March 16, 2015 § 97 Comments
Cold again this morning. I started chores early for no good reason than I’d risen early, and it was nice to be outside on the leading edge of daylight, the sky turning shades of pink and blue above me. Yesterday’s snowfall had obscured our bootways, and every third or fourth step I’d land wrong, slide off the packed path, and sink to the thigh. Set down the hay bale, the slop bucket, the water pail, heave out my leg, pick up my load, walk, repeat.
Rebecca Solnit has a nice essay in the new issue of Harper’s, called “Abolish High School.” Here is some of what she writes:
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens, responsible for 4,600 deaths per year. Federal studies report that for every suicide there are at least a hundred attempts – nearly half a million a year. Eight percent of high school students have attempted to kill themselves, and 16 percent have considered trying. That’s a lot of people crying out for something to change.
We tend to think that adolescence is inherently ridden with angst, but much of the misery comes from the cruelty of one’s peers. Twenty-eight percent of public high school students and 21 percent of private school students report being bullied, and though inner-city kids are routinely portrayed in the press as menaces, the highest levels of bullying are reported among white kids and in nonurban areas. Victims of bullying are, according to a Yale study, somewhere between two and nine times more likely to attempt suicide. Why should children be confined to institutions in which these experiences are so common?
Solnit’s question is rhetorical, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer to it. Or many answers, probably, but for the sake of expedience, I’ll suggest only one: Because their parents can’t imagine something different. Part of the reason they can’t imagine something different is because they can’t afford to imagine something different. And partly, it’s because they’re afraid to imagine something different – in my experience, that fear is oriented primarily around their children’s social and economic prospects. In short, they worry that if they don’t send their kids to school, their kids will become outcasts with few prospects for gainful employment. Better to risk the bullying than the job prospects, and besides, at some point, kids have to learn that not everyone’s going to treat them nicely, don’t they?
But I also think many parents can’t imagine something different because they don’t know there’s something different to imagine. They are not aware there are other paths to walk. Because as Solnit also writes: High school is often considered a definitive American experience, in two senses: an experience that nearly everyone shares, and one that can define who you are, for better or worse, for the rest of your life. This is how the story of school has become so foundational; as adults, most of us have been defined by it, and we have come to depend on it to understand, at least in part, who we are.
Which begs the question: Who are we? Many things, of course. Far too many to list here. But among them, we are a culture that compels their children to be confined daily to a space where 28% of them are bullied. Furthermore, we are a society that comprises 4.6% of the world’s population, but consumes 80% of the world’s pain medication. Depending on age group and gender, nearly 25% of us take drugs to treat our depression.
When people read interviews with me and criticize what I have to say about education, I often wonder what they see in the institutionalized school system that is so worthy an alternative. Are they thinking of the 72% of children who aren’t bullied? I mean, hey, that’s a majority! Nice work. But what of the bullies themselves, if one can be so compassionate as to think of them? I’ve known a few bullies in my life; I even know one or two now. None of them seem very happy to me.
Or are they thinking of the economic opportunities they presume unschooled children won’t have? They are, or at least they say they are, and in a way, this makes me saddest of all, because it suggests that a child’s education should first and foremost be subservient to their economic interests.
Still, sometimes I wonder if the reasons stated for their opposition run even deeper. As Solnit writes, school has become a definitive part of the American experience. It is apple pie, it is Fourth of July, it is part and parcel of our faith that the story we’ve all grown up inside, the story we are all – to varying degrees and by varying levels of complicity -invested in is the right story.
As I went about chores this morning, stumbling and slipping along our well-worn boot packs, I was thinking about how our foot travel has mostly been limited to those prescribed paths for so long. And it occurred to me this morning how liberating it will feel to be able to walk where we please, as if, having been trapped in a labyrinth for all this time, we suddenly find ourselves at the exit.
March 4, 2015 § 84 Comments
Yesterday afternoon Penny and I spent a couple hours in the kitchen. We did a bunch of things. First we sliced up a pair of chuck roasts real thin for beef jerky. The trick to slicing meat thin enough for good jerky is twofold: A sharp knife and a partially frozen roast. Then we chopped up a whole lot of garlic – we grow way more garlic than we can eat, but we sure do try – and mixed it into some tamari and a little honey. Penny might’ve put something else in there, too… I’m not sure. It’s her recipe; I don’t ask questions. We put the sliced meat in a bowl, poured the marinade over it, and stuck it in our passively vented icebox for the night.
