The (cough) simple life

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Remember that old game we all played in elementary school? I think it was called “Association.” I’ll say a word, and you say the first associated word that pops into your head. Like this:

Bacon. Eggs.

Mother. Father.

Near. Far.

Country living. Simple life.

Of all the hilariously funny misconceptions that exist about life in the country, one of the funniest is that it is “simple.”

I think this misconception came about because life just never seems “simple” when you’re tied up in a miles-long traffic jam. It’s during such insightful moments when folks look out at the parking lot of cars jamming the freeway and try to imagine life without a commute.

“Ah,” goes the thinking. “If only I could get away from this blasted commute, my life would be simple!” The mind darts ahead, envisioning what kind of lifestyle doesn’t require a commute, and inevitably comes up with “country living.”

(This is putting aside the also inevitable fact that a whole lot of country people commute to the city. That’s because there aren’t many jobs in the country.)

But is country life, in fact, simple? Of course not. For purposes of illustration, consider the “simple” act of heating your house in the country.

Naturally you heat your house with wood. So first you have to find some dead trees. It helps if those trees are near a road because if they aren’t, it means you have to haul the rounds out of the woods with a wheelbarrow or handtruck. Next, make sure the chainsaw has gas and the blade is sharpened. Don’t forget ear protection and gloves. Cut down the tree. Cut off the branches. Cut the log into rounds. Hoist those rounds (heavy aren’t they?) into the back of the truck. Drive the truck back to the house and unload the rounds. Haul out the log splitter (or, if you’re feeling especially energetic, the maul) and split the rounds into smaller pieces. Stack the wood in an open-sided shed to dry for a few months. When cold weather comes, stack firewood on the front porch (or other accessible spot), clean the stove pipe (unless you want a chimney fire), make sure you have sufficient kindling, and have the kids crumple newspapers each night before bed so you can start a fire in the morning. Periodically sweep up stray ashes and charcoal from the hearth and forgive the dogs when they track ashes everywhere. Deal with a 50 degree house in the morning before the stove is lit. Prepare for uneven heating throughout the house (it’s cooler farthest from the woodstove, obviously). Only then can you sit back and admire the flames as they lick the logs, and think about how simple your life is.

Or – for those city folks longing for the simple life – you can just turn a dial and the furnace heats the house all by itself. Which is simpler?

What about dairy products? One of our favorite desserts is homemade cheesecake, which requires both whipped cream and cream cheese. So when I want to make a cheesecake, I need to prepare at least three or four days ahead.

Twice a day, of course, I milk our Jersey cow. That means morning and evening, winter and summer, regardless of the weather, I boot up, pour some grain into the feed bucket, grab the lead rope, and go get the cow. I haul her up from the pasture (this will take either a long or a short time, depending on (a) how far away she is from the gate, and (b) how much she doesn’t want to be milked). I pull her into the milking stall, tie her head, block her in from behind, hobble her back leg, wash her udder, and milk. Then I reverse the hobbling, blocking, and tying, walk her back to the pasture and release her. Then I take the milk into the house, strain it, and put it in the fridge.

The next day (remember, there were two additional milkings during this elapsed time) I skim the cream, some of which I put aside for whipped cream. I take the rest of the cream and make cream cheese, which requires heating the cream to the right temperature, adding the right amount of rennet, letting the cream set for twelve hours, adding hot water to the incipient cream cheese, then hanging the watery cream cheese to drip dry for another twelve hours.

Then, and only then, do I have the dairy ingredients necessary to make the cheesecake. And this process doesn’t include the actual making of the cheesecake.

Or…I could go to the grocery store and buy one of those boxed cheesecake mixes, add a little (store bought) milk, and voilà. “Homemade” cheesecake. Just sayin’.

This is why an urban person’s blithe (and usually condescending) conclusions that our rural lives are simple send us into peals of laughter. Simple? In your dreams, buddy.

A few years ago the Hollywood types even sent the charming Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie to a farm to prove life was simple. Remember? We don’t have television reception so I never did see ol’ Paris whooping it up in the boondocks, but I’ve seen bits and pieces of her antics. Naturally she dressed like a skank (but a skank in denim, so I guess that made it okay). Now, Paris wouldn’t know a “simple” life if it bit her on the butt. Nonetheless, the producers of this show saw fit to start Paris and Nicole’s exploits on a farm because, after all, farm life is (cough) simple. Besides, and I quote, “They wanted to see stilettos in cow poop.” (Well, they didn’t really say “poop,” but this is a family-friendly column so I couldn’t quote them directly.)

For those contemplating a move to the country in order to simplify their lives, take heed at how a typical conversation will proceed. Let’s say Bob and Jane are fed up with the commute and long to simplify by moving to a five acre parcel well outside the city. Discussions will center, not surprisingly, on dreams.

“We’ll raise chickens and have our own organic eggs,” says Jane.

“We’ll grow a big garden and not have to shop at the grocery store anymore,” adds Bob.

“I’ll hang laundry on a clothesline.”

“I’ll split our own firewood.”

“The kids won’t want to watch television any more because there will be so much to do outside.”

“We’ll get a calf so little Johnny can show it in 4H.”

And so it goes. Plan after plan after plan. And it’s guaranteed – one hundred percent, with absolute certainty – that these plans will go awry so often that the nouveau ruralites will wonder why the hell they ever gave up that simple commute in order to wrestle a sick calf to the ground in a corral full of mud and manure in order to administer needed vaccinations because little Johnny has no interest in the stupid calf (he’s too busy watching television). Bob will throw out his back from splitting firewood, Jane will use the clothesline once and then revert to using the the dryer, the garden will become overrun with weeds, and something will keep picking off the chickens one by one in the middle of the night. Oh, and on top of this they have to commute an hour each way into the city, fighting traffic all the way because, after all, there aren’t many jobs in the country.

And none of the neighbors will be surprised when they put their property up for sale a couple years later.

Bottom line, rural life is neither simpler nor more complicated than urban life. It’s just different. And believe me, there are times I’d far rather fight a commute than fight my way through a howling blizzard to milk our cow because I promised to bring a cheesecake to the neighborhood potluck on Thursday.

Just sayin’.

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