Moving to the PNW

A series of creative nonfiction pieces exploring my experience moving to the PNW.

July 26, 2022
The Case of the Rusted Pain Can

(That's not an error—"Pain" really is "pain")
We've been in our new townhouse here in Vancouver, Washington for nine months now, and it's so amazing—someone finally brought us a housewarming gift! A dented rusty old pain can devoid of label or brand. 
The can was left in front of our gate and rather than take responsibility for its removal, I picked it up (eew cooties) and tried hiding it behind the fuse box, on the side of our neighbors yard. A few days later and two doors down, I saw an exact replica of the very same housewarming gift left for those newer residents in front of their gate. Other than a different color, their townhouse is exactly the same as our ours: two floors and a tiny front yard. 

And here I thought we had been singled out as special. The folks living two doors down apparently moved their identical gift to the landscape strip that they share with the whole community.

Now, if we really want to start feeling like part of our new community, we could make acquaintance with those neighbors, go over and introduce ourselves by way of our shared experience of being specially chosen by an anonymous donor. That could be quite the ice breaker. The only contact we've had with those particular neighbors who appear to be, like me, persons of color, has been an apologetic wave of the hand when our dogs barked as we strolled by.

Get this—on our morning stroll to beat the heat (the PNW is the latest region to get hit with a record-breaking heatwave), I spotted yet another rusted paint can very much like ours and our neighbors', only difference being that it sat in front of a vacant house with a driveway guard. I don't know if that house is sold or not yet, but this find really threw me off the case, for up till now, I thought that perhaps we and our neighbors two doors down were specifically targeted because we are people of color. If that had been the case, then why did the gift-giver leave the gift at a yet unoccupied house?

Now, who are the likely suspects? One of the construction workers, whom we met early on while our house was under construction, let's call him Phil; the man is an odd bird who chats your ears off and goes on and on about his latest car projects (he collects old, rundown, non-running classic cars and guitars) and doesn't let you get a word in edgewise unless it's related to said cars and guitars. He dyes his hair jet black (he's at least in his 50s) and he's my prime suspect for two reasons: One, he asked my realtor brother to help him find a house with land and told us straight up that these houses he helps build are shoddily constructed and made with shoddy parts. He told us to our face that there's no way these houses are really worth the nearly half a million they're sold for. He further bitched about how the guys in suits (the realtors like my brother) make tons of money while he can barely pay rent with what he's paid. Ironic, since works as a day laborer building the very houses that are completely out of his reach. For two, I spied him chasing a squirrel around the corner of the houses still under construction, yelling something unintelligible as he did so, with a gravelly angry voice. Phil didn't see me see him chasing the faster squirrel with nothing but his bare hands. What—did he think he could outrun the squirrel, and even if he did catch it, what would he do, strangle it? What does this have to do with my suspicion of him as the culprit (I mean gift-giver)? Oh, I suspect he has anger issues that might lead him to purposely throw new house buyers off, make us question our decision. The intended message might go something like this: You of the middle class are meant to represent all middle class capitalists, even if you might be of the lower middle class. Stick it to the man. Here's a can of pain to touch up your overpriced pile of sticks.

Maybe it's unfair to single Phil out as the main suspect. There are several other possibilities among the day laborers/construction workers, who appear to be mainly immigrants (legal or not). Phil said that many of them are homeless; in fact, one gentleman, an African American according to Phil who is homeless, was caught living in one of the unfinished houses. Needless to say, he lost his job. One time, I saw a Mexican worker get dropped off by a taxi, and I wondered, can he actually afford a taxi on the wages he gets paid?

You're probably wondering right now, have you actually checked whether or not what's really inside the rusted can is actual paint? I am not brave enough to take a flat-head screwdriver to open any one of the cans. Why not? What you find might help to solve the case. Might help you determine whether the rusted pain can is truly a housewarming gift or an object with an important message. That's right, I'm afraid of what I might or might not find.

