Thursday, December 16, 2010

White Rabbit

When I started elementary school, there was no missive more coveted among my classmates than an invitation to a birthday party at Starlight Roller Rink. We all knew that a Starlight birthday party guaranteed an hour of roller skating fun that culminated in the Hokey Pokey and Chicken Dance under a flashing disco ball, followed by a cupcake with a four-inch-high swirl of neon-colored frosting, and a keychain made from a rabbit foot that had been dyed an unnatural rainbow hue. Preferably (but rarely) bright pink.

The “lucky” rabbit’s foot: Kindergarten’s most desirable trinket.

I’m not sure how many I ended up with over the years before Chuck E. Cheese became the hot birthday spot. Several. I would latch the ball-chains they came on together to create a weird, multi-colored foot fetish to which I assigned vague, mystical powers. It was a soft, strokable talisman on which I could wish for extra toys or stickers, or maybe more invitations to parties at Starlight Roller Rink.

I never gave a thought to the actual rabbits involved.

The only time that the feet seemed “real” to me - in the sense that they had been taken from a living creature - was when I was scratched by the claws, which could leave welts and sometimes draw blood. The claws were dyed the same, unnatural color as the fur, and so would blend in - forgettable - until they struck back against an unwary child who had thought of the foot as a benign stuffed animal rather than part of a once-living animal.

On those occasions, it struck me: This was a foot! From a rabbit! A soft, cuddly, warm, fuzzy rabbit.

That is now dead.

It was an unpleasant thought. So I didn't think too hard about it.

It’s amazing what you can not think about, if you just try hard enough to put it out of your mind.

Some of my friends recently got their daughter a pair of rabbits as a 4-H project. I have only seen their pictures online, but they appear to be some awesomely cute bunnies. And, despite the fact that 4-H is - in essence - an agricultural group (and “agricultural” activities generally culminate in some sort of "harvesting" process, right?) I’m sure that these bunnies are pets. They don't need to fear either the plate or a piecemeal transformation into keychains and other gegaws.

Because, for a lot of us, that’s what bunnies have become: pets. They are cute and fluffy; they hop around and do adorable things like wiggle their nose and ears. At some point they used these skills to jump (or burrow under) the conceptual fence within which we enclose "food" or "livestock" and cuddle their way into the "pets" enclosure that surrounds dogs and cats.

Lucky rabbits, for sure.

People and - by extension - cultures, have innate organizational schemes that condition the way they categorize the world around them. One of the areas where these beliefs and categorizations are most fascinating and diverse is the realm of food. Which plants and animals are edible? How must they be cooked? How can they be combined? When can they be served? To whom?

The variety of answers can be mind-boggling.

It goes without saying that - in modern American culture - we don't eat things that we consider "pets."

A few years ago, I bought a reprint of the 1975 edition of the Joy of Cooking. At the time, I purchased it out of a sense of nostalgia for the edition my mom had when I was growing up. I clearly remember it being out in our kitchen as she cooked: it rested in a handy, clear lucite stand that protected it from drips and splashes.

It is easy to see why it was such a presence in her kitchen and why it remains one in mine: if there is something that needs cooking, the Joy of Cooking will tell you how to do it.

One of the things that makes my 1975 edition interesting - at least in my mind - is a section entitled "Game." It is entirely devoted to explaining how to cook a variety of animals, starting with rabbits and squirrels (these are considered likely enough candidates for consumption that they include diagrams that show how to skin and eviscerate them), and progressing through possums, porcupines, raccoons, muskrats, woodchucks, beavers (and - separate section - beaver tails), armadillos, venison (deer, moose, or elk), bears, peccaries, and wild boars.

When I first purchased the cookbook, this section seemed quaint and amusing. After all, who on Earth would consider a beaver tail to be food?

(Answer: "To Indians and settlers alike, this portion of the animal was considered the greatest." Yum!)

Now, my 1975 Joy of Cooking seems less quaint and more like a lens into an earlier reality. There was a time - not so long ago - when enough people in American might, on occasion, eat wild animals - including beaver, muskrats, and porcupines - that it was useful to have instructions on dressing and cooking them for the table.

And not in just any cookbook; not in some random niche cookbook for hunters: in The Joy of Cooking.

Of course, as exotic and weird as it might seem to eat an armadillo, possum, or porcupine, even that would be less preposterous than eating a pet. The 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking does not include a section on dogs, cats or horses.

