Back to the Garden, by Dan Coffey | A Little Old-Fashioned Hands-on Creativity

Mexico is by far the richest country in Central America. You want to see poor, check out Nicaragua and Honduras. Strange that one of the richest countries in the world lies so close to some of the poorest. The violence that Mexico suffers from and our high incarceration rate (we’re number one!) have their roots in some of the same causes.

"The Roots of Violence: Wealth without work. Pleasure without conscience. Knowledge without character. Commerce without morality. Science without humanity. Worship without sacrifice. Politics without principles."    —Mohandas K. Gandhi

America is affluent and neat. Things work here. The infrastructure is so highly developed that people rely on things continuing to work. When bridges collapse, or dams fail, heads roll.

Nicaragua is poor and disorganized. Rarely does anything function as planned. The country has a history of ineptitude, corruption, and deferred maintenance. Deferred as “into the next century.” Nobody gets bent out of shape when the power goes out or a road becomes impassible. Instead, they’re amazed if and when anything works at all.

We spend a great deal of time consuming expensive packaged entertainments. But, as we grouse to our friends and therapists, we often feel trapped. This is because real freedom comes not from consuming, but from creating. On a recent flight every passenger except for me had an Internet-capable cell phone or laptop. But in almost all cases (I know, because I went to the bathroom four times in three hours), they weren’t creating with them, they were reacting to games or music that someone else had created. This seemed all the more amazing to me as we had just lifted off from the Managua airport, where people who live on three dollars a day trudge through the tropical heat, trying to help you with your luggage or sell you a mango.

After raiding the seatback pocket in front of me, I skimmed the airline magazine, even bothering to read the Chairman of Continental Airlines’ “Welcome Aboard” column. It told of his excitement about the coming merger with United, his hopes for the future, and his total confidence in the team he had assembled. It was a lot like his previous columns, but then, I suppose he doesn’t write them at all. Some PR assistant who makes five times my salary does that for him. How do they keep a straight face and crank that pablum out?

Then I read the Impulse Shopping Catalogue for People Strapped into Airline Seats. It was a hoot! Lots of pet and garden products for people who feel guilty about abandoning their animals and plants. Scads of massage machines for people who crave touch. Overuse of exclamation points and the words “authentic” “rich” and “hand-crafted,” Sentence fragments abound. One item really caught my eye; the limited edition John Wayne Cuckoo Clock:

This first ever illuminated John Wayne cuckoo clock pays tribute to this American hero. A handcrafted case features a classic image of the Duke on his horse, Dollor. Below, he stands in a saloon’s swinging doors on the projecting illuminated porch. Comes with a certificate of authenticity. Edition limited to just 295 crafting days.

If you aren’t careful, you might buy a cheaper version, lacking authenticity, made in a different Chinese factory.

Advertisements keep assuring us that their new products have our convenience and personal choices in mind. Yet we don’t really want convenience or choice. We want meaning.

If we can’t find meaning in our everyday lives, we invent it, as in magical thinking. But that’s a lot of work, and it often leads to disappointment.

Today, I resisted the urge to mess around on Facebook long enough to work in the garden. The sun was hot and the air humid. I actually got my hands dirty and sweated! After rushing back into my air-conditioned house and washing my hands, I managed to calm down long enough to grab the mouse and start scrolling.

Instead of diverting myself by reading my Facebook wall or checking my email, I concentrated my efforts by writing this column. And now I feel better for it. I created something, and when I worked in the garden, I planted and cultivated. Creating and cultivating, man, there’s nothing like it!

You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.

Visit the Index for more essays by Dan Coffey and other Iowa humor writers.