A Failure of Reduction

Remember the movie Better Off Dead? That movie is a family Christmas tradition for us. Lane Meyer has to ski a dangerous mountain to prove himself to Beth. He seeks advice and receives the most boiled-down help imaginable.

While entirely accurate, it is incorrect and Lane barely escapes injury.

I was talking to our children recently about the search for that special someone and I, too, fell prey to the temptation to reduce. Not wanting to embarrass my child on the internet I’ll begin this way, one of my children was found to be holding hands with someone…but they were way, way in the back of the group trying to express their affections without being “caught”.

Allow me to reduce the other mother’s response: shock.

From my perspective it’s no big deal. Immature. Silly. But no big deal. But it gave me an opportunity to boil relationships down to the minimum: Whatever else happens, don’t anger the mother. You will lose. Make her your ally…pursue real friendship with her. And if you find you don’t like the mother you will find you no longer need to pursue the child because, if things go according to plan, you will have to spend every Christmas with her for the rest of her life. And that may not be what you want.

Whatever you think of my guidance above, it is hardly adequate. But I do this with everything.

How to take a shower? Get wet all over and put specific emphasis on cleaning places where the skin folds.

How to drive a car? The pedal on the right goes, one on the left stops. The wheel keeps you from running things over. Let’s do this.

The majority of server issues boil down to capacity management or connectivity.

So I have this pattern I fall into of attempting to boil it down to the essence. What is trying to be done here?

That practice, in summary, fails when people are involved.

Let me give you another one and then I’ll give you a few more.

I tend to manage people by setting expectations and turning them loose. I don’t micro-manage. I expect my employees to learn the basics and grow from there by teaching others. Let me know if something comes up.

But that’s not enough because these are people we are dealing with!

I have successfully described the work that needs to be accomplished but nobody comes to work to do the work and get money. We come to work to be with people.

People who care about us. People we enjoy being with. People we can trust.

So there’s another reduction. I would suggest my job accomplishes several things all at once. My work is meaningful, it pays the bills and allows me to enjoy interacting with others.

There is a kernel of truth there but it misses so much subtle detail.

Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m missing the subtle detail.

I’ll typically arrive at work in the morning after most of my team has arrived. I’ll walk in and speak some song lyrics or something like, “You know, I don’t need dolla bills to have fun tonight…as long as I can feel the beat.” Two of them will look at me like they have no earthly idea what I just said. Another will laugh because I’m such a dork…but everybody loosens up a little we greet each other and then tie into work.

But I have already reduced the workey part. Let’s pretend I have a new employee named Larry. “Larry, each of your co-workers assume primary responsibility for a platform. They have created documentation so anybody else can do the work when they are on vacation. I need you to learn A, B and C in and out. But you won’t be primary on any of those. You are going to take on a new project. You are going be primary support, create the documentation about it and teach everybody else. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ma go over here and work on the things.

“Oh, and on Wednesdays we get together as a team to update project status and do some team training. In your free time I need you to learn all about technology X and teach it to us next month. I know you don’t know anything about it at all. In fact, I’m well aware that you have never even heard of this. My goal is not to make you look stupid in front of your peers, it is to expose our team to something new and help us to find better ways of doing our jobs. I can’t sift through all of the options on my own so we learn things together and discuss. I need you to be a part of that.

“Oh, and one more thing. If I catch you working evenings we’ll have to have a serious talk.”

I REALLY like that freedom. I have had at least three managers who worked that way. They gave me a lot of room to run, expecting me to just get my stuff done because I’m a grown-up. And, for the most part, I do. But it’s not for everybody. Some people need much more structure. So I interview for that. I honestly and completely lay out the culture, the environment and the expectations in the interview. We have fun, we learn how much we don’t know, we teach each other. We own our projects. And if their eyes pop out of their head I scratch them off the list.

My style is not for everybody. Sometimes people need each day planned out. They need to be told each step along the way.

I failed to discover this when I interviewed Julie and the kids.

I tend to give vague instructions like, “Please move the cows before noon.”

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What I really mean is, “How are you feeling today? Look, I have to go to St. Louis today. I know it’s a bother but I need help with the cows. They cows are by the hog building. They are watering in the creek down the hill. Please set up a new grazing strip about 20′ wide to the East beginning at the hog building and going down to the bottom. Julie should carry the reel, oldest boy should set posts. As you are walking back, shift 40′ to the West and Julie should reel up the previous day’s rear fence while the boy collects the posts. Then leave any extra posts and reels in the SE corner of the grazing area. This should take you 15 minutes but give yourself 30 just in case. I really appreciate your help in this. The cattle are important to me but you are more important. This farm is important to me but we can put it aside if needed. I hope it is important to us. Maybe I can bring dinner home to make it up to you. I love you.”

