How Thick is Your Bubble?

I’ve read quite a bit of the advance press for Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, and am looking forward to reading it. I plan to blog about it once I do, as I think his central premise is important and on-target.

For an excellent overview by Murray, I recommend this recent WSJ article.

Murray has also put up a fun quiz, where you can estimate your own degree of cultural isolation or engagement with the broader American culture. My results (and a link to the quiz) are below.

How Thick Is Your Bubble?

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Score » 10 out of 20 (50% )

On a scale from 0 to 20 points, where 20 signifies full engagement with mainstream American culture and 0 signifies deep cultural isolation within the new upper class bubble, you scored between 9 and 12.

In other words, even if you’re part of the new upper class, you’ve had a lot of exposure to the rest of America.

Quiz School Take this quiz & get your score

Q: Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

A: To stir up a whole lot of trouble.

Last summer, we had a wonderful surprise: one of our hens made a nest in one of the darkest corners of the barn, and three weeks later emerged with a nice brood of chicks. They were loads of fun to watch. Mother hen would take the chicks out every morning, and aggressively forage all across the property with them. At night, they would huddle up under her feathers to sleep. This went on for several weeks, and then suddenly…she was done. Just like that, she vanished back into the general population and left the juvenile chicks on their own.

After a few days of disorientation, the brood began thriving on its own. They continued to stick together as a distinct unit, and were easy to identify because many were of mixed breeds. (That crazy variety of colors was itself quite fun.) While the other chickens were content to stick around the barn and eat their layer ration, the half-dozen or so “hen brooded” juveniles continued foraging far and wide. They were impossible to contain, and sometimes we even had trouble getting them to roost inside the barn at night (we lost a couple of them to predators as a result).

As winter took hold full force, the “wild brood” began foraging still wider and discovered the corn field across the street from our farm. Commercial harvesting equipment tends to drop a fair amount of loose corn and even full cobs on the ground. Only the half-wild chickens ever foraged widely enough to discover this treasure trove…and, once they did, they started going over a number of times per day.

As the road that separates our farm from the corn field is a major feeder, with a speed limit of 45 MPH, it was only a matter of time before chickens started falling victim to traffic. We began finding dead chickens along the road, and as weeks went by the number of intrepid foragers dwindled to just three.

Then, yesterday morning, the issue suddenly became much larger than cleaning up dead chickens. Apparently (I was not home, and no member of our family witnessed the incident), one member of the foraging pack attempted to cross the road in front of a contractor’s work truck. Whether the guy tried to slow down, or whether he may have even been trying to hit the chicken, we don’t know. But, apparently, one way or another, the chicken ended up dead.

Contractor Dude then stopped his truck, stormed down our driveway, and banged on the back door of the house. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer was upstairs trying to keep a sleeping Yeoman Farm Baby asleep, so Homeschooled Farm Boy answered the door. Contractor Dude demanded to see one of the parents. When HFB explained that the parents were indisposed, Contractor Dude snarled that our chicken had smashed the front of his truck and caused all kinds of damage, and that unless one of the parents called him right away and paid for it he was “going to get the police out here.” CD left a business card, and stormed off.

HFB was obviously flustered by this confrontation, and immediately called my cell phone. I assured him that I or his mother would take care of things when I got home, and that he shouldn’t worry.

Although I questioned how a four pound chicken could do any significant damage to a pickup truck (I hit a flying pheasant once at 55 MPH, and it simply dented my hood), I figured anything might be possible. And with the rates that some auto body shops charge, we might get hit with a significant bill. So, as I drove home, I called our insurance agent to discuss our coverage and potential liability.

The agent assured me that in the event one of our animals inflicted damages on a person (i.e. dog bite) or property (stampeding goats?), our homeowners policy would cover it. But, he went on, under Michigan law we would almost certainly not have to pay anything in this particular case. Our state has an oddball set of “no fault” insurance rules, which means that every driver is responsible for collecting from his own insurance company — regardless of who was at fault in an accident. Even if the other driver is 100% responsible for an accident, you can’t collect a thing from him (other than a portion of the damages not covered by insurance). In the case of a collision with an animal, there’s not even a provision to collect damages not covered by insurance. It doesn’t matter if the animal in question is a deer, or if it belongs to someone who let it get out on the road. The only damages the driver can collect are from his own insurance company. If he isn’t carrying comprehensive coverage, he’s out of luck.

