Tag Archives: portland

Essay: Fifteen Minimum – Reflections on Compassion, Privilege, and War

“Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.”
― Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.”

I heard the muffled knock on the passenger window, but I didn’t look up from the chess game on my phone. Memories rushed back of police officers tapping at my car window with metal flashlights as I tried to sleep in a dark parking lot. But this knock was not the knock of a cop, I thought, still avoiding the source. Five seconds passed. I saw checkmate in three moves. Another knock.

Then I saw her: late twenties or early thirties, black, hair pony-tailed, wearing a coat too light for this February cold. I noticed the assumptions surging to the front of my mind: homeless, addict, wants money. My heart sank, and my head shook almost involuntarily.

—I’m sorry, I mouthed through the closed window, not today.

—I’m hungry and I’m cold, she said, her voice muffled as her knock. She was looking directly at me.

I’ve never been able be one of those people who isn’t willing to listen. Whatever created this tendency in me has over the years landed me in dozens of hours-long conversations with people whose presence and storytelling abilities inspired me to become a writer. People whose stories of altered mental states, trauma, addiction, mystical experiences, train-hopping, and in some cases intentionally living outside the bounds of economy and law inspired me to explore many of those paths in my own life. People whom my mother, an ex-cop, would certainly have tried to steer me clear of.

I could feel in my bones that this was one of those moments where waving the person off with a fake apology and a sympathetic look would break my heart for decades.

She was still talking as I tried to put down the window. The car wasn’t on. So many layers between us, I thought, suddenly ashamed of the car, the iPhone, the expensive jacket I was wearing, the years between my own homelessness experience and this moment. I dropped the phone and searched for an ignition key that didn’t exist. Suddenly perplexed as to how to put down the window, I considered leaning over to open the passenger door, but no, I thought, that would be too much, too soon. Too vulnerable.

After I managed to press the brake, hit the ignition button, wait for the car computer to boot, and press the window button, finally, the window went down—and the music started to bump. There she was, still talking, voice now drowned by the music.

—I asked this other man for food, she said, but he said no, and I asked for five dollars for a daylong bus fare, and I need to leave this place…

—I’m sorry, I said. Not today.

After all that, I was still in reaction mode, not seeing her, not listening to her. The words came out like ash. What if she spends it on drugs, I reasoned. What if she’s lying?

I may have been one of “those people” willing to listen, but how often do I act? I have always resonated with the criticism of people with means and awareness who do nothing to help improve the lives of those with less means. Yet here I was, not even pretending to help by trying to profit from trying to help.

That part of me that wanted to be unique, seen, and respected assumed that I was being manipulated. That victim strategy birthed a deep self-centeredness in me when I was younger, and fostered an inability to see my own privilege or truly empathize with others. It’s a gross little demon that rears its head when I’m faced with an uncomfortable situation that I have the ability to avoid.

I let the demon play for a moment and took a deep breath. The woman was still there. She didn’t seem fazed by my rejection. Maybe she hadn’t even heard it. She was saying something about her living situation. My spidey-senses went off when she repeated that she needed to “get out of here.”

We spoke briefly: she, outside, leaning toward the half-open passenger window; me, buckled in the driver seat. I noticed myself looking for signs of intoxication, mental crisis. I am no psychotherapist but I know altered mental states in my own experience, drug-induced and not. I know that hunger causes its own kind of delirium. My body remembers the violent shakes of hypothermia. I have spent many a day wondering where I would sleep that night.

And, none of those experiences taught me how to be with someone else in those states. Certainly not how to help. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to know the right thing to do. I’ve been taught to think so much about everything that I’ve misplaced my ability to listen to my gut.

The caravan of thoughts rolled through my mind: The Dalai Lama says to be kind and compassionate; that is enough. If I were to look to Silicon Valley for answers on how to act, I could probably become a billionaire by developing an app wherein this woman could connect with a million people ready to buy her lunch with a thumbprint. If I were to rely on government and police as role models, I’d probably try to make sure this woman’s toe was wedged under the tire before I drove away.

Sometimes I can feel my friends’ judgment when I give money to people on the street. I’ve learned to not talk about it in social settings: that feeling of my heart falling into the pit of my stomach; the tears that began to well in my delay to open the car window; the fear that, if I opened the door in my rush to hear this woman, she may perceive it as an invitation for something she was not asking for.

Sometimes I do not know how to navigate the space between my privilege and someone else’s lack thereof. But the truth is that I’d rather be lost than avoid the territory.

I offered to help. I said I only had a debit card. The part of me that thought she might use the money for drugs kept me in that moment from remembering that I had a twenty in my wallet. The part of me that wanted to save her got out of the car and awkwardly offered to buy her lunch.

We walked half a block together, toward—where? A deli? A restaurant? I’d taken people who lived on the street out to lunch before, and had found it to be a soul-enriching experience to hear stories from people who were not often heard, to experience them express themselves. Sometimes it was about the food, and other times, the connection.

Which made me wonder, as I asked her name, in what ways was my willingness to help conditional? In what ways did I want to benefit from this? Did I require some kind of personal connection in trade for a few dollars? And what was this need of mine to know and even control what she spent it on?

