NOTE: This is the second in a series of guest posts scheduled to run while I’m away from real life. Ironically, in today’s post, David mentions Milan, Ill. And as long as I’m not dead, that’s exactly where I am right now, immersed in the warmth of friends and family I don’t see often enough. I asked David (the blogger behind both The Marmot in My Head and Sounds like Orange) to write because I believe we’re kindred spirits. Because I believe we both find unique beauty in the mundane. Because David is just very real, very… human. And that’s something that means a lot to me. Because that’s exactly what I want to be. Thank you, David.
Have a seat everyone. Get comfortable. We’re going to talk about livestock, pigs, uncles and chess.
Grab a beer or pop from the fridge. Yes, that’s “pop” because, today, location matters. You see, my roots overlap with Matt’s, barely I suppose, but closer than you’d imagine. They overlap in a place where “soda” is for baking and “pop” is for fizzy-drinking. Where? Milan. Matt’s dad ended up in Milan, Ill. My aunt and uncle live just outside of Milan on a farm.
I can assure you that the Milan in Italy and the Milan in Illinois differ. In two hours in Milan, Italy, I did two things: change trains and find an internet cafe. Neither are possible in the Illinois version. True, my actual roots are from a little farther west along the Iowa-Nebraska border, but culturally, they are almost identical.
We’ll start in Elk Horn, Iowa, a town 10 miles off the interstate halfway between Des Moines and Omaha that billed itself as the Danish capital of America. Yup. They have a windmill and a museum to prove it. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I was five years old when my family and I visited, staying at my grandparent’s house on a farm just outside of town. It was a typical farmhouse, seemingly both spacious and cramped all at once. There were toys, too, including that electric train track that always smelled like it was smoldering.
I was bored.
I could go outside, I suppose, but as a “city kid” (anyone living in a place with more than 5,000 people), I wasn’t allowed to go near the farm equipment, the road, the barns, the pastures, the animals. Really, I was allowed on the porch and the driveway. Boring, yes, but the noisy tractors were scary and the weirdly massive pigs were scarier yet.
Oddly, at the other grandparent’s house, where several barns were partly fallen down, a windmill that had stolen part of my dad’s finger when he was a child, “filled in” outhouse pits and tractors that were older than my parents, I was given free reign. Not in Iowa, though.
For whatever reason, my uncle found me, not my brother or sister, but me and invited me along to do chores. He was the tallest in a family where, at 6’4″, I would be the shortest adult male in two generations. First (and last), we went to the pig barn where there were creatures that looked like the Jolly Green Giant’s hot dogs, with surprisingly agile flat pink noises and almost as much hair as in my grandparent’s ears.
A quiet sleeping pig is not that scary, but when food is coming or the mud is just right, they turn into terrifying steam engines randomly bouncing off one another. Worse yet, I’m told, is their behavior around threatened piglets. My uncle, one of the calmest, gentlest people in the world, opened the door to the pen, lured me in and told me to stand quietly just over there near the edge. He poured feed into the trough and the pigs (were they hogs?) surged. They bumped into my uncle. He shoved them back. Then, from off to the side, a piercing squealing noise. One of the piglets had gotten a foot caught in the wire fencing. Sure my uncle could handle that all by himself, but he called me over anyway.
So, I delicately stepped past mud and pig poops, worrying about a pig tsunami, to join him by the fence. While he held the 40 pound piglet in his arms, I worked the wire out from around the pig’s hind leg. Then, once free, my uncle set him down, shutting down the pig air raid siren and letting the piglet scurry beetle-like over to the trough with the rest. I’d still be afraid to step into a pig pen, but I learned that calmness in the face of fear is often all that’s needed for things to work out.
But wait, there’s more. Later that week, my uncle got married. I remember that day because he was getting married on my birthday. At the time, I thought he chose that date just for me. After all, he gave me a spectacular watercolor paint set and unlike my infinitely cuter (and younger) brother and sister, gave me nothing to do at his wedding. I got to just sit and enjoy it. Obviously, it wasn’t for me, but, when you’re six years old, who can tell?
My uncle had a way to be an adult, a real adult, and be with children, treating them not as pests or annoyances, but as real people who, for the moment, are smaller than the rest of the world. Among my favorite memories was him lying down on the floor to teach me how to play chess. I was and still am horrible at it, but there he was at my level, in my world, showing me how my world worked.
I don’t see him much, but that doesn’t keep me from being impressed by him. Later, I don’t know when, I remember him being the one person who could give real advice to my sister. Later still, when my life was a mess, he was the only person I knew who could accept me as an expert at digging holes in life and still offer constructive advice for living better. Most recently, he finished grad school again (a veterinarian in the past and now a public health degree) and takes periodic trips volunteering for agricultural education in Tanzania. He’s not perfect by any means, but he accepts life as it is, lives it as best he can, and leaves the best bits of himself lying around for the benefit of others.
I’m not like him, but I want to be.
Maybe I am and I just can’t tell.
I’ve left bits of me lying around, but sometimes I needed those bits myself.
I’ve botched a marriage, but then again, so has he.
I never did get as tall as he is… but that’s okay, I guess.
I’m tall enough.