Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

Creating whiners

The last thing a kid needs when he gets in a little trouble or doesn't get as much playing time as might seem right is to have his parents turn into his free defense lawyers. 

"My kid would never do that," seems to have replaced "Well, you'd better go take your lumps," in the parental phrase book, even on the smallest matters.

The two phrases are worlds apart. The first develops life-long whiners. The second may create actual adults. 

Instead of getting parental support in their effort to develop character, teachers, principals, referees, coaches and school board members get attacked by parents who don't realize the damage their knee jerk advocacy does to their kid's character. 

Of course, not all teachers, principals, coaches and referees make the right calls. Some make boneheaded mistakes. Even the best sometimes make bad judgements. 

In extreme cases of unfairness, of course the kid needs defending. And bullying by other kids should never be tolerated as a "builder of character." 

But small instances of unfairness such as a bad referee's call should be viewed as an opportunity to teach a valuable lesson. 

Welcome to the world, kid. 

Life is not fair. We love you, but you're going to have to take your lumps.

Thirty-some years ago, I attempted to play high school baseball.  

Despite my obvious talents, I was left off the varsity squad. I was certain a grave injustice had been committed. 

I went home and complained. My parents gave me a good ear. That's it. No call to the coach, no angry visit to the principal. 

So I was put on the B squad. There, I sat on the bench. My athletic gifts rotted on the vine. Game after game I sat on the bench. 

I ended the year with six at-bats. I had three hits. That's a .500 average, better than Joe Mauer in a good year. 

Oh, the pain and bitterness! The injustice!

A couple of years later, I played again. The opposite happened. I was put in center field every game. And I stunk. I batted .167, worse than Drew Butera. I dropped more fly balls than I caught. 

It was clear I never did have much talent. The first coach was right. 

Through it all, my parents displayed the perfect attitude: Supportive indifference. 

We love you, here's your supper, see what happens tomorrow, baseball doesn't really matter that much anyway. 

There are times when young people need a good lawyer. If I am threatened with prison for something I didn't do, I'll want a feisty one. 

But for small injustices with adolescents, it is more valuable to use the instance of unfairness to teach a lesson in character. 

As much fun as it is to watch pro baseball managers lose their cool and kick dirt on the umpires, former Twins manager Tom Kelly, a genius at developing scrappy young talent, had it right. 

Under Kelly's regime, players were not to argue with the umpires. If an injustice arose, Kelly would do the honors. And he usually passed. Kelly once went nine years without getting kicked out of a single game. 

"You can argue with the umpires after you have become the perfect player yourself," Kelly told his team, knowing full well that the perfect baseball player doesn’t exist. 

No player was immune from Kelly's rules. 

The lack of on-field arguments made the Twins a slightly less colorful team to watch. But Kelly's rules developed an adult, team-first attitude which resulted in two championships in five years. 

Tom Kelly was a tough, cranky old codger even when he took over the team at the tender age thirty-six.  

Prima donnas never stuck with the team, no matter how talented they were. Whining was a sure ticket to Toledo. 

Not all players meshed with Kelly. Talented Red Sox slugger David Ortiz didn't blossom until he got out from under Kelly's thumb. 

The players who excelled under Kelly were the mediocre ones, players who needed discipline and practice to improve. 

Randy Bush was probably the best example. Kelly knew Bush was limited, but also knew that when the right time came for Bush to pinch hit, he'd be ready and he'd play smart. 

As a result, Twins fans have many good memories of Randy Bush. 

Bush could have whined about his lack of playing time. Instead, he accepted his limitations and put together a tidy little career. 

For some reason, I doubt either Tom Kelly or Randy Bush's mommy and daddy ever ran to the principal to complain about lack of playing time. 

Counting the rings

Twas the day after Christmas, but it could have been October. No snow. Mid-forties. A perfect day for cutting firewood. 

There stood a big dead ash tree about 100 yards from the house that's been bugging me for a couple of years, so I decided to go after it. It alone could heat the house for at least two weeks!

To get at the tree, I had to clear away a path through the buckthorn and prickly ash. When I reached the big tree's base, I realized the saw might not be able to take the whole thing and even if it did, I couldn't tell which way the monster would fall. 

So I went up six feet and cut off the half of the tree which was clearly leaning. Boom! It shook the ground with a deathly thud as I ran the other way. 

