March 19, 2012

Response to NYT Magazine Article: How to Be a Pioneer Woman Without Ever Leaving the Couch

My sister Annesly sent me a link this morning to a very funny article by Heather Havrilesky in the New York Times Magazine about reading her 3 and 5 year old kids the Little House books. We are coincidentally also in the midst of reading these books to our 3 and 5 year old daughters (we just started book 6, Little Town on the Prairie), and it has also prompted us to do some reflection on ourselves and modern life, so the article really resonated in many ways. I have some fundamental issues with where the author ends up philosophically though.

After cracking some excellent jokes about the contrast between the lifestyle portrayed in the book and our pathetic, pampered, modern rich country lives, the author tries to make some sense of why the pastoral dream appeals to urban dwellers. She points out that there is a well known disconnect between the hazy nature infused dreams of the country entertained by city folk and the back breaking and gritty reality of actual country life as a farmer, rancher, or mountain man. The article gets at the idea, which I feel has something to it, that dreaming for a simpler, pastoral existence is a yearning for challenges that are more tangible and can be met in a straightforward way, with clear results. This is not how most things go in modern life, and its true that this presents certain psychological challenges to a person living in America today.

But the author goes beyond ascribing the enduring popularity of the Little House books to the indulgence of a fantasy for a simpler life, closer to Nature. She also detects a strong element of the fantasy for total isolation and control. I really don't think that is it at all; the fantasy we are having when we read the Little House books is partly of having more control over our own lives and destiny, but even more compelling is the fantasy of a family that is close, enjoys each other's company, and has time and opportunity to develop strong and positive relationships.

 Anyway, its hard to see how the story could validate an extreme isolationist outlook. The Ingalls and the Wilders are part of society and do participate in their communities. In The Long Winter, the Ingalls would have starved to death if they had not been and integral part of a community. Of course being a farmer, particularly on the frontier prairie, presents less chances and need for social interactions than a modern urban setting, but its far from being complete isolation.

Havrilesky makes a lot of hay from the blog of Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman. I have not read it, but it sounds like the life of a somewhat unbelievable but essentially bum-kicking homeschooling mom out west. I'm no stranger to the experience of feeling like a loser after I read about the awesome stuff someone else did on their blog, so I can sympathize here, but I can't quite come to the same conclusion that the author does that even though this blog is contemporary, it can only remain as much a fantasy to most of us as the Little House lifestyle.

The article establishes the premise that basically this stuff is all just an appealing fantasy and can play no real part in any reasonable modern person's life. If you are not willing to go all the way and be a home schooling, meat smoking nut job, then you are stuck with a life ruled by television, uninspiring school for your kids, plastic toys, ready made garbage food in disposable containers, and more television. I think this is a complete cop out, and a far too convenient excuse to not make positive changes to your life, or even consider that incremental changes for the better are even a possibility.

I resent the sense conveyed in the article that any choice to do something different than being an utter slave to the hyperconsumer, disposable plastic strewn rat race of modern life is to be a pernicious drop out that is not only ignorant and weird, but damaging to the rest of society.

This point of view completely invalidates the DIY movement. I just don't buy that people who try to do-it-themselves are motivated by a desire to drop out. Each of us is faced with the choice, many times a day: Consume, Produce or abstain? The heart of the DIY movement is to choose to Produce instead of Consume, in ways small or large.

I refuse to believe that just because you live in New York City, you couldn't go to the farmer's market in fall and buy a bushel of apples, take them home, and make and can apple sauce with your kids. How valuable you think this is may be subject to interpretation, but my assertion is that it would probably be an improvement on letting your kids watch Kung Fu Panda for the 34th time, and you would have something tasty and nutritious to eat over the winter. Even more valuable could be the admittedly slightly artificial but inescapable feeling of increased ability and competence you may experience. You could be tickling that mental need that is also aroused by reading Little House, and you didn't even have to enter the dread realm of Home Schooling.

Producing things is usually more difficult than consuming them, and often requires a greater degree of engagement with the world; talking to other people who know how to do what you want to do, working on your task with others, or even just collecting the tools or raw materials to accomplish your task. Lets take the apple sauce example. To consume apple sauce, you go to the store, buy the yucky stuff in a disposable container, take it home and eat it. In contrast, here is what I did to make our 50 quarts of apple sauce last fall:

  • talk to my coworker Jim Serdy, arranged to borrowed his Squeeze-o, an amazing hand cranked food mill which makes saucing far more efficient
  • arranged with Kimball Farm stand at the farmers market for a bulk buy of three bushels of macs
  • worked with my wife and kids to cook, sauce, and can

Choosing to Produce is a choice to engage more with the world around us, not less. A decent argument can be made that its rather silly to waste time baking bread or knitting scarves or whatever. But there is a deeper level beyond the physical thing that gets produced, and this contributes greatly to the value of engaging in Production. It gives rise to a sense of self determination, of taking charge of your own life, of having accomplished something real.

None of us can choose Produce at every step, and this is what seems to discourages the author of the article. Ma and Pa chose it much more often than any of us do, but that doesn't mean we can't choose it too, as much as we want to fit it into our lives.

I totally get that its hard being a parent, and sometimes we just don't have the energy to make what we know is a better choice. Our kids watch some TV too, more than we would really like, mainly when we are feeling too lazy or worn out to create a viable alternative. But there are so many choices every day, its not all or nothing. Each time you can choose, and there is no reason why you can't choose something better at least once in a while.

