Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

Should we worry?

Nothing like a spell of incredibly good weather to bring out the inherent pessimism of the good folks on the northern Great Plains. 

As the temperature climbs into the 70s at a time when it could well be zero, the question on the street becomes: "Should we worry?" 


Should we worry that the trees are going to leaf out too soon? 


Should we worry that we are going to have a drought this summer? 


Should we worry that the ponds are all going to dry up? 


Should we worry that we are going to be smitten dead for having so much fun? 


As far as I am concerned, the answer to the question, "Should we worry?" is always, "No!" 


True, we may get a cold spell and some of the early leaves might get nipped. If the apple blossoms come out and then we get a frost, no apples this year. 


But can we do anything at all about it? No!


So, why worry? 


Just as it doesn't matter the least if you are wearing your lucky shirt when Joe Mauer comes to bat, it doesn't change things one bit if you worry. 


Worry arises from the human conceit that we can control nature, or fate in general, in the short-term. 


Somehow, we seem to think if you worry about the trees freezing, they are less likely to freeze. 


Worry also comes from the puritanical notion that any pleasure today will be punished with equal pain tomorrow, and probably a little extra for good measure. 


If we have a nice spring, we'll have a miserable summer. If we have a nice fall, we'll have a long winter. 


An optimist could argue that this nice spring is our reward for surviving the misery of last spring. But you don't hear that kind of talk. It might bring bad luck. 


Worry exaggerates our own importance in the universe. 


It has even infected our religion. 


In more pious times, prayer was a form of meditation on the nature of the holy. Most saints of old would never have had the audacity to pray that a blizzard would veer south and hit St. Cloud so that we can make it safely to the region final in Thief River.  


But now we have people appealing to a higher power to bring rain, delay the rain, influence the election, change the MRI results, prevent the running back from tearing his ACL and make the fumes in the gas tank last until the next town. 


Such whining and begging is nothing more than sanctified worry, a grasping attempt to control that which we can't.


A healthier but more boring approach is to do the slow work of changing what we can control and just let go of that which we can't. 


We can't control tomorrow’s weather. But we can control our long-term effect on the weather. 


When I arrived in New Zealand, we weren't on the beach for fifteen minutes before my travel companion said, “you’re red as a beet!”


Turns out, New Zealand has an ozone hole. Ultra-violet rays are stronger there by a long shot than in the Northern Hemisphere. 


The strong sunshine in the Southern Hemisphere makes for the deepest red tomatoes I have ever eaten. It made me look like a tomato. But it also causes skin cancer.


If it keeps on, it will be bad news. 


Fortunately, twenty-five years ago countries banded together to pass the Montreal Protocol. It banned the production of chemicals which were eating away at the ozone layer. 


Thanks to the treaty, by 2050 the ozone layer is expected regain its former thickness. 


Forging such an agreement took years of study, diplomacy and negotiation. It required private enterprise to come up with an alternative to aerosol spray, which it did in a hurry.


But such an agreement would never pass muster in the United States today. 


No, any change which requires long, hard work, a little sacrifice and which doesn't pay immediate dividends is scoffed at by the rabble rousers. 


Instead, we wallow in short-term, selfish magical thinking. If we screw up, if we forget to fill the tank, somebody will rescue us! In fact, it will be a test of faith!


Sadly, many of our politicians, rather than leading us to solve difficult long-term problems over which we have some control, exploit the ignorant human tendency to rely upon miracles to solve short-term worries over which we have no control. 


It wasn't always that way. And that worries me. 





 

A couple Kiwi conundrums

In 1980, New Zealand farmers were amongst the most highly-subsidized in the world. A complex system of price supports, tariffs and government payments kept things at a fairly even keel. 


However, when New Zealand's competitive edge in agriculture began to slip in the late 1970s, even the farmers saw the writing on the wall and began to question the system. 


After a thorough debate, the most radical solution was agreed upon: Tariffs, subsidies and government payments were eliminated. The New Zealand farm program ended cold turkey in 1983. 


When I traveled New Zealand in 1987, I met two farmers who lost everything in the transition. They were distraught. One took a humble janitorial position. Another told of depression and divorce. 


However, after a six-year period of adjustment, farmland prices began to rise again in 1990. Since that time, New Zealand has been an agricultural poster child, competing on the world market and galloping to new heights of profitability.


In fact, a higher percentage of New Zealanders work on farms today than did thirty years ago. And just as many people live in New Zealand's rural areas as lived there in 1920. 


In another example of the Kiwi willingness to tackle big problems, New Zealand decided to do something about lawsuits. With broad public support, the parliament simply banned most of them.

