evanmorris.com

a day in the so-called life

pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 left.

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 "mowing."

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 nitwi....

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 mowing.

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 lot.

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 hide-and-go-seek.

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 parallel.

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 arrival.

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 shit."

"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 City.

"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 lawn.

"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 guilt."

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 backwards.

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 day.

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, dear."

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 insanity?

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 every week.

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 apostasy.

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 execute.

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 City.

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 often does.

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 bargain.

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."

 

 

  All contents Copyright © 2004 by Evan Morris.

www.word-detective.com