Unpacking ‘Unpacking’

What’s In This Box… Another Box? What?

It’s very easy to sympathize with the immediate problems of having completed your move. However, there is a period between “just after having moved in” and “just before you give up on unpacking and put everything else in storage,” a period often referred to as The Reconstruction. Much like the post-Civil War period of the same name, it is not talked about by non-history buffs, but it is an essential period in any move, and deserves some discussion to help demystify this confusing and troublesome aspect of moving.

It bears repeating that the entire process of moving can be summarized thusly: Take your life, and all the material things in it, put it all in disorganized and unlabeled boxes that are falling apart, transport them quite a ways from your current home, then put them all into a building that is yours only in name. It cannot be stressed enough how uncanny this new place is, in an entirely strange environment, full of things that you are pretty sure are yours, but is entirely confusing and out of place. This is what you are contending with during The Reconstruction.

While this is both good and bad, moving is essentially like pushing the Reset Button on your life. All of the routines that you have are now obstructed, but are still ingrained in you during The Reconstruction. The things you reach for automatically are no longer there, and relocating them will take longer than it ever did at your previous home. Usually, necessity helps speed along certain processes. The bathroom is the first thing to come together, followed by the bedroom, kitchen, and living room. But even this state of affairs is skeletal at best, with many of the lesser used items only making their way to their final destinations weeks (or, in some cases, months) into The Reconstruction.

The weirdest part of this process is coming to terms with the fact that you have to start everything over. The place where your pots and pans went before doesn’t exist, and try as you might to replicate it, eventually you have to make an entirely new place for them, and come to terms with that. While this does not seem like much, having to go through that with everything that you brought with you is a little terrifying, and as you open each new box, a sinking sensation begins to develop.  Suddenly, everything you own is adrift, and you are left to make sense of where it goes, and what must be done with it. Very quickly, to avoid having this feeling intensify, unpacking stops once the most important things are unboxed.

Not only are you confronted with the need to address the importance of everything you own, but moving puts into sharp relief all the things you have been living without previously. It isn’t until you have to install shelves before you realize that you’ve been living without a Phillips Head screwdriver for the last few years. The first thing we put together in our new home was a list of all the things we didn’t have but now needed, and as we began the process of unpacking, it was very clear that we would be missing a lot of things during The Reconstruction.

My philosophy toward dealing with situations like this is to create safe spaces that feel “moved in” and hide all the work that you still need to contend with. The first night we were in The Southernmost Outpost, I pushed everything into the Kitchen & downstairs bedrooms, and set up the living room as best we could so it seemed “livable.” (There was a couch, the coffee table, a shelf, a portable turntable, and a box of records, and that was it.) My thinking was that I wanted at least one space that I could go to that didn’t overwhelm me the amount of unpacking still ahead of me.

Most of our belongings went into the two bedrooms downstairs, and the large dining room that we now have, but this began to wear on us, too. The bathroom was next, but there was so much in the kitchen that needed to be dealt with that this sat undisturbed for quite some time. Finally, in a fit of frustration, I moved everything from the kitchen to the bedrooms, and set up the rest of the kitchen. A couple weeks after that, the upstairs bedroom came together, too.

Sadly, this is as far as we’ve been able to get with unpacking, mostly because of another aspect of The Reconstruction that is also rarely talked about: Life Goes On, no matter how much you still have to do. You still have to go to work, cook dinner, buy groceries, take out the trash, clean the kitchen, attend all the parties and stuff that you’ve been invited to, return your e-mail, and essentially live your life the way you would normally. In addition to having the gargantuan task of unpacking everything else that is still ahead of you. Periodically, I look at the piles of unpacked boxes, and feel a sense of dread. It represents work that I cannot avoid, and must be done.

But when?

An Anecdote Regarding Lawn Maintenance & Upkeep

"Just A Little Off The Top, Please."
“Just A Little Off The Top, Please.”

One of the first things that M said to me after we looked at our very first house was, “I hope you don’t mind doing all the yard work.”

I was reminded of these words the other day, as I stepped out of the door to my new house, and was confronted with a lawn, a mower, and the sneaking suspicion that she was somehow getting the better deal as the designated launderer for our household.

It is not a secret that I am not much of an outdoor person. Or rather, my version of being outside involves doing only fun activities, and keeping these activities limited to spaces that are shaded in the summer and heated in the winter. It’s not that I’m disinterested or against the outdoors. I love camping, and I’m a big fan of backyard BBQs. I’m a Spring child, and when the sun returns and there’s a great reason to be outside, I am at my happiest.

However, I’m also an allergy sufferer, in addition to being a pasty white guy who cannot tan and is not very fit, and while these problems are mild by comparison, I find that during certain times of year, and regarding certain kinds of chores, to be outside is less than desirable.

More to the point, I am usually filled with any number of flashbacks to when, as the oldest of my family, I was charged with the job of keeping up various aspects of yard maintenance. As a youth, I was instilled with a Snuffy Smith / Ignatius J. Reilly / Rip Van Winkle sort of attitude when it came to doing… well, anything. But there was little tolerance for being lazy in my family, and I have any number of memories of pushing some lumbering machine through some field of grass, coughing and sneezing as I swore and made lists of all the things that I would have rather been doing.

Once I no longer lived with my family, my experience with yard care dropped significantly, and outside of occasional houseplants that all mysteriously died under my supervision, I had very little contact with nature. Occasionally I was get hired to do some weeding, or to mow a lawn, or to work on a farm. But on the whole I managed to avoid the need to invest any energy into lawn care through living in apartments.

