August 20, 2015 § 17 Comments
August 16, 2015 § 84 Comments
This morning the air feels thick and settled, and when I walked down the field to feed and water the meat birds, I could barely discern the cows through the haze. They rose clumsily upon my arrival, lumbering forms in the half-light, heading for the well-trod path that connects field and barn. They know the routine.
It has been more than five years since I started writing in this space. For at least the last two of those years, I have understood that someday the nature of my work here would change. That day has arrived.
There are many reasons I have decided to stop posting regularly, but chief among them is the sense that, in ways I have yet to fully understand but nonetheless know to be true, it is undermining my sense of personal integrity.
I have long believed that this medium cultivates and even encourages two-dimensional relationships; indeed, I have written of this often. Perhaps it is the very nature of these relationships that foments another of my primary concerns: That my continued presence here is slowly transforming my family’s life and experiences into a product. Our lives and experiences are too sacred to us to risk having them become a lifestyle fit for consumption.
Finally, my relative absence from this space over the past few months has enlightened me to how much healthier it is for me – in mind, body, and spirit – to focus my energy on direct experiences shared with family, friends, community, and the non-human world.
I will continue to publish my work here on occasion. After all, I am a writer (among other things), and one of the things I do appreciate about this medium is its lack of an editorial filter. Here, for better or worse, I can publish writing that would not otherwise find a home. But while this writing will inevitably draw on my real-world experiences (indeed, it can be no other way), it will no longer include the minutia of my family’s lives in either words or images.
This has not been an easy decision, in no small part because I have been the beneficiary of amazing support from so many of you. Thank you for that. For those of you whose support is expressed financially on a monthly basis, please know that I will not be offended in the least if you suspend this support.
Finally, I leave you with one small request. I ask that for every minute you would otherwise pass reading this blog, you spend at least one minute engaging in the real world with your family, friends, and non-human community. For these are the basis of a real and meaningful existence, one that is rooted in genuine shared experiences and the commonality of a particular place.
And in a society that is rapidly succumbing to the false promises of technology, nothing is more important.
August 3, 2015 § 25 Comments
Saturday I worked on the barn until later than usual, and on my drive home I felt worn out and undone. I drove home the back way, slowly, one hand on the wheel, the other hanging out the window. Every so often, I’d raise my hand to catch the breeze, float it on the push of air, a small airplane of flesh, blood, and bone. But soon even this required more effort than I wanted to expend, and I let it rest heavy against the truck door.
Then, a raven, flying just ahead of and above the truck, tracing the road’s path. Thirty miles an hour he flew, or nearly so, and he stayed with me for almost a mile. Leading me. Being pushed by me. No, that’s ridiculous: Just flying. I watched, an eye on the bird and one on the road, until we came to a field and the trees opened and he cut a hard right over the long expanse of grass, and for the briefest of moments, one of those fleeting fantasies in which the laws of both physics and man can be unwritten, I thought about turning with him.
July 30, 2015 § 47 Comments
The heat came on hard and fast. It’s been 90 or close enough for three days straight, the air heavy with moisture. You’d swear you can feel its weight. Something else to carry. I don’t mind, really, so long as I don’t think about minding. See how that works?
My summer reading thus far has consisted of the occasional New Yorker article, the back issues of the Sun my mother loaned me, and Chris Hedges’s book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. (Our subscription to Harper’s ran out and I keep forgetting to re-up, otherwise that’d be in there, too).
I like Hedges’s work. Or I like his thinking, at least. He doesn’t pull any punches, and Empire of Illusion is no different. It’s about how the cult of celebrity and other mass media, pop culture offerings only serve to distract us from the real issues of our private lives and society. It reminds me of an ongoing conversation Michael and I have been having, snatches of conversation between the swinging of hammers and the sawing of lumber (this is how conversation works on a job site, in little stilted passages that are dropped off and picked up again as the clamor allows), about the ways in which social media undermine our sense of self-worth. Neither of us spends much time online (though myself more than him, that’s for sure), but enough to have a feel for the terrain. Enough to understand that the people who get the most attention in social media spheres are generally the most attractive, the funniest, most clever. The ones with the particular skill of making their lives appear effortlessly beautiful and fulfilling.
