Here versus There

My daughter and I spent the day together in Chicago. This is another nice thing about homeschooling and the flexibility it affords: she knuckled down and got all her work done for the week on Thursday. Ditto for me, being self-employed: I got all my work done last night, and told clients that any additional requests would have to wait for Monday. Everyone was fine with that, so Daddy-Daughter day was a go.

We caught a Metra commuter train, and that hour-long part of the trip was itself part of the thrill for her. We sat on the upper deck and watched the exurban sprawl melt into suburbs, and suburbs melt into urban blight … and then finally the urban brilliance of Chicago emerged. We went to Mass at St. Peter’s in the Loop, and then had nothing in particular on the agenda.

The weather was miserable (it reminded me of a stereotypical gray and drizzly Seattle day), but she didn’t seem to mind. She insisted that we go to the top of the Sears Tower, even though it was so socked-in that we couldn’t see above the 60th floor from the sidewalk. “That’s okay!” she assured me, eyes all a-sparkle. “I want to go in the clouds!”

So, into the clouds we went. I’ll say this: at least we had the place to ourselves. Apart from a few foreign tourists (who all snapped pictures of the “103” floor display on the elevator, while jabbering in Asian languages), the elevator and Sky Deck were empty. We went from window to window, trying to find even the tiniest break in the clouds, but we found none. Turns out the people at the ground floor were right when they listed visibility as “zero.” We couldn’t even see the sidewalk, and we weren’t high enough to be above the clouds. The windows all seemed to be painted gray.

But that was okay with her. She was in the clouds. We called Grandma and Grandpa, and she excitedly told them where she was. Her smile was well worth the twenty bucks we’d paid for the elevator ride.

Back down at the sidewalk, the rain had stopped. We walked all over the Loop, holding hands, gradually making our way to Michigan Avenue. We got a couple of books at the Catholic bookstore, and then had lunch at the train station before heading home. After all that walking, it was all both of us could do to stay awake on the train.

Both of us had a wonderful time, but I think we both came home more appreciative of the quiet and smaller scale of our own rural community. I want our kids to experience the things the city has to offer (even if sometimes it’s nothing more than a walk in the clouds), but to live their lives in a closer-knit environment that is more in keeping with a “human” scale of life and values.

But you know what was the best part? Both of us had a full day with the other’s undivided attention. Neither of us gets enough of that, and I’ve firmly resolved that this kind of extended one-on-one time with each of the children absolutely must become a regular feature of our family life.

And With Spring…

It’s time to shovel out the goat stall. Amazing how much bedding has accumulated since we cleared it out last summer. The goat kids are four weeks old now, and we want to get them and Queen Anne’s Lace The Goat out of the little stall and back into the larger area that includes access to the outside. The kids are doing very well, and are bundles of energy. They really need more space, but I just haven’t had time to get the larger stall ready; we wanted to get all the old bedding out, and lots of nice clean bedding down, before bringing them into it.

The solution: I’ve been chipping away at it, day by day, as a nice afternoon break from office work. It’s remarkable how wonderful it is to take a pitchfork and drive it into that stuff; there’s something about good physical labor that really helps clear one’s mind at the end of a long day.
One wheelbarow load at a time, I’ve been taking it from the barn to my vineyard that’s fairly close by. I’m averaging about 2-3 wheelbarow loads per day. I think that’s the key lesson I’ve learned from trying combine a small farm with a small consulting practice: stop waiting for a big chunk of time before you tackle a project, and don’t be afraid to do a little at a time. Bit by bit, that horrible old bedding is disappearing — and, one row at a time, the vineyard is getting mulched. Here is Double Play, hanging out on what’s left of the old bedding. Note how deep it is, and how much is still left to do.

The stuff at the bottom of the bedding is basically composted, it’s so far deteriorated. Closer to the top, it’s still basically rotting hay and straw. While not perfect organic compost that could be used in the garden, it makes a nice mulch for the vineyard. The composted portion provides nutrients for the soil, while the intact portion blocks weeds and absorbs rainwater. And over time, the rainwater will slowly leach additional nutrients out of the mulch and into the vineyard soil.

Spring at Last

I was out in the vineyard yesterday, looking at the still-dormant grape vines, wondering if we’d lost any to the bitter cold this winter. Then, as I was getting ready to leave, I took a closer look at the blackberry brambles at the north end of the vineyard.

Buds! Spring is truly here at last.

Daylight Savings

We’ve had the clocks set ahead for a week, and I can’t begin to describe how maddening it has been. Just before the switch, we had daylight when I needed to rise and go out to milk the goats. I didn’t realize just how helpful and inspiring that daylight was for getting out of bed…until it was gone. Two days in a row, I overslept and had to drag myself out there. It’s an entirely different start to the day.

Nice piece in National Review Online making a similar point, but from a suburban perspective.

I wonder if we’d be doing all this messing with the clocks if this was still the agricultural nation we used to be. I’d much rather take that hour in the morning than in the evening. It’d be one thing if our kids could actually use that evening hour to burn off steam. But our problem isn’t bedtime — it’s cold weather and the mudbog outside from all the melted snow. We had exactly two warm days last week, when the kids could play into the evening. But those kinds of days are few and far between until April at the earliest.

Call me a luddite, but I’d scrap the whole policy if it was up to me.