The lower six feet of the butt log was rotted and full of dead ants, but higher up the wood was in great shape. 

When I cut a cross section, I realized: This is one old tree. I shut the saw off to count the rings. 

The green ash was a sapling in 1894. The wood in the heart of the tree was at least 115 years old. 

The rings tell a story, but it is difficult to interpret. 

For the first forty-five years of its life, the tree struggled, barely reaching six inches in diameter. 

Then, when the 1940s hit, the tree sprung out of its doldrums.

Something had changed. The rings expanded to more than ten times their previous width. The trunk swelled by leaps and bounds. 

What happened to cause the explosive growth? 

The tree stood 50 yards from the swamp. I do know that in the 1930s, they dug a county ditch to drain the swamp, which then became a corn field throughout the Depression. 

Did the tree lose its source of water? Is that why it grew so very slowly? 

It looks as if the tree took off when the rains returned and the beaver dammed up the county ditch.

However, the vigorous wide rings were confined to one side of the tree. Why would the tree grow only on one side? Was it because the tree was tilted? Was it because the other side was shaded by the other half of the tree? 

Then, in the past twenty years, the rings tightened again. The tree clearly wasn't getting as much moisture. Or nutrients. Or sun. Or something. 

I sawed a cross section of the tree to take inside for closer scientific examination. 

However, I am neither equipped nor inclined to perform scientific examination. So, I stared at the wood slab and philosophized.

The ash tree was a marvel. Unlike most saplings near the swamp, it escaped the beaver. Over its century of life, it escaped windstorms, chain saws, hungry deer, bull dozers and other hazards.

The tree was a wispy adolescent sapling when William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan for the presidency in 1896. 

When my great-grandfather Ole Johnson cleared the land to farm, he let that little ash tree be. 

When my grandfather mined the drained swamp for the peat it contained, he left the ash tree alone. 

When my father harvested ash from the swamp for firewood, he left the big old one at the swamp's edge.

When I built trails through the woods as a teen, I went around the big ash. 

Location, location, location. The key to the tree's long life was its fortunate location completely out of the way of humans, steel, engines and progress. 

When I first sawed the thing down, all I saw was 10 days of fuel. 

After the tree fell, I saw a history book. It felt irreverent to use the tree for firewood even though it was stone dead. 

My sudden respect for the tree and my ring-counting reverie delayed the fate of the fallen trunk for exactly one day. 

The next afternoon, practicality set in. The freshly-sharpened saw sunk through the trunk like a hot knife through butter. 

The wedge popped the chubby cobs into fours with just a few swings. 

That night, the first eight of the chunks went into the outdoor wood stove. As the temperature fell and December returned, the wood kept the house toasty. 

I still have the slab. 

But the rest of the tree, with all its history and nobility, will be reduced to ashes.

If it is any consolation, it will go out in a blaze of glory. 


New habits

The use of the New Year's holiday as a chance to get one's behavior under control by making resolutions just shows how firmly habit holds us in its iron grip. 

I wonder how many people will dig through the dumpster at noon New Year's Day for the cigarettes they tossed twelve hours before. 

Most people don't even try to break their habits, New Year's Day or otherwise. 

I will not be giving up coffee, probably my most entrenched addiction. Can't go a day without it. 

Rather than give up my bad habits, I am trying to crowd out bad habits with new, more healthy habits. 

In the search for new and better habits, I have been reading the book Blue Zones by Dan Buettner. 

Buettner and his team traveled the world studying areas where people live to an unusually old age. He and other scientists tried to discover what the people in these so called "blue zones" do differently.

My favorite: The people in these locations eat nuts. Daily. It is their snack of choice.

This one is easy since I love cashews, almonds, peanuts, macadamia, and sunflower seeds. It will be no problem to keep a bag or two in the pantry. 

My second favorite: They get sunshine. Most of the blue zones are in sunny climates and almost all of the 100-year-olds in those areas take advantage of the sun by getting out every day. 

So, when it gets gloomy in Northwestern Minnesota, it is probably necessary for one's health to go to Arizona. I can live with that. 

Also, the healthiest people drink very hard water. In Costa Rica's blue zone, the locals can get 100% of their daily dose of calcium from their water. 

