December 28, 2012 § 2 Comments
Finally, snow. And not just another piddling, half-baked storm, but the real thing: Hour after hour of darkened skies and mounting drifts. We could see it building the previous afternoon, our vantage point being most excellent, courtesy of a three-hour ramble through Cabot’s deepest, densest forests in search of a neighbor’s marauding heifer. Actually, “ramble” doesn’t quite do it justice, given the severity of the terrain, the speed of the chase, and the fact that, by the end of the second hour, Penny and I were both so sweat-soaked and stomach-empty we were having trouble walking a straight line. Indeed, I suspect the only thing that kept us going was the fact that the owner of said heifer is 64 years of age, was wearing blue jeans, a sweat shirt, and a baseball cap, and seemed as if he could’ve kept it up until dark. Hell, he probably would have, if not for the fact that evening milking was looming. In any event, we ended up high on a ridge on the other side of town, heiferless and hungry.
At one point, when it became clear we would need to cross a large stream/small river, our neighbor found a thin wedge of ice that looked at least marginally promising, and wormed across on his belly, so as to distribute his weight. As I watched him slowly making his way across the water, it struck me that for all the things I might want for myself in my advancing years, I want nothing more than to maintain the capacity for such adventures. Not just the physical capacity (although that’s clearly a crucial element), but also the mental and emotional capacity, the simple willingness to accept and perhaps even embrace the small, odd hardships of rural living. Because while I was frankly stunned by our companion’s physical endurance (did I mention he’s 64? And that he’d already worked what most folks would consider a full day? And that he still had a solid four hours of barn chores to complete before his day would end?), I was even more astounded by the equanimity he maintained.
Indeed, throughout the whole affair, there was banter and laughter aplenty, and not once did he raise his voice or express anything but the mildest duress. Perhaps this is merely the result of his relatively advanced years and the fact that, after six decades of farming and all the unanticipated challenges that implies, he has learned that the emotional drain of anger and frustration is a frivolous use of his energy. I won’t hit my 60′s for another 20 years, so I suppose there’s still hope that somewhere along the way, I’ll learn the same damn thing.
There is no satisfying conclusion to this story, for the young holstein is still out there somewhere, destined for some as-yet-undetermined future. But then, the same could be said for any of us, no?
December 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
This morning, after chores and breakfast, and after Penny had left to deliver Fin to his once-weekly primitive skills school, Rye and I went skiing. The conditions were, to say the least, questionable: There is perhaps an inch-and-a-half of snow remaining from last week’s storm, with tufts of grass emerging at regular intervals, like unruly locks of hair poking out of a hat. Still, the snow was of a consistency and temperature that made for surprisingly effortless gliding, and we struck out across the big hay field that borders our southern boundary.
We skied for maybe an hour, stopping every so often to examine a pair of animal tracks (for the record, deer, squirrel, mouse, hare, and grouse), or to examine a winter-dead plant, most of which Rye assured me were highly poisonous. The boys’ knowledge of these things is so much deeper and broader than mine, that I never know when they’re serious and when they’re merely playing with my ignorance. I chose to play it safe, and did not gnaw on any of the dried and listing stalks my son asserted would have me writhing on the ground within minutes.
When we reached the apex of the big, steep hill behind Melvin and Janet’s farmhouse, I suggest turning back: That hill is damn steep and nearly as long, and the snow was little more than a sheen of immature ice. The whole thing looked sketchy as hell, but Rye, who just a moment before had been so touchingly concerned that I might ingest a plant-borne poison, had turned heedless. “What fun is life without a little danger, Papa?” he said. Crikey, I thunk to myself: The boy’s got a point. So we straightlined it and swooped down and both of us were grinning to beat the band.
