The mad farmer, after the election

Every Wednesday, as part of our homeschool curriculum, I read a poem with my daughter. We talk about what it means and whether we like it (and why). Sometimes we analyze it. Then she responds by drawing or painting.

Last week I had intended to read G. K. Chesterton’s “For a War Memorial” in observance of Veteran’s Day and the Feast of St. Martin. But it was the day after the election, and she was upset and worried. So we read, instead, a couple of Wendell Berry’s “mad farmer” poems: “The Mad Farmer Revolution” and “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

the mad farmer plows up the parking lot in front of the polling place
In a parking lot / he planted a forest of little pines.

I think we both felt better afterwards.

Practice resurrection, friends.

Short people got reason to live after all

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., October 30, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 19:1–10

It’s funny what we remember and don’t remember from childhood. The church my family attended until I was seven years old is a complete blank to me. I can’t recall the name of my Sunday School teacher or a single thing I did there. I do, however, remember three very important lessons from those days. One, Jesus loves me. Two, the animals went in two by two. And three, Zacchaeus was a wee little man.

In case you’ve forgotten, or never had the joy of singing the “bible song” about the little dude, or, like me, couldn’t quite believe your memory when it was jogged, here are the lyrics, sung to something not unlike the tune of “Old King Cole”:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see;

And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree,
Zacchaeus you come down
For I’m going to your house today.

The author’s no Bob Dylan, and I feel like there’s something missing in this version of Luke’s gospel, but, you know, there’s no better way to remember something than to set it to music. And so even today, even this very morning, children all over America are learning that Zaccheus was a wee little man.

Poor Zacchaeus.

So the guy was short. Do we have to go to “wee little man”? I keep wanting to say it in a bad imitation of a brogue, as if he were a leprechaun. Imagine what it would be like to spend your life being referred to as a “wee little man.” (Imagine being referred to as a “wee little man” two thousand years after you’re dead!)

Zacchaeus probably didn’t have to imagine it. Even in Luke, “short” seems to have been his identifying characteristic, and given that human nature sadly hasn’t changed much in two thousand years, I suspect that he may have been mercilessly made fun of for his lack of stature in life as well as in death. It happens. Children will mercilessly make fun of one another for pretty much anything, given the chance. So will adults, for that matter.

If you’re Zacchaeus, if people greet you with “hey shorty” or look over your head, pretending not to see you, if they always pick you last for dodgeball games and pass you over for promotions… if, in short, nobody ever seems to take you seriously… Well, what do you do? You could learn to laugh them off. You might choose to believe your mother when she told you the other kids were just envious. You might meekly curb your ambition, accepting that you would never command the respect of your tall friends.

Zacchaeus didn’t do that.

Zacchaeus became a tax collector.

We know what tax collectors were in first century Israel. Agents of the occupation. Traitors to their people. Flanked by Roman soldiers, they collected taxes from hard-working Jews and, to provide for themselves, tacked on whatever bonus they liked. Since Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector, we can assume he provided for himself quite well indeed…. at the expense of those rotten little so-and-sos who never took him seriously.

Oh, they’ll take me seriously now, all right.

Zacchaeus was not only a wee little man. He was a mean little man. If being short held him back, he could always get meaner.

Zacchaeus got revenge. Continue reading “Short people got reason to live after all”

A timeline of political parties in the United States

low-res: political parties timeline

One of the more difficult things about teaching nineteenth-century U.S. history is explaining the rapid and complex shifts in political parties. The Democrats of 1850 aren’t like the Democrats of today, and the Democrats of 1800 aren’t even the same party; though they faced off against Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans, those parties didn’t always draw on the same issues or demographics — and don’t even get me started with the Know-Nothings. A visualization would help, but there wasn’t one, so I created this one during my work with LEARN NC at UNC-Chapel Hill. You can view it here as a poster-sized PDF, and it’s licensed Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND), so share and use it freely!

