In the Flesh

February 28, 2013 § 7 Comments

For anyone who would like to meet in person, maybe share some conversation and/or a beer, I have updated my sorely neglected appearances page. There will be more dates coming, as scheduling for the SAVED world  anyplace-I-can-get-to-and-back-in-an-evening tour has only just begun.



Let Them Eat More Cake

February 27, 2013 § 4 Comments


I would like to add a brief addendum to what I wrote yesterday regarding kids and money.

In short, I believe there is tremendous value in having your children bear witness to a certain amount of struggle, if only because I’m pretty well convinced that struggle is foundational to the development of both character and gratitude. This is particularly true when kids are allowed to be part of the process of resolving struggle. I do not want Fin and Rye to grow up immersed in the expectation that life should be only plenty, and that they are entitled to the many comforts and conveniences that even we, in our embrace of patched-together rural rusticality, avail ourselves of.

The key, I suppose, is finding the correct balance between struggle and struggle, between something that is occasionally hard, yes, but also in a strange way uplifting, and something that is merely grinding and dispiriting.

And believe me, if I knew exactly what that balance looked like, I’d shouting it from the high hills of Cabot, Vermont.

Let Them Eat Cake

February 26, 2013 § 8 Comments


Yesterday, I received this comment/question:

I’m not sure if this is the appropriate place to put this question, but my husband and I are just starting the ‘when are we going to procreate’ conversation, and we think that we need to gather some info about how much kids really cost. We don’t have any friends with kids who live our kind of home-steady life, but I know you just wrote a whole book about money. Did you talk about money in the context of kids? Any chance you have some thoughts on the topic that you’d be willing to share here? My husband is specifically worried that if we don’t buy land and build our little cabin before having kids, we’ll be renters for the rest of our lives.

Goodness me. Where to begin? First, to the question of whether or not SAVED includes a discussion of money in the context of kids, the answer is absofreakin’lutely, although there are so many aspects to the intersection of these two life-defining forces, I can’t really say that anyone in particular is going to find the answers they’re looking for. I know that’s not much of a sales pitch, but hey: At least it’s honest.

I guess I’ll start with a little story. Fin was born in January, 2002, right in the messy midst of constructing the addition to the humble shack that had served as shelter for Penny and me for the previous half-decade or so. He was born at home, and I clearly remember a hurried attempt on my part to tidy up the construction zone in preparation for the midwife’s arrival. This was to be her first visit to our home, and since I already sensed that she didn’t like me all that much, I wanted to make a particularly good impression. (I should note that this is entirely out-of-character for me, but what can I say? I was about to become a father; I wasn’t thinking too clearly)

So whilst Penny was laboring in the unfinished upstairs bedroom (which is to say, there was a bare room with a mattress on the floor on which we slept, so we called it a “bedroom”), accessed via a set of unfinished stairs (which is to say, there was a ascending set of wobbly rough plank treads, so we called them “stairs”), I busied myself humping the table and chop saws to the basement and consolidating the various piles of debris. Anyway, the midwife arrived, took one look around the place, and said “Well, you’ve certainly got a long ways to go.” At which point she proceeded to park herself in a rocking chair and drift off to sleep in the middle of the damn doorway to the bedroom. Every time I sucked in my gut and squeezed past her chair on my way to bring Penny something or other, I felt like tickling the tender insides of one of her big, snoring nostrils with a knitting needle. Needless to say, we retained the services of a different midwife for Rye’s birth.

I suppose the point of this story is to note that beyond being warm, fed, and clothed, kids need ridiculously little. Fin was born into a construction zone, with few of the assumed conveniences of contemporary American life. His first nights were spent in between Penny and me, on a mattress in an otherwise bare room. We had no kitchen counters, no shower, and in many rooms, there was no drywall. But he was warm, and well fed, and we held him constantly. It was plenty.

Over the years, we have worked to maintain our boys’ modest expectations regarding material goods. This is not to say they don’t have stuff; they do. But they rarely get new stuff, and the sheer quantity of what they own pales in comparison to pretty much every other child I know. We have been vigilant, if not militant in compelling our parents to comply. They simply are not allowed to give them toys or other baubles. The rules are: homemade, books, or music. Otherwise, they can pretty much forget it. Regarding clothing, I literally cannot remember the last time our boys got anything that wasn’t handed down, made by Penny or a grandmother, or came from a thrift store. Actually, that’s not true: About two months ago, Penny bought them some socks at the annual Darn Tough factory sale. I think she paid $1.50 per pair.

