First Name Basis

“Call me Joan,” she said.

It was the summer of 1983, the summer after my first year of law school. I had a job with the Palm Beach office of a prestigious Wall Street law firm, and it was my first day on the job. I’d just been introduced the woman who would be my secretary that summer. After I said, “Pleased to meet you Mrs. Smith,” (or words to that effect—after all these years I’ve forgotten her last name) she quickly responded that I should call her Joan.

I wonder if anyone reading this can appreciate how startling and disconcerting that moment was for me. I was 22 years old and had never once in my entire life called a person who was my elder by their first name. Joan was at least 60 years old, and a stranger to boot. In the rural Southern culture in which I was raised and taught my manners, to address her by her first name would have been unthinkable, just as it would have been unthinkable to for her to insist that she be addressed that way.

Confused, I awkwardly asked if she wouldn’t mind if I called her Mrs. Smith instead. Of course that offended her. I understand that reaction now, but I didn’t then. As would happen to me repeatedly until the manners I had been taught were wrung out of me, I found that the forms of address that were considered proper, courteous and normal in the culture that raised me, were offensive in the world I had entered. Sir, ma’am, Mister, Miss and Mrs. were evidently no longer terms of respect, but rather accusations. “I’m not that old,” was her response.

It was a struggle, but I eventually overcame it. Every time I called her Joan that summer, all the fibers of my being told me I was being incredibly rude. It’s hard to even describe how weird it felt.

Presuming to be on a first name basis with people 40 years older and no kin to me was just one of many cultural transformations I would have to make, having been a barefoot redneck country boy just a few years earlier. Some of the things that I had been taught separated those who were raised right from those who were not, had to be cast aside in the strange new world I was entering.

I made $300 a week that summer, more money by far than I’d ever earned in my life. But I was broke. I was too embarrassed to tell them that I couldn’t afford the apartment in West Palm Beach that they’d secured for me. I was paying rent on both it and my apartment in Charlottesville (which required a 12 month lease), as well as making payments on the suit I had to borrow the money to buy in order to have something to wear for job interviews. I lived on hamburger helper and never turned on the AC in the apartment. Every morning I stuffed paper towels between my undershirt and my skin to soak up my sweat from my drive into work, because my brown 1982 Ford Maverick had no air conditioning. I parked next to a V-12 Aston Martin driven by one of the associates in the firm, whose monogramed shirt sleeves included “duP.” I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The next summer I worked in Tampa and found its blue-collar roots much more comfortable. In Palm Beach there really were women who stepped out of the back of Rolls Royce limos, wearing high heels and sunglasses, with a tiny toy poodle on a leash. We had clients who were grandchildren of robber barons and who didn’t have enough sense to write a check. They came to get their monthly payments from spendthrift trusts, hardly different from a person waiting in a welfare line. I remember one man, waiting for his check, telling me that he was flying out that night to go have dinner with Linda Evans. He had no job of course. He told me that he raced speed boats. I thought about that while sweating in my apartment, reading a book from the public library and wondering if I had enough money to keep me fed that month. If I had stayed in that town I probably would’ve become a communist.

But even after I graduated and accepted a position with a firm in Tampa I remained stubborn about my manners. For a while I continued to address every new acquaintance as Mr. or Ms. so-and-so. I decided that I would at least wait for permission to address them by their first name (again, as I was taught). But I soon had to give up even that. All too often I found myself consistently addressing opposing counsel as Mister, while being called Bill in return. I finally grew tired of that and just went with the cultural flow. It seemed to me that by sticking to my custom, I was being put at some sort of disadvantage.

I realize of course that customs and social norms regarding the use of first names vary by region, and our way wasn’t the only “right way.” My wife grew up in southern California where it was perfectly acceptable to address people by the first name without their permission and without having any intimacy with them. She is no less polite or well-mannered than me. She just has a different background. There’s nothing wrong or ill-mannered about using familiar forms of address in most parts of the country, or even here for that matter. It just wasn’t permissible here when I was growing up.

The “first name is preferable” crowd has carried the day. Nowadays even when I get robo-calls or junk emails they almost always begin with “Hello William” rather than “Hello Mr. Guerrant.” I appreciate that at least. It enables me to quickly identify those that should be deleted without reading.

But it warms my old-fashioned heart when I meet someone around here and they address me as “Mr. Guerrant.” These days most parents introduce me to their children as “Bill.” But I get a particular pang of nostalgia when a child calls me “Mr. Guerrant.” That still happens. When it does, the people who do it usually aren’t college educated or affluent. It makes me smile, because I know that means they’re members of my tribe.

Too Poor

Our community has always had lots of poor people, by which I mean people with little money and few possessions. People here were poor in the 60’s and 70’s, when I was growing up, and people here are poor now.

But what it means to be poor has changed. In many ways poor people today are better off. Overall, poor people now have more possessions. Things we would have considered unattainable luxuries in my childhood are now regularly available to nearly everyone it seems. Some of that is attributable to easy credit and the loss of our cultural aversion to debt. Some of it is attributable to the fact that things are just a lot less expensive now than they used to be. Regardless of the reason (and acknowledging the fact that there are still plenty of poor people who have neither possessions nor money), it seems clear to me that, as a group, poor people aren’t as bad off now as they were a few decades ago.

But in at least one very important way it seems to me that poor people here are worse off now. I recently learned that people in our nearby city of 50,000 spend over $1 million per month in food stamps (SNAP). I’m confident that we’ve never before been so thoroughly dependent on others for food. When I was growing up, poor people kept gardens, chickens and (if possible) livestock. We hunted and fished. We may not have been able to buy movie tickets or stylish clothes, but by and large people were able to feed themselves.

