Sunday, September 26, 2004

Love Amid the Ruins: A Modern Parable

This is my attempt to put the Bush-Kerry-Iraq thing into human terms...

Not too long after the first "rat incident", my husband came up to me with a serious look on his face. "Honey", he said, "We've got a real problem. You know that broken-up stretch of sidewalk down the street? Well, there's a gas main running underneath it."

"So?" I asked "That hasn't been a problem so far, has it?"

"No", he replied, "But I'm afraid that one of the rats will chew into it, and then create a gas leak--and you know what that will lead to. We're talking mass destruction. I want to get the Homeowners Association together right away and work out a repair plan. This is a grave threat!

"Well", I said, "In that case, you've got my support. If it's dangerous, do whatever it takes to get it fixed. But - can you be sure about the gas main?"

"Trust me", he replied. "I hear finding the gas main will be a slam dunk.

A day after that, I woke up to find two guys tearing up the sidewalk, working a backhoe and a pneumatic drill. My husband was in the living room, practising his putting. "That was fast!" I told him. "You must have really laid it on the line to the Homeowners Association."

"Well", he admitted, "I didn't actually convince them...but I figured we ought to take on the problem anyway, ourselves."

Well, hubby's never been great at sticking to a budget, and dollar signs flashed through my mind as I listened to the drilling outside. "Can we afford that?" I asked.

My husband didn't seem worried. "Honey, emergencies like this are why people invented credit", he replied. "And don't worry - I know what I'm doing. Jobs like this are in my blood!

"And who needs the Homeowners Association, anyway. You don't want the safety of our home determined by decisions made by that screwy French couple down the street, do you?"

Well no, I guess not. But a gas leak threatens everyone - shouldn't they pay their share?

Once the work started, I couldn't believe how fast that crumbly, unsafe old sidewalk came up. When the last piece of concrete was loaded into the dumpster, I took out a pitcher of lemonade to them and invited them up to the porch for a break. The Backhoe Guy was a tall thin fellow, who reminded me a bit of the guy that played the scarecrow on the Wizard of Oz. The Drill Guy looked more like the cowardly lion.

"You guys really know your stuff." I said. "Looks like the job's just about finished."

"Oh no, ma'am." said the Backhoe Guy "There's a lot more work to do. See, there's a lot of stuff under a sidewalk--what we call 'infrastructure'. Stuff like water pipes, oil pipes..."

"...sewers...", broke in the Drill Guy.

"...right, and electrical conduits---and that's all got to be working before we pour a new sidewalk and go home."

"Well, won't that be pretty easy to do, now that the old sidewalk's removed?" I asked.

"Actually," said the Backhoe Guy, "that old sidewalk, nasty as it was, was at least covering the infrastructure up, and protecting it from vermin. So we've got to be careful about how we get all the infrastructure rebuilt, and keep everything protected while we're doing that, or we could end up with a real mess."

Vermin, I thought. Since the rat incident I really don't like vermin. "What sort of vermin?" I asked.

"Rats." replied Backhoe promptly. "You end up with a messy, muddy hole, and it attracts rats. Also mice, roaches-"

"-frogs, locusts..." suggested Drill Guy.

"Well anyway", I interrupted, "How long will the rest of the job take?"

Drill and Backhoe exchanged glances. "Well ma'am," answered Backhoe after a pause, "it's hard to say, with the just the two of us. Usually you'd have a bigger crew for this. I mean, you need a plumber, electrician, civil engineer..."

"...union rep, lawyer..." interrupts Drill Guy,

" guys like us to stretch tarps, run fencing..." continues Backhoe

"...move in a porta-potty, build scaffolding ..."

"I think I get the picture." I tell them. "Tell me, does my husband know about all this? I mean, that we need a bigger crew?"

Drill and Backhoe exchange another glance, then look out, together, across the street. My husband's gotten out a tripod and camera, and is taking shots of himself climbing on the backhoe, wearing a borrowed hard hat and a T-shirt that said "Mission Accomplished!".

Another pause.

"We told him." said Drill Guy.

So, Drill Guy and Backhoe spent the next few days looking for that gas main, fixing up the 'infrastructure', and trying to keep the whole thing covered and 'secure' so it wouldn't turned into a rat-infested mud pit. A couple of neighbors even pitched in. And for a while, it seemed like things were going ok....sort of. I mean, they were working really hard, and this had to be a pretty tough job. But one thing they hadn't done was find that gas main.

Over dinner one night, my husband came out with some surprising news. "Well, honey" he said, "It looks like there isn't a gas main under that sidewalk after all".