Because, in our culture, eating a bear might be weird, but eating a dog is just wrong.

Soon after I started pondering a self-reliance initiative, the question arose as to which animal is the most efficient to raise and butcher on a small scale. Opinions differ, but rabbits get mentioned quite a bit: they breed prolifically and mature quickly on a reasonable amount of feed. When well kept they aren't prone to disease, and they produce loads of useful manure that can be returned to the garden.


The problem that arises with meat rabbits is that they have jumped the conceptual fence between "food" and "pet." As one forum participant put it, "some people will act like you are eating your dog."

Which, of course, is considered good eats in some cultures.

There is a scene in the movie "Roger and Me" in which Michael Moore is talking to a woman about her rabbits. Which she is raising for consumption.

It's not necessarily for the faint of heart.

I will be the first to admit that banging a bunny over the head with a metal pipe wouldn't be my personal choice for dispatching a rabbit. I would guess that there are quicker and more humane methods - I've heard the rabbit wringer is a good choice, but it is still shocking to watch.

But, however you do it, there is no sugar coating the fact that an animal just died.

It usually goes without saying that you shouldn't look at the comments on anything posted on the internet: people say some awful things. But I found the comments on the YouTube page from which the Roger and Me video comes interesting. There were, of course, some discussing Michael Moore (he's kind of a flashpoint for opinions, no?).

But, beyond that, most of the comments seemed to fall into two categories: (1) this woman is evil and awful because she just killed a cute, fluffy pet bunny; and (2) well, you gotta eat.

And, if you eat meat, you sort of have to accept the fact that something not unlike what happened to that rabbit happens to each and every one of the animals we consume.

They are killed.

And suddenly it occurs to me that there is a way to sugar coat the fact that an animal just died: the shrink-wrap plastic that covers all the meat you buy in a supermarket.

It is simple, in our modern society, to go to the store and buy a piece of meat. Some, like a roasting chicken, still kind of resemble the animal that they once were. Many have been reduced to parts and pieces; packages of wings and breasts and ribs. Others have become ground beef or sausage; packages completely unlike the cattle and pigs from which they came.

You can buy the meat without having to watch the death. That's some serious sugar coating.

Given the way in which meat is packaged, it is unsurprising that my son - who sees living chickens on a fairly regular basis - still doesn't seem to believe that the animal "chicken" and the meat "chicken" are the same thing. He seems to believe that like "son" and "sun," or "rock" and "rock music" they are just dissimilar things that have the same name.

And why not? A pound of ground turkey has no apparent relationship to an actual bird.

But, as with every animal we eat - like the rabbit in the video above - animal products we purchased came from beings that lived and died.

It's just that, when we buy meat from the supermarket, we know nothing about those lives and those deaths. We are purchasing the depersonalization - the not knowing about an animal's life and death. We are purchasing the freedom from having to kill an animal about which we might care.

Because that would be cruel, right? To kill something we had nurtured and raised?

Well... It certainly won't feel good for us. It's unpleasant to watch anything die.

The fact is, though, that there is ample information about the lives of animals in large-scale livestock production to inform us about their lives. And deaths. You can find it, should you care to look into the industry that provides us with most of the meat wrapped in cellophane in the store.

It isn't pretty.

And it is that - the not knowing - the depersonalization - the unwillingness to look - that, to me, seems cruel. To accept the meat while looking away from both the death, and - more importantly - the cruelty of the life.

Cruelty is raising an animal in cramped, poor conditions and then butchering and selling them in a manner that renders them into a commodity and not a life.

It is easy, in modern America, to buy a package of chicken breasts at the store, and not think about the animals they came from. At least, it's easier on the people involved. It's not easier on the animals.

It is amazing what you can not think about, if you just try hard enough to put it out of your mind.

The act of doing things for yourself is, in essence, the practice of not putting such things out of your mind. Of realizing and appreciating that eating meat takes a life.

In that context, far from being cruel, facing the reality of eating meat - and the taking of a life that it requires - seems significantly more humane than the wrapped, disembodied pieces of meat from the grocery store. It acknowledges what has truly happened and, despite the moment of bringing death, it is possible to ensure that the life has been decent, and the end is swift.

Knowing this - and saying it - doesn't make it easier to contemplate killing and skinning a rabbit: they still seem like pets to me.

But it does make me realize that if I am going to do make a real attempt at self-reliance, I can't continue to rely on packaged meat from the store.

