I’m copying below, verbatim, an essay I posted 16 May 2010. I’ve added a few introductory words and an embedded song.
The photographs do not appear in this version, with my apologies. This website has switched servers a couple times since this essay first appeared, with adverse consequences such as the loss of some data.
Wow, what a life I had, not so long ago. It’s little wonder I’m now broke and broken, a tad more than six years later.
I worked hard, but working hard didn’t pay off. I served as an example, but very few followed. I suspect few followed in part because the work is too hard, in part because the rewards are few, but mostly because I don’t have nearly as much influence as I thought I did.
As a a middle-aged, wealthy Caucasian man, and a teacher, too, I thought people would follow my lead. I’m still a Caucasian man, but I’ve lost sight of middle age and financial wealth. And my teaching has little substantive impact, which probably was always the case.
I gave up on the aspirin. Most of my pain is existential, although — like every other sentient being — I experience emotional, psychological, and physical pain. I’ve chosen to endure pain of all types, rather than chase it away. Without suffering, there is no authentic joy.
People keep asking me what my days are like. How do I spend a typical day?
Now that I’m retired from the academic life — or rather, now that I’ve departed the academy in disgust and despair — I no longer spend time in my swivel chair, dispensing information on the telephone or tending to the tender young psyche of an overwrought twenty-something. But there is no “typical” day, just as no two days were alike before I abandoned the hallowed halls. Nonetheless, in yet another round of egocentric, navel-gazing story-telling, here goes.
After a fitful night filled with five hours of oft-interrupted sleep, I give up the painful prone position for the slightly less painful standing one. The sun is still behind the mountains, the sky gunmetal gray on this 37-degree spring morning. I flex my fingers, marveling at their one-year transformation from thin and nimble to swollen and brittle, bend my back and neck as they compete for loudest and most frequent popping noises, and gobble a handful of aspirin to start the day.
After putting on my cleanest dirty shirt — one never knows when a neighbor might drop by, after all — I fire up the laptop, respond to a half-dozen email messages, and ignore the list of back-stretching and -strengthening exercises on the table. Maybe tomorrow, when I have more time. No, that won’t work: I have visitors tomorrow and the next day, taking a quick tour of the property to view the arrangements we’ve made. The tea has been steeping while I read and respond, and now I drink it while plowing through a breakfast of cold cereal and piece of fresh fruit as I skim the morning’s counterculture news and commentary. I peek over the computer screen as the sky turns pink, then azure, in the span of a few minutes.
Walking slowly to pick up the hay, I am reminded how pathetic was my attempt at construction on my first-ever awning. It keeps the hay dry, for now, but insufficient pitch and long-abused tin cause the roof to leak, thus prematurely rotting the boards. I carry the flake of alfalfa across the gravel driveway in a plastic “Tucson Recycles” bin, a reminder of my home city of twenty years.
I chuckle as I open the door to the goat pen, an old bed frame I found on the property. After placing the hay into the hand-made manger and filling the water buckets, I release Lillian and Ellie from the insulated goat shed I constructed. Lillian bleats anxiously, knowing she is about to get a quart of grain and relief from her full udder. Ellie, the barrel-shaped three-month-old kid, runs between and then jumps onto the straw bales in the small paddock.
Crossing the driveway, I step into the 15-year-old mobile home and check the temperature in the kitchen: 42 F, a few degrees warmer than outside. I arrange the quart jars, durable coffee filter, and funnel for easy pouring when I have a full bucket of milk, then grab the milking pail and wander back to Lillian. The aches and pains are giving way to an easy gait and appreciation for another beautifully verdant day.
I recall last week’s visitors, a gaggle of university students. After talking for hours about economic collapse, including light’s out in the empire and no water coming through the taps, I was extolling the virtues of living in a “third-world” country with rainwater harvesting and hand-dug wells. A very fit, 20-year-old woman asked for clarification about the wells: “They really dig them by hand?”
I explained that I move as much dirt in an average weekend as required to dig a 20-foot well. Tears welled up, and she turned away.
Economic collapse is fun to talk about, until it becomes personal. And for most people, the personal nature of physical labor is no fun at all.
In the goat shed, I marvel at Lillian’s calm disposition and take quick note of her condition. Her toenails need trimmed, so I’ll get Carol to help with that when she comes back from a week-long visit to the northern half of the state. I marvel, too, at my ability and willingness to tend barnyard animals. I’m feeling good about my new skills despite the criticism from beyond the property. When my parents visited a few months ago, my dad — a product of his culture, steeped in societal economic growth and individual financial success — made a point to watch and comment: “I never thought one of my kids would be reduced to milking a goat.”
