A novel idea–part three

When Jason Hero won the lottery, he did spend some of his winnings on his personal life. He bought some new clothing. He bought a new car. He bought a larger house, one on a lot large enough that he would not have to hear his neighbors. He improved his diet, buying more fresh fruits and vegetables that he had not been able to afford in the past. But Jason did not invest much money in unnecessary luxuries. He was not interested in a fancy car or fancy clothing; what he bought was practical and comfortable.

Jason (to borrow a line from the musical Hello, Dolly!) believed that money is like manure: it is meant to be spread around to help things grow. So Jason invested some of his millions of dollars in starting two new businesses.

One of his new businesses was called Green Stealth Lawn Service. The Green in the name was not just a boast of greener lawns; Jason intended his lawn care service to be environmentally friendly. He did not offer pesticides or fertilizers; only grass cutting and leaf and debris removal. The Stealth in the name represented the fact that Jason’s workers were to be so quiet that the homeowner wouldn’t even know they had come. Instead of gasoline lawn mowers, they would use hand-operated reel mowers and hand-held trimmers. Instead of leaf blowers, they would use rakes. With the savings in equipment and fuel, Jason’s company would pay higher salaries than competing lawn care companies. Therefore, Green Stealth could afford to hire the best workers and to keep only those who followed the rules. Clippings and leaves and other lawn debris would be packed in biodegradable bags which the workers would leave on a lot purchased by Jason for that purpose. After a year or two of business, Jason would be able to offer his customers mulch, rich compost, and fill dirt as an additional service. The workers and their equipment would arrive in electric-powered trucks, keeping the theme of quiet and environmentally friendly.

Jason rented an office with a telephone for his company. He hired a manager who was in charge of hiring and scheduling. Jason was a customer of Green Stealth Lawn Service. Twice he had workers fired for breaking company rules and bringing leaf blowers to the job. (This would be described in much detail in the novel I thought about writing.)

Jason’s other business idea was inspired partly by the Disney theme parks, partly by Renaissance fairs, and partly by nostalgic movies such as Back to the Future. Jason purchased several pieces of property around the country and had each developed in a different way. One was built on the pattern of a medieval village, complete with a castle. Another was a western ranch, set around the end of the nineteenth century. A third was a suburban community, with all the houses and cars and stores resembling those of the 1950s. Another was a pre-Civil War southern plantation. In each case, Jason had the developers create dwellings that could be rented that would portray the flavor of the time period depicted, yet would also have modern comforts including heat and air conditioning, and hot and cold running water. Customers could come and stay for a night or two, or for a week or longer. When they made their reservations, they would include their clothing sizes; and when they arrived, they would be given clothing suitable for the time and place. They would be served meals also matching the time and place. All the staff—greeters, food servers, property cleaners, maintenance—would be actors and actresses trained to complete the experience of a medieval village, a 1950s suburb, or whatever else the property was designed to represent. Considering the amount of money people pay for the Disney experience and for Renaissance fairs, Jason figured his nostalgia vacations would also be profitable over the long term. His lottery winnings made the short-term construction possible.

Jason also had a thought about using his money to help the homeless, but that will have to wait for another post. J.


Why does he do it?

Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who lived in a quiet neighborhood of Copenhagen. This man, a bookkeeper, was respected and well-lived, for he was kind, educated, generous, and particularly benevolent toward children. This man had one peculiar habit. Every day, between eleven o’clock and noon, he would pace the same path in the city streets. Any other hour of the day he would greet people and talk with them, but no one could interrupt his daily hour of pacing. Back and forth he would walk, an intent look in his eye, but completely unaware of the world around him. No one in his neighborhood knew how this habit began, but they tolerated it in him because he was so good to them the rest of the day.
A man like this lives in my neighborhood. Every Saturday, unless the weather is cold or raining, he paces back and forth in his yard. Like that man Kierkegaard describes, he walks back and forth without purpose for about an hour. Like Kierkegaard’s bookkeeper, he is courteous and kind the rest of the week. For this one hour, though, this man seems controlled by some thought no one else can know. No one dares to interrupt him as he paces. He moves back and forth, an intent look on his face, until the hour is over and he returns to normal.
I wonder about this man. I wonder what sort of obsession or compulsion causes him to pace in this way. Please understand, I am in no way mocking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have considerable sympathy for all who struggle with that problem, and I would not wish it on anyone. It seems possible to me that this man is dealing with that kind of issue in his life.
Otherwise, I wonder if that man is engaged in some religious pursuit. Once again, I have the highest respect for religion and would never mock it. It occurs to me that this man may be entranced in some sort of mediation that is meant to bring him closer to God or lift him to a higher level of consciousness.
I should think, though, that his meditation might be disturbed by the noisy lawnmower this man pushes in front of him as he paces.
Some reader might say, “OK, I see what you did there, J. Very funny to set us up with compulsive pacing and then tell us he is just mowing his lawn.” Before you assume that I wrote all this for the sake of a joke, consider that I am very serious about my question: Why does he do it? Why this obsession with a patch of grass that sends this poor man outside, week after week, to toil and labor in service of his lawn?
Yes, I cut my grass when it has gotten long enough to need cutting. I do not treat it as a religious ceremony, though, because I just try to get it done as quickly as possible, leaving time for more important things. If this man’s lawn maintenance is part of his religion, I envy his zeal. I wish I could serve my Lord as faithfully as he serves his lawn. If I could bring to my Christian living the kind of energy and determination shown by this man and others like him, I could truly be numbered among the saints.
If, however, this behavior is obsession or compulsion, I feel sorry for this man. To be in the chains of a habit that sends him out, every Saturday morning, to mow and trim and fertilize and tend his lawn, when he could be doing more important things, must be misery. I try to be kind to him whenever our paths cross, hoping my kindness can somehow compensate for this man’s unfortunate slavery to a patch of grass.
J. (originally posted May 5, 2015)

