Psych!

This photo crew is into exercise during shoots. Seen here doing one legged planks.

This photo crew was into exercise during shoots. Seen here doing one-legged planks.

I’m not a failure! But waking on a Sunday morning wanting only to spend too much money on brunch with all the other kids and finding an empty bank account can sure make you feel that way, eh?

All I want are the comforts of a nice bourgeois life without working every single day. I’m not lazy, I just want to do my work for the week in three 13.3 hour days instead of dragging it out and commuting in and doing the lunch time takeout shuffle back to my desk every day.  I suppose some jobs require it. I suppose it works for some people. Ultimately I’m just jealous that I can’t hack it. I’m mad at myself for not being happy that way.

But what to do? An interesting protagonist can fail, but there’s no story if he gives up. So onward monkey! Get on out and about that motherfucker!

Over the last year I have developed about 8 employment sources who call me every now and then with random work for between $20-$50/hr. Once I got paid to take the ornaments and lights down from a billionaire’s living room Christmas tree.

On any given day I can be called to be a set builder, a production assistant for movies and commercials, a driver, an assistant prop stylist, or a store window  decorator.

I am also completing a collection of short essays entitled I’m Not Your Mother which I hope to have finished by June.

I will now exhaustively chronicle my jobs and attempts at not failing….

 

Basking in the catharsis of yelling “I’m a failure!” to everyone I knew on Sunday I retreated to a bench by the East River in a park with a bronze sculpture of a wild boar with a bronze penis lounging about with a menagerie of bronze creatures including frogs and crabs and ate bagels with my girlfriend that she bought for us.

I got a text. Work on Monday. Monday was coming for me too after all.

I slept like shit. Tossing half awake in and out of a dream that had me working again as the oldest production assistant on a movie set and getting yelled at no matter what and finally it was getting light outside and I headed to work.

Monday I put in a half day assisting a prop stylist on a fashion photo shoot. She’s a dope ass chica named C.

A. gave me money for coffee and the subway before I left her sleeping in our bed. Hit the subway at 745 after filling my thermos with coffee at a place I like along the way.

Arrived at my destination in Greenpoint and picked up keys from C. Walked over to the warehouse that houses her work studio and up the stairs sweating profusely from sipping at the redeye steaming in my thermos along narrow corridors with slanting floors and countless doors to her studio. Grabbed a power drill. Couldn’t find the charger. Took a folding dolly with me too.

Back to C.’s house to grab a bunch of painted foam core, squares of plywood, a roll of foam carpet padding, a small table and a clothing steamer from her neighbor downstairs who happens to be a wardrobe stylist and also happens to be working on the shoot with us today.

I had all the stuff at the curb and put my coffee down on the little plastic table while I loaded everything into the livery SUV.  Grabbed my mug and jumped into the truck leaving the table there on the sidewalk.

Luckily C’s friend saw it on her way out and grabbed it.

For me it was only a half day helping get the stuff to the shoot for C and building a cube out of the plywood squares. I cut half-circles out of the colored foam core and helped hang the carpet padding on the wall as a backdrop for the model; tall redhead with an angry look that completely disappeared when she smiled.

The job requires long hours of standing around making visual decisions so the people who get hired are for the most part pretty nice and easy to work with. This shoot was no exception. But I got to leave after they gave us lunch.

In five hours I made more money than 10 hours driving a NYC taxicab or 16 hours as production assistant on a Tide commercial the previous week. Now I was out in the sun, hitting the subway home to eat my free lunch and take a nap.

C. had a lot of shoots coming up and she had a lot of prep to do. She asked me to work a shoot by myself the next day. Easy for props with just a few white ladders and white cubes and a white stool. She put me in charge of finalizing the prop list with the client.

Emails back and forth. They approved the ladders in the first few emails, but the chain continued on for most of the afternoon going back and forth about how many white cubes of what sizes we needed to rent. Real earth shattering shit. By the time I got home and the decision to get two cubes had finally been made I forgot all about the ladders. I can’t explain it. It makes no sense to me now, but I got tunnel vision. I was locked on: Cubes. Cubes. Cubes.  Rent cubes, arrange courier to deliver cubes to the Soho photo studio for the shoot in the morning.

Everything was arranged. The courier called me. “Cubes or tubes?! What am I picking up?”

“Two cubes.”

“Tubes?”

“Cubes?”

“Cubes with a C?”

“Yeah.”

“Then they gave me the wrong thing. They gave me cubes.”

