They Were Right

November 24, 2014 § 26 Comments

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It is one of those mornings that anyone who aspires to some version of this life would do well to experience before making any sort of irrevocable commitment. Oh, sure, it is warm enough, but the rain is relentless and the wind fierce, and on my way to pigs, heavy bucket of slops thumping my leg with every step, I saw not one, not two, but three slender balsam firs succumb, folding sudden at the waist, as if bowing to the storm. I upended the slops and scurried back to the comfort of home and hearth.

We are into winter now, it is true, to hell with the ignorant and arbitrary seasonal demarcations of the calendar. The real seasons do not abide by dates but rather are defined by events. Spring begins with the first sap run, drop-by-drop, 30 or more drops to make one drop of syrup, plink, plink, plink, plink into the bucket. There might be three feet of snow on the ground, there might be sub-zero nights in the forecast going out two weeks. There might be a cord of wood still in the shed, still to be burned. But the sap is running. Spring.

Summer starts the day the cows are turned onto pasture, endless waves of boot-high grass, the stuff that makes butter so yellow it’s orange. The first day of fall? That’s the morning we’re walking down the field to collect the cows for milking and notice that the leaves on the biggest of the big maples lining the boundary between our pasture and Melvin’s hayfield have begun to turn. Winter comes on the first covering of snow; not the first flakes, mind you – hell, those can come anytime after about July 4 – but the first that actually turns the ground white and slick underfoot.

You know why we live the way we do? Shit, I just realized this, I really did, and shame on me for that, but then I’ve never claimed to be the thickest pig in the litter. We live the way we do because it means we can bloody well decide for ourselves when the seasons begin and end. We live the way we do because it means we have a methodology for determining season that belongs to us and relates to our lives in this place. Sap, grass, leaves, snow.

Soon enough it’ll be the holiday season. Or maybe it already is, and it probably won’t surprise you to hear that we’ve sort of thumbed our noses at that, too. As I wrote nearly a year ago, we up and quit Christmas about the time we realized we couldn’t really figure out why we continued celebrating it. Why, year-after-year, we continued allowing it to make us a little crazy. So we host our annual Solstice eve sledding party and the next day we have a nice meal to celebrate the return of light, ironically (I guess) on the very date the calendar tells us is the onset of the season we know actually began six weeks earlier, when we awoke to the first sticking snow.

That was the morning the boys ran outside, strapped on their skis, and raced around the yard, yelling “it’s winter, it’s winter.” And they were right.

The Things We’ve Created

November 19, 2014 § 47 Comments

Before the snow

Before the snow

Yesterday I drove to Boston for an interview on WBUR and a reading at Brookline Booksmith. I do not as a rule mind these excursions; in some regards, I daresay I enjoy them, though there is always a certain amount of anxiety involved. For instance: I own exactly two sets of attire that might (might, I say!) be deemed appropriate for public appearances beyond the boundaries of my rusticated existence, and there is the lurking complication of getting from the bedroom, down the stairs, across the kitchen, over the porch, and into the car without malodorous or gelatinous (or worse yet, both) substances adhering to me. I’d give the boys a goodbye hug, but they are wearing the same outfits they wore the day before, and the day before that, and the… eh, you get the point. Truth is, even the car isn’t a safe haven, what with the sundry effects of the boys’ hunting and trapping exploits and the greasy layer of mudshitsnowmelt pooled atop the floor mats.

And then Boston, and 45 minutes of driving in confounding circles until finally I call my publicist (who lives and is based there) to talk me onto Commonwealth Ave. And then I go to park, only to remember that the door locks in our car do not. Lock, that is. Well, actually, they lock, it’s just the unlocking process that has become, shall we say, tenuous. So I can’t lock the car for fear I won’t be able to unlock it (and how convoluted a situation is that?), which only makes me more anxious until I suddenly realize (wave of sweet relief washing over me) it needn’t, since what on heaven’s earth could any nefarious Bostonian desire to liberate from our Subaru? A muskrat trap? A homemade axe sheath with the inconsistent stitching of my younger son’s hand? A dog-eared copy of the Vermont Atlas and Gazetteer? Ah, I know: The Complete Classic Rock Collection on CD, volume 5, which includes such gems as Foreigner’s Urgent and No More Mister Nice Guy by Alice Cooper his ownbadself. Hell, they can have it. (Though not volume 6, no way. Why? Because that one contains Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper, that’s why) I am suddenly grateful to realize how little of what we own has value to anyone but us and I know there is an important lesson in that realization. Perhaps for another day.