I’ve read that there’s a correlation between time spent online and depression, and I always figured it was mostly because being online is a sedentary habit. In my experience, there’s not much like sitting and passively staring at a screen to bring on the blues (I think there is a distinction to be made between passive computer use and the use of the computer as a tool for creativity). But I’m starting to wonder if the issue is only partly physical, and also (if not mostly) the inevitable self-assessing we do in relation to the endless stream of beautiful images of beautiful people and their beautiful lives.
I cringe a little inside when people tell me they live vicariously through my words and Penny’s pictures. I mean, maybe it’s ok. Maybe it’s feeding something in them that can’t be fed otherwise, maybe it’s a coping mechanism, or simple escapism. We all need a little simple escapism in our lives, myself included. And lord knows I try hard to make this space more than just something to look at, something to admire, or even aspire to.
I guess what I’m saying is (and I’ve said it before): Recognize the two-dimensionality of this space and, by default, the superficiality of the entire sphere of social media. Remember that no one’s life is effortless. Everyone struggles. Everyone is, on some level or another, ordinary, with all the ordinary flaws and quirks of human character. If you were here right now, you’d see the chaos of our kitchen, the dirty footprints on its floor. You’d see the dirty clothes piled behind my office chair, the dust bunnies in the corner. No, not bunnies: Lions. Roaring lions of dust and debris. You’d hear me singing REO Speedwagon’s Ridin’ the Storm Out, and then, you’d hear Penny tell me to kindly shut the hell up. Only she wouldn’t say “hell.” (I got a letter berating me for my use of the word “fuck,” which is maybe a topic for another day). Later, at the job, you might overhear my wife and I bickering over some minor, perceived slight. Or maybe it won’t be minor. Maybe it won’t be perceived.
Empire of Illusion was published in 2009, before the rise of Twitter and Instagram and all the other platforms we can use to create illusions of our own. Everything Hedges said then seems doubly apropos now, and it seems to me as if there’s no end in sight, perhaps because our culture’s hunger for illusion is insatiable. Of course, this means it is also profitable.
I always like it when I can close on a witticism, or some particularly profound observation. Alas, today again the air is hot and heavy, my wit worn thin by list of tasks before me and those already completed. So I guess all I’ll say is this: Beware the two-dimensionality of this medium. Indeed, beware the ways in which this medium cultivates two-dimensionality, and, not-inconsequently, foments our own feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction in the perceived ordinariness of our lives. Though the truth is, of course, that your life, just like mine, is ordinary. And that’s perfectly ok.
Remember, even, that synonyms for vicarious include secondhand, derivative, surrogate, substitute. There are many, many ways to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. But I’m pretty sure that these are not some of them.
June 26, 2015 § 118 Comments
There is much more to say about the pleasures of so-called “peasant labor,” particularly in the wake of my romanticized, self-satisfied babble a few days back.
I must first say this: Yes, I love physical work, and I have at least a middling capacity for it (unless wittle Benny gets a boo-boo, in which case all bets are off until I’ve fully rehabilitated my blister). And yes, it does occasionally feel to me as if the work I do to earn my moneyed living is, to quote something I read recently “white collar, desk-bound, pontificating bullshit.” So there’s that. But the larger truth is that I’m incredibly grateful to be able to provide financial support to my family in the manner I do, and the minute I stop being grateful is the minute someone should just haul off and slap me upside the head.
There was comment the other day about someone’s father or maybe uncle, about how he worked construction his whole life, never turning down the overtime, and now his body is a wreck. Maybe the work was good while his joints and muscles held up, maybe he actually loved it. Or maybe not. But either way, he did the good, honest labor, and it twisted him up, wrung the health and vitality right out of him.
The same day, I heard on the radio, on a call-in talk show, yet another despairing conversation about the state of our nation’s educational system, about how we really need to be sure we get more kids into college, about how we’ll never compete as a nation if we don’t send more young adults to university, about how it used to be enough to maybe get a high school degree, and then you needed at least two years of college, but now, if you don’t have at least a bachelor’s degree and maybe even some sort of post-graduate paper, well… you lose, sucka. I’d link to it, but I’m not willing to risk you wasting your precious time listening. Besides, you can hear the same damn conversation in a million different places every day of the friggin’ week.
These things are connected, of course. The wrung out father/uncle, the ceaseless lament about our nation’s ability to compete on the global stage and how we must push our children harder, funnel them more efficiently into the higher educational system, give them the tools they need to compete amongst themselves. Because we all know college graduates earn more money over their lifetimes, right? Because we all know the science-and-technology-heavy jobs of the future require more than a high school diploma.
