Murder in the neighborhood

Mrs. Dim is at it again.

Let’s get this straight from the beginning: a weed is an unwanted plant. There’s no other way to define the word. I believe that each person who pays a mortgage and property taxes has the right to define which plants are weeds on his or her property and which plants are wanted. If I think roses are ugly, then I can call rose bushes “weeds” and remove them from my property. I have no right to harm my neighbor’s rose bushes.

One of the native wildflowers in this neck of the woods is called daisy fleabane. It’s an elegant plant with small white daisy-like flowers with yellow centers that bloom in the spring and the summer. You can see clumps of them along the highway—the highway department encourages their growth. At first I didn’t recognize them, and I mowed them down along with the rest of my lawn. Two years ago I deliberately avoided a patch and let the plants grow and bloom. I did so again last year. Mrs. Dim called city hall to complain about my weeds. A man came out from city hall, looked at them, said they were fine, told her so, and called me and told me so. End of story… or at least it should be.

Again this year I recognized the emerging daisy fleabane and mowed around the patch. A few had started to bloom, but the leaves of many more were recognizable.

A week later, the next time I mowed, the plants that had been flowering were desiccated. The leaves of those that had not produced flowers were yellow with no flower stalks.

I suspect herbicide. I believe they have been poisoned.

I wonder if Mrs. Dim would confess to the crime if I asked her. She might point proudly to the label of her broad-leaf herbicide to show me that it says “weed-killer,” as if that proves that she is right. Short of a spoken confession or some photographic evidence, I do not have enough proof to file a case against Mrs. Dim and accuse her of the attack.

I have to love a person like Mrs. Dim. Not only does the Bible require me to love my neighbor, and to love even a person who chooses to be my enemy, but resorting to hatred and revenge would only allow her side to win. She is a bitter old lady who seems to want everyone else to be as miserable as she is.

In this case, it helps that I have some daisy fleabane flourishing in a more sheltered part of the lawn. It is blooming nicely. I will encourage it to spread.

I wonder, though, about the values of a person who poisons her neighbor’s plants. If it is acceptable to kill a creature because it is noxious and detrimental to the neighborhood… well, once we start down that road, where does it end, Mrs. Dim?

If I am living in this house twelve months from now—and feel free to join me in praying that I have moved by then—I think I will invest in one of those motion-detector security cameras that are advertised online. I will hide it on my deck, aimed at my patch of daisy fleabane. If I get footage of Mrs. Dim poisoning my wildflowers, I can meet her at the police station and show the footage to the authorities. Then I can lovingly charge her with trespassing, malicious destruction of private property, and whatever else the authorities suggest. She can counter-charge me with raising plants of which she does not approve. That should cause a few police officers to smile, perhaps even chuckle. J.

daisy fleabane

The Sea of Time

“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippiin’, into the future.” Fly Like An Eagle, lyrics by Steve Miller and Steve McCarty, ©1976.

For some reason those lyrics keep rolling through my mind as I try to compose a post or two for this blog. I didn’t want to write about that song. I wanted to write something timely for Thanksgiving. I also wanted to write about a workshop I recently attended on microaggression. Somehow the two subjects keep on merging into one potential post.

I am uncomfortable when someone dismissively refers to our National Day of Thanksgiving as “Turkey Day.” I am uncomfortable when advertisers portray the best part of the four-day weekend as the opportunity to go shopping. Our National Day of Thanksgiving has already been consumed by the excesses of the traditional feast; to see even that feast and family gathering disappear for many families, because of the excessive demands of shoppers and business-owners, borders on the tragic. I remember when the Day of Thanksgiving featured a special service at church to give thanks to the Lord for all his blessings. The feast and family gatherings, the televised parade and football games, all took second place to the church service. Now that service has been moved to Wednesday night… because we are too busy celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November to actually stop and give thanks.

Other potential posts are also swirling in my mind. This fall Mrs. Dim has been spending hours each day trying to clear her lawn and flowerbeds of autumn leaves. Every morning, of course, new leaves have fallen. This fall I have spent one hour a week dealing with autumn leaves. I bought biodegradable paper bags, and every Saturday I fill five bags and leave them by the curb to be taken by the city. When my grandchildren have grown, my leaves and bags will long have decomposed into fertile soil. Mrs. Dim’s leaves will still be trapped in their plastic bags.