In my mind’s eye, however bleary and half-lidded it might be, I like to see myself as one of those people who embodies the particular type of resourcefulness that allows him (me) to thrive in any environment. You know one of those people, right? Always cool and collected, always comfortable in their own skin, always sure of their place in this great and beautiful mess of a world. Not quite cocksure but close enough to it. Yeah, that’s how I like to think of myself. That’s the guy I want to be.

Of course, the reality is somewhat different, and the city always crumbles my façade, generally in as much time as it takes for me to become well and truly lost, turning down one-way streets in the two-way direction, shutting off the radio as if the absence of its chatter will somehow imbue me with directional super powers. I suppose that’s why I sometimes resort to haughtily poking fun at urbanity – it’s really just a reflection of my own insecurity, of the way all that concrete and steel and motion and noise and commotion exposes me as the rube I am. Not cool. Not collected. Not comfortable in my own skin. And sure and shootin’ not cocksure. Just a bewildered rural fool backing up traffic on Beacon Street, lost among the masses.

Yet there is something strangely beautiful in the chaos of the city. I see the bike commuters bundled against the cold, making their way through traffic as if impervious to its perils. It blows my mind, the speed and fearlessness of these cyclists. The fluidity. I am jealous. I want to grab a bike and do something improbable, like ride across the city in the middle of a November night, thumping my bared chest with a clenched fist and screaming into the frozen air. Alas, that would likely be the last anyone would ever hear from me.

And I see the noodle shops and the people on the trains and on the sidewalks and how in their own, quiet, unassuming way, everyone makes room for everyone else. You don’t need to do that where I come from, you know – there’s space for everyone to do their thing and no one has to make room because there’s all the friggin’ room in the world – and it occurs to me that it’s a skill worth having. Not merely making room, but navigating the chaos of humankind, pedaling with all your might to shoot the slim gaps between the hard edges of the things we’ve created.

 

 

White With Frost

November 17, 2014 § 34 Comments

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It snowed last night, not a lot, but enough to cover the ground, the white interrupted by tufts of winter-dead grass. The snow is granular and slick, heavy with water, slippery underfoot. I almost fell twice during chores but each time regained my footing at precisely the right moment and thus was quietly pleased with myself, as if saving myself from falling on my ass were a skill cultivated across years of rigorous training. Which, in a certain sense, it is.

The second time I slipped, I remembered (for reasons that elude me) the summer and fall we lived in a tent on friends’ land not far from here. This was before we bought this property; it was while we were saving for this land, and part of our savings plan involved avoiding rent at all costs. One of those costs involved clearing our tent roof of snow, and I suppose that’s the connection between my almost falling this morning and my remembrance of that experience: The early, slippery snow. The way a warm, wet snow is actually colder than a cold, dry snow.  The way we used to poke the snow off the roof of the tent with a stick we kept by our sleeping bags expressly for that purpose. We called it the snow stick. Have I written about this before? It feels familiar.

Anyway, I remember one particularly grim night, when we gathered in the shell of our friends’ as-yet-unisulated house (they were building on the same land). All of us were bone weary and chilled right to the gut, and we sat in a silent semi-circle around the wood stove, which radiated enough heat to warm whichever side of us faced the hot iron. Each of us were lost in whatever personal miseries we’d decided to carry, mostly having to do with the raw and exposed nature of our respective shelters, which had seemed sort of charming and even romantic only a few weeks prior, but now seemed squalid and desperate.

