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.

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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

I Have Started Going Through the KonMari Method, Part 3 (Final)

This is continued from Part 2.

Hey, you removed the “(Not Really)” from the title. Does that mean you’ve really started this KonMari nonsense?

Yes, I have definitely started the KonMari path. I have finished selecting which socks, T-shirts, and pants I am going to keep.

How many are you going to keep?

13 pairs of socks, 8 T-shirts, and 5 pairs of pants. But those numbers won’t stay fixed because a) clothes eventually wear out and b) I may choose to add to this collection.

How many of those T-shits are ace T-shirts?

Two of them. I was originally planning to let go of one of them because I didn’t like that it was mostly white, but instead I mixed tara powder and iron sulfate to dye it purple. I like the purple color much better, so I’m keeping it.

This is what the t-shirt looked like before I dyed it.

This is what the t-shirt looks like now.


Continue reading

I Have (Not Really) Started Going Through the KonMari Method, Part 2

As I said at the beginning of Part 1, one of the early obstacles to doing the KonMari method was figuring out which clothes in my room belonged to me, and which clothes belonged to my mother.

I had vast piles of clothing in my room (writing this sentence in past tense feels very good). 95% of this clothing was clothing I never asked for, never wanted, and if a fairy had come along at any point in my life and offered to make those clothes magically disappear, I would have enthusiastically accepted the offer.
Continue reading

I Have (Not Really) Started Going Through the KonMari Method, Part 1

Though I haven’t seen Marie Kondo’s Netflix show (I don’t have Netflix), the buzz around the show caused me to read her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and I am now in the process of going through the clothing-

YOU REALLY HAVE JOINED MARIE KONDO’S CULT! NOOOOOOOO!

Maybe I have joined, so what?

But it’s a popular hot trend of the type you usually ignore! Especially since it’s from TV!

I think it is cool that I’ve fallen in sync with a hot TV trend for once, albeit almost by accident.

But everybody is overwhelming the thrift stores at once!

The picture is more complicated that than in San Francisco (and I am saddened by the disappearance of the thrift stores in the Mission / SoMa). I do sincerely wish I had discovered the book a month earlier (or possibly years earlier).

But you’re an atheist!

I do not plan to do the part of the KonMari method where I set up a little shrine in my home.

But you’re going to be thanking objects! Inanimate objects!

Ummmm, I was doing that even before I heard of Marie Kondo or any of her work.

Fair point. But before you mostly kept that practice to yourself and told only a few people about it. Now you’re not just going to quietly thank inanimate objects, you’re going to try to push other people in the KonMari cult!

I promise that I will not try to push other people into the KonMari cult. I may talk about the benefits (as well as the negative effects) of the KonMari method, and I may counter criticism when I feel like it, but when people say ‘I don’t want to do the Konmari thing’ I will say ‘cool, then don’t do it.’ Continue reading

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 4

When I say that I am worried about flame retardants, I am particularly worried about brominated flame retardants and chlorinated tris. I found this article from 2004 helpful for understanding the chemistry of these flame retardants. I find these types of flame retardants especially scary because a) they bioaccumulate (i.e. once they are in your body they are going to stay in your body for a very long time, possibly the rest of one’s life) and b) they generally are carcinogenic and disrupt the endocrine system. I don’t want cancer, and I already have a vulnerable endocrine system. Specifically, I’m in the grey zone between ‘does not have Hashimoto’s disease’ and ‘has Hashimoto’s disease’ and I want to preserve my thyroid’s ability to make hormones so that I don’t need to take prescription hormones.

Ironically, one of the household products with the highest levels of brominated flame retardants is plastic casings in computers – and hey, I’m using a computer right now. Here is an article about brominated flame retardants in electronics. It makes me glad that it’s been over 15 years since there has been a TV in my room (well, except when I was in Taiwan, but the TV was far from my bed and I almost never touched it), and glad that I insisted on keeping computers out of my room until my mid-teens. And my keyboard, which I am using to type this post, may also contain high levels of brominated flame retardants. Great. I’m going to wash my hands after I finish typing this.

But this is about my bed, not my electronics.

And the answer is, yes, my new futon mattress contains a flame retardant chemical.

BUT the only flame retardant chemical it contains is sodium borate, more commonly known as borax. Borax does not bioaccumulate, is not a carcinogen, and one needs a fairly high dose in order to be poisoned. I don’t plan to eat my mattress, so I’m not worried about exposing myself to a high dose. The borax will make it more complicated to compost my mattress after its no longer useful as a mattress, but it is still biodegradable in some circumstances (I’m almost certain a municipal composting facility could handle it), so it’s not going to poison the world for thousands of years or something. There are some who claim that sodium borate is not ‘green’ or safe to use at home, but upon further research, I did not find those claims convincing (here is an essay about that).

