Done in Silence

November 6, 2014 § 55 Comments

Beet the system!

Beet the system!

This year, we experimented with giving the beets a bit more breathing room. It worked out real good. 

I bet I get more questions pertaining to kids and screens than anything else. It’s amazing what a stranglehold these devices have over children, probably because it’s amazing what stranglehold they have over parents. By-the-by, I’m clearly no exception, because as I’ve pointed out a time or two before, it’s not like I’m scratching these words on the fire-lit walls of my cave with a sharpened brontosaurus bone. On the other hand, relative to the screen-immersed extremes of contemporary American culture, we’re just a bit off the back. We don’t have a TV, although we do have a cell phone, one of those el cheapo prepaid jobs. Every time I need it (maybe once per month), I spend a frenzied 30 minutes or so trying to find the damn thing and then another dozen or so minutes trying to figure out how to retrieve the number, which is hidden deep in the bowels of its click-through menus. So. Computer. Cell phone. Not exactly luddites now, are we?

At the risk of upsetting some readers, I’m going to say what I really think: The immersion into modern digital technology is messing up our children. It’s messing up us. This does not mean there are not good things that come of these technologies; it only means that the damage wrought by these technologies outweighs their benefits. By how much? Hell, I don’t know, but I suspect by a whole awful lot. At least by a hanging half of milk-fed pork. Probably more.

I think things took a dramatic turn for the worse with the introduction of smartphones and tablets, because the introduction of such devices marked a turning point between the need to consciously choose to interact with these technologies and constant, almost ubiquitous presence of them. In many ways, they have become our culture’s default engagement point with the world around us. In our house, we make it as difficult as realistically possible to use the family computer: It’s stuck in the far corner of our living room, it’s generally powered down, and it always has a cloth draped over it, kind of like a diaper. There’s not even a chair next to it, so if you want to use the computer, you have to schlep a chair from the kitchen, remove the cloth, and wait for the damn thing to power up, at which point the brontosaurus bone/cave wall approach starts looking pretty good. Or hell, with all that trouble, why not just read a book or play guitar? Or, I don’t know, talk?

I don’t really know what to say to folks whose kids are already good and hooked on video games and smartphones. As I’ve mentioned before, we just didn’t go that route, in part because we are not of the ilk that deems these technologies essentially benign or even beneficial. You want to know what I really think? Ok, so that’s a rhetorical question, ’cause I’m going to tell you no matter what: I think these things are bad fucking news. I think they erode resourcefulness and discernment. I think they have become a delivery mechanism for the idea that our lives are incomplete, which is a very profitable idea. I think the over saturated experience they offer dulls the senses. I think if my kids were hooked on ‘em, I’d do something really drastic, like put them all through a wood chipper or take the chainsaw to ‘em. I think whatever short term ramifications I had to deal with on the back end of these actions would be preferable to the long term ramifications of allowing their continued use. I realize that’s easy for me to say, not having to deal with either. But still.

Sometimes people ask specifically what we’ve done to avoid the creep of these technologies and devices in our lives (again, being clear that we haven’t avoided it entirely). I’ve already mentioned one of those things – arranging our technology in a such a fashion that our use of it simply cannot be unconscious. This means no mobile devices beyond our barely-used cell phone. You want your kids to spend less time looking at screens? Then you better spend less time looking at screens. Ain’t no way ’round it. This is the hard truth that many parents seem unwilling to acknowledge, probably because they’re just as addicted as their kids.

At my reading last weekend, someone made a really salient point, which, in approximate summation, is this: Every minute we’re with our kids, we’re teaching them. We tend to think of teaching as proactive, as being about books and papers and talking. And sometimes, it is. But the truth is that often it is not, and I’m beginning to think that perhaps the most important things we teach our kids are done in silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because it Just Happens

November 3, 2014 § 25 Comments

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The first cold morning. Not cool, cold. 23 degrees, wind gusting, ice on the cows’ water a half-inch thick. Long underwear. Gloves. The buttugly hat I got at the thrift store for a quarter. Penny tells me it’s not flattering and she’s right, but I wear it anyway. The sun came on me as I milked, first Pip, then Apple, and I squirted a little milk on the tips of my fingers to warm them. Web duck waited at my side for her morning ration and got it. The sound of her drinking: I love that sound.