I remembered Zippy, a woman who approached me one night on the corner of Marcy & Myrtle in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, where I lived some years ago. Zippy asked me to buy her baby formula. She was skinny as a rail, dreaded, bedraggled. She told me a story about Jay-Z, how they grew up together. She talked about her baby. She suggested we go into the deli across the street. How do you say ‘no’ to a baby who needs food? I bought her a can of baby formula. 

The cashier gave his co-worker a look, held up the can for a moment. The next day at work I learned that baby formula served as a kind of black market currency for heroin.

Zippy got me. That’s the story my co-workers told me. They laughed at my ‘rookie’ move. The money was for drugs, they said, therefore I got scammed, manipulated, sold.

True as it may have been, that story has never sat well with me. What was the difference, really, between giving money to a drug addict on the street and giving it to a corporation? Their respective sales tactics could be eerily similar. The rewards for my action are not. In this culture, if I give money to a drug addict under the auspices that I’m helping to feed a baby and I feel good about that act, I am considered foolish because the “truth” is that the money will go straight to heroin, which is “bad.”

On the other hand, if I buy a tank of Shell gasoline, my car will get me 350 miles down the road, which is “good” because I can go to work, etc. I can accept that I’m contributing to greenhouse gases and mass extinction because, well, I need to go to work.

In the context of material goods, my attachment to how my money might be used after it leaves my hands vanishes. Of course, if I thought every time I bought gas that I was consciously exacerbating a global addiction to a substance that is in every possible way worse than heroin, I might still buy it, and feel bad about it, so often I just don’t think about it.

We reached a crosswalk and stopped. Food and bus fare would be fifteen minimum, especially in this neighborhood.

—What’s your name? I asked, pulling out my wallet.
—Shriana.
—I’m sorry that you’re in this situation, I said.

We went into a deli and I asked the cashier for change. Shriana stood a few feet away, looking around. I sensed that she’d done this before. I watched the cashier count bills, and remembered the cashier that night in Brooklyn all those years ago, giving his co-worker a look as he cashed me out for the baby formula.

What did it matter anyway, if Zippy or Shriana or the hundred or more folks I’d given money to since I was a teenager, had all bought drugs with it? I buy drugs. I’ve bought pot, alcohol, psychedelics, cigarettes. My employers have neither known nor cared what I’ve done with my wages. Nor, I assume, are my loved ones particularly attached to what I do with their birthday cards or small gifts.

When I see suffering, I cannot ignore it. Which is partly why paying attention to the news makes me sick. It is also why, 99% of the day, I hide under the cloak of my privilege: the car, the clothes, apologetic looks, the silent mouthing of ‘not today’, which implies that I think that I have other days available to me to worry about how generous I wish to perceive myself.

I believe that Shriana was in a state where tomorrow didn’t yet exist. She knew what she needed and overcame all the shame involved in knocking on the window of a new-looking car in a hip Portland neighborhood, asking this reasonably well-dressed white man for help. I believe that such a brave act requires a presence, vulnerability, strength, and, frankly, vigilance, that overrides fear and self-doubt. One on hand, it resembles the kind of presence that I seek to develop and embody in my own life. Conversely, vigilance is often a fear response, a survival-level alertness that produces high levels of stress. That can’t be good for humans, long-term.

I write this knowing that I myself will never be able to count or understand the myriad layers between Shriana and I: the passenger window wasn’t just a car window, it was a transparent, impregnable force field, like that of a spaceship in science fiction stories. A force field that makes those inside it by definition invulnerable. It becomes the choice of those within to open the window, to breathe unfiltered air, to feel, to listen, and to act.

It hurts to think that there is no easy solution to the growing disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ The conditions which created this singular situation are deeply systemic, fundamental to the culture of our society. Sure, one often-repeated solution could be to re-allocate one percent of the USA military budget to end homelessness and hunger in this country. Another solution would be to tax a handful of the wealthiest American individuals and corporations in service to the people who helped make them so wealthy. Top-down solutions are easy to think about, especially from a power-under point of view: they can afford it, we might think, and it wouldn’t matter much because they would still be super rich.

Bottom-up solutions are more cumbersome. They require multitudes of people to change their behaviors, and, ultimately, their beliefs. They require dozens of millions of have-nots to reconcile their differences with each other, many of which were created by the powerful in order to retain power.

The theory goes that when enough people make a conscious change in their own lives, it changes the whole system. Back in the 90’s, it was recycling.

Now, according to Greta Thunburg, it’s more radical: stop using fossil fuels immediately. Those are easy ideas to agree with because we all want a healthy planet, but to actually change and sustain those changes seem even more difficult to accomplish, because those whose voices matter most have to pay rent. Most people on the planet live their day to day lives at a level much closer to survival than charitable philanthropy.

In an individualist society like the United States, where ego and money are valued above community and connection, it makes sense that conservative values would take power—they value abundance, and being so entrenched in that value creates an inability and unwillingness to see, for example, that their wealth was built on the premise of keeping a whole lot of other people poor. And it also makes sense that liberal values would appear shiny on the surface and from the podium, because they’re all about inspiring hope in the people—rather than actually serving the people.

What doesn’t make sense to me is how such a fiercely individualist society as ours has devolved into a simple dichotomy: right and left, conservative and liberal, red and blue. It doesn’t make sense to me that, given the American penchant for innovation, we can’t seem to navigate complex political terrain without reverting to childhood playground dynamics. We elected a playground bully to lead our nation. We armed him with nuclear weapons. In turn, he armed white supremacists with permission to terrorize the streets of this country all but protected by a racist, corrupt, and militarized police state. Known rapists have been appointed to our highest courts.