When Christmas is on a Sunday (as it is this year), Advent is a full twenty-eight days long. Advent always includes four Sundays, but the season can be as short as twenty-two days when Christmas is on a Monday. As we observed a Super-moon this month, now we can enjoy a Super-Advent this year.

And time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future. That song has never made sense to me. I think of time as linear, and existence in time is like a train traveling down the track. Each moment of existence, there is a little more of the past and a little less of the future. It would seem that time is slipping into the past, not into the future.

But Albert Einstein demonstrated more than a hundred years ago that time and space are relative. Perhaps that is why the future exists—perhaps it is fueled by moments from the past that slip into the future. George Santayana famously said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (When read in context, that sentence does not mean what people think it means, but that is yet another topic to consider.) Perhaps as our memories of the past fade to gray, the future becomes correspondingly brighter.

We know that a Day is coming when history as we know it will end. The Lord Jesus will appear in glory with all his angels and with the spirits of all the saints. All the dead will be raised, and every person will stand before his throne for judgment. Some will be welcomed into his perfect new creation, while others will be sent away. To open his kingdom to unworthy sinners, Jesus has already entered this polluted creation and paid the penalty for all sins. Therefore, for those who trust in him the Day of the Lord is not Judgment Day; the Day of the Lord is the beginning of a new and eternal life. The new creation will not follow the rules of entropy and decay that we know in this world. There will be no pain, no suffering, no tears, and no death. In that world, time will indeed be perpetually slipping into the future.

For that, we can be truly thankful. J.

A heavenly conversation

I wish I could take credit for writing this conversation. I must be honest, though, and confess that I found it at work this morning. The author is unknown; what I found was an email sent and printed in 2002. Aside from depicting the Creator as less than all-knowing, I think it is a very clever way of saying what I have been saying all along. J.

GOD: Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle, and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought, and multiply with abandon. The nectar from their long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees, and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colours by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord—the Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers “weeds” and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds, and bees—only grubs and sod worms. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it—sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut if off and pay to throw it away?

ST. PRANCIS: Yes, Sir.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense! At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so Myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn the leaves fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural circle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No! What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call “mulch.” They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this “mulch”?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough! I don’t want to think about this anymore. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have they scheduled for us tonight?

ST CATHERINE: “Dumb and Dumber.” Lord, it’s a really stupid movie about…

GOD: Never mind. I think I just heard the whole story from Francis.

 

First Friday Fiction: The Mystery of the Yellow Mustang

“That yellow car is in that neighbor’s driveway again,” Dorothy Dimmerton observed one morning.

“So what, Mom?” Johnny asked, yawning between bites of cereal. “Maybe he’s bought a new car.”

Dorothy shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said. “That car was parked there one morning last month, and then it was gone for three weeks. Now it’s back. I think something funny is happening next door.”

Johnny yawned again. “Maybe he test-drove it last month and kept it overnight, and now he’s finally bought it,” he suggested.

“I looked for a sticker in the window or for a temporary paper plate. No, that car belongs to someone else, and I’m guessing that whoever she is spent the night at his place.”

“Welcome to the twenty-first century, Mom,” Johnny said. “What the two of them do in his house is their business, not ours.”

Dorothy cleared her throat, and then said nothing else. However, she resolved that she would keep an eye on that neighbor’s house and driveway until she had solved the mystery of this yellow car.

Dorothy Dimmerton had spent most of her life on army bases. Her father had been a soldier. Her husband had been a soldier. They had needed her help to keep their houses on base tidy and efficient. Dorothy followed the same pattern of tidiness and efficiency today. The problem was, nobody really needed her. Johnny didn’t care how the house or the yard looked. That neighbor next door obviously didn’t care either. All Johnny needed was a bedroom where he could sleep or play video games or watch movies when he wasn’t at work flipping hamburgers. He even bought his own breakfasts. Dorothy kept the door to Johnny’s room closed so she didn’t have to see its disorder.

