Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Observations in Fourth Grade Math

I've been volunteering in Josh's fourth grade math class for a couple of weeks.

I've noticed that the kids are no longer affectionate, the way they were in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade.  (I didn't volunteer last year, so I don't know if this change occurred during third grade or over last summer.)

Even the neediest one, who has known me since kindergarten, passes by without a word or so much as a glance.

If I happen to catch a kid's eye, (because I recognize them and I generally acknowledge people I know), they look away as quickly as possible, as though recognizing me had been a potentially compromising mistake.  (I am still redolent in fourth grade unpopularity.)

There is one kid who passes me in the halls and says hello.  He's handsome and popular, and he can do whatever he wants.

When our kids are very young, they don't understand what we're talking about, so we say whatever we want.  Later, we continue to say whatever we want, and our kids do understand us, but we pretend that they don't, or that they're hearing isn't as acute as our own--an example of gross self-deception, when you're over 40 and your kid's tiny inner-ear hairs are as thick as grass and he's never accidentally punctured his eardrum with a Q-Tip, as adults of my generation do, on a regular basis.

Joshua regards Q-Tip usage as similar to smoking cigarettes.  You're not supposed to do it, it's not good for you; it's a bad example for your children, Josh is quick to point out; and, most of all, it is morally suspect.

So, it has come to this: I enjoy cleaning my ears with a Q-Tip when I am sure that I am absolutely alone--and much less frequently than I used to.  (But it just gets better!)

Given how we adults pretend that our kids are deaf and dumb, or simply not there, (so we can have an interesting conversation from time to time,) it shouldn't come as a surprise when they ape the same behavior among their own friends, with regard to us.

I don't remember from fourth grade that adults suddenly became so ridiculous that you simply couldn't afford to be seen associating with them.

What I remember from fourth grade is my teacher, Miss Teaman, telling us about growing up during the Great Depression, when she would eat an apple with a reverence unknown to fourth graders in my classroom, consuming every last bit except the seeds and stem.  She'd take on a childish voice, refer to herself as "little Molly," wrap her arms around her shapeless middle, and rock herself as she described eating the apple.

It must have been some apple.

I have always been completely oblivious to politics, except when I have run afoul of them.  I don't think anyone played with me at recess until sixth grade, when Wendy Matthews moved back to town and became exceptionally popular.  She strapped me to her star and away we zoomed, into an exciting world of birthday parties and sleep-overs.  It was great!  I've been trying to tether myself to popular people ever since.

Josh's math teacher, a paragon of virtue in stylish clothes, usually gives me the kids' math worksheet with the correct answers written in, which is not quite as condescending as it sounds.  

You have two graphs: You have to interpret them and draw a conclusion.

The teacher had written, "The answer varies."

What kid in third grade uses the word "varies"?  What kind of trick question is that?  What does that even mean?  "The answer varies."  I had no idea.

Just as I was getting really annoyed about this meaningless answer, a kid asked me about that precise question.

Oh, God!, I thought.  I don't even understand the answer!  

The answer varies, I said.

Oh!, the kid said.  So there can be different answers?

YES!, that's right!  There can be different answers!  That made perfect sense!

Tell me, young Skywalker, what conclusion would you draw?  

The kids fare better when I don't have my cheat sheet.  Then I have to read through the problem and think through the math, and that makes them see that that is what they are supposed to do.  They are emboldened by my oafish progress, and usually arrive at the correct answer before me.

If I already have the answer, then I am merely performing one of those adult magic tricks in that mystifying way in which adults perform impossibly complicated tasks, like driving five hundreds miles without getting lost, and having conversations with other grownups that are almost impossibly difficult to follow.  

Josh enjoys having me in his classroom, but he doesn't show it.  (Savvy!)  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Reflections on Day Five of My Spending Diet

Day five of my spending diet.

On Oct. 17, I spent $9.70 on subway sandwiches for Josh and me. I also bought Josh chips. No need for him to suffer.  (I needed a sandwich because I had a meeting at 6:30.)

I spent nothing on Oct. 18.

On Oct. 19, if you don't count the cost of the two kittens, two litter box pans, and their cat food, all of which fell under the category of earmarked expenses, I spent nothing.  (I know how that sounds. I did in fact spend a bit over $200 on the kittens, but it was earmarked--let's not be arbitrary and rigid; that's not what this exercise is about.)

Today, I spent about $9 on a gallon of milk and double-A batteries.

And what is this exercise about?, you might ask.

Well, let me just say, I went into Walgreen's this afternoon, took $60 cash out of a cash machine, got the milk, got the batteries, paid for them, and left.