Look, kids are expensive, there’s no question about it. Relative to most, our kids are cheap keepers. We grow most of our own food, we don’t spend much on stuff, and they generally don’t ask for things, ‘cause they know they ain’t gonna get it, anyway.

But of course that’s not the whole story, because certainly there are expenditures. Right now, between music lessons and Fin’s wilderness school, we’re shelling out a couple grand annually. Not only that, but by choosing to educate at home, in the absence of distractive technologies such as television and other digital entertainment, we allocate enormous quantities of time to the boys. If we were of the mind to equate time with money… well, then we’d probably have the priciest offspring in town. Thankfully, the lie that time is money is one we got wise to some time ago.

Look, without knowing the gritty particulars of someone’s financial situation, it’s hard to know how to advise them. And even then, it just seems so damn personal. Really, who am I to say?

To which I will add only one more thing: I don’t know anyone who wishes they hadn’t had kids because the little buggers are too expensive. Doesn’t mean these people don’t exist, only that I haven’t met them. And if I did, I sorta suspect we wouldn’t have much in common.

What, No World Peace??

February 25, 2013 § 4 Comments


Overheard this weekend:

Fin: “Rye, if you could wish for any three things in the world, what would they be?”

Rye (without hesitation): “A donkey, traps, and a cabin.”

Speleng Bea

February 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

Let’s say you’re wicked bored tomorrow night, or just have a charitable bone or two in your body. In either case, come on down to the Kellogg Hubbard Library in Montpeculiar for the inaugural Cabin Fever Spelling Bee. It’s a fund raiser for the library and me n’ a bunch of other VT authors will be in the hawt seets.





A Good One

February 21, 2013 § 11 Comments


This morning it was 5 degrees and blustery, with a noncommittal snow flurry swirling in the arctic air. It had snowed the day before, too, and what with the snow and the wind, the front hill of our quarter-mile driveway was host to some impressive drifts. I hadn’t plowed the first storm, since I’d yet to replace the lift chain that had broken a few days prior, leaving us with little choice but to scrape clean a mile’s worth of gravel road before pulling into Will’s barnyard. “Hey, Will,” I asked, “Would you be able to run us home?” Instead, he scrounged in his workshop for a random assortment of bolts and washers and chain and we cobbled together a temporary fix that would allow us to traverse the remaining four miles of road that separates our place and Will’s. This is one of the things I so appreciate about living in a rural community populated by resourceful folk: Things don’t stay broken for long.

Still and all, the fix was unlikely to hold up to the sort of thrashing a good plow session delivers, so I’d procured the hardware necessary to effect a more permanent repair. Which is how I came to be bent over the plow at 7 this morning, drilling and wrenching and pushing and cursing, at least some of which required the dexterity of bare hands. By the time I had everything up and running I was as cold as I’ve been in a good long while, and I ain’t talking the life-affirming sort of cold I spoke of a couple weeks back. No, I’m talking a cold so deep and settled I swore my bones hurt. With the plow fixed, and chores finished, I retreated to the house, where Penny had fried up a mess of bacon and a big ole pan of scrambled eggs, and toasted the two remaining sourdough bialys I’d made when we’d had company a couple nights prior. The boys love bialys, which, for reasons that thankfully elude me, they’ve taken to calling “toilet knuckles.”

After breakfast, the boys and I set out to plow, and almost immediately I commenced to dropping the front end of the truck into a ditch at the furtherest end of the driveway. We hiked back and I got the tractor going and puttered out to the truck, whereby I proceeded to extricate it with the log winch. I was warm now, and furthermore strangely pleased by this complication; I have always loved the honest challenge of a stuck vehicle, particularly when I have an arsenal of pulling implements at my disposal. With the truck freed, Rye and I finished plowing (Fin was off to his weekly wilderness skills school), then walked back to retrieve the tractor and there was a moment, with him seated on my lap and me piloting the big beast down the freshly plowed driveway and the sun almost breaking through the clouds that I thought it might be the most perfect morning of my winter. It made no sense and yet there it was. I’d been up since 5:30, gotten both fires going, made coffee, milked and done chores, fixed the plow, gotten stuck, gotten unstuck, scraped snow off the solar panels, and eaten breakfast. It was just a bit after 8 and in many ways, my day had not yet begun.