Penny and I would be breaking camp in a few days, as we’d secured a $100/month rental. It did not have electricity or running water, but it had a metal roof, and as we sat around the stove with our friends, changing position whenever the discomfort of the too-cold side of us grew greater than the discomfort of the too-hot side of us (or vice-versa), I remember thinking how nice it would be to not have to worry about poking snow off the roof. As if it were a great luxury. As if it were something to aspire to.

Twice recently I have been asked what I hope people take from my work. Both times, I struggled with my answer, because I guess I don’t know what I hope people take from my work. And maybe I struggled because some part of me thinks I should know, that knowing would provide a reason, and that a reason would somehow guide my work in a way that gives it shape and form. Logic, maybe.  I didn’t used to worry about this, because it was quite clear why I wrote: Money. Not that I didn’t enjoy my work, but still. Money.

But that’s all messed up now, and to be honest, I feel sort of caught between the reasons I used to write and the reasons I write now, which aren’t even all that clear to me. Someone else asked me about my mission recently, and there was another thing I couldn’t articulate but wished I could. A mission. That would make things easier, wouldn’t it? That would give me something to point to, sort of like when Penny and I were living in that tent in December in Vermont. That was some serious mission-based camping, right there. We sat ’round that stove in our friends’ hollow box of a house and we were sort of miserable, true, but we were also on a mission and we could point to that mission – the land we didn’t yet own but someday would – and say see that? Even if we only said it to ourselves.

I am envious sometimes of other writers who seem driven by a mission, who seem to know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it. I think of someone like Charles, who seems propelled by a force much larger than himself. I mean, just look at his event schedule. Australia, Bali, a weeklong workshop in PA (he’s a great speaker and a wicked nice guy, you should go). How does he do it? I have no friggin’ idea. Or someone like Sandor Katz, who travels almost constantly, preaching the gospel of fermentation. I know his editor. “He’s relentless,” she told me, and that made me feel sort of shitty (though that was clearly not the intent), because I am anything but relentless. In fact, I might be the most unrelentless (irrelentless?) person you ever met. Nor do I feel propelled by a force larger than myself. There is only little old me, 6’3″ and 185-pounds of eroding bone, atrophying muscle, and expanding love handle, scratching the age old itch of putting words together in a way that is pleasing to the ear. My ear, anyway. I mean, sometimes it works that way, though you might be surprised at how often it doesn’t.

Anyway. I’ve come a long way from slipping in the snow during my morning rounds, and that was not my intent. Really, I just wanted to tell the story of the new snow and my near-falls, and how they made me remember the story of the night almost two decades ago when we sat around our friends’ wood stove and then went back to our tent to poke at the roof with our snow stick and climb into our sleeping bags and fall asleep as the sky cleared above us.

And in the morning when we awoke we could see that our expelled breath had turned everything white with frost.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes it’s Handy

November 13, 2014 § 34 Comments

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Yesterday I drove to western Massachusetts to retrieve a load of used windows for a top secret project (never fear, all will be revealed in due time).

I saw a hawk crumpled at the side of the interstate, feathers fluttering in the air displaced by the speeding traffic. It looked almost as if it were still trying to fly.

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I heard Panama. I heard this one and I wasn’t even sure who it was but I knew all the words. I heard GW Bush talking about what he imagines might have happened if he hadn’t invaded Iraq. I heard the novelist Richard Ford mention that he doesn’t believe in legacies, and after that I listened a little more closely to everything else he had to say. I heard that someone landed a rocket on a comet and about everything that would be learned and I thought that sometimes it’s better not knowing.

I learned that the fellow I bought the windows from is a contractor and that on average, his clients spend $90,000 on windows alone. I didn’t know what to say about that. I told him about our project, and what our budget was, and he gave me two real nice doors for free.

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I saw an old stone wall, all round field stones, thousands upon thousands of them, running unbroken through the forest until it reached the mown buffer at the interstate’s edge. I realized I was doing 74 mph across someone’s former pasture. I slowed down for a while, but then sped up again.

I fit five windows in the back of the Subaru, but I had to slide my seat forward so that I drove the whole way home hunched over the steering wheel. I put the doors and two more huge windows on top and by now the ‘ru was riding real low and people looked at me funny and maybe a little worriedly as they passed.

