The Not-So-Great Outdoors

Photographic proof that Dad violated child labor laws.

Sometimes the inconsistency of my anal retentive personality surprises me.

The inside of my house is organized with care. Everything has its place and, by God, if everything isn’t in its place, I—with furrowed brow and hands on hips—will demand an explanation.

I’m only slightly less meticulous with cleaning. During my House Husband Days, I did it all willingly—sometimes cheerfully. When a writing deadline loomed or if I felt a cold coming on, however, I’d let some things slide. A clean shower could wait another day or three, I reasoned. My sociopathic pet shrimp never minds a little algae on the walls of his tank. And I can always tolerate a layer of dust—provided the dust is covering objects that are all in their proper places. Once my deadline is met or my sniffles disappear, however, I pick up my can of Pledge and get to work.

Once I leave my house and survey my yard, however, my organizational/neatness philosophy goes right out the window. With the exception of raking leaves and shoveling snow, I hate yard work. With a passion.

I chalk this up to my hatred of sweating. Italians sweat a lot. I am only one-quarter Italian, but that one-quarter makes up the entirety of my sweat glands.

Oh, why couldn’t my sweat glands be German? I often lament as I take my place behind the lawn mower. Even on a cool day I know that before I finish the front lawn I’ll be able to wring out my underpants.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a single German sweat gland. I do, however, have a German temperament. In other words, when I sweat like an Italian, it makes me angry like a German.

Perhaps my hatred of yard work can also be tracked back to my childhood. My dad, always on the lookout to get out of chores, made me the designated lawn mower. I didn’t sweat as much back then, but I was no less angry with my lot in life. Why am I cutting this stupid lawn?, I often thought. No one has been in this part of the yard since I cut the grass last week!

At that time I had a subscription to Ranger Rick magazine. (Think about that for a moment; I was cutting the lawn at such a tender age I was a subscriber to Ranger Rick). In one issue, there was a feature story on the benefits of not mowing the lawn. This intrigued me.

“Wildflowers will grow!” The magazine exclaimed. “That will attract butterflies! And honey bees! You like honey, don’t you?”

I did like honey! Especially if honey kept me from cutting the lawn.

This new information made me feel smart and powerful. Waving my copy of Ranger Rick like a battle flag, I was ready to argue my anti-mowing stance to The Boss.

“Mom!” I shouted.

“What?” Mom was stationed behind the ironing board, spray starching a dress shirt within an inch of its life. Ironing was her hobby.

“Do you like honey?” I asked her.

“No,” Mom replied.

I should’ve known. Mom was the type of person who ate a plain donut and then complained that it tasted “too sweet.”

“Do you like butterflies?” I tried again.

“Eh,” she shrugged. She released a fresh mist of starch. It sizzled against the piping hot ironing board.

“Do you like nature?” I asked, a little desperate now.

“Yes, of course,” Mom replied.

She looked from me to the Ranger Rick then back to me again. She cocked a penciled eyebrow.

“But I like my nature mowed,” she said.

Dang.

If Mom hadn’t been a mother (and an Episcopalian), she would’ve been a great nun. Mom spent her entire professional career teaching public school in Paterson, NJ, but one summer, she changed things up by teaching a few math classes at St. Elizabeth’s College. She preferred the inner city to the cushier life of a professor, but her brief time at St. E’s still made an indelible impression.

“Every day, I see old nuns—in the full black habits—tending the flowers,” she had told me at the time, her eyes sparkling with delight. “And, by God, every single flower was standing at attention. In perfectly straight rows!”

That was the way Mom liked her nature: obedient.

And, with a shooing wave, I was sent out to the mower.

These days, I have my own lawn, one that I may neglect as I see fit. My excuses for this negligence come surprisingly easy.

“Clover is taking over the yard,” My wife, Ellen, says.

“Bunnies like to eat clover,” I reply.

“The grass is much too long,” she says.

“That’s so the bunnies can hide from predators.”

“What about all the dead patches?” she says.

“That’s where birds can scratch for bugs.”

“And the dandelions?” she asks.

“Bees,” I say, silently thanking God for Ranger Rick magazine. “Don’t you like honey?”

She responded to my question with a different question.

“Michael?” Ellen asks.

“Yes, sweetie?” I reply.

“Cut the damn lawn,” she says.

“Dang,” I say.

78 thoughts on “The Not-So-Great Outdoors

  1. RIP wildflowers. I mourn your loss (and as a lover of honey, I would totally give you a free pass on the lawn-mowing. If The Secret of NIMH taught me anything, it’s that long grass is required for intelligent mice to hide from cats in).

    You know, if you procured a goat and kept it penned in your garden, it would do a really good job of keeping the grass short AND would provide you with fertiliser for the flowers. Something to consider!

  2. I’m surprised your domestic fastidiousness stops at the threshold to the great outdoors, Mike. And what about your energetic offspring, or has he read Ranger Rick too? I recently convinced my lawnmower-happy husband to stop mowing our side lawn. I’m going to plant wildflowers next week and start turning it into a meadow for the bees, butterflies, and bunnies. Do you think Ellen would go for that? It’s good for the environment (and ticks). Lol

    • Alex was never a Ranger Rick kid. He didn’t discover environmentalism until he was too old for that
      magazine. He dos belong to the Environmental Club at school, however, so he’s on the right path.