But already I knew it was gonna be a good one, that even if it somehow turned to shit I’d have the memory of that moment on the tractor with Rye, one of those immersive moments when I am somehow able to harmonize with all the disparate strings of my imperfect life and it feels as if everything is in tune. I love these moments, but am never able to predict or concoct them, and they seem to strike at the most unlikely times.

So I slowed the tractor down a bit to try and draw it out and Rye put a hand on the steering wheel and we rode home.






The World at Hand

February 19, 2013 § 5 Comments


It was warmer this morning than it has been for the past few mornings – the thermometer nudging a balmy 10 degrees above zero – and Rye was up and out before it was fully light. The boy has caught the “fever,” which is the preferred colloquialism for the affliction that strikes a certain subset of the population preparing to spend the next three or four weeks engaged in the blood letting of sugar maples. For the past month, he has been amassing a pile of slabwood scraps off the sawmill, and yesterday he arranged a small stone firepit, over which he intends to boil away the 39 or so parts of water it will take to make 1 part of syrup. Concerned that Fin might beat him to the more productive trees before he got a chance to have at them, Rye marked his territory with strands of yarn. It looked as if the trees wore necklaces around their trunks. The other day, while he and Penny were driving home from his banjo lesson, Penny mentioned that there were times she still wished to travel – the girl can’t quite rinse herself of the last few strands of wanderlust woven into her DNA – and Rye said sure, he’d be fine with that, so long as we were home for his two favorite times of year: Sugarin’ and haying. Attaboy.

I don’t really believe in having dreams for my children, if only because it seems unfair to burden them with the weight of whatever hopes and expectations I might harbor on their behalf. Oh sure, I wish for them to be healthy and happy, although to be perfectly honest, there are times I’m not sure even this is appropriate, if only because I sometimes wonder if a full appreciation of their lives and the world around them might neccesitate a broader range of experience than simple health and happiness (this is not a fully formed opinion on my part, and I reserve the right to live out my days being nothing less than a cheerleader for their unreserved physical vigor and excellent spirits).

But despite all this, despite trying – sometimes rather desperately – to escape the trap created by the sense that my emotional wellbeing is somehow dependent on any particular outcome relating to my children, I can’t help but divine a certain satisfaction from these moments. I look up, out the window above the kitchen sink, the stars still just visible in the brightening sky, and I see Rye tromping through the snow, laden with the implements of tapping, the remedy for his fever: A cordless drill, a hammer, a small bucketful of taps. Or I see Fin, bent over his trapper’s education manual, penciling in answers to the often-inane questions put forth (What clothing will you wear while trapping? We had a good howl over that one, let me tell you) his hatchet and belt knife on the table beside him, and I feel that unique sense of peace that comes from having witnessed your child immersed in something so deeply important to them that their world has folded in on itself.

It occurs to me that while we are socialized to the belief that our children’s lives should be constantly expanding into new horizons and opportunities, could it be that we are ignoring (or simply ignorant of) the value in having their world contract? In short, what of providing them the freedom to immerse themselves in the small experiences of the world at hand, rather than constantly distracting them with the possibilities of the world at large?

This, then, is the dream I can’t kick, and I freely admit it’s a selfish one: Our boys will not chase the infinite possibilities of the world at large, but instead will continue to find fulfillment in the world at hand.

Let Them Fail

February 14, 2013 § 12 Comments


This past weekend at the PASA conference, more than a couple folks asked me where I’d gone to school. I get this question a lot, and I love it, in part because I harbor an unflattering degree of antiestablishment pride in having defied the high school dropout stereotypes (well, most of them, anyway), and in part because it is a tremendously convenient jumping off point to a larger conversation about the current state and proper role of public education.

In truth, of course, I didn’t dropout of high school because I had some noble intent for my young life. Rather, I left school primarily because I was disinterested, and could not be compelled to become interested. Well, that, and the fact that school was having a negative impact on the quality and duration of my partying. I mean, really: Even a young man has only so much time and energy. Priorities, priorities!

Let me be clear: I will never know how my life might have unfolded had I stuck it out and followed the presumed path to college and beyond. It might have been great, fantastic, extraordinary. Or it might not have been. Of course I cannot know, and to even hazard a guess seems both futile and pointless. That’s the path I did not walk, and in not walking it, I did not blaze it, and therefore, it leads nowhere.

