2017 Christmas letter

I – Disillusion

(And a “Merry Christmas” to you too, Ortmans!)

Hi everybody,

If I had a nickel for every time my Dad said, “The hardest person to know is yourself,” I’d be at least one dollar better off. Last year I shared my identity crisis. One year later, I feel I’ve made a lot of progress in self-awareness and self-acceptance. Undoubtedly, having a spouse who is a true kindred spirit on a similar journey helps immensely. In short, here’s what I know:

  • I am not who I used to be.
  • I am not who I expected to be.
  • I am not who others expected me to be.
  • This doesn’t frighten me like it used to.

No, I’m no longer asking the fundamental question, “Who am I?” But I’m not sure which is harder: not knowing who you are, or knowing who you are, only to realize it means you may no longer fit in with most others around you. It’s a bit like trying to navigate a chess board with a Monopoly token; you and the other players share an understanding of “game” as a concept. But, within that broad context, you’re not sure, exactly, how your individual piece should function. Which rules apply to whom? Which moves are safe? How will others translate your plays?

Will and I get to talk a lot, about all kinds of things—while we work, while we eat, while we wait for the whispering and pattering of feet and random thumping from the basement bedrooms to cease so we can start the Netflix episode for the night. We troubleshoot and brainstorm and diagnose various causes and effects of the human condition. And this year we’ve agreed that the word that best captures our sense of place and our reaction to many of the behaviors, attitudes and decisions we witness is this:

Disillusion. The disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.

In junior high and high school, I had a piano teacher who employed a rather unusual practice technique. If I was consistently missing a short melodic pattern, he instructed me to intentionally practice it wrong—to consciously repeat the error and then alternate the wrong way with the correct way several times. Other times he actually had me create new mistakes. For example, if I needed to make an ascending leap of two octaves, I was first to rehearse (several times in a row) a leap of one octave plus a seventh. Next, I was to rehearse (a similar number of times) one octave plus a ninth. Once acquainted with the wrong way to execute the passage, my brain and arm muscles were far more likely to land accurately on the correct interval.

I’ve been pondering this concept of “disillusion” through a similar tactic; a helpless linguaphile, I found myself considering what various misspellings of the word had to offer.

II – Disilusion

While it likely drives any proofreaders among you batty, less astute spellers might settle for a casual double-take, furrow their brow and ask themselves, “Is that right?” In this case, the error is one of omission; something is missing, though it may be hard for some to put their finger on exactly what.

If there is one boy in this family who knows the frustration of figuring out what’s missing, it is Solomon. Throughout 2016, our three worked diligently to earn money for a go-kart. They washed eggs, walked beans, picked up corn left behind by the combine, and supplemented their wages with last year’s Christmas cash. Early this year Solomon showed Will what he agreed was a pretty good sale price on a kart, and the boys had amassed enough funds that we felt good covering the balance as an early birthday present.

The kit arrived in February, and Will finished putting it together just as a warm spell yielded to a pretty major snow event. The boys spent that last pleasant evening racing around the “P” formed by the farm’s three driveways, arguing about who should drive next, and celebrating every turn and acceleration and skid as something truly remarkable. The promised snow began overnight.

We honestly chose Solomon’s name, in part, for the legacy of his biblical namesake. (Let me clarify: the “wisdom” part, not the “promiscuity” part.) I realize he’s only nine, but by golly, if he doesn’t sooner resemble the fool of Proverbs 12:15: “The way of fools seems right to them but the wise listen to advice.” Though we had told Solomon that the driving conditions would absolutely not. be. fit., the seductive yellow racer lured him out the next morning before it was light. Upon our own waking, we discovered him roaring hither and yon, speeding over frozen ruts, careening through snow and slush and, in general, having the time of his life.

It should not have surprised anyone when the go-kart stopped and refused to start again. Will, having had difficulty getting it to start initially, suspected the carburetor. Hours of fiddling produced lackluster results, at best. The impact of frozen ruts had damaged the computer board and jiggled the engine loose. Oil was found in places it shouldn’t have been. Bolts were tightened and additional parts replaced (namely, the spark plug and coil, because certain mechanical Ortmans will want to know).

