Shortly after I arrived in Whakatane, I started writing short pieces for the local newspaper, The Beacon. A few weeks ago, one of the writers went on holiday and the editor of the paper asked me if I’d fill in for two weeks.
Here, below, are some links to a few of the articles I wrote.
We’ve been living in New Zealand for nearly two months now, and one of the best things I’ve done to date has been refereeing a weekly basketball tournament at one of the local high schools in Whakatane.
Before we left America for New Zealand, I made a list of the sorts of things I wanted to do and get involved in during our year here in the land of the long white cloud. Getting involved in a youth basketball league was in the top five, so shortly after we arrived I did some asking around and was directed to a man named Te Kawe Ratu, a teacher at Trident High School in Whakatane and the coach of the women’s basketball team there.
Te Kawe told me that he runs a weekly basketball league on Monday nights and Trident and he invited me to drop by.
So I did.
The first week, I just sat there and watched the games. Midway through the third game, the score keeper up and left. I noticed this, slid into his chair and commenced keeping score. Te Kawe gave me a thumbs up and asked me to come back the following week.
So I did.
At the beginning of the second week of games, Te Kawe threw me a refs whistle and said, “You’re in charge of gym 2.”
I told him that I wasn’t aware of a second gym. He nonchalantly pointed down a hallway that I commenced to run down until I ran into gym two.
I’ve never refereed a basketball game in my life. All those hours of watching college and professional basketball since I was a small boy, though, came in handy that night when I was in charge of gym 2.
I made a couple of bad calls, but for the most part, all went smoothly and I was able to keep a modicum of control over the three games I refereed.
The following week, though, I was prepared. I spent the better part of the week watching YouTube videos focused on basketball ref tutorials. I watched and re-watched videos on how to call a charge (when an offensive player with the ball runs into a defensive player) against a block (when the defensive player fouls an oncoming offensive player with the ball). I studied the different hand signals and even illustrated them in my notebook. Put your hand behind your head for a charge. Both hands on you’re your hips for a block. Grab your right forearm with your left hand and open your right hand for a hand check. Two thumbs up for a jump ball.
By the third week, I was feeling very comfortable with the whistle. It’s a good thing, too, because that week I had to ref a game between Whakatane High School and a team from the hospital where Sujata works. When the hospital team walked on the floor they all pointed to me and said, “You are Dr. Fretz’ husband, right?”
This made me slightly nervous. What is I really screwed up? They’d tell Sujata and then she’d make fun of me.
And, as it turned out, that game was a doozy. I suspect these two teams had met up before and there was a bit more tension than friendly competition. There was a lot of pushing, some angry words and it culminated at the end of the first half with one of the players kicking the ball in frustration. Yes, I gave him a technical foul.
I started realizing very quickly that refereeing basketball, probably any sport is much less about getting the calls correct every time as it is about keeping control over the game.
So, during the next game, I called things pretty tight for the first five minutes. Any swat was a foul, any time a defensive player put his hands on an offensive player with the ball was a hand check. This had an interesting effect of keeping the players honest right out of the blocks and that tenor was maintained throughout the rest of the game.
Beyond all that, though, what I enjoyed most about the Monday nights at Trident high school was getting to know the high school students and community members who came out to play. All of them, even the guy who kicked the ball, were exceedingly kind and friendly. They made me feel welcome and respected, they gave their teammates and opponents and me hugs after the games and they all just comported themselves with grace and good humor. Oh, they also made fun of my Maori pronunciations and they tried to help me say things correctly.
Whakatane is a small, rural community so things like community basketball leagues look different than they do in, say, Denver. It wasn’t unusual for some players to be shoeless on the court. Shoes are, by the way, pretty optional across New Zealand. My kids have taken up the shoeless habit, sneaking out of the house for school on more than a few occasions without any shoes on their feet. Sometimes, it went the other way and I’d see kids on the court wearing a pair of Wellies. Most of the time, though, they just had normal basketball shoes on.
Basketball is a popular sport here–Steven Adams, the awesome center for the Oklahoma Thunder is from Rotorua, a town not far from Whakatane. The Kiwis often beat the Aussies (who think they are pretty good at hoops), to the never-ending anger of the Aussies. Rugby, though, is the reigning national sport, so basketball and other sports like netball and field hockey take second seats to rugby. That said, the level of play here is decent, and some of the kids are quite good and could compete with their American counterparts.
What’s more, the league was co-ed and it was required to have at least two women on the court for each team at all times. I found this to be an excellent rule as it gave the men and women opportunities to, as Te Kawe, told me, “trust each other and learn how to respect each other.” Moreover, aside from the tense game I described above, the co-ed nature of the league, just made the games more fun and congenial.
