My Five-Dollar Yard

in defense of half-assed jobs

Last week, I spent some time pleasantly picking at the scabs of memory from my skinned-knee days. Creepy but satisfying. I was only nine when Buck Rogers in the 25th Century premiered (prime time!), so the popping pimples metaphor would have been premature.

Actor Brent Spiner (who is also like 70 now! check this trailer) plays the same game — clearing the clogged pores of his gold-coated skin and dreaming pathways of his positronic brain — in Fan Fiction: a Mem-Noir Inspired by True Events, a weird little book that I greatly enjoyed, far more than the sad 2007 SyFy adaptation of The Dresden Files that ate much of my weekend. NPR’s book reviewer kind of panned Fan Fiction. I don’t necessarily disagree with his ending characterization of it:

It's a barroom epic, a party piece for dull cocktail hours, a story told without ego or shame just for the pure, weird joy of the telling.

but I think I liked it more. I’ve told a few of those stories myself.

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When I was a kid, my mom was an elementary school teacher in remedial reading. She worked out of a mobile home trailer parked on school grounds, in the days before disinvestment in the public schools made that situation “normal.” This meant that she kept as wide a variety of reading materials around as possible, in hope of motivating reluctant readers. Most of it made its way through my hands at some point.

One short story I remember was about a kid who mowed lawns for pocket money. There was one rich lady who had a big yard, and who was very demanding. She offered ten bucks for a perfect job. Week after week, the kid earned five bucks for an OK job, but could never crack the grass ceiling.

Until one special week, when he mowed twice at right angles, until the grass looked like velvet (I’m paraphrasing; it was a long time ago, and I remember neither the title nor the author, so I can’t just look it up.). He ran a heavy roller over the worm mounds to squash them flat. This was before string trimmers, so had to squeeze hand clippers until his fingers bled to get the edges around the flagstones just right. Lo and behold, he satisfied his customer, and earned the ten for a perfect job.

That story infected my young brain. I became convinced that perfection was not only possible but desirable. Getting a hundred on written tests at school was pretty easy, most of the time, but outside the sterile artificiality of the classroom that pursuit of perfection was self-destructive. And in truth, it didn’t matter, because my dad was someone who would never be happy, no matter what I or anyone else did. Not for long, anyway.

That sounds bad, just to say it so baldly, but in a way it was a blessing. So many of the bright, high-achieving kids I teach have never failed at anything in their lives. When they finally do (as everyone does, sooner or later), it’s devastating for them. They internalize it, think it’s their fault. Worse, they become conservative and averse to taking any kind of risk, but especially social risks. About half the Accelerator students in my online classes for Science & Math this summer (and ALL the boys) refused to turn their cameras on for more than a minute or two because of “social anxiety.” Some proportion of that reluctance was obviously so they could keep playing games on another monitor at the same time (I see those reflections in your eyeglasses, kids!), but not all of it.

There’s a pair of good books about the basic neuroscience underlying this situation, and practical ways to address it. More detailed reviews will have to wait for other days, but I can currently recommend both of them based on what I’ve seen already.

  • Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence by Anna Lembke

  • The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self by Michael Easter (audio of the first chapter available at the link)

These days, the remaining doughnuts of grass around the permaculture beds in my yard tend towards the long and shaggy, and I allow the dung beetles to take care of the dog crap, at least during the summer when they’re out and active. There are supposedly thirty or more species living in NC, and while some of them are pretty distinctive, others would take an expert to tell apart. There are much better pictures, and a hilarious work-in-progress diagram in the link above.

This is the small black species that lives in my yard. At a guess, I would say Orthophagus hecate (named for the Greek goddess of witchcraft?). They are not rollers, as far as I can tell; they appear to be tunnelers. Photo by Randall Hayes.

This is partly for sound ecological reasons. Longer grass stays greener during hot weather with less watering, and letting the clover blossom feeds the bees. But mostly I just have better things to do than try to impress the drivers cutting across from Battleground Avenue. My immediate neighbors don’t care either way, for which I am grateful.

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One last recommendation before we go. This book argues that the same perfectionist pursuit of an artificially simplistic goal — maximizing profit for shareholders with no regard for other stakeholders — is what drove capitalism off its mid-20th century rails to create the toxic train-wreck we’re living through now.

  • The Raging 2020s: Companies, Countries, People — and the Fight for Our Future by Alec Ross

The economy is a part of Earth’s larger ecology, whether we like to think of it that way or not. Evolution works by constantly trading off costs and benefits. That means all the costs and all the benefits, large and small, obvious and not, with a good bit of luck and noise thrown in as to who lives, who dies, and who reproduces. Restoring some of the real complexity in the negotiations between stakeholders (as opposed to the distracting fake complexity of tax havens and healthcare managed by insurance companies) will go a long way towards restoring balance.

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