Weeks later, when all homegrown ideas were exhausted, we hauled the go-kart into LJ Small Engine Repair, which Grandpa Graber swore by. “They can be tricky buggers,” said the mechanic of such machines. More weeks later, we got the call to pick it up. Solomon was supposed to come along to drive it and make sure it worked before bringing it home. He did; it didn’t. So LJ offered to make a few more adjustments and called by the end of the day that he had had his grandson test drive it, we could pick it up, our bill would be $20, and “I don’t ever want to see this again.” I trust LJ is capable of determining for himself an hourly living wage; but based on our experience, if he ever starts charging per subsequent operational minute for any given engine, the rate will apparently need to be something over twenty bucks.

Will’s Uncle Joe, himself a long-time repairer of small engines, later told Will it was a mistake to ever buy a little Chinese engine out of California. Nevertheless, it was painful to watch the boys learn the hard way that 1) you get what you pay for, 2) it’s possible to work hard for something and still not have much to show for it when it’s all said and done and 3) stuff treats you the way you treat it. Solomon is looking forward to salvaging the parts they can and working with Dad to assemble a from-scratch go-kart later this winter.

Will’s dad, too, has experienced a most irritating and puzzling error of omission as his mobility has gradually declined. Nearly a decade ago, numbness began creeping into a foot and continued to afflict Arlan’s long and purposeful stride to the point that he has now been in a wheelchair for more than a year. Possessing a sharp mind and skilled hands, Arlan had planned to spend his retirement in the shop, working on several restoration and carpentry projects for which he hadn’t had time as long as he was farming.

He and Ellen pursued answers with vehemence, seeking advice from all manner of doctors and specialists in four states. He endured every test under the sun, ruling out neuropathy, brain tumors, pinched nerves, stroke, effects from a past injury and autoimmune disease. He eagerly tried various diets, physical therapy regimens, nerve-shocking contraptions, herbal supplements, and multiple trips to Tijuana to purge his mouth of heavy metal.

In the end, like the go-kart, nothing made a difference. Something—whether a compromised neuron or misfiring synapse—something in his system is missing but no one has been able to tell him for sure what. To make matters worse, a second cataract surgery proved catastrophic and his vision is now greatly impaired so even his second love of reading is impossible. He spends his days stitching together quilt blocks when his eyesight allows, avoiding sunlit corners, watching television and listening to books on tape.

We are so glad he can still live at home, a reality enabled by the proximity of two able-bodied sons, the support of both daughters, and Ellen’s unfailing generous spirit. But for a man who is otherwise completely physically healthy and as mentally sharp as they come, such an existence is disillusioning indeed.

III – Dissillusion

Here the error is one of addition, much like I experienced during the second week of May. Cousin Mory and I were scheduled to perform a duo piano recital—our third—on Mother’s Day evening and the previous Monday I was socked with one of my two worst bouts ever of sinus congestion. I suppose the 7,500 strawberry plants that arrived the next day eager to get in the ground would also qualify as an unnecessary extra; the week of rehearsing certainly would have been plenty stressful without either of these little bonuses. In the end, the berries eventually got planted, the show went on, and adrenaline proved more effective for my plugged sinuses than any of the over-the-counter or grandmother’s remedies shared by many well-meaning Facebook friends.

An extra letter in a word can stand out in the same way a mound of black beans in the bed of our ’71 Dodge truck stood out along the Marion oil next to all of our neighbors’ soybeans. Having learned from our grain broker that the dry edible bean market is pretty lucrative right now, Will devoted a portion of this year’s bean ground to black turtle beans. Their tendency to split required some modification of the combine header, and more is needed to prevent loss in the field, but he plans to plant them again next year. Most of these beans will be sold to Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants.

Our corn acres went into a variety of purple corn used for chips and meal and natural food coloring. Pound for pound, the glossy, eggplant-colored kernels contain twice as many of the antioxidants found in blueberries and so purple corn is considered a nutraceutical. The plants themselves look identical to other field corn until they begin shedding their leaves shortly before harvest.

