William F. Buckley, RIP

I’m devastated at today’s news of the passing of William F. Buckley, Jr. It’s hard to identify a single person who had a larger influence on the development of my political ideas and beliefs, which in turn led to the career in political consulting that has been so meaningful for me.

Am finding it difficult to get much of anything done; mostly just sitting here at my desk with my head in my hands, and tears in my eyes, listening to Rush Limbaugh’s remembrances and reading the many other things being posted at National Review Online and elsewhere. Even the New York Times put Buckley’s obituary front and center at the top of their first online page, and it was extremely respectful. I’m glad it’s a slow day at work, because I must admit I’m having trouble focusing my thoughts.

A few quick remembrances of my own: I first encountered National Review in high school. I think it was passed along to me by my father, who’d been given it by a friend who’d gotten it on an airline flight and knew I was interested in politics. Don’t quote me, but I believe it was 1985 or so, and Jack Kemp was on the cover. I read the whole thing, and was hooked. Picked up National Review whenever I could find it. Then, as I was preparing to go off to college in 1987, the very first check I wrote out of my very first checking account was to take out a “student rate” subscription to National Review. In the 21 years since, even with moving all across the country and sometimes being in terrible grad student/newlywed/new parent poverty, I never let that subscription lapse. I read nearly every issue cover to cover, and Buckley’s column was something I never missed.

As an undergraduate at Northwestern, I ran the campus equivalent of Young Americans for Freedom (a group Buckley was instrumental in getting started). Our faculty advisor, one of the only openly conservative members of the political science department, had attended Yale the year after Buckley graduated — and even lived in the same residence hall that Buckley had lived in. And, somehow or the other, this professor had managed to take Buckley’s old roll top desk with him after leaving Yale. I never got the story of how he came to posses that desk, but it stood proudly in the professor’s apartment and we campus conservatives venerated it like a quasi-sacred relic. I’m not sure if this was true, but word was that Buckley had actually written God and Man at Yale on that desk.

A few years back, a particular point regarding the English language had been bothering me: seemed that everywhere I turned, people were referring to countries as “it” rather than using the traditional “she” or “her.” In my own writing, I always referred to countries using the first person feminine (“Iran moved her armies into Iraq…”), but it seemed precious few others were doing so. I imagined that William F. Buckley, who was such a master of the English language, would be one person who might sympathize with these sentiments. So…I wrote him a letter for his “Notes and Asides” column in National Review, encouraging him to have the magazine bring back the first person feminine for countries. And then, much to my surprise, a few months later, he ran my letter! But, to my great disappointment, his glib reply was in the negative; he said he imagined a man at a club, reading the newspaper announcing that Germany had invaded France — and then that man turning to his companion and asking “Now, why would she do that to her?”

Ah, well. I tried. And that was the closest I came to meeting the great man. Isn’t it remarkable that a person you’ve never met personally can have such a profound and lasting impact on the course of your life? And that you can feel such a grievous sense of loss at his passing? It’s an odd sense of being “orphaned,” and there were only two other times I’ve had this feeling: June 5, 2004 (Ronald Reagan’s death), and April 2, 2005 (the passing of John Paul II).

I suppose I should pull it together and get back to work. The struggle to “stand athwart history, shouting ‘Stop!'” never ends, huh?

Thanks to you all for listening to these random thoughts.

You Go, Goat Girl!

With both of our yearling does now in milk, and with each needing to supply milk for only a single kid, we began setting up to resume regular milkings. Last week, Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I moved some straw bales and rolls of fencing materials, and then brought both our milking stanchions into the barn from the garage. We covered them with tarps, to make sure the chickens didn’t roost on them and foul them up. Then, with me back today from a weekend-long retreat, MYF decided that today was the day to start milking.

MYF spent quite a bit of time this morning preparing for the big event. She dug out the nice stainless steel milking pail (with lid), washed it, and soaked it in an acid wash solution. She cleared and scrubbed a designated counter space in the kitchen, and set all the milking supplies up on it. By the time I came in for lunch, we were ready to roll.

I helped get the first doe out of the makeshift kidding pen, and together we led her to the stanchion. It was a struggle getting her in, but the grain served as an effective enticement. As MYF washed the goat’s udder and then settled in to milk, I went off to gather eggs.

