Glove it or Leave It….

April 15th, 2014

Last year, a trip to see my beloved Minnesota Twins take on the New York Mets was a bone chilling experience.  In the new outdoor stadium, a magnificent place to watch a ball game, was a little chilly on this spring day that seemed much more like winter.  With highs that barely reached 40F and flurries in the air, the boys of summer were more like the boys of the Artic.

But they played ball nonetheless, and we watched them with gusto…and gloves.

As I was watching the game in the frigid air, it got me to thinking how this all might have sounded back on the farm, in the am radio that was tucked up in the rafters, as the voice of the Twins, Herb Carneal, who never lived to see the new stadium, might have done the play-by-play…

“Good afternoon everyone!  This is Herr-rr-rr-rr-b Carr-rr-rr-rr-neal br-br-broasting live from this chilly April afternoon in the cold snowy heart of Twins territory.”

The Minnesota Twins are playing hockey…er…baseball today with the boys from the New York Mets who would probably rather be in New Jersey today then playing ball here, and you could say that here in this beautiful outdoor ballpark, one of the nicest in professional baseball today, they are turning blue with envy…well, actually just blue here today…

The Met’s actually have a few former players for the Twins on their team, a few players that came, thawed, and transferred.  The temperature today is a brisk 37F at the start of gametime as the pitchers defrost in the bullpens.

There is a good crowd out there today that have come on to cheer on their Twins in this beautiful open air stadium.  We should see a great game of baseball today as the snow comes down, this should be where the elite meet the sleet today.

We have about fifteen hundred fans in the stands today, where I’m sure many are cold, but few are frozen…and they are currently being treated by the crack medical staff from Fairview Hospital – and official sponsor of our Twins, and experts in hypothermia and frostbite..which will come in handy here this afternoon.

There is an additional five thousand fans packed into the bar above the first base line, about thirty-five hundred more than capacity.

Our designated hitter today is local boy Joe Mauer, who got his start right across the river and between the frostbite, the fans, and injuries, he is proving that if you survive in Minnesota, the rest of the world is easy. 

There is a chill to the air as we watch a flock of geese heading north…no wait…that is definitely south here today.

With the anthem over and the players taking the field, they are knocking the ice of the bases and prepare for the opening pitch.  Twins take to the outfield where they are saying it is time to glove it or leave it here today.

And with that, it’s time to pl-pl-pl-play b-b-b-b-b-ball!

Somebody Had To Do It

January 21st, 2014

When the temperatures got bitterly cold, the daily routine task of cleaning the barn could turn into a real hazard for man, beast and machinery.  Machinery didn’t like the cold.  Normal steel with all of its strength, would turn brittle in the bone chilling cold that would sweep down out of the Hudson Bay.

In the winter time, cleaning barn was a necessity.  The manure needed to get out.  The trouble was, in order to clean barn, the back door would have to be opened and cold air would rush into the barn.  Now the barn was heated by nothing but the body heat of the cows inside – in the extreme cases, any lost heat could take hours to replenish, and the risk of pipes freezing and bursting was very real.

But even worse than the mess would be the fact that the cows would be without water until the pipes were thawed and fixed.

Any delay in getting that door closed and the barn sealed up back up again to keep the heat in was a danger. 

And there were always threats. There were always things that could go wrong.

The barn cleaner chain would stretch and catch on places in the gutter and outside where it normally wouldn’t – frozen clods of manure, ice chunks, and just brittle metal could spell trouble.  If the chain broke, with wire stretcher, hammers, and iron bars, it would need to be spliced back together again.

Which was always a wet, cold, sloppy mess.

The tractor’s PTO turning at three thousand revolutions per minute, running the gear box that would operate the paddles pushing the manure out the back to be spread across the field was a lot of power and a lot of pressure.

Here too, it was the simple things that would cause problems – brittle metal, clods of frozen manure, a small bur of metal, something would catch…and a chain would break.  This was especially dangerous as there were now multiple issues facing us.

First, the manure spreader needed to be used daily.  It had to be fixed.  In the extreme cold, the load of manure, which left the barn at 70F, could quickly freeze into one big clump.  The alternative was opening up the barn doors and backing it into the barn to keep it warm while the fix was done.

Costing us heat in the barn.

It was always a calculated risk.

If it was an easy fix – which meant it was underneath the manure spreader, and place that could be unpleasant to work (especially if the manure was wet and sloppy i.e. drippage) but relatively easy to access, the repair would be made (pliers, crow bar, fence stretcher, hammer).

But there was usually better than 50% chance that the fix would entail something much more unpleasant…

Unloading the manure spreader.

