Tag Archives: Portland

psychopomp

Observation 6: Terrible things

I don’t think I truly love where I live until another describes it as a den of horrors.

Blame my Cleveland childhood. Going to school meant boarding a bus with the windows stuck open in winter and stuck shut in summer at 5:30AM. The bus took a snake’s path through the industrial parkway, before crossing the Harvard Avenue Bridge, which felt like crossing Mordor. Steels mills spouted fire all around us, dragons singing their death song. Between swallowing fat mouthfuls of this air and swimming in the grim green of Lake Erie, to the instant mashed potatoes and cardboard and ketchup pizza of school lunches, my body programmed to thrive on poison; too much organic material leads to rashes.

I’ve often wondered if the Cleveland Browns call a segment of the stadium “the dawg pound” because of the perpetual underdog status of the team, and the city itself, with hard to swallow nicknames like “the mistake on the Lake” and “city of the burning river.” Media (and movies) focus on the ongoing failure of sports teams, the staggering poverty, the government corruption. It’s also one of the only major metropolitan areas with a totally free art museum thanks to unusual commitment to the arts. It’s a city where I was able to get a scholarship to college, a city that supported the earliest days of my writing career, and provided opportunities that I happily took. It was where I got to be in a crowd shot of the movie “Major League” courtesy of free tickets distributed to Cleveland Public School students, where I stuffed tacos and burritos for $4.35 an hour, where you can still get a donut for under a dollar. It’s also where my great uncles were Saloon owners until prohibition (where they ran “soda shops” instead), where my great aunt worked as a secretary for Elliot Ness, and where my great great grandfather was the first councilman of the Warzawa neighborhood.  It’s a city thick with history from 1796, and long before, where walking in older places means Rockefellers or fossils or rust, where the portions in restaurants are ridiculous and shopping malls don’t have to make fake snow. I love it. I hate it. You think it’s terrible; I like it more.

Then there’s Portland, the cuddly darling of the New York Times, the top place to move for San Francisco’s rent-suffering residents and small town sorts strangely dazzled by the douchery of D-grade TV shows. It’s described in squeals and exclamation marks, with the O replaced with a heart shape by thousands of starry-eyed people desperately seeking exodus. None of these adoring articles championing bicycle culture, liberal politics, and excellent public transportation mention the massive homeless camps that recall the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, the rapid rent increases that sharply contrast with salaries that have been stuck since 2000, the high unemployment and heavy reliance on food stamps, the lack of support for the arts and the ridiculously low corporate contributions to struggling nonprofits. They don’t mention how sickly so many become in a climate where mold and fungus thrive, how agonizingly long and grey the winters can be, how difficult it is to form community when so many are transplants in transition, and unlikely to stay. These affectionate declarations rarely note that the street fairs that once celebrated regional culture are constantly under threat, that New Seasons and Little Big Burger have kinda become our Walmart and Applebee’s (they’re everywhere), and the artists and strange sorts that once kept Portland “weird” are now being exiled to neighboring suburbs. I have loved and hated everywhere I’ve lived, but this is the first time I felt that the city hated me. After 12 long years I’ve been feeling ready to leave, my eye on just about anywhere else.

Then the New Yorker article happened, the great panic button reminding all the excited new citizens that they’ve moved into the Ring of Fire. In Cleveland, you know that the Cuyahoga River is the one that famously burned; in Portland, most of the new citizens and many of the old don’t understand that those mountains are also volcanoes, and there’s a little thing called the Cascadia subduction zone. When Hurricane Katrina happened, internet know-it-alls liked to scoff about how the whole city was built below sea level, so what did they expect? In the case of Portland, the whole city is doomed…and yet people keep moving here like the streets are lined with gold.

And yet this coming-doom thing isn’t new to me; I’ve been dreaming about Portland’s forthcoming boom for years. In the dream the ugliest part is that the skies darken in warning of a coming storm, which inspires many to hunker down in their houses and seek shelter in basements, when they really need to be running for the highest point they can find. This is what I do in this dream, and when I reach that high point I look over at what used to be my city and all I see is water. I’m an unexpected island dweller, clinging to an old cedar, flanked by a few friends who also remembered to run high. I’ve been writing about it for years, and wrote a young adult book around it that perhaps now is ready to be read.