Last night was the final game until next season. I’m glad that I was able to participate even for these six weeks and now I can continue studying up on my refereeing skills for next season.
“You must change your life,” the German-language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke urges us in the final lines of his poem “Torso of an Archaic Apollo.”
Great art does that to us–it urges us to see our lives and the lives of others in a different way. It drives us to think, love and feel more deeply. It is not polemical or preachy–great art doesn’t tell us what to do or even how to do it. It simply gets into our head, or maybe our heart, and points us in a new direction.
Right now, American culture looks and feels more art-less and art-ificial than art-full and that’s why I’m writing a short series of blogs on art and thought that urges, guides and makes us stop to consider things we are too busy or to angry to consider.
In that regard, then, Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson, qualifies as great art because beyond it’s quiet beauty and attention to the inner and creative life of its main characters, Paterson, works as an unusual tale about what’s gone wrong with America and how we might recapture the part of ourselves we’ve lost.
Jarmusch has been turning out small, poignant art house films that go against the grain of the mainstream American film tradition for the better part of 30 years. Jarmusch’s films are in some ways like Hemingway short stories: nothing really happens in terms of plot and there is a low-level tension running through the narrative.
The film is about a city bus driver (Adam Driver) in Paterson, New Jersey whose name happens to be Paterson and who also happens to be a pretty good poet. Paterson, New Jersey was the home of the great American poet/physician, William Carlos Williams, who, like Paterson, the bus driver/poet, drew his artistic inspiration from the streets and the people of Paterson, New Jersey and whose direct, conversational, koan-like and Whitmanesque poems, in turn, inspire Paterson.
The film is episodic in structure; it takes place over the course of six days (Monday through Saturday). Each day of the film begins with a tender shot of Paterson and Laura waking up in the morning and then proceeds to Paterson eating breakfast (cheerios over milk), walking to the bus depot, driving his bus, walking back home, eating dinner with Laura, taking the dog, Marvin, for a walk, stopping in at the local pub for exactly one beer and then heading back home to sleep.
On the surface, Paterson and Laura lead quite mundane lives, exactly the opposite of the kind of distracted, fast-paced, anxiety-ridden, overwhelmingly busy lives that most Americans currently lead. And, in the hands of just about any other writer or director, the shape of Paterson’s and Laura’s life would be portrayed as monotonous and void of meaning. Under Jarmusch’s care, though, Paterson and Laura and the good people of Paterson, New Jersey inhabit a world that sparkling with creative energy and care for others.
Paterson and Laura live in a tiny, concrete-block house that would be considered more of a pre-starter home. They have little money, they rarely eat out or go to the movies and they don’t talk about their next big vacation getaway. The outside of the home needs serious attention; inside, though, Paterson and Laura have created a world buzzing with creativity and emotional closeness.
After work, Paterson retires to a small room in the basement that’s lit by a single reading lamp. Surrounded by, at once, tools, flashlights, cans of paint thinner and masonry paint as well as rows of books of poetry and prose that includes Emily Dickinson, Frank O’Hara, David Foster Wallace, Luc Sante, a biography on Monk, and, among others, the collected works of William Carlos Williams, Paterson sits at a makeshift desk where he writes verse after verse of direct, conversational poems that filter the stories and voices he picks up from passengers on his route and that synthesize the shape of his days and the tenor of his thoughts.
Upstairs, Laura, (Golshifteh Farahani) is a dervish of creative activity as she busily designs her own clothes, decorates the kitchen cabinets and the drapery and even her cupcakes with bold, Miro-like swirls and swishes. They meet around the kitchen table or on the sofa and talk of their dreams (Laura’s are funny and bizarre), Paterson’s poems, music, art and poetry.
The world of Paterson is enmeshed in a long line of mid-twentieth-century American poetry, prose and music that tried to get at the heart of what it meant to be an American. The larger literary context for Jarmusch’s Paterson are the short stories of Sherwood Anderson’s short stories of rural, pre-World War II Midwestern lives, Thornton Wilder’s pared down, understated dramas, Philip Levine’s poems of working class life, William Carlos Williams’ poems and short stories of the enchantment and humor of everyday life and, of course, undergirding all of it, the arms-wide-open-to-the-world poetry of Walt Whitman. The background music of all this is, of course, tunes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.
In one of the best scenes of the film, Paterson is walking home from the bus depot one afternoon when he happens upon a young girl sitting on a loading dock outside an abandoned factory. It’s a rather dodgy area, so Paterson approaches the young girl and asks if everything is all right. All is well, she tells Paterson, explaining that she’s just waiting for her mother and sister who have gone in the building next door. Paterson, concerned for the girl’s safety, asks if it’s okay if he waits with her until her mother returns. The girl readily accedes and when Paterson sits down on the dock, he looks down at the girl’s notebook, which is full of lines of poems that she’s working on. “Are you interested in poetry?” the girl asks and when Paterson says he is, the girl asks if she can read him a poem she’s written. It’s called “Water Falls” and Paterson listens intently as the girl reads her poem.
