For all the attention the spring and fall marathons attract, there is a red, white, and blue, freshly mown grass quality to the U.S. summer road circuit, something purely American akin to Broadway musicals like The Music Man and Oklahoma!
Last weekend was the quintessentially Mid-American Quad City Times Bix 7 Road Race in Davenport, Iowa, celebrating its 44th anniversary. During my 26th year at the Bix, I was brought back once again to the charms of that great rolling land with its open , friendly faces, wide front lawns, and the smell of freshly mown grass. It is a deeply seeded memory anchored in my own Midwestern upbringing down the Mississippi River in St. Louis.
But just as dearly as I loved the loamy fragrance of a freshly cut lawn, even more did I hate the chore that brought it about. But since most parents in those less-child-centric times still ruled with an unbending hand and believed in the Emersonian qualities of hard work, I was forced on many occasions into action not of my choosing with implements of yard work in my bony little hands.
This dichotomy, then, between parental will and my own private interests became the motivation that led me to a system whereby my desire not to do such things as yard work would supersede their need for my household contributions. I found it to be a design for a mostly chore-free childhood existence. I’ll explain.
It was Pop.
“Go out and cut the grass in the backyard, would you.”
Presented in the form of a request, this was not to be confused with an option. No, this was an order, and one not to be taken lightly.
Of course, I had no desire to cut the grass, much less rake whatever leaves had gathered in a yard that contained five mature sycamore and silver maple trees in a plot no larger than D.J. Trump’s brain pan. But I couldn’t just say, “Thanks, but you go ahead, don’t mind me”. No, I had to make the parents come to the realization that their very asking was an error in and of itself.
Managed correctly – or, more precisely, incompetently – the act once considered necessary would soon reach a state whereby Toni would never again be asked or required to perform this or any other task for fear of the unintended consequences.
It was at this time that the parental units would reach the “Ah-hah!” moment that St. Paul would write so effectively about upon the road to Damascus.
In the realm of leaf raking, the absolute key was in the choice of implement. Therefore, I would remind myself to always opt for the iron-tined mulching rake over the springy, bamboo-tipped one hanging side-by-side on pegs in the garage. In this way, not only would I achieve their initial goal of collecting fallen leaves, but at the same time I would also dislodge a requisite amount of grass and topsoil – what I called the unintended consequence of the parental request. This consequence, once noticed, would lead to the inevitable shriek from inside the house, closely followed by an irate parent leaping out to remove the offending tool from their incompetent child’s hands.
“Damnit! What are you doing?” being a not infrequent opening line.
“Raking the leaves in preparation for yard mowing, as per your request.”
“Give me that thing!”
“Here. This is how you do it.”
And so they would proceed to show me; pretty much what I had in mind in the first place. And according to a Reader’s Digest article I had read in first grade, exactly what most people will do in a similar circumstance. Humans, it seems, love to show their competence. So, an informed incompetence is like honey to a sweet-toothed bear.
As for mowing the grass, the advice here is to always explore the issue ahead of time, just so everyone can see what may lie ahead.
“You say you want me to mow the lawn? Happy to help. But just so we’re clear, there are some flowers bordering the grass that you want me to avoid with the twirling metal blades, correct? Okay. Got it. And there are also may be a few weeds, too? Good enough, I’ll pull those. Okay, I think I have it. Flowers and weeds have long green stems, and grass has short green blades.“
At this moment it is always helpful to look quizzically out into the distance as you ponder the operation.
“Long stems, and short blades. Long stems and short blades.”
(Muttering to oneself within earshot of the parents as you walk away always scores bonus points.)
That usually scared just enough crap out of the parents to solve the problem.
To recap: well-meaning purposeful incompetence is the absolute apogee of the form, and cannot be recommended any more highly. Remember, just like in dealing with law enforcement, it has to be their idea for you to go about your own business. I developed a system for that, too, which I’ll explain in a future post. But the key is for them to realize the error in dealing with you.
With that in mind, the best of luck avoiding further chores. Enjoy the remainder of the summer ahead.