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King and Country

I’m taking a creative writing class over the summer. We had an assignment recently to write a sort story of up to 1500 words. The following is my submission. I hope you enjoy.

PS. If my prof happens to google the story and finds this blog, note that I am in fact one of your students. You teach English to white people. 😉 (Note for readers: it’s a reference to something in class)

King and Country

I close my burning eyes as the shifting wind blows a cloud of smoke my way. Later tonight in my tent, I will go to sleep smiling at the smell of campfire and cool forest nights. The wind, really more of a breeze, shifts again and the smoke is gone.

There’s nothing actually silent about the forest at night. In the distance, frogs chirp in the hopes of attracting a mate. From time to time a barred owl barks out its strange call, while all around you is the rustling of leaves that could be anything from a little fieldmouse or a stalking cougar.  It’s full of life in a way that makes me feel connected to the world; A feeling I find difficult to recreate when I’m back in the city.

I like watching the fire. The way the flames dance to some secret song, the occasional sparks and cracks, and the feeling of warmth against my skin, all of it mesmerizes me.

It takes me a moment to realize that the glowing red orbs in front of me are not after-images from the fire but are in fact eyes. My heart nearly stops, when a raspy voice breaks the silence. “Greetings Traveller. May I impose upon your hospitality and share your fire tonight?”

“Oh! Um, sure. Welcome.” I answer back automatically, which takes me by surprise. I’m not usually one for being alone in the woods with strange men, no matter how formal and polite, and that’s even when they don’t have unnaturally red glowing eyes. “Can I offer you a drink or something?” I ask.

“I’ll take a smoke, if you’re offering.” He answers back, the shadow of his head nodding towards the small bad of pre-rolls lying next to me.

“It’s not tobacco. Hope that’s ok.”

“That’s just fine.”

Even as he approaches the fire his features stay shadowed, so that all I can see is a dark shape of a man and those eyes. As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s like my own head won’t let me fill in any of the details.

He takes the offered joint and flops over so that he’s reclining against a log. I watch the cherry flare up as he takes a long hit, and then after a short pause, exhales in a sigh of satisfaction. The smoke drifts out from where his mouth must be.

Feeling awkward and like I’m staring, I grab my little cast-iron kettle and fill it at the stream, and set it down by the fire to boil. That’s when I notice that the frogs and rustling in the leaves have gone completely quiet.

Between the sudden unnatural silence, and the uncanny way his eyes glow, I feel like I’ve suddenly stepped into the middle of some fairy tale. I think about the different stories I’ve heard and read over the years about encounters in the woods as I work on prepping the tea.

Once everything’s ready, the shadow man pulls out a tin cup out of somewhere. I pour us both a cup, serving him first, before sitting down on the log I’ve been using as a seat and lighting my own joint. I study his shape closely, looking for some clue as to who, or what I’m dealing with. There wasn’t much.

“Are you the devil?” I blurt out.

The Shadow Man, as I had taken to thinking of him in my head, sipped at his tea for a moment. I wondered if I had insulted him and was about to apologize when he spoke.

“I have been called that before, and there are perhaps those that would consider me so, but no. I am not the God of Abraham’s Lightbringer.” He shifted in his seat a little, before taking another sip and considering his cup for a moment.

“The name for what I am has been lost to time” he continued. “Perhaps the closest thing to your understanding would be the Arthurian Fisher King.”

“You’re an ancient decrepit king who can’t die?” I ask somewhat disbelievingly.

He makes a wheezing sound I take for laughter, “Not quite. More what he represents.”

I tilt my head to encourage him to keep talking. A part of me wonders if I fell asleep at some point, but my dreams are never this linear.

He sits up a bit straighter and clears his throat. I’m in for it now, I think to myself amused, recognizing the look of a man preparing to educate. At least this time I actually asked for it.

“The lesson of the Fisher King is the connection between the land and ruler. The king and the land are one in that the king represents the land, but also in the sense that the ruler’s responsibility is the health of the land. Removed from the natural order of things, the way he is, the Fisher King brings desolation to his kingdom. He represents a stagnant system and ideas whose time have passed, but who refuse to change. A ruler blinded by his own self-interest to the needs of the land and his people.”

“Is this that thing where people used to sacrifice the king in the event of a drought so that his blood could nourish the land?” I can’t explain why, but I get the sense that he smiles in response.

