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AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

Open House

ďNo good deed ever goes unpunished.Ē  Iím not sure where I first heard it said, nor how many times Iíve sneered at the sentiment, but itís with an ironic smile that I think about that misanthropic aphorism today.  I started to write a different column at least twice this week, but in keeping the spirit of exhibitionistic life display that regular readers have come to expect, I will tell you the story that overshadows all others in my attention right now.  Buckle up.

N and D are friends of ours.  Iíve known them for two years and change, maybe three, and Janice and D go back significantly farther than that.  Their daughter R is about six months older than Keefe and a real treasure, and both boys like them immensely.  Last year they had a long drawn out and unnecessarily unpleasant battle with their then-landlord and some close friends of his, who lived in the apartment above them.  Itíd take a few pages to get into the details, but suffice it to say there was some misplaced aggression, religious persecution, false charges laid with the police, and unnecessary visits from childrenís aid.  The toll it took on this nice family in the middle of it was horrible, and it broke our hearts to see them being attacked like that, vindictively and without any apparent purpose.

J and L are also friends of ours.  Weíve known them for about a decade, and their daughters A and A are the same ages as Keefe and Hugh, and also very close friends. Iíve grown extremely fond of their one-year-old son T, who, like me, is the last child of three, the only boy, and the astrological sign cancer.  They purchased a new home in the late spring and juggled the financing so that they could keep their old home for at least a while -- partly because they already had so much on their plate that getting the old house ready for resale seemed a monumental undertaking, and also because they wanted to help N and D get out of the toxic situation they were in.  They rented their old house to N and D, which seemed like an elegant solution to everyone, and for a brief time, everyone was happy.  With Hughís entering grade one and therefore spending full days in school, I started looking for some sort of flexible employment to arrest our continual slide slowly into greater debt, and agreed to provide occasional care for baby T while his mother returned to her work as a midwife.

Are you with me so far?

Then, as Keats predicts in the famous poem, things fell apart.  Mostly, it was inter-family communication skills that seem to have gone first.  N and D had a surprise stutter in their finances which quickly put them in arrears to J and L in rent, and the lack of communication and follow up started to sour the mood of their friendship.  N and D complained of a problem with mold growing in the basement of the house they were now renting, and felt that their concerns about it representing a possible health hazard fell on unsympathetic ears.  They started to get sick.  J and L suggested that theyíd had no obvious ill effects from their four years in the house, and could we get back to the discussion about how we were trying to help you out by renting to you so why did we only find out your checks bounced after the fact from the bank?  Toes got stepped on.  Tones got unpleasant.  Eventually, things came to a head.  One of N and Dís pets died, and they hit the panic button.


Now what does one do when a friend calls you up in a blind panic because they believe a toxin in their environment is killing them?  We invite them over.  The middle bedroom grows three extra tenants, their dog and cat start working out a pecking order with our two cats, and we anticipate a certain amount of extra clutter.  Itís hardly the first time weíve opened our house like this.  Three different young men in our extended community lived with us for several months apiece within the last few years, and Janís position as a high school teacher brings us occasional stray teens, such as the drama student she found sleeping on a bench behind the school last week because heíd had a fight with his step-dad and been kicked out.  He got the futon in the third floor playroom for a few days while tempers cooled and added another face to our crowded house.  Not to mention the usual flood of friends and acquaintances that weíre still seeing, such as Keefeís friend Benjamin who came for a sleepover visit weíd planned before all of this chaos.  Neighborhood children also come by to join in the water balloon fights in front of the house and end up staying for dinner as well.  Itís at least slightly insane, but you canít say it isnít interesting.  Itís as if the whole village it takes to raise a child is determined to move in with us directly.

But itís that village, or at least the sense of community that weíve worked so hard to create among like-minded local families, thatís gotten chewed up by this entire awkward narrative.  Because weíre close friends with both families, we tell them we donít want to be put in the middle, but we want to compassionately offer support.  J and L suggest that they feel thereís a serious breach of trust in the handling of matters by N and D, but they understand that weíve invited them here because we want to help them out as friends, and certainly donít want to hold that against us.  Will N and D living here mean that my arrangement with J and L to watch baby T is in jeopardy?  They donít see why it should, if things are at least amicable and polite in communications between them, as they work towards resolving the issues of money owed, mold in the house, hurt feelings and miscommunications.  We respectfully tell N and D that we arenít going to ask them for rent or pressure them about a departure date, but that the one thing we need for this not to adversely affect us is for them to keep their negotiations civil and mutually respectful.

