Category Archives: responsibility

Standing Home

I’ve never had a home to fight for. I moved around so much as a child that I graduated from my seventeenth public school as a new kid. Throughout my twenties, money in my bank account equalled passport stamps equalled minority status in most countries I trekked through. A local woman in rural Nepal once waggled her permanently broken arm in my face, grunting muted guttural sounds from her throat. When she opened her mouth to, I assumed from her body language, yell, I saw that she had no tongue, and few teeth. With her good arm she smacked my jacket pocket. Unable to comprehend, I dumbly stared at her. I remember smelling dried sweat and dal, the traditional local cuisine, on her sleeve. My role became clear to me that day: I was a privileged Westerner come to voyeur foreign squalor. Shame washed over me. I had no place there.

I told myself to go home, but I didn’t know where that was. 

This autumn, in an effort to make believe, I began building a tiny house on wheels. A place of my own. Before I started, I told myself that because I had no land yet on which to put it, I didn’t actually deserve it a roof over my head, a place to own and take responsibility for. That I hadn’t earned the right to a place to exist, or feel safe. Doesn’t everyone deserve that, one might wonder. Let me tell you: as I continue to build the tiny home, I choose to trust that I am also building something within myself that might one day belong within it. 

My friend Ari was headed out to Standing Rock to support the water protectors in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. He knew no one out there, and had little money. When he announced on social media his intention to go, someone he didn’t know bought him a train ticket in support, or solidarity, or perhaps lack of knowing how else to help the water protectors keep their ancestral home but to put people on it who wouldn’t budge.

“Do you want to come out, Sean?” Ari asked.

My anger and sadness flared. My body shook in resonance. I sensed that the Native Americans knew in their souls that home was more than just a plot of land in a nice neighborhood, a piece of wisdom long lost to my ancestry. I thought that I could go to Standing Rock, and that my white maleness would declare my alacrity to heal the genocidal rift between our cultures. It seemed to fit my pursuit: I needed to know what it was to fight for home. I wanted viscerally to make eye contact with a man in riot gear from the other side of the line. To reach across the gulf between us: not just politics, but the narcissistic colonialist values that would keep a modern American man from honoring the Native struggle, not impeding it. I could empathize with the very human motivation to feed, clothe, and show one’s family that they loved them, but supporting a family at the expense of the freedoms police are employed to protect is another thing. I wanted the mercenary to see himself in me. I wanted my mother, who was a cop when I was a child, to see which side of the line I stood on.

To be sure, at Standing Rock I would stand isolated from my brethren in riot gear, and from the people I sought to aid. Maybe ‘aid’ was the wrong verb for what I wanted to do. Aid was what privilege-guilty Americans did to Africa; I wanted to be present, to listen. I wanted to wash dishes, chop firewood, build camp structures warm and strong enough to endure the frigid North Dakota winter. 

“Yes, I want to come,” I wrote back.

I contacted another friend who was moving his family to Omaha in three days. He replied immediately. Yes, there was room for me in the moving truck, if I would help with driving. 

Resistance set in. Did I have enough money? A warm enough sleeping bag? Was it ironic that I would consume heaps of fossil fuels in order to protest them? How long would I spend out there? My mother was coming to visit in a couple of weeks; would I be back in time? Would she understand if I wasn’t? 

I also had my own structure to build. The Northwest’s autumnal rains left me with precious few weather windows to work. Sunshine was forecast for the week. I had planned to sheathe and put up the walls, the most significant visual progress of the build: that of raising a pile of fastened lumber into a tangible house. 

Both options—going to Standing Rock; staying to build the tiny house—were noble holes to sink money into. Neither made sense. Why didn’t I just abandon both, give in to the poverty consciousness I was raised to believe—that there is never enough—and call my boss to pick up some more work, like a good American man? 

Fervent and confused, I backpedalled, and deferred choosing my destiny until morning.

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I’ve never seen an animal willingly subject itself to physical violence. I doubt that even David Attenborough has seen an impala in pursuit of a cheetah. Impalas know who wins that fight. 