 

To provide compensation for accident victims and the like, the government formed Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC).


If you trip and break your arm outside the supermarket, you go to the ACC. They have a big book which tells them what broken arms are worth. You get a check and move forward with your life. 


And, presumably, somebody from the ACC will go visit the supermarket and try to get them to fix the crack in the concrete sidewalk before somebody else falls. 


In the 1980s, the ACC was expanded to include all medical malpractice claims. If the doctor screws up, you don't sue the doctor. No, you take your claim to the ACC and they give you a settlement. 


I went to New Zealand to study their nursing home system. I came home with observations which could fill a book, but one thing in particular puzzled me. 


As I walked through the halls of various homes, there was a sense given off by staff and administrators that the residents were wards of an institution. 


Even the gushy promotional literature for some of the nicer nursing homes couched their amenities in authoritarian terms: "With staff approval, you may be able to bring along some of your cherished belongings!" 


A nursing home inspector told me that she has trouble finding out about abuses because, "Even the families of older people won't report problems for fear of reprisal."


There have been abuses uncovered by the Kiwi press, things similar to what you'd hear about in the States. 


However, after a public penance ritual by the administrators, and maybe a little discussion in Parliament, things settle down and the incident is forgotten. 


As my trip drew to a close, it was the attitude of the eldercare system towards the people it serves that troubled me most. 


The consumers, that is the older Kiwis themselves, lack any of the swagger you find in American consumers. Most wouldn't even meet your gaze in the hall. 


In this country, consumers generally don't put up with any baloney, particularly if we are paying for a service. We sometimes get obnoxious. 


In health care, if we really get mistreated, we go to court and raise a ruckus. The court case drags the dirty laundry onto the evening news, and a large settlement can throw the finances of a hospital out of joint. 


It took me a while to put two and two together: One problem with the New Zealand system may be that they solved one of their biggest problems.


Lawsuits don't happen, but is care in New Zealand improved by the savings in dollars that would otherwise go to malpractice insurance? 


I really wonder. 


Perhaps because no individual doctor, hospital or nursing home faces possible financial loss for mistreatment or malpractice, health care staff move about with more authoritarian swagger than you see here, at least in the rural Midwest.  


The wrong people feel the fear.  


The thought occurred to me that a big lawsuit on the front pages for a couple of weeks might do more to improve the attitude towards New Zealand's institutionalized elderly than any tweak of policy. 


And I am reminded that a big solution such as the banning of lawsuits, even when it seems to work, can create new problems. 


 

Change in New Zealand

New Zealand has nearly eradicated change. 

By change, I mean the stuff that jingles in your pocket when you come home from town, rattles in the drier, piles up on the dresser, ends up in a tupperware which one lugs to the bank every two years. 


The ever-practical Kiwis are always tweaking their system, right down to their pocket change. 


They got rid of the 1-cent and 2-cent coins during my last trip there in 1987. All prices were rounded up or down to the nearest nickel. 


Then in 2006, the Kiwi Reserve Bank got rid of the nickel as well. Stores rounded the total to the nearest dime, and it is up to each retailer to decide whether to round a price ending in .05 up or down. 


New Zealand has a sales tax (GST) of 15%. However, the tax is folded into the price posted on the item. 


Consequently, all prices end in round numbers and when you get to the till, that's what you pay. You can add things up in your head and get your bills ready. 


Except you may not need the bills.


Why? Also in 2006, the New Zealand government decided to get rid of the $1 and $2 bills. The smallest bill is now a $5. 


To make up for the bills, they minted $1 and $2 coins of a new size, color and thickness. 


Except, you probably won't need those, either. 


About the same time the New Zealand government simplified its coinage, free enterprise simplified things even more. 


Credit and debit cards are used everywhere in New Zealand, and you never have to sign the receipt. They just hand you the type pad. You type in your PIN number, press enter and away you go. 


With no tipping expected in New Zealand restaurants, the total of $40 for a meal is the total. No tax (that you can see), no tip to add, no complications.

 

The results of this system didn't hit home until I arrived home and made a purchase of $8.29. After Minnesota sales tax of .06875 was added, the bill came to $8.86. 


I paid with a ten dollar bill.


What did I get in return? A crumpled one dollar bill, four pennies and a dime. As I took the handful from the clerk, it felt as clumsy as collecting candy from neighbor Helen at Halloween. 


The whole pile now sits next to the washer, waiting for the day next year when I haul it all to the bank to get fresh crispy bills with zeroes at the end. 


In New Zealand, the only time you deal with change is when you pay for parking or do laundry at the hotel. 