“You got cubes right?”

“With a c?”

He called me back an hour later. The freight elevator at tomorrow’s studio was closed for the day. He had to hold the cubes overnight at additional charge. I’d just have to pay C. for my mistake.

All work settled I emptied my piggy bank of quarters onto the coffee table and put them into the paper wrappers I got at Jack’s 99¢ in midtown last week. I packed five rolls of quarters and used them to buy weed. Me and my guy are like that.

Then I wrote for two hours in my writing studio; a folding beach chair in the bathroom.

I went to bed feeling very unlike a failure. Monday had certainly been a success.

I jumped up ten minutes later with the most miserable feeling of failure. I forgot about the ladders! The ladders, the most important props for the shoot I was working on in the morning all alone on set for the first time.

I developed a plan.

One ladder and a stool were in Brooklyn. The other ladder was near Herald Square so I could pick it up myself on the way. Luckily call time wasn’t until 930 so I had a little leeway.

I woke at 6 and scheduled the courier to pick up the stuff in Brooklyn. The best guarantee they could give was noon. I arrived at the shoot on time with a ladder under my arm. The cubes were there already but were barely white so chipped and scuffed were they with dark marks all over them.

I painted them white sweating through my t-shirt from the coffee I kept sipping regardless. The photo assistants set up the lights. The wardrobe woman steamed her clothes while the attractive hair and makeup girls chatted looking into their phones over by the light up mirrors waiting for the talent to arrive.

Poached egg, turkey bacon, chicken sausage, whole wheat toast with a slice of avocado and a bowl of fresh blueberries and blackberries for breakfast. I know, right?

Finally the ladder and stool arrived from Brooklyn. The stool was fine but the ladder was actually grey, not white like the photo from the prop catalog. It had to be white.

No hardware stores in lower Manhattan carry wooden ladders. Luckily the photographer had one at home. She sent her interns for it and they brought it back pink for me to paint white. I slopped it on and let it dry and and watched people pose for the camera and I arranged the ladder or stool in the shot every once in a while to achieve the desired composition for the photo.

Lunch was a Greek salad.

Then I moved the ladder and stool in and out of frame a couple more times and then we wrapped and everyone clapped and I put all the ladders back in their blankets and filled out the form for the courier to get them in the morning.

The photographer bought the crew beers at the studio bar and we drank and chatted and got to know each other better for the next time.

LE was obviously miffed about the extra courier costs but we’ll square it up and the client was happy so in the end it was a win for all.

I was home by 7. Back into my bathroom writing studio for another two hours and then it was time to meet with A and our friends for drinks. They all paid for me and we met a manic interior designer from England in her fifties who’s lived in the East Village since the ’70s and only dates tall rich men with big pricks now.

We left the bar and stayed up too late smoking Camels and eating Oreo cookies and drinking tallboys of Genesee  cream ale and I read out loud a story I’ve been working on and everyone fell asleep.

I woke up hungover this morning and went back to sleep when A left for work. Then I got up, went to the bank to change the rest of my rolled coins into cash. I bought a large latte and went home to write this.

Thanks for reading. See you Sunday!

 

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Failure!

Failure!IMG_3838_B

 I woke up this morning, 38 years old,  no money in my account and no future to hope on. I screwed my entire life up following my dreams.

So often we hear, read and watch stories of those who have left the doldrums of their original career to become wildly successful following their dreams.

“Oh I just left my desk job after 21 years because I wanted to get back to the earth. Now I provide artisanal cucumbers to every high-end pickle producer on the east coast!”

“I walked away from the courtroom after being a lawyer for 35 years. I took a vacation to Haiti and when I got back I wrote an international best seller!”

What of people like me? Someone who sucks at life and comes from no money? What happens if I get the confused notion to follow my dreams too?

Well my friends, I’m here to give you the straight dope on following your dreams: Don’t do it. If you do, you’d better have an incredibly understanding significant other with a good job to carry your ass.

This is where I am after 38 years of planning and scheming and working:

emptyBankAccount

In six years I have gotten two pieces of writing published bringing my lifetime total earned for writing to $75.  I’m so proud!

Meanwhile, I hear the same old unhelpful hints:

“Money isn’t everything.” Funny thing, I tried to pay rent with love and compassion and to buy food and clothing with all my amazing life experiences. It doesn’t work.

