Thursday, October 14, 1999

ahab:white whale::me:hedge

When I was a child, certain TV commercials came with advisories like, "Professional test pilot. Do not attempt at home with Radio Flyer."

I always found these warnings useful, and many times I know I was dissuaded from attempting to fly in my little red wagon, eating fire, or jumping the Grand Canyon in a specially modified motorcycle because of these warnings.

Now that I'm older, I wish certain pastimes came with similar advisories. Who wouldn't benefit from caveats like, "Mr. McCandless is a professional landscaper -- do not attempt this by yourself."

I know I would benefit.

I say this because my struggle with the Ugliest Hedge in the World has extended into its fourth month. More than six feet tall when I moved in, the hedge now looms even larger in my mind.

By day, it dances tantalizingly before me, as ugly as the girl who put paste in my hair in kindergarten. By night, it robs me of my sleep and fills my dreams with horrible visions until at last I awake, screaming, "The clippers! Get me the clippers!"

For the first time since I read "Moby Dick" in sixth grade, I understand Captain Ahab. I, too, have a white whale to chase.

I hate the hedge. I want it gone. I'd chase it round the maelstrom and through Perdition's flame just to get rid of it. If it could walk, that is.

I'm not sure why I hate hedges so much, but I've always considered them to be among the ugliest plants known to the front yards of mankind. If I had my choice of having a hedge, the living disembodied head of Richard Nixon or a queen-size mattress in my front yard, I would pick the mattress every time.

As it happens, I do have the mattress, but Natasha and I keep that on the side of the house, completely out of sight. We briefly considered getting Nixon's head, but we decided that after "Futurama," that just wasn't original enough.

I'm stuck with the hedge, but I want to be rid of it.

Burning it out would do the trick, and could even reinvigorate the yard, just as the 1987 fires out West took Yellowstone National Park to previously unknown heights of glory. The problem is those fires first had to burn a third of the park to a crisp. I'm not yet ready to risk losing the house.

Because the hedge has grown up along the edge of my property, I feel compelled to chat with my neighbor and sound him out before I avenge myself upon this monstrosity.

I've dropped by time and again, but my neighbor is never around. I finally decided the hedge has to go anyway. Last week I took my hedge clippers outside and, as a blue corona of energy illuminated them, not unlike St. Elmo's Fire as it lit Ahab’s harpoon, I swore I would bring the hedge down or die trying.

Last month, I had trimmed off everything the hedge had grown during the summer, and a little bit more. This week, I cut off an entire foot.

That's my strategy. The hedge will grow new leaves to replace the canopy it just lost, and eventually, it will look fine, only shorter than it used to be, and then it will be time to strike again. Right now it looks shorter than it used to be and -- hard as this is to believe -- uglier. All the cut and leafless branches stick out on top.

I figure if I can maintain a subtle pace, my neighbor eventually will look over at my house, think to himself, "Didn't there used to be a hedge over there?" and, unable to remember a clear delineation between hedge and no hedge, will simply scratch his head in confusion and go back inside.

It may sound implausible, but it's worked for a number of my friends with their hairlines, particularly the aforementioned Mr. McCandless.

My struggle this past week was arduous. Previous trimmings have left the hedge armed with pointy sticks to poke me with, and its branches in many places are too thick to trim effortlessly and too dense to trim quickly. By the time I finished, I had spent more than two hours on the job.

"No, you can't get away," I gasped as I tried to cut one particularly troublesome stalk at the base. My breath was coming in rasps, and the trimmers grappled ineffectively with the thick stem. I had to add my left hand to my right to find the strength to squeeze the trimmers through the wood.

"From hell's heart, I stab at thee." The blade cut into the thick branch. "For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee." With one last squeeze, the blades cut the hedge trunk right through.
I watched in great delight as the harpoon sank into the flesh of my personal white whale and left a rather satisfying scar. With a crash, it fell.

Unlike the good captain, I've survived my ordeal. Moby Dick dragged Ahab to his death. All I have is a few dozen scratches on my arm and a sore hand. I'm a winner.

Of course, there are still about five feet of hedge left to go.

Thursday, October 07, 1999

issues for today's politicians

There are two things that disappoint me every election cycle, without fail.

