(yes, this is a repost.)
I had an interesting adventure today.
My neighbor John has been slowly, but persistently encroaching upon my yard
by piling garbage in it. This would seem a rude and blatantly obvious
offense, but John is quite a pleasant, polite and friendly fellow,
and very clever and subtle in what seems to have been a three-year-long
project to fill my yard with his refuse.
This started by John politely asking if he could put an extra trash can
out with ours. My housemate and I recycle diligently and are quite modest
in our consumption of packaged goods, so we put out only one can of trash,
and even then only every other week. Residents of Santa Cruz are entitled
to two cans per week of trash pickup, so John filled up the remaining half
of our can and added another of his.
John and his wife work as party decorators - they inflate the balloons and
provide the ribbons for large corporate parties and entertainment events.
This generates a tremendous amount of trash, I am sure, but this is not the
trash that he gives me. Instead, John is always puttering around his house,
tearing out the fence and rebuilding it, replacing window frames and so
on. The outside of his house is a complete chaos of overgrowing blackberry
and grapevines, potted plants, trees and big piles of just plain stuff.
Thus I was astonished when I once walked inside his house. It is quite
clean, well-lit and pleasant and, (I swear I'm not kidding) decorated in a
manner that puts Pee Wee's Playhouse to shame.
It is the home of a creative couple whose purpose in life is to create
They adopted two little Russian girls from an orphanage in St. Petersburg
last year. John and his wife - I fear I do not recall her name, though I
know her well, are most devoted and doting parents. To go from an orphanage
in post-communist Russia to a loving home inside of a tradeshow exhibit for
toys must be quite an experience for their little ones.
It seems that most of the trash is the refuse from John's yard and household
From time to time we would get charged an extra five dollars by the city
for excess trash disposal - perhaps John would put a hefty bag out as well.
The city would take it, and I would cough up five extra bucks. It took quite
some time for me to even notice this as I just pay whatever happens to be on
the bill without really examining it, and some more time to realize that it
was John's trash and not mine.
I thought to protest, but I felt that it was not worth mentioning as John
did me so many little favors. I felt it would be un-neighborly to quibble
over such a thing.
For example, John replaced the fence between our house and his, without
asking for any help from me, after it collapsed. The fence was quite
elaborately but very poorly constructed, and was only supported by the
strength of the grapevines that had long ago grown up through it. Finally
the crushing weight of the flower bush was too much of a burden for the
grapes to shoulder and they at last gave up, felling the fence in a heap
against the side of my house so that I could no longer enter the backyard
by going around the side.
(Of course, even if I did, I would have to climb over the gate, as it
was long ago frozen shut by John's vines. I've meant for years to tear
the gate out entirely and replace it. Perhaps I will do this soon.)
Now, John is the sort of easygoing good natured fellow who likes nothing
more than an idle chat with his friends and neighbors. This sort of
conversation is something that I usually enjoy. I am a country boy at
heart and feel that such personal style is sorely lacking in our
fast-paced society. My irritation with him stems from his timing - he
usually wants to have his long, drawn out discussions with me just as I
am leaving for work or school in the morning, and often stops me for
a friendly, and lengthy, hello as I am standing by my open car door,
heavy briefcase in hand.
What is worse is that he often gives me detailed and slow-moving lectures
on subjects with which I am intimately familiar. I feel like a sprinter
trying to run on a track paved with sticky soft tar.
I do like my neighbor, and if he would choose to come by in the evenings,
when I am often here by myself, just reading or playing my piano, I would
make him a pot of tea, change the subject to something of actual interest,
and converse with him late into the night. As it is, I find myself
sometimes choosing to delay my departure until he has left for work, or
driving a couple of times around the block when I return home so that he
can go from his car to his house, for fear that I will become engaged in
Again, it has taken me awhile to actually realize this is occurring. With
most conversation one awaits a convenient and polite point to interrupt
before saying "I must be on my way." People such as John are skilled in
the art of speaking for hours without yielding one single fingerhold upon
which I may lift myself from the conversation. I hate to be impolite, but I
have found that he really does take no offense if I interrupt him in
midsentence and just leave (though he does sometimes walk along my car
as I try to flee from his friendly chatter).