“You’re not trying hard enough.”  I already told you I’m a failure.  I set unattainable goals. I want to find a job I didn’t go to school for, which pays more than minimum wage and doesn’t require the usual mind-numbing soul crushing five days a week of doing the same exact shit with 2-3 weeks vacation a year. 

“Oh boo-hoo. Straight white male has problems.” I don’t need your stupid pity, I’ll punch you in the face. I did this to myself and I take full responsibility.  I don’t know a lot about the hell of being a disenfranchised black woman or exploited foreign laborer. I’ll leave that to the experts. I’m stuck wearing the white male costume for better or worse and that’s all I’ve got to write about.

Here are my tips for young and old kids out there entertaining foolish dreams of nonconformity in occupation: 

  1. Hopefully your dreams are about money, if not, forget them and go after money. Once you have money you can follow any dream. Life is too short to be broke.
  2. If money doesn’t make your life more fun, than I think you lack strength of character. If having money stresses you out so much, get rid of it. Why not? You’ll be happier right?
  3. Don’t be proficient at a lot of things. Be boringly proficient at one thing. Have one type of job on your resume. This world needs only specialists and employers get confused if you’ve done a lot of different things with your life.
  4. After doing a job every single day, all day, day in and day out for twelve years, if you take a break for a year or two, you know absolutely nothing about that subject any more. It’s all gone.
  5. If you didn’t go to school for it, forget it. How could you possibly know how to do something you didn’t go to school for? No way. Employers feel better when they know you’ve paid money to sit in a classroom and listen to someone drone on about theoretical bullshit.

Have a wonderful Sunday! Monday is coming for you!

All my love – Aaron

 

 

 

Farm Impressions #4

From May through November of 2013, I apprenticed at a farm and goat dairy in Pennsylvania. I signed up to learn about cheese making and farming. Then my mom died and it became a great chance to escape my life. The agreement was 6 days of work each week in exchange for learning, food, shelter, and a stipend of $125 a week. I left Manhattan on May 17th and returned on Dec 1st. These are my farm impressions.

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I’m out on the porch with a beer after work. The ankles of my pants are wet and my socks, soaked with the water and bleach we constantly spray and scrub, and squeegee from the floor and every other surface of the cheese room. All day long. After the cheese room it was back out to lift hay and carry buckets and wrestle with the goats. My back and arms are aching pleasantly, glad to have been put to good use.  I feel spent and content. Too tired to be anxious about money or my uncertain future. I’ve been accomplishing too much each day to feel like a loser for running my hard-earned former career into the ground.

The chair on the porch is without a cushion. The hard wood feels good on my back. This beer feels well deserved. I want to call someone I know and tell them how ecstatic I am.

It’s dark. Jeepers creepers, peepers, peepers. They remind me how long I’ve been in the city. Insulated from the sounds and scents of the seasons. In New York City there are only two: Hot as Fuck and Icy Wet Wind In Your Face. Some trees don’t even ever seem to lose their leaves. In the city it is not the trees that herald spring, it is the women. They shed their bulky coats for smooth skin. And their bare arms and necks and backs and legs seem as new as the new leaves erupting from everywhere here on the farm.

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Fresh green sprouting from the dead-looking grey skeleton fingers of the trees. A gentle grass of the lightest, brand-new green, a plant I don’t ever remember seeing, has been slowly filling the ground between the tree trunks along my way to the barn. Thicker and thicker each day. Painted in with the daily downpours. The rain comes from nowhere. Almost tropical the way the storms roll in around here, with everything they’ve got, then they retreat just as rapidly.

While the sun is up, the birds are screaming for sex. At night it’s the peepers. Everywhere. And the magic seduction of the whippoorwill. I’ve never heard one before. It turns the woods into a haunted folk tale no matter what. Later on when the owl gets going, forget it.

Underneath it all, twenty-four hours a day: The bugs. Night bugs. Day bugs. Afternoon bugs. “Hmmmmbzzzmmmmmbzzzzmmmm…” All singing and playing their little wings and legs out for love.

And as if all that weren’t enough to make me feel alive and fit to do a jump kick out and over the porch railing, the universe adds fireflies to the mix.

“Fuck singing, look what I got!” They seem to say. Light-up asses in the grasses. But that’s not all, they’re flashing in the trees too and everywhere in between. Is this how they were when I was a kid growing up in the Catskills? Did they saturating the fields like that? Did they always go so high and dense in the trees, lighting them up with flashes like a forest of Christmas trees? I feel like I would remember that and I don’t.