Previously, when I went to Walgreen's, I'd go into a rapture-like trance.  I'd lose my focus, hardly be able to remember what I'd originally come there for; I'd peruse the aisles with fully engaged gathering instincts, scanning the merchandise for anything that I might need, anything on sale:  Facial cleansers, skin moisturizers, hair moisturizers; buff or nude non-comodogenic foundations....

The cosmetics aisle was a particular area of weakness. I could never decide whether my skin was neutral or cool.  Were my veins green or blue?  Was I ready to buy one of the anti-aging formulas?

I'd stand there for quite a while.  Staff would approach me, Can I help you?  Are you looking for something?  No, I am a crazy lady, rapturously overwhelmed, scrutinizing the the veins on the back of my hands and wrists.  Do you think they are blue or green?

Twenty minutes might go by easily, and I'd never leave without spending $25 or more.

I agonized over every purchase.  Everything had to be well-reasoned and economically justified.

How is it that I did not need something when I was home, but when I got to the store, I'd find so many things that I needed?  It happened all the time.  I'd get to the store, and I'd be like, What do I need?  What do I need?

The thing I need most in my life is time.

I need time at least as much if not more than I need money.  I need time to do the work that I do that makes money.

I need time to write these posts.

I need time to go to the barn and ride my horse.

I need time to walk my dogs.

I need time to spend with my family.

I need time to myself.

I need time to do household chores.

My life sprawls, happily, and the one thing I need the most to accommodate that sprawling life, is time.

So, that's mainly what this crusade is about: Not spending 20 minutes at Walgreen's.  It's less about the money, and more about the time.

And yet, it's also about the money.  Because, every now and then, I realize, I am frittering away so much money that I am reluctant to spend it on things that matter.  For example,. I  might feel that I can't afford to be generous in writing a check for a charity that I like.

Having a farm, (or, for that matter, being alive), there is always the potential for unexpected expenses--there's just a lot of ongoing maintenance and repairs, like blowing out a tire on the new International Harvester tractor circa 1957.  Add to that, a horse, two kittens, possibly some goats, maybe chickens, three dogs...There's a lot of actual and potential expense there.  One can't reasonably continue to fritter away one's income on this 'n that, any more than one can afford to fritter one's time away at Walgreen's or Target, with so much stuff to do.

The other thing about being on the farm is that I don't want to be anywhere else.  I  love being here, and I don't want spend time away from here if I don't have to.  I don't want to be in Walgreen's.  I don't want to be at Target.   There are very few places I want to be, other than here.  I know, this could become a vice.

I am not coming to this spending diet from a Puritanical perspective.  No.  I am coming at it from a perfectly selfish perspective.  I want more of my life back.  I want my time and my money.  Time is life.  Money is power.  I want more of both.

I also want to break the habit of throwing money at anxiety, in the same reflexive way that I sometimes eat to assuage anxiety.  If it worked, that would be one thing, but, in my experience, it doesn't work.  Take, for example, my earlier post about Josh's birthday.  Or, for a new, updated, fresh and enhanced example, that over-priced cake and wine that I bought for my birthday in a fruitless effort to impose cheer on a difficult Tuesday.  You can buy  happiness, but on that Tuesday, it would have had to have been either a lot more money coming to me, or just a much better tasting overpriced cake.

You have to factor in that money also raises your expectations, and thereby sets you up for further disappointment, so if that fancy gourmet cake turns out to be stale, then you feel even worse than you would have without it, or with a regular cake.  And if you spend a lot of money on your kid's birthday, and he doesn't have a good time, then you feel worse than you would have felt if you had not spent so much money for his enjoyment.

Being on a farm is different from being in town in some ways that make you think differently.  We have our own septic and our own water, and we have to take our own trash and recycling away.  You start to think more independently, because you are independent of so many of the public services that in-town folks enjoy.

The woman who sold us this farm told me, several times, that if we were diligent about harvesting the green beans, and if we froze them properly, they would last us all through the winter and into the spring.  At the time,  I thought, Well, how many bags of frozen beans have I bought in the last fifteen years?  Frankly, I could go a whole winter with no green beans at all.   I'm not from the Midwest.  I don't do the green bean mushroom soup casserole thing.

I think that what she was trying to tell me was that if I played my cards right--if I sewed and reaped my veggies and raised chickens, and bought a bread maker...then maybe I could get away with hardly ever leaving the farm. Maybe, I could just eat green beans and butternut squash all winter and gaze out over the natural beauty surrounding me through the changing seasons for as many hours of mt life as I possibly could.