In both cases, we dug through our luggage, we dug through the car seats, we pulled our pockets inside out––and we couldn't find a single coin, much less the $1 and $2 coins that were required. 


If you subtract parking and laundry, change is simply unnecessary in New Zealand. 


No jingles in the pocket at the end of the day. No heavy bag of useless coins collected from the bottom of your backpack at the end of the trip. 


If you've ever counted a till at the end of a day of retail sales, you know how much time the New Zealand system would save us. 


Yet, every attempt made in the United States to simplify our coinage system has met with stiff resistance. 


Call me a coin radical, but I want to change our system to reduce change. 


Americans, including myself, love their quarter. It is a beautiful coin with a palpable sense of value and a good feel in the pocket. Finding one is a joy. 


However the penny, nickel and dime have reached the point where if you see one on the ground you debate the value of bending down to pick it up, especially as you age and deteriorate.


Get rid of all three. Round everything to the nearest quarter. 


Also, get rid of the one-dollar bill and create a good, popular one dollar coin. 


As a model for the $1 coin, I would suggest the British pound, a coin with the relative thickness of an Oreo cookie. When you have a pound in your pocket, it feels like something with true worth. 


Adoption of a sensible  coinage system would save billions of dollars and tons of hassle. 


However, Americans are too traditional to do something so sensible. Just as they rejected the easy-to-use metric system, they will reject anything which inhibits their right to haul around bushels of their beloved penny. 








 

Kiwi Careers

While passing through the capitol of New Zealand, Wellington, we visited some of the people who hosted me during my last visit as a student twenty-five years ago. 

Marcus was a young architect when his roommate at the time, a teacher named Alex, brought me home from school and allowed me to sleep on their couch for a couple of weeks. 


I didn't know, but I assumed that talented Marcus had progressed far down his career path and was now designing earthquake-proof skyscrapers for shaky Wellington. 


I was wrong. Like many New Zealanders, Marcus isn't one to climb the ladder in the way we do in America. 


After tearing down the old apartment building we had lived in, Marcus and his father designed a beautiful upscale apartment complex in its place. 


Then they built it with their own hands. 


They did everything themselves including plumbing and wiring. The job took them seven years of full-time labor. 


Now full, that apartment building provides them a good income. 


Marcus is back to designing buildings, but he only takes enough jobs to keep active. 


Then I gave Pat and Rodney a call. When I first landed in New Zealand as a twenty-two-year-old student teacher, they generously hosted me for a week. 


Pat was a home economics teacher. Rodney worked for the power company. They were the solidest of solid couples, almost boring in their utter conventionality. 


When I found they had moved to the beach town of Paraparaumu, I figured they had retired from their solid jobs at the proper time and were whiling away their days in their garden. 


I was wrong. 


When in their upper fifties, Pat and Rodney quit their jobs and moved to England to take menial jobs for a couple of years for a change. 


After failing to land a joint janitorial job at the Royal Stamp Collectors Society in London, they both ended up working in their former fields. After a year in England, they had enough and returned to New Zealand. 


Now, in retirement, they have started a non-profit organization to benefit children. 


Such career flexibility is common amongst the Kiwi's. 


Dianne, who hosted us in the northern New Zealand coastal town of Mangawhai, manages a motel and rents out three houses on a nightly basis to sun-seekers from all over the world. She takes the calls, cleans the rooms and makes the beds.  


Oh, and she owns and runs a large property management company two hours south in Auckland. 


At a rest home we visited in the small farm town of Matamata, I glanced through the biographies of the board of directors. 


One bio caught my eye. It was of a man who owns the local supermarket. He was a member of many clubs and organizations around town, in addition to serving on the hospital board which, in New Zealand, means a good deal of work. 


Oh, and he "maintains a small medical practice." 


"What?" I asked the administrator, expecting the term "medical practice" in Kiwi parlance to include something like massage or foot rubbing. 


No, the administrator replied, the man was a fully-practicing medical doctor who found that he wanted a change of careers. So, he started a supermarket!


Flummoxed, I asked what is it with these people who leave apparently high-profile jobs and move into jobs that don't even seem related. 


"Oh, it happens all the time," he said, pointing out a successful local dairy farmer who sold his herd, rented out his land, earned his RN and is now the director of nursing at his hospital. The money is less, but he wanted a change. 


We met a chemical company CEO who now runs a winery. We met a occupational therapist who now earns her living making hats and dresses. 


In fact, it almost seems the exception when a New Zealander keeps the same career for their entire working life. They don't just change jobs, they create new careers entirely. 


And the new careers aren't always more lucrative. 