If the promotional tide has finally turned and the golden city is one waiting to rot, I can’t help but love it just a little bit more. There are no heroes and no villains, and as soon as the hero shows his weakness or the villain outs himself as soft, they suddenly become so much more relatable to me. If these great trees and glorious hills are not the promised land, but soon to sink into murky waters, with internet blow-hards lying in wait to tell us all the reasons we should heed the warnings and run, isn’t that a very good reason to cling to those cedars a little bit tighter so that they’re loved all the way down? This is not the sort of thing someone seeking out an easy life will develop any affection for, but someone who was born and raised an underdog biting for every scrap might thrive in such a climate. If there’s any climate left to thrive in at all.

 

observation, psychopomp

Observation 5: Food for Crows

It started with trail mix. Since I’m allergic to nuts this is something that I shouldn’t eat, but laziness convinced me that once almonds and cashews are weeded out, the chocolate chips and sulfur-infused cherries that remain qualify as dinner. The nutritional takeaway is somewhere between Snickers’ bar and frozen pizza, and my stomach is still appalled.

The pile of pieces and parts was impressive, and grew as I pressed my own dumb again and again. I couldn’t toss them into the compost bin without feeling more California than Oregon, and since my bank account says I don’t live anywhere at all, they needed to be used.  As an experiment I left a handful of nuts in a wooden bowl in my yard, assuming they’d make gourmet fare for foraging squirrels or nutria (Portland’s ROUS, for Princess Bride fans). Between compost and the sloppiness of humans, such creatures have grown accustomed to feasting on our food anyway. Ever see a bird flying with half a sandwich? It happens.

The bowl attracted the attention of one crow, who watched me very carefully from her perch on a nearby satellite dish. She watched as I watered outdoor plants, fussed with cats. She watched me right through my kitchen window, and while she monitored my activity, let the neighborhood jays feast on the contents of the wooden bowl. Crows are smart; I don’t doubt that they regularly use jays as their personal tasters. This crow also had an eye on my cats, who took turns arranging themselves in the window to try out their best bird calls on the jays. They’d have to toss aside several IQ points to try that on crows. Portland crows are big beautiful birds, and they gather in great noisy roosts all over the city. The average crow is basically larger than a cat, so the only cat this crow was interested in getting a read on was the Maine coon, Scooter, who lazily occupied an entire Adirondack chair. It doesn’t take extensive inspection to surmise that this largest cat is also the gentlest: a great big Buddha who once got an abscess because of his habit of capturing a bee in his jaws, holding it until it tickles, and then letting it go with a squeak. Really. He sulks when I kill house centipedes, and fully supports my capture-and-release spider program. Not a threat. The crow flew away.

The next day I rose to find three crows waiting for me, each arranged around the nearby satellite dish, looking into the kitchen window. I took a handful of nuts from the stockpile, and placed them in the bowl. They cawed, then took the cashews, leaving the almonds for the jays.

Now every morning starts more or less the same. The youngest crow, an adolescent who seems committed to the family unit (or maybe the crow equivalent of an adult reading comic books in his mom’s basement) starts squawking. Her squawk is different from the full throated “caw” of her parents, and she won’t quit under I wander outside dazed and toss a handful of nuts into the bowl. Note: they have to land in the bowl. For a few days awhile back I just tossed them into the yard, and the crows looked at me like I could no longer be trusted with nut distribution, and left them all to the jays. Logically one could deduce that the nuts are easier to see in the bowl from the air, but I think that’s how they know for sure they are for them and from me or my partner, and therefore safe. Or maybe they like the ritual. Within three minutes of proper bowl placement, all the nuts will be gathered, while at least one maintains watch on a wire. The adolescent will up her squawking game, furiously flapping at the crow with the most nuts stored away in her jaws. This crow will then mash up some of the nuts on the ground, gargle them, and regurgitate them into the mouth of the adolescent. This usually quiets her down. I keep an eye on the cats the whole time, as I don’t have the budget for the emergency room visit that would likely be required if one felt ambitious, and put a large bowl of water out on especially hot days for impromptu baths. We are friends.

They return the favor in unexpected ways. We used to have a neighbor who would amuse himself by rising early to stand on the sidewalk and play the same six bars on his trumpet, over and over again. Consider for a moment the tidal wave of curse words that would trail from my partner’s mouth in response to this unwanted wake-up call. The crows were equally unamused, and decided to demonstrate their feelings by dive bombing him one day, right in front of us, as we stood outside. The trumpet player screamed. Can you high five a crow? There are ways.

