A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Unfinished business

“Watch out… the boards underfoot are narrower in some places than others… and when the trails are hidden under all this fresh snow…”
A movie line popped unbidden from some dusty junior-high corner of my brain as I was welcoming (or attempting to welcome) Jay’s sister Charlotte to our home: “Now, careful. Walk on the LEFT side!”  Should you ever happen to find yourself rushing into a dilapidated castle to find aid for an injured hawk – who is actually a beautiful young woman under the curse of an evil bishop – it helps to know about the idiosyncrasies of the drawbridge. Likewise, should you come stay at our home just outside Fairbanks, there may be a few idiosyncrasies you should know about, too.
Alas, my warning was of little use to Charlotte.  She plunged right off the narrow edge of that fickle boardwalk and ended up with a generous bootful of snow.  Nor did the situation seem much better as I handed over the keys to my ’99 Ford Escort.  “Oh, you can use my car while you’re here,” I heard myself saying blithely.  “I hardly use it anyhow. It still runs…oh, but keep in mind that the window on the driver’s side doesn’t open.  Also, the hatchback sometimes seems like it isn’t really all the way closed, but it really is.  And, oh yeah, the lights on the floor shifter don’t light up when you turn on the headlights, but that doesn’t matter, it’s summer anyhow…”
As I reeled off this litany, I realized -- with burgeoning embarrassment -- that my apparent attention to quality control, structural integrity, and aesthetically necessary repairs was not merely comparable to that of the wine-sodden (and fictional) Imperius; it was much worse. 
When I do a walk-through of my life – for example, while temporarily borrowing the clean-slate perspective of a visitor -- I realize that pretty much everything is frayed around the edges, loose, incomplete, wobbling, stacked in untidy piles, faded, unedited, wadded up in the corner, dangling, or in dire need of a coat of paint.  The sheer quantity of clutter, quirks and imperfections is daunting; the fact that I generally don’t notice any of it… well that seems as if it ought to be disturbing.  Shouldn’t these wanna-be tasks at least maintain little blips on my radar?  I am awash is a sea of unfulfilled intentions that have lingered for so long that I have utterly acclimatized to them.
That blue blanket that I spread on the Esteemed Guest’s bed?  Yeah, it’s unraveling all the way down one edge.  I fully intend to sew it up.  Sometime.  The guest-room door that’s pretty much an unsanded piece of plywood with a handle?  I meant to fix that up, too.  The huge blue electrical cord – the heavy-duty kind, natch – that hangs from the ceiling, parabolically, between the wall and the track lighting?  Jay and I were going to wire that in permanently of course.  A decade ago. 
When Jay and I built our cabin, more than ten year ago now, we put in a lot of attention to detail.  We really did.  In part, we were spurred by the advice of good friends who had recently undertaken the same endeavor.  “Do not,” they cautioned us, “under any circumstances move in before the place is done.  All the way done.  Otherwise, you will end up living in a half-sheet-rocked house forever.”
At the time, this seemed like an exaggeration.  Surely we could do the shelving later?  Finish the cabinetry?  Screw in the wall plates on the electrical outlets, make a cushion for the window seat, and put in some window trim?
No, our friends insisted.  Do not tempt fate.
Since we were comfortably housed in a rental cabin only a five minute walk (albeit a boggy, buggy, ankle-twisting-tussocks walk) from our (seemingly endless) building project, we heeded their advice.  While Jay finished the wiring, I struggled to make all the kitchen cabinets and counters from scratch, using decorative locally harvested birch.  (Note – a PhD in biology is not a useful prerequisite for Advanced Woodworking.)  While Jay built the window seat, I continued to struggle with cabinets and counters, using a vocabulary more toxic and volatile than the varnish (see above).  While I made a super-last-minute twelve-foot high bookcase to accommodate the several hundred can’t-possibly-get-rid-of books we’d sort of forgotten we’d need a place for, Jay finished the window seat. (Note – a degree in computer science is not a useful prerequisite for Advanced Woodworking, either.)  Thus, when we finally did a last run-around with the shop vac and called the place done, it really was. 
Almost.  There was the track lighting still to add.  And the siding.  The plywood exterior walls were properly coated and perfectly serviceable, but we hadn’t yet gotten around to nailing up special-order siding that we’d so laboriously hauled and stacked nearby.
Fast-forward a decade. Sometime this past winter, Molly (then aged six) asked me about the siding on the house.  That is, she asked me why only half of the house actually HAS siding.
“Well, we meant to finish it.  But we got busy.”
“With what?” she asked guilelessly.  She and her twin sister looked at each other, as if to say, what the heck could have been keeping Mommy and Daddy extra busy for the past six or seven years?
“Well, for one thing, we had to build on your room.”
This was true.  We “finished” our cabin in the spring of 2004.  In winter of 2005, I found myself squiggling on my back on the frozen ground beneath the framed-in floor-box of a new 12-by-16 room, desperately trying to hold up a sheet of plywood with two knees and one hand while I wielded the screw gun with the other.  I was incubating two rapidly expanding fetuses; there was no time to lose.  By the time the roofing was going on, I was too large to reasonably be the person atop the ladder, so I held it for Jay, wearing a pair of his Carhardtt overalls, the sides entirely unbuttoned (this is a classic Fairbanks look, so I was nothing if not stylish).   By the time the two closets were built and the final coat of paint was on the walls, we had a pair of infants who were almost (but, whew, not quite) too old to safely keep in bassinets next to our bed in our wholly open and railing-less loft. 