It’s only been since I met M that my desire to engage in the natural world around me began to develop, and I’ve made a few efforts since then to get a few houseplants here and there. While my success ratio has been very low, when I was unemployed our plants thrived, so I know that if I can give my complete and undivided attention to something as needy as a houseplant (and if I have plenty of sleep, coffee, breakfast, and lounging around before I get to this work), I can almost aid the survival of an organic being, provided it cannot make noise and does not mind being uncomfortable and unhealthy for long stretches of time.

Get Your Motor Runnin'
Get Your Motor Runnin’

After we first moved into The Southernmost Outpost, I was able to avoid yardwork for a while as we settled in, but eventually I couldn’t put it off any longer. However, we hit our first barrier when the mower that had been left in our care by the landlord turned out not to work. This gave me a little more time for sloth as we casted around for a mower that would start, and eventually I crossed one of the first thresholds of living in an actual house: owning my first lawn mower.

Aside from a car I briefly owned as a teenager (which I never once drove, let alone managed to start), I have never been given the care of a machine with an engine. Not that I have made any efforts to do so; I have come into the possession of a few bicycles over the years, and several computers, but never something that required gasoline and spark plugs and other components to remain in operation. Fortunately for me, I have come to discover that this particular brand comes with a lifetime guarantee, and while this brings to mind the William Shatner bit about whose lifetime we’re talking about, this is still a very big moment for me. Not only does this mean that I have to face my responsibilities head on, but my excuses have completely run out. The lawn, for better or for worse, must be mowed.

Yard Find
Yard Find

Small town life is funny, and as I began to get ready it was very clear my neighbors were all incredibly fascinated by the prospect of me mowing the lawn. I am already the gentleman who is wearing a robe and slippers to take out the trash, or to check the mail, and my bow ties and sweaters have sealed my reputation as someone who is exactly as bookish as I appear. As I began to clear debris, contend with a dead squirrel, and survey the work ahead of me, my neighbors all stopped what they were doing, procured light beers to put in a cozy, and leaned against something nearby to watch.

If there’s anything more uncomfortable than taking on a task that you are not excited about and don’t really have any skill for, it is being watched by small town neighbors while they drink beer. I did my best to politely engage them, by saying, “Hi,” and nodding in their direction from time to time, but getting a response was just not in the cards. They stood, hypnotized by a middle aged nerd mowing a lawn, and it sent a chill up and down my spine that was a bit hard to shake.

Lookin' Good
Lookin’ Good

In the end, I managed to finish without any major problems or hiccups, and I think the results came out pretty good, all things considered. At least, everything looks okay, and no one is glaring at me for an unkempt lawn.

What’s particularly interesting to me, though, is that it didn’t take long to become guilty of the same thing I was worried about.  Now, I’m the one looking at my neighbor’s lawns, shaking my head when it gets out of control. In the last month I’ve already mowed twice, and as I was coming home from work yesterday, I found myself saying, “It looks like our lawn’s getting a little shaggy again.” This last weekend we not only bought a hose, but a rake and broom, too, and I’ve been eying various plants that I can put in pots throughout the yard.

How, exactly, I came to this particular situation is still a mystery to me. I still hate chores, and I’m not really the kind of person who spends time in my yard. But there is something about having a nice lawn and being attentive to the home you live in that I had never experienced before. This is probably one of those “growing up” moments that many people experience at much earlier ages, but I have only just begun to see the connection between my environment and my own well-being, in a non-physical sense. The lesson I have learned this time around is that my house is an extension of our life together, and the need to take care of the lawn is sort of like the need to take care of my hair. It’s a self-esteem thing, more than anything else.

Salem, OR… ?


While I was not born in Oregon, I have lived in Oregon long enough for it to be my home. Most of my life has been spent in a handful of towns: Oakridge, Cottage Grove, Eugene & Portland, with minor stints in Oregon City, Milwaukie & Globe. However, in all of these places, there was one city that was often mocked, reviled, became the butt of jokes, and on the whole was deemed the last place that anyone in Oregon would want to live.

This is the story of that city.

On the whole, Oregon does not really go in for Big Cities. Portland and the surrounding areas only get up into the 700,000 range, and in terms of Population Density in the US, PDX is so far down the list that it’s barely worth mentioning. (Mostly because after the first 40 cities I stopped counting.) Even if we include all of Marion County, it’s still only half the size of the Portland area. Salem is about one-sixth the overall size of our previous environment, and while the metric probably applies elsewhere, that does not mean that it’s one-sixth as enjoyable, merely one-sixth as cool.

To put this into perspective for PDX residents, living in Salem is like living in the rest of America. Portland is so spoiled, the people who live there forget that most of the rest of the country is not as clean, is actually a little rundown, isn’t a massive metropolis, and has fewer options for entertainment. We forget that the overly hip cultural capital that Portland carries affords it a look and feel unlike everywhere else. On most streets in Salem, you can see abandoned storefronts, the slow decay of buildings that have not been improved upon in years, graffiti that no one is in a hurry to paint over, and a number of other signs that indicate the run-down-ness. Litter actually piles up from time to time in different areas that are fairly public, and the odds that a broken window will not be repaired are pretty good if there’s nobody currently renting the space.

Instead of the rather large area that is called Downtown Portland, in Salem there is only a several block square region that make up downtown, where nearly all the city’s effort has gone in terms of upkeep and renovation. The Capital Building and recently remodeled Hospital are also pretty nice, but outside of the residential neighborhoods, the rest of the city could use a lot of work. That isn’t to say that there’s aren’t beautiful places to go; there are some parks that are really nice, some vineyards that are awesome, and being in a more rural area, lots of outdoorsy nooks and crannies that are very much worth exploring. But part of the small town aesthetic is that there just isn’t enough money to make everything look great, mostly because of Capitalism. Unless someone who is very well off is moving in, chances are the façade of any given building will only decay as the years slowly pass.

