First Ski

December 8, 2014 § 26 Comments


I slept as I always sleep, which is to say, as if I were in training for death. I am blessed by the gift of sound sleep; the minute the light goes out, all thought ceases (if ever it began in the first place) and I embark upon the soft glide into unconsciousness. It is not uncommon for me to surrender in less than a handful of minutes, which drives Penny mad with envy, for she is one of those poor tormented souls whose brain remains active long after her head hits the pillow. Ah, well. We all have our crosses to bear.

This morning I snuck out the door before the sun to ski across the moonlit expanse of our pasture and Melvin’s hayfield. It was cold – four below zero by our thermometer (for all my socialist readers, that’s measured in fahrenheit, not the wussy celsius way. I mean, really: You’re telling me 0 = 32? That’s ’bout the softest shit I ever did hear. Crikey, at 0-degrees C we’re packing for the beach) – and the snow was squeaky and slow. But I soon had a nice sweat going, and by the time I’d circumnavigated Melvin’s high mowing, first light was coming to the eastern sky, and I could see wood smoke spiraling from the twin chimneys of our house. I thought of doing another loop, but then I thought of those fires, of coffee, of warming my fingers over the kitchen stove, of all the things that wanted doing before the impending storm.

So I slipped under the fence and skied for home.

A couple of folks asked about the birch bark stars. Penny learned from a friend, but there are also instructions in this book



Sold Out!

December 6, 2014 § 10 Comments

Well, now. That was something to behold. We have officially reached production capacity, and until negotiations with our Chinese factory supplier are finalized, we must regretfully put a hold on further orders. Every order that has been received by 7:04 a.m. (aka “now”) on Saturday, December 6, will be filled.

Thank you all so much!

Abs of Trust

December 5, 2014 § 38 Comments


Cold this morning, the thermometer not quite kissing zero, but certainly flirting with her. But the sun is rising strong over Melvin’s hayfield, and the air is still, and so I go about chores with no particular sense of urgency. The boys fill the woodbox, Penny milks Pip, and by the time the sun has fully cleared the horizon, all creatures great and small have been served, my second cup of coffee is gurgling to life atop the cook stove, and a half-pound of bacon is spitting tears of grease onto the hot iron, where they dance for a fleeting moment before going up in tendrils of smoke. Winter. Excuse my French, but I fucking love it.

So. Who knew there was such pent-up demand for birch bark ornaments? Thank you, thank you, thank you one and all. I was thinking about how easy and right it felt to offer those for sale, particularly in light of my on-going conflict regarding how to make this space viable. Don’t worry: I’m not going to drag you all through the muck of that internal turmoil yet again (you can thank me later), but I realized that what makes me comfortable offering Penny’s ornaments is that I know every damn thing about them. I know which trees the bark came from, I know how they were made, and exactly what goes into them. I know how many hours she spends sitting on the living room floor, weaving them into shape, while the boys carve spoons and read and I bang around in the kitchen, washing dishes and prepping the next day’s noon feed. I know she likes making them, it feels good and right to her, and I know she is charging a bare minimum for her time because the money is just a piece of what she gets out of the process.

Wait. I lied. I’ve got one more thing to say about commerce in this space, based primarily on comments from Emmanuel and Karen that it’s ironic to offer items for sale only one day after my post about the corrupting influence of money (and I suspect if some people are commenting on said irony, at least a few others are thinking it).

I love the idea of operating “in the gift,” the idea that our needs and even wants can be both received and offered outside the boundaries of contemporary ideologies regarding commerce and capitalism. Not necessarily exclusive of these ideologies, but not dependent on them, either. Certainly, and perhaps most importantly, not captive to them. At least, that’s my interpretation of a functioning gift economy. (By the way, Andrea just posted an interview with an amazing woman name Marie Goodwin, who works “in the gift” with Charles Eisenstein and, to a lesser extent, myself. It’s a great interview, and you should read it. I particularly appreciate her thoughts on trust and building the muscle of trust)

But of course I cannot operate solely in the gift (or maybe I can; maybe I just haven’t yet developed my six pack abs of trust). For instance, I just had to replace the two short cables that run from the tractor’s loader joystick to the hydraulic valve that operates the loader. Nothing to ‘em. I mean, so little. They shipped in a small padded envelope. They cost $250. Twenty-five less-small birch bark stars. A dozen or so hours of Penny’s time to weave those thin strips of bark into something someone might hang on their tree. For two thin cables. I guess I could’ve trusted that those cables would arrive without my having paid for them, but I suspect I would’ve been in for a pretty long wait.