Johnny might not need her, but the house needed her. It wouldn’t clean itself, as Dorothy’s mother had frequently said when Dorothy was a girl. The lawn needed her—it relied on her to water it every day and to mow and trim it once or twice a week. The deck behind the house needed her—every day she had to blow leaves and other debris off the deck. That neighbor next door seemed content just to run a mower over his grass every week or so. She didn’t know what kind of job he had or who his family or friends might be. So far as she was concerned, he was useless, taking up space in the world for no good purpose.

Now that she was watching, she saw that yellow car in his driveway every morning except for weekends. She didn’t know what time of night it arrived—early to bed and early to rise was one of her mottos. She did sometimes see the driver when she left in the morning. She was young and slender, well-dressed, but Dorothy tried not to stare at her while Dorothy pulled weeds or raked leaves or moved the sprinkler from one place to another.

Then, one Saturday, she was able to declare triumphantly, “I finally saw her face!”

“Whose face?” Johnny asked as he poured milk on his cereal.

“The driver of the yellow car. Usually she isn’t here over the weekend, but the car is there this morning. Right after I started the mower, I looked up, and she was staring out the window at me.”

“Yeah, what time was that? Seven o’clock? Six-thirty?” Johnny deliberately yawned as he asked.

“You know I have to get the work done early, before it gets too hot outside,” Dorothy answered, “but you’re missing the point. I know who she is now…boy, are you going to be surprised!”

“Surprise me, then,” Johnny told her.

“She’s the woman who murdered her husband last spring.” When Johnny didn’t react, she said, “Don’t you remember? It was on the TV news.”

Johnny thought for a minute before he said, “Yes, Mom, I remember. But you’ve got the story wrong. She didn’t murder her husband. A girlfriend he had on the side killed him.”

“Maybe,” she sneered. “Maybe they worked together.” Dorothy shook her head and snarled, “I wonder if he knows that he’s sleeping with a murderer.”

“Who says that they’re sleeping together?” Johnny asked. “Maybe Tom’s letting her use a spare bedroom.”

“I’ve seen her,” Dorothy retorted. “I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”

Every morning but on Saturdays, the suspicious woman would leave that neighbor’s house and drive off in her yellow car. A few minutes later, that neighbor would lock the front door, get in his own car, and drive away. Dorothy fumed at their effrontery. Didn’t they know that they were bringing their filth into a nice, respectable neighborhood? Dorothy didn’t say a word to either of them. She didn’t even make eye contact with them. If she pushed the mower with a little more vigor as one of them came out the door, she doubted that they even noticed. Well, if they were going to ignore her, she could keep on ignoring them. She had no intention of lowering herself to their level by treating their malfeasance as normal behavior.

Summer ended and school began. Schoolchildren walked past Dorothy’s house on their way to the bus. She kept a careful eye on them, making sure that none of them set foot on her grass. Most mornings she was outside, blowing leaves off the deck, then gathering them into piles she could scoop into a bag and leave on the curb. After one such morning of diligent work, she glared at Johnny at the kitchen table and exclaimed, “I can’t understand how she can show her face in public like that!”

Johnny sighed. “Who are you talking about, Mom?”

“The whore who is living with that neighbor next door. The way she walks to her car, you’d think she owns the place.”

Again, Johnny sighed. “If you ever spoke with Tom, you’d know that there is more to the story than you have imagined in your dirty little mind.”

“I suppose you believe whatever he told you,” she snarled at Johnny.

“I do believe him, and you should too. After her husband was killed, Jessica went and stayed with her parents for a while. Then she tried to come back home, but she couldn’t bear to walk into her own house. Memories of the murder were too painful for her. For a while she tried living in a motel, but that was using up her money too fast.

“Tom and Jessica work at the same office. He found out what she was enduring, and he offered her a spare room in his house. They have separate rooms, even separate bathrooms. They both drive their own cars downtown so no one at work suspects anything is going on between them. The main reason they do that, though, is that—really—nothing is going on between them.”

Dorothy paused. Perhaps she was being too hard on that neighbor and his friend. Perhaps, in his own way, he was being helpful and useful to another person in this mixed-up world. Dorothy didn’t often consider the possibility that she could be wrong. Even now, a thought in the back of her head suggested that that neighbor had lied to Johnny to cover up his sin. She guessed that she would never know the truth. Not knowing, she felt no regret for the cold shoulder she was showing them.