I do not think that formalized American educational opportunities are inherently bad in and of themselves, and I know darn well that the vast majority of the people working within these institutions have only the best of intentions. But despite this, my view of public education is jaundiced: I see it, in broad terms, as being part and parcel of a particular set of expectations and arrangements that, when taken as a whole, are not leading our society to a very promising place. It seems to me as if most educational institutions view it as their duty to prepare students for the world as it exists (and who can blame them? After all, this is what we demand), without considering whether or not that is really the world we all want to inhabit. I believe that so long as these institutions promulgate the mantra that our children must be groomed to compete and excel on a global stage, in an economy that reveres growth and defines success and security in terms of money and force, a world of true peace and equality will remain forever out of reach. In short, the feedback loops built into the status quo of our contemporary economy will not be overcome so long as we continue to educate our youth in a manner that upholds them.

In my own life, I view leaving high school as having been an enabling factor. Not so much for the doors it opened and the so-called “opportunities” it presented (although given the space, I would perhaps argue that it was beneficial even in these regards), but for having played a role in changing my view of what, quite simply, mattered. Not grades, not money, not winning, but things that are less tangible, that less readily lend themselves to being quantified and therefore, cannot be added or subtracted from GDP or other economic metrics. Connection. Contentment. Feeling.

I realize that I’m probably as guilty of stereotyping the institutionalized educational experience as many are of stereotyping the high school dropout as a so-called “failure,” so I will stop. I will even agree that when measured against the contemporary American definition of success, I am a failure. But the truth is, when I look at what our culture’s definition of success is doing to the world, I couldn’t be happier than to be failing. And frankly, I can’t want anything more than for my kids to fail, too.




Fear Sells, But Who’s Buying?

February 11, 2013 § 16 Comments


I flew home from the PASA conference late Saturday night, having been bumped to first class after my regular seat had somehow been assigned to someone else. It was a short flight, and I was tired enough that I wasn’t inclined to accept the attendant’s repeated offers for free drinks and premium snacks, but still I found some pleasure in the absurdity of the situation. There I sat amidst the beautiful people of first class, shod in my “good clothes”: The shirt procured at a thrift store for a quarter, the pants hand-me-downs from a dear, departed friend, so loose around the waist that only my belt (a repurposed cow collar) stood between myself and sheer embarrassment (this simple fact had made security particularly challenging; when the TSA officer ordered me to take my hand off the waist band of my pants before passing through the human microwave, I had to explain that what the ramifications would be and was furthermore forced to admit that no, I wasn’t wearing underwear. He grunted and waved me through), the shoes another thrift store find, and finally, my socks, a product of the annual Darn Tough factory seconds sock sale for a buck-fifty. All-in-all, a five or six dollar wardrobe.

The conference was fantastic. I had the enormous honor and privilege of sharing keynote duties with Charles Eisenstein. If you’re not familiar with his work, I urge you to get thee to your local book seller and demand a copy of his most recent book, Sacred Economics. It will rock your world as surely and profoundly as a digitally remastered copy of AC/DC’s Back in Black turned up to 11. Even better were the conversations that blossomed practically everywhere I went. Although I am often invited to these sort of events to share my perspective, my barely-kept secret is that I almost always return home with so much more knowledge and experience than I arrived with. So, to any conference-goers who might be reading this, thank you.

In my hotel room, on the morning of my keynote, I awoke early. It was partly the result of the inevitable nervous energy that accompanies speaking in front of a couple thousand people, and partly the result of habit. No matter how certain I am that I will sleep in on the rare morning when my chore routine is disrupted, it never happens. So there I lay at 4:30 in the A of M, worrying that my belt would fail in front of the entire conference population, and unable to retreat into slumber. In my weakness, and seeking distraction, I reached for the remote and tuned into CNN, which was embroiled in round-the-clock coverage of Mega-Hyper-Storm Nemo (I hereby proclaim today Windy Monday Wendy), punctuated by repeated clips of the California cop-killer who, it was being said, had transformed southern California into an abyss of fear and rage.

I watched for an hour, transfixed. As you may know, we do not have a television, and the rich saturation of visual and aural stimulation, coupled with the endless mantra of disaster and death, was riveting. Or at least in was in these pre-dawn, hotel-room, keynote-jitters hours.