When I returned, less than five minutes later, MYF was already nearly finished — but we weren’t going to be enjoying any milk anytime soon. The goat had smashed her foot into the milking pail, easily knocking off the half-lid. Frustrating, but it happens. We set the pail down, and Scooter the Amazing Sheepherding Wizard Wonderdog polished all the milk off by the time we got Doe #2 into the stanchion. She was just as much of a kicker, (and given Doe #1’s filthy feet, we couldn’t have used Doe #2’s milk anyhow unless we washed and sanitized the pail…something we had no time for). Again, Scooter got to feast as we led Doe #2 back to the pen.

Suddenly, an obvious point occurred to me, which I mentioned to MYF: This is the first time we’ve tried to milk a goat for the first time. Both of our other milking does had been milked by their previous owners, and had been comfortable with the routine. It simply didn’t occur to us to expect different behavior from these two. One of those things that’s obvious in retrospect, but didn’t cross our minds beforehand.

I thanked MYF for “giving it the old college try there, Goat Girl.” And hopefully tomorrow we’ll be better able to anticipate (and redirect) the does’ kicks. If not…at least Scooter will be pleased.

Greatest Lovers

Something I’ve been meaning to comment on for the last week: when I was driving home from Illinois on February 14th, there was a wonderful Valentines Day-themed commentary on NPR’s All Things Considered by a woman named Pat Dunnigan. Her (hilarious) argument is that suburban dads are actually the world’s greatest lovers, because of the various situations in which they must overcome all odds in order to have time alone with their wives:

You think it’s hard to get the attention of a woman in a bar? Puh-leeze. These guys have to convince a woman who has fallen asleep in her clothes reading Thomas the Tank Engine stories that what she really wants right now is some midnight romance under the giant pile of laundry covering the master bed.

You can follow that link to read or listen to the whole thing; it’s quite funny, and filled with examples that a lot of us have probably experienced.

But as the hundreds of miles continued to roll past, on my drive back to Michigan, I couldn’t help thinking about who might qualify as the real “greatest lovers:” moms and dads who must use Natural Family Planning. How about this for a situation that many of us have likely found ourselves in:

You’ve been charting and waiting patiently for three weeks, and you’re at last in the final countdown to the end of fertility for this cycle. Day 21 arrives, and despite your best efforts to run the kids’ wheels off…the youngest insists that “I’m not tie-ohd!” Dad makes sure the older ones fall asleep, while Mom works on reading Thomas the Tank Engine to the youngest. Dad checks back in a bit; It’s 10pm and Mom is getting bleary-eyed, but the five year old is excited and wanting to play. Mom keeps reading, and Dad goes downstairs and loads the dishwasher. Dad then very quietly makes his way up the stairs at 10:30, but the five year old is still going strong. Mom is barely hanging on. Dad, looking for something to keep him busy, folds that mountain of laundry on the master bed.

Finally, at 11:30, Dad finds the five year old asleep — but, yes, Mom is also asleep (and fully clothed). Mom’s eyes flutter open as Dad enters the kid’s room, and she mutters something about how hard she tried to outlast the five year old, and how bone-tired exhausted she is, and that she knows how much Dad has been anticipating this long-awaited day.

Dad can now do one of two things: (1) Try to convince Mom that what she really wants, right now, is some midnight romance with him back in the master bedroom…which will get Mom wide awake and guarantee she’s not going back to sleep until 3am; OR (2) force a smile, give Mom a kiss, and tell her she should get some rest.

I don’t need to tell you which option the “greatest lover” will choose. Or, after he chooses it, how much better a frame of mind, or how much more crazily in love Mom will be with him, on Day 22.

Craft Dairy

Excellent piece in the NY Times about a movement among small, independent dairies to sell craft products directly to the public:

More and more people across the country are being treated to the same aha experience as they find a burgeoning variety of fresh dairy products made in small batches on little farms and in small creameries. And it’s worth the extra money.

These artisanal operations are turning cow, goat or sheep milk into simple, straightforward foods like crème fraîche, butter, buttermilk, ice cream, puddings, custards, yogurt, yogurt-based sauces and yogurt drinks. Many of these dairies also sell unhomogenized, and in a few cases even unpasteurized, milk with an old-fashioned farmhouse flavor.

The movement is, in some ways, an offshoot of the American cheesemaking revival that began 15 to 20 years ago, and some of the creameries make fresh cheeses like mascarpone, mozzarella and ricotta that let the quality of the milk speak for itself.

Chalk it up to a lucky confluence of events. Most small dairy farmers cannot keep afloat selling milk to large processors at commodity prices, so those who are trying to survive are looking for alternatives. At the same time there is an increasingly sophisticated public that appreciates the difference between mass-produced dumbed-down food and the handiwork of a small dairy that has learned to produce exceptional butter or yogurt or ice cream by doing it the way it was done before World War II, when there was a creamery in every town.