Petty contempt

The heat has been extreme, even dangerous, lately. Lawn care has not been a priority for me. My work allows me to spend the day in air conditioned buildings. When I get home in the late afternoon, the temperature and humidity are reaching their peak for the day, and I don’t feel like walking around the property behind a gasoline-powered motor with a spinning blade.

When I came home one day this week, I was pleased to see that Mrs. Dim was doing her yardwork in the afternoon. Her habit of running her mower and trimmer and blower early in the morning has not been helpful to my efforts to start the day pleasantly. I thought it would be right neighborly of me to go ahead and shorten my grass the next day so her surroundings would be tidy, consistent with her own property. Meanwhile, as I worked at my home computer that afternoon, I kept an ear open to her work. If she should collapse in the heat, I was ready to be at her side and to call for help. She wisely took frequent breaks, resting in the shade, until her work was finished for the day.

I got home from work the next day and changed into my usual mowing outfit—an old T-shirt, jeans dappled from painting projects, tattered tennis shoes, and a baseball cap encrusted with salt from several years of sweat. Anyone in the neighborhood would recognize my mowing uniform. I filled a large plastic mug with water and went out the front door, heading around the corner to get the mower out of the shed. I filled the gas tank and took the mower to the front of the house to trim the front lawn. As I came around the corner of the house, I noticed that Mrs. Dim was driving away in her car.

This is not the first time this year that she has left the neighborhood while I was mowing. I wonder if the sound of other people’s lawn tools bothers her as much as her lawn tools disturb me. More likely, I think, she cannot bear to watch the quick and shoddy way I care for my lawn. I started the mower and began to work, and then I saw what Mrs. Dim had done.

In the time it took me to get out the mower and fill the gas tank, she had moved her sprinkler to the edge of her property, so that more than half the water it was distributing was landing on the grass I was about to mow.

I considered moving her sprinkler a few feet from the property line at least long enough to finish my work on that part of the yard. However, I was reluctant to set foot on her lawn or adjust her equipment. I try not to give her any reason to complain of my behavior; she complains enough about the things I do not do. Instead, I proceeded with my mowing while wondering what prompted her to move the sprinkler. Several possibilities crossed my mind.

• Perhaps her daily watering of her lawn is on a strict schedule and nothing—certainly not consideration for a neighbor—could cause her to change that schedule.

• Perhaps she was concerned about my well-being in the heat and wanted to make sure I would be cooled with splashes of fresh water while mowing.

• Perhaps it never occurred to her that watering grass and mowing grass are not generally done at the same time (although I’ve never seen her mow and water her own grass at the same time).

• Perhaps she is continuing her canine behavior of marking her own territory.

• Perhaps it occurred to her that putting her sprinkler on the property line while I was getting ready to mow my grass would be one more petty gesture of her general contempt for me and my way of maintaining my lawn.

Does Mrs. Dim have friends with whom she can share stories of her pranks? Do they sit around a table at some fast-food restaurant and cackle together over her amusing accounts of our contretemps? Does she have a blog where she can post descriptions of her behavior to the admiration of her many followers?

If not, I hope she appreciates the publicity that I am providing her. And I am pleased to report that my lawn—not just by the property line, but throughout my property—is as green as the lawns that have been watered daily, thanks to the occasional summer showers we have received this month. A minor vindication of that sort is all that I needed to make my day. J.

It’s a lawn, not a rice paddy!

Mrs. Dim is one of several people in my neighborhood who water their lawns every single day. Since their grass is nice and green and mine tends toward yellow during dry conditions, they of course think that they are right and I am wrong.

They are wrong.

When water is flowing down the street and into the storm drain, they are wasting water. When they water every day, they are training their grass to have shallow roots and to depend upon that daily watering. When they soak their lawns repeatedly, they increase the likelihood of fungus and other diseases in their lawns.

To verify that my opinion is right and theirs is wrong, I did a quick search of lawn watering tips on the internet. Every one of the top hits indicated that Salvageable is right. Among the sites that I read from the first ten hits were Scott, Southern Living, Popular Mechanics, and Green Grass Services. The consensus is that healthy lawns need about an inch of water a week, and that watering twice a week is adequate for a healthy lawn.