Ethical sales, selling ethics

NPR’s Natalie Jacewicz asks whether Millennials are hypocrites when it comes to chocolate:

In a survey of participants ages 18 to 35, millennials reported caring about ethical issues like environmental sustainability and social responsibility in chocolate production. But when choosing chocolate privately, these self-proclaimed ethical shoppers were all chocolate bark and no bite. (Sorry.) Most showed little preference for labels advertising ethical sourcing and instead preferred labels with ingredients they recognized — items like “chocolate” and “butter,” rather than “tertiary butylhydroquinone.”

When talking in general terms, participants in the study (which, it bears mentioning, was funded by Hershey) said they favored ethically sourced chocolate, but when presented with unbranded chocolate bars and asked to choose, ethics took a back seat.

Most participants consistently paid attention to whether or not they could pronounce the ingredients in a bar, but only a small, socially conscious group — representing 14 percent of participants — showed strong preference for ethical labels.

A “corporate sustainability specialist” quoted in the story says this goes to show that young people “tend to be quite aware of social issues and environmental issues. But if you push a bit harder, it’s a lot of talk, but not always action.” In other words, corporations can just ignore that ethics stuff, because people don’t really care about it anyway. Hershey doesn’t have to worry about enslaved eleven year-olds in its supply chain. Nothing to see here.

But Jacewicz notes that young people are more likely to buy organic milk, eggs, and meat — so what’s going on? The psychologist who led the study suggests that because chocolate is an indulgence rather than a staple, people aren’t thinking about ethical issues when they buy it — they are, by implication, thinking about themselves. I’ll buy that, but I don’t think it’s limited to chocolate. Note that participants in the study wanted only ingredients they could pronounce; they were quite concerned about the quality of what they put in their bodies, not only about “indulgent” qualities like flavor. But I’d suggest that’s also true of people buying organic staples. The USDA’s organic standards say little about animal welfare and next to nothing about workers, and though organic agriculture is supposed to be about process, most of the marketing of organic produce has always been about the product — the suggestion that organic food is better for you, that it’s more nutritious or contains fewer carcinogens, or just that it tastes better. Marketing has encouraged people to buy organic food out of concern for themselves and their families, not out of concern for workers, animals, or the planet.

So there’s nothing necessarily inconsistent about buying organically certified milk but looking for “natural” ingredients rather than ethical sourcing certifications on a chocolate bar. The food movement hasn’t succeeded in establishing an ethic; for the most part, it’s only given people new ways to think more deeply about their own welfare. Organic food might be branded as ethical, so people can feel good about themselves when buying it, but that isn’t the same as genuine concern; it’s just another form of “me first.” That’s what sells, and until we stop judging success by what sells, it will keep right on selling.

Corrupting the youth

I have four bird feeders in my small urban yard (tube, thistle, platform, hummingbird) but can’t see any of them from my second-story study window, which is veiled by a maple tree far taller than the house. So I fixed a suction-cup window feeder to the upper pane. Earlier in the spring I didn’t get many takers, and those who came grabbed a quick morsel and retreated to the safety of the tree. But the past couple of weeks have seen a constant stream of fledglings: young male cardinals, scruffy and mottled, whom I’ve watched gradually redden and swell; a slender mockingbird who tried out his new repertoire in a nearby branch; a song sparrow who takes his peanut to the stone ledge of the window to peck it to bits; a juvenile house finch who, rather than perching on the feeder’s edge, stands in the pile of seed, hunts for the one he wants, then thoughtfully (as it appears to me) hulls and consumes it while watching me with (what, again, appears to me) casual curiosity three feet away behind glass. The finch is content to occupy the feeder for several minutes at a time while other birds wait in the tree like adolescents in line for the bathroom. Hurry up in there! Continue reading “Corrupting the youth”

The eve of destruction

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., February 28, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 13:1–9

It’s 30 AD, give or take. Galilee is abuzz with the news of yet another atrocity of the despised Roman governor Pontius Pilate—one not related by other historians but perfectly in keeping with what we know about Pilate’s character. The best guess is that a band of Galilean zealots who acknowledged no lord but God and refused to pay tribute to Rome had run afoul of Pilate and been ruthlessly repressed. Pilate has, as we hear, “mingled their blood with their sacrifices” in the Temple. Jesus hears the chatter about this incident—maybe someone tried to trap him into taking a position, as people often did to get him into trouble, into either sympathizing with or condemning the zealots—and instead of commenting on the case at hand, let alone the politics of it, he says, “Do you think they were worse sinners than you? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

If that doesn’t cheer everybody straight up, Jesus tells a parable. A man plants a fig tree, and for three years running it bears no fruit. He wants to cut it down because it’s a waste of good soil. The gardener says no, no—let’s fertilize it again and wait another year. Maybe it will bear fruit next year.