To the Bully that Lives on My Brother's Street

I write this letter to you, bully. As an awkward child teased for her skinny frame—called Olive Oil and Toothpick, and who hardly spoke, I had my fair share of being taunted by the likes of you who must have been a bully since grade school. Now you are a grown-ass woman, so shame on you for harboring such a nasty attitude. Still, if it wasn't for you, I might not have been motivated to learn about Battleground, Washington, the city in which you live.

Allow me to remind you of the circumstances that led to my having to write this (nasty) letter: I am the owner of that lovely green 1991 Vanagon parked on the street upon which you live, object of your derision. Yes, my brother, your neighbor across the street, said the van belongs to him; when you got up in his face, you forced his hand. He had to lie to protect me, his little sister from the likes of you. What, might I ask, bothers you so much about an anonymous van being parked within your sights? Is it because you are by nature territorial? Need I remind you that (**) Avenue is a public street? Or does the sight of it send you fuming from envy that you can never be as cool as to own a VW classic? Where I lived in Texas, people everywhere stared in admiration—I could see it in their wide eyes and open mouths. Some stopped at the farmer's market to ask about how I got my hands on such a fine specimen and asked if they could check it out. Several complimented the excellent paint job—surely you agree how eye-popping is the electric green. Or is it because you are a stay-at-home mom with too much time on her hands?

My brother and his family have lived in Battleground for a couple of years now, and it was from them that I learned the city is mostly white, unsurprising since that part of Washington in general is not known for diversity. According to Wikipedia, "As of the 2010 census, the demographic of Battleground is as follows: 90.5% white, 0.8% African American, 0.8% Native American." This is Wikipedia's most recent information, which leads me to the conclusion that no one cares much about Battleground or its latest demographics. To be fair, I searched other sites more reliable than Wikipedia, such as the city of Battleground dot org, for the most recent information. Current population: 22,800. Beyond that, the website does not break that number down by ethnicity. I'm betting the percentage of white is by far greater than that of other ethnicities. What does the city's ethnic ratios are relatively the same.I can picture you now, even though I have not yet laid eyes on you, waving your pointer finger in the air accusing me of being racist. I have to admit, I was surprised when my brother said you are not white, that you look Mexican. Let's just say that your actions make my brother and his wife, who are also non-white, feel most unwelcome. But I digress. Let's talk about the name of the city where you live, "Battleground," to broaden the scope of our discussion. In my ignorance, I had assumed that the name came from an actual battle, only to learn there was no real battle at all.

When on the city website I clicked on the heading "Our Name and the Battle of Battleground," I learned that the area came to be named "Strong's Battleground" to mock Captain Strong's actions (or lack thereof). In 1855, members of the Klickitat tribe fled an internment near Fort Vancouver, where they had been interned because of a distrust and fear of native Americans on the part of settlers in the area. Captain Strong and his soldiers followed the tribal members to what is currently known as central Clark County. It was expected that there would be a bloody and violent confrontation, but that isn't what happened. The website says, "Captain Strong made an agreement with Klickitat leader Chief Umtuch that tribe members would return to the fort the next day. But, in a mysterious turn of events, still unsolved today, Chief Umtuch was killed." According to a source entitled "Cathlamet on the Columbia," published in 1906, there is no mystery in the matter whatsoever. The book states that the shot "that murdered Chief Umtuch" was likely fired by one of Captain Strong's soldiers. While the city website uses the word "killed," the book uses "murder" to describe what was done to the chief. Here we have yet another obvious case of outright bias; a tribe complying with orders, yet still being victims of brutality. You'll be wondering right about now, what the hell does Battleground's history have to do with you, you big bully? It has to do with attitude. You see, your behavior is not unusual in that there are many bullies who don't see themselves as bullies but rather as great American patriots. You like to think that America and Americans are exceptional for having been born in America. When I last came to visit to take my old van for a spin, my brother pointed out where you live and shocking—a large American flag flaps prominently on the roof of your house. I am not saying that everyone who touts an American flag on their house or on their vehicle (usually a big-ass truck or motoricycle) is a American patriot bully. Of course not. Just the other day, I saw a car in Portland with a bumper sticker that said, "My flag too." I assume the driver of the vehicle was a liberal. Yet, I'm betting that nine times out of ten, the person doing the flaunting of the flag is probably a white-wing, I mean right-wing—you get the idea. You voted for Trump, didn't you? Is that your truck, the one with the idiotic bumper sticker that says, "Never Biden"? Well I'm sorry to say yes, Biden. Accept it. Or don't tell me you still believe the vote was stolen? Were you there at the Capital riot? Just as Captain Strong's soldiers bullied the Klickitacks, so you bully anyone who doesn't fit right in with your right-wing politics. You throw your weight around like you own the street. But my brother would not be bullied. He set you in your place, didn't he? When you glared at him from your driveway, then went in his face, spewing empty threats. He asked, "Do you pay your taxes?" To which you answered yes. He then said, "So do I, so I can park where I like. Go ahead and park your car right in front of my house. That wouldn't bother me." He said that you threatened (loudly) to have the van towed. Yeah, right. You don't have the authority. My brother says, and he's absolutely right, there's always someone like you on every street, in every neighborhood. It's time to take back the neighborhood from bullies like you.

