Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

Goodbye--and Hello!

 After filing about 760 consecutive weekly columns, it is necessary for me to take a hiatus––not because I am tired, or have run out of wind. No, I am off on a new venture which requires me to suspend the column for a time. 

 

In 2011, I was granted a two-year Bush Fellowship to study eldercare. In addition to attending classes, conferences, workshops and lobbying the legislature, I worked to get an assisted living facility built in my home town of Fertile. 

 

Along the way, I learned a lot about the state of the care we give our elderly. 

 

In so many ways, the care is wonderful––particularly in our small towns where people are able to stay in their communities when they need help with daily needs. 

 

But I also studied parts of the world where, due to constant cuts, the eldercare system has deteriorated into a state of perpetual crisis. 

 

In fact, I would describe the state of care I saw in some locales to be a silent humanitarian disaster. I am thinking of an Alzheimer’s unit where I peered through the bars on the door at the over-crowded ward and was told, “You have no business here.”

 

It was a horrific place. Thankfully, it was nowhere near here. 

 

It was in a country where they brag about how they take care of their older people. However, when I saw the actual care provided, it made me sick to my stomach. 

 

I became determined that our eldercare system in Minnesota would never sink to those levels. 

 

Such a crisis seems far away. But it is not. 

 

When you see the cuts nursing homes have endured over the past few years, and the stress rural nursing homes in our area have just to find qualified staff willing to work at cut-rate wages, you wonder if we are far away from a similar grim situation. 

 

After a winter of thinking, it became obvious that no amount of writing and rabble-rousing could substitute for sitting in a place where one could influence actual policy. 

 

Despite a long-standing pledge to myself never to enter politics, last week I announced that I am seeking the DFL nomination for the Minnesota House of Representatives in District 1-B. 

 

As you can imagine, area editors can’t very well print a column by a writer seeking elective office, even if that column contains nothing more than musings about trumpeter swans and our hapless Twins. 

 

So, I will stop writing the column until the political business is resolved. That could be sooner, or it could be later. 

 

I am thankful to you kind folks who have followed the column for the past years. A newspaper column is an exercise in self-disclosure, yet I have rarely felt anxious that my opinions or observations, however offbeat or unconventional, would be greeted with overt hostility. A little mumbling, maybe––but no pitchforks or shotguns. 

 

A quiet decency and dignity characterizes the folks of Northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. I am honored to live here, but also honored to have occasion to express in words what I love about this eccentric, often forgotten, but beautiful and sometimes downright miraculous corner of the world. 

 

We natives have our faults. I think it is best to look our quirks in their face and laugh about them. Not everybody agrees with that approach, and so I have sometimes offended. 

 

To those I have offended over the years, I just want to take this opportunity to say: tough beans.

 

The fun part about living here is, even if we disagree on some things, when we have a disaster––if we get stuck in a snowdrift, or if our house needs sandbagging, or if we get cancer and have a pancake supper, or if we need a ride to the doctor, all the petty stuff gets left behind and we take care of each other. 

 

In a country which is ever more divided about issues which, in the final analysis, don’t really affect our day-to-day existence, we might work to emphasize the things which we have in common. 

 

They are more numerous than you think. 

 

When I come home from a winter of travels, I realize other parts of the country just don’t get us. 

 

Let’s keep it that way. 

 

All the best. 

Opening Day

 Another baseball season begins with nobody, including myself, expecting much of our Minnesota Twins. 

 

The satellite dish company sends a nice letter every three days urging me to hook the dish back up for a reduced rate. 

 

If they had given me the same reduced rate last August, I might have made it through the Twins dismal season without disconnecting. 

 

But two dollars a day to watch a team which wins once every three days? Not a bargain. 

 

This year, I am going to wait until the Twins put together a winning streak before reconnecting. I have been duped too many times before. 

 

When I tell my fellow Twins fans, mostly retired, my plans, they look a bit disappointed. 

 

“They’ll be fun to watch,” they shrug, not liking my pessimism. I suspect they think I take my Twins too seriously. 

 

These hardy fans take baseball seriously only as a way to pass time. The games are a part of their rhythm of life, win or lose. 

 

Baseball is, after all, the national pastime. And even the hapless Cubs, who last won a World Series during the Roosevelt administration––Theodore’s, not Franklin’s––still have devoted fans. 

 

I admire the devoted fan’s ability to find baseball useful, even beautiful, even if their team’s starting pitching has been the worst in the league for two straight years—or if their team hasn’t won a title in a century. 

 

I watch baseball, not to pass time, but to see a slice of excellence, to watch a story unfold, to see athletes triumph over adversity. 

 

If your starting pitchers routinely give up six runs in five innings, there is no story there. No excellence. 