When Mrs. Yeoman Farmer called Contractor Dude to (1) express her regret that the truck had been damaged and (2) to explain that we were not legally responsible for those damages, CD cut her off. He launched into an accusatory tirade, claiming that our chicken did $1800 worth of damage to his truck. It’d apparently busted both the grille and the radiator (?!?), and he’d had to miss a meeting because of it. He said he wanted us to cover his insurance deductible, “or I’ll have to get the police involved.”

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer tried to explain that this was a civil matter and not a criminal case, and that therefore the police would not touch it, but he again angrily cut her off and and said he’d hired a lawyer to sue us for the $250 insurance deductible.

Whether that’s true or not we don’t know; Michigan law is pretty clear cut in saying he’s not even entitled to that $250 (unless, as a representative from our insurance company joked, our chicken had been driving a car when causing the accident). I can’t imagine a lawyer taking such a case. Just to be sure, I spoke with an attorney friend from our parish today; he confirmed that the guy would never prevail against us in court.

Contractor Dude made a few more threats, and then hung up on Mrs. Yeoman Farmer. She and I discussed the situation, and quickly came to the same conclusion: this guy is a bully, plain and simple. He’s trying to brow-beat or scare us into coughing up some money, and thinks he can intimidate us enough to pay out quickly and wash our hands of him. (Why else would he mention bringing the police into a civil matter?)

Assuming we’ve read his motivations correctly, he’s picked the wrong family. MYF and I genuinely feel bad that one of our animals seems to have been involved in this. (Though, since we have yet to see the damaged truck or the dead chicken — which he says he hauled off to the police station as “evidence” — we can only say “seems.” And we’re certainly not admitting any kind of blame or guilt.) If the guy had simply knocked on our door and explained the situation matter-of-factly to HFB rather than trying to threaten and intimidate, and had had a civil conversation when MYF called him, we might have agreed to pay out the $250 regardless of what Michigan law says. Assuming that one of our animals really had been the cause of someone else’s loss (and we’re not admitting it was), then compensating the other party would be the right thing to do.

But instead, we’re feeling bullied — and will fight any additional attempt that Contractor Dude makes to extort compensation from us. It’s now about the Principle of The Thing, which is not letting our family get intimidated by this guy. If he again sets foot on our property, we will gently but firmly ask him to leave. If he refuses, and again attempts to intimidate us, we will be the ones calling the police. Unlike damages to a truck, trespassing on private property is a criminal matter.

Should a court, for some reason, order us to cover CD’s deductible, we will honor and obey it. But nothing short of a formal legal judgment will cause us to pay out in this case.

It’s a real shame that it’s come to this. Almost everyone else we’ve met around here has been very nice and neighborly, and we’ve felt genuinely welcome in this community. I have no idea what’s gotten into this guy, but I take solace in reminding myself that there are so few locals who are like him.

And, yes, we will be putting up a nice tight fence along the road as soon as spring gets here.

Not Strong Enough

We gave it the old college try with the goat kids born early Saturday morning, but in the end they just weren’t strong enough.

It was an easy call with the smaller of the two. It was really scrawny, and couldn’t even hold its head up to eat. We made it comfortable, and then I euthanized it.

We had higher hopes for the larger of the two. She made numerous attempts to stand up, and was clearly acting hungry. We warmed up a cup or so of milk from one of the other goats, and I fed it to the kid with a medicine dropper. She sucked it down with gusto, and I wondered if she might just have enough fighting spirit to make it.

Alas, spirit wasn’t enough. There was something wrong with her legs, and we could not get her to stand up for more than a couple of seconds. This is even after having gotten her good and dry, and fed, and letting her take a good nap. Her legs kept buckling, every time we tried to get her to stand.

I suppose we could’ve kept bottle feeding her indefinitely, hoping her legs would eventually strengthen. But there was another problem: her mother goat was so pathetic and runty, her udder was barely discernible. The Yeoman Farm Children didn’t see how the mother could ever support this kid. Which means the doe is a good candidate for a cull, but that’s another story.

