What I’ve Learned About Portland, OR

So, I wanted to go to Oregon for years because of elves.

Okay. That makes no sense without some context. When FASA released Shadowrun in 1989, part of its magic-meets-cyberpunk setting was a Balkanized North America, including a nation called Tir Tairngeire, which was mostly comprised of the state of Oregon. The nation was declared to be sovereign by a council of elven nationalists seeking a new home. It was a crazy idea to me as a teenage kid, and it sowed seeds of Northwestern mystique. Years of film and television specifically portraying the strangeness and quirks of Portland refined that desire to come to Oregon over a slow series of years. To hear IFC’s show Portlandia tell it, this strange place was where, supposedly, the nineties still live.

In May of 2023, I finally got the opportunity to travel there on account of a convention for work, and I tacked on four extra days to explore this strange city in the Pacific Northwest. And, I have to tell you, I was lied to by my advertising. Portland was not what I expected from the moment I stepped off the plane.

Someone (or something) tried to give me an extra day in the creepiest way possible, so I naturally declined.

Come with me. I’ll tell you a little about what happened on my journey through Stumptown. And, where I have it wrong, let me know. I want to know more about this strange, strange place.

Update 5/17/23: This is meant to be a living document. As I learn things that I have mentioned that are proven to be false, misleading, inaccurate, or need further extrapolation, that information will be updated with a notation like this one.

Portlandia Got It Exactly Wrong (or, What It Had Right Aged Incredibly Poorly)

The dream of the nineties is not alive in Portland. I’m not seeing people in their twenties retiring, no one is clowning, and people are definitely not sleeping until eleven o’clock. The city seems to be set to hustle o’clock in downtown, and failure to hustle has caused a massive amount of social collapse into some pretty dark corners. Ironically, Carrie Brownstein is accused by Fred Armisen of being a little too San Francisco in the first episode of Portlandia – but the city reminds me exactly of San Francisco in ways both good and bad.

Because, for all of the vibrancy of people who are unabashedly themselves and proud, and regardless of the artistic passion and uniqueness of its people as portrayed in the show to comedic effect, the city of Portland has a deep and systemic struggle with poverty. I could make an argument that all American cities struggle. Portland, however, is like nothing I’ve ever seen before save for pre-Covid San Francisco (which I’m told has only slid further into chaos). This city has it bad.

I was told by another convention goer that they saw this house (two blocks from our hotel) being raided by police only hours after I snapped this image.

The walking wounded are everywhere in Portland, living in ragged tents on sidewalks, sleeping in alcoves, wheeling carts full of cast-offs, and hauling trash bags as tall as they are filled with recyclable cans. Mental illness is endemic among the unhoused as well, and I see the unfortunately familiar faces of methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl on so many of the abandoned humans of the City of Roses. Burglary and robbery are common, even out in the suburbs I visited. People with no other recourse have turned to acts of desperation and need.

I fear these are the people of Portlandia who were retired at twenty-five. Not by choice, but by a system and culture that deeply failed them here, not because they were slackers, minimalist artisans putting birds on things, or tech moguls. Something outside of themselves retired them. Trauma. Addiction. Dumb fate or one wrong choice. They’re humans, like you and me. They deserve better. A few locals have pointed out how most of the people here interact with the unhoused, and I can confirm it’s true that most regard the unhoused with utter contempt, especially if they interrupt their daily facade of normalcy. 

Not uncommon graffiti.

Case in point: I was on the Tri-Max Red Line on my second day exploring Portland, and an unhoused man had an incident in which he was freely bleeding. I kept calm while I gauged whether or not he was going to freak out. He didn’t, but gave a little moan and made his way to a clump of cyclists just past me. He asked them for something to clean up with, napkins, anything. All he had was his own shirt to staunch the flow. I didn’t have anything and wasn’t in a position to assist, but the three men rebuffed him at first. They told him to get away, that it was inappropriate what he was doing. It was then that I saw the wounds were from cutting. He had at least three more identical horizontal, perpendicular cuts along the tattoos of his inner arm, and he’d either just made a new one, or broken open a scab as he was claiming to the cyclists. Eventually, one of them gave him something, and the man left the train at the next stop, thanking them for the gauze or napkin that had been provided. From the time between that stop and the next – as one of them pulled out a small medical kit to sanitize the area – the men derided him. Said that if he was gonna cut himself, he ought to go all the way and just jump.