When addition aids healthy diversity, we’re all for it. But sometimes addition just leads to excess. I am increasingly in awe at the goodness of this Earth and bothered by humanity’s obscene consumption (and destruction) of resources. I’m thankful for a great little local recycling center and access to Sioux Falls’ household hazardous waste facility. But I think the single biggest culprit for the stress-inducing clutter in our house is that we don’t know of an ecologically sound way to dispose of a lot of it and can’t, in good conscience, continue to pitch it onto the designated pile in the woods. Let’s all help each other do better at saving this planet, OK?

Excess plagues our schedules, too. This year, more than ever, Will and I have sensed from those around us a collective groaning of, “It’s just too much.” People around here are tired. They’re tired of working, of commuting, of games and tournaments, of meetings, of food assignments, of committee assignments, of organizing charitable events, of all of it! And yet none of us seem to know how to exit the proverbial hamster wheel.

Our Liam is in sixth grade this year. Over the summer he gave up baseball but got a little taste of “real” employment mowing lawn for Uncle Todd and Aunt Marnette. He declined swimming lessons and camp. We forbade flag football and didn’t promote the four-week basketball skills camp because of scheduling. Youth soccer wasn’t offered this year. New opportunities at school have included several auditioned honors choirs and bands (we didn’t audition for a one), Oral Interpretation (he’s excited), and Jr. High basketball (we’ll just stick to the 4th-6th grade team this year yet). After a year off, he chose to return to Freeman Area Children’s Choir. He continues with piano and trombone lessons and, much to his chagrin, must also sing with the children’s choir at church.

So we now face the added struggle of helping Liam (and his brothers after him) learn to make good choices about the types and level of activity they become involved in.

  • What is personally fulfilling? What things would I like to try?
  • What am I gifted at? How do others expect me to develop, use and share those gifts?
  • On the other hand, what role does obligation play in what I agree to? Is that wrong?
  • What are our family’s standards for commitment to any given activity? That is, if I choose to be part of multiple activities whose schedules conflict, and so can attend each only 50-70% of the time, what does that communicate to others in the group? Can I recognize how the group is affected by these choices? How do I feel about that?
  • What are my limits from a standpoint of personal health? How will I respect them?
  • What is the connection between accomplishment or mastery, and hard work? Liam has a lot of natural talent and likes a variety of things. Enough things that we’ve observed a tendency to let one go once it requires effort, in favor of another that doesn’t. Is every year of activity a clean slate? In what area(s) is persistence important?

I hope that, as parents, we model as much mindfulness about time management as we do about waste reduction or energy consumption. And I still believe that, at some point, a critical mass of people will say, “Enough!” with the frantic pace of life and sanity will prevail. Even Solomon (Israel’s, not mine) counseled that, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:8, 14).

IV – Disilluison

At least two situations this year proved to us again that proper sequence matters. In spring we planned for a major improvement in the chicken barn. The reasons for this will bore anyone not intimately acquainted with the egg business (and—let’s face it—as long as chickens are involved, not many people aspire to be). Suffice it to say that we were losing a lot of eggs to drop, dirt and damage, and the Vencomatic Group’s design nest system promised to hold the key. Ideally, we’d hoped to install these nests at the end of planting season before our youngest flock started laying, and prior to the heat of summer.

A shipping delay pushed the project back to July 1, failing it on all three counts. And while we could effectively evacuate the hens from the first room we worked in by shuffling them into makeshift pens elsewhere, no such option existed for the second room. In other words, we dismantled the old nests and “mantled” the new nests amid several hundred chickens who were intent on jumping into places we didn’t want them, spilling and scattering nuts and bolts, and crapping on tools. Had the sequence been reversed, this project could have been simplified ten times over.

The second situation that comes to mind is a series of conversations currently taking place between different community and school organizations that Will and I are involved with. In both cases, the agenda is strategic and complex, with many moving pieces and multiple parties to bring along simultaneously. In both cases, there has been uncertainty about the best way forward and, after sometimes months of discussion, what promises to be a more effective approach emerges. In our respective roles with these groups, we have observed the dramatic effect that proper sequence can have on people’s outlook and continuing enthusiasm for a project. Hardly ever do people consider rehashing a good use of their time, no matter how worthwhile the task itself may be.