 

True, Joe Mauer comes up to bat every three innings and does his act: He watches strike one pass with boredom, sniffs at strike two as if it is of minor interest, then takes strike three right down the middle––only to have it called a ball because if the great Joe Mauer takes a third strike, the umpire figures must have been a ball. 

 

Finally, Mauer picks a fastball out of the catcher’s mitt and strokes it to left field to go two-for-three. Again. 

 

Yet, even Mauer’s fussy cat act at bat seems without purpose if you’re down by five in the eighth without any power hitters down the line-up to knock him home. 

 

Older Twins’ fans like myself watched elegant Rod Carew win batting titles for all those years in the 1970s on losing teams. Carew, like Mauer, was what they call a “pure hitter,” somebody who makes an art out of the brute act of whacking a baseball with a club. 

 

Loquacious 1970s umpire Ron Luciano told a story about Carew. With Luciano behind the plate, Carew, like Mauer so often does, watched two strikes pass without showing interest. A third pitch came in, a high fastball. Luciano thought it would break down like the first two and started to call a strike before the ball sailed past Carew chin-high. 

 

Luciano knew he blew the call as his arm raised into the air.

 

But courtly Sir Rodney didn’t argue. He just turned and walked back to the dugout, deep in thought.

 

Two innings later, Carew came to bat again. 

 

“Sorry about that third strike, Rodney,” said the ever-friendly Luciano as Carew settled into the batter’s box. “I blew that one.”

 

“Oh, don’t worry about it!” Carew said. “I misjudged the first two pitches.” 

 

Yet, for all his excellence, elegance and dignity, Rod Carew never played on a team that won a World Series. 

 

The question arises: Is it really important to win a World Series? Or is baseball all about the daily grind, the ups and downs of a long season, the fleeting moments of excellence, the great catch, the fluke no-hitter, the massive home run by an aging slugger, the two-week hitting binge by some young buck just up from the minors? 

 

I don’t understand the game of cricket, but I do know that “test matches,” as cricketers call their games, last for three days. Players play eight hours per day, with several breaks for tea, and after the twenty-four hours the whole thing is usually declared a draw. 

 

Yet fans eat it up, feast on the statistics, watch the match on TV in massive numbers, and even riot if something, perhaps a “sticky wicket,” happens that “is not cricket.”

 

These are fans of a game who look beyond winning and losing to the poetry of the game. 

 

Unlike many of my neighbors here in the northland, I haven’t reached that Zen state with our hapless Minnesota Twins. 

 

When I do, I’ll hook up the dish. 

 

 

 

 

Opening Day

 Another baseball season begins with nobody, including myself, expecting much of our Minnesota Twins. 


The satellite dish company sends a nice letter every three days urging me to hook the dish back up for a reduced rate. 


If they had given me the same reduced rate last August, I might have made it through the Twins dismal season without disconnecting. 


But two dollars a day to watch a team which wins once every three days? Not a bargain. 


This year, I am going to wait until the Twins put together a winning streak before reconnecting. I have been duped too many times before. 


When I tell my fellow Twins fans, mostly retired, my plans, they look a bit disappointed. 


“They’ll be fun to watch,” they shrug, not liking my pessimism. I suspect they think I take my Twins too seriously. 


These hardy fans take baseball seriously only as a way to pass time. The games are a part of their rhythm of life, win or lose. 


Baseball is, after all, the national pastime. And even the hapless Cubs, who last won a World Series during the Roosevelt administration––Theodore’s, not Franklin’s––still have devoted fans. 


I admire the devoted fan’s ability to find baseball useful, even beautiful, even if their team’s starting pitching has been the worst in the league for two straight years—or if their team hasn’t won a title in a century. 


I watch baseball, not to pass time, but to see a slice of excellence, to watch a story unfold, to see athletes triumph over adversity. 


If your starting pitchers routinely give up six runs in five innings, there is no story there. No excellence. 


True, Joe Mauer comes up to bat every three innings and does his act: He watches strike one pass with boredom, sniffs at strike two as if it is of minor interest, then takes strike three right down the middle––only to have it called a ball because if the great Joe Mauer takes a third strike, the umpire figures must have been a ball. 


Finally, Mauer picks a fastball out of the catcher’s mitt and strokes it to left field to go two-for-three. Again. 


Yet, even Mauer’s fussy cat act at bat seems without purpose if you’re down by five in the eighth without any power hitters down the line-up to knock him home. 


Older Twins’ fans like myself watched elegant Rod Carew win batting titles for all those years in the 1970s on losing teams. Carew, like Mauer, was what they call a “pure hitter,” somebody who makes an art out of the brute act of whacking a baseball with a club. 