Hey, I got a question for ya: Whose gonna build your fucking house? Who is going to saw the timber to make your toilet paper? Who is going to grow your food, make your clothing (what’s that? Chinese children? Ah, I see. No worries, then), fix your car, unclog your septic, maintain the playground with that neat merry-go-round your kids love so much? Who’s going to play the music you listen to on your way to work? None of these require college degrees. Not a friggin’ one. All are essential, honorable work. Way more essential and honorable than creating apps or yet another platform for posting selfies on the internets. Probably even more essential and honorable than writing for a living, though I’m loathe to admit as much.
Hey, I got an idea for ya: What if we, as a society, stopped worrying so damn much about our nation’s ability to compete. About our children’s ability to compete. What if we recognized that, sure, college can be a great thing for some people, and we should do what it takes to make college accessible to those people. But what if, concurrently, we stopped creating this manufactured stigma (is there any other kind?) about those who choose differently, and furthermore, we started paying them a wage commensurate with their role in keeping our society on its feet. Maybe then the commenters father/uncle wouldn’t have had to take all that overtime. Maybe then his body wouldn’t hurt so much when he wakes up in the morning. Maybe then children who are not cut out for college wouldn’t feel like second-class citizens. Maybe then they wouldn’t be treated like second-class citizens. Maybe then we’d stop destroying the biosphere in our clawing, kicking, screaming scramble to compete with other nations. With other humans.
I know many people who went to college, and many who didn’t. Maybe it’s just the oddball folks I associate with, but I honestly can’t say that those who graduated college are doing better than those who didn’t. Might be making more money, sure, but are they overall enjoying their lives more? Not that I can tell. Are they engaged in honorable, even righteous work? Many are. But are you telling me there’s something more honorable than selling firewood? Than milking cows or building houses? Fuel. Food. Shelter. Seems pretty damn honorable to me.
When people ask if I’m concerned about my children’s ability to gain entrance into college, I can honestly say that I’m not worried in the least. Partly, I’m not worried because I know that if they want to go to college badly enough – if there’s something they are passionate about learning that can only be learned in such a place – I know they’ll figure out how to make it happen. But the other reason I’m not worried is because I have seen with my own two eyes that it is still possible to build a good and worthy and fulfilling life without a college degree. Is it getting harder to do so? Yes, I believe it is. But of course the primary reason it’s getting harder is because we are gullible enough believe the stories we are told about education and competition. We listen to programs like the one I heard and we lament right alongside the invited guests and the call-in listeners, and our lament leads to worry, and so we bundle our kiddos up and put them on the college train without even considering whether or not they’re the least bit interested in the destination.
I believe that laments like the one I heard on the radio are built around a myth, one that is perpetuated because it serves broader stories of economics and success. This myth loves nothing more than people competing against one another for their share (and more!) of the resources our industries churn out. Like so many of the stories we are told and sold, it’s a myth that’s become so pervasive that we are no longer aware it’s anything but the gospel truth. And that, more than anything else, is what makes it dangerous. As ever, the things we should be wary of are generally not the things we’re told to be wary of, but rather the things we don’t even know to look out for in the first place.
Damn. All that and not even 5:30 a.m. It’s gonna be a hell of a day.
June 2, 2015 § 49 Comments
We are milking two cows, twice per day. We milk by hand, in a corner of our humble pole barn. For the past couple of days, we’ve milked to the patter of rain on the tin roof, and that’s been real nice. Penny does most of the milking, though I pinch hit from time-to-time. From beginning to end, including a mid-milking break to feed the calves, it takes about 40 minutes. We both like it. It’s not a burden, though obviously not for the uncommitted.
Milk is the cornerstone of this little operation. It makes our butter, our kefir, our soft cheese. It makes our beef and this year, with a beautiful heifer on the ground, perhaps it will generate a little income. We feed the skimmed milk to our pigs and they are kind enough to convert it into chops and bacon. Good piggies. Thank you.
Of course, our milk comes from our cows, so perhaps it’s actually the cows that are the cornerstone of this little operation. They make the milk, they birth the beef and heifer calves, they graze the grass, they give us something meaningful to do for 40 minutes at the beginning and end of each day. No small point, that last one. It’s actually pretty damn important.