It’s a gorgeous moment: two strangers, a young girl and a thirty-something man meeting by happenstance and reading and discussing poetry. When she is finished reading, the girl’s mother and sister appear from the building. As the girl packs up her notebook she asks Paterson, “Do you like Emily Dickinson?” Paterson says, that yes, he likes Emily Dickinson very much and as she’s walking away, the girl looks over her shoulder and says, “That’s cool, a bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson.” Why not?
The whole movie goes on like this. Strangers, friends and lovers meet and their conversations drift from everyday concerns like “What’s for dinner?” and “When will you be home tonight?” to ruminations on Petrarch, Walt Whitman, the nature of anarchy and, of course, Paterson, New Jersey’s finest son and poet, William Carlos Williams.
Paterson doesn’t hit you over the head with polemics, but it is, in many ways, a meditation on how technology has driven us apart from each other and even from our better selves. Jarmusch has basically scrubbed all forms of screens from the film. Aside from a few moments, the film is devoid of hand-held devices, televisions, laptops, E-readers, Ipads and computer screens. When the digital and televised world does show up in the film, Jarmusch gently reminds us how our lives have been overrun by data.
The point, though, of scrubbing hand-held devices and the like from the film is to examine what our lives can be like when the buzzing in our pockets, backpacks and purses ceases. Many of us pick up our phones to find out what we are missing, but Jarmusch seems to be reminding us to put down our phone to find out what we are missing.
When there’s nothing, in other words, to distract us from our lived lives, what’s left? Quite a lot, Jarmusch seems to be saying, because as digital connectivity recedes, at least in the world of Paterson, opportunities for emotional, communal and artistic creativity increases exponentially.
Had the young girl sitting on the abandoned dock been using social media instead of writing poems, she would have missed the opportunity to read her poem to a stranger. Instead of checking the scores on his phone before he begins his driving shift each morning, Paterson sits in his bus and quietly writes in his notebook. At lunch time, he drives to Passaic Falls, the Paterson landmark that William Carlos Williams extolled in his long poem, “Paterson,” sits down at a park bench, takes out his lunch as well as a worn copy of Frank O’Hara’s poems and continues to write.
Throughout the film, Jarmusch seems to be quietly reminding us of the damage the digital world has wreaked on our emotional and communal lives. We all know this to be true. Despite the fact that we go to the digital world to feel connected, the whole enterprise makes us more lonely and depressed. Even the social scientists say so and Jean Twenge, in a recent Atlantic essay, demonstrates how this is especially the case, dangerously so, for young adults.
In this regard, then, Paterson can be viewed as a kind of thought experiment that begins with this question: What would our lives be like if they were not so heavily mediated by technology? Or, to put it another way, what would our lives look like if they were not so heavily medicated by the incessant stream of digital information we consume everyday?
There is a deep-seated struggle in America right now about what it means to be an American and who the “real” Americans are and what they want. The truth is, of course, that there are no “real” Americans any more than there are real elephants or red-tailed hawks. They are all real. What Jim Jarmusch has done in Paterson is paint a portrait of a group of Americans who may not represent all of us, but who, surely, we would all do well to model our ever day lives after.
And in this regard, Jarmusch has crafted a story that can help us to navigate our way through the rocky shoals of contemporary American life. It’s easy to blame the current state of the American republic on Know-Nothing, backward politicians. But as I was watching Paterson and as I was attending to the quiet, creative, lives its characters lived I couldn’t help but think that it’s not just #45 and his crazed regime that have overtaken our country as they busily go about trying to empty the republic of its joy, diversity, compassion and, yes, art.
We have all, in some ways, done this to ourselves and to each other and #45 is the baleful, sorry expression of our retreat. By burrowing, as we’ve done, into our identity groups, our class and race divisions, into the satellite shouting matches on the cable networks and into the digital sand of our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and god knows what other social media apps, we’ve lost something of private and collective selves.
I know there is comfort there, but on the flip side of the encased and digital world that beckons us at every turn is the call of the Sirens, tempting us, further into a private, lonely world that’s cut off from what, if anything, truly makes America great and that’s its diversity of thought and experience.
It doesn’t have to be as it is. We must and we can change our lives. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a welcome and gentle reminder to these things.
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, many Americans did two things: First, they googled what it would take to move to Canada or New Zealand and second, they stumbled into their local bookstores searching for books to help them figure how their fellow Americans could have turned against all of our best interests.
