Category Archives: story

home work

Hey Portland. It’s been a minute. A whole summer, actually. How’s your autumn?

During last summer’s commercial fishing season in Alaska, a job that once sufficiently provided enough for my semi-retired life here in Portland, I was struck by a rogue wave of icy seawater in the form of an idea for a novel. The plot, setting, character relationships, tone – it all landed on the back deck of the fishing boat like a wild salmon fighting tooth and fin for its life.

I would have written it on the spot, but unfortunately, work prevailed, sleep was too valuable. Book-writing during salmon season isn’t humanly possible, although some of my former skippers would posit that I’ve tried.

No, writing a book happens at home, at a desk, putting in the work day after day, amongst pens and books and windows with a stained wood finish.

I didn’t have a home in which to write in Portland. I have books but no windows, my desk  is in the basement under the stairs. Harry Potter did not do magic under the balustrade.

This book needed a home, so I’ve set out to build a tiny house – rather, a perfectly-sized writer’s cabin, a working man’s rebuke to the rando author who said that “the writing cabin in the woods doesn’t exist.”

I followed that advice for a while. In my mind, I killed the mythological cabin where I would write my masterpiece. I wrote in my car during lunch break. I wrote in coffeeshops, one Apple amongst many. I did not write in Burger King, like he did.

Being sensitive to my environment, the inconsistent space reflected in my writing. I produced disjointed narratives on a theme, which is fine for a blog, but not a book. I needed to hunker down and immerse myself.

There are few things scarier for me than to think I am worth not working for someone else, or that I am worth spending resources on (time, energy, money) in order to facilitate something…artistic. The impoverished blue collar worker in me scoffed.

If there’s any voice worth squelching, however, it’s that of the contented inner prisoner, or he who thinks that validation must come from without: that impoverished blue collar story.

After hours of looking at trailer porn on craigslist, and finding nothing suitable, I had a custom 20′ trailer built by two awesome redneck welders at Hook-n-Duck Fabrication. It is the second trailer they’ve built.

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After a festive late summer of blowing most of this year’s fishing money on travel, I’ve just spent the last of it on lumber and materials. Yesterday, in divine timing with Portland’s autumn rain arriving, I began construction on the cabin’s subfloor frame.

My boss isn’t happy. I work in construction and remodeling. I dedicate every non-rainy day to the tiny house, whether sourcing or hauling materials. Which has now got me in the interesting predicament of needing to work more on other people’s houses in order to pay for working on my own. With limited weather windows remaining to get the roof on, I’m in a bit of a crunch.

Stumptown Lives began as a journey to find myself at home. I never thought I’d build a house. I never thought I deserved my own house. I grew up with models of poverty consciousness and scarcity complex extreme: there’s never, ever enough. A stark contradiction to the 20th century American ideal that resources were endless, that growth and wealth were stepping stones unto themselves forever upward.

Scanning the eco-societal climate right now, I want to say: I’m done. Turn the radio to the jazz station, wait for whichever chump to get elected, sip a four-dollar americano in some hipster coffeeshop, write poetry, and watch the world outside my inner Eastside Portland bubble burn.

But I’m not done. I’m angry and befuddled at the inconsistency of what I experience out there. There’s arsenic in the water supply, war on the doorsteps of innocent people, blessed tryptamines are illegal, and there are still people who are homeless who do not choose to be.

Henceforth I choose to participate in culture in a new way. In place of concentrating on what is wrong with what I see, I’m going to practice giving myself what I need, in honor of those who cannot: a home, in which to do my work.

The book is going to happen. I must do this first.

Thanks for bearing witness.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Art of Totem Lives

Aunt Bell used to pay visits to her extended family’s homes in Kelso, WA, would gather up all their Indian artifacts she could find—objects that had been handed down for generations—and threw them away.

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Portland Artist and Totem Carver Ray Losey, the grand-nephew of “Mean” Aunt Bell,  tells the story of how the family began hiding their cultural treasures, that Aunt Bell wouldn’t find them. They buried old rounded-head stone hammers and fishing net weights (flat river stones the breadth of a large outstretched hand with a center-bored hole about the width of a fresh chestnut) in the cement foundations of homes, porches, stairs, whatever needed to be built.

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Indians unrecognized as Indians by the U.S. Government hid them. Aunt Bell kept the family members from registering for their Indian “numbers”—a kind of census registration that earned individuals money from the U.S. Government—because Aunt Bell wanted the family to be White.

Aunt Bell wanted her family to survive. And like her strong women ancestors—the chief negotiators, for example, who for generations boarded the European longships to administer trade between Indians and Whites—Aunt Bell usually got what she wanted.

But not always.

When Ray Losey’s father, Rex, was 11, his mother died. Aunt Bell demanded he attend the Indian Boarding School, one of the educational institutions infamous for eradicating everything remotely Indian from Indian children. The boy’s grandmother had been a ‘half-breed’, as they called those born half-Indian, half-White. She was murdered by a group of Whites tramping through Eastern Oregon, in a cave where the family lived. The killers needn’t have concerned themselves with repercussion: these were the days before the US courts officially recognized Indians, Blacks, and Chinese as people.

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Lucky for the future boy, his grandfather soon married a White woman, which superficially relieved future Rex, insofar as his new grandmother would facilitate the boy’s assimilation into the dominant culture. Nevertheless, Rex kept his 1/4 Indian blood sacred, along with the culture, the stories, and the art of his grandmother’s people. His people. He soon began to share these treasures, through storytelling and totem-carving.

In 1971, when his son Ray was grown, Rex passed on the family arts to the young man. The first pole they carved together now stands tall outside Ray Losey’s home on in Portland’s Southwest Hills.

Topped with wing-spread Eagle, the pole is painted in bold, bright colors with the distinct “formline” style for which Northwest native art is well-known, the totem art is a treat for hikers on meandering trails nearby.

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Ray Losey has been making totem poles, telling stories, and performing dances with masks for decades. Now 67, he verges retirement. He has passed on the art to the swaths who snap photos of the totem pole near the house, but has yet to encounter some young version of himself on whom to impart the knowledge, and technique.

Years ago, he says, he held workshops in search of a young apprentice to pass on the art—ideally, a teenager eager to learn the stories and cultures that birthed it—to no avail.

Storytellers know better than most that stories live longer than people. When Losey talks about retiring, his voice slows and lowers.

“My contribution,” he says, “is carrying the art into the 21st century. I’ve done that.”

Most of his sharing is the sheer volume of people who walk by his house. Where did you get this totem pole, they ask.

Target, he says, deadpan.

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Ray Losey’s artistic legacy has spread across the country. The totem pole he’s currently working on lays prone across two sawhorses under the house, will soon find home at a YMCA camp in Iowa, far from its native Northwest.

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If Aunt Bell’s confiscations led to the long-term preservation of artifacts in concrete foundations, then Losey’s open-air, dirt-ground, totem-carving workshop under the house reveals a great irony: his work unveils that which was necessarily hidden for so long. He keeps it close to the ground, like the “low man on the totem pole,” who, in Indian belief—contrary to common assumption—is actually the most valuable and highly regarded, for one’s connection to the earth is precisely what allows the ravens to fly.