Tag Archives: poverty

Changing How We Mow the Lawn Changed Who We Are


Sometimes a lawn mower can change everything.

I always associated nice weather with the deafening “rrrrrrrrrrrr” of lawn mowers.  It’s not a bad sound for most of us; it’s generally something that brings to mind summer days, backyards, and the smell of cut grass.  To start a lawn mower generally requires some level of finesse: the perfect amount of fuel to prime the motor, followed by meaningful yanks to the pull cord.  Having too much machine for the job is, supposedly and in some places, a uniquely American point of pride. A lawn mower is a classic symbol of suburbia, a perfectly-manicured carpet of grass the reward for its conscientious use.  Stroll through any big box hardware store and you can see them, lined up and shining, some of them even ride-on style, costing as much as a cheap used car.

We added our own din to that noisy chorus of weekend lawn mowing in our own neighborhood until, at a yard sale about year ago, we came across a barely-used, old-fashioned push reel mower. We might not have bought it if our gas-powered one had been working, but it had mysteriously stopped functioning two weeks before, and we were watching our weedy front lawn grow long and feeling reluctant to part with the cash to buy a replacement. But here was an alternative staring us right in the face: fifteen dollars for a simple, people-powered option.

We toted our reel mower home and started to use it. I was really excited for a few days, maybe for the same reasons I like vacuuming and find the chore soothing. It was so easy to pull it out and scoot around the yard with it, and I could even do it with my young children nearby. I could hear them if they needed me, I could stop what I was doing and tend to their needs, then easily come back and pick up where I left off.

Why don’t more people use push reel mowers? After using and loving ours, I was baffled by their relative rarity, so I did a little research: it turns out, getting sticks caught in the blades is an irritation for some. Also, if you have a really bumpy, hilly yard, you probably won’t get the precision cut you might prefer. And you can’t let your grass grow really long before you mow, because the blades will tend to just fold the grass over rather than cut it. Compare those negatives to the estimate that operating a gas mower for an hour is the pollution equivalent to driving a car three hundred miles.

What was more unexpected was the cascade of events that happened as a result of switching lawn mowers. The first thing was, neighbors started to ask to borrow it. I had never lent or borrowed lawn equipment; I don’t know exactly why.  Something about seeing us with our quirky, unusual and primitive mower in the front yard captured people’s interest. What grew from that is: it’s the official lawn mower of our block, now.  And we borrow the electric weed eater from another neighbor, because I can’t figure out an unpowered way to do the edging.  We’re all sharing tools, sending each other quick texts or Facebook messages, saying, “Can I use the mower tomorrow? Is it in its usual spot?”

I also didn’t expect some of the other subtle changes the new mower brought about. The simplicity of its operation gave me a confidence in outdoor chores I hadn’t previously had. I grew more excited about trying my hand at growing vegetables, and instigated a raised-bed garden building project one weekend. Now, three growing seasons later, I know how to amend soil properly, start my veggies from seed, and have a successful compost pile.

I don’t want to overstate how this small change in our family’s lawn care choice affected us, but I will say this: it’s remarkably powerful to stop what you’re doing, disrupt the status quo, and say, “Why?” And, “is there a better way?” Can holding a tool in my hand and operating it using the strength of my body lead me to a certain kind of empowerment in other parts of my life? I can mow our little patch of grass and look over at the new vegetable garden that’s growing the food that’s powering the muscles that are mowing this lawn. And our machines shouldn’t take that sort of simple pleasure away from us.

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Bright Pink Lipstick


1011074_10202997602243110_891455566_nI’ve spent the last several years writing blog posts about the Recession. Here’s how it started: an old friend of mine got hold of me. It turns out he was an editor for a website about the New Economy, and he wanted me to write my story. This is a familiar sort of occurrence among people of A Certain Age: thanks to the wild accessibility of really pretty much everyone through Facebook, people like me are reconnecting with folks we were too drunk or too careless to keep in contact with as decade after decade rolled past. For some time now, I’ve been ludicrously rewarded for epochs of bad behavior. Turns out that all of my exes and a whole bunch of lost friends are excellent and forgiving people, which makes me feel a whole lot better about my taste, but even worse about my carelessness and the time I lost with them.

Which brings me to: carlessness. My word processing program doesn’t want to even acknowledge it’s a word; it’s just a snippet of the zeitgeist and that takes longer to integrate into common parlance. It’s too close to “carelessness,” and maybe that resemblance is a bad thing. You see, outside of places like New York City and maybe Portland, not having a car–especially when you are the suburban mother of three–is a sign and symbol of having Blown It Big Time. But we are without a car. It was an easy decision at the time: we couldn’t pay the rent. What we had was a paid-for, valuable hunk of metal parked in the driveway and a roof we preferred to keep over our heads. Some people make another choice: to move in with family, perhaps. “Temporarily,” of course. But it was no accident that we had found ourselves in Northern California, far away from both of our parents’ households in Texas. We had severed the ropes of that safety net and had no regrets. You see, there are some sorts of safety that are so fraught with danger and damage that calling upon them feels like a sort of suicide.