The more immediate issue was the kid that couldn’t stand. Given the extremely long odds against her ever living a normal life, it didn’t seem that we had a lot of options. She had a comfortable afternoon in a box by the heater in my office. Then, unpleasant as it was, I knew we really had to put her down.

I realize that there are any number of ways to kill a little goat kid quickly and without pain. Still, my preference is a pistol shot to the forehead. It’s extremely fast and sure, and with a relatively small caliber doesn’t amount to overkill. I won’t go into details, other than to assure you that the kid’s death was indeed instantaneous.

Farming has such great joys. And it also has days like yesterday. It’s all of one piece, and it really isn’t possible to have the former without the latter. But I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.

What Would YOU Do?

We’re facing a tough dilemma this morning. While out in the barn at about 6:30am, feeding the various animals, I stumbled over a couple of little newborn goat kids. They were still wet, and were barely moving, but were definitely alive. As it was about 25 degrees in the barn (and near zero outside), my first thought was getting these poor things warmed up.

I found a cardboard box, put some loose hay in it, and made the two kids comfortable in front of the fire. They bleated and cried at first, which is a good thing, and then they got quiet and went to sleep.

Once Homeschooled Farm Girl awakened, she went out to the barn and identified the mother goat. It’s a small little runt of a doe, and I believe this is her first delivery. I had HFG move the doe to a separating pen, because that’s the only way we’ll have any hope of putting these kids on her.

My plan is to get the kids warmed up, get some milk into their stomachs, and see if they can stand on their own legs. If not (and one of them is so small, I have serious doubts), they’re going to have to be put down. If we can get them strong enough to stand and walk today, we’ll try to get the doe to take them and bond with them in the separating pen. But if not…

All of this is a super-duper long shot. I don’t expect either of these kids to make it, and maybe I should’ve just put them down when I found them half-frozen in the barn. But here’s the thing: they’re here. They’re alive. They’re our responsibility. And by our way of thinking, we have an obligation to give these two of God’s tiniest creatures a fair shot at survival.

We’ve seen this “movie” a number of times, and know how it ends 99% of the time: the kids don’t get strong enough to stand, or the runt doe doesn’t take them, or we bottle feed them to maturity only to discover they’re so structurally unhealthy that there was a reason the doe rejected them. But I think we owe the Filmmaker enough to at least sit through the opening credits.

It’s not the happiest part about having a farm or raising livestock. But, really, what else could we do?

A Modest Proposal

The next time you buy or rent a DVD, check the “special features.” Along with the Director’s commentary and deleted scenes, it’s often possible to select an alternate language to hear the movie in. Spanish. French. Portuguese. Italian. Whatever. It must not be too terribly difficult or disc-space-consuming to include an alternate audio track, because so many DVD movies now include that feature.

So, here’s my question and proposal: Why not include the cleaned-up version of the dialogue that is used for television broadcasts of the same movie? It could be another language option, alongside Spanish and French or whatever else. And for any movie that’s been cleaned-up with dubbing for television, that audio already exists. It shouldn’t be hard to do. Yet, in all the movies we’ve rented from Netflix, I’ve never seen a disc that offers this option.

I’m not talking about the “bad scenes” that are cut for television; I know some Christian groups have tried to produce and sell or rent versions of movies that cut these objectionable scenes, and have been sued. That’s not so critical for me; if I know there’s a bad scene in a movie, I can skip through it, mute it, or make my kids face away. But I can’t press the mute button every time Bruce Willis says the F-word. Sure, “melon farmer” is a silly substitute. But I’d rather my kids hear that than the original words.

What prompted this thought was recently renting Rain Man. It’s a wonderful movie, with absolutely superb acting from Tom Cruise and (especially) Dustin Hoffman. In fact, it’s hard for me to think of a movie with a better-acted lead than what Hoffman did in Rain Man. And the story itself, with Cruise growing to appreciate his brother for who he is, is powerful and moving. I really wanted to have the whole family watch it.

But it was rated R, and because I hadn’t seen it in many years I couldn’t remember exactly why. I knew there was at least one sex scene, but if that was the only problem…well, I could skip through that. But I had to know where it was, so I sat down to preview the movie by myself.

