Saturday, October 18, 2008

Here Tell Your Anguish

Fall is a time of melancholy reflection in New England, and the 2008 election season has put many of us over the top, obsessing over the possibility that our candidate, the young man who offers us healing and hope, will be vanquished by the old forces of fear and greed. What can one do besides give money and time to his campaign? Not having formal ties to any external belief system, praying is just not an option for me.

Lately it has become almost impossible to think about anything else. So much is at stake. Correction: EVERYTHING we care about is at stake. In my opinion, this is nothing less than a referendum on our understanding of what it is to be human. I was beginning to bore and irritate my friends with my outbursts. (As in, "Yes, Nader is a great man, I respect his accomplishments, but he's not friggin' ever going to be President and if he siphons off enough votes to wreck this for the Democrats you and all his misguided supporters will be partly to blame for untold suffering and maybe the end of the world..." You see what I mean. I was getting a little worked up. )

So I decided to escape from New York City to the Gulf coast of Florida for a week, to see if a change of scenery would calm me down. My plan was to do some writing, walk, bike and swim, watch the last Obama/McCain debate with friends and return refreshed and feisty.

In a city where most drive, even short distances, I had the sidewalks mostly to myself and the anoles, tiny dinosaur-shaped lizards who constantly dart like rush hour commuters between bushes and across the pavement, somehow projecting an air of cameraderie. (Or maybe it's just their Manhattan energy that I like...)

The third time I passed the window of the Christian Science Reading Room in downtown St. Petersburg, I paused and allowed my gaze to fully rest on the sign in the window. (Ah, the advantages of being on foot when all the world is otherwise whizzing by.) The first two times I had noticed it and hurried on, self-conscious to be seen reading religious slogans in the window of a storefront "church."

Droplets of sweat trickling down my back, a strange feeling of peace invaded my body. "Here Tell Your Anguish"- the sign wasn't promising to fix me, it was just assuming that to be human is both to feel anguish and also the need to "tell" it.

A devout agnostic/humanitarian, I found those words and that thought powerful and comforting. They had a hypnotic cadence that was mystifying to me. There was an intriguing mind behind those words.

Returning home, I simply typed them into Google Search, and Eureka! the author appeared to be Charles Lamb (1775-1834), renowned English essayist. (I'm telling you, essays rule.)
And if anyone has the right to expound on anguish, it's Mr. Lamb: his beloved older sister killed their mother in a fit of temporary insanity, and he took care of his sister the rest of his life. His novella of unrequited love ("Rosamund Gray") is now on my must-read list. (Note: in several other Google entries, the quote is also attributed to Thomas Moore, in the hymn, "Come Ye Disconsolate". But I am still happy I was first sent to Charles Lamb.)

There was more gold in my first excursion: a whole series of references to the appearance of "anguish" in quotes from various writers. Here's a killer:

"The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder."
Virginia Woolf, from "A Room of One's Own"

Words were beginning to soothe me.
To some problems, there are no solutions, divine or otherwise.

But to put our feelings into words- that makes us fully human. Our unique task, and our unique privilege.

To finish, I offer a cherished quote from a tattered piece of newsprint (brown with age) that I carry in my wallet-
it's taken from a poem by W.H. Auden, who manages to stumble his way to the sublime more often than not:

"Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives."

Is this thought comforting?

Mission accomplished.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

When It's Time To Bid Your Contractor Adieu

Ruptures are painful. There is the temptation to assign blame; there is the also not very helpful tendency, if you are me, to look for the fault not in my stars, but in myself. Always a possibility- but it shouldn't be a foregone conclusion!
What if a sequence of unrelated simultaneous events just becomes too much for two individuals to juggle, and a fragile connection implodes, and it's nobody's fault, but everyone's loss?
No, I am not talking about a marriage- but almost: my recent falling out with my trusted local contractor. I am sad about it, but in going over it here I hope perhaps a reader may benefit, and I will achieve some clarity (and catharsis).