Every once in a while, I find myself caught in old ways of thinking and I begrudge the milk she drinks, a cup a day or maybe a little more, 300 days each year. 300 cups. 75 gallons per year for five years now or maybe more.  All for a damn duck.

Actually, not true. I haven’t thought that way in years, and I don’t know why I said I have. I guess it’s more that I remember thinking that way, and this morning I remembered it and so gave her an extra slosh, a little stick of the knife, a flip of the bird (so to speak) to that old way of thinking. She probably won’t even drink it all. It’s probably out there right now, frozen solid. Tomorrow morning Penny will kick the icy chunk of it out onto the ground. An offering, then.

Sometimes I think about how people change. How I change. What are the levers? What are the reasons, the motivations? For instance, that thing about the milk, those 75 gallons year after year after year. How did I shift from begrudging the loss of that milk to understanding it’s not a loss at at? Shit, Web doesn’t need it. There’s plenty of food around this place. When did I make that shift? I don’t remember. I don’t think I even realized I’d made that shift until now.

I got an email from Andrea (actually, I got a bunch of emails from Andrea – and she from me – and that might be a topic for another day). You can’t convince people to change, she wrote. You can’t tell them what to do. It needs to come from within. 

I think I agree with her, because I can’t think of a single person who convinced me to change, at least not through the act of convincing me to change, which is probably an important distinction. You can’t tell people to change. Or I guess you can, but if you expect it to work, you’re deluding yourself.

But I also think something else: What’s within comes from what’s without (or is it with out?). It’s a reflection of what we see and hear and think, of the landscape we dress ourselves in, of the people we come to know and love (or conversely, to reject and dislike).   So what happened with the milk? I fed the damn duck for long enough that I came to like feeding the damn duck, the way she waits by my side until I’m finished milking. If I’m too slow for her liking, she might run her beak along my leg. Preening, almost.

Slowly, what was without came within and I wanted Web to have that milk.

So maybe I disagree with Andrea. Maybe you can convince people to change and maybe the way you do that is you offer them things – thoughts, art, ideas, emotions, memories, music, food, appreciation, affection, whatever you have to offer – and maybe eventually they take that within. Not because you tell them they should. Not because you say here’s this thing I have to offer you to help you change. Not because you’re even trying to change them (that would be crazy).

But because you’re not trying.

Because it just happens.

 

 

Something Worth Wanting

October 31, 2014 § 5 Comments

Our friend Nick came over to lead a kid’s natural face-painting workshop. Rocks were ferried from the stream, pulverized by mortar and pestle, and mixed with water and a bit of honey as a binder. Hilarity and stickiness ensued.

Nick has a book coming out soon, which I’m sure you can pre-order from your local, independent book seller. The man’s skills and artistry are something to behold, so I’m guessing the book’s gonna be equally amazing.

If you need more convincing, you can find some examples of his work here.

Here is what I want: I want people to feel the earth calling, and to see the beauty and wisdom of this home we all share. I want the love for the life that flows in and around us to be catalyst of awareness and transformation. I want people to be inspired to take action in order to protect the forgotten places, where silence has a way of speaking with the voices of our ancestors. – from Nick’s Etsy page

That sounds like something worth wanting.

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Best Advice Yet

October 30, 2014 § 21 Comments

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Every morning now, the first thing is fire. There are mornings we could go without, but I’m in the habit, and I like the habit. It’s dark when I get up and sometimes I just sit in the dark for a while, feet up on the part of the cookstove that doesn’t get too hot to have my feet up on it. Sitting in the dark’s ok, especially if you’ve got your calloused heel skin resting on piece of warm iron. Especially if you can hear your coffee bubbling on the stove top.

I think there’s too much artificial light in this world. I think it messes with us. I think that the privilege of starting a fire and sitting in the dark and then cooking your breakfast over that fire  – this morning, fried potatoes and onion, spinach and grated beets, a mess of eggs and bacon – is something worth fighting for. Or maybe “fighting for” isn’t quite right (and besides, I’m as weary of the battle mantra as anyone. Seems like all we do is fight things anymore). Maybe what I mean is that it’s worth bending your life however it needs to be bent in order to accommodate it. Yeah, that’s it: Bend your life however it needs to be bent so that you might have the privilege of starting a fire and sitting in the dark with your calloused heel skin on the part of the stove that doesn’t get too hot to have your calloused heel skin on it.

