Splendor In The Grass -- Revisited

Written by David Frum on Monday July 14, 1997

In college, my friends and I used to debate the year that one was irretrievably, unqualifiedly, with no more excuses middle-aged. The age we finally settled on was 37. And here I am. If my college self could somehow be introduced to my now middle-aged self, what would he think? More than anything, I imagine, he would be startled by how much of my time I spend thinking about grass. No, not the kind you smoke. The kind you water and mow.

When my wife and I bought our house in Washington, the first house we'd ever owned, one of its principal attractions was its lawn. It was the most beautiful lawn I'd ever seen, thick and dewy and verdant. It was the previous owner's pride and joy, and as we concluded the deal, he solemnly enjoined me to take good care of it.

That seemed easy enough. I'd grown up in Canada. In between the time the snow melts and the time the autumn rains start, you need to water a lawn maybe six or eight times -- no
trouble fitting that into a busy schedule. I had a vague memory of my father moving the sprinkler around the yard on Sundays, and he never seemed over-burdened by the job.

Then I moved to Vietnam-on-the-Potomac. Suddenly I found myself paying $ 600- a-month summertime electric bills. I bought short pants for the first time since 1981. I bought a straw hat. And I began devoting my life to the upkeep of my lawn.

It didn't take me long to learn that the reason my lawn looked so lovely was that the previous owner had been saturating it with enough chemicals to poison a small town. He had signed a multi-year contract with a local lawn- maintenance company, and once a month they slip a little card under the door itemizing the fertilizers and nutrients, the fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides, the antioxidants, deodorants, and antidepressants they have applied over the past four weeks.

Sometimes they leave behind a little yellow tag on a stick; pushed into the grass, helpfully suggesting we keep the children off it for the next 24 hours. Protecting my children from Love Canal-like toxins has turned out, however, to be the least of my agricultural responsibilities.

The blend of grasses in my lawn, I'm told, is almost exactly the same as that of the famous lawns of Oxford University. But at Oxford, it rains every day and averages 62 degrees in July. We are trying to keep our Oxford lawn alive in a city that lies on the same latitude as Palermo.

So it must be watered all the time. Endlessly. And in certain precise ways. You cannot water a Washington lawn in the daytime: The water evaporates before it sinks below the surface. You wake up at dawn to start the sprinklers, move them at 7:30, and then turn them off when it's time to take the kids to school. You start them again after dinner and move them when the kids go to bed. It's not a task. It's a calling.

Sometimes I contemplate slackening my standards and letting my inherited greensward turn a little brown. Sometimes I calculate the cost of installing built-in sprinklers that can be controlled with a timer. Sometimes I think about replacing the whole thing with a rock garden. Sometimes I wonder whether there isn't more to life than this.

But that's the thing about middle age. You realize: Actually, there isn't more to life than this. The people amongst whom I live, my neighbors, aren't interested in my interior life. They judge me, as they must, by what they can see, and nothing I do is quite as visible as my care of my lawn. We hear a great deal about community nowadays. Well, there's only one thing I do whose consequences
fall inescapably upon my community, and that is my care of my property. If I maintain it well, I'm doing my duty by my neighbors. If I fail it, I fail them.

This is of course the sort of thinking that used to lead intellectuals to condemn the emptiness of middle-class life.

I remember reading as a student one of the earliest of those critics, Philip Slater, who published The Pursuit of Loneliness in 1970. Slater had many severe things to say about lawns. He had many severe things to say about marriage, raising your kids, and paying your taxes, too. Slater called himself a "social critic." My neighbors would call him a slob. If I lived next door to him, so would I.

I volunteered for the job of taking care of this grass, just as I volunteered for every other responsibility in my life. I'm glad to have them all. You know, on the whole I'm surprisingly happy to be 37.

Originally published in The Weekly Standard