Magazine June 22, 2020, Issue

The Root of the Matter

A girl plays outside during the coronavirus outbreak, Brooklyn, N.Y., May 17, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Minneapolis on the last day of May. It was a beautiful blue afternoon, and we were doing yard work. Daughter was cutting up dead branches; Wife was weeding and pruning. I was working on a particularly stubborn metaphor. 

The root system of a bush, to be exact. The bush had expired over the winter, and had not come back to join its brothers. (I realized I just gendered the bushes without checking their pronouns, and beg your indulgence in these unprecedented times.) When a tree dies, it just stands there, like a person who turns into a showroom mannequin. Eventually it falls or burns. But a dead bush is like a drunk at the bar who falls asleep at closing time — without the snoring, of course. You have to haul it out. Time to go, pal. C’mon. 

My wife had removed all the dead bush’s branches, and the end result made me think twice about letting her give me a lockdown haircut. I started to dig around the root ball.

“What’s going on down there?” Daughter asked. She saw neighbors standing around at the triangle park at the end of the block, listening to someone speak. She went down to investigate, and I returned to the bush. If you’ve done this sort of work, you know it seems easy at first — just dig around, get under the root ball, and apply leverage to lift it from the soil.

Referring to the power of the lever, Archimedes supposedly said, “Give me a place to stand, and I can move the earth.” Archimedes never met this bush. It had roots that went everywhere in the soil, deep and gnarled and twisty.

“Don’t make me think you’re a metaphor for systemic institutional racism,” I muttered. “Not now. I need to get this done before the curfew falls.”

Daughter returned from the meeting. It was about neighborhood safety. Watch for strange people, hide all your combustible materials. This amused everyone — the garbage hadn’t been picked up this weekend. Everyone put out the bins on Thursday night as usual, but on Friday the garbage hadn’t been taken. 

What is this, the total breakdown of law and order? Oh, right — after Memorial Day, the trash gets picked up on Saturday. But on Saturday, it hadn’t been removed. What is this, the total breakdown of law and order?

Oh, right, it is.

Well, this ranks as No. 100,001 on a list of the city’s top 100,000 problems, so who cares. But it meant that the boulevard was lined with bags of dead sticks and grass, which was some dandy accelerant. We’d been warned about people pre-positioning flammables in various neighborhoods, but here we’d done it for them. No, we insist, don’t use yours, save it, you never know. Minnesota nice!

We moved the bags of leaves and sticks to the garage, and I went back to the metaphor. Now let’s see. If this does represent systemic inequities and institutionalized mechanisms that perpetuate disparities, how do I get it out? As the critics of America might note, its roots are deep and tangled. 

Ah, but if the roots were severed by force, it could be lifted out. 

Wait, what am I now, the Antifa of shrubbists? This isn’t even college-freshman-level banality, it’s college-professor-level banality. 

It took half an hour, and blood was shed as the limbs from other bushes lashed my arms, but in the end it came out, and that was that and nothing more. The next thing to do was to unplug the bathtub drain, which was probably a metaphor for the nation’s politics. If the political system were full of hair.

Before that, though, it was time to put all the legal documents and backup hard drives in a box for quick removal, if it came to that. The box had copies of my books and a few precious moments; I’d put it together when the pandemic hit, in case I was carried off: The life’s work boils down to this, my dear survivors, so you can give away everything else. 

Ah, the halcyon days of yore when we just worried about a disease. Why, I’d give anything to rewind the clock to March, when we were innocent and full of hope.

Where to put the box, though? If the house is on fire, where should it — 

“Did Birch get a walk?” Wife called upstairs. “Someone should walk Birch before curfew.”

Right, right — don’t want to get a rubber bullet in the brainpan. On the plus side, no need to wear a mask outside. We’re past that. 

“Let me finish packing up my life’s work, and then I have to deal with the nation’s political system.”

“What?”

“The hair in the drain of the nation’s sclerotic, unresponsive political system, revealed as utterly incompetent when true pressure is applied.”

“Okay.”

It was a nice evening, too. Hamburgers on the grill, a good cigar and whiskey, grabbing the hammer when voices could be heard outside on the street, and so on. We considered building a fire and making s’mores, but there are drones overhead looking for fires, so maybe not. 

An ordinary day in 2020, in other words. Not normal, but ordinary. The plywood on all the stores, the long lines at the one grocery store that was still open, the friendly smile from the clerk at the hardware store where I’d bought dirt and seed.

Still time to start something growing, after all. You can also plant grass in the fall when the cold times are nigh and hope that it grows anew when winter has passed. As it will. But winter, you know, is yet to come.

Ah, finally: an apt metaphor.

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New York City’s Downward Spiral

New York City must be one of the few places on earth where chaos nostalgia is widespread. Many were the laments, in the Giuliani-Bloomberg era, that the city was “too sanitized,” “too gentrified,” “too boring,” “anodyne,” “suburban.” Often you’d hear people saying, or declaiming, that their ... Read More
U.S.

New York City’s Downward Spiral

New York City must be one of the few places on earth where chaos nostalgia is widespread. Many were the laments, in the Giuliani-Bloomberg era, that the city was “too sanitized,” “too gentrified,” “too boring,” “anodyne,” “suburban.” Often you’d hear people saying, or declaiming, that their ... Read More

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The Anarchist Storm over Portland

Stephen Peifer, a retired assistant U.S. attorney in Portland, Ore., sat down with National Review’s Luther Abel to discuss the state’s long and infamous struggle with left-wing extremist groups, why federal officers were deployed to Portland, and what makes the current situation in the city uniquely ... Read More
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Did the DACA Ruling Bury Constitutionalism?

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Did the DACA Ruling Bury Constitutionalism?

In reacting to President Trump's recent executive orders, Jim Geraghty asks “Do Americans Even Care If There's a Constitution?" He reluctantly suggests that the answer is “no.” This didn't happen all at once -- Woodrow Wilson was probably the first notable to explicitly express the progressive ... Read More