Archive for June, 2011

On the handiness scale, I’m maybe a 5 or a 6. Okay, a 7 if I bribe the judges. Let’s just say that I need to improve my score, given the increasing decrepitude of my house, yard, and car.

To be fair toward the yard, my wife is a gardening wizardess and I have been putting in some solid hours out there, too—so as far as “groundskeeping” is concerned, much of the aesthetic challenge comes from ruthless tree-cutting by a neighbor behind us. To quote my son, who is actually quoting Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, “Let ’em grow, let ’em grow!”

The same might be said of our American experiment. We not only need growth, we need repairs. And we need them, like, yesterday. But even that wouldn’t be enough. We need innovation with the same urgency. And we need this innovation to happen in a bootstrapped fashion, since no one seems particularly anxious to pull strings for it, to invest in it, at least not on the Republican side of the aisle.

Yes, handiwork has been on my mind of late. I’ve always enjoyed building stuff, but these days, if I want certain things to exist—such as an art table for my kids—I have to build them from scratch. Ikea, Pottery Barn, or even Sears ain’t gonna happen. Neither is buying materials from Home Depot. Thrift store shopping would have been my first choice back when I owned a pickup, but now we’re a single-sedan family and you can only ask your neighbors to drive you to the Salvation Army so many times.

So I built this table (pictured above) from scrap plywood and molding ripped out of one of our bedrooms. It isn’t going to win any design awards, but I’m still proud of its solidity and squat elegance. Making it was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done in the past year. More importantly, it has given my son and daughter far more elbow room than the little eating table they were using before, so in that sense it represents improvement, expansion, forward motion.

Handiwork, however, is no substitute for systemic change. What this household truly needs is for me to make more money, so that we can fix the leaking basement and sunporch roof, buy a more reliable car, and, oh yeah, start saving for that elaborate venture most kids undertake when they finish high school. I’m not saying these things to cry poverty or invoke pity. Rather, I’m trying to express the tension I feel when wrangling two conflicting points of view.

On the one hand, I remain positive about the future. I have a rewarding job and my family is healthy. On the other hand, my children’s future certainly is at risk.

Part of that is my fault, in light of my own career choices (if the word “career” is even applicable) and general lack of business acumen. Much of the blame, however, falls squarely on the choices made by our political leadership over the last few decades. We haven’t invested in the institutions and industries we should have. We haven’t prepared for the impact of national calamities.

To raise our offspring in a way that gives them a shot at productive citizenship, parents like me must now scramble, scavenge, and scheme. We must reduce, reuse, and recycle not just out of good conscience but for survival. Since those who ruined the highway to the future are refusing to fix it, or even to pave over the potholes, we have to take on that responsibility as best we can.

That leads me to return to a topic I’ve been thinking about, and writing about, for some time, and which I first discussed in this blog last year—the terminus myth.

A narrative in which God abandons the world (or, say, a nation) effectively promotes the father/protector figure to a unique leadership role—a more-or-less divine position, really—whether the father likes it or not. Sometimes God has the decency to invest certain powers in a patriarchal human character before checking out, as in the Noah story. Sometimes God disappears without so much as a goodbye, as inMcCarthy’s The Road. In any case, the father assumes a godlike stance not because he wears a halo but because his children need to keep believing in safety and security as the environment bends toward destruction.

But what kind of god can a mere man become on such an impromptu basis? Obviously, he can’t be what Karen Armstrong calls a “sky god,” a remote and almighty authority like Zeus or Yahweh. He still sweats and bleeds like anybody else. So he becomes the only station of diety within his reach: a trickster. He defies the monsters who roam the countryside with his cleverly concealed shelters and jury-rigged weapons. He crafts medicinal potions, perhaps even newfangled solutions to plagues and pestilence, all from scratch. He uses any detritus at hand to shield his young ones from harm—and to facilitate their ongoing childhood (as The Road shows us, for example, with the boy’s scribbled drawings and secret toy collection.)

But the trickster, no matter how crafty he is, always fouls up. He gets drunk or succumbs to disease or fails to spot a key danger, and before long his children are moving on without him. He finds himself wishing he had prepared them, schooled them, for what lies ahead, but what with the shelter-building and strange magic into which he put every bit of his energy, all the father ever gave his children was crayons and campfire bed-time stories. 

So how will those children survive after he’s gone? Will there be anything remotely like a health care system? An education system? Who will overcome the legacy of a society that spent hundreds of millions on sports stadiums while public schools were left to rot?

In the terminus myth, the answers don’t come from the father. The means by which children are initiated into a declining world is, quite literally, a different story. One that we have no idea how to tell.

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