That which does not kill me grows back
in a week and tries again.
FADE IN with a long shot of Planet Earth,
hanging like a small blue marble in the vastness of the cosmos. An
alien spaceship, bearing a remarkable resemblance to a Chia Pet
covered with small plumbing fixtures, approaches the planet from stage
CUT TO SPACESHIP BRIDGE, where two aliens
wearing surgical tunics and colanders are attending to the final
details of their mission.
COMMANDER NURK: Make ready the Krypton Laser
Destructor Device, Ensign Bayonne.
BAYONNE: Laser, schmaser, Chief. I say we blast
'em with the fish sticks.
NURK: You seem to have forgotten that this is a
humanitarian mission, Ensign. Our goal is not to destroy Earth, but to
free its inhabitants from a despicable tyranny.
BAYONNE: Oh yeah, right. I can't keep these
details straight anymore. Maybe my colander is too tight.
NURK: Then allow me to refresh your memory
banks. (turns to address camera) We have been sent by the Overlords of
Leisure to seek out and destroy a vile fungus, known to the people of
this innocent orb as "grass," which is holding the gentle male
citizens of Earth hostage and driving them slowly insane by demanding
their constant participation in a bizarre, unnatural ritual known as
BAYONNE: Mowing? Like cows do?
NURK: (aside to camera) Take my sister's boy
along, she says. Structure is what he needs in his life, and a space
mission will look good on college applications. Sheesh. Oh, and by the
way, he ain't got the brains God gave cole slaw.
(to Bayonne) Not mooing. Mowing. It's a sadistic
ceremony wherein the men are pushed out of their domiciles every
summer weekend and forced to worship this "grass" stuff by chopping it
down with machines.
BAYONNE: But doesn't it just grow right back?
Seems kind of pointless.
NURK: Indeed it is, and that's the diabolical
part. The average Earth male is compelled to "mow" his "lawn" over and
over at least twenty times every summer. Even the strongest of the
breed usually go barking mad by mid-August. Our mission is to destroy
the Evil Empire of Grass and free the male earthlings for more
important tasks, such as napping on their couches and watching Cops.
BAYONNE: Cool. Let's do it to it. How do you
start this Destructor thing? Oh, here we go.
NURK: No! Stop! Open the Laser Port first, you
QUICK FADE TO BLACK
Meanwhile, back on Earth, according to an
article I read recently, scientists are in the process of developing a
very special breed of genetically-engineered lawn. This new kind of
grass will grow to the proper length and then, here's the good part,
stop growing, never to grow again, and never, consequently, to need
God bless these scientists, I say, and all their lovely little
lab rats. You can keep your penicillin, your Prozac and your Viagra. Frankengrass is the ticket, the apex towards which all genuine science
has been striving since the first caveman was shoved out the first
cave door by his wife on that primordial Saturday morning with his
primitive weed-whacker in hand. Yessir, sign me up for ten acres worth
of your wonderful new grass, and if it turns out to cause grotesque
mutations in the neighborhood dogs, I'll settle for a barrel or two of
that Agent Orange stuff. Give me Frankengrass or give me a parking
Oddly enough, I didn't always harbor such
negative feelings towards grass. In fact, as insane as it seems to me
now, I actually used to cotton to a nice neat lawn. As a child in
suburban Connecticut, I viewed our lawns through the rosy filter of
childhood ignorance -- as wonderful green playgrounds, suitable for
nearly any activity, from softball to hula hoop practice to the
pitched water-balloon battles with neighbor kids that were a staple of
my innocent summer days. Come evening, the soft, springy grass tickled
my bare feet as we chased fireflies or each other in nightly games of
I loved our lawn. I loved its spacious expanse,
its lush greenness, and I especially loved the tangy smell of
freshly-cut grass after my father or older brothers had finished their
weekly ritual of mowing. Nothing could match the majestic contentment
of a summer afternoon spent lying on your back on a freshly mown lawn
and watching the fleecy white clouds roll by.
All of this sentimental nonsense evaporated in
my fifteenth summer, however, and I haven't looked at a lawn with the
same dewy innocence since. That summer my older brothers had long
since departed for college, and my father, who had been mowing the
grass for at least 30 years, was understandably sick of the job. It
was my turn.
I still remember the day in early May of that
year when my father patiently explained to me how to operate our aging
Toro rotary mower. It was all pretty straightforward. Fill it
with gas and check the oil. Don't stick your toes or fingers
underneath. Mow in straight lines when possible, and watch out for
sticks and rocks. As I recall, my orientation took all of five
minutes, after which I was dispatched to practice my skills on the
front lawn. I remember my father's hearty wave and booming "Good
luck!" as he headed back to the house, but I never suspected, as I
rolled the rickety mower across the driveway, that I going to need
good luck. It seemed pretty simple to me. I didn't know that I was
wheeling that lawnmower through the portals of Green Hell.
Ankle deep in dandelions, I gave the starter
cord a tentative tug, and was surprised when the lawnmower roared to
life on my first try. Grasping the handle and gunning the throttle, I
gently pushed the lawnmower into the tall grass and was gratified to
see a stream of fresh green clippings immediately shoot from the side.