Now, I am aware that this letter may be saying something about me as it says loads about you. That's a given, for no one has ever written a letter devoid of opinion. And maybe you are a teensy bit justified in wondering about a car parked on your street for weeks that looks abandoned, going on months now, that every once in awhile suddenly appears on another part of the street. But let me reassure you if my brother hasn't already, this is temporary. Just as your residing on that street probably is. Years from now, you will probably grow tired of living on a street that looks less and less uniform as you would like to have it, that gets more diverse as time goes on. Because you dislike change and feel comfortable with the familiar. You will buy a new house in yet another suburb. You will find something to complain: a car parked in front of your house (or for that matter, in front of someone else's house), an unmowed yard. You will go on acting the bully. Maybe not. Maybe you will remember this letter and that bright Green Vanagon, that in the end was no big deal. You stepped out for your stroll around the avenue one day and it was gone. You nearly said out loud when passing my brother's house, Thank God, but thought the better of it, and trolled on.

Edibles are Legal!
(Purging the Paranoid Self)

It happened on a Sunday in the Best Western Plus on Vancouver Mall Drive, some time after three. We had just come back from eating Vietnamese food, and it was to be the last day at the motel before checking into our extended stay at AirBnB.
By nature (or upbringing—who can be certain), I am sensitive to paranoia and anxious thoughts in my day-to-day consciousness. Still, I did not expect that ingesting two-and-a-half edibles would induce what I can only describe as a near psychotic break. Besides, three years prior, when I returned home to San Diego—when my father died before my eyes—my reaction to edibles had been uneventful. My youngest brother and I stayed for a few more weeks after our father died to help clean out the house; he took me and my husband to a dispensary and bought a tin can of ten edibles. We each took one, he stuffed the can into his backpack, and we headed to a coffeeshop to ride it out. I felt nothing. Give it at least 30 minutes, my brother warned, but impatient, I decided to eat another just ten minutes later. I don't remember how long we hung out at the coffeeshop, but when we got home later, I remember feeling giddy and laughing for no reason and my brother across the dining room table, still laid back (which is how he remains when high), a faint smile on his face, mocking me. I went to lay on the couch in the living room and drifted into sleep.
Before I describe my terrifying trip in the Best Western, I should backtrack and explain what I think amplified the effects. We had gotten on the road five days prior for our exodus from Texas to the PNW, so we were motel nomads, living out of our bags while caring for our four pets. For months, we had vacillated between the decision to stay in Texas, where our lives were relatively stable—both of us had stable, decent-paying jobs and a house we had purchased together four years ago—or to take advantage of the hot real estate market and move to a place more amenable to our political and social leanings, and our love of nature and the outdoors. Ultimately, we decided on the latter, which meant for me resigning from my tenure-track assistant professor position that I had for four years. Part of me was excited for the new adventure, where I could challenge myself and try a new career; I had been questioning whether I really wanted to continue teaching. I have various other interests I wished to explore, such as caring for animals or the nonprofit industry. Of course there came penetrating inner questionin: What are you doing? You're so close to tenure (in 2023) and you make more money than you ever have. In the end, my desire for change won; all worked out smoothly in selling our house with a nice pay-off that would permit us to buy a nice house in Vancouver, where my older brother and his family live.