Petty contempt

The heat has been extreme, even dangerous, lately. Lawn care has not been a priority for me. My work allows me to spend the day in air conditioned buildings. When I get home in the late afternoon, the temperature and humidity are reaching their peak for the day, and I don’t feel like walking around the property behind a gasoline-powered motor with a spinning blade.

When I came home one day this week, I was pleased to see that Mrs. Dim was doing her yardwork in the afternoon. Her habit of running her mower and trimmer and blower early in the morning has not been helpful to my efforts to start the day pleasantly. I thought it would be right neighborly of me to go ahead and shorten my grass the next day so her surroundings would be tidy, consistent with her own property. Meanwhile, as I worked at my home computer that afternoon, I kept an ear open to her work. If she should collapse in the heat, I was ready to be at her side and to call for help. She wisely took frequent breaks, resting in the shade, until her work was finished for the day.

I got home from work the next day and changed into my usual mowing outfit—an old T-shirt, jeans dappled from painting projects, tattered tennis shoes, and a baseball cap encrusted with salt from several years of sweat. Anyone in the neighborhood would recognize my mowing uniform. I filled a large plastic mug with water and went out the front door, heading around the corner to get the mower out of the shed. I filled the gas tank and took the mower to the front of the house to trim the front lawn. As I came around the corner of the house, I noticed that Mrs. Dim was driving away in her car.

This is not the first time this year that she has left the neighborhood while I was mowing. I wonder if the sound of other people’s lawn tools bothers her as much as her lawn tools disturb me. More likely, I think, she cannot bear to watch the quick and shoddy way I care for my lawn. I started the mower and began to work, and then I saw what Mrs. Dim had done.

In the time it took me to get out the mower and fill the gas tank, she had moved her sprinkler to the edge of her property, so that more than half the water it was distributing was landing on the grass I was about to mow.

I considered moving her sprinkler a few feet from the property line at least long enough to finish my work on that part of the yard. However, I was reluctant to set foot on her lawn or adjust her equipment. I try not to give her any reason to complain of my behavior; she complains enough about the things I do not do. Instead, I proceeded with my mowing while wondering what prompted her to move the sprinkler. Several possibilities crossed my mind.

• Perhaps her daily watering of her lawn is on a strict schedule and nothing—certainly not consideration for a neighbor—could cause her to change that schedule.

• Perhaps she was concerned about my well-being in the heat and wanted to make sure I would be cooled with splashes of fresh water while mowing.

• Perhaps it never occurred to her that watering grass and mowing grass are not generally done at the same time (although I’ve never seen her mow and water her own grass at the same time).

• Perhaps she is continuing her canine behavior of marking her own territory.

• Perhaps it occurred to her that putting her sprinkler on the property line while I was getting ready to mow my grass would be one more petty gesture of her general contempt for me and my way of maintaining my lawn.

Does Mrs. Dim have friends with whom she can share stories of her pranks? Do they sit around a table at some fast-food restaurant and cackle together over her amusing accounts of our contretemps? Does she have a blog where she can post descriptions of her behavior to the admiration of her many followers?

If not, I hope she appreciates the publicity that I am providing her. And I am pleased to report that my lawn—not just by the property line, but throughout my property—is as green as the lawns that have been watered daily, thanks to the occasional summer showers we have received this month. A minor vindication of that sort is all that I needed to make my day. J.

My reel mower

In the last half of 2012, when the world was coming to an end and everything I owned was falling apart, I experienced one loss that brought me great joy. I was mowing the lawn and hit a patch of thick grass near the property line by Mrs. Dim’s house–Mrs. Dim waters her grass almost every day, even when it rains–and the mower engine died and would not start again. It may sound strange that I was glad to see my lawnmower die, but this breakdown gave me the chance to buy something I had wanted for several years: a reel lawnmower.

For the uninitiated, a reel lawnmower operates on neither gasoline nor electricity. It is powered only by the strength of a human body. As the mower is pushed forward, the turning of the wheels sends a reel spinning, and that reel consists of several sharp blades that cut the grass.