I think that was the promise that the green beans held out, and also of the freezer in the basement, big enough for a year's supply of vegetables and one-half of a grass-fed cow.

It's about trying, if not succeeding, to cut ties with Walgreen's and Target--or, failing that, to change the relationship to just being friends.  No more rapture.  No more long afternoons spent together.  Just keep it formal and civil.

Hello.  Milk.  Double-A batteries.  Thank you.  Good-bye.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Ten-Dollars-a-Day Diet

I'm on a money diet.  Specifically, a spending diet.  Other than already ear-marked purchases, bills, car fuel, etc., I'm not going to spend more than $10 per day.  

When I'm at the supermarket, I'll buy milk if we need milk.  I'll buy the ingredients I need, and only the ingredients that I need, to make what I'm going to make when I get home.  

No longer will I spend $75 - $100 at the supermarket when all I really went there for was a package of ground coffee and an onion.

No longer will I throw money at problems, think creatively about how to spend money, or spend time and money saving money by shopping at thrift stores for stuff I don't need.  

I'm not going to think about spending on home improvements.  

I'm not going to shop on Craigslist.  

I'm not going to shop on the Internet at all. 

Because, let's face it, it's madness! 

I picked up a china cabinet from a woman on Craigslist the other day.  Her new house was full of new stuff, stuff from Pier One and Bombay Company (or similar).  

There seemed something frantic about it.  At the moment, she was anguishing over the placement of a few decorative objects in her finished basement,. (Everything above ground was already just so to the point of shrill.) 
Her basement was more formal than most people's above-ground rooms.  

She was not happy about giving up the china cabinet.  It had been part of her childhood and may have been in her family for generations, (circa 1880).  But, it no longer fit in, so it had to go.  

Everything, everything, everything!, was new and everything, everything, everything! was Bombay Company (or similar), brought to the Midwest on container ships from parts unknown.  And, eclectic as it strained so hard to be, it still insisted on elbowing out the china cabinet, with its sordid untold tales of bearing witness to the human condition and all of its cluttering emotional effluvia.  

Does this go here?, she asked me, referring to two large curio cabinets and the vessel in between with brightly dyed decorative grasses exploding out of it.  

You'll say, I shouldn't have been honest, and I should have said it looked fabulous.  Perhaps, that would have been the kind thing to do.  

But, it wasn't quite right.  She knew it.  I knew it.  And she wasn't going to let it go, not ever.  

So, I said that I thought that if it was all just 25% smaller--if she could possibly run the whole thing through a 3-D photocopier at 75 percent--then, it would be perfect.  

But, I pointed out, because it was true!, and because she clearly needed a reality check!, it really didn't matter.  It was, after all, a basement.  Get a grip, lady!

In one corner, her husband had staked a space for himself.  I could tell immediately that he fished and hunted.  The head and neck of a deer had been mounted to a wall.  It had more gesture than any deer head I had ever seen.  There was arch in its neck and expression in its eyes.  I don't care for mounted heads, but I found this one captivating.  

The wife hated it, of course, the whole man-cave space, an aggressive assault against her aesthetic campaign. 

I imagined, looking at his area, that the husband was more sane than the wife.  And that the wife's house had somehow turned into a prison, and that all of this decorating, which clearly had been going on for months if not years, and which must have cost tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours, were less comforting for her than the accumulated tallies that prisoners etch into the walls of their cells to mark the days.   

And as we hauled the china cabinet up the stairs to the surface, and out the door to my minivan, I thought, okay, she's further along on the spectrum than I am, but I am on the spectrum.   

The whole experience was deeply discomfiting.

So!, I'm on a spending diet.  This is day two. 

Yesterday, I spent nothing.  

I kept remarking to myself, I'm not hungry!  Isn't that odd?  Why would I be hungry?

I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Work of Grace

Grace, that beloved horse, will not be returning to Wisconsin from South Dakota after all.

And that is okay, because Phil and I were going mad under the pressure of setting up house for two horses in the midst of setting up house for ourselves.

The barn needs work, there are soybeans where there ought to be grass, and then there is the matter of erecting fencing...

It was making Phil and me cranky.  For Josh, for whom the farm had been a hard sell, this was not sweetening the deal, which I was aware of, and which put me in mind of the legal term "bait and switch", the practice of advertising something wonderful at a low price and substituting it with something crappy for a high price.

Yes, the farm had been a hard sell.  There had been discussion of purchasing an ATV Gator, of getting kittens and raising bunnies, of building tree houses and hosting parties in the loft of the barn.

