The Swift Pinch of Justice

Sometimes I feel like I’m a member of the last well-mannered generation–that is, the last generation to know swift discipline. No one was swifter than my mom. I can remember when she used to snatch me up in front of the whole congregation for no good reason other than to inspect the shrubbery outside the church. Back then, I always thought it was unfair to have a momma with a green thumb, and by green thumb I mean she could snap a privet switch with a mere pinch. A few pews ahead of me, Johnny could do jumping jacks and taunt me with funny faces and his mom did nothing. However, I could barely contort my face in self defense before I was yanked up and escorted to the hedgerow. 

My mom does not suffer fools. Never has, never will. Maybe this explains my fondness for writing foolishness, as it’s perhaps the one way I can smuggle foolishness past her. She was a high school English teacher, and she always seemed more concerned about the grammatical correctness of my sentences than their content. As long I put my commas and periods in the right place, then the subject of my sentence could slip on the object of the preposition, say a banana peel, and do five flips for all she cared. 

My mom also taught me the grammar of southern living, meaning manners. These rules were so indoctrinated in me that even now I convulse when breaking them. Back then, breaking the Ten Commandments might get you a stern talking to, but breaking the rules of southern etiquette got you a temporary tattoo on the posterior. The rules, as I remember them, were,

  1. You do not brag. Ever. 
  2. You say, “Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, mam. No, mam.” 
  3. You say “Please” and “Thank You.”
  4. You do not talk back to your parents or teachers. This was called sassing–if you got caught doing it, it was more or less the death sentence. 
  5. You never wear a hat at the table.
  6. You sit as still as a statue in church. 

Back then, these were the communal standards for children. Of course, maybe Johnny’s mom didn’t get the memo, but it seemed like most other kids in school had a similar set of dictates set down by adults in their life. And it’s not like I went to some fancy private school. I just went to your typical rural public school with trailers as overflow classrooms and paddles hanging on the wall of the principal’s office. 

By that point, the paddles were mostly a decorative scare tactic, a vestige of a barbaric age when principals were feared and respected. Corporal punishment was well on its way to becoming taboo, at least in schools. In private homes, not so much. Although I felt my mom was stricter than most, she was at least lenient in her preference for switch wielding. My neighbor’s mom used a blunt force wooden spoon, and I knew several kids whose dad’s used a leather belt. 

Eventually, all forms of corporal punishment were lumped together in a catch-all term called spanking. Then spanking was linked to some sort of Freudian sexual repression and shunned by society. However, I just linked it to pain, not a lot, but enough. Enough for me to realize if I didn’t want to get my legs switched, I’d better behave. 

This isn’t to say that we should bring back spanking–I wouldn’t touch that topic with a ten-foot wooden spoon. It’s just to say that Southerners of my parents era may have been sexually repressed, but their children had good manners. 

A Good Old Age

I was thinking about it the other day, and I’ve been writing this blog about farming for nearly two years now and have yet to mention the most humble of barnyard creatures. But the time is nigh, specifically the next paragraph. 

I’m talking about chickens. Chickens are paradoxical creatures, being astonishingly helpless and yet nearly indestructible in their own way. For instance, we have a chicken, Quigley, who is ten years old, which in chicken years means she’s as old as Methuselah (who in biblical years lived to 969, which means Methuselah likely pulled a Betty White and somewhere in the desert sands there is an undiscovered stone tablet edition of People Magazine that says “Methuselah turns 1000!”). 

Chickens best defense mechanism has been palling up with humans who are willing to build elaborate and highly priced fortifications in exchange for calcified embryos. On the one hand, it may seem like a poor business decision on the chickens’ part, given jumbo size eggs are ejected frequently out of a small orifice and often the human fortifications are hardly predator proof, especially if an English major built it. On the other hand, if you’re going to die, you might as well die in style, living in a grand gated community with a penthouse hen house, i.e a chicken run with elevated roosts.  

