Skin in the Game
One day before my first, precious vacation in three years, and Dixie Carter squints up at me painfully – one eye squeezed shut with tears running down her cheek. She stamps her foot against a fly and belts out an insistent, “baaaah!” which, in goat language, means, “Dammit Ma, fix it. NOW.” Three thoughts race across my mind at once: 1) I cannot leave when an animal is sick, injured, or in pain 2) What the hell is wrong with Dixie? 3) I need this vacation, and I need it bad.
I run through the regular drill that’s become clockwork when checking vitals: no temperature, no diarrhea, excellent appetite, no lethargy. Active, vocal, hungry, annoyed: all normal goat behaviors. If not for this pesky eye situation, I would feel ready to jump on a jet plane and run up into the mountains that I have dreamt of for so many months (years, really). The only other place on earth I consider Home. The “happy place” I picture when someone or something causes me to take a deep breath and calm all the way down. I think of New Mexico. I think of Taos. I think of Arroyo Seco in the foothills of the ski valley. Of turquoise sky, salmon adobe, crimson chile ristra swaying at the edge of a heavily carved wooden front door. I smell the sage that grows wild and is twined in string, burned for good fortune. I hear the ghosts of history sing on the wind across a dry, stark landscape, the backdrop against which Georgia O’keefe so simply and completely captured a place and a people.
The only thing standing between me and the Land of Enchantment is a goat and an eye. “So this is what it’s come to,” I think pathetically, resigned to the fate that tethers me to the farm, the fact that swollen eyes now come between me and green chile pozole. Held captive by my own choices, I understand that my trip may be cancelled because of a goat.
The short version of this story is that her eye slowly improved throughout the day, the culprit of this ailment likely a stray twig that brushed her cornea. She was fine. I got on the plane. So now I sit in front of a fire at the base of mountains in New Mexico. Taking this trip, a brief three-night journey, required the cooperation of extremely generous family. Jeremy’s parents agreed to watch the farm while my parents dog-sit Hugo who still requires extra care as he recovers. Most notably, however, it required that I dry off the goats months ahead of schedule. It meant nearly two weeks of nail-biting worry as I monitored their swollen udders, fretted over their health, and (literally – yes, really) cried over the lack of milk. I cried about missing the chore of milking, too. This trip is more than respite, it serves as a yardstick to measure my passion for dairy from my animals. Turns out, I’m in. I cry over spilled, lost, and wasted milk.
Weeks ago I had lunch with Jesse, my sister who is slightly older and certainly wiser than me. We talked about the dairy, about uncertainty, and she was blunt, “The thing about this is you’ve got to have skin in the game. That’s part of what makes these things work. You can’t just want it, but you need for it to work.” I chewed on that for days – this concept of having skin in a game – evaluated exactly what that means, because it probably looks different for everyone. For me, it means tying myself tighter to the crew of dairy animals I’ve acquired haphazardly over the past few years. It means justifying their existence in my life, no matter how it constrains everything else. Even trips to my personal holy land. To keep and grow this herd of animals, they must become contributing members of the farm. They have to earn their keep – they have to. If I can’t solve that equation, then I can’t keep them, in these numbers, forever. That is my skin. That is the game. No matter how much I want to bathe in the beauty of this place where I spent so many happy summers growing up, I would trade it all for an afternoon mucking the goat barn. I would stay home and care for a weepy goat eye. I would cradle a caprine or bovine head in my lap in lieu of a walk along a mountain stream. I would. In the future, as the stakes get higher, I probably will.
Let’s be honest, this is the last trip I will take for some time. When it comes to vacation, I will always root for Taos, dream of burning sage, envision adobe against a wicked blue sky. But I’d trade any vacation for an afternoon with the goats, or a morning in the barn, leaning against Junebug, the Jersey calf. These are recent revelations, for me. I would sacrifice a lot (everything?) to stay where I am. When it comes to choices and conviction, I don’t knock anyone for trying anything so long as they do it like they mean it and chase it like a game they’ve got to win.