Helping but not helping

Lonely chair and weeds photo by Adam Tagarro

Our yard is a mess.

Okay, it’s mostly fine but we have a lot of weeds, and the grass — where it exists — is dry and crackly. I’m okay with this for the most part because we live in super dry Southern California and it turns out that the natural landscape is not a golf course. I checked.

Don’t tell the neighbors and don’t get me started on overwatering.

We have a citrus tree, a Japanese Maple, a Loquat tree, a large green bush of some kind, a Rosemary bush that is approximately the size of Rhode Island (it even has its own government), and various other plants like lavender and… other stuff.

The funny thing is, we rarely water any of it. Somehow it’s all getting water anyway, and even if it’s coming from the irradiated groundswells of the old RocketDyne plant, they seem to be doing okay.

But the weeds.

They suck and I hate them. Sometimes I manage to coerce my 14-yr old into helping me pull them. Sometimes I wack them out of spite, and other times I spray them with a natural weed killer made from vinegar — I have a restraining order against RoundUp and it is not allowed within 50 feet of my body.

Either way, it’s for me to handle and I do have a plan, even if the plan is slightly slapdash and sometimes not working at all. And while I don’t like the weeds taking over the yard, they’re just weeds. Our landlord disagrees, but he is among the Southern-California-was-originally-a-Mayan-golf-course believers, so unless there are no weeds and a bright green lawn, he is not happy.

Today was one of those days when I put on my landscaper’s uniform (Trader Joe’s long sleeve crew tee, old Calvin Klein pants, hiking boots, floppy hat) and pretend that I’m not just trying to justify the purchase of the gardening tools I’ve collected. As I’m working away, our neighbor’s (real) landscaper shows up. This guy hates seeing me pull and wack weeds. I think it’s actually painful for him. He’s come over a few times and offered to let me borrow his gas-powered weed wacker (ours is electric). It’s like that scene in Three Amigos where Jefe swaps his gun for Ned’s.

Today, he pulled up, saw me using my little Ned gun weed wacker, waited until I went into the backyard, and started cutting down all the weeds I had left behind. Most people — normal, rational people — would have shrugged and said, “Well, at least the neighbors are paying for it,” and gone to take a shower.

Me? I got mad. I went out and told him to stop. I tried to explain that I had a plan (such as it is), and I had intended to spray the smaller, live weeds I hadn’t wacked so they would die and I could get rid of them later. While he understood the words coming out of my mouth, they did not make any sense to him. “I’m just trying to help you,” he explained. I thanked him and told him I appreciate the gesture, but really, I have a plan. He looked at the weeds, then he looked at me like I just said that aliens come down from space and handle my yard work. Then he shrugged and left.

There’s a scene in some movie (Up, maybe?) where a Boy Scout is trying to earn his Helping Old People badge, but he ends up doing things like helping an old lady cross the street when she didn’t even want to be on the other side.

Helping, but not helping.

Another notable example of helping not helping happened many years ago. Our family was eating at an Italian restaurant. We ordered one of the only pasta dishes on the menu that was vegetarian. When it arrived, it had little chunks of something in it. Was it meat? We asked. The owner said, “Yes! I added some pork in there for you. Don’t worry, it’s no extra charge.” He thought we couldn’t afford the meat.

Helping, but not helping.

Most humans want to help whenever they can. It’s a lovely trait. But before jumping in with your rescue pants on, it’s good to consider a couple of things:

  • Is help wanted?
  • Is it the right kind of help?

The only way to find out is to ask. And it’s also good to ask because there are also a lot of people who have a hard time asking for help. I’m one of them.

I want to be grateful for the free pork, but I don’t eat meat. I want to say thank you for chopping my weeds, but I had another plan. I want to be relieved that I got help crossing the street, but I was waiting for the bus on the other side.

When we just looked at things

As Jenni and I were driving to the store today, I glanced in my rear view mirror. I was slowing down for a red light and I noticed that even before we got there, the driver behind us was already looking down at her phone, while still rolling to a stop.

It seems like everywhere I drive these days, so many of the other drivers are looking down at their phones. The ones that are doing it while driving are scary enough, but to me the ones who can’t quite wait for the red light to check their phone are almost as troubling.

I’m going to sound like I hiked up my old person pants to my chin here, but what is everyone always doing on their phones? There may be some rare instances where someone is desperately trying to reach a loved one to pick them up or some kind of emergency. Other than that, I can’t imagine what’s so important that it can’t wait until they’re at their destination.

[End fist-shaking old person rant]

When I used to fly a lot for work, I savored the hours after they closed the doors. For a few hours, I was unreachable. My only world existed inside a big metal tube 40,000 feet in the air. I read. I listened to music. I ate. I looked out the window, mostly. It was a chance to not be on.

Side note: this is also why I wouldn’t make a good pilot.

Remember driving in the backseat of a car as a kid and just looking? Out the window there were fields, stores, construction, tall buildings, and people of all kinds. Or maybe you just contemplated all the things you could fit into the ash tray, or watched a bee try to hang onto the window at 45 mph.

As an adult, I’m really no better than anyone else with a smartphone. I catch myself waiting in line somewhere, snatching up my phone to bide the time. What’s on twitter? Did I get any new emails since I left home? What was the name of the guy on that show with the chimp and the truck?*

It’s so easy to do.

I’m trying to make an effort to go back to just looking around at stuff. Waiting in line is boring. So what? I complain that I never have time to just think, yet here I am with five or more minutes to do exactly that.

Am I better because I only mindlessly reach for my phone when I’m not in a car? Or is it kind of the same thing?

What if, when we got to a stop light we just… sat? How would the world change if we all just looked at things for a while?

*It was BJ and the Bear.