April 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
Shannon wrote a great post about contemporary cultural assumptions surrounding education. And yeah, I’d say that even if she hadn’t linked to my site!
April 30, 2013 § 10 Comments
Saturday was day one of youth turkey hunting weekend; precisely a week prior, the boys had passed their hunter safety course with perfect scores, and were now in possession of freshly minted hunting licenses, a couple boxes of turkey shot, and a newly constructed blind at the corner of a neighboring hayfield. The alarm was set for 4:15, and arrangements were made with an experienced hunting friend to accompany them into the half light of the emerging day, full of hope that come evening, the smell of roast turkey would fill every nook and cranny of our humble home.
Alas, it was not to be. The boys arrived home around 10, looking somewhat bedraggled (they’d had a sleepover two evenings prior, with all the late night rambunctiousness such a thing implies), but no less enthusiastic. I, for one, was rather amazed. Fin in particular lacks patience, a trait he and I share in full. To imagine him sitting in a blind for nearly five hours was an awesome, almost incomprehensible thing. To be honest, I’m not sure he would have managed it were Penny and I his chaperone.
I have written briefly of the value we place in mentors, and how grateful we are for those which have stumbled into our lives at precisely the times we needed them most. The question I get most often when I tell people that Fin and Rye are educated at home, to the point that I’m pretty well fed up with it, is “don’t you worry about socialization?” In truth, it’s usually framed a bit more politely, something like “are there other homeschool children in your community,” or “do they have other kids to play with,” but as is so often the case, there’s a question behind the question, and in this case, the real question is “Aren’t you worried your boys are going to turn into anti-social deviants?”
Actually, “fed up” doesn’t do justice to my feelings regarding this line of inquiry; “pissed off” is more like it. That’s because it’s rooted in an entirely flawed premise, which is that a structured educational institution, along with the social landscape it embodies, is the standard by which a child’s socialization should be measured. As I have also mentioned briefly, my snarky – but no less honest for being snarky – reply is that of course we’re worried: That’s why we keep them at home.
But of course it’s not so simple as all this, and the simple truth is that at times we do feel a degree of social isolation. There are many reasons for this, including the reality of a sparsely populated landscape, mismatched personalities, transience (at the moment, two of the boys’ best friends are packing for a move to the Pacific NW), and the fact that Fin’s and Rye’s most fervent interests are not widely shared among the majority of their peers. Simply put, there ain’t many 8 and 11 year olds who spend their days scouting trap lines, cleaning shotguns, and milking goats. That’s not all our kids do, of course, but the occasionally uncomfortable truth is that in 21st century America, not many children are terribly interested in the things that have captured my boys’ imaginations. Likewise, Fin and Rye are utterly bewildered by some of their friends’ interests in video games and other forms of modern digital media, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take a degree of pleasure in their view that such things are an utter waste of time that could be better spent scouring the woods for turkey roosts or the first morel mushrooms of the season.
There’s another aspect to all this, which that school encourages age-specific socialization. One of the things I most appreciate about our decision to educate the boys at home is the simple fact that they have frequent interaction with friends and neighbors from all stages of life. Often, I will hear from Melvin, our 65-year-old dairy farming neighbor, about how he came across Fin and Rye along the edge of one of his hayfields or down by his pond. These are small moments, of course – a simply crossing of paths, an exchange of pleasantries, an explanation of the task at hand – but I strongly believe that they matter, that they contribute to my sons’ sense of the world and their place in it.
So it is with the mentors that have come into their lives, all of whom have specific skills and experience to share. And this is for the good, in no small part due my deficit of these specific skills and experience. But there’s something else going on, something for which I’m increasingly grateful, and it is the relationships my boys have developed with their mentors. It’s probably not right to call them friendships (or maybe it is), nor am I suggesting that these relationships can replace social interaction with children their own age. But I have little doubt that Fin and Rye are enriched by these connections.
True, these relationships are not mutually exclusive to a more conventional education. My boys could attend school AND have these people in their lives. But the other truth is that, contrary to their day-in, day-out rambunctiousness, my children have only so much time and energy. They can only experience and assimilate so much.
And for better or worse, this is what we have chosen.
April 25, 2013 § 3 Comments
Well, crikey. I have to admit, I’m a bit touched by the outpouring of support after yesterday’s post. This included a number of personal emails, as well as the incredibly thoughtful comments left for all to see. Thank you all.