Welcome to Portland.

I’m sure this town isn’t the only place to foster cruelty like this. But it wasn’t a great impression, and my heart goes out to the folks here who are living in unimaginable poverty against the backdrop of what I keep hearing is the richest nation in the world.


I’m not a public transit guy. Not because I’m against the idea, mind you. It’s just that in my neck of the woods, it’s not worth a good goddamn. If you were to note that was because I live in a suburb that has two transit hubs – the state court and a shopping mall – you’d be right. 

But, if I put you in my closest metropolitan area, you’d quickly realize it sucks there too. Buses and trains are frequently late. They still make you use physical tickets or tokens, often requiring exact change if they deign to let you use cash on demand. Its drivers are angry and have far too much schadenfreude than is healthy for a human being. The vehicles smell like piss and the slow death of dreams. The trolley system will make you hate all life, including your own, just by being near them. I will frequently walk or Uber or deal with the hassle of traffic and parking costs to avoid dealing with the transit system in that city.

Portland is 100% the opposite experience.

Despite the callous encounter I described on the trolley earlier, Portland’s Tri-Met trolleys are rarely crowded, generally quiet, on time, and easy as hell to use. I never once had to hail a cab or call a Lyft due to a delay or a crowded bus. I used the Red Line on day one from the airport having never used it before, and then quickly learned how to use the HOP system with my phone. If you use HOP twice in a day, you earn the right to use the transit system all day for a total of $5. Sure, there was always a little walking involved to get where I wanted to be, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

Stations are pretty much everywhere, and even where they’re not, the blocks between are small enough that the walks don’t feel all that long.

Additionally, if you can’t pay, no one stops you. The thinking goes along the lines that the city hopes most people pay, which from what I see on buses is absolutely true (maybe less so on trolleys as the drivers can’t directly see you board). Come to think of it, maybe my local metro has such a problem being on time because they argue with every person who is short a damned nickel for their ride or has nothing in their pockets.

Surprisingly Green and Clean

Unhoused populations are not new to me. Where I went to college, there were a lot of people living on the street. As such, you saw some shit. I mean this literally. You saw actual shit. Everywhere. I actually went to a Barnes & Noble once where someone had hidden part of a turd behind some books and then smeared the rest of it across the rest of the shelf. The city stank a lot of the time, even the downtown area which they tried to make look nice for the tourists. It’s a side effect of having a large unhoused population, and it’s difficult to avoid. Somehow… Portland seems to have managed it.

At bare minimum, the same clock in Philadelphia would be covered by an inch of pigeon shit by the time anyone thought to clean it, let alone look at it.

I can’t add tribute a why. I don’t see port-a-johns on the sidewalks like in San Francisco. Restrooms are locked down tight in almost every establishment around. Maybe the frequent rain has something to do with it, or regular street cleaning (which I did see a lot of). Or, perhaps it’s simply the amount of natural space around to absorb a lot of it. There is a lot of greenery around here. Some cities can boast parks or close natural getaways, but this place just has so much by way of nature compared to most other cities I’ve been to on top of just outside the city splendor.

Cops Versus Security

In most cities I go to, the rule of law is pretty obvious to see. Downtown (or any place adjacent to it), you’re likely to find cops. Their posture changes from metro to metro, but you’ll find them around, doing cop stuff for good or ill.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of actual cops I’ve seen in Portland. Same goes for police vehicles. Mostly, I saw them around the conference center, but beyond that… nothing.

What I have seen are security guards.

I’m not talking about rent-a-cops, the people you see at the mall wearing unsullied uniforms, carrying pepper spray, and a mandate to use strong language lest they be sued by someone they try to enforce a policy against. These security guys are not fucking around. They have guns and vests that I presume would stop a knife or a bullet. They’re not loaded down like SWAT, but they are prepared for tussles… in the places that pay them to, of course. Target. Barnes and Noble. Upscale hotels. I’m sure you’re seeing the pattern here. Not so much protecting people. Just businesses.