Scott recommends one half inch of water twice a week, taking fifteen to thirty minutes, depending upon the watering system. Southern Living says one inch once a week. Popular Mechanics says twice a week, maximum. Green Grass Services says two to three times a week, with a total of 1 to 1 1/2 inches. Several of them recommend using rain gauges or empty tuna cans to measure the water to make sure that the lawn is not getting too much water.

Scott, Southern Living, and Popular Mechanics all say that a healthy lawn can be allowed to go dormant during a dry summer. Scott says the lawn can remain dormant for up to two months. When it rains, the lawn revives. Popular Mechanics notes that the choice of a dormant lawn depends upon use-if people or animals walk or run on the lawn a lot, that could harm the dormant grass.

Experience has shown that my lawn can tolerate a lengthy dormant period. After a decent rain, my grass turns just as green as Mrs. Dim’s grass. Meanwhile she has been watering her lawn every day, cutting and trimming it every five days, working hard to maintain her lawn to her personal standards. Of course she gets up early in the morning to trim and mow her lawn, not caring how much noise she makes while other people are still trying to sleep.

Aside from early morning noise, does the watering of lawns in the neighborhood make any difference in my household? It makes a difference when it takes twenty minutes to fill a sink to wash some dishes. It makes a difference when a shower is nearly impossible due to low water pressure. It makes a difference in the big picture of life, when people like Mrs. Dim waste water because they can, while other people in the country face dire water shortages.

Mrs. Dim is an old dog who will never learn new tricks. It must frustrate her no end when, a day or two after it rains, my grass is as green as hers. It might help if she took the time to check her opinion with research as I have done this morning. Friends, that is not going to happen. J.

World religions and the LCC

I would rather have a Muslim family or two living in the neighborhood and practicing Sharia Law than be surrounded by neighbors active in the Lawn Care Cult (LCC).

In fact I would be delighted to live in a religiously diverse neighborhood, populated by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Daoists, Confucianists—even an eloquent atheist or two. I would want to organize a neighborhood book club in which we read about one another’s sacred traditions and discussed them respectfully—not as a debate, but as a genuine gathering to understand each other. But no matter how long I live, I will never understand the LCC.

A thought came to me while I was mowing this morning. My attitude toward lawn care resembles the attitude many people have toward Christianity: one hour a week is sufficient to meet my needs, and often other priorities cancel even that one hour of the week. I go through the proper motions to get through the hour as quickly as I can; and when I’m done, I’m done. God understands. Anyhow, I’ve never been too impressed with organized lawn care.

I started mowing after nine o’clock this morning. Mrs. Dim started mowing and trimming at seven. After all, you have to get to work early in the summer, before the day gets too hot. Churches ring their bells on Sunday mornings, so why shouldn’t members of the LCC be active early in the day? My daughters were grumpy about waking up to the noise, but I have taught them to be respectful about other people’s religious beliefs and practices.

I have said before that I wish I could be as zealous in my Christianity as Mrs. Dim is with her lawn care. Perhaps the problem is that the LCC has not found a way to make lawn care an uplifting experience. They have not experimented with ways to make lawn care more attractive to people new to the community, those who have not grown up nurtured in the LCC and its practices. They have not had meetings in which they ask each other what would make lawn care more attractive to those who are not part of their group. They do have pamphlets and flyers (from the Cooperative Extension Service and from Home Depot) and they have a weekly column in the local newspaper—in the very same section that contains the weekly religious column, the daily television listings, and the daily comics.

Noon is approaching, and Mrs. Dim is still finding tasks to keep her busy in her back yard. She calls it “piddling,” which sounds odd to me. I always thought “piddling” was what a puppy did on the kitchen floor if you didn’t get the puppy outside quickly enough. I have finished mowing, did a little trimming, and put my tools away long ago—I’ve had a shower and gotten some other tasks done, which is normal for a Saturday. In fact, since I started tying this paragraph, Mrs. Dim started blowing imaginary dirt off her deck, which has led to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” playing on my CD player. Oh, for some Sharia to discuss sometime! J.

 

Weekend repairs; or, flies in the ointment

The weekend was good and I don’t wish to complain… but I will anyhow. There were three flies in the ointment that kept the weekend from being perfect. Murphy’s Gremlins were not interested in leaving the family alone all weekend.