It is not safe for me to assume they understand what my expectations are. Nor that they realize the most efficient way of getting it done. Nor that they won’t need discussion time to offer feedback. I just say, “Make the magic happen” and expect it to happen.

I had a boss named Rosie. She was a great boss. She was not technical so she relied on us to know how to fulfill the vision she gave. But she gave clear vision and she encouraged feedback. She didn’t say, “Go fast and turn”. She said, “Here’s the plan. Here’s where you fit. What do you think? Let’s go.”

Ugh. If only I could be more like that.

But I don’t even make time to talk to myself about why and how.

With the events of last year we were unable to raise replacement pullets. So right now, I have 100+ birds laying as many as 6 eggs/day. I know what needs to be done. There is no discussion. Nobody cares about feelings. Those birds have to die. We are already out of the egg business. That’s a fact.

But there is more. There are no replacements. There may never be. I have shown the kids the viability of the business model…when appropriately scaled and in partnership with other enterprises on the same resource base. And if they want to do it, they can. But if I am to put my resources to their highest and best use, I have to spend my time elsewhere. I can’t stay up all night hunting a skunk that is killing my birds and still answer tech calls at 2am and still show up at my desk ready to rock at 8. I am not 25 anymore.

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There are more factors involved. I can no longer reduce it to “I want chickens so I have chickens.”

Reductionism only goes so far.

So I guess I should spell out what I’m trying to say. I do a fine job of reducing tasks to their essential points. But I should not be reducing people…because people are more complex than tasks. And I need to encourage feedback rather than just act like it’s all obvious.

So…what do you think?

A Dairy Maid’s Life Sentence

“Good morning, cow’s manure-covered tail.”

“Hello girl. Don’t kick me today. The bruise still hasn’t healed.”

“Come on. Just put your head in the thing and eat your oats. Where are you going?”

I’m sure you have seen the pictures Julie puts up of her cow. Or her milk. Or her milker. Maybe even the cow in the stanchion. But you haven’t heard her.

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You haven’t heard her beg the cow to cooperate. And you haven’t heard her cry out in frustration.

What is she so frustrated about? There are thousands of people in town who would trade their retirement plans for a few acres and a dairy.

Well, here’s the thing. Even with 4 children we have a hard time drinking 2 gallons of milk every day. And we only milk 3 teats, leaving the fourth for the calf.

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We could make butter and mozzarella cheese. That’s probably what Steve would do. But I’m not Steve. Or Matron.

Let’s talk about Matron a little bit. Matron is a real source of inspiration for us as well as a source of encouragement. She has been a friend to us at a distance. But she and Julie are different people with different motivations. Different needs and wants.

So there really is no comparison.

So we do our own thing.

In fact, we do what I have never known anybody to do. What I have never heard of anybody doing. So I don’t recommend it.

Now that we are several months into the lactation and the calf has grown we let the calf have the milk and only milk every 2 or 3 days.

I know. Crazy.

Even when we milk we leave one teat for the calf.

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So how does that work. Well, one day we drove away to the airport. We went to Disney for two days and came home again. When we got home we separated cow and calf overnight then milked the cow in the morning. Every evening the cow gets fresh grass. She usually gets a small amount of oats even when we don’t milk. And that’s about that.

Milking every day meant milk going bad.

Milking every day meant sterilizing equipment every day.

Milking every day meant dreading the morning’s chores, never sleeping in and hating being enslaved by a cow.

But now she is free.

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And that’s really good news.

Re-Learning Things I Already Learned Again

I try to carry a theme of humility and ignorance on my blog. Another theme of my blog posts is I tend to start at the end.

I learned something recently. I have to be able to understand your issues without internalizing them. Additionally, I really treasure time with my wife.

So why is this important? And how does this relate to the farm? And why am I writing this in a public blog instead of just leaving a notebook for my kids to read later on? Because I say it is, because I believe it does and because my handwriting is terrible.

So with that out of the way, let’s start over. 14 months ago my youngest was diagnosed with cancer. For eight months my wife and daughter lived at the hospital for a minimum of 10 days each month. In addition there were trips to the ER, surgeries, blood work, checkups and infusions of poison…each with its own co-pay.

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But I don’t want to talk about poisons and finances today. I want to talk about Julie.

I love Julie.

But I lived without her for so long I lost a level of intimacy with her.

Not just physical intimacy…which was obviously lacking when she was away. Real, personal interdependence. Need.

