Memoire Writing

Through Media to the Self

What I learned launching, and landing, a media startup.

Part 5

Flushed Out by Fire and Ice

Kate and I survived the worst of times together. Estevan and Jen bore witness to a great deal of destabilization in our lives. Leadership involves setting an example, keeping drama out of it for people, showing that you have enough certainty to carry a little extra for your followers, because they ultimately carry you.

Obtaining the studio space became bitter sweet as our first collaborators were drifting away from the project, even as things were back on the up and up.

Jen volunteered to edit the new arts calendar called Arts Happening. We curated a selection of events on a separate website linked to THRU. We could repost content that would in theory redirect and expand web traffic. She took this project on top of regular content contributions, while keeping a full-time job, and she was stretched thin. 

I think a good leader can keep someone this enthusiastic while having them reduce their workload. I did not, and we had a falling out over the calendar and other personal tensions.

Estevan wanted to focus on producing rap music videos. He has honestly pursued that ever since. There was some frustration on his end but it didn’t blow out and we kept the friendship. If we helped him explore his creative dreams and if he established a new direction in life, then I like that. Same goes for Jen, she has advanced her career and many of the skills she developed with us have benefited her.

Despite losing our first crew, new people were joining the publication regularly. With constant outreach, Kate and I just pressed on, keeping the belief alive. 

Arts reviews had become routine, efficient content. We challenged ourselves by seeking increasingly original, multimedia-driven content. We made an exclusive behind the scenes look into I Should Have a Party for All the Thoughts I Didn’t Say, by Source Material Collective directed by Samantha Shay.

Estevan, Forrest, Joe (left to right) shooting Source Material Collective rehearsal

Kate put extra attention on curating unpublished creative writing and together we sought original illustrations and photos to feature a lot of posts. This was a key factor in legitimizing our work. To review arts events was easy. You’re provided the photos and video clips, all you have to do is go enjoy yourself at the dance or play or whatever and write a personal account of the experience. By principle, we only went to shows that we wanted to see, so reviews were almost always positive.

I became focused on building the studio. It took months after moving in around April 2016 before I felt that we had something presentable for common use. 

I mounted a home theater complete with surround sound so that we could have in-house film screening. Most of the movies we reviewed were being sent as private streaming links to the press.

The upstairs had to be painted hard white to become an art gallery, and a door had to be constructed to block out noise, to make it a viable multimedia studio.

I put all of these projects in between my two part-time jobs, while continuing to generate content for the magazine. I was able to keep a few bucks coming through, as I took my eBay store and tied it to THRU Media, for the sake of the books.

Because we didn’t earnestly market the magazine for sponsorships, our jobs funded everything when the Indiegogo money was spent. There were benefits to the magazine. If you’re broke, you can get a catered play premiere to subsidize your diet and your entertainment.

It gives you purpose, and access. You get to meet people that you otherwise wouldn’t get to talk to. Just present yourself well and nobody is the wiser that you’re on the verge of homelessness.

Through the summer of 2016, our focus became the documentary that became World Wide Wall, culminating a year and a half documenting Pablo Solares and Rachel Oleson preparing a mural at Portland Mercado. Forrest Brennan performed most of the videography while Kate did the show runner kind of stuff, the producing.

When Forrest completed the edit, that summer, it was about seven minutes and I felt like it didn’t tell the story so much as promote the mural. He didn’t have the time to edit the whole thing over, so I downloaded a pirate copy of Final Cut X, took all the raw material and started from scratch. By the fall, we published a 23-minute television style documentary.

It went directly into repeat rotation at Open Signal, Portland’s community media center with five public access television channels covering the metro region.

Based on feedback I received, people liked it, but I see now that I could have cut a few minutes out to make it a tighter, stronger short film. If we had the funding, I would have spent that time taking the post production up a notch, to submit it to festivals, but we just moved on to the next thing.

All the time, Kate and I went through spats of personal trouble, even when money wasn’t the issue. We were dealing with a hot/cold relationship that could destroy a day’s productivity just to resolve a fight.

As we could not seem to leave each other, in part from the magazine, we decided that the hot/cold aspect would change if we just decided to stay hot. If we rejected cold, by getting married, we’d ban ourselves from threatening breakup ever again. It just so happened to be on election day, November the eighth, that we got engaged.

