The Irony Report from Small Town America–Episode 4

This morning my heart is about as flat and gray as the clouded sky. As I type this, the sun is breaking through, returning the contrast to the view of the field and barn through my ground level window.

This contrast of light and dark–this is what provides the energy of life. Contrast creates interest. Chiaroscuro. Drama. Bright light alone can create energy and joy for a time, but those who live in climates where blue skies prevail exalt in the coming of storms. Even the earth and the rocks need relief from excitement. If they were always heated by the sun, their vibrating molecules would be forever in a state of agitation, never allowing stillness to penetrate. The cold, the gray allows everything to draw into the silence of its core—an in-breath.

What to write? The pencil poised over the blank page. At the moment, I am acutely aware of the suffering of my friends. Friends with a critically ill family member, a friend whose husband with dementia has disappeared. Friends with grave illness. Friends and family suffering from the stress of trying to make it each day of their lives. Some younger, some older. I am a vessel for their emotion. The self deep inside is making room for them.

And then there are Art and Margaret, owners, architects and builders of the Ferndale Clock Tower, valiantly cheerful and ironic in the face of ridiculous financial threat from the government of a city meant to support its citizens. I’ll get back to their crazy story. It’s a small piece of the enormous and dangerous absurdities happening on a grand scale around us.  It reflects on so much more. It may remind us of the current frustration we face as citizens of a country whose leader is able to tell lie after lie with impunity.  This is a story of what happens when this is tolerated by a community.

Okay, they’re immigrants, not citizens. I’m surprised they even contemplate US Citizenship at this moment in history since they hold Canadian Passports (the country that took them in as refugees from an oppressive communist government) and perhaps passports from their native Poland. But they have contributed significantly to the welfare of this region by re-building schools and college buildings, repairing the dome of a county capital building, creating structures for parks, and last but not least, attempting to make a spectacular creation out of their old house on Main Street. They have been able to complete all of their projects on schedule, within budget and have always exceeded inspection standards. The last mentioned project, however, has represented their ultimate challenge. No other homeowners in the town of Ferndale have been held to the standards imposed on the Roszjas by the authority of the City. For over ten years, the City has acted as if it were dealing with a terror threat–a threat of terror in the form of two Polish immigrants erecting a dangerous and contagious structure on its Main Street, right there for all to see.  They have thrown as many obstacles as they could create in the path of its completion,not to exclude a barage of criminal charges thrown with great abandon at Art, and then dismissed as groundless by the court.  In one small moment of triumph, Art later won a harassment suit against the City (which, as a result, lost its insurer) with a small settlement.  

It has not let up, however.  City officials trespassed on their property while they were away working on a project across the state in order to take “incriminating” photos of recycled building materials stacked behind and on the side of the house.  Wisely, the court would not allow them to be entered as evidence since they were taken illegally. To top off the City’s Laurel and Hardy approach to persecution, staff from the City office used the pretense of an Emergency Status (due to the flooding of the local river) to trespass once again, aided and abetted by the local police shining lights on the early morning scene, and steal many valuable, recycled building materials intended for the house. Under the supervision of the police, they were hauled away in a truck, most never to be seen again.

Meanwhile, the Roszjas have had to submit to makeshift inspections created uniquely for them as the denizens of the city drive by every day, complaining to each other about these shiftless people who never finish their monstrosity. As Margaret said a while back:

The absurd never ends. So many little people want to be a part of the Clock Tower team. We have another one jumping on the wagon (a third party inspector with predictable confusion). The inspector is mixing-up codes, materials, methods of installation, applying his own standard, etc. all in concert with the attorneys—all milking the system mercilessly and all trying to drive the Clock town journey. How many drivers do you need for one wagon? The more the merrier! There are still empty benches at the back of the moving wagon.
After a forensic-style investigation with magnifying glasses, with the highest available resolution and zoom, we learned that on a molecular level, water might penetrate and accumulate in the structure. The highest standard applied to the Clock Tower is still too low for the amazing environment of our city. Under our city standards, the safest and most compliant thing is to build nothing. Even the fiddler on the roof will be in danger in the basement of our building, with or without music. We are restarting with tons of caulking, flashing and special inspection tests, hoping the next report will not find that now the building is watertight but unbreathable.
One would wonder how previous generations built Clock Towers, cathedrals, castles and those structures are still standing today without our current great team involvement in their construction…
We are looking into the future with confidence that in the end, President Trump will make the Clock Tower Great.

