Boys Get to Do it, Too

A friend recently shared the story of how much her first-grade son enjoys ballet, despite ballet being predominantly a girls’ activity.

For the next year and a half, he talked relentlessly about the day he would take dance classes. (We don’t let the kids start extracurricular activities until First Grade, and we limit them to one at a time.) When other boys talked about the sports that they played, he would say “I do ballet” long before he set foot in his first class.

His dad wasn’t sure of the wisdom in having his son dance when we live in a place where competitive sports are an integral part of the definition of what it means to be a boy. Our son held firm, “Yeah, but I’m a boy, and I do ballet.”

On the first day of class, he grabbed my hand and dragged me from the car to the studio. He was the only boy in his class, and the girls gave him a few uncertain looks. A few of them asked out loud why there was a boy in their girl class.

“It’s not a girl class,” he told them. “It’s ballet, and boys get to do it too.”

How awesome is that? He (and, especially, the other boys his age) may not realize it yet, but the men who do ballet are among the greatest athletes out there. Ballet is a serious cardiovascular workout. And not only do they need strong leg muscles for dancing … the men also need to be able to lift and carry the ballerinas.  And they need to remain graceful in their movements the whole while. None of that is easy.

I never got bitten by the ballet bug when I was a kid. My sister did ballet for a time, and I don’t remember many boys (if any) in her class. I know ballet never appealed to me personally, and I remember being bored out of my mind having to sit through a performance of The Nutcracker one year at Christmastime.

However, my friend’s son’s story did bring back memories of something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. In junior high, I really got into a different “girl” activity: sewing. We got a brief introduction to sewing in the home economics course that everyone had to take in seventh or eighth grade. In the Home-Ec classroom, along with all the cooking and kitchen equipment, our school also had a bunch of nice sewing machines. We learned the basics about needles and threads, and how a sewing machine worked. I remember a lot of the boys grumbling about having to take Home-Ec, but I loved and looked forward to it for the same reason I looked forward to Industrial Arts (“Shop Class”): it was a wonderful break from the academic grind of the rest of the day. It was an opportunity to put the books away, and get my hands busy making something. Whether that “something” was made of wood, or made of cloth, or made of flour … it didn’t matter. I thought it was fun.

Which brings us back to sewing. I guess I never wrote sewing off as being “for girls,” because growing up I saw plenty of examples of men who were comfortable around a sewing machine. My father ran a men’s clothing store, and got lots of practice with minor alterations and repairs. Of course, most alterations (say, when a person is getting a suit fitted and hemmed) were sent out to a tailor. My summer job one year (when I was twelve) included literally running garments back and forth across downtown Seattle, to and from the tailor my dad used. He was an older Filipino guy, working out of a small office, and could do amazing things with a needle and thread.

So, in Home-Ec, I was excited to learn how to operate a sewing machine myself. I was a boy, and I loved machines. And making things. I wasn’t especially talented, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much, when ninth grade rolled around and I had an elective slot open on my schedule … I registered for “Sewing for Pleasure.” To my complete un-surprise, I discovered on the first day that I was the O-N-L-Y boy in the class. (A few weeks later, a second boy joined us — but only because he was a transfer student, and every other elective that would work with his schedule was already full.) As you might imagine, I had to endure a fair amount of ribbing from other boys. (“How’s your sooooooo-ing class going?”) I quickly settled on a stock response, which tended to silence the ribbers: “Hey! It’s a GREAT way to meet girls!” (My dad laughed heartily when I told him this.)

Meeting girls aside, I actually had a practical reason for taking the class. This was the fall of 1983, and I was starting to get very serious about long distance bicycling. I’d recently built my first real road bike (salvaged from a police auction, and then repainted and pieced together), and done a big weekend tour that summer with a friend. I’d even begun dreaming about doing my first Seattle to Portland ride the next June. The key accessory I lacked, and wanted, was a handlebar bag. That would allow me to keep lots of stuff close at hand — plus, with a clear plastic slot on the top, I could read maps or route guides as I rode. No more fishing the map from my pocket, trying to figure out when the next turn was coming.

cockpit

What a modern, professionally-made handlebar bag looks like

Problem is, I had virtually no money available to accessorize my bike. I’d invested all my savings (fueled by a paper route and collecting aluminum cans) in building the bike itself. The Cannondale handlebar bag I wanted was way beyond my budget. Then, while reading Bicycling magazine, I stumbled across a small ad from a company that sold patterns so you could sew your own bike bags. In a flash, I saw the way to get my handlebar bag: make my own! I ordered the pattern, and from the first day I walked into class I knew what my final project would be. Every technique I studied and mastered, I kept the ultimate goal in mind: my handlebar bag.

So, as class progressed, and all the girls were making fancy dresses or whatever … I plugged away on my handlebar bag. My mother shuttled me to the fabric store (where I was always the only boy who was there voluntarily), as I searched out just the right materials. (Getting the right length zipper was especially tricky, as was figuring out how to do the plastic map pouch.) My dad helped me cut a piece of sheet metal to serve as the internal frame; figuring out how to sew that in was pretty interesting.

