Monday, May 21, 2018

Not a midlife crisis

So this was the thought that traipsed through my head as I was clipping one of our bucks a couple of weeks ago.  It was completely, 100% free of any negativity.  It was mostly bemusement; I have no regrets about spending a couple of decades in the sciences, and I while I miss some of what I was doing, I like what I’m doing now—so any regrets are offset by some very good cheese and the exhausting pleasures of farm life.  Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris; I’ll always have a unique understanding of the world as it really works.

I think what may have prompted this rumination on my part was my brother E, who is having his own  late midlife crisis, and is worried that if he changes direction to avert personal destruction, he will be wasting thirty years worth of work.  I don’t see it his way, and I have tried hard to persuade him.  I worry that he will destroy himself through attachment to such folly.  I used my own example, which he chose to ignore.

So I carry on with my life as a farmer.  Today was just another day on the farm. In addition to the usual spring business of feeding kids and milking and cleaning and cheesemaking, I did some mowing in my pastures to try to keep up with the grass where the animals could not.  And, before I hit the bed, I still have to give the kids their evening feed.  It’s late spring, the working day is eighteen hours long.  I’ll be tired.  But, to be sure (as the Real Doctor points out), my experience is uniquely rich because I see farm life through the eyes of a research scientist and educator.

It’s not what I trained for and did for a while, but it’s good.  The kids are a hoot.  The young doe that was having conniptions about getting milked is calming down.  The leftover curds from today’s cheese, a Colby, were delicious, and I thanks to my background, I know some ways I can make it better.  It was a warm, sunny day, and the blue dicks have started blooming.  My pastures are not as good as they will be, but they are better than they were, and despite the weather being uncooperative this year, they should feed the animals through summer—and, I have some insights from my training that will help things be better in the future.  Before I started milking in the evening, the sun on the neighboring hills was amazing; after I finished, the stars and Venus and Jupiter were dazzling.  I did not have the real pleasure of learning a new metabolic pathway and savoring its evolutionary implications.  Nor was I present as a student finally achieved an illuminating clarity about redox potential.   However, I received many, and sufficient, other rewards.

And, I know that at some point (hopefully many years from now), I won’t be a farmer.  What I am doing now won’t be wasted. What I’ll be doing then will be different—and I will see whatever it may be with the unique eyes of a former microbiologist AND former farmer.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Political inactivism

I'm not at a march today.  Would that I were, but farm life is like that.

There's a lot in this world that can point me towards despair.  Around here, a trip to the grocery store can do it--as I walked through the parking lot yesterday, I looked at the bumper stickers showing the political views, and by extension, the moral values of my neighbors.  There was the all too common "ORY GUN" logo.  There were all the NRA logos.  There was the "Protected by Smith & Wesson." There were the braggarts with "Molon labe" and III%.  There were salutes to the second amendment.  There was one truck that had, instead of a stick-figure family, a similarly arranged collection of semiautomatic rifles and handguns.  There was another that had a silhouette of an AR-15 captioned "BLACK RIFLES MATTER."

The unifying morality behind all of these stickers and mottoes is that these people believe that their personal right to end your life (if they feel it necessary) supersedes your right to live.  Those last two stickers really betray moral depravity, and make it explicit that they believe that their right to own weapons designed to kill humans is equal to or greater than other people's right to exist.  I mean, how do you charitably interpret them?  The owners of these stickers didn't seem to be motivated by a desire to hunt--a legitimate use for a single-action rifle.  They certainly didn't seem to want to be involved in a "well-regulated militia" intended to be the defense of a free state.  It seems almost entirely about the right to own weapons designed to kill others, to hold capital power over one's fellow human.

The most common sticker around here, though, is one with the date of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College.  Roseburg is not a big town, and I am not well connected, but I am two degrees of separation from somebody who was there.  Most of the town is similarly connected.  There's no shortage of evidence that if we wanted to make events like the UCC shootings rarer, if we wanted to make murders rarer, if we wanted to make suicides rarer, we would do our utmost to purge our society of all firearms (I'd be fine with a concession for single action hunting rifles).  But we want to have our cake and eat it too.  We want to believe that we are the responsible gun owners; that we are the bulwark between freedom and tyranny; that we are the good guy with the gun who will save the day; that if we just keep doing what we've been doing, only harder, things will get better.  This is not a mature, adult attitude.  Until we grow up, things will get worse, and I despair.

But--I watched some videos of today's rallies across the country, in which young people asked the "adults" to grow up.  The refreshing thing about youth is that sometimes they haven't learned to look politely away from truth, and they haven't learned that they shouldn't respect stupidity in a suit.  It is stupid to suggest that the solution to gun violence is more guns, and they don't hesitate to point that out.  So, I look at the kids, making politicians squirm with impolite truth, making us uncomfortable while waiting for an answer, asking us, "why?"...and I have a little, little hope.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Monday Musical Offering, Spring edition

OK, a day late...