The fence project resulted in a small pile of excess wood, on my side of the
fence. John said that he would throw it away by putting a few pieces into
my - my! - trash can each week until it was gone. The new fence is a
marvelously contrived piece of architecture, surely supporting itself against
all laws of physics, aesthetics and most especially common sense. The grapes
are already sending their tender tendrils into the fence as the eternal
cycle of creation and destruction begins anew.
Having managed to cross our property line, John went on to encroach five
feet further by "giving" me a new drainpipe for my roof. Our lots drain
poorly and usually flood each winter. Several people on our block have
pumps - my backyard has gotten as much as six inches of water, and I believe
that I could float a canoe in my garage during a heavy rain. (I had thought
to buy the house from the landlady someday, but I realize now the importance
of a firm and dry foundation, and especially the importance of a dry
underlying structure. We have reduced the fungus by running a
dehumidifier during the winter.)
(John purchased a very nice and clearly expensive pump, and lent it to us
last winter so we could pump out our yard. He gave it to us still in its
original box, unused. We were perplexed at the volume of water that we
pumped from our yard - clearly there was far more than would fit on our
own lot. I realized that we were pumping out John's yard as well, and
our other neighbors' lots. John could just as well have drained our
yard by using the pump himself, but to have done so would have meant to
lose this opportunity to do us a favor.)
He actually gave me two drainpipes, made of PVC pipe. He put a new one on
his own house as well, and ran all three pipes all the way out to the
sidewalk. At first the pipes ran garishly along the fence, but he hired
a day laborer to dig a trench and lay the pipe properly. They did a decent
job in the end, and got the plumbing laid in time for the big rainstorm this
year. I think it did help a little -- but left on my side yard was a pile
of PVC and sheet-metal pipe easily ten times the quantity that actually
got put in the ground.
Last summer he hired a crew to cut down a tall, dead tree from his
backyard. As his yard is completely packed with stuff, he asked me to allow
him to throw the wood into my backyard where we (keyword: "we") could haul
it out into the front to load it into my truck, where he would graciously
pay the dump fees to dispose of it. For weeks after I would occasionally
see a log launched into the air over my fence, making a pile fully six
feet high. (He managed not to clobber my cat.) The pile yet remains.
Now, all of this is happening quite slowly, gradually, always with good
humor and presented in the light of him doing some kind of a favor to me. I
have been quite wrapped up in work and school and hardly even noticed.
Further, my own yard is not at all tidy. In fact, my front yard is a verdant
meadow, now quite blooming with sourgrass, dandelions and clover. The
interior of my house is overflowing with clutter - complete computer science,
physics and electrical engineering libraries, all on bookcases Efren and
I made ourselves, the walls completely covered with art, racks of compact
disks and cassette tapes, with several crates of records skidding about
the floor on wheels. I have enough tools in my garage to make or repair
very nearly anything - from pottery, to cast metal (up to sixteen
pounds of aluminum in volume), to auto repair, plumbing, electronics,
precision optics, gardening and carpentry.
I have sufficient computing power in my own little home, and sufficient
skill and experience to produce commercial software products on Macintosh,
DOS, Windows and Unix. The Macintosh products I can and do create on
the little Powerbook that rests comfortably in my lap as I write this
letter to you... for a brief time, I created these products with your little
(I do not yet have a lathe or milling machine, but I actually decided to
go out and get a job back when I first started work as a programmer
because it occurred to me then that if I worked as a programmer, I would
have the money to actually buy the milling machine I had coveted for so
many years. I had endured several years of crushing poverty with the
notion that there really was no point to even attempting to better myself,
but when it occurred to me that I really could find work as a programmer,
and this work would allow me to afford a mill of my own, I went right
out and got the first job that led to my present success. Funny though -
I still don't have the mill.)