Loquacious 1970s umpire Ron Luciano told a story about Carew. With Luciano behind the plate, Carew, like Mauer so often does, watched two strikes pass without showing interest. A third pitch came in, a high fastball. Luciano thought it would break down like the first two and started to call a strike before the ball sailed past Carew chin-high. 


Luciano knew he blew the call as his arm raised into the air.


But courtly Sir Rodney didn’t argue. He just turned and walked back to the dugout, deep in thought.


Two innings later, Carew came to bat again. 


“Sorry about that third strike, Rodney,” said the ever-friendly Luciano as Carew settled into the batter’s box. “I blew that one.”


“Oh, don’t worry about it!” Carew said. “I misjudged the first two pitches.” 


Yet, for all his excellence, elegance and dignity, Rod Carew never played on a team that won a World Series. 


The question arises: Is it really important to win a World Series? Or is baseball all about the daily grind, the ups and downs of a long season, the fleeting moments of excellence, the great catch, the fluke no-hitter, the massive home run by an aging slugger, the two-week hitting binge by some young buck just up from the minors? 


I don’t understand the game of cricket, but I do know that “test matches,” as cricketers call their games, last for three days. Players play eight hours per day, with several breaks for tea, and after the twenty-four hours the whole thing is usually declared a draw. 


Yet fans eat it up, feast on the statistics, watch the match on TV in massive numbers, and even riot if something, perhaps a “sticky wicket,” happens that “is not cricket.”


These are fans of a game who look beyond winning and losing to the poetry of the game. 


Unlike many of my neighbors here in the northland, I haven’t reached that Zen state with our hapless Minnesota Twins. 


When I do, I’ll hook up the dish. 




 

Sacred Ground

 Eleven years ago, I spent a September in Europe. First, I took the train around England. The countryside is “lovely,” as the Brits say, groomed and prim. 


Then across France, Switzerland and Italy. I stayed in cities, but enjoyed the farm country—at least when those bullet trains slowed down enough for me to see the scenery. 


The train over the Alps, to my relief, moved at a crawl. Plenty of views of Swiss cows, big bells clanking, grazing the most beautiful meadows on earth, mooing, “the hills are alive…”


Then, out of the blue, I got homesick. Bad. I was thirty-nine years old, yet I got the same sick feeling in my gut as when Mom dropped me off at the babysitter who only served alphabet soup when I was three. 


I had traveled before and never gotten homesick. But this time, I crashed hard. The two weeks until I returned to the States looked insurmountable. 


I called to see if I could change my ticket. No luck. 


I was stuck. 


I recovered enough to stumble through the remaining two weeks. However, the experience led me to believe that homesickness should be classified as a mental illness to be treated with powerful psychoactive drugs. 


It was with great relief and the urge to kiss the tarmac that I returned to the Minneapolis airport. I drove north during a sun-kissed, golden late September day. 


I left the freeway at Rothsay, and joined Minnesota Highway 32. 


Over the next twenty minutes, I arrived at a conclusion: The rolling hills south of the little hamlet of Rollag, MN are the prettiest place on earth. 


The colors were brighter than Europe’s, the hills more graceful, the lakes purer blue, the woods were more mysterious than anything I had seen on my trip. 


It occurred to me: I had only been gone a month. What must it have been like for the boys when they returned from Europe after years of fighting a war? 


My biggest struggle had been ordering off a menu written in German and arguing with a porter who claimed I was on the wrong train. 


The boys dodged Axis bullets. For years. 


When the soldiers finally approached home again, can you imagine the emotions? 


Those rolling hills south of Rollag became sacred ground for me. When I drive  Highway 32 on the way to or from the big city, I remember how glad I was to be nearing home and how glad I am for home. 


And I understand why many veterans who fought abroad have absolutely no desire to stray that far from home again. 


Last week on a blustery day I headed south to the big city. I took the route through Rollag just to see the rolling hills, the darkening ponds, the patterned fields, the dark, gnarled oak woods. 


I was in for a rude shock. 


Of all things, right on my sacred ground, they have erected thirty-two 260-foot tall windmills! Ugly, industrial windmills!


On trips west, I enjoy the wind farms. There is a massive one on the plains of central Colorado. I stopped and took pictures. There is another one about 80 miles east of San Diego. 


I like the idea of clean energy and harnessing the wind, so seeing those big blades go around makes me wonder: how many homes does each turbine supply? How could we store excess energy to use when the wind calms? 


I was a wind power enthusiast, dreaming of putting windmills everywhere with a strong breeze—until they put up thirty-two of the massive towers on my sacred ground!


This must not be allowed, I thought as I pounded the wheel. 


My first thought: Environmental impact study. We’ve got to make them do an environment impact study. How many ducks will those blades kill? Will the hum of the turbines interrupt frog mating calls? 


