Dad danced when he mowed. No, he didn’t foxtrot or cha-cha, or waltz. Rather, his body fell insensibly into a rhythm that, in its deft agility, its expressive rhetoric of physical movement, went beyond utilitarian movement to achieve a kind of embodied harmony. He danced.
Our suburban backyard was large enough to serve as the default football and baseball field for the gaggle of young boys in our neighborhood. In mowing it, Dad, a systems analyst by trade, plotted it into squares, working from the outside in. It was at the right angles that the dance appeared. First, there was the downward push on the mower handle with the left hand to raise the front wheels; then the swoop of the hand under and to the right to turn the mower 90 degrees, accompanied by the swinging out of the right leg and a quick left foot, right foot two-step to reposition himself behind the mower. A seamless motion. As the square shrunk, this patterned movement repeated itself more and more frequently, taking on a balletic athleticism, an elegant power, a prowess informed by balance and grace. The systems analyst became Gene Kelly. Dad danced when he mowed.
He would have scoffed at the very notion. For Dad, mowing had all the charm of a junkyard dog. It was the bacillus lurking in the healthy constitution of suburban homeowning. It was something he owed to social expectation, a bit of surrendered autonomy. No choice, really. Dad came up the hard way, an immigrant kid who spoke only Italian when he entered first grade, a Great Depression kid whose breakfast often consisted of a piece of toast dipped in the yolk of an egg he shared with his father and two brothers, a skinny kid who muscled himself by becoming an acolyte of Charles Atlas. Having made it by scrappy self-reliance and hard work, he did not like the idea of having to do another’s bidding, even if, especially if, that other was the substantive insubstantiality of social convention. He had paid his dues. But, if you aspire to a suburban home, you must cut grass. It was a duty, nothing more, and a disagreeably hot and fatiguing one at that. He contemplated it much the way a coffee bean might contemplate the grinder. It was a penance with no redemption in sight save the cold beer he rewarded himself with when it was finally, thankfully done.
And yet, he danced when he mowed.
How is it that the body speaks in a language the mind cannot understand? Descartes disjoined the mind, soul stuff, from the material, body stuff. And because he was aware of himself thinking, felt himself cogitating, he famously declared, “Cogito, ergo sum”—“I think, therefore I am.” I’d amend this to “I think, and also I am.” Watching my dad dance when he mowed, I think I saw Descartes’ “sum” without the “cogito.” We disparage mindless tasks, the unthinking routine, but I suspect those are precisely the times when the CEO located in the neocortex, that master deliberator and analyst, takes a break, heads out for a smoke or a Frappaccino. And when that happens, other, older, deeper areas of the brain kickstart, areas having to do with balance and coordination and fluidity of movement. At those times, the body is restored to itself, to its own intelligence, to a blood-deep rhythm not defined by clocks and keystrokes, quotas and quarterlies. To riff on Pascal, the body has reasons that reason knows not of.
Is anything more awkward than a task performed in full awareness of each and every step involved in its performance? Has painting by the numbers ever produced a work of art? Is it not the case that all truly great athletes ultimately, finally, rely on an athletic instinct so deeply imprinted it seems molecular?
I’d answer no, but I’m speculating, really. Shamefully unempirical of me, undoubtedly. But here’s what I do, empirically, know: my dad danced when he mowed.