“I just want to READ”

Screen time in our household is quite limited.  For a variety of reasons, we got rid of Netflix, our DVD player, our TV, and one of our smart phones (replaced with an old-school clam style dumb-phone).  We use our computers for work and writing blog posts (Life With The Crew, Hare Brain Investments, etc).

What do we do with all of our non-screen time?  We play outside, we cook, and we read.  On an average winter day, I would guess my daughter spends at least three hours outside, and on an average summer day, I would guess that number creeps towards five hours.

This is not to say that my daughter completely ignores screens.  She exhibits curiosity about the work being completed, but generally she remarks “just computer work” and walks away from the screen asking that we play rather than work.

Instead of watching TV shows or movies (she has seen neither), we read to her.  On an average day, we read to her about two and a half hours – one hour in the morning, one hour at ‘nap’ time and a little more than half an hour at night.  The books run the gamut from the Little House on the Prairie series to children’s readers to her current favorites – “Bilbo” (The Hobbit) or “Frodo and Strider” (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy).

 

There are some dark moments in the books – when Beorn has the goblin head on a pike and warg skin drying in the sun; she knows that passage as: “Beorn had a warg in a cage and a goblin in a trap.”  Rather than “Slicing a head” clean off, the orcs are simply “bonked” on the head with the sword.

We have now completed The Hobbit three times and are working our way through The Lord of the Rings.  I know these books are challenging for her to understand but she gets the large plot pieces.  The nuanced plot pieces and symbolism escape her grasp.

A lot intrigues me about the reading experience with her.  For one, she does not miss a single word.  She may not understand the entire story, but she can probably repeat it verbatim.  I also believe the stories are hard enough for her to understand that she has to use all of her energy to comprehend them.  What intrigues me most is that when I read the story, she settles in to listen.  She does not fidget, pay attention to the dogs, or entertain any other distractions.  She sits next to me and as I read, she gets that thousand yard stare, which I usually associate with extreme tiredness, but for her, I believe it is extreme concentration.  She will sit with that vacant unblinking stare for 45 minutes while we read chapter upon chapter of the books.

Yesterday we read at least two hours of “Frodo and Strider”.  At 9.30pm  was ready for bed and told her that it was time for bed.  She immediately burst into tears sobbing “I just want to READ.  Why won’t you READ to me?!?”

My wife and I chuckled.  There are worse things for a kid to be screaming.

Kafka

I first encountered Franz Kafka the summer before I took AP English in High School.  We were required to read and report on a certain number of books, the number determined by a convoluted point scheme.  As an engineering minded individual I determined the shortest books with the highest point value (ie: least number of pages to satisfy the requirement).  Kafka’s The Metamorphosis made the list.

I’m still unsure how I feel about that story or what the hell it even means.

Over the ensuing 20 years I think about Kafka maybe twice a year.  Really, I’m unsure why anyone would think of Kafka, but on the occasions that I do think about the author I always ponder the meaning of The Metamorphosis.  I am still just as clueless.

Yesterday I was listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast with Ricardo Semler.  I am a fan of Semler and his business philosophy.  If I ever start another business, it will be similar to SEMCO.  In the podcast, Semler describes another Kafka story that he would share with MIT MBA students, Kafka’s Before the Law.

The story is about a man who wants to enter a gate but there is a gate keeper in the way.  The  man waits his whole life and still doesn’t go through.  At the very end of the man’s life, he asks the gate keeper why no one else has even approached the gate.  The gate keeper replies that this gate was just for the man and the gate keeper then shuts the door.  (A translation of the story can be found here…not the best translation but you get the idea).

The meaning I take from Before the Law is that to achieve most of our desires/goals in life we will encounter some type of gate keeper, generally in the form of fear (False Evidence Appearing Real).  To get to what we desire, we have to look fear in the eye and recognize it for the nothingness it really is.

Many, many times, the gate keeper makes it difficult to approach the gate, but always, once I’m on the other side of the gate and looking back, it’s not nearly as scary as I imagined.

 

  

Free range chicken

As the light crept into the sky this morning, I saw a queer sight.  What appeared to be a chicken strutting along the garden fence.  Now, you might dismiss my thoughts as mere indulgence-of-a-young-child’s-imagination, but real chickens do live in my backyard and this particular chicken statue looks quite chicken-like in the pre-dawn half light.

After my brain adjusted to what I actually saw, I remembered a quick comment from the young child the night before: “I forgot to lock up Peg” [‘Lock up’ definition – return to the chicken coop and shut the coop to protect from night time predators].

Everything clicked into place for me once I saw Peggy strutting around the backyard.