Alex, my fellow teacher and host years ago, almost apologized for still teaching. But despite a career path he apologetically described as boring, he spent a few years in Japan teaching. 


After meeting all these people with dual, triple or wildly varying careers, I realized why I felt comfortable here. 


When I tried to explain my jobs, which include selling petunias, writing columns, and now chasing around New Zealand visiting nursing homes, not a soul has commented on the weird variety. 


Instead, they say "good on ya!" and pitch in with their always interesting thoughts about aging in New Zealand. 


It makes me feel at home, even 8,000 miles from the nearest package of lefse. 





 

Fox Glacier

 The sparsely-populated South Island of New Zealand lies about as close to Antarctica as you can get without a plane or boat. 


Yet, it contains a gaudy variety of scenery unseen anywhere else. 


The crown jewel of the South Island is its remote West Coast, a former gold-mining region now devoted to dairy and tourism. 


New Zealand's West Coast is so removed from the rest of the country that it seems to operate under its own set of laws. 


In the rest of New Zealand, the pubs close at 11 p.m. On the West Coast, the hours posted say, "Open noon till late." 


"Late" is left undefined. 


Today at a museum in the West Coast gold-mining town of Hokatika, I found out why. In the 19th century, West Coast pubs were actually required to stay open all day and all night to serve the prospecting throngs. 


The tradition hasn't entirely died out. 


Twenty-five years ago when I passed through New Zealand's West Coast as a college student, it was quite rough. I stayed in a hotel, which was a set of dorms above the pub with about eight beds per room. 


Although I was alone when I went to sleep, I didn't know what sort of drunk would buy a key and plow in during the middle of the night. 


Now, there are chain hotels who know what middle-aged people are willing to pay for a reasonably nice bed. And some privacy.


What hasn't changed is the scenery. It is some of the world's best. 


From the Tasman Sea, the West Coast clings to a brief shelf of land which is home to diary farms and some beach homes. As you move eastward, however, the land climbs fast from sea level to 12,000 feet. 


As the terrain forces the moist sea air upwards, the persistent clouds drop up to twenty inches of rain per month. At about 7,000 feet, that rain changes to dozens of feet of snow. 

Near 12,000 foot Mt. Cook lies a twenty square mile snow field to which is added over 100 feet of snow each year. 


That snow field has spawned a glacier which moves ten times the speed of normal glaciers. 


Fox Glacier plows forward at a rate of thirty feet per day. Due to its speed, it survives down to an altitude of 1,000 feet, where it grinds through rain forest. 


The West Coast rain forest is so deep, so dark, so thick that one of the primary causes of death for early pioneers was "getting lost in the bush." 


In fact, there are only two places where one can view Fox Glacier from above through holes cut in the  forest, and those two places are so small that you have to take turns with Japanese tourists and retired New Zealanders on holiday. 


The glacier itself runs for nine miles. At its end, tourists can approach within 600 feet of its massive face. 


In 2009, two tourists ignored the warning signs to get pictures closer to the glacier. They were crushed by a chunk of ice weighing over 100 tons. One of their bodies was found 6 miles downstream.


While we contemplated the massive blue chunk of ice over a thousand years old standing a couple of hundred feet high and a half-mile wide, a thunder clap shook the ground on which we stood. The glacier had jolted forward like a tectonic plate. 


From beneath the glacier roars grey melt-water, made cloudy by the sediment from rock ground to dust by the nine-mile-long mass of ice. 


Guided tours will take you onto the glacier. Helicopter and plane rides will give you a better view. 


The weather permitted us to do neither. 


However, nothing could detract from the sense that we had seen one of the earth's great natural wonders. 


At the edge of the little village of Fox Glacier which serves the tourists, there is a little trail. 


People gather at the head of the trail after sunset, which in the Southern Hemisphere summer, happens about 8:30. 


As you enter the darkened trail into the rainforest, you become enveloped by the green light of glow worms. On a good night, the trail itself is visible merely because it is darker than its worm-covered surroundings overhead. 


It is the end of the day. The massive wonders of the Southern Alps and Fox Glacier have given way to the gentler but no less impressive efforts of thousands of worms. 






 

Mangawhai

First stop in New Zealand: The coastal town of Mangawhai, north of Auckland, on the east coast, looking out towards several islands. 

We scheduled two days in a small coastal town to wear off any possible jet lag, but the New Zealand sunrise burned off both the coastal fog and the accumulated mental fog from a 13-hour flight. 


My worries about driving on the left-hand side of the road also dissipated. You just have to concentrate, just like we should whenever we are behind the wheel!


