Casaubon's Book

Note: I’m off to DC for ASPO-USA’s annual spring board meeting. The blog will be quiet. I leave you with one of my all-time favorite re-runs, lightly updated to reflect the ongoing disconnect between dream and reality ;-). But what would life be without fantasy? I find it helpful to reflect on how the world outside and inside my heads meet and fail to meet when I test my own assumptions.

Fantasy, 1977: When I grow up I am going to be a doctor and garbage collector by day, driving my super-cool garbage truck on rounds, and at night, will become Wonder Woman, complete with breasts and magic lasso – with or without invisible garbage truck.

Reality Check #1, 1978: Wonder Woman is not considered a viable career choice by anyone. Wonder Woman has a stupid plane, not an awesomely cool garbage truck. Mom won’t let me wear the Wonder Woman underoos to kindergarten, at least not without something on top of them.

Reality chec #2, 1983: Breasts finally arrive. I no longer want to be Wonder Woman, and don’t want these either – they get in the way when I run. They do not appear to be umm…made of steel like hers, nor do they point upwards.

Fantasy, 1982: I will grow up to be Joan Jett.

Reality Check: Job of being Joan Jett already taken. Oh, and I can’t play guitar. Or sing.

Fantasy, 1986: Very, very soon, I will encounter the love of my fourteen year old life. He will look rather like a young David Bowie and will be deep, complex and angst-filled. I, of course, will be the only one who understands him. Ours will be one of the great love stories, and we will perfect each other.

Reality Check: Angst-filled guys not nearly as much fun in real life as in novels. Boys, whether looking like David Bowie or not, don’t seem especially interested, and the ones that do seem to prefer things that really aren’t that complicated or introspective, things for which I am not yet prepared (in retrospect, thank G-d for that). Achieving “the love of one’s life” at fourteen not really that impressive an accomplishment.

Fantasy, 1991: I am preparing for a career as misunderstood genius, a writer, probably a poet, who will utterly transform the literary landscape. I am the Stephen Daedalus of my generation, only not Irish, male, Catholic or living near a decent pub.

Reality Check: Besides not being male, Irish, Catholic or old enough to drink yet, I am also a. not misunderstood – and trying to be isn’t working – nearly everyone seems to understand me all too well, and be slightly amused, which is disheartening – and b. not a genius. Back to garbage collecting, which at least seems like it pays better than poetry.

Fantasy 1997: Eric and I will achieve the perfect, egalitarian marrage, in which neither of us ever has to do anything we don’t enjoy. Our two academic careers will mesh perfectly, and each of us will accomodate the other until we have achieved our dreams. We will tend the household together, both of us doing the work we like best. We will never have any conflict at all about careers or domestic life.

Reality check:There are about 20,000 more jobs for physicists than experts on the Black Death. Neither of us like cleaning toilets or changing the cat litter, and yet, the cat begins peeing in random corners if someone doesn’t suck it up, and well, one wants to be able to let people come in the house. We fight about whose turn it is to do stuff, all the time.

Reality check #2: Eventually we have children. Guess which one of us gets pregnant and spends four months throwing up and the last two months not sleeping? Guess which one of us came equipped with breasts? (Although the La Leche book claims that “given sufficient stimulation” 10% of all men can lactate, Eric unjustly and quite firmly refuses to explore this option.) which are now being sucked upon during all the best times for doing economically remunerative work. So much for perfect egalitarianism.

Fantasy, 1999: Expecting our first child, Eric and I know with absolute certainty that we will be perfect parents, completely unlike pretty much all the real parents we know. We don’t understand why so many smart people seem to be such inferior parents.

We will be kind, firm, consistent and never make any of the mistakes our parents made. Our child will grow up in nature and away from consumer culture, will not eat sugar, will use only imaginative toys made of natural materials, will be well behaved at all times. We will continue our adult lives just as we had, only with cute baby in tow. During my brief hiatus from the world of academe, I shall manage our child and our domestic lives with grace and elegance, while Eric keeps us in shoes and rent. Eric will get to come home to a clean house, a cooked meal and to enjoy his child. Soon after, we will switch, and I will maintain the same high expectations of my husband.

Reality, 2000: Within six months of Eli’s birth, most of which were characterized by extreme colic and six to eight hours of non-stop screaming every single day (people ask me how I manage four kids – my best answer is this – at no time in my life have my four children ever been as difficult as one colicky single infant), I would have been happy to do any of the things I’d sworn I would never, ever do, if only it would buy me five minutes of silence. Sugar? Sure, if only you could give it to an infant. TV? For it, if it worked, which it doesn’t. Sleeping with the baby, not sleeping with the baby, Ferber, Sears…who cares if it gets me some sleep? Unfortunately, none of them do. Whiskey my breastmilk to make the baby sleep? Don’t tempt me.