I’m going to let you in on a secret. Well, sort of, because I’m not quite ready to spill the beans in full. The half-told secret is that we are working on a project that is going to allow us to do things that feel incredibly important to us. These things will in part be for us, but mostly they will be for others (of course, what we do for others we also do for ourselves, so perhaps I should not even make such a distinction to begin with).  Maybe this project is a mission; I don’t know. All I know is that it is different that anything we’ve done before, it is harder than anything we’ve done before, and it feels almost like an imperative. Yeah, I guess that sounds like a mission.

We’re working our asses off to make this project happen. We’re going to do it as inexpensively as we possibly can, mostly because we have no other choice. There can be no other way. But as much as we bring our willingness to work “in the gift” to this project, and as much as we trust that everything will work out (and it will, because for our multitudinous flaws, the one thing we do really friggin’ well is get shit done), the truth is that we, like all of you, need money. In fact, now more than ever, and that’s a weird place for us to be, because it’s been many years – decades, almost – since we’ve had an immediate need for more cash than we have on hand.

I actually believe that needing, using, giving, and receiving money can be part of working in the gift. But this is where it gets complicated, and I think this is where comments like Emanuel’s and Karen’s (and I’m not critical of these comments; I appreciate them, I understand the sense of irony) come from. We can’t yet see clearly how the moneyed economy and the gift economy overlap, how one can support the other. Even strengthen the other. How in a way, they needn’t even be considered as separate. Or at least, I can’t yet see this clearly. Maybe Andrea sees it. Maybe Charles and Marie.

Anyway. Those ornaments, and the overwhelming response to them, mattered. I mean the money, sure, that was great, and thanks for that. I see a new silk writing robe in my future, that’s for damn sure (whadaya think, chartreuse or mauve?). But even better than the dough was the small sense of bridging that perceived divide between money and gift. My six-pack abs of trust are slowly emerging from beneath their gelatinous layers of skepticism and uncertainty.

And damn, but do they look good on me.

Addendum: Marie just emailed me this article about running a business in the gift economy 



Operators Are Standing By

December 4, 2014 § 31 Comments


Penny’s always making stuff. And by “always,” I mean always. She’s made shoes and sheathes and pouches  out of buckskin she tanned herself. She’s made more piece of felted wool clothing than I can rightly recall. Spoons. Bowls. Backpacks. Pack baskets, from black ash trees she chopped down and hauled out of the woods on her shoulder. A hat or a dozen, though truth be told, she’s not a big knitter. Lately, she’s been working with wood more than anything, and between her and the boys and their various projects, the living room is about three inches deep in shavings and cast-off bits.

Me, I’m not much of a maker. I mean, I made a pack basket, and it came out pretty good. With a not-insignificant amount of help, I built this house, and to everyone’s amazement, it’s still standing. I patch my own clothes, but only because Penny flat-out refuses to do it for me. I’ve carved a few spoons, made a spalted maple handle for the blade Lucian made me. I like that knife. I use it almost every day.

Truth is, though, I’m not drawn to the handwork the same way Penny and the boys are. I like the cruder projects. I like sawing logs on the mill and turning those boards into buildings. Yeah, I like that a whole lot, almost as much as I like cutting firewood. But in the evenings, when Pen and the boys are generally immersed in some project or another, I usually read or play guitar. Sometimes I’ll join in, but that’s the exception, rather than the rule.


Anyway. This is all a sort of long way of getting to meat of this post, which is that Penny’s been having a real good time making the birch bark ornaments pictured here. Such a good time, in fact, that she’s made 274 of them (rampant exaggeration alert), and is offering them for sale to interested parties.