This is a lesson our boys would also do well to learn. I daresay, they wouldn’t even recognize Will and me if we no longer had to pull out our hair trying to get them to fulfill even the most basic expectations. Tell me that at some point they’ll decide to listen. How many days (years) do we make chore lists before they realize they don’t have to be told to do basic household duties that come around every week? That putting away clothes and practicing instruments don’t require parental permission? How much would they let their grades suffer before accepting that, the vast majority of the time, completing homework is not just a suggestion? How many more nights until they no longer act as though we are introducing a bedtime routine for the first time ever? Like installing nests in a throng of chickens, or bringing along all the conversation partners in tandem, parenting can resemble the antithesis of progress. And that can be disillusioning.

V – Dissilution

Introducing an entirely new letter to the mix arguably makes the error more conspicuous. Some conspicuousness is harmless enough, mostly puzzling, even comical. I suppose that might have described the reaction of several ATV and 4×4 pick-up drivers at the site of our Honda Odyssey and pop-up camper on one “Dewey-Delmar Road” this summer.

Family vacations continue to be a top priority for us and a trip to the California Redwoods and San Francisco was a definite highlight of the year. Not to say there weren’t some equally memorable but less positive moments along the way, of which the southwestern Idaho road was the most extreme.

In search of a more direct route into southern Oregon, we opted for the road that led past Silver City, ID. A sign at its entrance warned of no available services and road conditions unfit for “large RVs.” Rationalizing that we weren’t exactly an RV, we proceeded. The sign was not exaggerating, despite the ease of the first several miles. Furthermore, the short, straight road our map depicts is hardly indicative of the actual twisting, 45-mile trek. Though our GPS begged us to bail at every opportunity, we forged on. Pavement became gravel, which became narrower gravel, which became dirt, which became narrower, rockier dirt. 55 mph became 40 became 20. There was very little room to meet anyone and, once beyond a certain point, no option to turn around. Which made one fateful move of ours all the more perilous.

Upon rounding yet another sharp curve, we were faced with an abrupt ascent to a fork in the road. In a moment of indecision (because the GPS was clueless and we knew we were committed to whichever direction we chose), Will stopped the van. It took us only a moment to decide to take the left fork, but it was too late and we simply spun out. Repeatedly. Will and I exchanged panicked looks, prayed a little, and tried to remain calm for the boys, who asked pretty early on if we were going to die. And the most truthful answer we could give them was, “We hope not.” After a few more harrowing moments, I think Will just plainly and simply willed the left half of that trail to be a slightly gentler grade than the right half, cranked the wheel and, by the grace of God, the brand new tires on that Honda gripped something they hadn’t before and we’re here to tell the story (though we admittedly still get a little sick to our stomachs every time we do).

Yes, I suppose our choice to take that road was conspicuous in a puzzling, if not comical, way. But some things—like the “t” in the misspelled word above—stick out because they are so foreign within the context as to be offensive. Not unlike the the film crew at Salem-Zion Mennonite’s worship service the morning of June 4, 2017.

Sometime around, I want to say, November of last year, I was cleaning up the kitchen after putting the boys to bed when Will ambled in. He led with, “So I had kind of an interesting conversation today.” This is not uncommon in our house and I was unfazed. “A documentary producer called me and he might want to use me in a documentary about climate change.” I had to admit, that exceeded even my expectations and I remember saying to myself, I can literally think of zero other people who are having the conversation I am about to have.

The caller was Erik German, a Nebraska-born Brooklyn transplant who works for Retro Report. He was working on a series of short documentaries about the future, one being “The Future of Food.” He had gotten Will’s name through a contact at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (curiously enough, not a contact we’re related to). Having worked with different Anabaptist groups on other projects, Erik was especially interested in finding someone like Will—a farmer who believed in climate change and whose views were grounded in an Anabaptist theology.