“Some generations tended to be pretty direct.” He wheezed that strange laugh again. “But I think you would be hard pressed to find people willing to lead if they knew they were going to be sacrificed every time there was a natural disaster.”

The Shadow Man stares into the fire, lost for a moment in his own thoughts. He picks up a small chunk of wood that was lying nearby and produces a small knife from the same incomprehensible place the cup came from. Flakes of wood fall around him as he starts to whittle something.

“At some point in time, humans started thinking of themselves as something apart from nature. Living alongside, perhaps, but not a part of it. As though you weren’t just apes who discovered that if you work together, you can hunt bigger prey and keep each other safer. That the more of you worked together, the more you could achieve and discover.”  He speaks in a way that makes it hard to tell if he’s talking to me, or just thinking out loud. He sounds sad, almost wistful, until suddenly he looks directly at me and his voice takes on a hint of anger.

“The smarter you became, the more you forgot. You learned to tame the beasts and forgot that you were one of them. You learned the secrets of growing things, and forgot that the earth is a living thing and your mother. You forgot you were connected to the world around you, and now bit by bit, you forget your connection to each other. And the world suffers for it.”

I think about how earlier this evening I had just been thinking about how being here in the middle of the woods I felt at my most connected to the world. I think about how disconnected I feel the rest of the time. I think about how much everything is a struggle these days and how often I find myself just wishing I could find a plot of land somewhere where I could gather all my friends and loved ones so we could support one another, and help make things just a little easier.

“I think I understand,” I venture. “You’re what the Fisher King would be if he were healed. You’re a manifestation of all that we’ve forgotten and the world that could be if we remembered it once more. The King and the Land as one, if you will.” This time I’m sure he smiles. “Must be lonely.”

His smile takes on a note of resigned sadness that I’m too familiar with personally. “You’re quick.”

I’m about to ask why he’s telling me all this when I remember something I had read years ago about the fey and the old gods. They were all powerful, except that they depended on mortal memory. If they were forgotten, they would fade and then finally disappear. As I’m thinking this, I notice that it’s as if my eyes have become somewhat accustomed to his darkness so that now I can just make out the faint suggestion of facial features.

As if following my thoughts, he repeats “You’re quick.”

We ease into a companiable silence, the frogs singing once more. I must have fallen asleep at some point because the next thing I know I’m waking up to the sun in my eyes. I look around for my companion from last night but he’s gone. Just as I’m wondering if I had dreamed it all after all, I notice something sitting on the log. As I pick it up, I recognize it as the Shadow Man’s carving: a little kingfisher bird.

King and Country

7 Lessons From Dairy Farming: Why Breastfeeding is NOT a solution to the Shortage

I will start off by stating the obvious that human lactating persons are NOT cows nor should one compare such a person to a cow.

That being said, nowhere is lactation and milk supply management studied quite as closely as when it comes to dairy cows and other mammals. Dairy farmer’s lives revolve around this, and so as a result, it makes up a large part of studying something like say, dairy management. Everything, from feed, housing design, disease management, biosecurity, breeding, all of it is with one goal in mind – optimizing milk production. There are a lot of lessons from this that are applicable when considering the question of whether proposing breastfeeding as a reasonable solution to the formula shortage.

Spoiler: IT’s NOT.
Applicable lessons on Milk Production from a Farming Student:

  1. Lactation is controlled by hormones. When the milk supply dries up, it can only be restarted through birth or by using hormone injections, which can take time and doesn’t always work and is also not an option for everyone. For example, use of bovine hormones to generate milk production in dairy cattle is not permitted).

    How it Applies: If the baby wasn’t being breastfed previously, its not just an easy thing to start breastfeeding after milk supply dries up.

  2. Production Capacity is highly individual and has a genetic component (in Cows interestingly it’s linked to bulls actually if I remember correctly). The dairy farm will have cows that produce only a fraction of what the highest producers do, and this is in a breed that was specifically bred for milk production.

    How it Applies

    : Not every person is able to produce enough milk to adequately feed their child and need to supplement for their child to survive.
  3. A lot of things can cause a milk supply to drop or dry off: disease, injury, stress, lack of nutrition, and insufficient clean water are just some examples. Milk supply will also go down with age.

