Up From the Ashes

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, November 5, 2006

The other day, my wife, who is the kind of person who believes there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, or, more specifically, a perfect and an imperfect way, decided that her fancy dinner party would require a really exquisite salad of arugula, baby greens, roasted beets and toasted walnuts. It would not only be delicious, but pretty. She had it all planned out. Nothing could go wrong. [Cue ominous music foreshadowing imminent disaster.]

Mary is an attentive person who has great powers of concentration, honed by years of standing on her head in yoga class. But this time, she got distracted and forgot the walnuts under the broiler. Complications ensued. Fire, for example. Black, billowing smoke. The chef was forced to use the most dreaded of cooking implements, the fire extinguisher.

The immolated walnuts became aerosolized in the form of a soot that spread throughout the house. Soot is an ingenious mechanism for discovering air flow in a home. One notices soot particularly on white pillowcases and white upholstery. Its natural response to any attempt to remove it is to smudge.

Surveying the Walnuts Disaster of 2006, I wondered if calamity is an unappreciated part of life, the way a forest fire is critical to the forest ecosystem. Perhaps the walnuts would serve a diagnostic function. Perhaps the walnuts, in all their sooty blackness, were a clarifying agent that would let us see the house for the first time in years. The soot had invaded every open cabinet and closet, settled on tops of doors and in remote crevices and vents, and behind objects that hadn't been noticed since the Reagan administration.

It made us look up, to those spaces above the eyeball line, where dust forms sedimentary layers that preserve the geological history of the house. A good sedimentologist would surely find, on top of the window frames, molecular evidence of what people cooked in the 1930s. Such as isotopes consistent with a diet heavy in turnips.

At one point, I looked behind the refrigerator, at the coils, and what I saw was not meant to be seen by human eyes. It was scuzz growing on more scuzz. It was schmutz proliferating orgiastically. It was as bad as one of those shows on Fox.

When you first buy a house, you think of it as an inanimate collection of rooms. But a house is more like a complex organism. Even though it may look presentable, you know that it is gradually disintegrating, that its arteries are clogging. In my house we have learned, over time, to ignore the things that are broken, the accumulated crud in the louvers, the peeling paint, the scuff marks and dents and divots. But after the walnuts fire, our eyes opened, and we realized [cue shrieking violins] that we live in squalor.

I don't want to overdramatize. It's not like we're living in a shotgun shack. But the neighborhood has changed. McMansions are sprouting everywhere. When the little old lady around the corner died, the new owners moved her entire house back to the alley and declared that it would henceforth be just a garage. The house built in its place appears to have roughly 18 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and a heliport. Day by day, it becomes more and more obvious that we are the rabble.

Our house is not even a tear-down: It's a burn-down.

And so it goes for our human existence as a whole. Let's face it, I'm entering the phase in which there is nothing left but decay and death. My buddies and I talk all the time about how we're in the endgame. We are conscious that our youth has been spent, and there is nothing left but the long march into twilight and the appointment with the grave. Also college tuitions.

Our job is to impose order and decency on this process of degradation. To keep it from getting too ugly. The inevitability of decline and eventual obliteration must not only be acknowledged but embraced. There must be a winter before a spring. The old must give way to the new.

I often say to my wife: "We've had our day. Let's move on so that others may revel in the sunshine." I also like to say, "We need to accept the fact that we're the little people."

She clings, amazingly, to the opinion that the hour is not late, that we are not decrepit, and that we need not resign ourselves to a grim senescence. Instead, she made the remarkable decision to try again with the walnuts. She reloaded. She fired up the broiler. No flames this time.

And even if the house wasn't perfect, the salad was.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company