And if it doesn’t, then we’ll cut it down.

Doesn’t sound like good news.

I mean, you were probably hoping to hear something about God’s infinite goodness and mercy, and here he goes setting deadlines.

It is valuable, I think, to remember that while God’s grace and mercy may be without limit in scope and magnitude, they do seem to have an expiration date: we’re all going to die. Maybe there’s hope after that, but the Bible doesn’t say so. Best not to risk it. You have another year. Make the most of it.

There’s also value in remembering that whatever the quality of God’s grace and mercy, our fellow humans with whom we have relationships may not be so patient. You have today. Make the most of it.

If that’s all we took away from this story, that would be something. It would be a pretty good lesson for Lent. Don’t wait. Repent now. Start atoning today. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

But I think we need a little more than that from this story. I need more from this story, anyway. Jesus was, after all, responding to a discussion about politics—about the terrors of oppressive regime and the foolishness of the zealots who were trying to overthrow it. People were upset, legitimately upset and fearful, and Jesus seems to be frankly dismissive of their fears. I don’t think he was: I think he was answering them—albeit a little sideways. Continue reading “The eve of destruction”

Building an ethic behind the food movement

Sales of breakfast cereal are down, and I have trouble being sad. I eat boxed breakfast cereal for the same reason everybody else does — it’s convenient – but generally only as a midnight snack. For quick breakfast I’m more likely to eat homemade granola or oatmeal or a PBJ. I would not be terribly sad if boxed breakfast cereal went away entirely. Not only is it bizarrely processed, but it’s probably the worst remaining artifact of late nineteenth-century thinking about food: deliberately stripped of flavor and over-sweetened to make it palatable. And I don’t care a whit about the profits of giant corporations that manufacture it.

And yet this tidbit from the original New York Times story is more than a little disconcerting:

Almost 40 percent of the millennials surveyed by Mintel for its 2015 report said cereal was an inconvenient breakfast choice because they had to clean up after eating it.

In the Washington Post, Roberto A. Ferdman comments:

Few things are as painless to prepare as cereal. Making it requires little more than pouring something (a cereal of your choice) into a bowl and then pouring something else (a milk of your choice) into the same bowl. Eating it requires little more than a spoon and your mouth. The food, which Americans still buy $10 billion of annually, has thrived over the decades, at least in part, because of this very quality: its convenience.

And yet, for today’s youth, cereal isn’t easy enough….

The industry, the [Times] piece explained, is struggling — sales have tumbled by almost 30 percent over the past 15 years, and the future remains uncertain. And the reasons are largely those one would expect: Many people are eating breakfast away from the home, choosing breakfast sandwiches and yogurt instead of more traditional morning staples. Many others, meanwhile, too busy to pay attention to their stomachs, are eating breakfast not at all.

But there is another thing happening, which should scare cereal makers — and, really, anyone who has a stake in this country’s future — more: A large contingent of millennials are uninterested in breakfast cereal because eating it means using a bowl, and bowls don’t clean themselves (or get tossed in the garbage). Bowls, kids these days groan, have to be cleaned.

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about, then: The problem isn’t that people are overworked, busy raising families in two-income households. Nobody doesn’t have time to wash out a cereal bowl. I ran a test this morning, scientific in precision of measurement if not in design: To get up from the table, carry a bowl to the sink, squirt detergent, wipe it out, rinse, then use the soapy rag to wash the spoon, set them both on the counter to air-dry, and return to the table to check the stopwatch took me exactly 36.97 seconds. That’s with no particular hurry. If you eat over the sink, you can eliminate the transit time and cut a good ten seconds off that time.