I remembered the time Penny and I took a pre-kids bike camping trip to the island of Tobago and a car came by and it was dragging a long board. I mean, they’d actually tied a rope around the bumper of the car and were literally dragging the board home. There were two men in the car and they laughed and waved as they passed, the board bouncing and scraping behind them. Penny took a picture. We still have it somewhere.

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I had to pee real bad and I didn’t want to stop, so I pissed in my empty coffee cup as I drove, then stuck it back in the cup holder. I reminded myself to not sip absentmindedly.

Sometimes it’s handy being a guy.

PS: For those who interpreted my comments in Tuesday’s post about my parents not teaching me anything or worse yet not supporting me as being literal, a brief clarification. My parents are really friggin’ great. And incredibly supportive. However, I stand by my primary point, which is that the big lessons in life – the ones we remember decades later, the ones that shape and sometimes shatter our world view – often come from unexpected places. 

 

 

 

 

 

What Really Mattered

November 11, 2014 § 22 Comments

Trapline

Trapline

Let me tell you a story (don’t worry, it’s short). Back when we were building this place, so maybe 15 years ago or even a little more, we knew a fellow named Bob. We didn’t know him very well, hardly a’tal, really. He stocked shelves and handled produce at the natural foods store where we shopped, and Penny worked on a vegetable farm that sold to the natural foods store where Bob stocked shelves and handled produce and where we shopped. So we knew him by name, but first name only. We knew him enough that he knew we were building a house.

One day, out of the blue, Bob asked if we needed any money. I mean, not as a gift, but as a loan, which in-and-of-itself was a gift, since we had essentially no credit. Plus, we were broke. I don’t think Bob was wealthy (though maybe he was), but he lived a simple life and had managed to put away a sizeable next egg from his job stocking shelves and handling produce and he wasn’t doing anything with it and thought maybe we could use it. We could. So Bob loaned us, I think, $6000. Interest free. Handshake deal. Actually, probably not even a handshake. We still didn’t even know his last name. Or at least, I didn’t. Maybe Penny did. There was no specific repayment schedule. We’d get it back to him when we had it.

We bought windows with the money, and the windows went in the formerly gaping holes in the walls of our half-built house and we were able to move in by that winter. We repaid Bob, of course. I don’t think it took us very long. A year, maybe two. We despise debt and anytime we’ve had it, we’ve worked real hard to not have it. I have no idea where Bob is now. He worked at the natural foods store for a few more years, then sort of disappeared. Maybe by then he’d saved enough money to go live the life he always wanted to live. Or maybe he just moved on.

Why am I thinking about Bob? Partly because I’m sick of thinking about heavy shit like kids and media and technology and parenting and all that jazz. Friggin’ A. Somebody shut me up already. And partly because on some level, maybe all that stuff really doesn’t matter so much. I mean, like Miss Mama suggests, it’s probably best if you don’t smoke meth in front of your kids. It’s probably best to remember that on some level, you’re screwing up your kids and that despite it all, they’ll be just fine. I mean, lord knows my folks screwed me up good and proper and look how I turned… oh, wait. Never mind.

I guess what I’m saying is that there’s all this stuff we, as parents and people, do all day, every day, thinking it matters so damn much. But honestly, I don’t remember any of the little stuff my parents did or didn’t do. Sorry, but it’s true. Instead, what I remember is a guy whose last name I never knew trusting me enough to loan me $6000 so I could buy windows for my house before winter. Before Bob, I didn’t even know people did things like that. Now I do.

And the loan, that was real nice, it made a big difference in our lives at the time.

But the act of the loan, the knowledge of it, the simple trust: That’s what really mattered.

 

 

Extra Warm

November 10, 2014 § 45 Comments

For E, 'cause I picked on him

For E, ’cause I picked on him

One of the things I like best about this blog is that every so often I get a comment that sort of blows me away. I mean, of course I appreciate all the comments, which to be honest is something I’d say even if it weren’t true, because what the hell else am I supposed to say? That I wonder if sometimes Eumaeus comments after he’s had a few beers? That sometimes I have no idea what he’s saying? That I don’t even know what an Eumaeus is?