The load, usually already freezing, would have to be taken out to a field, and with pitch forks, shovels, picks, and axe, would be hacked and heaved out of the spreader, exposing the broken bits in all of their slimy, gooey, disgusting glory. 

It was a scavenger hunt of sorts. 

But the manure spreader would be fixed.  The manure hauled, the barn shut up, and the temperature slowly brought up to a level safely above freezing.

It was a crappy job, but someone had to do it.

Fulfillment

January 19th, 2014

I had the pleasure of catching up with an old friend, eating a good meal, and going to a concert over the weekend.  Both my friend and I have had our share of trials and misfortunes along the way.

As I sat in a restaurant in St. Paul – we shared our latest trials and tribulations, but also stories of hope and renewal.  As my friend said, as she gets older, the more she realizes that things work out, that things happen for a reason.

Sometimes, the best we can do is stop fighting it, accept what is happening, and take the next step.

Now, I’ll admit – it didn’t hit me right away.  I was too self-absorbed into what was happening around me.  We were surrounded by mobs of people – drinking, eating, and seemingly carefree of everything in the world.  Walking into the concert, there were thousands of people – dressed in the latest fashions, seemingly without a care in the world.

“Is flannel back in?” My friend asked.

“I never knew it was out.” I replied, looking at my staid carhart pullover.

It was a great concert.  It hit me later that night, what my friend had said, “the best thing we can do is stop fighting, accept what is happening, and take the next step.”

I mulled it over all day Saturday…it is easy to give in to the whims or the world…and I must admit, I do at times, but it struck me as I read the readings for today:

From Isaiah: “The Lord said to me: You are my servant, Israel, through whom I shall show my glory.” 

Or from Psalm 40: “I waited, waited for the Lord, and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.  And he put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God.”

Or from Paul’s letter to Corinthians: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”

And finally, we are pointed to the way in the Gospel of John, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

We can fight, we can go down the easy path, but in the end, it is not our way or our will, but the will of God that must direct us.  It is not always an easy road – but it is the road to fulfillment.

Valuable Piece of Machinery

January 16th, 2014

There was another circle of life that we learned on the farm.  That which goes in, must, in one form or another come out.  A good dairy cow, well fed and well cared for, could produce a lot of milk.

But it produced a lot of other stuff as well.

Inevitably, any of the feed that we put in front of them would end up coming out somewhere else.  In truth, much of it also went to building muscle mass, for energy, and to produce calves.  But there was the other by-product, call it manure, call it cow pies, or call it something that must be “shipped high in transit.”

Whatever you call it, it has to be moved out of the barn.

Now in our old stanchion barn, the cows all faced the windows and the water, feed, hay, and silage would be provided.  The stanchions allowed them to stand up, sit down, and stretch as needed.  Straw underneath gave them good warm bedding, and because of the body heat, only once in my life did ever see the temperature drop below freezing.

Behind the cows were square concrete troughs – what we called gutters, about a foot deep into the foundation of the barn. The gutter held a chain with paddles that would scour the bottom of the trough, taking everything out of the back of the barn, up a brief incline – called, poetically, the barn cleaner – and dump it into a waiting manure spreader. For those that haven’t guessed it, the cow’s excrement would fall into this gutter.

In the winter time, the dirty straw from under the cows, the and wide area behind them where we worked to move feed and milk them, would need to be scraped and cleaned, and the old feed from in front of them would need to be removed and placed in the gutter too.

All of this refuse would end up in the gutter, going up the barn cleaner, and out into the waiting manure spreader.

Now the manure spreader was a simple piece of machinery.  It was a three sided trailer that had chain running down the long sides with series of paddles connecting them – pushing anything inside towards the back of the trailer – the one open side – where a drum like beater would hit the pile of moving manure and fling it high into the air and behind the machine – onto the ground where the nutrients would be absorbed back into the ground and used by the next plant life that would spring up.

That plant life would be used for grain, fodder, and bedding, where it would end up under or inside a cow, only to end up back in the manure spreader again.

It is the circle of life.

But it also reminds me of my dear friend Ole who started a machinery dealership back up there in Northern Minnesota.  His slogan was, “I’ll stand behind everything that I sell…except the manure spreader.”

Uffda.

Circle of Life

January 14th, 2014

Like death and taxes, some things in this life are just certain.  Minnesota will get cold in winter.  Cows will have to go to the bathroom.  Manure spreaders will break.

In the far reaches of Northern Minnesota, where the great plains meet the big woods, our little farm nestled in a copse of trees.  There was little separating us from the cruel bitter winds of the Hudson Bay except for a few trees and four hundred miles. 