Many things that are common in PDX are just not going to be a part of the Salem landscape. I don’t think there’s a single vegan restaurant, and the odds against finding a movie theater that shows second run classics with beer available is going to be nearly impossible. The number of record and comic book stores is very small by comparison, and these places don’t seem to cater to many independent publishers or small labels any more than your average mall store would carry. (The obvious exception being labels based out of Portland, and Dark Horse Comics.) There’s a single grocery outlet in town where you can find all of your organic vegetables and home grown spices, a very small Farmer’s Market that seems geared more toward crafts than food, and I still don’t know if there are any places that sell ‘zines, period. (Perhaps at the one record store, but that remains to be seen.) The only bookstores in town sell used books, but before you begin imagining a small version of Powell’s, keep in mind these all double as thrift stores, and even then you’re more likely to find adult books and old Playboys than anything else. The only food carts and trucks are taco trucks, and have been selling tacos for decades, and don’t know anything about the insane food cart craze that exists up north. There are a number of bars in strip mall locations, and tons of “Adult Bookstores.”

By comparison, Salem seems to have a much more diverse population base than Portland, ironically. The overwhelming population base is still white, by a long shot. (We’re still in Oregon, after all.) However, you are much more likely to run into someone who is Black or Latino at any given shop you would enter, and on the whole there are a lot more ethnicities represented during a casual stroll. While this might seem odd on the surface, it actually makes a lot of sense when you consider the average income of Salem residents compared to their PDX counterparts. Racial inequity is still very much along financial lines everywhere in America, and Salem is one of the many outlying areas where people who can’t afford big city life wind up.

However, with a smaller town also comes more overt racial tension, and that has been a huge shock to me. The recent Basketball Coach shenanigans has probably further pushed this kind of thinking and behaving further into hiding, but as the recent shenanigans have also revealed, that is about as far out of the public mind as these beliefs have ever been moved – into hiding, but still very much at work. There have been a few interactions I’ve witnessed that caused me to openly gasp, and it is difficult to remember that we are now very close to the places where Fox News and the Tea Party Agenda are considered important social values. With that in mind, all that comes with this kind of thinking is also lurking in these very same neighborhoods: Universal Health Care is bad, women should be oppressed by their husbands, homosexuality is questionable at best, and education is really only relevant until you’re about 15. I’m only just now finding my way in this community, but I can tell that there will be some difficult moments on the horizon.

There are other things that make Salem seem worse than Portland in terms of places to live, if you want to look for them. The public transportation is not nearly as good, and chain stores, malls, and outlets dominate the landscape. Local breweries are few and far between (but not nonexistent), and the food scene is spare at best (a few places in addition to a couple of local McMenemin’s franchise locations, and that’s it). Cars – overwhelmingly – are a business that you can sink your teeth into, and every single street has a garage, a used car lot, a windshield replacement shop, or some other kind of place where you can fix up / buy stuff for your car. If you aren’t car-centric, chances are you will find little to do, as the idea of being able to walk to something in the neighborhood is a little foreign to Salem. While I’m sure that I will absolutely feel safer riding a bike in Salem because there is far less traffic (ironically), it is far from a bike-friendly city, as there are fewer bike lanes and public places to lock up safely, let alone almost no bike culture in town of which to speak.

There are animated billboards all over the area, in places where drivers should not be distracted any more than they are already distracted by their phones. Golf, car racing and High School football seem to be the most popular pastimes of Salem residents. While there are a number of tattoo parlors, the quality of the tattoos is rather poor overall, and the only kinds of people who have funny hair or piercings are usually the trailer-park incarnation of those kinds of folks; hygiene & style has yet to filter down to the subcultures, but extreme shadiness and questionable piercings have.

To be honest, The City of Cherries does not really compare to life in The Big City, and chances are we will always be in a second-rate berg when we compare it to where we came from. However, that does not mean we’re in a terrible place to live. It is no Big Rock Candy Mountain, that’s for sure, but neither is most of America, and Salem still has some charm. Part of living anywhere is learning to find a way to fit into the community, and work toward making your corner of it a good as possible. In the process, we’ve found a few things that are extremely attractive to us.

First off: Thrift & Antique Stores. Wow. Any Antique Store you find is going to have PDX Thrift Store prices on their “really expensive stuff,” making even the coolest old shit that you find affordable by the standards we are used to. And Thrift Stores themselves are not yet picked over the way they are in PDX, leaving all sorts of amazing discoveries on a shelf being passed up by people who don’t know what they’re missing. (Mid-century style has yet to really catch on.) And, for that matter, the overall cost of living is just lower anyway; everything is slightly cheaper. No one wants to live in Salem, so housing and basic costs are a fraction of what they are up north, and offers you essentially the same quality of product.

There are a handful of venues in town that put on shows, both of the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Comedy variety, and with people that I actually want to see. While the names are not as big as they are in PDX, the lack of entertainment means that people tend to show up in large numbers for even the smallest performers. (Apparently, Drew Carey draws massive crowds in Salem.) While there are fewer record stores and comic book stores, I can honestly say that the last thing I need in my life are more records and comics (in spite of what I might want), and if I can’t find something I want, there’s always the Inter-Web-A-Tron.

On the whole, what I find the most intriguing about living in Salem is the lack of cool that it happens to offer. I’ve probably said something to this effect previously, but it bears repeating just to make the point: Portland’s entire social capital is based on cool, how cool you are, how cool your neighborhood is, how cool the bar you are at happens to be, and anything else that can be measured in Seven Inches or DJ Gigs. Now, imagine a town where none of that exists, and what little cool does exist is overlooked by most people, and revered by the few people who get it. Imagine a town where, but virtue of wearing a bow tie in public, you are not one of many, but extremely eccentric. Imagine a town where there is not gossip surrounding which bars are now lame, and which bars are out of sight, and instead picture a town where neighborhood bars do not have underground hip-hop shows or a secret drag show Sunday mornings.

