Travels in Pennsylvania

I got to spend this past week down in Pennsylvania, my home state.  The beginning of the week was spent in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania working with Phyllis Solomon, my friend, mentor and world renowned scholar.  It was a very productive few days of data analysis and writing; we also managed to submit an abstract for the American Pubic Health Association’s annual meeting.


Given how productive those few days were I felt good in spending a few days out in the country pursuing other interests.  On the long drive from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania I like to listen to audiobooks, and it was serendipitous that I happened to have selected Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.  The book nicely dovetailed with many of the things I’ve been thinking about lately, not the least of which is the importance of cultivating  high quality analog activities in a digital age that seeks to apprehend more and more of our attention.  Newport shares many of my concerns with what the constant flow of information via social media, cell phones, and email are doing to our ability to think deeply and clearly  or to engage in real human interactions.  I’ve been a fan of Cal Newport’s work for a couple of years now; Digital Minimalism is must read as far as I am concerned. Newport cites the Amish (I would also add the Old Order Mennonites) as an example of people who have a thoughtful relationship with technology.  The serendipitous part of all of this is that while in Pennsylvania my best friend Jay and I took a ride out through Lancaster (aka Amish country) to pick up a few hundred pounds of pig feed.

The Amish have had to contend with being treated as a tourist attraction, and have accommodated this perhaps out of necessity.  Surely some of their “English” neighbors have been happy to exploit the image of the quaint Amish in order to collect a few tourist dollars.  But, those of us who grew up near Amish country or had business dealings with the Amish community know how much the tourism misses the point.  The Amish are not quaint or throw backs or manifestations of a bygone era.  They are simply thoughtful and deliberate about what parts of modern life they want to adopt.  Newport makes a strong case for this in his book.  If a technology serves to make the community or the church (those things are synonymous) stronger, than it is permissible.  If it threatens the bonds of community it is not permissible.  This is what Albert Borgmann and David Strong would call “technology in the service of things.” The Amish and Mennonite are not anti-technology per se, they are just extremely deliberate in how they decide which technologies they will adopt.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of claiming that Amish communities are utopias.  To be sure, they operate by certain values that contradict many of my deeply held beliefs about education and equal rights for women.  Nevertheless, as Newport points out, there is a lesson for us in thinking about technology from the old order perspective. Does the technology reinforce your values and facilitate the activities that give your life its deepest meaning and reinforce your bonds with family and community?  In many cases the answer is probably “no,” but that has hardly impeded the growth in time we spend staring at screens or arguing on the internet.  My god, take a moment to look around the next time you go to a restaurant and count the number of people ignoring the person across from them in favor of the cold glow of a smart phone screen.

I am a man of many enthusiasms.  I love to garden and build furniture and read and write and fix my house and restore antiques and volunteer in my community and spend time with my family and so on and so forth.  I am routinely asked how I find time to do these things.  Or, people will say, “I would love to do this or that but I’m just too busy.”  Too busy doing what?  The average American now spends two hours per day staring at a smart phone screen (usually Facebook or other social media) and 4 hours per day watching television.  Thing about it: what could you do with 6 extra hours per day?  I don’t do Facebook, I watch very little television, my smart phone has been stripped down to only a few essential functions, and I spend no more than 20 minutes on Instagram. My time on Instagram is mostly dedicated to finding inspiration from other gardeners and furniture makers.  Like Newport suggests, and like the Amish and Mennonite, I have consciously chosen to be very deliberate with my use of technologies that encourage passive consumption rather than rich and meaningful engagement.  I hope this doesn’t sound self-righteous.  I have my flaws and weaknesses and tendency for self indulgence like everyone else.  But, I have taken time to think carefully about the distractions I will permit.  I’m not perfect, but I waste a hell of a lot less time now, and my life is far better for the effort.

On the farm

It is a 45 minute drive from west Philadelphia out to Worcester, PA where my best friend Jay and his family live. The farm itself dates back to 1818.  Currently, he is raising pigs, steer and chickens; one of those pigs will be mine after it has grown to butchering weight (hence the trip to Lancaster to buy feed). I’ll also be buying 1/4 of a steer.  I like to buy meat that I know was thoughtfully and humanely raised.

It is a beautiful old Pennsylvania Dutch farm.  While there, I was able to use his forge to make some hitching rings for the dairy barn at Appleton Farms where I volunteer–the dairy herd managers want them so they can tie up a dairy cow if she needs medical care or is ready for insemination.  I forged these to match one that is already in the barn.

Jay is a much better smith than I am so he did a good bit of the work and made sure I didn’t screw up the part that I worked on.

It was a great trip that gave me lots of time to think.  Jay works on the neighboring farm which dates the 18th century and was once used by Washington as a headquarters before the battle of Germantown. It is now a county historical site.  It is hard not to be contemplative when this is your daily view:

As you can see, some snow rolled in on the second day i was there.  After a few days on the farm (and with news of a snow storm barreling toward New England) it was time to head for home. I returned to Marblehead a few days ago to find my family–and plenty of projects–anxiously awaiting me.

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