Rabbit feet, as it turns out, carry symbolic meaning in a number of cultures around the world - not just suburban elementary-school kids of late-20th century America.

It makes sense. The only places on the globe where rabbits or hares are not native are Antarctica and Oceania. Humans have had plenty of time to coexist with rabbits; to hunt, raise, eat, and develop mythology about them. Across all that time and space, the foot of the rabbit remains one part that has few clear-cut uses - which makes it the sort of object that can easily be loaded with alternate meanings.

My favorite legend of the lucky rabbit's foot states that such a talisman could only be created when it was taken from an apprentice hunter's first kill - a relic that marked their growth and maturation, and represented their skill in the tasks they would need to assume to become an adult. In an individual life there would be only one such amulet - only one object to mark the acquisition of abilities.

The idea of marking life's transitions, of acknowledging them, resonates with me.

Such a lucky rabbit's foot would be very different story than the tchotchkes that I got, as a child, from roller-skating rink birthday parties. Items that were mass-produced from animals whose lives I don't want to contemplate and for which I wouldn't want to be responsible; by-products that were attached to brass caps and vat dyed in a factory somewhere to eventually be sold, in bulk, as "lucky" items.

As though luck could be mass produced.

And yet the difference between a rabbit's foot as an emblem of learning, accomplishment, and the transition to adulthood and the mass-produced bauble it has become in modern life seems not unlike the gulf between an animal that was raised with care and has been dispatched quickly and humanely and the masses of shrink-wrapped meat at the store.

It’s amazing what you can not think about, if you just try hard enough to put it out of your mind.

I believe that we do ourselves, and the animals, a disservice by looking away. Better to ensure that a life is humane and a death is swift, better to mark and acknowledge transitions from one stage to the next, than to look away and accept the mass-produced bounty and the cruelty that - though we don't see it - is still there, although it is made easier on us because we can look away.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Time and Money

In the course of musing, writing, and blabbering, I'll frequently find myself stating that there isn't any logical reason not to go to the store and buy whatever I'm trying to make, grow, or raise.

Often, going out and buying it would me cost less in both time and money. And, yet, I'm resisting that course of action.

(As an aside: I'm led to believe that the cost we pay for something these days does not reflect all the externalized costs, so it seems possible that - while the retail price of a good makes it seem cheaper - it isn't really cheaper to just go out and buy it. It's a question that would be interesting to address. In a different post).

It's not a point I can rationally address, even in my own mind. I realize it isn't logical in our current system. Which makes it a difficult point to defend to anyone else, beyond simply saying that I'm not in love with the current system, wherein we spend our time earning money and then use the money to fulfill our needs and wants.

So many middle men. So much Wal-Mart (or, whichever less-detestable store you might prefer).

It makes me wonder if my time is best spent earning money to fulfill my needs, or if - for some things - it might be more efficient to spend my time fulfilling my needs.

Because that'd be crazy. Right?

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend about the scarf I intend to make for my husband. He wants - and has wanted for years - a Dr. Who scarf. Specifically, one of the Dr. Who scarves shown on this website for people who spend a lot of time thinking about Dr. Who scarves:

Just how long has my husband wanted a Dr. Who scarf? Longer than I've known him. At least since college, when he asked one of his grandmothers to knit him one.

At that time, he was not specific enough in conveying his desires. Or, possibly, his grandmother had never heard of Dr. Who and just translated his request to, "I want a really long scarf."

On the other hand, now that I have attempted to fill an online shopping cart with the exact yarns specified on the knit-your-own-Dr.-Who-scarf instruction page, it occurs to me to think that, upon being asked for a ridiculously long scarf that would consume many skeins of yarn, his grandmother just bought whatever happened to be in the bargain bin on the day she went shopping.

End result: ten-foot-long scarf made of varying shades of brown.

It is a magnificent scarf. Truly.

But - while it is more than ample to warm someone's neck and, simultaneously, several other extremities - or, alternately, an entire small child - it is not a true Dr. Who scarf.

Wrong colors. Wrong pattern. Dr. Who would never wear it. Sheesh!

When I started crocheting, my husband initially expressed great excitement at the fact that I could now crochet him a Dr. Who scarf. Upon seeing the result of my early crocheting skills, he pronounced it nice, but not sufficiently like the Dr. Who scarf.