When we finished slicing the meat, I went to the basement and dug a few carrots out of one of the burlap bags in the basement. This winter, we experimented with storing our carrots in dead leaves, and it’s worked out pretty good. We raked the leaves off the paths in our neighbor’s sugarwoods. I remember the boys jumped and wrestled in the raked up piles and I thought I should join them but I didn’t. Still, it was fun just watching them. I took the carrots upstairs. Washed them. Peeled them. Cut them small for stew.
I had some chunks of venison browning in lard on the wood cookstove. It smelled good. Earthy. The lard was from the pigs we slaughtered in January; the meat was from a fat little roadkill doe Fin and I came upon last fall, ironically just after we’d gotten home from rifle hunting. I would tell you how many roadkill deer we’ve harvested in the past six years or so, but it’s such an outrageously high number you’d never believe me and I’d only look like an idiot for having tried to pull the wool over your eyes (even though I didn’t). So let’s just say we haven’t gone without venison in a real long time, none of which were killed by our own hand or (thankfully) even our own vehicle. Sometimes I think it’d be cool to spend a year just living off roadkill and wild greens. But… nah.
While we worked, Penny and I got to talking about some things we’d heard on the radio. We generally listen only when we’re driving solo, and we’ve each been driving too much lately, so we had lots to talk about. She told me about some fellow who’d done a segment on his new coffee maker, which apparently communicated with his smartphone. I guess the way it worked is that the coffee machine would actually call him when it needed tending. Sort of like an aging parent or a teenage child, I said, and she laughed, and I was pleased, because in my experience there’s not much better than making someone you care about laugh, especially if she generally finds your jokes lacking. Anyhow, I digress.
I told her about something I’d heard that very morning, about how the cereal makers are in big trouble. No one’s buying Cocoa Frosted Death Flakes anymore, and I thought for sure they were gonna say it’s because people are finally getting wise to that shit, but lo-and-behold it was for a much more pedestrian reason: People want something more convenient than cold cereal these days. In other words, it’s too much work to pull the box and a bowl out of the cupboard, the milk out of the fridge, and a spoon out of the drawer. It’s too much work to “prepare” a bowl of cold cereal – the pouring of the flakes and the milk is simply too great a drain on the precious commodities of time and convenience. And then all those dishes to wash! So what’s the next big thing? Breakfast bars, apparently, because you can eat them in the car on your way to work. Tear open the package with your teeth, stuff your gullet whilst navigating traffic (it’s a pain in the ass, I know, but don’t fret: Driverless cars are coming soon!) and then stick the empty wrapper under the seat with the cast off detritus of previous breakfasts. Or maybe just throw it out the window. Yeah. That’d be even easier.
A story to ground all this: About a decade ago, we ripped the propane cookstove out of our kitchen and replaced it with a wood burner. I recall being a little anxious about the amount of work I perceived to be involved with cooking on wood. No more would I be able to twist a dial and have blue flames leap at my command. Now it was fell the tree, buck the log, split the wood, stack the wood, haul the wood inside, crumple the paper, lay the kindling, strike the match, feed the fire. Then coffee. Then breakfast. It all seemed like a bit much at the time, though clearly there was something about it that called to me.
Another story: A few years back, we turned off our gas-fired hot water heater. Let me be perfectly honest: This was no great hardship – we have solar collectors and a rather ineffectual loop through the wood cookstove – but it still means there are large swathes of time when we do not have hot water at the tap. Want to do dishes? Do ‘em in cold water, or heat some on the stovetop. Want a bath? Heat in on the stovetop (but mind the step!). And so on. As with the installation of the wood cookstove, I remember being a little nervous about extinguishing the pilot light in the water heater. As with the wood cookstove, I hardly remember that we ever had it differently, and now we burn only a couple dozen gallons of propane each year to fire the gas range we ripped out of the kitchen and stuck on the porch for use in the summer months. Honestly, I can’t say I’m more happy now that we don’t use our propane water heater, but I do experience a smallish delight in knowing how well we can live without it.