The first of the flies arrived Friday night, as a puddle of water began to flow from under the refrigerator. I pulled the refrigerator away from the wall, expecting to find a leak in the hose that connects to the ice maker. At first I found no such hole, and I began to suspect that the leak was coming from the dishwasher. Since the dishwasher was not running at the time, I put some green food dye in a glass of water and poured it into the dishwasher drain. When the puddle under the refrigerator did not turn green, I rechecked the hose and finally found a small leak. For a short-term solution, I turned off the water line to the icemaker, hoping that we had enough ice to make it through the weekend.

Of course Murphy’s Gremlins act on a Friday night, not in the middle of the week. And of course they choose a weekend when family from out of town is coming to visit. At least I was able to visit with more talented do-it-yourself relatives about the needed repair. From the internet, I had gathered that I needed either to replace the entire hose or to cut the leaking section and attach the two pieces of hose with a connector. My relatives recommended a connector and also suggested that I take the removed section of hose with me to the hardware store to be sure to get the right size connector.

Murphy’s Gremlins visited again Saturday afternoon when the spring on the garage door broke. I’ve reattached broken springs on that door before, but this time the spring managed to break at both ends. A fair amount of trial and error was required to get the entire system working again (and I have several unattractive and painful scrapes and cuts on my hands from the repair), but after about an hour (and with some assistance from my daughter when two hands were not enough), I got the door working again.

Sunday, Murphy’s Gremlins got some help from Mrs. Dim. After returning from church, family members decided to take some pictures of each other in front of the house. One part of the family had flown in from out of town and rented a car at the airport. When we came back from church, they parked in the street, since they would be the first to leave after our cookout. Of course they parked on the very patch of pavement where Mrs. Dim likes to leave her trash bags of cut grass and other lawn maintenance residue. (The city ordinance forbids putting such trash on the pavement-it’s supposed to be left on the lawn within six feet of the pavement. But Mrs. Dim doesn’t want to risk hurting her carefully-tended lawn, so she usually puts her bags on the pavement.)

So, while we were involved in family photographs, Mrs. Dim began dragging her trash bags right to the property line. The first she placed directly on the line; the others were more on my side than her side. (Yes, they were on the grass.) I think my out-of-town family assumed that I exaggerate when I describe Mrs. Dim’s petty and childish behavior. Now they got to see it for themselves. When we were on the other side of the house, I whispered to my sister, “This is SO going on the internet.”

All of these problems were relatively small. No one crashed while traveling, and no one was taken to the hospital from my house.  The weather was virtually ideal, everyone got enough to eat, and we enjoyed each other’s company. It would take a genuine curmudgeon to find any reason to complain about the weekend-but a curmudgeon is exactly what I am. J.

Why nobody likes me

Mrs. Dim and I had a disagreement this weekend. I described it to Dwayne at City Hall as a difference of opinion; it could easily have been called a shouting match. I did not intend to shout at Mrs. Dim. In fact, I had not planned on speaking to her at all. When she began shouting insults at me, though, I found myself raising my voice to be heard.

This year Mrs. Dim is paying a young man to mow her yard (giving her more time, I guess, to play with her leaf blower). He had already mowed twice this year when I was not at home, and his mowing had taken him far across the property line into my bed of wildflowers. I was glad to be at home this time as he was working, so when he was ready to mow outside Mrs. Dim’s fence, I went over and introduced myself. “I’m J.,” I said, and “I’m Scott,” he answered, and we shook hands. I showed him where the corner of my property is—the surveyor’s stake is still there, pushed deep into the ground—and indicated the landmarks to follow that line to the other corner of Mrs. Dim’s yard. Scott was very attentive, and even after I went back inside he was careful to mow only to the line and not as far as he had mowed earlier this year.

Poor Scott, though, found himself in the middle of neighborly squabbling. Even before I had the chance to introduce myself, Mrs. Dim was already shouting, “Go back in your house, J.,” and, “A real Christian wouldn’t do what you’re doing, J.” She also shouted, “This is why nobody likes you, J.” She openly acknowledged that she had instructed Scott to cut my weeds. I tried to get Mrs. Dim to tell me what the word weed means—I was hoping to establish that a weed is an unwanted plant, so I could say that native wildflowers are not unwanted in my lawn, even if they are unwanted in hers. Instead, she only pointed at my wildflowers and shouted, “That’s a weed,” leading me to handle the daisy-like bloom gently and answer (in as loud a voice as hers, I regret to say), “This… is a flower.”