When the cold winter air from the north decided to make a run for the south, there wasn’t much we could do except grit your teeth, put  on a few more layers of clothing, and go about work for the day.

Usually at least once a year, we would suffer through the bitterest of cold weather with the mercury plunging below -20F and at times below -30F. 

That is cold.

But the cows still needed to be feed, milked, watered, and the barn kept clean.  The youngstock outside had to be feed, watered, and fresh bedding (aka straw) laid out for them.  It was a matter of survival, but also good morality.

At times, temperatures could be lower than would you could find on the surface of Mars.

Inevitably, chores became that much harder.  Fingers stuck inside of big mittens didn’t work as well in the cold.  Bulky close slowed down the chores.  Both man and beast moved slower.  Anything with moisture froze.  Exposed skin could freeze in minutes…and I’ve got fingers that are still sensitive to prove it.

Watering the youngstock outside was a laborious affair.  Using an axe, a thick layer of ice would have to be chipped from the stock tank.  Then the water would flow until all of the cattle had their fill.  The remnants that didn’t freeze would be shoveled out of the tank – leaving a frozen layer on the bottom that would inevitably have to chopped out the next watering.

But it was the machines that seemed to suffer the most.  Tractors would need to be coaxed to life as they sputtered with cold diesel in the tanks, or in the case of gasoline tractors, just cold oil in the engine.  It would be a challenge to get the tractors to fire up, let alone at times to turn over.  Electric heaters, magnetic oil pan heaters, and battery chargers were all employed to make sure that things started.

But even then, the battle wasn’t done.  Hydraulics, necessary for loaders and snowblowers would be stiff in the cold.  Normal chores – hauling hay and silage for feeding, moving straw for bedding, turned into a slow motion affair as the loader seemed to jerk and jimmy to action.  The jobs that might take thirty minutes in normal weather would stretch to an hour or more in the bitter biting winds of the bleak midwinter.

But the chores must be done.  The animals must be fed, watered and kept warm.  It was good economics, but it was also good animal husbandry – we learned early that well treated animals would treat us well.

It was part of the circle of life that we learned on the farm.

Godchildren

January 12th, 2014

I’ve been blessed to be asked to be a Godfather not once, not twice, but three times.

Each one of those kids is special to me.  It has been fun to watch them grow and to see each of their personalities grow – from the very youngest, Tess, to the oldest, Tommy, and Parker in the middle.

Now, I take the role of being a Godparent very seriously.

It wasn’t until the very last baptism of little Tess that there were actually formal instructions given to me – but most of them were pretty straight forward and common sense. 

  • Celebrate the birth and baptism of your godchild.
  • Listen and share in the struggles and triumphs of living a Christian life
  • Keep informed of doctrine and share insights
  • Encourage a life of faith by cards, letters, and gifts
  • Participate or send assurance as the godchild enters the other sacrements
  • Be supportive of the parents and their faith
  • Become a model of Christian living

That is a heavy responsibility, especially that last one.

But that is what each of us is called to be.  At our baptism, when the priest, minister, or deacon said the words, asked our Godparents the vows, and anointed us with the oils of the sacrament, it was more than just a sign – it was our commitment to live a life of, for, and in Christ.

It was our introduction.

The baptism of Jesus was much the same way.  John the Baptist was preaching the good news to all that would listen – the good news of repentance and forgiveness.  He was met with a wave of sinners that came out to hear the message and to be washed in the waters of the Jordan River.

And then came he that was without sin – and John didn’t know quite what to do.

“You should be the one baptizing me!” John protested, an exchange that we can probably imagine among cousins.  They were, after all, very remarkable cousins.

But Jesus insisted.

When the baptism was over, a voice came from the heavens that said, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

It was a powerful witness to anyone that was there that day, and certainly the word spread through the countryside far and wide.

It was Jesus’s introduction to the world – the announcement that He that would open the gates of heaven was here on earth with us.

Each of us is called to be like Jesus.  It is the job of parents and Godparents to ensure, that when the day comes that our charge is set before the gates of heaven, that the same voice might be heard…

“This is one of my children, with whom I am well pleased.”

Highest Recommendation

January 9th, 2014

Applying for scholarships was not a solitary affair.  It required a great deal of time and help from many people in the community.  Dad would have to relent on chores once in a while as I pushed a deadline.  Mom, though ill, still checked the applications for spelling, grammatical errors, and overall cleanliness.

But it was the help and support of the friends, neighbors, and teachers that impacted me most.

Most of the scholarships required letters of recommendation and most stipulated who they wanted them from.  Usually it was a teacher, sometimes an administrator, sometimes it was someone from the community or from my church.

