Greg Dixon 's Opinion

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Greg Dixon: Zen and the art of hedge trimming

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Chores are not chores, Greg Dixon writes, they are opportunities to find inner peace.

Striving for the straight line is a place of quiet and calm. Photo / Thinkstock
Striving for the straight line is a place of quiet and calm. Photo / Thinkstock

There is beauty in a straight line. There is glory in the neatly cut edge. There is harmony in finely made corners. This is my new philosophy.

Once - this was before I had my new philosophy - I was like you: someone who would walk straight past a straight line without even seeing it. Even if I did happen to notice one - "Oh look, a straight line!" - I certainly did not see it for its beauty.

But I have left that old life behind now because I have become a hedgeman.

For the hedgeman, the straight line, the neatly cut edge and the finely made edge are the Holy Trinity. Actually no, it's more like the straight line is an ideal for which we, the hedgemen, spend our whole lives striving to attain.

It isn't easy, either. Sometimes it's bloody hard to know whether your line is straight. So - and this is central to my new philosophy - you must contemplate your task, which is why I now stand for ages, staring at my hedges.

I will think "is that line straight?" or "is that line straight enough?" or "how could I make that line straighter?"

I was caught by a neighbour not long ago, just standing there staring at the hedges at the front of my place, lost in contemplation about whether the damn things were straight.

"Everything all right?" she asked.

"I'm not really sure," I said and went back to staring at the hedges.

This - I might as well call it what it is - obsession with the straight line has now reached the point where, in my search for the straightest hedge line possible, I have somehow acquired three different kinds of hedge trimmer: a big one that attaches to my weedeater for the big and/or higher jobs, a middle-sized electric one (along with three long extension cords), which is the workhorse, and a small battery-powered number for the small jobs (but not topiary. Topiary is unmanly).

I have become, too, an enthusiastic hedge appreciator - a dilettante hedge connoisseur, if you will - who, when he drives around our fair city, doesn't see street after quiet street filled with over-priced homes and struggling families. No, I see hedges, hedges and more hedges, some straight, many not. My research so far suggests the finest and straightest private hedge in the city is to be found in Devonport, the biggest are in Remuera and the most uncared-for are in the Onehunga-Mt Smart and Kingsland areas (their berms aren't all that flash, either).

Now I can guess what you're thinking: that this way, the hedge-lined one, lies madness.

Well you're wrong, at least I hope so. Keeping hedges is, of course, a Sisyphean task and keeping the hedges at our place is more Sisyphean than most; nearly three-quarters of our property is bordered by them, some over three metres high. So to hate, or at least resent, keeping them trimmed really would be a superhighway to hell.

This is where my new philosophy comes in: chores are made chores only by attitude. I won't say I enjoy every moment I spend vacuuming the house or ironing shirts or putting the rubbish out or washing or drying or folding clothes or emptying the dishwasher or raking leaves or sweeping the deck or making the bed or any of the scores of other tasks we all do because we have to do them. But I've learned to treat each as an opportunity to empty the mind and to pursue an inner peace through the perfection of the task itself. I have found that striving for the straight line is a place of quiet (well apart from the noise from my hedgetrimmer) and calm.

This sounds stupid, I know, but think about it. We spend so much of our lives trying to escape the mundane and repetitive and the dull - we have all been conditioned to do so - that few of us actually stop to consider that embracing these things will actually make life a much less frustrating and much more tranquil experience. Instead of assuming that the most satisfying thing in your day has to be the most "exciting" thing you do, it might actually be the most mundane. Instead of chasing thrills, why not stay in and iron your pillowcases - and I can assure you there's nothing quite as satisfying as resting your head on a well-ironed pillowcase.

It seems counter-intuitive, but dull things can be interesting. Back in 2000 an American sociologist called Scott Schaffer started a scholarly publication called the Journal of Mundane Behaviour, devoted to studying the banal aspects of everyday life, because he thought them just as interesting and worthy of study as any other (non-mundane) area of human experience. "Most of us don't live Jerry Springer lives," Schaffer wrote in the first issue's now slightly dated introductory essay, "To Mundanity and Beyond". "We get up at some ungodly hour, commute an insane distance to work, live in a 6-by-6-foot cubicle for eight or more hours, reverse the insane commute, and go home to 'our lives'. This amounts to probably 60 per cent or more of our lives, and the editors of [the Journal of Mundane Behaviour] think that this vast amount of energy, effort and some cases sheer drudgery deserves some attention."

Well said. But I reckon the other 40 per cent - the "our lives" bit - deserves attention too, because of the vast amount of energy, effort and, in some cases, sheer drudgery that it involves as well. We need to embrace our drudgery if for no other reason than to appreciate that it doesn't have to be as bad as we think it is.

We just have to see the beauty in the straight line.

- NZ Herald

Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

It has been said the only qualities essential for real success in journalism are a rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability. Despite having none of these things, Canvas deputy editor Greg Dixon has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for the New Zealand Herald and North & South and Metro magazines. Although it has been rumoured that he embarked on his journalism career as the result of a lost bet, the truth is that although he was obsessed by the boy reporter Tintin as a child, he originally intended to be an accountant. Instead, after a long but at times spectacularly bad stint at university involving two different institutions, a year as a studio radio programme director and a still uncompleted degree, he fell into journalism, a decision his mother has only recently come to terms with. A graduate of the Auckland Institute of Technology (now AUT) journalism school, he was hired by the Herald on graduation in 1992 and spent the next eight years demonstrating little talent for daily news, some for television reviewing and a passable aptitude for long-form feature writing. Before returning to the Herald in 2008 to take up his present role, he spent three years as a freelance, three as a senior feature writer at Metro and one as a staff writer at North & South. As deputy editor of Canvas, his main responsibility is applauding the decisions of the editor, Michele Crawshaw. However he prefers to spend his time interviewing interesting people -- a career highlight was a confusing 15-minute phone interview with a stoned Anna Nicole Smith -- and pretending to understand what they're going on about. He has won awards for his writing and editing, but would have preferred a pay rise.

Read more by Greg Dixon

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