Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Retro Writing Wednesday: On Roots

In this more-too-busy-than-the-usual-too-busy season of life, I still wish for time to exercise my creative side, especially here. I just don't have much time for it. So, I kicked on the way-back machine and dug up this essay that I wrote before I was a competent parent (or any kind of parent at all) but was about to be. It also predated this blog by, oh, 6 or 7 years, and my high school friend David Herrle ended up publishing it on his online literary magazine, Subtletea. It's safe to say that we don't regret the decision to stay in Pittsburgh that felt pretty momentous at the time.

On Roots

As I spent last Saturday morning eradicating a grove of weed trees from the space between my house and the neighbor's house, I mused about the nature of roots, both the literal ones and the figurative, personal roots that ground us in a place. The hard work of pulling up trees that ranged from saplings to six-footers with one-inch trunks made me reflect on the past year, much of which my wife and I spent contemplating uprooting ourselves from Pittsburgh. As she applied to and was accepted at inviting law schools that would have taken us to Manhattan or Chicago or Washington, DC for at least three years, we encountered the roots that we've put down in our seven years here together.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised that loosening a little 2-year old maple required me to dig out an area a foot around it and a foot below where the trunk met the ground. Schoolbooks feature cross-sectional sketches of trees with their root systems extending underground as expansively as the trunk and branches above. Still, the sight of not a single root continuing below the trunk, but multiple limbs radiating in all directions, was somehow an unexpected discovery. All of my life, I've seen grand old trees pushing up sidewalks from below, their largest moorings climbing back above ground as they spread. But the tenacity of this ingenious design surprised (and frustrated) me. A runt with a trunk no bigger than my thumb required the removal of a bucket of soil, the strategic chopping of layers of offshoots and back-straining yanks once enough tendrils had been loosened.

We express the relationship that people develop with places as "putting down roots"; my Saturday morning experience gave the figure of speech significance. Attachment to a city like Pittsburgh is achieved by living here long enough to develop multiple, significant ties, which, hidden and deep, give good reason to stay in an environment that nourishes and sustains us. Over the course of years, we find that there are diverse reasons why we belong right where we are.

The strongest roots we humans have are family ties. My wife's parents live a half-hour away, so phone calls are local, and casual, half-day visits are possible. Our social circle overlaps with theirs so that large gatherings are comfortably multi-generational. As we considered leaving the area, we had to evaluate the separation from my in-laws and the loss of Most Favored Offspring status for my wife, their only child living within 350 miles. There are other relationships that we would alter - if not sever - by leaving Pittsburgh. Our friends, single and married and with kids, some of whom we've known since college, have roots of their own here. Leaving would mean giving up spontaneous ice cream runs to Bruster's and dinner and cards in each other's homes. It would mean not necessarily having someone willing to bring over a bag of plaster and share with me what they've learned patching their 100-year-old walls as I patch my 80-year-old walls. It would mean a whole round of birthday parties missed and not receiving the milestone T-shirt rotating among our friends that reads, "IT'S NOT EVERY DAY YOU TURN 30 (just that one bleak day you never forget)."

A place like Pittsburgh, where authentic regional experience is still available, creates other roots, too. In no other city could we make a routine of subs and Cajun fries at Peppi's before a baseball game in a stadium that lets us admire a perfectly proportioned skyline. Would we really want to sacrifice our hard-earned understanding of Pennsylvania's liquor control laws? Could we handle a libertarian wonderland with six packs in the grocery store? It takes time to develop an ear for the subtleties of a local dialect. By now we know that Pittsburghese isn't as simple as "dahntahn"; it's in the way vowels morph and glottal stops are softened. "We uz up 'ere in a littew park onna Slopes, an' na sunset was rill, rill cull." If I saw a City Councilman on the street in DC, would I be able to identify not just the embarrassing episode that got his picture in the newspaper this week, but also the mortifying things he said on his way to winning the last election? There's reason to stay in a place where the natives are no longer exotic, but comforting.

Given all that Pittsburgh offers us to stay, would we leave for the glamor of a new, exciting life elsewhere? Could the attraction of law school in the Village or Harlem make us cut our ties and forgo law school across from the "O"? Faced with the chance to uproot, we're not going to. Too many strands hold us here, especially now that we're expecting our first child. We'll need our network of roots more than ever, and we'll send a few shoots down for him, too.

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