All of the chicken statues and stuffed animals that reside in or around my house are called Peg, short for Peggy.  Not because of any wooden legs, but rather from the fun story “Peggy: A Brave Chicken on a Big Adventure” by Anna Walker.  It’s a quick read about a chicken’s adventure in a city, having been blown there by a storm.  For a child with backyard chickens, this story set the imagination alight.

We are so fortunate

I usually read two or three books at a time.  There is no good reason for this, except that I find I desire different types of books at different times of the day.  Maybe the nonfiction I enjoy in the morning helps prime my mind for the day while the fiction in the evening helps me bridge the transition between consciousness and dreams.

 

Two of the books I am currently reading are “One Man’s Meat” by E.B.White and “You Learn by Living” by Eleanor Roosevelt.  I read both in the morning with my first cup of coffee.  This time of year, I read my morning books as I wait for the wood stove to warm the room and by extension, the house.

Both excellent books were written in the mid-1900’s; White’s in the early 1940’s and Roosevelt’s in 1960.  Life lessons of 80 years ago are still applicable today indicating certain immutable traits of humanity.

What is truly eye opening to me are the descriptions of daily life in both books.  In White’s 1939 essay, The Flocks We Watch by Night, he describes entering a friend’s house to sit in the kitchen one evening:

“‘Come in, won’t you?’ said Charles when the ewe was tied.  ‘I’ll show you my new cat.’ …

“The boy and I groped along, and Charles struck a match and lit a lamp.  I sat down in an old rocker by the stove and the boy stood beside me, his arm around me.  Charles put the black kitten in my lap and it settled there.

“‘What’s the iron pipe out back?’ I asked.

“‘I’m going to pipe water into the house,” said Charles.  ‘Sarah wants it and I guess she ought to have it.  I got a pump from Sears a year ago, but I never put the pipe in.  I don’t like to get things too handy around here.'”

And from Roosevelt’s essay, Readjustment is Endless,  (Emphasis mine):

 “For many generations there was no particular change in the family income.  From father to son the situation remained approximately the same.  But wars, depressions, and the – perhaps I could call it the invisible – revolution in the United States have all had their effect on income.

“As young people advance in their jobs and earn more money, they have an important and difficult adjustment to make.  They must learn the best ways in which to use this larger income.   Will they have more education?  Will they add certain things to their homes they never thought of having, such as music or pictures?  Will they have more service?  They must make the decisions.”

These books are less than 100 years old.  For me, these books don’t seem that old at all.  You see, I was born in that odd space that demographers find problematic describing – the exact end of Gen X and the Millennials.  Depending on who you believe, I fall into either camp.  These books were written a little over one generation prior to my birth.

Both of these passages reinforce in my mind how fortunate we are today.  We take running water inside the house for granted.  We flick a light switch and our whole room is illuminated.  We have multiple sources of entertainment – musical, TV, internet, movies, etc.  Over 33% of the adult population has a college degree.  Today, people consider the Amish conservative for not having electricity in their homes – but they still have running water.  Even these ‘backward’ people live a more advanced life than did White’s neighbor.

We take so much for granted.

We should take one moment away from our list of wants and simply be grateful for what we have.

You know what – do that for me.  Take one minute to look around you.  Silence the small voice telling you everything that is wrong or that you need or what the Jones’s have.  Look at something in your house that you take for granted – central heat, electricity, water, your computer, mobile phone(s), photos, art, your spouse, your child; even those people that have passed out of your life, for they were in your life to begin with.

Be thankful for that one thing – many people, including some of your grand parents, were not fortunate enough to experience that one thing.

But you are so fortunate.

        

 

A bite sized morsel

Don’t draw from my lack of writing that no books are passing this desk.  Rather there aren’t enough hours in the day.  A quick list of books that I have read or am reading with the One Sentence Book Review (OSBR):

“One Man’s Meat” by E.B.White  

The best essay so far is “Freedom” from July 1940 Harper’s Magazine.  Text is here.  You can also go to Harper’s and get a lifetime membership for $46…

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holliday  

OSBR: Overnight successes do not exist – rather successes are built by overcoming each obstacle along the path to success.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by  Jon Meacham  

OSBR: Damn, this dude did a lot!

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by BF himself!  

OSBR: Why don’t these old school guys leave anything for us to invent?  Libraries? Check.  Fire Departments?  Check.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family in Crisis by JD Vance  

OSBR: Hillbillys don’t seem to want to help themselves.

The Graveyard Book by Niel Gaiman 

OSBR: (Yes, a fun book).  The story about a boy who lives in a graveyard among ghosts and a vampire.

