Fiddler Off the Roof.

The last few years have brought, for me, a number of firsts: my first marriage, my first child. I’ve also had the pleasure of hanging out with my first celebrity (Chris Cooper!), working at my first crappy Hollywood production company, completing my first feature-length screenplay, and, of course, living for the first time in a state outside of New England.

I’m also tempted to include that week I spent in a Mexican prison, semi-conscious and dressed like Charo – but on deeper reflection I’m not sure that qualifies, technically, as a “first.”

By far the most vexing of my recent firsts has been owning my first home.  I’ve rented plenty of times, of course, but as you know when you’re renting you really don’t spend that much time stressing about the odd home repair or any pesky lawn maintenance. In fact, you couldn’t do anything yourself even if you wanted to; in some cases, I’ve heard, the helpless renter can’t even change a light bulb without getting approval from the landlord. It goes without saying, then, that repairs or alterations of any significance are pretty much inconsessus.

I used to lament this arrangement. I’ve always been the one wanting to embark on little beautifying projects. Things like putting in a small garden, repainting the walls, constructing a decorative Romanesque cantilever over the entrance to my bedroom, building a hidden panic room – you know, normal stuff. But no, I’ve always had to limit myself to whatever impermanent interior decorating I could get a way with, and have been forced to appreciate my particular dive’s status quo.  I got through the frustrating years of non-ownership with thoughts of the house I would eventually own, and all the wonderful upgrades, redesigns and additions I would no doubt undertake.

So now Lizzy and I own a home, and I am forced to face a reality that I hadn’t previously troubled myself with:

I have now clue, whatsoever, how to do any of these things.

I mean, I can’t even manage to keep up with the front yard. We moved into our house in January of ’08, and the place looked like it could be on the front page of a landscaping magazine: roses, daffodils, lavender, calla lilies, some sort of red, droopy thingy – you name it, it graced our yard proudly. A couple years later, and the casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that the place was inhabited by either some insane Bouvier Beale-esque nonagenarian or a multigenerational family of feral marmots. Every piece of vegetation is in a pronounced state of poor health. Apparently these things require some degree of watering.

And forget about any home repairs or additions – these kinds of things are way outside my range of talents. I have tried, though, to learn a bit about keeping up with the general maintenance, even going so far as to purchase a tool or two, the largest of which is an extension ladder intended to facilitate easy access to the roof.  I don’t need to get onto the roof, mind you, but I am a guy, and like every guy who has ever looked up at something taller than himself, it came to pass one day that I was home alone, standing outside and looking up at the roof, when a very profound thought entered my head:

I need to get up there.

Both Lizzy and I had used a smaller folding ladder to get onto the roof once before, but the experience proved terrifying.  The damn thing is only six feet tall – nowhere near high enough to climb onto a roof that is at least two feet higher than that – and consequently we had to go all the way up to the top of the ladder in order to reach our destination. Needless to say, it wobbled terribly.

But while getting up on the roof was bad enough, going down took the cake in terms of sheer terror. I’m sure everyone has almost fallen from a considerable height at some point in their lives. Usually the experience is described as causing a sensation  akin to having one’s heart leap out of one’s chest. I distinctly remember reading about this sort of thing in adventure books, wherein some explorer or spelunker loses his footing on a cliff or some snowy crevasse and experiences a moment of sheer panic before regaining his balance. Well I experienced this sensation myself on my way down from the roof, pitifully attempting to balance a shaky leg on the top of the ladder while easing the rest of my body off of the rain gutter. It was damned unpleasant.

But an extension ladder would surely do the trick. These are made up of two separate lengths of ladder that overlap; the top section (called the fly section) slides upward to heights of 10, 20, even 35 feet – more than enough for a carefree jaunt up to my roof. Once I got it into my head that I wanted one, all it took was a quick trip to the Home Depot, and before I knew it I was standing in front of the house, ready to put my new purchase to use.

I was just getting the thing in place when I heard, to my left, an unwelcome voice.

“Be careful, now!”

I winced.  I think you’ll agree that in these situations the last thing you want is an audience observing the going’s on and commenting from the sidelines. For me, though, there would be no such luxury, for the voice I heard did in fact come from my next door neighbor Samuel, who was standing, all sun hat and pruning shears, by the fence separating our yards. Samuel and his wife Liz are in their seventies, at least, and they’re known along the block as nosy types, ever aware of your private actions and quick to challenge any action on your part to redesign or otherwise alter your own home or surrounding property. You know these types – always ringing the bell and asking you whatever was all that hammering noise in your back yard? We usually try our best to avoid them.

But I have to admit that the presence of Samuel at this groundbreaking event threw me out of whack just a bit. I mean, one doesn’t want the pesky neighbors nosing around the vicinity when one is about to do something a little bit risky. Kind of makes one self-conscious, and for a moment I even wavered a bit on the wisdom of my little endeavor. It crossed my mind that perhaps I should double-check the ladder, but after quickly surveying the apparatus it seemed simple enough: slide the top section up until you’ve reached the desired height, then lower it just a bit until it clicks into place. Proceed happily up the ladder.

So, brushing off Samuel’s warning with a curt but polite “Don’t worry about me!,” I rolled the fly section up to a height of ten or twelve feet, dropped it down just until it sat in place, planted the feet firmly on the ground in front of my door, lowered the top carefully onto the edge of the roof, and started climbing skyward.

As I ascended the first few rungs any misgivings I had quickly melted away. I felt positively triumphant. Like many an explorer before me I had seen a great height, and I had conquered it. I was able, tough, and true. I was a homeowner, and I could damn well go up onto my own roof if I pleased, and no one was going to stop me.

I was a man.

And then I fell off the ladder.

In my defense I should add that I didn’t, in fact, simply tumble off. That would have been silly. No, I decided to fall off in a far more dramatic fashion: once I reached the mid-way point and placed all my weight on the first rung of the top half, the ladder collapsed into itself in a rather violent manner, sending both ladder and self crashing several feet down onto the stone walkway.  Turns out there’s a lock assembly thing that should secure the fly section into place, and that I failed to position things correctly prior to my climb.

Let me tell you, it’s bad enough having the heart-leaping-out-of-the-chest moment of a false alarm I referred to earlier, but as bad as it may be it pales in comparison to the sensation one feels when one really is falling. There may be only a split second of awareness, but it’s a split second filled with the cold certainty that something, very soon, is going to hurt very, very bad.

Naturally, Samuel had observed the incident and ran over to assist, but I managed to disentangle myself from the death trap rather quickly and was able, through the pain and acute embarrassment, to look nonchalant. I insisted that everything was okay, and, even though I was bleeding from both a hand and a knee, had torn clothing and mussed hair, and no doubt sported a ghostly visage betraying a state of shock, that I would be fine. He eventually left, but not before lecturing me sternly on the use of extension ladders and the risks involved in climbing onto roofs. I’m sure he later told his wife, and that the two of them spent many hours shaking their heads disapprovingly at the state of young people today.

So I’ve decided that there are things that I really shouldn’t be attempting, even if I am now finally a homeowner.  Not only will I be staying away from ladders and roofs, but it’s probably best that I don’t get my hands on anything pointy or sharp, either. Could you imagine what carnage a simple staple gun could bring, not to mention a pick-axe or, god help me, a skill saw? I’ll stick to interior decorating, thanks.

Oh, and changing light bulbs. That I can do.

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