Which, as it turns out, is because a Dr. Who scarf must be knit and not crocheted.

Big difference.

Someday, perhaps, I will delve deeply into the rift that I have discovered between knitters and crocheters. It is, I have come to believe, among the great untold conflicts of our time.

Suffice it to say for now that history and literature are filled with such stories of warfare and strife: the Capulets and the Montagues, the Hatfields and the McCoys, Cain and Abel, the Earps and the Clantons, the creationists and the evolutionists, the Sharks and the Jets, or the Bloods and the Crips.

While less bloodthirsty (despite the sharp implements), the division between the knitters and the crocheters appears no less disdainful than these. Ware to those who cross between the two realms of yarncraft!

Okay. That's sort of an exaggeration.

Most people I've met who can do one can do the other. But they do so disdainfully, wishing they could get back to the one they love. And it is in this manner that I have embarked upon learning to knit in order to make my husband the scarf he has desired for almost 20 years.

What can I say? I'm just that awesome a spouse.

So, yesterday, as I was telling this tale of scarves and hostility to a friend, she asked why I didn't just look for a Dr. Who scarf on Etsy.

I looked at her blankly.

Not because I'm unfamiliar with Etsy (I have, as it turns out, my own completely unsuccessful Etsy store, thank-you-very-much:

But because, as I told her, that would defeat the purpose of the whole project. It would be contrary to my idiom.

As an aside, it turns out that there are several Dr. Who "inspired" scarves (not unlike the one my husband already has) on Etsy. Should you, like my husband, desire such a scarf, I recommend looking there.

I'm sure as heck not making one for anyone else.

The thought of simply buying my husband a Dr. Who scarf being outside of my idiom struck me as similar to my disinclination to spend his hard-earned money to purchase entryway furniture or new socks.

It's quirky and fun to make a scarf. But is there any way that knitting a Dr. Who scarf, or darning socks, or making a futon frame is a rational use of my time? Wouldn't it make more sense to convert my time into money through employment and just buy stuff?

Time is money. Right?

At some level, doing these things makes about as much sense as it does for me - a person with only the vaguest hold on economic principles - to try and answer this, essentially economic, question. And, of course, reality won't stop me in either venture...

If you've got a great gig, and can pull in some serious money with your time, it is logical to turn your time into money you can use to amply fill your needs and wants. You can fill lots and lots of wants that way.

But I don't have a great gig pulling in the big bucks. I'm a stay-at-home mom.

It makes me wonder if my time is money, too?

If you calculate the value of my time at $20 an hour, then the scarf (pictured below) that I spent 5 hours crocheting cost approximately $100 in potential income. Which makes it an outrageously costly scarf. Especially when I could buck my idiom and buy one at Wal-Mart for $12.50.
But I'm technically unemployed. So the value of my time - the amount someone else will pay for my labor - is, more or less, zero. Right?

In that sense, if I find five hours over the course of a couple of days in which I can knit a scarf, the labor is - essentially - free!

Score! It's cheaper for me to do it than it is to pay someone in a foreign sweatshop.

So... Which is it?

Well, I don't know. But it's clearly more complicated than just being $20 or $0, because - even if I could find a hypothetical twenty-dollar-an-hour job (which isn't, by the way, a stretch, since I maxed out at a GS-9 before getting knocked up and dropping out) - I wouldn't be taking nearly that much home.

A quarter will go to taxes - which I'm happy to pay, of course - and child care will run at least $5 an hour for my son and somewhat more than that after my daughter gets out of school in the afternoon.

I'd also have to pay for some sort of transportation to and from work and - for many jobs - a wardrobe that consists of something other than mom jeans. Now it looks more like I'm taking in eight or nine dollars an hour.

Which is, funny enough, what my landlord offered to pay me to shovel horse manure out of her barn.

Maybe I should rethink that gig.

When I ran this theory by my husband, he pointed out that shoveling horse manure out of a barn differs from an entry-level position somewhere else in that it isn't the first rung on a ladder to anything grander.

While I'm not convinced that a job shoveling shit is completely unrelated to my former career in archeology, I'll give him that one.

It would be wonderful if this moment in my life felt like I was working towards some sort of larger career goal. If I were, it might make financial sense to spend my time at a job that only netted eight or nine dollars an hour. It would be an investment in future earnings.

As an aside, I think that this is the hardest part of stay-at-home motherhood for me, a person who was once defined by career goals (which were not - as it happens - in the field of child care - the career most relevant to my current activities).