Ah, that's music to my ears. I remember how good the water tasted out of Grandma Bergeson's tap in the old house.  

Never mind that the tap was encrusted with minerals. Never mind that the sink had to be de-rusted every week. That water was great. 

Other healthy habits aren't so easy. 

Many of the long-lived societies drink goat's milk rather than cow's milk. It is well-known that goat's milk is easier for humans to digest than cow's milk, but have you ever tried the stuff? 

Whoa. If you've ever smelled a goat, then you taste the goat's milk...let's just say the connection is obvious. 

Not all of the habits are dietary or climate related. You have to have a good social life, too. That's why Minnesotans don't make the list, I suspect.

In societies where people live a long time, they get together to visit every day. For at least an hour!

In Sardinia, it is a nightly glass of wine at about five o'clock. In Okinawa, they actually have neighborhood groups which gather every evening just to visit. 

In rural Costa Rica, older people are honored members of big clans that live together in small quarters. 

Socializing, it turns out, is essential to good health and a long life. 

Getting together just to gab is a tough one for me. Living in the woods, I could, if I wanted, go days without getting to town. During the winter, sometimes it is easier just to stay put. 

And I certainly am not about to get in the car and go to town unless I have some excuse. You at least have to pick up milk. 

Another commonality: Purposeful manual labor. Many of the 100-year-olds in the blue zones still cut their own wood. Most garden. Others still walk to the market, sometimes daily. 

Yet another huge factor in living to a ripe old age: A daily sense of purpose. People who live to be over 100 in these regions, when interviewed, all knew what their job was every day.

That job didn't have to be difficult. It could merely be cutting some wood, preparing some food, herding the sheep or tending the great-great grandkids. 

But the 100-year olds had work to do, some contribution to make. They didn't have to wonder why they got out of bed in the morning. 

Here is where our culture has some bad habits to overcome. 

We idealize retirement. We long for idleness and quiet. We store away our older people with other older people. We tend to our nuclear family first and ignore the clan. 

These are mistakes. 

To live a rich, long life, we need to feel needed by people around us.


Right up to the end. 


Recording the stories

 "You know, somebody should get him on tape telling all those stories," you hear people say about some local wag.

"Someday I just want to set up a video camera have her talk for an hour," others announce. "When she's gone, all that history will just disappear."

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Most wanna-be documentarians never get around to recording the storytellers and the old-timers. 

And maybe it is for the best. When somebody actually drags a tape recorder or video camera in front of old-timers, the results aren't always that great. 

People freeze up in front of a camera. Or, they change their tone. 

Or, they start telling the truth. 

"Well, I am not sure if they shot 500 ducks, maybe it was more like 80," the suddenly careful storyteller tells the camera. "But it sure seemed like 500." 

Well, that's no fun. 

A while back, a public radio reporter called to ask if I knew of any good local storytellers. 

Boy, did I ever. We have an all-star cast. But getting them on tape would have been a trick!

We never figured out how to do it. 

You know what? I think we should just forget this whole idea of getting storytellers on tape. Nobody will listen to the tapes, anyway. And if they do, the humor will likely get lost in translation. 

Instead, when the moment happens, just sit back and let the old-timers and yarn spinners tell their tales. 

That's what went on around the fire before electricity changed everything. That's how people got through the winter, by telling tall tales by the fire. 

Let's go back to those days. Just hear the story. If you want, learn the story. Study the timing. Practice the accents. Take notes if you must, but only after you get home. 

Then tell the stories yourself if you think they are worthwhile.

But don't ruin the moment by trying to preserve it while it is happening. 

Look how many spontaneous pudding-all-over-the-face moments are ruined when some historian just has to run and get a camera. 

It is like trying to repeat a spontaneous party that turned out to be an utter blast. It never works. 

As a friend of mine says, "you can't press rewind!"

Same with stories. They have to just happen. You can't send out invitations. 

Humans were made to tell stories over and over around the fire and pass them down through the generations. 

The only thing which gets in the way is when somebody writes the stories down. That ruins everything. 

Once written down, stories can freeze into dogma. People start thinking the tales actually happened.  

Once written down, stories lose their whimsy. The tales either become lifeless, or, what's worse, they get turned into doctrine. 

Soon, professors start poking at the stories like they might probe a cadaver. Grim-faced theologians pore over the written words as if they are finite numbers in the largest math equation ever. 