It makes perfect sense to me that the wealthiest, most power-drunk nation on the planet has lost its way. For the past hundred years, the United States has reinforced corrosive attitudes about its own leadership based on scarcity, fear, and comparison to others (“richest,” “most _____,” “freest”), rather than using its resources and influence to lead its people—and thus, inevitably, others—toward a more sustainably whole society.

Nevertheless, the culture is changing: The Women’s March, #MeToo, and #TimesUp have ousted thousands of men from positions of power in the most influential industries. The uprising of the feminine in the last few years is unprecedented in history. Nearly matched in its ferocity by a triggered, antagonistic masculine—the wounded boy turned insecure bully—her time has come. It is also time for the masculine not to bow out—as he may fear she insists—but to call on a stronger inner force than violence. He must learn to stand within himself as himself, without pretense or expectation. He must learn to become aware of the ways his culture manipulates him into doing its bidding, into fighting its wars.

In men’s work, we sometimes talk about the archetype of the “warrior,” a term that can be both triggering and misleading. That terminology is used, I believe, to find an audience of those who may not otherwise listen, and also because war offers an accurate metaphor for the path toward greater consciousness. But the so-called battles we must fight require weapons far more effective than bombs and guns.

Teacher and author Joanna Macy once relayed a story about the Shambala warriors. She told how their only two weapons are compassion and insight into the interconnectedness of all beings. The wounded, unintegrated warriors within us—and I’m not just talking about men—have been fighting for so long that we’ve forgotten why, and against whom. We fight ourselves, and in our wounding, project the parts of ourselves that we despise onto others. The more we feed that system, the bigger and more destructive it gets. Thus, war.

This is why I could not rely on any other information but the present moment for guidance on how to show up in that moment with Shriana. I saw only what was in front of me, struggled to fight back the tides of status quo trying to assert itself through my actions, and did what felt most right. In doing so, I may have failed both of us. I cannot know, but I can try to be okay with that not knowing.

James Baldwin said that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It’s a perspective that makes me grateful for the election of Trump. I say that as someone who has not been terribly and personally affected by that election. The shadow that Trump represents, which would have lurked on even if Bernie Sanders had been elected, is now out in the open. We can see its ugliness, hear its rhetoric, feel its poison. And some of us can choose compassion for it. Not to excuse its behavior, but to understand more about where all that hurt may have come from, and what we can do for our children that may cause less harm for them.

To be sure, things are changing. It may also be true that our species has simply caused too much damage to the earth and each other to survive much longer. Which makes it all the more important for me to show up in small moments, to acknowledge the shadows and demons as they flow through me, and to continue to breathe.

I want to remember what I experienced with Shriana as connection— an empathy, a knowing, deep in my body of what suffering looks like in another human, and make a commitment to refuse the temptation to repress it in the future. But that commitment is optimistic, frail: to feel all of the suffering all of the time debilitates, paralyzes.

Where is the balance?

There’s a lot of talk in activist circles—and, increasingly, outside of them—about self-care and how holding firm personal boundaries can help reduce, or at least slow down—burn-out and compassion fatigue. There is an unprecedented amount of negative stimuli barraging many of us from every direction in our hyper-connected lives that the line, for me, between remaining engaged and becoming a recluse becomes thinner daily. Humans simply have not evolved to take in as much trauma as we do in 2019, and one doesn’t need to be an activist or work in the helping professions to be overwhelmed even by the number of people on the street asking for help.

When I was living in my car all those years ago, sleeping in parking lots and working for pennies, I remember most clearly the generosity of people I didn’t know. To be acknowledged by another human is life-affirming. Those are the things many of us think about as we go to sleep. How connected did we feel that day? To wish them a warm night or a great day may not seem like much to someone who lives in a heated home or sleeps in a warm bed, but it really can mean everything to one person in a moment of hopelessness.

I know too well what it is to numb, look elsewhere, ignore the man on the subway car with the outstretched cup; I know many times over what it is to drive by the bearded man on the Ross Island Bridge eastbound whose laminated military photo hangs below his cardboard sign. I know what it feels like to buy nice warm clothes and delicious food that insulates me from my past experiences of hunger and homelessness. It’s tempting to think of my ability to postpone worry until tomorrow as compensation for my own suffering, to pretend that my experience of warmth and fullness today fills the void I felt years ago.

But I cannot. I want to remember that hunger. I want to remember the cold. I still struggle with the desire to use drugs to tune out of my current reality. I want to remember these feelings because I want to feel connected, even when it hurts—especially when it hurts—because in this age of hyper-connection and information overload, it’s so easy to ignore and dismiss the brave, muffled knocks on the window.

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More talking. Less violence.

“In any real city, you walk, you brush past people, and people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
Crash, 2004

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Recently, on Portland’s MAX train, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, Rick Best, and Micah Fletcher stood up to interrupt hate speech spewing from the mouth of a white supremacist. Each put themselves unknowingly in harm’s way in service to two young women none of them knew. Namkai-Meche and Best paid with their lives. All are now called heroes.