Thing is, I really do appreciate all the comments, even those I find indecipherable (which, to be fair, is at least as indicative of my stunted intellectual prowess as it is of the comments themselves). Even those of dissent. Maybe particularly those of dissent, if only because they are evidence to me that something of value is being discussed. But the truth is, I long ago decided to by-and-large let go of the comments, and not reply to all those that strike me in one way or another. I remain extremely wary – perhaps even paranoid – of this blog outgrowing its proper role in my life, although I have to admit I’m not always sure what I mean by that. Maybe one of you can enlighten me.

Anyway. This is all just my wordy way of drawing your attention to the comment below, which just might be my favorite comment ever. I was a little nervous to publish that post; in my experience, folks can get pretty riled up and defensive about the role of technology in their children’s’ (and their own) lives, maybe because on some level they know it has outgrown what might reasonably be considered healthy. But damned if that post didn’t lead to the creation of something that is by any honest measure worth a hell of a lot more than what I originally wrote.

I think there are any number of ways to judge the value my work. Is it entertaining? Does it flow? Does it make someone feel differently than they felt before they read it? Funny enough, it never occurred to me until now that the very best measure of its worth might be whether or not it leads to the creation of something of even greater value. In that regard, I think Miss Mama’s comment is far and away the most flattering comment I have ever received, and I am grateful for it.

Oh, and one more thing: Is anyone else experiencing a sudden hankering for a pair of socks knit from the ass hairs of a sheep? Damn. Those would have to be extra warm, don’t you think?

So sorry that I am writing this long comment but I was thinking about this post all last night and this morning and asking myself a few hard questions: why do I let me kids have screen time? Why do we live in a massive urban sprawl? Do I really like that my kids know more about Starbucks than apples?

All of this is sincere, by the way, I’m not about to mock beets or farms or anything like that. I do mock sheep a little bit but it’s way down at the end and it’s more about me than them.

So…. I let my kids have screen time because, um, because then I can have screen time, too? Because then they can play with the kids next door and I can fold laundry? And talk on the phone? Oh hell. That’s weak. I let them have screen time so that we can all run from each other in our tiny home with our massive baskets of fear and grief that we are carrying? That I realize every single human carries? Oh dear. Oh my god. Worse. Uh, because we can’t always go outside? I have to be outside watching when they are running up and down the sidewalk (big urban sprawl, etc.) and I can’t always do that and make dinner (frozen pizza) at the same time? Because I am LAZY? Because I am a working single parent and tired and sometimes a little defeated?? That doesn’t really sit well but I’m glad that thanks to this post I was motivated to ask myself the questions… even if the answers are cringe-worthy!

Why do we live in a massive urban sprawl? Because this is where my ex wanted to live and then when my ex left I didn’t have the money to leave and was too heartbroken and freaked out to make any changes. (Oh my god… because I was so thrilled to be a genuine victim, apparently!!!! Mortifying!) But… urban sprawl also helped when I went back to school and got a degree… my kids were in school and in after care… I didn’t have to pay as much as I might have… oh my gosh… this is slightly better but not much! ANYWAY… the irony is that NOW the faceless and crazy urban sprawl is our community and we love our neighbors and our school. But not the air quality. And not the cars speeding down the street. Blah.

And I hate that my kids know more about Starbucks than trees or seasons and that they like coffee better than apples! Oh my gosh. I can’t really even attempt to salvage that. I am tired! I need coffee! There is a Starbucks on every corner!

Here are the other bullshit reasons I give for NOT having a more organic/holistic life:

1. I am a single parent! (Did I mention that? Did I mention that thirty-five times?) I can’t do it alone! Plus the new person I like isn’t very handy! Plus I don’t have savings! Plus, um, plus I get poison ivy really badly? Plus, um? PLUS?????