What’s my point? Actually, I think I have something like a half dozen points, though I may not get to them all. The first is that convenience (or the lack thereof) is almost 100% relative and almost 100% unrelated to happiness. When we lived without any plumbing at all, which we did for years while saving for this land, we thought running cold water would be the pinnacle of convenience (we didn’t even dare dream of hot water at the tap, lest we anger the gods with our greed). Funny thing is, we weren’t any less happy then than we are now.
Point number two: In far too many cases, without us even knowing it is happening to us, convenience sucks the simple pleasures out of our lives. I’m thinking of my boys wrestling in those piles of leaves I inconveniently raked in order to inconveniently store the carrots we inconveniently grew. I’m thinking of this morning, as I sat by the cookstove fire, writing the first half of this post and waiting for my coffee to perc. I’m thinking of splitting wood, the way my body feels after a day with the maul. I’m thinking of how that beef jerky is going to taste, I can smell it now from my office; Penny must have spread it across the drying racks. It’ll be ready by tomorrow morning, I bet. I’m thinking that Erik’s going to be here for lunch and we’ll eat venison stew from a deer my son and I hoisted into the back of our Subaru and butchered on our kitchen counter. Even at the time, I remember feeling a little put out by the inconvenience of it all: I’d had other plans for the day. But now I don’t remember what they were.
Point number three: I’m thinking that appeals to our desire for convenience are actually nothing more than sleights-of-hand intended to further ensnare us in the sticky web of consumption. And in doing so, furthermore erode our ability to care for our communities and ourselves. For what skills do these conveniences require? Only the skills necessary to maintain the jobs necessary to pay for them. To plug them in, to rip open the packaging with our bare teeth, one hand still on the wheel, weaving in and out of traffic, perhaps recalling that once upon a time we actually had to eat from a bowl, and oh! How wonderful it is to have been freed of that burden.
February 17, 2015 § 83 Comments
Last night, I noticed a spike in my traffic. Ever curious, I traced it to a comment someone had left on Mr Money Mustache. I’d never heard of the dude, but from my cursory examination of his blog, I’d probably like him. For instance, he’s big into badassity, which seems real similar to something we’re into. Furthermore, he writes with enviable cogence and wit about money and all things associated, albeit from the perspective of radically different lifestyle choices.
Indeed, the specific piece of his that prompted the comment linking to this space was about education, called “If I ran the school, things would be different,” and it got me thinking a bit this morning about what my school would look like, were I to be so naive as to embark upon such a venture. Which I’m not, so don’t worry: The children of America are safe from my nefarious influence. Well, all but two of them, anyway.
Without further ado, inspired by MMM, my version of “If I ran the school, things would be different,” which I have taken the liberty of retitling “If I ran the friggin’ school, you can better friggin’ believe things would be real friggin’ different. Got that?”
1. If I ran the school, incoming students aged 5 and above would be issued a fixed blade belt knife, a sharpening stone, and a box of bandages (We actually gave our boys knives at age 4, but I realize that’s maybe a wee outside most parents’ comfort zone). Why a fixed blade belt knife? Well, for one, because folding pocket knives are actually far more hazardous, and for two, because proper knife handling is one of the most liberating and useful skills a child can have. Why a sharpening stone? Because dull knives are dangerous knives. Why a box of bandages? Because hell yes, they are going to cut themselves, and being taught how to doctor their own wounds is yet another incredibly useful skill that almost no children learn these days.
2. If I ran the school, every classroom would have doors and windows that opened to the outdoors, and every bit of wall space that wasn’t comprised of doors and windows would be filled with books. Thin books, fat books, comic books, classic books. Books upon books upon books upon friggin’ books.
3. If I ran the school, classes would not be age-segregated, and younger students would likely spend as much – if not more – time learning from older students as they did from “teachers.”
4. If I ran the school, children would learn how to cook before they learned calculus. Actually, they’d start learning how to cook before they learned addition and subtraction. Actually, they’d learn addition and subtraction as they learned how to cook. Actually, they’d already have learned addition and subtraction while determining how much garden space they needed to grow the ingredients they’d use to feed themselves.
5. If I ran the school, students would spend more time outdoors than in. But you knew that.
6. If I ran the school, every child would learn how to use basic hand tools. They would use these tools to build a shelter in which they would spend the night. In winter.