There seems to be an anti-cop sentiment here in Portland based on the street art if nothing else. ACAB graffiti isn’t exactly uncommon in the world at large, but you’ll find a lot of it here containing explicit messages about how the locals feel about their local PD’s mandate to serve and protect. Given all of the shit that went down here during the administration of president 45, I can’t say I’d blame them.

City of Bridges

There are a lot of bridges here. The Willamette isn’t a particularly broad river, so it stands to reason that whenever they feel like it, they can just put up another span if the taxpayers consent. If I’m counting right, there are eleven bridges, with some of them only for public transit, a luxury a lot of cities don’t get.

Two bridges, one image, you’re welcome.

City of Books

I first became aware of the Mecca of independent American bookstores in my mid-twenties from a woman I was seeing at the time. She was a fan herself of the place, a store called Powell’s, the country’s largest independent used bookstore. I had ordered from them myself a few times before my trip, and the place had been on my bucket list for a while. It was a testament to my willpower as a bibliophile that I waited until the third day of my visit to get out to their W. Burnside St. location. Business had to come first, but once the convention I was attending was over… I went five times between two locations (and eventually caused a $100 overweight luggage fee at the airport).

Do I have a problem with book acquisition? No. Do I have a shelving crisis? Oh, definitely. Yes. I do. For sure.

It was a bit of a mixed bag.

On the positive side, the store is, in fact, huge, occupying an entire city block with three full floors. You could spend a day in there and not properly get through all of the stuff you wanted to see. I really only plumbed the depths of two sections with any kind of rigor: RPGs and sci-fi/fantasy, but I did make my way through mythology, science, self-help, history, and social studies, making purchases across those sections as well.

There was, however, a lack of used books in the sense of actually used books. If you take the term ‘used books’ to mean marked down remaindered books that were once in wholly other stores elsewhere as used, then yes – there were used books aplenty. And, yes, I did buy quite a few.

However, I was hoping for more books that had been on local Oregonian shelves, hopefully by Oregonian locals. Perhaps it was the sections I trafficked. Maybe mystery, or sports, or romance does more trade here in Rip City when it comes to pre-owned books. Or, maybe they’re just picky about trades. Either way, I’m not going to knock a cavernous, independent, used bookstore. 

Except, I will. Just a little. 

The East Portland location, which I visited on my last day, actually had a not-quite-a-strike happening there. The store apparently is having a labor issue with its union. Yes – there is a bookstore out there with a union (I wish the bookstores I worked at previously had unions). The company apparently has opted to offer sub-par health insurance and has opted to keep wages low in the face of inflation. The union wasn’t asking for a boycott, but rather for solidarity from the customers who keep the store they both love open. So, I tossed them some money for their strike fund and signed their petition.

Support a local institution. Booksellers need money, too.

Give ‘em hell, guys. I hope you get what you need to keep the store going and to keep yourselves going. I know first-hand that being a bookseller is hard.

Awesome Food, and I Guess You Can Drink Here (If You Like IPAs)

My chosen metro close to home is a foodie kind of place, and very particular about the local dishes and how things are done. We’re judgy and shitty and proud about it because we’re East Coast, type-a assholes. I’ve accepted this. We are who we are.

It’s not like that here, as far as I can tell. Portland has been an explosion of food, and the variety here has been nothing short of stunning. Like most Pacific Coast cities I’ve visited, Asian food here is just better. I’ve hit up several Ramen joints, but there’s also soul food, Mediterranean food, African food, crazy local foods (Voodoo Donuts, elephant ears, and waffle-on-a-stick), and an explosion of food carts around every corner.

There were far more options than I ever see in any other city when it came to food carts.

If you’re a beer drinker… I hope you like IPAs, because it appears that’s all anyone brews or drinks in Portland. I’m assured that once you leave Portland proper this changes – lots of wines and alternate types of beers are out there and being made in Oregon. But, it’s been hard to find anything local in the metro area that isn’t an IPA. Given that my palate translates the flavor of IPAs more or less into dishwater, I’ll have to find something further afield next time I’m in town.

It took a full week to find something local that did not also come directly out of a can, that was not also an IPA.