No matter who I approached and asked, they always wrote them not only willingly, but gladly.  Most of them required that they be sent directly in to the committee, without my seeing them – and more often than not, that was just fine with me.  I trusted these folks.

One required me to attach the letters, unsealed, with the application when I mailed it in.  It also requested a lot of letters.

“Why don’t you ask Vern?” Dad said.

Now Dad normally let me go my own way with little help or guidance, when it came, I knew it should be listened too.  Vern was our neighbor down the road.  He and his wife Lois were some of our families best friends.  It was a relationship built on neighborliness – they would be there to help us at the drop of a hat – baling hay, chopping corn – what ever the task was.  And we would reciprocate.

For me, Vern was a special friend.  From as young as I could remember, he treated me as an equal.  He would ask questions, ask my opinions, and generally engage me as he would anyone else.  As a youngster, that stuck.  Vern and I would discuss things that most grownups wouldn’t think of discussing – politics mainly.  And he always seemed to value my opinions, regardless how simple or naïve.  He never brushed them off – but probed, inquired, and in his own gentle way – taught me.

“It would be an honor.” Was Vern’s response when I asked him.  “Get me a list of the things they are looking for and I’ll write it for you.”

True to his word, I got it about a week later.  It was then that I faced a crisis – what to do with it.

Vern was very direct in his letter, as you would expect a long standing and proud veteran of the military to be.  But he also talked poetically about who I was, how I was raised, what I stood for, and gave examples of each.

He made me sound very nobble, and no one had said nice things like that about me before.

My conundrum was two-fold – first all, could I submit it?  It said such things…but when Dad read it, and I shared my fears with him, he merely looked and me and said, “It’s true, why wouldn’t you?”  My second conundrum I continue to face to this day, how to live up to those words penned by Vern so long ago.

I still keep a copy of that letter around.  Now you might call it prideful, I’d say it is a good reminder to live up to what a good friend thought I should be.  It is also a good reminder that a letter of recommendation is a special thing, and never to take the opportunity to fill one out for granted.

Show Me the Money

January 7th, 2014

Mom and Dad let me know two things my senior year of high school.  First, I would be going to college.  They didn’t know where, and they didn’t really care (though they both hoped close by) – but they made it clear that I would go on for higher education.  That got no argument from me.  Second, between Mom’s health problems and Dad’s pending retirement – meaning the staged sale of livestock over several years – it meant that financially, I was not only on my own, but that traditional financial aid was going to be in short supply.

In one regard, I was on my own.  With the exception of an occasional tank of gas charged to Dad at Kochmann’s Service Station in town, I’d be on my own.  In another way, I wasn’t on my own at all.  The moral support of Mom and Dad, as well as the community made the arduous task an easy yoke to bear.

Scholarships.  That was the ticket I believed.  All along, we had heard that there was plenty of money out there for the taking by generous benefactors that provided scholarships to worthy students.

The challenge was to find the opportunities, do the work, and try to convince the selection committees that I was a worthy student.

I combed through reams of scholarship materials provided by the high school, hanging on bulletin boards, sent out from schools, and even a catalog that I spent $5 on listing a wide range of scholarships.  Operating under the principle that if I applied for enough scholarships, my success rate might not be that high, but at least I’d get something – and something was better than nothing.

Each night, after school but before evening chores, I’d sit at Mom’s electric typewriter, typing out enquiries, working on essays,  filling out applications, and sending off self-addressed stamped envelopes.

It was a war of attrition.  The more I applied for, the more I got.  Big or small – it didn’t matter, and for each one that I got, I was thankful.

I think that my success rate was about 30%.  Many of the organizations, I never heard back from.  But let me tell you, I’ve never forgotten those that did.

The Elk’s were the first to respond.  They presented me a nice jump start.

The National FFA Organization awarded me a scholarship too, courtesy of Cargill, where my FFA Advisor stepped in to help track down the plant manager of the plant in West Fargo..

The local Catholic Daughters gave me one of their two scholarships, an act I’ve never forgotten.

Butch and Darlene Stevens, local philanthropists awarded me one of two scholarships that year.  Whenever I write out a check to support scholarship fund, I think of them.

North Dakota State awarded me the Donald F. Scott Memorial Scholarship, an award that was equally pleasing as I got to meet Mrs. Donald Scott at an award ceremony.  And they don’t come much nicer.

There was a hodge-podge of other awards as well.  Between my savings, the scholarships, and a steady part time work study job during that first year at NDSU, I managed to get by.  The first major hurdle was crossed – there was no looking back.