7. If I ran the school, there would be lots and lots of toys in every room. These toys would look suspiciously like sticks, rocks, scraps of fabric, paper, paints, and other found objects. There would be no legos. There would be nothing that lit-up and beeped, unless the children were clever enough to make something that lit up and beeped. There would be none of these ridiculously overpriced natural wooden toys that any child with half a brain, the right tools, and the weeniest bit of facilitation can damn well make for themselves.
8. If I ran the school, there would be instruments in every room. Guitars, hand drums, and pretty much everything but accordions and nose flutes (don’t ask). These instruments would be inexpensive and well-used, so that no one would be tempted to tell the students to “be careful.” No one would say “don’t play it like that.”
9. If I ran the school, the primary economics text book would be Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics. The primary history/sociology text books would be Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and My Ishmael . Meanwhile, the dangers of drug use, casual sex, and excessive rocking-the-fuck-out would be demonstrated via exposure to Motorhead and repeated viewings of the movie Lemmy.
10. If I ran the school, there would be a bicycle for every child. If the school I ran were in a four-season climate (and it would be, because I’m not moving out of a four-season climate just to run a school), there would be cross-country skis for every child.
11. If I ran the school, I would not talk about how my students are more likely to gain admittance to the college or university of their choosing than conventionally-schooled children, or about how the skills, curiosity, and resourcefulness my school engenders will make them more suited to the contemporary job market. Because while these things might well be true, they are not the point!
Which is probably why my school would not be very large.
February 11, 2015 § 100 Comments
Back in high school I spent a lot of time with my friend Jim. Jim was a few years old than me. He had an old Saab he’d bought cheap and we liked to drive around listening to music and maybe smoking a little weed. I said “maybe” and “a little,” ok?
Anyway. Back then, we mostly listened to Rush. My favorite Rush album was (and remains) 2112. I guess you’d call 2112 a “concept” album, or at least the first half of it, which consists of an uninterrupted 20-minute expanse of music that tells of a dystopian future in which a commoner stumbles upon an acoustic guitar long after such instruments have been judged frivolous and thus jettisoned somewhere between now and then.
The lyrics begin like this:
“We’ve taken care of everything/the words you read the songs you sing/the pictures that give pleasure to your eye/It’s one for all and all for one/We work together common sons/never need to wonder how or why.”
I liked 2112 so much, I think, because it fit my worldview at the time, which was largely oriented around an acute sense of disempowerment related primarily to my schooling. (It’s probably telling that another of my favorite songs was a Bad Brains number called The Regulator, a one-minute, seven-second hardcore punk riff on, well, being regulated). This is how I described my relationship to high school in Home Grown:
Did I hate school? Well, yes, I suppose so, but only in aggregate. There were elements of it I liked very much. For instance, I liked hanging out in the parking lot with my friends. That was a lot of fun, or at least, it fit my version of fun at the time. I liked Creative Writing, one of the few classes I rarely cut. I liked my physics class, not because I liked Physics (I flunked it, along with Algebra, Calculus, History, and French) but because Tom, my teacher, was something of an oddball. He smelled horrific, wearing the accumulation of his fetid perspiration like a badge of honor. But despite the odor, and despite my flailing half attempts to succeed in his class, there were compensations, such as the time he encouraged my friend Django and me to paint an old steel barrel with the international warning symbol for nuclear waste and leave it in a conspicuous place on school grounds. In no way could I discern how this had anything to do with physics.
“Why?” we asked him.
He raised his walrus-ian eyebrows into inverted V’s. “To see what happens,” he replied.
We jettisoned the barrel in a shallow depression at the edge of one of the playing fields, after which followed a sleepless night listening to the Bad Brains and fretting over the legal ramifications of creating counterfeit toxic waste. What special sort of wrath might the law reserve for a couple of sixteen-year-olds with an old barrel, a can of spray paint, and an ingrained sense of mischief? At two thirty a.m., in the lonely darkness of my childhood bedroom, my imagination ran toward long years of solitary confinement in the sort of juvenile facilities that are, at some point in the distant future, revealed to have been riddled with abuse.
The following morning, the barrel was gone. Django and I waited anxiously for news of its discovery, but none came, and for reasons I still do not understand, this delighted Tom.