Surprisingly Familiar Flora

One of the things I like about travel is finding the little differences. While I did find many different things out here, including the proliferation of nature, the type of nature was surprisingly familiar. I found the same tree types out here as out East. Propeller seed pods, moss strands, monkey balls, and broccoli pollen (note: not a botanist) abounded here, and presumably, my allergies would be similar here as they would at home. Nothing triggered me here, so that line of logic would seem to bear out (ragweed season is three months away).

I know once I leave town proper that’s likely to change, but until I get to a wider swathe of Oregon, I can’t know.

Quality of Light

It apparently is not a California thing, but a Pacific Coast thing. Sunlight is just different here. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s a difference in air quality. Maybe it’s an act of gods (or lack thereof). But, it’s brighter here. My seasonal hair lightening has gone into full effect about a month early, lightening from its winter chestnut to its summer straw tint.

Not that you can really tell in this picture since I’m wearing a hat.

And, it’s hot. Really hot, but not particularly humid. Unseasonably so from local reports. Damp and rainy is typically the order of the day for May in Portland. I apparently caught some of the sunniest days I could. Even if I hadn’t, I’m okay with the drizzly, serial-killer weather the region is known for. Bring on that fog!

An Oasis For Diversity

Knowing the crazy original vision of Oregon, I was relieved to see this at the Portland Art Museum (and a lot of other places, too).

I had some concerns coming out here after watching the news out of Portland between 2016 and 2020. With Patriot Prayer, the Proud Boys, and other white nationalist/supremacy groups, plus the generally terrifying historical origins of Oregon, I was afraid I’d come to Portland only to find a sea of homogenous white people. I’m glad to find that I was wrong. I met and saw a lot of different people on my short trip, and found a regular show of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. Thank the gods, not once did I run into a rally where there was somebody calling for Men’s Rights or where I saw billboards for the installation of White Jesus as the official god by Orange Jesus’s mandate.

I know better than to believe that it’s not here – racism is really good at hiding (because racists are basically fearful cowards at heart). By all accounts I’ve heard from locals, once you leave the larger, liberal cities of Oregon, it stops hiding completely, open carries, and leans in. It gives me pause when I think about this place as a possible new home.

Update 5/17/23: According to Wikipedia, Portland is one of the whitest major cities in America at 68% of the population. My usage of the word oasis in the sub-heading above is intentional. Portland is a small spot in a wide area. I’d go deeper into this topic if I could, were it not for two things: my inherent whiteness disqualifies me in many respects, and I am also not a native Oregonian. If you want more information on the terrifying problem of racism in Oregon, you can start here.

The Arts Come Alive Here

It was on my last day that I finally felt like I met the soul of Portland. I woke up early and got out to the Saturday Market and immediately fell in love.

I’ve seen many a street busker in my time, but never one with the balls to play the accordion.

The whole area is absolutely alive and pulsing with art, music, families, dreams, and beauty. I spent a good two hours just walking the vendor stalls, meeting artists, getting business cards, taking pictures, and soaking in the vibe. I was accosted by an older woman who shoved stickers into my hands and then told me that she was going to have to fine me for smiling in a no-smiling zone, but that it would be okay. The fines were voluntary, and in fact, were donations for charity. I’d have given her some cash if I hadn’t (no shit) given my last physical dollar to a guy playing the accordion at Skidmore Fountain. I found a local craft beer that wasn’t a goddamned IPA (a pilsner would have to do). I ate corndogs and pet actual dogs. I got gifts for people back home and saw things from TV in person like the deer sign and the Keep Portland Weird mural. I should have been fined multiple times for smiling in a no-smile zone. It was easily the best day of the whole trip.

The presence of an entire park full of puppies might have helped, given it was also Doggie Dash day along the Willamette River.

But… Could It Be Home?

You might have noticed above that I mentioned I had concerns about living in Oregon. And that’s because I do. Years back, my wife and I considered it: a move to Portland. We’d seen and heard so much about it on TV, then researched it, saw all of the unrest during the 45 administration, and heard about how it gets to be when you leave the cities.

I still have concerns. But, having been here in person… I have to say it has a charm. There are definite issues here, and that sickness I mentioned is unlikely to cure itself anytime soon. But, I can’t deny there’s still a pull here. There’s something about it.