Damn. Two paragraphs in and already I’ve dispensed the best advice yet to be dispensed on this blog.

I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pieces of the Puzzle

October 29, 2014 § 54 Comments

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Yesterday’s post was the second I’ve deleted out of something like 450. Statistically speaking, I think 2 out of 450 is well within any reasonable margin of error, so I figure I can still claim a perfect batting average, though lord knows there’s gotta be at least another few dozen posts that should be deleted. I’m just too lazy to go and ferret ‘em out.

Usually when I write something here, I pretty much walk away from it. I might read it over once more, fix a typo or two, or maybe change out a word, but that doesn’t happen very often. But yesterday for some reason I kept going back, and I never could figure out how to say what I really wanted to say, maybe because I’m not sure what I wanted to say. Plus, one of the comments made me realize that some folks might be getting false impression of our neighbors, who are some of the most honest, hard-working, generous, and downright decent people we’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. So there was that. And truthfully, the whole thing seemed a little whiny. And as Penny would surely tell you, I know from whiny.

I wish I coulda left the comments, though. There were some real good ones, including the one where someone (can’t remember, could probably go look, but ain’t gonna) asked what I get out of writing in this space. Damn. Hit the mark, there, because I’ve definitely been thinking about that a bunch lately.

In the past two months, my readership has doubled. Same with page views. I suspect it’ll taper off a bit – a bunch of that came from book-related media hits, but still. Big change, real fast. In every sense, it shouldn’t matter. But I also can’t quite shake the sensation of increased exposure and wonder about the impact of that on our lives. This is something we think about a lot – the potential toll of sharing our experiences and the balance between that toll and the rewards. Someone accused me recently of commoditizing my family, and I had to laugh, because generally speaking, I think commoditizing something means you actually earn money on the deal, does it not? If I wanted to commoditize my family, I would’ve said “yes” to the 60 Minutes producer. Or the producer from the BBC. Or maybe the one from National Geographic Television. Or maybe the one who emailed me yesterday; not sure where she’s from, but whatever. It’s gonna be “no.” By-the-by, if any other television producers are reading this, my answer is “no.”

So what do I get out of it? Not money, obviously, or at least not a meaningful amount in the grand scheme of things. Certainly, I get discipline: If there are 450 posts on here, and they average 500 words each, that’s (hang on a minute, this is going to take me a while)… 225,000 words that I wouldn’t have written otherwise. Now, whether or not those words maybe shoulda stayed unwritten is a topic for another day, but you can’t deny the fundamental truth of the fact that if you want to become a better writer, you better write.

What else? Well, I get something out of many of the conversations that crop up in the comments section, that’s for sure. I get something out of taking 30 minutes or sometimes even a bit more to try and articulate whatever it is that’s been bouncing around my too-hollow head. Most days, I don’t even know what that is until I sit down and say it. I get something out of some of the connections I’ve made, some of the lives I’ve learned about. Most recently, Andrea’s. Certainly I get something whenever someone sends me an email that something they’ve read here has made a difference in their life. That’s pretty cool, though part of me wonders if it’s merely some form of self-aggrandizement that makes it so.

But there is a toll. For instance, people want to visit, and I’ve gotta figure out a nice way to say “no,” or a way to say “yes” and not feel put out. Not infrequently, people email with pretty big questions, questions that would literally take hours to answer in full. Or even in part. I thought maybe the consulting thing was a good way to handle that, but after a small flurry of inquiries and a few consults, that’s sort dried up and folks have gone back to simple emailing out of the blue. One person said she wanted to “suck all the experience out of my head” and wondered how we might arrange such a thing. I sent her a nice note with a link to the consulting page, but never heard back. Probably for the best, because I suspect that would’ve hurt like the dickens.

Good, bad; life, death; risk, reward; happy, sad: It’s never just going to be one or the other, and if it is, would you really want it? People say “I just want my kids to be happy,” or some version of that. Not me. I don’t just want my kids to be happy. I don’t just want to be happy myself, because there’s a whole range of meaningful experience outside the boundary of happy. Happy’s great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just a piece of the puzzle.