But if left unwritten, stories continue to improve with the telling. With each retelling, the good storyteller leaves out a few inconvenient facts, polishes off some of the rough places, improves the timing, cleans up the sequence of events, adapts the story to present circumstances. 

As the story slides slowly towards fiction, you might think it would have less value. But the opposite is true. As it is polished, a story's point becomes more vivid and clear. That's why they're called stories and not news reports. 

Stories are improved versions of what happened. 

One legendary local storyteller, who a neighbor claims "could have made millions as a sit-down comedian," is so good that when he starts in, people start texting others to get their butts down to the bar. 

However, when too many people show up, he gets uncomfortable and clams up. It is almost as if he thinks somebody's going to report him to the authorities for stretching the truth. 

Local storytellers should relish their role. They are the keepers of our myths and the distillers of our folk wisdom. 

And when they start in, it is wise to just shut up and listen. 


Creating contentment

As bizarre as it sounds, research shows that the more affluent a society, the less content its people.  

In tribal jungle societies, there simply is no depression. Their languages have no word for it. 

A recent study of Old Order Amish in Pennsylvania found their depression rates to be one-tenth that of the general population. 

So, what do we do, move back to the past? 

According to Dr. Andrew Weil, whose recent book Spontaneous Happiness explores the subject of contentment, we can tackle our discontent by changing our diet, increasing our time outside, exercising and finding ways to be around other people. Often. 

Oh boy. That last one is tough. I mean, aren't other people the problem? Isn't solitude away from the irritations of other people an ideal condition? 


Not if I want to be content. To be content, it appears as though we have to move back in time towards the conditions under which our brains developed.

We were made to be in clans that hunt and gather outdoors, prepare healthy food together and constantly jibber with each other. 

Sounds like work. 

Discontent is a particularly bad problem in the Northern Hemisphere about the time of winter solstice, according to Weil. 

But, he adds, that's natural! In an interview with NPR, Weil claims that our instinctive impulse in the dark times is to eat lots, sleep lots and hunker down in preparation for the rough months ahead. 


Part of our problem, he says, is we expect to be happy all of the time and that just isn't natural. 

When I have traveled to poorer countries in sunny climes, I have noticed a lot more happiness. The people laugh, holler, hug and kiss all the time!

It is almost irritating. Don't they know how bad they have it? It sure doesn’t look like it through the window of the air conditioned bus. 

People who lived through hard times in our area look back and say, "we didn't know we were poor."


Well, they were. 

Yet, most of them have pretty good memories of those days. Neighbors helped neighbors, there was lots of good food, frequent gatherings, always people, people, people. 

People of that time were closer to subsistence, nearer to the daily struggle for food that our brains were developed to endure. 

What is just as important is they struggled together. Daily. They helped each other thresh. They butchered together. They borrowed cups of sugar. They bartered and traded. 

And that was just the start. Way back, when crisis hit they raised each other's kids. Neighbors and relatives delivered each other's babies, harvested each other's crops, washed and prepared the dead for burial, took care of the elderly, hosted indigent cousins for months, even years. 

The bulk of the communal labors fell on the women, but men worked together, too. 

Tough times, yes. But those tough times created just the atavistic dependence on clan that makes many of our brains purr with contentment. 

The settlers who didn't do well often were far away from other people, removed from social contact and isolated from the clan. 

These days we are prosperous enough to maintain separate existences, hide in our houses, hunker down in front of our computers, munch on bad food bought ready-to-eat and turn on the gas fireplace with a remote. 

We barely participate in our own survival! 

When disaster hits, we pull together and, for a time, at least, we have fun recovering, sawing up the fallen trees, clearing the mountains of snow, helping each other out. 

It is when we pull back into our little cocoons again that post-disaster depression hits and hits hard. 

According to Dr. Weil, we all can benefit from a little stress and a little tension. 

But it has to be healthy tension. 

A blizzard is about right. It pulls people together. But the drifts will melt. Spring will come. 

Floods are too damaging, and not just to property. Our area has discovered that truth the hard way. Floods cause too many long-term scars. 

My survival tension comes from the need to have firewood. However, I have so much cut that it really isn't tension at all!