The only thing that calms him is the sound of the vacuum cleaner. I plug the vacuum cleaner in and leave it running. Environment be damned – I haven’t slept in four days and could give a flying fuck about the planet… Needless to say, the house looks like it has been sacked by Huns and the Vietnamese takeout place around the corner no longer needs to ask who this is when we call.

Reality check #2, 2000: Shortly after Eric returns to work, I realize something. Work, which seemed so exhausting and stressful when I was doing it, is practically a vacation compared to life with a colicky infant. Yes, he has to be there. But he gets to pee all by himself. No one screams there. Meals are eaten with two hands, rather than one, while nursing. There are no poop explosions in astrophysics.

Instantly, Eric’s job is demoted to “annoying hobby the husband has that allows him to escape the screaming.” The moment he walks in the door, Eli is handed off and I disappear into the shower – touching family moments are limited to my kissing the two of them as I race out the door to be alone for five minutes. Chances of us switching to Eric doing full time parenting disappearing rapidly as physicists and men continue to out earn me, and I continue to be the one with the breasts.

Reality check #3, 2009: My children eat sugar – along with a lot of fresh vegetables, but sugar. They watch videos – no commercial tv, and not as much as most kids, but occasionally we use it as a babysitter to get other things done. My children have more than their share of plastic superhero action figures garnered from yard sales, besides the natural toys. Their favorite natural toys seem mostly to be sticks, used for whacking each other. They are sometimes well behaved, and sometimes not. We are sometimes consistent, but not consistently. That is, we’re ordinarily mediocre parents, and I’m sure all proto-parents look at us and think how badly we’ve let our standards lapse. Ah well.

Fantasy 2001: We are moving to a farm. Within a year, we expect to have cows, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, draft horses, an orchard, a greenhouse, rainwater cachement and produce all our food. I will spin yarn and make all our clothing from our own sheep and flax. My biggest worry is how we will grow tropical spices, but I have no doubt we’ll find a way, since we’re going to be doing everything else.

Reality check #1, 2001: Cows cost money. Goats cost money. Everything else costs money, especially old houses. We have no money. Draft horses on a farm of 27 acres, only 9 of which are open, would mostly, ummm…raise food for draft horses. A balcony full of vegetables is a lot different than half an acre – oh, and gardens don’t grow that well over the foundation of an old stone barn, straight into solid rock.

Oh, and Eric and I have discovered something about ourselves, since Eli at 14 months, has begun to sleep through the night. We like to sleep. I mean we really, really, really like to sleep. After not doing much of it for more than a year, we are like drug addicts suddenly given an unlimited supply of heroin when it comes to sleep. Guess what happens to spinning, knitting and weaving all our clothes? We decide we can live with our old ones and Goodwill pickings, if we can catch a nap.

Reality check #2, 2009 – I still don’t have a cow. The sheep belong to a friend – I’ve decided I don’t have to do everything myself. I do get free wool, and sometimes I even spin it into yarn. I still don’t have draft horses, although I’m still fantasizing a little – there are 50 unused acres across the road that maybe someone would consider bartering for the use of. But not this year. I grow a lot of our food, but enjoy buying things from other people, and supporting the local economy. I trust that if pepper has been transported around the world for 400 years, I’ll still be able to get some, or do without.

Fantasy 2003: While I’ve known about peak oil and climate change since college, it finally occurs to me to check the web for resources. I find horrible, horrible things – people preparing for cannibalism and doom (the internet is just where you want to go first for reason and reassurance, right?). One day, probably in just a few years, we will wake up and everything will be gone, and the end of the world will be at hand. Many sites seem to suggest that the only possible solution is a completely isolated, perfectly self-sufficient homestead and lots and lots of automatic weapons. Ok, well, I guess it is back to spinning, no sleep and cows. If that’s what it takes, I’ll do it. Of course, Eric’s grandparents aren’t really going to like the idea that we have to move to a mountaintop, and I admit I have a hard time imagining being devoured by my neighbors.

Which ones, the kind 80+ year olds who go rabbit hunting on our land, or the ones with the two boys approximately the age of our sons who play together?