Maybe I could file a lawsuit based on the sacred ground issue. They hadn’t asked me, and I consider the area sacred. It is a religion of one, my Rollag Hill religion, but isn’t the Constitution supposed to protect my religious freedom from windmills? 


By the time I hit the DQ in Pelican Rapids, I had calmed down. We have no choice in life but to adjust. A butterscotch dipped cone speeds the healing process immensely. 


I’ll work to enjoy the unwelcome mixing of two of my favorite scenes: a big wind farm, and the Rollag hills. 


Maybe one day artists will paint the wind farms on those hills, like they paint those old Dutch windmills. Maybe the windmills will grace the side of potato chip boxes. 


Or maybe I’ll find some new sacred ground. 

 

Art Therapy

 

 

If ever there was a winter to miss, this was the one. Arriving home the second week of March means I get to experience a little of the fun, anyway. 

 

Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Do I miss anything at all about a northern Minnesota winter? 

 

Open questions, both. 

 

However, this trip home featured a lucky stop which made the arrival back in cold country much easier. That stop was at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, WY. 

 

Casper is a small city, founded on rail, oil and cows in the 1890s, and surviving, even thriving, on those same foundations today. 

 

It is not a town where you would expect to find a solid art museum. Yet, there sits the nationally-regarded Nicolaysen Museum in an renovated brick power plant in the old downtown of cowboy Casper. 

 

No museum worth its salt these days sticks to pictures on the wall. No sir, to earn your stripes, you must bring in incomprehensible “installation art” with objects hanging by strings and video screens with repeated scenes and stereo systems playing a repeated soundtrack over and over. 

 

The Nicolaysen did not disappoint. At least three installations filled the enormous space near the entrance. One work featured dozens of antibiotic IV plastic lemons hanging in rows from the ceiling. I believe the installation was inspired by a staph infection, and I am not kidding. 

 

At the exhibit’s opening several weeks ago, a dance troupe performed a fifteen-minute interpretive dance on staph infections beneath the antibiotic lemons and amidst a couple of dozen of those huge wooden spools used for electric cable. 

 

The dance played on a video, which allowed me to turn away after three seconds, eliminating the fourteen minutes and fifty-seven seconds of embarrassment I would have endured had I attended the actual opening. 

 

But, hey. It was cool. That’s what installation art is. Cool. You look at it, say, “that’s pretty cool!” and move on with your life. 

 

A second installation was inspired by the Yellowstone caldera, the massive unstable subterranean hot spot which makes the park so geologically unstable. In fact, when caldera blows sometime in the next 50,000 years, it will be the largest volcano in the world. 

 

Using crumpled velvet strung on a cable, like a wrinkled rope line, which worked its way like a snake around the entire space, and mounds black mesh, like that women used as veils in funerals at one time, the artist sought to make us think about the Yellowstone caldera in new ways. 

 

Again, it was really cool. 

 

And we moved on. 

 

Around the corner, we hit gold, an exhibit of old-fashioned paintings hanging on a wall, paintings executed by a young woman from Missouri, Sarah Williams. 

 

Ms. Williams has chosen as her subjects scenes from Midwestern small towns, and not the typical pretty scenes. 

 

No, Williams paints things some might think are ugly, or sad, or tacky, or grim. And she makes them beautiful. 

 

Have you ever driven late on a subzero winter night and stopped at a Cenex on the edge of a small town to run your card through the reader and fill up on gas with nobody around? 

 

A lonely scene, those tanks, the concrete slab, the tracks in the snow, the buzzing lights, the complete lack of any human presence. 

 

It is such scenes Williams paints. Night scenes. Loading docks lit by orange lights. Empty car wash bays, unused in winter. 

 

Williams also paints mid-century small-town homes with a lone porch light and the TV glowing through the window to the side of the entry. Sad? Lonely? To some. To me, they meant home. 

 

A cracked, pothole ridden parking lot with ice and puddles, lit only by one of those portable signs with plastic movable letters and a big arrow on top pointing towards the store where the “Clo s out sal e ends Mar 31 Everythng mus t go.” 

 

Scenes you might think of as the most depressing of a small town in winter were turned, by Williams’ brush, into comforting reminders of home. 

 

A warehouse at night, the frosty truck tracks up to the ramp lit only by a lone blue yard light. Beautiful. 

 

The earlier installations were cool. As mockable as such art can be, I defend artists who venture into the avant garde. 

 

But Sarah Williams’ paintings hit me in the soul like great art should. 

 

By pulling out scenes from winter at home, where I was headed with some trepidation, and making them beautiful, she changed forever the way I view a lonely row of ammonia tanks under a yard light on the edge of town in subzero weather. 

 

Bleak? Yes. 

 

But beautiful, too. 