At the last court hearing, they were granted the right to find a third party inspector who would be approved by both parties. The difficulty was that there is no precedent for a mid-construction inspection for homeowners. No qualified building inspector could be found in the state of Washington. Most had never heard of such a thing. When an academic was finally located who believed he might be able to come up with something, he found fault with things already approved by the city such as certain types of composition brick used for the siding. At some point it was suggested they would have to deconstruct parts of the wall, remove bricks and caulking and have them ground up and submitted for chemical analysis!

As of my last installment, the Roszjas were puzzling over how to comply with contradictory legal mandates from the City, pouring over emails and a three-inch stack of legal documents they’d recently received from the City’s attorney. All through the fall and winter, they have continued to work on the house ten to twelve hour days, seven days a week except for breaks for other construction jobs. They are now, on top of huge legal fees, facing stipulated fines of $486,000 for infractions they never committed. They have never been able to testify in their own defense to the court. Several requests have been denied. As a result, they have never had the chance to refute what the City has held to be the facts of the case. The court has just accepted these false assertions as correct and allowed them to become the basis of the City’s suit. However unconstitutional this may seem, it someone matches what we are now experiencing on a national level. As a fourteen-year-old friend of mine would say when her outrage reached crisis point, “It’s a TRAVESTY!”

Their appeal is finally moving through to a hearing in late March. Their counsel has outlined a very clear argument stating basically that the City 1) wrote their Settlement Agreement with no actual agreement with the other party (the Roszjas), 2) mandated the Roszjas complete parts of the structure but then, as the permit issuing entity, dragged their feet for two years before issuing a permit for that construction, and 3) never even granted the Roszjas their right to contest the facts of the case, face-to-face with their accusers. It should be open and shut, but I have no faith that the courts will abide by the laws.

Now we get to the light. In the shadow of this darkness, Art and Margaret carry on with liberal doses of humor. When our local Trump fanatic drove his pickup into the graveled parking lot in front of the clock tower in October, Margaret jumped at the chance to enter the City of Ferndale’s Halloween Decoration Contest for the scariest Halloween decorations. In a gesture of supreme irony, Mr. Munchler, Mayor of Ferndale and the party ultimately responsible for maintaining their ongoing persecution, had invited Art to be on the jury for this contest. In light of this honor and in order to prevent conflict of interest, Art could not submit an entry. However, Margaret determined that as an American wife, independent of her husband, she could submit an entry and receive Art’s unbiased judgment. Therefore, she was delighted that fate had delivered her the opportunity for the most genuinely frightening decoration, free of charge. She authorized, without Art’s consent, the installation of the huge Trump sign on top of the clock tower. What parallelism!  Before even a day had passed, they had lost several loyal friends. These folks weren’t laughing.

One spring, on top of an artfully arranged mound of bricks, they mounted three large crosses in front of the house. Again, unappreciated by the citizens of Whatcom County. Undaunted, last summer they established a beach in the front parking lot, blue plastic water complete with waves, a boat, a sandy beach, a beach umbrella and several beach chairs. Occasionally they and their friends could be seen lounging under the umbrella as if they had not a care in the world. A few years ago, they nailed plywood sheets to the front of the unfinished house front, creating a huge flat surface, ideal for a screen. Facing the house from the graveled lot they erected rows of chairs salvaged from a classroom at the college they were refurbishing. For a long and glorious summer evening, we drank beer as we watched, projected onto the huge screen, parts of the great film trilogy, “Red White and Blue”, by the great Polish director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, all witnessed by the Ferndale Police driving by from their extravagant new police station, just across the street and down the block.

This week, as part of their ongoing construction, they are completing the spire for the top of the tower. For now, it is a large wooden pyramid in front of the house, being covered today with zinc panels. It is topped by a tall flag pole displaying the American Flag. Such patriotism! The Masonic Founders would be proud! It was this spire the court mandated be completed before the city even got around to issuing the long-awaited permit.  And, for an even more elegantly ironic touch, two days ago, a City official drove up unannounced in his pickup.  He was one of the City crew involved in the theft of materials several years ago. In the back of his pickup sat a huge, gun-metal dark room door, strangely resembling some sort of retro, futuristic phone booth.