Next comes the science lesson, and itís about as easy to follow as calculus was back in high school with the mean spirited demoralizing teacher I had the year that my first lover was pregnant and later became sick and I couldnít care a tinkerís cuss for my marks because I was freaking out completely.  Because they were still arguing over whether the mold in the house was a health problem or the cause of the poor catís demise, N brought in an engineer who specializes in mold problems to take spore samples at the plague house.  J was in attendance with this guy Gord who had already done various work for them as a handyman because he figured that if drywall would need replacing or what have you that Gord would be the guy to do it, so he might as well be there to hear what the expert had to say directly.  Gord apparently spent a good chunk of time calling N seven kinds of auxiliary anus, J was silent because he felt blindsided by Nís presentation, complete with digital pictures of mold growing in his house that heís never seen before or been informed of the existence of, the engineer wrote them off as hostiles, and the general blur of recriminations smeared everyoneís lens further.  Because N pays the engineer for his time, he is now unable to pay J rent once again, and with three months of arrears rent owing, J serves him with eviction papers, asking them to settle accounts within two weeks or remove their possessions.  When the lab comes back with test results, the engineer tells N and D they shouldnít be in the house without biohazard suits, and they can expect to spend up to ten thousand dollars for the decontamination of their possessions before they are safe to move.  Apparently there are a handful of potentially very hazardous varieties among the thousands of molds that can infect a house, and, like pollen or bee stings, they can affect some people much more strongly than others.  A broad sheaf of documents makes its way to J and L.  They consult with two of the different companies recommended in the report, and a representative from one of them performs some sort of detoxification of the mold-affected basement and states that heís prepared to legally certify the building safe.  He also suggests that cleanup of the house contents should be a fairly straightforward process without a significant price tag.  Now we have two experts differing wildly in their assessments, J and L feel theyíve dealt with the problem in good faith, and N and D still believe their health is in serious jeopardy without decontamination they cannot remotely afford.

Now at this point, I have to soapbox.  While the news is rife with images of floating bodies and devastation in hurricane-hammered New Orleans, I think of this mold colony in my friendsí house as a more intimate breed of natural disaster.  Sometimes that means ordinary people getting shot as looters because they havenít got anything to feed their kids and theyíre trying to find some at a half drowned grocery store, and sometimes it means people pulling together, like us, to share their homes and resources with those displaced or orphaned by forces beyond their control.  Sometimes you work together because itís nailed all of you and surviving seems easier together, and sometimes your neighbor is the obstacle between you and that can of beans.  It can really go either way.  With these initials Iíve been bandying about here, it seems to me that these tiny spores swept unforeseen upon them, and it could have brought them closer together seeking solutions to it.   Both families feel the exact same thing: theyíre threatened, angry, feel disregarded or not listened to, and deeply resent the hostility theyíre getting from the other side.  Both of them pretty clearly want to hear an apology and see their concerns being addressed.  As an outsider, it all seems fairly simple to me.  So, three weeks into this change in our living arrangements, are things any better?  No.  With all the careful forethought of cornered animals, messages have progressed to name-calling, hyperbole, and personal attacks on each otherís character.

Iím not proposing solutions.  Really, it isnít my problem, although I am fooling myself if I claim that weíve avoided the middle of this.  What is my problem is keeping my family as together as possible throughout this whole process.  Itís impossible not to pick up on some of the emotional volatility all of this engenders, and every one of us has had moments of being more explosive.  Weíve also had a few wonderful moments together here and there, and I am enjoying the good weather, my bicycle, and available daytime by meeting Janice and the boys for lunch at their respective schools to refresh our connections pleasantly.  Keefe in particular, being more conscious of the underlying issues folk are facing, seems to be finding some perspective on the relative importance of the PS2 he wants in the face of possibly watching these families we know possibly lose everything.  Cooking for eight or ten is familiar enough, and feeling this crowded is work, but wow are we providing our sons an example that we believe compassion trumps convenience.  Outside friends alternate between telling me Iím insane and telling me Iím a saint.  ďOh, thatís easyĒ I tell them, ďIím insane, Janice is the saint.  So you see, youíre both right.Ē

Want to know just how insane?  Next week is Keefeís birthday, with a ten-tween sleepover planned, including representatives from both of the warring families, and weíre still going to attempt it.  Then a few weeks later, at the end of October, thereís already a standing invitation to not only everyone mentioned above, but two more families as well for our feast of the dead.  Stay tuned.
Michael Nabert
is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh and Keefe.  


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