Further, during these rollercoaster months of getting ready for the move and applying to hundreds of jobs, I lost connection to my writing—I just didn't have the necessary head space. I did keep up with my exploration of mindfulness meditation, using guides such as the Healthy Minds app. I also finished a short manuscript, early on in the summer, In all My Lifetimes, a fictional meditation on the Buddhist concept of re-incarnation. If there is no self, then what is reincarnated? I'd like to think that I experienced brief moments of Nirvana, of ultimate awareness in the background of the waterfall of life, during my routine meditation sessions, and when I think back to such moments, it is exhilarating and frightening to think that all this life is is passing through, and what remains at death is a subtle mindstream that only vaguely remembers (possible) past lives.
Cry-laughing, tears and snot stream down my face. Laughing for no reason, stare, time slows; overlapping timelines, one is slower than the other, I'm trapped in the slower, trying to keep up with the other where Babe and my pets exist . "Are you okay," a voice echoes. Zen-Zen paces, his panting on the precipice of my eardrum. I can't move or reach out, they are across the bed. I hear, "Do you need water?" but when I look over to the other side, Babe's mouth does not move. I must have nodded yes, for now he brings a jug to my lips and I sip. This does nothing to pull me out of the black hole I am sinking in. I wish to sleep, but when I close my eyes—wait, no, please! I won't wake up, so I lay on the bed, propped on two pillows, surely this is where I will die.
Take me to the ER, where maybe they can save me, stick tubes in me to suck out the delirium? What is this? Did they lace the edibles with LSD? But then that would fuck everything up and we'll lose our house and I'll never recover, I'm going to throw up. I made it to the toilet, crouching on my knees, going to get rashes there, Babe is holding my hair back and massaging my back.
I lose just about all of the tasty smoked salmon vermicelli that had been my lunch. After returning to recline on the bed, feel slightly better? Did I throw up the majority of the THC? "I am me," I say, pointing to my chest, and Babe grins, poking fun at me. You see, split me from me; there is no self, then where will me go? What will I do? Fractured, I hold onto the tail end of I me. I think I'm coming to...awareness/self sinks back down, down, down, losing it again. Altered senses, altered sense of time, impaired movements, incoherent thought.
Babe says, "I'll take the dogs down, one by one." I want to help, but if I get up, I will stumble down the stairs. So I lay frozen.
He would later say he didn't know what was going on. Of course he couldn't. I was trapped inside, my amygdala over-stimulated—I would later learn in researching the effects of too much THC, especially on those prone to anxiety like me. My stomach hurt again, and I didn't know if I would throw up or take a shit. It ended up the latter, and my dog Mei Mei followed me into the bathroom. When I petted her, I felt grounded to the floor beneath again, to this time and space, and I said, It will be okay. Petting something solid and real helped to anchor me again to regular reality, but then afterward, when I laid back down, I returned yet again to the bad place—losing control over the usual self, viewing that self from a disconnected Other-Self (Awareness?), watch it melt into oblivion.
At some point during my hallucinations, I messaged my brother, who lives in Korea, and here is a copy of the exchange:
"We're in a hotel. This is really bad. I don't like the feeling."
"Oh I'm sorry. Just relax, close your eyes, and listen to some soft music."
"Help me get back to reality."
"I had too much, I feel sick"
"Drink lots of water, maybe eat something"
Moments later...
"I'm coming down. I threw up."
"Man I've never tripped so badly. I really thought I was dying."
There was a bit more, but you get the gist.
Did I really think I was dying, or afraid that what was happening was the real reality, and I wanted to return to the construct of reality, to the comfort of the familiar.
I believe that the stress of the previous months heightened the paranoia of this particular cannabis trip. I also believe that one of my greatest obsessions of late also was pushed to consciousness: The concept of self is a construct. Why couldn't I just go with it? Let go of self in my altered state? Isn't Nirvana or Awareness supposed to be freeing? Isn't ingesting marijuana supposed to be pleasurable? But no, I could not let go of the concept of self, even if it may be an illusion. It is a necessary one that holds sway until the inevitable dissolution of that seemingly separate self—the ego.


