Sunday, May 22, 2011

Honest Work in Bad Weather

It was my niece's birthday party this weekend. I was on the roof setting up the tarp, just in time for the heavy rain. I heard a clap of thunder a long way off, and resolved to keep listening, when, twenty minutes later, a flash and concussion came almost simultaneously, as I literally had my hands in the gutter, cleaning them out. I nearly leapt off the roof, but as that bolt wasn't going to hit me, I figured I was safer taking the janky ladder I had made, out of 2x4's.

No one showed up the first hour after the party was supposed to have started, and my niece was distraught. But the sun came out and stayed out, just in time for the nine kids and their families who did arrive, and they all wanted to stay - even after the party, and the world, was supposed to have ended.

On the bike path near Minnehaha Falls, on my way to a job site this morning, smelling the scent of apple blossoms and lilac, I came to a sudden stop three feet from a snapping turtle, parked on the yellow line. Somebody seemed to have ridden over its tail recently, one of the saw tooth keels missing, the flesh healing but exposed. She didn't seem alarmed by me, but scanned the surroundings while I peered over the handlebars of my bike, and then continued walking, her tail swaying slowly like a snake. I took her to be a female, though I didn't check, about 60-70 years old, perhaps older. City workers arrived. They were respectful. Apparently, she's often found on the other side of the parkway, which is Minnehaha Falls Park, where all the people are. Last week, she was seen climbing into swollen Minnehaha Creek, swimming upstream. As they were contemplating what to do with her, like they might pick her up, I told them she had been on the path, that she was on her way to the creek. With that, she started walking again, plowing through the dandelions, and the City Parks workers let her be.

On my way, I thought about what to write for this blog. Ayn Rand came up. I stumbled across a copy of her Return of the Primitive recently, while I was in a book store searching for Terence Mckenna's The Archaic Revival. She is fashionable again, the great High Priestess to the cult of self interest and exploitation. It is hard to imagine a character as absurd as Ms Rand, in any age but a high tide of resource extraction and a glut of cheap and abundant fossil fuels. I read her Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in my twenties and rejected her not because I thought she was wrong necessarily, about the importance of self interest, but because she rejected any responsibility to any community, or to the Earth, and because her vision is simply mean. That she is fashionable again is no surprise, the extremes standing out in this time of epic denial, and the ascendancy of so-called conservative principles.

At the job site, I consulted with the homeowner about his maple hardwood floor, probably original to the hundred year old building, covered until recently by 50's vinyl, and also a more recent, less aesthetically pleasing layer of vinyl. We talked about the bathroom, and decided to remove the existing floor. I did the demo.

When I was contracting, remodeling houses during the most recent and rather tragic housing boom, about 50% of what I did was undoing something that never should have been done. This bathroom floor was that, par excellence. Pine floor sheathing, covered by maple hardwoods, covered by 1/2 inch plywood, covered by asbestos tiles, covered by 1/4 luan wood sheathing, covered by cheap big-box wood parquet. Five layers of wood, in a bathroom. With a layer of asbestos between the layers of plywood. The building was previously owned by a local slum lord.

I could have stopped, and had I, the homeowner, who is an honest man, would likely have hired an abatement company, and permits would be required, and a scene would be made. But I need the money, the bathroom window was open, the sliding glass door next to the bathroom was open, it was pouring rain outside, the air was heavy and dense; if there was a time to do it safely, it was then. So I ripped the floor apart, cursing the system that breeds such unscrupulousness.

What is Ms Rand's laissez-faire capitalism but the elevation and protection of the unscrupulous? Here, at least two examples (excluding the original hardwoods), of self-interest superseding anything else, and asbestos to boot. We knew the stuff to be deadly as early as the nineteen-teens, and yet here it is, at least the second example of asbestos in this house, this second applied likely at the same time as the funky kitchen vinyl, thirty or forty years after the fact. If you know what water does to wood with time, you have some idea of what tearing that floor apart was like, with rows of two inch nails every six inches - in the first layer of plywood; the second layer nailed and adhered - mindful that this house was owned by a slum lord, with the likely tenants.

Is it really better for the community that the community is not able to condemn such behavior? Is it a better society, that the tenants of such men, and the people of the community in which the house exists (which will outlast the slum lord), cannot come together and make an example of him, lynch the guy or maybe just tar and feather? Law and order indeed. Is this what law and order looks like? Smells like? Meanwhile the City tries to condemn me and my house because I don't have natural gas hooked up? Me, with my wildflowers and fruit and 3000 sq ft of garden?

As I was working, three attractive upper-middle class women came to the door asking for one of the tenants, an American Indian male about my age, who is a resident left over from the days of the slum lord. He just left the building, I told them, with an older woman and a young boy. They asked if they could leave the cookies they intended for him, if I could get them to him. I told them I was only working in the building for a short period of time, and couldn't guarantee he would get them. I wondered if they know he never takes his dogs off their heavy chains, passively torturing them, turning them insane? At no time in my life have three attractive upper-middle class women come to my door bearing cookies, and I do not torture dogs. They didn't offer me a cookie.

At least one Tornado tore through the Twin Cities metro area, while I worked. When the work was done, during a lull in the bad weather I biked to my sister's house and removed the tarp I applied yesterday. The sun is out now and it's calm and warm. Once home, I started to dismantle my temporary greenhouse, but I grew increasingly angry, thinking about the unscrupulous, the seeming backward nature of everything, how so much that is pure and beautiful is ignored or maligned, while the base and ugly is esteemed and strived relentlessly after; angry at women; angry at God and Goddess; angry at myself, because I am the only reason I am lonely, and not better than I am. This yard has been a great healing for me, and I write now looking at my new pond.

Now, I've got my own responsibilities to this house, which is 55 years older than I am, which I've let go somewhat to seed. What you won't find here is any evidence that I've done anything to it that could be a health concern or even a serious pain-in-the-ass to someone else. In fact, what I hope to do here is create a gleaming example of what is possible in a northern climate, gracefully and at minimal expense, in the name of winter comforts, energy efficiently. But that's not going to happen, demoing bathrooms, or whining about all that's rotten in the world. That's only going to happen by bold action. And clearly, the world favors bold action, even and especially when that bold action is unattached to any concern other than ones self interest - a rule which I hope to confound.


Carolyn said...

Hi there,

I found your blog from your comment on the most recent Archdruid Report, and was interested because I live in Minneapolis too. I really like what I've read here so far, I think what you're doing is exciting and awesome, and I'm so glad you won on the natural gas issue :) Do you know of any good local meetups or suchlike that focus on peak oil, sustainability, transition, etc.? It would be really nice to connect with some like-minded folks who actually get all this stuff, and I wouldn't have to feel like some kind of nutjob trying to explain it all...

Anonymous said...


Sorry to publish and respond to your comment so late. I've been cranky, wilting a bit for the absence of Sun.

Thank you for the comment. Unfortunatly, I am not aware of any such groups or meet-ups, around these issues. That would be MN impolite. I don't naturally gravitate toward groups anyway, and I assume those who are actually doing something about the future JMG writes about, are mostly lone nutjobs (which I say most endearingly).

Though you are now the second person from MPLS to contact me after reading JMG. The other is a good man with a strong family, a family I now have a mutually beneficial relationship with. Which is what it's about, if we are to meet the future with any measure of grace. Blessings, and if you have any similar opportunities, let me know.


William Hunter Duncan said...

This is a test. I've tried to revamp the comment option, because Google wouldn't even let me comment on my own blog.