By Tom Springer
Illustrations by G. Odmark
After a Memorial Day tornado tore through our neighborhood a few years ago, the skies had scarcely cleared when a chorus of chainsaws and generators echoed through the land. Just like that, my indefatigable brethren were out in force.
You’ll find indefatigable types like these scattered across the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, rough and ready men and women who’d just as soon wear Carhartt to their own weddings — and probably funerals. They drive professionally muddy pickups that bear the coveted “Log/Farm” Michigan license plates. They keep vintage tractors in their barns, stump-pulling brutes wrought from Eisenhower-era iron that stand oiled and primed for any emergency. When no one’s around, I suspect they may even call them by lovey-dovey nicknames and whisper fondly into their single-barrel carburetors.
At Gerald’s place down the road, a ghastly tangle of splintered maples covered his yard and driveway. It looked like a week’s worth of clean up. Yet a crew of indefatigables — they run in packs — had the whole mess buzzed up and hauled away by noon the next day. No mere funnel cloud can deter a steel-toed crew like that.
Since I’ve never trusted myself with a chainsaw, I had to show my defiance in a less defatigable fashion: I went ahead with the cookout we’d planned for that evening. We grilled our beefalo burgers in a backyard littered with tornadic debris, and we ate up all the potato salad, since I’ve never bought a generator for when the power goes out. The uprooted blue spruces — which hours earlier had shuddered and crashed to the ground as my daughter and I sprinted for cover in the barn — could wait.
And wait they did until well past the 4th of July … of the next year. My brother-in-law Bob, himself a true indefatigable with a full complement of countryman hardware, had to bail us out. He cut up the trees and yanked out the stumps with his John Deere tractor. Their orange roots quivered, twanged then popped loose like the ganglia of some giant woody tumor.
We heaped dry branches around the big stumps and started an eyebrow-scorching bonfire. But while the branches soon burned to ash and cinders, the stumps were the same size as before. They smoldered on for three days and I puzzled about what to do. Leave them as primitive lawn art and ring them with marigolds? Encircle them with tractor-tire flower planters (painted white), per the local fashion?
Then, when I finally nudged one of the stumps with my foot, I found that it was nearly as light as a Styrofoam stage prop. It was a charcoal facade of its former self. All of its heft had burned and evaporated away. I could easily drag it by hand to a nearby field. Its assumed weight had all been in my head.
The stumps are an apt reminder of what happens when life (disguised as my old farmhouse) overwhelms you. It makes you overestimate the difficulty of just about everything. You neglect to weed the flowerbeds, lately overrun with oak seedlings and poison ivy; or fix the stubborn leak in the chimney flashing; or haul away those moldy couches “temporarily” stored in a dilapidated shed. Thus, paralyzed by despair and self-pity you begin to ask, “How and when will I ever find time to do all this?” Some of it probably never. I put off cleaning our atrocious Michigan basement for 19 years.
Yet in defense of fellow procrastinators everywhere, let me explain the well-intentioned thinking that makes it so. The procrastinator’s problem isn’t simply that he (I’ll speak only for males) does too little. Rather, it’s that he tries to do too much. When a procrastinator envisions “this weekend,” he pictures a sunny interlude with unbound time to fish, garden, nap, hike, grill out and putty storm windows. That, instead of the scattered five or six free hours that he actually has to get something done.
Recently, I’ve read something about the steadfast work habits of writer John McPhee that should give any procrastinator new motivation. McPhee has published 29 books on subjects that range from oranges to canoes. This made him one of the most prolific nonfiction writers of the late 20th century. Remarkably, though, he never writes more than one, single-spaced page a day.
“You know,” McPhee says “you put an ounce in a bucket each day and you get a quart.”
For this summer, I have vowed to master the art of the bite-sized project. There’s no need to let the perfect (the mythical endless weekend) become the enemy of the good (a productive evening’s work). In even a 45-minute work session after supper, any reasonably fit human with a handsaw can prune a dozen dead branches off a blue spruce. Or fill two wheelbarrows with noxious garden weeds. It’s nothing profound, but it does assure tangible progress over the course of a week, month, season and hopefully, a life. We procrastinators — especially those who aspire to indefatigability — just need a swift kick in the bucket now and then to remind us of that. ≈
Author Tom Springer lives near Three Rivers in an 1870s farmhouse. His book of essays, “Looking for Hickories” (University of Michigan Press), was named a Michigan Notable Book in 2009. Tom currently is working on material for a second book.