Art and Margaret recognized it as a piece salvaged from one of their college campus renovation jobs. They speculate the guilt must have been eating him all this time.  It now sits like some bizarre monument in front of the house, a complement to the flag pole pyramid.  Even with all the hours and hours of construction spent up on the roof through the winter weather, building things and then tearing them out to satisfy the City, they have now, at last, been able to mount clock faces on the four sides of the tower. They are all permanently set at 10:04. Evidently, no lightning strike was required to stop time at that precise moment, but who knows what the future might hold when we return to it, yet again.

From a perch on top of the house where there was once a temporary walkway from the “deck” to the tower, in the good weather one year we staged impromptu absurdist dramas with Art’s artistic sister from Canada and her witty husband, borrowing lines from the prominent Polish playwright, Witkiewicz, once again in view of the cops driving up and down Main Street, as they do many, many times a day. I haven’t laughed as hard since. As Nell said in Beckett’s Endgame, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness…It’s the most comical thing in the world.” We need more theater of the absurd—now! Ah, but wait, we are at present all seated unwittingly in expensive, tax-funded seats in some enormous theater-in-the-round called America.

We will certainly have another production on March 3rd when the City of Ferndale again takes our Polish comrades back to court to contend with three-hundred pages of accusations of contempt which would (on top of attorney and court fees) at least temporarily, more than empty the royal treasury of even the Glorious Emperor and Empress of Ferndale.

Long Live the Ferndale Clock Tower! It would make a grand City Hall. In the shadow, all we can do is create some light. The sun is out now, making a most astonishing, transcendent blue in the middle of a huge cumulus cloud that has a bit of gray on its edges.

From left: Art, Margaret and dear Comrade Lloyd (one time owner of the Frank-N-Stein Pub where all the trouble started, and twice mayoral candidate)
The glorious Clock Tower spire

Poem VI





What shall we do in the face of all this beauty?

Standing on a rock overlooking the fast flowing river,

wind touches our face, blows through our ears

Washes our eyes.

The great leaning manzanita tree

does not move.

What shall we do in the face of all this darkness

pushing in all around? This danger?

The harrier comes to visit for a reason, the white

patch at the base of his tail flashing in the early

morning light as he careens through the air,

cutting it in a smooth curve as he descends.

That bird inhabits my chest,

swooping towards the field below, fierce

in graceful, silent beauty.

Grey head with sharply focused eyes,

bright. Gliding over the earth.

See each thing that moves

as if with a magnifying glass.

From above in your flight, really see

all that is happenning there

in the grasses.

Come to alight with grace

in the branches of the highest tree.


Now that you have seen

Your patience will speak to you

of doing.

An Urgent Letter to Us

As the 1970s were drawing to a close, many of us had spent our early youth protesting against an unjust war being fought by our companions, going back to the land to live a simpler, less consumptive life, attempting to educate and protest against profligate use of fossil fuels and trying to find new ways to live together. In the midst of all the distress of the present, we may have forgotten the glue of inclusive love and community that bound us all together. It has been so mocked and belittled over the years that its reality has been all but obliterated in a haze of marijuana smoke. It was a reality.

In those waning years of the 70s, after Nixon had systematically smothered our efforts, Ford had solidified that oppression and a more liberal Jimmy Carter had been elected, many of us began to feel our biological clocks moving ahead and decided to use this moment of increased hope to complete our education or go into the workforce so we could begin careers, get resources, have families, and continue fighting for these global emergencies from the home front.

Unfortunately, a by-product of those choices was acceptance of the belief that we could work within the system to change it. Many came to believe the government could be turned in a direction that would save us. Many of my closest women friends became lawyers, academicians, and some, eventually, the bureaucrats responsible for enacting governmental policies, devout believers in the efficacy of American Democracy. Carter’s years wasted away and the pendulum swung again to the right, where it has stuck ever since, through both Republican and Democratic presidents. When, during the early Obama years, Naomi Klein said we had to take the opportunity to “Move the Center”, few heeded her call.