The two hit it off in that initial conversation and that’s how the five of us found ourselves in what will surely be remembered as an experience of a lifetime. Erik and his cameraman, Liam, arrived here on a Thursday night to get the literal lay of the land and plan the next two days of shooting. They had intentionally planned their visit during a busy time on the farm so that they could tape as many different activities as possible. Will and Stan also tried to organize their time to maximize opportunities for footage.

The days started when the light was “low and long and yellow,” and ended the same. On Friday, the pair was joined by Tyler, a drone operator out of Lincoln, NE with whom they had contracted for the day. Our boys stuck to the team like glue, especially Tyler, and even got to fly a drone. Over the course of Friday and Saturday, we windrowed, planted corn, tine weeded, turbo tilled, turned compost, clipped berry blossoms, washed eggs and fixed machinery. The boys behaved like trained circus animals, bicycling on demand, mowing, hoeing, and otherwise helping with anything that would get them on camera. On top of it all, Stan, Will and I each gave an extensive interview.

Pastor Corey and the church deacons had been contacted ahead of time about Erik and Liam accompanying us to church and had reassured the congregation that, while certainly beyond our comfort zone, their presence would probably not cost anyone his salvation. Even though I was prepared for it, I still squirmed at just far up the aisle Liam dared to advance during Corey’s call to worship. And we marveled how Cousin Paul kept his focus with a camera not six inches from his face as he delivered the children’s story about MCC’s efforts to address global hunger issues: completely unplanned, but so perfect.

Erik approaches a project footage first, script second. In other words, his goal was to collect as much material as possible from the various sites he visited and interviews he conducted, and then see what story would emerge. He warned us that we would be shocked into how small of a segment his SD content was likely to be condensed, if we appeared at all. Frankly, the experience itself was such a gift that we didn’t even care if we didn’t make the final cut.

We carry many fond memories from those intense, exhausting days: chatting like old friends around the dinner table and witnessing the team’s patience with and interest in the boys (it helps that they all have young children themselves). But what sticks with us most is the extreme sense of validation we felt for the way of life we have chosen. Here were two guys from a much more progressive part of the country and from a totally different line of work eating up everything we were doing. It was as if they were saying, “Look, we get that you’re the funny-looking token on the chess board. Capture those others, get past ‘Go’ and collect your $200 already!” Would that everyone could feel so affirmed at some point in their life.

Incidentally, we did make the final cut and, if you’re interested, you can view it here. (Be sure to also check out the other fascinating installments of Erik’s “What Happens Next” series.) Then you can listen to our subsequent interview on NPR’s “The Takeaway,” which stemmed from the release of the film and aired just prior to Thanksgiving. Crazy.

“The Future of Food” opens with Will saying, “I’ve kind of I’ve accepted my fate, in a way, of being the guy that’s alarmed about all this before everybody else is.” I suspect that people in a whole host of local settings view both of us as alarmists and, for that reason, dismiss our opinions.

The more experience we gain, the more attention we pay, the longer we’re in this community, the more aware we become of just how set people are in their ways and ideas. Are we any different, or do we just prefer the view from our own rut? I don’t know if I pose the question out of honest inquiry or some deep seeded training involving specks and planks and other fragments of the Sermon on the Mount. Either way, the fierce resistance to change we encounter on so many squares of the chess board makes it tough for our little irons and top hats to know how or where to advance, and is undoubtedly the largest source of the past year’s disillusionment. More often than not, this resistance seems grounded mostly in a frustrating combination of personal preference and what Will calls “rural apathy.” (And of course, per last year’s letter, we all know that what people are actually resisting isn’t change itself, right? If you’ve forgotten, it’s worth going back to look it up.)

Speaking of resistance, in the last year I’ve signed more petitions, placed more calls to “key Republicans,” and received more form responses from my own crimson red representatives than ever before. Though we had absolutely nothing to do with it, we celebrated mightily the recent victory in Alabama. And yet, the evil persists. Keep fighting, folks, even if you’re a pacifist.

