A couple of years ago my aunt decided to marry a guy she had a crush on in high school and asked to have the rehearsal dinner at our house. She’s 70, I should mention. The only answer to that is “Fuck Yes!” right? But we had this little issue before we could host. Our back porch, which was to play a critical part in this operation, was…how does one put it? There were a couple of “soft spots” in a few places I had noticed in the six years we’d owned the house. It needed some TLC, I figured.
But it’s cool. I volunteered on the Schooner Adventure during the dark “rotting next to the dock” years of the mid ‘90s and I’m handy with my Irish Miter Box (sawzall) and what Douggie Parsons dubbed “Schooner in a Can” (Bondo). I figured I could fix it. So I got out the crowbar and pulled back the sheathing to expose the structure.
This Old House, Off-World Colony edition
Remember that scene in Aliens when Sigourney Weaver winds up in the room with about one million carnivorous aliens, eggs everyplace and that giant queen thing she eventually goes all WWF on with the exosuit/forklift deal? Yeah, it was like that but I didn’t have the sweet pulse rifle/flamethrower combo. Ants. Almost everything I thought was holding up my house had been rotted and eaten away. There was creepy terrible shit everywhere. I started carving the larvae away with the end of my crowbar until I realized those white puffy bits might be doing most of the load-bearing with so much wood gone.
Today, on the day when I realize we as a culture are pretty much okay with authority figures regularly shooting unarmed black kids, I find myself with the same feeling as I did after exposing the maze of tunnels in the dark, wet wood next to the sill. It’s one of those words we don’t have in English but what I’m going to call “retroactive dread.” It’s the realization that the little problem you thought you had is actually a huge, systemic horrorfuck of Lovecraftian proportions and that your complacency in the matter up to this point has made things worse.
I find myself today in a sea of mental gymnastics, along with a lot of people doing internal bargaining. It’s the same feeling as when the little bastards started spilling out in writhing fountains all around my ankles. You go down a lot of cognitive dead ends, direct blame all over the place- mostly to irresponsible stewards of the past. Fear and panic make their traditional appearances.
But as I did, eventually we will all, as a culture of mostly good people, come back to the cold, hard reality: Something is broken. Something is really, really fucking broken.
And making the decision about what to do, or really “if” to do was similar as well. In my case it was between fixing the porch or just nailing the back door shut and stringing caution tape all over everywhere. It’s a natural tendency (Here in Gloucester, it’s not only natural, it’s default) to just compartmentalize and move on. I could have just sealed it. I could have just put the plywood back and ignored it, hoping it wouldn’t collapse under the weight of a dozen odd tipsy septuagenarians. But I took a step back. I took a deep breath and said, “I can fix this.”
Obviously, that was the stupidest thing any human has uttered since: “Zune? I like the sound of that!” What the fuck was I thinking? I’m not a contractor. I’m not a carpenter. This was a statement of profound dumbassery.
Like a lot of challenges we agree to take on with insufficient detail of what would be required (being a parent comes to mind) this was way beyond my skills. Doing it right would involve shoring up the supports, installing a full compliment of new beams, at least one new post, all new decking and railings. To even physically get access to the stuff I needed to work on the actual roof had to be jacked up a foot. I did not possess the skills nor the tools required. I didn’t have the money, the time or a professional who would work over the long holiday weekend. I was fucked.
But once you start trying you send out a powerful signal. In my case the signal was the screech of saws and a steady stream of curse words that would have made a phone-sex operator blush. My neighbors started to wander over over like zombies to a MENSA meet-up. They came at first to make quips like, “You don’t need a carpenter, dude. You need E.O. freakin’ Wilson;” (NPR has ruined these people out here) but then they offered advice, came back with gear, dug in to help and even brought the most critical of necessities: beer. One dude had bottle jacks for the roof. Another had wood hardener for the post I wanted to salvage. The guy down the street leant me his truck so I could go to Rockport and buy a sixteen-foot pressure-treated 6X6 for that would have collapsed the roof of my Subaru like a lead pipe into a Market Basket birthday cake. We are not alone in this world and there are always people who will help.
But we have to start.
As bad as it was, finding this would have been worse
In the case of my porch we got it fixed though it was exponentially harder and more expensive and scarier than I figured when I put my hands on my tool belt and and implored to my wife, “I got this.” I wanted the party to happen as planned. I wanted the house to be healed.
But mostly I didn’t want to be the kind of person who nails the back door shut, as far over my head as that puts me sometimes. I don’t ever want to be that guy. Not then, not now.
I know we say this here a lot, but it’s important to stress that we are not a frightened people. We are not afraid of terrorists, though they attack our city. We are not afraid of Ebola even though it’s foreign and scary-sounding. We’re not afraid of our kids mixing with new ideas and different social classes and cultures because this is what will make them real people not just another set of clones blithering around a mass-produced consumer culture.
We are not afraid because each of us is descended from brave people who risked everything at one point or another. We owe our civilization to those who pushed back against the darkness. Who stood for justice and equality in the face of what then looked like insurmountable odds. Their blood flows in our veins and their DNA is what 3D printed us out into this crazy place and time. We have the tools. We have the people who know what needs to be done.
So take a breath. Roll up the sleeves. This is going to be hard.
But the fucking door stays open.