I am constantly reminded how rich the small, unexpected experiences of my life can be, and I wonder how it is that I live in a culture that seems to have lost sight of this truth. I believe that every human is born with this appreciation, but somewhere along the way, it is sacrificed to the often overwhelming realities of contemporary American life. Sometimes I wonder if it’s simply bludgeoned out of us, via the stimulation of modern entertainment and digital omnipresence. And I suppose this is what saddens me most about the ever-increasing clamor to engage children in the realm of technology: The slow, intractable blunting of their connection to natural world and appreciation of the minor, almost mundane happenings of life.
A few days back, I wrote about the idea of being a shore, of considering the multitude of wave-like influences big and small that each of us face on a daily basis, and which of these waves we should choose to ignore, and which we should choose to absorb. I am becoming more intrigued by this idea, which seems as if it might be a matter of simple discernment, and I am wondering if discernment is yet another skill being lost in contemporary American society, perhaps as a result of the very same bludgeoning I spoke of before. After all, it certainly isn’t profitable for people be truly discerning about what they allow into their lives. I’m going to close this with an excerpt from an essay I wrote about our annual haying adventures with our friend Martha, who is a 65-year-old, cigarette-smoking, dairy-farming ex-Olympian, and one of our favorite people on this world.
In recent years, I have come to understand that certain moments shape my life by a measure not consistent with their brevity and immediate imprint. These are not the big events, the births and deaths, the unions and separations, which for all their significance are the commonplace joys and tragedies of humanity. Rather, they are almost imperceptible splashes in the pool of my existence, like when I glance up at Martha perched on that big green tractor like a sprite riding the back of some great beast, 100-pounds soaking wet atop 12,000 pounds of machine, towing another 10,000 pounds or more of hay and baler and wagon, and I marvel at what it means to be human, to be of the species that for better or worse has invented all this stuff, this amazing, crazy, magical stuff. I mean, my God, to be towed through a field at the hind end of a 20,000- something pound chain of steel and rubber and grass? And to have the master of that chain be a cigarette-smoking Olympian with the bones of a bird and the work ethic of an entire friggin’ anthill? It’s almost as if I can feel the small stone dropping through my surface. It’s almost as if I am not just the pool, but also the shore and I can see those little waves rushing toward me.
December 18, 2012 § 11 Comments
Both mornings this past weekend I was up by 5, slipping downstairs with as much quiet as I was able to muster (which, according to Penny, is not any too much) to light the fire and make coffee. It takes a while to boil water on a wood stove, and to be honest I’m occasionally tempted to sidle out the porch where our summer kitchen resides and where blue flames leap at my command, as if I’d simply wished them into being. But patience is a virtue I am very much lacking, and I am as yet young enough and optimistic enough to believe I might still learn it, so most mornings I resist the quick and dirty technique, and instead pull a chair up to the open firebox door of the wood stove and wait. It’s not so bad, really, sitting by a fire in an otherwise darkened kitchen with my family only a half-dozen or so feet above me, drooling into their pillows and (I tell myself) dreaming of how much they love me. There is something pleasingly patriarchal about it, and in my weaker moments I am able to fool myself into believing that my early morning activities are strictly altruistic in nature – warm the family, protect them in the darkest hour – when in reality, I simply woke up early and wanted a goddam cup of coffee.
It was a fine weekend, passed largely in the out-of-doors. On Saturday, all four of us gathered around an impromptu set of sawhorses devised of the tractors pallet forks, making what will be by far our most extravagant holiday gift, a @(#*%*F)@_*^. With the exception of intermittently flaring tempers and hurled curses, the boys were in a solicitous mood, intent on being productive members of our @(#*%*F)@_*^ production team. As for myself, I remained mindful of my still-fragile patience and therefore maintained a considerable degree of equanimity in the face of their occasional fumbling.