Of course sometimes we all need a helping hand, and I’m happy to live in a society where people don’t have to go hungry when they’re in hard times. But when we have to depend upon others to give us food, in perpetuity, then we’ve become far too poor.

I wonder how many of the people who are now food-dependent are even aware that they have the ability to grow food themselves. Sadly, as a society it seems we’ve lost the basic knowledge of food production–the most fundamental of all human skills and the one that has assured the survival of our species for thousands of years.

I’m hopeful that the tide will soon turn. I like to imagine a future filled with backyard, community and rooftop gardens–a future in which even people who are poor, are not too poor.

The Wildlife

We share this farm with lots of undomesticated animals, providing us with scenes ranging from the beautiful (such as the sight of a blue heron gracefully winging toward our pond) to the undesirable (such as the snake I discovered slithering toward our chicken coop yesterday). I see so much wildlife every day that it’s easy to start taking it for granted.

We’ve been setting up a trail cam along a farm road on the other side of our place and we’ve captured some interesting images, some of which I shared in a post a few weeks ago. The trail cam allows us to see animals that are careful to avoid our presence, and allows us to see critters that aren’t on alert due to us being around.

We hear coyotes frequently, but I’ve never actually seen one. But we did catch this one recently on the trail cam.

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I see deer here everyday. But to see a doe and her fawn up close like this is extremely rare.

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This impressive buck was curious about the camera. Without it I couldn’t have had a view like this.

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So far we haven’t captured anything particularly exotic or bizarre. If there are cougars or panthers here, as many have reported, maybe we’ll yet capture an image of one. If I correctly identified the fisher I think I saw last year, maybe the camera will confirm my belief.

Meanwhile, I’m still not sure what this is. Coyote? It could be a fox, but it seems too large to me. But maybe I just don’t have a good scale on it.

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And I wonder what is going on here? Same spot, nearly three hours later.

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Goat Babies

New kids arrived on the farm about a month ago and I’ve been remiss is sharing their cuteness. Time to remedy that.

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Note the milk mouth

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Her twin has magnificent ears

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This guy was born a couple of weeks later, also with a twin. 

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The first set of twins, at about 4 weeks old

Penny and Wendy, the goat mamas who had these kids, are among our oldest goats. These may be their last kids.

As always, it’s great to see kids playing in the pasture–truly one of the joys of this life.

Weeds

Trying to stay ahead of the weeds this time of year is a never-ending struggle. I could spend all day every day doing nothing but weeding. Of course if I did that we wouldn’t get anything grown. So I have to allocate time wisely, trying to keep the weeds at bay while accepting the reality that they will eventually win.

For now our sweet potatoes and green beans are relatively weed-free.

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Not so the potatoes.

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Or the chard.

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Or the kale.

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Sometimes I get envious when I see weedless well-mulched gardens. Given the amount we grow, and our one-man workforce, that’s just not possible here. We could use plastic mulch to suppress weeds, but so far we’ve chosen not to do that on this farm. So for now, we’ll just have to live with weeds.

Even with the weeds, this years kale may be the prettiest we’ve ever grown.

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Weeds notwithstanding.

It’s in my DNA

We attended a local food/local history event in town recently and I was a winner in a drawing for a free DNA test from Ancestry.com.

So I mailed off some of my spit to them. Last week the results arrived.

Ancestry

So it seems my origins are mostly British. In fact, as it turns out I have slightly more “British” DNA than the average native Brit.

I was somewhat surprised at the results. I was expecting at least a little France in me, and I wasn’t expecting any Scandinavia. But thinking about it, I realize now that it shouldn’t have been surprising.

I knew I was half Scottish. All four of my mother’s grandparents came from Scotland. Once here they proceeded directly to the Appalachian mountains, already populated with their countrymen, and became quintessential hillbillies. A couple of generations later my mother came down out of the mountains to live with her sister who, like so many poor people of that day, had taken a job in the cotton mill.

She met my father at a movie theater in town and soon afterwards they eloped. His American ancestors had been here much longer, and all of them had lived within a 100 miles or so of this farm. The original American Guerrant was a Huguenot refugee in 1700, settling with other displaced French Protestants in the Huguenot settlement at Manikintowne, near present day Richmond. But that French blood was diluted over the centuries by English and Irish forebears, leaving me with very little French DNA to go along with my French surname.

The Scandinavian DNA is common in Scotland and parts of England and no doubt came along with my British ancestors. The report identifies as “trace regions” North Africa, Iberian peninsula, Western Europe, Finland, Italy and Greece. The “trace regions”aren’t considered reliable and in this case seem unlikely as there have never been any Spanish, Italian, Greek, Finnish or North African people here. Of course it’s possible that some European ancestor contributed these traces.

DNA testing technology is rapidly improving. Maybe in a few years we’ll be able to just spit into a test tube and a computer will print out our family tree.

The ethnicity results were interesting, but what I found even more fascinating is that report also identifies hundreds of people in their database who have posted their family trees on the site and to whom my DNA reveals I’m related. Someday, when I have the time, it will be interesting to connect with them. Maybe I’ll discover the answers to some family mysteries.

But this is the busiest time of the year on the farm. It’s light at 5 a.m. and doesn’t get dark till after 9:00. Even with all that time, I can barely keep up. I’m digging up literal roots these days. The other kind will have to wait till winter.