Thursday, July 17, 2008

heart of darkness

I first laid eyes on Portland 19 years ago and immediately knew I wanted to move here, but didn't exactly know why. Other than it was summer, Mount Hood was breathtaking, and I had a little pile of cash that wouldn't stretch too far in Southern California, where I was living with my two babies.

Over the years, though, I've formed more of a manifesto about why Portland is such a satisfying place to live, and many of the reasons are contradictory. For instance, Portland is a great size, but is constructed in a labyrinth puzzle throughout much of it. It took me five years to fully negotiate all the "can't get there from here," cul de sacs. Portland is an exquisite oxymoron, in so many ways. On the surface the city and its surrounding landscape looks and feels pastoral, easy-going and bucolic. Portland's brand is leftie, alternative, friendly. Polite. Residents are often perceived as flannel-shirted, Birkenstocked, weed-smoking and ungroomed. Life here is just a bowl of herbs and berries. We tend to sit atop high places and gaze out over the horizon. We like the rain. We like home brew. We don't pump our own gas and we ride our bikes everywhere.

But that is not the whole story.

There's a force here, a certain tension. We're younger than our countrymen out here. We churn, create, examine and experiment. And lots of it goes undetected. There are layers, so many layers. Living in Portland is a constant seduction. As earthy and wholesome and outdoorsy as it is, there is an underbelly as well as a desire to reach something higher. This place is so undeniably vertical, but in a smaller, less obvious way than, say, San Francisco or Seattle.

The other day I took a walk in Forest Park with Chelsea Cain and Ketzel Levine, for the purpose of chatting up Chelsea's thriller series, the second book of which, Sweetheart, is due out in a couple of months. Coincidentally, the first house I bought in Portland sits at the edge of the park, and as we walked up the ivy and fir-lined trail, walking past the house and all its familiarity, I tried to conjure the spirit of dark. Of murder and fear and mystery.

The NPR story came out today on Morning Edition, Searching For Bodies In Chelsea Cain's Portland : NPR, and I'm really pleased with the picture that got painted, albeit tongue-and-cheek, of my beloved adopted city. There's a city of disparate writers here. Smart, visceral, playful. Sometimes dark, sometimes lyrical.

I can't see living anywhere else.

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