The biggest problem is that the blinker is on the right sight of the steering wheel. The windshield wiper is on the left. Every time I turn, I signal my intention with a noisy swipe of the wipers. 


Within an hour of reaching Mangawhai, we found an empty sandy beach and watched the turquoise rollers crash on the sand and whoosh up towards our feet. 


Compared to the numbing winter back home, the tropical beach creates sensory overload. Sand under my bare feet. Waves washing past my porcelain-colored legs. And sunshine that warms the soul. 


However, soul-warming tropical sunshine, when allowed to reach one's balding head for over two hours, can fry the pate in a hurry. The cure: one of those wide-rimmed hats with a string around the chin. 


The hat still stings when I pull it onto my raw head. But I wear it wherever I go. Combined with brand new oversized Sophia Loren sunglasses––the only pair I could find that fits over my prescription glasses––my nerd factor has climbed to Kim Jong-Il-like levels. 


However, when you are a foreigner, you are already a strange bird by virtue of talking funny. 


On the second morning, a Saturday, a farmer's market materialized on the lawn of the old, wooden town hall next to our hotel. 


Sweet corn. Fresh tomatoes. Jellies, jams and chutneys. Wine. Sausage. Massive wheels of cheese. Fresh cut flowers. Fresh caught fish. Freshly-harvested oysters, mussels and clams.


And, good small-town people. 

 

We met Joan, 86, who sat knitting wool slippers which she sells to benefit the New Zealand Leprosy Mission. 


We met Jim, a retired chemical company CEO who started a vineyard in retirement. He enthusiastically elocuted on the chemical aspects of fine wines. 


We met hat-maker Heather, who invited us over to see her massive garden and orchard later in the day.


In friendly New Zealand, connections multiply like plankton. By the end of the afternoon, we pulled up to the kitchen table of Ron, a 92-year-old ball of fire who gave me a run-down of the difficulties that surrounded the building of a local senior housing complex. 


Out came newspaper clippings. Out came bills for car registration, hospital stays and other items of interest to somebody trying to understand what daily life is like for elderly New Zealanders. 


Ron, who is a picture of health, described his regimen: 


"My wife and I had two whiskeys before tea every night," he said, "and, of course, I smoked like a chimney." 


"Tea," in New Zealand, is the evening meal. Tea, the drink, is served in the morning and afternoons, and Ron fixed us up a fine cup. But tea, the drink, is almost never served at tea, the meal. 


Although Ron is healthy, he does need a hernia repaired. If he pays for it himself or with private insurance, they could cut him open tomorrow. If he wants the surgery for free, as all New Zealanders are entitled to, he will wait 4-6 months. 


Ron seems to think the fair trade-off is fair. 


"If I want it to speed along, I'll just arrange to fall and break my arm," he said with a wink. "Then they'll have to take me!" 


An endearing New Zealand trait: When the conversation winds down, Kiwis end it. Fast. No standing half-way out the door hemming and hawing. 


So, this Minnesotan, acculturated to hemming, hawing and lingering, got shooed away from a conversation no fewer than five times in one day.


"You aren't here to chat about my family," Ron said sheepishly after he brought out some family pictures. "You've got things to do!" 


Yes, we had things to do. We had to get to the beach before sunset. 


At the beach, a retired man carrying a massive fishing pole hollered, "Where are they biting, mate?" 


My accent made it obvious that I had no clue. 


"What brings you here, mate?" he asked. 


"It is twelve below zero at home!" I replied. 


"Fair enough!" he said. 


"Carry on!" 
















 

Gone Down Under

After fifteen years of loyalty to Arizona, this winter brings a new warm weather destination: New Zealand. 

By going to New Zealand in February, you don't just escape to warmth, you escape to a new season. February in the Southern hemisphere is the equivalent of August in the northern half of the globe. 


Yes, the sweet corn is ripening in New Zealand–– as are the early apples and any number of other fruits and vegetables that thrive in New Zealand's many micro-climates. 


For me, the draw of New Zealand goes beyond the warm weather and inverted seasons.


Twenty-five years ago, I spent three months in the country as a twenty-two-year-old student teacher. 


Although I was supposed to teach for the entire three months, my supervising teacher was more eager that I see their beautiful country than that I learn to teach. 


We worked out an arrangement. I taught for a little while, long enough so the supervisor could attest to my basic competence. 


Then, with the full blessing and encouragement of the administration, I hit the road to hitch-hike up and down the two beautiful and varied islands that make up the magical country of New Zealand. 


There was one complication: A professor from the States was to come and observe me teach. The timing of the supervisory visit was to be a surprise. 