Perhaps John recognized in me a kindred spirit. While I think his garbage
and his vines are in part a method of expanding the boundaries of his home,
I think they also are meant as a gift: John wants to be my friend,
and having been frustrated in his attempt to win my friendship with his
scintillating conversation, he has set himself to the task of winning it by
giving me the most precious gift of all: his garbage.
Good taste forbids me from discussing the staggeringly Freudian implications
of this in any detail, but I believe it to be so.
A few weeks ago I found that the rugged plastic trash can that I purchased
new when Efren and I moved into this house had become ripped to shreds. I
believe this came from having an entire fence broken into little bits and
crammed into it each week for months.
I think that John has missed the mark, but his mistake is understandable. I
am not "tidy", it is certain, but I am "clean". I usually shower twice a day,
perhaps three times a day. I cannot make it through the day if I do not
wash my hair - if I skip my shower on the rare occasion that I feel so rushed
as to skip this most enjoyable experience, I always wash myself in the sink
at the office restroom. John was correct in thinking that I like to collect
what others regard as trash, but he gave me the wrong kind of trash: he gave
me what I consider refuse (the pile of pipes came close, but I would
not be satisfied by letting them lie in the yard. I would want to cut them
up and assemble a geodesic dome in my front yard. This would be be blatant
enough that he would consciously feel that I had stolen his property, even
though he had meant, subconsciously, to give it to me.)
I collect vast amounts of stuff, but everything I own has its own little
unique feature of great interest. I realized years ago that I had no more
room to put this stuff, so I have disciplined myself and stopped collecting
things, and I even have thrown away several pickup truck loads of old books,
magazines, junk mail, telephone books and several hundred pounds of
mechanical and electrical surplus components to the used book shops, the
recycler and the dump.
I swear that I used to circle all the prime numbers on the reader service
cards in the trade publications of several different industries, that I
tore from magazines at the University library. I received my early education
in business and manufacturing by studying the mail I recieved (stoically
delivered each day by my sturdy letter carrier - when I realized the
weight of her burden I set out a large box on the ground so that she could
just drop it rather than cram it into my mailbox... I received this mail
at two different addresses, my own and my business partner's, then merged
it at the home that we shared later on) and by the conversations
I had with bemused technical sales engineers who would call me on the phone
to sell their wares to Holotechnics, to Bright Ideas, or to Oddball
Enterprises, to find me replying to their query, "No, Lou N. Gerat
(loungerat!) is out right now but I can speak with you."
Sometimes I would even tell the sales engineers what my scam was, and
find they were still as interested to speak to me, if not more so as
they understood that really I wanted to hear what they had to say even if
they knew I meant to purchase nothing from them.
I learned a great deal about hydraulics from a fellow that I had actually
made a serious inquiry to, with the intention of purchasing miniature
pumps and torque converters for the purpose of making balloon-tired
electrically powered roller skates for touring on the beach. This was
not my invention - that honor goes to Billy Rainbow - but I meant to
develop them commercially and pay royalties to Billy.
(Once the Pitney-Bowes rep was quite perplexed to pay me a sales
call at the run-down old pseudovictorian duplex that I shared with five
other college students, their five boyfriends and girlfriends, and whoever
else happened to come by to crash on our couch. I heard later that my
housemate Glen explained that Michael Crawford, Vice President of
Holotechnics, did indeed do business there, but he was at his job as a
technical support engineer in a nearby town, and also that Glen suggested
that I would not be needing a postal meter. The sales rep still telephoned
me later to make sure she had the right place, perhaps wanting to make sure
she had not totally lost her grip on reality.)
While I quit sending in the reader service cards after sales reps started
persistently telephoning me during the day as I tried to sleep after my
graveyard shift job, I did keep all of the junk mail for years, carefully
organized and frequently retrieved and studied, and I still have the very
best, the laser optics and laser dye and electronics catalogs, carefully
stored away in the four-drawer heavy duty file cabinet in my living room.
