Monday, May 27, 2013

Get to the root of the matter

You'd think an oak tree so grand deserves the dignity of being described in anthropomorphic terms.
Just look at "her." Her large, lower branches reach out as if to embrace guests at a formal dinner party. Her lofty crown rests against a nimbus of saintly sunlight. She set up a tangle of sharp twigs to protect her little saplings from the murderous tantrums of a brush hog. She's dug her heels in the earth like an immovable Italian grandmother stirring ragu on the stove.
Wait. What? All this anthropomorphism doesn't match up. Okay, the tree is a "she." Got it. But is she a highborn host of a dinner party? A saint with faraway eyes? A nervous mother of vulnerable children? An Italian grandmother who hasn't removed her apron in a generation?
We've stared out our window at this tree for years now. Can't she just be a majestic oak tree? Isn't that more than enough? Why the fuss? Well, because we're chopping her down, that's why. And we're feeling somewhat guilty for not feeling somewhat guilty about it. So perhaps if we bestow a little humanity upon it, maybe it will rub off on us. Just a theory.
The tree is our elder by at least 30 years. It was an acorn when our parents were embryos. It was an acorn and nothing but an acorn, and now look at it. Our parents grow weaker, and the oak tree grows stronger. Our parents get quieter, and the oak tree grows more flamboyant.
It — "she" — is still game for a tree fort. She has called out to our son while no one else is around. "Check me out, little child. Never in your life will you see a more suitable tree for a fort. Look at these lateral limbs! They're practically plumb level with the ground. What is your father waiting for? If he loves you, he will build you a tree fort — right here! The fun we'll have. Plus, look — mountain views!"
But she is not a "she." She is an "it." Still, her point is well taken: On our land, tree forts of the mind outnumber actual tree forts by about six to zero.
The month is March, and the tree remains dormant, which is great because if "it" is a "she," she won't know what hit her. She's been blocking sunlight from the vegetable garden. That's what this is all about, by the way. We like our vegetables, and if God wanted oak trees to lord over us, he would have made them carnivorous rather than deciduous.
Our emotions get kind of complicated as the hour approaches. What's the matter with branches just being branches, crowns just crowns, bark just bark? Sadly (I guess), "it" will be denied a future as a "she" because "she" won't someday be a wooden ship; "it" will be firewood, then coal, and then dust. And someday we'll be dust together, which is kind of funny because if "it" is a "she," we'll be equals in the end, and then she can have the last laugh.
Whoa, that just made me dizzy. Tire swings make me dizzy, too. We never put up that tire swing, either.
We dally about a tree on death row. But now it's time. My good friend Del has arrived. He knows what he's doing. He used to work on a tree crew. We haul the chain saws, mauls and iron wedges down and set up a workstation. The closer you get to "it," the more it resembles a permanent, geological feature. It is huge, maybe 65 feet tall, and as wide as it is tall.
I am getting a little teary-eyed. We had a white oak like this one in my yard growing up. Ants lived within the overlapping scales of its gray bark. I spent many afternoons commanding the ants to line up in formation. I figured we could join together and attack a neighboring willow. But the ants would always ignore me, and since then I've never been much of a leader. But I've always loved trees, and they have always loved me.
Amazing how quickly a huge tree can be felled by someone who knows what he's doing.
"Where do you want it to fall?"
"Right over there."
Del pulls the cord on the chain saw, and it screams of homicide. As I mark his line, I steal glances up into the branches and imagine bad things happening — paralysis, mainly. He cuts a notch, then he makes a back cut. Then he shuts the saw down and we pound wedges into the back cut to guide the oak tree toward its fate. We have already determined our escape route in case "it" becomes an angry "she." We bang a few more wedges into the back cut, and the creaking begins. Tendons start snapping. The tree starts falling. It's all in slow motion. It's falling exactly where it's supposed to fall.
It hits the ground, and the earth shakes. It looks twice as big on the ground as it did in the air. It looks twice as tragic as I could've imagined. She's down on the ground heaving. The dinner party is over. The ragu exploded. The saint has been martyred. The saplings have been orphaned.
If "it" is a "she," to err is only human.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fathers Day 2013: It's time for your review

By Felix Carroll

The problem with Father’s Day is that it’s not Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day we distribute kisses and flowers in a ridiculously over-simplified effort to reciprocate a mother’s unfathomable love. And of course she cherishes the flowers. She cherishes the kisses. Most of all, she cherishes that all her little ingrates are lined up before her in a forced march of overdue affection.

