05 July 2012

Fuel for the Grid

The preferred technique, when I was cutting grass, was to outline the yard with the mower as one would a baseball field, and then work inward in an intricate patchwork of diagonals which left an impression of thoughtful landscaping.  Hitching back in criss-cross patterns brought to mind the parquet floor of the Garden in Boston; and it also meant you could self-mulch, which saved money on bagging the grass--a wasteful indulgence.

I once unwittingly ran over a rabbit's nest, fur flying in a trauma alleviated only by a thorough investigation which determined the rabbits had long ago left for greener pastures.  I cut into the tip of my own big toe once, retrieving an electrical cord from an old Sunbeam mower, and flooded my share of Toros and Lawnboys due, in no small part, to my enthusiasm for handling a can of gasoline all by myself.

Before I could drive, my boss would pick me up most summer mornings by 7:30 am, go over the list of those whose yards I'd groom, and circle back on occasion with water, lemonade, and lunch.  Days ended at 6 pm, usually with a quick bite and off to play basketball, then ride bikes, and back to bed for another day.  Music was only on the car radio, not played on pods inserted into ears.  And so when there wasn't the buzz and hum of motors and cutting grass, branch and leaves, there was an abundant silence.  Cicadas on electrical wires; lazy bicycles spinning past; an occasional sprinkler lazily spraying.

A lot of time to think.

Some of the ideas I fetched from my mind were simple, almost folksy, like:  "If you want a new pair of Levis or Adidas, you have to get a job."  That struck me as reasonably as this one:  "Some people are rich; some people are poor.  Most people are in-between."  We were on the lower side of in-between but didn't really know it, until I realized that I was cutting lawns in the very district where I went to school, working on yards of the wealthier neighbors to family and friends, admiring their cars, drinking cool glasses of water in well-stocked, air-conditioned kitchens, and, most significantly for me by 1979 and 1980, arguing about politics.

The Republican Party was articulating an increasingly conservative approach to tax and welfare policy and granted, I was a teenager, but it struck me as fundamentally wrong that a rich person should want more while the poor seemed to have a hard time just getting some.  Protected, as it were, by the impenetrable economic fortress of race and class, these yards were idylls of separation.  Property taxes, school funding policies, and infrastructure investment were all new ideas to me, along with nuclear annihilation, the Cold War, lessons of Vietnam applied to tensions mounting in Central America and Middle East, girls, and the tragic, irreversible reality that I would grow no taller than 5'8"-- methodically laid out for me to think about, like the rows of grass I was cutting.  A grid for the future.  The map of America.

By that time Dad had been fired from his job in television and was struggling to make ends meet in real estate (he hated it) and shoes (a slightly better alternative to death, he reasoned.)  After kicking Dad out of the house, Mom worked on some community development and job training programs in the black parts of Milwaukee, in neighborhoods to where my Jewish great-grandparents immigrated from Russia.  She tried real estate, too, before settling in at other less intensely sales centered work.  But the point here is not so much what they did to make money as it is to illustrate that because they didn't make a lot of it, what we wanted beyond what was provided was going to be gained through our own work.  And of all the things I thought about--and I'm certain this is true--I didn't think about what I didn't have.  I just thought about how to get what I wanted.

In fact, I liked that I didn't have an over-abundance of materiality.  The underdog was always a sympathetic figure to me in film and literature.  It made sense to identify with him in life.  And so went our family politics.  Hard-working, principled, liberal Democratic politics.  Our views were homegrown.

One day, while closing up shop for the day and loading up the trunk of the car with mowers and gasoline, I argued about the 1980 election with the father of a friend whose lawn I was cutting, an argument wherein, with a big grin, he called me a "naive idiot."  It wasn't a particularly interesting argument.  He was fairly well-greased with a couple of gin and tonics and I was covered with clippings and dirt from his yard.  And believe you me, it was hardly a meeting between the patrician and the savage beast.  After all, though lower on the food chain, I was a member of the same bourgeois suburban enclave.  I went to school with his kid.  The only reason he paid more in property taxes than my parents did was because he had more property.  Even an idiot could figure that out.

I left agitated, annoyed.  And powerless to do anything to persuade a man that the measure of who we are is not how much we have but what we do with it.

I crossed a river that day--a river I had conjured while cutting, a shivering river in a mirage of humid prairie grass.  Its waters flowed with principles of decency and generosity; of honesty and hard work; of always knowing whose shoes you stand in and whose you don't.

"You can't take it with you," Dad used to say, adding his own special twist, "Son, ever see a hearse with a U-Haul on the back?"  This fueled me in that time.

"Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance;" said Marcus Aurelius, whom they say, was friends with Judah the Prince "and be ready to let it go cheerfully."

He also said, "Enough of this complaining and groaning and ape-like chatter.  Why are you disturbed?  What is there new in this?  What unsettles you?  Is it the form of the thing?  Look at it.  Or is it the matter?  Look at it.  Besides these, there is nothing.  Towards the god(s), then, now at last become simpler and better.  It is the same whether we look at these things for a hundred years or three.

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