Friendship.

Julie is my best friend. I say that because you look worried.

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But that wasn’t the case for much of the summer. Julie was more like my roommate. Friends with benefits.

We identified this problem some time ago and sought out professional help. I guess it helped. I have gotten ahead of myself again. Let’s go back.

14 months ago I learned about pediatric oncology. Those two words do not belong together. It’s not like I was unaware of childhood cancer, it’s that I was insulated from it…either because I am shallow or because I am lucky. Please let me believe I am lucky.

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On August 31 my life was normal. On September 1 the whole  world was upside-down. Or downside-up. Or topsy-turvy. Skip it.

We found our way to the pediatric cancer floor of Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. A whole floor of sick kids. One girl we remember was in isolation for months. She was 11 and had leukemia. The bad kind of leukemia. Without treatment she would die. But treatment was killing her. So she lived in isolation. Every few weeks the nurses would allow her to move to a different room so she could see fresh scenery.

She died between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I have a 14 year old girl. Believe me, I can imagine.

In fact, for a long time I could do more than imagine it. I could feel the pain of the other families on the floor.

But something began to happen. Slowly. I learned how to care without internalizing the pain of others.

To some of you that seems entirely obvious. But it was not easy for me. I would go to the hospital every day. I would ride the elevator with the other parents and I would take time to talk with them. One child was 7 months old, was born with a heart defect and was not eligible for a heart transplant. One child was 7 days old and could not draw breath on his own. One child was in an accident and had fractured his skull. Heavy stuff. And it all weighed on me. My own daughter, losing weight, feeling sick, throwing up, sleeping all of the time, fighting and crying to avoid the next painful round of breathing treatments, obviously depressed and extremely self-conscious about her little bald head…and then all of the weight of other sick kids in the hospital…the struggling families we were meeting.

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Like Bruce. Bruce was a truck driver. His son was in prison. The son had 7 grandchildren all in foster care. Bruce had custody of his youngest grandson…the one with leukemia. Bruce and his wife just lived at the hospital with the boy…the 2 year old boy. The 2 year old boy who was on his second round of treatments. The boy died at Christmas.

How do the nurses and doctors deal with this pain?

How can Julie and I deal with it?

You know what? We don’t have to deal with it.

We have to support our daughter’s needs. Not that little boy.

One thing our daughter needs is a stable home.

Bruce also needs us. But Bruce doesn’t need us to take his grandson’s pain away. Bruce needs us to listen. To listen. Not to feel. To listen. To understand. To understand without internalizing.

But we did internalize. And it was killing us.

It caused each of us pain, individually. The weight of that burden, in addition to our daughter’s illness, was almost more than our relationship could stand.

So we sought help.

Rest assured, we sought professional help. From a real, licensed professional.

But I had a particularly difficult moment at work, cornered an executive, shut the door and, among other words, quit my job.

Now I didn’t lose my job at this time. I say that because you look worried.

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I’ll summarize my list of complaints about myself. Everything I touch breaks, I’m tired, I’m not the right person for the job and I think I would be happier making sandwiches at Subway. I think that about covers it.

He corrected me that all of the technology I am responsible for at work is in better shape now than it was when it was handed to me. However, he thinks I probably am tired because I am still fixing problems. “There will always be problems, Chris. That’s why we need managers. You are a manager. You should not be fixing problems anymore. You should be managing them.” Thanks, Jim.

At the same time I was reading A Failure of Nerve by Friedman. Friedman says roughly the same thing. There are problems. Real problems. Some of these problems don’t have solutions. They have to simply be managed to mitigate the damage.

Living with crises is a major part of leaders’ lives. The crises come in two major varieties: (1) those that are not of their own making but are imposed on them from outside or within the system; and (2) those that are actually triggered by the leaders through doing precisely what they should be doing.

My daughter’s cancer was not of my own making. And there was nothing I could do to make it stop. We just had to manage it for the duration.

And when that battle ended we had a new fight on our hands. The emotional distance separating Julie from me was not of my own making. And there was nothing I could do to make it stop immediately. It took time. And patience. And change.

And here I sit talking of it in past tense. But that is inaccurate. This is our present battle. Every. Stinking. Day. is a fight for my marriage.

And it is more than just acknowledging that a marriage is more than sharing a house and a bed. This is an every day effort to meet her needs. And, beyond that, to help her to heal as well.

I had a hard time learning not to internalize the pain of others. In fact, we still struggle with it.