Besides being a flame retardant, borax is also a bed bug deterrent. I have never had a problem with bed bugs, and I want to keep it that way.

And borax is also antifungal. For reasons I explained in the previous post, I appreciate a little extra help keeping the mold at bay. Borax is not antibacterial, so benign bacteria are welcome to live in my bed (I think our living environments already have too many antibacterial chemicals – antibacterials in my mattress would be overkill).

Of course, I learn that pillows can have flame retardants too. Where aren’t there flame retardants?

I took a closer look at my pillow and found that 1) it is 100% polyester (probably a lot less flame retardants than foam pillows, but possibly still has toxic flame retardants) 2) it was moldy and 3) it was generally gross. The last two things weren’t really a surprise since I have been using this pillow since I returned to San Francisco in 2014, and it was probably an old pillow lying about the house back then (i.e. not new), and I’ve never cleaned it, and I drool in my sleep.

I decided to replace it with a millet hull / buckwheat hull pillow. Since buckwheat pillows are common in Japan, it’s consistent with the washiku aesthetic of the mattress and goza mats. I also liked the idea of being able to combine millet and buckwheat in whatever ratio was most comfortable to me.

I started out with having it be a full buckwheat pillow (not millet). A lot of people report that they need a night or two to get used to using a buckwheat pillow. Not me – I thought it was very comfortable right away. Then again, I also think paperback books are okay pillows, so I’m not the most discerning of pillow connoisseurs. Then I experimented with a few different buckwheat / millet ratios. I think the main thing millet hulls add is that they are quieter than buckwheat hulls. I think the thing where hull pillows really excel (for use/comfort) is that they provide excellent support for the head, which means I move my head less when I’m in bed. I did have a problem for a little while with my ear getting sore after lying on the pillow all night, but I fixed that problem by adjusting the fill.

I also think a queen size pillow is a bigger than I need. Not that having a big pillow is a problem – it’s just more than I need.

While I appreciate the versatility of being able to have various buckwheat/millet ratios in my pillow, I think in retrospect, I would have preferred to spend less money and just buy a smaller pure buckwheat pillow (BUT definitely one with a zipper – it is important to be able to adjust/replace hulls).

I still drool when I sleep. Thus, the hulls may eventually get moldy. In fact, they will probably get moldy even faster than polyester. I suppose if that happens I could just replace the hulls, and use the old hulls as mulch in the backyard.

***

Out of the five mattresses which were in my old bed, the two old futons and the feather mattress are now gone. We arranged a bulk item pickup with the local recycling/trash service, and we got rid of some other bulky items which are no longer usable (we can request ten items be removed per pickup). I assume they will recycle the parts which can be recycled, and send what cannot be recycled to a landfill.

The box spring mattresses – including the one which was poking me in the back – are now in our basement.

Since we easily have ten items for the bulky item pickup, I did not insist on putting the box spring mattresses in the pickup. But I am irritated because I want to have space in the basement for things which are potentially useful, not mattresses which we are never going to use again, and which will become harder to move as my dad loses physical mobility. My mom is the one who insisted on keeping those mattresses, at least for now. Yes, even the mattress that pokes people in the back. She says ‘what if we have overnight guests?’ Hey, we already have a guest mattress, and we would have to rearrange a lot of furniture to make space for a second guest bed. It would be easier to put people in sleeping bags/tents in the backyard than to place TWO guest beds in our home – especially since the mattresses in question have to be moved by two people (what if my dad is no longer in good enough shape to move the mattress at that time?) whereas I can set up tents/sleeping bags by myself. And why would we want to offer guests a mattress which pokes them in the back?

At first, she was even against getting rid of the moldy futons and the useless feather mattress. However, once it sunk it just how useless these mattresses are, she agreed to have them removed.

My mom has trouble letting go of a lot of material goods, not just these mattresses. My guess is that it has to do with her childhood experience of poverty, when getting adequate clothing for everyone in her family was a struggle.

And that is why my bed was piled up with all of these bad mattresses in first place. Those five mattresses were not there because they were each contributing to my sleep. I would have slept just as well with the bottom box mattress as will the five mattresses – better, because I would not have been poked in the back. Heck, I was probably exposed to even more toxins/mold with those five mattresses than I would have been if there had only been a single box mattress. All those mattresses were there because it was a place to store them, not to serve my benefit.

I do not think my parents really thought through all of the costs and benefits of keeping those mattresses in my room. I do not blame them, because until these past few months, I had not thought through the costs and benefits of all of those mattresses myself.

If we put in another request for bulky item removal, I am going to try to persuade her to agree to get rid of these mattresses. I really would prefer to have more space in the basement.

In the next part and final part, I will talk about three alternative types of natural/simple beds which cost less than 1000 USD (i.e. are not as outrageously expensive as most natural/organic beds sold in the USA), and why I decided not to try them.