After that, the Portland Tribune ran a story about whether it was “safe” to ride Trimet, Portland’s public transportation provider. It noted that despite Trimet’s efforts over the years: bolstering security, eliminating free fare zones, and announcing that these programs “solved” safety issues, hundreds of crimes are reported each year on the bus and rail lines, “many of them serious.”

“Trimet is safe,” Neil MacFarlane, Trimet’s General Manager, said. “but we want our customers to perceive it as safe.”

Translation: We want riders to treat each other better.

The question of whether a bus or train is safe is, in this case, irrelevant. An empty train is perfectly safe. People are the wildcards, the variables, the unknown factors for which we feel we must account. This should go without saying, but the conversation around how to stop violence continues to invite more oppression and suppression in the form of increased police enforcement, a band-aid that cannot cover the oceanic wound between how we hope and expect people will act and how we actually relate with one another in real time.

Safety does not result from force.

At some point, we may understand that “safe spaces” exist only in the fleeting perceptions of individuals, and that these constantly shifting notions cannot be controlled by increasing security. In many cases, police presence raises the tension in a space, not least because police officers are trained to profile, a tactic which has killed more Americans in the last thirty years than a small war.

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The most present question for me right now is, how do we create a culture where disagreement is welcome, invited, and explored? Or, on a more practical level, how do we create equitable public spaces? That is, free, physical public spaces whose purpose is for people from different backgrounds to talk, connect, debate, dialogue, and *gasp* disagree?

That’s a tall order, given a culture driven by real estate prices and corporate profits. Imagine: if we redesigned the physical aspects of how we convene in public spaces, how might we interact differently? If the seats on a bus were formed in a circle instead of in rows, where people faced one another out of circumstance, would they remain glued to their smartphones? Maybe. But maybe they’d make eye contact, and maybe, a conversation would emerge.

Barring the internet’s digital plane, and next to city parks, the most equitable public spaces we have are the transit and road systems. Public transport equates people in some ways—most everyone pays fare, occupies the same physical space. But buses and rail lines are built for efficiency and transportation but lack the intention of gathering people for a greater purpose than (at best!) a peaceful commute.

And for drivers, the road system requires that we follow the same rules, regardless of whether we drive a clunker Ford or a Maserati, but the walls of glass, metal, and wind barricade us from accessing each others’ personal worlds.

If the only spaces where people of different backgrounds and viewpoints interact with one another are those in which we’re traveling from one destination to another, one calendar event to the next, from one insulated and exclusionary space to the next, our conversations and interactions will follow that pattern.

What might happen in a space where a white supremacist and those he fears can gather, at least in theory, and both be heard, seen, and understood for who they are, as opposed to the current dynamic of fear and anxiety creating conflict and avoidance?

My guess: More talking. Less violence.

When I saw Christian’s mugshot in the paper, I did not see a Murderer. I saw a man with great internal pain, a boy who experienced unfathomable trauma, whose models for how to be a good person probably did not exist.

These are my judgments and projections; I know nothing of the man but that which the media has portrayed of him. Which is a colossal problem, because he has been portrayed an a detestable and unforgivable monster – and maybe he is – but if we as a society do not effectively address that which made him and others like him, we cannot create spaces where people even have the opportunity to feel safe, let alone connect.

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One last thing: it’s time that we get to know our neighbors. You never know when they might save your life. Here are a few ways that people in Portland are working toward healthy community:

Multnomah County, in the vein of Seattle’s Facing Homelessness tiny house project, seek to integrate houseless individuals into tiny houses built in the community’s backyards. We need each other to treat each other better in these turbulent times. Not just on TriMet, but everywhere. We must relearn how to convene, converse, and how to be in disagreement. We need to create more equitable public spaces, and more intentional opportunities to interact with each other. One great example of this is Oregon Humanities’ Conversation Project, where local leaders facilitate topic-specific discussions with local communities around the state.

The City Repair Project and the Village Building Convergence, which is happening this week, seek to reclaim and repurpose neighborhood intersections into equitable public spaces by facilitating neighbors’ collaboration and connection in painting street murals, building self-serve tea stations, playgrounds, and creating a sense of community around a space where previously people might have needed to crash into one another in order to meet their neighbors.

chased from the garden of home

Corey and Cherie Nelson’s backyard slid down the bank into the Washougal river on a Sunday. The couple was watching TV when they heard a strange rumbling. Cherie jumped and went to the deck.

The door opened to a sweeping view of a pristine river canyon. Surrounded by large firs in the Cascade foothills, the braided Washougal river rushed along the far bank to sip on creeks and waterfalls. A smaller, slower channel meandered along the edge of the ravine just sixty feet below, right under the Nelsons’ deck. For two and a half years, they had spent countless hours taking in their personal theatre of classic Pacific Northwest scenery.

The pungent scent of fresh dirt filled Cherie’s nostrils. Steam rose like woodsmoke from where the yard used to be. The landslide had exposed the tangled roots of the massive Douglas fir next to their house.

Cherie knew in that instant that her life had changed, but she did not want to admit it. Corey joined her on the deck. It took half a second for him to realize the same. He wrapped his arms around her.

“It’s going to be okay, baby,” he said.

Corey says he’s always trying to make Cherie feel better, trying to fix things, but that he knew deep down, they just lost their dream home.