 

 

Trip home

The American West is vast and varied, as I am reminded annually when I trek across the entire expanse from southwest to northeast on the way back home to reality. 

The weather forecast determines the route, and this time storms predicted for the West Coast made me think the mountain passes might be clogged with white stuff. 


Best to cling to the Mexican border on I-8 out of San Diego, I decided. 


Before pulling out of Carlsbad, I took one last look at the ever-changing ocean. In blinding horizontal rain, I walked to the beach to see the big rollers. Not only were the waves high, but wind from incoming storms actually pushes water against the coast, raising the ocean level several feet. Fascinating. 


But I had home on my mind. 


Took the road east through the hilly San Diego suburbs, up to the first mountain pass at 4,000 feet. Several more passes follow before the highway dives down into the Imperial Valley of Southeastern California, fifteen feet below sea level. 


The mountain ranges wring the water from the clouds. Once down into the valley, I-8 enters sunshine, warmth––and endless irrigated fields of vegetables. 


California is big on wind farms. On this windy day, the hundreds of massive blades hypnotically churned out the kilowatts. 


After passing through Yuma, right on the Mexican border, the irrigated fields give way to Arizona desert. Thanks to winter rains, central Arizona is beginning to show yellow and mauve blooms.  


A stop in Tucson, then around the bend into southern New Mexico, near the Mexican and Texas borders, and up through the heart of the Enchanted State (one state motto that is descriptive) on I-25, one of my favorite drives in the world. 


Truth and Consequences, NM, a town named after a game show, nestles amidst some of the grandest scenery afloat. 


The weather map shows it remains cold back home. Time to slow down. One night in Albuquerque, a city where Route 66 nostalgia rules the day, and another night in Santa Fe, where a trip through the foofy art galleries reminds me I am not in the one percent.


The weather map improves. Time to sprint home. 


Not so fast. On the way from the hotel to a restaurant in Denver, the steering wheel stops turning to the right unless you hang your entire weight on it. It has happened before. I suspect it is bad. 


Time to find a dealer and entrust the sleazy service representative with your entire credit line.


“Yeah, we’ll check it out in the morning,” he says. 


Morning turns to late afternoon. No call. 


“Listen, I’ve got to get home!” I say, not really needing to get home at all. 


“Listen, you ain’t going nowhere until I decide you will,” he says under his breath.


He has my credit card number. And my car. He will win. 


I was hoping they would bleed the system and I would be on my way, but who was I kidding? 


New “steering gear” needed. We can do it for $923 plus tax. 


Oh thanks a lot. Find the parts, get it done and let me out of here. 


Two days later, back on the road. North through the beautiful desolation of Wyoming to see friends in Casper. 


Oil activity isn’t limited to North Dakota. Douglas, Wyoming is a carnival of tired, dirty men, mud-caked pickups, slapped up apartment buildings swathed in Tyvek, wrecked roads, overwhelmed Taco Bells, the whole works. 


Tornados gravitate towards trailer courts, and oil appears where the scenery is the bleakest. Alaska. Saudi Arabia. Siberia. Now, Wyoming and Western North Dakota. 


Too depressing. Too desolate. Too much bad coffee in gas stations. Time to sprint home, even if it means a fourteen hour day. 


Bismarck marks the end of the oil. Next stop: Jamestown, where the Perkins is filled with pasty white people in winter coats, a fact I wouldn’t have noticed unless I had just been in southern California, where there are no winter coats, and not everybody is pasty white. 


Valley City. Casselton. Then Fargo. Fargo is where the snowbanks start to build. If there is one rule to coming back to Minnesota from the Southwest that holds true every year, it is this: 


No matter how hard or mild the winter, no matter how difficult or easy the trip home, the largest snow bank of the entire two-thousand mile trip will appear just after turning in the driveway at the home place. 


Yes, it is nice to be home. But after seeing that snowbank, you wonder, what was the big hurry? 




We're all phonies

 It’s not just the kids. 


Last week, I observed an retired Midwestern gentleman walking his golden retriever near the beach. I heard his phone beep. A text message had arrived. 


He pulled off the sidewalk, dug out his phone, and sat on a bench. As he read the message, he absent-mindedly draped the end of the leash over his leg.


As he struggled to tap out a message on the screen with his dairy-farmer thumbs, the leash fell to the ground. The young retriever, still curious about the world, sensed freedom and quietly sniffed his way down the nearby hedge. 


The man didn’t notice. He was busy trying to get those thumbs to work on his phone. Perhaps somebody back home had checked his house and found frozen pipes. Or, perhaps his granddaughter hit a basket in a gym somewhere in South Dakota. 


Who knows. But the dog, leash dragging, disappeared into the crowd by the fish stand, eager to follow its nose through the rich buffet of California scents. 


