Posts Tagged ‘March 23rd’


Posted in General on March 23rd, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 9 Comments

Hark, I hear the first sound of a suburban Spring:  the lawn services are back.  The ensuing racket, while still preferable to “Lohengrin”, amounts to a form of writer’s block.  All I now can write about is that damn noise–or Mexican history.  (For some reason, the lawn services never remind me of Scandinavia.)  If only Santa-Anna could have equipped his army with mowers and leaf blowers, the garrison of the Alamo might have been annoyed into retreating to Vermont.

And here is the second sign of Spring: my essay on lawncare. 

I wonder whether my wife gets more satisfaction from making our yard bloom or making me work.  Over the last weekend Karen fully exploited my vanity, docility and cheapness.  Even at 58, I still have delusions of virility, which I manifest by mowing the lawn.  In the suburbs, any status-conscious homeowner is expected to delegate that chore to a lawn service. While I have a liberal’s sense of shame over the Mexican War (and since the 2000 election would gladly return Texas to its original owners), I don’t intend to pay $50 a week merely to atone for the Treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo.

I now get dirty looks from the passing lawn crews and my neighbors regard me as subversive.  Indeed, some of the local children can’t believe that a homeowner would mow the lawn.  Once, teenagers were going door-to-door to raise money for a high school methadone clinic or some other fringe benefit that my exorbitant property taxes don’t completely subsidize.  I was toiling in the yard, pushing the mower.  The teenagers walked past me and rang the front door.  I didn’t say a word; after all, I wasn’t presumed to speak English.  If someone should ever address the mowing peasant in Spanish, I am ready with this reply, “I am sorry, but I had to read Cervantes in translation.”

My husbandry is not limited to mowing because my wifery is not limited to lawncare. Karen is an obsessed gardener.  I imagine that she read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” only for landscaping hints.  Of course, in creating a garden Karen needs to cultivate me. She cannot simply order me to rake, dig and lug; I am too fond of the French Revolution to tolerate that.  No, Karen’s stratagem is to ask my opinion. “Do you think that we need to dig up this flower bed?  Do you think that we should weed the lawn?” My opinion invariably is that I have no choice, but serfdom always is more cheerful when you pretend to volunteer.

I must confess to an embarrassing relationship with weeds.  One of them seduced me. Several years ago, I noticed a pretty plant with a brocade of white flowers growing in our lawn.  Karen identified it as Queen Anne’s Lace and she must have assumed that I would mow the weed to oblivion.  However, I let it survive.  More than the plant’s charming look, I felt such sympathy for the original Queen Anne. The Stuarts usually were stupid but attractive: imagine a dynasty cast by Aaron Spelling.  Anne, however, was begrudged the good looks and cheated in every other way too.  The dull, miserable woman outlived her children, was exploited by politicians and betrayed by every friend but her brandy.  I could not remedy 18th century medicine, politics or morality, but I could spare the plant that bore Anne’s name.  Unfortunately, in a month, Anne had spread throughout our lawn.  Her namesake had never been that prolific.  I found myself yanking two-foot stalks to atone for my knowledge of history and ignorance of weeds.

My compassion has never extended to dandelions and, like any other homeowner, I wage eternal jihad against the yellow intruders.  The war has steadily escalated.  I began with personal combat, using a knife to dig up each weed.  The sight of me squatting on the grass and stabbing the lawn may not been a testimonial to my sanity.  I ended up with a lawn pitted with knife wounds, but it was dandelion-free.  Of course, my morbid satisfaction didn’t last.  Any surviving tendrils would resurrect the weed, and the dandelions would sprout back, thicker and surlier. 

In the next phase of the war, I resorted to a socially responsible herbicide.  Its all-natural, biodegradable, holistic ingredients were supposed to persuade or shame the dandelions into leaving our lawn.  Tibet has used the same approach in dealing with China, and with the same results.  So, this year I abandoned all regard for the Geneva Convention and bought a 48-pound bag of death.  Its advertising could have been translated from a Nuremberg Rally, promising me a solution to all alien seeds while nourishing a race of super-grass. 