We met a boy recently who had a similar type of bone cancer to our daughter’s. He, too, had his fibula removed but his was transplanted to replace his left humerus. We met them at a fundraiser and shortly after he began to struggle with the combined weight of chemo and recovery from surgery. It was hard not to cry with the family. But that is not our battle. That is not our calling. That is not our purpose.

Certainly we reach out to that family and seek ways to support them. But their struggles are not our struggles.

I woke up one morning and realized Julie and I were next to each other but far, far apart.

That is our struggle.

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How did this happen? I love Julie. She is my best friend. Or she should be…

I have given this subject some thought. I believe I prioritized the wrong problems. I fought the wrong battles. I empathized with the wrong people.

I avoided doing what I needed to do because it was hard. It is easy to sympathize with a family on 9. It is hard to deal with Julie honestly and openly. Especially when neither of us were in the wrong…we were just apart. That’s a tough problem to solve! And it requires more than just time. More than just trips away together. I don’t want to be overly prescriptive in this post because your marriage is not my marriage. I’ll just say I had to find ways to discover who Julie is today… 20 years and 4 children and 1 cancer after I met her. She is not the same person she was even 14 months ago. I am not either.

Marriage is hard but I think Julie and I are both fighting the right battle now. We were both distracted and our efforts were misguided. We suffered. But I think we are back on track.

The Painful Place Between Willing and Wanting

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I am willing to wash the dishes. I don’t want to do it but I am willing to so our house will be clean.

I want to eat a chocolate chip cookie. I’m totally willing to eat chocolate chip cookies too.

You down?

Let me bring it to the farm. Julie is willing to milk the cow but she doesn’t really want to.

This really is not about milking the cow. It’s certainly not about chocolate chip cookies.

It’s about that wide and disheartening gulf between the things we are willing to do and the things we actually want to do.

What does Julie want to do?

That’s a very important question.

It turns out, more and more, that what Julie wants is not to run a farm while I’m at work. So year by year there is less and less farm. We started butchering layers today and there is no replacement flock.

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Why is that disheartening? Isn’t that a bit of a strong word?

Well, the shrinking farm is not disheartening. That’s a reality and a consequence of our daughter’s illness.

The disheartening part is watching Julie wither away as I impose my will on her.

…watching us grow distant as I want what she is only willing to do.

OK. So now what?

Now we address the problem. We make small adjustments to our routines.

We want chickens but we don’t want to wash 40 dozen eggs Monday morning. How about pigs? I love having pigs. But pigs on pasture cause her a lot of frustration. So I have to find simple solutions to the pig problem to make it as hands-off as possible…while still honoring the pig’s design.

And milking. Every year milking led to crying. And more crying. But not this year. And why? Because we realized that we don’t need 2 gallons of milk every day. More on milking another time.

I’m not as concerned about the kidlets as I am about Julie. They approach a number of chores only reluctantly and want to play video games. Part of the deal for them is doing things they don’t want to do. But what about me? What about Julie? Yes, we do a number of things we are willing to do but don’t really want to do. I drive away from the farm every day because it’s the best thing I can do for my family right now. But I don’t want to do it.

However, I see that differently than making Julie, who is a willing participant, do things she doesn’t want to do all day.

Because it leads to resentment if she is never allowed to do the things she just wants to do.

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I am being vague here. I don’t want to share too much about my beautiful wife…putting her on display for all the internet to read. But mistakes have been made. And we are working to ensure they do not continue.

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Take a moment to ensure that you and your other both want the same things. Ensure that you have common vision, not division.

Blackberry Time!

Blackberries are ready.

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The blackberries have been bright red for what feels like forever. They grow in the fence line which I climb over on my way to the barn so every morning the bright red berries stand out on the green leaves, saying, “Not yet, not yet”. But finally some of the red have turned dark and they are sweet to eat.

We did not plant these berries. We have not watered them. We have not done much for them. It is like free food. Until you start picking them and you are reminded that NOTHING is free. These plants don’t give up their fruit so easily, they bite as I pluck the sweet berries. They have thorns which seem to snag and sink into the skin and hang on.

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But thorns or no thorns, we pick berries, usually as a family. The kids start out with great enthusiasm. But after the first few buckets it starts to get hot, fingers and arms get a little scratched (remember these are biting berry bushes), and there may be a pesky deer fly or two. But Chris and I cheer them on, “We only have to fill our containers, then we can go home.” The younger two might not make it. They often disappear to explore the nearby pond or go sit in the shade of the truck.

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Finally our buckets are full. A drink of cold water, a shower and thoughts of blackberry cobbler with ice cream fill our heads as we pile into the farm truck.

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The cobbler recipe I use comes from The Pioneer Woman. I love her site!