A few years ago, A. and I took my motorcycle with a tent and a sleeping pad rolled up on the back and rode out to camp in the truly great, but smothered in fat people, Smokey Mountains National Park. Once a year fireflies gather there and synchronize. They flash together and then go dark. They light up and move around in apparent choreography. I am told it only happens in one other location in the world. Each year, at the same time, lightning bugs gather in China and do the same thing. Incredible. But, it didn’t affect me like this scene out here in the fields and forest.

There are cases of empty mason jars in the pantry of the old farmhouse. I think of collecting some fireflies. Then I think, “Would I want to be put in a jar to slowly suffocate or starve?”

I slaughtered enough fireflies in my childhood. Besides, my lazy adult body prefers a porch and a beer and to simply sit and observe. Sometimes I venture out into the field barefoot and stand still for them to gather round again.

The estimated current farm animal inventory is as follows:

Ms. Piggy and Notorious P.I.G.

Ms. Piggy and Notorious P.I.G.

68 goats being milked

~10 “teenagers”; goats that haven’t been impregnated yet.

34 kid goats

3 bucks

2 geese

~50 chickens

2 roosters

2 cows

2 Pigs [Ms. Piggy and Notorious P.I.G]

~12 piglets

——————-

This has been my schedule for the first two weeks:

Sunday is both the ending and beginning of the week. On Sunday, the fresh cheese, also known as the Chevre, is made. The final market of the week happens on Sunday as well. Of course, milking must be done every day, twice a day, along with the chores – feeding, watering and otherwise caring for all the animals on the farm. Plus the wood burning water heater for cheese production must be kept full of logs and burning at all times. I’m too new to make chevre by myself so Sundays are mostly just chores in the morning and chores at night. Maybe brush the mold off of some wheels in the cave during the afternoon.

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Monday is my day off.

Tuesday and Wednesday: Chores and milking 5:30am to 9:30am; Breakfast 9:30 to 10; Cheese room [one or two cheese makes a day, affinage, bottling milk and yogurt, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning] 10am to 4pm; Chores and milking 4pm to 7:30pm.

Warning sticker on the bottling machine.

Warning sticker on the bottling machine.

Thursday and Friday we prep everything for the Saturday and Sunday markets while also making cheese. Due to the work load, I am excused from afternoon milking and chores on these days to remain in the cheese room. LP is not good at taking breaks and I’m giving it my all so I don’t ask for any. After morning chores on Thursday and Friday I go into the cheese room and don’t come out until after dark. Now I appreciate why the cheese at the farmer’s markets is always so expensive. Both nights we are in the packaging room until after eight. Something like 230 buttons of fresh Chevre wrapped in carefully folded cellophane. A half-dozen wheels of aged cheese cut into dozens of wedges and wrapped in brown paper. Each piece placed on the scale and a price scrawled onto the label with a sharpy. Ninety pints of drinkable yogurt and a few dozen half-gallons of raw goat milk bottled and labeled.

cranberry chevre about to be wrapped

cranberry chevre on cellophane squares about to be wrapped

Things happen at a frantic pace. LP seems scatter brained. This is his first gig as solo cheesemaker. I don’t think I like cheese enough for him. He’s accustomed to being surrounded with other passionate cheese people. It’s difficult to really learn what’s going on. I’m just running to keep up, there’s always something more to be done and it needs to get done that day. No time for explanations. Just do this and do that. LP rarely stops talking. I think sometimes he simply vocalizes his thoughts. It’s difficult to discern which items will end up relevant to the cheese making process. It’s exhausting listening to him and trying to tell. And he’s so negative. Constantly describing how things could be better. How he would have built the cheese room, the cave, the entire farm. Complaining to me, the apprentice, about his troubles with the farmer and his wife.

I spent six weeks on a sheep dairy in Australia and the cheese making process was nowhere near as stressful. The cheese maker there was a jovial woman who blasted pop hits on the radio as she sang, flitting about the room, stirring and adding cultures and recording temperatures.

In contrast, LP is a hurricane. A disorganized and frantic funnel cloud swirling through. He spends hours a day going back to the house to grab things he’s forgotten. He is ever attempting to locate misplaced items.

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And I have to live with him.

I’m already beginning to dread the cheese room because of him. I just want to get things done to get out of there. This guy has a lot to teach me, I just don’t know if he can get it together enough to be coherent. We’ll see. I will attempt more details on the cheese making process in later impressions.

