Category Archives: work

the purpose of building a house

The Windy Drizzle arrived to Portland with all the sensationalized pronouncements of being the worst storm in fifty years(!) Rumor had it that trees might fall over in the high winds, that branches may hit the deck unexpectedly, that stained glass windows hanging in porches could swing swing off their hooks and shattered glass could end up in someone’s foot, a child’s mouth.

Wednesday, as the sun set for the last visible time for the foreseeable future, my wife and I pulled the massive tarp over the tiny home trailer. We tied it down over the pile of lumber I had stacked into the vague shape of a gable roof to shed the rain.

Under the tarp lives a complete subfloor, insulated with 3″ polyiso rigid foam and three wall frames. Five more to build, sheathe and raise before the roof work begins. Before the tiny home becomes a viable shelter. All there is to do is wait for the next weather window. Here we are.

The terribly obvious realization came to me yesterday that the process of building a house isn’t about building a house out of lumber and nails and glue and insulation. It’s about building a home within myself. The purpose of a house is not so unlike Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Building a house requires a familiarity of the materials and tools needed, and some knowledge of what a house is for.

Assuming the former, let’s talk about the function of a house: first, to provide warmth. Where will the house be built, or in the case of one on wheels, where will it go? What kind of weather might it encounter? Just as I would don a rain jacket before going outside, the house needs to withstand water. A house is a place to rest, eat, drink, clean. It should secure its inhabitants and their most precious nouns from that which is feared: the unknown. Some combination of trust, experience, and deadbolts typically achieve a relative peace.

Next, the house should provide space for connection. To what? Others, in most cases. Self. My goal is a space to write.

I need a creative space that balances focus and inspiration, movement and stillness, observation and reflection. A space that acknowledges the creative process, and encourages the overcoming of Resistance. Writers and artists dedicated to their craft might relate to the penchant for distraction from creation, the constant inner voice that says “you should be writing” when washing the dishes, clothes, or toilet seems, oddly, more important.

It must stock enough tools to feel empowered, capable, strong: books. pens. paper. typewriter. electricity. light.

The space will embody a nucleus, the center point of mass and energy in an atom. It must be surrounded by enough open space for electrons and protons to spin wildly in service and exploration.

Next, a house must provide a sense of accomplishment, of having reached a destination. When a traveler returns home, she benefits from a soft landing in a familiar space. Not only will my house provide a space to land and connect to self and muse, it will also, through sheer immersion, facilitate ongoing work and the completion of writing projects.

Through function, the house is given form. Built to serve the needs of its inhabitants, a house, in doing so, becomes a home. We’ll talk more about that next time.

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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.

Pulse of Old Portland: Kevin Ketchum

“Four years ago,” he says, cupping a soft, meaty hand near his sternum, “I had a beard down to here.”

With a more-pepper-than-salt ponytail, Kevin Ketchum is clean-shaven, wearing a blue and green plaid button-up over a blue t-shirt. I tell myself he has dressed up for our interview.

Immediately I want to ask about those razorless years, during which he must have watched Portland change immensely from the outside in, as the buildings rose around his slapdash sidewalk nest. Did he stand on street corners with a cardboard sign, training for the vaguely elevated caste he’s attained of Street Roots Vendor? And if so, what did the cardboard read? Who stopped for him? What kept him from taking advantage of Portland’s inexhaustible resources for the homeless and depraved? What finally inspired him to shave?

Ketchum’s chaliced hand, held under his heart, slowly drops. His uncertain smile twists, and falls. Perspiration forms across his kind, round face.

I do not know if the sensitivity I feel right now is his, or mine. It may be both.

I am not a veteran interviewer, nor a seasoned, scales-for-skin journalist. In fact, since we met here for coffee in the Westmoreland neighborhood, I have mostly projected my stories upon him, as passerby are wont to do, when I asked him specifically to share his:

Ketchum was born and raised in Portland, and never really left. In the early Eighties, just out of high school, he worked at the Hilton downtown, paid $155—half a paycheck—for a studio on SE 12th and Belmont. The building is still there. Rent has risen since then, just slightly.

Back then, Huey Lewis and the News rattled the radio, and Ronald Reagan occupied the oval office.

“That was when you first started seeing people sleeping in their cars,” he says, looking out the window. Eye contact between us is rare.

Were there no homeless people?