Pioneer Woman’s Blackberry Cobbler #1:

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1-1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup self-rising flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 cups blackberries (frozen or fresh, even better if you had to pick them yourself)

Preparation:

Melt butter in a microwavable dish. (We do not have a microwave, so we just melted the butter in a sauce pan on the stove top). Pour 1 cup of sugar and flour into a mixing bowl, whisking in milk. Mix well. Then, pour in melted butter and whisk it all well together. Butter a baking dish.

Now rinse and pat dry the blackberries. Pour the batter into the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle blackberries over the top of the batter: distributing evenly. Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over the top.

Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until golden and bubbly.

Serves 8

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What is your favorite thing to do with blackberries?

 

There was Supposed to Be a Waterfall

Let me start at the end. We found a waterfall.

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Now that you know how the story ends let me tell you how the story begins.

The innkeeper told us it was the first July he could remember that the waterfalls were running and we should make it a point to see them…assuming we were outdoors-types. He found my blog somehow and knew we were.

We decided to start at the waterfall marked on our map furthest from our hotel. Clever, eh? We drove to Burden Falls. There is a small parking lot at the trail head. Ours was the only car. The trail looked nice enough. We were at the top of a hill. Julie and I started on our way. Much of the trail was under dense canopy of a forest that appears to have been planted 30 years (or so) ago.Trail1

The path was nearly covered in places by thick growths of poison ivy and, clever young man that I am, I was wearing shorts.

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But we soldiered on through. How far could it be? We followed the trail through the tall trees.

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The trail went down and down the hill. Poison ivy everywhere. The path blocked by innumerable spider webs. Julie cut a hickory branch and I used it to knock down webs in our path but eventually the branch became a waving mass of webs and unhappy spiders. The trail worsened. The spiders worsened. And horseflies. Did I mention the horseflies? Oh, there were horseflies. You can be sure of that.

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Our only comfort was the few smashed plants in the path, evidence that someone had traveled this path before us, even if days ago. So we continued.

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The path just kept on going. No sounds of water falling. No sounds of anything, really. Just more steps to take.

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15 minutes. 30 minutes. Should we turn back? Surely we are almost there. Look! A grove of tulip trees!

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The path worsened. Still, someone had been here. We continued.

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The path worsened again.

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The path continued to worsen.

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At this point the trail was mixed with a trickle of water rolling down the hill. Not a waterfall. And then the trail became little more than a deer path.

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I suggested that it was a joke. They must tell us carpetbaggers to follow the trail to the waterfall. Or maybe it’s a contest. “How dumb are you?” Hidden cameras along the trail as unwitting contestants show how willing they are to overcome poison ivy, fallen trees and dense spider webs to follow a trail to nowhere. Or to big rocks by a stream at the bottom of the hill.

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And that’s where the trail ended. Or maybe we missed a turnoff uphill. I don’t know.

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There was nothing else to do. An hour into the depths of Southern Hillinois we were unable to continue.

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No waterfall.

We spent another hour trudging back up the hill, Julie’s feet wet and blistered. She even found a deer tick on her jeans. The trip uphill took seemingly forever. Was this the way we came? Had we found another path? The way down we chatted. We enjoyed ourselves. We fought off the spiders bravely. On the way back we were quiet.

A minivan full of carpetbaggers pulled up just as we emerged from the trail. They were pleased to see us but looked disappointed when we told them about the poison ivy, spiders, rough trail and complete and total lack of waterfalls.

They were looking at their maps as we left. We drove back the way we came. A mile back down the road we had crossed water in the road. There was a parking lot, a car and the sound of falling water. Not 10 feet from the road was the waterfall pictured at the top of the post and nothing to mark its presence.

Our adventures did not end there. We continued to explore Shawnee National Forest. There will be other stories for another day. I’ll end this by admitting that we noticed, as we were driving away, we could smell ourselves. Ugh.

The Getaway

Cows are in the barn these days. The pasture is a little behind and I want to give it a moment to rest. The summer sun is unbearably hot so we are grazing the cows on open, flat ground during the night then returning them to the barn in the morning. That way they are still getting fresh greens but they are also protected and have easy access to fresh water. Finally, it makes pinkeye treatment a snap. Salt and kelp are in the feed trough and we can easily spray the infected eyes without fear of a multi-acre rodeo. It is costing us a little hay right now but I think it is worth it.

All that to say, chores are pretty easy these days. So Julie and I kissed the kids goodbye for a short anniversary getaway.

Did you know we live next to my parents and near to hers? Yup.