I imagine what it must have looked like at any given independent book store in any given American city during those dark days following the election: A sea of tear-stained faces gathering in front of the “Politics” and “American History” sections, mournfully gazing at the book spines and looking for titles to answer their most pressing question: What the hell just happened?
In the ensuing weeks, apocalyptic fiction that we read in college and that had suddenly turned prophetic–Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon–started flying off the shelves.
Later, a panoply of books attempting to explain the origins of American and European populism as well as the nature of the American citizens who voted for #45 (who were these people?) emerged, and progressive Democrats snapped up books with titles like Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash, Strangers in their Own Land, On Tyranny, What is Populism? and The Populist Explosion.
Perhaps you have perused all these books and you have come to a position of understanding and acceptance regarding the state of our republic. If you haven’t, though, I suggest you set aside Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash and (god help you) The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Because if you really want to find literary and political succor in these dark days of the republic, Albert Camus is your man.
Camus was an Algerian Frenchman, a pied noir, who was born in Algeria in 1913 and died in a tragic car accident in France in 1960. Camus wrote novels, short stories, plays, nonfiction and political and philosophical essays. No matter what genre he was working in, though, Camus focused on two central questions that are relevant to many of us in America today. The first was how we as individuals can create meaning in our lives in the face of an absurd, violent and irrational world. The second central concern for Camus was related to our obligation to others: given the absurdity and violence of the world, how can we create just and fair political systems that protect the vulnerable, the poor and the oppressed.
Living in France during the second world war, Camus had a first-hand look at violence and absurdity. He spent the better part of his life trying to figure out how to live in the midst of a furious, irrational world and, more importantly, how to make it more just and equitable. He did some of his best writing in the early 1940s as the dark cloud of Nazism was descending across Europe. Camus finished the manuscript of his most famous novel, The Stranger, in May of 1940 while he was also busy writing for Combat, a French magazine with an aim to defeat fascism and inspire ordinary French men and women to stand up against the dark forces that were sweeping across the continent.
When the Nazis smashed through the Maginot in June of 1940 and as their war machine sped toward Paris, Camus, along with the editorial staff of Combat and thousands of other Parisians, fled the City of Lights for the French countryside. Before he left the city, Camus threw the manuscript of The Stranger into the boot of the car and didn’t stop until he reached Clermon-Ferrang where he promptly restarted his work with Combat. After the war, Camus became deeply involved in the Algerian war for independence, taking controversial and provocative positions that managed to infuriate both the French and Algerian nationals (it was the final nail in the coffin of his tenuous friendship with Sartre) but that were always about extending the rights of French citizenship to Algerians, especially the politically disadvantaged Berbers.
I first came across Camus during my sophomore year of college in a general education class called “World Views.” Camus was presented as an existentialist, one of a loosely knit group of European thinkers who argued that humans were on their own, that there was no god to save us and that it was up to us, not a transcendental order, to create fulfilling lives and an equitable world. Nineteenth and twentieth century European existentialists from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Heidegger held a wide range of views, but it’s probably safe to say that all of them were committed to maximizing human freedom and amplifying human agency. Although he chaffed at being called an existentialist, Camus, felt strongly that it was our duty as human beings to find ways to be free from the shackles of church, state and popular opinion, and he forged a deep and abiding faith that human beings had the power and the ability to create a better world.
Sign me up.
I came from a fundamentalist Christian home and I attended a fundamentalist Christian college, so there was no talk of existentialist thought around our dinner table and there were no worn copies of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Heidegger stacked up on our bookshelves. At the college I attended, Camus was presented in a fair but pitying manner: I think the professors at my college admired his attention to social justice, but they disapproved of his atheism.
That said, when Camus was pushed under my nose at 19, I was shocked, surprised and attentive.
Over the years, I’ve continued to read Camus, like a tonic. Every few years I’ll re-read The Plague, a novel that uses a plague that descends on an Algerian town as a symbol for the rise of fascism in Europe, and when I’m feeling especially bad about the state of the world, I’ll turn to Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
So, it makes sense that shortly after the 2016 American election, I returned to Camus. One cold and cloudy January morning, I cast aside the latest edition of The Nation, threw The New York Times in the recycling bin, slammed shut the open copy of The Origins of Totalitarianism, and opened a copy of Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
Sisyphus was a Greek king and, in the eyes of the Greek gods, he was a little too cheeky for his own good so the gods condemned him to carry a boulder to the top of a mountain, over and over, for the rest of his life.
Before Camus, nearly every reader saw Sisyphus as a victim of the gods’ ill and capricious will and nearly everyone read the Sisyphus story, to varying degrees, as nothing short of a tragedy.
