Anansi Boys (Neil Gaiman)

So I thought I'd sit in on a Committee meeting. The business of a co-op is managed by committees, and committees like nothing more than meetings. Minutes and agendas and points-of-order are not generally my cup-of-tea, but I've been imagining that our little community of 1600 is democracy on a practical scale, where votes do matter and advertising money doesn't rule every roost.

Plus, I'd heard that the A&E Committee has the best brawls.

The Architecture and Environment Committee deals with the rough edges where individual families bump up against each other. The Committee controls the look and feel of our community, and their edicts -- on shed colors, elimination of invasive ivy, addition size -- do not always go over well with the folks trying to make an individualized home here.

There is definitely a major fear of ivy here. I suppose the A&E Committee is worried because of possible impact on the foundations and such. Last year, we wandered down to watch a series of locally produced films in the Greenbelt Theater. The scariest film of all was the one where ivy completely overtook a community and consumed the people and pets. I still have bad dreams.

Unfortunately, I didn't quite make it over to the meeting, but here's what I imagine would have happened had I gotten up the energy to wander over. I walk into the meeting room, late, of course. I head for the only empty seat, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. I am undone soon enough by the horrible crash that results from my tripping over some pensioner's purse. All eyes turn to me, including those of the Committee and the current witness, which is unfortunate, because I hate (desperately hate) being the center of attention.

I suppose that's why I have a blog?

I turn about ten shades of red and slink down into the seat I've located by feel. I hold my breath until everyone loses interest and testimony continues. I gasp in relief, which brings a few more stares (mostly local to my area of the boardroom), but I weather this with little damage. Finally, I am free to have a look around. My attention is immediately caught by the man I'm sitting next to. He is reading Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys.

That's cool, because I just read that book, too!

"The Committee doesn't hold your attention?" I whisper. He shakes his head.

"I'm only here because it's warmer than outside."

"That book is pretty funny," I say after staring at the Committee for a few moments. An elderly woman is discoursing on the subject of the history of our co-op fee increases. Each time a Committee member interrupts her to try to explain that she really wants the Finance Committee, she starts over from the very beginning. And although the cooperative is not that old, these houses were build back in the '30s, so the very beginning is a long, long time ago. Eventually, they stop trying to dissuade her, deciding, I guess, to ride it out.

"Yeah, pretty funny," the man-in-search-of-warmth says.

And that's the way it is with funny books, I guess: You can't really talk about how they're funny, because analysis really can kill the humor. You can fall back on other, side topics, I suppose, but they aren't at the heart of the matter, really.

"I felt very comfortable with the characters," I say. He just shrugs, so I repeat. "Yep. Really funny."

The co-op fee woman finishes her harangue with a humph and toddles off. If you can't say something nice, you have to criticize.

"Of course," I say, "I'm a little worried about Neil's views on relationships. Much like in Neverwhere, he starts with a character who is obviously entangled with the wrong woman, he isn't really aware of it (though everybody else is), and it takes external forces to make him see the truth and rescue him from the horror of a woman. "

"Hmm. I like the father; he's funny," says the stranger, falling back on praising the humor. But I know that's a dead end, so I try to steer us back to criticism.

"Don't get me wrong, I loved that book. But I thought the whole embarrassing father thing unrealistic. How can anybody be so embarrassed by his own --"

I am forced to stop with my mouth still open, because I've noticed the next witness.

"Esteemed members of the Committee," says my imaginary Great Uncle Leadbelly. "I come before you to report on the progress of complaint #05-25B."

"When did we start numbering our complaints?" wonders a Committee member.

"You do not," says my Great Uncle, helpfully. "I felt it would be a good practice to introduce, so I've started numbering my own complaints." How many complaints does he have? I wonder. How many does he actually provide to committees?

"Ah, that sounds like a great idea," says the member. "I move we implement Mr. Blake's suggested numbering scheme." The motion is seconded and passed while I fling out my hands to steady myself. (I knock over a glass of water.) Great Uncle Leadbelly's last name is not Blake. He is related to me on my sister's side of the family. He is asked to proceed.

