31 December

Gus And His Bailey Chair: Learning That Words Hurt

by Jon Katz
Frightening People

One of this morning’s messages caught my eye, it was from a loyal and long-time reader and follower of the blog.

“It is with great fear and trepidation that I send you this information that is well intended and hope that  you read it as such.” This nice woman had talked to her daughter, a veterinary student, about Gus’s disorder and her daughter had told her about the Bailey Chair, something I never heard of a few days ago and hear about daily now.

The woman thanked me in advance for not tossing her off my blog for writing me. I want to say I am not angry with her in any way. She is clearly a good-hearted person who just wanted to help. I was horrified by the fear I sensed in her message. Is that who I am?

Over the years, I have written frequently – and quite often in what I saw as humor – about the people who shower me with unwanted advice and who cross what I consider to be the boundaries of my life as an author, who likes to make his own mistakes and learn his own lessons.

Sometimes I need advice and sometimes I take it, but not from strangers online, and not when I am making complex and intensely personal decisions, in this case with my wife and our vet.

The writer E.B. White was a great inspiration for me when I started the Bedlam Farm Journal in 2007. An author and New Yorker writer (“One Man’s Meat) who bought a farm in Maine and wrote about rural life. I wish I could write like him, but cannot.

But he encountered something I have struggled with for years in a different way.

He was taken aback by the mail he received, by the demands on his time and space raised by the volume of his correspondence – people were touched by his writing about life on a Maine farm, and also about his love of dogs and other animals. They gave him much unwanted advice and rattled his sense of privacy, and  expected a certain kind of grateful response.

In frustration one day, he wrote a column in which he pleased for patience and understanding from his readers: “There are 10,000 of you,” he wrote, “and only one of me.” He struggled to be patient and accepting of the intrusions and demands on his once private and inner space. It was a struggle he never quite mastered or figured out.

His pleas, he wrote later, were ignored, and he realized his effort to draw boundaries was a hopeless effort doomed to fail.

He decided to deal with the wave of personal and sometimes intrusive mail in a different way. Sometimes he ignored it, sometimes he answered as best as he could. He did not criticize people for writing to him.

I am learning the same lesson. Life does not always go the way you want it to go, and acceptance is the pathway to spirituality and peace of mind. White wrote that many of his readers were terrified of angering or displeasing them, and he decided that he didn’t care to frighten the people who read his writing.

This morning, I got about a dozen messages (many more last week) about Gus and his struggle with megaesophagus. Most of the letters and e-mails were written to inform me about a custom-built chair called the Bailey Chair, which  requires the afflicted dog to sit upright in the chair, and which has a table piece in front of it. The idea is to use gravity to pull food down through the swollen esophagus (which is a muscle) and into the digestive tract.

When Gus was diagnosed, our vet told us rsight away about the Bailey Chair, and I went online and read about it. There are dozens of links to sites that build the chair or write about it.  I wrote about it at least a half-dozen times and have mentioned it almost every time I’ve written about our efforts to deal with Gus’s megaesophagus.

I link to a Bailey Chair every time I write about it so that other people can learn about it as well as me. I am a published author, which means I can be vain and narcissistic by definition, and I admit it irritates me to be told about things i have written about in great detail. Okay, so many people comment on what I write without reading it. Suck it up.

I also truly am dumbfounded by people who know I don’t want this kind of stranger-driven advice from strangers I do not know,  but who blithely and regularly ignore my feelings and send it along anyway. I cannot imagine beginning a letter to someone with the words “I don’t you don’t want my advice, but here it is.” I  don’t get it.

But I am not a King, and what is in my mind is rarely in the minds of most other people. And social media promotes the idea that we are all friends and digital lovers, it just takes a click. It is a profoundly incestuous medium.

(All week, I have been getting waves, Emojis, clocks, cut photos and drawings and e-greetings to mark the New Year, I must have gotten 1,000 of them over the weekend. When the Revolution comes I hope they come for Facebook Messenger first.

I don’t understand how anyone could read or absorb them, another challenge of staying sane in the Facebook world. There are 10,000 of you, but only one of me. There are hundreds of thousands of you, but only one of me.

I know it’s my own shortcoming, or perhaps my own swollen ego,  but as the author of nearly a dozen books about dogs, and someone who appreciates vets and listens carefully to them and writes about them,  it would be somewhat inexcusable if I didn’t know about the Bailey Chair.

I would be guilty both of abuse and idiocy if I didn’t know what a Bailey Chair was after being told my dog’s life could be endangered by his defective esophagus, which controls his ability to eat and digest food. I wonder why people would think me so lazy or blind as to not know things like this,  (don’t leave a dog in hot car with the windows closed)  when knowing these things is literally how I make my living.