Retail

Before we moved here, I had mixed feelings and expectations about what the retail scene would be like. In my past experience shopping in some small towns, I came to believe the Norman Rockwell-esque image of the mom and pop retail establishment can be overly romanticized. I’ve been to plenty of them which are small and offer a poor selection of overpriced merchandise. And, no, many of them do not treat their employees like they are members of the family.

But we are truly fortunate to have a number of small retail establishments in the area which make us proud to “shop locally.” Some examples: the NAPA auto parts store, with the manager who jokes about my foreign cars breaking down, but who always supplies excellent advice and exactly the part I need; the feed store in Gibson City, which custom mixes locally-grown grains— and is willing to stay open longer if I’m running late and call ahead; the pharmacy, run by the same family for decades; and the True Value hardware store (run by the son-in-law of the pharmacist, as it turns out).

I could get prescriptions filled for less money at Sam’s Club. I could get cheaper (industrialized pellets) chicken feed at Farm & Fleet. I could save a little on auto parts at Wal Mart. Hardware costs less at Home Depot. And sometimes we shop at all those places, because there is a time and a place for them. But all of those places are miles away, and not part of our own community, and for the most part do not offer anywhere near the level of personalized service that our local retailers do.

This is on my mind because I had a number of things to get at True Value this morning. They’ve recently moved to a large, new building, and have a selection that rivals any store within 30 miles—but the place has the same personalized spirit that they’ve always had. The manager recognized me when I came it, smiled and said hello. When I had trouble finding something, a casheir took me right to it. In the past, when I’ve had questions about which item was most appropriate for my project, someone on their staff has always been quick to answer those questions.

You hear a lot about Wal-Mart driving mom and pop retailers out of business. Maybe that happens sometimes…but maybe some of those retailers needed some competition. Here in Paxton, though there’s a Wal-Mart down the road in Rantoul, businesses like the True Value are growing and flourishing. They’ve figured out how to offer something the big retailers can’t, and that we in the community truly appreciate. The merchandise I bought this morning cost a little more than it would have at Wal-Mart, but the whole package of what our True Value provides is well worth that money.

Dog Disposal

Hopefully this will serve as a brief and relatively lighthearted coda to the whole sad story of losing Tessa last week (follow this link to the original post).

Out of curiosity, I spoke with someone at the vet’s office today about what the incineration fee would’ve been had we used that service. For a 90# dog, he thinks it would’ve been $35. And if we’d wanted the ashes, that would’ve added another $100.

I laughed, and he laughed with me. “Do people really do that?” I asked.

“You’d be surprised,” he replied. Some people really do keep the dog’s ashes on the mantle. And it costs so much more because the incinerator guy has to fire the thing up with a single animal in it for several hours; usually, they burn about a dozen dead animals at a time in the chamber.

Keeping everything in perspective, I’m treating The Yeoman Farmer’s DIY Funeral Pyre as a $135 down payment on a new Great Pyrenees puppy.

Or, for even more perspective: our family supports a handicapped orphan at a wonderful Catholic boarding school in India. The cost for all of his expenses for an entire year are … $120. In other words, he could be supported for more than 13 months for the cost of burning and collecting the ashes of one dead dog.

Sheesh.

Still Hanging On. Sort Of.

We’ve had spectacular weather the last couple of days. The nice thing about homeschooling is that we’ve been able to juggle our schedule so the kids can take advantage of the 75 degree sunshine. My wife had them knuckle down and do as much work as possible before 11:30 am each day…and then they got to run around and burn off a winter’s worth of energy until dinner. Any school work they don’t get done, they finish up in the evening after the sun goes down.

This evening, the weather started to turn. We had very strong winds out of the NE, and the temperature dropped. As I was walking in from my office, I noticed something odd: the high winds had blown the ashes off the remains of the fire I’d built to burn Tessa’s body — and there was a whole layer of coals burning bright red in the wind.

It’s been three full days since I built that fire, and there’s still something left. Amazing. And kind of consoling, in an unexpected way. Not to get too sentimental, but it struck me as a sign that in a small way, Tessa is still here with us. Never thought the sight of glowing embers would give me such comfort, but they did. I don’t feel so alone now.

A friend sent a condolence note, and added that he really liked Tessa’s “Viking Sendoff.” She deserved it, he said. And his “Viking Sendoff” phrase couldn’t help but make me smile.

He mentioned how much he still misses some of the dogs he grew up with, and said he still has an image in his head of those dogs running to greet him at the end of this life. I like that image, and can easily imagine Tessa and Cassie coming to meet me at the Pearly Gates.

But will they? My wife and I have worked hard to teach our children the distinction between people and animals — and the kids are very clear about that. They don’t sentimentalize the livestock, and actually look forward to butchering day. “Animals don’t get to go to heaven,” my wife has told them repeatedly, “because they don’t have human souls.”

Theologically, she’s probably right. But I still like to speculate about something a little different—something a very holy priest once told me, that his mother had told him when he was a boy. When he’d asked her if the family dog would be with them in heaven, she’d given a very sage response: “If it will make you happier.”

Part of me likes to picture Tessa and Cassie in heaven with us, making us even happier than we otherwise would have been, even if they with their canine souls never got to appreciate what a wonderful place it is. But, more than that, I like to think that heaven will be so good, and we will be so filled with happiness at seeing God as he is and reuniting with our families…that we won’t even notice that the dogs aren’t there to join us.