Scott handled the situation well, mowing along the property line and then over to Mrs. Dim’s fence. I went inside, hoping the problem was over for the time being. After Scott left, Mrs. Dim played her radio in her garage at top volume for about half an hour to show her displeasure—surprisingly childish behavior for a woman who is nearing seventy years old. I put on a Schubert CD and kept the windows closed and was able to survive her tantrum unharmed.

This morning I called City Hall to verify that I have the right to raise wildflowers on my property. I indicated that they are the same kind of wildflowers that the state’s highway department encourages along the highways. Dwayne said that, of course, I’m allowed to grow native wildflowers on my own property, although he was unwilling to put that statement into writing for me. Instead, he said that if my neighbor is coming onto my property and cutting down my plants, I should either call the police or hire an attorney.

I think I handled the situation as well as was possible for me. With my battles with anxiety, confrontations are difficult for me. Although she has not taken the time to get to know me, Mrs. Dim knew how to make her insults stick in my head. I have had to remind myself repeatedly that people do like me—at work, at church, where I teach, and lots of places. It’s only Mrs. Dim who doesn’t like me.

 

People have asked me why I don’t just talk to Mrs. Dim when I have a problem with her—when her prolonged leaf-blowing is getting on my nerves, for example. This episode, I think, verifies what I already suspected. Mrs. Dim cannot be approached calmly and reasonably. The better approach for both of us is for me to maintain a healthy distance. With any luck, someday soon she will relocate to a retirement community where they will let her play with the leaf blower as much as she wants, and I won’t know anything about it. J.

 

The worst part of the holidays

Someone recently asked me about my favorite part of the holidays. I am not going to answer that question in this post. No, curmudgeon that I am, I must first talk about my least favorite holiday activity, the part of the season I dread the most, the activity that I would rather not do, but which I did yesterday.

The worst part of the season is decorating the front of the house with holiday lights. I have trouble with heights, but it is impossible to avoid heights when decorating the house for the holidays.

I once lived in a house where I could climb out a second story window onto the porch roof and attach decorations above the porch. That decorating was not so bad. Then I lived in a house where the eaves were well in reach, just a step or two up a stepladder. That decorating also was not so bad. In my current house, the only way to get to the eaves is to go up a tall ladder, high into the air. I can move the ladder along the house and go up and down the ladder fifteen times, or I can climb the ladder to the roof of the house and work along the edge of the roof. I have tried both methods, and I prefer the second way.

First I got the five strings of lights out of the box and untangled them. When they were untangled, I plugged them all in to test them. All of the lights were working. I carefully coiled the strings, hoping they would not tangle while I climbed the ladder. I looped them and the extension cord around my arm, took a deep breath, and began to climb.

One of the three bad things about decorating the house is climbing the ladder. It is a long aluminum extension ladder that is safe up to three hundred pounds, and I weigh well under three hundred pounds. Even so, about half-way to the top, I feel as if the ladder is unstable. I feel this for two reasons: when my weight is in the middle of the ladder, the ladder flexes a bit—my weight has more support near the top and the bottom of the ladder—and also my legs are shaking, making the ladder shake. All the same, I climbed all eighteen rungs (Of course I counted them!) and crawled onto the roof.

The second of the three bad things about decorating the house is being on the roof. Have I mentioned that I have trouble with heights? When I was a small boy I tried to climb trees, because boys are supposed to climb trees. My mother and father were working in the garden, and I screwed up my courage and began to ascend a tree. Before long I reached the point where I was too scared to move either up or down. I would call to my parents for help, and my mother or my father would walk over to the tree, reach up, take hold of me, and bring me back to the ground. They did all this with their own feet flat on the ground. This happened several times. In elementary school, I could not climb the rope to the top of the gym, not because my arms were too weak, but because I was too frightened to get far from the floor.