So, in this time of relative prosperity, I'll have to just hunker down, enjoy my warm house, stare at my computer and wait for somebody to come over to borrow a cup of sugar. 


An open winter?

So far, we've had what old-timers call an "open winter." 

An open winter, if I understand the phrase right, means you can move about
outdoors without attaching boards or tennis racquets to your feet.

If there is any snow at all in an open winter, there's not enough to blow or

Snowmobilers are frustrated by the openness of our winter thus far, but the
ice fisherman seem fired up.   

My main temptation is to start sawing firewood. In particular, I just took a
walk and realized that there are hundreds of ash trees on the farm that are
ready for "harvest." 

Although it is sacrilege to saw down a live oak tree for the purposes of
fuel, ash trees grow fast and are kind of a weed anyway. 

That's how I justify sawing down live ash trees to burn. 

It's just like the hunting specials on TV where they see this big elk and the
pro hunter announces in a sanctimonious voice that it is time to "harvest
this beautiful animal" as he cocks his rifle and drools. 

The pro hunters on TV don't slaughter the hapless beast. No sir, they
"harvest" it, which, they imply, is sort of paying the animal a real tribute.

I mean, wouldn't you rather be stuffed and hung on a wall when you are in
your prime than suffer the indignity growing old and scruffy and dying a
natural death in a ravine out in the boonies where nobody will ever
appreciate your beauty? 

The ash trees on the farm are at their peak. They'll just get scruffy and
rotted and broken down if left to their own devices. By "harvesting" them for
firewood at their peak usefulness, I actually perform a virtuous act. 

In an open winter, you can just lay those ash trees around the plowed field
down on the frozen ground and saw them up in minutes. 

When it gets cold enough, you can split the biggest cob of ash wood with one
swing. Pop! apart it goes. No worry about slipping on the ice on the follow

In an open winter, it is easy to get around with machinery. Gas caps and
wrenches don't get lost in the snow. It is easy to gather the cobs of wood. 

After the ice thickens, you can get out on the swamp and really make hay
while the sun shines by cutting down the ash that have died along the swamp's
shoreline in the recent wet years. 

Finding a good source of firewood is like discovering oil on a small scale.
Free fuel! The prospect warms the heart of any human still connected to our
ancestral past.

If the winter stays open, exploring the woods, bogs and swamps becomes easier
than at any other time. You don't need a sleigh to go over the river and
through the woods in an open winter. 

On the open ice, you can inspect beaver houses and the swan nests up close.
During the other three seasons, such features remain in the distance. During
snowy winters, they are buried.

I don't own ice skates any more, but the huge, smooth sheets of ice that have
formed over the local potholes and lakes make me tempted to try to find a

No boundaries! You can skate for miles along the shorelines of unexplored
swamps. No audience! You can fall without humiliation. 

Another open winter pipe dream: Wouldn't it be fun to hit a golf ball on the
bare ice and see how far it travels? I am sure its been done, but one day I
want to do it myself. 

I would also like to hear the sound of a bowling ball rolling across the
smooth ice of a frozen lake on a still day sometime before I get harvested. 

One great irritation of a normal waist-deep-in-snow winter is the lack of
mobility. People spend thousands of dollars of gadgets and machines to either
clear the snow or move across it. 

Even when you use machines to move across snow or walk on the plowed paths,
there's still a good chance you'll break a hip or hit a culvert. 

In an open winter, that major irritation is missing and all kinds of
adventure becomes possible.

In fact, if the winter stays open, there may be no reason to go to Arizona.
There will be plenty of fun to be had here.


Those who stay

Those interested in the survival of small towns often cite one solution: We need to get our young people to stay. 

However, according to the authors of the book "Hollowing Out the Middle," which examines an actual small town in the Midwest, small-town schools prepare and encourage their best students to leave.

In fact, there is great pressure on high-achieving rural students to get out of town and make something of themselves. 

"You go make it big," the small towns seem to say to their academic and sports stars, "and then those of us back here in the small town will bask in the glory of your success on the big stage." 

Meanwhile, students who are most likely to stay in the small town aren't treated with as much respect while in high school. Little is done to train them for the jobs, some of them very good jobs, available locally. 

By encouraging the achievers to leave to make it big and by ignoring those who are probably going to stay, small towns unnecessarily speed their own decline. 

