The Lawnmower: My Nemesis, My Muse

mowing the lawn

Thanks to the borderline monsoon conditions we’ve been experiencing on the East Coast so far this summer, I’ve gotten exactly zero reprieve from my weekly task of lawn length maintenance. In fact, it’s probably what I’m doing right now.

Unlike the winter, when I can sit and pray, plead and sacrifice small animals in the hope of no snow and thus (if all that works out) save myself the task of shoveling my driveway, in summer there’s no escape from the weekly toil. The best I can hope for is a dry stretch – which, in the bigger picture, isn’t such a great thing for stuff like crops and drinking water.

But there’s been nothing dry about this summer. We in Pennsylvania have been getting a little taste of Florida life with almost daily afternoon thundershowers. The result, if you stand outside and listen closely, is that you can actually hear the grass growing. OK, maybe not really, but you get the picture.

And while mowing 3/4 of an acre in conditions approaching 100-percent humidity doesn’t really thrill me, it does provide me something that I don’t get a lot of the rest of the year – time alone to think.

For me, mowing the lawn is probably the most zen thing I do during the week. While it’s physically challenging (I use a walk-behind, rather than riding, mower), there’s a set pattern that never changes. As such, even though I have what amounts to a mechanized death machine rolling along in front of me, I’m able to partially remove my brain from the task at hand and allow it to focus on other things.

This time is really crucial to the working writer, because it’s when lots of things can get sorted out. I find that I can – for lack of a better term – program my mind to work on writing tasks that in no way relate to lawn care. Whether its addressing plot points that need to be organized in my second novel or just coming up with a few good short story or magazine article ideas, this period of intellectual emptiness results in a brain full of ideas – so much so that I make sure to pack my smartphone in a pocket so I can quickly type them into a notes file.

Letting your mind churn away on a task while you’re in the middle of doing something else has historically been known by non-creative people as daydreaming. But while “normal” people see that as a derogatory term, it’s in fact a creative person’s greatest ally, and I would argue that time to daydream is something that’s in terribly short supply these days.

In the workplace, any appearance of non-productivity can make your supervisor wonder what you’re up to. Meanwhile, periods of non-activity that were once fertile ground for coming up with ideas, crafting fantasies or envisioning your future – your daily commute, lunch break or tedious meetings – are now filled with inane and non-creative pursuits like using your smartphone to check your Facebook status. (I mock, but I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else.)

There’s lots of noise in life without supplementing it with more. You can’t get in the damn grocery line without a TV blaring at you, for crying out loud. But as my zen lawn mowing proves, sometimes the thing that ends up making the noise fade away and your mind open to what’s possible in your work ends up being your loudest job of the week.


Updating My Style


I did something last week that had been unthinkable for the first 13 years of my working life – ordered my own copy of the Associated Press Stylebook.

Unthinkable because in every newsroom in which I landed from the moment I started in the newspaper business (including my university paper, The Gamecock), I was provided with one as a part of the job.

The one you see here is old – ancient in terms of stylebooks – having the distinction of being the first and (up until last week) only one I had actually paid money for. It was purchased in 1987 at the University of South Carolina Book Store at the beginning of my sophomore year when I decided to make the switch from broadcast journalism to news-editorial.

After I graduated, it sat on a number of bookshelves across the country but rarely got pulled down because in the place I really needed it – the newsroom – there was always a more recent version sitting on my desk.

So now, 26 years later, I figured that it was time to refresh things a bit. The new version arrived last Friday and just paging through it I was stunned by how much has really changed.

In 1987, having a personal computer in one’s dorm room was a luxury (I had an Apple IIC with a thermal printer). There was no Internet as we know it (that would take another decade to emerge) and all the reporting one did was in person or over the phone. Social networking didn’t exist. As such, there was no reason to focus on anything other than what we now regard as “analog” journalism.

The new version of the AP Stylebook is heavy with new (and not so new) digital-age references and style points, including how toAll the President's Men approach sources via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. I love that today you can just cyber-stalk sources, where back in the day there were lots of editors telling lots of young reporters, “Sit in that bozo’s office until he comes out for lunch and get me that quote.”

It’s a stark reminder that between the time newspaper film classic All the President’s Men came out (1976) and when I graduated from college in 1991, nearly all that had changed in the “modern” newsroom was the arrival of clunky, pain-in-the-ass computers with green-on-black CRT displays that still required 12-character strings of code just to format a headline.

Simply the fact that you can now subscribe to digital versions of the Stylebook is a big indicator of how much has changed. I remember thinking during the internet boom of the late 1990s that an online Stylebook would be incredible. Now you can access it on your smartphone – something that very few of us anticipated.

So, with my new edition in hand I’ll study up and try to catch up on all the “official” bits that I’ve missed by not having been in a newsroom for nearly 10 years. The old one, however, will stay, simply because it now serves as a great little artifact and time capsule of where we once were and how far we’ve come.

This is Boston

BostonI’m thinking of Boston today. The TV is off, the news is silent, so I’m focusing on the above image to put those smoky, gory pictures and videos out of my head for a bit.

I can’t say I’ve spent too much time in Boston. There was the obligatory visit as a child during my family’s two-week summer tour of significant East Coast historical sites. Then, many years later, I went there to do a travel story for an online magazine.

That magazine – despite promises to the contrary – didn’t amount to much in market share or money. But that story and the time I spent in Boston have lingered in my mind since the events of yesterday at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

As a writer (and former newspaper journalist) in this world dominated by the immediacy of social media, it’s a challenge to respond to everything as fast as everyone else and with any amount of depth.

In the absence of some brief message of condolence, sympathy or outrage via Facebook or Twitter, it’s often hard to form coherent thoughts in the face of tragedy like this. Some people come off sounding trite. Some just sound like assholes. Others, like comedian Patton Oswalt, sit down and compose a bit of impromptu poetry without even realizing it.

I was where many people were yesterday afternoon – neck deep in the commitments of my day. Kids home from school, karate lessons and dinner preparation were all taking place as I tried to answer questions from my 9 year old about what was happening and why. It wasn’t until the kids were in bed that I was able to catch up on the full extent of the horror.

I reserved my response to those closest to me – my wife and my son. This morning, when my 5-year-old daughter saw the newspaper photos, I had to gently explain what had happened without getting too explicit. This after having already had to deal with school disciplinary issues and the illness of a dear friend.

My heart was not in sharing thoughts with the world but with drawing the ones I love close to remind myself of what is good. A hug from your child. A kiss, sweet with therapeutic wine, from one’s spouse. Sitting down to dinner and the blessings of the small portion of abundance we share in our country. Close friends who rally together for each other, despite the constraints of geography.

Tragedies like yesterday’s bring us together, too. With Boston’s place in American history and runners from every part of the nation, the entire country had some stake in what happened.

But truly, we have a stake in what happens everywhere every day. You don’t love your kids only when they’re good. You don’t care for friends only when they’re healthy. But it’s frequently those bad moments that highlight how deeply we feel about the people and places in our lives.

It saddens me that it takes something terrible to bring us together. So look away from the news for a moment and take a look at the picture above. The graphic images of Boston in the news are what we see right now, but that lovely low-rise city poised on the river – that is the real Boston.