I thought it might be worth clarifying a few things. First, I don’t know that I even want 30,000 blog hits per day. I can’t even imagine the ramifications of such a thing, and am not at all certain I have room in my life for those ramifications, whatever they might be. (Of course, all this presumes there are 30k people in this world that would even be interested in what I have to say. Which frankly seems like a bit of a stretch, given that I can hardly get my family to pay attention).
The flip side of this, of course, is the simple fact that writing is how I make my living, and I very much agree with Jon that the old model of writing a book every three or four years is rapidly disappearing. As Doug W points out, my personal economy is about much more than writing, but there’s no question that we are highly dependent on the income I glean from the written word. It seems clear to me that being a so-called “professional writer” increasingly requires that one participate in a number of mediums and conversations, and that these mediums and conversations are increasingly bound by the screen. Add to this the dawning recognition that I have actually come to enjoy writing in this space. I mean, really: What’s up with that?
Likewise, I don’t want to avoid particular mediums simply out of a curmudgeonly dogma that they are somehow distasteful. I am a great believer in the idea that little in this world is inherently good or bad; that generally it is our anthropogenic set of emotions and assumptions that imbue these qualities.
Right now, I am thinking hard about balance. About how much time and effort I am willing to devote to the online medium, and even about how much writing should inform decisions about how I expend my limited energies. I suppose I want to have my cake and eat it too: I want to be able to make just enough money to support the small life I lead, and I want for that option to always be there for me.
The truth is, of course, that it might not be quite so simple.
April 24, 2013 § 25 Comments
I must confess that I’m not a big blog reader, but one I check with some frequency (although not nearly enough frequency to keep up with his rapid-fire posts – how the heck does he manage that?) is Jon Katz’s. I’ve never read a single one of Jon’s books, but I sure do appreciate his online work. His writes with tremendous eloquence about issues that resonate with me, and I admire his honesty.
One of the subjects Jon tackles regularly is the practice of writing (another reason I like his blog). A couple weeks back, he wrote this post, about the evolution of his career and the business of writing in general. His intent for the piece, I think, is to point out – rightly, I believe – that the business is changing, not dying. That writing will continue and so too will writing as a career. It just won’t look exactly like it has in years and decades past.
Jon had me feeling pretty darn good about my future as a writer right up until he got to the fifth paragraph, which is where he reveals rather crushing details regarding his online reach. 30,000 blog hits a day!?! 10,000 + followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on!?! Crikey. If I get 500 hits a day on this humble little site, a couple hundred of which are probably my mother, I think I’m doing pretty good. I’m absent from Facebook, and although I tried Twitter for about a month, I found it abhorrent.
Jon’s post got me thinking again about Penny’s views regarding online connectivity, and to what extent I should embrace these mediums. If it’s not abundantly clear by now, I am somewhat conflicted in this regard. I have gently, almost reluctantly, embraced this space, and I have come to understand that it has great value to me. Not because it’s selling me a bunch of books, or somehow securing my spot in the uncertain future of authorship, but because it has come to serve as something of a vetting process for ideas that may (or more likely may not) deserve further development. And because it has introduced a degree of discipline to my work that has long been lacking. But then friggin’ Katz comes along, talking about his 30k daily hits and his Facebook “likes” or whatever you call them, and how even he can’t say for sure if he will survive as a writer, and I think… well, I think “shit.”
I try to not dwell on either the past or the future. The former is known and unchangeable; the latter is unknown and unknowable. But just because it is unknown does not mean it cannot be influenced, and I do wonder to what extent I should be working to influence my future success as a writer. Or, if not success, than at least survival. Should I be on Facebook, liking and friending and so on? Should I go back to Twitter, and try to make sense of all the stilted conversations happening there? Should I be posting on this site every day, even if I really have nothing to say? And even if I did all of these things, would it make a difference?
The truth is, much as Jon seems fairly confident that he will find his way as a writer and human being, I feel the same, and I suspect my path will and should be as unique to me, as his is to him. And while I consider it one of my great privileges that I am able to support my family with my writing, I consider it an even greater privilege that I do not feel as if I am defined by this career choice. I like it. At times, I might love it. But as I have mentioned before, it is not the primary source point of my contentment. It is not impossible for me to imagine something different, although I suspect that the older I get, the more challenging such a transition might be.