But since the poor man had no idea how to handle New Zealand, he called ahead. That gave away the dates of his arrival, which gave me plenty of time to skedaddle back to the school. 


When the day of my observation arrived, the school administrators found me the best-behaved section of students in the school. The teacher handed me a ready-made lesson plan and I got up front and taught a class of students I had never seen before. 


The professor from the States watched intently. He was no dummy. He sensed something was funny. 


"Your interactions with the students lacked a certain spontaneity," he said afterward. "Everything seemed quite scripted." 


Darn right the class was scripted. I read from notes not my own and the students were instructed to only ask questions which had been agreed upon head of time!


Although the professor gave me a passing mark, I had to agree to work on this problem of stiffness. 


My New Zealand supervisor and I agreed upon a solution: As soon as the good professor disappeared down the ramp onto the plane that would take him back to the States, I hit the road for another month of hitch-hiking. 


The stiffness disappeared immediately.


To describe the beauty of New Zealand would take volumes. In short, the place is enchanted. 


In the Bay of Plenty, I stayed on a kiwi fruit farm within yards of an ocean beach. 


On the West Coast, I stayed in a hostel near the base of a glacier which sometimes pushes against sub-tropical growth. 


In Taurunga, I stayed in a rustic, candle-lit cabin with a survivalist couple and their six-week old baby. 


In Wellington, I stayed in a flat overlooking the harbor with a teacher from Chile. 


Over the course of my stay, I turned down more invitations than I was able to accept.


Kiwi hospitality amazed me. 


While hitch-hiking, a woman pulled over and gestured for me to get in the back seat of her compact car. That wouldn't have been so unusual if her two babies weren't strapped in back there as well. 


After a short ride of ten minutes, our paths diverged. I got out, but had to wait a while for her to write down her address on a scrap of paper. 


"We won't be home when you come back through, but the key is under the mat and the refrigerator is always full!"


Time didn't allow me to accept her hospitality, but it sure made an impression. 


Twenty-five years is a long time. Perhaps in that time, things have changed in New Zealand. In that time, I have changed, too. 


For one thing, I have rented a car. No hitch-hiking. I am too old, and who knows if it is still safe to thumb a ride.  


And no calling the scribbled phone number of friends of friends of friends I have never met asking if I can sleep on their couch for the night. 


Those days are over. 


But I hope this trip finds that the magic of New Zealand's scenery and the hospitality of its inhabitants remain intact. 


Who knows, maybe I'll work some stiffness out of my 47-year-old bones. 




 

Hitting a gusher

Turns out, finding oil on your land is a little like winning the lottery. 

Everybody dreams they'll win the lottery, but most all lottery winners soon come to rue the day they bought the winning ticket. 


Friends expect freebies. The winners' job becomes meaningless. Their daily life loses focus. Distant cousins materialize overnight. Offspring squabble over their money. Calls come in from worthy causes the world over. 


So, too, with the discovery of oil North Dakota has won the lottery. The state's once abandoned western counties now bustle like California during the gold rush of 1849. 


Of course to hear North Dakota politicians tell the story the state is prospering like no other because the politicians, in their infinite wisdom, "created a friendly business climate." 


North Dakota's entry into the Miss American contest chirped on national television that her state is "leading the nation out of the recession," implying that North Dakota has pulled itself up by the bootstraps and the rest of the nation should follow its virtuous example. 


Pure baloney. 


State budget problems? Unemployment? Solved. 


All you have to do is find billions of barrels of oil. Just win the lottery and your state will prosper.


Yet, winning the oil lottery is as dangerous as winning the regular lottery, perhaps even more so. 


People are dying. 


Traffic accidents in western North Dakota are way up. Crime is way up. Drilling for oil is risky. The oil patch is a dangerous place!


A way of life is dying. 


Rent and property values have risen so fast that many elderly locals on fixed incomes in western North Dakota towns such as Williston and Dickinson have been forced to leave town. 


Today in formerly sleepy towns of western North Dakota, you have to lock your car when you run into the station for a cup of coffee. The roads, almost all roads, have been ruined by the large equipment. Volunteer fire departments don't answer calls. Fights break out in the long lines at the gas station.


Some western North Dakotans have gotten rich, others have not simply because somebody sold the mineral rights to their land decades ago. 


Nothing breeds more discontent in a neighborhood than a random and seemingly unfair influx of wealth. 


A newspaper editorial in Western North Dakota recently argued that the region should be declared an economic disaster area. Cap the drilling, the writer stated, or we will be overwhelmed!