      Ellen, sadly is not quite ready for our yard to go wild. She can’t even stand clover, for goodness sake. Seriously, what’s wrong with clover? It’s green. Shouldn’t that be enough?

      • What does environmentalism have to do with mowing the lawn? Get that kid on the mower. 🙂 And tell Ellen that clover has medicinal properties. I’m trying to get you out of the chore, Mike. It’s not working.

      • You are a fine person–and I am clearly too dim to read the obvious subtext in your earlier comment.

        Yes, perhaps it is time to dump some mowing responsibilities on The Boy. On it.

  3. I sympathize with your childhood labor woes. And I didn’t get a riding mower! I was mowing my grandparents’ yard in south Alabama summers, pushing a mower that probably weighed as much as I did. But I did enjoy the feeling of stretching myself and making the yard all neat and pretty. I’d say that’s still the case, but I’m not responsible for the yard anymore!

  4. Snow shoveling I cannot avoid. Raking….there’s wind for that. I can’t garden to save my life but I do enjoy mowing my lawn. Apart from the seasonal allergies it triggers, I love the smell of fresh cut grass and how neat and tidy it looks after it’s cut. 🙂

  5. I don’t feel your pain. When I was growing up, my brother got to mow the lawn (and a pretty big lawn, with a tiny stand-up mower, not a mamby pamby sit-down mower). Anyway, that was his job because, my dad proclaimed, my brother was learning to be a MAN.
    So, do you know what my job was? I got to pick up and discard all the dog poop in the back yard. (Our sweet mutt Suzy had a special place to do her business back there). Yeah, so I guess that’s the job I got to do because I was a WOMAN! I didn’t think of it that way when I was 10. I just wished I could trade jobs with my brother.
    That said, I agree with Diana. Time to tell Alex you’re going to help him learn to be a man. He should mow the lawn. And look out for the butterflies and bunnies.

    • Picking up dog turds is an unusual rite of passage into womanhood.

      Personally I would rather put a plastic bag over my hand and pick up the turds. One quick (albeit smelly) chore is far better than an hours-long, weekly, sweaty, dirty, allergy enriched ordeal in the heat of a summer’s day.

      Does this preference mean I am getting in touch with my feminine side?

  6. Hate any kind of yard work…don’t like to sweat either. And that’s a hard thing to avoid when you live in the South. One steps outside, and the sweat pops out.

  7. My mother and your mother were cut from the same cloth. But I didn’t have a subscription to Ranger Rick. Guess it didn’t make a difference for you, anyway. I mowed acres. My parents didn’t get a Yazoo mower until long after I’d left home. My mom sent me photos of dad doing donuts with it, revolving around its single rear wheel. But they never gave up on their John Deeres.

    We now have no lawn, but quite a few plants in our SF postage stamp backyard. I occasionally delete one to give the garden more breathing room. Fewer to water, too. But mowing? That’s something I hope I never have to do again, ever. I do, however, still enjoy riding around on tractors and pulling weeds. And I love admiring our gardening handiwork when we’re done, saying to my son “now don’t you feel like you accomplished something today?” Guess a little bit of my mother rubbed off on me. The interior of the house? Well, we clean before we have people over.

  8. I mowed the lawn for Dad when I was a kid, for allowance money. We had a couple acres of land, and it took me about 4 hours. I was paid four dollars.

    I went on strike in high school, wanting a raise. Dad immediately hired a neighbor kid to do the lawn for $20.

    Hmmph.

  9. I mowed the lawn once when Rick was sick…never again! Now we both get a break…we hired a friend to mow our lawn :D. BTW, picking up dog poop is overrated…not fun at all.

  10. Dandelions are just plain fun. The dandelion seems to be the flower earmarked for children: In park or garden, it’s the only flower a kid can pick without getting into trouble. A child in a field full of dandelions need never run out of things to do: Blowing on dandelion puffballs can tell you if it’s time to go home, how many years until you get married, or how many children you’ll have – and of course, if you catch a flying dandelion seed, you can make a wish. Please don’t tell Ellen I posted this . . . . .

  11. That is most excellent! Hope my grand niece and her dad don’t see it, else I’ll never get the lawn mown again! Whoops! Wait! I already shared it! Dang! There’s that social media addiction again!

  12. As funny and insightful as always. But I look at your on the rider mower and think, “boy that kid must be having fun.” I would have loved to mow a lawn riding and driving that beast. Especially at such a young age. Of course, I would have mowed in figure-8’s or some other strange pattern. Did you ever enjoy driving the mower, not even a little?

  13. I was designated mower of 3/4 of an acre from nine on, too. Because I was the second daughter, I had to (got to?) build a shed with my dad and change the chevette’s oil, too. At least my Walkman and Paula Abdul tape made it bearable!

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