Ketchum remembers “bums, winos and transients” living under the Burnside bridge, but seeing families sleep in cars in the Reagan years was his first evidence that the economics had changed.

“When families are sleeping in cars,” he says, “you have a more serious condition. People aren’t choosing that.”

Rents were not skyrocketing then; jobs just seemed to vanish. Evictions arrived, people moved outside.

When did you lose your job?

“I did alright in the Eighties. I did restaurant work, and when I lost a job, I was always able to get back in.”

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Eventually, Ketchum found himself working in a plastic molding plant, Molded Container, in Southeast Portland, where now lives an Orwellian cluster of mysteriously quiet townhomes.

Ketchum had one week off a year until the plastic factory shut.

“I worked mindlessly, he says. “It was nothing spiritually fulfilling.”

He shifts his focus from the window to me, finally, and beams at me like a grown boy elated that someone is still listening.

He says the corporation moved to a more “business-friendly community” somewhere in the Midwest. (Online records show the corporation—founded here in 1957—is still located in Sellwood.)

“I think the problem is that Portland discourages business from coming in,” Ketchum says. “There’s a lot of environmental concern, you might say.”

Or, he suggests, it’s got to be the “right kind” of business.

“It puts people out of work,” he says, “but on the other side, whatever they put in, puts other people to work.”

Though he identifies as a “deeply-rooted Christian,” I wonder if Ketchum’s quasi-Buddhist perspective has kept him afloat all these years, still able to smile despite living in only a ‘sleeping room’—a situation he resists describing in detail but I sense is not particularly safe or comfortable for him.

In ages-old tradition, the young man Ketchum ventured north to work on a pollock processor vessel out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, called the Ocean Rover.

I tell him that every summer, I commercial fish in Bristol Bay, northeast of Dutch.

Kevin’s face brightens. We reach out for a high-five, and instead our hands clasp. For a long, quiet moment, we exchange waves of empathy, even brotherhood.

I’m don’t think I’m projecting this time: we’ve both been soaked by the mad ocean, pushed to our physiological and mental edges by interminable days and nights of grueling work through high seas and big storms.

Some people spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to that edge. Some never leave; others never escape.

I feel oddly connected to this man, to his story. Suddenly, it is our story.

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I tell him how, at the beginning of the recession, I lived in my car, near penniless, with my girlfriend and dog, for months on end; that the sunroof broke and the rain poured in while we slept; that the police tapped too often on our windows as we reclined in sleeping bags, reading ourselves to sleep by headlamp.

“Yeah,” he says, “you have to find three or four places to alternate, so you don’t raise any eyebrows.”

For me, I wondered, where was this kind of support back then?

The community of people who just get it, whatever it is—whether commercial fishing, homelessness, or drug addiction—supports the survival of the individual. I never had that—in fact, out of judgment, I had refused even to communicate with other homeless people.

For me, the vast hopelessness set in quick—the kind that, fermented and concrete, leads to chronic homelessness. Young and arrogant, I refused to apply for social assistance and unemployment, figuring I had to pull myself—and girlfriend and dog—up by my bootstraps. That’s what the free market said I was supposed to do, right?

What’s your relationship to drugs?

Ketchum’s reply rolls off his tongue, an unpoetic recitation: “I haven’t smoked marijuana in twenty years. Alcohol in twenty-five. Wish I could say that about tobacco.”

This time, I choose compassion and understanding over judgment and criticism.

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Where do you see yourself, and Portland, five years from now?

I’m really discouraged about all this housing they’re building. A lot of people need housing. But that’s not happening. People are moving here, and people on the streets are going to keep living on the streets.”

This paradoxical reply seems to me to make perfect sense: developers will continue building housing, but those who really need it aren’t going to get in, except perhaps in the future affordable condos of what was once St. Francis Park.

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As much as I now operate in a world of “paradigm shifts,” “elevated consciousness,” and hopes of Bernie Sanders taking office, it’s humbling to note that there are still millions whose base needs are not being met.

As for Ketchum, he says, he’ll be glad to be “puttin’ around,” doing what he’s doing.

“I discovered that I enjoy sales,” he says. “So maybe if the right sales position comes along…right now, the newspaper works for me. I get to meet people, and maybe something will come from that.”

“I keep saying that I want to leave Portland,” he says, “but I grew up here. I’ve had my good times here and my bad times here. I just know where everything’s at.”