What Josh got instead was a big old tractor that he won't be allowed to drive until he's 14 or 15.  Having discovered an enormous pile of raccoon excrement in the loft, (which, if you recall, is outrageously toxic), we decided to stage the birthday elsewhere.  Needless to say, no kittens or bunnies.  No tree-house, as of yet.

Yeah.  We promised him a Porsche.  We gave him a toaster.

So, today we are going to go get a couple of kittens.

When I mentioned this to Josh yesterday, he threw his arms around me and screamed with delight.  I don't think he's liked me this much since before we moved to the farm.

Over time, we may get bunnies and goats, and we will certainly have a couple of horses by next summer, after the pastures have been established and we've put up fencing.

Gracie's story is worth telling.  I wrote about Gracie in an earlier post, but, to re-cap, I half-leased her last year and spent a lot of time with her.  She's a tremendously dear creature--think 1200-pound Basset Hound, all stubbornness and devotion.

Last year, Gracie moved to South Dakota to live on a big cattle ranch near the Minnesota border.  (She was not, thank God, affected by the recent blizzard that tragically killed hundreds or maybe thousands of livestock and horses.)

Unfortunately, Gracie didn't take to the cows.  She found them frightening, and she was disinclined to work with them.

With Gracie, as with Basset Hounds, disinclined means DIS-IN-CLINED.

The very tall and handsome cowboy whose ranch it was, whose boots practically touch the ground when he rides a horse, tried to make Gracie see sense.   But she was DIS-IN-CLINED, with an obstinacy that defied proven-effective cowboy persuasion techniques.

That horse is no good, he said to his wife, who loved Gracie.  It won't work with the cattle.  No one can even ride her, she bucks so much.  

The wife, who was also a mother and a media celebrity and a bit of a rock star, knew what was coming.

That horse is a hay burner, said the cowboy.  [I'm kind of imagining this conversation, btw.]

Hay burner.

From a cowboy perspective, that's what my own horse is.  Belle doesn't make money, she costs money.  I ride her around and groom her and write checks.  I don't compete with her, she doesn't win money.  She's not a wrangler or a cutter...To be fair, she's capable of all of these things.  With a great rider, she could be a money maker.  Her potential has gone largely untapped.

But Grace, to be honest, hasn't got the potential to be anything but a hay burner.

When the cowboy's wife, (let's call her Moxie), had the blues, she was in the habit of going out to the pasture and calling Gracie, who would come running.  Moxie would wrap her arms around Gracie's neck and have a good cry.

Moxie agreed, back in June, to sell her to me, because she knew that there was no place on a working ranch for a hay burner, and that I loved Grace and would take good care of her.

After my family moved to our farm, I began to ask Moxie exactly when they would trailer Gracie back to Wisconsin.  For one reason or another, Gracie's ETA kept slipping.

Finally, Moxie admitted that she was ambivalent about selling Grace, and in fact had been crying herself to sleep every night thinking about it and crying on Gracie's shoulder daily.

Now of course, I harbor no judgments about hay-burners, I think they're fine.  I hail from the suburbs where all little girls aspire to have a hay-burner some day, a hay-burner of her very own to ride around on and love on.  From my perspective, Gracie was an ideal horse; her hay-burner heart was as big and true as you could ask for.

So I said, Then keep Gracie, for goodness sake!  Why would you even think of selling her?

But Moxie had been trying to see things in the practical way of the successful cowboy rancher.  She loved her big handsome cowboy and didn't want to come across as being decadent and suburban.

And yet...

Some folks, (not just cowboys, but those whose paramount interest in horses is winning in shows or running a ranch), don't appreciate the usefulness of a horse like Gracie.

But I think, prior to the proliferation of the automobile, horses like Gracie were keeping people like Moxie and me, and people coming home from wars, and young kids who didn't fit in well at school, and all kinds of troubled, broken, human people--sane and sound for thousands of years.

We just didn't know it.

Eventually, a couple weeks ago, Moxie's cowboy did come to understand the implications of life on the ranch without Gracie.  In fact, Gracie really was a working horse. And that is why Gracie, that great and gifted horse, will not be coming to live on our farm.

P.S., Thank you, everybody, but please do not send me the name and number of everyone who is looking to re-home their horse.  You can pluck a horse out of the air in Wisconsin, (I've had already had offers of half a dozen equines), and I really don't need one before June of next year.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Many Perils of Country Life

This is my first post from the farm, and I am here to tell you that we are okay.  And well you might wonder whether we are okay, given the many perils of country life.

Oh, you're not aware of the many perils of country life?

Neither were we (!) until we announced that we were moving and the scary stories came flooding in.