Imagine a place that you can afford, where you are the coolest person in town, and where you no longer give a fuck about what anyone thinks, because they’re too busy not giving a fuck about what you think. Sounds like paradise to me.

In This Case Only, a House IS A Home

Something New
Something New

Once we were packed, it was easy enough to rally a few of our friends with the promise of beer and eternal gratefulness, and moving into this place was as simple as putting in several full days’ worth of work after coming home from having performed a full days’ work, two weeks straight, without any time off. On moving day, we woke up, began working at 6 AM, packed and loaded the truck, drove to Salem, unloaded the truck, and felt terrible afterward. I was able to get the mattress on the floor in the bedroom, set up the living room to be somewhat comfortable, and then passed out from exhaustion. As an office drone, manual labor is not exactly my forte.

The absolute worst part about moving is living out of boxes for the period of time you are still in transition. The new home is not yet comfortable, full of new smells and sensory input, and devoid of all the things that you need to live day-to-day. Even when everything we owned was under the same roof, it was like camping without the added benefit of being in the woods. This particular house was unique, too, in that it hadn’t been occupied for some time prior to our moving in. A stale, dusty pall hung over everything for the first few days, where the promise of a home-cooked meal, finding the right clothes to wear, or even locating a cup to drink from, was nigh impossible.

The house we found in Salem was originally built in 1926, but via at least two remodeling jobs, it is fairly modern by comparison. While a property management company handles the home as a rental, it technically has a specific owner. While I spent some time on the State of Oregon records site, getting some specific information about ownership history only goes back to 2010. Apparently, the owner prior to that lost the house through not being able to make payments, and it was acquired by the current owners at that time (probably in the fallout from the economic crisis that screwed everyone over several years ago). Anything prior to that will have to come from the Oregon Historical Society, and I haven’t had the time to make that particular endeavor just yet.

Aside from the carpeting in the upstairs loft, there are hardwoods throughout the house. Our downstairs basement has a weird room that was added on later, and if the Zig-Zag Man Graffiti and roach clip I found are any indicators, my suspicion is that this weird room was the “party” lounge for the previous tenants. (Though, why they would want to party in that room is beyond me.) While the property records show that there are “four” bedrooms, there are only three if you count the loft. Most likely the loft used to contain two rooms, but is now a continuous space. In spite of the fact that the bathroom is downstairs, after some discussion, we decided to make the loft our bedroom.

On the main floor we have a massive living room, a massive kitchen / dining room, and two bedrooms. I say massive, but this is mostly in comparison to the amount of space we had previously. The living room is probably two, if not three times larger than the one in our previous apartment, and the kitchen is at least six or seven times larger. (No shit; our old kitchen had enough room for one person in it, and no two appliances could be used simultaneously due to space concerns.) The two bedrooms are not much bigger than what we had previously, but not having to share any of these walls with anyone is an incredible luxury that I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy.

The hot water is extremely hot, hotter than anything I’ve ever been able to get out of a faucet or shower in recent memory. As a fan of extremely hot showers, this is incredible news to me, though the actual shower / tub fixtures leave a lot to be desired. Our fridge is a little lame-ish, and with good reason: prior to the house being empty, the previous tenants got drunk one night and decided to beat up the fridge. We also have those very same tenants to thank for the brand new dishwasher, as they left the previous one sitting with stagnant water in the bottom of it for a number of months before they disappeared into the night.

While I feel as if this is a bit of a palace, the house is not without shortcomings. There’s a bit of wear and tear in all of the rooms, some of the windows are drafty, and it is apparent that many of the recent repairs have been done with less-than-professional fix-it jobs. The aforementioned electrician – a family member of the owner, it seems – appears to be the gentleman who handles any on-sight problems, and after a few conversations with him, I suspect that everything he knows abuot repair is self-taught. He is also the source of our information about the tenants previous to us, so I have been taking his comments with a grain of salt. Still, with a couple-year-old garbage disposal, a front and back yard, and no major structural / functional issues, I can’t really say that I’m upset in the slightest.

Our house is on the corner of the block, and we only share a fence with two people: an older couple without children on one side, who we met on the first day we moved in. Aside from the fact that they are quiet and seem to work quite a bit, they are very pleasant, but keep very much to themselves. Our back fence is shared with then and a K-9 Unit County Sherif, who we have yet to see, let alone meet. However, it seems that he works quite a bit, and is otherwise quiet and absent most of the time.

Initially, a lot of people I know said it sounded terrible to live next to a cop, but I was quite jazzed about this turn of events for a number of reasons, none of which have to do with him as a person. (He could, very well, be awful; I do not know.) Living next to a cop – who parks his car in his driveway during off-hours – is the best possible scenario for someone, regardless of their personal lifestyle choices. From my perspective, we have all of the benefits with none of the drawbacks that usually come with police encounters. His presence sends a very clear, “Don’t even think about it,” message to anyone who might try to fuck with our house, and the crime report statistics that I looked into for our neighborhood reinforces that notion undoubtedly.

Another way to look at it is this: when he’s around, that means he’s off duty, relieving me from any potential encounter that could lead to being arrested for any questionable behavior. Unless I’m blatantly trying to break the law in broad daylight in a way that draws his attention, I have a feeling that having him as a neighbor could be the best security device anyone could really ask for. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we are 100% safe. Shit happens, and I can’t say for sure what the future holds. However, I do know that if anything does happen to us, we have the best possible neighbor to call on for help.