I also have taken care, when I do purchase anything meant to last more than
a few days, to save up my money and buy only the highest quality product
obtainable. I don't buy things merely because they are expensive, and
in particular I shun brand names and fancy labels. Quality of consumer goods
lies, for me, within the underlying structure, and not on the surface
appearance. Thus I wear extremely comfortable, long-lasting leather
shoes, and durable 100% cotton or wool clothing. I'm just beginning to
wear silk - I used to react to the touch of it the way many people do to
scratching fingernails on chalkboards.
(I am starting to acquire some sense of visual aesthetics so that others
are starting to regard me as well-dressed, but I have always been extremely
picky about my clothes: they have to feel nice. The texture of my clothing
is of paramount importance, as is the warmth of it. My clothing is usually
wrinkled, and completely without any sense of color or pattern (except that
I prefer either solid colors, or fine pinstripes, but the choice of color
or pattern bears no relation to anything else I might wear), my shirts
usually not tucked in and my shoes often untied even at important business
meetings, but it is always freshly laundered and quite comfortable to me. It
annoys Dave no end that I wear hats indoors, but I do this because they feel
nice on my head.)
Lately it has occurred to me to collect small things: my Macintosh Powerbook,
compact disks, tiny but interesting toys (look for the "Jet Ball" at the gift
shops next time you are in the L.A. airport. They are clear plastic balls,
filled with a clear liquid, with weighted spheres painted like eyeballs inside.
They look bizarre, and have peculiar physical properties: high mass, but very
low moment of inertia so they appear to slide around on things like ice
cubes when they are actually rolling. The weights keep the eyes looking
upwards, but oscillating, as they roll. I use these to demonstrate
lab-frame vs. center of momentum particle physics to the amazement and
horror of my non-physicist friends.)
Efren's latest find is a tiny telephone directory, free from GTE. The text
is just big enough to read, and it can be held comfortably in one hand. I
asked him to pick up another that I now keep in my car. I used to keep a
milk crate of telephone books in the back of my first car, a Toyota Corona
wagon. I had phone books for every SF Bay Area city, as well as the Los
Angeles residential and business-to-business directory, the Northern
California business buyer's guide, and Sacramento, and would drive around
all these cities browsing around for interesting stuff to buy in the small
shops in industrial parks, chatting with the engineers there.
I was often asked by these engineers, quite mystified as to why someone
might come in off the street to purchase, say, a two-foot square sheet of
teflon with cash (for use as a work surface for building structures
from epoxy... one can drip the glue right on the teflon and pop it off
when it is set):
"Are you an artist?"
After I while I learned to say:
Thus I have a reputation as an utter slob, when I feel, in my own mind that I
am fastidiously neat. I have always felt that this reputation is undeserved,
much as I have always felt it unfair that others regard me as lazy, when in
fact I work very, very hard, but always with a relaxed and casual demeanor.
The perceptions that others have of me often seem quite incongruous with my
own experience of myself. I am sure that my friends would regard this all
as an elaborate rationalization for not washing my dishes.
I have come to realize that I choose to be neat in stricly limited ways, ways
that others might not notice, but that hold central importance to me. For
example, my computer program code is probably the most neatly organized that
one is ever likely to see:
When I am hired as a consultant to fix someone else's buggy code, my
first strategy is to just neaten it up. I see and fix the bugs as I go
along. While others hunt for bugs with a magnifying glass and pick
them out with tweezers, I back my truck up to the computer and toss out the
bugs with a shovel. It works very well for me - but I think that my recent
dispute with my adviser stemmed from his unwillingness to even give me
permission to do this, as he felt it was a waste of time. The resolution
came when I realized I did not need his permission, and decided that I
would do it anyway, after I have taken a break from the clutches of
When I make things, I now try to put a nice finish on them, to spend time
making something of both external and inherent quality, rather than just
making lots of stuff. Most of my bookcases are coarsely constructed of
unfinished pine shelving, but my last bookcase is made of birch-veneer
plywood with oak trim, and a nice clear lacquer finish. It really is
quite lovely. I intend to slowly replace each of my old bookcases with
these nice new ones. This last bookcase I keep in my bedroom, by my desk,
made from a birch door, again with a lacquer finish, set on milk crates. I
bought a eucalyptus-framed futon, a beechwood stool and a tatami mat for
my floor. I want to replace the other bookcase in my room with one of
these new ones, and get a birch chest of drawers (this is too complex for
me to make myself) to complete my room. After that my hardwood will
encroach gradually out to the rest of the house.
