As We See It

[Pyramid of Biscuits]

Trees fall, cats die, systems—and bodies—break, and strength reveals itself

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Illustration: Marvin Lucas
Stacy J. Willis

It was liberating to buy an ax. It said to the Lowe’s clerk: That’s right, I may look like a slumpy woman beaten down by the banalities of suburban life, but I chop wood. No bag necessary for this, I’ll just carry it out on my shoulder. Like always.

The huge gusts of wind in the Valley had blown over a tree in our backyard. It was a mature Shoestring Acacia, with multiple branches and hundreds of weepy strands of sinewy leaves. We could’ve called a landscaper, but instead, I looked across the basically destroyed entire backyard, threw back my shoulders and said, I got this.

For the next three days, I took that ax and a borrowed handsaw to the fallen tree and chopped a chaotic scene up into more manageable and removable bits of wood. In doing so, I found a renewed sense of awesomeness, herniated a disc in my back and may or may not have killed our cat, who died of heart failure while watching me overexert from the window. True story.

My once smoothly functioning spine, taken for granted for years, now had volumes to say about every twist, turn, fall, lift, lazy stride, sagging couch, baby hoist, kick, throw, tackle, reach, ill-advised twerk, cramped road trip, backpack, sedentary desk day and leap from a playground swing.

* * * * *

A billion ice packs and gallons of tears and several weeks later, I’m finally taking a careful, ab-engaged rehabilitative walk at Desert Breeze Park, still missing my cat, when a woman and her pre-teen son approach me. They’re wearing SolarCity T-shirts, and collecting signatures for a petition to fight NV Energy over the Public Utilities Commission-approved rate change on solar-energy customers. She looks tired. “I’m trying to save my job and thousands of others,” she tells me plaintively.

NV Energy is no small opponent; nor is the green-energy industry a small ally. So it’s finally come to this: An epic, high-dollar bureaucratic battle between old energy and new, a battle whose powerful players include shrewd lobbyists and PR strategists and the governor and his PUC and stockholders and lawmakers and the already-spent solar incentives, all manner of political gamesmanship now weighing on this single working woman.

So on an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon with her kid in tow, she is doggedly collecting signatures. The larger system has gone awry, and the smaller individuals are suffering the acute pain. It makes me want to take my ax to the red tape, to the behemoth bureaucracy that lost track of who it’s meant to serve.

What does it mean to have a backbone? We say it to imply someone has the courage to assert her will in the world, no matter how daunting a task may seem. The woman trudges on through the park, pleading with strangers.

* * * * *

I’m hobbling in the other direction when I look across the horizon and see a kid on a skateboard pop up from the bowl below, catch a ton of air, do a gleeful 180 in the sky and then disappear back to the cement pits.

It’s a magnificent sight. All at once, I feel a rush of adrenaline and a nearly religious sense of awe for the human spine. I lean against the fence and take in the sounds of boards scraping and wheels racing. These limber lumbar spines, cloaked in 30 or so pre-teens in skater gear and chill attitudes, are performing artistic feats in midair, twisting and turning in explicably complicated ways, each healthy vertebra and disc and facet joint working with the next. A functioning system.

More than unknowingly displaying the genius of the human body, they’re navigating their place in the world: watching each other, one-upping each other, showing off, messing with gravity, testing their limits.

Then one little portly kid who’s here by himself loses momentum in the bottom of the pit. I feel like my helpless cat in the window as I watch him struggle. He realizes he’s stuck down there—the walls are maybe 7 feet high, and he’s not even 4 feet tall. He looks around furtively to see if the older kids are watching, as this could be the stuff of childhood trauma. None of them have noticed.

The odds are against him. But what choice does he have? He tosses his skateboard out and takes a fierce run up the slick cement side wall, leaping and grabbing for the top edge with stubby finger tips … and missing, sliding back down on his belly. One or two kids are watching now. He shakes it off, plays it cool, gets another running start and tries again. But his will is out-matched by the unfeeling cement.

I want to help him, but three things stop me. First, I know it would solidify the embarrassment trauma, and second, embarrassment would become total mortification if we both ended up stuck because he’s too bottom-heavy and my portly body is in revolt. But the real reason is that it took guts and tenacity for him to join this scene; it took backbone. He’s working it out.

It takes five tries, each more heart-wrenching than the last, before he finally pulls himself out, the difference of a few centimeters of leverage and an ethereal teaspoon of I got this. He gets right back on his board and skates on. For me, it’s the most beautiful example of the backbone at work.

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