My cousin’s make-believe hog farm

Drawing of a Hampshire hog

My mom’s cousin died a couple of weeks ago. He was my cousin, too, but he and Mom grew up together and were about the same age, so I think of him as her cousin. I didn’t know him well, but I always liked him, and I’ll never forget the story he told about the time he threatened to open a hog farm and slaughterhouse in his backyard

Morris lived out in the country. I don’t know how many acres he had, but it was a big backyard, big enough for a hog farm, anyway.

Some developers bought the land behind his and applied for a change in zoning so they could put up a subdivision. The county said OK, as long as the developers built a berm around the subdivision and planted enough trees to give the surrounding homeowners some privacy.

The developers built the berm but planted only a few trees and called it a day.

Morris didn’t like that. He complained to the county and the developers, but they didn’t do anything. The developers said they’d followed the letter of the agreement with the county and they weren’t going to waste time or money planting any more trees.

Morris didn’t think that was right.

He lived out in the country, on land that was zoned agricultural, so he went to the county and pulled a permit to build a hog farm. Then, he paid a guy to make him a big sign that he mounted on his side of the berm, positioned so everyone who came to look at lots in the subdivision could see it:

Coming soon: HOG FARM and world-class SLAUGHTERHOUSE!

Ands he listed his phone number.

Pretty soon, the developers called.

You’re bluffing, the developers said.

I just pulled the permits, my cousin said. They’re on file at the courthouse, if you want to check.

You’re not really going to build a slaughterhouse, the developers said.

Sure I am, my cousin said. It’s gonna be great, too. State of the art. Gonna have a few hundred hogs, make a lot of money.

Pretty soon, the developers sent a crew around to cover every square in of that berm with trees, and Morris pulled down the sign.

The Accidental Tourist: A literary guide to business travel, basically

It’s been a couple of decades since my college girlfriend loaned me her copy of The Accidental Tourist, but it’s a book that’s stayed with me — not because of its theme of embracing life and moving outside your comfort zone but because of what it taught me about how to pack a suitcase.

Anne Tyler’s book is about a guy named Macon (William Hurt in the movie), who writes passport-sized travel books for “accidental tourists” — business travelers, mostly, who have to leave home and want to make the trip as painless as possible.

Of course, the point of the book isn’t to give travel advice. Being an accidental tourist is really just a metaphor for Macon, who divorces his wife (Kathleen Turner in the movie) after their son is killed, only to get involved with a free spirit (Geena Davis), who brings him back into the world.

I think that’s what it’s about, anyway. I don’t really remember much about the plot. What I remember, every time I take a business trip, is the travel advice:

  • “Bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble.” This is absolutely true. Since I read the novel twentysome years ago, I think I’ve checked luggage only a couple of times, and both times, it got lost.
  • “One suit is plenty…. It should be a medium gray. Gray not only hides the dirt; it’s handy for sudden funerals and other formal events. At the same time, it isn’t too somber for  everyday.” One suit (I go with dark gray), a couple of shirts and a couple of ties, and you’ll be fine. I’m told it’s different for women, that they’re expected to wear something different every day, but I’m a guy, so no one expects anything of me, fashion-wise. One suit is plenty, and only the shoes you’re wearing.  
  • “Always bring a book, as protection against strangers.” I used to bring a book. Now I carry a tablet. Either way, it’s good advice and worth following, even though it works only about 50% of the time. I don’t think I’m a rude traveler. I’ll smile, say excuse me and engage in small talk while we’re getting settled in, usually something like, “Boy, they don’t give us a lot of room, do they?” but then I’m done. I’d rather read. It’s amazing, though, the number of people who don’t notice or deliberately ignore basic social cues such as their seatmate’s refusal to make eye contact or his responding to their questions and comments with a simple, “Uh-huh.”

You might disagree and think I’m a jerk because I don’t want to talk for a couple of hours to the random person wedged into the seat next to mine, and that’s fine, you might be right, but trust me on taking only one carry-on bag.

Kindles make it harder to show people how smart you think you are


Came across an interesting statistic the other day: Digital books are outselling hardcovers these days.

This is one of those statistics that’s supposed to say something Important and Significant about the state of the world, like the claim that salsa now outsells ketchup in the United States, which is usually cited to illustrate the growing influence of Latinos on the U.S. economy but could as easily mean that nobody doesn’t like salsa.

The economy’s still kind of wobbly, digital books are cheaper than hardcover books, so, of course, they’re going to outsell hardcovers.

This doesn’t bother me. I’m basically a glass-half-full* kind of guy. I’m just glad people are reading. I’m especially glad people are still willing to pay money to read.
What’s more, digital books make it easier to buy books you ordinarily wouldn’t be caught dead with. I can’t imagine Fifty Shades of Grey becoming a bestseller if the women buying it couldn’t buy it online, anonymously.
However, there is a downside to the shift toward digital books: With a Kindle, it’s harder to show people how smart you think you are.
For a serious reader, a book is like a trophy case. The books you choose to display tell people what you’ve read, what you’re thinking about, how you look at the world.
When I walk into someone’s home, the first thing I look for is a bookshelf, or, absent that, a book. If you have books, there’s a good chance we’ll become good friends, especially if it turns out you’ve read a lot of the same books I have, especially if you have some literary or obscure book I love that most people haven’t heard of.
You can’t do that with a Kindle.
Your e-reader could be loaded with great books, but no one’s ever going to know it. You could open the bookshelf on your Kindle and leave it lying conspicuously on the coffee table when you go answer the door, but the screen will probably go dark before anyone notices.
Likewise, when you visit someone’s house, you can’t really start thumbing through someone’s Kindle. That would be like flipping through someone’s diary. It would be rude, and there’s a chance you’ll see things you can’t unsee (such as those Fifty Shades of Grey sequels).
Without a bookcase to help you, your only option is feeling the other person out, which can be tricky. If you walk into someone’s house, and there’s a bookshelf, you tend to pick up on the titles you recognize or like (Love in the Time of Cholera, for example) and ignore the titles you don’t (such as Kitty Knits: Projects for Cats and Their People, which is a real book and not something I just made up).
If you ask someone, “Read any good books lately?” you’re putting the other person on the spot. They’re under pressure now to come up with a book they think you might like. If they say Kitty Knits: Projects for Cats and Their People, and you’re a dog person, or they try to play it safe and say, “Oh, I’ve been so busy, I don’t really have time to read,” well, what might have been a beautiful friendship may be dead in the water.
This doesn’t mean Kindles are a bad thing. I think they’re really useful. I love hearing about a book then having a copy seconds later. I love being able to download public-domain titles such as Walden or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn free of charge. Plus, unlike paper books, Kindles let you play Angry Birds and stream Netflix. (There is a hack for this, of course: Simply draw a little cartoon on the bottom corner of every page then flip the pages to see it move.)
I’m just saying new technologies bring new challenges, new challenges that, sooner or later, someone will write a digital book about.
*Technically, I’m a glass-is-completely-full kind of guy. The bottom half of the glass is full of water. The top half of the glass is full of air. So there.