I found the sex scene, and it was pretty mild. Really mild, in fact, by Hollywood standards. The much larger problem was Tom Cruise’s mouth: the profanity never stopped flowing. The longer I watched, the more dismayed I grew. I loved the story and Hoffman’s acting as much as I remembered, but I knew I couldn’t share this film with the Yeoman Farm Children. If it’d just been that one sex scene, I easily could’ve skipped it. But the foul language was far too pervasive.

And you know what’s most frustrating? How completely unnecessary the rough language is. Yes, it fits Cruise’s character as a rough and profane guy who thinks only about himself. But an actor as good as Cruise could sell that role without dropping F-bombs.

In a similar vein, the first time I saw Coming to America was on an airplane. I was delighted. What a wonderful romantic comedy, I thought. And Eddie Murphy played such a refreshingly clean role! And then I rented it at home, and saw everything that’d been cut out. The language and short clips they’d cut weren’t just crude. They were totally unnecessary for the story — I’d loved it just as I’d seen it. The rough language and innuendo ruined it for me.

So, getting back to my proposal, why not offer cleaned-up dialogue as an alternate DVD audio track? If the film producers think it’s important not to exclude potential customers whose primary language is not English, why not show the same attention and concern to those of us who’d like to watch a movie with our kids and without all the four letter words?

Farewell, Drake

We had a notable passing last night: our ancient Muscovy drake finally succumbed to old age. “Drake” is of course the word for a male duck, and for lack of creativity we simply called him that as his proper name.

Drake was special because he was among the first birds we ever got. Muscovies are weird ducks; unlike pretty much every other breed, they are not descended from Mallards. They’re a South American tree bird, and can fly. They also tend to be good mothers, and are highly self-sufficient.

Soon after moving to Illinois, we got word from a friend that another farmer was looking to get rid of all her Muscovies. Being new to the whole farming thing, we were willing to try nearly anything. The idea was to experiment with a variety of livestock before settling on something. So, we gladly took the dozen or so Muscovies off this person’s hands. This must’ve been nearly ten years ago.

I liked the Muscovies, but was pretty much alone in that opinion. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer found their odd rituals and noises to be a little strange, and she especially disliked how ugly these birds could be. Especially the males. I agreed that they weren’t exactly beautiful, but sort of endearing in their own way. Still, I assured MYF that we’d focus on more conventional duck breeds going forward.

As the years passed, the Muscovies gradually died off one by one. They never did prove themselves to be very good mothers, and I don’t think we ever got more than a handful of ducklings to survive to adulthood. By the time we moved to Michigan four years ago, we were down to just a couple of Muscovies…including Drake. They stuck to themselves, and did not even interact with the other ducks.

The last females died of something or other, and then it was just Drake. He seemed kind of lonely, being the only Muscovy, and still didn’t interact with any other birds. He simply kept to himself, minded his own business, and carried on.

I didn’t have the heart to butcher him. Not only would the meat have been terribly tough, but it just didn’t seem right. No, he wasn’t a pet. But he was a fixture. One of our first birds, and easily the oldest on the property. The grand old man. A survivor. One who’d made the big interstate trip in our Noah’s Ark On Wheels. One who, even in his old age, the other male birds stayed out of the way of and showed respect to. Who could butcher a creature like that?

In recent months, it was clear that Drake was slowing down. Then, last night, Big Little Brother came to my office and said he was worried, because Drake could hardly walk. I asked him to bring Drake inside, and I held the bird in my arms. He’d definitely lost weight. I set him down, and he indeed could barely walk.

I thanked BLB for being so attentive, then cuddled Drake a little and talked to him as I carried him back to the barn for what I knew might be the last time. I told him what a good Drake he’d been, and that we’d appreciated having him on our farm for so long.

When I opened the barn this morning, I immediately looked for Drake. There was no sign of him with the other birds, so I looked all over the barn as I did my chores. At last, I found the spot where he’d finally run out of gas — in the sheep area, not far from the door where he used to go out to play in the rain puddles.

No, I didn’t shed any tears. And we didn’t give him a special burial. But I did think about him a lot today, and I will miss him. It’s the odd creatures like Drake which make a small farm so much fun.