One great thing about DIY is that you can start small; there are plenty of options in the realm of cooking and preserving. Lots of people enjoy gardening, knitting is nice and portable, and sewing is not too difficult to get into. I'm sure once you start to think about it there are many possibilities in the context of your own life and family.

As you may know, I fulfill this type of desire in myself in various small ways, while still living in the city and having a normal job as an engineer in a high tech company. I didn't have to drop out of society and become a reclusive beet farmer.The point is that this is an analog thing, not digital. So choose something simple and make a change or try something new. If you don't like it, I bet that episode of Housewives of Beverly Hills will still be available on bittorrent.

Is it possible to live in 2012 in a city, but still have a tight knit family who enjoys spending time together? Can we do more for ourselves than we do now, to the benefit of our mental health and interest in life if not our pocketbooks? Is it possible to build up in ourselves and our children real world skills? I think the answer is yes.

Home schooling features prominently in the article, both as part of the unobtainable fantasy of Little House and Pioneer Woman, and as one of the ill informed pursuits of society quitters. In fact, home schooling is not necessarily a choice to drop out of society, but just to have your kids engage with society in a different way than through the institutions of public school. I think public school is great; I'm extremely glad we have it, and I am happy to pay taxes to support it. I even think about what would work best to improve education in public schools in America. Its just that I think there may be another option, which while more labor intensive, could provide just as good or better an education and also could promote a tight knit and happy family. Not applicable to us, but for many of the Christian home schoolers, their choice integrates them more closely to their community, not less, and that is part of the attraction.

Another way of describing home schooling at its best would be as a custom education delivered with an excellent student/teacher ratio, by staff that is highly motivated and uniquely sensitive to the needs of the child. Our plans for home school don't involve locking the kids in the basement; they will almost certainly be in more contact with society in general than the kids that are sequestered in an age segregated institution. There are lots of reasons people choose to homeschool, but to me its an extension of the DIY ethic, though I admit it is a huge project that is not for everyone.

For many, home school is not financially an option (since it puts someone out of a paying job), and even if the money can work out most people are not that interested in essentially changing their career to being a private tutor. But for those of us that are interested in trying it out, why shouldn't that be viewed as being a reasonable choice?

The long winded screed above can be essentially summed up as follows. Just because you can't do EVERYTHING for yourself doesn't mean its not still worthwhile to do SOMETHING for yourself. Its a choice to engage more fully with the world around us, and a choice to strengthen your skills, your mind, and your spirit.

Take inspiration from reading Little House and indulging the pastoral fantasy, and think about how you could change your life for the better in a small way, instead of just dismissing it wholesale as an impractical and isolationist fairy tale.


Anonymous said...

Thx for the much needed and thoughtful response to the ridiculous article!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing your great response to the NYT article!

Rose said...

I couldn't agree more! It's taken me the last 8 years (since I quit my job in retail management to stay at home with my kids) to realize that DIY isn't an "all or nothing" deal. I do can, knit, sew, and homeschool, but it's not out of virtue or necessity, but because I choose to. And we do all of these things in our little house in a busy downtown Southern city.

themagiconions said...

Totally loved your insights.
Doing something ourselves can bring so much pleasure. Yea... I CAN make jam!!! And teaching our kids that they can do and make things themselves gives them so much confidence. You see it in the sparkle in their eyes as they drink orange juice they have squeezed themselves.
Love this - thanks for sharing!
Blessings and magic,

shelli : mamaofletters said...

Really enjoyed this commentary. I agree 100%. Thanks for sharing.

Amy said...

Great response. Last weekend, I bought my own wheat mill and learned how to mill my own grain and bake bread. I had been baking the artisan loaves for about 3 weeks with great success, so I was inspired to keep learning and doing more myself.

Going back to the Times article... When we decided to homeschool, we pulled our kiddos out of the public school. At the time we pulled them out, one of my acquaintances said, "Oh, we will miss you being a part of the community." !!! That was so funny to me.

I am enjoying reading your bread and cider posts. Thanks!

Amy said...

hmmm, I meant to say above that I learned how to mill grain (not *my own* grain) in a grain mill, not a specific *wheat* mill...

although, my husband has wondered (as you blogged) about growing it ourselves, to truly make it our own!

Holly said...

Thanks for the comments everyone! I'm glad my thoughts resonated with you.

Amy, that sounds neat. What kind of mill did you get? I had thought about that a while back, and read a book called "Flour Power" on home grain milling. But I never went any further than that.

My wife Becky wanted to sign us up for a grain CSA this year, which would be good to have a mini-mill for. I feel like it is a good candidate for bicycle power since the sheer number of watts required isn't huge for home quantities of flour. If I was more awesome I would build a bike powered stone mini-mill. Anyone know of a small scale flour mill that would be amenable to conversion to bike power?

Adventure Academy Mom said...

What a great post, and well said. I totally agree. I have been making those wise choices for a few years. I live on .23 acres in a village not on a farm or ranch. It can be done in moderation, I think people forget that. I love your thoughts on homeschooling.

Kathy said...

Thanks for a great post. As a homeschooling parent, knitter, gardener, sewer, potter, photographer, baker, and craft enthusiast, I couldn't agree more!

jengod said...

Awesome post. I feel better about making rose-hip syrup after reading this!