The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." "...it is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32) akakyakakyevich@gmail.com

Saturday, May 14, 2005

SISYPHUS IN SUBURBIA: Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity and vexation of spirit, and the Preacher saith all of this without once ever taking a gander at the denizens of Hollywood, California, a curious sinkhole dedicated to the peddling of optical illusions and intellectual flatulence, where vanity is the official municipal religious cult, if the conspicuous presence of large numbers of plastic surgeons in the area performing that sinister faith's propitiary rites is anything to go by. That any American city would establish its own municipal cult is clearly a violation of the First Amendment and the civil libertarian mindset, but if the wall separating church and state takes a pounding in the drive for a new and improved you then there’ll always be twelve guys named Miguel just off the truck from Oaxaca who’ll be more than willing to patch that wall up for fifty bucks apiece in cash, and when they’re done that wall will look even better than you do. As for the civil liberarians, not to fear; this is where they get most of their money and they will say nothing; after all, he who pays the piper calls the tune, so get that tummy tucked with a clear conscience. The Republic will stand.

Still, it’s that vexation of spirit thing that always gets me where I live, along with the telemarketers, who are rapidly ascending my personal hate list of economic vermin, but that’s a subject for another day. I think it speaks well of the Preacher, who didn’t speak well himself, what with that lisp and all—you’ve got to admire someone who has something important to say and says it even with a speech impediment—that he can see the futility behind much of human endeavor. A plastic surgeon can take ten years off a person’s face, but not off their life; a 45 year old who looks thirty is still 45, no matter how much they paid for the facelift. Yes, all is vanity, as the Preacher saith: Ponce de Leon’s voyage was vanity, a futile search for the Fountain of Youth, a voyage that came to naught in Florida, where Ponce had to stay overnight in a fleabag hotel at the height of the tourist season because he didn’t call ahead to get reservations at a good hotel; the endless search for the Northwest Passage was all for nothing, for you can go from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the fabled riches of Cathay by going around North America, but only if you bring your ice skates, and why would you want to go to Cathay, the erstwhile English name for China, when you can buy its fabled riches for twenty percent off each day, every day at Wal-mart? Spanish conquistadors searched the American Southwest for decades, obsessed with finding the legendary golden city of El Dorado, and the final fruits of their obsession was a six month sublet at a Pueblo Indian apartment house on a cliff with a view just north of Santa Fe, with no pets or smoking allowed, but all the utilities and cable Internet access thrown in for twenty dollars a month extra. The Spanish talked it over for a couple of weeks and in the end passed on the place; the apartment was really just too small and there wasn’t enough room outside for the kids to play soccer or burn the occasional heretic at the stake.

But there are few activities more vexing of spirit or more evocative of the ultimate futility of all human effort in the face of a cold and uncaring cosmos than the constant, almost religious, need for suburbanites throughout the world to spend their weekends mowing their lawns. Mowing a lawn is futility writ large, the ultimate expression of unending and unrewarding Sisyphean labor, since the person mowing the lawn is not solving his or her grass problem, they are simply encouraging the growth of more grass. I am still trying to figure out how this grassy behavior differs from the those plants we deem weeds; there appears to be no difference to the naked eye, but that may be because the naked eye is wandering up and down the shoreline wondering where they left their underwear and swearing by all the saints in heaven that they’ll never skinny dip in this pond ever again. From the purely scientific view, there is no difference, of course, except that when the grass grows back we accept the phenomenon without comment, and then complain bitterly when the weeds, in a spirit of botanical solidarity, do the exact same thing.

So it was my desire to free myself from the psychological torment of such existential torment that I avoided mowing my mother’s lawn for several weeks. I hated mowing the lawn when I was a kid and now that I am not even vaguely youthful I still loathe mowing the lawn. Some people take to mowing, I know, as there are some who take to sports or stamp collecting or selling term life insurance, but I am not one of these pathetic wretches; some people are born apartment dwellers and I appear to be one of these people. And I have no facility for the work as well. My first venture into the realm of freshly cut grass ended badly; having first worked myself into a botaniphobic rage beforehand, the better to lay waste to the front lawn without conscience coming back to haunt me later, I went out and cut down the grass on the front lawn, the garden, my mother’s tulips, and was savaging the rosebushes when my father tackled me and pulled me away from the lawnmower to keep me from killing again. Thus did I, to only slightly paraphrase Tacitus, make a wasteland and call it suburban respectability. Since that time I have been everyone’s last choice when it comes to mowing a lawn. I only mow if I have to and I mow only when there is no one else available.

Therefore, with great trepidation, a heavy spirit, and a couple of stiff Harvey Wallbangers, heavy on the vodka, light on the orange juice and skipping the Galliano altogether, that my mother let me near her lawn mower. She did not want me to mow the lawn at all, but my brothers had other things to do and the grass was now at the point where a pride of lions could safely hide and ambush the passing unwary gazelle, and so the grass had to go before the people from Animal Planet showed up to film the bloody goings on in our driveway.

I did fairly well, if I do say so myself, and I am saying so myself, as you can see. I kept away from the flowerbeds and the rosebushes and concentrated my efforts on actual grass, weeds, dandelions, and a very pretty little purple flower which, according to all the homeowners I’ve spoken with, is in fact a pernicious weed of some sort or other that refuses to die despite the best efforts of all and sundry to kill it, the flower clinging to life with the tenacious and single minded fury of Marxist academics and Red Sox fans. And yet…

And yet in the midst of my mowing I could hear the Preacher preach that all is vanity, that all of human effort and aspiration eventually comes to nothing, that the grass will grow back no matter what I do to it today. Perhaps that explains the prominent role of Euclidean geometry in the mowing of suburban lawns; perhaps the mower seeks, through the imposition of squares, rectangles, and parallelograms—I mow in isosceles triangles; it may not make sense to you but I like them, as they are easier to make with a lawn mower than a dodecahedron and a Boolean hypercube—to reduce the primordial chaos of nature at its most docile to a standard set of forms that do not threaten the human self-image of man as center of the universe. We do not want our illusion of control sullied by the inherent disorderliness of our lawns and so we force our geometric template upon them, making the grass submit to our psychological need for order in a chaotic universe. If it were not so, who knows what evils might then follow? Thoreau wrote that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation; if the illusion of lawn mowing as mere household chore ended and suburban lawn mowers could see that they are nameless prisoners in an existence of unremitting and never-ending struggle between botany and geometric solids then many a good man, disheartened by the apparent meaninglessness of it all, would simply choose to stick their head into a hypotenuse and kick away the stool.
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