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly 

OSBR: Super powerful book about the direction of the future.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg 

OSBR: Habits are able to be cultivated (or eliminated) as you see fit; these habits will help or hinder you.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan 

OSBR: Have you ever considered where your meat comes from?

A Spider and a Rabbit

<Spoiler Alert – I include the last paragraph of Charlotte’s Web in italics below.>

My daughter now enjoys chapter books.  She thoroughly enjoyed a children’s version of Wind in the Willows (we skipped the guns and clubs, but she knows weasels and stoats are nasty).  After reading Wind in the Willows no less than twenty times, we decided to stop the broken record and read Charlotte’s Web, unsure if she would understand the ending.  I remember the story from my childhood as we drove to New England, listening to E.B. White reading his own work.  Rereading parts of the book as an adult, I now see (but don’t entirely comprehend) White’s mastery of the craft.

The book is great (if you haven’t read it, you must – but be warned, it’s a bittersweet tear-jerker).  The last paragraph reads:

“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

Damn.

I wasn’t in the room when my wife read the final paragraph to my daughter but I’m told the room was completely silent.  My wife looked at my daughter, who was staring straight ahead, and asked “Did you like the book?”  My daughter turned, made her hands into two little claws, put on her nastiest scary wolf face, growled, then promptly burst into tears while asking “Why did Charlotte have to die?”

Maybe she didn’t get it all; but she got it.  We couldn’t talk about Charlotte for a few weeks after that reading.

We still haven’t reread that book.

At the beginning of Charlotte’s Web, Fern, explains to her father that it’s not fair the runt of the litter is to be put down rather than raised.  Ever since Fern discussing fairness on the farm, we have been hearing about fairness in our home (or rather unfairness).  However, the concept of fairness is not quite yet understood.  A typical conversation:

“It’s unfair the coffee is hot.”
“Oh, did you want hot coffee?”
“No, I don’t like coffee.”
“Do you want hot tea?”
“No, I like the warm water I have.”
“What’s not fair then?”
“That the coffee is hot.”

Which brings me to today.  Just as I was about to pull into my driveway from morning errands, I noticed two tall rounded ears sticking up from the asphalt in front of my neighbor’s house.  Not only were the ears sticking up, but the head seemed upright and alert.  I continued past my driveway to investigate.  As I neared the rabbit, it became quite clear the animal had been hit by a car.  As a result of the accident, the rabbit had been skinned from the shoulders to the tail.

I decided to move the dead animal from the road.

We used to have a free-range rabbit named Maizie.  Maizie moved freely around the first floor of our house.  He enjoyed laying next to our dog water bowl and laid in such a way as to have the effect of one catching some rays on a hot summer day, feet kicked out to the side, leaning slightly on one elbow, just watching the world pass.  “Hey Cabana Boy, drop a carrot this way.  Thanks!”

The rabbit in the middle of the road was laying there in a similar fashion.  I thought: Man, that’s a really wacky way to land after being hit.  That’s when the rabbit turned it’s head to watch my van roll past.

Damn.

This wasn’t fair.

I threw a uey, parked in my driveway and went to get a box and pair of gloves to take the rabbit to the local emergency vet to be put down.  I entered my house and rather than greet everyone, I simply said “I need a box.  A rabbit has been hit in the road and is still alive.  I’m taking it to the emergency vet.”  My wife understood why I was taking the rabbit to the vet, but my daughter only knows that animals go to the vet to get better.

My daughter asked that I repeat myself.  Gruffly, I told her to go back inside.  She lingered in the doorway with a hurt look on her face.  I apologized and explained more slowly why I needed the box – but I used mostly the same words.

After I left, my wife explained how it isn’t fair that an animal would needlessly suffer if we have the ability to end it’s suffering.

“And then dad will bring it back from the vet?”
“No, the rabbit will get a shot and will be dead, but it will stop the hurting.”
“I thought animals went to the vet to get better.”
“Well…”

On being a dad

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Being a dad has many fine points: pushing the swing just high enough that BOTH dad and daughter are a might nervous; telling the stories of Wanda the Wolf (who lives at 1 Cave Road in Circleville PA); encouraging the toddler to coast just a wee bit fast on her Burly MyKick Balance Bike and then convincing her the resultant skinned knee makes her look tough.  The list can go on.

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Photo taken 30 seconds prior to said skinned knee.

Perhaps though, the best part of being a dad is being able to better know my own father.  No trigger I can yet identify causes me to be thrown back to my own childhood, though from the vantage point of my dad:

  • Once, when holding my daughter’s hand I felt oddly nostalgic.  Seeing her hand in mine, I could see my hand in my dad’s when we would walk to the local diner for hot chocolate with whipped cream (now the Bistro at Haddonfield).
  •  Walking down a path in the woods, some combination of roots, rocks and ferns enables me to see myself, three decades prior, running down a similar path.