Eviscerated Prius on SE Foster Road
	Okay. Use your imagination.
	There once was a person, most likely of the middle class, who bought a Toyota Prius because he cared about climate, wait... 
	There once was a dude in the PNW who decided to take out a loan for a Prius because that's what people who care about climate change do—they do what they can afford to help reverse the damage done to the environment... 
	The stripped Prius that sits at the curb belongs to someone whose parents bought him the Prius; they are former hippies. In the 60's...
	Don't assume. Maybe the person who owns the stripped-down Prius on SE Foster Road in Portland is a female, the more likely scenario since studies show that more women choose the Prius than men. What kind of men? Car enthusiasts who hate the Prius because the Prius is ugly and slow. Can't women also be car enthusiasts looking down their nose at annoying liberals and their ugly, economical cars? As with gender identities, my assumptions are a gross oversimplification.
	If I really want to know the history of the eviscerated Prius parked on SE Foster Rd in Portland, Oregon, why not walk down to the road in hopes of finding the owner? If not the owner, then maybe the person I saw ruffaging through the remains one afternoon when the light turned red at just the right moment when my car idled right next to it? If I hesitate because it feels unsafe, I could make my husband accompany me with our two dogs. Or, drive past the hub and park in close proximity to the parked Prius, take out my camera or Iphone and—should I get lucky to meet the owner—start the interview process: 
o	What year is the Prius? (No, bozo, start by winning the person's trust; ask questions not about the object of interest, but about the owner and their past):
o	After asking the typical questions: What is your name? Where are you from? (though 'typical' might not do it considering the situation is far from typical), segeue carefully into questions about the matter of real concern: the eviscerated Prius.
o	So, may I ask, what year is the Prius? Depending on the answer, I might offer this interesting tidbit: As of 2016, Toyota has sold more than five million units. Why choose 2016, when we are in 2021? I don't know, that's what I found when I Google searched "popularity of Prius." I also found this information about features of the Prius: 121 HP, gets up to 58 mpg in the city, and 53 on the highway. Decide whether or not this data is useful to the purposes of this interview, which is to ascertain why the Prius sits stripped. 
o	What were the circumstances that led to the stripping of the Prius? (This leading question kills two birds—it's obvious that the owner is homeless and cannot afford the basics, so not only would probing in this fashion lead to an explanation of the eviscerated condition of the Prius, it could lead to a very interesting personal story behind the object; that, and by using passive voice, avoid pointing the finger at the owner as necessarily the culprit; for it's very possible that the owner shares the kill with fellow vagrants).
o	Is the Prius being progressively stripped for parts? Or is its emaciated state a result of the Oregon wildfires? (It's hard to tell, for not much is left but a skeleton of the once intact Prius, whatever the year of manufacture). No, this may very well lead to a tangent, that is, the causes of homelessness in general. What I want to know is the story behind this particular Prius and its specific owner. 
o	Are you stripping the Prius for parts that you then sell to purchase: food? necessities? cigarettes? booze? cannabis? I wouldn't be offended if you—the owner—tell me, None of your business. 
o	If you spend some of the money (or all) from the Prius parts on joints or edibles, I can't say I totally blame you. Rick—your name is Rick, right? Rick, I bet the trip drew you closer to God, to the cosmos, to nature. If you ate more than you should have, you probably experienced what your ancestors, the apes, did, before crashing down into the abyss of human logic and self-awareness, emergence into a world of suffering.
o	Considering that the gutted Prius appears to have been parked here for some time (at least two months—the amount of time we have been staying so far at the nearby AirBnB), I take it that Portland police do not come here with their batons to drive you out? I've read that—to the dismay of many—regardless of their political affiliation, homeless encampments in Portland are not banned, except for certain areas. Should the interviewee ask me how I feel about the city neglecting to act: Do you feel unsafe with us vagrants overtaking one side of the road, dumping our trash and getting away with it? How would I answer this question if put on the spot? I might be candid and say: I have mixed feelings about the situation. On the one hand, I feel for your kind. I mean, what would I do in the same situation? You know, my brother once said that I'm not the type to become homeless. Upon his suggestion, I listened to the interviews of the chronically homeless in NYC; I must have thought aloud—man, what would I do if I ended up homeless like that, because you know, it can happen to anyone. For some reason, he didn't think I was the type (if there is such a thing) to end up in such a situation. While I feel bad for their predicament, I also don't like feeling that I can't walk to a nearby park to walk my dogs. Or, I might just deflect and say, Oh, sorry, this is not about me...