Last week John asked me to haul the stuff to the dump with him. He said that
he had hired a lovely young french woman to help him around the house, and
wanted me to meet her, as he thought we would strike an interest in each other.
He said that he would pay for the dump run, and he, I and the french woman
would load the truck with all the stuff in the front, and as much of the
cut-up tree from the back as would fit until the truck was full. He also
asked to borrow my "lawnmower from hell". I said that I did not remember
the garage door lock combination, so we would have to bring the lawnmower
out the back, and lift it over the gate and squeeze it past the pile of
He also "noticed" that my trash can was broken, and offerred to give me one
of his own. A beat-up metal one of his has already taken up residence, much
as a cat might leave one owner and go to another caretaker in the same
neighborhood, if it feels it is being neglected.
He said that he was not sure that the dump would be open on the weekend, but
he would call to find out, and to find out how much it actually cost. I just
said that I knew it was open seven days, and that it cost five bucks a
truckload. He seemed anxious at this, and insisted he should still call.
This struck me as very odd. Here is a man with a greater interest in and
awareness of garbage than I had ever seen, and he does not know when the dump
is open, or how much it costs. I started to ponder what was really at work
We had an appointment to do this yesterday, but Dave called to ask me to drop
by the office, and honestly I did not want to spend the hour or two this
work would require listening to John's viscous ramblings. Meeting an
attractive woman was a pleasant prospect, but I also felt uncomfortable
at his being such a busybody about my personal affairs (this is not the first
time he's offerred to fix me up). I just hung out at the office yesterday
with Dave and our friend
Betty Jones, while I pretended to be working while I
was typing a letter to Anne Hull, the other manager at Working Software. I
had a nice time discussing my thoughts about how she and I develop intricate
methods of working around Dave's peculiar notions of running a business.
When I returned there was a crudely scrawled note securely taped to my front
door reminding me of our date for the dump. I saw John later - he was quite
pleasant and understanding about my (actually contrived) excuse of working.
We agreed to go to the dump today "if it was open". Though I knew it would
be, he again insisted he should call first. Perhaps he would have felt more
comforted if we drove out there to check before loading the truck!
This morning I abruptly remembered the garage door combination (after trying
the actual combinations of other locks I have owned in the distant past),
opened my garage, then knocked on his door and found no one home. I felt
irritated, and went back inside, but decided that I really wanted what
had become, without my notice, a mountain of trash to be gone from my yard.
As I loaded it into my truck I realized that a few bits of scrap wood had
grown to a large pile, and had been fortified with several old window frames
(complete with splintered glass), a box of rusty old spray paint cans, several
hefty bags of wet trash, a three-foot square chunk of a stucco wall (probably
from cutting out a hole for a new window in his house), two solid-core
doors (the heavy kind as used on the outside of a house), and a small
electric hot water heater, of the sort that one can install under a
kitchen sink to provide instant hot water for tea or coffee.
I loaded it all in my truck, neatly tarped and tied it (one is charged double
for driving untarped loads to the dump, and there is a heavy fine for dropping
a load on the highway), and drove it to the dump.
Now, John had planned to load the front pile into my truck, and add wood
from the cut-up tree in the back. I was astonished at his, and honestly,
my own perception of how much crap there actually was piled in my yard - it
completely filled my truck to the top of my cab, with the tailgate open as
well! I could not have made it to the dump without tarping it - it all
would have fallen off the moment I turned a corner.
