I was sitting on the back porch eating an orange Popsicle last Sunday afternoon when I felt a curious sense of loss.
For several days, my 10-year-old son had been bugging me to let him earn a few dollars so he could buy some paintball gun paraphernalia on eBay. So, on a 95-degree Sunday afternoon, there he was in jeans and baseball cleats, his slender arms vibrating as he maneuvered a pushmower around the backyard.
My sense of loss, I realized, was actually jealousy.
Listening to the thrum of the little Honda lawnmower motor put me in a familiar place. For 45 years, mowing grass has been my preferred form of meditation. Even as a college student and young adult, well before I even had my own lawn to mow, I would ask my landlords for permission to cut their grass. "Knock yourself out" was a typical response.
Like my son, my passion began as a 10-year-old with an empty wallet. By the time I turned 11, I had about six regular gigs. I could earn up to $4 cutting a medium-size yard, good money in the late 1960s when the minimum wage was less than $2 an hour. My best customers were widows who wanted their lawns clipped every week, rain or shine.
Paintball guns hadn't been invented back then. I yearned for Converse tennis shoes, Ludwig drums and copies of Motor Trend magazine.
Still, as time went by, the money became a secondary motivation for cutting grass. The real reason I liked to cut grass was solitude.
As a teenager, whenever I was stressed or faced some personal crisis, I would get the mower out of the cellar and crank the Briggs & Stratton engine. My mind would immediately drift into a middle-consciousness where problems could be isolated and repaired. The physical exertion helped melt away anxiety, too.
My alter-ego, Mr. Lawn Mower Man, had all kinds of special powers that I didn't have. He could talk to pretty girls and speak eloquently in groups. He was self-assured on such topics as careers and French exams.
When the blade got out of balance on my mower, it would cause a metallic cadence that turned my mower into a metronome. I could sound out drum licks with my mouth in time to my lawnmower. I was beatboxing before it was a known art form.
Later, when I became a reporter in my 20s, mowing grass was a good way to escape the pressure of the newsroom. While mowing, I could outline stories, formulate questions and compose elegant sentences stripped of all pretense and clutter.
"Hey Dad, can I have a Popsicle?" my son said, wiping the perspiration from his forehead.
"What?" I said, waking from my daydream.
"A Popsicle. Can I have a Popsicle?" he repeated. "And you owe me 20 bucks?"
"Sure, son," I said, rising to push the mower back into the garage.
The handle was still warm, and the faint smell of 87 octane gasoline hung in the air.
"In a few years," I thought to myself, "I want my job back."
At that instant, my 5-year-old son rounded the corner of the house, spraying grass clippings off the patio with an electric leaf blower.
He shut off the blower and removed two foam plugs from his ears.
"When can I cut the grass?" he pouted.
Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...