In recent years, I have become keenly aware of serendipity’s role in my life, and I have become more comfortable placing a certain amount of trust in this role. I’m becoming aware of something else, too: That serendipity only works when you are honest with yourself and others. I think that’s why Jon’s path works so well for him. It is rooted in his particular truth. It is a truth that happens to include 10k blog hits a day, a NY Times bestseller or two, and an embrace of social media platforms that make me a little uncomfortable.
So, yeah, I’ll admit that Jon’s post made me feel a little uneasy. Can I really survive as a writer the way I’m doing it? But the more I think about it, the more I realize that perhaps I don’t need to survive as a writer. I just need to survive as a person.
April 22, 2013 § 10 Comments
On Friday, I drove 8 hours in a southwesterly direction, on my way to a talk in PA. Of course, this was the day of out-sized drama in Boston, and while I would like to claim that I was not captivated by the unfolding narrative, that would be a lie. So I plowed down I95 in our old Subaru, alternating between NPR’s ceaseless coverage of the lockdown and whatever classic rock station offered the best reception and the fewest Peter Frampton ballads. Not that there’s anything wrong with Frampton, of course. But a guy can take only so much.
I don’t leave northern Vermont terribly often, and every time I do, I’m struck by just how far I’ve drifted from the mainstream American experience. Or, at least, the mainstream American experience as exemplified by Interstate travel through ceaseless sprawling miles of industry and commerce. A few random observations: How the hell do folks afford the vehicles they drive? Everywhere I went, the cars shiny and new, 30 and 40 thousand-dollar contraptions coming up fast to fill my rear view mirror with the menacing grilles and muscular sheet metal that have become the status quo over the past decade. Not every single one, of course, but the sheer volume of large and loutish automobiles seemed to increase in disproportion to the sort of conditions in which one might actually use one of these vehicles to its advertised potential.
Along the Jersey Turnpike, at one of those dispiriting Interstate Service Centers (Gas! Diesel! Cinnibon!) I stopped for a coffee and a pee break, tucking our mud-splattered Subie between the gleaming flanks of twin SUVs. Yukons, I think they were, or perhaps Envoys. For a moment, I fretted over the fact that our door locking mechanism has long since given up the ghost, and then cast my glance around the car: What, really, could I not do without? The rusty pair of vice grips on the passenger floor? The half-quart of motor oil? Anyone who might brave the mud and manure-stained innards of our rig to lift these items would surely need them at least as much – if not more – than I. Feeling thus liberated, I was even so bold as to leave the keys hanging from the ignition before slipping into the surreal, narcoticizing world of Turnpike commerce.
There was something about the confluence of factors during my drive that made me realize just how naive I am. Along the Turnpike, I flew past the Linden Cogeneration Plant, dozens of acres or more of belching smokestack and outlandishly complicated and tubular infrastructure, a sci-fi novel come to life. Across the interstate (how many lanes in total? Six? Eight?) from the plant, a shipping port, with row upon row of cranes and stackable steel cargo trailers, a display of ingenuity, industry, and the rigid lines of manufactured exactitude to rival anything I’ve seen in a good long time. And the whole while, one terrorism expert after another droning through the radio, as the good people of Boston and the surrounding communities sheltered in place. Shelter in place. It has an almost cozy ring to it.
I often wonder how my world view might shift if only for a single factor. For instance, what if that were my daily commute? Not the endless soundtrack to the tragic goings on in Boston, of course, but everything else: The fancy, flashing, angry cars, the over lit, hollow prosperity of interstate service centers, the gleaming, fantastical infrastructure of power generation and intercontinental commerce. These things are novelties to me, so strange as to appear almost otherworldly, but of course to millions of my fellow countrymen and women, they offer the quotidian sights, sounds, and smells of daily life. Of course, I cannot say with certainty how such experiences might influence my emotional state, but it’s hard to imagine that my emotions and perceptions would not begin to embody the cold, human-over-nature ambience of the surrounding landscape.
So, yes, I see now that perhaps I am naive to think that we, as a species, might overcome the tragic force of our own ingenuity and ambition, when so many of us are immersed in lives offer little else but evidence of these things. I see that, and I think to myself, ah, but what is the alternative to my naiveté? Hopelessness? Acquiescence? Cynicism?
And then I think, you know what? I’ll take naive.