And, it’s no wonder that most readers interpreted Sisyphus as a helpless victim of the gods. On its surface, the conventional interpretation of the Sisyphus story conveniently maps onto traditional Christian thinking: Sisyphus, a mortal, is punished by the gods for his transgressions and condemned to a life of meaningless and hard toil. So, to someone coming out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Sisyphus looks a lot like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Camus, an atheist who believed that humans are obligated to solve their own problems, was having none of the notion that Sisyphus went gently into the good night of his punishment. To put it another way, had Camus rewritten the Adam and Eve story, it would have concluded with the guilty lovers flipping off god, plotting to capture the serpent and figuring out how they could kill all those damn weeds in the garden.
By the same token, where Sisyphus distinguished himself, at least according to Camus’ interpretation, was in the manner that he refused to allow his sentence to define him. In Camus’ interpretation, Sisyphus revolted against his sentence. It’s not that Sisyphus refused to push the rock up the mountain. He had no choice except to obey the will of the gods. At the same time, though, according to Camus, Sisyphus never bends to the will of the gods. They took his body but Sisyphus refused to give them his mind.
Re-reading this on that cold January morning after the election, I found more inspiration and hope in this idea than I would have in, say, listening to “Give Peace a Chance.”
At the early stages of his sentence, I imagine Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, over and over, and ruminating for a long time about his fate. He’s vacillating wildly between despair, anger, resentment and fear—feelings that many of us in the sane, rational, anti-fascist world feel every day. But you have to remember that Sisyphus was clever, so at some point he must have realized that while he was condemned to push the rock, revolt was still possible. In fact, I imagine he came around to thinking that revolt against the absurd position the gods had put him in was the only possible response.
Maybe it was days, maybe it was years of pushing that rock up the hill and watching it violently and mercilessly roll back to the bottom, but at some point, I imagine Sisyphus getting to the top of the mountain, standing erect, lifting his head high and regarding the gods above him. I see Sisyphus point his finger to his head and shout with all his passion and intelligence, “You don’t define me!” and bouncing his finger off his head now, screaming, “And you aren’t allowed in here! I will do your bidding because I must, but I refuse to abide!”
And that brings me back to America because if there’s anything we need right now, it’s the will and the controlled revolt of Sisyphus who refused to be defined nor cowed by his sentence and who labored on, against everything.
It’s hard to pick up a newspaper, turn on the television or just walk down the street in many American cities and not be confronted by waves of absurdity. A sitting president with a weak grasp or reality and an even weaker moral drive leading an administration that routinely trots out alternative facts. Neo-Nazis demonstrating in American cities. Elected officials who refuse to govern. Underneath it all are the rest of us, ordinary people helplessly watching the dizzying loss of cultural, political and economic capital. And, like Sisyphus, we go on almost in spite of ourselves.
Camus ends “The Myth of Sisyphus” with a powerful statement that might resonate with you in these dark days of the American republic.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Camus speaks to us today because, like us, he lived and worked during anxious and violent times and through his writing Camus found ways to understand, resist and make sense of a world that seemed like it was coming apart at the seams.
We’ve lived in other people’s houses for the past year so I haven’t had to worry about home maintenance, but that all changed when we got back to Denver at the end of June.
Before we left for our year abroad we put our house on the short-term rental market. We live in a nice part of Denver so the bookings filled up quickly and over the course of the year, the house was occupied about 80 percent of the time. That’s good in terms of paying the mortgage but as we made our way back to Denver I wondered what the house would look like after all those people lugged their suitcases up and down the stairs, cooked in our kitchen and partied in the basement. Would the furniture be trashed? Holes in the walls? Broken windows and lighting fixtures? After I walked in the door and surveyed the place I was pleasantly surprised. Aside from a leaky faucet, hail damage to the roof, a dead aspen tree in the backyard and louver doors at the bottom of the basement stairs that had (again!) come off the tracks, everything seemed pretty good.
I come from a family or real estate agents, contractors and people who do stuff with their hands and who know how stuff works so I try, as much as I can, to fix things on my own.
Not that I’m very good at it.
I worked for a builder for a spell after I finished college and I enjoyed the labor and being outside, but I’m not really good with my hands and I don’t have a mechanical mind so I never excelled in that area even after I put some effort into it. As I struggled setting the miter box properly or setting a door header, the guys I worked with–good, solid, industrious people who spent their lives building things and solving problems in the world of “things”–would look at me with pity, roll their eyes and come over to give me a helping hand. This isn’t something I’m proud of. I’m envious of my friends and family members who know how to dig foundations, repair cars, hang doors and build decks and I guess it’s just a good thing for me that graduate school worked out.