This is not my first friendship with crows. Awhile back I decided that I needed to get okay with handling dead things, and so I started lifting crows that had been hit by cars off of the roadway before they were pancaked flat. Crows mate for life, and form elaborate communities; when a crow is struck by a car, the full family sometimes assembles nearby to honor the fallen friend and support the widow. The ruckus is amazing. It is hard for me to imagine witnessing a friend’s death, and then watching him get brutalized again and again. The first time I lifted a crow from the concrete, the noise of outrage was deafening; when I placed the body on the green, they fell silent. I can’t say whether they understood what I was doing, but the next time they were silent the whole time, from when I lifted the dead remains to when the body touched green. I did this maybe a dozen times before I relocated to a neighborhood with fewer crows, but while I lived there I felt close to the crows, and that they remembered. It felt special, but I know that they don’t just remember me.

There have been many experiments to test the intelligence and memory of crows, the most famous of which involved men in masks who captured and tagged a small number of crows. The masks were then passed on to different people, over and over again, to see if the crows remembered the faces of the men that captured them. The crows not only remembered, but word of the offense spread, and crows dive-bombed the wearer of the mask in larger and larger numbers. It’s good to be in with the crows, and is quite bad for your health to not be.

These crow friends of mine provide a sense of security. They alert me when one of the neighbors’ crosses the street, when the mailman approaches, when the morning is getting too warm and I need to wake up before I miss it. They gobble up the bits of loneliness that inevitably afflict anyone with the occupation (or preoccupation) of writer. And they provide their own answer to Alan Moore’s query of “who watches the watchmen?” The crows, of course. The crows are always watching, observing, recording.

 

 

Uncomfortable Positions

Observation 3: Cooking in July

Here’s how to get from point A to point B: stick one ice pack under your hat, stick another icepack in the laptop compartment of your backpack. Shut all the windows of your house, because you don’t know what you’re doing anymore. Does this keep the cool air from the night before in, or just create an oven of stale air? Don’t bother with google; that will just make your computer hot. Congratulate the cat for peeing on the only fan. Grumble to self that fans don’t do anything anyway, except blow down the aforementioned stale hot air. Put the pee-fan outside, to aggravate the neighbor’s cat, aka your cat’s arch nemesis. Remember to not get mad at any of the cats, because mostly you’re worried about whether they’re drinking enough, and you really wish they would cooperate like other cats that accept icepacks. This is a good reminder: check the cat water. Overdo it. Feel bad about the neighbor’s cat who is outside, and leave a bowl of water out there, too.

Now, sunscreen: how do you feel about it? One website will say that you will absolutely die if you don’t slather yourself in a tennis ball sized goo cannon twice a day, even indoors, even if there are no windows and no doors and it’s raining and winter. Another website will swear that sunscreen doesn’t actually work anyway, and that scalding beet-red burn you’re experiencing is actually the conspiracy, rubbing your nose in your own titanium dioxide. Now comes the means of answering this question: what would Australians do? You slather on mineral sunscreen (aka Zinc) and adjust your complaint filter so that the long stream of whining remains an internal lubricant, and not a strategy for getting out of a meeting sooner.

Clothing. This is not about fashion, or function, but what the skin is willing to tolerate. Shoes are the only essential article of clothing for admittance into most convenience stores, as well as something to cover the genital region enough to avoid arrest. Of note: a bikini is a totally acceptable outfit, especially if you intend to ride a bike. This wisdom applies to all genders. You settle on something that straddles the line of conventional decency, and is least likely to inspire heat rash. Science.

Putting things in a bag: this is hard. It’s important to give the icepack premium placement over your kidneys.

Time to go. One step outside, and you’re overwhelmed by the strength of your own genius. Icepack under the hat? There should be an award for that. At the ceremony you would thank your cats, your Polish genes that leave you armored against cold and defenseless against heat, your partner who somehow left the house in Carhartt’s that day, and the heat stroke you didn’t have. Icepack in the laptop compartment? You need to secure a patent for that one. With every step, you consider yourself more of a fashion pioneer. Everyone looks miserable, and you gobble it up like the vampire you are, swallowing their salty sweat and turning it into personal glee. No one knows of the genius happening all over your body. This is amazing. You are a terrible person, and an excellent imp.

You will hide in an air conditioned hovel as long as imps are permitted. Then you will enter the oven all over again, the fist of the drought more brutal when it delivers its second blow.

psychopomp

Observation 2: July 4

Waiting for the sun to set so Portland’s heat can lessen by a few degrees, and my mind can lock onto activities beyond sleeping and complaining again. Me and a watering can go for a romantic stroll around the drought-dead yard, moving from bonsai to birch tree to hedge to six-week tomatoes to Evening Primrose. While citizens are discouraged from indulging in bombs bursting in air, with the Oaks Bottom Wetlands bone dry and Mt. Hood seeing only a single snowflake in June, that doesn’t mean that many folks won’t commit to setting their lawns ablaze anyway.