And the truth is that I don't have any GS-9, 20-bucks-an-hour job opportunities to turn down. I keep my eyes open, but I haven't seen anything local open up in my career field or for that kind of pay. So, even if I wanted to enter the job market, it's not clear that it would be in a job that would be a step towards something more grand.

Which brings me back to my scarf-based confusion. Which, by extension, is confusion about all the tasks I am planning over the course of the coming year. Are they liabilities? Activities that cost us the amount that I could (in theory) otherwise be earning through income-generating activities? Or should I view them as generating the amount we otherwise would have spent acquiring eggs, scarves, socks, or tomatoes?

Or should we even think of them in terms of time and income?

Should I toss it all off and view it all from the Bhutanese perspective of gross national happiness?

All this blather comes to a single crux: I wish there were a level at which I could make these activities logical. Speaking of them as "hobbies" diminishes the importance of the role I'd like them to attain in our lives. My intention is for us to consume a fair number of our summer calories from the foods we grow. I want for the eggs we raise to constitute a real, measurable unit of our food supply. Farther down the road, I'd be interested in raising a portion of the meat we consume as well.

In my mind, that's more than a sideline.

On the other hand, I don't want to pretend that making scarves or growing tomatoes is going to be my profession.

There is a vast gulf between a hobby and professional, marketable production and - in my mind, at least - within that gulf lies the realm of self-sufficiency. Producing enough to fill your family's needs, and maybe enough to share with friends in hopes of future reciprocity, but no more than that.

In this scenario, time doesn't equal money; it equals food, clothing, and shelter.

Maybe it's a delusion. But I'm going to call it a goal.

In the end, I don't know how to conceptually monetize of my time in this endeavor. Am I a financial liability? A benefit? Or is it a wash? Would I be better off getting a "real" job - in the event I could find one - than trying to raise chickens or knit things? Can this learning period be viewed as educational? One step on the way to a moment where my labor could directly fill wants and needs.

I'm not delusional. I realize that this entire discussion reflects my psychology more than it does my tenuous grasp on economics of the home. I was raised in a time and place where "success" is defined by money, and who you are is defined by your profession. I expected to have both a profession and an income at this stage in my life. I feel adrift and dependent without them. Attempting to provision our needs while staying home seems like an avenue to assuage these feelings in the absence of a job at which I could earn more than I would be paying out to replace childcare, cooking, and housework.

But then I return, in my mind, to a place where it doesn't seem crazy. Humans have done this. They have - for tens of thousands of years - worked to provide their own subsistence. Were it impossible, our species wouldn't have made it this far.

It is real labor, and it can be difficult and uncertain. But in a time and place where the wants multiply, the layoffs are unending, money invested in the market swoops up and down in value at the whim of events I can't control, and there just aren't all that many jobs around for an archeologist who hasn't worked full time in eight years...

Suddenly, forgoing turning time into money and, instead, looking to turn labor into subsistence doesn't seem quite so crazy after all.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


In honor of Thanksgiving, I purchased our family a Freebird: a free-range, antibiotic and hormone-free (and fresh, organic, and local) turkey. It was as tasty as it was karma-neutral. The bird's happy days gobbling in a field were perceptible in every bite. As far as I'm concerned, this turkey had only one downside: price.

Freebirds aren't free.

Over recent weeks, my husband and I have spent many happy hours perusing the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog: we are planning to acquire chickens and ducks in the spring

While we will be new to actually raising poultry, we've been fans of the poultry catalog for a couple of years.

A few years ago, we lived in Death Valley: the hottest, lowest, driest place in America. Or, as Obi-Wan Kenobi observes as he stands upon Dante's View and gestures towards Furnace Creek Ranch, "the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the entire galaxy."

On the whole, I found Death Valley to be largely free from scum and villainy. Most of the time.

But life there was abundant with complication. Rising to the top of the long list of complexities was the hour-long drive to the nearest grocery store in Pahrump, Nevada.

We tried not to go often, depending instead on planning ahead and stocking up on basics. Failing that, we either did without, bought something from the twice-monthly Schwann's truck visit, or paid an exorbitant price at the one little convenience store in the Valley.

And, every two weeks or so, we'd make the pilgrimage into town.

Halfway between home and the grocery store, we would pass through the intersection that comprised the town of Death Valley Junction (alleged population: 4).