So we’re not talking about social and economic structures that make it hard for people to cook for themselves. We’re talking about laziness. Continue reading “Building an ethic behind the food movement”

Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now)

Much has changed since I first started raising ducks and chronicled my experiences here in 2002. Then, backyard poultry was almost unheard of, a thing of the past I was fighting to revive. At the turn of the century few urban places in the U.S. allowed poultry in residential areas; now, in many mid-sized cities, it’s become common, or at least not surprising, to hear the bwaaawk of a neighbor’s chicken. In 2002 the Internet was still a fairly new medium, and it was hard to find and share personal experiences with the few people who did know something about raising poultry. As resources I had a book written for professionals, a couple of skimpy websites, and a veterinarian whose workshop at a sustainable agriculture conference first got me thinking about ducks. For day-to-day details I was on my own.

For the first few years, I received hundreds of emails from around the world — literally, six continents and, if I recall correctly, more than forty countries — from people asking questions and sharing experiences. Those conversations with fellow “new agrarians” was the reward for building this website. What I wrote here seems to have helped a great many people get started raising ducks on a small scale, and for that I’m grateful.

Over the years, what I built in 2002–03 seems increasingly dated (hard to believe, but those tiny movies were high-res back then), even though the information and advice is still perfectly sound; and there are plenty of other places to get help. Moreover, I no longer keep ducks — that’s a long story; I hope to again someday — and I have no more experiences to share. My “Raising Ducks” collection has become effectively an archive. But I’m going to leave it here and preserve it, in hopes that it may still help someone. If you have questions or thoughts, do feel free to email me and I’ll try to get back to you.

To close it out — for now, at least — I’ll stage a brief interview with myself about the experience of raising ducks. There’s also a movie below the jump. Continue reading “Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now)”

Some thoughts on planning, remembering, and the body (a.k.a. “getting things done”)

First, a note of explanation: What follows is not a post on “getting things done” or on the merits of various productivity tools. It is, rather, some thoughts on the ways I’ve found those tools to shape my thinking and my work.

After almost four years of trying to keep track of all my various projects with various apps, I’ve given up and gone back to a combination of a paper journal (hardbound, dot-printed rather than lined) and, for long term planning of specific projects, various homespun electronic documents and spreadsheets. It’s working wonderfully; I find I’m far better able to keep track of what I’m doing and what I’ve done. Having made that change, here are some of my observations.

  1. The promise of having continuous access to my project information was… well, promising, but I never did get around to using my smartphone in that way. I hate typing on my smartphone. I have fairly big hands, and staring at little screens makes me feel boxed in, almost claustrophobic. A hardbound journal meets the same need; it’s always with me. Better, it’s always open on my desk; I don’t have to push buttons to access it. I can’t, therefore, ignore it. (If I tried, it’s orange.)
  2. Apps swallow their past. Once you check an item off as completed, it disappears from view. There’s nearly always a way to retrieve that information, but not typically in a way that I find conveniently displayed. Loose sheets of paper are worse; they get thrown away. A journal, as long as you mark entries rather than crossing through them, preserves the past in readable fashion. That’s of some practical value: I can, for example, see when I last gave the dog her heartworm preventative or note a tendency to put off certain tasks. I can learn from my mistakes in a way that’s impossible if I hide or erase or throw away (or even cross through) what I’ve done. But there’s also something philosophically worrisome to me about the ease with which productivity apps move you inexorably into the next task. It encourages presentism, an emphasis on what’s important now and on what’s next, and I think the culture already encourages far too much of that. Hardbound journals, by contrast, encourage reflection and a vision of oneself as a whole over time.
  3. An app, no matter how flexibly it’s designed to be used, is inherently algorithmic. Computer code is algorithms. And if I’m using that code, I, too, have to follow the algorithm; my own thinking must shape itself to the algorithm. Now, it’s true that processes of work must always adapt to fit the tools at hand, but some tools are more flexible than others. Blank sheets of paper, dotted rather than lined, bound into a journal, give me tremendous flexibility. I can choose my own symbols and systems, index as I wish, organize as suits my preferred ways of thinking, planning, remembering, and visualizing. As my thinking about my thinking evolves, my processes can evolve with it. With an app, I’m stuck in someone else’s head. (There’s also a difference, I think, between a tool and an algorithm, but that needs more thought.) A simple table in an Open Office document serves that end when paper doesn’t.
  4. There is some satisfaction to writing, physically writing, the X next to a task completed. It serves the same purpose as checking a box on a computer screen and watching it disappear, and so they may be functionally identically, but to claim that the two actions are thus identical and interchangeable reduces human experience to mere functionality. I’m not an algorithm (see #2, above); I have a body, and I think with it.
  5. I buy the blank books and ink for my fountain pens from a local stationary shop — yes, I still have a local stationary shop, an amazing thing, and I’d like to help keep it in business! Both come ultimately from some company or other, I don’t know where. (France?) So I’m not claiming any sort of purity. But to use them, I don’t have to support my cable company, my phone company, or one of the world’s largest global corporations (e.g. Apple). And when I stock up I get to have a chat with a guy who calls himself, professionally, Crazy Alan. So there’s that.

