Monday, August 20, 2012

This post is not about my lawn mower.

It's not even about my "lawn mower issues." But that's where it starts. (And it's going to be long and rambling, so if you're going to bail on me, now would be a good time.)

I'd been having trouble with my Black and Decker electric lawn mower ever since I had the blade sharpened at the beginning of the season. (I've owned it since 2009 and figured it was high time I had it done.) Well -- surprise, surprise! -- I put the blade back on wrong. As a result, the motor had to work harder and harder until it just ... died. 

I took the machine (appliance?) over to a repair place in Bensenville, not too far from the airport. They were actually very nice and not only put in a new motor but made some other small improvements as well. One of which was to replace the old handle with a new and improved one. (Foreshadowing.)

So I went home and plugged the mower in and, later, when cutting the grass, it died on me (again). What the...

It must be the charger, I thought. I took it back to the repair shop and showed it to them. "Did you bring the mower?," the woman behind the counter asked.

"Uh, no." (Of course not.)

"Well, we'll take a look at it."

It wasn't the charger.

So I came back a few days later with the mower. (Meanwhile, my grass was growing; the worst drought in recent memory was ending with rainrainrain. Yikes!)

It wasn't the mower either.

Then it could be only one other thing: the electric outlet in my garage must be on the fritz. Aha! But I took my toaster out there and it worked just fine. 

What on earth is going on here? Am I on "Candid Camera" or something?

Maybe, I thought, it's this new handle they gave me. Lightbulb! Maybe I should try plugging it in a different way (upside down). Eureka! It worked. Mystery solved.

Looks like I won't be driving to and from Bensenville on my lunch break anymore.

Which is where this post should have begun.

(By the way, I must have been quite a sight tooling down Elmhurst Road in my Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses and a baseball cap, in my ancient red convertible with the NOT A REPUBLICAN bumper sticker, a lawn mower in the passenger seat and a basset hound in the back.)

As I was driving, I passed a trailer park in Des Plaines called the Oasis Mobile Home Park. And I thought to myself, Why is it that I didn't end up in a trailer park?

(Now the purpose of this piece isn't to denigrate trailer parks -- far from it. But you have to admit, they've gotten some bad press in recent years.)

And I thought to myself: Is it because I'm smarter than those people? No. (I'd guess my IQ is probably somewhere in the middle of the range -- I hope it is!) Is it because I worked harder than those people? Ha! At the first sign of any chore around the house, I duck out to a high school football game. Did I lead a more moral, more disciplined lifestyle? I don't know; I lived the way my parents did.

Seriously, though, how come I ended up in a comfortable suburban setting and not a trailer park?

And I thought, honestly, because I was born to live that way.

If you look at my childhood, it was solidly middle-class. It was just assumed that all five of us would go to college and that my father would pay for it. Why? Because he and his three siblings all went to college and his father paid for it. See a pattern here?

And, for all of my complaining, we had a (reasonably) good home life: my parents had a stable marriage (67 years!) and my father came home every night for dinner when he wasn't traveling for business. What's more, he bought me absolutely everything I could possibly need in the way of food, shelter, clothing, etc.

Really, when I think about it, I was destined to end up where I did. Wasn't I?

Two pieces in the Times yesterday reinforced this for me: "Deluded Individualism" by Firmin DeBrabender (more on that name later), and the cover story in the magazine, "What Does Obama Really Believe In?," about the dysfunctional Roseland neighborhood on Chicago's South Side.

From the first (my emphasis): 

By Freud’s account, conscious autonomy is a charade. “We are lived,” as he puts it, and yet we don’t see it as such. Indeed, Freud suggests that to be human is to rebel against that vision — the truth. We tend to see ourselves as self-determining, self-conscious agents in all that we decide and do, and we cling to that image. But why? Why do we resist the truth? Why do we wish — strain, strive, against the grain of reality — to be autonomous individuals, and see ourselves as such? 

Perhaps Freud is too cynical regarding conscious autonomy, but he is right to question our presumption to it. He is right to suggest that we typically — wrongly — ignore the extent to which we are determined by unknown forces, and overestimate our self-control. The path to happiness for Freud, or some semblance of it in his stormy account of the psyche, involves accepting our basic condition. But why do we presume individual agency in the first place? Why do we insist on it stubbornly, irrationally, often recklessly?

(This second highlighted sentence brings up a corollary to my argument: we overestimate our ability to control events. How many times have you said to yourself -- or heard someone else say -- If only I had done this or that I would have had a different result. Baloney! 

A. You probably didn't have that much control over your actions in the first place; and

B. You don't have that much control over the universe anyway.

In ancient times, when there was a flood or some other natural disaster, people probably thought they had brought it on themselves by their bad behavior, i. e., the gods were punishing them. Can you imagine anyone thinking that way today? Don't answer that.)

Or, as the piece goes on to say:

Spinoza also questioned the human pretense to autonomy. Men believe themselves free, he said, merely because they are conscious of their volitions and appetites, but they are wholly determined. In fact, Spinoza claimed — to the horror of his contemporaries —that we are all just modes of one substance, “God or Nature” he called it, which is really the same thing. Individual actions are no such thing at all; they are expressions of another entity altogether, which acts through us unwittingly. 

As for the second piece, about Roseland, is there any doubt that growing up there would make it infinitely more difficult to achieve a middle class existence than growing up, like I did, in Leave it to Beaver suburbia?

Imagine a place, a dangerous place, filled with families headed by single mothers, with limited job opportunities,  under-performing schools and rampant drug abuse, gangs and violence. Is it any wonder that so many of these unfortunate people turn to using and selling drugs, and die young or end up in prison? Could anyone seriously argue that they have the same chance of success as someone like me who grew up in such cushy circumstances?

Bottom line(s): We are all products of our environment, free will is (mostly) an illusion, and we have very little control over the universe or even ourselves.

Okay, that's my (not) lawn mower story.

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