A day’s chores provide a chance to learn the awesome lessons of life

The grass in our front yard is 2 feet high, an undulating sea of leprechaun-green straw swaying in a taciturn breeze. My two young sons and I are seated around the breakfast table on a Saturday morning in early May, wiping up streaks of maple syrup on our plates with the last shards of salty bacon.

In a few minutes we’ll wade into our acre-and-a-half of nearly waist-high fescue and crabgrass with a battered lawn mower, a relatively new European-made line trimmer and a rusty oak-handled grass-whip that our oldest boy swings in dangerous arcs like a five-iron.

Hoping to kindle enthusiasm for a full day of yard work on a beautiful spring morning, I announce raffishly, “Step one — be awesome.”

The boys look at me thoughtfully as the stands of crabgrass ripple in the crush of a shifting breeze. My oldest son shakes his head and sighs, settling into a cynical, bemused smirk. His younger brother joins in the smirk, tentatively, uncertainly, watching his brother out of the corner of his eye, matching his smirk to his brother’s smirk.

Last week while plugging random words into the Bing search bar, I came across rules of play for an online version of some sort of role-playing game played with eight-sided dice, apparently written for the usual pimply confraternity of enthusiastic gamers. Step one, it read — be awesome. Step two — see step one.

“Step one — be awesome,” I repeat, hoping to sound authoritative, stentorian, provocative. Sir John Geilgud in Ben Hur.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to be awesome, or to convince others that I was. I embark on a solid 15 minutes of wacka-ja-wacka Dad-sermon on the importance of hard work and doing one’s best and being awesome, while my sons stare sullenly at a fixed point on my forehead.

A few minutes later, I’m hunched over our battered lawn mower in a tenuous patch of vagrant sunshine, adjusting the choke with a screwdriver and calculating whether we’ve owned the lawn mower longer than we’ve owned our family dog; the dog certainly minds better. Our recalcitrant lawn mower will only start after exactly five strong pulls, or not at all if hot sun is shining. Additionally, the motor hangs by a single bolt, the deck is cracked, and now the muffler has fallen off, lost in the blackberries somewhere.

While our youngest boy works the relatively new European-made line-trimmer rather indiscriminately over the steep slopes, I shove the mower through the tall grass like a training-camp blocking sled, maneuvering the mower forward and back while the mechanical maw chews up the long straws of reedy grass. Our oldest boy trots alongside the lugging mower with a broken hockey stick, dislodging the gummy-green cakes of masticated grass that almost immediately plug the side-discharge chute.

We work our way grimly and efficiently through the front yard, shouting at each other over the blatting engines, inadvertently atomizing molded-plastic dinosaurs, cracked whiffle balls and a single missing tennis shoe abandoned in dusty-dry brown grass last summer, now buried in the tall grass a couple feet high.

My wife Maria and our two girls appear incongruously in the middle of the din, carrying a tray of icy-tall glasses of sweet soda and iced tea and a plate of oatmeal cookies. As I lean in for a kiss, Maria smells like sweet soap, with soft pink-scrubbed skin and white-cotton-clean clothes, amid the grimy roar of the motors and the reek of two-stroke gas, wet dirt and wads of caked grass.

After lunch, surveying the haphazardly-trimmed hillsides, I propose an impromptu skills-building camp with our two boys and the weed whacker. Calling it a “skills-building camp” works for about five minutes, until the boys realize that “camp” doesn’t mean we’re putting up a tent, and that “skills-building” means I’m just showing them how to use the weed whacker again.

We finish the rest of yard in the heat of the afternoon sun. Eventually they’re spent, leaning against an apple tree, while I finish weed whacking the last few yards of hillside.

We wheel the mower back into the garage and retrieve the gas can and the spool of orange trimmer-line from the top of the hill.  As we brush dried grass out of our hair and our ears, Maria declares that the lawn looks fabulous, awesome. The boys grin reflexively, stoically, proud. Our oldest boy asks, “So Dad. What’s step two?”

“Step one — be awesome,” I intone. “And next week the lawn’s going to need mowing again. Step two — see step one.“

— Kevin Pottinger, his wife Maria and their four children live on Vashon.

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