Kidding and lambing has started here at the farm, both scheduled and otherwise.  We have a kidding parlor, which took months of work (almost all by Duva's brother & his family), and which was actually ready within hours of the first kids being born.  The other five does scheduled for this weekend waited to pop until their appointed times.  It went fairly well--relatively little assistance was needed by the does, and of the 13 kids, only one didn't make it (which sucks, but it happens--their on-board systems just don't fire up, they lose body heat, which shuts down appetite, and so on.  We have saved some like this, with warm baths, tube feeding, vitamin shots, and so on, and we did all that and more for this little kid, but nobody bats 100% on these cases).  The score so far:

Boadicea--buck and doe
Opera--three bucks
Mocha--two does, one died
Zephyr--single buck
Karuna--single doe
Cavatina--two bucks, two does

The weather for the entire show was grand and glorious and springy.  The fact that the kidding parlor worked so well and that the deliveries were mostly textbook made me feel better.  This was the music running through my head--the first movement of Rachmaninov's symphony/cantata The Bells, based on a translation of Poe's poem.

(Performance by Kiril Kondrashin, Moscow Symphony Orchestra, RSFR chorus, soloists.  Meh sound quality but the performance is like burning magnesium.)
         Hear the sledges with the bells--
             Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
       How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
           In the icy air of night!
       While the stars that oversprinkle
       All the heavens, seem to twinkle
           With a crystalline delight;
         Keeping time, time, time,
         In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
    From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
               Bells, bells, bells--
  From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Minimum day, the calm before the storm

The day before yesterday was one of the hinges of the year, where we turn from one segment of the farm calendar to another.  In the morning, I went up to the barn.  I gave the elderly sheep a scoop of senior equine feed.  To the does, I gave a feeder-full of orchard grass hay.  For the ewes, I only had to fluff up the orchard grass that was in their feeder, for they hadn't cleaned it up, and as soon as I opened the door they bolted out into the pasture.  I walked over to the bucks, filled up their feeder with orchard grass, and fluffed up the rams' feeder.  I then walked over to the junior bucks, topped off their feeder with orchard grass, walked over to the junior does and did the same for them, and I was done.

That was the morning feed.  The junior does and bucks had been getting supplementary grain and a little alfalfa, but they had outgrown their need for it.  The senior bucks are coming out of rut, and no longer need extra calories from grain.  The sheep are working the pastures down to nubbins before I spread seed, and are less interested in hay than they are in fresh grass.  Those animals had just finished tapering off their feed requirements.  Today, some of the animals are starting their increase--the first does are expected to kid in a week or less, so now they are getting a generous serving of alfalfa.  Things will get more complicated as we have kids to bottle feed, milking does to nourish,  and possibly a ewe or two with lambs--and that's not to mention the routine of milking.  But, for a couple of days there, feeding everybody, including the chooks, the cats, and the dog, took only twenty minutes.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A modest proposal on gun control

A modest proposal for gun control.

There are very few consumer products that, when used as designed and intended, shorten or terminate human life.  Cigarettes are one.  There is a societal cost to cigarettes; every time a person inhales from one, society pays a price—the price is very diffuse, in minute fractions of years lived by inhalers of secondhand smoke.  This cost is very hard to measure, but real.  Society also pays by dealing with the expenses incurred by the diseases associated with long-term cigarette use.  Society gets some compensation for these costs from cigarette users, in the form of heavy taxes imposed on the sale of cigarettes.  Society also discourages further cigarette use with various advertising campaigns, and more recently, unofficial forces such as scorn and inconvenience.

Two more products that, when used as designed and intended, shorten or terminate human life are handguns and semiautomatic rifles (“assault rifles”).  The societal cost of these consumer products is far more obvious than the cost of cigarettes, and per unit sold, these products do far more damage.  Despite what the gun-makers’ lobby says about good guys with guns, there are numerous studies that indicate that more guns has the societal effect of more deaths and injuries from guns.  The coefficient of the relationship has not been exactly defined, and varies regionally, but the relationship can’t really be honestly challenged.  And, while cigarettes harm society at large but most severely harm their users, guns—especially assault rifles—cause far more harm to society at large (though the numbers are inexact, gun suicides account for something like half of gun fatalities).

The use of cigarettes harms society; society exacts some compensation from cigarette users.  The use of handguns and assault rifles harms society; yet there is no equivalent penalty on the purchase of these guns.  The price, as noted is gory, agonizing, traumatizing, and can upend lives in a way that cigarettes cannot.

There are various estimates for the number of excess deaths caused each year by handguns and assault rifles.  Let us take the lowest of these estimates.  There are a certain number of handguns and assault rifles purchased each year.  Let us divide one by the other, to figure out the fractional number of deaths caused per year, on average, by such a weapon.  Let us convert that into a probability—a probability of drawing a ticket in a lottery by which society claws something back.  On purchasing such a weapon, the buyer is automatically entered into this lottery.  If the buyer’s number comes up—such an unlikely thing!, the gun advocate says—but inevitable, the gun control advocate says—then, at some time that year, seemingly at random, someone near and dear to the gun purchaser, a child, a spouse, a favorite uncle, will be shot and maimed or killed.

