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Turf War

If I can find the appropriate authority to whom I should direct my appeal, I would like to propose a modernization of the tenth commandment: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's lawn. Then perhaps this same authority could propose a penance for my transgressions against this commandment, one that does not occupy such large chunks of my precious summer weekends.

My neighbor's lawn is perfect. A field of bright, perfect, unbroken green, unmarked by even a single dandelion or crabgrass, and mowed frequently enough that the tracks left by the mower's wheels are always faintly visible: perfect overlapping diagonals, making the gorgeous plaid of a baseball field before the start of a major- league game. Our lawn, while perfectly attractive by normal standards, looks as unkempt as a vacant lot next to theirs: between mows, the grass grows to its own haphazard lengths. My style of mowing might charitably be described as "meandering." Always the dandelions, eager to demonstrate their superiority in the game of natural selection, grow quickly enough that a few days after we mow, they tower above the tops of the lawn like a pontiff waving his leafy arms in blessing over the heads of his followers. As if, perhaps, they know that soon enough many of these blades will be overtaken by his little yellow offspring.

We have been here four years, and we know that the previous owners of our house eventually gave up and unilaterally disarmed: they hired a lawn-care service. We know this because this service showed up again the following summer, and our lawn looked beautiful for a few weeks until the professionals discovered they no longer had a willing participant in their particular brand of neighborly détente. It is impressive how quickly, without proper devotion, your lawn begins to rebel against you. First the occasional weed, which you deceive yourself will be beaten down by the blades of your mower when, of course, the opposite is true: the whack of the mower blade merely serves to hide the ostentatious flower while the real work continues beneath the soil, or to disintegrate it into its minions of constituent seeds and spray them across the yard. Soon enough the weed is joined by his siblings, and before you know it, they have taken hostages and are asking for protection money. More surreptitiously, small patches of clover and violets grow and slowly spread, hoping to escape detection until they have reached critical mass and can never be destroyed without defoliating the entire property.

Laziness often begets creatively self-deceptive arguments, and so I try to convince my wife that these low- growing ground cover are themselves quite pretty, and best of all, they don't even need to be mowed! She will hear none of it; it is impossible to win this argument when I must make it in plain sight of my neighbor's artistic rendition of a golf course, minus the sand traps and water hazards. Even my three-year-old daughter joins my side, steadfastly refusing to see the logic in the argument that a plain green field of grass is good, while pretty little yellow or purple flowers are bad.

Even without the dissent of my wife, I know that this is mere rationalization. I tell myself, I don't need my lawn to be quite as perfect as the neighbor's, but it would be nice to reduce the glaring discontinuity of the boundary between their property and our own. And so the escalation begins. We buy a spreader and disperse weed-and-feed. We buy an edger, and in one afternoon of mechanized destruction, eliminate the results of our lawn's four-year campaign to take over the sidewalk. We trim the hedges into perfect boxes, and use our new mulch 'n vac to disintegrate the fallen scraps of green into dust which, for the first time ever, adorns our curb in clear plastic trash bags on the garbage collectors' yard-waste day. (Previously, yard-waste day was an occasion we observed only once a year, when we discarded our lifeless Christmas tree.) For one glorious day last June, I stood on the boundary where our lawn meets theirs, and if I squinted just right, it appeared that our yard was just a little greener than theirs, and their grass just a little longer than ours. But it was short-lived; inevitably, we let the maintenance slip, and soon enough we were again losing the race.

It seems that, as skirmishes tend to do, this one eventually overruns its boundaries and begins to involve previously innocent bystanders. As I write this, I see my other neighbor outside, breaking in his new spreader with an application of weed-and-feed to his lawn. As I get up from my desk to get a closer look, I see our own lawn, which my wife has finished mowing recently enough that the tracks the mower left are still visible. They are perfect criss-crossed diagonals, and only the seam where the tracks change directions tells me where our lawn ends and the neighbor's begins.