The slow roll of drums in the distance = fireworks being lit off the Ross Island Bridge by the pros, gun powder trailing into the waiting river below. There’s nothing glowing or sparkling in the sky, just a few stray bottle rockets. That’s when the first craft came up over a neighbor’s roof, four green eyes winking at me, two red lights at the tips creating an orb illusion. My alien abduction dreams often start this way, but as it goes over head wings are easier to identify as drones. Four of them, doing laps and maybe helping the officials monitor for fire. They do laps around the distant dots of Venus and Jupiter. They do laps around the Evening Primrose, which has finally decided to awaken and announce its independence. This is the night’s show stopper moment, far away from the flashing lights.

 

daydreams

Tourist Seasons

midwestern tourists with white socks pulled halfway up their calves in polo shirts with muted tones. Deep in exchange with drug-addled tokens of lost rave days, negotiating mouthfuls of tentacles. A sentence escapes, directions and change and ten salutations to old mischief and gods lasso’d from plants and sci-fi pages.

Foreign travel informs other language encounters, avoided with translation devices churned active with charades. Just like overseas both parties are nervous, and then someone takes a picture and buys a doughnut.

My eyes on the mother, stout firm and grounded from three children sliced from her body. She won’t offer her tale unless asked, and then it’s all getaway cars and field goals and journals inked thick with secrets. This woman won’t hug like she’s been interrupted. She’ll press her breasts into mine until they grow.

Her male counterpart something else all together, propped around wars and his grandfather’s wars and the job he was supposed to retire from until he didn’t. A camera saluting the labors of silver miners, his hands those of harvest. His wife will graduate to crone without having been abandoned, but if he’s asked who he is he won’t answer.

Meanwhile the ravers recall friends, all dead, who once occupied pants with enough fabric for two and filled dance floors with movements that would better serve some city, before one was left to foam her overdose alone so no sick sort suffered prison. Big city burdens bruising small towns long after notions of illegal dancing.

At twenty it’s not possible to measure the collection of bodies and faces and pick which hand will pull the card of cancer, will avalanche all the way down the mountain with no memory of bodies to cushion them. Image preserved of a cloud kicked up by two cowboys who never knew horses, stamping time in high desert lines while my tent became shelter for lizards. Daytime heat would force our retreat under mushroom canopies, then night resurrected lost thunder. We listened without hearing the warning.

Some went without gravestones in favor of ash recalling dormant volcanoes. Other shells had one autopsy, two, with neither revealing an answer. Others assume phantom forms to warn big eyes away from empty houses. Names and faces preserved through clothing artifacts collected in a bag, honoring a time when tshirts stopped short. Robots and aliens stitched in homage to sounds, silked with sweat and ringed in candy.

If they ask who I am, I won’t answer. A sugar different from the offering of this city, stolen from plants and sci-fi pages.

 

 

 

essays, psychopomp

Afterbirth

Greetings from a coffee shop state of pseudo-slumber. Bright flaming ball of essential daily nutrients in the sky, winged ants springing from sidewalk cracks in clouds before they settle into kitchens, spiders prepping complex webs and bracing for Hobo accusations, and pale peaking flesh gliding down the street attached to mouths munching stories about bicycle parts and allergies.

This thumbs up is brought to you by the end of January, the end of February, the end of every awful month that seriously needs elimination from the calendar. There’s never been a better case for hibernation than a slow walk down a rain drenched street on a shivering day where every shop owner says fuck it and just closes at five to retreat to the nearest bathroom for a little private mutilation. The rest of us adopt yellow pallets and stone sunk eyes, characteristics previously thought confined to addicts and dystopian novel characters, trying to summon inspiration through a cocktail of Vitamin B and Vitamin D and herbal hoodoo woowoo alongside wanna-be sunlamps and cancerous tanning beds. These attempts to self-resuscitate are chronicled on blogs and tweets and facebook, because internet communication is the only acceptable sport for sanitary sorts who arrive at Portland’s borders and instantly fall antisocial and ill. It’s retreating to caves, coughing and brooding, waiting for the rain to make moats and moss and green scenes so we remember what we’re doing this for. I hate you I love you I hate you I love you.

This is my oldest Sid and Nancy romance.

