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Changing How We Mow the Lawn Changed Who We Are


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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.

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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?”

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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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Moving to Villa Villekulla


This piece  first appeared on my blog at shareable.net.

We were moving from Texas to northern California, under economic duress. There is something about driving long distances (as opposed to flying) that makes it easier handle the change from one environment to a vastly different one. In the course of your journey you can see the land swell and flatten, observe the terrain and climate change from curving mountainous roads to vast swathes of desert, and note the commensurate architectural adaptations. These are microhabitats, with each community and household navigating a different course.

We were leaving an exurban planned community that had seemed as desolate and unwelcoming as the lunar surface. When we arrived in the house we had chosen and rented by proxy, what was immediately surprising and thrilling to me was how urban it felt. Railroad tracks were a few hundred yards away from our small one-way street, and the corner strip of businesses included a mortuary, pawn shop, donut shop, and a narrow convenience store with two small aisles stacked high with Mexican pastries and cheap wine.

My positive reaction was short-lived. Although our house had a lovely rock facade, a deep and cozy front porch, and an apple tree whose blossoms were in full flower, when we went in, our economic downturn took a shift to the visceral. The walls were cheaply paneled, the aged carpeting was a matted and mottled light brown, the appliances were vintage early-eighties, and the windows either had rotten and water-logged wooden sills or cheap metal frames.

We sat on the decrepit spiral staircase (which looked hand-built by a carpenter of dubious abilities) and snapped a family portrait. Day One. Our faces in this photo are tired and apprehensive, the kids in a weary cluster at our knees.

Your home is wherever your bed is, and that very first night, we were all tucked into clean linens in our strange, new, small and oddly shaped rooms. But in the light of day, we still saw the funky junky-ness of this new dwelling of ours. There was a moist quality to the air, and a noticeable whiff of Dogs Who Had Come Before. Where once a balcony had been, there was plywood attached with foam goo forming a new “wall.” The backyard was shabby, with one side of the privacy fence leaning at a near forty-five degree pitch.

There had been a beige luxury to the house we lived in during affluent times. The carpet was so plush, you left perfect footprints squished into its thickness as you made your way (barefoot, naturally) across the room. There was a garden tub with large corner windows inside an expansive master bathroom, quietly humming central heat and air, and appliances with a heavy luster to them. The walls and ceilings met at right angles, with no softness or crumble to the plaster and drywall. Just the crisp reliability of a brand-new home and the suburban neighborhood in which it sat–gated, landscaped, predictable.

In the new/old house, creaky as a wooden ship, you can drop a marble in the farthest interior corner, and it will take a hilariously random path through the rooms, down invisible slopes and channels, until it finally clicks to a stop in the corner that tips deepest into the earth. And there’s even a basement, which is unusual in California. There are Christmas lights swinging from dusty cords down there, and the walls smell like soil and wet concrete.

One room is too small for furniture. But it is not a closet. It HAS a closet.

We added the magic little-by-little, as we went through this transformative journey from the comforts of what we had back then, and into our new, low-income recession life. Like the marble in the corner, we slid down . . . over . . . and through until we came to a stop and stayed. And that was when we painted the walls yellow–an acid citron, like the world’s ugliest crayon, because that’s the best kind of pretty. Against that went aqua furniture, and pink fabric in great swaths over the windows that don’t quite close. Red shag rugs, lamps from thrift stores, a multicolor dollhouse we rebuilt as a family. Silk monarch butterfly ornaments hang from mirrors and door frames, and cuckoo clocks from my husband’s German childhood occupy much of the wall space.

The man who owns this house is mostly a name on an envelope I mail every month. He has a beard and his eyes twinkle when he smiles. He remembers raising his sons in this house, twenty years ago. They kept rabbits in the backyard, and chickens like we do now. We eat oranges, pears, and apples from the same trees that they harvested and turned into jams and sauces.

Wild Bill watches over everything on our block. He’s the big, bald tattoo artist across the street, and a minor celebrity in this town. He leaves gifts on our porch: a fruit-picker, a pint of leftover soup, a wagon for the kids.

When everything is rough and ragged, the logical course is to festoon it with as much multicolor madness as you can muster. At least that’s my instinct. There was an untouchable sterility to the perfection of “success,” like if you made too sudden a movement, you’d disrupt the delicate balance that held it all together. The beige walls stayed beige, all rooms were regulation size, there were no chickens anywhere nearby, and a dropped marble made a small spiral and sat, solemn and as still as a stone on the kitchen floor.

Yes! Magazine: Living Right on the Wrong Side of Town


I wrote this piece on the recession and how it has affected my family

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