Oftentimes, when I do try to repair something around the house I just break it even more, precipitating a call to a general contractor anyway. Shortly after we bought the house we live in now, I tried to fix the sprinkler system in the backyard but ended up breaking a water line so I had to call in a plumber and ended up paying double what it would have cost had I just called the plumber straight away. I don’t fail every time, though. Last year before we left I built a new gate for our back yard, I’ve replaced locks and doors and I’m pretty good at making shelves.
Infuriatingly, Sujata is much better at fixing things than I am. We sort of play this game that I’m marginally competent at doing projects around the house, but when I get stuck or can’t figure out how something works, she usually saunters in, spots the problem and fixes it herself. I guess that makes her the handywoman of the house.
Last week when I set out to replace the leaky faucet, I couldn’t get the old faucet out of the housing so I went to the hardware store and bought a basin wrench proudly crowing to Sujata as I walked out the door, “I just watched a YouTube video and realized I need a basin wrench to get this job done! Be back in a bit.” I got home, crawled under the sink, stuck the basin wrench up into the slot and started to use the wrench to turn the hard-to-get-to nut. It wasn’t working and when she heard me cursing, Sujata came over, asked what the problem was, grabbed a wrench and twisted off the old faucet from the top of the sink.
For as bad, though, as I am at home maintenance, I’m even worse at dealing with contractors who have the tools and knowledge to fix the things that I can’t. I’m too trusting and I don’t have enough technical knowledge to know if what I’m being told is honest or a load of crap. I tend to believe people and think that they have my, as well as their own, best interests at heart. In a weirdly condescending way I can’t imagine that anyone would be dishonest to me because (I dishonestly tell myself) I am so honest with everyone else.
Last week, I opened our garage door and pushed the garage door button–the door opened about halfway and then reversed directions and closed again. I pushed the button repeatedly and the door kept doing the same thing, opening half way, then closing. This garage door has, over the years, given me plenty of headaches. Oftentimes, we’ll open the door, pull the car out of the garage, hit the garage door button and watch the door close halfway before it pops open again. We used to drive away before the door was fully closed and then we’d come home to a wide-open garage. It’s a wonder our bikes were never stolen and there are, obviously, not enough tools in the garage to tempt a thief. It’s a ritual now in our family to patiently wait in the car and watch the door fully close before we put the car in drive and head out. That said, I’ve watched enough YouTube videos to know how to adjust the garage door when it acts up. There are little tension adjusters on the motor that hangs from the rafters and that works the chain the lifts and sets down the door. When the door refuses to close I usually get on a ladder, mess around with the adjustments and voila! the door either opens or closes without incident and I don’t end up having to call a garage door company to fix it.
That was not the case, last week, though. I couldn’t get the adjustments right and after watching way too many YouTube videos, pricing new garage door openers online and even visiting Home Depot to examine their selection of new garage door openers, I gave in and called a couple of garage door companies to come over and look at the problem.
In hindsight, I should have just called the guys who have fixed the door over the course of the past 10 years. They are, as Sujata reminded me at the denouement of this incident, honest, trustworthy and reliable. Plus, she hastened to add, they live in the neighborhood: “Why would you go calling people from god-knows-where when you can just work with people who are local?” Well, I was actually bit miffed that the damn door kept acting up and wondered if those neighborhood guys were just putting it into a periodic fail mode (so much for being too trusting!), so I looked around for another company.
I came across what I thought was a great online deal: a Denver company was offering $125 off a new opener and $50 off for new customers. I figured the whole thing would cost $350 with parts and labor so with the $175 off that I was, or so I thought, getting a great deal. I called the dudes and they held to their promise to come out later that day.
The Irish, who have mastered the art of the insult, will slight a rude, incompetent or obnoxious man by referring to him as “your man,” except that the Irish pronounce it as yerman. As in, “Yerman over there tried to charge me six euros for a pint of Guinness when it’s still happy hour.” Halfway through our stay in Ireland earlier this year, we gleefully discovered that there’s even an Irish way of referring to a rude, incompetent or obnoxious woman. You just call her yerone. Now, I know some Irish person is going to read this and say, “No, that’s not right at all, yerman just means any dude and yerone just refers to any given woman,” but I have to say that in the five months I lived there I never once heard any Irish speaker use yerman or yerone without rolling their eyes and performatively casting aspersions at the person they were referring to.
So, yerman, the garage door guy, pulls up to our garage, hops out of the car, shakes my hand and begins to assess the situation. “The motor’s fine,” he opines, “but it’s the springs, man, they are shot and you really need to replace them.” “Look,” he says, “See how the door crashes to the ground when it’s halfway closed? Not supposed to do that. The door is supposed to gently glide to the ground. What that means when the door is crashing down is that the springs are all messed up and the motor can’t handle the weight of the door.” “Oh,” I said, “Can I just adjust the springs myself?” “You don’t want to do that, brother,” he replied, “I’ve seen people nearly decapitated themselves trying to do that. You let that screw out just a little too much and the whole spring unravels–sounds like a gunshot. My brother lost his finger and I’d say he was lucky.”