New Arrivals

We got home last night from visiting family, and found a new happy arrival waiting for us in the goat pen:

She’s a female, and looks just like the Saanen doe who gave birth to her.
By contrast, here is a photo of the male kid born a few days ago to the twin sister of that doe (same Toggenburg sire for both kids):


I guess the lesson is that when you start crossing breeds, you never know what will come out.

Unfortunately, it’s also difficult to predict how good of a mother your goats will be. Queen Anne’s Lace the Goat, who is the mother of both of these mother does, was an excellent mother goat. The first doe to give birth this year is also proving herself an excellent mother; the male kid pictured above is gaining weight nicely. The second doe, however, looks like she may be rejecting her kid. She won’t sit still while she nurses, and we must hold her in place to make sure the kid gets a good meal. That could be bad news, but Mrs Yeoman Farmer and Homeschooled Farm Girl are determined to make sure this little kid gets enough to eat.

Sloppy Mess

We’ve endured feet of snow here the last couple of weeks, and the temps haven’t gotten above freezing to melt any of it. As a result, the driveway has become packed with snow and ice, and impenetrable to the average snow shovel. We’re at the point now where it makes most sense to wait for the thaw, and in the meantime simply follow our tire tracks from the garage to the road to get out.

And that worked fine, until this morning. Overnight, it began to rain; the temps had gotten just high enough so we weren’t getting new snow — but it still wasn’t warm enough to really melt what was already on the ground. The result is a heavy, slushy, sloppy mess…sitting on top of a sheet of packed ice.

Naturally, we didn’t realize just how bad it was until I went out at 9:30 to fetch the car. A half hour is usually more than enough time to get to the 10am Mass. But this time, I was able to do little more than back the car out of the garage before it got stuck. Mrs Yeoman Farmer came out to join me, and we took turns driving while the other one pushed/rocked the car to free it. I also attempted to shovel the wheels free, but the underlying layer of ice wouldn’t budge.

Twenty minutes later, we managed to get the car (which even has front wheel drive, by the way) pointed in the right direction and about halfway up the sloped driveway…but we couldn’t get it to go any farther.

Time to call in the 1984 Ford Bronco II 4×4. It only has four seats, so we couldn’t all take it to Mass, but the thing is very handy for rescuing other vehicles. In fact, I keep a tow chain in the back at all times. But even with the 4×4, it was still after 10am before we managed to get the Taurus out to the road.

So…we were down to Plan B: wait another hour, and go to the 11:30 “last chance” Mass. We don’t normally like going so late, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

And something funny happened: sitting near us was a family with five kids, and their ages looked similar to our own. The mother and the three daughters were all wearing chapel veils, just like MYF and Homeschooled Farm Girl were. As soon as Mass was over, MYF whispered: “I want to meet them!” Three minutes later, they were talking like old friends. Turns out, this family usually goes to a whole other parish, at 8:30am. But guess what? Their driveway was so sloppy this morning, they couldn’t get out, either! We stuck around for quite a while, chatting and getting to know them. They also homeschool, and also have a small farm. We exchanged phone numbers, and the wives are already figuring out a way we can get the families together for something.

Just goes to prove, I guess, that…once again, God’s timing is always perfect.

Fairest Love

Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I have never been much into Valentine’s Day. Apart from the total over-commercialization, the whole thing seems to be a spectacularly overdone commoditization of sex and relationships. It’s like those annoying eHarmony.com radio and TV ads that promise to find your “soulmate.” The hype associated with V-Day promises much more than can ever be delivered in a single day. We protest this by simply opting out.

While St. Valentine may no longer be on the calendar of Catholic saints, there is an optional feast that can be celebrated today: Our Lady of Fair Love. Being in Urbana to deliver a couple of political science guest lectures today, I spent last night at the Opus Dei-run student residence just off campus at the U of I. At the Mass this morning in the house’s oratory, we used the votive Mass of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, commemorating Our Lady of Fair Love. It was a wonderful, and truly fitting, way to “take back” February 14th and restore to it a sense of its true meaning.

February 14th also has other special significance for the Prelature of Opus Dei: it is the anniversary of the founding of the women’s apostolate (1930s), and the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross (1940s). As a big feast day, we had flowers on the altar, the finest liturgical vessels, and all six candles burning. Like I said a moment ago, it was absolutely wonderful way to “take this day back” from the popular culture and remember the true nature of love that God intended for the human race. Not obsessing about finding chocolates, or jewelry, or restaurant reservations, or suggestive lingere. Rather, fairest love is about giving of oneself completely, for others, and Mary is the most perfect human example of that.