In my young life, I was often called stupid and treated like I was dumb, so perhaps I am just too sensitive to the suggestion.

As it happens, we are  not getting a Bailey Chair.



What is interesting about the letter I received today is that the writer knew – and stated herself – that  I didn’t want this advice and she was clearly frightened to give it to me. She was afraid do it, so I hope task her why she did.

It is one thing to disagree with people and argue about boundaries – this is an important conversation for anyone who writes online to be having. It is another thing to scare the wits out of them.

But I think I didn’t really realize how powerful some people think my words are, and how frightened they are of my using those words to attack or criticize them. For them, it is just not a fair fight. I have always believed we are all responsible for our own words, and that I have every right to define my boundaries and identities.

But i just didn’t grasp how powerful my words are to many. I just do not see myself as a powerful person.

. I value my privacy and identity, I have worked hard for both, but my discomfort with using my words to scare people is more important to me than getting unwanted advice. Nobody who writes me in good faith – no matter how misguided I might feel they are – should feel fear and trepidation about sending me a civil and well-meaning message like the one I got today.

What I take from this is that I can continue to raise the question of boundaries and privacy and dignity online, but I cannot continue to frighten people.

Like E.B White,  one of my literary mentors and guides, I  realize that my frightening and scolding people doesn’t work. It’s a hopeless task in the digital age, when everyone feels entitled to remark on everyone else’s life at any time, and when the reigning ethic on social media is that if someone puts him or herself out there, the bullseye is on their back, and they forego any right to privacy, identity, or conventional boundaries.

This is the way it is, and I can be the problem or the solution. I don’t wish to frighten anyone with my words, and I apologize for failing to grasp their power. When I argue with someone, I presume we are equals, and that we can be candid and direct with one another. That is sometimes true, most often not.

There is an imbalance of power between a published author who uses words to make a living, and someone out in the ether approaching someone they see as  a kind of celebrity and authority figure whose words and persona can be very frightening.

My irritation at getting a message like this is minor compared to my sorrow and unease at using my words to frighten people. That is just not who I want to be.

I am sensitive to my identity, I have worked  hard and fought for it, and an important part of identity is taking responsibility for my life, not turning my decisions over to other people. It is my job and Maria’s  and our vet, to treat and diagnose Gus,  not anyone else’s. It is my job to care for my dog and l earn what I need to know. If I need help, I know where to go to get it.

I am responsible for me, you are responsible for you. Please don’t take on my troubles because I share them with you. That is the boundary by which I l have learned to live.

If you tell me you don’t want unwanted advice, I will respect you and your dignity and not give it to you. For me, it is as simple as that, the end of it, no matter how crazy I might be. No means no.

But it is not as simple as that, I have learned.

My approach isn’t working, not if if frightens people. Time to change.

i asked Maria this evening if she found me frightening.

She looked up a bit shocked.

“No!,” she said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because it seems that some people find me fearsome…”

She burst out laughing. I can tell you the woman I live with is not frightened of me in any way. Today,  I went outside in the cold for too long and was turning blue, and she grabbed by the collar and ran me right into the house.

“No,” she said, “they are not afraid of you, they are afraid of your words. When you go after someone, even if you mean it to be humorous, it can be very frightening to them, especially if they have been reading your books and blog for some time. They know what you can do with words…”

I was very careful in responding to the woman who wrote me that message about the Bailey Chair. First, I thanked her for writing me. Then, I said i knew of the chair and didn’t want one, and I added I appreciated her concern for me and for Gus. I skipped my usual ranting about unwanted advice and assured her that i was not angry with her.

She wrote back and thanked me for being gracious, she said she was busy and hadn’t had a chance to read the blog in the past few days. I have no idea what she learned from the exchange, but I know what i learned: words can hurt and frighten people, and I have more power in these exchanges than they do.

I felt good about that.

My goal in 2018 as a blogger and write is not to frighten anyone, apart from my own sometimes disturbing life and demeanor. I can keep some of my powerful words to myself, or as the Roman General said, carry a light sword.

An interesting idea, for me, and honestly, a new and fairly deep one for me to consider. Above all, I don’t wish to be a source of fear, there is cable news for that.  I think I will follow E.B. White’s lead and ignore the messages that bother me, and graciously answer the ones written in good faith.

If I have frightened anyone with my words in 2018, I will fail. If I can manage to write about this with humor and grace, I will have succeeded.

31 December

Lulu In The Cold

by Jon Katz
Lulu In The Cold

People often ask me how the donkeys do in the cold, and the answer is they usually do very well. Donkeys, like sheep, are desert and mountain animals, there is no shelter for the in the wild. They do not like to be confined and heated air is not good for their respiratory systems, it can make them sick.