So it goes with this space, I guess. There are rewards and there is a price to pay for those rewards. In all candor, I actually would like to figure out a way to make money be one of those rewards. Hell, if I had a nickel for every page view, we’d be set. If everyone who subscribed sent me $3 per month, we’d be in tall cotton. I’m not saying I expect that – not even close – I’m just saying it doesn’t seem that outrageous to me, because the truth is, we all do need something to sell. We can sell the sweat on our brow, the ticking minutes and hours of our life. We can sell things that don’t even exist – convoluted financial instruments and other items of conjured value. We can sell guns or chainsaws or pot or firewood or the flesh of the animals under our care. Hell, I’ve sold all but one of those things myself.

Some days, it feels to me as if this space is on borrowed time, as if the toll is outstripping the rewards, and there’s only so long I can abide by that. And then I feel stupid and naive for letting it be that way. Other times, I think the rewards are outstripping the toll, and I feel smart and savvy for having figured out how to make a living – a meager one, to be sure, but still: A living – doing what I love to do, and I see how this space contributes in ways that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

There you have it: stupid, smart; naive, savvy. Just pieces of the puzzle.

 

Happy Reading

October 24, 2014 § 3 Comments

There’s a bit much going on ’round these parts for a proper post, but wanted to share a couple of recent finds.

The first is Andrea’s blog. Real good stuff. Real good.

The second is Mark’s book. Ditto.

Happy reading.

 

I’ll Stop Wondering

October 22, 2014 § 9 Comments

I was cleaning out my office this morning, and found the December 2001 issue of Powder magazine, for which I wrote the following story. I always sort of liked this piece. I sure liked skiing with these guys. It’s hard not to wonder how I’d write this story now if I had the chance to write it again. Which I don’t. So I’ll stop wondering. 

At 11:45 a.m. on a sunny Saturday in early February, at the peak of a remote and nameless Vermont mountain, Tony Berby pops the tab on a can of Natural Light beer. Tony is a big man, perhaps 6 feet tall, and carries a chest made thick by a lifetime of labor. He is also quite thirsty. The callused hand – almost a paw, really – that engulfs the can makes two lingering trips to his lips, and the beer is gone. Tony glance curiously at the empty tin cylinder, shrugs his prodigious shoulders, crushes it flat, and returns it to his pack where it nestles among its remaining five, still-full companions like a wounded animal seeking solace.

This is not a story about drinking beer, though as you’ll see, drinking beer certainly plays a part. Nor is this a story about smoking cigarettes – Marlboro Lights, specifically – but once again, they are a factor, and cannot be ignored. In fact, there are many things that this story is not about – heavy metal music; frozen, crinkle-cut French fries and blood-raw steak; a granite-producing town fallen on hard times – that are crucial to what makes Tony and his friends the most hard-core ski bums east of the Mississippi. So please, allow me to backtrack a few hours, from the fizzy chill of Tony’s mid-morning, head-ringing refreshment, to the cocoon-ish warm of a small greasy spoon on the main drag of a small, snow-washed town.

Fay dances with the coffeepot as if it were a lover, cradling it tight as she dips and twirls around the outstretched limbs, and then – zing! – her arm straightens, the pot tips, and our cups are full once again. Her movements are deft, not unlike an accomplished skier flitting through a thick copse of trees, and it’s clear in the way she works that pot: Here is a women who, given a different upbringing, could slip through mountain trees like a whisper.

Fay leaps gallanting into a drinking discussion as she pours. “I don’t drink too often, myself. Last time I did, I was on the floor for a week.”

Pete, mid-bite, without pause or reflection, indeed, seemingly without thought, bags the punch line: “Betchyer husband liked that!”

Perhaps due to his uncanny ability to escape unscathed from potentially perilous situations like this one, Pete is the unspoken ringleader of all things risky and foolish. Whether talking trash to a waitress, nailing the first run of an unexplored backcountry chute, arcing 2 a.m. powder turns through trees by only the light of his headlamp, or defying every Surgeon General’s warning ever issues, Pete stands just slightly to the left of harm’s way. He pulls you in with the sheer breadth and charm of his enthusiasm, the gleam of his blue eyes, and the constant, barely contained thrum of energy that courses through him like a gasoline fire. And it’s contagious. Pete’s vitality rushes off him in waves, until you feel the same warm surge of invincibility that seems to drive his every waking moment.

