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I Clipped. I Sawed. I Weeded.

by on May 27, 2011 6:00 AM

People like me shouldn’t own houses.

I arrived at this conclusion last weekend, a major chunk of which I devoted to taming unruly nature on the lands the deed to my property says belong to me.

This is a particularly challenging job at present because we are at the very height of what has been a very rainy spring. Mother Nature is carrying on like she’s in an episode of “Girls Gone Wild.” For example, the grass I cut on Saturday morning was about half again as long by Sunday afternoon.  

My plan, as usual, was to groom the lawn without the benefit of internal combustion. For years I have gamely pushed a rotary mower around the yard while trying to ignore the ugly truth: It always leaves a stubble of grass blades that it bends but cannot cut. This problem is particularly acute when the grass is particularly long, as it was last weekend.

My neighbor, a retired engineering professor, suggested I adjust the mower blades. Somewhere, I have a big screwdriver. Couldn’t find it.  I tried a smaller screwdriver. Not enough torque.  I tried a hexagonal screwdriver. Still not enough torque. Went looking for my socket wrenches. Couldn’t find them.

This is part of the reason why I should own as few things as possible: I seem neither to have a place for everything nor is everything ever in its place.

My neighbor loaned me his socket wrenches but also indicated that he would gladly loan me his power mower. I’m stubborn, though. I wanted to see if lowering the blades would work. Plus, I hate the noise of power tools. In fact, if the truth be known, I’ve always been a little afraid of them. But I was tempted. I’m always tempted.

Lowering the blades improved the cut slightly. And it made pushing the mower rather like pushing a cart whose wheels won’t turn. I began showing dangerous signs of external combustion. I gave in and borrowed the power mower. Just like that I became, again, this person I never thought I’d be: a suburbanite who spends his free time growing and harvesting a crop he cannot eat.

Next I attacked the jungly flowerbeds. Mirabile dictu, I found my pruning shears, but for the woody parts I needed a pruning saw. I used to have one, but it broke last year and I haven’t gotten around to replacing it. So I went in search of a handsaw. I found the handsaw’s cardboard sleeve in the workshop, but the saw itself – gone missing.

I entered the garage and had to fight off a wave of self-loathing. Every six months I clean the garage because I have spent the intervening six months trashing it.

It happens like this: I neglect building and grounds. I make up my mind to clean up my act. I work furiously. Instead of knocking off while I still have the energy to put things away, I bop ’til I drop. Then I feel like it’s all I can do to get my tools in out of the weather.

I couldn’t find the handsaw. But I did find a coping saw, so I coped. After the clipping and sawing came the weeding. I have a very cool weeding tool.

By the end of the weekend my house had regained some of its curb appeal. But a closer inspection would reveal that I had barely scratched the surface. I could pick up this week where I left off last week, but much of what we all did last week will have to be redone this week because it’s still raining and it’s still May. Plus I have other plans. I’ll probably do the minimum, which is to say, mow.

Contrary to appearances, I don’t hate household chores. Once I start them I can even get into a nice meditative groove. But I have trouble starting. And I’ve never reconciled myself to the relentlessness of it all, the way a house and yard is practically a second full time job. It’s not a horrible way to spend one’s “leisure” time, and if I didn’t have any choice I’m sure I’d be quite cheerful about it.

But there is a choice: One could rent. As New York Times columnist Dave Leonhardt has written, it is very hard to dislodge home ownership from its place at the center of the American dream. According to the conventional wisdom, mortgage payments are investments. Rent is money down the drain.

Ah, but beware the many hidden costs of homeownership, Leonhardt warns. Like repairs and renovations. Like spending beautiful spring days pushing a mower around.

I’m beginning to think the three loveliest words in the English language are “Call the super.” The only problem, as I learned growing up in New York, is that building superintendents are like kitty cats: They rarely come when called. 

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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