Tag Archives: work

to fix a leaky wall

Since election day, when I last worked on the tiny house, rainwater found its way under the port side wall and seeped into the house. Water that gets inside a structure makes for dismal things to come if left unchecked. Moisture begets mold growth which when inhaled causes illness. Eventually, the materials of the house degrade, and the house, given enough time, collapses. One might liken a water leak to a salesman who gets elected President. There was a hole in the system. I could curse the hole, or I could deal with the water that seeped through it.

I did what any builder depressed by the state of the world would do. I ignored it and instead focused on framing the roof. I’d never framed a roof before, and the geometry involved made my head spin. I had to look up the Pythagorean Theorem, which I learned in grade seven and swiftly forgot, to find that I didn’t have 2x4s long enough to span the width of the house. It took me an hour to pass the short exam online that I thought would help my confidence enough to make the cuts based on my own math.

Later, as I stood warily on a three-and-a-half inch beam thirteen feet off the gravel, my angle cut turned out too shallow, the new joist cut too short. I threw my measuring tape on the deck and hurled the beam out of the roofless house and into the driveway. I hoped that the crash landing killed the spider that had been trekking across the joist.

Rarely does expressing anger accomplish anything for me. The Nineties taught me that my anger punctured bedroom doors and broke CDs and that sadness and regret did not put them back together again. Other people got scared or mad and lashed back at me, or left. I decided way back then that expressing anger was not useful. So I repressed it.

I fetched the piece of lumber, put it away, and returned to the loft to reflect on my progress. I had built the downstairs walls too high, which meant there would be scarce ceiling height in the loft to do anything more interesting than reading a book. The DOT (or somesuch agency) requires that tiny homes on wheels be limited to thirteen and a half feet in height—understandable, in that roofs shouldn’t collide with the underside of a bridge at fifty-five mph, but my wife wanted more height in the loft. Her opinion on matters of the bed is important.

Could have waited to install the top plates, too. Top plates are 2x4s that connect wall segments together to improve the stability of the structure. Why not use the bottom plates of the loft wall frames for that and save an inch and a half of height?

Could have made a better decision months ago. But I had to have it my way, take the more difficult route, be different from the rest.

Efficiency in hindsight.

I didn’t blueprint this house, drew nothing to scale, spent seven thousand dollars on what looked to me like the boxy doghouse I built in seventh grade for my Rottweiler, Hans.

My mistakes revealed themselves hourly, as fast as I learned to detect them. To increase the time interval between finding yet another blunder, I practiced snare drum rudiments on the window sills and juggled hammers and snacked on banana macaroons.

I got down on myself today when Ryan, a builder whose work I admire, came by to see how things were going. He poked his head into one of my crookedly sawzall’d window holes and looked around. I imagined him, the master builder of mcmansions, eyeing each of my mistakes and silently judging me as an amateur, a charlatan not even good enough to build a tiny house.

“If I knew what the fuck I was doing, things would be going great,” I told him. It came out harsh, even brash. Ryan seemed to ignore it. To change the subject, I asked him how he learned to build.

But I couldn’t shake the question in my head, why did I say that?

Because he is better at what I am doing than I am. Because I want to be good at everything I do. Because I fear that I’m not enough, or will ever be.

No one is holding me accountable for this build. No one is paying me. No one was around to see me throw a 2×4 at the ground. Maybe that just needed to come out of me. Maybe all the frustration and anger I feel about the election needs to come out so I can look at the water leak in the wall and not take it personally, or conclude that there was thus a hole in me, and mold would grow and cause me to get sick and die. Internalizing the mistake would help only shame, which I needed not indulge.

After Ryan left, I sat up on the beam and waited for the roof to build itself, the correct angles to be cut, and the leak to have never happened. Minutes passed. Clouds threatened rain, then continued sweeping north. The roof, the angles, the leak, they didn’t budge. My anger dissolved into sadness, then resolve. The repair work was mine to do. This build was a one-man democracy. It required participation from all parties in order to progress. Only by continuing to lift the roof joists into place could I begin to understand the weight of my actions. Removing the glued-down top plates would be costly in time I could better use learning how to work with and around them.

Perhaps the President elect has leaked into the system. That’s what he was elected to do, according to Michael Moore.

Maybe mold will form, and people will die. They already have. Maybe things will begin to crumble. Maybe the very idea of the United States of America will deteriorate to the point where he won’t need to build a wall. People won’t bother immigrating here. How would four years of zero new immigrants impact our national self-esteem?

Now is not the time to internalize our anger. That’s what got us here in the first place. Letting things fester, not saying anything when perhaps we should have—whether out of fear, disenfranchisement, lack of vocal cords, or apathy. Or shutting down and ignoring the people who were saying something important. Bernie Sanders. Black Lives Matter. Occupy Wall Street. Maybe what they were saying wasn’t relevant to us, or maybe if the public listened to them it could have negatively impacted our bottom line.

I’ve thought of quitting this build. I went to the Canadian immigration site on election night to find the crashed server couldn’t be reached. Fortunately, my wife is Canadian, I reasoned, so maybe it wouldn’t be so shameful if I just accompanied her back home. I’ve thought of cutting my losses instead of lumber and of selling this doghouse to some Portlandite bent on breaking free. But I won’t do that.

I’m not going to quit. I’m not going to run away from poor judgments, from shame for not having gained more experience before starting a mad project, shame for being privileged enough to begin building a tiny home and to consider quitting. I need simply to dry out the moisture under the wall, and seal the hole.

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.

homework.jpg

 

The Collared Blues

Stumptown Lives started with a BANG!

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

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

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

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

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

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

stopmoving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

panic

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

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

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

ladder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.