Humans put themselves in harm’s way daily. We ride motorcycles, drink alcohol, join the military, stay in abusive relationships, eat fast food. Some beg to be whipped; stand unarmed in front of advancing war tanks; set themselves on fire to make a point.We put ourselves in dangerous situations because we either 1) ignore or haven’t developed our intuition and risk assessment to register that it’s dangerous, 2) think we’re cunning enough to avoid harm, or 3) because we’re harmed enough already that we indulge in it. 

Consciousness is a funny thing. With it, humans invented iPhones, democracy, and given a thousand names to the Great Mystery: Allah, Yahweh, Love, God. Consciousness is powerful, too, in that an individual may choose to make herself vulnerable, to chase the proverbial cheetah when her instinct says that only death will come if she does. It’s as if we are constantly asking ourselves, what if I do this?

My friend Ari knew that he might experience violence. In part, that’s why he went to Standing Rock. It felt important for him to witness people gathering to fight. It meant they believed in something. And from what I know of Ari, he probably needed something to believe in.

The complex cost of developing our consciousness is the very problem it provides us the ability to solve: as we discover new ways to create, the greater our power, and the closer we come to the values we’ve projected onto the gods. But we’re not perfect yet. Like gods in on-the-job training, humans make mistakes. We may assume that a particular resource is infinite, like oil. While framing my tiny house, I thought that I could get away with a mis-measured window frame. It wasn’t a big deal until much later when I couldn’t fit the window into the hole I’d created for it. Doing it right the first time would have been a pain, but I would have saved time and money.

By continuing to ask ‘what happens when I do this?’, observing the results, and changing our behavior accordingly, we enact and embody the very essence of what it is to be human—to ability to think, and to choose one path over another. Sometimes that looks like exploring the home culture, language, or land of others. In the not-so-distant past, European colonists coveted the land we now call America so much that they raped and pillaged for possession of it.

We did nearly everything we could to exterminate the Native American people. At Wounded Knee, we murdered them in cold blood. We systematically destroyed the bison population, once a primary food source. For decades we stole Native children, put them in boarding schools, made them wear “civilized” clothing, punished them for speaking their native languages. In the 18th century, the corporations of the day, including Hudson Bay Trading Company, traded and sold whiskey by the barrel to villages, creating a dependency that lasts into the 21st century. Later, we brought meth and heroin, drugs so powerful and addictive that the White Man has almost succeeded in our slow genocide. Now, an oil company is burying an oil pipeline under the Missouri River, a water source depended on by 17 million Americans. 

I woke up the next morning with a stone in my gut. I couldn’t go to Standing Rock. Not now. I needed to build my home. If there’s any gulf I needed to reach across, any rift I needed to heal, it was the shame of the privilege that allowed me to take up space. This body, this land, even this tiny house—these are not mine. They are   composed of resources lent to me—to us—for a time, and I can choose what to do with them. I have always deserved a home. The Standing Rock Sioux deserve their home. We all deserve clean water.

A month into his stay at Standing Rock, Ari was among dozens who were teargassed one night at a barricade where unarmed water protectors and heavily-armed members of the Morton County Sheriff department have faced off for months. A concussion grenade exploded in front of him, followed by a fire hose spraying bear mace. Rubber bullets and bean bags were shot at the protectors. In subfreezing temperatures, the fire hose unleashed torrents of water upon the protectors.

The concussion grenade had struck a young Native woman, tearing into her arm above the elbow. She stared dumbly at her attackers. When she opened her mouth to yell, she had no tongue. Ari’s role became clear to him. He had come to witness the fact that she and her people were the Impala being driven from their ancestral home. After generations of caring for this land, they no longer had a place there. Ari knew who would win this fight, and shame washed over him.

The suffering is no longer foreign.

(Photo courtesy of Leland B Benoist)

The Collared Blues

Stumptown Lives started with a BANG!

Yet another helpless debate about rising housing costs in Portland set me off on a mission: to write about the city from other people’s perspectives, especially from those who had lived here before Portland became Portlandia.

By the end of the weekend, I’d interviewed Greg McKelvey, whose impassioned speech at a Bernie Sanders rally shook me to the core, and spent the better part of that weekend holed up on coffeeshops and bars refining the piece. The piece received more than 500 views on the first day.

Like many, I was sad to see things that I loved about Portland being demolished, swept away, and built over. Angry that my wife and I would not qualify to buy a house within city limits for the next thousand years, Stumptown Lives was meant to express my frustration and malcontent with the changes around me. 