Truth be told, both boys are reaching a level of competence that equates to actual, honest-to-goodness help. As their parent, I can’t help but find satisfaction in their evolving capacity to wield tools and devise all manner of toys and implements. They are forever building things: Trebuchets, slingshots, props for magic shows (the guillotine, complete with our largest and sharpest kitchen knife, was a tad alarming), complicated farming machines modeled after the life size versions residing on the neighboring farms. Every so often, I get wound up about the quantity of fasteners they use (have you priced nails lately?), or the piles of scraps left in their wake, or their constant clamoring for supervision so they can use a power tool. “Papa, will you come to the basement for a minute?” is generally how these requests are framed. Of course, it’s always a lot longer than a minute. And of course, it’s almost always time I can spare, even when I think I can’t. Even when I say I can’t.
So yeah, it’s gratifying to watch their skills grow and expand. Hell, any parent can relate to that. But as I’ve mentioned before, there are times I worry that by choosing to educate them at home, and by choosing to surround them with a particular set of opportunities to learn a particular set of skills, we are defining them. Furthermore, could it be that my satisfaction in their abilities is really just a projection of the skills I value, the ones I wish I’d been exposed to at their age? Yeah, I think that could be, at least in part.
I have argued before that learning in one area is not mutually exclusive to learning in another, and I believe that to be true. Still, the reality is that a child’s day – just like an adult’s day – is comprised of only so many hours, and time spent learning one thing is by default time not spent learning another. That’s ok; we’re not infinite sponges, able to soak up anything and everything to which we’re exposed. But it does remind me to remain keenly aware of how my boys are spending their time. Of how I’m spending my time.
In short, this is what I hope for my children: That they’ll be able to translate the specific to the general. In other words, that the process of learning is what sticks with them, that all the friggin’ trebuchets and bows and arrows and hay wagons and so on that I’m always buying nails for and tripping over and cleaning up after embody only one particular aspect of their construction. And that the other aspects – the scheming, imagining, designing, persistence, the inevitable acceptance of failures - will be around long after the wood and nails have rotted into the ground. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get to see if actually works out like this. I’ll just have to be patient.
December 14, 2012 § 4 Comments
A recurring argument (well,not really argument, more like “debate”) I have with my friend Erik is whether or not it is enough to live a life of quiet-but-purposeful intent. In other words, whether or not we should feel obligated to raise our voices – and perhaps more – in opposition to forces that prey on nature, the environment, the disadvantaged. On us.
Erik’s view is that it is not enough, although I think he occasionally finds himself caught between his belief that he must do something, and his desire to live simply and simply live. “I wish I could just live a kick-ass life connected to the land,” he once told me. To be clear, Erik does life a kick-ass life connected to the land; his point is that there is something compelling him to do more, and that this is not always entirely comfortable. Part of what compels him to be more active – to remain uncomfortable – is his belief that the institutions perpetrating so many of our contemporary ills have simply become too powerful to change by mere lifestyle choice. “My fear is that I’m part of a subculture, and that subculture isn’t going to slow anything down,” he says.
I don’t know if Erik is right or wrong to believe it’s not enough to live the quiet activism of turning our backs on the particularly rapacious elements of contemporary American life, at least to the extent we are able. But I do know that in so many small, positive ways, Erik has influenced those around him to make simple “lifestyle” choices that might, when taken as a whole, and when the influence of these choices is felt by others, be more powerful than he currently understands.
I leave you with the image – however cliched it might be – of a pebble dropped into a pond, with first one wave, and then another, and then another radiating outward. But I encourage you to consider not just the pebbles you drop and the waves you send out into your community and the world at large, but also the shore onto which these waves ultimately lap. Because the truth is, we are all shores, we are all constantly bombarded by waves of influence.
The trick, I think, is to discern which of these waves we should erect barricades against. And which we should absorb.
December 13, 2012 § 3 Comments
Yesterday, whilst Rye was curled on the couch depositing the contents of his stomach into a metal bowl every 30 minutes or so, Fin and I trundled outdoors to see what sort of hell could be raised with a trio of the most hell-raising contraptions at our immediate disposal: Tractor. Saw mill. Chainsaw. Crikey, if only we’d brought some firearms along… just imagine the sort of fun we coulda had. In any event, it was a beautiful afternoon; not quite warm, but close enough, and sunny as all get out, and Fin was in a helpful mood. Which is to say, he was keen to take the helm of whatever piece of potentially-deadly equipment I would allow him to take the helm of.