Julie and I are currently (as I write on July 4) in Anna, IL at the Davie School Inn. We have a big classroom all to ourselves. King-sized bed, couch, giant bubbly bathtub and even a kitchenette with real dishes!

I brought a stack of books. Julie brought her notebook and a book she has been reading about writing: Jump Start: How to Write From Everyday Life.

One of the exercises is to write about what is around you in detail. We had dinner tonight at the Rustle Hill Winery. Julie had a glass of sweet chambourcin as we sat overlooking the water.

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Julie wrote the following while we enjoyed our dinner:

The sky is overcast but I can still feel the sun coming through the clouds. The chairs are of black iron – yours was broken in the seat. You exchanged it for one at the next table, fearing it would snag your jeans.

There is a small group of people on the balcony chatting and laughing. I can hear frogs creaking – sounds like rocks being struck together, crickets, a few birds chirping, light jazz music in the background and far away a soft thunder boom – must be fireworks.

There is a brick patio under my feet, a small decorative pond next to us, a larger pond down the hill. The hill is neatly mowed with a few trees sloping down to the pond below. I can see the rows of grape vines on the top of the next hill.

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The restaurant is empty except for the group upstairs. I wonder if it is the family who runs the vineyard or the employees.

They had events here Saturday and Sunday – the restaurant has a laid-back feel. I wonder if they are all exhaling after a very busy weekend.

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Even the menus looked tired with a “N/A” sticker covering many of the selections. I don’t mean tired in a run-down kind of description, but more of an exhaling, like a well-deserved rest.

That is somewhat edited from what she wrote in her journal but that’s it. She misspelled some words, crossed through others but that doesn’t matter. What do you think? Can you see it? Were you there with us? Did she succeed in taking you to Rustle Hill Winery on July 4th at 5pm? Can you taste the sweet glass of chambourcin? Could you hear acris crepitans chirping next to us?

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Maybe. Maybe not. But Julie is trying. And if you want to learn to write you have to write…and you have to write every day.

One of my initial goals with the blog was to write daily and I succeeded for a long, long time. I began by imitating the style of writers I enjoyed. Now I seem to have found my own rhythm.

But I think it is time for me to grow again. It is time for me to be challenged further. It is time to improve as a writer. (and the people said, “Amen”.)

It is a little bit like work.But the act of writing is itself an escape…one that does not require willing grandparents or long trips in the car.

What did you write today? What is holding you back?

19 Years of Freedom

Jean Valjean paid 19 years of his life for stealing a loaf of bread. 19 years in the prison and in the galley. A slave. He emerged a bitter, angry man in an unsympathetic, unforgiving world. It wasn’t until he stole from a priest that Jean Valjean experienced love. His life was forever changed.

Julie married me but did not enslave me. Quite the opposite. Julie gave me love and acceptance and forgiveness. Julie filled an emptiness…satisfied a need. I married Julie and my life was forever changed.

It is counter to our culture for me to equate my marriage with freedom. We typically refer to our mates in disparaging terms and to continue with the prison example we may refer to a spouse as “the old ball and chain.” In our media husbands are presented as dopey, wives as narcissistic. Why did that self-obsessed woman marry that idiot?

I joke sometimes that Julie married me because I am intelligent enough to get a good job and dumb enough to go to it every day.

But that is not fair to either of us.

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I was twenty when we were married. Looking back 19 years I can’t define what, specifically, I was looking for in a spouse. We dated for years. It was pretty casual. She was intelligent, pretty and shared similar values and family culture. But that describes other girls too.

Could I have married any of those other theoretical women? Maybe. But Julie and I selected each other. I can’t tell you why. But I would suggest to you that I would not be “me” if I had married anyone else.

I can also tell you it has been wonderful.

My reference to Les Miserables is finished. There really is no further comparison. No person from my past hunting me down to reveal my true identity. Julie knows everything about me.

There is no effort to fulfill a vow, protect the innocent and sacrifice myself for the sake of others. Oh. Well. There is that, isn’t there.

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I vowed to love, honor and cherish her. Richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Forsaking all others.

Honor is an interesting word…as in, “Honor your father and mother that you may live a long, full life…”

Respect is earned. I respect my chainsaw. It can kill me. Julie can kill me too but that’s no basis for a relationship.

I honor my wife. Not because of what she did but because of who she is. She is my wife.

But what does “Honor” mean?

It means I hold her up. It means she is special to me. It means I take time in my day to tell her how important she is to me and how lost I would be without her. Her. Specifically her. It means I am patient. It means I listen. It means I consider her needs, her wants, her dreams. It means I take time to find out all I can about her…who she is…today.