Simply put, mothers have nothing to lose and nothing to prove on Mother’s Day.

Father’s Day, by comparison, feels more like a yearly employee performance review. While not outright armed with clipboards and pencils, your offspring take the opportunity to step back and evaluate you in the silence of their own hearts, wondering:

In what ways have you demonstrated knowledge of all phases of your job and the relationship of your work to that of your marriage and the overall organization? Has your work as a father been accurate, thorough and neat? Have you adhered to attendance policies? In what ways can you improve in the coming year?

In this business of parenting, mothers pull themselves up by the stirrups of their own birthing tables. Fathers inherit a corner office by simply showing up.

"But I love this job! I love this job!" you say to yourself, your feet kicked up on the coffee table. "And look at these kids. They love me, too. Check this out ..."

When they are infants, you jump around like a monkey and scratch at your armpits, and they laugh and laugh and laugh. When they are toddlers, you do that thing with the orange rind in your mouth, and they laugh and laugh and laugh.

“Dad, pretend to bench press a bulldozer,” they say, when they have their fellow kindergarteners over.

On their seventh birthday you wear a birthday hat on your face and peck at the air like a chicken, and they laugh. (Maybe not as much as they would’ve when they were in preschool. But they laugh alright.)

The benefits package is incredible. It’s all accounts receivable at this point.

Through cheap laughs, you pad your resume. As time goes by, you pad it more with more sophisticated investments — macho things like splitting firewood or fixing their bicycles. And as you pad your resume more, you increasingly fear you will be found out as a fraud and your patriarchal portfolio depreciated.

That’s the problem with fatherhood. It’s not motherhood.

By the sheer fact fathers are incapable of giving birth — that the tortuous act of childbearing has been outsourced wholesale to a single gender that isn’t male — fathers are where they are through nepotism alone.

Soon you begin to notice that in serious business matters, the children turn to their mother. Your peek-a-boos and coos are old news. Brand loyalty is at stake. You listen through a cracked bedroom doorway. You cup your ear to the wall. You hear a child’s sob and the soft tones of a mother’s tender love. You suspect some sort of loyalty program is being developed behind your back. They emerge from their meeting. You act busy. They say nothing.

You fear the worst — that a restructuring is at hand. That your wife and children will shuffle you around trying to find a place for you. Maybe put you in charge of transportation. Something like that. But no one says anything.

A skinned elbow, and to whom do they turn? Their mother. A shirt needs buttoning? Their mother. How do they like their toast? Apparently not like that.

You wonder if you need a new marketing strategy. Or maybe every once in a while you need to bang your fist on the table during shareholders meetings with the grandparents.

You start to stew.

You take inventory.

Wait a minute: Wasn’t this whole family enterprise my idea? Wasn’t I the one who got this thing off the ground? Yes, of course I was!

“Kids,” you want to say, “I first laid eyes on your mother across the room at a pizza parlor. Where most men would see high-risk, I saw high-potential. At the conclusion of a two-year probationary period, I got down on one knee and offered her the opportunity for the exclusive distribution of my love.”

You stew some more.

Back in your corner office you close the door behind you. You hear voices in your head. You smell the second-hand pipe smoke of the fathers who came before you, the crusty men in business suits who harrumphed a lot and kept the kids at arms length.

“You are head of the household,” they tell you. “You are the conveyer of moral values. You’re a model of stoicism. You call the shots. Your paternal bond is the only adhesive connecting the human species to the age of the gods. Remember where you came from.”

You know their ideas are bankrupt.

There are other things you know, too.

You know that because you have never pushed a watermelon-sized mortal out of your pelvis, you will remain the household’s most vulnerable demographic.

You know that in the home, human capital is assessed against the love of a mother.

You know that despite the thoughtful homemade Fathers Day cards, you remain on the verge of a written warning.

You know she’s risen to the top of the family corporation because she’s a goody-two shoes.

Business is business.