Circulation of the smartly-written, courageous editorial was soon quashed by the publisher of the newspaper. We can't come out against progress! 


It is well-established that winning the lottery is one of the most destructive things that can happen to a person. 


Yet everybody thinks when they win it themselves, they will be the exception and will survive, even thrive, with their newly-found millions. 


It never, ever works. Ever. 


Why should an entire region that has won the lottery be any different? 


Oil field investors constantly worry that the mighty feds will stop the drilling due to the possible effect of fracking (high pressure fracturing of the rock which contains the oil) on ground water quality. 


Who is anybody kidding? Do you think the Environmental Protection Agency is going to simply call a halt to the exploitation of the biggest domestic oil find in decades? 


Think again. Money is at stake, and when money is at stake, the people with the money eventually get their way. 


So, fracking is safe. By that, I mean fracking is safe from long-term interference by the feds. The political pressure is as high as the pressure required to frack a well. 


Whether fracking harms well water may never be objectively known. The truth will likely spend decades buried beneath a blizzard of checks from lobbyists. 


As a small-town booster, I am always thrilled when economic activity awakens long dormant communities. 


We always hope for a factory, or a visionary entrepreneur, or something to descend from the sky to rescue us from our century-long economic decline. 


The discovery of oil underfoot would seem to be a boon on all counts. 


However, winning the lottery can be too much of a shock, whether it be to the mental make-up of a grandmother on social security or to an entire stagnant region that discovers it is sitting on a sea of black gold. 


Those of us in Minnesota small towns might think twice before getting oil envy. 


Rather than wait for a winning ticket, we might relish the opportunity to write the next chapter of our economic history at a rate we can handle, control and enjoy. 

















 

Hahn-bin

Provocative Korean-born violinist Hahn-bin pranced and preened his way across the wood floor of the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks last Sunday as a part of the NDMA's annual concert series. 

"American classical music audiences are half asleep," the unusual prodigy said in a recent interview, adding that it is the performer's obligation to wake them up.


From the time Hahn-bin dramatically threw off the black silk veil which concealed his face as he advanced toward the stage, there were no naps to be had.


Half geisha, half mime, half Mick Jagger, half Vladimir Horowitz, tiny Hahn-bin's enormous stage persona consumed the room. 


That adds up to four halves, which is about right. 


The test of a classical musician, to me, is his or her ability to suppress the hacks and wheezes of audience members in the late stages of tuberculosis who drag themselves to the concert hoping to be healed. 


Hahn-bin waved his bow like a wand over the January crowd and healed the sick. As he stretched thin the most quiet, yearning phrases, not a creature stirred, not even the uncomprehending infants brought by doting parents to absorb Hahn-bin's genius by osmosis. 


Classical concerts in this country are stiff, high-church affairs. People forget that 200 years ago, classical music was the rock music and audiences came to have a good time. 


A common source of discomfort for all present is the constant anxiety over when it is appropriate to applaud. 


No matter how stirring a movement, according to etiquette you aren't supposed to clap until the third movement has concluded. 


But at many concerts, some hick from the sticks who somehow made it through the screening process feels moved by the first movement and innocently starts to clap. 


Other rubes follow, and soon a smattering of applause threatens to shatter the dignity of the occasion. 


The snoots, who are too busy being snoots to actually hear the music, glare at the the rubes and stare them into silence. Snoots live for such delicious moments of superiority. 


It is class warfare, and it has divided our country for decades. 


Well, Hahn-bin had an announcement made before the event: The right time to applaud is when you feel like it. 


You could sense the relief in the room, at least amongst we rubes. 


But the stress level soon rose again as Hahn-bin's pianist approached the stage dressed head-to-toe in black leather and sporting a theatrical feather mask. 


It got higher as the be-veiled Hahn-bin himself swooped in with an exaggerated sense of drama.


Good grief, I thought. He's going to have to be pretty good to pull this off. 


But pull it off he did. 


First, Hahn-bin pulled off his veil, revealing stunning theatrical make-up that made the audience gasp. 


Then he pulled it off with energetic and inspired playing that turbo-charged the difficult but familiar classical pieces on the program. 


My suspicion that Hahn-bin took inspiration from Mick Jagger was confirmed when his second costume change featured a shirt printed with dozens of Rolling Stones logos. 


Sometimes Hahn-bin laid on the floor. Other times he stomped on the floor to accent a phrase. Sometimes he sat in a cushy chair. And one time he ended up standing atop the piano.


I checked the piano afterwards. Hahn-bin's big boots made tiny scratches in the finish. You don't stand on a piano without making scratches, I discovered once in my own home after some dinner guests left. 