Despite these shenanigans and despite the pleasure I derived from my creative writing class, the prevailing theme of my truncated high school career was one of simple boredom. And with it, a sense of my time being wasted, of my life slipping through my young fingers. In class after class, I slumped in my chair, quietly seething at my captors and, more broadly, at the unquestioned assumption that I should be held captive in the first place. Where was the relevance in what I was learning? In what ways might it inform and improve my life outside the context of school? It felt to me as if the entire experience was unfolding in a vacuum and that, once I graduated, the seal on the vacuum would burst, and I would be helplessly sucked into the real world, for which my schooling had done little to prepare me. I think this feeling frightened me, although I doubt I would have admitted so at the time.
Restlessly, I would shift my gaze from the algebraic equations scrawled across the chalkboard to the fields and forest and sky that for the majority of my waking hours remained achingly out of reach beyond the classroom’s plate glass windows which, for all their transparency, felt like nothing so much as the bars of a prison cell. What was I looking for? Nothing in particular, frankly. Nothing more than simple escape, a refuge from captivity, where the information I was being forced to memorize and recite (as if the latter were proof of having learned something) felt as if it mattered only against the backdrop of school.
Again I must return to the article I quoted from a few days back:
Education and upbringing is a hallmark example of the extent to which the system of control has saturated our lives, bodies and minds. We do not realize is how extensively our way of seeing the world and more importantly; how we see ourselves in it, is a direct result of our upbringing and education. As Ivan Illich, the author of “Deschooling Society” puts it: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”
I think Illich is precisely right in the above quote: School is the advertising agency which makes us believe that we need the society as it is, and it is incredibly effective precisely because so few parents (but interestingly, maybe not so few children) recognize this. I wonder if this is ultimately why I felt so disempowered by it: It was trying to force me to accept a view of myself, the world, and the confluence of the two that did not jibe with what I felt and understood to be true. I also wonder if this is why some people are so threatened by the notion of children being reared in the absence of compulsory “learning”: It is not merely a repudiation of their views on education, it’s a repudiation of their views on life.
Or – and I’m guessing this might be closer to the truth – maybe they’re so threatened precisely because on some level, they do recognize the extent to which the system of control has saturated their lives. They recognize it, but it is simply too frightening to acknowledge. They are too immersed it in to see a way out, and therefore, they will do whatever they can to make themselves comfortable within its confines. I guess maybe we all do this to a certain extent, no?
Even among those parents who do see the messaging implicit to compulsory institutional education, fewer still have the luxury of choosing differently. Or maybe they are simply too afraid for their children’s economic futures to choose differently – I’ve heard some variation of this theme from numerous parents. I know it’s not great, but how else will he get into college? Who will hire her? Etc, etc. Pragmatism over passion, though I suppose the two needn’t always be mutually exclusive.
For those of us who have chosen a different path, the challenge is that we forever exist on the fringes. For most families, school creates a default community. It offers a way to pass the days, a place for children to go while parents are working or otherwise engaged. This I hear a lot, too: I’d love to homeschool my children, but I could never spend that much time with them. That’s what I was thinking of yesterday when I wrote about working alongside, talking to, and learning from our children. That’s not something many parents know how to do these days. I know I’m still figuring it out. But my point, really, is that by opting out of school, you’re not merely opting out of school, and whether you believe that is for the better or the worse, it is no small thing.
I am meandering, now, losing sight of my message, so I guess I’ll pull the old writer’s trick of circling around to the beginning, running in that old Saab with Jim. As you know, I dropped out of school, while Jim went on to a technical college, before ultimately founding a solar installation business. He was smart enough to see what school could offer him, the stuff he needed to know to do the stuff he wanted to do. I don’t think he felt as trapped or disempowered as I did. It’d be interesting to ask him about it now, but I can’t, because he died a few years ago. His heart just up and quit while he was sleeping.
A few months before he died, Jim invited me to a Rush concert in Saratoga Springs. I demurred, so his wife went with him instead. They had a great time, and though there’s part of me that wishes I could claim the memory of my friend and me at the concert, pumping our fists and singing along to 2112, there’s another part of me that figures his wife deserves to remember that at least as much as I do.