One of our prevailing parenting philosophies (PPP) is that, to the greatest extent possible, our children should be included in the day-to-day operations of home, farm, and forest. Because these operations frequently involve the use of large, sharp, fast, loud, hot, explosive, and generally unwieldy implements, this means that our boys have had a level of exposure to these sort of tools that has become largely absent from the landscape of childhood in twenty-first century America. Both boys can drive the tractor and the truck, and both can operate the majority of the power tools we utilize on an almost daily basis. Knives, axes, and guns also fall under their purview.
Now, before anyone gets their undies in a bunch, allow me to qualify: With the exception of non-powered cutting implements (knives, axes, handsaws), all of the above are to be used only with close adult supervision. It’s not as if we’re sending the little duffers down into the woods with a pair of shotguns and a chainsaw under strict orders not to return without meat and wood.
Still and all, there is unquestionably an element of risk associated with all this. It would be nice to think there is not, but it’s simply impossible to eliminate risk from the operation of these tools, whether you’re 10 years old, or 40. Yesterday, I allowed Fin to drive the tractor back from where we’d used it to unload round bales, while I followed behind in the truck. He drove carefully, almost ploddingly, and it was an entirely uneventful trip, and when he climbed down at the sawmill landing, I could see what that short solo drive had done for his confidence. It was written all over his round face, and in the way he carried himself.
In general, I believe that we do not allow our children to take enough (supervised) risk at a young enough age. The events that pass for rites of passage in contemporary America have largely been neutered of physical risk, having tipped over into realm of technology: The acquisition of a child’s first cell phone comes to mind, along with access to other gadgets and digitized experiences. I believe that children need appropriate risk, and I strongly suspect that this lack of physical risk (I say “physical” because of course there are all manner of non-physical risks associated with the use of technology) leads to inappropriate risk taking later in life. No, I can’t prove this. But then, I can’t prove most of what I believe.
Fin and I spent only a couple hours outside; by the time the afternoon was coming to close, we had only a small pile of rough-cut lumber to show for our labors. It wasn’t much. But then, I’m pretty sure it was only a fraction of what we’d gained.
December 12, 2012 § 7 Comments
The dearth of snow has meant we’ve been able to keep the cows down in the logging cut for longer than we’d anticipated, and this is a good thing, because the longer they’re down there, the more shit they spread, and the more shit they spread, the happier I am. Yes, it is true: A shitting cow makes me happy, and five shitting cows makes me even happier. What can I say? I’m a man of simple pleasures.
But to be honest, it’s not just the manure; it’s the walk. Every morning, ’round about 6:30 or so, I walk the quarter-mile down to the logging cut to feed out. A quarter-mile: It’s nothing, really. It takes maybe two minutes; three if I stop to feed the chickens on the way. Four, if after I feed the chickens I stand in the little hollow at the foot of our pasture and tilt my head toward the slowly rising sun. Five, if I stay there for a minute longer than I should. So yeah, it’s a short walk, but damned if this little morning stroll isn’t something I look forward to every freakin’ morning. There are some mornings I actually put it off, simply because I like to tease out the anticipation of it. Just the anticipation is comforting. It’s like a little, smooth stone I carry in my pocket, one that feels as if it were made to be touched. (I don’t actually carry a little, smooth stone in my pocket. But I think I might start)
It seems to me that Americans have trouble living a place-based life. That is, we don’t take the time (or are even inclined) to simply appreciate the places we live. Maybe that’s because some of us don’t really like the places we live; as a society, we do seem to have done our level best to uglify the natural landscape. But another part of this, I’m sure (and as I think I’ve mentioned before) is that there’s not much financial profit to be realized from having us experience this appreciation. Generally speaking, it doesn’t cost anything to appreciate a place, and the more we appreciate it, the more we tend to stay in it. The more we stay in it, the less we move. Ergo, the less money we spend.