I like it here. I’ll carry a little of the magic I found and bring it back to share with my wife. See if she’ll come out here with me for another scouting mission. Keep things weird with me.

Is This Still On?

Holy hell. Okay, let me explain.

I am not dead.

It’s been over two years since I was last on this thing. Things are different. Very different. Better? Some. But very different.

I intend to come back to this thing a bit more often, as well as the sister site to Ossua, AStrangeSignal.com.

I cannot stress enough that I am not dead. Though, for a while, my creative side was. That’s a post for a later time. It’s starting to develop some kind of thready pulse again, though. I intend to put it right back on its treadmill here.

I’m here. I exist with the fury of a thousand blazing suns. And, godsdamn it, I intend to write stuff.

Anxiety In a Trying Time

Now is a bad time to have anxiety.

As I write this, I am living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Things are very different from what they were two weeks ago. At that time, the disease was isolated to a few cases in a handful of American states. Now, we have surpassed active cases in China, the country initially hit hardest. Italy was the big outbreak spot until a few days ago when we took over their active case number. They’re still leading in deaths, but it’s only a matter of time. My own tiny state already has nearly 200 cases and six people here are dead. Those local numbers might not sound so bad to most people.

Most people don’t have my level of anxiety.

So, I’ll level with you, appreciated readers, and talk a little bit about one of the personal issues I grapple with daily.

I – like millions of other Americans – suffer from generalized anxiety. Some of it has always been there. Much of it came from a traumatic experience in 2005 as a bonus from PTSD. All of it stems from issues I have regarding human mortality and the fragility of the world that we live in. I think those who know me best would point to a certain morbidity in my outlook. I do write horror after all. It extends far beyond my writing, however. My brain can eat itself alive if I let it.

In 2008 I experienced my first full-blown panic attack. After being discharged pending a four-hour ER encounter in which they managed to pop a faulty IV into my arm, I booked an appointment with my mental health provider. I finally caved at her gentle urging and started taking what are called SSRIs – Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. It’s a class of drug that slowly changes how your brain relates to Seratonin, the hormone in your brain that gives you good feels. 

The result of taking SSRI’s is that it’s a little easier to break through low-level to mid-range anxiety, which lets you start to improve executive function. She told me the drugs would take about two weeks to fully work, but I swear to god I felt some relief the first day. It was like having a messy filing system suddenly ordered. Life improved over time. I began to enjoy things again (Depression was something I came to finally admit to years later, but that’s another story). I felt more comfortable in my skin. 

Until recently, it generally does its job. It helps me to cope with a lot of my unreasonable fears and hang-ups. In a world that mostly makes sense, it’s a boon. Things are better when I‘m on them. In the brief times I’ve had to go without, life is not good. These aren’t the kind of meds you just stop taking. The withdrawal effects are full-throated and they last for a long time. The longest I’ve gone without was for about five weeks, and I never want to do that again. 

In times of acute stress, they help form a temporary barrier that holds long enough to weather a bad day. Eventually though, under constant stress, their effectiveness can falter. My average dose is moderate and I take them at night when I am most likely to suffer from panic attacks. I am told higher doses are an option available to me. I either feel the need to suffer (a side effect of being raised Lutheran I suppose) or I simply don’t want to be any more reliant on the SSRIs than I already am. Either way, I have more or less been at my present dosage for quite some time, with only changes to the time of day those SSRIs are taken.

In these times though, I find the anxiety harder and harder to push back. My generation has had few stressors as extreme as this and I’m counting the financial meltdown and 9/11. We’re updated constantly on mortality rates, new information about vectors, incubation times, the importance of physically separating ourselves from our loved ones and coworkers. It’s a lot. In a world where the plague we are all trying to weather is marked by shortness of breath (among other fun symptoms), being susceptible to panic attacks creates a certain kind of hell for those who suffer from anxiety.

As of late, when I am rousing or when I am settling into sleep, I feel shortness of breath. It’s panic breaking through my medication. There is no concomitant fever or dry cough. Just the feeling that the walls are closing in and that I cannot get enough air. Right now I can kick that feeling aside with a little mindfulness, but it takes a few minutes. And, of course, it’s waiting for me just a little while later. It’s the kind of effect that can wear you down over time. It’s not fun.

