Merrily we mow along

"You don't look like you're having fun when you mow your lawn," said Matt. He and his roommate, Bob, had wandered across the street in our quiet Iowa neighborhood. This was the first time we'd talked since I'd moved to my bungalow the previous winter, other than to say "hi" to Bob as I walked to my job and he to his. A crossing guard at the nearby school, Bob had unkempt hair and a beard. He made some parents uneasy, I'd heard. Though, to me, the shiny orange vest atop his lanky frame evoked nothing more foreboding than a lollipop in cellophane wrap. Matt, a darker, shorter version of Bob, seemed to spend his days puttering in the yard or playing hacky sack downtown.

"How would fun manifest itself behind a mower?" I wondered. Sometimes I mowed in noncardinal directions, leaving borders of grass around spring violets. I cheered for snakes that escaped being blended. The engine revved my self-esteem and roared the joy of owning my first home. Matt's casual observation had missed all this.

"Maybe you should try one of my manual mowers," Matt continued. I stopped pondering the nature of fun and said, "Sure."

Bob ambled to their yard to extricate a mower from some brambly weeds. Though the wood handle was splintering and the tires bore no treads, Matt's recent care was reflected by the shiny edges of the otherwise rusty spiral blades. "This mower's been in the neighborhood for years," Bob said, pausing as if to honor the previous owner.

While I changed to my lawn-mowing shoes, Nikes downgraded from a faster sport, Bob tested the grass in the mower's path to ensure that my manual-mowing debut would be a positive experience. His face and arms strained as the metal blades battled and then succumbed to the overgrown blades of grass, the tires working loose from the rims in the process. "This isn't too bad," he said, as he slipped the tires back on and moved to thinner turf.

After three or four unsatisfactory trials, he retrieved another mower so that Matt could join the quest. I noted that the tires of this second machine had the same propensity to stray from their rims. Finally, Bob declared he'd found the ideal spot.

As Matt and Bob watched with anticipation, I braced myself, gave what I thought was a strong shove, and charged forward until stopped by invisible forces about six inches later. I backed up, and with the momentum gained from remowing the first six inches, gained another six. I backed up again, but Matt and Bob made me stop. "This is ancient grass," Bob said, as though explaining my difficulty. Bob retrieved a third mower from their fleet. With larger wheels and tires that stayed on as he eased over the lawn, this was his favorite. I pushed and agreed it was easier, though this was on a scale with minute distinctions. He pointed to a patch of sparse grass on a slight downward slope. The mower and I moved as one, gliding over the earth. Grabbing the other two mowers, Matt and Bob hacked at tougher grass with renewed zeal. "We're on a mission here," said Bob.

We zipped through the front yard and then raced around to the back. About halfway through, Matt and Bob stopped mowing in the midst of some especially vigorous grass.

"The best part about these mowers is you can stop and talk," Matt said.

"Or finish the next day," Bob added. I acknowledged this versatility while mentally pleading for them to continue. We did, finishing my very small yard two hours later. I thanked them profusely and brought out ice cream.

"We wanted you to think this was fun since it's your first time," said Matt.

"This is our way of welcoming you to the neighborhood," said Bob. They suggested some touch-up mowing under brighter light the next morning and left Bob's favorite mower with me.

"It'll get easier," Matt said.

"You might want to lift weights in the winter so you'll be ready for next spring," said Bob. As they walked away, he added, nodding reassuringly, "We understand that the gas mower came with your house, and that's OK."

I manually mowed for the rest of the season with the enthusiasm of a new convert. It was a good year for grass, and I mowed weekly through October, developing upper-body definition like I'd never had before.

But I failed to lift weights through the winter, and the next spring, I relapsed. When the grass needed mowing, I waited until I knew Matt and Bob were gone, then hauled out the gas mower, finishing the job in under 45 minutes - less than a quarter of the time. I didn't feel good about the noise and fumes I generated, but I couldn't let lawn-mowing dominate my life.

It wasn't always easy to tell when Matt and Bob were away - neither owned a car and I never saw lights inside. (They were frugal with power; their house ran on batteries recharged by a stationary bike.) But often I'd see them head down the street in the evenings to play handball against one of the university buildings, leaving me time to mow.

Fall came early that year, and though the grass had long been dormant from the drought, I wanted to mow one last time for the season. A fleeting memory of our lawn-mowing trio (and the fact that I wasn't sure if Matt and Bob were home) prompted me to pull Bob's manual mower out of my shed. As I whirled through the grass I could hear a cardinal singing from an overhead power line, I wasn't enveloped in gas fumes, and I knew I could stop for a break without worrying about getting the mower cranked up again.

It wasn't fun, exactly, but it was close enough.

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