Once I was on the roof, I untangled the strings of lights again. Then I went to the corner of the house nearest the ladder, pulled a handful of leaves out of the gutter, and clipped one end of the first string of lights to the gutter. As the morning went on, I crab-walked my way along the edge of the roof—remember that I have trouble with heights—cleaning out leaves and clipping lights. Sometimes I had to fuss a bit with the plastic clips to make them hold the lights and then make them stay clipped to the gutter. I worked my way along…the first string…the second string…the extension cord…the third string (I was now past half-way)…the fourth string…the fifth string. All along the way, of course, I was pulling handfuls of leaves and dirt out of the gutter and letting them drop to the ground. Finally the last clip was in place, and I only had to go down and put the ladder away.

The third of the three bad things about decorating the house is going down the ladder.

Before I went down the ladder, I sat for a few minutes on the roof, not near the edge, and looked out over the neighborhood. Also I listened to the chorus of leaf blowers being operated in the neighborhood. Not only do I have trouble with heights; I also have trouble with loud noises, and leaf blowers are a particular bane to me. I can fall into an anxiety attack from the sound of a leaf blower when I am inside the house with all the windows closed. Mrs. Dim chose that fine Saturday to groom her yard. Her goal was met when not a single blade of grass was in contact with a single leaf from a tree. This meant that from time to time she had to backtrack and claim the leaves that had fallen since she started blowing leaves. The entire hour I spent decorating the house, she was blowing leaves, then stopping to bag leaves, then blowing more leaves, then stopping again to bag leaves. From my vantage point on top of the roof I could hear two or three other leaf blowers operating in the neighborhood.

Finally I found the courage to approach the ladder. Getting on the ladder from the roof is not easy. I had to swing my leg over the edge of the roof and feel for a ladder rung I could not see. That was hard to do with my right leg. Once my right foot was planted on a rung, I had to get my left leg off the roof. That was even harder. Finally I was standing on the ladder facing the house. Rung by rung I made my way down—only seventeen rungs going down (of course I counted them!) and the worst rungs were numbers eight, nine, and ten, when once again I was in the middle of the ladder, feeling it flex and shake.

I made it safely to the ground, put the ladder away, and went inside to wash my hands. As I stood at the sink my legs were still trembling. Almost literally, my knees knocked together. After my hands were clean, I prepared lunch and ate it. Then I went to the grocery store to get two ingredients for supper. I came home and put them away. Mrs. Dim was still working in her lawn. I got out my rake and raked the front lawn, putting all the leaves from the lawn in a big pile by the curb so the city can take them away and use them as mulch in the city parks. (I recently read that bagged leaves and lawn refuse make up thirteen percent of the garbage in our landfills. Thirteen percent!) When the front yard was tidy, I got out a box of plastic greenery and bows and decorated the railing around the front steps of my house. Mrs. Dim was still working on her lawn. I went inside, put some loud music on the CD player, and tried to accomplish some work on the computer. Mrs. Dim was still working on her lawn.

When it was becoming dark, I went outside and plugged in my lights. One part of one string was no longer working, but I didn’t care. If someone else wants to go up on the roof and try to fix that string, that’s fine with me, but I can make it through the month with only ninety percent of my lights working.

Someone might ask, J., why don’t you pay some other person to decorate your house if it troubles you so much, being that you have trouble with heights? The answer is that I do not have enough spare money to pay someone to spend an hour decorating my house. At least I do not have as much money as it would take to persuade me to decorate someone else’s house if his or her house was as tall as my house.

Besides, I feel a certain nobility in the fact that every year I do something for my family even though the act terrifies me. Other years I approached the task with stoic nobility—I don’t like doing it, but I will ignore my fears and get the job done. Now that I am in therapy, I am learning to be aware of my fears and deal with them instead of ignoring them. That made this frightening exercise a bit more meaningful, because I was able to use the things I am learning in therapy to address my fears while decorating my house for the season.

What did I learn? I learned that I have trouble with heights.

But now I have blue lights across the front of the house, and every night, for the rest of December, I will plug in the cord that powers those lights and let a blue glow shine in the neighborhood. One of the great things about those blue lights is that they make other people’s white lights seem a dingy yellow by comparison.

Guess how Mrs. Dim decorates her house for the season . J.