Saturday is the big market day with busy farmer’s markets in Philadelphia and Easton. I do chores in the morning and evening with SJ. During the middle of the day I nap and take the goats for walks.

————

I left the goats unsupervised in the yard and returned to find they had opened the bottom of the grain silo. Hundreds of dollars of the farmer’s money pouring into their greedy mouths and piling up on the ground. I hadn’t had a day off in 9. And they were long hard days. I almost broke. I ran for the silo with all I had left.

The gang of piglets was quicker and arrived on the scene before me. Snorting and gobbling and squealing, waggling their little coil tails in ecstasy.

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I ran into the crowd kicking and throwing elbows and checking with my shoulders. The animals couldn’t have cared less. Free food falling from the sky trumps all. Now the chickens and even the geese had been seduced.

SJ showed up and lit a cigarette while he watched me struggle to get the sliding door closed to stop the hemorrhage of valuable grain.

“Oh man,” Says SJ, “You fucked up Aaron. HJ’s gonna be pissed!”

I was exhausted and defeated. I was either going to throw a punch or start crying. Probably both. SJ must have noticed. He put the cigarette between his lips and whipped one of his famous fatties out from behind his left ear.

“Hahahahahah! Come on man, I’m fucking with you. The animals will eat it anyway. Not like it’s going to go to waste. Hahahahahaha!”

Then he lit the fatty and we smoked behind the greenhouse. Sixty-eight goats to milk and then done for the day.

Farm Impressions #3

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Monday made wrestling the goats over the weekend seem preferable.

Up at 5 and down to the barn. Chores and milking as usual. Four hours. Back to the farmhouse to shower and change into clean clothes. Can’t have poop clothes in the cheese room. Prepare and cook breakfast: eggs I collected and sausage from former goats. Cheese of course. All of that in a half hour and then it’s back to the cheese room.

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LP the cheese maker is like the Mr. Miyagi of cheese. No more breaks. Just scrubbing and brushing and sanitizing while he makes cheese and leaves me for hours without instruction. Then comes back all flustered and gives me more orders. Then leaves. After six hours of that it’s back to the farmhouse to change out of my soaking wet, bleach and mold reeking cheese clothes. Poop clothes back on and then it’s down to the barn for round two of chores. Finished around 7pm. Dinner. Tried to play video games but fell asleep. Tuesday and Wednesday were exactly the same. I’m exhausted. Every muscle in my arms and back feels weak and achy. I feel raw and beautiful. Fuck that taxi seat. This is what my body is for. But can I keep it up for six more months? I’m going to need more calories.

Today is my birthday! I’m here on the farm. First week. Fifth day. The first day in thirty years or so, that my mom didn’t wake me up with The Beatles ‘Birthday’. When I wasn’t living at home I’d get a call wherever I was and when I picked up the phone I’d hear nothing but the needle hitting the record and then the song in my ear. Eventually my mom would start singing along into the phone. I’ll admit, there were a lot of mornings that I didn’t want to be woken up. I was annoyed at my mother’s yearly persistence. Now I could stab myself in the neck, I want that call so badly.

A. and my step-dad remembered. They called and left birthday wishes. My father will remember sometime this week or next and call me. I guess that’s what I get. I never remember anyone’s birthday.

In honor of my birthday, HJ and JM invited me to their house for dinner. HJ asked me what kind of beer I liked. Anything I said. I was excited as I haven’t had a good beer in over four days! I showered quickly after chores and headed over with a lightness in my step.

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There are two houses on the farm. The original farmhouse and a more recently built home separated by fields and a small stretch of road that cuts through the property. HJ and JM live in the newer house. I live with LP the cheese maker in the original farm house. It’s over a hundred years old and has been added to over the years. At first the house was a two room cabin. Just the kitchen and a room above. The original web-choked staircase remains behind a door in the corner. The ceiling in the kitchen seems a foot or two too short.

At some pointed a proper house was added on. Living room, dining room, three bedrooms upstairs plus a bathroom. I’ve settled into the largest of the bedrooms. The window looks out on the road and a small shed, the forest beyond. My room has a built-in shelf perfect for my HD projector which I brought along with my PS3 to play video games after my hard days of work. A little piece of home.

Unfortunately the upstairs bathroom is the only one in the house. I have to share it with LP the cheese maker. He leaves his underwear on the floor and hairs in the sink and all his toiletry shit all over the place. Not to mention, he’s kind of my boss. Who wants to run into their boss on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night?