Molly pointed out that their room has been done for a long time.  Actually, I think she said a “loooooong” time – which I will have to allow as accurate, give that from her perspective (and Lizzy’s), it’s been a lifetime. 
Still, I had to defend my honor.  I protested that getting any sort of construction work done when they were babies was impossible.  I mean, during their long Do Not Ever Put Me Down phase, I pushed the limits on safety by stir-frying while wearing one of them in a backpack and the other (the hazard-toddler) in a Baby Bjorn.  I was not, however, willing to do the same thing while standing on a ladder with a nail gun. 
Molly considered this.  “But now we could help,” she offered, with all the confidence of someone who is doing pretty well in first grade.
“Well… maybe we could work on it this summer…”
My kid knows me too well.  She heard the wishy-washy hedging.  She took the reins.  “I’ll do it for you,” she declared.
Obviously, my child has higher standards than I do.  This is also true of Jay, in some realms: for example, outdoor equipment, bike parts, and cars.  However, even he seems perfectly happy to ignore a dysfunctional parking brake, to repair a door handle with electrical tape, or to suggest that duct tape is actually the correct and preferable way to deal with rents in tents, and there are rarely fewer than five of his garments strewn about the living room.  As for the last member of our nuclear family, well, tidiness and perfectionism are almost never qualities displayed by Lizzy – a fact that is as maddening as it is endearing.
On the other hand, some of my friends and acquaintances appear to have definitively higher standards than I do.  Dazzlingly higher standards.  They live in homes in which all the wiring is demurely hidden in the walls.  They drive vehicles that still have all their hubcaps, and wear clothes that have not a single patch, tear, stain, or safety pin.  I enter such houses and feel, in truth, a bit lost. 
Much as I admire these folks, I also fear them.  Where are the crooked stacks of magazines that have been accumulating in a corner since 1993?  Where is the pile of “treasures” squirreled away by a child who picks up broken bicycle brakes, lug nuts, and the floor mats from trucks?  How do these families manage to exist without a section of kitchen counter dedicated to objects that don’t quite have a home anywhere else, such as the child-crafted ashtray for the house full of non-smokers, the button that fell off and hasn’t been sewn back on yet, the birthday party invitation that needs an RSVP, and the bike blinkers that will be needed again in just a few short months?  Where are the three jars full of pens and pencils, two thirds of which are either inkless or pointless?  What about  the sleeping bag draped over a chair because it was airing out after the last trip, but is going to be packed up for the next trip soon enough anyhow?  Haven’t these people got a rug that the cat has scratched a few too many times, or a hamper of clean laundry that hasn’t been sorted yet?
I worry that if the Flawless People see the cracks in their own world with such immediacy that they always take instant corrective action, then without a doubt, they also see the smears and smudges in my world – not just the ones that I vaguely know about, but also the ones that I’ve forgotten so completely that I haven’t even mentioned them.  They see my invisible ineptitude.
And therein lies both the contradiction and the salvation: not only am I unlikely to ever live up to these folks’ standards, but I can’t.   Sure, some of the frayed edges of my life are things that I really do see, and do (truly!) deal with, in time.  The laundry ultimately gets put away, sometimes I even weed through the dead pens, and I’m now actively looking for a newer car (pssst -- you got one?)  But if some of the ragged detritus of life becomes invisible to me, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.  The people who truly want to spend time with us can put on their own hazy goggles, and those who don’t?  Well, at least they won’t ask to borrow my car.
Luckily, it seems that Charlotte is entirely capable of putting on those goggles, and operating within the bounds of our standards, and my car.  The Escort’s parking safety switch short-circuited while she was in command of my vehicle, rendering it inconveniently impossible to shift the automatic transmission out of PARK.  A few 15-amp fuses and a brief online search later, I found that jamming a chopstick down onto the override button did wonders.  Although I did properly repair the issue a few days later, through judicious transactions with actual mechanics, Charlotte didn’t bat an eye at my chopstick.  She also left behind a gift of a slightly stained and faded t-shirt that declares, with a chirpy and obscure cheesiness, “Someone who loves me very much went to Muscat Oman and got me this T-shirt!”  Needless to say, I love it.  This is a woman who understands me – and who does not complain when she falls off our boardwalk into a snowdrift.  And, somehow, through great good luck, I seem to have found a cadre of other fine friends with equally relaxed sensibilities and equally adjustable blind spots.  If they don’t see the wretched refuse of my teeming house, well, I don’t see theirs, either.  We can lift our lamps for one another.
There may, in the last analysis, even be occasional advantages to disrepair, disorder, and never quite getting things done.  My duct-taped bike seat looks a lot less theft-worthy than all the others on the rack.  Children who ingest a bit of dirt may have some slight immune advantage. I never have to waste time locking or unlocking my car.  The tax appraisers seem to have knocked quite a bit off our house value on the basis of it looking so very unfinished, in its half-clad state.  And as for that tricky boardwalk?  Well, if the evil bishop’s pugilistic henchmen come looking for us, we have our own built-in defenses.
“Remember… [SPLASH!]…Walk on the left side…”

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