Wednesday, March 20, 2019

To Chicken? Or Not To Chicken?

Let me lay out a few facts:

1) We have a farm.

2) We have no chickens.

3) I yearn to travel.

That we have no chickens, no coincidence, is between two oppositional truths: having a farm and wanting to travel.

After much soul-searching, I decided, finally, that this is the period of my life when I have a farm.

I have been deluded with the very suburban assumption that I live between city and country, I can have the best of both worlds.  To a limited extent, that is true.  I can drive into Madison and get sushi.

I could spend this chapter of my life contemplating the life I don't have, but then I wouldn't be thoroughly enjoying this life that I wanted and chose to live.  (When I lived in town and had the convenience and freedom of walking to the library and going away on trips, I spent a lot of time longing for country life.  It was a yearning that ultimately could not be ignored.)

Living on a farm, and having brought outdoor animals safely through a long hard winter, it is time to savor the farming life, enjoy the long light days of spring, and stop, once and for all, wishing that anything was different.  Because that is an asinine way to live.

So, chickens. YES, chickens!

We have an empty stall in the barn where we can house the baby chicks in a kiddy pool with a little warming lamp.

We have a ramshackle chicken coop next to the barn, and chickens would motivate us to fix it up nice again.

I have a form to fill out from the farm & feed store.  I did my homework; I want Rhode Island Reds and Browns-- hearty, agreeable chickens that can make it through a Wisconsin winter, and maybe a Polar vortex.

The next question was simple: How many?

If we ended up with one rooster, accidentally--it's almost impossible to determine the sex of a chick--then we would need a dozen hens to fend him off.

Did you know that "sexing a chick" is a fine art (involving something about their anus) that literally requires years of training to learn, and you can make a very handsome living doing it, because so few people on the planet can do it reliably and accurately, and because so few people need more than one rooster?

If we didn't get a rooster, then we could do with five hens.  But there's no way of knowing in advance whether they'll be a rooster in the lot or not, so, perhaps it would be wise to go with a baker's dozen.

Of course, then we'd also be more likely to get more than one rooster, and since each rooster requires a dozen hens to fend him off, we'd have to buy two dozen hens.

It would be best not to have any roosters, but, and this is the big philosophical conundrum about the hard realities of farming which even the most romantically inclined East Coast transplant can't ignore: More than one rooster is out of the question.

The second one has to go.

You know what I'm getting at.  I'm talking about the grim prospect of killing a rooster.

But I've grappled with my share of death and gore on this farm--the unavoidable effluence of glorious summer days, blue skies and glossy horses grazing at pasture.

For every moment of transformative bliss, there is its counterpart.

Living in town shields one from all that.

I remember, when I lived in town, I got a call once from the barn where my horse was stabled.  She had injured her mouth, it needed to be stitched up, and the vet had been called. By the time I arrived on the scene, there wasn't a drop of blood on the premises.  It had all been cleaned up.

Here on the farm, when my horses disagree on some pressing issue, and one of them lurches toward the other to press his point home, and the other recoils and leaps back into his door latch and tears open his shoulder...Well, heck, I was standing right there when it happened.  (It was a windy day, and the wind kinda freaks horses out, as do so many things.)

So, I'm thinking, now, after all of the trauma I've been through with life and death and the in-between, I can handle the mortality of chickens. 

Of course, these won't be meat chickens.  We're not savages.  (Kidding! Totally respect people who kill their own meat.  I just don't want to do it.)

I have  a Margaret Wise Brown view of farming, still.  I'm what Real Midwestern Farm Wives call being stupid.  I get it. No offense taken.

The chicken order form has to be turned in by the end of next week.

So, I was talking to my friend, Krista, who grew up among the Amish, who are seriously bad-ass farmers. (Respect!)

A dog kennel fence works best, she said.

I pictured a six-foot tall chain-link fence enclosing my pastoral chicken run.