    How it Applies: There are a variety of things that could cause someone’s milk supply to drop, stop, or never come in to begin with.
    High levels of stress, not having adequate access to nutrition, can similarly prevent persons from producing sufficient milk necessary, and can impact yield. Places without consistent access to water (like say Flint, MI), may lead to dehydration among poorer individuals causing them to be unable to produce sufficiently. It’s worth noting that this will disproportionately affect people with less support and/or resources.

  4. Medication and certain diseases can contaminate milk. When medication is administered, the milk is subjected to a withdrawal time, which is a set period of time during which any milk produced by the treated animal is not added to the main tank. This is the amount of time necessary for there to no longer be traces of medication in the milk.

    How it applies: People who require certain medication to survive or manage conditions might be unable to safely breastfeed. Similarly, if they catch an illness, they may have to stop breastfeeding to prevent the infection from spreading to the baby.

  5. Milk yield will drop off over time, with highest production occurring a short while after initial start of production and then gradually drop off over time. To go back to full yield, you have to get the cow impregnated, dry her off, and wait for her milk to come in with the next birth.

    How it Applies: Once again, yield is so hugely variable that it’s really not a reliable option. We forget that historically certain classes hired wet-nurses to provide additional nutrition, or forced their slaves into it.

  6. Nutrition and what is being eaten is a huge component of milk production. Grains can increase milk yield for example, but too many can cause acidosis which in turn can cause a huge drop in production. It’s a delicate balance.

    How it Applies: The formula shortages have a high impact on low-income families who may not have the resources and money to be able to travel around to find availabilities in the same way, and cannot afford marked up prices. These same families may not have consistent access to the right food to encourage good milk production.

  7. Milking takes a huge toll on the producing animal. Cows for example will lose body condition (weight) during the process. Calcium will leach from their bones if not sufficiently available. Milk fever is a thing, as are other conditions like mastitis that develop due to the process of milking. It’s a physically intensive process. In Dairy farming, the cow has farmers and farm hands to look out for her wellbeing and doing everything possible to make sure she is happy, healthy, and comfortable.

    How it Applies: It’s just as intensive on humans. It takes real physical resources, and time. For some women it can be painful and unpleasant. For some it’s just not possible. A significant number of breastfeeding people don’t have the level of support that would make breastfeeding possible to sustain.

Lactation whether in dairy animals or in humans is not just a simple thing. We have this assumption that just because something occurs naturally, that the process is simple and works properly every time. The reality is much more complicated than that.

Death and infant mortality occur in nature all the time. Failure to Thrive is one of the terms given to animals who cannot feed adequately, either due to an internal inability or because there isn’t enough milk for them.

Even in farming, we use formula to supplement since milk may not always be available. We even have replacement colostrum for emergencies.

Breastfeeding can be a great thing when it’s a possibility, but it’s not simple and it’s not free the way people imagine. It is absolutely not a solution to the formula shortage because formula is literally a solution to the problems with breastfeeding.

7 Lessons From Dairy Farming: Why Breastfeeding is NOT a solution to the Shortage

Kitchen Fire: Everything is Fine…

Earlier this month, the house I’m living in had a fire. Let me start off by saying, everyone is ok and the house is still livable.

It happened in the kitchen, after a burner under a pot of oil was accidentally left on. It could, and does happen to anyone. We were sitting in our basement apartment when the sudden bang of a breaker going off alerted us to the fact that something was wrong. Cale went upstairs to check and what ultimately must have been less than a minute later, I heard him yell fire. I followed upstairs just in time to basically see him running with a flaming pot of oil out the front door. Looking at the kitchen, I saw darkness and the reflection of flames as I run back down the stairs to grab CJ and run out the back door. Once she was safe, I ran back in to beat out the fire with a cloth and douse any remaining embers.

We had the fire out before the firefighters got there, and they got there quite quickly! Cale had a relatively mild (especially considering!) burn on his hand from the heat of the flames as grabbed the pot. It wasn’t until writing this post that we both realized that the burn on his hand was on top where the flame rolled over the skin as he ran. Apparently despite the fact that the contents of the pot were on FIRE, the handle managed to stay cool enough not to burn…THAT IS A FUCKING WELL DESIGNED POT DAMN IT!