The first is that we still haven't initiated a hunting season to thin out the ranks. Anyone familiar with the ongoing political process at the federal level has to agree that some thinning is needed.

The herd has become so large that politicians are foraging for voters earlier and earlier each year. Some of the most promising candidates are getting bumped off because they can't compete with the less interesting, albeit more powerful, ones. Hunting season is definitely in order.

The second thing that annoys me about elections is that no one tackles the really important issues, the ones everyone really cares about. Most politicians discuss programs and projects that are more involved than quantum physics and less comprehensible than tax laws.

Saving Social Security, paying back dues to the United Nations and gun control are all important issues in their own right, but none of them are issues that really get masses of people up in arms.

Any politician who steps forward with a commitment to tackle these issues is going to get my vote:

1. Stupid holidays. Most holidays serve some purpose, at least originally. Memorial Day has been demeaned to merely the first barbecue of summer, but at least its stated purpose is to remember all the fallen in our nation's wars. What's the story with Columbus Day, anyway?

The whole point of Columbus' trans-Atlantic trips wasn't to seek out new lands and new civilizations or to embark on an age of discovery. All he was after was finding a new way to get to India to avoid the bandits along the established trade routes, and he couldn't even get that right.

Off course by more than an entire hemisphere, Columbus still refused to admit to the queen or to his crew that he was lost.

"I know it's around here somewhere," he'd say in typical-guy fashion, bumping into one Caribbean island after another.

If Columbus at least had taken his wife with him, she would have made him stop at a gas station and ask for directions. Then he could have discovered the alternate trade route and done something worthy of history.

2. Check-out lanes. Maybe I'm missing the point, but I thought the whole idea of an express lane was that it was supposed to go fast. At this point, I'd be happy if "express" meant the same thing in a supermarket that it means to express mail delivery; i.e., it takes less than 24 hours.

3. Tailgaters. In the 13 years I've been driving, I have seen exactly one driver respond to the recommended practice of taking one's foot off the gas and coasting.

Much more frequently, these goobers actually have continued to tailgate me, even when there are other lanes they can move into and pass me to their hearts' content.

4. Police who just want to give out tickets. Most of the men and women in blue I've met are decent folks, but it seems like there's one Constable Elbow in every department.

These are the officers who follow you for 30 miles, just waiting for you to do a California stop or for you to go one mile faster than the speed limit.

One time, I was pulled over in Bridgewater, N.J., for speeding, even though I had already had slowed down to the established limit. Officer Elbow pulled me over anyway, and hit me with three tickets.

If the police are that hungry for excitement, maybe they should help thin out the political herd or pull over some tailgaters.

5. Parents who give their children common names. There ought to be some sort of running tally somewhere in Washington, D.C., that monitors name use, similar to the way e-mail providers keep track of user IDs.

If too many people have the same first name, hospitals would have to tell new parents, "Sorry, that name is already in use. Can we suggest Dave3124?"

6. English measurements. There is nothing more frustrating than trying again and again to find the right ratchet socket, only to discover the car manufacturer is still using an outdated measurement system. It's even worse when other parts of the car are in metric.

Nothing tops the recent fiasco around the Mars Climate Orbiter, a $125 million spacecraft of NASA's, paid for with our tax dollars, that burned up in the Martian atmosphere.

Lockheed Martin Co., the contractor for the project, used English measurements instead of the metric ones employed by every other member of the scientific community in the world.

As a result, our tax money is a slagged monument on Mars to the lack of intelligent life here on Earth.

My wife and I have a couple friends who work for Lockheed. The next time I see either Astro or Dan, I plan to hit them on the head with my metric ratchet set until they get the idea.

7. People who complain too much. Enough said.

I should add that I used to be bothered by political posters that say "Vote Drake, Quince and Elwood for Township Council" and put the party mascot on the sign as if that were all that matters.

Such signs say absolutely nothing about who these jokers are or what they hope to accomplish if they get elected. It does, however, say that they frivolously spend money on shallow campaigning efforts that do nothing to educate the public, in keeping with standard practice for upper levels of government.

This no longer annoys me, however, since I've decided to look at the entire issue from a new perspective. They're investing in the local economy, which means the people who put up the most and gaudiest election signs care the most for local business.

Now if we could just get them to do something about those checkout lines.