So we carry on, working menial jobs and trying to shake money from trees. We take our children on errands in our bike trailers, pedaling in the sweltering heat or in downpours, faces held in caricature expressions of grim determination. It’s been an adventure. A noble experiment. So many others around us are in similar straits, so this whole thing–newfound poverty–has an air of camaraderie to it, and whole new ways of doing things have taken root. We’ve done it all: bartered, gotten backyard chickens, grown a vegetable garden. I’ve written so many essays about the New Simplicity that I’ve started to think of my style as “Chicken Soup for the Recessionista’s Soul.” This ghetto for my writing is eye-rolling in its tendency to put a positive spin on things but still keeps my work out there, in front of appreciative eyes.

But something horrible has happened to me this year, and I don’t know what to do. At some point–was it after the hundredth “no?” The thousandth? Was it day number 1350 of not having enough, or maybe day 1351? But somewhere along the line I realized this is not going away, and that struggling to pay the utilities is a monthly reality with no end in sight. That making Top Ramen for dinner had stopped being an amusing indulgence in crappiness, and has become–at times–economic necessity. I look at my children and I want to say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry you’re having to wear this need and pretend it’s okay, I’m sorry there are no birthdays at pizza parlors or dance lessons. I’m sorry I can’t send you with a handful of change that I don’t have so you can get a candy bar at the corner store. I’m sorry you notice what other families enjoy–simple things, a drive to the country and a weekend of camping–and you notice the difference and have to ask me why. I’m so sorry I cannot provide for you the things that were provided for me. I’m sorry that a simple trip to the doctor to check for pinkeye has to be a negotiation based on the twenty bucks in co-pay expense versus what may be curable with time and the hive mind of online medical care advice. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I wear bright pink lipstick (one tube, annually, cheaply obtained) and have my cruiser bike decorated like a parade float. I let my children dress with lackadaisical freedom. We played by the rules and we lost everything that offered us safety and security, so to hell with the rules, I teach them. You will get screwed-over six ways to Sunday, so find the hidden magic, I say. Do you see that smooth brown stone? Pick it up and shift it towards the light, and you will see small bits of glitter like tiny stars. I try to tout this lifestyle as one we would have chosen back when we were flush with income and silly material wants, and YES: there are lessons we’ve learned. Yes, you can be a band of hobos with torn parasols, in satin and velvet castoffs, and yes, there are blackberries that grow wild all over this town.

But I’m done. The truth is that I’m toiling for not a lot over minimum wage, and those chickens in the back yard have come home to roost. There’s only so long you can go on before all your resources are tapped, and the barrel you’re scraping has well and truly reached bottom. I know we are required to be  grateful for what we have: no one in the family has chronic health issues, we have good public schools for our kids to attend, and we live in a patch of paradise that makes living without a vehicle or air conditioning a tolerable option. We have–praise ye gods!–health insurance from my husband’s low-paying retail job.

We have a marriage where our struggles manifest themselves in silent regret and disappointment (and a lot of space between us in our marital bed) versus thrown fists or addictions. But no amount of health-insurance-provided antidepressants can prop me up forever, and it’s me who has to keep this ship afloat. It’s doubtless my lifelong sense of entitlement that has probably contributed to my lack of ability to turn things around and make something from nothing, which is probably a story for another day. I’m forty-two years old. I have three children. I pull them where they need to go. I look at my husband while we sit on the porch and the hand I reach out to him is conciliatory.

Apologetic.

Mashed Sandwiches and Empty Water Bottles


Mashed Sandwiches and Empty Water Bottles

There is no “check engine” light when you’re a car-free family. Or . . . something like that. My latest piece is up over at shareable.net; please click a star and share if so inclined.

Talking About the Debbies


(we have always lived in the castle)

When my sister and I would whisper in our beds, in the dark, we would review what we knew about The Debbies, two different girls with the same name we had each befriended at our school in town. I’d make a slope with my striped nightgown by bending my knees up and pulling the fabric tight. One by one, I’d trace the stripes with my finger while I listened to my older sister talk. “They buy that weird cereal that comes in a bag, not a box,” she’d say about “her” Debbie. This was somber information, offered in a disapproving hiss while I listened in silence. It had all been said night after night in this room with the tidy twin beds; we reviewed it as if studying a holy text, or as if committing something to memory that is so special or so awful that you never want to forget it. “I saw ants inside the house,” I intoned in turn, after respectful silence.

* * *

And it was last weekend that my husband and I crawled along the perimeter of our own house, searching for rat holes we could block with wadded-up steel wool. They’re starting to bother the chickens at night, and we can’t have them stealing the feed or threatening the egg production on which we’ve come to rely. The ants in the upstairs bathroom are of little concern to me. I look at them as I would look at dirt that moves, which doesn’t sound very enlightened. But we have forged an uneasy peace. If they happen to make their way into the shower stall, they will feel the fatal sting of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap, otherwise they are free to take shelter from the wet and cold along these baseboards. I address them with grudging tolerance. I see you’re still here. If you make your way to the kitchen, there will be trouble.