By golly, this wasn't so bad! This was kinda neat! The tang of
gasoline and exhaust mixed with the mesmerizing smell of fresh-cut
grass, and my spirit, which had been tepid, lightened dramatically. I
felt a weird, unexpected enthusiasm for my task. The sun was shining,
the way was clear, and there was honest work to do. I leaned forward
and began to mow. The lawnmower gobbled up the grass, and I simply
followed along on the brilliant green carpet of neatly clipped lawn I
was creating. With a spring in my step, I finished the first swath and
turned to return, carefully adjusting my path to keep my rows
It seemed almost too easy to be true. This was
work? Piece of cake was more like it. Perhaps, I mused as I mowed, I
would start a part-time lawn service when I was older, like the guys I
saw driving around town in pickup trucks full of lawn tools making big
bucks off our lazier neighbors. It would certainly beat caddying at
the local golf course, which required carrying heavy bags for snotty
stockbrokers and lawyers. Deep in thought as I pushed the lawnmower
through my seventh or eighth pass, I began to consider what sort of
car I'd buy with my profits.
I had just about decided on a red Austin-Healy
sportster when I stepped into the yellow jacket nest hidden under the
tall grass. Several dozen of the little chaps, understandably miffed
at my invasion of their privacy, instantly came boiling out of their
burrow in a very bad mood and headed directly for my face. For a long
moment I froze, paralyzed in heart-stopping terror. Then, with a
shriek loud enough to cause, I am certain, several neighbors to spill
their Saturday afternoon martinis, I reared back, flung aside the
lawnmower, and began to run as fast as I could for the house, flailing
my arms and screaming all the way. Ten or twelve thousand stings later
I reached the safety of the kitchen, where I related my catastrophe
between broken sobs as my mother applied baking soda plasters to my
skin and my father gazed out the window at the lawnmower I had
abandoned, still running, in the middle of the front lawn. It ran out
of gas about an hour later, by which I time I had announced a dozen
times to everyone within earshot that I would never, ever, even under
pain of death, mow the lawn again. Not for a million bucks, let alone
for the three dollars that constituted my weekly allowance.
My father had, not surprisingly, a different
opinion on the matter, and I began to dread the approach of each
weekend. Eventually I discovered that on gloomy, overcast days when
rain was imminent, the hornets and wasps spent the day huddled snug in
their nests, probably watching TV, allowing me to mow in relative
peace. Dodging the occasional raindrop beneath glowering gothic skies
as I mowed, however, I had time to discover, and consider at length,
the essential truth about lawn mowing. It is boring. Grindingly,
endlessly, mind-numbingly, invariably, inescapably, exhaustingly,
excruciatingly boring, with a capital B. In fact, it is more than
boring. Lawn mowing is boredom incarnate, the Platonic ideal of
boredom, the archetype, the genotype, the home run in the bottom of
the ninth inning, of boredom.
It's the insane repetition inherent in the task
that does it. No one who has ever mowed a lawn just once or twice
really knows lawn mowing. Only the poor serf who has become, week by
week, so accustomed to his appointed terrain that he catches himself
taking an active interest in the progress of moss up a particular tree
trunk as the weeks pass truly knows the horror, the horror, of lawn
mowing. Mowing my parents' lawn took, objectively, about three hours.
Subjectively, each mowing seemed to take at least 18 hours, but that
was probably because so many of my brain cells gave up the ghost every
time I started that damn lawnmower.
By the end of that first summer I was certain of
two things. First, that I hated insects, all insects, even
butterflies. And second, that I hated lawn mowing with a wild,
seething passion. It was boring, exhausting, utterly pointless, and
had clearly been invented as a ruse by insects to get me outside where
I would be easy prey. I continued to mow the lawn for two more
summers, hating every moment of it, but by the time I left home for
college at 17, I had promised myself that whatever future career I
chose would be an exclusively indoor occupation, and that it would pay
well, because I would never, I resolved, own a lawn that I couldn't
pay someone else to mow.
I actually kept those promises to myself for
more than thirty years. My various occupations, while often indistinct
and never especially lucrative, proved to be largely irrelevant for
purposes of avoiding lawn mowing, since I spent most of those years
living in New York City apartments.
But then it came to pass that I found myself moving to
rural Ohio and owning, in partnership with my wife and a remarkably
gullible mortgage company, nearly seven acres of land, a distressingly
large percentage of which appeared to be covered with grass. I didn't
notice the grass at first, I must admit, because one of my
brothers-in-law, as a gesture of welcome, had meticulously mowed the
five acres or so of lawn surrounding our new house just prior to our
In fact, I later learned that he had mowed our
lawn twice in the preceding week, a Herculean task made necessary by
unusually heavy rainfall. Had I suspected that such an unnatural
exertion had ever been appropriate, even in the distant past of the
house, I would have taken a powder for the nearest motel and started
calling the airlines immediately.
As it happened, however, we arrived at our new
digs to behold a splendid, perfect lawn, a beautifully clipped lush
green carpet stretching from the road more than 200 feet back to the
house, swooping gracefully around to the side where it was neatly
trimmed around every one of our dozens of trees, and sculpted as if by
a barber's razor around every bush and shrub we now owned (and that
was, apparently, a lot of shrubs). The whole effect was so masterful,
so polished, that a carload of my relatives, who happened to be on
hand for the occasion of our inaugural week in the house (I finally
pried the last of them out the front door a month later), immediately
began referring to our new homestead as "the park." Upon reflection, I
was forced, with a touch of completely unjustifiable pride, to agree.
Our property did bear a striking resemblance to a very well-tended
park in a prosperous small town, or perhaps to one of the nicer parts
of Central Park on a good day. The broad expanse of green out front
lacked only a croquet set and a brace of Irish Setters to complete the
tableau, while the cool shade beneath the towering oak out back was
obviously the perfect venue for whiling away the day guzzling lemonade
in a hammock. Lawnwise, we had lucked out.