My herbicidal euphoria ended when I took the time to read the back of the bag.  The warnings were much longer than the instructions.  Skin grafts and amputations were possible consequences, and users should expect to remove dead pets from the lawn.  Karen began to think that the lawn was not worth the dangers; where is Lady Macbeth when I need her?  According to the warnings, the herbicide was dangerous to touch or smell, and it could corrode metal and concrete; yet, it was also good for grass.  How could it be, unless it was grass’ vengeance on mankind? 

Of course, I still used the herbicide.  Captain Ahab would have understood.  I did make a few concessions to survival by wearing a safety mask, gloves suitable for handling uranium, and two sets of work clothes. For all these precautions, the product may still kill me, but at least it will get the dandelions first.  While awaiting my demise, I can keep busy with pruning, raking, digging and more mowing.  And Karen has been asking my opinion about the mildew in a shower stall.  Husbandry is not limited to yardwork.

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day:

And Today’s Special Guest Victim Is….

Posted in On This Day on March 23rd, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

If embezzlers and MBAs had a Hall of Fame, Nicolas Fouquet would be shamelessly prominent. As the Minister of Finance during the early reign of Louis XIV, Fouquet maintained a bookkeeping system modeled after the Gordian Knot. It could be said that he would collect all the revenues but was willing to share some with the government, or at least the officials he liked.

Fouquet had the finest home in France. It seems unlikely that he afforded it just by brownbagging his lunches. The thought certainly occurred to Louis XIV, who evidently resented being the social inferior of his minister. The King ordered Fouquet arrested for embezzlement. There was a public trial, and the verdict could hardly be in doubt, but the judges proved unusually sympathetic to the accused. (Had they been past recipients of Fouquet’s generosity?) They sentenced him to banishment; you might well suspect that Fouquet planned a comfortable exile. The King, however, overruled that lenient sentence and condemned Fouquet to life imprisonment. The disgraced minister spent the last fifteen years of his life in a less than luxurious cell. He died there in 1680.

His second career began in the 1930s. Someone in Hollywood had been reading Alexandre Dumas. The 19th century French novelist apparently had screenplays in mind. “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” had been box office hits, and the studios wanted more. While Dumas himself was no longer available, he had been prolific and his works included a sequel to The Three Musketeers. Based on a legend about a prisoner in the Bastille, the story was known as “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

Dumas had imagined that the title character was Philippe the twin brother of Louis XIV, hidden from birth but now the center of a plot to substitute him on the throne. In the novel, the younger brother was the unknowing pawn of ambitious men. Their attempted coup fails, however, due to the heroism of D’Artagnan and the shrewdness of a government minister named Fouquet. The real king is saved (even if France isn’t) and Philippe is condemned to the Bastille where his royal features are covered by an iron mask.

It seemed like another swashbuckler perfect for Hollywood…except for one problem: the villains. In Dumas’ novel the conspirators were the Jesuits, led by the renegade musketeer Aramis. Hollywood was not prepared to vilify the Catholic Church (although the Church never has been shy about vilifying Hollywood). So, a new villain had to be created.

Poor Fouquet already had a criminal record. Since he was an embezzler, why not make him a traitor, too? So, from helping to foil the plot, Fouquet became the mastermind of it.

But then Hollywood came up with yet another improvement on the plot. Instead of making poor Philippe a malleable cipher, portray him as a noble alternative to his wicked older brother Louis–and have the plot succeed. Good Philippe would secretly replaced Louis, who then would become The Man in the Iron Mask. Of course, Fouquet would still have to be a villain, but he would prove his intrinsic evil by being loyal to the legitimate King.

The logic of the plot was very similar to Fouquet’s Gordian bookkeeping. Dumas would have been dismayed; he actually seemed to like the wily minister. In fact, Dumas even gives Fouquet one of the novel’s few jokes.

Fouquet has heard rumors of the twin prince. He asks a trusted henchman, “Do you recall some mystery surrounding the birth of Louis XIV?”

The aide replies, “Do you mean that Louis XIII was not the father?”

Fouquet corrects him, “I said a mystery.”