The neighborhood itself is a fairly suburban, something that was not lost on us when we moved in. It appears to consist largely of family type houses, with a typical small town vibe to it. As someone who grew up in Cottage Grove, Oregon, there are a lot of similarities: kids ride their bikes / skateboards around, couples are doing yard / gardening type things, and there are corner markets everywhere. (One is a block and a half from us.) There’s a Senior Center, a Recycling Center, and a few bars not too far from the house, and a little further away, auto mechanic garages, and other kinds of run-down businesses.

A look at the crime history of the neighborhood reveals a typical small town kind of vibe, too. Minor break-ins and theft, and violence minus weapons seem to be the largest problems that our neighborhood suffers from if you get outside of our immediate intersection. Other than that, there isn’t much that seems any more or less extreme than what we found in Portland. There is a fairly nearish set of train tracks, and we can hear the train periodically. However, unlike the high traffic intersection we used to live next to, our street is incredibly quiet. Once we heard a drunk guy yelling at someone’s house in the middle distance, loud enough for us to hear it but not loud enough to be annoying.

The only initial concern we have are pests, specifically ants and squirrels. At some point during the last remodel, something found a way into the falls / floors of the house, and seems to prefer the area between the first and second floor. We hear occasional scurrying around, and a chewing sound from time to time, which seems to indicate something that has found a comfortable place to live, and is doing a little remodeling of its own. The ants are fairly harmless; they have not yet been able to get into anything that we need to eat, but are clearly fearless and able to get just about anywhere on the first floor. I have yet to spot them in the basement or the bedroom. Currently, these issues are unresolved, but our Electrician friend has been notified, who has plans for the squirrel(s), while M has a few ‘home’ remedies that she believes will take care of the ants.

On the whole, shortcomings and all, I am in love with the new house. Most of my adult life has been spent in apartments or in a house living with “some guys,” and while there is nothing wrong with that kind of lifestyle, there is something about living in this house that feels more like the places I lived with my parents as a kid than anything has felt like in the interim. This could have something to do with the fact that M and I are trying to create a very domestic environment, and I’m sure the fact that we are getting married next year plays a role in this feeling, too. But living with a bunch of dudes is a very specific kind of lifestyle, and unless you are all on the same page about how the house will look / function, nearly everything devolves into a party house.

There is something about building this life together in a house that I’m very excited about, and other things about it that are terrifying and cause me to cry out in fear and concern. But this is life, isn’t it? Home is where all of the neuroses, all the horrors, all the happiness, all the sadness, and everything that is not the façade we put on comes out. Home is where we are not perfect, where mistakes are made, when we say the horrible things we can’t say in public, and where we cry uncontrollably because we don’t know any other way to respond. But, for some reason, I have chosen to build this place around M, and in this town, and for all the reasons that it is a bad idea, it is also the best idea we’ve ever had.

My only hope is that, after we come to know Salem for what it is and what it offers, we don’t change our minds.

“Packing is my pet hate.” – Seal

Load 1
Load 1

While I was never able to articulate this in years past, it occurred to me recently that the reason I have such issues with packing is the overall emotional weight of the entire process. There is something about putting all of your accumulated possessions into boxes that makes you feel trapped and claustrophobic, partially because you know that these boxes will remain mostly sealed for quite some time. Not only does packing uncover all the things you had shoved into the corners of your life in the hopes it would go away / resolve itself without any effort, but it puts into perspective the number of things you actually own, and your own caustic relationship with your material things.

In the days before we had Hoarders, the term you heard most often was Pack Rat, and I was raised as one. Something about all the moves we went through as a kid, coupled with all the things I lost to siblings and my own carelessness, caused me to overcompensate in a way that led to me keeping everything, and having no ability to sort through it, or keep track of it usefully. By the time I was in High School, and had discovered Comic Books and Music, I was screwed. I started filling longbox after longbox with back issues, and each cassette / CD / LP container I purchased was very quickly not enough to hold the new things I was bringing home. While I’m not exactly sure if I was born a collector, once I had a taste for it, I adopted all of the intrinsic qualities of one before I fully understood their implications.

In the early days of living on my own, this was not as much of a problem as it has become. My ‘Archive’ (as I have come to refer to it) was rather small, and at its worst, arranging for transportation was the most difficult aspect of moving I had to face. In those days, it almost took as much time to pack as it did to close the box and put it in the truck. However, as the years have passed and my archive has expanded to the point where I found myself wondering why I own two microwaves, four teapots, a strange assortment of glass items (is that a cup? a vase? what is that?) I don’t even remember purchasing, and a box of used batteries.

It is not hard to understand that we all form long-term and important relationships with our stuff. George Carlin has expounded on this more eloquently than I ever will be able to, but his point is so well made that it bears revisiting. We often define ourselves in relation to our things, and even those searching for a connection to the universe outside of the material realm are still functioning in opposition to the hold that material things have on us. While I am the wrong person to make this claim, I do feel that stuff is not intrinsically bad for us. Even the minimalists in my life are caught making the comment, “I love my _________,” and the creature comforts of having things that you enjoy have measurably positive effects, I believe.

However, when confronted with the overwhelming number of things that I own, I have a recurring fantasy that will stick with me forever: I come home to my things, there is no one else around, and there is no hope of endangering anyone around me. I strike a match, throw it down, watch until the fire is burning quite large, then run for my dear life, freed from the trappings of our modern world.

In reality, I would be devastated by such an event. But I still dream about it from time to time.

The real problem with packing is that it is a thankless job. This is work that you are not compensated for, must be done by a deadline, and is followed by a tremendous amount of work afterward, too. Usually, you have a number of unforeseen expenses that come up, and in the end, you are performing this work after you have put in a full day’s work, anyway. There’s nothing like waking up, packing for a few hours, going to work, coming home to pack for a few more hours, knowing that ultimately you get to spend days / weeks / months unpacking, too.