Right now, northwestern Minnesota has jobs going begging. Just to the west in North Dakota, thousands of jobs on the oil fields are vacant. 

The skills needed for these jobs tend to be in the field of what is called "applied engineering." 

To be hired at a good wage, one doesn't necessarily need a four year degree. However, a couple of years of training in the field of engineering helps a great deal. 

However, seldom do high school kids, particularly those who are likely to stay in the small town anyway for whatever reason, even learn about this possible career path right under their nose. 

Instead, the "stayers," as the book calls the group, feel ignored and shunted aside in favor of their high achieving classmates, those who get in the paper for everything from sports to speech to music contests. 

The "stayers," those who are going to spend their life in the small town, are made to feel like losers. 

And yet the "stayers" are the people we expect to step up and run our towns, run for office, start new businesses and volunteer to do the work. 

Now, some organizations are finally reaching out to middle school students to get them to understand career options that will enhance their lives even if they remain in the small town. 

Other initiatives help students by allowing them to work with local companies while they are still in high school so they know what is available for them right in our region. 

My own experience jibes with the arguments of "Hollowing Out the Middle."

From the very beginning of school, I was expected to achieve. I guess I did, but it wasn't that difficult when everybody was doting on you. All you had to do to get your picture in the paper was roll out of bed. 

Meanwhile, a large swath of our class was consigned to the non-college path. They got less attention. 

However, just because people weren't on the college path (often because they were born into the wrong small town caste), didn't mean they weren't driven, disciplined and talented. 

Several classmates I really admire simply jumped the rails. They fought their classification as "non-college," bettered themselves through education, became nurses and now ably serve their community. 

Others always had native intelligence, even if it wasn't applied to schoolwork, and found a way to apply it in the difficult field of modern farming. Their ability to building their own machinery, use the commodity markets to hedge their bets, plan their crops to spread their risk approaches genius. 

I admire these people because, although they received some vocational education in high school, they weren't given the attention and approval doled out so liberally to the college-bound crowd. 

It is these determined "stayers" who keep our small towns afloat. They are fighters. And, despite the signals they were sent in high school, they are winners. 

I am the exception. I jumped the rails in a reverse direction. I was supposed to go out into the big world and make the small town proud.

Instead, I returned because I love the life. 

People still wonder what's wrong with me. 

If small towns want to grow and thrive, we have to value those who stay, train them, offer them encouragement and approval. 

We can't send the message that if you stick around the home town, or return, that you have somehow been defeated. 


Driving when we shouldn't

 As I write this, there's some ribs smoking on the grill. The mashed potatoes turned out just right. The squash needs a little more time in the oven. 

It isn't Thanksgiving yet, but it could be. 

A light dusting of snow coats the ground. The sun hangs low in the sky at four in the afternoon. The swamp is frozen over, but not yet solid. 

Sometimes the transition to winter is tough. This year, however, after an extended, beautiful and fully satisfying fall, we can't complain about what we always knew would happen next. 

Last week, the temperature sank into the low teens. The car sounded hoarse when it first started in the morning. Out came the stocking cap and mismatched gloves from the storage bin in the garage. 

I was hoarse, too. The change in the weather has caused a spate of early-season colds. The body takes a while to adjust. 

Another adjustment: It was a jolt last week to feel the car lose its grip on the road. After months of dry roads and sunshine, it is tough to tell in the dark whether the road is wet, covered in black ice, covered in frost, or is just dry tar that looks frosted due to salt. 

Within half-an-hour, the old instincts and bad habits returned. As long as there was the thinnest sliver of dry road for traction over near the shoulder, I drove sixty.

Even still, a Schwan man zoomed past me in a cloud of snow that blinded me for a hundred yards. 

I suppose the poor rural Schwan drivers have to drive fast to win sales contests against drivers who putz around suburbs jammed with people too busy to cook. Can't blame them.

The empty, arrow-straight roads of the Red River Valley make it easier to cope with winter driving and motivated frozen food salesmen. 

When blinded, just stay the course and you'll come out all right. Don't hit the brake or you might get hit from behind by a semi loaded with windows, snowmobiles or wood stoves. Or ice cream. 

Just let the foot off the gas until you can catch the white line on the right, or perhaps the orange center line. Then get a wheel on back on your sliver of dry pavement and press "resume."