And then you have to put netting across the top, she said, because the raccoons climb up the fence. They have hands.

I pictured a raccoon tumbling into and falling spread-eagle onto a trampoline of netting, bouncing there for a while, face down and gazing with frustration at the chickens safe below.  Excellent.

What else?

Chicken poop: It smells worse than anything in the world.

Really?  Not worse than dog shit, surely.



We used to clean the coop out every day with a power washer.

Every day?

But we had like, 29 chickens.

I only want 13 or five, depending.

If you have a rooster, it's going to fertilize the eggs.  A hen will get broody and wander off.  You won't see her for a while, and maybe you think a hawk has got her.  But then, one day, she'll come strutting out into the yard followed by a band of chicks.

How cute!, I thought. And how terribly inconvenient.

We'll collect the eggs, I said.  (For this, I received the Midwestern Farm Wives' glance: Yeah... Good luck with that.)

By the way, I suggest cracking your eggs open into a bowl, rather than into the pan or batter directly.

I knew what she was getting at; I did not require explanation.

Because of the partially formed chicks, she said.

Okay, let's talk about something else.

What are you going to do if you get two roosters?  The Rhode Island Reds aren't bad [as meat].  Would you kill it?

I guess.  Someone else will have to do it.

It's not hard, she said.  You go into the coop just before dawn, about ten minutes before they wake up.  You squash your hand down in the middle of their back; and then, with your other arm...Wait, how did that work?  [She gestured with her arms in the air as if to apply pressure to a roosting foul and with her other arm, made less certain, sweeping gestures. What the heck was she trying to do?]

You don't want the wings flapping in your face.  It's very alarming to hold a rooster with wings flapping in your face.

You can kill it for me, I said.

I could do that.  For a chicken or two.

Geez, I thought.  I've tapped into Krista's deepest agricultural instincts: We were now bartering: One kill for two chickens.

Who's going to kill the other chicken?

Maybe, I won't get chickens.  I said it out loud and I meant it.  But I wasn't sure.  I was giving up a lot: the whole point, really, was to embrace my life on the farm--every part of being on a farm--which meant chickens, obviously.

My friend gave me a lot to think about...a lot of grim reality to mull over.

I suppose I should thank her for rubbing the guild off the lily.

Now, when I picture a blue plastic kiddy pool full of fluffy baby chicks, I have a few competing images I can't get out of my head.

Farming. You have to be okay with predation and killing.

You have to see yourself in the food-chain of events, playing your part, making your plans, trying to thwart nature at every turn--foolishly imagining you can.

The chicken form is due by the end of next week.  I still haven't made up my mind.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Gloriana Redacted

I've been experiencing writer's block--not because I haven't had ideas or motivation, but because I haven't had the nerve to write.

I felt that I'd written everything I had to say; there seemed no point in blathering on and on; I'd just be repeating myself.

But, you know, people repeat themselves, all the time.  Nobody tells a story just once.

I thought that I had lost my witty style, that I couldn't write funny anymore.

And that no one, God knows, should take me seriously.

Then again, humor stems from a kind of congenital absurdity. I couldn't shake it off if I tried.

So, here I am, struggling not to write like Queen Victoria.  I've been reading her biography by A.N. Wilson. I'm saturated in 19th Century British royal syntax.

(I know, right?  What's the diff?)

In the BBC series, "Victoria," the dreamy Tom Hughes put on a little weight (just a scosche) to fill out his role as Prince Albert approaching 40.  Albert's chin, by that time, had melted into a doughy jawline, north of a distinctive paunch.

They might have slightly padded Jenna Coleman's petticoats to play a middle-aged Victoria.  But, it was hardly enough to qualify as a symbolic gesture. The stunning Coleman bears no resemblance to Victoria in her late thirties, whose petticoats had been let out a yard or two.

How will the BBC handle two decades of unremitting anguish and mental contortions: Victoria's grief over the loss of Albert?

Will they ignore it, like they ignored her physical metamorphosis?

