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I Suddenly Realized I Had Become a Farmer

11/28/2013 11:46 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Watching Mike Rowe's TEDTalk "Learning from Dirty Jobs," I was taken by his humorous, but meaningful discussion of the Aristotelian terms anagnorisis and peripeteia, discovery and transformation, respectively. As I listened, I recalled my own experience of them.

About five winters ago, we had a biting, bitter cold spell right in the middle of winter lambing. One night, while the wind blew so hard that it stripped the landscape bare, rattled roof panels, and turned snow into abrasive grains that pelted one's cheeks, the alarm woke me at 3:00 a.m. for a lamb check, which I had been doing every three hours for a week.

The wind chill was minus twenty. In an uninsulated barn, my presence could be -- and already had been that week -- the difference between the life and death of recently born lambs or ewes in trouble. I had no choice. I left the cozy warmth of the bed, bundled up, and went out into the freezing night. The moon was close to full and there were no clouds. I watched my deep, jet-black shadow bounce in the silvery light, and I listened to the rhythmic crunch of my boots while protecting my cheeks from the wind as best I could as I walked down to the barn. I found that all was well. Here and there lambs were sleeping soundly, snuggled up against siblings and mama sheep. Here and there other lambs were up and aggressively nursing, bumping their mamas' udders and sucking down warm, life-sustaining milk. The bagged up ewes, whose births were more or less imminent, just stared at me, some of them vacantly chewing their cud.

As far as things on the farm were concerned, it was not a memorable night. The night was memorable because while I walked up the snow-drifted road to the house, I stopped. I turned head on into the wind. I jutted my chin out. I closed my eyes and stood still. I could hear the sharp bits of crystalline snow pelting my jacket over the howl of the wind. As the wind blasted over me, I realized with a comforting certainty that there was no place I would rather be than in a lambing barn at 3:00 a.m. while a frigid, ferocious wind raged. I understood that I would feel that way even if what I found in the barn was a lamb or a ewe in trouble, or worse, dead. Anagnorisis.

I dropped my arms down to my sides and made my way back up to the house. In the bedroom, I set the alarm for 6:00 a.m., the next lamb check, and slid into bed, shoving the dog over, who had stolen my spot. The dog and my wife grumbled in their sleep. I lay back contentedly and, exhausted, fell asleep instantly.

Coming out of the Great Depression, tens of millions of people labored tirelessly at the blue collar jobs that were created in the recovering American economy, from manufacturing to plumbing (my own grandfather's trade). In time, many saved enough to send their children to college, and even on to advanced degrees, changing the character of their families forever.

My friends and I, and many more in my generation, are the children of the children of the American dream. We grew up spoiled materially by the white collar success of our fathers. But, we had also seen and felt that our fathers were absent from our lives. They were up to their neckties in the demands of their success. Our mothers were increasingly drawn away from us too as our parents divorced and as the workforce and economy changed. We were latch-key kids, coming home from school to spacious, well-appointed, empty suburban homes.

We, males and females alike, were groomed to follow in the footsteps of our fathers (and a few mothers), and many of us did. Some of us were too disillusioned. For the better part of 20 years whatever I did, wherever I worked, however much money I made, I was a stranger in my own skin. I never considered doing anything different, until I dropped out of graduate school at the end of my third year pursuing a PhD in Political Science, to become a livestock farmer, of all things.

I grew up in suburban shopping malls hooked on video games and eating fast food. I had never been within five miles of a lamb, let alone been nearly up to my elbow in a ewe's vagina assisting in the birth of a lamb in trouble. I had never felt life's labor in my hands. I had never felt the heat generated by my body as it lifts, twists, walks, pushes, pulls, levers, heaves, and bends. I had never understood that food is fuel, or that life and death are part of the everyday. I would, though. I would come to do, feel, and understand those things intimately. Livestock farming, while honestly the hardest thing I have ever done, both physically and psychologically, is also the most satisfying, purposive, rewarding, and healing. I am a stranger no more. Peripeteia.

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