The worst is uncovering things that are still packed from the last move. I found a number of boxes in the garage that I was afraid to even look at, because I knew that they had remained unopened since the last time I had moved, and didn’t even what to bring up the notion that I should just throw them out, because it is something I am incapable of doing, try as I might. To my credit, I threw away six boxes of stuff that I had sitting around in this kind of state. However, the 36 boxes that were still left over didn’t make it feel as if I made much progress.

The intention behind packing is always so noble, and what it becomes by the end of the process is so completely gross that it is embarrassing. When you first start loading boxes, extreme care is usually taken. Everything is labeled very carefully, progress is slow, and you are sure that your book boxes contain books, your dishes are carefully wrapped, and your clothes are properly stored to reduce wrinkles and make them easy to find when you get to your destination. However, as your move-out date gets closer and closer, your attention to detail is more and more off base. When you’re unpacking, you will eventually find a box that is full of a half-eaten omelet, Seasons 2 & 6 of Lost, 16 dried up pens, a half-used box of tissues, letters from a girl you explicitly destroyed eight years previously, and a string of linked paperclips with a zipper tangled within it.

Let’s not even discuss the garbage bags full of who-knows-what.

The one thing I kept thinking about when I was frantically trying to compartmentalize my life was that this must have been a more intense version of what Andy Warhol was going through when he started making his Time Capsules. While the story goes that he would fill these boxes with things that would show up in his office and on his desk, part of me feels as if he was undergoing a massive packing art project, one that took up years and was coupled with the emotional weight that packing often brings with in. His capsules completely evoke the feeling of someone frantically putting everything – anything – in boxes, and while they are viewed as incredible works of art, I can’t help but imagine the craziest moving day in history, with Andy fussing and fretting over what goes in which box.

Even the relief of being fully packed and moved is only the façade of relief, as you now have an entire house full of things that need to be unpacked and put away, an entirely new set of challenges that will likely never end until you are ready to move again. This time, I have some very grand goals: throw out half the things I no longer need, reduce my belongings to the bare essentials, get a filing cabinet and actually sort through everything in my “Paper Archive,” and on the whole find a Less-Is-More kind of balance to my new lifestyle. However, I’m pretty sure this will not happen. I am a middle-aged man in the 21st Century living a privileged lifestyle that involves no kids or major responsibilities outside of houseplants and keeping the liquor cabinet full. I have so much inertia behind my terrible habits that I fear for the people who have to go through my estate when I pass.

I can only hope they have the common sense to just light it all on fire.


St. John's Crib
St. John’s Crib

Once we sealed the deal on our new house, the arduous process of closing up shop on our apartment immediately took over our lives. I was reminded of something I wrote 11 years ago about the act of moving (carefully retrieved and available via this handy link), and while I still feel that it is an accurate portrayal of the inherent problems involved in moving, I wanted to expand on these thoughts and connect them to the art of apartment life, and a few specific observations about our previous residence in question.

The day I began putting things in boxes was the first time I began to think about the history of the place that we had been dwelling. M and I were both living in separate places when we first met, and shortly after we began dating, she moved into the apartment that we eventually began sharing. (Pictured above.) The structure, situated in Historic St. John’s and originally built in 1961 (thanks State of Oregon Public Records), seems to have always been designed with the idea of multiple tenants living in it. (Unlike a number of other buildings in the Portland area that are retrofitted for such living arrangements.) In the time that she lived there, a variety of miscreants and unusual characters inhabited the units surrounding us. With hindsight, I can only imagine what they thought of us, as I have certainly developed some specific thoughts with regards to them.

It was almost a full year after we started dating that I moved in with M. This had more to do with the fact that I am a nervous and apprehensive about living with someone I’m dating than anything about her or the apartment she was living in. In one of the two occasions since we met where we had a major disagreement / almost fight, she adamantly insisted that I should move in with her, and I stubbornly came up with a number of reasons why I shouldn’t do so just yet. In the end, I moved in, and all of my concerns were for naught. The lesson here is that she is always right, even when my experience in the past says that I shouldn’t do something, and that I should use my better judgment and listen to her at all times with regards to all things.

While I never had to deal with the landlord much myself, he and his wife ran the complex from Gresham, and most of the work done for the complex was handled by their grown sons. Apparently, the landlord bought the complex from “an anonymous owner” in 1991 (really, State of Oregon Public Records?), and the units in that complex have never been formally advertised anywhere, except through a sign on a stake in the yard, which is how M found it. The complex is not too incredibly far from The University of Portland campus, and is a stone’s throw from the bustling epicenter of St. John’s itself.

As I understand it, St. John’s used to be a somewhat “seedy” neighborhood, by Portland standards, but in looking at the history of the neighborhood via public records, I’m not sure I can come to that same conclusion. Sure, I did not live in the area prior to the recent hip popularity of the last several years, but for a place that has been dominated by white families without kids who are between 40 and 64 (according to the last several census reviews going back to the mid ‘90’s), the seediness was most likely born out of career drunks or the (not absent) white trash that used to live here. A simple review of the police activity in the area also reveals that – for the most part – you are going to have to deal with drunk people engaging in “disorderly conduct” more than you will encounter anything dangerous of extremely violent. (While dangerous and violent things have happened, the occurrences are very rare according to public records, and the percentages so small that the relative “seediness” of the neighborhood is no higher or lower than anywhere else in the Portland area.) Outside of being drunk in public, the most common problems that are reported in the area include small cases of larceny and simple assault (no weapons), and minor cases of vandalism.