During the summer I lay awake and think of how crazy it is to drive on bad roads in winter. Next winter, I tell myself,  I won't be caught out in the middle of nowhere meeting semis in clouds of snow at night on ice. I swear I'll be safe and just spend the night in a hotel. 

Broken promises. 

One dark evening last week, I found myself 110 miles from home. Visibility was low on the prairie, at least when oncoming trucks stirred up the loose snow. The roads were icy. And off to the left stood a nice hotel. 

I pulled into the left turn lane. I knew that it made sense to check into the hotel. I knew I was tired. I knew the three hour drive would dry out my eyes and probably stretch into four. I knew I would get home near midnight. 

But the thought of a warm house and my own bed overcame all good sense. I stepped on the gas and pressed onward in risky conditions, tugged by the comforts of home. 

It wasn't just the thought of sleeping in my own bed. It was the thought of getting up the next morning and being in my house instead of having get dressed and drive three more hours to get home only to have half the day shot before it started. 

It was also the thought of brewing coffee in my own coffee pot, adding my own flavoring, slipping into my fuzzy slippers and looking out the window at the cold while sipping from a warm mug. 

No hotel has matched the charms of home in winter yet. 

I made it home. When I awoke the next morning, I was glad I took the chance. 

After all, it isn't as if fifteen degrees above is life-threatening. And I always had a cell phone signal. And I saved $67 plus tax on a hotel. 

So, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for safe travels in stupid conditions. 

And I am thankful for comforts of home that compel one to make dubious decisions. 



Cogs on the wheel

When President Woodrow Wilson outlined his goals for America's fast-developing education system one hundred years ago, he said the following:

"We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons...a very much larger forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."

Although Wilson's goal sounds obnoxious to the modern ear, his vision was achieved in grand fashion and is an accurate description of education today.

To be fair to Wilson, he didn't cause our present education system. He merely described what was going to happen to it anyway. 

By the term "liberal education," it should be noted that Wilson did not mean "liberal" in the present-day political sense. 

In Wilson's day, "liberal education" meant schooling that taught students to think critically, have wide interests and be well-read in history and literature. 

We give a brief nod to old-fashioned "liberal education" in our high schools and colleges today, but the fact remains: We're best at teaching the masses to perform "specific difficult manual tasks." 

Such as operating on brains, or repairing teeth. Such as building computers or writing advertising or manufacturing widgets. Or growing wheat. 

We are experts at "specific difficult manual tasks," but we don't see the big picture. 

What is even worse, we are so trained to be a little cog in a big industrial machine that we don't know what to do with ourselves when we become obsolete and get tossed aside. 

People yearn for freedom from an imposed schedule but don't know what to do with that freedom when it arrives. 

From kindergarten through senior high, we are taught to submit to a schedule and agenda imposed from outside. 

College is more of the same. Yes, you chose a major, but after that decision, you do little more than jump through a set of prescribed hoops.

We get used to the schedule. Soon, we don't know how to operate any other way. When freedom finally comes, many people simply collapse into a degenerate heap. 

Contrast this to the old days when the bulk of our population lived on independent small farms. 

When a farm family got out of bed in the morning, nothing dictated to them what had to be done but the rhythms of nature and plain old good sense. 

If you were short of firewood, you cut firewood that day. If the wheat was ripe for harvest, you harvested wheat that day. If the pigs were ready for slaughter, you slaughtered pigs. 

Old-fashioned farm life developed in people the ability to structure their own days without an outside bureaucracy telling them where they had to be and when. 

It took some doing to shoehorn those old farm families into the industrial education system. 

In the first years of universal public education, when harvest came, the kids stayed home to harvest. When spring planting came, they planted. 

Not good, said the educators. We need people who show up at the office on time all the time! Year round! Industrial tasks like solving math problems can't wait for hickish nonsense like harvesting potatoes! 

Soon, the educational system stomped out the farmers' quaint adherence to non-industrial rhythms and replaced it with an all-encompassing schedule that now threatens to expand to twelve months. 

What's wrong with such discipline? 

The problem is it is not self-discipline. 

All creativity, all scientific advancement, all good art, all new business, all progress has flowed from people who aren't cogs on the wheel. 

Progress has come from people who schedule their own day, create their own lives and shape their own destiny. 