The man tapped away. Perhaps he was playing a word game with a sibling in Chicago. 


Our phones have taken us over––even those of us old enough know better, those of us who think, against all evidence, that we’re too mature to be controlled by our gadgets. 


My father, born in the Great Depression when their house ring was three longs and a short, now calls me from the woods where he is cutting firewood.


His ring, and he won’t be thrilled to hear this, is the aooooogah of a Model T horn. 


“Aoooogah,” goes the phone. 


“Oh, it’s Dad,” I say in California. “The pipes must be frozen.”


Nope. He’s just worried that the pipes might be frozen. That’s much better than the pipes being frozen. In fact, it is nice to know Dad’s worrying, because then the pipes will likely not freeze. The sheer energy of Dad’s worry generates heat where it is needed, it seems. 


I know before I answer the phone that Dad’s worried about the pipes because I just checked the temperature back home on my phone five minutes before. Fifteen below at noon, rising to twelve below at coffee time, sinking to thirty below by morning. 


Brrr. Too much information. I shove the phone back in my pocket—for a minute, at most, before it is time to check whether anybody has liked the photo of the beach I posted on Facebook. 


Ridiculous, of course. 


But it isn’t all silly. 


I would still be lost somewhere out on the California highway system if it were’t for the lady inside my phone. 


“In 400 feet, turn left onto Visalia Avenue,” she says. I don’t think, I just obey orders. 


“Find me a cup of coffee,” I ask her when I need some stimulus. 


She thinks. 


“There are three coffee shops nearby which may be of interest to you,” she answers. 


I select one. 


“In fifty feet, take a left at Oak Avenue,” she responds immediately.


It is too late. I am in the right lane. I cannot cross eight lanes in fifty feet. So I go through the intersection. 


Does this confuse the phone lady? Does she scold me, tell me I have really done it now, despair over what we’re going to do, tell me to stop at a gas station for directions? 


Nope. She adjusts within ten feet of me violating her command. No anger. No judgement.


“In one-hundred thirty feet, take a right on Magnolia Drive.” 


Easy. We’re going around the block, just as we would have anyway, but without worry and hoopla. In two minutes, we’ll be at the coffee shop by a different route. 


Yes, it is easy to decry phones as the vice of youth. Kids use them for their own preoccupations, most of which have something to do with finding acceptance from peers. 


But older people use phones for our preoccupations, which usually have something to do with finding a cup of coffee. Or a restaurant that fries its fish rather than serving it raw. Or a rest area. 


And do we know when to stop using them, we geezers? 


Not always. The other day, I passed a woman driving sixty-five with her phone in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Apparently, the car was on autopilot. 


But in California, they have raised bumps between the lanes. If you drift, brrump, brrump, brrump, the bumps simultaneously shake the ash from your cigarette and remind you that Ashley’s three pointer back in Sioux Falls has to take a back seat while you grab the wheel. 


Technology. It is making our lives easier by the day. 


 

Balboa Park

 Downtown San Diego is so clean it sparkles. Its crown jewel is Balboa Park, a 1200-acre complex which includes fifteen museums, at least eighteen gardens, and the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. 


Balboa Park got its start in 1835 under Mexican rule when local officials, honoring a Spanish civic tradition, set aside a large plot of land as a common area for the citizens of San Diego, who at the time numbered only in the 100s.


The park took its present form when it played host to a world-wide exhibition in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. San Diego, which by then had grown to a population of 40,000, hoped the canal would increase its prominence as a center of trade. 


In preparation for the exhibition, dozens of buildings went up in a hurry, all designed to last only one year. The exhibition was such a success, however, that it was extended another year and actually turned a profit. 


At its end, Theodore Roosevelt argued that the beautiful Spanish-style buildings should be preserved. 


His argument won the day. The buildings were strengthened and most of them survive.


My favorite of the old buildings at the park isn’t really a building. It is the Spreckles organ pavilion, home to one of the world’s few outdoor pipe organs. 


Each Sunday, the organ roars in concert for an hour. Last week’s concert doubled as a Humane Society event. Orphaned dogs marched across the stage as the organ tweeted “How Much is the Doggie in the Window.” 


Minutes earlier, the organist played a big Bach piece. The instrument handled both styles, light and heavy, with room to spare. 


Time only allowed visits to three of the museums. 


The Timkin Art museum is just the right size for a museum holding great art, including some Rembrandts. It is small. You can concentrate on each painting for a good amount of time, yet still do the entire collection justice without wearing your eyes out. 


The San Diego Museum of Art is somewhat larger, with a nice sampling of the major art styles and eras. 


By skipping over the Baroque and Renaissance stuff, which I haven’t yet learned to appreciate, and by walking real fast through the Modern section, the museum became manageable. 