The most impressive aspect of our lawn to the
two of us (who had, after all, spent the previous twenty years
literally elbow-to-elbow in tiny New York City apartments) was its
sheer size. Since our house was located at the northwestern corner of
our property, our views to the south and east were taken up by a vast
expanse of land, stretching (or seeming to) all the way to the
horizon. As I recall, we spent the better part our first week in Ohio
saying things like "See that tree way over there? We own that tree!"
We were giddy to discover that we could go for a twenty-minute walk
and never leave our own property.
It was during one of those little jaunts a week
or so after we moved in that I noticed a new and very disturbing
detail of our property. The grass, our grass, all five acres of it,
seemed to be growing. What had been a flawless green carpet of uniform
length was beginning to look decidedly ragged, as tufts of crabgrass
and an occasional dandelion raised their malevolent heads to glare at
me balefully. Personally, I am more than willing to let this sort of
thing slide (after all, grass usually stops growing all by itself in
early October), but I was not the only one to notice.
"Time to mow de lawn, mon," Kathy announced in a
mock Rastafarian patois as we returned to the house. (I've never
understood why she affects this accent whenever she delivers bad news,
but I suspect it may be a throwback to her childhood devotion to the
old Miami Vice TV series.) "Don't be silly," I replied, heading as
fast as I could for the safety of my study upstairs, "Lyle mowed it
just last week. If I were to mow it now I'd almost certainly kill
every blade of grass we have. You really can't mow a lawn like that
more than four times a season. Do you want the neighbors gossiping
about our scraggly brown lawn? Besides, I thought we were going to the
garden center this afternoon." This last gambit was a shameless bribe,
since I hated garden centers with every fiber of my being, but I
figured that sitting in the car for an hour or two while Kathy pored
over packets of seeds and appraised ceramic ducks was a small price to
pay for avoiding the sunstroke and insect attacks I knew awaited me
out on our personal prairie.
My respite was brief, however. Someone must have
been sprinkling steroids on the lawn while we slept, because within a
day or so the view from my study window looked considerably less like
a well-tended golf course and a whole lot more like a transplanted
slice of one of Africa's untidier veldts, complete with what appeared
to be infant trees sprouting in the middle of the front lawn. I rather
liked the way the long grass rippled in the morning breeze, but by the
time my sister-in-law cut short an afternoon visit, gathering up her
children while muttering darkly about the danger of snakes, I was
forced to admit that the time had obviously, definitely, unarguably,
inescapably come to mow the lawn.
Fortunately (or so I thought), the previous
owner of the house had bequeathed not one but two lawnmowers to us,
both thankfully of the riding (as opposed to the pushing) sort. One, a
rusted, boxy hulk clearly dating back to the dawn of lawn mowing,
quickly proved completely nonfunctional, but the second appeared
nearly brand new, and in fact started up smartly the first time I
turned the key. Fortified by an hour's study of the instructions for
the machine and a head-to-toe application of insect repellent, I was
ready to tackle the job.
I was just about to climb into the saddle of my
mechanical steed when Al, one of my multitudinous brothers-in-law,
materialized at my elbow bearing an expression of deep concern. I have
yet to understand, even after laborious mathematical calculations and
extended genealogical explanations by Kathy, where all these guys come
from. There ought to be a law that no man is required to bear more
than three, maybe four, brothers-in-law, but I have at least fourteen,
all of whom seem to regard me as a hopeless halfwit woefully unfit for
rural living. The jury was still out on that question as far as I was
concerned, but even if they were right, I told myself, we all have our
particular talents. I'd like to see one of them try to decode the
parking signs in midtown Manhattan.
Al, it seemed, had some helpful advice for me,
but first he wanted to make sure I was listening. "Gonna mow, huh?" he
ventured. "Yup," I replied cheerfully. "With that?" he frowned at my
shiny little lawn tractor. "Sure, why not? It's nearly new and it runs
great," I responded, helplessly beginning to feel that familiar
half-wittedness creeping into my voice. Al stared off into the
vastness of our lawn. "That's a lot of land to mow with a little thing
like that," he declared in the sort of common-sense tone one uses to
warn children against playing with chain saws.
"Of course, you can do what you want," he went
on, "but if it was me, I'd get a Blitzer or a Floogle like the big
lawn services use. Give you a cut twice as wide as that, and halve
your mowing time." I didn't quite catch the names of the machines he
mentioned, but I immediately began to deeply desire both of them.
Anything that would shorten my "mowing time" went instantly to the top
of my wish list. But Al was just getting warmed up.
"Actually, what you need is a mid-size farm
tractor, like a used Ford, with a mowing attachment you can pull along
behind you. That way you can do the big parts real quick, zip-zap, and
come back with this," he tapped my suddenly pathetic little mower with
the toe of his boot, "to do around the flowerbeds and all that little
"Sounds good," I chirped. "How much does
something like that cost?"
"It ain't cheap," he cautioned, and then
proceeded to explain how ain't cheap we were talking. "I'd say five or
six grand for the tractor and another grand for the mower, but it's
worth it. Shit, it's the difference between mowing your land the right
way in one afternoon and spending your life riding around on that
thing all week."