"Complaint #05-25B began as a simple dispute six months ago. You may remember that I came to you a few months ago with a small request regarding a neighbor who was drying laundry in her gardenside yard." Several Committee members tsked and shook their heads. Our homes have associated yards on each side: one side (generally toward the street) is designated the service side. The other side of the home (generally looking on a shared green or other common space) is called the garden side. Service oriented activities belong on the service side, for it is the side accessible for trash and recycling pick up, postal delivery, etc. The garden side is the community living side of our super block: we are supposed to relax back there and interact with our neighbors and other passersby. Hanging laundry on the garden side would never do.

(The man with the book whispers, "A good writer wouldn't need such awkward explication." Well, forgive me that I can't just conjure up some stories about Ghanaian petty gods to fill out my tales.)

Great Uncle Leadbelly goes on to provide a detailed report of the responses and counter-responses to that complaint. To save you from his over-the-top bombast, I will summarize here:

  • Leadbelly complains of laundry in gardenside.
  • Committee directs neighbor to remove drying pole.
  • Neighbor removes pole, but leaves hole.
  • Leadbelly (he's ashamed to admit this) fills the hole with bottles and cans from the neighbor's recycle bin
  • The neighbor carefully sets each nasty item upright on his picnic table, along with a wee pile of dirt
  • Leadbelly gives her the Noriega treatment (loud stereo placed outside her window overnight, playing polka favorites)
  • Neighbor seems to enjoy polka, but other neighbors complain
  • Leadbelly ceases the Polka, begins smoking pipes outside her window
  • Neighbor reports Leadbelly's garage as abandoned and it is claimed by another resident
  • Committee steps in and directs neighbor to fill the hole
"And so," continues Great Uncle, "I'm here to thank you for your intervention, for I would surely have had to get serious soon. However, there is no longer an issue: the neighbor has filled the hole with dirt, as directed. I regret the way I threatened her with Tubby the cat, but..."

"Now, see here!" I shout, finally overcome with fear for our cat. "Why are you listening to this man's insanity?"

The Committee chair raps her gavel and asks, "And who are you, sir?"

"I'm William Blake, Cooperative Member Number 443," I reply, haughtily.

"The chair does not recognize you," she interrupts. "We have known Mr. Blake here for some time, so please sit down."

"But he's not William Blake. He doesn't even live in the co-op."

She gives me the hairy eye. "The chair will not tolerate any further interruptions of this fine gentleman's time."

"But--"

"Tsst," she says and nods to my Great Uncle. I fold my arms, sit back in my chair, and sulk. Great Uncle Leadbelly thanks the Committee for its indulgence, profusely apologizes for his own small role in the complaint history ("Think nothing of it," says a Committee member, "You were driven to it."), and relinquishes his post at the lectern.

The Committee fawns over him a bit more, then goes on to other business. After the meeting, I catch up with Great Uncle Leadbelly heading back to my home.

"What are you playing at?" I want to know.

"Don't take it so personally," he says. "I'm just trying to help you out."

"That was embarrassing," I say. "I didn't even know you'd been arguing with my neighbor."

"Just a friendly exchange between neighbors," he says.

"She's my neighbor," I point out.

"There's no need to be all possessive," he says, then stops walking. We're in the gardenside along the path between our yards. He stares at the neighbor's garden. "She didn't!"

"What's wrong?" I ask, but he has already shot off, muttering about good fences and horrible birds. It takes a minute for me to spot the trouble, but then it is clear.

Where the neighbor's laundry line post had once become a hole, then a dumping ground, then filled, the dirt had been disturbed. The neighbor had been busy while Great Uncle was off being all congratulatory and stuff.

Springing up from the former hole are grasping green tendrils of ivy.

1 thoughtful messages from friendly readers:

Washington Cube said...

Merry Christmas