Did you know that smoke from a house fire leaves behind what looks like blackened cobwebs? They’re called smoke webs.

Most of the kitchen is ok, though despite that, some effects of the fire are visible throughout the house. The stove is gone, as is the stove fan, and cabinets above and below will have to be replaced. Insurance had to be called, and we’ve been told that the next few weeks will see workmen coming and going to take care of all the various things that need to be taken care of. The thought that keeps circulating among all of us who live here is that it could have been so much worse. Cale and I both had to get checked out by paramedics, and while our vitals were all ok, I can still feel the irritation of the smoke in the back of my throat.

For all that this fire had a less tragic ending, it’s brought back a lot of thoughts and feelings related to losing my home to a fire back in 2011. What is it with years that end in 1?

I’ve been in a heightened state of anxiety since it happened, which hasn’t been particularly gentle with my Crohn’s.

I can’t help thinking of all the similarities between the two fires. In both cases the fires started in the kitchen, in the case of the house that burned down, it was my neighbour’s kitchen, but still.

Both times when it happened, I was a student in my winter semester.

Both times, it started in a kitchen, though in the case of the house in Hull, it was my neighbor’s kitchen.

Both times, it was someone else’s actions that had such an effect on me.

Both times I was in a place I nominally moved to for my education, in a place far away from my family.

In a sense, the first fire acted to mark my transition from broke college student, to actually living in poverty. It taught me the meaning of housing insecurity, as in an instant I found myself homeless and having lost everything. This after years of moving yearly, in the transient student tradition, sparked an obsession with finding myself a safe nest; a hearth to call home. A goal, in truth, I am still working towards.

I didn’t just lose my house, I lose all sorts of mementos, keepsakes, and basically everything I owned up to that point. The sentimental loss hit hard of course, but another reality was facing the prospect of having to replace everything all at once. It’s something I’ve faced again after having to move again and having to give up most of what I owned. You find yourself looking for something, not knowing whether you have it, lost it, or whether it’s gone.

With this most recent fire, the actual loss sustained personally by me was relatively minor. Some food lost. Possibly some kitchen item or two. The owners lost more, what with part of the kitchen now needing to be rebuilt, and the oven needing replacing. Insurance has been remarkable co-operative and helpful. And yet, there is a part of me that is still somehow waiting for this to end with me homeless again. I know logically that it shouldn’t. I know that I haven’t done anything wrong, in fact it wasn’t even me in the kitchen. I’ve been doing my best to help take some of the work off of the home owner’s shoulders – helping with phone calls, meeting people as they come by throughout the day. But still the worry, the fear, exists and I can’t seem to make it go away.

It’s all messing with my head. My focus is shot, of course at the best possible time with everything coming due. I’m working on trying to control my anxiety, but it’s also been like dominoes. My ADHD, my anxiety, my depression, they’ve all decided to make themselves felt this week, which of course displeases my spine and stomach who start to feel left out.

Still, I was prepared for this in some way. I knew it would be rough the moment I saw the smoke. I’m processing and trying to take the time to process and come to terms with everything. I’m trying not to repeat the mistake of last time and pretending everything was ok when it wasn’t, but I’m also taking hope in the fact that I’ve survived worse. This is fine…

Kitchen Fire: Everything is Fine…

Some Weather: 3 of 3

So we finally have power! But no water yet. There are several burst pipes in our complex and we have to wait until plumbers can safely arrive to the apartments.

The snow and ice are finally starting to melt. I hope we don’t have more freezing temperatures. I booked us a hotel for the night so we can shower. Not being able to feel clean is horrible. We are safe in the hotel and have had dinner as well. I’ve showered and feel so much better. Of course I’ll feel even better once I’m able to shower at home but for now I’m satisfied.

The hotel is very nice so far and super convenient! We have a kitchenette which should come in handy.

View from hotel

Being at the warming center and not being able to bathe for a week reminded me a lot of my times at the homeless shelters. It was a weird feeling. Back then I felt helpless and hopeless. But this time, even though it brought back old feelings, I also felt happy. I felt that way because I knew I had a home to go to, even if it was freezing at the time.

It made me reflect and appreciate what I have and what I’ve gained. It reminded me of what we’ve overcome. And I’m grateful and finally not hungry.

