3 March 2015

The Winter Meadow: Mother Earth’s Street Fight

By: Jon Katz
The Winter Meadow

The Winter Meadow

Up here, Mother Earth is sponsoring a street fight between the retreating Winter and Spring. This morning, it was 0 degrees, this afternoon 30, tomorrow 40, then back down to zero again. A monumental see-saw struggle, Spring must win this one, I think the weekend will be nice. I am saying goodbye to the Winter Meadow, beautiful in it's own way. I am  ready to be warm.

Posted in General

Identity, Wikipedia And Me: Who Is This Jonathan Katz, anyway?

By: Jon Katz
Who Is Jon Katz?

Who Is Jon Katz?

(Wikipedia, according to Wikipedia, "is a free, open content online encyclopedia created through the collaborative effort of a community of users known as Wikepedians. Anyone registered on the site can create an article for publication; registration is not required to edit articles.")

__

According to Wikipedia, identity is the "distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity (known as personal continuity)" in a particular stage of life in which individual characteristics are possessed and by which a person is recognized or known, as in the establishment of one's reputation.

According to Parker J. Palmer, says Wikipedia, identity "is an ever evolving core within where our genetics, culture, loved ones, those we cared for, people who have harmed us and people we have harmed, the deeds done (good and ill) to self and others, experiences lived, and choices made come together to form who we are at the moment." It is a beautiful definition of identity, it explains why it is so important to me.

I ought to say that I believe in Wikipedia,  I contribute when asked, and I support the idea that information wants and needs to be free. I use Wikipedia all the time, it is an invaluable resource for authors, and I am careful to always credit the information I get from it. It is a profound move towards the democratization of information, and the return of that information to the people, not just the corporations who would control it.

But I need to write about Wikipedia and my own identity. I want to relate the curiously unnerving experience of going onto Wikipedia today (I have done this once before), having Googled "Jon Katz," something I don't do often – it makes me uncomfortable – but need to do to see how the search engines treat me, my blog, my books and my life. And, of course, to sate my substantial ego.

Identity is precious to me, I have fought for mine my entire life, and fight for it every single day online and via social media, where there are seemingly endless hordes of people eager to label me, define me, praise and attack me,  tell me what to do, and warn me of the dangers of the world. I have often said Thoreau would not have lasted an hour on Walden Pond if he had Facebook or Twitter to deal with.

I do not believe anybody should get to write their own biographies, I don't think anyone is that honest or clear. It would be nice, though, if the people doing it spoke to me, spelled my name right, noted the last three decades of my life and work, or if I recognized my life in any substantial way reading the entry about me. You can do the same thing if you wish.

If you Google Jon Katz, you will blessedly most likely first come across the Farm Journal on my blog, the creative home of my work and of my life.  The blog is popular, the search engines like it. Somewhere below that, you will find my name and be guided to Wikipedia. This is where people often go to learn about me.

You might be confused to see my name changed to "jonathan katz" for reasons that are not clear,  since it is not my name and has never been my name. You won't see any mention of Bedlam Farm, either, or the blog I love or many of the dozen or so books I have written since moving to upstate New York.  You won't see any mention of my photography, which has become a central element of my life. Or the children's books I have written.  Or the books on Simon or Red or Frieda or the New York Carriage Horses.

My biography says I am an American journalist and author. "He is," says Wikipedia," best known "for his contributions to the online magazine Hotwired, the technology website Slashdot, the online news magazine Slate and his series of crime novels, books on geek subculture, and books on dogs."

I know I'm getting older, and perhaps also finally getting sensitive to how I am seen and remembered in the world.

I pity any poor person who wanders across the Wikipedia biography after my death and tries to figure out who I am. I have not been a journalist for 30 years, I am an author who has – this has been my lifelong dream – made a living writing books for half of my life.  I have not written for the open source technology site Slashdot in more than twenty years, and I can't remember the last time anyone has mentioned my work there or knows of it.

I have written very few articles for Slate – people rarely mention them – and not for some years. I stopped writing crime novels more 30 years ago (and they were surely not successful) and I wrote one book on geek subculture – "Geeks" and it was a critical success and a commercial disaster.  My biography lists several of my books under their American and foreign titles, the bibliography is a mess, even Amazon has it right.

I loved writing for Slashdot, the people I worked with were the brightest and most ethical people I encountered anywhere in my work life. I did some work I am quite proud of, none of which was mentioned or even referred to. It was not a good fit, lots of people reading the site did not like my work,  and I left quite amicably. I would not list it among the significant experiences of my life.  If not for Wikipedia, I don't think I would be likely to even think of it, I don't think I've ever even mentioned it to my wife.

There is nothing horrible about the Wikipedia biography, to be fair,  there was clearly some effort to be balanced. Yet it is also quite obvious there were lots of agendas at work in the writing of it and the discussion of it. It seems especially weighted to several "controversies" in my early media writing life and also to the "controversy" surrounding the death of my border collie Orson, who I euthanized after he bit and injured three people, including a child, who he bit on the neck.