As I loaded it, I reflected on the fact that, over the years, John and I had
spent far more time discussing his garbage together than it was taking me to
load it on my truck and dispose of it myself -- or than it would have taken
him to haul it himself, as he has two enormous station wagons. The cargo
bay of each car is actually quite a bit larger than the bed of my little
Further, John has offerred me money (in the vieled form of presenting
his offer to pay for the disposal of his own trash as a favor to me), he has
offerred me the social currency of innumerable small favors (that I generally
did not ask for and usually did not even want), and he has even offerred to
procure me sex (by offerring to introduce me to his french maid... perhaps
this is an underlying reason he hired her!) if I would just accept his
gift of garbage.
There is a rather odd reason why the dump is actually an interesting place
to be. Tremendous numbers of birds gather there to pick through the piles
of refuse for tasty morsels. It may well be the most productive place one
could hope to go to observe certain kinds of birds (particularly seagulls)
and to observe the social interaction of these birds.
There is an incongruous aesthetic to the dump -- it has one of the loveliest
views to be found in Santa Cruz, as it is in a small valley in the hills
overlooking the coastal artichoke fields and the ocean beyond. The mountains
above Monterey were visible above the low-lying mist over the bay. One can
find great beauty and serenity there if one can look beyond the chaos and
ever-present danger of the dump itself.
As I unloaded Mt. John from my truck, I noticed that the gulls were swarming
over a particularly rich vein of precious ore: a dumpster from a
restaurant had been emptied nearby. The occasional gust of wind enveloped me
in the fragrant aroma of old rotten but fast food.
I noticed that, though the pile of trash was abundant with appetizing bits
of seagull chow, surely plenty to feed every one of the hundreds of diners
present, the gulls still fought over every piece. If one gull managed to
pick a scrap of an old hot-dog bun from the pile, another just as soon
snatched it from his beak. Vigorous squawking ensued as the gourmands fought
over the bit of food, completely ignoring the tasty repast they trampled
beneath their feet.
If I could speak to the birds, to point out to them their errant ways,
I am sure they would reply that, though I would be right in claiming it
is more efficient not to fight but to each take the food that is readily
available, it is the seagull who is quick to snatch the fish from the beak
of another who lives to lay another egg. Even had she the opportunity to
dine at leisure, such a seagull who becomes complacent would lose an
essential skill, in fact such a central part of the seagull nature that
it could no longer live upon the open sea, and so could no longer proudly
claim the name of "gull".
Thus I no longer felt angry with John. I simply wished to be done with his
garbage and to spruce up the disheveled appearance of our yard. I am sure
that the begonias and dahlias that Efren and I planted in the front a couple
of weeks ago would have attained scant notice beside the enormous pile of
trash that John had bequeathed upon me. I am sure that John will continue
to give me such gifts, but perhaps I can encourage him to give me small and
precious gifts, rather than the enormous abundance I have already partaken
of, gifts that are small enough to fit easily into my trash can for immediate
I'm sure my landlady would agree. Her own faint attempt at improving the
appearance of what was her first home after her marriage was to give us
a lawnmower, and stipulate in the lease that we mow the lawn regularly. She
promised to have the house repainted promptly when we moved in three years
ago - I have asked her for a new front door as well, which she assented to,
and she reimburses me for any repairs or improvements I make, but I believe
that she prefers just not to think about the house at all.
When I returned home, I penned this note on some nice stationery:
I put the note in a matching envelope, wrote John's name on the front, then
left it on his front porch next to the box of rusty paint cans, under a bottle
of motor oil that I found there.
I made the dump run. It was just $5 - much cheaper, considering the
volume, than getting charged for extra pickup by the city.
I did not take the paint as it is illegal to dispose of toxic waste in
While I don't mind making an occasional dump run for you, I ask that you
not put trash in my yard.
