Dad Math

(my keyboard continues t o do a thing where it adds extra spaces at random. I’m not editing it. Maybe it will result in some kind of e.e. cummings -style genius poetry until I can get to an actual Genius Bar.)

I did a lot of chores growing up. Normal things like putting away my laundry but also making dinner for a family of five because my mom worked late a lot. I also mowed t he lawn. We lived on 3/10 of an acre in the suburbs. Now that I live in a more rural area, the relative land mass of a single acre let alone 3/10 of one doesn’t seem like a lot but it was significant to my dad for reasons I still don’t fully understand. Maybe it was because 3/10 of an acre is larger than most suburban yards that he referred to as “postage stamps.” Maybe because he built our house on land that he bought using his V.A. loan after getting out of the Navy. His pride knows no limits to minutae. And he taught me how to mow the lawn.

I wasn’t allowed to use the riding mower (which made sense because I started mowing when I was, like, 10) so it was me and the push mower every Saturday morning. Dad taught me to mow our irregular lawn with all its crags in as square a pattern as you could get. I envied all the lawn-mowers I saw on TV who cut their grass in neat horizontal or vertical rows. Worse still were the show-offs who crosscut like waffle fries. I would have let one of those families adopt me so I could learn their groundskeeping secrets but my dad insisted that it was not only a waste of time, but a waste of gas for something that would grow out in less than a week. I had to agree, eventually.

My dad is opinionated an d vocal when it comes to sharing t hose opinions, but more than anything he’s an engineer. He spends a lot of time coming up with the most efficient way to complete a project and that usually involves intricate math. Square footage and diameter and relative distance. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a word person so none of his calucations ever made sense to me. I just agreed and did things the way he told me to.

I had to cut the lawn around the outside instead of back and forth or up and down he did some Dad Math that determined square shapes were most efficient. Habits are hard to break so I started mowing my postage stamp rural-suburban yard in squares just like he taught me. Well, I did until I had a rebellious streak.

Part of the reason I mowed in squares is because we didn’t bag our clippings or edge and I didn’t know what a string trimmer was until I was well into my 30s. Our house was on a dead end street in the part of the suburb that could have passed for a forest preserve. Who would see it? We weren’t the Beavers, he insisted. So, we mowed the grass and called it a day. Sometimes you’d get a stick or a rock or some other kind of thing and you just mowed over it. To prevent that detritus from becoming a projectile, you mow your first pass with clippings shooting into the grass you haven’t mowed yet. That way, if a rock goes flying it just goes back into the yard and you can pick it up instead of putting a dent in the minivan.

I can’t help but think of my dad’s lawnmowing instructions as I work on my own yard. How easily I took his instructions as absolute truth and never considered straying from them even though our habits and priorities are so different. He somehow figured out that it takes less effort to turn the lawnmower on four 90-degree angles to cut in squares instead of the 180 you have to do for horizontal or vertical cuts. Think about it. You’re saving 90 degrees of turning radius each and every row you mow. And for a whole 3/10 of an acre, that’s incredibly economical!

My dad and I both spend a lot of time in our heads. I think if you asked him, he’d say I’m smarter. That’s a dang lie. He just grew up in a time, place, and tax bracket that didn’t value his kind of smarts. If someone suggested that he use his G.I. Bill for an engineering degree instead of a V.A. loan, I’d have had a very different life. Not that I would trade it, of course, but I would like to see him validated for the way he considers every problem so deeply. The same way I have been.

And, so, as I ponder the twists and turns and jagged squares of my own life while I mow the lawn, it occurs to me that I don’t have to follow my dad’s grass-stained footsteps to honor his lessons. It’s not about doing everything exactly as he taught me for its own sake, but to think through the problem at hand in a measured way. To give each problem the calculated attention it needs according to its parameters. So, I mow horizontally, bagging the clippings to use for mulch around the rose bushes so I don’t have to buy anything extra. Just like he taught me.