I’m not sure yet what time I’ll make it home to Michigan tonight. Regardless, there won’t be any V-Day parties. My biggest hope is that I arrive in time to help put the kids to bed. That’s the kind of love MYF and I want to celebrate today.

Kidding Again!

Our first goat kid of the year dropped this afternoon! It was a single, but a milestone: not only the first animal of any kind born on our new farm, but also the first kid born to a goat that was herself born to us.

I don’t have photos, because I haven’t actually seen this kid. Naturally, the doe waited until I was safely off the property and driving to Illinois for the night (I’m delivering guest lectures to a couple of political science courses at the U of I tomorrow). Mrs Yeoman Farmer did, well, yeoman’s work in tending to the newborn. The delivery had gone smoothly, but with 20 degree weather the newborn kid was shivering badly. And the goat buck (who we still haven’t managed to separate into his own stall), who is normally quite compliant and subserviant to the older and larger does, suddenly began acting out badly.

MYF used pasture gates to rig up an enclosure in the barn for the doe and her newborn kid, and also rigged up a heat lamp to provide a bit more warmpth tonight. This was no easy task, as all our poultry brooding lamps had either broken or been left behind in IL. She made a special trip out to Tractor Supply, bought everything we need, and then spent hours getting all the animals situated. At long last (9pm), she was finished and gave me a call to fill me in on everything before eating dinner. Yes, you read that correctly: 9pm and she still hadn’t eaten dinner. For those of you contemplating farm life, that’s what can happen to your schedule when newborns pick inconvenient times to drop in (or the sheep pick an inconvenient time to break through a gate, or…or…)

Anyway, back to our story. Even separated, the goat buck began sticking his head through the fence and harassing the doe and newborn kid. He even managed to latch on to one of her teats and begin nursing! Sheesh! MYF began yelling at him and hitting at his head, but he persisted.

Suddenly, from stage right, enter…Scooter the Amazing Wonder Dog! Somehow realizing exactly what the problem was, even without being called or asked to help, he tore into the stall and got all over the buck’s face. The buck tried to hit back, but Scooter bit at his nose. The buck pulled back, ran down the fence, and tried sticking his head through another area. Scooter shadowed him all the way, and was right in his face again when he came through. Back and forth they went, Scooter’s tail wagging crazily in delight, frustrating the buck’s every move. MYF is not a dog person, but cheered Scooter on all the way.

The funny thing about Scooter is that he’s not really very smart. At one point, MYF commented that we should’ve named him “Odie,” after the brainless dog in the Garfield comic strip. And MYF frequently calls him “Stupid,” like it’s his own common name — and Scooter responds to it! (“Come here, Stupid. Sit, Stupid. Good boy, Stupid.”) And yet, despite his stupidity, Scooter has an unbelievable talent with herding and managing livestock. It’s truly a beautiful thing to behold, and I’m sorry I wasn’t there to watch him work. (And, yes, MYF, I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you.)

I’ve jokingly begun referring to Scooter as the “Sheep Herding Wizard,” as in the Who’s classic song “Pinball Wizard”. Just as the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” in the song can nonetheless “sure play a mean pin ball,” Scooter seems to excel despite (and perhaps even because) of his lack of brains. Just a few weeks ago, late at night, all the sheep managed to get out of the barn and way out into one of the fields. That wasn’t a problem for Scooter; together, he and I (but mostly he) got them all rounded up and back in the barn almost before MYF could get her coat on and come out to help us. And I was left asking myself, “How do you think he does it? I don’t know / What makes him so good…”

I had to laugh when the “best in show” winner of the Westminster Dog Show was announced today, and the newscasters were singing the praises of that prancing beagle. Scooter will never win anything like that, because he’s a plain old mixed-breed working dog — not a show dog. And while he may not be the brightest bulb in the barn, he’s certainly the most indispensible.

Ashes Again

I love heating our house with wood. Particularly up here in Michigan (at least compared to the Illinois prairie where we just moved from), firewood is cheap and abundant. Several people up and down our road, including our next door neighbor (no, not the one with the killer dog), seem to spend their entire summers cutting and splitting mountains of trees. The result is a fairly inexpensive, plentiful, renewable source of American-made fuel.