Movement is what costs, and movement is what brings us into contact with all of contemporary America’s well-honed marketing pitches. Sometimes, that movement is physical, although it increasingly seems to be virtual. But whatever the case, it is movement we are told to celebrate, and it is movement we are told equates to freedom, as if somehow the quotidian day-in, day-out particulars of our lives can never be stimulating enough to provide the richness of experience we perceive as freedom. Because, really, isn’t that what we’re talking about? Not true freedom, but change. Stimulation. Different.
This is what I think: There is more than enough change, stimulation, and difference in our daily lives, if only we take a moment to notice it. I walk down to feed the cows, and one day the ground is frozen hard, the pattern of the tractor tires showing as raised bars of soil in my path. The next morning, it has rained, and the bars have slumped and I slip on the hill and almost fall. I look up, and the sun is rising. Or it’s cloudy, and it isn’t. It is snowing. It is raining. Windy. Calm. I listen: Chickadee. Chicken. The boys’ voices, drifting through the woods.
All of it right here. And all of it free. Freedom.
December 10, 2012 § 5 Comments
The fellow who works on our 17-year-old Subaru (with some frequency, I might add) is named Shon. Shon did a lot of fighting when he was younger, some of it in sanctioned boxing rings and some of it, he tells me, in dive bar parking lots in the pre-dawn hours. He looks like a fighter; he’s compact and wiry and angular and just plain tough looking. Like most good mechanics, he seems to subsist on a diet of convenience store snack foods, cigarettes, coffee, and whatever petroleum products are absorbed through his skin. He is always moving fast, and I’ve never known him to take a sick day. He is fantastically skilled with Subarus, and has a knack for keeping them on the road long after many mechanics would have suggested moving onto something newer. Or, at the very least, something that didn’t make a racket from the top end of the motor. “Ah, hell, that’s just your valves,” Shon told me recently, when I’d inquired about the clattering ruckus under the hood. Cigarette smoke swirled around his head. “Run it.”
This is what I truly appreciate about Shon: He gets it. He has sized us up and he gets that we are more than willing to deal with a degree of uncertainty in order to keep our vehicle expenses to an absolute minimum. Often when I bring our car down for some unavoidable repair, he puts me to work. “Grab that impact driver and take the front wheels off,” he’ll tell me, while he attends to some other wayward motorist. Always, our final bill reflects whatever small contribution I’ve made to the completion of the task. He is incredibly generous, perhaps to a fault. Indeed, I know he’s only just getting by, and there are times when I almost have to force money on him. I want him to succeed. Hell, I need him to succeed.
In my advancing age, I am becoming increasingly aware of the power of the gift, and I know that what Shon does for us is in many ways a gift, although I don’t know that he’d put it in those terms. He’d probably just call it helping us out, the same way he helps out lots and lots of people with troubled cars and questionable financial resources. But still: It’s a gift, and the more I become aware of the power of gifting, the more comfortable I am with both accepting and distributing gifts. Occasionally, I take things to Shon: A steak from our freezer, or a pound of bacon, and he is always appreciative, always sure to remark on how much he enjoyed him.
But more often – and I believe this is the real power of gifting – I think of Shon’s generosity when I am considering what gifts I have to offer to the world at large. I guess the contemporary term is “pay it forward,” and I believe it is most possible when people’s view of the world is that it is an abundant and generous place, rather than a scarce and stingy one. Shon reminds me that the former view is one that can thrive in a community of interconnected and interdependent people. And the latter view? It’s the one that corporate America would most like you to adopt, for it keeps you running the treadmill of money and consumption. Of fear.
