Burden

April 2, 2013 § 17 Comments

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Yesterday I caught wind of a recent NY Times article about the recent surge in diagnosis and treatment of ADHD in America’s school age children. According to the article, there as been a 53% rise in cases of ADHD in the 4 – 17-year-old age group over just the past decade.

Now, it just so happens that for another project, I’d recently done a little research into the market for ADHD drugs, most of which are prescribed to children. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that psychotropic behavioral modification drugs are a consistent profit-maker for the pharmaceutical industry, adding up to $7.42 billion in 2010, an 83% increase in just four years. And in 2011 alone, Novartis reported a 19% increase in sales of Ritalin. It’s probably worth noting that these drug carry the potential for the following side effects: Difficulty breathing, double vision, depression, paranoid delusions, and severe aggression. Because they alter the neural pathways in the brain, they are also habit-forming.

I am certain that if my children were “tested,” at least one of them would receive a diagnosis of ADHD (I’m also pretty certain that if I were tested, I’d be diagnosed as such), and there is no question that maintaining focus and managing a seemingly bottomless well of exuberance are two of our biggest challenges around here. But here’s the thing: Because of how we’ve structured our lives, we can meet these challenges, albeit not always with the utmost grace. Furthermore, because we are able to meet these challenges, we are able to view these qualities as being not necessarily undesirable, but actually beneficial. I love my children’s boisterous exuberance and their unrelenting passion, even as it flits from one project to another and I view it as one the greatest privileges in my life that I am able to accommodate it and be present to watch it unfold on a hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis. Frankly, it saddens me to consider how few parents are able to have this opportunity in 21st century America.

Furthermore, what good can possibly come of labeling a child’s natural behavior as a “disorder” that must be corrected? Damn straight our boys are fountains of often-frantic energy and near-constant excitement. I can see how these qualities might not work so well to an institutionalized learning environment, and I am again grateful that we do not have to demand that anyone in our family modify their behavior via the ingestion of habit-forming pharmaceutical drugs, just so they can conform to the behavioral expectations set by the contemporary educational and medical systems. The truth is, I do not want these systems to tell me who my children are. I want my children to tell me who my children are.

To finish, I have two questions: Is the increase in sales of ADHD drugs the result of an increase in diagnoses? Or is it possible that it’s actually the other way around?

And: What message does it send to our children (nearly 7 million of them, according to the article) first that their behavior must be modified, and second that the best way to modify it is to alter their brain chemistry with drugs?

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinkin’ that’s a pretty heavy burden for them to shoulder.

 

 

Ticking Away

March 29, 2013 § 10 Comments

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Awhile back, Doug W left this comment on the SAVED page. I’d meant to turn off comments for that page, which, after taking his down, I did. But he raises such fantastic questions, ones that permeate almost every aspect of my life (and, I’m guessing, at least a few of yours’), that I feel compelled to devote an entire post to his comment.

The unspoken other topic here and in all the recent posts about money is the matter of time. The two have been linked ie either you have the time or the money in a given situation. But what about time in and of itself? How do we experience it? Is really scarce. Is it linear or really cyclical? Is it possible to live in the eternal present in the modern world? One of the most common experiences around a homestead is to become lost in a specific task, to be totally present, and immersed, activities like fencing or cutting wood without any sense of the passing of time.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this subject, because it’s just so huge and important. As seems to be my wont, I suppose I’ll start with a personal anecdote.

It was 1998 when we first moved onto our property and began immersing ourselves in the many land-based tasks that now comprise the majority of our waking hours. I remember feeling lots of things during this period, but most pertinent to the issues of time and money is that I recall being amazed that anyone (and in this case, by “anyone,” I mean Penny) would so willingly work so damn hard to raise, say, a crop of tomatoes that could be purchased at a grocery store for a price that, if applied to the literal fruits of her labor, meant she was pulling down a coupla bucks an hour. At best. (It is probably worth noting that at this point in my life, I was far more interested in riding my bike and skiing than sticking a shovel in the ground, which seemed to me like a whole lot of bother).

I suppose what I’m saying is that I was still a believer in the adage that “time is money”; as such, I could not imagine exchanging my time for a measure of recompense that, when measured strictly in dollars, could not compete with the commodity market.