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For two years, I’ve worked occasional gigs for a quality, small-time general contractor, and endlessly compared the residences we’ve worked in to our tiny Southeast basement. I’ve swung hammers at the tiled walls of perfectly good bathrooms in the fancy Dunthorpe neighborhood; begrudgingly dismantled condo kitchens (at least they have a kitchen!), worked in houses whose doorways I didn’t have to duck under to walk through.

Before long, I was a living contradiction. Angered and stressed by Portland’s growing pains, I unequivocally contributed to them. Indeed, Portland’s rampant growth was contributing to my bills. Nevertheless, my savings was running low; rent was due. Something had to give.

A late night motorcycle ride through Northwest revealed to me a massive New Seasons and condominium complex on land that last time I’d checked was a wasteland parking lot. I tried to conjure the resentment behind graffiti tags now commonplace around town: Stop Moving to PDX.

stopmoving

But I had no more energy for contempt. Have no more energy for contempt.

If the Portland natives from my Stumptown Lives stories could adapt to the mad changes happening to their birthplace, I wondered, could I, too, just change with it? 

Moreover, were the benefits of living in Portland—its conscious communities; delicious food; proximity to mountains, desert, sea, etc.—worth the trouble of changing of my lifestyle, even a bit?

I embarked on an experiment to answer whether could I support myself in Portland at the economic level that the city is rising to.

Just as the cherry and pear trees exploded, remodeling work with the contractor picked up. A second job was easy to come by: valeting at a swank hotel downtown.

Neglecting my creative pursuits, and shortsightedly attempting to achieve the bozo American dream that was bashed into my head since day one—if you work harder, you’ll be more successful—I swung hammers, parked BMWs, barely slept. Weeks passed.

I worked 12-, 15-, 17-hour days. Finished one job to drive across town for the other. I managed one truncated conversation with my wife per day, in the two or three blurry hours of off-the-clock awake time in which I also had to to eat, shit, brush my teeth, and commute in my clunky old van.

A week in to the second job, the van broke down, so I started riding my motorcycle. One fine day, leaving a job site in Dunthorpe, the motorcycle died—half an hour before I was due at the hotel. My wife began chauffeuring me to and from work in her car. It quickly became the only time we saw each other; I savored it.

Somewhere in the haze of spring, she was accepted to grad school in Seattle, a debt-laden event I celebrated in my stressed state with dread: would we ever do better than ‘just getting by’? 

I grew up poor, and learned early that the proverbial “blue collar” comes attached to leashes, and that slack (money, time off) was awarded only in trade for a man’s primary stores of energy—energy which my best friend, an 88-year-old
ex-superworkaholic, wishes he would have spent more with his wife,
who passed a few years ago.

My frustration and malcontent left me drained as I got home. I would snap at my wife, and complain about aches, pains, quibbles at work: the quintessential makings of an absent father, a workaholic, a muggle in search of the Great White Picket Fence.

When social media pages reminded me that no one had heard from Stumptown Lives in a while, I realized that I’d been caught up in my own Stanford Prison Experiment, in which student subjects adopted the very real roles of violent guards and subservient prisoners within mere days of converting the Psychology department basement into a quasi-prison.

Within two weeks, I was no longer the experimenting writer on a mission;
I was a glob of stress, with arms and legs.

The numbers on the checks were pathetic recompense for the only thing of value that I have: time. For a few hard days, the money represented my choice to not do what fulfills me.

panic

My trusty ol’ flight reaction kicked in: Why not just escape society, move to the woods, where I could build a cabin, write, chop wood and carry water? Wouldn’t life be easier? 

My inner critic went wild. A few weeks of work, it yelled, and you’re complaining about not being able to do what fulfills you? Are you aware of the epic amount of privilege it takes to be able to say that?

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As far as I can tell, I operate in a narcissistic culture that simultaneously demands one assert his or her individuality to overcome all obstacles including but not limited to sexism, racism, and expectation of physical perfection, and (barring politically-correct disabilities) shames or punishes (often quietly and slowly) those unwilling or unable to climb the pyramidal socio-economic ladder, at least to the rung of unambiguous self-reliance.

ladder

I hang by that ladder rung by my fingertips. Thank God I climb rocks to condition my tired tendons. My feet dangle above the heads of billions across the world.