This was all news to me.
I was figuring I’d just need a new motor and that with labor would be about $350. I wasn’t anticipating bad springs and just the mention of possible decapitation made me more than willing to hand over the job to yerman. He gave me a quote. I asked if he could knock off 50 bucks to which he readily agreed and then I, feeling good about the deal I was getting said, “Great, good luck and watch your head.”
I walked in the house to find Sujata standing in the kitchen, arms akimbo and brows furrowed. Had someone else been in the room she would have nodded her head my way and declared in her Irish brogue, “Yerman is a right edjit.”
You will not be surprised to learn that Sujata was correct. In my desire to get the best price from the garage door guy, I looked over a number of things: 1) the fact that he readily dropped the original price more than 50% of the original quote; 2) the fact that the springs had just been replaced five years ago and 3) the fact that this company, Sujata haughtily informed me as she lifted her smart phone to my eyes, had the very worst Yelp! ratings that a garage door company could have! No! I thought to myself, this can’t be! I looked at the Yelp! reviews and they were all good. I was dismayed and embarrassed, of course, to see, quite clearly, a host of one star reviews and short, direct, pissed off comments about the bad service unsuspecting customers had from this company.
I took 20 bucks from my wallet, walked back to the garage, thanked yerman for coming out, placed the money in his hand and informed him we were going to look for another company. He didn’t seem surprised. I suspect this sort of thing happens all the time and, honestly, I didn’t blame him at all. He was just an ordinary guy working for a dishonest company and I was sure that he was getting all kinds of pressure to make sales at any cost.
It’s easy to get mad at dudes like yerman, but I know that behind him, poking him, putting pressure on him, taking his health insurance and other benefits away are unscrupulous people who care even less about him than they do about me.
When I walked into the garage to give him the 20 bucks he handed me his phone. On the other end was some guy with a Jersey accent and a slightly aggressive tone in his voice asking what price I was expecting for the repair and why was I wasting their time? I didn’t say anything, I just handed the phone back to yerman and tried to convey in my expression that I was sorry he had to work for people like that.
The fun never ends, either. This morning, I took our kids and the Shea boys up to the playground and when we came back to the house we were all alarmed to see a squirrel running across the kitchen counters. The kids ran out of the room and came back with their homemade boys and arrows trained on the frightened squirrel. “Don’t shoot!” I shouted, worried they’d hit their mark and I’d have to clean up squirrel remains from the kitchen sink. The squirrel jumped up on the top of the kitchen cabinets and then . . . it just disappeared. We spent a full hour looking all over the house, but no sign of the squirrel. I suspect that someone will wake up tonight staring back at two beady black eyes. I put a call into a squirrel exterminator (good Yelp! reviews and a local company) just in case.
My point here, though, is that in America, my quarrel is with the guys in the suits, not the guys in the work boots. I’d like to see an America where guys like yerman enjoy the same entitlements that I have: good, affordable health insurance, a 401k plan and a 529 account to send my kids to college. Let’s face it: It’s not easy working for The Man in America.
And maybe that’s why I have such a difficult time with contractors. I’ve been in their shoes and I know how hard they work and how much they have to hustle to get by. I admire their skills and abilities and I generally enjoy talking to them. Guys who work with their hands are generally more informal and much less pretentious and easy going than the people I rub shoulders with in my profession. They are good-humored, use colorful language and, as far as I can tell, they don’t treat me any differently than they’d treat any other client.
As for me, I’ve got about two more weeks of home improvement projects to get to before go to New Zealand where we are, happily, renting a house for the year.
We left Paris and landed in Reykjavik for a three-day layover before our return to the States. As Sujata said shortly after we took off from Charles DeGaulle airport, even though returning to the political and cultural gruel of America is unappetizing, it feels good to be traveling westward again.
Stopping over in Iceland for three days before we headed back to the States was Sujata’s idea and until we arrived in Reykjavik I was lukewarm on the whole thing. The run up to getting home has been starting to feel like the last act of a Eugene O’Neill play (tedious and never ending) and after Paris I was frankly tired of being a tourist. I was just looking forward to a day where I didn’t have to fight for space on the streets, herd children and spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out where and what to eat.
If Paris and Reykjavik were drinks, Paris would be a 1995 Chateau Rayas–rich, complex and very expensive. Reykjavik, on the other hand, would be a fresh, cold lager from a local brew pub.
