July 14, 2011 § 2 Comments
This is from the Summer ’11 edition of Vermont Commons. If you don’t read VT Commons, you should.
Summer came as summer does, fast and undeniable, bringing with it the means to fill each of its days from their gauzy 5 a.m. beginnings to the exhausted, body-sore collapse into sleep. Firewood to be cut, split, and stacked, a woodshed to be built for the firewood to be stacked into, a stand of mature fir to be thinned, skidded, and sawn. Then the boards, redolent of the earthy-sweetness of fresh cut lumber, to be stickered and covered. The orchard to be pruned, the raspberries thinned and trellised, dozens of vegetable beds broadforked, weeded, and seeded. The sheep and pigs and cows turned out to pasture. Hay to be baled, bales to be loaded, thrown, stacked. And then the cows freshen and there is suddenly milk everywhere and even better, cream: To turn to butter, to cut the bitterness of strong coffee, to slurp by the cupful straight from a quart jar while standing before the open fridge in chainsaw chaps and a sweat-damp tee shirt. Fishing trips with the boys, walking downhill through the woods to the neighbor’s stream, where the brookies hide in the shadows of a tumbledown stone bridge, half or more fallen in, uncrossed for decades and perhaps even generations. Fish that dwell beneath bridges that can no longer be crossed: How apt a metaphor for 21st century America and her people.
The barely-kept secret of my life is this: For all the activities that fill each of my days, I am not very good at much of anything. Sure, I can claim basic competence on many fronts but the hard truth is, I rarely if ever do anything with excellence. It seems as if my knowledge and skills have spread like a sudden rain atop a parched land, creating a latticework of water that runs helter-skelter across the surface, never accumulating, never soaking into the thirsty earth below.
There are times I bemoan this trait and resolve to overcome it. Part of this, I’ve no doubt, is my ego speaking, acquiescing to the truth that our society does not reward the generalists. It does not celebrate mediocrity; hell, it barely tolerates it. If only I cultivated one of my half-skills until it blossomed into something more, something of exception and distinction, might I garner more praise and money? I suspect I might.
Yet I have settled on a way of life (or perhaps it has settled on me?) that is unlikely ever to tolerate specialization. The sweet, bone-satisfying work of running our little farm demands a skill set so broad and varied that true excellence – and the investment of time required to achieve it – in any single arena seems unlikely. Or maybe that’s just my laziness talking; maybe I simply lack the mettle that would allow me to excel.
If there is any consolation, it is this: The era of specialization, fueled by the relentless extraction of finite resources and the ever-increasing debt burden of our nation, is coming to a close. A world without these excesses does not tolerate specialization in one category at the exclusion of basic competence in another; the subcontracting of life’s essentials is a luxury reserved for times of plenty.
I am learning to embrace the commonplace truth of myself. I am beginning to accept that wading in many rivers is more rewarding and arguably more practical than swimming in one. I recognize, at last, that being only ok at something – or lots of something’s – is enough. In a sense, it is it’s own skill: The unheralded talent of mediocrity. And you know what? I’m pretty damn good at it.