I enclosed the receipt from the dump, for $5, stamped with the Great Seal of
the City of Santa Cruz, with a detailed accounting of the various fees and
taxes that serendipitously totaled to a perfect five-spot, as evidence of
my crime, and, I hoped, a tool to shock him into the reality of actually
believing that the dump exists, and is accessible even to people such as he.
As I started to write this note to you, John approached my front door. I saw
a look of anger or distress on his face through the window, and honestly feared
that I had greatly offended him. It is important to me to have good relations
with my neighbors, and I did not want to hurt him. I imagine he felt angry
that I had written such a blunt note after he had done so many (unwanted)
favors for me, and I am sure he felt disappointed that I had taken from him
the opportunity for us all to share in the experience of hauling the trash
Thus I felt uneasy when I answered the door, but when I answered he was
smiling broadly and spoke to me in an effusively friendly manner:
"I see you took the trash already. Suzanne and I wanted to help you."
"Oh...," I said, "I knocked, and no one answered."
"We were working in the back."
"Well, that's OK."
"I wanted you to meet Suzanne."
"Well, bring her by."
"I will sometime, but right now she's up to her elbows in dirt."
"Here's the money for the dump fee," he said, abruptly shoving a ten
dollar bill into my hand.
I pulled out my wallet and started to give him change, but he insisted I keep
it - perhaps for my trouble, or for the money I had already been charged for
his contribution to my weekly trash pickup. Or peraps he didn't wan't my
He went on to say that he would remove the pile of pipes from my side yard.
I thanked him for this, and pointed out that my landlady was giving me a
hard time about the appearance of the house. (secret code for "Thank
you for the gift, my friend, but mom won't let me keep it.") I said that
I would till the yard again soon, and replant the lawn. He insisted that I
just mow it, so that the broadleaf weeds would be subdued and the hardy
grasses would reestablish themselves.
I imagine that this is indeed a reason to mow a lawn, that the aesthetic
of a neatly trimmed lawn has an underlying logical structure - that the
natural broadleaf flora of our land can be trained to yield to the
comforting grasslands of our ancestry by regular mowing. In such mowing,
the suburban housekeeper not only creates an attractive home, but
maintains a vital connection with the earth, and with all life - but not
with the life we find naturally around us, but with the life we knew when
we came down from the trees.
He went on to point out that the plum tree at the far corner of the yard,
furthest from his house and next to the extremely neatly trimmed yard of the
woman next door to me, was a tree that he had planted many years ago.
I half expected him to then go and pee on it. He did not though - we have
strayed too far from our roots.
As I resumed my writing, I looked out the window and watched with satisfaction
as he removed the pipes from my yard. Curiously, though PVC pipes are quite
lightweight and could easily be moved in armload bundles, he carried them out
one at a time, on his shoulder as if they were quite burdensome loads.
After he was done, I stepped outside to view my newly exposed side yard, now
free of both trash and pipe, noticing that his excavation to lay the drainpipe
had also tilled the earth so that it would actually be easy for me to plant
a new lawn there... all the way to the fence. Also, John's reconstruction of
the fence has pulled out the flower bushes that used to overhang my lot by
three feet, so that there is a clear path to the backyard. There is a bit
of lumber still to haul out, but suddenly it seemed clear and easy to me
to tear out the gate and replace it.
Perhaps I will continue to tear out the vines that John sends surreptitiously
penetrating my back porch, their roots sending shoots up to crumble the
concrete of my back porch - cracks so wide that, after breeding in the heavy
rains and flooding, frogs make their home in them during the dry summer. I
have thought of leaving the concrete there but building a wooden deck over
it, so I would still have a way into spend time in the backyard during
the monsoon season, the frogs would keep their home, and I would not have
to repair or repour the back deck.