Paris is incomparable. Paris is Paris. Other cities copy Paris, but Paris copies no one. Paris is its own mold, its own masterpiece. It’s thick with history, culture, haute couture and cuisine and it relishes its rich patina of fine taste.
Paris, in other words, has a nose for things. It lays out its riches, one by one, street by street. It’s like the arch angel of culture and history unfolding itself in front of you, declaring, “I am Paris, admire me. Or else!” Parisians as well as visitors like us are willing to obey. Everywhere you go, the denizens as well as the tourists, seem to be constantly aware of where they are: “We are in Paris!” everyone declares in subtle and not so subtle ways.
All that said, after a week, I was ready to get out of there.
Paris, for all its charms, is a quick and crowded city and after a few days there, you begin to feel visually, culturally and gastronomically overwhelmed. Everything in Paris calls out to you to stop and pay attention to it. “Look at me!” cry the pastries in the patisseries, the gargoyles staring down at you from their medieval perches, the winding romantic streets that take you by quaint cafes, boutiques and specialty shops, the panoramas along the Seine and the ornate, stylized public gardens. I remember walking down some rue in the La Marais on our last day and thinking to myself, “I just can’t see one more beautiful thing!”
It’s no wonder that history means something different in Paris and Iceland. The Parisians have it in spades and the Icelanders, in contrast, are the newcomers of Europe. Humans were wandering along the banks of the Seine as early as 250 BC. Socrates wasn’t even long dead at that time. By the time Reykjavik was founded in 874 AD, the venerable Abbey of Saint-Germain was already 300 years in the making. Paris is proud to be bound by history and why not? It’s history, culture and language that have made Paris what it is and what it will continue to be.
Yet, with so much history that you need to sweep it off the floor every morning, mature, established Paris seems, in some ways, like a city with its best days behind it. The Eiffel Tower (1889) is a wonder, but it doesn’t compare to Notre Dame (1345) and contemporary architectural manifestations like the George Pompidou Centre (1977) with its nod to Postmodernism and British Brutalism, is, for me at least, an eyesore.
That’s not to say, however, that all post-medieval Parisian architecture is a flop. Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne park is an artistic and architectural wonder and we spent a delightful afternoon wandering through its galleries and admiring its unencumbered beauty.
Still, Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, is more my style. Downtown Reykjavik feels to me like a kind of working man’s Aspen, Colorado. Reykjavik is slouchy without being sloppy, funky without being precious and unique without being arrogant.
I didn’t run into Bjork, but as I was walking around the streets of Reykjavik and driving through the subarctic tundra of southern Iceland, Bjork’s music (I’m a casual listener) made more sense to me. Iceland, like Bjork, is austere, stark, uncommonly beautiful and, by turns, harmonious and dissonant. If you get in a car and drive outside of Reykjavik you quickly find yourself winding your way over volcanic mountain passes that drop you down into green valleys of fresh water lakes and streams. Steam from geothermal pools rise close and far away and fields of extrusive igneous rock (hardened molten lava) covered in a fuzzy, lime green moss spread out across the landscape.
Sujata, as usual, was correct: finishing our trip in Iceland made a lot of sense. On a practical level, a three-day stopover on Reykjavik was relaxing and it gave us chances to breath fresh air and get out into big nature. On a more literary level, there’s a nice unity to finishing the first part of our adventure here. Much of our time abroad has been spent on islands–New Zealand was our first stop, we were three weeks in Japan and then we lived in Ireland for five months. And Iceland isn’t even the end of our island hopping. After our five-week stay in the States, we’ll get back on a plane and travel back to New Zealand, where we’ll spend the next year.
The day after tomorrow, we’ll fly from Reykjavik to NYC, returning to the States after 11 months abroad. I couldn’t sleep last night so I lay awake in our Reykjavik guesthouse trying to account for and remember the things we’ve done, the places we’ve visited and the experiences we’ve had. Here’s what I came up with:
3 Continents visited (Oceana, Asia, Europe)
5 Countries in which we’ve watched Homeland
4 Countries we’ve visited ruled by authoritarian regimes
4 Post-communist countries
7 Bicycle trips
17 Countries visited
12 Countries visited with universal health care (not America)
8 Pairs of shoes worn through (Me: 2; Sujata: 2; Boy: 2; Girl:2)
74 Blog posts posted (that’s just mine–Sujata not included)
10 Visitors from the States
10 Countries where I swam laps
5 Boxes sent back to America
4 Birthdays celebrated
6 Islands visited
11 Months out of America
16 UNESCO World Heritage sites visited
1 Pubs that serve Bereta beer–Viniloteca!
6 Rental cars
5 Countries we drove on the right side of the road