I know I’m not the only one going through it. I know that I have it good; I was able to secure a sufficient supply of my SSRIs for the next two months. Gods willing, I will have the resources I need to acquire more if this nightmare continues beyond May. Many will not have such recourse. Many don’t have it right now. Hell, some people don’t even have toilet paper. Tyler Durden may have taught us that soap is the yardstick of civilization (and to hear the CDC say it, there’s some truth to that). But, tell you what: go without the ability to shit comfortably for an extended time and you start to feel like you’ve lost about a century worth of progress right there. Toilet paper has a lot going for it.

I’m getting by though. The most important thing I’ve learned about getting through a panic attack is making sure that I’m mindful of my breathing. I have to do that a lot these days. It’s essential to my well being. 

The other thing I have to do is keep busy. I have temporarily lost my day job working at a local bookstore. The time I had before to keep my mind busy with shelving, alphabetizing, and merchandising is gone. Replacing it has been largely successful, though I miss the physicality of my work. Much of the lifting, shifting, and cardio has been replaced with dog walking and playing rather a lot of video games. I’ve taken up a project to get my retro gaming consoles in one place and organized. I have a lot of things lined up to consume in terms of reading, television, and film. It’s been essential in keeping myself just distanced enough from what’s going on outside without becoming fully disengaged. The other option is watching cable news broadcasts constantly and tracking CDC updates. I have never been so happy to have cut cable out of my life.

What I’m getting at I suppose is that we’re all doing things to cope with varying degrees of success. A lot of people have my problems and likely more severe at that. If you know someone who before all of this who had anxiety like mine or worse, check in on them. Let them know they’re not alone. We still have a lot going for us in terms of communication – Zoom and FaceTime are helping a lot of people through tough times. If you’re holding your shit together and have wrestled with anxiety as long as myself, take some time to explain anxiety to people who are just coming into it now. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people coming around to my levels of anxiety. I’m curious to see the numbers on people seeking assistance from mental health professionals regarding anxiety after this passes – and it will pass.

Regardless of whether or not you’re feeling what I and others feel or are new to the unpleasantness of anxiety, remember these things when you start getting antsy. I’m pretty sure they’ll help because they’re helping me:

  • Breathe. Take deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Do it as many times as you have to.
  • Find a routine and try to stick to it. If you’re furloughed like I am, who cares if the time frames are weird? If you’re working from home, you already have a structure. Just make sure you’re keeping fairly consistent.
  • Try to eat well if you can (I’m having trouble with this, but still remembering that veggies exist). A lot of us are cash strapped or have dietary requirements but try to get the recommended three square meals a day. Keep a regular meal schedule. Try not to eat as a reaction to boredom or stress (this is a problem for me) to keep your food supply stocked.
  • Find some exercise time. A lot of places are still allowing people to get out of their homes to exercise so long as you maintain an appropriate distance from other people. Your dog has never had it so good if they love walkies.
  • Take up a project. I guarantee you whatever it is you decide to do beats watching anything coming out of the White House or watching the reactions of people to the misinformation coming out of the White House. The more physical the work is or if it keeps your hands busy, so much the better. At least that’s what’s been working for me.
  • If you’re sick, self-isolate and seek treatment if things start getting bad (lips/face turning blue, feeling like you’re gonna pass out).

Lastly, if you’re like me remember that you are not alone. Reach out for help. There are professionals and friends, and even strangers out there who have the same situation. Talk to them on the phone, by text, use semaphore flags. Whatever it is you have to do, remember that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Our connections are what get us through times like this, and you can make things better by reaching out for help. In fact, it’s dangerous to go alone, take this, too:


We’ll get through. Hang in there. You are not alone.

A Poem In Just Over 208 Words – They Killed Our Parents

Yesterday, I posted a short story of under 200 words with an interest in perhaps altering it. This has come to pass. I am typically not of a mind for poetry. I’ve nothing against poetry, it just usually isn’t one of the formats I keep in my writer’s kit. Poetry is something I leave to people who have it in their soul, but this just seemed to fit in a dark Gorey way.

So, here it is. Make of it what you will. Hopefully, I haven’t embarrassed myself too badly.