There are numerous links to attacks on my work, and on my "controversies," none linking to what even my biography referred to as "favorable reviews in the literary press." There are lots of nice reviews on Amazon as well. It seems that anyone who didn't like my training theories gets to tell the story of my life.

There are people in the animal world who believe no dog should never be euthanized for any reason, and they believe I am a murderer, and have said so. Many took issue with my decision to euthanize my dog. They have every right to do so, but I have no apologies to make for the life and death of Orson, chronicled in my most successful book, "A Good Dog." It was certainly a controversial book. Early on, I definitely tangled with the people I called "border collie snobs," I have always had authority issues and never liked snobs. While I don't care for them much now either, we have generally gone our separate ways, and haven't had much to do with each other for a long time. It is not really for me to say, but this controversy is not, in my mind, a defining moment in my life or what I am known for.

The Wikipedia article mentions none of what I would consider the real controversies or important subjects generated by my work and writing: the emotionalizing of animals,  their exploitation by needy human beings, the increasing excesses and hostility of the animal rights movement, the search for a spiritual life, the growing disconnection from the real lives of real animals, and yes, the belief that it is appropriate to euthanize an animal if it is suffering greatly or causing suffering to human beings. I consider my writing about my life with the animals of my farm- and my writing about the efforts to ban the carriage horses in New York – to be vastly more significant and controversial – and relevant – than anything mentioned on Wickipedia. And those writings are what everyone – everyone – that I meet knows me for, for better or worse.

I have no problems being labeled controversial, writers are supposed to make people think.

It's not my decision, but I like to think that my writings about the future of our animals in our world – cited and shared in many places and via many interviews over the past couple of decades – would be worth a mention.

It is extremely difficult to defend or explain yourself online, which is why I rarely do it. My life is not an argument, that is not how I wish to spend my time.  A couple of years ago, I was startled to first  read my biography and went on my Wikipedia talk page – the only place I can go to speak for myself. I was not sure then or now how to answer these loopy accusations,  presented without any factual basis or perspective to anyone looking to see who I am. I do not believe it is possible. I don't believe the Encyclopedia Brittanica, may they rest in peace, would have permitted unsupported accusations to be about a person's life, I don't think Wickipedia should do it either and call it biography.

You can judge the fairness of this process for yourself on the talk forums about my life on Wikipedia. No, I wasn't booted off a website for promoting my book, no, I didn't kill puppies, no,  I don't shoot dogs in my barn, no I am not hated by every person with a border collie in America, quite a few of them read my books and my blog and are my friends, no I don't eat babies I steal from hospital maternity wards. I tried to defend myself there once, I won't do it again, it was a sham. It reminded me of the corporations that tell us how much they care about us while tossing us into the street to puff up their third-quarter profits.

If I ever had a grand-kid, it would be nice for him or her to see my name spelled right and know that there were some things about my life that were as important as writing for a couple of years on an open source technology site – it was never a full-time job – or euthanizing a border collie who bit some people. I would like her to know I tried writing mysteries and failed, but succeeded at writing non-fiction books, several of which were New York Times bestsellers, another "fact" omitted from my biography.

If I ought not to write my own biography, and I should not,  then people with obvious agendas probably should not do it either. The good people who write for Wikipedia do not get paid, they seem to be stretched pretty thin. The ones I know seem conscientious and even-handed, from what I have heard. I have to say I'm guessing, since none of the people working on my biography has ever bothered to talk to me.

There is a note on one of the pages that says my biography was updated in 2014. Really? How did they miss four books and some important writing:  "Second Chance Dog," "Saving Simon," the carriage horses and the two children's books I wrote about Lenore.

I see identity as a sacred thing, and I don't think anyone who is even a minor celebrity, as I am, will love everything written about him, I've written too many profiles in my time not to know better. The Internet is a great challenge to identity, lives can be distorted, reputations destroyed in a heartbeat, and most of them can never be healed, clarified,  or reclaimed.

I am a big boy, really, entering my 68th year, I have seen a lot and done a lot and had quite a lot of things said about me. I have a full and rich ego, but my skin is pretty thick, I am not seeking much more than what I have.

I have been very controversial at times, and quite crazy and provocative at other times – perhaps something a biography ought to note. I would be happy to tell them about my hero journey and my nervous breakdown, about nearly losing my life at Bedlam Farm, but they would have to speak to me first and get my name right.  Joseph Campbell says that when you get older, you begin to care about what your life looks like and how it is seen.   I do not sugar-coat my life,  I take full  responsibility for my life and for my difficulties and many horrendous mistakes, and great pride in my accomplishments – the former fuels and shapes the latter.

