The Things We’ve Created

Before the snow
Before the snow

Yesterday I drove to Boston for an interview on WBUR and a reading at Brookline Booksmith. I do not as a rule mind these excursions; in some regards, I daresay I enjoy them, though there is always a certain amount of anxiety involved. For instance: I own exactly two sets of attire that might (might, I say!) be deemed appropriate for public appearances beyond the boundaries of my rusticated existence, and there is the lurking complication of getting from the bedroom, down the stairs, across the kitchen, over the porch, and into the car without malodorous or gelatinous (or worse yet, both) substances adhering to me. I’d give the boys a goodbye hug, but they are wearing the same outfits they wore the day before, and the day before that, and the… eh, you get the point. Truth is, even the car isn’t a safe haven, what with the sundry effects of the boys’ hunting and trapping exploits and the greasy layer of mudshitsnowmelt pooled atop the floor mats.

And then Boston, and 45 minutes of driving in confounding circles until finally I call my publicist (who lives and is based there) to talk me onto Commonwealth Ave. And then I go to park, only to remember that the door locks in our car do not. Lock, that is. Well, actually, they lock, it’s just the unlocking process that has become, shall we say, tenuous. So I can’t lock the car for fear I won’t be able to unlock it (and how convoluted a situation is that?), which only makes me more anxious until I suddenly realize (wave of sweet relief washing over me) it needn’t, since what on heaven’s earth could any nefarious Bostonian desire to liberate from our Subaru? A muskrat trap? A homemade axe sheath with the inconsistent stitching of my younger son’s hand? A dog-eared copy of the Vermont Atlas and Gazetteer? Ah, I know: The Complete Classic Rock Collection on CD, volume 5, which includes such gems as Foreigner’s Urgent and No More Mister Nice Guy by Alice Cooper his ownbadself. Hell, they can have it. (Though not volume 6, no way. Why? Because that one contains Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper, that’s why) I am suddenly grateful to realize how little of what we own has value to anyone but us and I know there is an important lesson in that realization. Perhaps for another day.

In my mind’s eye, however bleary and half-lidded it might be, I like to see myself as one of those people who embodies the particular type of resourcefulness that allows him (me) to thrive in any environment. You know one of those people, right? Always cool and collected, always comfortable in their own skin, always sure of their place in this great and beautiful mess of a world. Not quite cocksure but close enough to it. Yeah, that’s how I like to think of myself. That’s the guy I want to be.

Of course, the reality is somewhat different, and the city always crumbles my façade, generally in as much time as it takes for me to become well and truly lost, turning down one-way streets in the two-way direction, shutting off the radio as if the absence of its chatter will somehow imbue me with directional super powers. I suppose that’s why I sometimes resort to haughtily poking fun at urbanity – it’s really just a reflection of my own insecurity, of the way all that concrete and steel and motion and noise and commotion exposes me as the rube I am. Not cool. Not collected. Not comfortable in my own skin. And sure and shootin’ not cocksure. Just a bewildered rural fool backing up traffic on Beacon Street, lost among the masses.

Yet there is something strangely beautiful in the chaos of the city. I see the bike commuters bundled against the cold, making their way through traffic as if impervious to its perils. It blows my mind, the speed and fearlessness of these cyclists. The fluidity. I am jealous. I want to grab a bike and do something improbable, like ride across the city in the middle of a November night, thumping my bared chest with a clenched fist and screaming into the frozen air. Alas, that would likely be the last anyone would ever hear from me.

And I see the noodle shops and the people on the trains and on the sidewalks and how in their own, quiet, unassuming way, everyone makes room for everyone else. You don’t need to do that where I come from, you know – there’s space for everyone to do their thing and no one has to make room because there’s all the friggin’ room in the world – and it occurs to me that it’s a skill worth having. Not merely making room, but navigating the chaos of humankind, pedaling with all your might to shoot the slim gaps between the hard edges of the things we’ve created.




Done in Silence

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


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.