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The Milk House: The country mouse pauses

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 April 2016

We froze when we heard the screaming. My girlfriend’s father had gone ahead to bring the car around while she, her mother and I waited by the door of the restaurant. He shrieked as if in the greatest pain of his life. The women ran toward him.

It sounded like he was being stabbed. Or having a heart attack, I thought. And then smiled.

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We found him leaning over the hood of his Mercedes, frantically spitting into a handkerchief and wiping the polish. He had parked under a lamppost, and a bird had defecated on his 60,000-euro vehicle.

It turned out that my girlfriend’s father was a lawyer who participated in somewhat dubious exchanges in Germany – the nature of which I was never told. In addition, he had sued their neighbors, family and friends, although on what grounds I also did not know.

It garnered them enough wealth, however, that he was able to go on a 10,000-euro cruise on a whim and bring back expensive jewelry to appease the wife and daughter after being left behind.

I did not get to know the man well on a personal level because he had a rule that he only spoke to wealthy people, and so when the two of us were in a room alone, there would be only silence.

Money did not seem to bring them happiness or freedom, however. When we went out to eat on Wednesdays, we only went for schnitzel because a restaurant offered a deal on schnitzel on Wednesdays.

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Same thing for Greek food on Fridays and Mexican on Mondays. They had no friends to visit or family members that would call them.

The mother busied herself with cooking and cleaning, for which she was given a wage by her husband that was more than I would make from my university position. They bought wine by the case and began drinking every afternoon.

Once, I saw the mother flipping through a photo album. I leaned over, but instead of pictures of their family, there were photocopies of receipts for every cent they had spent.

Like other farm families, my own upbringing was modest. We neither lacked nor had much extra. (Although the fact that I could usually convince my mother to buy me books I saw as a sort of wealth.) There’s a bravado that comes from being working-class.

The entitlement of seeing yourself as tougher for doing things the hard way. The idea that not having is not needing and the freedom that comes from not having needs.

I always tell my friend that the best literature will always come from the working class, and it makes him upset because his father is a computer programmer.

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The county I am from is the poorest in New York state. Growing up there, one is surrounded by a simple morality: Money isn’t all there is to life. We were made to picture people like my ex-girlfriend’s parents, rich in both currency and misery, wallowing in their self-made hell, living proof of the evil of money.

I could end this column with the story of the country mouse and how he went to enjoy the luxurious living of the city – but soon found it too fast-paced and dangerous and elected to return with contentment to the simple, humble life he knew before.

Forgive me the fact that I don’t.

The element that separates the middle class and the working class is the obligation to struggle. One group is comfortable, and one group is not. No sane person wants to struggle. A person will do what he has to, but there is no honor in poverty.

At the German university I taught at, I had a student named Judith who said that the ultimate intention of a government is not to encourage individual aspirations but to create a workforce. Doing so ensures the function of the state and makes it more likely that the people in power remain there.

Her classmates probably dismissed her as a radical liberal, but the sentiment stuck with me. It shocked me – mostly because I couldn’t prove it wasn’t true. It started me holding up assumptions and beatitudes to the light and turning them over to see if I could find where they were made.

The idea of being content with what one has is so ingrained in rural and working-class culture that it is one of the most common themes in children’s literature and the lesson of many old-time television shows. I can picture Andy Griffin putting Ron Howard on his lap and explaining to him that the secret to happiness is not desiring what other people have.

Certainly, one can endorse being thankful for the things in one’s life, and there’s more to good living than wealth and material goods. Still, I can’t help but wonder who gains from the general population not wanting more. Is it the people who already have more?

My time in Germany had all the tropes of a bad movie: a family turned to caricatures by wealth and a naïve farm kid who had never spent more than $25 for a pair of shoes. It seemed like a simple morality tale that confirmed everything I was taught as a child.

One version of the town and country mice anecdote ends with the country mouse saying: “Give me my hole, secure from all alarms/ I’ll prove that tares and vetches still have charms.”

Still, I don’t think we’re giving the country mouse enough credit if we don’t think that one day, after the story is told, he stops and realizes that tares and vetches isn’t a very nice way to live – and that there’s really no reason why he can’t want more.  PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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