I walked out Saturday afternoon to discover an American flag planted outside my house, like the work of some incredibly stupid explorer.
My first panic was that, like the North Pole or the moon, the United States was laying claim to my house. I was finally getting payback for not reading those long, boring articles about eminent domain.
But my bigger panic was over what to do with it. I'm not a flag-waving kind of guy, but I knew damn well that I couldn't just throw it in the trash. Throwing away a flag is very, very bad. It's just as bad as burning it, which, I believe, brings 30 years of bad luck to your country, leading it to repeat the same mistakes. Like sending troops abroad to fight in open-ended civil wars.
So I was going to have to keep this flag for the rest of my life.
Much like you, at about this point, my wife, Cassandra, got sick of this conversation. So she plucked the flag out of our planter and threw it away, not even in the recycle bin. This is a woman who hates both political parties.
I immediately retrieved it and read the note attached: "Wishing you a safe and happy Fourth of July holiday." It was from Victoria Massengale, a real-estate agent. And not just any real-estate agent. As her Web site proclaimed: "Victoria has been honored to represent the sales of homes such as the Vince Vaughn and Tawny Kitaen estates." The latter of which, I'm guessing, consisted of a 1987 Jaguar.
In a grueling 13-hour span, Massengale had flagged nearly every house in Beachwood Canyon and the Oaks in the Los Angeles area - 2,000 homes in all, at a cost of $2,000 - while also putting flags and red-white-and-blue ribbons on roadside signs, lampposts and telephone poles. I vowed to never get on Massengale's bad side; there would be starred-and-striped horse heads everywhere.
It was a sweet gesture, if one that hinted a little too desperately that the real-estate market is softening. But it threw me into a moral tizzy. Why didn't I want a flag in front of my house? Why didn't I ever have one before? Would it be wrong to, late that night, assume that my next-door neighbor would enjoy two flags outside his house?
Former California Republican Party Chairman Shawn Steel, who has 30 U.S. flags and raises one each day on his 25-foot flagpole, told me that the star-spangled real-estate ad was indeed a real flag. Not only should I not throw it away, I shouldn't leave it out at night, at least not without a spotlight.
Panicked, I called my friend Tally Barr, who lives down the street. Her take was that she was pretty psyched about getting a free flag. When I pressed her on disposal methods, her theory was that if she never touches it, she's not responsible: "I'm going to let nature take its course. Eventually, it will just be a stick, and I won't feel bad throwing it away."
My other neighbor, Holly Purcell, who is also a real-estate agent, had a conflict of her own: "I haven't been able to get rid of the one on our lawn, as it is a flag and it is the Fourth, but she is a competitor." Then, finding the bright side, she mischievously added, "I also wonder about so many people being away this weekend and the sprinklers and the dog pee." Seriously, this market is a month from crashing.
Feeling stuck, I finally confronted Massengale. It turned out that I wasn't the only one.
"I started getting Angry Santa phone calls," she said. "I had a guy say if I did something like that again, he'd take me to court for trespassing and littering. One person said, 'Thank you so much for the flag. We're going to burn it on the Fourth of July, so we'll let you know when we need another one.' I was like, 'Oh, dude."'
Massengale told me that in the town she grew up in near St. Louis, most people kept a flag up all year. Even though I've seen tons of neighborhoods that do this, I've never actually lived in one. I've also never lived in a neighborhood that had those flags reminding you of the holidays and seasons. In fact, I've always looked down on those places. If you need semaphore to inform each other that it's going to get hotter in the upcoming months, nobody is putting a magnet school in your community.
So the reason I didn't want to put a flag outside wasn't because I disapprove of our international policies. It was because I didn't want to associate myself with the other people who put them up, and with their unquestioning, tribal, us-versus-them, arrogant mentality. Although I love being American, I don't want to proclaim it as the sole basis of my identity.
Feeling satisfied with that answer, I tucked my flag away. Then I looked out my window and noticed that I have huge Buddha heads outside that you can't miss from the road. And I'm Jewish.
Like everyone else, I'm just blindly trying to fit in with my clique. And, even if it was weird, getting redecorated for the weekend by someone else's clique was kind of cool.
Although Massengale is going to be bummed when she Googles the rules about taking down the mezuza I'm going to put on her door.