Quigley endears herself to us in other ways than egg laying (she quit laying eggs after two years). Namely, she’s the tamest chicken I’ve ever seen. She’ll come right up to your legs and softly nuzzle you with her beak until you pick her up and hold her. She is the last remaining member of our original flock that got babied and pampered as chicks and lived in a Rubbermaid tote on our back porch. With subsequent flocks, we’ve grown less attentive, which is why most of our current flock are about as tame as feathered dinosaurs. Quigley has outlived all her friends and family. Her best friend Charlie died about five years ago to natural causes, then Perla dropped dead, then Penfold and Andy got killed by a neighbor’s dog. And since Thomas was born, her chicken keepers don’t get around to giving her as much attention or chicken treats as they used to. But still she survives. I don’t think she likes her new flock mates, but to be honest, neither do I. They’re different, just wild nameless chickens if I’m being honest. But Quigley is a chicken worthy of a name. May her feathers fluff for many years to come!

Quigley and Natalie ten years apart.
Quigley and her best friend, Charlie.

God (he/it/they)

Ok, I’ll say it: It has been hard for me to accept this newfangled trend of purposely linking a plural pronoun to a singular antecedent. Sure, I’ve done it myself accidentally more times than I would like to admit, but in days gone by I would never purposely refer back to a singular human with a plural pronoun. As an English major, I was indoctrinated to believe this was a major grammatical mistake and as such it should be avoided to prevent bloodletting from a red pen. 

I’m not proud about it, but I’ve even crusaded against people who flaunted pronoun disagreement–and by the plural people I mean mostly my singular wife. She’s been confusing pronouns ever since we got married. I’ve given up trying to correct her, mostly to prevent her glower from overheating and causing wanton and reckless destruction to the area near my forehead. 

That said, I bear some responsibility. Because I can’t afford to maintain two lawnmowers, she can’t participate in grass cutting despite statements of willingness like, “Can we cut the grass? The front yard looks like a hayfield.” In this case, the plural we defaults to the singular me because we only have one single-seater lawnmower. Whenever my current mower bites the dust, I’m going to look into the cost of a tandem mower. Then I can fulfill my wife’s wish of one day cutting the grass together as a unified we

I used to think her incorrect usage was due to a flawed education, but given the number of times I’ve corrected her, I can only assume she has a flawed memory. Last night, for example, she said, “The kitchen reaks. Can we take out the trash?” But when I finally tied off the trash bag and excavated it from the kitchen trash can, I was the only one standing there trying to tame my gagging reflex. 

But the point here is I’ve mellowed some. I no longer feel the need to correct my wife’s usage of the plural we. I’ve just come to accept she means the singular me. There’s more things to worry about than who is called what. And as Christians, who am I kidding? Pronoun confusion is baked into the very core of our central tentet–God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, three in one. Is the Trinity a he, it, or they? Who the heck knows? 

All I know is that Jesus, presumably a (he/him/God), said that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. If my singular neighbor wants to be called a plural they, so be it. That sure beats walking a second mile. 

Long Lost Childhood Survival Skills

This past weekend, I was watching Thomas eat chicken feed when a flood of memories came rushing back to me of the time I ate dog food as a child. To be honest, it was a bittersweet memory, not in the sense that the dog food was bittersweet (if I remember right it was rather bland), but it was nice to think about bygone days, when children didn’t need to spend all their time fiddling with an iPhone and could focus on the simpler pleasures of life, like sampling food intended for domesticated animals. Despite his mothers’ protests of his food choices, Thomas is really becoming a first rate scavenger and secretly I’m a little proud. So I’m not exactly sure how to deal with his newfound passion for scavenging. Last week, for instance, he ate a petrified potato chip that he found in a couch cushion. In some scenarios, say a post apocalyptic world, scavenging would be an essential survival skill, so I don’t want to discourage it completely. That said, I also don’t want to get a visit from child protective services. 