Stop. For now I must take you forward in time, not – as you might expect – to a ski slope, but to the meat aisle of the Grand Union supermarket. It is somewhere between late evening and full-blown night, and we are ravenous. It’s been a long, hard day skiing the trees of Mad River Glen, punctuated by an ambulance ride for our friend Tom, and although Tony and Pete paw wolfishly through the stacks of bloody steaks, squeezing and poking, sniffing and discarding, there is a certain detached weariness to their actions. Tom’s shit-luck accident, caused by a stump lurking under fresh powder, is a grim reminder that nobody wanted. And while Tom’s injury will prove less serious than we originally thought, the echo left by his howl of pain and the strobe of the ambulance light still bounce ‘round our brains.

Thick, USDA prime cuts in hand, we pause at the frozen foods where Pete digs deep to find crinkle-cut fries. From these ingredients, plus six-packs of both Guinness and Molson Export (“I like this stuff, but I’d rather have the good ol’ 3.2 percent when I’m skiing,” explains Tony), we will fashion a late feast. We will eat long and hard, filling our bellies with beef and potato and beer, eating and drinking to forget our own vulnerability, and to fuel ourselves for the weekend that lies ahead, stretching before us in all its sun-warmed, snow-blanketed glory.

Saturday’s destination, known only as “The Hill,” is just south of Pete’s hometown of Barre, Vermont (by this, I mean the town where Pete was born some 36 years ago, raised, and now lives and works). Barre was built on granite, both literally and figuratively. It is home to what is widely regarded as the highest quality memorial-grade granite in the world, and as his brother does, as his father did, Pete carves a living out of stone. He’s in sales now, which holds certain benefits over the actual mining and cutting of rock. It’s not life-threatening, for one. For another – and surely more important to Pete – he gets laid off for two months each winter. As he puts it, he’s “on the Governor’s ski team,” which means he collects a subsistence-level unemployment check, and skis day in and night out, almost always in the company of Tony. Often, they are joined by Bob, a thickset Belgian telemarker who services the massive, 10-foot saw blades that slice multi-ton slaps of granite into more manageable sizes.

Today will be the 40th-something time this season Pete has donned climbing skins for the 90-minute trek to The Hill’s gladed peak, where he and his skiing partners have thinned the forest to create over two dozen trails of varying width, pitch, and length. The longest, Sanctuary, drops nearly 1,000 feet through a hardwood forest. It’s a five-minute rip down, and a 30-minute slog back up. On a good day, the boys will hit Sanctuary four or five times, and bag maybe a half-dozen runs on North Slope before stopping to grill T-bones or boil hot dogs. If the snow is fresh, and time a more precious commodity than warm food, Pete snacks on 25-cent packages of crackers and processed cheese product, while Tony slurps cold creamed potato and ham soup straight from the can, washing down each gelatinous bite with a glug of Natural Light.

Up here, atop this mountain, in the absence of chairlifts and the people who ride them, the boys are at home. There is no safety net, no place to get warm, and perhaps more importantly, no one to judge their Vermont accents thick as spring mud, skis salvaged from rental shop dumpsters, and Tony’s tattered, beloved Marlboro Gear backpack. On this desolate and frigid mound of granite, earth, and snow, these men have carved a place for themselves where they can revel in the freedom afforded by a set of skis in powder, and the comfort of their own culture.

By the time we reach the end of the dead-end road that accesses The Hill, Pete has lapsed into a rare moment of silence, and Bob’s big, red Ford truck is parked tight against a high snowbank. Maybe Pete’s quiet because he knows that Tony and Bob are already halfway up the hill, a good 45-minutes closer to fresh tracks than we are. Or maybe it’s because his lay-off is almost over; in a few days, he goes back to work, and his skiing will be limited to nights, weekends, and the odd afternoon he manages to slip out the back window at work. Or perhaps he’s remembering his father, Harold “Cannonball” Richardson, who died four years ago. Cannonball was a hell of a skier; all week he worked the stone, and on the weekends drove to Tuckerman Ravine where he laced is low, leather boots and dropped into the bowl with the same certainty of success he passed on to his son. Two summers ago, Pete has his friends hiked Tuckerman and scattered Cannonball’s ashes from the headwall, where they caught on the breeze and hung in the air, much like the pungent smoke that drifts back to me from a figure that fades into the trees as he begins to climb.

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