Will they swap out Coleman for Judi Dench, have Dench reprise her roles as the adorable-when-in-love Victoria in "Mrs. Brown" and "Victoria and Abdul"?

The story of Victoria's now-famous friendship with Abdul, her servant cum munshi, is entirely missing from A.N. Wilson's hefty biography of her life.  What a disappointment!  What a scorching oversight!

I have seen the movie, of course, "Victoria and Abdul," but I want to read the book about their decade-long relationship to get the full picture.

The wanton, even craven, censorship of Victoria's diaries, letters, and entire chapters of her life--by her daughter, Beatrice, and her son, Bertie, is a shame.

Beatrice carefully excised anything personal in her mother's letters--all vestiges of tenderness and friendship; from her personal correspondence with Albert, to that with her prime ministers, and John Brown...

Bertie, as King Edward, destroyed everything concerning Abdul, an exhaustive effort to erase Abdul from British history--his name absent in every single "complete" biography of his mother's life.

Anything Victoria might have written of a personal nature is lost to us, thanks to Beatrice and Bertie (King Ed).

This is a theme I have already written about in relation to my own grandmothers.

Oh, well!  It bears repeating:

Growing up, when I asked about my grandmothers who had passed away before I was born, I was told that they were both very beautiful and smart.

I did not think they could have been very interesting, based on what I was told.

It was only later, as a grownup, that I learned about my paternal grandmother's awful rheumatoid arthritis at a young age; the piano in the living room, silenced; the stoic set of her jaw in photographs as she moved through her orbit as a leader among women on one committee after another.

Later, came the stories of my maternal grandmother slowly suffocating in the twin shadows of her magnetic but overbearing husband, and her creative mother who tacitly competed with her daughter on every level.

Women are much more interesting than what we are propped up to be.

It doesn't matter much whether we are the Queen of England or the daughter of an art teacher; it happens just the same.

At the end of our lives, and sometimes in the middle, we are cleaned up and propped up and placed on a shelf.  We spend eternity on that shelf, gathering dust meant to clothe us in dignity.

Because I had been struggling with writer's block, or because it has become a popular topic, I have been attuned to various people addressing the question of propriety, censorship, creativity, and self-expression.

Ruth E. Carter (Oscar for best costume design), for example, talked in an interview about being ridiculed in high school for how she dressed ("Who does she think she is?").

A podcast comic spoke about the importance of using material that makes him feel exposed and uncomfortable; the imperative to go out on a limb, risk embarrassment, embrace failure.

Amy Schumer posts photos of her naked and pregnant self on Instagram as a challenge to mainstream critics with trollish impulses, noting, in an interview, that the greatest power comes from not caring.

Imagine, if you can, giving yourself the freedom and authority to not care what anyone thinks about the choices you make, the things you do, the way you look, how you live your life; what you say, or think, or post, or write....

I don't suggest that I would, or that anyone should, forswear their privacy.  I don't think that to freedom has to involve turning ourselves inside out, airing out our inner lives on the outside porch like a rug.

No. I think privacy continues to be sacred to every individual, and I'm entitled to mine so long as I'm not attempting to conceal a crime.

Queen Victoria's family were not protecting her privacy by censoring her letters.

If Victoria had wanted her words redacted, she would have had someone do it for her.  But, if it was her choice to write things down, and not her choice to delete them while she was alive, then to censor them after her death was a violation of her privacy and autonomy, in my opinion.

In death, she was like an ordinary woman, cleaned up and propped up on a shelf.  She was, figuratively and literally, embalmed, the blood drained from a life-long habit of writing every breath in her diary.

I glom onto Victoria now as though she were anything solid that floats, and I a shipwrecked sailor.

Her lovable, rough-hewn personality and corpus beckon to me through the centuries.

As I get to know the real, cracked, monstrous, fabulous Victoria, she sometimes whispers in my ear, Just listen to my voice, and read between the lines.