It is amazing to me now to consider how many lies and misconceptions reside in that one sentence. For instance, the notion that time is money. There are innumerable ways to dispel this idea, but I suspect the most poignant would be to ask someone with a terminal illness how they feel about it. If you think their thoughts on the subject don’t apply to you, bullshit.  All our lives are finite. Some are just more finite than others. I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating: Our societal belief that time and money should be conflated is extraordinarily convenient for a commodity market capable of producing (usually crappy) products at a price that makes it compelling to consume, rather than produce.

There is another flaw to this line of reasoning, and it is this: That the labor we invest in producing for ourselves does not have its own value. In other words, that we should consider it a burden, rather than a blessing. The truth is (and this is not unusual), Penny was way ahead of me with those tomatoes. She understood that the hours spent amending and seeding and watering and picking and processing should not be detracted from the final tally, but added to it. In her view, it was a blessing to have the privilege of entering into that relationship with those tomatoes and this relationship had a value that could not be expressed in monetary terms.

The older I get and the more of these relationships I enter into myself, the more I find myself able to, as Doug W suggests, fully inhabit the moments of my life in a manner that entirely alters my relationship to time itself. It’s not that it slows down or speeds up; it’s just that it feels like it’s mine. There’s actually a term for this: Temporal autonomy, which can roughly be defined as the capacity to spend your time in the manner that is most satisfying to you.

If there is any single motivation for how we live our lives, that’s it right there. We want to spend our time (which is to say, our lives) in the manner that’s most satisfying to us. It just so happens that what satisfies us is to be on the land, to have relationships with our animals and our trees and our kids and the ground beneath our feet. Almost every decision we make around issues of money – should I write this article or not? Should I take this speaking gig or not? – are made only after we’ve determined whether or not it will enable us to deepen these relationships. Of course, that’s a over-simplistic way to put it, but it’ll work for now.

Befitting such a long post, I will leave you with a relatively long excerpt from SAVED. And that’s it for today. Because, you know, I’ve gotta get back to work and make some dough.

…the inescapable and somewhat unsettling conclusion remained: Erik’s relationship to time was different from mine, and I say “unsettling” because I was fairly certain his relationship was less dysfunctional. I’d first noticed this more than 6 months before, during that November day I stopped by his house to find him contentedly cutting boards with a dull handsaw. During our mushroom hunt, I’d twice noted it, first when our search continued past the span of time that seemed (to me, at least) reasonable and again in response to my query about the hike from the cabin. There was something in the unhurried nature of Erik’s day-to-day existence that made it feel as if he owned his time to an extent that most of us have forsaken.

In his book Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, Robert Goodin points out that time is both inherently egalitarian (everyone has access to the exact same 24 hours per day) and inherently scarce (no one has access to more than 24 hours per day). Goodin talks about “temporal autonomy,” which is the ability to make choices regarding how one’s time is passed. Given the egalitarian nature of time, not to mention its scarcity, the capacity to choose how we spend our time could be viewed as the ultimate expression of wealth, and it struck me that Erik’s unhurried, almost languid temperament suggested a particular confidence that could only evolve from an abundance of temporal autonomy. Or, put more simply, from the certainty that he could damn well do what he pleased, when he pleased.

For a moment I probed my memory, but I could not recall a single instance when I’d heard Erik worry or even wonder about the time. And I thought how interesting it was that watches have become such a symbol of status in our culture that people are willing to spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars on a little clock to ride on their wrist. Perhaps it was merely the jeweled aspect, the diamond-studded bezels and gold-striped bands, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was also something in the auspicious display of the timekeeping mechanism itself, as if reminding the world that the bearer’s time is so very valuable as to demand such royal carriage. And then an irony struck me: If one’s time is so damn valuable, why in the name of Rolex would anyone allow a clock to rule it? Viewed in this light, being beholden to a clock could be seen not as you owning your time, but as your time owning you.