They killed our parents, and we played our parts
Into the system, we hardened our hearts
We shed hidden tears, held hands in the act
They killed our parents, so we sealed a pact
My sis was fourteen, myself only nine
We learned to blend in, make crowds into kine
Escaped to the street, we plied a new trade
Lies, nimble fingers, and quickness with blade
They killed our parents, we never forgot
Uncovered their secrets, for which they weren’t caught
We stayed in the shadows, tracking their ways
They killed our parents, we numbered their days
We learned what they were, long teeth and ill will
They gave not a thought to the folks that they killed
We got close to wait, kept still in the night
Until such a day would bring on our fight.
They killed our parents, so we skinned them alive
They couldn’t repel us, though they struggled and strived
A stake through the heart, and a rough severed head
They killed our parents, and now they were dead
But what we heard then, so plaintive and faint
Their monstrous children, wan, pale and drained
We’d learned a hard lesson, and took it down fast
These devil spawned children would be the last

A Dream Altered

Being creative seems to come with a lot of baggage, both real and perceived.

When I was a kid I felt art inside of me wanting to burst out. I wasn’t afraid to fail. I kept at it. Every day, there was something new to try or a thing I could experiment with. When I was a young adult in college I had nothing but time to do this. I lived it, I breathed it. I got out into the world at my first job for design and I did well (though not well enough to survive our buyout). I went back to school. Got better at programs and systems I hadn’t used before, got educated a little on things I admittedly should have gotten more out of. I went out to work in the graphics world again. And then… I got poor. I stopped trying to be creative, stopped wanting to be poor. I cashed in chips and started in the technology sector. Because Diabetes Type II sucks, and it costs a lot of money to not die slowly (good luck getting health insurance as a self-employed artist, even with the ACA).

And while I was chasing the money to keep a roof over my head, fix up my staggering college debt, and maybe even get ahead, I just… let it go.

I know this because I found sketchbooks this morning. Old ones. A small stack about seven pads deep, mostly full. Many were from High School when I was struggling to figure out who and what I was. I still had a lot of social chains on me. A lot of peer abuse and stigma – real or perceived, again – but art and music were my solaces. I see it on those pages.

Back then, I pictured myself in the future with bookshelves full of sketchbooks, maybe those cool, big metal boxes with shallow trays big enough to put in canvasses or large format drawing papers and blueprints. An office full of cool design tools, and a black book full of contacts.

It’s not turned out the way I’d hoped. Well, I have the office, but right now it’s not the dream of the nineties. There are two computers in here, a few tools both traditional and otherwise, more pencils and pens than I probably need, and a drafting table given to me by friends back when I was still trying to live the dream. But, that perfect office is missing the years of successes, realized dreams, and profit.

Then again, anyone looking to get into the arts for profit… that part comes after you die (Sallie Mae doesn’t tell you that when you apply for student loans for a predatory for-profit school). A lucky few creatives get the status and wealth they want while still pumping their heart’s blood. I think that while we breathe, creatives are making art to make a difference. To get through to someone. To make others feel. Not even to feel what you feel, but to feel something. And, if we’re gonna be honest, the more the better in most cases. There’s a great shirt that a friend gave me several years back that I love, and it is a two-panel comic that is titled ‘A Brief History of Art.’ It covers it with minimal effort. I won’t post it here because of the artist’s longtime grudge against internet behavior fucking her over, but the jist is simple:

A minimally portrayed person says “Look,” in the first panel. There is no other content, not even in the background. The second panel (with the exact same drawing) this time reads, “Look at me.”

Reductionist? Sure. But, art is more or less meant to be viewed. I believe that creatives want that work out there on some level or they wouldn’t make it (an expensive pursuit, pouring heart and soul through mediums that cost real and emotional resources). I suppose there’s a few that break that mold. I know I myself make personal projects just for me, and even then, I probably show it to my wife after I get past the hurdle of believing what I’ve designed is garbage (this process is a well-known phenomenon for me and a lot of others). I have an artist’s graveyard, and eventually, when I die… someone’s bound to find this room full of stuff (because let’s admit it: anyone who knows me knows I ain’t ever gonna throw this stuff out), even if it’s only to pack it up and put it in a trash can. Might be right after, might be years after. Once it’s here in the world, it’s only a matter of time. It’ll be the same for all of us who leave something around physically, or even for us who keep our work behind passwords and firewalls. The determined will eventually get at it, or the gatekeepers. Something will be witnessed even if it’s just a file name and a preview. I suppose we could destroy our work, but… I don’t. And, when I ask why not, it always comes back to hoping to leave a mark. Something that people will see later. Maybe puzzle over, talk about, or just laugh at.