Death Valley Junction was the home of the Amargosa Opera House - where Marta Beckett was still performing - and the Amargosa Inn - which was, occasionally and unpredictably, open to providing accommodations to travelers. And... well... not much else. Sometimes a mustang ambled through.

But there were peacocks!

A flock of them made the Opera House their home. More reliably present than any other inhabitants of Death Valley Junction, they strutted around the parking lot as if they owned the place - which they may well have. Sometimes they wandered into the road, tail feathers spread, proudly preening at their ability to slow passing tanker trucks.

Our young daughter loved to get out and look at the peacocks. She followed them around in a vain effort to become friends. Peacocks, as it turns out, can fly for short distances - up to and including the top of the Opera House - when encouraged to do so by the friendly advances of a two-year-old girl.

One day, while sitting by the yucca and mesquite thicket that dominated what was once a parking lot and watching our daughter toss cheerios at the birds, my husband marveled aloud at the fact that the peacocks were there. "Where," he asked, "do you even get a peacock?"

Where indeed?

We got home, hopped on our dial-up internet connection and, 30 painful minutes of slow page loads later, discovered Murray McMurray Hatchery.

A week later, we had a catalog. Heaven!

I've railed lately against the sheer number of choices available to us these days. I've opined that more options don't actually make us any happier.

Thinking about a poultry catalog makes me want to take it all back.

Who knew that you could buy peacocks, swans, and guinea fowl? Who knew there were so many different types of chickens, ducks, and turkeys? Prior to my inaugural poultry catalog, I had honestly believed that all chickens were just that: chickens. One variety - one species - one bird. I thought that chicken decor displaying a panoply of colors and feathers were simply fanciful examples of artist's license.

What can I say? I was raised a city chick of the era before urban chickens.

I know better now that I've opened the Pandora's Box of poultry.
Our youngest family member ponders poultry.

We still have a dog-eared copy of the McMurray catalog. And it was with this catalog that my husband presented me after our journey to pick up our natural, organic, well-adjusted, emotionally balanced, local, free-range turkey.

Which had, of course, just caused us both a bit of sticker shock.

Catalog in hand, he noted that, for approximately twice the price of this one turkey, Murray McMurray would send us 20 newly hatched turkey poults. Birds that we could provide with all of the support and loving care necessary to ensure that they, too, would grow into natural, organic, well-adjusted, emotionally balanced freebirds. Turkeys that - assuming they made it to 16 pounds of post-processing meat - would have a street value of approximately $1,200.

Which isn't, let's be honest, that much money. It's not enough income to put the effort into raising 20 turkeys. Once you buy the turkeys, and the feed, and some shelter, and then all the necessary equipment for processing, and get them to some sort of market, you haven't raked in a fortune.

Turkeys aren't a gold mine.

But, what if you aren't looking for a gold mine? What if you are simply looking to eat some turkey once or twice a month? What if you aren't measuring potential income, but whether or not you can put some free-range, happy meat on the table? Think about provisions, and not profits. When viewed through that lens, it starts to seem sane. To me.

Whether or not I'm a good judge of sanity is - of course - open to debate.

When my mom was a child, she spent some time with her aunt in Tennessee. Sometimes, on Sundays, they had chicken. This chicken didn't come from the store.

I could try to tell the story the way she would, but I'd get it all wrong. And offend the vegans and faint-of-heart. Suffice it to say that the actual deed involved an axe, her aunt (who, as recounted in tales, seems like someone with whom you wouldn't want to tussle), and the chopping block; and it culminated in my mom's keen understanding of the phrase, "running around like a chicken with it's head cut off."

Chickens went from the barnyard to the table in the course of an afternoon. But it took some work to get it there. Which is, maybe, where the whole endeavor looses it's appeal for a lot of people.

After all, isn't that why we have jobs? So we can earn income which can be used to buy karmic turkey for $3.60 a pound? (Or for as little as a buck-fifty, if you are going with the flash-frozen Jennie-O). So we don't have to trouble ourselves with the feathers and entrails.

The thing is, I - like just about everyone I know - have no data on exactly how much work it is to raise turkeys. Or any other animal I might think of as meat.

Is having a couple on hand, letting them forage for food, keeping a few to lay and set eggs and ensure a continued supply, and harvesting them every couple of weeks more work and money than it's worth?

I guess it depends on what each of us consider to be worthwhile.