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After their daughters moved out, Corey and Cherie wanted to move into a smaller home. Not just a smaller home, but the home in which they could happily spend the rest of their days. For years they searched for the perfect spot. They put in offers on places that they’re glad now didn’t pan out, because a little house on a high bank of the Washougal River, just downstream from Naked Falls – where they fell in love more than forty years ago – whispered, welcome

Buying the place was complicated. The property belonged to the bank, and the process of purchasing took months of negotiations and back and forth about how the old septic tanks needed to be replaced before they could move in, then a whole summer of actual work. They sold the farmhouse in which they raised three daughters, and Corey cashed in on his thirty-five years of setting tile in million-dollar houses to make the sale happen.

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Nevertheless, the couple was essentially homeless for four months, luckily supported by aunts and daughters with spare couches, while the old septic system was dug up and new “biogreen”  tanks put in the ground. But their waiting to land full circle back at their teenage stomping grounds was not always patient. Cherie says she was “done” being strung all over the place.

“I wanted the comfort of a home home.”

Before they moved in, Cherie would lie down in the grass of her would-be home, and imagined her roots going deep into the ground. She prayed to the spirit of the Native American people for a blessing to steward the land, to protect and enhance it.

“I just wanted to be worthy of this place,” Cherie says.

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Corey and I work together, remodeling houses in Lake Oswego. When he’s not around, general contractors talk about the mastery and humility with which he works. They vie for his schedule, say that he doesn’t charge enough. He’s quiet, unassuming, kind. Wears a tawny pony tail, gray at the roots. When he lets his beard grow scruffy, it betrays the youth in his face.

A few weeks ago, on a quiet afternoon in someone else’s big empty house, he told me the story of how he was losing his dream home, the place into which he’d invested everything, because a landslide dropped half his yard into the river rapids below.

I balked, and as he spoke, I nearly teared up. Naïvely, I didn’t want to believe that could happen because I didn’t want to believe that I could work my entire life to finally feel like I belonged somewhere—my struggle since toddlerhood—only to watch the place I’d worked to find myself collapse like Jenga blocks into a ravine.

“Are you saying the foundation is slipping out from under your dreams,” I asked. I tried to skirt around how deeply I resonated with his story by saying that I thought that a lot of people in this country could relate to what he and his wife were going through right now. Metaphorically, of course.

I asked if I could come out and see it for myself. I wanted to see what home looked like for them, and how they dealt with losing it.

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The weather was supposed to be partly sunny. I rode my motorcycle from inner SE Portland and headed for Washougal. The sun didn’t last long. On the I-205 bridge, high winds from the Gorge threatened to push my bike sideways into the box truck in the next lane. I tightened my grip and loosened my shoulders because that’s what you do when the winds of change become gales.

Becoming homeless is no fable to me. It is not something that just happens to bad people or addicts. It has happened to me, over and over again, in different forms, making my sense of home an ambivalent quest for an unknown grail. Maybe I’ve had many homes, more than all my fingers and toes; maybe I’ve had none, and simply floated between places to lay my sleeping bag, occasionally landing for a few months, maybe a couple of years. Times when I’ve really had it good, really felt like I was home, I’ve tightened my grip, wanting to not lose it. But a place has its way of shrugging us off when the time comes.

Now, I’m tentative to love a place too much. At 30, I’ve lived in Portland for four years, twice longer than anywhere else in my life. I’m trying to loosen my death grip on a good thing, to be open to other options. Maybe soon I’ll take a reprieve from the city and do the Thoreau thing for a while. But what place would I be worthy of?

From town, Washougal River Road follows the idyllic river upstream through the foothills of the Cascades north of the Columbia River. The farther out I ride, the more familiar the landscape becomes. Dilapidated houses sink into the earth farther and farther apart from each other on scraggly forested land. Shoddy fences surround dead playground equipment and doghouses whose shingles have been torn off. Washing machines sit in driveways; some operable, others bound for the trip to the dump that will never happen. Antique, tireless tractors decorate the field edges of thumbprint-sized farms.

I was raised in rural communities so much like the outskirts of Washougal that on my ride out River Road, I silently name the year, make and model of most broken down trucks I see that littered the Trump/Pence-postered yards as they pass through my periphery. On many levels, I feel like I know this place intimately, which is one reason I live in the city.

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When I park in the Nelsons’ driveway, I notice the driveway is flanked by a half dozen brown and silver tarps covering what is left of a small yard. Anchored by tent stakes and sandbags, the tarps should delay the erosion of the driveway long enough for the couple to move out, walk away, hand back the house to the other bank.

From their deck, which is barely large enough for five or six chairs, I take in the gorgeous panorama. The land across from us gushes water from three creeks within a hundred yards upstream from a waterfall tall and wide as the Nelsons’ house. Chimney smoke billows from a neighbor’s blue house, near the waterfall. The trees sway. An eagle glides by.

This place, to me, is fantastically beautiful. I feel like I’m in a postcard slice of the PNW relegated to Instagram and the dreams of Bay Area refugees, the wilder tracts of our bioregion cityfolks feel they must prepare to visit with expensive trips to REI.

Corey welcomes me in. I take off my wet gear and realize that after two years, I’ve never seen the man outside work. We hug each other for the first time. Cherie offers me hot tea. They describe how they stand out on the deck together and watch eagles soar beneath wildly morphing clouds; how the full moon rises every month over the hill on the far side of the river;  how the trees in autumn change color and drop leaves into a river effusive with winter’s first rains.

