You say Missouri
out West. Urban prairie bound,
I say Missourah.

Living in Disaster

The house has been empty for a while.  More than just days…more like weeks, months.

When you enter the home, you are struck by the intermingling of cold and the musty odor.  It gives the air a tangible quality you must push through as you enter so it doesn’t force you back onto the porch.  It seems colder than outside as cold has sunk into every corner and cranny. The brief wafting of fresh air into the house as you enter dissipates as soon as the front door shuts behind you and the air closes upon itself again.   Still, leaden, and unmoving.  There is no water and no power.   It has been like this a long time:  without pulse and without breath.  It feels abandoned.

We didn’t anticipate buying a house in this state of un-livability.   We knew it was vacant, a foreclosed property in the hands of Fannie Mae.  But it hadn’t been on the market long and the house was fully intact when we made the offer.  The first piece of bad news came the day Fannie Mae accepted our offer:  someone had cut through the screened back porch, broken the glass pane on the back door, gone down into the basement and removed all of the copper plumbing.  The second piece came on the day the house closed: someone had entered the same way (turns out the property manager didn’t secure the back door) and had cut all of the lines to the electrical panel and taken part of the furnace.

No water, no power, no heat.

You walk through this cold, musty home and there is no welcoming.  No warmth or vibrancy.  The day is gray and cold despite it being spring.  And the house agrees.  No signs of life here.   Inertia is beginning to come with a feeling of deja-vu.  Back to the hotel and long list of phone calls to find contractors in an unfamiliar city.

Displaced, again.

Walking through the house, I think, “this must be a glimpse into what it is like returning to your home after a disaster.”  Grateful to be home, but not really home.  Grateful for plumbing, but not able to shower because there is no hot water.  Not able to cook or keep perishables because there is no power.  Then the power is on, but there is still no heat.  The unseasonably cold spring is more salient to you as you put on another sweater and sleep under every blanket with socks on.  Seems like it takes an hour for the bed to warm up.  It is too cold to unpack and too cold to clean. You drift from room to room rubbing your hands like a distraught ghost, haunting your own house.

Then the day comes that there is water, hot water, power and heat all together.

The house begins to hum, only you hear a symphony.

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Leaving Portlandia

There have been two universal reactions to my announcement that I was going to move from Portland to the Mid-West:  surprise and disbelief.  But I also found a number of people who, if given a few moments to find clear and honest footing in the conversation, could see through the self-absorbed mental fog that covers the city in equal measure to the grey rain clouds and tells its inhabitants every day that Portland is the most amazing possible place in this country to live.  The amount of media devoted to reinforcing this idea is overwhelming in the sense that I believe it has overwhelmed people’s ability to have their own thoughts and identity in Portland.  Instead they have a Portland identity…because they live in Portland and that is what  defines them.

On the surface, Portland has many progressive aspects.  Sustainability and the “greening of the city” stand front and foremost as two easily recognized.  Curbside recycling and composting, increasing investment in bicycle transportation, native gardening, and urban farming.  There is an intense concentration of a wide range of alternative health practitioners. Artisan craftspeople abound, creating specialty foods and other handcrafted products.  “Shop local” is the resounding cry to support small businesses, and farmers markets adorn every neighborhood in the summertime.

Idyllic as this sounds, there is a less appealing aspect to this picture.  As Portland concentrates is cultural practices into a few baskets, the proliferation of other ideas diminishes.  Ten years ago I would have characterized Portland as a place that had progressive perspectives.  Now I would characterize Portland as a place with few ideas, all perpetually reinforced and more deeply ingrained everyday.  People regurgitate a handful of versions of the same thoughts in ever narrowing expressions.  Everywhere you look it is repetition of the same ideas, whether it be on politics, design, or social culture. People strive to look the same, to dress the same, and to have the same lifestyle.  It is so pervasive, that women within a 30 to 40 year age range may display similar choices in hair, dress, and accessories.  What began as a city with progressive and forward looking ideas to develop a new urban course has become a closed container of cultural conformity.  There is a new cookie cutter in Portland, and it is young, alterna-hip, and white.

I grew up in a place like this…it is called Orange County.

