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November 12th, 2008 Tony Piff | Featured Stories
 

Couch Surfer

The difference between Benjamin Parzybok and every other Portland “creative”? He actually makes his crazy ideas happen.

     
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SITTING PRETTY: Ben Parzybok with his main inspiration at the William Temple House.
IMAGE: tony piff

Gumball Poetry: a literary journal published in capsules and distributed via gumball machines.

Operation Peachblow: an immersive, citywide scavenger hunt that attempts to create an alternate reality.

Datablob: an online, eBay-like marketplace for buying and selling nonsense.

That’s a sampling from a long list of similarly outrageous projects created by Portlander Benjamin Parzybok. In a city overrun with hardworking, often brilliant people who seem happy to sacrifice material comfort in the hope of building lives around creative pursuits, Parzybok, 38, gets special credit for not just having crazy ideas, but for following through and bringing them to fruition. The fact you’ve likely never heard of any of them can be attributed to Parzybok’s flagrant disregard for profitability and a low threshold for self-promotion and praise. “I squirm under it,” he says.

With the recent publication of his debut novel Couch—a genre-busting adventure tale dense with Portland details—he’s actually earning a measure of material gain: he’s got a $3,000 advance from Small Beer Press and a book tour to complete before he checks this project off his list.

“The part where I’m the most happy in any of these projects is the creation phase,” he says, explaining his concept of success. When a project is “out the door and gone and I can dig into something else, that’s a certain amount of success right there.”

Couch sends three Portland hipster types on a ridiculous journey, prompted by the baffling discovery that the weight of their orange living room sofa seems to fluctuate according to the sofa’s direction of travel. When the trio find themselves unemployed and suddenly homeless, they agree to be led by the couch, lugging it through Northwest Portland and out into the wide world. In time they find, to their further bewilderment, that the mysterious couch floats and is as seaworthy as a life raft.

These charming visuals anchor the story in what feels like just the latest of Parzybok’s thought experiments. Some projects, like Operation Peachblow, occur as individual events, open to anyone who catches word. Others are set up as ongoing projects, which Parzybok sustains as long as they seem relevant. Gumball Poetry, his most well-known, eventually migrated to the Internet, but his capsule-filled machines are still around town. “I love things where you give yourself a set of restraints and a couple of really far-off impossible-but-interesting objectives, and you just devote yourself to it,” the Spokane, Wash. native told WW one recent afternoon as we toured the city, tracing the path of Couch’s protagonists. The book succeeds as a conceptual art piece, a literary travelogue, and a fantastical quest, each element rendered with a light hand and light heart. It feels like a children’s book written for grown-ups.

Between the Clinton neighborhood’s Dots Cafe (the unnamed velvet-Elvis dive where Couch’s protagonists congregate) and William Temple Thrift Store in Northwest Portland (another significant landmark), Parzybok recalled the various creative projects that have, from time to time, consumed his life and the day jobs that made those projects possible (see above). His résumé—a comically scattered mess of low-paying grunt work peppered with freelance gigs, topped with a liberal arts degree from Evergreen—seems typical of the well-educated starving artists who have flocked to Portland over the past decade.

Parzybok, whose lived in Portland since 1998, is currently running his own Web-development agency, Ideacog, which he founded in 2002. Supporting a family of four, he spends most days working out of his home in Northeast Portland.

How does Parzybok take a “Hey, wouldn’t that be cool?” idea from inspiration to reality? “You really do a single thing the entire time, and you’re focused entirely on it, and it’s difficult, and it’s all-consuming, and it’s something that you can believe in,” he says. “Even if it’s whimsical.”

Couch Landmarks and Gumball Poetry Machines



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Personal Projects

Gumball Poetry A literary journal published in capsules and dispensed from gumball machines.
Message in a Bottle A long-distance poetry-capsule communication network.
Datablob Online marketplace for buying and selling nonsense.
Psychic Book Project Get your next book automatically divined by Madame Lola and her robotic dog, Pietro.
SuvLuv A satirical pro-SUV website and guerilla stickering campaign. “Whoever guzzles the most gas wins,” “Oh, how we love to idle,” ‘“Refuel! Refuel! Refuel!”
Operation Peachblow An immersive, citywide scavenger hunt that attempts to create an alternate reality.
Black Magic Insurance Agency The fictional agency that orchestrates Operation Peachblow.
Imagecog A Web-based photo gallery predating Flickr. Laments Parzybok, “Oh, why didn’t I take it seriously?”
Project Hamad A Guantanamo-awareness project centered around the story of a single inmate, Adel Hamad. He was released earlier this year.
Levin’s Bicycle A 10-minute bicycle film. Levin Schersvanaskitty is Parzybok’s alter-ego.
A Body of Water An unpublished novel about three people who’ve made a pact to assist one another to commit euthanasia, were they ever to desire it.
(Untitled) An unpublished memoir of Parzybok’s year as a technical writer in rural Taiwan.

Day Jobs

Volcanic-ash collector
Registration-card alphabetizer
For Washington state Congressman Tom Foley (no relation to the alleged pedophile).
Congressional page
Potato sorter
Soup maker
Sandwich maker
Telemarketer
“For a few days.”
Caterer
Carpenter
Grocery-store checker
Theater-set builder
Demographics researcher
Asbestos-removal janitor
House painter
Furniture rearranger
For an interior decorator.
Ghostwriter for Washington state Gov. Michael Lawry “An awesome job, because they had a signature machine.... I gave letters of commendation to all my friends.”
Video-store clerk
Log cabin chinker
Trade pub editor
Caretaker
For wheelchair-bound grandfather.
Company newsletter writer
English teacher
(in Taiwan)
Technical writer At a Taiwanese scanner factory, “across the street from a coffin factory.”
Ad copywriter “Kind of depressing. More money than I ever made.”
Haybaler driver “I’d hit a rock and the field would catch fire.”
UPS truck unloader “A horrible job.”
Film projectionist “A fantastic job.”
Caption writer
Freelance web developer


READ: Benjamin Parzybok will sign copies of Couch at Powell’s Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, Nov. 14. Visit ideacog.net to learn more about the author. To see a map of Gumball Poetry machines and landmarks from Couch, visit wweek.com.

 
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