Since the requisite six or seven grand was more
than twice what we had paid for our most recent car, I immediately
began to consider other solutions, such as moving back to New York
"So what do you use to mow?" I asked, trying to
keep any overtones of challenge or envy out of my voice. I was
secretly hoping he'd offer to lend me whatever magical machine he
possessed. "Bunch of guys from Reynoldsburg," he replied without a
hint of irony. "They come in with a truckload of equipment and do my
whole place for a hundred a week. Hey man, it's worth it. 'Bout drove
myself nuts trying to mow that place." He kicked my mower's tiny tires
one last time, then started to wander away down the driveway. "Life's
too short," he pronounced over his shoulder, "to spend it bouncing
around picking bugs out of your nose."
My enthusiasm for mowing, such as it ever was,
had completely evaporated, and I went inside and laid down on the
couch to ponder my options. If I somehow managed to scrape together a
hundred a week, and figuring that I had to mow the lawn (or, I
hopefully corrected myself, have it mowed) about twenty times per
year, the minimum six thou a decent tractor rig would cost would,
alternatively, pay for at least three years of someone else's sweat,
tears and mosquito bites. And, after all, a lot could happen in three
years. Winning the lottery was possible, I decided, but too dicey to
depend on. I had just solemnly resolved to spend the hours I would
gain every week by hiring the guys from Reynoldsburg on writing a
best-selling book when Kathy appeared at the end of the couch. "What
happened to mowing the lawn? It's supposed to rain tomorrow. Lyle has
been mowing for hours. What are you doing?"
Lyle was Brother-in-Law Number Twelve, lived two
doors away, had once worked for a lawn service, and actually owned a
Floogle, or maybe it was a Blitzer. Lyle loved, Lyle lived, to mow his
"I've been thinking," I replied cheerfully. "And
I think I've got it figured out. We'll sell the mower -- after all,
it's almost brand new -- and use the money to hire these guys Al knows
to mow the lawn. Meanwhile, I'll be inside writing articles for
airline magazines. They pay a ton of money, and before you know it,
we'll actually be making money from having somebody else mow the
lawn!" Any normal person would have been hopping up and down with
delight at my brilliant plan, but Kathy was oddly unmoved.
"Right," she said evenly. "Look, just show me
how to start the mower, OK? Then you can come back inside and loaf.
Better yet, don't get up. I'll ask Lyle to help me."
I reluctantly arose and headed back outside
without a word. I once pointed out to Kathy, on one of our Sunday
drives, that several lawns we passed were being mowed by women.
"Widows," she explained, "Their husbands are inside lying on the
couch, covered in cookie crumbs, dead from lack of exercise and
And the threat to invoke my brother-in-law was
anything but idle bluster. Lyle had already demonstrated a keen,
morbid interest in my ineptitude, and adding accusations of actual
sloth to my résumé would have had him on our doorstep in full Real Man
Mode in a flash. I had learned the hard way that I could not so much
as stand in the middle of my own front lawn looking at clouds (a
favorite pastime of mine) without Lyle appearing out of thin air to
inquire what I was doing and then subtly implying, often using just a
single eyebrow, that whatever I was doing I was doing absolutely
So I again undertook to mow the lawn. I filled
the mower with gasoline (dousing my own feet in the process), checked
the oil (pretending for the benefit of a nearby sparrow that I knew
what the hell I was looking for), climbed into the seat, and turned
the key. The machine sprang to life with a deafening roar, and I was
off. I decided to mow the two acres or so of front lawn first, where
my efforts would be most visible.
Aside from the fact that the noise of the
lawnmower was so loud that I couldn't hear myself think, my first few
minutes of mowing passed painlessly. Our front lawn was largely level
terrain, and it was a simple matter to guide my little tractor back
and forth in neat, parallel rows up and down the 200 feet or so of
grass. I even gradually increased the speed of the mower, and soon I
was zipping along at nearly full throttle, feeling very much like
Farmer John at Le Mans. By fiddling with the controls as I zoomed up
and down the lawn, I discovered how to adjust the blade clearance
(which I promptly set to "Lowest" -- no sense in mowing every single
week), how to slow the mower in turns, and even how to stop my shiny
new toy without using the brakes. This last skill I learned,
unfortunately, by hitting a tree at top speed. On the bright side, it
was a fairly small tree, making both the dent in the front of the
mower and the unusual angle the tree now bore to the ground unlikely
to draw much attention.
Newly alert to the danger of obstacles in my
path, I took a look around the lawn with a critical eye. Something was
clearly wrong with this picture. Some idiot in the distant past,
apparently not content with tormenting future generations by sowing
acres of useless grass, had planted at least seventy-five trees of
varying sizes willy-nilly all over our property. We had, I discovered,
apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, a peach tree, platoons of oak,
maple, ash and beech trees, a baker's dozen of assorted evergreens,
and a huge, very spooky-looking black walnut tree, half dead, looming
over the front lawn apparently waiting for the proper moment to drop
on my head. We also, I noted as I looked more closely, owned
approximately 1,500 shrubs and bushes of varying sizes.
These were the very same trees and shrubs we had
admired so much upon our arrival, of course. But, I learned as that
first afternoon of mowing wore on into evening, there is a world of
difference between a graceful, poetic tree viewed from a shady front
porch and the same vile, grossly overgrown and malevolent mega-weed as
viewed from the seat of a small lawnmower. Mowing up and down in
straight rows I could manage, no problem. But every encounter with a
tree required an elaborate shuffling of gears, strenuous wrenching of
the steering wheel, and frequent reversals in order to mow anywhere
near the trunk. The main problem, I realized, was that the turning
radius of my mower rivaled that of a tractor-trailer rig, and the
stupid thing simply refused to go where I wanted it to most of the
time. I finally resorted to driving the mower in a baroque pattern of
long, looping figure-eights just to be able to swat at the long stalks
of grass growing around the tree trunks on each pass with my blades.