Sweeping shocked gasps aside, this comparison is worth a long pause to consider.  Stripping away the key difference between Multnomah and Orange County of political affiliation, with Orange County being a historic Republican stronghold and Portland staunchly Democrat, these two counties have some key cultural similarities all hinging on a pivotal word used above:  conformity.  Conformity of dress, thought, and mannerisms, shared ideas and ideals, and a strong attitudinal belief that their is a “right” or “correct” way to be and to appear to others.  There is also limited interest or investment in the arts, creative, innovative, or intellectual development.  Just because the surface ideals these two places seem extremely different from each other, does not mean that they don’t breed the same obedience to a self-referencing norm within themselves.  And by perpetuating their particular cultures and tailoring their environments to fit with a narrow range of ideals, the inhabitants of these areas increasingly live on the margins of reality and instead inhabit a fabricated cocoon of their own self-rewarding design.

What disturbed me most about Portland in the months leading up to my decision to leave was the increasingly strong social culture of invisibility.  I am referring to the tendency of people in Portland to not acknowledge the physical presence of other people around them in close proximity.  This can easily be seen by the increasing tendency of people to brush past you without making eye contact or saying “excuse me” and instead being intensely focused on some spot just beyond your left shoulder.  But it manifests in countless other ways:  letting dogs off leash (and not picking up after them), ignoring red lights and stop signs, allowing children license to act out without discipline in the presence of other adults.  In this city where conformity to a particular identity is so strong, people no longer see each other as people.  People come in and out of your field of vision as an object to be ranked according to usefulness to you, and invariably avoided, ignored and dismissed the majority of the time. It is unpleasant, unsettling and dehumanizing.  The countless tiny social interactions we have with other people throughout the day are the glue that hold us together as a community and keep us from being automatons randomly bumping into one another like the balls in a pinball machine.  And this critical stickiness in Portland is dissolving rapidly.  As people lose the ability to engage and connect with one another, there appears to be an increasingly growing level of resentment, frustration and anger brewing under the surface of social interactions.  Not just ones where overt conflict is involved, but all of them.  Because it feels like they all contain some level of conflict just by the occurrence of people being together in a place, time and circumstance.

There is little likelihood that I would ever have been physically assaulted in Portland.  But I think there is a pretty strong likelihood that if I were physically assaulted that no one around me would react or get involved or help.  Because chances are, I wouldn’t even be seen.

When confronted with difficult situations or challenging environments, often it is heard “it’s the people that keep me here…keep me working, living, etc. in this place despite its shortcomings”.  In Portland, the situation is reversed….the environment is being made increasingly pleasant and comfortable, but it is the people that make it so difficult to live there.


Moving Away, Moving Towards

Based on my numerous conversations with people prior to moving halfway across the country, it appears that the degree to which people comfortably assimilate notions of change is deeply influenced by the magnitude of movement embedded in that change.  It is as though there is a “movement spectrum of magnitude” and the extent to which you can easily grasp and accept the need, or even simply the desire, to move (or change) depends on where and how broad a band of this spectrum your own personal comfort range covers.

At one end of this spectrum there is spontaneous, intuitive movement, action based on instinct and motivated by emotion, catalyzed by the collision of outer circumstance and one’s inner landscape. Perception plus emotion equals movement. And the potential for dramatic movement is inherent in this dynamic. At the opposite end of the spectrum is strategic movement, action based on analysis and motivated by perceived benefit, with all the competing stakeholders being taken into consideration.  Reason plus justification equals movement.  The potential here is for increasingly incremental movement as competing interests, complicated histories, and oftentimes simple inertia create narrow constraints in which to act.

Where any of us falls on this spectrum is an intersection of numerous variables: personality, age, life experience, and so on.  But I think we can all agree on a recognizable pattern of starting at the end of intuition and impulse in our youth and gradually drifting down the spectrum to the responsible realm of planned, thought out, and carefully considered movement and change.

While I love the neat and clear dichotomy of this logical construct, I find myself asking the question, how can strategic thinking paradoxically  result in dramatic and spontaneous change?  How can perceptual observations colored by emotional reactions insinuate themselves into the methodical planning process and  drive a revision of strategy, perhaps even altering it dramatically through immediate and significant change? Perhaps instead of being at two opposing ends of a spectrum, these seeming opposites actually sit side by side and continuously influence one another through this contiguous proximity?

After answering repeated variations of the same questions people had regarding my decision to move (nearly all of them beginning with the word “why”), I started joking that I should have put together a PowerPoint presentation which would present a logical construct and progression of ideas that eventually led to the decision to move.  Perhaps something with some flowchart diagrams and a cost/benefit analysis.   And while there is a logical narrative of sorts behind my choice to move, the actual experience of moving has proven to be more complex and full of serendipitous events than such summarized version could explain.  And not only would the above questions remain unanswered, but other questions around how do we  justify why we move, how we move, when we choose to trigger a move, and where we move to would also be left unexamined.  There is no good twenty word or less explanation…at least not for me.