We had a rather colorful cast of characters who all played the roles of our neighbors while we lived there. One couple was very clearly either using or selling speed (probably both), and after non-payment of rent, the landlord had the contents of their apartment emptied by a pair of hired movers. Another gentleman lived in the unit next to us, who did unspecified manual labor on a regular basis. He would get incredibly drunk and put on either Bush or Toad The Wet Sprocket, which he would set on infinite repeat at a very loud volume before passing out, leaving us to ponder his musical selections as we were trying to sleep.

His garage was just beneath our “dining room,” and he kept a motorcycle in there. Regularly he would leave it running, filling our entire apartment with exhaust, in spite of us mentioning this to him. Having no tact, he would get up at 4:30 AM and loudly open his garage door, rev up the engine, and blast out of his garage on his way to work. Aside from these moments, and his inevitable return, I don’t believe he actually rode. Regularly, I would see him push the bike out of the garage, wash it, turn the engine on, stand next to it for a few minutes, then turn it off, and wheel it back into his garage. After an incident where M cursed him out in the middle of the night for pulling his Toad The Wet Sprocket stunt, he became very inhospitable until he randomly moved away, to go back to his home town because he was sick of Portland. I think the sentiment was mutual.

There was an elderly, grandparent-type couple for a while, and they kept a dog in spite of the policy against it, and were otherwise very pleasant. (When I still smoked, I would engage her on the porch with friendly chit-chat.) There was also two consecutive bike nerd people – one male, and one female – who we rarely saw. (The girl drove a car that suddenly manifested a Star Trek Federation insignia in her back window shortly after M & I put one on ours.) Another neighbor was a gentleman who would walk around with his cat on his shoulder in and around St. John’s, and brought it with him to work every day in his van, which was complete with a catbox and other accoutrements. The cat did not seem to have a problem with this, in spite of everything I know about cats. Lastly, there was a Christian woman who would hold Friday Night Bible readings in her apartment, which only became an issue one day when I was one mushrooms and saw various religious folks wandering toward my apartment.

Our life in this apartment was more or less incident free. The power went out once or twice, and was a typically drafty and difficult to heat place thanks to baseboard heat and disrepair. (Several of the heating elements simply did not work.) The most common thing we would hear was the driver / cyclist / pedestrian yelling matches that happened outside of our window. We were on the corner of a major intersection that included a bus route, a bike path, and was a primary means of getting to and from St. John’s. Several times a day, people would curse each other out, get into screaming matches, and otherwise discuss the finer points of navigating that intersection. At one point the city changed the signs, in the hopes of improvement, but the yelling remained the same. Eventually, the buses added prerecorded “pedestrian” messages when they would turn that corner, creating a wonderful cacophony of city life noises that were not entertaining, even in a musique concrete fashion.

The one and only drama that ever came up with the apartment only occurred once we decided to give written notice to our landlord. Through a stroke of luck, the landlord was on the premises when the letter had been drafted and written, and M hand-delivered the document, and talked to him about everything in person. We had arranged to leave on the 24th – 31 days after she spoke with him – and they discussed that date in person when she handed him the letter, and he agreed to it. She explained that she would mail the check as she would normally, but at a prorated amount since we would not be in the unit the entire month, to which he also agreed. Once all was said and done, we planned our entire move around this timeline, and could not have predicted that his wife would step in suddenly and become a bit of a bitch.

First, she called from a number we did not recognize, and left a message explaining that she did not recognize our 30 day notice, and that we would have to pay for the entire month regardless of what we had thought was the case previously. After some internal discussion, we decided that it would be more of a pain to try and fight this, and sent a follow-up letter in the mail with our check for the full amount, and a new letter explaining that we would be out at the end of the month, on the 30th. Then, on the 24th, the landlord’s wife called to ask why we weren’t at the apartment, ready to hand over the keys. This conversation was hilarious; yes, she cashed the check we sent her in the second letter, no she did not see or read a second letter. (The check was wrapped in it.) Eventually she conceded that it would be fine that we leave on the 30th, but this spawned a longer conversation about when we would be there so she could get the keys from us. Almost out of desperation, she gave up, and asked that we leave the keys on the kitchen counter, and leave the apartment unlocked.

All things considered, this wasn’t the end of the world. We did lose some money in the long run, and it became very clear (at the end) that our landlords were annoying in an absent-minded way, rather than anything malicious or intentional. But in a way, it was very symbolic of our ending experiences as Portlanders. We both loved living in Portland, and we did lose money as part of the decision to live her. But in the end, we were all too happy to do whatever it would take to get out, and this experience sealed the deal in terms of confirming that we were absolutely comfortable with leaving all of this behind.

The Searchers

Where Is This Place Again?
Where Is This Place Again?

Between the time that we decided that we would have to look for a new place outside of the city of Portland, to the point that we moved into our new home, there was a long period of confusion and frustration. While I have moved a number of times in my life, I had only changed cities a few times as an adult. Prior to my sojourn in Portland (14 years), I lived in Eugene (6 years) and then briefly in Oregon City / Milwaukie / Globe / Cottage Grove (again) (2 years total between them, maybe?). Before that, all the moves were with my family, and the decisions were made without me. A quick review of these locations will not only confirm that for over 20 years I have been an Oregonian, but that my experiences within this state are also extremely limited.

M, on the other hand, is a much more experienced mover, having lived outside of the US, on both coasts, and in a number of large (and small cities) in-between. Where I have extreme difficulty overcoming the inertia that a comfortable home can offer, M is much more willing to uproot herself for any good reason of which she can think  Where I do not travel very well, and find the idea of leaving behind my records to be a challenge, M likes the idea of spending time elsewhere, and posed the idea of moving several times before it began to sink in as a viable option. Suffice it to say, in our relationship, I am the one that needs coaxing to get outside of my comfort zone, where M’s comfort zone is anywhere that she can live with either me or her cat.