But let me tell you, I still have a soft spot for a student out there, trying to make it on their own.  Hoping that they don’t feel alone, and know there are a lot of people behind them.

Clarity

January 5th, 2014

Over two thousand years ago, three learned men from the east traveled to find the long promised king.  Expecting him to be someone with the wealth and power exceeding that of Solomon, who the ancient world recognized as one of the greatest rulers of the Jewish people – they were amazed when the star led them not to the posh palaces of Judea, but instead to the humble doorway of a stable in a little country town.

While the written records do not tell us their reaction – we can only guess their feelings, their words with each other – when they realized that this king of kings was lying in a manager.  The gospels do make it clear – they were undeterred in their mission. 

They presented their gifts to the little family.  They disobeyed King Herod, the ruler and Roman governor. 

Perhaps they saw that this child was not an ordinary baby, nor an ordinary king. Perhaps it was when they saw Him with Mary and Joseph, that they had their own epiphany – that moment when suddenly, they understood things in a very clear way.

For those of us today, the three wise men visiting the Christ child gets wrapped up in the Christmas story, as just another small piece of the history and the legend.

But it is more than that – it is the first revelation that He came, not just to be King of the Jews, but to save all mankind.  He came not to be a political savior of the Jews, but instead a Savior for all men, everywhere. 

Each of us.

In these crazy times, when society and culture tells us that with technology, money, and power, we are becoming more and more like gods ourselves, perhaps we need our own epiphanies – our own moments of clarity.

All of the power, all of the money, all of the stuff that clogs our everyday lives are meaningless unless we realize that we are not gods, but instead, servants of a God that loves us each as individuals, with our faults and failings – that gives us free will – but that loves us even when we sin.  A God that came as man.  And that still tries to guide us through this world, to bring us home.

On this feast of Epiphany, may we all have our own moments of clarity, to know, and see, and understand, the path we chosen to follow.

You Say You Want a Resolution?

January 2nd, 2014

The turning of the calendar is a poignant reminder of the advance of time, and our lives.  It is a good time for reflecting and figuring out what comes next.  Hence it is also the time of year for New Year’s resolutions.  It seems everyone has a list of two or three things that they would like to accomplish or focus on for the New Year.

Back in my FFA days, for a year or two, I was a regular on the mash potato circuit – called upon to speak at a wide array of banquets and functions, the large number of them served with a meat and mashed potatoes (hence the name).

But some of them were at schools, talking to classes.  One of my favorite topics was goal setting.

On the surface it all sounded pretty easy – it was asking students, what do you want to be?  What do you want out of life?  What are you aiming for?

That is a goal.

For some students, it might have been making the football team, or going to college, for others it might be owning a car or learning a language.  Everyone has their own dreams.

After they wrote down a list of goals and aspirations – their target – I asked them to pick one of those goals and figure out the action steps that they would need to take to achieve it.  What did they need to do, or stop doing, to allow them to achieve that goal.

This was the resolution – the decision to do something or to stop doing something.

A good goal doesn’t come without some good resolutions, and good resolutions are worthless without a clear goal to shoot for.

They are very different things.  Though each had to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, with a time frame (or a SMART goal for short).

Most students would have a list of three or five things that they needed to do to achieve their goal – the objects. If it was making the football team, one might be working out in the weight room three times a week Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 6:30 to 7:30am for the next six months.

It was a great exercise for students to do – it was a great exercise for them…and is a great exercise for anyone that wants to achieve something.

I’m not sure why the class in Long Prairie was different, but they really got into the goal setting.  They asked questions, they were engaged, they took it seriously.  It was at that session, that I did something that I never did before – I handed out a stack of business cards and said, “OK, take this business card and write your goal and your objectives on the back of it.” Once that was done, I followed up by telling them, “Now, put it in your wallets, purses, or wherever it is handy – wherever you can look at it – where ever it can remind you.”

It seemed like a good conclusion to a lesson.

But there was still a lesson in it for me.

Months passed, and one day I got a call from a friend of mine who worked for a large business in central Minnesota.  He said that his Dad was giving a tour to a group of high school students – and he always ended with a talk on goals.  He asked how many knew what a goal was – and every hand shot in the air.

“How many of you have action plans around your goals?” He asked.

Every hand shot into the air.

A bit surprised, now he asked, “How many of you actually have them written down?”

Everyone reached into their wallets and purses to pull out frayed business cards.

The lesson – you never know the lives you will touch, speaking to a class, or going about your daily lives.  Your attitude and the things that you do every day have an impact on people and the world around you. 

That is a good thing to think about as we set our sights on the year ahead.