My eye once again gravitated towards to landscapes of French painter Camille Corot. Not as famous as Monet, Van Gogh, or other 19th century masters, Corot’s muted rural landscapes capture the haunted charm of a lonely, quiet countryside. 


I had never heard of Corot until I visited the Louvre in Paris, an art museum so massive it would take months to fathom. 


Months, or maybe years at the rate I walked: I got stuck in a room full of Corot paintings and never left! Unlike the Mona Lisa room, which was filled with gabbling, rabid, elbowing tourists, I had Corot all to myself. Peaceful paintings in a peaceful setting. It is a memory I cherish. I felt as if I had met a new friend.


So, as I walked through the 19th century masters back in Balboa Park, and zeroed in on a beautiful little painting of a country scene at dusk, with the setting early winter sun lighting the bare aspen branches, I was thrilled to see the name “Corot” written at the bottom. 


“Ah, it’s you again!” I said to myself. 


On to the photography museum, which contained six separate exhibitions. The most thought-provoking: A series of swirling mixes of glowing rainbow colors, abstract masterpieces, utterly beautiful––until you realize they are overhead pictures of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and not abstract at all. 


You sink into the fantasy world of a good museum, only to walk out the heavy steel doors, blink back the sun, and reenter the crazy world of the present. 


Specifically, we jumped on a city bus packed with commuters who hung from high steel bars, revealing, at close range, the inadequacy of their deodorant. 


What a come down––until you think of the old days, the pastoral scenes painted by the masters, scenes of farms with rustic, unbathed peasants; scenes of the city market where peddlers sold live chickens out of unclean pens; scenes of Europe’s horse-packed, sewage-caked streets of 1685.


The aromas of a packed city bus in San Diego on an 80 degree day in February were probably mild in comparison to the aromas in the beautiful, painted scenes. 


Best to view the smelly past from the antiseptic, air-conditioned comfort of a museum in Balboa Park, a gift from the area’s Spanish colonial heritage dating back to 1835.


 











 

Beach culture

 We in the Upper Midwest see Southern California through the lens of television, and frankly, what we often see are a bunch of flakes. 


On the ground in Southern California, the reality is, yes, people here are   unleashed from the constraints we feel back home. And good for them. 


I think it has to do with the proximity to the beach. Think about how people act on July 4 at the lake. Multiply that by 365, and you have Southern California. 


Hundreds of miles of beach. Millions living within a stone’s throw of sand, sun and rolling waves. 


The Grand Canyon is grand. However, once you’ve made the drive to get there and stand at the rim for 10 minutes, it is pretty much over. 


You could stay and hike to the bottom, or you could stand at the rim long enough to see the colors change as the sun moves, but who has time for that? 


The ocean, meanwhile, has staying power. It is never the same. Waves roll in at different angles and heights each hour of each day. 


The tide rolls in, which in Carlsbad, CA means the rollers crash right against a bank of sand––then the tide retreats, which produces the long, slow waves surfers love. 


To compare to the rural Midwest: I think the ocean provides the same spiritual sustenance to Californians as people back home get from our dominant religion, deer hunting. 


Experienced deer hunters talk about the joy of sitting in the stand those beautiful days of early November, watching nature. 


“I don’t even care if I shoot anything,” they say, proving their advanced stage of spiritual development. “I just enjoy sitting there.” 


The ocean has the same charm. You can watch it for hours. You can go stick a toe in the edge. You can walk for ten miles and back on the sand. 


The roar of the surf gives privacy. You can hide in your own thoughts. With everybody else lost in their thoughts, you can dance, sing, do push ups, whatever you want. 


At the beach here in Carlsbad, a man in his late seventies climbs the cement wall each day and adopts the plank position. That is, he lays flat and raises himself only on his toes and his elbows, as if stopping to rest in the middle of a push-up. 


There he stays, stiff as a board. If you and I tried the same thing, we would shake with fatigue after twenty seconds. But he stays there and stays. 


He has been doing this for years. His skin is beyond melanoma. I suspect at one time he was Caucasian, but now he is some form of leather. 


Passerby do not quietly mock, gossip, giggle or stare as they would in the Midwest. Instead, they stop and ask questions. Real, interested questions. 


The man gladly discusses his regimen. He does the plank position hours per day. Has for years. It has made him what he is today. 


The beach is filled with others just as strange, but nobody thinks anything of it. 


One man sets up an easel: “Try the iron man challenge!” it says. 


The iron man challenge, in this case, means he will let you put on boxing gloves and pummel him as hard as you can. I didn’t try it, but those who did got nowhere. He fended off every blow. 


Meanwhile, the beach yoga class sits in rows on the sand. Anybody is welcome. Join during the middle of the class! No problem. 