The art wants to get out.

And it is, for me, finally, just… it’s not the dream of a kid who was still looking to find out what he wanted to become twenty-five odd years ago. I’ve begun to truly dedicate myself to something on the regular. Every Monday and Thursday, I put out a little piece of a larger, bizarre quasi-narrative at A Strange Signal’s website. I promote it on Facebook and Twitter, and I have plans for a store. I write as often as I can, often times with a couple thousand words falling out of my hands at a time. It’s a different representation of the dream, but one I’ve been trying to kindle the fires of. Other friends are meeting with success at Smart Rhino, Oddity Prodigy, or in their NaNoWriMo sprints. I also have one of those Patreon things. I’d love to get more Patrons, so ‘Look At Me,’ sums it up right now.

Keep looking.

Because the art wants to get out.

Becoming Maurice

I wasn’t always Maurice. Well, I was, but I didn’t embrace it.

Let me explain.

I was born and promptly given my father’s name, which was also his father’s name. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. I was supposed to be Sean (or, if you were my sister, I was supposed to be Diggity Dog – and also a pony). Mom was knocked out on painkillers after going through a full-throttle natural birth, and dad was looking at me there in the nursery. At that moment, my father locked eyes with me and saw his father staring back at him. So, he signed the papers. And like that, I was a Third.

I’m stunned that my parents aren’t divorced.

It was done. My mother didn’t kill my father (though I’d say she had a right). The state had a name for me. A few days later, my sister and I both had Social Security Numbers (she was out of the system for several years). The heat died down on my father’s decision, and life resumed. It was kinda hard for me to remember being, you know, less than a year old.

I’m told by my mother that during those early years she did her level best to get my name established. She knew it would be a problem having two people with the same name in the house (she’ll still yell ‘SEAN!’ in frustration if she needs me to come running). But, it just… didn’t take. She tried my name in full in the beginning, then tried shortening it to ‘Reese.’

Ossua reese
Kinda dodged a bullet on that now that I think of it. My name already confuses enough people.

She eventually used my middle name as my dad and everyone else did. In fact, everyone who knows me from the long haul uses my middle name. Because, until recently, I did not embrace my first name. The reasons were varied, but the biggest was that my sister and cousin made fun of it. Pretty stupid, but there it is. Nothing wrong with the name. And honestly, it’s better than the name I use on the daily. Habit now, though – hard to change forty years of precedent. My daily people still use it. Probably always will, and I’m okay with that. The only people who regularly use my first name are doctors, lawyers, and human resources. We’re not usually happy to see each other.

When I started going after my creative work, though, I made a change. I realized that if I was going to have a career as a creative, my name is my brand. Furthermore, if you’re going to be weird as a part of a life goal with a public face, you might need to distance yourself from that personality so you can work during the day. So… here I am. Maurice Hopkins. Trip if you’re feeling froggy.

It feels to me lately that my life has changed in such fundamental ways that… I don’t always feel like my day-to-day name applies. As I spend more and more time as Maurice (though we’re basically the same person), there are things I say as Maurice than I would not by my day job name. I’m a Gemini. Guess it comes naturally if you believe in that kind of stuff (I generally don’t).

What I’ve discovered though is that Maurice has always been inside of me, waiting to go public. I never ever sign any artwork using my first name at all. Never had, not until Until A Strange Signal. It, and my fiction writing are the only thing to use ‘Maurice’ as my familiar name in public. I strain to think of any time my middle name was ever used for creative endeavors either. Initials at best, but usually just HOP3 in my trademark chicken scratch.

So, I guess I’ll lean into it. See what this Trip guy has going inside of him. Explore the world. Let the middle name handle the familiar daily stuff. But, you can call me Maurice. And, I guess, a Space Cowboy. Or the Gangster of Love. But only this once. Don’t make this whole thing any weirder than it already has to be.


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