April 18, 2013 § 11 Comments
The past few days have been swirling wind of activity: Two pigs dispatched, copious amounts of sausage made, innumerable trees and other plant species stuck into the just-thawed soil, friends visited and visiting, two piglets procured, and a small land clearing project commenced. We are in the season of seemingly inexhaustible energy, and since we know it can last only so long we intend to milk it for all it is worth. There is perhaps nothing better than that feeling, of waking up to excitement over the day’s list of tasks, of drifting off each night with a half-peck of dirt under the fingernails and your neck itchy with sunburn.
It is my great fortune to pass the majority of my days in the company of my family. Every morning we do chores together, and eat breakfast together. Every noon we gather for lunch. In the late afternoon, chores again and then dinner. On most days, there is at least one farm or home-related project that involves the four of us. It would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that we always operate as a cohesive team, because of course we suffer no shortage of uncooperative and downright obstinate behavior (and that’s just on my part).
Don’t get me wrong: There are days when we move through the world in four separate orbits, tending to our various individual tasks and responsibilities, and coming together only briefly, for a quick meal or to confer on something or another. Likewise, there are times when I want nothing more than a little peace and quiet, to be left the hell alone to do my thing, free of the clamor and commotion inherent to young boys. Or our young boys, at least. But the truth is, these days are the exception, rather than the norm.
I am often struck by the extent to which twenty-first century American life fragments families. Oh, sure, there is plentiful rhetoric about “family values” (which seems to have become some sort of code for a particular set of values relating to a particular religion), and valuing our children, and so on. But like so many of the things America claims to be and to stand for, these things have been reduced to platitudes, because of course the truth is most families simply can’t survive in modern America without fragmenting themselves. Both parents up early and off to work, the children up early and off to school so they can learn how to navigate the world as the miniature adults they are expected to be, and then after school extracurricular activities to ensure they don’t have a moment of time to just be. Or worse yet, the screen as babysitter and entertainer, with the average school aged child now spending a full 53 hours each week gazing into a pixelated faux reality that bludgeons and overwhelms their senses to the extent that the real reality of the natural world beyond the screen no longer has the ability to captivate. Its wonder and beauty lost to the manufactured hyper surrealism of fantasy.
In his book Dumbing Us Down (which you should read, if you haven’t), John Taylor Gatto writes “Two institutions at present control our children’s lives: television and schooling, in that order. Both of these reduce the real world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, nonstop abstraction. In centuries past, the time of childhood and adolescence would have been occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach you what you really wanted to learn.” Gatto wrote these words at least a quarter century ago, and the control he speaks of has only become more pervasive since.
I know that we are incredibly privileged to be able to make the choices we do regarding how we educate our boys and how much time we are able to spend together as a family. On the other hand, I see the choices other families make – mostly regarding money and debt and simply believing the prevailing cultural narrative of our time, which is that it is perfectly normal for families to exist primarily in separation from one another, rarely working toward a common goal, or toward the completion of a project that demands collaboration and cooperative problem solving and simple empathy for one another.
Sometimes I think there is an assumption that the way things are – and here I’m speaking of this dominant cultural narrative that tells us so much about what we should want and do – is the way things should be. Sometimes I think we don’t stop to consider that just because something has been, doesn’t mean it should be. It doesn’t mean we have to.
April 12, 2013 § 5 Comments
This is our place. Or most of it, anyway. Despite what I wrote a couple of weeks back, I actually kind of like it. It is simple and somewhat rustic, and at times entirely chaotic and messy. But we know every nook and cranny (have assembled most of those nooks and crannies ourselves), and I have wonderfully specific memories from certain events during construction: The time I fell down the open stairwell, the work party to hoist 7″x9″x20-foot green hemlock beams in place, the day a concrete truck got so stuck we had to bring in two 100+ horsepower tractors to extricate it. It took hours and no one would charge us a nickel for their time and equipment. I can point to the exact spot in the living room where each boy was born, and where they took their first steps.
As I mentioned in that previous post, there are things we would do different, if we had the chance to do them again. But when I consider everything this place holds for me, in ways physical, emotional, and even spiritual, and when I look at the photo above and realize that each and every one of the structures on our land are imbued with specific memories, most often involving Penny and the boys and/or good friends… well, I suppose in that regard, I wouldn’t change a darn thing.
My plan is to grow old and die here, and although none of us can rightly know how our lives or deaths will unfold, I am pleased to report that so far I’m right on track to meet this goal.