It occurred to me that unlike most of us, Erik does not compartmentalize his time; he does not seem to differentiate between the hours spent in pursuit of a paycheck and the hours spent in pursuit of either mushrooms, a finished cabin, or a pair of dumpster’d sneakers. He seemed to understand more clearly than anyone I’d met that there is only one thing human beings truly own, one thing that cannot be claimed by others: time. Furthermore, he seemed to respect the rather uncomfortable truth that none of us can rightly claim to know how much we own. As such, he seemed determined not to convert his unknown quantity of time—in truth, his life, for how we spend our hours and days is, of course, how we spend our lives—into a commodity, to be sold to the highest bidder.

At first, I struggled to square this with the languor he applied to so many of his tasks. For who would spend hours cutting boards with a rusty handsaw but someone who felt as if time were very much on their side? If Erik were really so cognizant of the true value attached to the ticking clock of his life, would it not behoove him to at least get a freakin’ Skil saw? But the more I observed him in action, the more convinced I became that I had it exactly backward. Indeed, it occurred to me that Erik had an absolute respect for time, to the point that he was able to exist inside any particular moment with tangible contentment. He understood that the value wasn’t to be extracted by rushing to get to the next project, but rather by truly inhabiting each and every moment he was fortunate enough to experience.

Ridiculous

March 12, 2013 § 9 Comments

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This past weekend featured the first truly springlike days of the year, and as much as I’m fond of portraying myself as a rugged contrarian stoic who pays little heed to the capricious vagaries of a Vermont winter, the truth is I get as excited about spring as anyone.

On Saturday morning, whilst waiting for sap to accumulate in the buckets we’d hung, and with the boys out scouting the woods for some innocent fur-bearing species or another, Penny and I split wood together (this is what passes for a date around these parts) and damned if I weren’t more than a few rounds into it before I was down to a tee shirt and feeling the first salted beads of sweat forming on my brow. Ah. We split for a bit more than an hour, then spent some time futzing with our cobbled together sugaring apparatus, and then, unable to resist, strolled down to the most prolific of our taps to assess the situation. Of course, there wasn’t nearly enough to be worth gathering, but there was plenty to be worth tipping a bucket or three to our mouths for a sample.

The way we sugar is frankly absurd. Our 60 or so taps (“just enough to be annoying,” is how one north country farmer described it to me) are spread across a broad sweep of fence line maples that extends for more than a quarter-mile down along our southern boundary. We transport sap in five-gallon buckets, either pulling them in a sled, or simply lugging them over the rotten snow, post-holing with each step, our shoulders slowly being extracted from their sockets until finally we capitulate and stop for a rest. It’s borderline ridiculous, or maybe not even borderline, given that our friends Jimmy and Sara make some damn fine syrup just up the road, which they sell at a fantastically reasonable price.

I have to admit that late on Saturday afternoon, after my second trip from the far reaches of our sugaring territory, with my arms screaming hellfire and my chin sticky from sap and sweat, and the dawning recognition that we’d so far collected enough for a single gallon of syrup at best, and still there was the straining and boiling and bottling and crikey, how many hours would we have into that single gallon, anyway? Three? Four? Yeah, I have to admit that at that precise moment, I was about ready to throw in the friggin’ towel on the whole damnable operation.

And at that precise moment, as I was standing in our yard, hoping my biceps would someday stop hating me, Rye emerged from the woods. He’d found a handful of errant sugar maples deep in our woodlot, and in his uniquely industrious way, had quietly tapped them. Both boys had assembled little fireplace rigs, and were excited to do some sugarin’ of their own.

So here I am in the yard with forty or so gallons of hard-earned sap arrayed around me in five-gallon buckets, and I’m about ready to collapse into a puddle of sorry-ass self-pity, and Rye’s carrying two sloshing buckets, which he’s hauled over hill and freakin’ dale. Speaking strictly in terms of weight and strength proportion, never mind terrain and distance (his haul exceeded mine in both regards), my eight-year-old had just out worked me by a country mile.

And the little bugger’s grinning to beat the band, holding onto his precious sap for dear life. “Look, Papa, look,” he said. “Do you think I have enough to boil?”