Now, these aren’t just any birch bark ornaments, because not only were they lovingly crafted by my wife, the bark itself was humanely harvested from free-range, artisanal birch trees raised exclusively on pasture (I realize that makes no sense whatsoever, but this is a friggin’ sales pitch, ok? Stick with me). The strings are made of hemp fiber left over from the plants we cultiva… umm, never mind. No, for real, they’re hemp.

Quarter not included, just for size reference

Quarter not included, just for size reference

I ask: What would you expect to pay to have such an ornament grace your holiday tree? $400? $300? Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that today only (ok, well, maybe tomorrow, too. And perhaps the day after that. But THAT’S IT!), you can own one of these fine ornaments for only $8 (small size) or $10 (less-small size), plus a mere $5 shipping and handling.

But wait! There’s more! That’s because these ornaments are sure to amaze and delight friends and family alike, and are destined to become family heirlooms. Unless you get them too close to an open flame, in which case all bets are off.

Seriously. If you’re interested, operators are standing by at the other end of the Generosity Enabler icon below. And don’t forget to include your address!




Not Holding My Breath

December 3, 2014 § 18 Comments



A couple of things have me thinking about kids and money. The first is an email I got from Amy Childs, letting me know that the podcast we recorded on the very same subject is up and available for your listening pleasure. I haven’t listened to it yet, so I’m really putting myself out on a limb here, because if I remember correctly, Amy caught me well into the dregs of my second lunchtime martini, so I was feeling considerably riled up.

The second thing is that the boys actually have a paying job now, and are being paid even more than they’d eagerly anticipated, to the tune of a whopping $21 per boy, per week. For our sons, who’ve never had an allowance, and who are rarely-but-occasionally paid for jobs around the home, that’s a whole lotta loot, and it raises all sorts of interesting issues.

The third thing is the recent exchange, mostly between Jeff and BeeHappee, about kids and rewards and, specific to this exchange, paying children for academic achievement, which is something I honestly never imagined even happened, probably sort of like how until Jeff stumbled across us and our strange tale, he never imagined half the stuff we do with our children. Hey, ya learn something new every day, as the saying goes.

In short, here’s what I think (and if anything I write here contradicts something I said to Amy or something I’ve written before, please just keep it to yourself, alrighty?). I think, for the most part, that kids younger than, say, 13 or 14 shouldn’t have much, if any, money. That doesn’t mean I don’t think they shouldn’t be aware of money, or the power money has, because they absolutely should. That doesn’t mean I don’t think they shouldn’t be part of discussions about money, because they absolutely should. It just means I think there’s no need to complicate their lives with the burden of their own money – be it a little or a lot – and the heavy decision making that often results.

I should qualify this a bit, and make it clear that the boys are well aware of our financial situation, which is generally stable, albeit at a level most Americans would consider inadequate. Much of the reason it is adequate for us is that we are extremely conscious of our choices regarding money, both how we spend and how we earn. And these choices are part of an ongoing conversation in our family. The boys are keenly aware that we don’t have much extra, and they know full well that there are things they cannot have because of this. But they’re equally aware that we enjoy a level of autonomy that is generally reserved for the wealthy, and far as I can tell, they’d far rather have that autonomy than, say, new clothing, or new toys. Or even new deer rifles.

Not long ago, Andrea sent me a list of questions, the answers to which I believe she’ll be posting on her site in the not-too-distant future. One of her questions had to do with the fact that the boys don’t get much in the way of material gifts during the holidays and if we think about them not getting as many gifts as their friends and peers.

The only honest answer is that we truly believe Fin and Rye are getting far more important gifts than those children who receive much more in the way of material goods: They are getting the gift of modest expectations. They are getting the gift of understanding that a limerick or a painting on a scroll of birch bark (my standbys) or buckskin caps Penny’s making them from a deer hide she tanned (yo, those who know us for real: Keep your yaps shut, ok?) are worthy presents. Perhaps best of all, they are getting the gift of realizing that the presents they give to others can be incredibly simple and still bring immense pleasure to those who receive them.

Now that the boys have a steady stream of their own money, I see how easily it corrupts. Now they want to shop for deer rifles, when before their old guns seemed perfect adequate. Now Fin wants a new ax, when before he was perfectly happy with the one he’d cobbled together from a gifted ax head and a handle he carved from a length of cherry. I understand why they want these things, and it’s not as if I never pine after anything. And I’m giddy-grateful they want the things they do, rather than the latest assemblage of circuitry.

