Chapter One: The old country
Today I am with the cows. Them on one side of the fence and I on the other. I find it relaxing and they don't seem to mind. Oh, at first they're curious but not overly so. Not like cats. Cow curiosity is shallow, relegated to a particular vein of self-preservationism that asks, “Well, this is certainly odd. How, if at all, am I to respond?” Cats, of course, are often inquisitive beyond merely forming a reaction to the new stimuli; sometimes even to the point of peril, hence that famous saying. But no one's ever uttered, or uddered for that matter, “Curiosity killed the cow.” In fact, one could argue quite the opposite. It might behoove the hoofed ones to contemplate their existence a bit more; to think about why they are here and where they're going in life.
Then again I suppose that's the reason I find them relaxing. Life is nice and they don't give much of a damn about the future. That is why I'm with the cows today. They don't give much of a damn so maybe I shouldn't either. We'll both be dead some day. They'll likely go long before I do but the universe has been around for 14 billion years, give or take, so what could a few decades matter between mammals?
But matter they do. Because people love to gossip. It's what separates us from the animals. People love to gossip about other people. Even other dead people. What is genealogy after all but gossip about those long gone? It's not bad enough that your ninth-cousin-thrice-removed Englebert Poopenhauer was a drunk and lost half the family fortune in an ill-advised Dutch-East-Indies knee socks venture? His ancestors today have to know about it, too? Yes they do. Because people love to gossip. Even me.
My parents came to America from the old country where they were rock farmers. They worked land that had been in my mother's family for generations. Her grandfather was a rock farmer and his grandfather before him was a boulder farmer. But times were not always tough. My grandfather often told the story of the age of plenty, long before even his grandfather was born, when the land was once so rich with rocks that they were worthless and wheat was grown instead, which was much easier to carry to market.
Eventually, however, the land went barren and produced no more crops. The rocks were still utterly worthless but the biggest ones were slightly less worthless than the others and so my ancestors persevered in the face of great and ever-increasing difficulty harvesting what rocks they could. I remember my grandfather's words exactly, always spoken with welling, reddened eyes – the eyes of remembered tragedy that stare not at you but through you, right through you to the past:
“We over farmed, took out too many rocks, so that every year they were less, and smaller ones. We hadn't respected the land and paid the price for it. Not the actual price for the land. That was worthless. That's not what I mean. It's an expression, you see? By 'paid the price' I mean, symbolically, we were punished for our actions. The hard times being our 'punishment' so to speak, for being so greedy earlier when times were good. You see? Oh for chrisake, will someone get me my Visine?!”
The harvest size continued to shrink over the years – rocks to stones, stones to pebbles – until my mother's uncle, Gupric, saw no future in it and invested the family's assets in a potato mine. Realizing too late that potatoes were not minerals he lost everything and became a non-practicing Buddhist. My father struggled to continue living on rented land as a pebble farmer but he, too, eventually saw the futility in it since pebbles were a no-growth market, restricted as it was to aquarium owners and already dominated by the river materials conglomerates. So, like many others at the time, my parents emigrated to America, the land of milk and honey, though with more than a little trepidation since my mother was rabidly lactose intolerant and allergic to bees.
At the time the United States was a country of great promise where, as legend had it, the streets were paved with gold leaf and every family pet was pre-approved for a Visa Platinum Card (even without the appropriate shots). But this legend was about to be revealed to my parents as the half-truth it was. Unfortunately they had left their dog behind with uncle Gupric, who thought it was the Dalai Lama reincarnate.