All over the beach town you see activities which would be mocked out of existence in the Midwest. 


A funk band plays outside at a beach bar. An elderly man with a massive mane of white hair shows up to dance. He wears a leopard suit, complete with tail. 


Nobody blinks an eye. 


Out on the water, surfers struggle for hours to catch one wave. Of all athletes, they must be the most conditioned––not from the surfing, but from the hours spent furiously paddling to catch a wave. 


Skateboarding, I now realize, arose from surfing. When the waves went flat, surfers figured out a way to surf on land. 


Today, a skateboard is the best way to navigate the beach towns. As traffic sits jammed, skateboarders, some of retirement age, scoot between the cars and get where they are going without having to park when they get there. 


Southern Californians might seem flakey to Midwesterners, but that is more due to our stick-in-the-mud attitudes than the Californians doing anything wrong. 


Think about it: if Grandpa wants to dress up in a leopard suit and dance to funk, why in the world not? 

 

California Coast

 Yes, a person can get homesick every now and then when gone south for the winter. 


But there is a cure: call home. Doesn’t matter who. Just call any number in the 218 or 701 area code. Listen to the desperation, the depression, the rage on the other end. 


Feel the subzero cold pour through the speaker of the phone. Feel the desire to go home evaporate. 


Rents skyrocket in Tucson in February, so I moved onward to the south California coast to see what has drawn twenty million others to the area.


At random, I chose the coastal village of Carlsbad between San Diego and Los Angeles. That’s right, it is a village. On the coast. A cute little place, according to the brochures. 


Carlsbad has 102,000 residents. Almost as big as Fargo, this village. 


Why all the people in California, and Carlsbad? 


The weather! The scenery! Endless beaches! When you get here, it is obvious why everybody else got here already. 


Think July 4 at the lake, but every day. 


Today, Sunday, I took four walks to the beach. Each trip I became convinced there was some sort of emergency going on. Hundreds of people lined the beach, and they all stared out at the water. 


Following their gaze, I looked hard at the ocean. I looked for sharks. I looked for whales. I looked for sinking ships. I looked for drowning victims, or for injured surfers. I saw nothing. 


I looked back at the people lining the beach. They still stared outward. What was I missing? 


Finally, I realized the crowds were just enjoying the ocean. They were watching the waves, absorbing the misty breeze, catching some rays. 


With millions of people clinging to a narrow piece of land between the coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean, space is tight. 


Unlike the Midwest, where we have plenty of elbow room, and Arizona, where the millions are spread across seventy miles of desert, California has to squeeze people in. 


No long, luxurious entrance ramps onto the freeway here, folks. Nope, if you want to get onto I-5, you have to keep your eye out for a little tar path tucked between two overgrown rhododendrons just past the McDonald’s drive through. 


Look hard and you’ll see a faded “Freeway Entrance” sign behind the leaves. Yank the wheel, then tromp on the accelerator, for the little tar path is a little tar path for about seven more rhododendrons before it foists you onto eight lanes of California freeway mayhem. 


If you aren’t up to speed by the time you burst forth from the rhododendron grove, you will be squashed by a BMW. 


On the southern California coastal map run four major north/south lines. 


First is the endless sandy shoreline, where waves have been pounding the beach for millions of years without cessation. 


Fifty yards east of the beach runs US Highway 101, the scenic route along the coast. Take the 101 if you aren’t in a hurry, or if you want a taste of local beach culture. 


Just south on US 101 sits a church. The name? “Self-Realization Fellowship.”


Something tells me they aren’t ELCA. 


About 150 yards east of Highway 101 is the commuter rail. Several trains pass per hour, horns blaring. 


Finally, 200 more yards to the east, the fourteen jam-packed lanes of Interstate 5.


Tucked between these four major demarcations are countless tiny condos, boutiques, cafes and stores.  


The tiny bungalow I rented is fifty yards from the rail line. Within 2000 feet are over 40 cafes, according to my phone. The beach is steps away. 


Yes, things are congested, but the laid-back attitude of Californians makes it easier to endure the crowds. 


Californians obey the walk/don’t walk lights even when there is no traffic. Rather than sneak out early, or rush across late, California pedestrians sun themselves as they wait for the light to change. 


When the light finally changes, only half of the walkers leave the curb. The rest wake up from their nap, stretch, do some yoga, and then decide whether to cross now, or hang out until the next green light.


On the beach, people do their own thing. They jog in any number of bizarre styles. They do push ups on the walkway. They dance with scarves flowing. They gather to beat drums. 


Or, they just stare out at the endless ocean and bask in the breeze. 


It’s the southern California coast, the un-Minnesota, where millions of people have shoehorned themselves onto a small slice of paradise.