o	Are you homeless by choice or by force? Have you seen the Oscar-winning film Nomad? Of course you haven't! You don't own a TV. You clearly don't have Internet. What a stupid question! Well, let me tell you the gist of it. Nomad follows the (fictionalized) story of a middle-aged woman who lost her husband and now lives out of a van. She chose to quit her job and live on the road. Along the way, she meets nomads like her who live in their vans and who chose this wandering way of life to make a statement against American capitalism. Yet—ironically—she and another nomad work for Amazon (the epitome of gross consumerism), if seasonally, to get by. One bit of dialogue that really stuck with me from the movie was when the main character (played by the stellar Frances McDormand) criticized her sister for 'selling out,' by paying for a home loan she could not afford for the rest of her days—slave to the capitalist/consumerist lifestyle. Which leads me back to the previous question about the reasons for stripping the Prius. Besides the (strong) possibility of simply needing cash for necessities, could the act of stripping be meant to make an assertive statement about the wastefulness of the capitalist way of life? Only, the Prius seems an odd choice, for hasn't it already been subsumed by the green movement? Ironically, the Prius is not cheap; only someone of means can afford to pay for it. Either that, or get into serious debt to purchase or lease it. Is that what happened to you? You lost your job and could not longer pay your bills, so you had no choice but to live on the streets, anonymously, and then live off Prius parts indefinitely?
o	Do you have any regrets about scavenging the Prius yourself or allowing a (homeless) neighbor to do so? Do you recall when you first got the car? The thrill of sitting in it in your spacious driveway? The smell of new leather? The feeling of satisfaction, the thrill of the new, at least to you, that sadly, in time, wore off eventually as all things do? Maybe even the sinking feeling that you could not really afford to pay the price of a vehicle that is more than just a vehicle, but a symbol of a generation; you see, the appeal of the Prius is not that its fast or that its pretty, but rather the opposite; its odd shape and split-glass tailgate tells all other drivers that share the road just how eco-conscious you are so you can sit up straight, raise your chin, and pridefully wave. 
o	Sorry to have to ask this, but is the Prius even yours?
o	When I look at the Prius now, I get it. One must see through an unfiltered gaze, a mere object that must be divorced from all ideology if one of any conscience is to pilfer the thing to provide for you and your family. The other day, I watched a National Geographic documentary on a pack of wild dogs in Zimbabwe; as with other nature shows, I shy away from fully viewing the parts that show animals going for the kill. In this case, I didn't have to because the film cut to the pups eating the last bits of the carcass (not having to witness the struggle of the prey to get away, being torn limb from limb). The viewer is spared the actual catch and the ensuing kill; still, for a moment I felt for the impala that served as their meal, maybe because previously the camera displayed the group of elegant-looking creatures. This is probably a poor comparison, for I have no such sentiments for an inanimate object like the Prius as I do for living things. But I felt something when I saw a skeletal Prius on the side of the road, or I wouldn't have gone out of my way to come down here and interview you about its history. When I realized it had once been an intact Prius, I remembered that back in the day, I wanted a Prius because I wanted to own and drive a fuel-efficient vehicle. Not really. I liked the idea of being seen (as one concerned with climate change and the tragic state of the environment). What I want to say in the end is I am sorry for invading your privacy to satisfy my curiosity, and for using you and your Prius as fodder for an imagination lacking. 
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