2. I do not want to homeschool. NO! PLEASE! NO! I WILL RUN SCREAMING FROM THE WOODS! Because I am afraid to sit still with my children? Because we are sad about the divorce and the tiny house and dead tree out front and the no garden and the car that has to keep running? Or because I have three braincells left to myself and by God I want to keep them!?! WHAT AM I SAYING? THREE? Oh, poof, gone.

3. This is kind of valid but probably not really: I am afraid of livestock. ALL OF THEM. Not kidding. I had to gather eggs with a friend ONCE years ago and I ran out of the coop hollering because I almost got pecked on the wrist. ALMOST PECKED. Almost pecked by a tame hen. Oh my god. I know I could try harder but cows are huge. HUGE. Goats and sheep are bigger than they look on everyone’s blogs. Also one of my kids hates dogs. ALSO. Also blah blah blah pecking hen, barking dog, kicking sheep, etc.

Oh my god. Have you ever tried to articulate your life philosophy and realized the reason you DO NOT articulate the poor thing is because it’s a wee rag or a shred of something and held up to the light is not even worth calling a philosophy??? Oh my god, put it away, please.

But! Here is the one thing that I did come up with last night that I don’t think is BECAUSE of screens or is trying to say OH THANK GOD for screens or anything… it is the only TINY shred of goodness I can claim and it is VERY TINY. Here is it: Living with the inability or unwillingness to make a change that might be good for all of us but for which I am not ready or prepared or even completely desirous of making is PAINFUL. I must daily learn to live with real grief and regret… and hourly try desperately to manufacture both forgiveness and accountability for myself.

I don’t read this blog (or any other blog made by an earth-loving, animal-dealing, kid-raising family) thinking, well, probably they are smoking meth and ANYWAY their kids are going to grow up insane and not even know when to use a semi-colon. And equally true, I don’t (often) look at myself and say, oh my god, you are practically smoking meth (not) and your kids are growing up insane and don’t even know what punctuation is. Plus cannot spell. Plus what is up with homework for a first grader? WHAT IS THAT?

I know this is going to sound so stupid but I am grateful for the ability to hold on to every bad decision, every selfish act (or neglect) that I make (am sure I don’t see them all) and acknowledge that right now I have not done the right and best thing. I have to sit with that. But just because I cannot do it NOW doesn’t mean I won’t someday. But not now.

And that’s a failing like a lot of other failings that I have to own but it doesn’t mean that I should lose my worth or my children, or that they are doomed to a miserable life, it doesn’t mean I should be praised, either, and maybe on some level it doesn’t mean ANYTHING except that I am a complex human being like all other human beings, with resources and flaws and strengths and terrible weaknesses; and for a human being staying open to as much truth as you can stand is honorable and worthy.

As much truth as I can stand? Sometimes it’s not much, apparently. I’m not on facebook because I would lie all the time. I would be such a liar and I would pretend I wasn’t lying, too. I would be good at that. It would take HOURS of my time and it would beat back the proof of what’s missing, too: YO! HELLO! Here is our great urban life! Here is our cool party with spray paint and rocks and sticks! YO! Here we are baking bread! YO! Here I am with my hair so long and so shiny and DID I LOSE WEIGHT OR WHAT? DOES GRIEF LOOK GOOD ON ME OR WHAT?? FOR REAL! FEAR IS HOT! At least I am open to the truth that I can not be trusted to even tell the truth most of the time.

Urban sprawl with screen time is possibly better FOR ME right now than raising sheep and making my socks from their ass hairs. WHAT? I MEAN IT! Because IF the reason I am raising and knitting is because anything less than that will fill me with self-loathing then I don’t trust the process!!! I mean I don’t trust ME in the process! I don’t mean I don’t trust the farm. The farm is good. But I want to have sheep because it is right and good for me to have them and because I am okay with or without them. Right now I am scared of them and their little sideways teeth and their smell and scared of standing in a field with four dying sheep by myself and having nobody.