Progress comes from people who refuse to conform to expectations, who refuse to become drones that perform "specific difficult manual tasks" on a schedule imposed from outside. 

Greatness comes from people who know how to make use of a day that isn't scheduled in any way. 

If our education system wants to foster creativity and not just create mindless cogs on the wheel of an industrial machine, it should teach students to make productive use of a day that has no schedule, no deadlines, no obligations and no distractions. 

In a structured, scheduled industrial culture, our impulse is to use free time to sleep in or let loose.

In a creative culture, we would relish free time as an opportunity to chase our individual dream.


The first Mildred

After reaching her 100th birthday last month, we wondered how long it would be before my great Aunt Olive found another reason to live.

It took one week. 

"I am the last of the Mohicans," Olive said. "I want to show you where my family lived when I was born or nobody will remember."

The problem? Olive was born near Canby, MN, two hundred miles to the south. She hasn't taken a trip like that in fifteen years. 

No matter. Aunt Olive decided we would go last Saturday. 

With the help of the staff at the Fertile Hilton, Aunt Olive was ready to roll at the crack of dawn. 

We picked up Cousin Monica in Moorhead and headed south on I-29, into the teeth of a big south wind. 

Just south of Watertown, SD, we angled back towards Minnesota. We stopped at the former School for the Blind in Gary, SD, for lunch at the posh new resort housed in the beautiful old buildings.

Aunt Olive's aunt Gunda had worked at the school in 1910. 

We then drove to Canby. I wondered how we would find the farm. 

"Oh, we'll just stop and ask," Olive said. 

Easier said than done. We found a history museum in Canby, but it was closed. Luckily, there were two phone numbers on the door you could call for information. 

A friendly woman named Marcella helped us out. Although she had never heard of any Bergesons (they left ninety-five years ago), she gave us directions to Florida Lutheran Church seven miles north of Canby. Aunt Olive knew she had been baptized there. 

The church was gone. Only the bell remained mounted in the cemetery perched atop a lonely hill in the middle of a corn field in La Qui Parle county.

The wind was fierce, but Aunt Olive waved off the wheelchair and walked a few steps to see the bell. We took pictures. 

Then, Aunt Olive pointed directly to the northeast corner of the cemetery.

"My sister Mildred is buried over there."

Sure enough, faintly inscribed on a lichen-covered white stone was "Mildred Bergeson." 

Aunt Olive told us the story. 

Little Mildred was born in 1904. She was a sweet child. When she was four, she ran out to greet her father who was on his way in from the field on the horse-drawn hay wagon. 

Mildred slipped and fell into its path. Before Papa could stop the wagon, it ran over and killed little Mildred. 

Papa and Mama were heartbroken. They never spoke of the accident. 

As was typical at that time, Mama and Papa named their next female child Mildred. She lived to a ripe old age as our Aunt Millie. 

Few in the family know of "the first Mildred." 

I scrubbed some of the lichens off the epitaph. It was in Norwegian. Translated, it says: "Leave your sorrows on earth, you are in the abode of the happy now."

After the tragic death of the first Mildred, earthly sorrows piled up for the young family. Three crops in a row hailed out. There was no insurance. Papa became chronically ill. 

In a last-ditch attempt to escape crushing debt, Papa sold the farm near Canby and bought a cheaper farm near Twin Valley, MN from some landsharks. 

The train cars with the livestock, implements and family belongings reached Twin Valley late one evening. The family stayed in a hotel before going out to see their new farm the next day. 

Papa died in the hotel that night. He never realized that the farm he bought was on a sand ridge. His young wife was left alone with seven children under the age of 15 on unproductive land.

But Mama was a businesswoman. The oldest of the children, Roy, 15, did the field work with the help of my grandfather Melvin, 12. 

It took them five years to pay off the $85 bill for Papa's funeral. 

Yet, they made it. One year, the family made the land payment by selling strawberries Mama grew door-to-door. Another year, they sold enough turkeys to keep the wolf from the door. 

The stories of hardship came together as we stood on a wind-whipped hill in southern Minnesota by the grave of the first Mildred on a cloudy November Saturday. 

But dwell in the past? Not Aunt Olive. 

The day after we returned from the 13-hour journey to her childhood home, Aunt Olive called. 

"We have got to get to work on my memoirs," she said. 

She already had found her next project.