It was a frustrating, infuriating and absurdly time-consuming
exercise, and by the twentieth tree I was emphatically ready to have
the whole lawn paved with asphalt.
It was at about the same time, drenched with
sweat and smarting from ten thousand bug bites, my skin a tartan of
welts gouged by low-hanging tree branches, that I realized I was,
after more than three hours at my task, less than one-third done with
the lawn. Unmown grass, punctuated of course by four or five hundred
trees, stretched as far as I could see. This was ridiculous. The sun
was setting. The moon was rising. Lawn, schmawn. I was through for the
I stopped the mower in its tracks, dismounted,
and decided to leave it right there in the middle of the front lawn.
There was, I realized, the possibility of rain overnight damaging the
mower. But there was also the delicious prospect of a direct lightning
strike on the damn thing. "Have a nice evening," I said to the
lawnmower, which I then kicked as hard as I could.
Limping through the back door dripping sweat and
trailing a large cloud of disappointed mosquitoes, I must have
presented a fearsome visage, or at least fearsome enough to inspire a
conciliatory, if somewhat annoyingly cheerful, response from Kathy.
"Well," she said, a bit too much like June Lockhart for my taste,
"there's always tomorrow." "No there isn't," I growled, "What there is
are tactical nuclear weapons, and I plan to drop a few on that fricking
lawn first thing in the morning. Better wear your lead nightie to bed,
My temper had ebbed by the next morning,
however, a natural process aided by some short-term memory problems
probably attributable to breathing gasoline fumes all day. In any
case, 10 a.m. found me swinging into the saddle of my mower yet again,
and by 4 p.m. I had, at last, finished mowing the entire lawn.
Disengaging the mower blades, I zipped across the lawn towards the
garage, trying not to let my triumphant sense of accomplishment be
dampened by the inescapable observation that the portions of the lawn
I had mowed the previous day were quite clearly already growing back.
With the mower securely stashed in the garage, I
took a leisurely stroll around our homestead to admire my handiwork.
With the exception of a few patches where my low blade setting had
actually scraped off an inch or two of topsoil, I had done a more than
respectable job of mowing, and the lawn once again resembled the lush
park that had greeted us on our arrival. The tang of fresh-mown grass
tickled my nostrils as I basked under the brilliant blue sky, admiring
the fleecy white clouds passing slowly above me, and it was a full
five minutes before the awful truth began to sink in.
I gradually realized that it had taken me a
grand total of nine hours to mow the lawn. Nine hours of blood (try a
tree branch in the face at 10 mph some time), sweat (beyond imagining)
and tears (of anger, true, but tears nonetheless). Nine hours of
deafening noise, ravenous mosquitoes, bone-jarring vibration, and, of
course, Olympic-class boredom. To have survived such an ordeal once
was an admirable accomplishment, a made-to-order anecdote, primo
fodder for dinner party conversation for years to come. Once I could
deal with. But could I really face spending nine hours every single
week all summer long enduring this kind of torment? Nine hours every
week being lobotomized by this dreary, pointless chore? Was there no
way off this treadmill of tedium? Was there no way to stop this
It was a good question, and I posed it to Kathy
a few minutes later when she came outside to ask why I was tearing up
sod with my bare hands and screaming incoherently.
"You'll get used to it," she responded with a
remarkable lack of concern, especially considering that I was still
down on my hands and knees, foaming at the mouth. "And it won't seem
like such a big deal after a while. Lyle actually enjoys mowing. He
says it gives him time to think."
Which was, as appalling as it sounds, true. To
hear Lyle and all two dozen of my other brothers-in-law tell it,
mowing was the best thing since Monday Night Football. To a man, they
regarded mowing as a form of mechanized meditation, a kind of very
loud Zen with a motorized mantra, that afforded them lots of time to
"think things through" as they rode up and down their lawns for hours
When I first heard this preposterous rationale
proclaimed at a family barbecue a few days after my first foray into
mowing, I presumed that I had discovered a hitherto unrecognized vein
of ironic humor in my male relatives and exploded into laughter. "Jeez
Louise," I said, "What do you use to meditate in the wintertime?
Thumbscrews and hot pokers? Recreational root canals?" But the deadpan
looks that greeted my joke left no doubt that my brethren-in-law were
absolutely serious and did not appreciate my sarcasm.
Icy fingers crept up my spine as I realized that
I was trapped like a rat, alone in my loathing of mowing in a town
without pity, surrounded by Stepford Husbands who actually enjoyed
mowing, who looked forward to mowing, who viewed mowing as some kind
of goddamn spiritual experience, and who probably spent the long
winter nights with visions of Floogles dancing in their little heads.
My chances of mustering a collective mutiny against mowing with these
guys were obviously nil.
"Time to think things through"? I began to
wonder whether my concept of "thinking" might be fundamentally at odds
with that of my brothers-in-law. Thinking things through, to me, was
something one did at the proper time and place, usually at 3 a.m. flat
on my back in bed when I couldn't sleep and, all senses at maximum
keenness, I could hear the unpaid credit card bills rustling
impatiently in their envelopes three rooms away. Meditative thinking
was not something I associated with plowing through raspberry bushes
atop a runaway lawn tractor while flailing my arms at angry wasps.