That which cannot be possessed (not by you, anyway)

Dan Cohen’s “review” of the Wu Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (HT: Alan Jacobs) is primarily a meditation on the nature of art and ephemerality, but I have trouble getting past the story that sparked it.

This is what we know: On November 24, 2015, the Wu-Tang Clan sold its latest album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, through an online auction house. As one of the most innovative rap groups, the Wu-Tang Clan had used concepts for their recordings before, but the latest album would be their highest concept: it would exist as only one copy—as an LP, that physical, authentic format for music—encased in an artisanally crafted box. This album would have only one owner, and thus, perhaps, only one listener. By legal agreement, the owner would not be allowed to distribute it commercially until 88 years from now.

Once—note the singularity at the beginning of the album’s title—was purchased for $2 million by Martin Shkreli, a young man who was an unsuccessful hedge fund manager and then an unscrupulous drug company executive. This career arc was more than enough to make him filthy rich by age 30.

Then, in one of 2015’s greatest moments of schadenfreude, especially for those who care about the widespread availability of quality healthcare and hip hop, Shkreli was arrested by the FBI for fraud. Alas, the FBI left Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in Shkreli’s New York apartment.

Presumably, the album continues to sit there, in the shadows, unplayed. It may very well gather dust for some time.

This has made many people unhappy, and some have hatched schemes to retrieve Once, ideally using the martial arts the Shaolin monks are known for. But our obsession with possessing the album has prevented us from contemplating the nature of the album—its existence—which is what the Buddhists of Shaolin would, after all, prefer us to do.

Setting aside the matter of what the Buddhists of Shaolin would prefer us to do, I think Cohen is giving the Wu-Tang Clan a little too much credit.

  1. WTC made, after auction fees, at least a cool million off of their album, which is pretty good money for doing what you (presumably) love. They got more publicity selling it this way than they would have by releasing it traditionally. What they did is indistinguishable from a publicity stunt, and from good business.
  2. Their method of selling their work doesn’t demonstrate ephemerality; the album still exists, it’s just that no one is listening to it. It has not, unlike some of the other art Cohen mentions, ceased to exist, nor is it expected to, except in the sense that all digital work will someday become unreadable (which is, given Cohen’s work, surely in the back of his mind—but that’s no reason to single out this album).
  3. It is, on the contrary, all about possession. Someone paid $2 million for a unique recording precisely so that he could possess it, and so that no one else could. This isn’t about non-possession; it’s about exclusivity of possession, and specifically about exclusivity of possession by the rich. It is, in that regard, less a statement of Buddhist philosophy than an expression of America’s Second Gilded Age.
  4. The tendency to cloak activities that are fundamentally about making money in the language of Buddhism (see also: tech companies teaching meditation to make their employees more productive) ought to trouble American Buddhists, as the tendency to cloak activities that are fundamentally about making money in the language of Christianity (see: much of U.S. history) ought to trouble American Christians. Likely it too seldom will, as it too seldom has. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the defect isn’t with Christianity.

While I was writing this a sparrow perched on the rail of a chair outside my window and sang. I took no photograph and made no recording; his song was unheard by anyone but me and himself. It was a gift, unexpected and unearned, and now it is memory. And nobody made any money off of it. I am not an expert on Buddhist philosophy, but I’ll take the sparrow as my emblem of ephemerality over a hip hop album any day.