January 28, 2015 § 13 Comments
The storm was lesser than forecast. We got maybe three inches of snow, though by this morning the wind had deposited it into sharp-ridged drifts. I pushed through two of them on my way to the barn this morning, both knee-deep, the snow soft and yielding. It was zero, but the early light – thin, uncertain, sunless -made the air feel even colder, and by the time I returned to the house, my fingers stung. I shucked my gloves and held my hands over the hot iron of the cookstove, flipping them every dozen seconds or so until the cold was all burned out.
• • •
A few steps of the dance, performed just three or four days a month, enriched their lives greatly and took almost no effort. As here on earth, the people of this planet were not a single people but many peoples, and as time went on, each people developed its own approach to the dance. Some continued to dance just a few steps three or four days a month. Others found it made sense for them to have even more of their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every second or third day. Still others saw no reason why they shouldn’t live mostly on their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every single day. Things went on this way for tens of thousands of years among the people of this planet, who thought of themselves as living in the hands of the gods and leaving everything to them. For this reason, they called themselves Leavers.
But one group of Leavers eventually said to themselves “Why should we just live partially on the foods we favor? All we have to do is devote a lot more time to dancing.” So this one particular group took to dancing several hours a day. Because they thought of themselves as taking their welfare into their own hands, we’ll call them the Takers. The results were spectacular. The Takers were inundated with their favorite foods. A manager class soon emerged to look after the accumulation and stores of surpluses -something that hand never been necessary when everyone was just dancing a few hours a week. The members of this manager class were far too busy to do any dancing themselves, and since their work was so critical, they soon came to be regarded as social and political leaders. But after a few years these leaders of the Takers began to notice that food production was dropping, and they went out to see what was going wrong. What they found was that the dancers were slacking off. They weren’t dancing several hours a day, they were dancing only an hour or two and sometimes not even that much. The leaders asked why.
“What’s the point of all this dancing?” the dancers asked. “It isn’t necessary to dance seven or eight hours a day to get the food we need. There’s plenty of food even if we just dance an hour a day. We’re never hungry. So why shouldn’t we relax and take life easy, the way we used to?”
The leaders saw things very differently, of course. If the dancers went back to living the way they used to, then the leaders would soon have to do the same, and that didn’t appeal to them at all. They considered and tried many different schemes to encourage or cajole or tempt or shame or force the dancers into dancing longer hours, but nothing worked until one of them came up with the idea of locking up the food.
From My Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I highly recommend it.
January 20, 2015 § 20 Comments
Over the past two days we slaughtered and processed two of our three pigs, a task that to me is always more daunting in anticipation than action. We have now killed and processed enough pigs that the process is etched in our thoughts, emotions, and bodies. I know the particular anxiety I will feel in the moments before death. I know the certain fatigue of six straight hours spent cleaving the carcasses into chops and roasts and sausage trim. I know even the small sorrow of leaving one pig alive, and I wonder how that it is for her. She exhibits no distress, nor displays any change in routine that might be interpreted as such. But still. How can she not miss her mates, if only for the warmth of their bodies at night? Or perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps she’s glad for all the extra space.
I have written enough on this site already about killing animals for meat, so I will add only this: After so many years, it has gotten easier. Maybe I should not admit this, but it has. For better or worse, we have accepted and acclimated to our role in the conversion of others’ flesh into our own. It’s been a humbling process, and this humility feels right to us. There is peace in this humility. I cannot tell you exactly why, and I would never have anticipated such, but we have found it to be true.
On Sunday, after we’d finished dressing the hogs, I washed my hands at the kitchen sink. I’d nicked myself earlier in the day, and now I removed the bandage I’d applied to stem the cuts’ flow. As the water ran over my hands, I watched two distinct swirls form in the sink basin: One my own, the crimson-blood shade of a shallow extremity wound, and the other the russet-red of the pigs’ arterial reserves.
In seconds, drawn by the drainward slope, the two swirls became one. I turned up the water and the blood soon disappeared.
January 7, 2015 § 40 Comments
Not many people reading this blog know it, but a while back (like, two decades ago, which was probably when some of you still needed a reminder to pull down your pants before you peed and damn but if that ain’t humbling to an ole fart like myself) I was a pretty good competitive cyclist. I raced mountain bikes mostly, in the preferred format of the day, which generally involved two hour, mass start events. At the time, cross country mountain bike racing was hugely popular; it was on the verge of becoming an Olympic sport, and the number of people willing to drive multiple hours so they could saddle their bicycles and pay to ride in circles until they vomited was really something to behold.