Sometimes those friends of mine felt they were making some progress, but most of the time they were at the mercy of policies which, at best, allowed for minuscule steps in a positive direction, and at worst, set things back years. There were a few people like my present partner, who knew the system would not save us, no matter how we tried to shift it from within. He and others like him continued to live life closer to the ground. When, out of frustration and necessity, some decided to make the attempt to push the system by joining it, the window of opportunity had closed. It was too late. They have struggled to survive while continuing to do whatever they can in the community they find.

I became a social worker just as Carter was completing his term and after life diverted me from a career in academic research and teaching. I spent thirty-five years going to work every day to do whatever I could to save children, allow families to function, and protect and care for the homeless and vulnerable. Occasionally there were times when this was possible, at least in some small way. I would be doing these things still if I had not come to feel that each day I was stepping into what felt like a building burning ferociously around us. I, too, was at the mercy of a system that fed itself rather than feeding those whom it was meant to serve. Then, I dreamt one night I was trapped in that building and people were calling from the outside, arms outstretched, imploring me to get out before the burning beams fell on me. I knew it was time to leave before the building crashed down on my head. You can’t do much when you’re dead.

Here we are forty years down the road from that shift at the end of the 70s. The same emergencies are with us. They have grown exponentially. The things we were doing every day before we surrendered to the heels of the government grinding down on our heads are still the things we need to do now, every day. From the evidence I see in all the various forms of media, the overwhelming majority of us in the opposition have inculcated the belief that it is the government that will doom us or save us. Many have taught their children that the greatest value is to change things through the use of the democratic system—which they regard as the best modality for living together the world has ever known. Perhaps with a truly functional democracy, we would get somewhere, but this is not one. I have seen this staunch belief to be the road to ruin. What was critical in the 60s and early 70s was the willingness to make personal sacrifice in order to address the over-weaning emergencies confronting us every day. It was one of the few times in our history as a species when it did not take the actual presence of war in our midst to make it viscerally apparent that our lives were at stake.

When confronted with the presence of the dangers we now face, it is clear this same sense of imminence has been lacking, even as our situation since that time has only become increasingly dire minute by minute. Protests are fine as a tool to pressure power to make slight adjustments in course. Phone calls and letters to government officials are fine for the same reasons. But these activities serve to take the edge off our anxieties. We do them and then do our best to return to our work, to living our lives pretty much as usual, diverting ourselves if we can with all the media options available.

The government will go on. We need the energy of our anxiety to do the real work. Even if one ruler is impeached, another possibly more destructive will take his place. Those in power will make decisions that are horrendously damaging to our short term health and certainly to the sustainability of life on this planet. It comes down to the same choice it came to 40-odd years ago—making revolution or, together, taking things in our own hands. As in the 70s, it is clear the first option is ridiculously out of the question. The power of the US government and its partner corporations is such that we would be immediately and thoroughly destroyed. The only alternative is to get busy and do the work ourselves. This means, for most, sacrificing what they have come to feel are the essentials of life: giving up the new cars, working in ways that give us sustenance but not much more, growing our own food, finding ways to live simply together and supporting those who are not able to make it–giving up the rat race we have been hypnotized into experiencing as essential to our very physical and cultural survival.

At last, it is becoming clear we are at war with our government. Perhaps we have some common ground with our brothers and sisters who voted for Donald Trump as an “anti-government” choice. But now that he is the government, those who still idolize him may come to recognize their hero has just shifted one set of policies that support the rich for another. His supporters have the intelligence gained from experience. If we can stop allowing Mr. Trump and his cronies to manipulate us into wasting our anger on each another, perhaps we’ll find ways to support the lives of all those who have not shared in the power for all these years instead of using our energies to maintain the unsustainable lifestyles to which we’ve become accustomed.

Let’s make use of what we’ve learned over the last 45 years—the government will always disappoint us and will never do what is essential to save this planet. As do the international “terrorists”, government often benefits from a divided populace. The supporters of Trump who saw him as an antidote to the forces working against their interests may soon resume their disillusionment with government. This I can understand. The emergency is ours to face. Sinking back into sleep has allowed all the urgent situations to become only greater and more dangerous. Don’t go back to sleep! It is at your door. Act as you do in an emergency. It becomes your priority. All else is secondary. In an emergency, what is of true value suddenly becomes crystal clear.