Furthermore, I’m well aware that at some point in their young lives, they’re gonna have to learn how to navigate this terrain, to separate wants from needs, to consider the future even as they embody the present. I guess for our boys, that point is now, what with their new status as part-time employees on a certain dairy farm that lies just over the hill from our place. Now that the snow is here, they ski to chores and 90 minutes later they ski home, either by headlamp or the moon, cheeks flushed, smelling of fresh shit and fermented hay, eager to tell some story or another, like how Melvin gives chiropractic adjustments to his son, which I suppose is really only funny if you know that Melvin is at least a foot shorter than his boy, and that in order to deliver the adjustments, his son has to dangle his feet in the manure gutter. So it’s a whole lot more than money they’re getting, that’s for sure.

As for the money itself, they’ve saved most of it thus far, bills and coins stuffed into jars in their room. Fin’s going to buy that ax, I’m pretty sure, and I’ve no doubt he’ll be happy with it. Rye leafs through his hunting and trapping magazines, and every so often he asks me to look up a certain model of deer gun. He wants a lever action, something older, because he doesn’t like the look of the new models. “Too fancy,” he says.

For the most part, Penny and I try to stay out of their way, unless they explicitly ask for advice. We’ve mandated that they each put $6 per week into long-term savings, but beyond that, the burden of what to do with their new-found wealth is all theirs, and only occasionally do I drop hints that perhaps they should save all of it, the better to care for their devoted parents in our declining years.

But I’m not holding my breath.

As a bonus to an already too-long post, I’m including BeeHappee’s revision of yesterday’s post, which is a small piece of genius (the revision, not yesterday’s post). 

1: The closer you can come to not explicitly planning your life, the more likely it is that it will plan itself out. (This is true except when it’s not)

2: It is almost always better to do less. (This is true except when it’s not)

3: 90% of having a good life is being curious and then paying attention to your curiosities. Sorry, that’s wrong: It’s actually 98%. (This is always true) – did this come from Curious George?

4: Half of the other 2% is not giving a shit what anyone else thinks of you. (This is always true)

5: The other half of the other 2% is actually doing things. (This is always true)

6: If there could be more than 100% to having a good life, the remaining percentage would be comprised of others. (This is always true, unless you’re dealing with crapheads)

7: Despite what I’ve just written, there are essentially no rules at all, because rules can always be broken. In fact, sometimes the best life is made with broken rules. (This is true except when it’s not)

The Rules

December 2, 2014 § 36 Comments


I’ve been working with a couple of writers over the past few weeks, trying impart a mere fraction of the delicate genius that flows unimpeded from the soaring heavens on the gilded wings of harp-strumming angels, where it illuminates the darkened caverns of my mind, before finally emerging through the manicured tips of my silk-gloved fingers (which I wear because they match my silk writing robe, of course), interrupted only by my yelling for Penny to bring me another cappuccino.

I’m joking, of course: I despise cappuccino.

Anyhow. The whole process of sharing what little I know about this clunky craft has me thinking about how few rules there really are to good writing. And because I’m feeling extra-generous, I figured I might’s well just share them here. To make things especially clear, I’m even sharing which of these rules must actually be obeyed.

1: The closer you can come to not explicitly saying what you want people to hear, the more likely it is that they’ll hear what you want them to hear. (This is true except when it’s not)

2: It is almost always better to say less. (This is true except when it’s not)

3: 90% of being a good writer is being curious and then paying attention to your curiosities. Sorry, that’s wrong: It’s actually 98%. (This is always true)

4: Half of the other 2% is not giving a shit what anyone else thinks of your work. (This is always true)

5: The other half of the other 2% is actually writing. (This is always true)

6: If there could be more than 100% to being a good writer, the remaining percentage would be comprised of reading. (This is always true, unless you’re reading crap)

7: Despite what I’ve just written, there are essentially no rules at all, because rules can always be broken. In fact, sometimes the best writing is made with broken rules. (This is true except when it’s not)

There. That clears things up nicely, doesn’t it?