Reality check, 2003: Eric firmly refuses to move to mountain top, as do Eric’s grandparents. Neighbors still showing no signs of cannibalism, but come over often for chocolate chip cookies. Perhaps stash of chocolate acts as cannibalism preventative. Ultrasound says baby will be another boy – won’t we have to come out of the bunker at least once a generation to find them a partner or something? Besides, so tired, with CSA, poultry, pregnancy – just one more nap before I build bunker.

Reality check 2011: Human history suggests that while we will see a radical shift in the way society works, isolated bunkers not the way to go. Still haven’t built one. Still not eaten by neighbors. Life is pretty good.

Fantasy, 2007: OMG! OMG! Publisher just contacted me and wants me to write a book about peak oil and climate change for women and families. Goes without saying that the book will be an early selection on Oprah’s book club, a New York Times bestseller, and universally acclaimed. Too bad the Nobel prize in literature is for fiction, otherwise, I’m sure I’d be a shoe in. I can’t wait to get started – this is going to be a breeze, after all, I already write a blog, when I think of it.

Reality check #1, 2007: Writing a book is a whole heck of a lot of work. I hate my computer. I hate sitting still for 8 hours a day. When calculated by per hour work, am making .36 cents per hour for my work, and we’ve definitely lost money in the net, because I can’t keep up the CSA and write.

Reality check #2, 2009: No word from Oprah. Nobel committee has, unsurprisingly not called. Book is number 32,000 odd most popular book on Amazon, with occasional jumps up to 28,000 – not bad for a first time writer, but not exactly in the “beyond your wildest dreams” (my wildest dreams are manifestly pretty wild). There are plenty of rewards – praise from various people, the sense of accomplishment, etc… Fame and fortune so far not among them. Brief flirtation with fame (NY Times article) suggests that it might not be all it is cracked up to be. Would still enjoy a flirtation with fortune, however, even if not as nice as expected, as we need a new roof.

Fantasy, 2006: There will be a single moment, in which I can say “today is the day’ that everything happened. I will know that it is happening, in fact, with my high degree of awareness, I will be ready, and able to help others. With any luck, my knowledge will also enable me to go shopping while they are still taking credit cards that I won’t have to ever pay off, because the world has now come to an end. After all, that’s what happens to all the characters in the books.

Reality check, 2009: These are ongoing problems, and the world is not ending. There will be moments of crisis, but they aren’t necessarily even the moments that matter most – JFK being shot wasn’t really definitive – it was merely the symbolic moment. 9/11 didn’t change everything, we just thought it did. Even when there is a moment, it is only seen in retrospect most of the time – who actually thought “Franz Ferdinand was shot – this moment changes the entire world?” Realistically, chances are that the credit cards collection agencies will exist for a very long time, and the chances are that I’ll be sitting around on my ass with no freakin’ idea that the world just changed. That’s for science fiction novels.

Fantasy, 2007: My work and the work of committed others will be sufficient to arrest climate change, create a steady-state economy, and begin seriously addressing peak oil. Of course there will be huge challenges, but nothing really bad will happen to anyone if I just write hard enough and work fast enough.

Reality check, 2007: I get over myself. By late fall 2007, the Climate Equity and other reports make it clear that climate change is happening a lot faster than expected. World is doing, well, what the world does – jack. Speaking to a couple of hundred people at a time, most of whom already know the stuff I’m talking about, or even writing a reasonably popular blog is not a magic bullet. I go through the worst period of depression I’ve had in a long time, and then realize that I’ve been guilty of a great deal of arrogance, of believing that I can fix the world. Give myself a stern talking to, and then get back to work, remembering that this is a marathon, not a sprint. I’m going to be doing this work the rest of my life, and that hubris is not a virtue. I get on with it.

Fantasy, 2009: The economic crisis will wait long enough for us to do all the things we really, really need/want to get done before the crisis. After that, it can go ahead.

Reality check, 2009: My husband works for the state of New York, and is not tenured. For now, he has a job. There is a real possibility that he might not for very long, and so I need to think seriously about what we really need – it isn’t all going to happen. For cripes sake, physician, heal thyself – you teach adapting in place, you teach people to deal with the fact that the perfect solution isn’t going to come along. Duh.

Fantasy 2011+: Still fantasizing about a lot of things – the next book will be the one that actually makes it on Oprah, that I’ll get recognized in some cool way, that middle age will look awesome on me, that adding several more children to my life will go smoothly… I’m not really sure what I’ll be fantasizing about in 2012, but I do know that it will probably be extreme, probably have little to do with reality, and may involve magic bracelets. Still pretty sure my breasts will never point upwards, though, so firmly grounded in reality.

