We all have things we wish would stay the same forever. We all wish we could hold on to certain precious objects and never have to let go. All of us have a deep desire to believe, at least selectively, in the permanence of material things.
But the works of men are transient. Time levels all. We try to build bulwarks against the impassive destroyer, but even the greatest of these wear down, fall apart, or crumble away eventually. Permanence is an illusion, a fiction, a story we tell ourselves so we can feel a little more important, a little less vulnerable to the inevitable cutting strokes of time. Even the Egyptian pyramids, those great ‘eternal’ monuments, are, at best, 5,000 years old. They originate in the mists of human time, and their existence encompasses all of recorded history. But in the life of our planet, it’s only the flutter of an eye. And the planet’s life itself is but a flutter of space-time...
These were the thoughts I had as I regarded our leftover gingerbread houses a few weeks ago. For several years now, my wife’s family, led by the remarkable Nin, gets the nieces and nephews together during the Christmas season for the making of gingerbread houses. She has turned it into an annual tradition, and they spend an entire afternoon eating candy and creating colorful, sugar-induced hallucinations of houses.
Once the holidays have passed, when the gingerbread’s gone as brittle as a dog biscuit, and the frosting has long since frozen rock-hard, it becomes my duty to dispose of them. As I looked down over the small town assembled on our dining room table (somehow we ended up with four gingerbread houses this year), I felt very much like a tornado bearing down on a small
trailer park. Neither of us is able to
alter our destinies, even though I, for one, did not take even a modicum of
enjoyment from the job. Nebraska
It’s a dirty job, throwing away your daughters’ gingerbread houses, and I don’t mean because of the crumbs they tend to leave on your dining room floor. After all, my girls poured their hearts into creating these rickety edifices. Their fingerprints are all over them, in some cases literally pressed into the frosting. I can see the effort they put into every detail of construction, and remember the excitement with which they explained to me their precise rationale for every candy cane fence post, every gumdrop ornament, every piped icing shingle.
Several times I brought the trash can to the table, intending to get it over with, but my ambivalence held me back. How can I toss all that away into the garbage like yesterday’s coffee grounds? It seemed an unfitting, inappropriate, ignominious thing to do.
But what else can you do? You can’t store them; they’re big and bulky and fragile, and made of food. And even if you could, what would be the point? By next Christmas, they wouldn’t even look like this anymore. They’d surely be shriveled and cracked, their load-bearing walls fractured, roofs partially collapsed, structurally unsound. In eleven months’ time, they would almost certainly be reduced to better facsimiles of Mayan temple ruins than colorful English cottages, and displaying them next to the bright, fresh, new gingerbread houses would only cast an ominous pall over the whole, perhaps even perversely influence the hopeful perspective that is the foundation of the Christmas season.
And going one step further; if you save one year’s gingerbread houses, how are you not going to save the next, and the next, and the next? Unless you’re planning to start a no-income housing project for mice, a kind of Habitat for Rodentity, holding a large number of gingerbread houses in your attic or closet just isn’t advisable.
No, some things you just can’t keep, I philosophized as I pulled up an M&M paver and ate it, and old gingerbread houses are one of those things. They had to go, that was obvious, but still I bridled at chucking them out.
When confronted with a problem for which there is no good answer, I will sometimes stubbornly refuse to admit defeat. No-win situations somehow inspire me to continue seeking solutions no matter how outrageous they may seem. It’s like Captain Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru, the famous
test. Kirk is placed in a simulation in which there
are no good options, no path to victory, only disaster waiting at the end of
every alternative. But, instead of accepting
what was intended to serve as a humbling lesson, Kirk figures out a way to hack
the programming of the simulation, and in doing so, he thwarts the outcome. Except I wasn’t hacking a simulation; but then
again, it wasn’t exactly a life-and-death scenario either. Starfleet
Eventually, an alternative suggested itself. If I couldn’t dispose of the gingerbread houses as trash because I didn’t see them as trash, then perhaps another method of disposal would be more appropriate. Perhaps something that was worthy of the time and energy that was put into building them. Perhaps even a way that would make the destruction of the houses just as fun and memorable as construction. Wouldn’t that be more appropriate, more acceptable? Put another way, instead of bemoaning the transience of human beings and their works, why not acknowledge it, embrace it, celebrate it? After all, the world was made this way for a reason. Why should we take such a uniformly dim view of death and destruction? Without death and destruction, there would be no more room for new life. Without change, there would be nothing interesting, nothing worth living for. Can you imagine living on a planet where all things that existed always existed? A human population that wasn’t born, grew old, and died, but always was the same? Could they even be human? What would be the point of life?
Why not take this opportunity to obliterate our gingerbread houses, and in doing so, find joy in the transience of the material world at the same time? Why not celebrate the end of the circle of life with the same kind of enthusiasm we typically reserve for the beginning? It would be like giving our gingerbread houses a kind of
It became my goal to devise a manner of wrecking them in the most gloriously satisfying way possible. I’m pretty sure this is the same impulse that led the Vikings to place their honored dead in a ship, put all their accumulated riches in with them, and then set the boat on fire as it was set adrift on a dark, endless sea. I’m also pretty sure that, not coincidentally, the Vikings were the first to invent diving for gold. I felt a renewed stirring of kinship to my Nordic ancestors.
So, what final form did my inspiration take? Well, I considered many possibilities, some wildly extravagant, including a few which would have required city permits. In the end I decided we could do a perfectly sensational job with nothing more than existing resources and a little bit of preparation. But instead of trying to describe how we did it, I thought you might enjoy a short video presentation of the results.