Suddenly, my arms didn’t hurt so much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Better Deal

March 4, 2013 § 12 Comments

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It’s been relentlessly, almost oppressively gray and cool, like a head cold you just can’t shake. I don’t mind so much, really, because it’s March now, and everyone knows that March is practically summer. Which is a ridiculous statement, of course (and meant to be), but the point is that March 1 is when everything shifts, when the orientation of rural, land-based living turns from winter to spring and, because spring inevitably leads to summer, to summer. So: March is practically summer. Maybe it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.

In truth, I spent much of the weekend looking even a bit further ahead, which is to say, I spent much of the weekend in the woods with the tractor and winch and saw, extracting a sizable downpayment on next winter’s firewood pile.

Let me tell you how much I love doing firewood: A whole mutherfreakin’ lot, and I love every aspect of it, from felling the trees, to skidding them out of the woods, to bucking them up, to splitting and stacking and finally, to loading them, piece-by-piece, into the wood stove for their final immolation. And then, to stand before the stove as the cool iron warms and expands, each piece ticking into place and the first sweet waves of heat radiating outward…. ahh. You can actually smell the stove metal getting hot.

It is interesting to me to consider how the many aspects of our day-to-day existence that most Americans would consider at the very least inconvenient, if not downright insane, have become imbued with a particular reverence. They are part tradition, part ritual, and in some sense, I suppose, part sacrifice. About seven years ago, we ripped the gas range out of our kitchen and replaced it with a wood burning cookstove and I remember being a little anxious about it… surely, there would be times the inconvenience would seem burdensome  (to be clear, the gas range is now on our porch and we do rely on it during the summer months).

It has been entirely the opposite: We love cooking on that stove, which is far more art than science. It’s like playing an instrument, or maybe dancing, and every May, when a wood fire in the kitchen becomes oppressive, it is only with reluctance that we shift our cooking to the porch. And every September, when we get the first cool morning, the first one of the season that begs for a little fire to crack the morning chill until the sun climbs high enough to cook the dew off the grass… well, I wake up downright excited.

A couple years ago, we began experimenting with shutting off our gas hot water heater. No biggie in the summer, as we have solar hot water collectors that produce more hot water than we can even use. But in winter, when the sun is a sad, feeble thing, barely able to even rise its sleepy head above the row of maples that line the eastern-most fringe of our land?  Well, we’ve taken to keeping a couple big pots of hot water atop the cookstove; for dishes, we ladle from them. For baths, which we take once per month whether we need ‘em or not, we carry them up to the tub and upend their steaming contents, adding cold from the tap to get it just right and then… ahh. I know, I know, it sounds like a pain in the ass. But it doesn’t feel like one, and in fact I’ve come to truly enjoy the whole process: Filling the pots, setting them on the stove, waiting for them to heat up, carrying them bow leggedly up the stairs, dumping them into the tub. There’s a participatory nature to it that simply can’t be replicated by twisting a faucet tap.

What has happened to ritual in our culture? It seems to me as if there was once ritual built into all our lives, that the very nature of living demanded it. Maybe for some “ritual” is too strong a word; maybe it was merely habit or tradition, born of simple necessity: You cut the damn wood because if you didn’t, you froze. You heated the damn water on the stovetop because if you didn’t, your bath was cold. Maybe it is my lack of formal religious affiliation that compels me to elevate these simple tasks from mere chore to ritual.

So, ok, call it what you will. The fact remains that these things are no longer part of most American’s lives, and in this regard, each day becomes somewhat indistinguishable from the next. When I consider this, it reminds me how grateful I am to know the days and seasons as I do. To know that March means sugaring, and next year’s firewood. To know that September means the first fire and more greenhouse tomatoes than we can ever figure out what to do with. To know that June means first cut hay and August, second.

And to know, finally, that my participation in all of these things matters, that these things will not just happen to me, but that I must in some way call them forward, give them a little piece of myself – a little sweat, a tired back, the occasional drop of blood – in exchange for their gifts.

I think this is ultimately what I love so much about doing firewood. It feels like such a tangible, honest exchange. There is risk, and exertion, and sweat, and time. For that, I will have wood to make my coffee and heat my bath. For that, my family will survive another winter. For that, I get to spend dozens of hours in the woods and wielding a maul, never surer of my small place in this huge world.

Could there be a better deal?

Let Them Eat More Cake

February 27, 2013 § 4 Comments

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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

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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

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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.”

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