The woman I am married to today is not the girl I married 19 years ago.

But I am not the same either. And we have suffered through things I never imagined we would go through.

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I am more free now than I was when we were kids. I am loved now in a way I was not loved then. I am able to love in a way I was unable to love then.

Julie has been married to me for fully half of her life. That’s kind of a big deal.

And it’s the kind of a big deal I don’t take for granted.

I love you Julie.

The #1 Reason We Farm

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I can respond to the title in one sentence but that’s not what we do here. I have to use 1,000 words. Bear with me, please. You know I like to talk.

Last year I kept a reading journal on the blog. My reading journal continues, I just don’t share it with you. I wrote out a list of books I wanted to read/re-read on January 1. Here is the list:

Do you know what I did with that list? I read some, I put others aside for another time. I appended to the list. Good Profit and Superforecasting seemed, at the time, to be impactful but I would have a hard time telling you what they were about without flipping through the pages again. Landscapes & Cycles was preaching to the saved and I set it aside. Lean Farm and I couldn’t seem to meet up. High Output Management continues to challenge me. Louder and Funner was quietly hilarious and somewhat accusational. I have read enough of Wodehouse that when I re-read Malabar farm I heard the narrative in the voice of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, bragging that he was asked to speak at the meeting but had declined because he was too busy with the farm, old horse.

So what happened to MacBeth or Republic? Were those failures?

Maybe. Kinda. But mostly I think I got the idea of the first 100 pages of Republic then decided that now was not the right time. And that is true of a good number of books I run into. Today’s Chris Jordan doesn’t need that book. Tomorrow’s might though. I have never read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example. Look, I know. I get it. But they don’t seem to scratch an itch.

Is this failure? Maybe. But not the kind of failure we are looking for.

BTW, my current active stack (piled to my right) includes:

The book Turn the Page discusses the importance of reading several books at once and finding connections between them, discovering ways reading one book impacts your thoughts of another. How will Algorithms to Live By impact Tale of Two Cities? I dunno. It may not.

But Turn the Page also talks about the importance of sampling many books and setting the majority of them aside. Also, the author of Turn the Page is a bit of a bore, referring to himself in third person and constantly quoting himself in bold print.

Chris Jordan thinks the author of the book Turn the Page is a bit of a bore, referring to himself in third person and constantly quoting himself in bold print.

If you read the book you’ll understand that joke. There are some good things in the book but you have to get past the writing style.

So what is this all about, Chris? Why are you sharing this with the world? Why are you, who just finished bragging about how humble you are and what a complete flop you are as a farmer, now list out the books you haven’t read? What is the point?

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If I were to ask you, “What do we grow on our farm?” you might answer, “Well, Chris, you seem to have cattle and chickens. Sometimes pigs. There are bees out there somewhere but you don’t talk about that much. I guess you grow hay. Your dad has horses. So…is that what you want? Or are you looking for a more clever answer like, “money”. That’s the answer Henry Galt gave the judge when asked what he farms.”

You are not technically wrong. We grow grass. There are cows. Those things are here. And, yes, we pay a little tax on a very little income each year. But that’s not what we do here.

We grow people.

Our farm is a ministry more than anything. It’s about people.

And not just the six of us.

Jesus boiled life down to two simple tasks:

  1. Love God
  2. Serve People

Cows are a fun extra.

I can’t make you grow. I can’t make you read my blog. But the hope is that you, reader, will happen across my blog and I will grab your attention long enough to plant a seed. I tell you about the things I wrestle with. I tell you what I am reading and thinking and enjoying and experiencing. I ask you to celebrate when our marriage survives another year. I ask you to cry with me about our daughter’s illness. I ask you to share my burden when I lose a calf through ignorance or inaction. I embrace you as a part of my extended family. I want to hear about your struggles. I want to read what you are reading.

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So I lead by example. I write about the things that make the farmer. ..the things that make the marriage. …the things that make the family. …the things that add meaning to our lives.

We home school our children but we don’t do school at home. There are no classrooms, no desks, no ringing bells. No schedule. We read. They read. We discuss. They participate. We sell farm products. They stand beside us at every step.

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I write about my reading list in the same way. I think this is how I can serve you. I scatter seeds. Life is not easy, on the farm or in town. My days are long. I get tired. Julie gets tired. We work through difficulties together. We read books together. We walk through life together. My post about humility and failure was not seeking sympathy from my small group of readers/friends. I was sharing. This stuff is hard. Someone recently told me that I make everything look easy. I am, indeed, very blessed. But it is not easy. I meant that post to be an encouragement to the reader. This stuff is not easy. But I continue to plug away, trying, failing, trying again. Failure, we learned in church this weekend, builds faith.