Reality 2011+: Peak oil will come, and it won’t look exactly like I think it will. Everyone’s experience of peak oil will be different, including mine. Climate change will happen, hopefully not to its worst extremes, and it won’t look exactly like I think it will. Economic problems will come and go and they won’t look exactly like I expect either. I will never be fully ready. I will never be able to fix it all, either for my family or for the world at large. I am not in charge, and believing I am is foolish hubris and a waste of energy.

I can’t be the only one whose mind sometimes runs off towards extremes. What’s useful to me is to remember that the fantasies are part of the reality – that is, I don’t regret the time I spent dreaming of appearing on Oprah, or even the time I spent dreaming about making the perfect farm. Everyone needs a fantasy life, and sometimes thinking about stupid ideas is what you need to get on to reality, or simply to figure out that those ideas are stupid. The trick is simple – getting through the fantasy, and facing reality, with the lessons of fantasy behind us.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 et
    June 10, 2011

    Your 2011 fantasy:
    We will foster 1 or more children. All will go smoothly. There will be no problems that our loving care, fresh air and infusions of goat milk won’t conquer.

    Foster kids will either integrate perfectly into our family or leave after a short while and not be missed.

    My 2011 fantasy:
    Although doomers have been predicting doom of various sorts for years since nothing large scale doomy has happened to me or my family doomsday won’t happen this year either.

  2. #2 Sharon Astyk
    June 10, 2011

    Et, I’m not sure why you’d want to tell me my fantasies – I think I’ve got that covered. I certainly don’t think one of them includes perfect integration, rapid departure or no problems, but thanks for sharing your thoughts. I do have fantasies about children who sleep mostly through the night, though ;-).

    As for the other – doomers have been accurately predicting doom for years too – war, famine, all sorts of terrible natural disasters – all of which happen all the time to quite a lot of people. I certainly hope you and your family are spared again. I also hope you and your family don’t get convinced that that somehow means it can’t happen.

    Sharon

  3. #3 moses basket stands
    June 10, 2011

    I like your last line as it explains so much after reading your post. Learn your lessons from your fantasies and face reality the best you can.

  4. #4 tioedong
    June 10, 2011

    nice post. Linked.

  5. #5 Claire
    June 10, 2011

    My long-running fantasy was that I became President of the U.S. and actually did all the right things and fixed everything. Yeah, sure. Start with the fact that I’m majorly introverted and couldn’t possibly participate in a campaign … and that I already knew from industry that the role of President imposes strong constraints, which ensures that whoever is in office does basically the same thing as that is what the role and its attendant worldview require. Then I finally figured out that I was no better for having this fantasy than any actual president who did what he wanted without checking to see if anyone else wanted it first. I finally stopped having that fantasy a few years ago (not that many, either). So now my fantasy is I can grow peaches that won’t get eaten by squirrels first … yeah, right.

  6. #6 Brad K.
    June 12, 2011

    Claire,

    Billll’s Idle Mind presented his quest for a dramatic, air-powered, automatically activated squirrel gun — that devolved into a really simple trap. http://billllsidlemind.blogspot.com/2009/05/squirrel-trap.html

    No moving parts. Billll found the result effective vis a vis the squirrel eradication, but disappointing without any booms, no flying projectiles of any kind, and no creative workshop prodigy wonderments.

    Sharon, It is sad to see dreams end. I suppose there will still be an Oprah publishing and reading list, but making the TV show anymore, that went the way of the Mike Douglas show, the Gong Show, and Thicke of the Night. But perhaps finding that your work has helped a few families weather storms like underemployment and natural disasters, while finding new knowledge about food, about livestock, and about love and discipline (the will to complete a task) — perhaps that will be a consolation.

    And I still don’t have those sweet chocolate peppers planted. Sigh.

    Blessed be!

  7. #7 Elizabeth from the Berkshires
    June 13, 2011

    I loved reading this–and I have a question. Do you think that aiming for the fantasy gives you a better chance at achieving some part of it? Or do you think setting achievable and more realistic goals would be more effective? Actually, as I write this I think it has more to do with personality than which one works better. I lean more towards achievable goals (at least I think so, maybe not) and my wife definitely goes for the fantasy all the time. Maybe it has to do with how well we handle that reality check and the accompanying disappointment or disillusionment. Is the realistic approach just one that lets fear of failure get in the way of what might be possible? I think maybe so. I’ll be thinking about this one, thanks!

  8. #8 Lisa Coons
    June 15, 2011

    I was laughing so hard at times, I worried what co-workers might think! Thank you for incisivenes and the insight but especially the humor!