I arrived at my birthday dinner. Beer! Where’s my birthday beer!?

HJ pulled a can of Rolling Rock from a 24-pack in the fridge. My heart plopped into my stomach. If I’m getting drunk on my birthday, I’d rather do it on three or four high alcohol beers than the fifteen or so Rolling Rocks it would require. But a gift is a gift. I accepted it gladly. Any beer goes well with a hard day’s work.

LP the cheese maker joined us at HJ and JM’s house. HJ was holding the baby in the dining room. I was in the kitchen, already grabbing my second beer. LP whispered to me, “Babies weird me out. They remind me of creepy old men. They look at me like they know what I’m thinking.”

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In addition to cooking the meal, JM baked a birthday cake for me from scratch. Goat cheese icing. It made me feel so damn welcome. Like I was part of the family now. Part of the farm already.

But, really, we didn’t know each other. LP the cheese maker had only been there a month more than I. No one knew what to say. We sat silent around the table sipping our beers. The baby gurgled and smacked at the air. It wasn’t until HJ finally broke out the whiskey that the conversation came alive. At least for me and HJ. JM took the baby into the living room. LP was falling asleep at the table with his chin in his hands. HJ and I talked farming. He broke out a three-ring binder with photocopies of relevant essays and articles. “Required reading.” He said and handed me four separately stapled handouts. Three were by Wendell Berry. I grabbed the articles and as many Rolling Rocks as I could carry cradled in my shirt and pockets and headed for home.

Tried to get drunk sitting on the porch listening to an owl but I was too tired and had to go to bed. Another birthday done. They come faster and faster, adding urgency to life. By the time I’m done here, I’ll be halfway to another one. And still no closer to owning real estate.

Farm Impressions #2

Fuck that rooster.

Fuck that rooster.

The first two days on the farm have been a cold kick of reality. I don’t think I thought this through enough.

Arrived on my first morning, cheerily munching an apple, new life in my step, out of the taxi, out of the city. Fit to crow with the rooster, so full was I with my new honorable purpose.

I chucked the chewed-down apple core into the trees. A chilly drizzle spritzed my face and titter-tatted in the forest.

I made my way through the dark clean quiet of the milking parlor. Milking claws dangled from hoses snaking up to stainless steel pipes that ran the length of the long room. The milking platform took up half of the sizeable room. It gets the goats nearly four feet up for easier access. Ramps led down and out at each end of the sturdy metal structure. A circular path for the goats to follow. Up through one doorway from the corral. Walk around, get milked, then down the stairs and back out the other door. Once the goats were secure, the circle could be broken by lifting a bridge at one end allowing us to walk down the center and get to all their teats.

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Through a set of heavy double doors with windows, the milk room where the milk is stored before being bottled or made into cheese. The centerpiece of the room is a fifty-gallon stainless steel refrigerated bulk tank. It looks like a heavy-duty top loading washing machine from a distant and possibly less advanced future. But a future where stainless steel is in abundance. Nearly everything in the dairy is stainless steel.

I saw HJ the farmer and SJ the farmhand in there, standing around the bulk tank holding mugs and talking. There lips moved but I couldn’t hear through the doors. Only when SJ laughed.

You have to hose your shoes off before entering the milk room and I obliged. There was pressure in the hose and it honked like a drowning duck each time I let go of the trigger. Hands must be washed immediately upon entering the room.

There is a coffee maker in the corner. The smell of a freshly brewed pot was thick in the air. Folgers was right. I quickly poured myself the dregs of the pot into the only remaining mug; barely bigger than an espresso cup. The other guys had huge mugs. I gotta get a bigger mug. I joined the circle of conversation sipping at my dainty vessel. At that hour, with only an apple in my belly, the coffee was an amphetamine. I was clear and focused. Energy to tackle any problem.

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In addition to the bulk tank, a majority of the milking machinery, pumps and stainless steel pipes, a giant Pyrex glass sphere that looks like an enormous bong, all reside in this room. Four stainless sinks. There is a windowless door to a bathroom and shower. I don’t know who would shower in there though. Another door, this one with a window, leads directly into the cheese room. I could see the cheese maker with his hair and beard nets, gloves on, going about his business.

This is where I’ll be coming every morning before the sun comes up for six more months. Each time I think of it that way, the weight of the work that still lies ahead is like a tsunami-sized wave looming above me, blocking out the sun, about to crash. I want to curl up. Luckily I can’t.