Two quarts this morning, same as usual. It’s stacking up in the fridge, so I’ll have to make cheese tomorrow or the next day. I’m partial to Parmesan, but I’ll check the inventory of hard cheeses in the root cellar to make sure we have similar amounts of Parmesan, cheddar, and Monterey Jack. Chevre, mozzarella, and ricotta need to be eaten quickly, and I won’t take time to cook a decent meal based on either of the latter two during the next week.
The milk goes into the freezer for an hour as I let the ducks and chickens out of their respective houses. They’ll range free all day, the ingenious ducks spending most of their time in the irrigation ditch adjacent to the property they discovered after living here only a year. As I gather the eggs, I take note of the trees and gardens on the east end of the property, including the paw paw trees I planted earlier this week. Back in the mobile home, I wash the nine eggs before storing them in the fridge on the shelf below the milk.
I water the seedlings in the garden. The carrots and peas are just emerging, so they need a light shower twice daily. The citrus trees seem to perk up every time I shower their leaves, so I hit them every time I walk past. Continuing to the west end of the property, I give a quick spray of water to the device I constructed for producing compost tea, open the greenhouse and cold frame, check the honeyberry shrubs I planted yesterday, and briefly inspect the three-dozen fruit and nut trees in the orchard. The milk has been in the freezer for its requisite hour, so I hurry back to move the chilled jars into the fridge.
Today’s big task is construction. The still-tender ribs I broke last month working on a similar project remind me to work deliberately as I attach an awning to the cargo container in the northwest corner of the property. We’ll want to store bales of hay and straw and, when we can no longer obtain bales of either, stacks of hay from the peanuts in two large gardens. In time, peanuts will feed us and the goats, as well as improving the soil.
The frame is finished at 1:00 p.m., but only after I pummel my left thumb with a poorly aimed hammer several hundred times, walk back and forth between the stack of lumber and the new awning too many times to count, and nearly fall off the roof. I guess the ribs aren’t a sufficient reminder. I’m thirsty, hot, and tired, and it’s time for lunch and a phone call.
As I eat, I visit on the telephone for ninety minutes with somebody who follows my blog and wants advice about where to live. Earlier this week, it was career advice for a freshly minted Ph.D. and tomorrow’s caller wants to discuss a strategy for telling her parents about peak oil. I harbor no illusions of having answers for any of these callers, and I know the customary caller is wise enough to seek advice beyond mine, but I appreciate any opportunity to discuss reality and how we can respond to it. I suspect my advice is overpriced, even at no charge.
A handful of aspirin later I’m back at the awning, misguided hammer in hand. After a surprisingly smooth afternoon characterized by few bruises and no blood, I complete the awning. I’ve covered the frame with plywood, tarpaper, and tin on an afternoon with temperatures in the mid-80s. Sweating and sore, I barely have time to hand-water the large garden behind the mobile home, trying not to notice how badly the beds need weeded, before my evening encounter with Lillian. Were Carol here today, the goats would have been walked a couple times, with special attention to the abundant weeds on the east end of the property.
Distracting Ellie with a little grain in her own bucket, I close the door to the goat shed and Lillian steps up on the stanchion I built to ease the milking operation. I apply bag balm after I finish milking her, give Ellie a pat on the head, and head to the mobile home to strain the milk into two more quart jars.
Supper is the same as lunch: rice and beans left over from last night’s supper. A quick shower removes the first layer of grime before I put the goats into their lion-proof shed, lock the chickens into their skunk-proof coop, and herd the ducks into their raccoon-proof house. The setting sun sets the sky afire before unleashing the Milky Way.
One more round with the imperial screen of death allows me to catch up with a couple dozen email messages while viewing the latest dire news about the ecological collapse we’re bringing to every corner of the globe. A cup of herbal tea to wash down more aspirin, a few pages of Nietzsche in the silence of the straw-bale house, and I tumble into bed. Sleep comes slowly and poorly, as it has since the summer of 1979 when I last logged six consecutive hours of sleep. Even then, my nagging subconscious was trying to tell me something about the empire wasn’t quite right.
Sadly, it took me decades to figure out the problem. More sadly, most imperial Americans are well behind me on the learning curve.