska and not somewhere else? My trip was partially inspired by watching the documentary Alaska’s Marine Highway (and that is a large part of why I am spending so much time on ferries). But even that is not the deepest reason.

There is my mother.

She had already been living in the United States (in the Washington D.C. metro area), but her first employer could not offer her a visa which would allow her to get a ‘green card’ (permanent residency in the United States). My mother wanted to live in the United States indefinitely, so she really wanted a green card. She was looking for a job which could get her one. The first job which she was able to get which promised her a green card just happened to be in Alaska. And that is how she ended up working and living in Alaska.

Eventually, her employer transferred her to San Francisco. When she was having trouble getting a mortgage to buy a house in San Francisco, her employer (who was the same employer she had in Alaska) stepped in and helped her get the mortgage (and they also paid her enough that she was able to afford to buy a house in San Francisco). That is how she became the owner of a house in San Francisco. And renovating the house (it was practically uninhabitable at the time of purchase) started a chain of events which led to her meeting my father. And then I came along, and I grew up (and still live in) the house that she bought. And it can all be traced back to the job she had in Alaska.

I have been to many museums in Alaska, and one of the pieces of Alaska history which sometimes is exhibited is the boom which happened after the discovery of oil on the North Slope. The oil boom created many jobs, including my mother’s job in Alaska (and even after she moved to San Francisco, her employer could afford to offer financial assistance with paying down her mortgage above and beyond her ordinary salary partially because they were making so much money from the Alaska oil boom). Thus, even though I wasn’t there, I consider that oil boom to be part of my personal history.

All my life, I’ve heard my mother make comments about Alaska. No particular comment stands out to me, but it conditioned me to think of Alaska in a certain way. In my thoughts, Alaska is a much more ‘major’ and ‘important’ place than, say, Minnesota, or Pennsylvania, or New Mexico, or Hawaii, not because it is objectively more ‘major’ or ‘important’ but simply because I grew up among people who almost never mentioned those other states.

As I’ve discussed travel with my mother over the years, she has a tendency to say things like ‘if you think [place] was spectacular, you should see Alaska!’

My mother has been more excited about me going to Alaska than any other travel I have undertaken. She enthusiastically tried to plan some of my trip for me, and I asked her to keep her armchair travel itinerary separate from my real travel plan. If she were twenty years younger, I’m sure she would have joined me and we would have traveled around Alaska together.

As I have traveled around Alaska, and learned so much about Alaska, I have also realized how little I know about my mother’s experiences in Alaska. This is especially obvious when Alaskans ask me about what my mother did when she was in Alaska. I hope I will have the opportunity to ask my mother more about what it was like and how she lived when she was in Alaska.

I actually finished this KonMari thing

Yes, I finished doing the KonMari thing before May 1st.

To be clear:

– I only went through MY stuff; I did not include stuff which is common to the whole household, nor my parents’ stuff
– I am interested in doing some de-cluttering in other specific parts of the house at some point in the future, but NOT NOW, and only if/when I can get my parents on board
– I did not do a digital KonMari (i.e. I did not apply the KonMari method to my hard drives, email, etc.). I don’t know whether or not I want to do a digital KonMari.
– There are still some changes I want to make in my room, but since those changes are not about what stuff I am going to keep and where I am going to place the stuff I want to keep, those changes have nothing to do with the KonMari method

Did you do the categories in the recommended order?

No, my order was: Clothes, Papers, Books, Sentimental Items, and Komono. (I actually started on komono before I finished papers, but since I finished the komono category last, I placed it at the end).

What was the easiest category?

Papers.

What was the hardest category?

Clothes. Thank goodness I got that over with first.

Did the KonMari method change your life?

Of course it did, anything which changes my living space so much is going to change my life.

Errr, I don’t think that is what most people mean when they hear or say that the KonMari method is ‘life-changing’? Continue reading

For Whom Do We Tidy?

When we ‘tidy’, who are we trying to impress?

Yes, I am still going through that KonMari thing even though it’s been a few weeks since I’ve blogged about it. Among other things, I’ve browsed/skimmed a few other books about decluttering/tidying at the library. I’ve even read one of them from cover to cover, specifically Decluttering at the Speed of Life. (Why that one and not the others? Because it’s entertaining. The others I’ve browsed are too boring to finish reading.) These books I’ve browsed at the library were all (I think) written by Americans, and (I assume that) the forewords were also written by Americans.

I’ve also read the Taiwan edition of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up with two forewords which (I assume) were written by Taiwanese people. (There were a lot more differences between the Taiwan/Chinese translation and the U.S.A./English translation of the book than I expected, and I could write an entire post about that).

So now I can do a little cultural comparison – how are books about tidying/organizing/decluttering/etc. written by Americans different from a book about tidying written by a Japanese person with forewords written by Taiwanese people?

I’m sure a cultural anthropologist could dedicate an entire career to this kind of thing, but I’m not an anthropologist, so I will jump straight to what stands out to me. Namely, whether tidying is supposed to make a home look good to guests, or whether it is supposed to make it look good to residents. Continue reading