I ended up getting an A in the course, but I got something else that was even more important: a handlebar bag that I’d crafted myself. It was far from the lightest, and far from the most nicely finished. But it was durable. Large. Got the job done. And, most critically, it was mine. Every time I took it on a big ride (and I did use it on my first STP that June), I thought about how I’d sourced all the materials and put the thing together. As easy as it would’ve been for my parents to have just given me a handlebar bag for Christmas, I’m grateful that they didn’t. Having gone through the process of making it myself made it so much more special.

Once the project was complete, I largely lost interest in sewing. Bicycling was consuming more and more of my time and interest, and my folks didn’t have a sewing machine at home I could use anyway.

Still, I never forgot the basics. Ten years after taking that class, I was flying somewhere on a business trip. Sitting there on the airplane, I realized I’d lost a button from the cuff of my dress shirt. Once we landed, I’d be going straight to the client meeting. There would be no time to fix the button. I flagged down a flight attendant, and asked her if by chance there was a sewing kit on the airplane. She said there wasn’t one officially, but she had a small kit (with a few needles, and lengths of thread in various colors) in her personal bag. “Do you know how to use it?” she asked, clearly trying to hide her surprise. I hadn’t thought about it, but I was probably the first young-twenty-something male she’d met who knew how to sew.

Absolutely, I replied. She returned a moment later with the kit, amused. I sourced a spare button from the bottom of my shirt, and threaded up a needle. However, I quickly realized the repair would be a lot easier if I wasn’t wearing the shirt. It’s hard to hold a cuff button in place when your hand is sticking out of that cuff. I slipped into the lavatory, put the toilet lid down, took off my shirt, and sat down to work. Within a few minutes, the button was secure. I put the shirt back on, and returned to my seat with a big smile on my face. The next time the flight attendant came by, I showed off my cuff triumphantly. I thanked her, and returned the sewing kit. I made a mental note to snag one of those kits the next time I saw one at a hotel, and to never leave home again without one.

So, whether it’s ballet or sewing (or something else), don’t be afraid to let your son do something he enjoys — even if he’s the O-N-L-Y boy in the room. Anyone who might make fun of him just needs to get over it. He’s not weird, and he’s not a sissy. He might just be picking up a valuable skill. And he’s definitely learning how to stick with something he loves, no matter what the rest of the world might think.

Goat. It’s What’s for Dinner

It’s hard to believe I never in my life ate goat meat before we had our own farm. In many parts of the world, goat is still a staple. But it’s easy for an American to go his or her entire life without coming across it. When was the last time you saw goat in the meat section of your local grocery store? (Assuming your local grocery store is not a Whole Foods Market.)

We still don’t eat goat all that often, but it gives a nice variety from time to time. Our goats are from dairy breeds, so their kids don’t get to be a really large size — and we don’t have too terribly many kids each year, anyway. Virtually every goat we butcher is a male, and at least close to a year old. Older than that, they can get a pretty strong flavor. That kind of meat is great in chili, or in tacos or curry — any kind of dish where you’re going to be using strong seasonings anyway.

This past week, we finally got the opportunity to sample goat meat at its most mild and tender. It wasn’t an opportunity we welcomed, but something we tried to make the best of.

On Easter night, we came home to discover a new goat kid had been born. He wasn’t doing well at first, so he spent some time in my office and we bottle-fed him. We were able to get him strong enough to nurse on his own, and he had been doing well. He was thriving, and growing as nicely as any other goat kid.

Then, about a week and a half ago, Homeschooled Farm Girl noticed a problem: the kid had a strange bulge in his abdomen. She brought the kid to me, and I immediately diagnosed the problem: a hernia. I tried pressing on the bulge, but there was no way to push it back in.

Theoretically, a hernia could be fixed with surgery by the vet. If this had happened to one of our mature dairy goats, we wouldn’t have hesitated to take her in. Given what we’d been through, with saving this little kid on Easter night, we obviously felt a bond with him — but we couldn’t let that bond override what’s reasonable. There is no reason to take a surplus male goat kid to the vet for surgery, just so he can get to a somewhat larger butchering size. The number of dollars per pound of meat makes no sense at all. And besides, butchering him now would free up (over time) an enormous amount of milk for our family.

I was extremely busy with work, and didn’t have time to butcher the kid right then, so told HFG we could let him go a couple of days and see what happened. Unfortunately, it only got worse. Much worse. By last Monday, he looked like he had a small volleyball sticking out of his abdomen. He was still getting around, and still nursing, and didn’t seem in pain — but I knew that wasn’t going to last much longer. And yet, I was still so crazy busy, preparing for my trip to NYC, I couldn’t butcher him.

HFG reminded me that she’s watched me butcher quite a bit. And that, a while back, she and her older brother once cut up a large goat buck that I’d killed, skinned, and eviscerated. How hard could it be, she asked, for her to do a little goat kid all by herself? No matter how badly it turned out, it’d be better than just shooting him or letting him die.