We aren't, of course, buying turkeys anytime soon. Which is a good thing.

Our family is having enough trouble trying to figure out which types of ducks and chickens we want to round out our small flock. Debates over the virtues of Cayugas vs. Khaki Campbells vs. Runners, and Aracunas vs. Silver-laced Wyandottes are taking up enough of our time already.

And none of our flock-to-be are heading for the chopping block. I think they will end up as pets that lay eggs. Which - by the by - makes them head-and-shoulders more useful than our cat.

But I think - and hope - that raising them will provide insight into the larger question of poultry production. And whether, next year, we will be shocked that our local, free-range, happy turkey - at $3.60 a pound - costs so much.

Or whether, given insight into the work involved, we will instead be shocked that it could cost so little.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Too Much

A few weeks ago, while blearily preparing breakfast for my kids, I hit a breaking point. The straw that broke this camel's back?

Ikea plates.

It's true. Pretty, plastic plates drove me insane.

A few years ago, we got a set of multicolored, plastic, kid-friendly tableware from Ikea. Enigmatic Ikea codename: Kalas. (Which, in case you are ever on Jeopardy, translates to party, feast, banquet, spread, or junket. Good to know).

They do look like a festive little rainbow-hued party, don't they?

Once you get past the fact that they are plastic (albeit allegedly BPA-free plastic, like most things Ikea), they are fairly anodyne objects. Functional. Simple. Unbreakable. The cup is sort of tippy - it's not heavy enough on the bottom to give it much stability - so we've had more than our share of spills. Other than that, they are non-offensive. I had no complaints.

How can pretty, multicolored, reasonably functional plates be responsible for driving a housefrau right over the edge?

Too many choices.

Every morning (and afternoon, and evening) my kids would start off the meal specifying not only the foods that they will and won't eat (and that's a whole other post), but also the exact color of plate, bowl, and cup they will accept. I could be serving them ice cream, and they'd dicker about whether they will accept their Lobster Tracks in a green bowl.

Who on Earth dickers over Lobster Tracks - possibly the best ice cream flavor ever (the flavor my husband and I kept to ourselves for months by telling the kids it contained actual crustaceans - which they've never had but simply assume they'll hate) - because of the bowl color?

My kids.

It's ICE CREAM! Eat it from the green bowl! Without crying! Please? Please eat the ice cream? See how I covered it with sprinkles? It makes the green look blue. Please?

Anyway, on this particular morning, after spending several minutes sorting out which flavor of instant oatmeal everyone wanted (Maple and brown sugar? Cinnamon and spice? Apples and cinnamon? Cinnamon raisin? Peaches and cream? Bananas and cream? Strawberries and cream? Blueberries and cream? Regular?), I set down at the table two bowls of oats and two cups of milk and received - not thanks - but instant cries of dissatisfaction.

"I didn't want the blue bowl! I wanted pink!"
"My cup is green and my bowl is yellow! They don't match!"


Seriously, kids, simmer down. Because:

A. I haven't even had my first cup of coffee - I haven't even made coffee yet - and I'm supposed to process this dissent? And...
B. Sans coffee, I have just managed to correctly deliver the apple cinnamon and strawberries and cream oatmeal to the child that requested it.

How is that not the most important thing about breakfast? How has this near-instantaneous and not unpalatable breakfast not been declared a raging success?

It's obvious how. Not based on the oats. It's those damn plates. The pretty, multicolored, reasonably functional Ikea plates. They made this breakfast - and every other meal I served my children - about something other than food. It's all about the Kalas.

The plates - specifically the variety of available colors - gave my kids too many ways in which to be disappointed.

And, frankly, I've got skills enough to disappoint my kids without the assistance of Ikea and their rainbow-hued plastic plates.

While we are talking about ways in which I can disappoint my children, can we discuss the upcoming holidays?

Because I am having a hard time getting excited when I know that, no matter how much I give them, there will invariably end up being something I didn't - or couldn't - get.

A puppy, for instance.

And it's going to cast a shadow over everything they do get.

A few years ago, when my mom sent out her annual holiday letter, she included a note that her grandmother wrote over a century ago when her children (my mother's father included) were ages six, four, and two. It tells of the Christmas gifts she was preparing for her three boys while in the mission field in Korea.

Pyeng Yang, Korea, Nov. 27,1900.