Just as my dad helped guide me as a child, these rare moments of role-reversal deja vu continue to guide me as a father.

Just because it’s hard

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Gnarly road rash from super aggressive sandpaper.

For most of 2016 (and really, for most of the past 20+ years), I’ve been pondering my future: who I want to be, what I want to do, where I want to live.  Pondering one’s future is not an easy task because it requires a person to review their past as they plot their next steps.  Pondering the future takes time and energy; time and energy that may be devoted to other pursuits.

In fall 1997 or 1998, Outside Magazine ran an article with the 100 things to do to have a successful life.  The activities I remember include: getting marooned on an island (and escaping a week later), bungee jumping, and spend a night in the Sahara.  I’ve tried, with no luck, to locate the original article (update: Here is the article, sent to me by a reader).  Every few years Outside compiles a new, though similar, list.

It must have been fall 1998, because I was dating my high school girlfriend at the time.  Anyway, Outside Magazine inspired my 17-year-old self to write my own list for a successful life.  I spent a teenage eternity of four hours developing my own life-list.  Only 48 goals could spill out of my mind in those hours, but I remember reviewing the list and feeling good about the direction of my life.

The notebook got lost as I moved from home to college, then college to my permanent residence, but one goal really stuck with me: “Be respected in life”.

I wrote those simple words as a 17-year old because of two events that greatly affected me.  I will try to condense those stories here:

  1. When I was 12, my grandfather died unexpectedly.  As the story goes, at the service one of my grandfather’s friends mentioned my grandfather’s height – he was 5’6″.  Astonished, another of his friends disputed the fact stating “Bill [my grandfather] must have been taller!”
  2.  A high-school teacher of mine did his best to mingle with the high-school kids.  He tried to be ‘cool’.  At this point, I am unable to recall specifics, but rather than elevate the students to an adult level, he lowered himself to the student’s level.  As an adult, I’m now aware this particular teacher was experiencing some personal stresses at the time, but this ‘lowering’ behavior disturbed me.

Combined, these two stories demonstrated to me the type of person I wanted to become.  I instinctively knew the ability to elevate others, as my grandfather did, took steadfast personal energy while lowering oneself, as the teacher did, required no energy.

My original journal surfaced a year ago.  Rereading the writing of a 17-year old, the clarity of the 17-year old’s vision astounded the 34-year old.  The list included not only activities: see Mt. Everest from base camp; go skinny dipping; and see a full moon from each continent, but also lifetime milestones: get married; start a family; never stop learning.  The day I reread the list, I checked off nearly one quarter of the entries.

I realized, of the activities I had accomplished, the more difficult the activity the more satisfying the memories.  Wendell Berry alludes to this in his book The Unsettling of America.  While Berry does not outright say “difficult work leads to satisfying memories”, he does argue for a return to a more settled, agrarian society rather than the fragmented, unsettled, city-based society we have today.  Yet he acknowledges that the work he advocates for is not easy and maybe not even enjoyable on a granular scale.  However, when taken in its entirety the work is satisfying.

All of my farmer friends confirm Berry’s thesis.

A minuscule ebb tide of people from cities to agrarian wilds exists today.  Authors such as Wendell Berry and Ben Hewitt actively pursue this lifestyle.  Others, such as The Frugalwoods, want more meaning out of life, so they leave cities such as Cambridge, MA to head to rural locations.

A pall of dissatisfaction hangs over America today.  We are wealthy and the work is easy, but neither appear to bring satisfaction.  Yes, a growing rift between the wealthy and poor does exist in this country, yet some of the most satisfied people I know do not live on the wealthy side of the rift.  Farmers, sawyers, and contractors predominate this satisfied-but-not-wealthy clique on the ‘have not’ side of the rift (which begs the question: What does it mean to ‘have’ or ‘have not’?).

What do all of these people have in common that a large portion of the US seemingly does not?

These farmers, sawyers, and contractors embrace hard work and the satisfaction that follows.  In his book Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World (a spectacular read if you haven’t already), Ben Hewitt discusses both the struggles as well as the satisfaction of a hard-work life.

I have trouble explaining why I enjoy lifting a 120-pound drum sander out of my car only to give myself gnarly road rash on a Saturday morning, but I do.  Is it easy to elevate people as my grandfather did?  No, but my grandfather did so and based on conversations about him, he led a satisfied life.  My farmer friends would “absolutely not trade the financial and physical hardships of this life” for easier work and a larger paycheck.

The older I get, the more I am convinced the answer to the riddle is simply “Just because it’s hard”.