If there’s one thing that really gets my goat, it is archaic phrases that have no sensible meaning in today’s context. Phrases like, well, like “that really gets my goat” We all know that it means something frustrating or annoying, but what is the possible connection between losing your goat and an annoying circumstance? I mean, how many people actually own goats anymore. And even if you transcend the whole goat ownership issue, what is so particularly disturbing about losing your goat as to warrant a whole figure of speech? It is questions like this that I really think people should spend more time considering.
As I implied, it is extremely uncommon to find an actual goat owner these days. It is even less common to find someone who is leasing, renting, or time-sharing a goat, but I defer further discussion of these fringe issues in favor of the primary matter of goat possession. Undoubtedly, the phrase has origin in a pastoral era when many people did indeed own goats, which still leaves a puzzling question: regardless of era, why would anyone own a goat; what are they good for? Are you beginning to see why this curious phrase is so preposterous? It defies logic. Goats defy logic, and goat ownership, well, that’s just silly.
It is at this juncture that I must make an embarrassing confession. I once owned a goat, several goats as a matter of fact. Though I can’t for the life of me tell you why. Actually, they belonged to my parents, but it is a minor technicality. In the mind of a teenage boy, everything my parents owned, I owned, and as I stated possession is the real issue. They were mine to do with as I pleased, and it pleased me to do precious little with them. Mostly, they were the concern of my younger brothers; they milked them. Yes, city dwellers, you can milk goats; why you would want to is another question. But then, I don’t believe my brothers really wanted to. There seemed to be an implied obligation to do so, as condition upon their peaceful existence in my house. I thought it a bit unreasonable for my parents to impose such criteria, but since they held certain sway over my own peaceful existence, I avoided confrontations that didn’t directly affect me. Actually, I avoided confrontations altogether as they always seemed to directly affect me, often with unhappy result. So, milking the goats was my brothers’ problem. They would have to cope. Now back to the original question of why own a goat. The milk might seem the obvious answer. Wrong! Goat milk is by all standards unsuitable for human consumption. We didn’t drink the milk. We all “tasted” it, exactly once. It is difficult to describe the taste, and I have no desire to try. The tasting didn’t include swallowing, which is why I say we didn’t actually drink it. I think mostly, we fed it to the ducks. Don’t get me started on ducks. Their purpose is even more elusive than goats.
It might help to explain, that for a brief period my family experimented with a Thoreau-like attempt at the simple life. We moved from a perfectly sane and sensible life in the suburbs to one fraught with danger, hardship and peril in the country. We planted vegetables, purchased livestock, quit bathing, chewed on pieces of straw, and made a feeble effort to live off the land. This period is what I came to call the dismal years. This ill-advised experiment with the simple life came as a result of two catalysts. First, a quaint, though naïve attempt to simplify our hectic lives, and second as a matter of economic imperative. You see my father was a barber, and the long hairstyles of the 60s and 70s meant hardship and suffering for my family. The sudden drop in my father’s income forced upon us certain inconveniences. We were for the most part unprepared for this sudden and turbulent shift in our existence. My father had some experience with country living, having been raised on a farm, a muck farm to be precise. Now, to this day, I’ve no idea what type of crop muck is, and I’ve always been afraid to ask. Nonetheless, he was not completely ignorant of things living, plant and animal. He was also least exposed to the daily ministrations of our newfound country life. He departed the homestead for civilization every morning, and returned in the evening to inquire if our “chores” were done. Prior to our country retreat, I had little experience with “chores”. They were an enigmatic activity that television shows like the Waltons led me to associate with country life. They always held a vaguely sinister quality. Once I became more intimately familiar with chores, they took on a crystal clear sinister quality. My mother, though not a farmer, had been raised in poverty and knew the sacrifices the dismal years would entail. Having learned as a child how to survive without things like food, she concluded that her offspring could do the same, and that it would probably do us some good. Among my three brothers and myself, only my older brother embraced our new lot in life. He had, just prior to our move, watched the movie Jeremiah Johnson, and this plus 4 years in the boy scouts qualified him as a mountain man. Oh, he still liked his milk homogenized, and from cows, and from the store, but he fancied himself a rugged outdoorsman. I think he mostly enjoyed the not bathing part, which ironically was my least favorite part. I didn’t mind not bathing myself so much, but I had serious issues with my brothers’ hygiene. My two younger brothers and I resigned ourselves to a life of chores, misery and woe. We did the best we could. Fortunately, hairstyles gradually became shorter again and things started to look up. Coincidentally, at about the same time, my parents concluded that we should all start bathing, abandon our hopes of living off the land and start buying edible food. In today’s litigious society the entire ordeal might seem like excellent fodder for a frivolous and highly lucrative lawsuit alleging emotional, physical, and psychological abuse, but remember the era this all took place. It was in those days, not yet illegal for parents to ask their children to help, nor to deprive them of their constitutionally guaranteed right to anything and everything they wanted. Barbaric by today’s standards I know, but no one knew better.