Finally, I snapped myself out of my stupor and shuffled to the bathroom to rinse myself of both sleep and, I hoped, the toxicity I’d absorbed over the previous 60 minutes. And as I stood there under the hot stream of water, I couldn’t help but think how different my life might be for only that one, simple element. I couldn’t help but think how profoundly I’d been impacted by a mere hour of contemporary television news media. One hour. And I couldn’t help think about how different the world might be if we all just said “no,” if we all resolved to save our attention and emotional space for the people and world at our fingertips, rather than allow them to be hijacked by stories of disaster and tragedy over which we can have no influence.

Yeah, I know: Fear sells. I get it.

So I guess the question I have is this: What if we just stopped buying?







February 6, 2013 § 8 Comments


I have been working on a story about kids and guns; more specifically, about my kids and guns and all the strange emotional terrain such a combination mines, particularly for two parents who did not grow up with firearms. It is amazing how quickly guns have inserted themselves into our lives. We had a .22 for years, for livestock (or should that be “deadstock”?), but it was a lonely thing, tucked into a dark corner and fired only a couple of times per year. Now, we own a .22, a .22 mag, a .410 shotgun, a .308 rifle, and two .20 gauge shotguns (why so many? Some were gifted to us, the other represent a fairly standard trajectory in firing power, from beer can plinkers, to true hunting weapons), and it’s astounding how frequently I stumble upon evidence of their use. The boys like to hang onto their spent shells, and so inevitably the damn things end up in the unlikeliest places, like the washing machine, or in the case of the .22, between the cracks in the living room floor. Even now, I can look over my shoulder and see the guns lined up in a neat row. Like soldiers, I guess. I used to find them menacing, but not anymore.

I’d be lying if I said that Sandy Hook didn’t cause some misgivings regarding the sudden influx of guns into our home. Yeah, I know, guns don’t kill people, people do. It’s a comforting enough platitude, and maybe it’s even true on some level, but still, it’s also true that people don’t just walk into schools with their bare fists and punch 26 people to death. At least, not in my experience. So maybe it’s more accurate to say “guns don’t kill people, people with guns kills people,” but of course that’s not right either, because the fact is, the vast majority of people with guns don’t kill people. You can see why it’s such an emotional topic.

Like everyone I know, I was profoundly affected by Sandy Hook. It was a tragedy that revealed such enormous sadness, and I wonder if some of the mourning was and is not only for those who died, but also for a society that has devolved to a place where such a thing can happen in the first place. Sandy Hook was a tragedy that does not fit our view of ourselves and that exposes something we’d rather not have to face. There are so many other ways in which people’s lives are cut short in this nation – in car accidents alone, almost 100 per day – and we mourn these people, of course, but it’s simply not the same, in part because when you die in a car crash, whether you’re an adult or a child, you die in accordance with our cultural acceptance of the risk automotive travel entails. We have not accepted that merely by sending our children to school, we are exposing them to risk of death by gunfire.

In the days and weeks after Sandy Hook, it felt to me as if our country stood on the brink of something amazing. It felt as if we had hung our toes of the edge of a cliff and looked down, and below us, we could see what we could be, if only we might cling to that sense of what mattered, what truly, deeply mattered, and let ourselves fall into it. And it would be that easy, I think, if only we could stop resisting. But in a way, this does not fit our view of ourselves, either.

Then came the other cliff, the fiscal cliff. Then came the NRA, calling for armed guards in all schools. Then came Christmas and the New Year. Then we pulled our toes back. Maybe it felt too risky, or maybe we just forgot. Maybe all the information we absorbed – about the fiscal cliff, about Syria, about taxes, about this and about that – distracted us and somehow diluted the poignancy of the moment.

Even as I write these words, Penny and the boys are heading outside for target practice. For now, I feel ok about my children’s relationship to guns. I believe it is possible for them to both have a relationship to guns, and to that view I spoke of, of what the world could be if we could just hang on. Not to grief, and definitely not to anger. But to that sense of what truly matters. Of what connects. 

I suppose if I could articulate any one hope for my children, it would be that they will be of the generation that doesn’t just tiptoe up to that cliff and glance briefly into a vision of what their world can be, before retreating. Nah, I want them to be of the generation that tiptoes up to that cliff, looks down, and jumps.


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