That year felt like a great advancement for us. The euphoria was great and the optimism for the need for our publication in the Trump era was burgeoning. There are moments when you believe you’re really doing the right things.

Then a staggering number of setbacks came on, nearly delivering us again to rock bottom.

I had a back log of parking tickets from 2014 and 2015, when I lived downtown, suddenly garnish my bank account in full, that fall. This was a new thing for Oregon, having the power to invade a person’s bank account and take a debt owed, in full. The letter I received said they could garnish me, but that came quick, and I didn’t realize it meant in full.

It took me the year to save about a thousand bucks and it was all gone. And I still owed them hundreds more. I had to borrow money from my parents to get through it and I paid it back over the next year.

We set out for the trip to Tucson for Christmas in a rental car, just like the previous year. This time, our lives were much better in place, I was just stretched financially.

Then the ice storm came. I remember it clearly.

I was driving home from a television mounting job in the suburbs. Fine powdered snow was gradually covering the ground with a sheen of ice. And within hours, the snow was heavy, then overnight a blizzard swept over the West Coast, burying Portland in about two feet of snow.

It would turn out that this ice storm began right there but extended as far as San Diego, California. It swept across the country for a week, pushing on to New York, generating disasters through the Midwest.

My car was stuck in the snow on Newberry Road. Our power was knocked out by fallen trees. My water pipes had frozen and burst. It was a mess over there. 

Now this was a great time to have that studio downtown. 

I shoveled a pathway up the driveway to Newberry Road, walked the half mile down and made my way into town by hitchhiking. A lawyer with an F-150 picked me up, talked about how he kicked his clinical depression with wood working, because your hobby has to be opposite from your living, he said. I have kept that in mind ever since.

Kate found herself at the studio that night, stranded from an event downtown. It was warm and safe 24 hours a day down there. We were in walking distance to everything we needed, including a $3 breakfast at the Marathon Tavern on Burnside. We also used the building’s kitchenette and showers.

So there I was, totally broke again. That television mounting job paid out $100 and it was my last income through the whole freeze.

Famous last words: I wrote this into the snow before the epic melt.

For two weeks, the snow and ice held in place, as temperatures would peak around 32 degrees. Nobody could have predicted what would happen next. Rather than a gradual rise in temperature, say to 35 degrees, it jumped right into the mid 40’s. On the day of the melt, Portland had a flash flood, and its worst disaster was Newberry Road. It cracked that day, and what ensued was at least a month of gradual collapse.

I had been there on a purely temporary basis and was always expecting a notice to vacate. But then the idea that there would be a job with a term of roughly two years came about. They needed help with construction projects and so forth. It seemed after months of uncertainty and rumor, the plan was going forward in the new year of 2017.

Newberry Road collapsing one bit at a time

But when the road collapsed, it split the property in two, causing logistical problems, to start with. What worried them was that they were under imminent domain and were concerned that my residency in the barn would raise red flags among the bureaucrats that would have 24/7 access to the property. You see, the barn had an illegal studio apartment. That is where I lived. I was abruptly asked to leave, improperly noticed, and we had a falling out.

Kate lived in a temporary place herself and before this, she frequently stayed with me. The situation reversed. I stayed in the studio half time and with her half time. We had gym memberships too, which helps with showering and killing time. The stadium season picked back up, my income resumed, hers picked back up, and we found a room together in March. Coincidentally, it was right by the Dragonfly Café, the place we happened to be when we discovered the studio online.

We endured some seasonal hardships and a natural disaster, but we actually held our relationship together pretty well and did not deal with housing insecurity by the fair definition of it. Outside the studio, homeless junkies would leave needles and bottles. That is real insecurity.

The magazine was set back a little. Forrest was busy with a new job, most of our collaborators were advancing their careers. But also most people in Portland go into a hibernation mode in the winter, and we had a bad winter.

But things eventually improved.

One thing that I always envisioned for THRU Media was professional media services. It happened that spring. I was hired to produce an infomercial and concert video for Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, the Grasshoppers 2017 mentorship program. It was a bargain rate that we offered, but I was able to pay Forrest and Joe, and make the company a couple bucks.

Around this time, the podcast was lagging and needed a shake up. I changed the name of the podcast from Horizon at End Times Podcast to Thrupoint Podcast and got back into a production routine.