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They tell me about the landslide, how they went from ‘set for life’ to homeless and soon-to-be bankrupt in three seconds. For days after the slide, Cherie says she could hardly breathe. She didn’t sleep for two weeks.

Don’t you have any recourse, or any way to repair the bank, I ask.

“That first day, I called a builder I’ve known for twenty years,” Corey says. He gave them options. They called an excavator, who said he couldn’t get the proper machinery where he needed it, and didn’t want to put his employees at risk trying. A geotech engineer came up with a hundred-thousand-dollar solution that, if that kind of money was just lying around, they would do. Besides, Cherie says, fixing the bank isn’t even important at this point.

“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” she says.

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What is home, if you don’t feel safe there? My own answer is that it is no longer home, a truth I’ve come to more than once about a particular house, town, and recently, a nation post-election. In the latter case, however, I’m not tempted to leave this time so much as I am to dig in and create a home for myself. But the thought of doing so after being here gives me pause.

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The house is impressively compact and spacious at the same time. Inside and out, it screams Tiny House, built 50 years before Tiny Houses became cool. Their loft bedroom sets above the bathroom and kitchen. Crystal-studded altars, Buddha statues, and small goddesses live throughout the space. The couches are super comfortable. It’s as large a house as I could ever want. During our conversation, I find myself distracted by the natural beauty outside the huge square windows. On the sill, I notice an ancient stone tool or three of them.

“We found that thing when we started digging in the garden,” Corey says. “I know it’s not natural.”

I pick up a rough stone pestle about 8” long, and turn it this way and that. At first glance, I think it could have come right out of a riverbed, but the phallic tool is too refined for that. Three potato chip-shaped indents serve as comfortable grips for a thumb and two fingers. I’ve seen things like it only in museums.

I’m reminded of Cherie’s comment about stewarding the land. It impresses me how we humans play games of ownership and development with different intentions: to one person, a tract of land represents only money; to someone else, a hillside is the history and spirit of generations of people, just one in a community of subjects: plants, animals, microbes, stones, all in relation to one another.

Before I leave, I help Corey load a futon into the back of his truck. I sense the peace around leaving is not yet pervasive. For saying that they’re leaving this week, I see little evidence of packing.

They’re debating whether they need to bury the stone tools back in the garden.

“I think we should leave them here,” Corey says.

For two and a half years, Cherie and Corey stewarded this piece of land, called it home, enjoyed every mile of the long commute to and from the Portland area. Home meant, for them, a permanent vacation, a source of constant gratitude.

That’s part of her confusion.

“I wonder, did I do something wrong?” Cherie says, tears welling in her eyes. “Was I taking it for granted? I don’t think I was. I was very present, all the time. Always thinking of ways to beautify it and make it better. Did I not show enough gratitude?”

Corey reaches over to comfort her. He takes her into his arms.

“I think I did,” she says.

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Women’s March on Portland

“No country can preserve its political liberties unless its rulers know that their people preserve the spirit of resistance.”
Thomas Jefferson

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“I inherited the instinct as a true-born American bred to the worship of both machinery and money; an appreciation of its force I acquired during a lifetime of reading newspaper reports of political uprisings in the provinces of the bourgeois world state—in China, Israel, and Greece in the 1940s; in the 1950s those in Hungary, Cuba, Guatemala, Algeria, Egypt, Bolivia, and Iran; in the 1960s in Vietnam, France, America, Ethiopia, and the Congo; in the 1970s and 1980s in El Salvador, Poland, Nicaragua, Kenya, Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Jordan, Cambodia, again in Iran; over the last twenty-four years in Russia, Venezuela, Lebanon, Croatia, Bosnia, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Somalia, South Africa, Romania, Sudan, again in Algeria and Egypt…

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“…the plot line tends to repeat itself—first the new flag on the roof of the palace, rapturous crowds in the streets waving banners; then searches, requisitions, massacres, severed heads raised on pikes; soon afterward the transfer of power from one police force to another police force, the latter more repressive than the former (darker uniforms, heavier motorcycles) because more frightened of the social and economic upheavals they can neither foresee nor control.”

Lewis Lapham

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“Poverty gives rise to the desire for change, the desire for action, and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.”
Chairman Mao Zedong

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“Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change?”
-L. Lapham

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“One magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings, resolving all anxieties, avenging the past, curing present ills, summing up all future possibilities: that word is revolution…This word has aroused such pure acts of devotion, has repeatedly caused such generous blood to be shed, has constituted for so many unfortunates the only source of courage for living, that it is almost a sacrilege to investigate it; all this, however, does not prevent it from possibly being meaningless.”
Albert Camus

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“The Civil Rights movement and later the anti–Vietnam War protests were reformative, not revolutionary, the expression of democratic objection and dissent in accord with the thinking of Jefferson, also with President John F. Kennedy’s having said in his 1961 inaugural address, Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country

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“The fantastic fears of violent revolt awakened by a news media in search of a profit stimulated the demand for repressive surveillance and heavy law enforcement that over the last fifty years has blossomed into one of the richest and most innovative of the nation’s growth industries. For our own good, of course, and without forgoing our constitutional right to shop…

 

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“The television camera…isn’t much interested in political reform (slow, tedious, and unphotogenic) and so, even in the first years of protest [in the 1960s], the news media presented the trouble running around loose in the streets as a[n armed, violent] revolution…

 

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“The medium is the message, and because the camera sees but doesn’t think, it substitutes the personal for the impersonal; whether in Hollywood restaurants or Washington committee rooms, the actor takes precedence over the act. What is wanted is a flow of emotion, not a train of thought, a vocabulary of images better suited to the selling of a product than to the expression of an idea.”
-Lewis Lapham

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“No attempt at revolt could ever hope to set up even a minimum of resonance in the rest of society, because that society is ‘soporific,’ submerged in a consumer rat race…Even if revolt were possible, however, it would remain the solitary gesture of a few isolated individuals, and they would be opposed not only by a gigantic apparatus of national (and supranational) power, but also by the very society in whose name they were mounting their revolt in the first place.”