Deep spiritual revelations, in my admittedly limited experience,
rarely involved thistles and biting flies. What in the world could any
sane person possibly be "thinking through" while they mowed, aside
from planning how to rob a bank so they could hire someone else to
serve their time in power-mower purgatory?
My growing sense of cultural isolation only
deepened as I realized over the following weeks that lawn mowing, in
the little corner of heaven in which we had landed, was viewed as far
more than just a simple chore. It held the social status of a
quasi-religion, and atheism, or even agnosticism, on the topic of
mowing was as unwelcome in our rural community as genuine religious
To lag behind in mowing your lawn when it
"needed mowing" (i.e., more than five days since you last mowed it)
was frowned upon, and was certain to bring a flurry of prodding
comments of the "So, gonna mow this weekend, huh?" variety. "Letting
your lawn go" (i.e., permitting dandelions to appear) produced serious
concern among the neighbors, somber inquiries to your wife about your
health, and offers to mow your lawn until you got back on your feet.
Such solicitous neighborliness had its limits, of course. Prolonged
outright refusal to mow your grass would probably result in a visit
from the County Sheriff, followed at nightfall by an angry mob burning
sacks of Scott's Turf Builder on your front lawn.
As a relatively new religion, lawn mowing
naturally has many unsettled questions of theology, which provide
endless topics of discussion among the menfolk at social events.
Family gatherings invariably sort out into the women discussing "girl
stuff" in the kitchen while the men lounge in front of the TV in the
living room, whatever football game happens to be on serving as just
the backdrop to an animated debate of the finer points and techniques
of amputating grass.
Rain is a big topic of conversation, and the
collected works of James Joyce would curl up and slink away were they
subjected to the intensity of deconstruction routinely expended in
discussion of the latest weather forecasts. The fact that our local
meteorologists are almost invariably and hilariously wrong seems to be
irrelevant, and more attention is paid at our gatherings to developing
low pressure systems in Eastern Europe than is probably warranted.
A state of mowing grace, it is generally agreed,
consists of enough rain to make the grass grow steadily, but not so
much rain that it actually interferes with your own personal mowing
schedule. Not that I have ever actually heard of a mowing session
called on account of a little cloudburst, however. Mowing schedules
are sacred to hard-core mowers, and in a contest between rain and
Tuesday's mowing, Tuesday's mowing usually wins. I have seen otherwise
apparently sane men around here placidly mowing their lawns in
torrential downpours during tornado alerts.
But the juices really begin to flow at Sunday
dinner when the topic turns to mowing equipment. One might, as I did,
expect lively debates over the relative merits of Blitzers and
Floogles, verbal tussles pitting hydrostatic drives against
traditional transmissions, and the like. But all such differences fade
when the color brochures appear. Given the choice between free beer
and the latest glossy flyer from the Kubota Tractor Company, these
boys will pick the tractors every time. If you've ever had a hankering
to see grown men go bonkers over a photo of a cup holder, swing by my
mother-in-law's house on any Sunday afternoon.
Meanwhile, after two or three weeks of mowing, I
was fresh out of positive thinking and at the end of my mental rope.
If mowing my parents' lawn, which took all of three hours, was boring
enough to inspire in me a lifelong distaste for the entire plant
kingdom, mowing my own lawn every week was more than sufficiently
infuriating to make me wish for an intergalactic invasion that would
reduce us all (including, hopefully, our lawns) to smoldering cinders.
(Of course, with my luck, our new alien masters would turn out to be
golf nuts and put me to work on the groundskeeping crew.)
I tried everything I could think of to lessen
the boredom of mowing, but seven hours (I had cut it down from nine by
paying a whole lot less attention to the grass growing around the tree
trunks) was still beyond the pale. I attempted to listen to music on a
small radio through headphones while I rode up and down the lawn, but
the roar of the mower proved to be so loud that I nearly deafened
myself trying to make out Mozart above the din. I switched to AM talk
radio, but the only station I could pick up devoted most of every
broadcast day to a Doctor Ruth-Rush Limbaugh double-header that
enveloped me in a black cloud of depression worse than mowing itself.
I even briefly tried reading while I mowed, but the vibration of the
mower as it jolted me across the uneven lawn made me carsick. I
finally gave up all hopes of distraction and decided to try to
meditate while mowing like my zens-in-law, but the only mantra I could
hold firmly in my mind contained far too many four-letter words to
qualify as transcendental, at least in any positive sense.
The logical course, if I couldn't make mowing
more enjoyable, was clearly to find a way to abbreviate the mowing
process itself. The real problem, I realized, was not with the lawn,
but with the mower. I had cast my lot with a lawn mower clearly not up
to the task, a milquetoast machine better suited for trimming the berm
in front of the Plaza Hotel than chopping through five acres of
truculent Ohio grass and weeds. I remembered my conversation with Al
about mowing equipment on that first day and began to pay close
attention to what my fellow lawn-slaves were using to cut their grass.
I even began to actually read the glossy brochures thrust at me over
the onion dip at Sunday dinners. And no sooner had I begun my studies
than I was, as every man has been since the dawn of mowing, consumed
by the green-eyed and drooling monster known as Tractor Envy.