I agreed. So, last Tuesday, she set up the butchering table in the driveway and dragged the garden hose out. We caught the “herniated goat,” and I put a 9mm slug into the back of his head before cutting his throat wide open. We let the blood drain, and then I tried to start skinning the carcass. And then I quickly learned a lesson: even with a very small animal, it’s a lot easier to pull a hide off if you hang the thing up on hooks by its rear legs.

I had to get back to work, so HFG took it from there. Some time later, she came to my office carrying several large Ziploc freezer bags of meat triumphantly. I told her what a great job she’d done, and we stashed the meat in my office fridge. I then went back to work again, and she cleaned up the butchering table.

We didn’t weigh the meat, but there was basically enough for two meals. We threw all four legs in the Crock Pot for Sunday dinner this weekend. The rest of the small carcass is now in the freezer, and we’ll probably make soup from it. She also saved the heart and liver, so I guess that’ll be an additional meal for somebody.

How did the meat turn out? It was absolutely delicious. Sunday morning, I let the four legs marinate for a while in apple cider vinegar. I seasoned it with basil, thyme, sea salt, and peppermint, and added a little olive oil. We then let the Crock Pot go on Low all day, occasionally stirring it. By late afternoon, the meat was falling off the bone. It turned out very tender, and reminded me a lot of chicken.

Young Goat

As the Easter season comes to a close, I never imagined we’d be eating a goat kid that’d been born on Easter night. It really was sad that he couldn’t have grown to maturity. But I’m very glad HFG stepped up to the plate, and took the initiative to make the best of an unfortunate situation. It would’ve been a far bigger tragedy if the kid had died for nothing.

Back on the Farm

My apologies that blogging has been slow of late. I’ve had the world’s craziest last couple of weeks with work, which (naturally) coincided with the peak of spring work on the farm.

I got home late Thursday night from New York, where I’d spent two solid days working in-house for a big PR firm. Like most of my clients, they typically send a data file to me for analysis — and then I do the work here on the farm, in my detached office building. There is usually some back-and-forth, discussion, and additional analysis … but almost always by phone and email. This project was a little different, however. They’d fielded a huge, multinational survey, and are now camped out in a 15th floor “war room” doing analysis. They thought it would be helpful for me to be physically in the room, part of the discussion, and able to respond to requests in real time.

We agreed to a daily rate, and I hopped the earliest flight on Wednesday morning. I got to their offices in Lower Manhattan shortly before 9am, and was running numbers on my laptop literally all day long. Being there with them did make a big difference for everyone’s productivity. I’ve been using SPSS for data analysis for over 25 years now, and know the software backwards and forwards. I was able to manipulate their data file quickly, and kick out the results they needed. And because I was there with them, and part of the whole conversation about the goals of the presentation they were putting together, I was able to suggest refinements and alternative approaches to the data analysis.

So, it was extremely productive. It was also exhausting. As I’d gotten up at 3am to catch my flight, and had only briefly napped on the plane, by evening I was struggling to keep my eyes open. But I did join the other four members of the team for dinner at a nice little Italian place around the corner from their office. I enjoyed getting to know them better — I’d previously only worked with them over the telephone, and we’d never met in person. For my part, I regaled them with tales from the farm, and what we do here.

We were back in the office before 9am the next morning, and again spent virtually the whole day doing analysis. Finally, around 6pm, I packed up and headed out.

I had a little extra time before my 9:30pm flight home out of Newark, and it was a beautiful afternoon. I took my time walking up Hudson Street from SoHo, through the West Village, just soaking in all sights. New York is really an amazing place, like no other in the world. What I love about these neighborhoods is that there’s a little bit of everything, all piled on top of every thing else and mixed up together. Small restaurants. Apartment buildings. Parks, with little leaguers playing baseball on the other side of a chain link fence. Playgrounds. Hip Hop artists dancing on top of a bus, shooting a music video, right in the middle of the street. And people, people, people everywhere — every one of them different.

soho-hudson-street-west-village-greenwich-village-terrace-bar-pub-ctyeg2

Like John Cougar Mellencamp, I’ve “got nothing against the big town.” My only regret about the trip to New York is that the pace was so frenetic, and that I didn’t have a little extra time to see the sights. Still … it was incredibly good to head home. I was so exhausted, I fell asleep before the plane lifted off. I didn’t wake up until we were approaching Detroit. Then it was an hour and a quarter to drive back to the farm. As I crawled into bed, I glanced at the clock. 1:25am. Less than 46 hours earlier, my alarm had gone off and put the whole whirlwind trip in motion. And now I was back.

Friday afternoon, I tried to spend a lot of time catching up with things on the farm. Out in the back yard, cutting some grass for the goats, I suddenly had to stop and just savor the feel of sunlight. I took deep breaths of country air, and enjoyed the aroma of fresh lawn trimmings. As I carried the grass catcher to the goats, and they came running, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that I get to live here. Much as I enjoyed visiting New York, I can’t imagine not being able to come home to a place like this.