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.

Alone.

Well, sorry that I haven’t posted anything in a while. I really don’t know how some of these blogger-types do it – whipping something together every day or so in order to keep their loyal fans happy.  For me it’s kind of a chore, actually. God forbid I ever get a job where I have a deadline.

I have a lot of catching up to do, so let’s go a few weeks back.

Lizzy and Sarah went to visit family in Hawaii a couple of weeks ago, leaving me behind to look after some homeowner issues, watch the cats, and do something referred to – rather ominously, I think – as “looking for a job.” Lizzy had to joke that, knowing me, it would be more likely that my days would be filled with sports, alcohol consumption, women of ill repute, action movies, empty pizza boxes, porn, organic hallucinogens and other manifestations of a middle-aged guy’s foray back into (temporary) bachelorhood, but I think she’s way off on this one. In fact, I made a mental note to prove her wrong by, at the very least, not ordering pizza.

The week alone wasn’t all fun and games; as alluded to above we had the brilliant foresight to schedule some needed home repairs while the girls were away. Minor things, like, you know, booking a plumber to do some serious work on several pesky leaks, and scheduling a fumigator to not only come and tent the garage and guest room in order to pump loads and loads of poison into a hitherto well-fed colony of termites, but to also perform what is called “heat treatment” on the main house in order to kill some less established critters. All in all, there were people in coveralls trudging around here at least five of the seven days I was to be “alone,” and, as the saying goes, every day spent waiting for a contractor to either arrive, work, or leave is pretty much a day spent without booze and porn.

The plumbers came and went at the beginning of the week, spending a good eight hours at the house. I had tried to get some writing done while they were here, but it proved difficult to concentrate. They seemed to delight in hollering at me every half hour or so from various points underneath the house, their disembodied voices requesting that I turn on a faucet, or flush a toilet, or drain the bathtub. Occasionally one of them would appear in the flesh, only to direct me to a dismantled bathroom where the aforementioned d. v. of the other plumber would inform me of newly discovered problems – problems that weren’t on the initial estimate but that nevertheless required immediate attention (naturally). At one point I remember some screaming, and something about a body or something under the floor boards – threats of calling the cops, and that sort of thing – but as I’m notoriously forgetful I can’t be blamed for having a hard time recollecting the details.

The very next day the fumigators arrived, and spent the morning covering every inch of the garage, guestroom and connecting deck with that lovely, striped tenting most of us have at least seen, if not experienced first hand. That was a blast, though I have to admit that much of the prepwork – emptying the rooms of any food, clothes, and tissues, wrapping or removing chairs and mattresses, sealing the freezer, making sure the corpses were completely hidden under a tarp – we had done a day or two earlier in order to make my life a little bit easier.

The Colors! How Vibrant!
The Colors! How Vibrant!

The tents were up for three days, and of course I was forbidden by law to enter any of buildings. Easily done when said buildings are the garage and a leaky, dusty guestroom, but I shudder to think of how the week would have gone if we had been forced to fumigate the house itself. The dreadful notion of having to prep, tent, and vacate the place  – with cats included – was the reason we researched the heat treatment. I mean, can you imagine how long it would take just to remove or seal all of the food? What about the clothes – would they have to be covered or packed up? On top of that, I’d have to find a hotel that would take cats. And what about the all the rare, hybrid Emu/Platypus eggs in the attic? Would they survive the poisonous assault? It boggles the mind.

With heat treatment, though, the homeowner can stay in the house and is only inconvenienced to the degree that he or she minds having large, space-aged looking tubes snaking through the house pumping 200-or so degree air into the attic and under the floors. Sure, the rest of the house doesn’t actually get that hot, but it sure came close – I’m guessing about 100 – 110 degrees. Of course I hadn’t the foresight to dress accordingly, and I was stuck sweating the ordeal out in the den wearing jeans and a black flannel shirt (the entrance to my bedroom was blocked by the tubing, so I couldn’t change into something more “heat treatment” appropriate).

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I made it through the week, though, even if it wasn’t they way I had envisioned it.  Don’t get me wrong – Lizzy and Sarah have gone off before, but usually we’re able to coordinate their trip with my working insane hours on some ghastly film; the point being that I wouldn’t be home to see them anyways. This time I had nothing scheduled, so it would just be me, the house, and my own mind.

Before they left, I had pictured myself spending the days of their absence quietly reflecting on my life while working the garden or polishing the woodwork; at night I would be listening to Dvorjak, sipping a rather chewy Sauvingnon Blanc and whipping up some rare sesame-coated tuna with balsamic reduction and roasted Jerusalem artichokes on the side. Later I’d be nestled in bed with a steaming cup of chamomile and a good hardcover – I’m thinking nonfiction, like “Salt,” or Pinker’s “How The Mind Works.”

But no, instead I spent the majority of the week tiptoeing around some contractor, feverishly devouring cheese while standing up half naked in front of the fridge, whimpering in the fetal position on the floor, mixing up and applying what seemed like tons of sodium hydroxide, or hunched furtively in front of the computer in the dark. Okay, so that’s not that different from any other day around here, but still – you’d think by now I’d have figured out a way to spend my free time more wisely. I tried to tell myself that any other (mostly) unemployed guy my age would be as equally unproductive under the circumstances, but judging by all the well-adjusted (and employed) looking chaps I see around town, I’m beginning to think that it’s not necessarily the case.

Oh, and the heat treatment in the attic? It destroyed every one of the Emu/Platypus eggs. Every damned one.

So much for my plan B.