I fight to not fall into the stories of a poor childhood with the same shame that keeps me from pulling myself up to the next rung, of achieving the state of wealth for which I’ve developed so much envy and contempt: the state of being without worry where next month’s rent will come from.

The pursuit of money in America is a thinly-veiled analogy for gambling: I start with what I start at birth, my odds of “winning”  determined by a roll of genetic and economic dice. My investments of time and money itself contributes not so much to a promised return as to my psychological attachment to More (which often takes the form of entitlement:
“I’ve worked hard, so I deserve…”)

I have a choice: what am I willing and able to do, given the oppression and privilege provided by my birth-dice, to get More?

In the end, money is simply a tool that facilitates our needs and desires: yes, it’s required to live in the system in which I live; no, I don’t need as much as they say I do to be happy, healthy, accepted by peers, etc.

Part of my privilege is that I have a choice as to what role in the game I want to play. I want to live in Portland, to eat good food, and to do my work—the right work.

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I quit the valet job, which allowed me to breathe in the evenings, write more, and connect with my loved ones. The day schedule of the remodeling work lets me pay my bills and appreciate the time I have to write, to balance my investments with my desired return, and to finally look up, enjoy the spring weather, and have dinner with a friend for the first time in months.

Most people in the world don’t have these options. Most stories do not end with neat bows. Portland is changing; that is the nature of cities, of humans. We ask questions, we learn, we advance.
This onward march causes much harm, which gives us the opportunity to refine our gait, swagger, and route. 

This experiment taught me that my energy goes where I put it, that I become adept at activities I do often. If I live in a state of stress and anxiety, I will emanate stress and anxiety. I choose otherwise. If that means I’ll never qualify to buy a house in Portland, I won’t take it personally. As least I’ll have the tools and skills to build one.

My name is Sean Talbot (pronounced Tal-bow), and mine is the voice and work behind Stumptown Lives.

Thanks for reading.

portland “isn’t it.”

This place just doesn’t do it for me, a friend recently said about living in Portland.

I need more diversity, she continued: more interaction with people who aren’t like me.

And it’s sad that most of the people of color I see are homeless, or something like it.

Someone else piped up: this city is more diverse than you think. We have a tendency to invisibilize groups of people just because they’re minorities.

What’s the difference between invisibilizing, I asked, and just not seeing them?

The answer caught up with me pretty quick.

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My choices dictate how I show up in and for the world: where I go, who I share space with, what conversations I have, the activities I pursue. If I participate mostly in white culture, that’s where my energy goes. It follows that if I want to experience cultural diversity, I might attend different events, meet people I have less in common with, and hear what they have to say.

The difference between wanting to experience diversity and actually interacting with people of different color/culture/language/nativity/belief/sexuality/class/etc is the desire, the need, the absence of said dynamics in the daily walkabout, and one’s acknowledgement of that absence.

Last autumn, I lived and worked in New York City for three months. Lived in Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan. The wild diversity of those I worked with and around in the event production and service industries sated me to a state of normalcy. Coming home to Portland, I’ve had a subtle sensation that something’s wrong, but can’t quite put my finger on it.

I relate to my friend whose feels more alive when she visits the Bay Area; the crossover of humanity and expression is such that there is simply a smaller proportion of white people, which makes, in my opinion, a more interesting mix of human expression. I don’t necessarily feel guilty for being born white (though I bear a vague responsibility for the actions of my ancestors), but I do notice my thoughts when I’m doing the daily thing in Portland – thoughts like, that guy sweeping the pay-per-hour parking lot is the first black person I’ve seen today; thoughts like, of course that woman doesn’t like to drive stick; thoughts like, why does this Mexican heroin addict keep talking about living the good Christian life? 

I notice these thoughts, and I don’t sweep them off the table. Thoughts are vital, material things that lead to verbal expression, then to action. I wonder, from what story deep inside me this or that thought might have come; what belief validates it; what has this person done to inspire my anger, or hatred?

One thought pattern I noticed while walking, taking the subway, and meandering New York City: I didn’t have such thoughts. True, I walked past Prospect Park down Flatbush in Brooklyn for a visceral taste of what I was told was a neighborhood I should “avoid at night” (I went there during the day). True, I zipped up my coat, pocketed my hands, straightened my posture and looked straight ahead when men of color approached me on the sidewalk late at night, and I ignored all but the most entertaining of panhandlers.