Of course, the cows couldn’t exist without the grass they feed on, so maybe the cornerstone of this little operation is grass. Funny to think about, isn’t it? Grass. The prey of lawnmowers the world over, which is crazy, because it’s actually one of the most abundant perennial food crops in the world. You think you can’t eat grass? That’s nuts. Of course you can eat grass. You just gotta run it through the digestive system of a ruminant first.
Except, well, the grass doesn’t grow without the sun, the rain, the soil. So I guess I was wrong before: These are the cornerstones of this little operation. They make the grass that feeds the cows that make the milk that makes our beef and bacon and butter and (!!!) ice cream. You think you can’t eat sun, soil, and rain?
Truth is, you do it every day.
March 31, 2015 § 68 Comments
It’s nice that it’s a little warmer now. I dally over chores, stopping at each species to stand watch for a minute or two. I like watching the ducks drink after I chop through the ice in their watering hole. I like watching over the evolving relationship between Web, our pet duck who chooses barn life over communion with her kind, and Rye’s goats, Flora and Monkey. We moved Flora and Monkey from their usual winter shelter because the deep snow had made their fence superfluous, and they’d become prone to wandering.
Their relationship with Web did not get off on a good foot (hoof?): There were head-to-head standoffs between the duck and Monkey, and I’d have been worried if I didn’t know how fast that bird can move when it suits her. But at some point in the week after being introduced, the three made their peace, and now Web is forever preening her former adversaries, perhaps having decided that antagonism was getting her nowhere, and she might just as well annihilate them with kindness. The goats lean into her while she works her way up and down their backs with her bill. The goats are shedding in the changing season; the preening must feel good.
We’ve lived with animals long enough now that it’s hard to imagine a time we didn’t live with animals. I understand why most people don’t want to live with animals (I’m not talking about house pets, which for the most part are so adapted to the human environment that they demand relatively little of us); the commitment is not inconsequential. There’s no question that our lives are defined by our relationships to our animals, both in regards to our day-to-day comings and going, but also in how we perceive the world around us, and even how we perceive ourselves.
I thought about this yesterday, after reading Charles’ recent account of his encounter with a toddler. The piece spoke to me, in no small part because I understand full well what he means about grappling with criticisms both external and, most affecting to me, internal. I suspect this is a common phenomenon among writers or anyone else whose work exists in the public realm. Or maybe it’s straight up common to humanity. I also agree with Charles that part of the value of my work – it’s value to me, at least – is that I sometimes question its value. It is important, that questioning, the same way it’s important to occasionally question just about everything we think we know or believe. I have learned that the people most deserving of my trust and respect are not those who claim to have the answers, or who claim to know what answers I should have, but rather those who leave room in their hearts and minds for the possibility that the stories they cling to might not be as important as they believe.
Our animals do for me what the baby in Charles’ essay did for him: They remind me, on a daily basis, that my written work is merely one aspect of who I am, it is merely one medium for expressing what I think is important to me. And on those days when it feels as if I accomplish nothing else, they provide me the opportunity to know that at least I accomplished this: I fed them. I watered them. I tended to their needs. I stood for a moment and watched a duck preening a goat, something that only a few weeks ago would have seemed an unfathomable kindness between two arch enemies. I watched one cow stretch her rough tongue to scratch the hard-to-reach itch of another, and I wondered how this need is communicated. I stood over the pigs sleeping in their hay, their soft bellies rising and falling with each porcine breath, and I challenged myself to fill their trough without waking them.
I think these interactions – both between myself and our animals, and between our animals themselves – are worth more than any casual observer might understand. Perhaps worth more than even I might understand. Maybe because, as Charles posits, they are in some manner redemptive, almost an atonement for the myriad ways in which I fall short.
Or maybe they are worth so much for an entirely different reason: They are something that no amount of criticism, either external or internal, can sully. There is no viewpoint expressed, no belief espoused, no argument made, no position defended, no status to be attained or denied, and therefore, no ego to be inflated or deflated. There is not even a verbal acknowledgement of appreciation.
There is merely one creature meeting the needs of another, and the minutia of the interactions necessary to the task, so fleeting and routine that it’s easy to lose sight of their value. This is particularly true in a culture that does not acknowledge or even understand this value. For what is gained? I cannot show you. I struggle to even tell you. But I know it is real nonetheless.