But Hahn-bin probably will be allowed to leave scratches wherever he wishes. Maybe they'll have him autograph the scratches with permanent marker. 


Classical music concerts can be trying. Usually, given the difficulty hearing unamplified instruments from a distance, it is best just to stay home and listen to a recording. 


But at the old wooden museum, Hahn-bin's rich tone flowed over the small but capacity crowd like melted butter. 


Hahn-bin is only starting his career. He recently debuted at Carnegie Hall and showed up on the Today Show. 


The chance to hear his talents in a small venue will soon vanish. 


Hahn-bin's next trip through Grand Forks will probably bring him to the big auditorium with cushy, sound-absorbent chairs where I once strained to hear his great teacher, Itzhak Perlman play. 


More seats, more money, less reward. 


Those of us in the crowd last Sunday were lucky indeed. We saw a rising star up, close and more personal than we would have at Carnegie Hall. 


 

Get ready to change Ma's diapers

 

In the New York Times this past week, Princeton University Professor Hendrik Hartog wrote about the old days when families took care of elderly people. 

His conclusion: The arrangements whereby Grandma had the side room in the house were "only occasionally happy."Elder care one hundred years ago was, according to Hartog, "a very dark world." 

My own grandmother cut short her education at St. Cloud State University in the 1920s after she got a letter from home that said she was needed to care for her aging parents. 

"When I got in the front door, I slammed my suitcase down on the floor," she told me later. "It was a bitter pill to swallow."

Her career dreams over, she married my grandfather at age thirty. Over the next ten years, she bore six children and took care of her mother, who was in diapers, and her father, who was insane. 

Eventually, they shipped her father off to the county poor farm. But Great Grandma remained in the third room of the three-room house, an invalid, cared for by Grandma, for over a decade. 

The good old days! 

And welcome to our future. 

Nobody wants to talk about it, but there is no plan in place to finance care for the huge wave of older people who are coming along and coming along fast.  

At a conference on the topic last week at the Hubert H. Humphery Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, I heard more indignation and despair than hope. 

The first speaker, a reporter from the New York Times, told her grim story of managing her own mother's care on the East Coast. In the end, to find a nursing home that wasn't a hell hole the family forked over $14,000 per-month. 

The second speaker, from California, congratulated Minnesota on being the AARP's highest ranked state for long-term care and wondered aloud how we are going to keep it up.  

The third speaker, Lucinda Jesson, Gov. Mark Dayton's Commissioner of Health and Human Services, cheerfully reported Minnesota's plans for financing long-term care in the future. 

As far as I could tell, the plan is to run a big public service announcement campaign to encourage people to buy long-term care insurance!

But first, they need to find long-term care insurance companies which 1) have an affordable product and 2) aren't on the verge of going broke from selling plans they can't back up!

Oh, there are other parts to the plan. 

"Families are our hidden resource," Jesson chirped cheerfully. 

"We need to encourage personal responsibility," echoed legislators on a panel, defaulting to the political mantra of the moment. 

Translation: Y'all better get ready to change Ma's diapers.  

The excellent nursing home system in Minnesota, particularly in rural Minnesota, was built for several good reasons.

First, people couldn't adequately care for the frail elderly in their homes. Women, who did the bulk of that work, wanted and needed careers of their own.

Second, because most adult kids moved off the farm to the suburbs to work, many older people were left back home with nobody to give them care. 

Finally, caring, trained professionals do a better job of changing Ma's diaper. Although there is still potential for failures and abuse, in a professionalized, well-regulated system, those chances are fewer. 

Our eldercare system worked. Now, thanks to the short-sighted politics of "all taxes are bad," it is wobbling. 

Today, our short-sighted, whiny and greedy generation seems to think they are going to retire, play golf for about fifteen years and then ascend directly into heaven. 

Even the few wise people who save for the nursing home have put away only a fraction of the funds needed.

Here's betting that a public service campaign to get people to save for assisted living or the nursing home will utterly fail. 

Nobody thinks old age will happen to them.

The solution? 

It is time to go back to the old days. By that, I mean forty years ago, not eighty. 

Just as our visionary ancestors banded together in the 1960s to build the nursing home system we benefit from today, we need to band together to build an even better system for our parents, and not so long after that, ourselves. 

We need to build an eldercare system worth living in. 

And, we need to do what our less-prosperous but smarter ancestors did: Raise taxes on ourselves for the purpose.  

If we don't, you’d better get ready to change Ma’s diapers or wave $100 bills in the face of some schmuck off the street who will.  

Bergeson is studying rural long-term care under a two-year fellowship from the Bush Foundation.