The house we bought has an oil burning furnace, which is our first experience with home heating oil. Is this stuff expensive or what? Fortunately, the system of baseboards that the furnace pumps hot water up to is pretty intelligently set up. There are three zones: one for the whole downstairs, one for the two childrens’ bedrooms upstairs, and one for the master bedroom upstairs. In other words, during the day, we can use oil to heat just the two rooms where the kids do their schoolwork. The woodburner the previous owners left is one of those sealed fireplace units with a blower fan, and it easily puts out enough heat to keep the whole downstairs comfortable. No, it’s not as nice as the Amish-made wood cookstove we had in Illinois, and the blower won’t do us much good in a power outage, but for daily use it is wonderful. (And we may well replace it with a cookstove next winter.)

Anyway, the biggest problem with this woodburner is the ashes. Our cookstove had slats at the bottom of the firebox, so the ashes would fall through and collect in a long metal drawer underneath. When it got full, it was very simple to pull that drawer out, carefully take it outside, and dump the ashes in a metal can for later use in the garden. In our new woodburning unit, the ashes simply accumulate and pile up in the bottom of the fireplace. Each day, the fire must be built slightly higher than the previous day’s fire. Each day, there is slightly less room for firewood. This is a subtle and almost indiscernable process; you don’t realize how much fire space you’ve lost until you discover yourself struggling to cram pieces of wood into the box.

This weekend, I realized just how much ash had accumulated. We let the fire go all the way out, and then I started shoveling. And shoveling. And shoveling. Had to be careful not to spill ashes on the carpet as I knelt and gingerly emptied each shovelfull into a container. Finally, ten minutes later, the great bulk of the ashes had been removed and we could build another fire.

I’ve been thinking about that process since yesterday, when we had a somewhat different commemoration of ashes. We went to Mass in the morning, and the priest made a large cross of ashes on our foreheads, admonishing us to “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Ashes are a symbol of death; indeed, they are all that’s left over when all the wood’s fuel has been burned. So we put the ashes on to remind us of our own mortality, and that, as St. Paul says, tempus breve est (time is short).

But perhaps the ashes can mean even more than that. Don’t “ashes” also symbolize all the death that we’ve allowed to accumulate in our lives? All the bad habits and self-indulgences? All the creature comforts we allow ourselves? All the duties we procrastinate about fulfilling? All the little ways we waste time at work? Over the course of a year, all these things accumulate and fill the firebox so slowly, we don’t realize how much smaller our fire has gotten as a result. We need to shovel all those things out, and build the fire anew. And that’s what I love so much about Lent.
And you know what really surprised me? When I shoveled the ashes out this weekend, I’d thought the fire had completely cooled. But it hadn’t. Once I started digging deep, I discovered lots of coals that were still burning bright red. Somehow, under all those ashes, with no air or fuel, they had remained unextinguished. As I worked, I moved these coals to the side. When the ashes had been removed, I piled all the coals back up in the middle of the firebox. I then “framed” them on either side with large pieces of wood, and began piling fuel on top of the coals. Paper, twigs, cardboard, and then branches and larger pieces of wood. Soon, the fire was burning again — and bigger than ever.

Under all those ashes we’ve let accumulate since last Easter, I bet each of us still has plenty of nice red coals. Let’s get those ashes out and see what we can do to get our spiritual fires blazing again.

Going Shopping

I never feel quite so much like a minority as when I’m shopping at Whole Foods or some other “crunchy munchy” place. The feeling begins in the parking lot, as we maneuver around all the Volvos and hybrids to find a slot. And it continues through the checkout, where we’re bombarded with magazines featuring cover photos of the Dalai Lama (but, as I told Mrs Yeoman Farmer, those magazines sure beat Cosmopolitan and the National Enquirer.) Even the bulletin board near the restrooms is covered with ads promoting “transcendental meditation,” yoga, and so forth.

Struggling to come up with an analogy, I suggested to MYF that “this must be how liberals feel when they browse through a gun shop.”

MYF replied, “Except liberals don’t own guns.”

Oh, yes they do, I explained. (And not just Carl Rowan.) In fact, I’d hazzard a guess that as many liberals own guns as conservatives shop at Whole Foods.

Anyway, MYF has been concerned about our kids reading some of the more outlandish bumper stickers displayed on cars in the Whole Foods parking lot, so she’s asked the kids not to look at any of them. This led to the following exchange recently between eleven year old Homeschooled Farm Boy (HFB) and eight year old Homeschooled Farm Girl (HFG):

HFB: Remember, we’re not supposed to read the bumper stickers.

HFG: Why not? What’s so bad about them?

HFB (matter-of-factly): Because the people here are wacked. [PARENTS: note that children are listening closely and will mimick the words you choose].

HFG: But why?

HFB (authoratitively, in his most adult tone): Because this is Ann Arbor.