We have a three-sided Pole Barn that is deep and wide, and when they are wet or uneasy, they always have shelter and dry ground. In cold weather like this, we give them grain every day and second cut hay to boost their energy.

Sheep and donkey’s are two of the hardiest animals, when the sun is out, they stand sideways and soak it up and store the warmth. They grow furrier coats and appreciate the heated water and carrots and treats they get. In weather this cold, they are not as cuddly or affectionate, they can be grumpy and impatient to eat.

When the weather is frigid, the moisture from their breathing freezes on their whiskers. That’s how we know it’s really cold. But they can handle it, donkeys have been living outdoors for all of their existence.

31 December

The Gulleys: My People Of The Year. Keeping The Faith…

by Jon Katz
The Gulley’s: Selfie By Carol Gulley

Ed and Carol Gulley are my Bedlam Farm People Of The Year, the first of what I hope will be an annual tradition.

I was thinking of this even before I read Carol Gulley’s very powerful message of courage, love and passion on the Gulleys’ very real and compelling farm blog, the Bejosh Farm Journal.

“Some day,” Carol Gulley wrote on her blog this morning, “I wonder why we keep going in this business..we both are feeling our age more than ever before..seems like there are few ups and more downs..breakdowns aren’t cheap or easy to deal with sometimes..BUT more than anything else, milk prices are predicted to go down beginning with our next check!”

Carol and Ed take turns writing on their very popular blog, it is read all over the United States and much of the world. The piece today was called My Farmer And Me…Working Together. It is a poignant and polished piece of writing written from the heart and reflective of the Gulley’s, they are life-long dairy farmers.

The Gulleys are close friends of ours, and the more I know them, the more I admire them.

A year ago, they started their own blog.

Carol has taken up writing, Ed has begun making farm and folk art from used and abandoned tractor and engine parts. He sells his sculptures at our Open Houses and all over the country.

Ed and Carol work unbelievably long hours in every kind of weather.

They are often engaged in brutish physical labor. As they age, they grow tired and sometimes live with pain. They know it, and it is written on their faces at times. The complexity and difficulties and challenge of farm life stagger me, just from watching them and getting to know then.

Ed and Carol know who they are and where they are. And they stand behind their choices.

There is much that is heroic about them. They are committed to their life, for all it’s difficulties, and live the lives of free individuals, a dying and seemingly doomed breed in our corporatized country. Their love for their farm never wanes.

Every other week or so, we lure the Gulleys’ out to share a hamburger with us at the bog or come over to our farm (I am no farmer, but a writer with a farm) to get away from their grinding chores.

It is always a gift and a pleasure. Each of them has an artist inside of them kicking to come out, and as if they don’t have enough to do, they are busy setting their inner spirits free. They are soon planning to self-publish a book of blog posts that chronicle the life of a farm through all four seasons.

The thing is, the Gulley’s love what they do, and are committed to the life of the small farm, a sadly vanishing world in our culture of box stores and bigness. More and more, the deck always seems stacked against the little guy, the individual,  by business, government and politicians.

And no deck is stacked higher than the one that towers over  the small family farms, which historians believe are  what really made America great.

Ed Gulley in particular is a spectacular dinosaur, a big, powerful man who stalks his farm in camouflage and beard,  clinging to what is now clearly a sinking ship, the small family farm.

Children don’t want to work on farms, and the government only supports the big and the powerful. Family farms don’t have lobbyists, that’s basically why milk prices keep coming down. The Gulleys chose their life, and they stand by it, without complaint or lament.

We saw them the other night, in the midst of a brutal cold wave, and we once again saw the toll working all day in frigid weather takes  on them, it is written all over their faces.  I asked Ed how he was doing, and he said by late February, the day will be more than 30 minutes longer than it is now, that’s what he focuses on.

They are not quitters, they are determined to stick it out to the end, and if there is a just God, that will be a long time, even as milk prices drop and drop.

Blessed are the people who love what they do, Ed Gulley and Carol know that a life lived only for money is just another form of slavery.

Trying to stay civil can be a challenge on some days, Carol writes with  her hallmark directness and honesty..”he yells, I yell…he cusses, I walk away..putdowns fly freely and I do my share of that too. I can cry…more out of frustration…he just gets mad and that makes me sad because sometimes I feel like he doesn’t realize how much I do to help keep this farm going..and he says the same regarding his work ethic. However you can’t really list much that he doesn’t do, so that is lame and I am fully aware of it. There are laughs over animal antics..something really crazy that one of us says…talking most things over regardless of the seriousness and trying to come to a mutual decision are all in a days work when in it together.”

No family farmer can survive alone, this has always been a family enterprise, and Ed and Carol work together, every day of the year.

They are very much in it together, as Carol writes on  their blog. Neither Ed or Carol has ever written before, but their account of the life of a small family farm is as good as anything Willa Cather wrote.