Václav Havel, poet, playwright,  former president of Czech Republic

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“Governments are not overthrown by the poor, who have no power, but by the rich—when they are insulted by their inferiors and cannot obtain justice.”

-Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 20 BC

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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 Humanity of Portland Apartments

In The 5 Myths About Portland Apartments,  Aaron Mesh of Willamette Week would have you believe that your experience of Portland’s housing crisis is utterly invalid. He’s quick to put words in your mouth, and call you ‘wrong’ for repeating the common argument “that apartments don’t raise rents…People do.”

To say that an apartment raises its own rent is as flimsy and avoidant as to say that actually, it’s just guns that kill people. Oh, wait! Actually, guns don’t kill people! The effects of a bullet on the human body kill people. Severed arteries and blood loss kill people. Holes in brains kill people.

Of course this is about people.

If we’re going to talk about the housing crisis, let us evolve our conversation beyond semantics, and talk about what’s really happening.

Let’s start with the WW graphic:

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1. People move to Portland.

2. Rent and real estate prices rise (exponentially faster than local wages).

3. Developers build units.

4. People get angry (see 1-3)

“With so few units available, tenants have no leverage—landlords can charge more.”

Yes, and should they?

For years, local property managers have been systematically if not whimsically raising rents on managed properties with or without the owners’ consent or knowledge, and in some cases, pocketing the difference.

Why would the owners care, anyway? More money is more money. That’s the way of the world.

Portland economist Joe Cortright’s callous, privileged comments in Mesh’s piece illustrate the utter apathy of those charged with dealing with a housing crisis. Mesh cites the law of supply and demand to explain the fact that the people who are getting “squeezed out” at least have the recourse to blame someone else.

“If it makes you feel better, writes Mesh, “you can still blame greedy developers for this shortage.”

Citing Buddhist philosophy to make an earlier point about human desire causing suffering, and shortly thereafter inviting people to blame the greedy developers for our rental woes exhibits a gross misunderstanding of Buddhism. It also completely misses the point.

When humans experience a gap between reality and their ability to explain it, they make up stories to fill it. Doing so was an early law of supply and demand. It was how we formed religion, art, science, and philosophy. To support the strength of our stories, we invented logic and reason, the indomitable forces of Western civilization, which in turn allow Mesh to make an idiotic, but correct, argument: just learn to like the extra apartments, Portland.

This story then becomes about how this process unfolds in people, rather than stating simply that it must unfold in our city, and that we must deal with it.

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“But there’s one problem with the idea that teardowns are a force in making the city more costly,” writes Mesh. “The numbers show it can’t be true.”

Next door to my Sellwood basement, an old woman died in her tiny pink 1906 cottage. The house sat empty for three years before the children sold it to a rampant developer. The developer sold plans to a new construction house whose walls now nearly touch the property lines.

Last February, a Bay Area family bought the property and the plans for ~$800,000, more than $200k higher than any other house in a four block radius. It was a sale that set a precedent in the neighborhood. Home prices in Sellwood have risen 22%, with no signs of plateau.

The numbers Mesh insists “can’t be true” leave out one important factor: property values rise and fall based on the surrounding neighborhood. If a house is demolished and two are built in its place, the number of units changes; their sale prices, and the wider impact of those sales on the local real estate market, determine affordability. Though in a less quantifiable measure, one based more in the law of supply and demand, the numbers indeed can be true.

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Portland is at the forefront of progressive, systemic change in the United States. This city has the will, the budget surplus and models of social impact by urban expansion from cities like San Francisco and Seattle to make foundational changes to how we deal with housing as the city grows.

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With Portland’s rock bottom vacancy rates and still-rising rents, do you really think that X developer is going to not build in Portland because he or she will be required to include 20% of affordable units in a 20+ unit building?

And, what if they don’t?

Are we going to chase them down as they strut to Austin or Little Rock, bribing them with loopholes and tax breaks to give us one more chance to let them develop in Portland?

This is an example of the sycophancy of the working class toward the rich, the incessant thinking that they will provide for us with the finite and destructive materials of capital and greed.

It’s a sad romance, the idolatrous relationship between the poor and the rich: I want you for what you have, the poor say,  for what you do! I want to be you!

And in a predictable, condescending response, the rich heartlessly pat the doting yet downcast heads of the poor, and turn away.

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People coming from other places are not complaining about high rent. The people who live here who are trying to expand into larger space so they can have children and families—they’re the ones complaining.

It’s the people who are painting murals, opening and running food carts, who are in this so called low-income bracket. They are the people who make Portland a beautiful, enjoyable, aesthetically-pleasing place to call home. They are the pillows on which the rich lay their heads.