I’d like to reveal all the excellent events that have unfurled in the past few months, but as I already mentioned January and February don’t actually exist except to file your taxes and force you to attend expensive parties. What I really did was rewatch all six seasons of the Sopranos, and then spend hours considering minor scenes that involved submersion in water and horses, and whether or not Tony traded places with death, and what it all means in terms of self-absorption and the level of denial required to ignore or participate in heinous things. Yeah, that’s it, like the Milgram experiment that explained how the Holocaust could have happened, with the dude being shocked and people still pushing the button and maybe crying and still pushing the button, and…

Still: television exists to remind us that we’re all going to die, and none of us are going to wish we had watched more things before it happened.

So: Last night I organized my selves into a skin and stood while other people sat and made talking noises while dressed as a blue Keebler elf. This is apparently known as a reading, and it took place at Rain or Shine Cafe on Division at 6:30, and I sold four books. Two were sold through the Square, which is a stamped size piece of science you plug into the larger rectangle used to microwave heads, and then money happens. This is a much better use of a smart phone than talking. If you haven’t yet received this fantastic device in the mail, I highly recommend signing up. For all the complicated technology I can’t grok, my brain meats totally tossed this salad without error, and for the first time since its purchase I dared to love my Android phone for the three more days I’ll have it.

The crowd was also neat-o, and contained many of the kind Kickstarter contributors that allowed Psychopomp Volume One to make it to print. A small part of each of the three sections was read to introduce each of the four characters to the herd. At the end of each section everyone pawed the ground and cried “Four legs good, two legs bad!” so I knew I was really on to something.

It went well, and I hope to do more things just like this in the future.

The kind words that followed the reading made me think an audio production of the book should be in the works. When working on this beast I read it aloud to myself anytime my apartment was empty, a tip dispensed by more than one of my writing professors at Ohio University. This is a great means of detecting punctuation errors, and measuring whether or not dialog sounds authentic or like something Bob Saget would say when he’s under contract at a major network. It also zeroes in on garbage words and phrases that are utterly out of place in a paragraph and therefore need to be deleted. I used to consider this heartbreaking, but if you’re a writer you’re always going to write more. Clinging to a phrase you hope will one day arrive as someone’s tattoo to the detriment of the chapter results in a lot of people with ink they don’t understand.

Otherwise, I’ve been in a state of afterbirth, trying to get my body back, knowing all the while that the minute I can pull off a 50 mile bike ride I’ll be pregnant with book again. I mean it, pregnant: The time spent working on it is weird aches and pains and hormonal surges while fielding questions about how far along I am and whether or not I’m ready for this. When the golem makes its painful escape there’s no expectation of having to feed it and water it and clothe it and take it all around town in one of those strollers that swallows the sidewalk, smiling and squeaking, “Excuse me! Don’t you want to hold my baby?”

Then comes the doubt: what if I created a dumbass? Why did I bring this THING into the world to defecate in its pants? It’s totally gonna throw a tantrum in the coffee shop, and I’m going to have to sit there and rub it on my boob while everyone averts their eyes while circling me like the sun. This is bullshit. Who can I get to watch this for me? Can I leave it at Center Camp at Burning Man while I cover myself in blinky lights and run at the fire? I’m the Joan Crawford of authors, wearing lacy nightgowns and painted-on eyebrows and the sneer of someone who hasn’t had a pleasant thought in a decade. One minor disappointment of little consequence and I’m a tabloid, beating it with wire hangers, complaining about ingratitude for all I’ve sacrificed and how no one appreciates nice things, before I leave my book with the nanny and escape for another bender.

Still: I’m on the verge of my Steve Martin moment, where the sour is replaced with the glassy-eyed smile that makes parents often love their children despite their tendency to break things.

In the coming months I’ll be weaning, sending out more review copies, getting the ebook online, booking more readings, and trying to get Psychopomp to take care of itself. Then, Channel Insomnia and Psychopomp Volume 2, and with any luck I’ll have a crowded house and will feel overwhelmed all over again, which is a much more wonderful thing to experience than a hollow, empty bookshelf.

 

daydreams, essays

reporting on the condition of being human (in america) to the home planet: September

while the nail biting meat is sufficiently occupied, those who have electrostimulated their unmentionables will assume the lotus position and levitate for entry. don’t worry: the few witnesses will likely be written off by uncolorfuls as white-light purple-shroud finger-twirl-by-the-temple acid-popping sky-is-falling psychonauts, or rambling hyperactive unmedicated children in need of a time-out and an older, more glasses-wearing therapist. In the morning those uncolorfuls code crazy will simply be gone. Poof.