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That fear and discomfort inspired me: thoughts are impermanent things,
like cities and mental prisons.

choosing to belong

Choosing to belong is a prerequisite for an engaged democracy.
-Eden Trenor

As hordes of suburbanites flock back into cities; as migrant youth from the reddish Midwest find that the path to enlightenment (or at least social progress) leads toward the blue spots on the map; as the millennials who spent the entire Bush administration learning to hack continue to amass their fortunes, Portland now finds itself a playground for a generation of adults whose relationship to money and responsibility was largely formed to the tune of hip hop culture and trillion-dollar wars.

Portland is experiencing rapid and vulnerable change. No one knows what the external landscape will look like in five or eight years. We have occasion, however, to mold our internal landscapes – which will, in turn, influence how we see what happens in our streets.

Wait.

Before we go there, let’s back up a minute.

Hi. My name is Sean. I’m a tall, kind of awkward, white sis male. I’ve lived in Portland three years. Although I’m not particularly sorry for moving here, I’m learning that, like many places, Portland has a social history that began long before I arrived. Though I feel respectful of those who came before me, I have no idea if they would have, or do, welcome my presence.

This relatively new idea of honoring those who came before is a burden the colonists didn’t warn us about because they probably didn’t care. It’s heavy, too: as the great-great-etc. grandchildren of Euro-American “pioneers” who showed up in Native territory as cavalry or caravans looking to fill orders or find a safe plot of land, we intrinsically empathize with our ancestors (and often romanticize their quests with video games and school curriculums), but the memory comes with a dichotomous guilt, because we’re also, ideally, able to see the humanity of the colonized (read: expelled, murdered) people.

Let’s consider the name of the new pedestrian bridge that spans the Willamette River, Tilikum Crossing. After requesting the public to submit name ideas, the City refused the overwhelming consensus to name the bridge after Kirk Reeves, a famous, recently deceased Portland street performer, and instead settled on ‘Tilikum’ – a Chinook Wawa word for ‘people.’ So it was: Bridge of the People. Yes. To honor the people who lived in the region since before the last Ice Age, and who stewarded one of the most abundant salmon runs in the world until the early 1800s, when Industry arrived from the East.

It seems that everyone was happy with the name. Two installations of art donated by the The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde sits ceremonially inaccessible at either end of the crossing, flanked by subtle No Trespassing signs. Lest a curious pedestrian meander over to gander at one of the pieces (each a part of a three-piece project called ‘We Have Always Lived Here,’ by Chinook artist Greg A. Robinson), a TriMet rent-a-cop will roll up to warn you that it’s both unsafe and illegal to sit in the grass (my wife and I had a picnic next to one on Christmas day, before we were shooed away).

Regardless of name, the ceaseless machine of progress dictates that the new bridge would have gone up and been named Abigail Scott Duniway, or Kirk Reeves, or Wy’east, and would have been everything that it is now: a pretty coat of arms for Portland’s ironic commitment to sustainability. That the former curators of the lower Willamette Valley (so named for former locals also) were given an honorable mention by the great, etc. grandchildren of their murderers and captors must be a step in the right direction. As would be, for example, a better understood history of the black community’s history in Northeast by the new residents and officers gentrifying and patrolling Killingsworth St., a history all but blotted out as social decline by the city of Portland.

Frankly, I don’t know what the ‘right direction’ is. Capitalism’s penchant for growth is chasing the tail of the American Dream, a fantastical, dragon-like character I’ve read about in Hunter S. Thompson books. I only know that if I focus on the landscape that I don’t like, on the external events I do not want to happen, I will only see that which I do not like, and do not want to happen. It’s an easy downward spiral we’re wired to follow down, down, down.

The predominant culture in the United States (media, government) did not offer an effective model to teach me to take responsibility for my actions, my feelings, or my community. I doubt I’m the only one.

Through this project, Stumptown Lives, I’m trying to make up for lost lessons. I love this town, and am choosing to belong here because I haven’t another place to go. I want to be a part of the change. It’ll be a journey – one for which I hope you’ll join me, or at least hold me accountable for my mistakes along the way.