“This is so unfair!  The dear person did nothing wrong!  You are a monster for suggesting such a thing!” I hear you say.  Granted, it imposes some punishment on an innocent, but so does the gun purchaser anyway; the 17 who died this week in Florida, the concert goers in Vegas, the students just over the hill from me at Umpqua Community College, were equally innocent and undeserving.  But, I didn’t mention the other price that the handguns and assault rifles impose on society—the tearing of societal fabric, the lasting trauma, the anger and hurt and pain that reverberates through a community for years afterwards.  It’s hard to put a dollar valuation on that cost to society, and hard to extract that from the person buying the weapon.  So, payment in kind.  It may, have some deterrent effect on such purchases as well.

We are in a state where it is increasingly difficult to deny that the violent, terrorized deaths of children are the price that society pays for the freedom to have guns.  I have even seen words to that effect from those that advocate for unrestricted access to guns.  So, fine; they can maintain that right.  All I ask is that those who want to exercise that right pay their fair share of the price.      

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Friday Flora Familial folio edition

Another from my Mom's garden, which was, and may still be, better than yours.

My Mom was a very good artist; she had some training, a mother who illustrated her own books, and an aunt who was a professional artist working in oils (Fera Webber Shear).  Her chosen medium was acrylic, and her subject botanical illustration.  I encourage you to click on that photo, see it as big as possible.

I spent half of a day this week going through old holiday greeting cards sent from all my parents' friends over the last couple of years.  My task was to put together the mailing list for a belated holiday card, thanking my parents' friends for their kind wishes and telling them of my Mom's passing.  There were certain generational trends in evidence.  Among my parents' friends of longest standing, the themes of late retirement such as travel and grandchildren mixed with brushes against morbidity and mortality.  There were also a number of cards from my Dad's students, and these showed the ripeness of latter working life, children married, thoughts of retirement mixed with the highest tide of professional and social attainment.

I need to get my own personal belated holiday cards out.  Looking at the mailing list, I am seeing some stereotypical themes in my own age cohort.  We are, mostly, in the endurance phase of our careers.  Most, though not all have children, and some of those are starting to head off to college--but a few years and they will be entering the post-children phase of their lives.  I, and a few others, are on different tracks.  I have switched careers rather dramatically, and am starting from the bottom.  We have no human kids.  I'll be looking at a rather different set of milestones, but I have to say that I do like hearing about everybody else's.  It gives me a good feeling to see my friends do well.

So.  I'd better get to work on that card.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Wednesday Wordage--Ursula K. LeGuin

So, Ursula K. LeGuin died yesterday.  I've read a handful of her books, and definitely need to read more; the ones that I've read were uniformly excellent and expanding--both literary and imaginative, and challenging.

I am a fan of the notion of "canon."  I like the idea that there can be a body of work that is held in common, that everybody can refer to, and that any idea can be deepened by reference to a line or a character from canon.  I can, for instance, complain that my brother is dumping a lot of responsibility on me with regard to my parents' estate--or I can do the same, and say "am I my brother's keeper" and tie in to the whole business with Cain and Abel and guilt and primogeniture and responsibility and sin.

The idea of canon has become a little bit frayed of late, and with some reason.  Until just a few decades ago, canon was very white and very male and very straight and highly Christian.  And, also, very dead.  Whole new genres are out there--TV, movies, Pop music, propaganda posters--and some things really should be part of everybody's reference.  They're not taught in a culture class in school, though they are getting to the point where maybe they ought to be.  I've been a complete outsider in some conversations because of unfamiliarity with "Star Wars" or the works of Bob Dylan.

Science Fiction is another one of these new genres, and while there is no official canon, you can ask a  hundred fans and there are some books that will be almost universally referenced.  A lot of folks will talk about "golden age" sci-fi; Asimov, Doc Smith, Burroughs, and so on.  Well, since I wasn't taught a canon, I approached science fiction all out of order.  I read a bunch of Ursula K. LeGuin's stuff many years ago, along with some other more modern authors.  That was what I accepted as sci-fi.  Then, just a couple of years ago, I realized that people were getting worked up about "golden age" sci fi, so I decided that if I wanted to have a more complete view of the field, I ought to read it.  So, with the help of the local library and Project Gutenberg, I read a bunch of The Classics.

I have to say that it was kind of a letdown.  I remember thinking, all of the time, "where the women at?"  Yes, there were some adventurous adventures and action-packed action, but if you have the impression that sci-fi has the intellectual and social daring of LeGuin and Lem and Ellison, then most of the Golden Age stuff is just pulpy fluff, and not necessarily all that well written.

So here's a fond ave atque vale to Ursula K. LeGuin, and sincerest thanks for making me believe that genre literature is actually literature, and making me disappointed when it fails to be such.

What should I read next?