To be honest, there are times when we question to wisdom of running old cars. It is a not insignificant nor inexpensive hassle, although (knock on wood) it’s been a while since we’ve been marooned at the side of the road. But here’s the real question: Would I rather make my payments to the finance arm of a car maker, in exchange for the convenience of driving a vehicle that does not require Shon’s frequent intervention? Or would I rather make my payments to Shon and, through the passing on of the gifts he bestows upon us, into my community of friends and neighbors?
When I think of it like that, it’s about the easiest damn decision I’ve ever made.
December 9, 2012 § 1 Comment
December 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
Along with a trio of exceptional writers, I will be reading tomorrow night in Hardwick as part of a benefit for the Hardwick Food Pantry.
You should come. Unless you don’t want to.
December 5, 2012 § 7 Comments
I was chatting with a friend the other night about family and money and work and all the other minutia of our lives when he asked if perhaps my writing on this site wasn’t a little too “self-satisfied.”
After I got over my initial alarm (because really, who wants to be perceived as self-satisfied, which is arguably only a half-rung down the ladder from “smug”?), I got to thinking about what it means to be self-satisfied, and whether or not that’s a bad thing.
At the risk of confirming my friend’s suspicions, let me be clear: I am satisfied. Not always, and not with every single aspect of my life and character, but in a general, over-arching sense, I am content. I suppose one could take this a sign of lassitude, and at times it seems to me an almost anti-American sentiment: We are not supposed to be merely satisfied, or content. We are supposed to strive, to compete, to conquer, for how else can we exemplify the rule of American exceptionalism? Hell, to be merely satisfied… what am I, a socialist (or at the very least, Canadian)?
Still, the truth is, my sense of self-satisfaction is a work in progress and has arisen only out of allowing myself a degree of time and introspection that I understand to be a great privilege. I remember something my friend Erik told me a couple of years back; we were skiing deep in the woods of northern Vermont, and I’d asked Erik, who lives a life of deep principle, based largely on his belief that the natural world should not be merely appreciated, but revered, how he made certain that his choices in life reflect his prevailing ethos. (It is maybe worth noting that Erik lives on about $6,000 annually, and yet seems to me one of the most contented people I’ve ever met; his network of friends and family and community is incredibly diverse and rich, and his capacity to fully experience the small pleasures of life has been an inspiration to me. He is also the main character in my upcoming book, SAVED).
This is what he told me: “I mediate a lot of my experiences through a judgment: ‘Is this the way I want to live my life?’”
Is this the way I want to live my life? It’s such a simple and even obvious question, really. And yet I’m fairly certain it’s not a question most people ask with great frequency. At least, it wasn’t a question I asked very often, if ever. Is this the way I want to live my life? I often wonder how many people’s lives would be changed for the better if they’d only ask themselves that very question.
I have been enormously fortunate in that it has not been difficult for me to find a path that is satisfying. Likewise, Penny and I serendipitously made choices along the way – long before I ever asked myself how these choices might answer Erik’s question – that have allowed us a tremendous degree of freedom and privilege. The absence of debt is perhaps the most profound. Just as I wonder how many people’s lives would be changed for the better if only they’d ask themselves is this the way I want to live my life, I wonder how many people are simply afraid to ask it, knowing that their financial circumstances ensure they won’t be able to answer it in a way that feels good. That is satisfying.
If all of this sounds as if I have no doubts or insecurities, you can rest assured that I have many. As of this very moment, I am struggling to determine what is next for me, career-wise. I am on-again, off-again worried that the skills and opportunities we are providing our boys are not doing enough to prepare them for a world that seems to be evolving in an entirely different direction. I loathe my inability to remain organized. I worry that our decision to eschew accumulated monetary wealth is going to someday bite us in the ass, and hard.
Still, I have come to a place in my life where I do not need to know everything: My boys’ future. My future. I can even accept my many flaws of character, although that doesn’t mean I’m not working to correct them (you oughtta see my office… clean as a freakin’ whistle. For today, anyway). Is one of those flaws that I’m self-satisfied? Maybe. But I’m not convinced yet.