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Palm Tuesday

ON TUESDAY, the Department of Water and Power cut down my palm tree. It was a 40-foot beauty that had stood in my frontyard for about as many years, the last few of which got it tangled up in the power lines, where it posed an imminent fire hazard. The only course of action was “topping,” which, as I was told in a form letter from the DWP, causes the tree to die. That was bad, but watching a workman hoist himself up the tree with a chain saw dangling from his belt caused me to hope that no humans would be added to the death toll.

It wasn’t until later, faced with a 3-foot stump of palm, that I began to feel the kind of grief that’s unique to homeowners. If you’ve ever experienced the death of a pet you secretly hated, you know what I mean. Owning a home means feeling fiercely protective and proud, while hoping in your heart that a meteor will eviscerate the place and force you to live happily ever after in an all-utilities-included rental. Once the palm tree toppled over and disappeared into the shredder, I wiped away a tear -- and at the same time took some perverse relief in the whole thing. When it comes time to leave, I reasoned, it will be easier to say goodbye to a stump than to a majestic Phoenix palm.

The problem is, I don’t have any plans to move. Meanwhile, my palm tree is gone and my property, purchased three years ago at an unmistakably California price, is a little less California than it once was. It’s also just a little less. My house -- a boxy Mediterranean bungalow whose flat asphalt roof resembles the tip of a pencil eraser when viewed on Google Earth -- is like something an elf would occupy, or maybe Little Red Riding Hood, if she struck out on her own. That’s why the palm tree was such a crucial part of the equation. Its large trunk and fang-like fronds offset the tininess of the house and gave the property gravitas -- or at least visibility.

Moreover, every morning when I went outside to get the newspaper, it reminded me that no matter how mundane life was, I was living not only the American dream (homeownership) but the even more coveted California dream (really expensive, palm tree-inclusive homeownership).

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That dream was off the table at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday when the workers drove away with the shredded remains of what I was convinced accounted for more property value than, say, my bathroom (which features a tub that can’t drain three inches of water in less than nine hours). I spent the rest of the morning pouting in the brash, unshaded, merciless light usually found in department store fitting rooms (I swear I looked fatter out there). Then the temperature neared 100 degrees. For the eighth of May, a day on which it seems a person should be able to walk outside without producing buckets of sweat, this was downright unacceptable.

Where was the temperate, breezy Southern California that I thought I’d signed up for when depleting my entire savings for a down payment on a home just slightly bigger than a three-car garage in Scottsdale? It was bad enough that I’d lost my tree. Where was spring?

We all know the answer: It was on the Westside of Los Angeles. Still, as an intrepid eastsider (the kind who justifies the crappy April-through-October weather with statements such as, “But at least I live near Griffith Park!”), I’m willing to endure the heat and bad air in order to avoid any proximity to the 405 Freeway.

And endure it I did, at least until about 9 p.m., when it started raining ashes in my backyard because, as it happens, Griffith Park was on fire. I won’t be overly dramatic because my house is several miles from there and was in no way threatened, but there’s nothing like watching hundreds of acres of wild parkland burn to make a person quit whining about the DWP cutting down one tree as a fire-safety precaution.

There’s also nothing like waking up to a chain saw and going to bed in a haze of smoke to remind a person that the Golden State mystique is less about palm trees -- or nice weather or even cherished chaparral -- than about the way these things can disappear in the course of a day. It’s also about believing they’ll come back eventually. As dreams go, the California one tends to be recurring.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com


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