On the Internet, we inevitably lose some control of our identity, and in a democracy,  that's a good thing. But it also ought to mean that somewhere out there, the people who now assume the responsibility of defining me will work hard and fairly to tell the truth. As Wikipedia said, identity is about reputation, and that is, in many ways, all one can really leave behind. Identity and dignity are important, I will always work to protect mine.

When I next am asked to contribute to Wikipedia, I will give happily, and I hope all the people reading this do as well.  Wikipedia is important.

Information does want to be free, even when it is wrong.

Posted in General

“Timothy Sweeps On The Meadow” – Mary Kellogg

By: Jon Katz
Timothy Sweeps On The Meadow

Timothy Sweeps On The Meadow

Mary Kellogg's story is really the story of every creative person who asks if their stories are really important and fears showing them to the world.  Fear kills more creative work than any tyrant could. She recently found a poem she wrote in school – it was the first time she had ever used a typewriter, and she remembers that the teacher liked it and commented on it.

But she never showed the poem, or the many others she wrote in secret, to anyone until she showed them to me on the porch of the first Bedlam Farm on a beautiful Autumn afternoon. She was 80 years old. She thought people might laugh at her, she said, or think her foolish.

The experience changed both of us, and as a result, I still tell every student, every aspiring creative, that their stories are important, they need to believe in them.

This poem will be a part of Mary's third book of poetry – "How We Dance" – to be published shortly by Maria and I – and presented and sold at the first Bedlam Farm Open House during the weekend of June 27-28. It was folded over carefully, there are several doodles on it. Mary wanted to cut them out. We said there was no way.

"Timothy Sweeps On The Meadow" is one of the first poems Mary every wrote, and is speaks of her brilliance and promise at the same time:

 

"Timothy Sweeps On The Meadow"

"Timothy sweeps on the meadow,

wheat grains crack and peal,

harvest deep in yellow corn,

crimson the morn.

Hush the weeping willow,

brooks in merriment call

bring the harvest to the mow

turn the black earth beneath the plow."

– Mary Kellogg

 

Mary says she will never forget the teacher's praise for the poem, she says, it was the first encouragement she ever received for her poetry.

Posted in General

Roadblock: Trials Of A Border Collie

By: Jon Katz
Border Collie Trials

Border Collie Trials

Things are a bit out of whack on the farm these days, giant mounds of snow, narrow paths for dog, sheep and donkeys to navigate. Sometimes it gets a bit crowded out there, and I am ever in awe of Red's patience. This morning, he and Liam wee doing their war dance (you can see Liam peering out underneath Fanny's legs) and Red was trying to keep an eye on him. He had two donkeys – Lulu and Fanny – heading the other way to get the carrots Maria was holding.

Red never budged, even as Lulu tried – politely I thought- to nudge him out of the way. Simon would have tried to stomp him. Red never took his eyes off Liam and he never budged. I finally called him off, I was afraid the two donkeys might just run over him. It ended peacefully. The trials of a working dog.

Posted in General

P.S. Frieda’s Ashes: Chronicles Of Loss And Gain

By: Jon Katz
Frieda's Ashes

Frieda's Ashes

We went to pick up Frieda's ashes today at the vet, they came in a plastic bag inside of this tin container. We put her next to Lenore's ashes. Our plan was to take Frieda out into the woods and leave her for the other wild creatures of the forest, that would have been appropriate for her, but there was too  much snow and the ground was too hard. We will scatter the ashes wherever Maria thinks appropriate.

Frieda has been gone for nearly two weeks now. She was a large presence in our home and family for many years. We lost Simon and Lenore before her, which was a surprise. Frieda seemed the weakest and most likely to go next, but life has it's own plans. I wrote six books about the three of them at different times,  there are some large holes around here.

Frieda was Maria's companion and protector for some time, I think it is especially  disorienting to Maria not to have her around. For the first time in her artistic life, she does not have a dog dozing with her in her studio. That will change, but it might take awhile. We are both determined to be thoughtful about the dog that replaces Frieda, there is no rush.

There are lots of good ways to get a dog, but the most important way, I think, is thoughtfully, not impulsively or emotionally. Frieda is not the kind of dog that can be replaced. She was a wild creature, and she came into Maria's life when she needed a pal and a protector. Frieda was both.

Maria is different now – we both are – and our needs and feelings change. Frieda was a great dog, but a hard dog in many ways, she was a ferocious hunter and roamer and wanderer, she had to be watched closely, it was a miracle she lived as long as she did.

We miss Frieda's presence in our home and in our lives – she often guarded my study and gave me a feeling of privacy and security. After a couple of tumultuous years we became close, good pals to one another. We are looking ahead to filling some of the holes that have arisen on the farm. There is talk of a small horse, of another dog.

But we are excited about the future.  Loss is the first cousin of gain and change.

This morning, Maria and I were joking about something, and she muttered "oh, you can be so annoying sometimes," and she grabbed the ashes off of the mantel in the living room and headed towards her studio.

"C'mon Frieda," she said as the door closed behind her.

Posted in General