As I say, we were unprepared for country life. This may account for the unqualified disaster of the livestock choices that were made. I remember the Walton’s owning cows and chickens, which made perfect sense: milk, eggs, drumsticks, and steak. We had goats and ducks. I am not certain what used car salesman was moonlighting selling livestock, but I can only conclude that his mother didn’t raise him right. At any rate, we had these goats; it was my younger brothers’ chore to milk them, and eventually, we ate the goats. It is difficult to describe the taste of goat burger and I have no desire to try. Once again, this might seem to answer the now tiresome question of why own goats? As a food source, but I am convinced they were never intended for human consumption. I suppose if I were stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat, but grubs, worms and goat, I might be compelled to dine on goat, after the supply of grubs and worms was thoroughly exhausted. However, we ate them as a last resort to recoup the initial purchase price. I do not recall how much of my money was squandered on the goats, but it seems to me now, as it did then, that it would have been better spent on a swimming pool, current economic crisis notwithstanding. I don’t really think I hated eating them, but I doubt I enjoyed it as much as my younger brothers. They would often laugh maniacally while eating their goat burgers, which is harder than it sounds. Laughing while eating isn’t all that difficult, but choking down goat burger can be a real struggle. I do recall, a certain elation, a euphoria really, when we polished off the last pack of goat burger. I think I may have wept. My older brother sang Rocky Mountain High; one of my younger brothers danced a jig, and the other just laughed maniacally. He’s never really quit doing that, which is a bit disturbing, especially at family funerals. It is fortunate, I suppose, that we all emerged from the dismal years without significant emotional damage. For the most part, I have successfully blocked the events from my memory sufficient to avoid therapy. However, the few memories that do remain, lend themselves to many questions: like why own a goat?
Even more puzzling, if you do own a goat, what would be so all-fired annoying about losing it? I doubt it would have bothered my brothers at all if someone had made off with our goats. I myself would have been monumentally indifferent had they come up missing. I know, “monumentally indifferent” is an oxy-moron, but I’m talking about goats and not stupid bovines. At any rate, of all my parent’s possessions, I could list hundreds that would be more distressing to lose than any of the goats. Why not say, “That really gets my car” or TV, or toenail clippers, etc. In fact, about the only thing less annoying to lose than the goats would be the ducks. Don’t get me started on the ducks. I am willing to concede that not all goat owners have such low regard for the beasts. Presumably, some folks have completely pleasant goat ownership experiences. Maybe they also own skunks or dung beetles, and by comparison the goats make amiable companions. Still, if you mark your goats among your most cherished possessions, then I think you have more in life to be annoyed with than just someone making off with your goat.
Still, we commonly use the phrase. Careful research might reveal a charming story, with a pertinent moral, but I for one am opposed to careful research. It often reveals facts that throw off the whole point and can ruin a perfectly good story. Then I’d have to start all over again, and wouldn’t that just take the cake? See, now that makes sense.
© 2015 Joseph E. Fountain