I raced at the highest regional level, and while I didn’t win very many events, I was consistently toward the front. I stood on the podium fairly regularly, though most commonly on its bottom step. I think the biggest thing separating me from the absolute best guys was pretty simple: I didn’t care enough. It never really bothered me that I didn’t win very often. In fact, I was always sort of amazed that I did as well as I did, and I couldn’t fathom doing many of the things the guys who were beating me did. Fly to Arizona to train in February, for instance. Or shaving their legs. Eating rice cakes. Living in their parents’ basement. That sort of stuff.
Anyway, what I really loved about riding my bike competitively was that every so often, I’d have a transcendental performance. I mean, I’d seriously be crying on the bike, and not from pain or grief, but from the pure gratitude of being allowed a glimpse of what being human can feel like. Everything would click so perfectly that I almost couldn’t feel the effort being expended, it was as if the bike were racing itself and I was merely fortunate enough to be along for the ride. This didn’t happen often – maybe one out of every seven or eight races – but it happened often enough that I never forgot the feeling. I never thought I wouldn’t experience it again. I just had to keep looking for it.
What happened the other 85% of the time? Usually, it was sort of average. Not miserable, but certainly not transcendental. Just a skinny, lycra-clad dude huffing and puffing and sweating. And on occasion, it was truly miserable. Legs like lead balloons. Lungs burning. Mind fixated on counting down the interminable minutes until the finish line. Questioning everything: the hours wasted training, the self-loathing of knowing Penny was at home, mixing cement for the concrete piers of our original cabin, while I was doing… what, exactly? Riding my bike in circles like a circus monkey and furthermore, spending money we barely had for the privilege? I’d bring her flowers if I placed high enough, lay them right in her blistered hands.
I mention this because I received an email from one of my writing students; she’s struggling with her work. I mean I know how I want to write, I just can’t seem to get this new way to come out on paper, if that makes any sense, she tells me. Oh, yeah, A, it makes sense. It makes a whole freakin’ lot of sense. It especially makes sense to me lately, ’cause truth is, I’ve been struggling, too. Like this woman, I’ve had the sense over the past couple of weeks that I know how I want to write, but I can’t quite get it to come out on paper. My suspicion is that most writers – even so-called “professional” writers – feel that way an awful lot of the time. They probably don’t want you to know that. We pros like to think there’s something sacred about our craft, that we’re the beneficiaries of a particular genius you poor commoners will never understand. Bullocks.
Here’s what I think about writing. No, scratch that: Here’s what I think about life. And bike racing, for that matter, which was the whole point of my long-winded introduction. You gotta muddle your way through a lot of shit to get to the sweet spots. Actually, it’s even more than that: You can’t even find the sweet spots if you don’t muddle through the crap. If you don’t hurt a little, if you don’t drag your sorry sick ass outside to do chores on a four below morning, you’ll never fully appreciate those August mornings when you rise at 5 full of piss and vinegar and you’re on the land by 5:30, and the cows are right where they’re supposed to be, waiting for you to drop the fence and the grass is boot-top high and so green you think there should be another word for it. If you don’t stick out the long months of winter, the truck that won’t start despite three – three! – cycles of the glow plugs, the 4:30 darkness, that craving you have for just a glimpse of sun please, please, please but even the long term forecast is all clouds and cold, you’ll never fully appreciate that day in early March when it hits 47 and the sap is running something fierce and you’re down to a tee shirt and sunburned by noon.
To my student, and to anyone who struggles with their writing (and therefore, to myself), I say this: If you don’t write the sentences that, no matter how many times you rewrite and reorder and rework them, never seem to say what you want them to say, if you don’t do that over and over and over again…. well. You’ll never find the ones that write themselves, the ones that fall into place as if they already existed (and truth is, they probably did). You’ll never know how effortless it can be – not always, not often, certainly not as frequently as you’d like. But often enough to keep calling you forward. Often enough that you do what I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks, lurching along, doing what needs to be done. It can be a little painful. If you’re offering your work for public appraisal, as I am, it can be a little embarrassing.
It can also be no other way.