I have been having Christmas on my mind lately, and am trying to get something ready for the children. John wants more clothes for his doll and a little bureau to hold them in, and with the help of an empty condensed milk box, and a native carpenter, I guess we can satisfy him.

William's present has occupied me for several evenings, and has turned out such a success, that big William laughs at me for my enjoyment of it. It consists of a little pasteboard house set in the middle of a shallow wooden box, which answers for a yard. The house is six inches square, stuck all over with millet on the outside, and the roof covered with cereal coffee. Sprigs of cedar stuck in blocks answer for trees, and flowers cut from seed catalogues are pasted to little wooden blocks here and there over the yard. A horse and colt stand at the back door, and a cow, cat and dog are to be added. At the front of the house are a little boy and girl receiving an apple at the hands of Santa Claus, while mamma looks out from the font door. The little windows have lace curtains, and altogether I am sure that little William's wildest dreams will be realized. Will says the first thing will be a fight between the three of them for the possession of it.

Richard's present is not under way yet, but I think a rag doll will probably satisfy the longings of his heart.

I have to say, it's nice to know that, as much as times changed over the last century, children fighting over the possession over a desirable toy isn't reflective of the failings of modern parenting in general, or my personal parental failings in particular.

Also of note: overuse of the comma may be genetic.

Each gift was something my great-grandmother had considered carefully and spent some time creating. Something that she fashioned, or commissioned, using materials she had on hand. Items that were being reused. Nothing fancy. But it didn't have to be fancy - or have been made by elves and delivered by Santa - to be appreciated. Santa does make an appearance, though, and he brings apples. Apples.

I try to imagine my the reactions my kids would give to these toys.

Honestly, they would probably love them. My daughter would appreciate clothes for her doll. My son would enjoy a model house or a rag doll. But, having unwrapped these items, they would immediately look around for more.

More. Always more.

There are so many things to want in this world - for both children and adults - that it feels almost impossible to take time to appreciate what we already have. We are barraged with other options, or other choices; the knowledge that, though we have this thing - and it's great - there's something else that we don't have.

And there are a lot of things that we don't have. A world full of possible desires. And the knowledge that these other, desirable, unobtainable things are out there - in the hands of our friends, or in commercials on the television - diminishes our joy in the here and now.

What would happen if I turned back the clock? If I were to limit our Christmas to just a few things? Doll clothes and a dresser to hold them for one child. A doll for the other.

The resulting unhappiness wouldn't come from a failing of the gifts. It would come from the perception that there should have been more. A perception that derives from the culture of consumption that characterizes the current moment in America.

I speak of the unhappiness that would accompany a single, well-considered gift, but I think there is also an unhappiness of multiple gifts that don't truly satisfy wants and needs.

A decade ago, I had the chance to work retail as the holidays approached. With each day that passed, people became more and more harried and less happy. They were desperate not to find the right gift, but to simply find something, anything, that they could use to fill a box. The gift itself was unimportant - just a way to check a name off of the list.

In watching these customers, eyes bright with desperation, I began to wonder what the point of gifting is. If it is just a chore, why don't we just stop?

I don't have the answer, but the pondering brings me back to questions that rise again and again as I write this blog:

How do we live outside our own culture, in ways that are at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist?

And, more importantly

How do we create cultural change?


The Kalas are gone.

Starting that morning, I began to pack them up as they came through the dishwasher. For good measure, I tossed in all the plastic cups we have acquired from Moe's and Chili's (another source of discord). Now when we sit down to eat, we all eat from the one set of plates I keep in the house. Each bowl matches every other bowl. Each plate matches every other plate.


For the first time in years, no one dickers about the color of their bowl. It's amazing.

I'm not going to lie, we still have bickering about a lot of things - variety packs of instant oatmeal remain problematic - but we aren't butting heads about tableware. And - given the results of removing the pretty, multicolored plates - we might have bought our last variety pack of oatmeal as well.

Sometimes it is just all too much. Too many things, and too many choices. Having more options than we can ever pursue leads to many, many paths not taken. More chances for regret.

Could we be happier with less? With fewer? Especially if the few were what we really wanted. Could you make do with one? If you really loved it? Consider it material monogamy. Does that help?

Would we enjoy the bowl of ice cream more if the sweet taste of caramel weren't following the salty sting of tears shed over a green bowl?

It seems almost like heresy to say it out loud, since we seem to live in the Age of More, but maybe all this stuff - choices, options, things - maybe it's just too much.