From City to Suburb and Back Again

suburbThis is the first article I ever submitted for publication in an actual magazine.  I think it was around 1993.  First I submitted it to FUNNY TIMES, an excellent publication that I subscribed to.  They sent me a hysterical rejection letter.  They suggested that each time I submit an article, I should aim for better and better publications, so that when I finally get accepted, I will have already moved way up the ladder.  I took their advice, except that I skipped all the rungs.  I then submitted this article to the “LAST PAGE” column in Smithsonian Magazine.  This column is what made me want to write short humor works in the first place, so what the hell.  When I found out that they paid $2000 dollars for a 550 word essay, I realized I was diving into some tough company.  I kept my expectations as low as I could, but still, I was disappointed when I got a rejection letter from Smithsonian.

After that, I played it safe.  The next article I submitted was to Poker Digest in 1999, and I had already been in contact with the publisher, and I knew there was a very good chance that I would not be getting a rejection letter.  It was sort of like waiting until Mary says “My friend Jane wants to go out with you” before asking Jane out on a date.   And since then, I’ve never been turned down for a date.  So here’s the only article that ever broke my heart.

From City to Suburb and Back Again

The house that Marci and I bought in the suburbs had been vacant for a year, long enough for a thriving ecosystem to move into the dirt. Where I saw patches of soft clover, my neighbors saw land mines. Where I saw fuzzy-white dandelion tops, they saw napalm.

When I first met neighbor Bob, he did not ask my name or even suggest a barber.  Instead, he wanted to know if I was up on the latest chemical technology.  Like the rest of the neighborhood, Bob hated my weeds.

The army mobilized on weekends to hold the line against the invaders. Bob and the others had mulching mowers. Apparently these mystical machines dismantle grass to its fundamental molecular components and then transport it to another dimension.

All I had was your basic lawnmower — the kind that sprays dead grass all over the place. Lawn mowed, I walked over to Bob’s yard for a tactical briefing. Bob was busy with a contraption that punches tiny cylindrical holes in the earth, like what cicadas and sand crabs crawl out of. “I am aerating my yard,” he explained. “You’re a long way from needing one of these, son. First you’ve got to get rid of your weeds.”

Bob handed me a stack of specimen cups. “Help me spread these around the yard,” he said. “I’m testing the dispersal patterns of my new sprinkler heads.” While we worked, Bob lectured me on strategic chemical engagement. Of one thing I was certain; Bob’s yard was no place for a worm to raise a family.

I asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier to just mow your lawn, weeds and all, like I did?” From his all-fours stance, Bob turned and glared at me through his armpit, as if I had kicked his dog.

Wanting to be a good soldier, I took his advice and went to the hardware store. There I found an acre of floor space devoted to growing some plants and killing all the rest. Home again, I loaded my new drop-spreader with a bag of granular death. Then I paced my turf, spewing a dishonorable discharge, questioning this war.

Where should a nature-boy draw the line?

I wouldn’t hurt a fly, yet I eat pigs.

I’d hug a redwood, but not a cactus. Those are simple choices.

But now, with peer pressure applied, the beat of a common drummer was drowning out my sensibilities, forcing me to choose like a Roman spectator; thumbs up for the thin blade, thumbs down for the broadleaf.

A dozen kids were playing in the street.

An errant frisbee toss went into Bob’s yard. As a girl ran to get it, she stopped and shrieked. Everyone rushed over to see what was wrong. The girl was pointing at a dead bird on the ground. The boys wanted to blow it up. The girls wanted to bury it.

I wanted to go AWOL.

Bob shrugged. “Oh, I get those all the time. They can’t stomach the poisoned worms.”

Marci and I left the drop-spreader behind when we moved back to the city the following year.

Our new house has a big yard with a fair amount of grass, but plenty of other things too — like clover, dandelions, and live birds.

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