What You Hear

December 1, 2014 § 50 Comments

Last minute mulching. Photo by Rye

Last minute mulching. Photo by Rye

The snow came hard on Thanksgiving eve, not so much falling as driving downward, maybe an inch per hour for 10 hours or more. On Thanksgiving morning, I went out to plow; the boys ran after me, and I was pleased that they have not yet tired of riding in the plow truck. Our driveway is long – about 1/4 mile – and narrow, and furthermore consists of two short-but-steep hills. Clearing it of snow – and particularly the early season snows that are heavy with moisture and that fall atop unfrozen ground into which the cutting edge of the plow is prone to catching – verges on sport. I mean, it’s not exactly the New York friggin’ marathon, but in a world in which over 71 million people spectate “electronic sports” (aka competitive video gaming) events annually, I’m comfortable with the notion that successfully plowing our driveway constitutes a sporting achievement.

Thanksgiving was good. Mellow. My parents came, and also Melvin and Janet, who arrived on the tractor, for to better navigate our drive (just because it was plowed doesn’t mean it wasn’t slippery) and the simple fact of our neighbors driving to Thanksgiving dinner aboard their tractor is proof enough to me that for everything the rural life lacks, it claims a thousand things more. In past years, our home has been respite to teeming masses of Thanksgiving cast-offs – those with no family to visit, or perhaps no desire to visit what family they had – but owing to a multitude of factors, including reconciliations, cross-country moves, and maybe, just maybe, our tradition of serving tuna casserole surprise and jello salad, this year was a quiet affair.

•     •     •

Asks Jeff: You reject formal education for yourself and your children, you dropped out of high school and Fin/Rye never started. You reject traditional religion. Just curious, what else do you reject?

I never know quite how to respond to questions like these, in part because they seem a little antagonistic (by-the-by, I’m not bothered in the least by Jeff occasional skepticism; I actually appreciate it), but mostly because I feel as if my answer can never satisfy the assumptions inherent to the question. I mean, does anyone ever ask the parents of school-going children why they’ve rejected informal education? Because isn’t the choice to send your children to school by default a rejection of how they might otherwise spend those thousands of finite hours of their lives? And to the extent that Jeff equates our decision to celebrate the Solstice rather than Christmas with a rejection of traditional religion, is not the choice to accept the teachings and celebrations of traditional religion ultimately a rejection of non-traditional religions and their celebrations? And what does non-traditional mean, anyway? Because isn’t one person’s tradition always inexplicable to someone, somewhere?

Here’s the thing: I don’t think of our choices around education and Christmas to be a rejection of anything. They are merely choices that make sense to us, that feel most aligned with our values and how we wish to live our small lives. As I’ve written many times, standardized, compulsory schooling makes little sense to us, so we chose differently. Likewise, celebrating a holiday to which we have no particular belief attachment (other than the belief that Christmas has, by-and-large, become an orgy of thoughtless consumerism to the extent that from the outside looking in, it looks for all world like a parody of what it claims to be) makes little sense to us. It’s not that we refuse to attend friends’ Christmas parties. It’s not like we’re picketing in front of church services, or even at the doors of the box stores that opened for Thanksgiving evening. (Although the latter does seem worthy of rejection. I mean, are we really that captive? That’s a rhetorical question, because if weren’t that captive, those doors wouldn’t have opened before the marrow in a nation’s worth of gnawed-on turkey bones has gone cold)

I guess what I’m saying is this: Our culture tells us stories and from those stories we develop assumptions about how we should structure our lives. Compulsory education! Thanksgiving day sales events! Christmas = traditional religion! And so on. And eventually, we arrive at a place where we view those who do not share these assumptions as not merely choosing something different, but actually rejecting the conventions we cling to.

Look. My point is not that you shouldn’t send your kids to school, or that you shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, or even that you shouldn’t go shopping with a gutful of gravy and your grandmother’s sweet potato pie. My only point is that you shouldn’t do these things without at least recognizing the stories behind them. My only point is that you shouldn’t do these things without thinking about whether or not those stories speak to you.

And furthermore, considering if what you hear makes any sense.



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