We opened the art gallery in the upper level of the studio, which helped to generate new attention. I hoped for art sales. I booked the walls through the year and started promoting it as a gallery. We held several art shows, including my friends Heidi Schwegler and Alejandro Ceballos.

I doubled down on community outreach hoping to attract a whole new batch of collaborators across the spectrum of the needs of the magazine. This time I was humbled enough to realize I needed lots of people taking the reins, including someone great at marketing, to be an account executive.

I started a Meetup for people interested in technology and journalism, to attract someone that could bring our website to the next level. I was using the studio as the meetup venue. 

From the meetup, I met a guy that wanted to create a web browser plug-in that would be a kind of fact checking system that would look for leading language and disputed facts. We were going to use the pizzagate conspiracy theory to model the concept, as I had been studying that for at least six months, fact checking it madly. The whole narrative of it truly became a massive undertaking for me. The subject matter was exhausting and dark. There were real disturbing facts to it. Today, post-Epstein, it is widely accepted that child trafficking is a real problem and a form of currency in elite circles. Still, using it to model a fact-checking browser plug-in that could apply to conspiracy sites just as well as New York Times articles was probably more dangerous than the conspiracy theory itself.

The time from the ice storm into July that year, we bounced back very well. Our relationship and our finances were more stable than any time previously as a couple. THRU had survived another downturn, but things were changing positively again, and I was also humbled. I was ready to relinquish some of the control that I abused. The project felt normalized and I was ready to lead a team with a more open mind. I was ready to delegate.

Then the fire happened.

It was August the Second, early in the morning, when I got a call from the studio landlord. The dumpster outside had been torched. The dumpster just so happened to be next to the main electrical panels, feeding the whole building. Power had been totally eliminated.

Now, what good is a multimedia studio without electricity?

We had houseless people sleeping all around there, sometimes stationing themselves in the dumpster cage. This was the official explanation by the fire department. One of these folks somehow started a fire in that dumpster, putting out a cigarette, or something. I never read the fire report, but this is what was relayed to me.

The whole building, inside and out, smelled like awful chemical smoke. The fire didn’t touch our walls, but it burned into our neighbors.

I still had to pay rent, fairly reduced, but I had no use beyond storage, for which I needed a flashlight to see anything. All of my work flow was geared into the studio and there was no room in our apartment. The building was always two weeks away from coming back online, but the work stretched out for months.

I remember coming home from vacation after Labor Day to find we still didn’t have power. I first postponed the art shows, the meetups, relaxed publication schedules, and everything became sad.

The new crew of collaborators just fell to the wayside. The guy working on the plug-in had already been getting busy with freelance work, and we never finished it.

We kept doing arts reviews and things like that, but the energy dropped out.

The hot mess of the pizzagate subject overall discouraged me from doing anything with it, even though it was real journalism that I had spent dozens of hours reporting on. I embedded in earnest with the thousands of people online that believed they were this anonymous collective Spotlight team, uncovering child trafficking across the world.

The fire was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Too many hiccups and false starts had stunted this company’s advancement. All the momentum had once again been lost, so that when the power came back online, it felt like starting over once again.

We had already been discussing moving to the East coast, where we had just vacationed, so the decision was made to just move ahead with the move, sooner than later. We started a wrap up process for THRU.

We threw a closing party by inviting as many artists as possible to hang one piece on the wall, and/or bring one short performance in a salon style event, gathering a good group of friends, offering a celebration alongside many of our contributors. 

Estevan performing his music at our closing party.

I offered to seek out a replacement tenant if the landlord would maintain some continuity on the lease and not jack up the rent. I found a good responsible person looking for a personal annex to chill and create and negotiated a price for the studio equipment. This is the closest I’ve had to selling a business in my life.

The month of December was mostly spent saying goodbye while doing Portland kind of stuff. For Kate, it would involve many goodbyes and parties. It was ominous with each approaching day that we had to pack more than a decade of living into my truck and leave this town.

Our moving day was January the first, but we weren’t ready to leave. We barely got out of the apartment on time. And we used that studio again, to crash, and stage ourselves, packing the truck with our last things, figuring out more and more to donate. We finally departed on the third. And we had our first blowout fight in a long time, making our leave from Portland absurdly sad.

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