"Uh - say again?" I asked.

"Don't feel bad - everyone makes mistakes", said one of the kids.

"Look", said my husband, "This wasn't a mistake!. There's no gas main, but I'm not the only one that thought there was. And isn't it great to have gotten rid of that dangerous old sidewalk? I mean, my Dad tripped up on that sidewalk back in the 90s. That sidewalk was trying to kill him - it tried to kill my Dad!

"Come on, Honey," he continued, "You said I had your support when I started this. Wouldn't you have still given it, knowing that there was no gas main?"

I hate hard questions: people so seldom take the time to listen to the answers. And the kids were watching, and I had a funny feeling that whatever I said, Drill Guy and Backhoe were going to hear my answer. Do I want to tell them, in so many words, they've been wasting their hard work?

"Look, I would have supported you", I said. "You're the head of the family, after all, and you needed all the ammunition you could get, to drum up support for the job with the Homeowners Association. And the sidewalk needed to go sometime. But--I would definitely not done everything the way you've done it, Dear. For starters, I sure wish you'd managed to get the Homeowners Association involved more. The last time we repaired with that sidewalk, it wasn't nearly as expensive."

After that, a few more weeks went by. It seemed like every evening and weekend was spent messing with that darn sidewalk job, and things just seemed to be getting worse, not better. There were places so dangerous, muddy, and rat-infested that no-one dared go there. The neighbors were more annoyed at us than anything, and even started to talk about the job being illegal. And then I found out that my husband had gotten a report that said that things were bleak, but hadn't told me, and also that almost no work had been done on the 'infrastructure', because of all the vermin problems.

So eventually, I got a little angry. "Look." I told me husband one day. "I've got to tell you that I'm not entirely sure that the way you're handling this sidewalk job is, well, exactly the best way that one might approach the job."

In reply, I got a glazed look. "Too much nuance and complexity in your language there, honey. Try and be more direct."

"Ok, I'll simplify." I told him. "I'll be real, real clear. What you're doing is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It's so wrong, I think 'Wrong' must be your middle name. This is the wrong job, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. It's so wrong, I think you should be off the home repair detail permanently. This job is putting us in debt, spending money we could put to better use elsewhere, and it's distracting you from that other, really important job you started and never finished." That glazed look again. "What other job?"

"Don't you remember the rat incident?" I asked. "When that big sneaky rat, the rat from the trash bin, the one that we called 'Bin Rat', got into our house sometime, knocked over your tower speakers, and caused $3000 in damage? Your important job was to catch Bin Rat!"

"Oh, that" he said. "I don't think that's so important any more. I truly am not that concerned about him.

"But if you're worried about rats - hey, we're doing great with rats! we're fighting loads of rats on the sidewalk job! and isn't it better fighting them outside than here in out living room?" "Sure", I said, "but how do you know that fighting them outside is actually keeping them away from our living room? maybe you're just attracting more rats with that muddy mess of a sidewalk job."

Another glazed look. Sometimes, a question can just be too complicated to answer.

"Ok, if you're so smart", he said, "Tell me what you'd have done differently."

"Everything." I told him.

"Ok, look" he said. "You told me I had your support when I started, right?"

"Well, yes." I agreed.

"And you even said you'd have supported this job, even if you knew there was no gas leak, right?"

"Not exactly", I said. "You're taking me out of context. I did support you then, but expected that you'd get help with the job, like you said you would. And, frankly, I didn't expect that you would screw this up so badly that-"

Yeah, yeah", he interrupted, "you're always going on about how I take you out of context. The point is, first you say yes, then you say no! that's just like a woman! how can I take your advice seriously if you're always flip-flopping like this!

"Face it", he continued, deepening his voice, and thrusting out his chest and chin, "major repairs are no place for people that can't make up their minds! Flip-flopper!"

Right, like he's never changed his mind?

"Well, if I'm a flip-flopper", I tell him, "You're a pig-headed idiot that refuses to take advice or admit he ever made a mistake!"

(And now the happy ending...)

"Don't say it like that", he replied, smiling winsomely, compassionately, and sincerely. "Actually, I'm decisive and resolute. And I make unpopular decisions."

Well, that was just too much - what's a girl to do? I took down my hair, tore open my bodice, and flung myself into his arms, my snow-white bosom heaving with passion. "Oh George", I sobbed on his shoulder, "You're right. You are so decisive and resolute! Please say you'll stay with me, and do my home repairs forever and ever! or at least another four years!"

"No problem" he replied. "In fact, I have big plans for the house too---I think we should switch to a flat roof."


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