It was late in the mowing season, and none of the stores in town had reel mowers in stock. I had to order my mower online and wait a week for it to arrive. By that time, the grass had gotten pretty high, and the first two mowings were hard to do. After that the mowing got easier, and I loved my reel mower.

A reel mower is quieter than the typical gasoline lawn mower. One can actually hear the birds sing while cutting grass with a reel mower. A reel mower also does not burn any gasoline. Less noise pollution and less air pollution-what’s not to love? Leaving more gasoline supply for other purposes, I saw the price of gasoline drop a nickel each week for a month once I started using my reel mower. Of course I take all the credit, and imagine what would happen to the price of gasoline if everyone used a reel mower. Besides, my doctor wanted me to get more exercise, and mowing with a reel mower was just the ticket for more exercise.

Already I had been raking leaves instead of blowing them. Already I had been using a hand tool to trip the grass along the sidewalk instead of using a power tool. Now I had the best improvement of all: a reel lawn mower that was quiet, energy efficient, and provided me with weekly exercise. Since the reel mower was not hard to start, I didn’t mind taking a break for rest and a drink of water while mowing. I didn’t mind mowing different parts of the property on different days instead of rushing to get the week’s mowing done on the same day. I didn’t mind mowing at all, except for the times that the neighbors got out their loud smelly mowers while I was enjoying the day with my reel mower.

My mother and father said they remembered using a reel mower when they were young. Mrs. Dim said the same thing. Clearly, none of them understood why I would take a step backwards in technology. They could not grasp the goodness of a quiet mower that had no carbon footprint. Yes, I was smug about my reel mower.

Of course no change is perfectly good. The reel mower jammed when it hit twigs that the gasoline-powered mower could effortlessly grind to pieces. Various bolts had to be adjusted every two or three weeks to keep the reel mower operating efficiently, and the instructions that came with the mower were not very clear about what to adjust. I had to teach myself by trial and error. Worst of all, the handle of the reel mower was made from thin metal. Before the reel mower was a year old, the handle had broken, and I had to fix it and reinforce it to have a working mower.

The next summer, the handle broke again, and this time no repair I tried would hold. For a while I struggled to make the reel mower work, but meanwhile the grass was getting longer. Finally, I threw in the towel, drove to the hardware store, and bought another loud gasoline-consuming monster. I’m sure that Mrs. Dim was happy to hear the mighty roar once again. My weekly mowing takes less time, even if it does not provide as much beneficial exercise. But I miss my reel mower, and someday I hope to find a way to get a good strong handle attached to it again.


Murphy’s Gremlins — part one

Note: this post and the following post summarize a book that I have tried more than once to write, but I have never been able to finish it.

We’ve all heard the saying called Murphy’s Law: if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Some people say Murphy was an optimist.

When you are late for work and in a hurry to get there, traffic is heavy and you meet all the red lights. When guests are coming for the holidays, the floor drain backs up and floods the kitchen. When you have a paper due for school and have almost finished writing it, the computer crashes. When the computer works again, that paper is the only file that has disappeared. When the water heater springs a leak, you discover the leak on Friday night and you have to wait until Monday to get the water heater replaced.

Murphy stated the rule, but he did not describe the gremlins. Murphy’s Gremlins live all around us, in the computer, the water heater, the floor drains, and the traffic lights. These gremlins are able to measure how important our machinery is to us. They are able to calculate when a break-down will be most inconvenient for us. They know just when things should go wrong, to make each day as stressful as possible.

A powerful gremlin lives in my car. It knows precisely when to keep my car from starting, the day I need that car the most. It arranges for a flat tire on a rainy day. It makes sure that, when I bring the car to the mechanic to fix one problem, another more expensive problem will show up in the garage.

City engineers try to time the traffic lights for the most efficient use of the roads. They cannot outthink Murphy’s gremlins. I have seen the light change for the side street when no car is there. Finally a car approaches, but before it reaches the intersection, the light has changed again, and the driver has to wait for all the traffic that had built up at the red light on the busy street to clear. Murphy’s gremlins watch for times like that. They love nothing more than to cause the greatest inconvenience for the greatest number of people.

Now Murphy’s Gremlins are responsible for inconveniences, not for tragedies. They cannot be blamed for earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. Nor do they cause war, poverty, and crime. Murphy’s Gremlins cause the power to go out just when you are about to start cooking supper. They make the telephone ring just as the rice on the stove is almost finished, and they keep you on the phone until the rice has burned. Murphy’s Gremlins make sure that the phone call you were expecting comes while you are in the bathroom.

They have a sense of humor. If I buy a sandwich to eat at the red lights—for I will not eat while driving, not while the car is moving—then I will get green lights for the entire trip. If I clear my schedule and set aside an entire afternoon for a difficult repair project, things will fall into place and I will be done in half an hour. When I want to mow, the mower will not start; but if I really do not want to mow and would accept any excuse to put off mowing, the mower roars to life with just a half-hearted pull of the cord.

Murphy’s Gremlins are part of life, and most days we must accept their existence. But the gremlins can be beat. In my next post, I will tell you how.