The maple: not dead, but definitely dying.
- “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”
- — W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
- “And you know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
- — Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”
“Someone has to clean up. Someone always pays when people break shit."
It strikes me that part of aging gracefully is realizing that the end of your world is not the end of the world. One man’s decadence and decay is another’s foment and fruition.
There’s an old maple tree growing just inside the eastern edge of my backyard. Well, not growing. Dying. It was vigorous and laden with leaves when I moved in 17 years ago, but the extended drought, combined with the reduction of really cold winters — the kind that let the tree go deep-sleep dormant — has taken a toll. Of late, as it heaves forth its ever-later, ever-diminishing splay of green, I have found myself sympathizing, even identifying. An exhausted east-coast transplant, thinning up top, less vital and more stressed, struggling more to produce less, creaky and trembling to the point where it maybe can’t support the kids who clamber up its trunk before launching off the zipline platform with happy abandon. Why, a fellow could write a poem on the subject. I think that I shall never see/ My youth again, just like that tree…
But as former literary agent John Hodgman once noted, only jazz criticism pays more than poetry. And self-pity is never a good look, especially in those old enough to enjoy some perspective. Better, perhaps, to use the intimation of Death’s approach provided by an expiring tree as a kick in the existential pants. Time to look to the future, and to those who will inhabit it. For the past five summers, I’ve been promising my daughter that I will restore the playhouse at the bottom of the yard. This is probably my last chance before she ages out of interest in such things. Things fall apart, so you have to put them back together. That’s civilization.
Texting While La Mesa Burns: An Exchange Between Father and Son During the May 30th Protest’s Violent Aftermath
Father: “They broke the windows at the Vons shopping center.”
Son: “That’s so crazy. You never hear of that except in history books. I kind of want to be part of it, because it’s part of history, even if it’s not necessarily great. I don’t want it happening, but it’s happening.”
Father: “This part isn’t historical, it’s just criminal. I do understand the appeal, but there are always consequences.”
Son: “For me, I want to be part of that, just once, just pure chaos and no one thinking of laws or morals, just for a night. I know that sounds bad. Being hit by police crowd control does sound painful, but that’s part of the experience, feeling that pain.”
Father: “What you’re talking about is the same reason so many people are eager to go to war when it breaks out. And veterans will tell you that the thrill in combat is real. But a lot of them regret it all the same. And those are the ones who survived. I don’t feel the pull of pure chaos myself, because I’ve worked to build a life, and I know how close chaos always is to taking it away.”
Son: “But war goes on and on. This is a one-time thing, at least for me. Why not?”
Father: “Because someone has to clean up. Someone always pays when people break shit. And if you don’t give a shit about other people having to deal with the damage you do, then you’re no better than the people who don’t give a shit about the damage they do to you.”
Later that night, Father drove Son past Chase Bank as it burned; the sight proved sobering. The bank’s twisted hulk still remains along Spring Street. The other two buildings that burned have been razed. Someone has cleaned up the mess, and now someone will build anew. And I will replace my broken shovel so I can clear away the earth that mounds muddily against the playhouse’s foundation when the backyard floods in the rain. I will not yield to the secret satisfaction of watching the world fall apart in tandem with my own little life.
We can’t really afford the restoration just now — the busted shovel is just the start of it, and primer is $22 a can — but you can’t always count the cost. And I’ve been scrounging wood scraps from neighborhood construction sites, enough to replace the broken workbench inside and the rotten trim outside. (The broken window frames and flower boxes will have to be disassembled, sanded, and rebuilt, but I’ve got a daughter who enjoys such work.) The playhouse itself was scrounged; we found it on Craigslist, free to anyone who would come to Vista, disassemble it, and haul it away. The pieces sat in our garage for at least two years, but we finally built it in 2007. The chairs that will slide under the new, raised workbench were also scrounged, from a neighbor who was redoing her kitchen. We used them at our own kitchen island until I snagged some nicer chairs on the side of the road in Normal Heights. Sensing a theme?
I know I don’t deserve my very good life; it’s why I’m so fond of Hamlet’s “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ’scape whipping?” I’ve been skipping along on the seat of my pants for some time now, and it shows. I think of the scene in Yves Robert’s film My Mother’s Castle, in which young Marcel Pagnol realizes that his new friend’s seemingly luxurious home is actually threadbare and crumbling. And I don’t have many illusions about what I’m doing or how well I’m doing it; nobody’s coming from Instagram’s @PlayhouseParadise (which I am sure exists but will not investigate) to photograph my handiwork. But as I finished my first Saturday’s efforts, my daughter said, “You gave me your whole day.” Last weekend, we primed; this Saturday, we’ll paint. Then I’ll think about taking down that maple tree before it falls over and hurts someone.