Let's call him Dermott. His crew had painted my little 1860's farmhouse in upstate New York, and he replaced the rotting wooden steps with a gracious brick and flagstone veranda that he and I designed together.
He supervised the arrival and setting up of the Amish-built storage shed/barn, painting it to match the house and putting up a low flagstone wall around it that melded it seamlessly into the landscape and historial ambiance of the sleepy hamlet that was once a cluster of modest housing for workers near the local train station.

It's now become a retreat for, among others, crazed New Yorkers seeking a peaceful respite from their urban pursuits.

In all cases, I followed my recipe for avoiding last-minute confusion: get the bid for the work in writing, pay 1/3 up front, 1/3 when the job is half-done, and the remainder on satisfactory completion. If the person is an unknown quantity, ask for references, and get 2 other bids. (Usually you don't want to take the highest or the lowest bid.) You should never have to tell a bitter tale of "I paid them the whole amount in cash on the first day and never saw anyone again"- that really doesn't need to happen.
So, I left in Dermott's hands the installation of a new clawfoot tub and tiling of two bathroom floors while I was away visiting family in Sweden during the summer. I had the bid in writing, I ordered the tub myself on the Internet (from a Kentucky outfit) and Dermott was all set to take delivery and get to work while I was gone. His crew had free rein of my house for an entire month.
A few e-mails exchanged while I was away let me know it had become "the job from Hell"- the old plumbing was in such bad shape that a lot more had to be done before the tub could be installed and everything would not be done when I returned. I believed this, as I had to trust Dermott or my world would start becoming shaky.

It's a quirky house, with small rooms and steep stairs, and not easy to work in. This I knew. Everytime they turned around, some new small problem had caused delays. I asked him how much extra I owed him for the problems encountered and when he gave me a figure, I actually added $300 to it because I felt he was undercharging me! It seems to me we were both feeling guilty (and angry)- the perfect codependent situation. Neither wanted the other to be mad. We already were, and weren't admitting it. A recipe for a blow-up.

When I first returned, it was clear it would be weeks before the job was done, as his crew now had other commitments to install heating systems, etc. for other people and my job was no longer a priority. I tried to be understanding. People were coming and going for a few hours at a time; the house reeked of paint and spackle and I woke with headaches. Sometimes people scheduled to come did not show up at all.
Some small problems unrelated to the remodel came up and I asked Dermott to either recommend a handyman, or let me know how much extra I would owe if his crew could take care of the issues. He said they could do it, no problem. (Examples: installing a rubber draft guard at the bottom of an irregular basement door that was allowing musty air to seep into kitchen from basement; wrapping air conditioners with covers for the winter.)

Finally: At 10:30 pm one evening in late September (the job was originally scheduled to be finished in late July) I arrived from Manhattan on foot from the train station, in the dark. My back door was wide open.

Without thinking, I called Dermott immediately and asked him who had last been at my house. He wasn't sure. "Maybe Mike?"
I told him that from then on, only he was authorized to come & go because he was the only one I completely trusted to be careful. Dermott said he could not guarantee that. "Okay," I said, "in that case, we're done. Please return all my keys. I'll have someone else finish up the last details. Let me know if I owe you anything."

"Fine," he said, "we're sick of coming to your house. Maybe you should never have left Manhattan. And anyway, I lost money on that job."

I am relieved but mostly sad. Undoubtedly the tensions of the external world- the growing acrimony of the 2008 electoral process & the unsettling turmoil on Wall Street- played a role in the disintegration of my working relationship with Dermott. Obsessive mental re-playing of our e-mails and conversations still does not help me ascertain what I might have done differently. And I seriously doubt the rupture can be repaired.
Although I don't know Dermott's political leanings, I think what happened is in many respects a microcosm of the culture wars that McCain and Palin have been trying to inflame once again. Taunting me to "go back to Manhattan" reminded me of the "America- Love It or Leave It" bumper stickers of the late Sixties. It was not a good memory.

It's complicated and a bit scary, being a single female homeowner in America. I am going to have to hunt down that portable drill I bought two years ago and do a little less writing and a little more recharging of my batteries (literal and metaphorical) if I am ever going to get all the artwork and mirrors back up on the newly plastered walls- and my ego patched up as well.

At least I don't have to hire a divorce lawyer. Been there, done that.

Adieu, Dermott. I still love my front steps.