The Gulleys are up before down and working well into the dark. Their days are marked by tractors breaking down, manure freezing to the ground, cows calving, bulls through the fence, barns needing repair, roofs leaking, two long rounds of milking, fences needed repairing, fields need ploughing or planting.

In the other world, they might be thinking of retiring by now, or scouting condos in the warm states. But that is not the life of a small family farmer, they work harder than ever, and there is no talk of retirement or moving to a warm place in the winter.

Ed calls me his brother from a different mother, and I think he may be right about that. He is a master story-teller, in between his endless harangues about the price of milk and the myopia of dairy farmers.

We both are committed to our lives, we both stand in our truth, we both celebrate the creative spark.

I think that is the connection between us, all of us, Maria as well. We come from different places, but we are in so many ways the same thing.

Maria spotted the artist in Ed, and encouraged it in him. He listened. And his art is wonderful, I hope when his knees finally give out, he will open his own gallery. I nag  him about it all the time, and he just might.

You might have seen the charismatic Tin Man in my photographs, he is the new symbol of the farm, and the talk of the town. When anyone asks directions to the farm, I just tell them, “it’s where the Tin Man is,” and they know. Ed Gulley made him.

Ed is the brother I did always want, the one who will come running when you are in trouble, he doesn’t wait to be asked. And he is never to busy to help anyone in need.

The Gulleys live with enough disasters and challenges to discourage an Army, and they are an Army, I suppose in their own right. The blog sometimes reads like an agricultural drama, cows being born, cows dying, tractors freezing up, tractors getting fixed by hand.

I am grateful to live in a place where i can meet and become friends with such people, And all the while milk prices, now controlled by giant corporate farms and feckless bureaucrats in Washington, drop and drop and squeeze their very life out from under them.

I see that they are what made America great, the historians are correct.

I am mindful of the Gulley’s every time I walk into a supermarket and see acres of food. People like them put it there, we are a luckier nation than we know.

In between all this, these two good people never lose their humanity, their love of their children and grandchildren, their sense of humor, their loyalty to friends and family, their deep love for animals, and especially their cows (they rescue hawks, birds, raccoons, cats, even moles and baby turkeys), their writing and their art, their blog and their community.

You don’t have to face down enemy gunfire to be a hero, you can just live your life faithfully and honestly, with an open heart and soul. That is heroic too. Carol and Ed have overcome more than one tragedy, they bend but do not break.

Sometimes on a farm, you have to kill the animals you love or send them off to market. It takes something out of them, but they do it, it is part of the bargain.

“Rewards, drawbacks, fullfullment,” wrote Carol at the end of her lovely blog post today, “and keeping the faith is all part of our togetherness in this world of agriculture, Gulley style. In the end, neither one of us would trade it for the world (most days) and we are grateful for our …yup…togetherness.”

I’m happy to choose Ed and Carol Gulley as my People Of The Year, 2017.

30 December

Video: New Year’s Countdown: The Mansion

by Jon Katz

The Mansion held a New Year’s celebration Thursday for the residents, they hold it early because some  people will be away with their families. Some don’t have any families to go visit, or any families who live nearby.

We all counted down from 10, and then blew on horns and noisemakers. It was a subdued celebration, there was, as is usual, cake, punch and cookies. I had the loudest voice, I think it isn’t the most festive holiday for the residents, the passage of time is not something they usually cheer.

I asked several of the residents what New Year’s meant to them

“I don’t like to think about next year too much,” one told me. “I’m happy now, but I don’t dare to think about next year. I live in the moment, like they say.”

Another said New Year’s was a sad holiday for her, she used to sit up and watch the ball fall in Times Square, but her husband, sister, and favorite aunt have all passed. “I’ll be in bed by 8,” she said, “I don’t think much about the old days. I do miss my famiily.””

One man said he looked forward to New Year’s Eve at the Mansion. “It is quiet here, and peaceful, no noise, no driving, no show and ice. I’ll make some New Year’s Resolutions, but it’s bad luck to say what they are.”

Time and resolutions are tricky things at the Mansion. The holidays are family times for most people, and most of the Mansion residents don’t have families they can celebrate with, even if they do have families around.

The future is uncertain, unpredictable.  Some said they wanted their health to hold up, others said they had learned not to wish for things too far down the road.

Connie told me that a couple of months ago, she said she was too old to make New Year’s promises, she might not be around. And she wasn’t.

I enjoy these holiday gatherings, I like to serve cake and punch and help clean up. The Mansion is a safe and welcoming place for people who badly need homes and are often alone. A new residents needs clothes, and I will get some over the weekend.

I wished everybody a Happy New Year, and I want to thank the Army Of Good for brightening to many lives there.

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