SJ interrupted whatever he and HJ were talking about with his loud, unleashed, maniacal cackle of a laugh. “Go on HJ, get to the market, me and Aaron got this. Right Aaron!” Slapping me hard on the shoulder and busting out another laugh. HJ smiled and left. A man of few words, six foot five? Six? He might be able to throw me.

I followed SJ out to the farmyard while he lit a cigarette. SJ is originally from Long Island. His accent is obvious. His manic determined pace reminds me of New York. He’s a chainsmoking plumbing and HVAC man by trade. Work is slow so he’s been helping out on the farm since HJ and JM had their baby. A healthy baby boy born a few weeks ago, during my original interview visit to the farm.

SJ clued me in to why he’d been laughing. The night before, in a bid to increase milk production, HJ the farmer had decided to try free-Choice grains for the goats. He filled an automatic feeder with grain and the goats could pop little flaps up with their heads to get as much grain as they wanted. All night long.

Goats are grazing animals, not really meant to eat grains. Usually they get less than a scoopful each, twice a day to entice them into the milking parlor to be milked.

Now the huge grain bin was empty and they were all shitting themselves. None of them had any interest in coming in to be milked. Usually is was the grain they were after and they wanted nothing to do with grain, or moving, or us.

Still, it was up to me and SJ to get the milking done. Sixty-eight, slippery wet, shit-coated goats.

First, they had to be herded into the corral. We called and yelled, whipped, slipped and fell. Once you get a momentum going, just a few goats going the way you want, the rest will follow because they hate most of all to be left alone. Eventually we got them all in. They huddled together in the narrow corral, farting and shitting and trying to lay down in the mud. The floppy-eared nubians screamed like humans being stabbed.

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Now each goat had to be individually wrestled up the wooden ramp, onto the metal platform, six on one side, six on the other. They are heavy, strong creatures to be pushing around. I hoped my back would hold. My biceps quivered and ached. Goats farted in my face.

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Each side of the platform has six headlocks that close simultaneously. Six heads at a time must be secured in the locks. If they didn’t all have collars I don’t know what we’d have done. With SJ up on the platform with the goats, he could push three heads in. They rubbed their asses on his legs and smeared shit on his legs. I held all their heads together by their collars with one hand. Open and close the gate quickly with my other hand as SJ gets the remaining three heads in. Six more goats the same way. Okay, that’s one group of twelve. Only four more to go. Plus the last group of eight.

In between each wrestling match we milked. Twenty-four teats dipped with iodine, milked by hand for one squirt each, then wiped clean. Six pairs of milking claws, the suction cup business end of the milkers, attached at a time. Switch over to the next six. SJ smokes a cigarette outside while I remove the claws, dip them all with iodine and release them.

Wrestle twelve more. Repeat.

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Somehow, we got it done. They tell me it usually takes four hours for morning chores. That’s feeding and watering all the animals and milking the goats. It took us nearly five just to milk. Then we had the rest of chores to finish. A lot of carrying heavy buckets around. I was spent.

Luckily, over the weekend, the craziness of milking was interrupted with a long chunk of afternoon. I spent Saturday afternoon shoveling out the barn alone at my own pace.

Sunday morning the goats were feeling better. Not as much shit, but still a bit obstinate. After morning chores, SJ pulled out a “fatty”, and we smoked it behind the greenhouse. He said “fatty” with so much excitement that when he pulled out another from behind his ear I smoked that one with him too. Perfect for my only task of the day: Taking the goats for a walk around the 150 acre property. Apparently they’re lazy and must be led around or else they simply hang out around the barn.

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What a rush to have a herd of animals following you up hills, across fields and through the woods. Munching like a plague of big hairy locusts as they go. There’s group of yearlings. They were too young to mate so they just hang out and get fed. We call them the teenagers because they eat for free and they don’t listen to what we say. They haven’t gone through the milking rigamarole. The daily grind for adult goats. They just eat and play.

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The teenagers are my most eager followers. While the adults tear the bark from pine trees and chew the thorniest things they can find, the teenagers stick with me and nibble at my shorts and the tops of my boots.

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I’ve decided to develop a whistle for the goats. To get them to follow me. I’ll train them on it everyday and see if they start to remember. I have a separate whistle for the kids when I feed them. Some of them already get it and come running as soon as they hear it.

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Farm Impressions #1

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Three weeks and four days ago I was taxi driver in New York City. I should be going to bed about now, but this is my first morning on the farm.