Early on I had noticed that both of my next door
neighbors, Frank to the west and Steve to the east, owned full-size
farm tractors, which they used to quickly ("zip-zap," in Al's lingo)
mow the bulk of their lawns. The cutters they pulled with their
tractors seemed to gobble up at least twice, and perhaps three times,
the width of turf my puny mower barely managed to choke through on
each pass. Riding high above the bugs and bumps on their stately
machines, they were done with most of their mowing in what seemed (at
least to me, mired in mid-lawn on my toy mower) no more than about 45
minutes. They then reappeared later in the afternoon, obviously having
enjoyed a civilized lunch and perhaps a refreshing nap, to trim
between and around the trees that bordered their lawns with small,
quiet mowers. Frank even owned a "zero-turn" riding mower, a
marvelously agile contraption that allowed him to effortlessly zip
around tree trunks without the exaggerated loops I was forced to
It wasn't fair, not even close. These guys were
performing the equivalent of laser surgery on their lawns, and there I
sat on my joke mower, hacking away at my armor-plated crabgrass for
hour after hour with nothing but a dull eggbeater and a blinding
headache. My Tractor Envy Index jumped from bake to broil,
furthermore, when I realized that my neighbors were deploying all that
sophisticated mechanical muscle to mow lawns that were, in both cases,
less than half the area of mine. And I began to look for small animals
to kick when one of my brothers-in-law, who had less than one-quarter
of the grass to mow that I did, drove home one day in a brand-new,
shiny orange top-of-the-line $21,000 Kubota tractor. If I had spent
the first few weeks of my mowing ordeal feeling like a victim of cruel
circumstances (as indeed I had, in spades), I now felt like an
absolute idiot, the uber-schmuck of Central Ohio.
I needed something bigger, and I wasn't the only
one who thought so. Since I was as visible from my neighbors' lawns as
they were from mine, my predicament almost immediately brought me
bushels of helpful advice, almost all of it prefixed with the by now
standard "You mow all this with that?" morale-builder. Frank even gave
me a guided tour of his mowing arsenal one afternoon, expounding at
length on the proper sort of brush-cutter to buy, what to look for in
a used tractor, and the importance of establishing and rigorously
following a scientific mowing-pattern for my lawn, a sort of optimum
motorized choreography that would simultaneously minimize my mowing
time and maximize my gas mileage. Bad neighbor that I am, I spent the
duration of Frank's helpful lecture in plotting how to murder him,
hide the body, and steal his tractor.
The main obstacle to simply going out and buying
the tractor and ancillary doodads I so obviously needed was, aside
from an anemic bank account, my long-standing, carefully-nurtured and
near-total ignorance of anything mechanical. Unlike my country
cousins, I had not grown up fiddling with tractors (or even cars), and
had no real idea of how an internal combustion engine works. If you
needed to partition the hard drive of your computer, I was your boy,
but tell me my car needed a new set of gaskets, and I was helpless as
a newborn kitten (a condition which has never, incidentally, failed to
set the car mechanics out here to salivating).
And my initial attempts at properly maintaining
even my little mower had not been encouraging. Operating on the basis
of horror stories I had heard in my youth about fools who destroyed
their cars by failing to ensure an adequate supply of oil, I routinely
gave my little motorized pal as many gulps of 30-weight as he could
hold, figuring that a truly well-oiled machine would run like one.
This theory turned out to be spectacularly wrong. I was about halfway
through mowing one blistering Saturday afternoon when my mower, which
had been squeaking sedately across the front lawn as usual, suddenly
began to cough violently. No sooner had I noticed this disturbing
development and chalked it up to impurities in the little fellow's
breakfast of three quarts of oil, however, than the mower emitted an
earsplitting and soul-wrenching "THWOMP," ground to a shuddering halt,
and exploded in a blinding cloud of thick white smoke. Always one to
keep my head in a crisis, I screamed loudly enough to be heard three
counties away and jumped backwards off the mower, landing,
predictably, on a small raspberry bush.
Neighbor Frank, who fortuitously happened to be
finishing up the edge of his driveway with manicure scissors at that
moment, ambled over to survey the situation with a bemused grin.
"Never seen a man get off a lawnmower that fast, " he said, obviously
stifling a laugh as I picked nettles out of my ears. "Looks to me like
you've got a bit too much oil in your machine. Let's take a look-see."
The next twenty minutes were among the most humiliating I have ever
endured, and I felt like a dim schoolboy as Frank drained the excess
oil from my still-smoldering mower, cleaned various filters and,
miraculously, got my machine running again. I kept telling myself that
I was in the midst of a learning experience, but the truth is that I
learned absolutely nothing from Frank's tutorial, except possibly to
avoid putting oil in my lawnmower in the future. Everything Neighbor
Frank said slid immediately from my mind as if my brain itself had
been greased with too much oil. He might as well have been dissecting
a squid for all the practical knowledge I gained from watching him
twist bolts and rinse filters.
In aching despair, I realized at that moment
that all my brothers-in-law were right about me. I was hopeless,
clueless, and useless, too far behind on the handyman curve to ever
catch up, doomed to a sad, wimpy life of having my car serviced at
Sears and buying a new mower every year to replace the one with a flat
tire. I felt like crying, preferably on an airplane back to New York
Buying a tractor, under these circumstances, was
clearly not a good idea. After all, I thought bitterly, it would just
make for a bigger, more expensive conflagration in the front yard, and
even that would probably be just a prelude to the statistical
near-certainty that I would, like so many neophyte tractor owners,
eventually kill myself with the damn thing. I had done some reading
about tractors on the internet in my spare time, and decapitation by
low-hanging tree limbs, even among seasoned tractor drivers, was
depressingly common. Steel tree-guards were apparently available to
prevent such unfortunate episodes, but these gizmos paradoxically
seemed to accentuate the possibility of "rollover," an unpleasant
human-tractor pas de deux from which you awake (or probably not) to
find a two-ton tractor perching delicately on your chest. I could
think of (and was, in fact, actively considering) several far cheaper
ways to kill myself.