Perhaps you will be tickled to know that I contemplated keeping the small
hot water heater. I examined it carefully and decided that it would be easier
to buy a new one than fix his old one if I ever actually wanted to possess
such a thing. Finally I rooted around in my garage, found a pipe wrench, and
removed the brass pipe fittings from it, then put the pipe fittings in a box
of metal stuff next to my casting sand and metalworking tools, before loading
the water heater into my truck.
I set it aside as I unloaded my truck at the dump, then put it back and carted
it to the scrap metal pile where, like our new fence, it can begin anew the
endless cycle of creation and destruction. What will become of our water
heater, now rusting the lonely night away on the edge of the scrap pile?
Is it getting to know its new found friends, the automobile tire hubs, the
angle iron and microwave ovens, and especially its older brothers, the
full-size hot water heaters, or is it sitting, sadly by itself where I
placed it this afternoon, a few feet from the edge the pile, pining for
the security of the trash pile where it lay until I abruptly moved it
What will become of our little friend? I suppose that the scrap pile will
grow with time, that others will come along to keep him company, until at
last he is buried within it, and the pile grows large enough that a truck
is brought to haul them away, off to the smelters of the midwest, or perhaps
one of the minimills in the City of Commerce, where he will be melted into
his component atoms, to be mixed and merged with his brothers, only to be
extruded into a piece of railroad track, a manhole cover, or perhaps even
a little bit of a new hot water heater, that someday will be installed in
someone's home somewhere, to do its patient duty of providing hot showers,
perhaps even for an as-yet unborn physics student, for several decades, only
to rust once again and be returned to the scrap pile for another round.
Does he remember that the iron atoms within him had their birth at the core
of a supernova explosion? Iron, in a sense, is not a naturally occuring
element. It is the most stable element, but it only arises as the very end
product of the process of nucleosynthesis in stars. It was not present in
any significant quantity at the beginning of the universe; only hydrogen and
helium were. Such atoms fuse into heavier products during the lifetime of
a star - carbon and oxygen, but still fairly light elements. Only at the
very end of a star's lifetime do the heavy elements fuse, and then they
fuse at tremendously high rates, at very high temperature and pressure.
Iron is the most stable of elements.
All lighter elements yield up energy by fusing until they reach iron.
All heavier elements yield up energy by fissioning until they reach iron.
The heavier elements cannot be formed in significant quantity in the core
of normal stars for they will be broken up again by the constant bombardment
of high-energy particles.
We know that the metal of the earth was formed in a supernova because
elements heavier than iron are relatively abundant. In fact, from the
relative abundance of different isotopes of some heavy metals we can
calculate the size of the supernova that formed them, the temperature
and pressures involved, and we know from this that our Uranium, our
Lead were formed in just a few minutes in the heinous explosion of the
supernova. Minutes. Minutes out of the billions of years that our
predecessor had steadily shined.
I think, next week, I shall invite John and his family over for tea in the
evening. I think I would enjoy their company. I shall clean up the house
first, as it is a godawful mess.
For this evening I will return to my project that I had assigned myself
for my spring break, of recording my piano playing. I must say that I am
not a very skilled pianist, and my songs are pretty rudimentary, but I
only play music that I have composed myself as I have never been able
to read sheet music. I can play things that others take the time to show
me, but I grew frustrated with this and
just sat down to hammer at the keys
until I made songs that sounded good to me. I have never had the patience to
write the sheet music, but my songs are simple enough that a good pianist
could listen to the tapes and play them.
I think my music is the clearest expression of my aesthetic experience. I
must say that most people find it odd, boring or even downright obnoxious,
but my music holds great beauty for me, and listening to the tapes I have
already made fills me with peace and tranquility.
I must also say that my concept of good music does not require that my
piano be even remotely in tune - it was last tuned by my father in
1955 - but it sounds great to me. I'm not tone deaf. I just like the
bent notes. I improvise on some of my songs - if I play a tuned piano,
or a piano with a different feel to the keys, I play quite different
improvisations for what I regard as the same songs. It is the piano
itself that I play, and each piano is unique.
I'll send you my tape when I have it ready.
Copyright © 1994 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.