I am a man of faith. And I do this to serve you.

I write to bless you. I hope you write back.

Chris Jordan hopes you will write back.

 

Modest Enough Not to Know

If you were uncertain what the message of the blog is I want to be clear:

I. Don’t. Know.

I have no idea.

I am totally, entirely, utterly clueless.

I read books. I make notes. I actually do stuff in vivo. I make more notes. I talk to other farmers. I make more notes.

But it’s hard to make a plan from those notes. I can’t copy from Steve or Matron or Salatin. They are not me.

The formula seems so simple:

  1. Do stuff
  2. Stop doing stuff that doesn’t work.

But what does that really mean?

I’ll tell you what it means. I really do know the answer to this one.

It means humility.

It means you are going to stand on top of a mountain (or a blog) and shout to the world that farming is awesome! That you, along with your trusted companion, are going to solve problems both economical and ecological by harnessing sunlight and rain to make fat cows. And, shortly afterward, find out that it takes maybe a little longer than you had initially imagined. …that things don’t play out like they do in your head. …that well pumps break. …that one of those heifers you bought is a freemartin and two just won’t breed, that pinkeye runs through the herd like wildfire, that a heifer dies quickly and unexpectedly, that you cut hay then the forecast changed to 5 days of heavy rain. It means watching the escaped cows run down the road in the rain storm and feeling tired. Old. Foolish.

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It means learning how much can go wrong, how quickly it can happen and how miserable it feels.

Remember that house we used to own? The one with three bathrooms? What I wouldn’t give for an extra bathroom. I didn’t know we would need an extra bathroom with three teenagers in our house.

Remember when it rained in the kitchen? I didn’t know raccoons would try to dig through the roof to get into the house. Heck, I didn’t know we had a legion of raccoons living in the shed.

Remember that morning we found 30 dead birds in the chicken house? I didn’t know we had minks here.

Remember that time the water source leaked and 300 chicks caught pneumonia, dressed out without any fat on their bones and the meat was so tough we lost a bunch of customers? I remember that too. Totally clueless.

Remember trying to pluck ducks? Great idea. Poor execution.

You would think I would have learned a little about humility by now. And maybe I have. It is clear that I don’t have any answers at this point. But my inquisitiveness still hasn’t been beaten out of me.

I had a boss once on a roofing job. He told me not to ask him “Why” questions.

But I really want to know WHY!

For example, Why can’t I make money with hogs? Is it me? Is it feed costs? Is it worth keeping pigs anyway? What is the value of the manure? What is the value of customer exposure? What is the value of the experience for me? …for the kids?

I have a few ideas about how to answer those questions and some of my answers depend on my mood. But if you pin me down and demand an answer I have to cry out:

I don’t know!

But I want to know. And I am looking for answers.

In spite of the lack of posts recently, I continue working to clearly define my ignorance…but maybe more quietly. Reading the book Algorithms to Live By over lunch recently I found something that explains why I have the cows that I have. The authors are discussing a mathematical solution to a theoretical problem: how to hire the best secretary you can when you have a number of them to interview and you only get one shot at each.

The math shows that when there are a lot of applicants left in the pool, you should pass up even a very good applicant in the hopes of finding someone still better than that – but as your options dwindle, you should be prepared to hire anyone who’s simply better than average. It’s a familiar, if not exactly inspiring, message: in the face of slim pickings, lower your standards.

Well? Mission accomplished. The difference here is I expect my cows to breed so I can hire their daughters (cows, not secretaries) and each subsequent generation that I don’t eat will grow slowly closer to my ideal. Slowly. Slowly. How slowly? I don’t know. I think it’s going to take a while. Maybe never. Maybe I hired the wrong group entirely. That takes us into limitations of time, the whole point of the book. But this isn’t a book review post and I don’t know when I’ll have time to write one. The point is, wrong cows. Wrong, wrong cows. Or wrong farmer. Whatever.

Having written 900 words describing my ignorance I don’t want to leave you without hope that I, Chris Jordan, might someday overcome my limitation. I’ll leave you with what I do know. I know that I do not know. 39 years of ignorance has come at a high cost but I can’t be paralyzed by fear of the unknown. So I keep plugging away. Scratching my way forward by reading, listening, studying and reflecting but also by getting out there every day to keep learning what doesn’t work. Thanking God that I have a job in town.

The month of June thoroughly kicked my behind. Today is July 1. I don’t have the courage to be optimistic about July but I am overflowing with humility this morning.