Some Weather: 3 of 3

Some Weather: 2 of 3

It’s Thursday the 18th at 4:30AM. We’re home now. But earlier today my family and I went to a warming center.

It’s in a church and the staff were very nice and welcoming. There was homemade food and lots of snacks and drink.

Again I’m setting to write chronologically but my mind feels fragmented. I can’t sleep and I’m so cold still.

We were able to charge up our phones and back up battery. Another family was there and they were very friendly.

Maybe out of the five staff, 2 were wearing masks. The cold from the past few days has been wreaking havoc on my body. I think I’ve also been close to hyperthermia.

Very few of the other families were wearing masks. TJ was set up on an air mattress but they had a hard time sleeping. The family’s 5 equally friendly dogs were with them.

I was on a cot. I spent about three hours on it. Tossing and turning, trying to get comfortable. It wasn’t very warm by then. But it wasn’t as bad as home. My back and neck are so stiff. I realized, do they even make things like this for the disabled?

One of the staff came in and asked if he could lead us all in a prayer. I whispered to Vall to just bow their head. I reminded them not to say we’re atheists. We bowed our heads. Because old habits die hard when the prayer was over I repeated amen and did the sign of the cross. That was amusing.

I can’t keep writing. My fingers are colder than ice.

We drove back home slowly because lying in that cot was going to cause me more harm than good.

My stomach continues to grumble.

Some Weather: 2 of 3

Some Weather: #1 of 3

Well, I figured I would start writing again but I didn’t think it would be about a winter storm in Texas. Like I mentioned in a previous post, TJ and I moved to Texas not too long ago.

I wanted to write chronologically but I’m going to listen to my body. My stomach is currently audibly grumbling. We finally had hot food a few hours ago after almost three days without. We’ve been eating snacks. We have food but it is perishable.

Once the power was cut, the water stopped. I think the pipes froze. We kept the faucets open as per guidance to prevent burst pipes but alas…

I take about 14 medications a day and haven’t been able to take them regularly because I need to take them with food. The snacks we have are running low. We (slowly) drove around yesterday looking for food. No luck.

Today we called around for hotels but they’re price gouging, or not accepting pets. My cat is part of the family. If he isn’t welcomed then neither are we.

This morning I woke up so stiff, I could barely walk. Chronic pain and cold weather? Not a joke. My wife and daughter were in the car, warming up and charging their phones. NOTE: we are able to do this because we’re in our complex’s parking lot. DO NOT do this if you are in your own garage or similar confined space. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be lethal.

We have a fire place but being from the projects in NYC I don’t know how to work them and I don’t know if it’s even safe to have it on.

My cat, who is usually very aloof, is sleeping on my lap. I’m currently under two big blankets and have a scarf wrapped around my head and socks on my feet. I’m still cold. My stomach continues to grumble.

We finally were able to get flashlights and so tonight should be easier. We’ve been using our phones but not much because we want to try to conserve battery.

I saw some Northern jackasses think it’s funny that -sorry, stomach again- Texas is cold and powerless.

You hate the politicians, not all its people.

When you make jokes like that you aren’t hurting Ted Cruz. You’re hurting poor people and BIPOC who are suffering the most right now.

Anyway, my daughter TJ just called me from the warming center. They don’t want to come back home. And I don’t blame them. Not having water causes sanitation issues. For example, we have two bathrooms and the apartment stinks because we haven’t been able to flush.

Because we have no water we can’t shower and because we have no power we can’t boil water either.

Things are miserable. But I know they could be worse. But just because other people have it worse than I do does not mean any of us should suffer.

As of this writing, at 6:32PM central time Wednesday February 17th 2021, we have been without power for about 55 plus hours. We are expecting more winter precipitation. We should finally hit close to 60 degrees on Friday. But can we last that long? Me and my family? Yes. It’ll be hard. I will continue to complain but yes we will live.

Our homeless and more vulnerable neighbors? I don’t know but I am not optimistic. And given the way local and state government have handled any of this so far, well, they don’t inspire confidence in me.

Check in on your neighbors. Donate food and money when you can. If you have special skills for this type of weather volunteer if possible. Let’s try to help each other.

I’ll keep updating and hoping this is all over soon.

It’s so cold in the apartment my color change mug is red! It’s normally white.

Some Weather: #1 of 3