One of the only conclusions I can come up with is that the author of The 5 Myths About Portland Apartments  must not have personal experience with searching for a home in Portland, nor must he have friends or family seeking homes in Portland and having a hard time doing so.

In fact, he’s chocking up all those searching for housing to wild-eyed anarchist hippies, groaning party-house dwellers, musicians, and artists.

Do you know who helped make Portland so cool in the years pre-those pretty 2010s housing graphs?

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I have a friend who works with people with developmental disabilities, and carries her baby on her back every day at work. Her partner spends hundreds of hours facilitating events that keep Portland’s neighborhood communities engaged and connected with each other. Their search for resonant housing is approaching years.

Another couple, both successful artists and students, made dozens of phone calls searching for a place within a price range reasonable even for Portland. They got lucky, way north, found something quirky and

Not to mention people who are self-employed, building their own businesses, working seasonally,  factors which renders income effectively useless toward purchasing a home, or even renting a new space, regardless of price.

That’s my wife and I.

One of the only options to surface in two years for us live in a nicer space than our cramped, kitchenless SE basement (and I am not complaining, especially as summer approaches), is to pay several hundred dollars more than we’re paying now to live in the master bedroom of a house with five other people. Buying a home vacated our realm of possibility years ago.

Hey, that’s just the law of supply and demand, right? Some people get squeezed out. If the poor, wild-eyed miscreants can’t afford their rent, cast them out. Eliminate economic contrast.

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To the reader: have you honestly sat with someone, looked them in the eyes, and asked them what it’s like to feel a sense of hopelessness, and let the humanness of this person’s survival needs permeate you?

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Journalism is not always meant to empathize with the human experience, but the fact that Mesh digs, insults, projects, assumes, and stereotypes a group of people he appears to know nothing about, is indicative of the cultural changes in Portland so many of its residents are resistant to.

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To the Money, Say Aye!

The first item on the Portland City Council’s agenda yesterday afternoon was to pat their own backs on a city budget job well done. Elaborate thank you speeches preluded official approval, monologues that emphasized not just the hard work of city officials, but the council’s proclaimed high value for public commentary.

“We make changes in our budget based on what we hear from the public,” Council President Nick Fish said.

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Fish has been counting the number of people in the last year who have testified before city council on budget issues regarding city utilities.

“A total of one person throughout the entire budget process came and testified publicly about the business of our utilities,” he said (emphasis mine).

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For as much gripe and complaint as I hear about the changes in Portland, whether it be about affordable housing, the newly voter-approved 10 cent gas tax to fix roads, or gentrification, the Council, a relevant and powerful audience for this dialogue works and meets in City Hall, a gorgeous building serving at least as a façade of free speech and democracy.

Then again, with national elections reflecting fascism and oligarchy more clearly than than our glorious purported democracy, the average citizen’s motivation to speak to local government is understandably low. In fact, the city council chambers were pretty empty during the budget approval meeting. My wife and I were amongst the only people there in causal clothing, which told me that 1) everyone but us knew to dress up for city council meetings, or 2) most of the few people present were intimately involved with the proceedings, or paid to be there.

No one publicly testified about any of the three topics City Council discussed.

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Last week, we talked about the Comprehensive Plan, which accounts for many of the biggest changes to Portland’s cityscape over the next 20 years.

City Council approved three minor amendments to the Comp Plan, which focused on communication with Metro about clarifying terms in Title IV and Title VII of the Plan. The council is set to finally approve it on 15 June, which will trigger, amongst other things, construction on the Green Loop, the rezoning of single family homes to multi-family dwelling units near neighborhood centers, and the implementation of inclusionary zoning laws, which require developers to create a percentage of affordable units in new housing developments.

For two years running, Portland has had the luxury of a substantial surplus in its budget. The council admits that the surplus will “not continue forever,” but claims that it has made “significant investment in the most compelling issue of the moment.” In 2015, it was transportation…”this year, it is housing and homelessness.”

The Council also heard a presentation from the Portland Housing Bureau about the Consolidated Plan, a 5-year agenda to increase affordable housing choices, economic opportunity, and reduce homelessness. PHB funnels millions from various federal housing agencies (ESG, HUD) to educate and assist homeowners in house repairs and employment training and empowerment, and also allocates money from HOPWA to assist those suffering from AIDS to find housing.

Citing Portland’s proclaimed primacy on housing and homelessness issues, Commissioner Fish criticized the federal government for its misplacing its housing priorities.

The complete budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is plus or minus 40 billion dollars, Fish said.

“It is wonderful that we get these funds…” he continued, “and it seems to me that allocating a mere 40 billion for all the housing needs of everyone not currently covered by the market is woefully inadequate.

Commissioner Fritz reflected that despite Portland’s surplus of funds, there is still more work to do.fritz

“It is our job to make sure we spend the taxpayers money wisely,” Fritz said, before briefly diverging into unsubtle presidential soapboxing.

“Government needs to pay for the services that only government can pay for,” she continued. “We are still not doing that. There is a lot we have still not done with this budget, but we’ve done as much as we can, and I think we’ve done the best we can with what we have available.”

Whether Fritz was referring to the city’s surplus of funds being insufficient to cover all of the city’s needs, or that the work being done with that surplus was insufficient to use them in the best way possible, was unclear.