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”.