* * *

“My” Debbie was my age, in first grade. I had been to her house exactly twice. The first time was for her sixth birthday. My mother had dropped me off in her unfamiliar neighborhood, one where porches leaned at the front of houses heavy and creaking like ships. Her birthday cake had been bright pink, her mother loud and wearing baggy sweatpants. Something about the cake had embarrassed me. It seemed not right, the frosting too thick, everything lopsided and the pink was really dark. Most of the celebration had happened outside on that groaning and rickety front porch. I was confused because instead of grass in their front yard, they had rippling dunes of hardened dirt, laced with tracks in the soft dust that had been made by the sorry-looking Matchbox cars that were scattered in miniature junkyard heaps. No one seemed to mind if you dug deep holes, so that’s what we did for a long time that afternoon.

* * *

Here had come the first birthday for one of the kids after we’d lost the car. I strapped an empty box to the back of my bike with a frayed bungee cord. Before experience taught us alternatives, to get to the store I would take the four-lane busy road over the highway, dodging the cars accessing the on- and off-ramps. The drivers always looked surprised to see a cyclist. I respected that, and accommodated with painstaking care and near constant use of my bike bell. I should have made the cake myself, I thought. I was in the grocery store, feeling the efforts of the grueling bike ride in the pinkness of my skin, and the sweat that was beginning to trickle down in hidden places, making the sudden shock of air conditioning an uncomfortable thing. I was regretting not having planned ahead, knowing I should have come days ago and bought the flour, the baking powder, vanilla. This was new, this needing to be so exacting with the errands of daily life. Now here was this day, my son’s fourth birthday, and in these last hours, I was trying to secure this single-serving cake so that it wouldn’t shift in the box on the long ride home. Helium balloons were tied to my handles.

I lost two of the five balloons in the wind that whips on the overpass. The cake did get smashed. But it was okay. Next time would be better.

* * *

The neighborhood my Debbie lived in made me think of camping. Places that didn’t look like places people could live had curtained windows and porch lights: absurdly small cottages in between and behind the big houses, garage apartments with high wooden staircases, making you feel like there was a tree house somewhere just out of sight. Hiding spots. Small places. People had brought out indoor furniture—with cushions and all—and used it on the porches, or even in the yard. One house had a entire living room set up, with a cord running long out the front door to power the TV with its catawampus rabbit ear antennae. Winters were long and hard here; people tended to want to be outside at every opportunity during temperate months, especially in this ramshackle quadrant. Cars were parked just everywhere, and people worked on them or leaned against them, talking and smoking. Our cars were always in our garage, and the garage door was never, ever to be left opened; that was the zipper fly of the house, and before the day was through, all toys and bikes were tucked inside.

“The dad was at home in the middle of the day,” I said, not knowing why this was wrong, but knowing somehow that it was. “He was on the couch.”

* * *

My underemployed husband comes home at four, and finds the door locked and himself without a key. He texts me: sit-rep? where are you? I forgot my key. Minutes later, at the park, he rolls up and takes off his helmet, strolls toward the kids. They climb him, scaling to the top like it’s a frantic and happy contest, and when they reach the buzzed scruff of the top of his head they free-fall back down. Before we can even greet each other, they are back to building this makeshift mountain, making a fence for their fortress out of broken sticks.

At home, we bring our bikes inside our garage-less house. They lean in a metal tangle in the dining room. The kids use them sometimes for part of their fort construction, carefully avoiding the oily chains so as not to sully the blankets. We have a permanent fort upstairs, built from mattresses in their bedroom. There’s no furniture to interfere, and they’re raised up on a makeshift bunk bed arrangement. Old patchwork quilts turn it into a spot as cozy as a rabbit warren. They’ve even got a lamp under there.

This is a fort-friendly house. There is nothing to mar here. Doors lack knobs in some instances, and windows don’t close completely. The chickens have taken over the back yard and the ramshackle deck. Vines grow over one window, which probably isn’t good for the house’s structure, but makes it look like we’re in a magical forest from the inside.

* * *

Debbie’s mattress was on the floor. I asked her where her headboard was and it was like she didn’t hear me. She belly-flopped onto the Raggedy Ann quilt. My Debbie had bicycles parked in her house. I couldn’t help but stare when I visited, though I did it with the appropriate shy politeness. It seemed so out of place to see a bicycle just leaning cavalierly against the wall of a bedroom, which meant it had to have been rolled through the front door and—horror!—across the carpet. Which, come to think of it, didn’t matter much, considering that what they had in the living room was a dirty turquoise shag, mashed flat in spots, cheerful but crumb-laden. Parts of their house didn’t have carpet even, just exposed floorboards that might give you splinters if you weren’t careful. I remember her brother, sitting on the floor watching cartoons while eating cereal right out of the box. He shoved his arm as far down as he could and pulled up a finger-full of sugary powder, licked, and then dove down for more.