This is so hard to explain because I barely understand it and probably it’s all a way of saying to my children (who are young) I am sorry that I could not bring you back to the land and give you what you most needed but I didn’t have the courage to do it. I hope I am giving you enough love and strength and conviction to do the right thing for you and for the earth and even when I am a little old person wearing diapers (or leaves) I promise to honor as much of the truth and revolution as I possibly can. And I will live in the woods with you if you will have me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Done in Silence

November 6, 2014 § 55 Comments

Beet the system!

Beet the system!

This year, we experimented with giving the beets a bit more breathing room. It worked out real good. 

I bet I get more questions pertaining to kids and screens than anything else. It’s amazing what a stranglehold these devices have over children, probably because it’s amazing what stranglehold they have over parents. By-the-by, I’m clearly no exception, because as I’ve pointed out a time or two before, it’s not like I’m scratching these words on the fire-lit walls of my cave with a sharpened brontosaurus bone. On the other hand, relative to the screen-immersed extremes of contemporary American culture, we’re just a bit off the back. We don’t have a TV, although we do have a cell phone, one of those el cheapo prepaid jobs. Every time I need it (maybe once per month), I spend a frenzied 30 minutes or so trying to find the damn thing and then another dozen or so minutes trying to figure out how to retrieve the number, which is hidden deep in the bowels of its click-through menus. So. Computer. Cell phone. Not exactly luddites now, are we?

At the risk of upsetting some readers, I’m going to say what I really think: The immersion into modern digital technology is messing up our children. It’s messing up us. This does not mean there are not good things that come of these technologies; it only means that the damage wrought by these technologies outweighs their benefits. By how much? Hell, I don’t know, but I suspect by a whole awful lot. At least by a hanging half of milk-fed pork. Probably more.

I think things took a dramatic turn for the worse with the introduction of smartphones and tablets, because the introduction of such devices marked a turning point between the need to consciously choose to interact with these technologies and constant, almost ubiquitous presence of them. In many ways, they have become our culture’s default engagement point with the world around us. In our house, we make it as difficult as realistically possible to use the family computer: It’s stuck in the far corner of our living room, it’s generally powered down, and it always has a cloth draped over it, kind of like a diaper. There’s not even a chair next to it, so if you want to use the computer, you have to schlep a chair from the kitchen, remove the cloth, and wait for the damn thing to power up, at which point the brontosaurus bone/cave wall approach starts looking pretty good. Or hell, with all that trouble, why not just read a book or play guitar? Or, I don’t know, talk?

I don’t really know what to say to folks whose kids are already good and hooked on video games and smartphones. As I’ve mentioned before, we just didn’t go that route, in part because we are not of the ilk that deems these technologies essentially benign or even beneficial. You want to know what I really think? Ok, so that’s a rhetorical question, ’cause I’m going to tell you no matter what: I think these things are bad fucking news. I think they erode resourcefulness and discernment. I think they have become a delivery mechanism for the idea that our lives are incomplete, which is a very profitable idea. I think the over saturated experience they offer dulls the senses. I think if my kids were hooked on ‘em, I’d do something really drastic, like put them all through a wood chipper or take the chainsaw to ‘em. I think whatever short term ramifications I had to deal with on the back end of these actions would be preferable to the long term ramifications of allowing their continued use. I realize that’s easy for me to say, not having to deal with either. But still.

Sometimes people ask specifically what we’ve done to avoid the creep of these technologies and devices in our lives (again, being clear that we haven’t avoided it entirely). I’ve already mentioned one of those things – arranging our technology in a such a fashion that our use of it simply cannot be unconscious. This means no mobile devices beyond our barely-used cell phone. You want your kids to spend less time looking at screens? Then you better spend less time looking at screens. Ain’t no way ’round it. This is the hard truth that many parents seem unwilling to acknowledge, probably because they’re just as addicted as their kids.

At my reading last weekend, someone made a really salient point, which, in approximate summation, is this: Every minute we’re with our kids, we’re teaching them. We tend to think of teaching as proactive, as being about books and papers and talking. And sometimes, it is. But the truth is that often it is not, and I’m beginning to think that perhaps the most important things we teach our kids are done in silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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