So it seemed that I was doomed to spend the rest
of my days riding back and forth on my ridiculous little mower, a
pathetic figure dodging trees and jolting my spine into oblivion as my
neighbors fussed with the cappuccino makers and CD players aboard
their air-conditioned tractors with the optional platinum
edge-trimmers. I decided to order a clown suit over the internet. The
least I could do for our neighbors was wear a fright wig and bulbous
red nose as I made a fool of myself.
But the Fates, although never before my friends
in such matters, then intervened in a remarkable and unexpected
manner. Perhaps the celestial powers that be sensed that I was
teetering on the verge of packing it all in and fleeing back to
Manhattan, where greenery is, by law, sensibly confined to salad
bowls. Perhaps the thought of consequently being stuck with five acres
of intractable weeds, and responsibility for the mowing thereof, gave
the gods pause. Or perhaps it was just my lucky day.
In any case, my salvation arrived in the most
unlikely form imaginable, a lawn party. Kathy invited her entire
family, including all 360 brothers-in-law, to our house for a picnic
on a fine midsummer weekend. Being by nature a simple sort of host and
knowing my brothers-in-law fairly well by then, I figured we'd handle
the occasion by building a large bonfire in the front yard and tossing
a live cow or two on the flames as our guests' hungry howls warranted.
But Kathy, unbeknownst to me, had more elaborate plans, as so she
I was about halfway through mowing the lawn on
the morning of the picnic when she returned from the local home center
with what appeared to be enough paraphernalia to equip at least nine
picnics, or maybe, I decided as I unloaded the truck, a half-dozen
Mafia weddings. As I unpacked cartons of citronella candles, floral
centerpieces, Hawaiian torches and yards of gingham table cloths, a
growing sense of panic began to grip my usually placid soul. A new gas
grill (assembly required), a dozen or so picnic chairs (assembly
required), and a large picnic table (lots of assembly required) now
sat in the driveway and mutely posed a considerable puzzle: how could
I possibly assemble all this folderol, a task which might take days,
if I was still hours away from finishing my lawn mowing?
I presented this question to Kathy as calmly as
I could under the circumstances, and after a brief ten minutes of
standing in the driveway staring at the piles of cardboard boxes, we
arrived at a possible solution. I would give Kathy a brief lesson in
lawn mowing, after which she would take a shot at finishing the lawn
while I maimed myself putting all the party accoutrements together.
It was an odd feeling to be instructing Kathy in
the operation of the mower, and I kept feeling twinges of deja vu as I
recited the dos and don'ts of lawn mowing: Fill it with gas and check
the oil. Don't stick your toes or fingers underneath. Mow in straight
lines when possible, and watch out for sticks and rocks. Good luck!
Good luck? Good grief! That was it! I was
repeating my own father's words to me from that fateful summer day
more than thirty years earlier, the solemn credo that had set me on
the path to a life (if you want to call it that) of lawn mowing. A
tear welled in my eye as Kathy tentatively gunned the throttle and
roared slowly away to do noble, valiant battle with the crabgrass, the
mosquitoes, and the unforgiving heat and dust of our Central Ohio
veldt. The torch had been passed, at least for one afternoon, and as
soon as she faded from sight behind the apple trees, I quickly
repaired to the coolness of the garage to keep up my end of the
Several hours later, I had finished assembling
the picnic table and the grill and was still bleeding on the third
lawn chair when Kathy appeared in the garage with a bone to pick. "How
come," she asked accusingly, "you always complain so much about
mowing? It's actually kind of fun. It's certainly easier than cooking,
and I'll bet it's easier than what you're doing right now. You'll
notice that I'm not the one bleeding."
Her insolence was staggering, and I was tempted
to box her ears with a tart reply. She had mowed only once, and had
not stepped in any nest of yellow jackets while doing it. She had not
yet faced the tedium of weekly mowing under the mocking gaze of the
tractor snobs. And she had never driven into a blue spruce tree at
full throttle while picking a grasshopper out of her nostril. She
didn't know the horror, the true horror, of mowing.
But I held my tongue, and as Kathy resumed
mowing the side yard a few minutes later, I realized that my tact had
been the wiser course by far. The litany of pain and torment I had
cataloged for my unspoken reply had, after all, taken me more than
thirty years to accumulate. My innocent, trusting wife, on the other
hand, was only on her personal Day One of Mowing. No point in
discouraging her, I thought to myself. She says mowing is fun, it's
fun. Whee! With a little luck and the proper encouragement, she'd
still be bouncing around out there picking bugs out of her nose when I
was safely senescent and exempt from lawn mowing.
The distant drone of her mowing still filled the
summer afternoon as I wiped the blood from lawn chair number eight and
glanced towards our front lawn. There stood Lyle, frozen like a pillar
of salt by the inconceivable sight of my wife mowing the lawn. I
ambled over to see what he wanted, but he seemed to be having
difficulty finding his tongue. "Wow," he finally managed, "How did you
swing that? I saw her mowing and figured you must have died or
something." "Nope," I said, "Just a little trick I learned from a guy
named Tom Sawyer. I can loan you the book if you want to read it."
"Maybe some other time," he mumbled, peering up at the cloudless blue
sky, "I gotta go finish mowing now. They say it's gonna rain soon."