Anyway, this dilemma got me thinking of all of the essential survival skills we instinctively hone as children and then slowly let fade away as we enter into the norms of adulthood. For instance, most children are great pouncers, but most adults have completely forgotten how to pounce despite the fact that if a man or woman can pounce, then they’ll never go hungry. It’s like that old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to pounce and you feed him for a lifetime.” Pouncing is the prerequisite skill needed for fishing. A man who can stalk and pounce on a cricket or grasshopper will never be in want of bream or sunfish. And a man who can pounce on a lizard will never be in want of a mate. There is nothing that impresses and attracts the fairer sex more than catching a lizard and then letting it bite your earlobe and dangle like an oversized ‘80s earring. This courting display was widely practiced among second-grade boys of my era, and obviously it was effective because Britney Sampson sent me a little folded up note asking, “Do you love me? Check Yes or No.”  

Another survival skill I perfected as a child was trapping various and sundry creatures. I suppose children have gotten a bit soft because they can just count on habitat loss to keep all the dangerous animals away, but back in my day we had to take matters into our own hands. Me and my neighbor Andy dug pit traps (i.e. holes covered with twigs and a thin layer of leaves and grass to camouflage their existence) all over the backyard in hopes of catching a bear or other ferocious animal. However, the only thing we ever caught was my dad on the lawn mower. That was good enough to prove the concept though. Generally speaking, my dad wasn’t very ferocious, but he played the part of the bear pretty well, roaring to life when the lawn mower bottomed out in a cloud of dust. 

Which leads to another childhood survival skill: running. Me and Andy were such advanced runners that we won the main event in second grade field day, the wheelbarrow race, which utilizes running with your hands. Thankfully, I still have some vestige of my childhood running ability because, if you’re a government employee who works on farms day in and day out, you really need to know how to make a quick get away. There are all types of enraged animals to flee from, not just the farmers. I’ve run from enraged momma cows, an enraged wild turkey mom that I stumbled on in the woods, an enraged German Shepherd that had obviously been trained to protect private property, an enraged nest of yellow jackets that I discovered in an old hay bale, and an enraged box of bees that I accidentally dropped. In many of these cases I didn’t escape unscathed, but I at least survived, which means the time I spent running my parents ragged as a child paid off. 

A New Year’s Resolution to Finish What I …

Whereas the hours in a day total 24,

and whereas the majority of my waking hours are spent in the formidable paperwork jungle that is a government agriculture office or the chaos of my humble abode, which is the natural habitat of a toddler who has both the unlimited energy and destructive power of the Tasmanian Devil, 

and whereas projects continue to accumulate on my to-do list, many of which, before they’re even started, spawn sub-projects of equal or greater extent, 

and whereas I am easily seduced by any undertaking that involves rust, junk, or otherwise questionable purchases,

and whereas, to fund these projects, our bank account hardly has time to recuperate before it’s depleted faster than my willpower in the candy aisle,

and whereas so many half-completed projects lie in ruins around here that future archeologists will likely speculate about all the unfinished contraptions found in the dig area of our farm and what natural disaster could have so thoroughly halted their progress (say a small volcanic eruption or an localized asteroid strike)

and whereas  it was not a natural disaster per se, but merely the natural tendency of the farmer to never finish what he started, to leave things languishing in a semi-completed state, 

and whereas I, that farmer, am already fighting the urge to abandon this resolution to start other bits of writing, to thus let it moulder away in the digital leaf litter that is my documents file, 

and whereas I’ll likely forget this resolution until one day many years from now when I’ll vaguely remember I started a parody resolution of some sort, but won’t remember what I named it, 

Now, therefore, I, Stephen Bishop, sometimes known as The Misfit Farmer, other times known by words synonymous with hoarder, hereby declare this resolution nearly complete, needing only a final line, which I’ll leave to another day because I think I hear a volcano erupting outside my house.