That being said, we very quickly fell into a pattern with regards to house searches: M would troll the online listings until she found something, and we would investigate together to see if we liked it. If we both liked a place, we would apply for it, cross our fingers, and see what happened.

And for a long while, nothing was exactly what happened. It’s one thing to decide that you want to move. It’s another entirely to find a place that wants you. As different landlords would talk to us, it became clear that we had several strikes against us that made us unwelcome. While we both had full time jobs, our credit ratings are not stellar. We both have massive student loans under our belts, and without a family that we supported, it was difficult to win over the landlords that asked if we wanted kids. Running a credit check on me is always good for a laugh here and there, but at the end of the day, if it prevents us from moving anywhere, I become the joke in question.

Not far into the process of looking for a new home, we found an excellent place that met all our needs, and was not too far away from PDX. We met with the landlord, saw the place, and immediately applied. We waited patiently for a response, and the following week, we each received a notice in the mail, typed, explaining why we were not able to rent the house.

Initially, this was extremely disconcerting to M, and she dwelled on this for a while, suggesting that this was a sign that we wouldn’t have any luck finding a place. However, I went over the letter I received in a little more detail. One ding against me was, “Late Rental Payments: 10 + times in the last two years.” This was patently not true; I had only paid cash to personal friends for places I was renting over the last several years, and had no official rental agreements with anyone in the last two years, let alone was I ever late. Another mark against me read, “Late Credit Card Payments: 10 + times in the last two years.” I have never had a credit card, save for the Target Card I used used in 1997, which was paid off and canceled very quickly afterward. To their credit, there were a few things of which I was guilty: several large student loans each had monthly payments, and I had been late making those a number of times when I decided that food and shelter were more important. But most of their reasons to not rent to us were entirely fabricated, especially since I do not know how to drive, let alone have any insurance payments to make that could have been late.

This is the most difficult part of searching for houses. As anyone can tell you, there is no end to the kinds of dirt – real or imagined – that can be dug up on anyone, especially when it comes to the world of credit and finances. The age-old conundrum of not being eligible to borrow money until you have borrowed money and then repaid it will give you some insight into the insanity of how the system works. My favorite example of this goes back to 2003, when I was trying to rent a place from a gentleman who looked at my income, and said that I didn’t make enough money to rent from him. However, he would be willing to overlook that problem if I paid twice as much deposit upfront on a place I was already going to pay first & last month’s rent on. I mentioned to him casually that depleting my savings up front actually made me more of a financial liability than if he was to only charge me the regular amount for a new rental, and that the savings would actually benefit me in the event that my income ever took a hit in some way. He looked at me like I was insane. “If you can come up with the larger deposit now, that tells me that you will always be able to come up with the money when you need to pay rent.”

M and I encountered a few other places that didn’t want to rent to us, but always using the most specious of reasoning. On several occasions M was ready to throw in the towel, and suggested that we give up the idea, and instead become more comfortable with our crummy apartment. I remember one day, as we got home to a messy place, dishes piled high, both of us exhausted, where we were both about to lose it. This is the misery of the privileged, of people who have everything they need and most of what they want, and would like to be improve things slightly, but have only inconveniences blocking our every path. There is no reason we can’t get rid of enough of our belongings until we fit comfortably in our apartment, lowered our expectations for the future, and continued to persist in our Portland lifestyle. The only reason we didn’t go that route was that we didn’t, “want to.”

Without digressing too far, this is yet another example of the class system that exists in America, which is entirely stratified by money and money alone. In the grand scale of things, M and I are very, very privileged. We are never hungry, we have a place to live, we both have necessities and conveniences that make our lives fairly easy, and neither of us have to perform manual labor to earn our wages. And yet, we only make just enough to stay in this lifestyle. We are each one major medical emergency away from losing this life, and my brief unemployment of four months took almost a year for us to reverse, financially. We are on a precarious edge of the particular class we exist within, and the financial instability around us acts as a reminder that, if we are not careful, we will be in poverty, or worse.

Largely, the world around us knows this, and landlords (or other people in a similar positions) have the ability to exert class control over the people beneath them. While these kinds of class complications exist in much more stark relief in other countries, it is also present here. George Saunders made the excellent observation that between the very rich and the very poor, we experience a unique existence where the constant and persistent pressure of capitalism is chipping away at our psyches throughout every day of our lives. This pressure shapes our existence in ways of which we aren’t fully aware. Looking for a place to live, and being judged on your financial value before a decision can be made, puts this class structure at the forefront of every conversation.

As we hung in this emotionally distressing space – and had been rejected a few times – we finally told members of M’s family that we wanted to move, and received a lot of enthusiasm about the idea. We had been apprehensive about telling anyone about our desire to move, mostly because we were apprehensive about telling anyone in the event that it didn’t come to pass. However, telling someone else not only brings the idea to life, but holds us to following through with the plan no matter what. Once the idea is out in the world, it builds that much more momentum around the need to actually complete itself, and telling M’s family sealed the deal.

In the wake of this, we found a few different places that we were interested in, and after a very similar application song and dance, we suddenly found ourselves in a position where we had a number of places to choose from, all accepting our applications. This turn of events not only called into question the validity of the previous rejections that we had gotten (which I was already fairly certain were bogus), but brought into sharp relief the class difference that was starting to develop in Portland. Not only is there a “hipness” issue at work, where people who are not cool are shunned and pushed out to the fringes of the city, but overlaying the economic pressure onto this problem creates an environment where only those who are “cool” and “financially secure” happen to make the cut. The rejections had nothing to do with our past, but how cool we are, now.

Strangely enough, the concerns that barred us from being able to rent in Portland don’t seem to exist in Salem. We were welcomed with open arms, at a reasonable cost, and felt as if our cool rating was not a part of the discussion. Before long we had a home, keys in hand, and plan to move in the weeks that followed.