Lots of Hot Water

I’m not much of a tea drinker, and never had much interest in tea kettles. After all, who needs a special implement just to heat up water? Why not simply use a saucepan and lid? Even Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, who does make large quantities of herbal and medicinal teas for herself and the Yeoman Farm Children, has tended to agree. Besides, given that she usually makes tea in huge (2 qt) jars…the typical tea kettle doesn’t produce enough hot water anyway.

Sometime earlier this winter, MYF started thinking: we have a woodstove burning pretty much around the clock. We use a lot of hot water, not just for tea and warming up the baby’s milk, but also for cooking. It’s time-and-energy consuming, and a hassle, to heat up a saucepan of water every time we need it. Why not take advantage of that constantly-burning woodstove, and keep a kettle of water on it all the time? We could have hot water on demand, basically for free.

The only problem is that the typical tea kettle is so small, we’d be emptying it too frequently. And then MYF found the solution while browsing a Lehman’s catalog. Behold, super-sized tea kettles!

They come in 5 qt, 7 qt, and 9 qt…and the picture doesn’t really do justice to how big they are. We bought a 5 qt, and it is giant. I can’t imagine how big the 9 qt is. Most remarkable is how beautiful the kettle is, and because it’s made of stainless steel it is extremely solid. And, at less than twenty bucks, surprisingly inexpensive. I highly recommend it.

One of the most amusing things about this kettle, though, isn’t its size. It’s the whistle. I hate the typical shrill scream of most tea kettles. So, imagine our surprise and delight the first time we brought this one to full boil and discovered…its whistle sounds like a freight train! Truly appropriate for the thing’s massive proportions, and actually kind of fun to listen to.

We basically never run out of hot water anymore. And now that plenty of hot water is available any time, it’s become more convenient to make my coffee using a French press. I prefer coffee made that way, and the high mineral content of our water tends to ruin conventional drip coffee makers, but the hassle of heating up a quart of water at a time meant I didn’t use the French press very often. Now I use it every time.

Not to digress too much, but I really like my French press. The thing has a beautiful and elegant simplicity to it. And using it couldn’t be easier: put 1/2 cup of coarsely ground coffee in the bottom, add about a quart of near-boiling water (to within an inch or so of the top), stir with a wooden spoon, and fit the lid / pushrod / circular mesh filter assembly to the top.

Let it steep for at least four minutes, and then plunge the pushrod / filter all the way down to trap the grounds. The result is a wonderfully rich cup of coffee, with all the oils and flavors still in it.

Perfect for a cold Michigan afternoon by the woodstove of an old farm house. Or anywhere else you might find yourself today.

Tax Day

This morning, I dropped a couple of checks in the mail: one to the U.S. Treasury and one to the State of Michigan. Like most people who are self-employed, I make quarterly payments for the year’s estimated taxes; the deadline for 4Q 2011 is today.

If you’re an employee, your federal and state taxes are automatically deducted from each paycheck. You never see the money. Oh, sure, you’ll see the line item on the pay stub for the deducted taxes…if you look for it. But if you’re like I was when I was an employee, you probably have your check directly deposited into a bank account and never bother looking at the paper pay stub. You confirm that $X shows up in your account, and you think of $X as the amount you “get paid.” Seldom, if ever, do you think about the amount you never saw.

Then, after you file your taxes in March or April, chances are good that you’ll receive a sizable refund check for the amount of tax that you overpaid during the course of the year. Ever stop to think about that? You’re giving the government an interest-free loan from every paycheck. Then you get this big check, which you then probably think of as “bonus” that you can use for something special.

The bigger the “bonus,” the happier you probably are. It should be the opposite: the bigger the refund check, the more troubled you should be at the size of the interest-free loan you provided. But, human psychology being what it is, the government knows that’s not how you’ll react. You never saw the tax deductions all year. You never thought about what you never saw. Now you get a chunk of it, all at once, in a lump sum, courtesy of the U.S. Treasury. Isn’t that great?

Contrast that with the experience of the self-employed. You deliver a project for a client, and get a check at some indeterminate time in the future. You deposit this money in a bank account, where you see it and control it all quarter. You spend some of it. You think about what else you’d like to spend it on. And then, at the end of the quarter, you must sit down and write a check relinquishing a portion of those funds to the United States Treasury. It was yours. You held it in your hands. You thought about what you could do with it. And then you turned it over to the government.