I haven’t said a word about Christian yet. We urged Christian, 7, to keep his mouth shut at school when his pranced around the room excitedly the night of Dec. 12 proclaiming his version of the outcome of the special election: “Oklahoma has a new president—Doug Jones!” Christian’s biggest source of disillusionment this year was trying to survive for many days with five missing front teeth. (You try eating anything with five missing front teeth.) Christian still has a clever wit, a smart mouth, and is quite full of himself for a guy who thinks “I don’t” can be legitimately consolidated to “I’nt” (which I don’t even know how I should spell.) It was Christian who burst in the front door this summer and exploded, “Skunky is having baby kittens RIGHT NOW!” And sure enough, right there under our porch step where we could all watch, Skunky birthed the most beautiful feline family we’ve ever seen. It includes little Callie, Stripe, Shirley and Adventurous Journey. A silky black tom, Norman, mostly stays at Gwen’s end of the yard and rounds out the cat population; German speakers and anyone who remembers the first Gulf War might appreciate his full name, Norman Schwarzkatz.

VI – Dissolution

There it is, the final step of my word morph:

Disillusion ⇒ Dissilusion ⇒ Dissilution ⇒ Dissolution

To recap, it seems that want can lead to disillusion, but so can waste. And that activism is as likely to disillusion someone as apathy is. I’m curious what fans of any of the icons recently toppled by sexual harassment allegations would say is more disillusioning: the deception by the celebrity figure, or its disclosure?

But I’ve been pondering where disillusionment itself leads. And it seems that, often, it leads to some form of separation. Many examples come to mind. In Uncle Duane and Aunt Judy’s case, the hard break came after Alzheimer’s gradually dissolved Judy’s brain and body until she died on August 13. That it could not diminish her spirit, however, was abundantly clear to those of us who met in Ocala, FL over Labor Day weekend to celebrate her life. I never once heard my uncle complain or begrudge Judy their imperfect retirement. The primary disillusionment Duane experienced was rather at the hand of medical professionals, insurance and financial advisers, and pastors—the very people expected to provide support.

For a group of nearly 70 that assembled in Hiawatha, KS this summer, disillusionment with Big Ag is prompting a hard break from the system. Will came home from the event with mixed feelings. On the one hand, faces were full of excitement, minds racing at the possibilities as they listened to Will and others present on various aspects of going organic. But in the next moment, he witnessed the gears turn the other direction as many of the farmers realized they may have clung to the old just a wee bit too long and they couldn’t, for all the light at the end of the tunnel, figure out how to finance the last several yards of the tunnel itself—namely, the three-year transition period before one can become certified and start claiming the organic price premiums.

Disillusionment to separation: how many more examples do you want? Watching Arlan’s decline has only bolstered our sympathy for patients who wish to be euthanized. Hovering on the gravelly brink of catastrophe in Idaho, our next best solution was to unhitch and sacrifice the camper. More than once, Will has been tempted to walk away from groups whose resistance (or apathy) threatens even slight progress. I too have declined responsibilities, separating myself from boards that I felt would require me to compromise convictions or misrepresent who I’ve become. And the last presidential election may or may not have caused us to spend more than one evening researching immigration requirements to various Scandinavian countries. (Until we remembered that such a move would require either farm land on the other end or some marketable skills; we have neither.) Tangible breaks of all kinds.

It’s true that we are gradually finding withdrawal from the dominant culture increasingly attractive. Not long ago, I asked Will if we were destined to become hermits. Even more recently, a friend observing from far away suggested that we start a commune. But lest any of you think all this talk of disillusionment and final separation is some veiled cry for help, and that either of us is about to do something drastic, cast such thoughts aside. We’re not brave enough or persecuted enough to leave, so we’ll stay put for now. We’ll keep pushing our odd little tokens from square to square, hoping that the other players we encounter will be friendly and understanding when we ask questions or make moves that aren’t detailed in the rule book.

This letter gets longer each year. I suppose because with each passing year there’s more soul to bare and, for whatever reason, I’m compelled to bare it. One thing I have learned about myself is that the whole exercise of writing our family’s annual tribute is far more therapeutic for me than it is consequential for you. But for any who made it to the end or found a challenge, an inspiration, or your own self-revelation along the way, I am grateful. We wish you all a very good coming year.

Sherilyn, for the family