Sunday, December 25, 2011

Cleaning gutters, reflecting on life

In several stints in life as a homeowner, I would have to say that cleaning out gutters ranks at the top of my list of least favorite jobs. It's one of those things that has to be done, but I never look forward to it, and since I don't enjoy it, I tend to put it off. This year I put it off until the eve of Christmas eve. It's not as if I didn't have good reasons for delaying. There were finals to grade and Christmas preparations to be completed. I also reasoned that it made sense to wait until the gigantic black walnut tree in our backyard was devoid of leaves. I didn't, after all, want a repeat performance.

About that black walnut tree.  When we bought our home a couple of years ago, we saw it as great feature. It would provide lots of shade, after all. As we've lived with the tree for two falls now, however, we've come to understand its downsides. First it's huge. Its branches spread, not only over our detached garage, but also over the roofs and yards of two of our neighbors, so when the leaves begin to fall, daily raking is required to keep the yard leaf free. This, of course, irritates not only us but our neighbors and makes it unlikely that we will win the "best neighbor" award anytime soon. Finally, those black walnuts are slimy, gross, and heavy. They fall with a sickening thud to the ground, and each family member has come close to being beaned by one of the mini-cannon balls, which could cause serious head injuries. The quotes we've received to remove the tree have been in the $3,000 range, so for now we live with it and make the best of it, and try not to make eye contact with the neighbors.

But back to the gutter cleaning. There's several reasons I dread this job. To begin with, I'm scared of heights, so being perched on a twenty-foot ladder for a couple of hours is not my idea of a good time. It's also gross: handling smelly, wet leaves and muck, even with heavy plastic gloves is enough to take the best appetite away. And it's physically demanding. My calves ache for several days from climbing up and down the ladder, along with other random muscles that apparently are only exercised by the gutter cleaning process.

But as I discovered this year, sometimes even the most despised job can bring unexpected realizations. I had been cleaning the most difficult gutters to reach and the ones most loaded with the produce of the black walnut tree for about an hour when I decided to take a break and drink some water. It was one of those beautiful Oregon winter days: the sun was shining; it was crisp but not too cold, one of those days when a sweatshirt and jeans are all you need and you never get too hot or too cold. As I sat on my front porch, I felt the sun on my face. I felt the mild ache in my calves and shoulders, not that painful ache that would come in a day or too, but that pleasurable feeling of aliveness that comes with physical activity.

And then I thought about my dad. He's just turned 90 and lives in a nice retirement apartment, but his body is wearing out. Throughout his long life (and no doubt one of the reasons he's lived this long), he's valued physical activity: golf, tennis, outdoor jobs around the house. Well into his 80s he was still mowing his own lawn, playing weekly rounds of golf, and swimming laps in the athletic club pool several times a week. These days, he uses a motorized scooter to get from his apartment to the dining area and a wheelchair or walker to get from his scooter to his bed. I wondered what he would give, for just one day, to be physically active again, to feel the sun on his face and the ache in his calves after doing some necessary work. I wondered if he wouldn't even mind cleaning out gutters to feel that vitality in his body once again.