When you’re making these quarterly payments, you try to make each one as small as legally possible — and are happy when you sit down in April to do your taxes and discover you owe additional money to the government. That means you didn’t overpay, and didn’t provide an interest-free loan. But even if you have an unexpectedly large number of deductions in a particular year, and overpaid Uncle Sam, you don’t even think about requesting a refund check. Instead, you apply the overpayment to the next year’s tax bill. It becomes part of your first quarter estimated tax payment.

Why do I raise this topic? I love being self-employed, and the independence that goes with it. But it’s remarkable how much the experience has changed my perspective on taxes and government spending. The more of these quarterly payments I’ve made, the more personally I’ve come to view government spending. The dollars government spends seem much more like my dollars now, in a way they did not when my paychecks were getting directly deposited with deductions automatically taken.

The local freeway resurfacing? The aircraft carrier? Ethanol subsidies? Payouts to failed solar panel manufacturers? Subsidies to buyers of electric cars? The person in line ahead of me at the grocery store, who pays for a cartload of junk food with an EBT card before whipping out a wad of cash to pay for their beer? Whether I approve of any of these particular expenditures or not, they represent dollars that used to be in our family’s bank account. And I remember writing the check which turned them over for the government to use in these ways. That is much more real to me now than it was before, and much more real than I think it is to those who never see the deducted dollars at all.

For the record, I don’t think our family is overtaxed. I happen to agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes that taxes are the price we pay for civilization. I’m happy to see the government provide a strong national defense, build and maintain roads, and fulfil the rest of its core functions. But the experience of writing quarterly checks has made me much more attentive to “everything else” the government spends money on — and has led me to question those priorities to a much greater degree.

Try a thought experiment: imagine that, starting this year, every working American received every penny of his or her paychecks. And then had to sit down once a month and write a check to “United States Treasury” for the same amount that is currently being deducted. And a second check to their state or local tax authority.

I’m guessing we’d see much more vocal pushback against government spending at all levels. And maybe even a political revolution that restores truly limited government.

Which is why automatic tax withholding will never be eliminated. But we can still dream, right?

Still Here

I apologize for the long break from posting, and wanted to let you all know that I’m still here and do intend to keep this blog updated more frequently going forward. I had an extraordinarily busy November and December with work, which is unusual for a non-election year. I had a number of things concerning the farm that I really wanted to post about, but was simply too absorbed with delivering results to clients.

As many of you know, we are not “professional” farmers. My primary occupation is public opinion research; I design and analyze opinion surveys. My background is in political science, and election years are particularly busy times for me. Much of my work, in even-numbered years, involves voter targeting and turnout modeling for Republican candidates across the country. In odd-numbered years, most of my work is related to public policy and is done on behalf of industries or corporations. This fall and winter, I’ve had an unusually large number of such projects. Client confidentiality limits what I can say about the particulars, but the studies I’ve worked on have been quite interesting. What I enjoy most about this profession is getting to learn “what people think and why they think it” about a wide variety of issues. But it’s easy to get absorbed in these projects, and my farm duties, and to neglect the blog.

Some other reasons for my slow posting in recent months is that, quite honestly, I would second guess myself as to whether my readers would really be interested in the particular thing I was thinking about sharing. Or I would have trouble getting a picture of the thing I wanted to discuss, and decide to wait until I could get one. Or, if I’d already put up posts in the past discussing the same thing, I would tell myself that readers would get bored with my repetition. Or…or…or…

For the writer, any excuse for procrastination can turn into a good one. And then the thing never gets written. (Exhibit A is my new novel’s manuscript, the edits to which still need to be made.) So, going forward, my range of topics may grow wider. Many posts may have nothing whatsoever to do with farming. But the blog will always remain true to its original mission: to give the perspective of one Yeoman Farmer on the connection between farming, faith, family, and citizenship. Some posts may relate only tangentially to these topics…but whatever the topic may be, you will be getting The Yeoman Farmer’s perspective on it.

My goal, going forward, is to post at least something every day. It may be brief. It may sometimes seem “off topic.” It may not interest you. Feel free to skip. But there will be something, so please do stop by if you feel so inclined.

Thanks to all of you for your patience, and your loyalty in reading this blog.