My cell phone alarm is vibrating beneath my pillows: Wwwake-uppppp, wwwake-uppppp, wwwake-upppp.

It’s still dark. A cold spring pre-dawn in the hills. The start of a new adventure. Not my first time on a farm. I caught that bug tending sheep in Tasmania a few years back.

But I am alone here. No one knows me. No one is a friend yet. No car. No way off the farm under my own power. I feel alien and disoriented. Scared and brave. Thirty-six and it’s the first day of school all over again.

Throw on my rough-hewn Dickies work pants for morning chores. Leave a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt for the cheese-room later on.

I will tend to the goats that make the milk. Then, like an agrarian Clark Kent I will change clothes to learn how to turn that milk into magic: cheese.

There are other animals too. Pigs, chickens, kid goats and a small gang of yearlings not yet mated. We call them the teenagers because they don’t have to anything for their food and they do whatever they want.

The screen door of the old farmhouse slams behind me as I hit the road for my morning commute – a five-minute walk through barely lit forest. A meandering gravel path past three fish ponds, remnants from a former farm relative who once-upon-a-time raised trout for profit.

I have two granola bars in my pocket and I’m munching an apple. A lost and lonely Johnny Appleseed. A nervous electric gut.

Then a rooster calls from the woods. Warning his hens? Warning me to keep my distance? Perhaps, but to me it’s a greeting from the farm. A call to duty. My 5:30am sleepiness slips away. The geese honk and hiss when I enter the farmyard proper. The goats are shuffling in their bed of hay, calling out to each other to verify whether or not the newcomer is here to feed them. Yes ladies, yes I am. And I can’t wait. I feel necessary and important and capable and I love it.

Notes from the farm:

Rooster keeps trying to attack me. Creeps up on me from behind and jumps up with both his feet to kick at me. It’s the same move I once used on a fellow student much bigger than me who pushed me down in gym class and had the nerve to turn his back on me. My attack was equally ineffectual. Luckily the gym teacher intervened.

Rain falling soft. I’m alone at the farm shoveling out the barn with a pitchfork. Just me and the animals for the next few hours. The rain is coming down, it sounds awesome on the metal roof. I sing a rendition of Raspberry Beret by Prince.

“…The rain sounds so cool when it hits the barn roof

And the horses wonder who u are

Thunder drowns out what the lightning sees

U feel like a movie star

Listen

They say the first time aint the greatest

But I tell ya

If I had the chance 2 do it all again

I wouldn’t change a stroke

Cause baby Im the most

With a girl as fine as she was then…”

I’m shoveling and of course my mind can’t stop asking why I’m here. A great workout? Learning so I can have a farm as a small business? As usual my old career haunts me. A bounty of relatively easy money and health insurance. The fun feelings from the freedoms it brought me never leave the haunted mansion of my mind. I’ve found more work I love doing. Again for no money. Gotta go save a kid stuck in the fence. This fucking rooster won’t leave me alone.

One thing I think I’ve already learned about farming is that you need to accept help. Because theres just so much that has to be done. A lot of little things, nothing life threatening, but a constant drip of stuff that has to be attended to. Also: Modern farming must be run like a small business.

The rooster keeps coming. Neck feathers all puffed out, wings flapping, dinosaur claw-feet slashing. I called the farmer on my cell phone. He’s at the market.

“Let him get close to you, then run at him and kick him as hard as you can.” You have to show him who is boss. The rooster was unaffected by my foot.  He came right for me again.

I kicked him again.

Again he came. His hens were nowhere around. He followed me into the barn anyway and jumped me. Unprovoked!  He was the aggressor. I did what I had to. I kicked him like a kick ball and followed through with a chase. Finally he ran. Fled the barn and never bothered me again.

The end of my first day at the farm. The farmers, HJ and JM live down the road in another house. I live in the original farmhouse with the cheesemaker. There is talk of another intern. For now I’m sitting here on the porch all alone. Don’t think the cheesemaker is coming back tonight.

In NYC it’s hard to ever really feel alone. You can always hear other humans. Voices or engines or car horns or instruments. All the time.  So though I am here in the pitch black, alone on the porch of an empty farmhouse surrounded by dark forest, I feel like someone can hear me. I tried to record my thoughts for the day as voice memos on my phone. After the farm and cheesemaking and farm again all day long my brain is draped and sagging, deflated and dead on the lawn like those inflatable holiday decorations when not in use.