Did you know that our original barn (not our new barn, circa 1940), was blasted off the planet by a tornado? Which goes to explain why the new barn was overbuilt, in the way that Noah's ark may have been said (by his building inspector) to be overbuilt.

Our new barn, (circa 1940), stands square, its knees slightly bent, shoulder-padded against the expected onslaught.

I can see the barn from my bedroom window, clear as Oz.  It's all that stands between one homicidal breeze...and me.

There is a swarm of wasps outside our bathroom window.  They squeeze through the cracks in their pilgrimage to the tub, the sacred place where they go to die.

There's a swarm of yellow jackets in the chicken coop.  Don't open that door.

A thousand million heat-seeking flying beetles bask in the warmth of the south side of our house.  They cling to the cedar shakes like noodles on drywall.  As the day cools, they begin to search for an opening.  By dusk, they are frantic.

Hundreds find their way in.  I hoover them up with a screaming loud hand-held vacuum.

But at night, as I try to drift off to sleep, invariably, one crawls across my shoulder.  I wake up, turn on the light, throw back the covers, scrutinize the floral pattern of my sheets....

I see nothing.  But I had felt it.  It was there.  It is probably still there.  I have to turn off the light.  Sometime.

I grew up with nature magazines that featured an adorable critter named Rocky Raccoon.

I now know four people who would to come to my farm, armed to the teeth, for the express purpose of blowing away my inevitable raccoon problem.

Like the legions of beetles, the raccoon seeks relief from the cold.  Undesirable tenants, they bring rabies and poop so poisonous that if you touch it to your eyes (and I don't know why you would do this, but do not do it if you're at all tempted) you will go blind.  Truly.  Dead serious.  Don't touch it.  Don't breathe it.  And for God's sakes, don't stick it in your eyes.

Raccoon fear nothing.  Not barn cats.  Not dogs.  Not horses.  Not giant circa 1957 International tractors. Not light, not power tools, not even the giant water slides at Kalahari can deter the rabid and toxic bandit from setting up its "nursery" in your barn.

You have to get a gun.  Or a trap.  Or hire a hit man.

Or, you could get an owl.  Barn owls eat baby raccoon, and that makes for a bad nursery situation.   But you can't find one on Craiglist.  You have to make a barn owl home (a very big bird house) and hope that the owl finds it on Craigslist.

We don't have an owl, yet.  Or a gun.

Among other unexpected frights, we have butternut squash.

What, you don't know about butternut squash?

They were planted in the garden, and they are legion.  Their little forms look like cabbage patch dolls, or, actually, they look like real babies that grow big and plump nestled in among the weeds.

They also grow near our compost,which we haven't been stirring or handling properly, so that is another horror show and we are quickly losing our taste for salad.

I am inundated with the squash, and since they look like babies, I have to take them in.  And then I have to peel them and chop them up and put them in the freezer in plastic bags.  Because that's what you do with butternut squash.

I skinned three the other night, all of them found huddled in the grass around the horrifying compost.  I held each one in my left hand over the sink and peeled its skin off with my right hand.

When I finished, I took up my customary spot on the couch between the dogs.  Phil and Josh were chuckling over the genius of Mike Meyers as Dr. Evil in an early Austin Powers, when I suddenly noticed that I could no longer feel the tips of my fingers on my left hand....

Then the whole palm went numb and took on the appearance of a monkey hand.  The skin was thick and leathery.  Flexing or stretching, it felt as though the skin would crack open, as if I had been ice-fishing all day with only one glove.

Josh and Phil weren't particularly interested in the bizarre reptilian metamorphosis of my hand.

You can Google "butternut squash skin".  It is a real and much under-reported phenomenon.

It's always the hand that holds the squash, never the hand that peels it.

You can wash the hand as much as you like, or douse it with intensive moisturizers.  It makes no difference whatsoever.

If you peel it, thinking it's like an Elmers glue of butternut squash goo, well, you can; but, in fact, that is your skin.

You just have to go to bed and pray that the condition doesn't spread to your elbows and your shoulder and your forehead, and that you don't wake up in the middle of the night with your whole body cracking like an old discarded saddle in the barn, which, btw, you can see from your window, still braced for catastrophe.

Fortunately, the squash condition did  not spread to my eyeballs.  My hand returned to normal by the end of the next day.

But I do wonder:  Why vilify the raccoons?   And not the butternut squash?  I mean, am I going to rub raccoon poop in my eyes?   Probably not.  I am more likely to peel butternut squash.

A word to the wise:  Wear gloves.  All the time.  You never know what you're touching.