Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

The marrow of summer

It is time to suck the marrow out of all that remains of summer. 

Get out there and barbecue!

Last weekend, I fired up the charcoal grill a couple of times, once for ribs, another for some sensational locally-raised lamb chops. 

I am not sure which is better, dawdling on the porch as the meat reaches perfection, or actually eating the results. 

Brazilians know how to barbecue: They eat the food as it is ready. No need to worry about getting the corn cobs to a boil just as the meat is finished. Just eat it as it comes.

If it takes a few hours to finish the meal, so much the better. You're with friends. Eating is a social activity. 

After the meal was completed at this Norman County barbecue, I couldn't bear to stay inside. 

The cool dusk air suppressed the mosquitoes, so I wandered out to build a fire on the driveway. 

Once the fire rose to a roar, the guests filtered out dragging chairs. 

As the darkness deepened, the stars emerged. Within an hour, the Milky Way glowed overhead. 

My favorite astronomical trick, probably because it is the only one I know, is to locate the Andromeda galaxy, our next door neighbor. 

If you have good eyes, which I don't, you can see it. Otherwise, you need a binoculars. 

From our viewpoint, Andromeda is five moon-widths across, making it impractical to view with a telescope. 

The light of the fire made finding the galaxy difficult. 

So, we cheated. Out came the younger set's iPads and iPods. Sure enough, the gadgets pointed right to the spot in the sky where the galaxy was supposed to be. 

I scanned the spot with the binoculars until I found the dim disc of green. 

Finding Andromeda always gives me a shot of adrenaline, sort of like walking to the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time. 

Then the task became to explain how to find the galaxy to those who were interested. 

Using the very visible W of Cassiopeia and the silhouetted branches from an oak tree as guides, two people eventually found Andromeda. 

"Hey, cool!" was the response from both.

However, the iPods and the iPads soon regained the younger crowd's attention.

Remember the old days when we sat around the campfire texting each other funny websites? 

Yeah, me neither. 

To get more star time, I walked farther away from the house on the driveway until I was out of the range of the fire's light, but could still hear the laughter.

Conditions were perfect. No moon. Still no dew on the grass. No wind. I stretched out on the lawn just off the shoulder of the drive and took in the Milky Way. 

Arizona is home to dozens of observatories simply due to its clear skies and low humidity. 

But Arizona has nothing on a cool, clear night in Minnesota. If we had more such nights, we'd have observatories here, too. 

The Milky Way was a grand sight. Even without those funny paper glasses, the stars popped into 3-D. I felt like I could fly right through them. 

A little breeze rustled few aspen leaves at the top of the woods. A few nocturnal birds hooted and cooed. The swans splashed in the pond. 

The only other noise was the faint howl of a neighborhood grain dryer, a sound so tied in my memory to late summer that it has become as nostalgic as a distant train whistle. 

As I walked back to the fire shaking off the gravel bits and grass clippings, I tried to keep a good attitude.

Shouldn't I be happy to spend such a perfect evening outdoors? 

Yes, I was happy. But the happiness was bittersweet, mixed with a tinge of dread.

I noticed that it was pitch dark well before ten o'clock. When did the sun start to set so early? 

Harvest is underway. The grasses, wildflowers and swamps are starting to show late summer wear. 

In the back of my mind: Old Man Winter lurks just around the bend. 

So, let's milk these last wonderful weeks of summer for all they're worth. 

Barbecue some fatty ribs. Eat five buttered cobs of corn in one sitting. Take a bite out of a tomato, pitch it in the woods and pick another. Eat some sour, green apples off the tree. 

Lay on the ground and look at the stars. 

Don't just can pickles and salsa. 

Store up enough summer memories to get us through March. 


Disconnecting the Dish

Last week, I got the bill for my satellite television. A little math told me I was paying $2.16 per day for the service. 

What a jolt. After some reflection, I realized that since the Twins season went down the drain, I hadn't turned on the TV for at least 10 days. 

That's $21.60 for nothing!

So, I committed an act of cultural treason: I called the satellite company and had them cancel my service. 

Unlike what I expected, the process was easy. The lady on the phone was very nice. 

"I just don’t use it," I said when asked my reasoning for such a rash and unpatriotic move.

I must have sounded authentic. Although I know she had a script in front of her which requires her to ply me back with offers of free HBO, movies, baseball packages and the like, the lady sensed I meant business and let me off easy. 

She didn't even say, "Is there anything else I can help you with today?" at the end of our conversation. She knew it was over between us and hung up with grace. 

For a while, I thought: What if something newsworthy happens? Won't I want to see the latest?

Well, the last time I tried that was when Osama bin Laden was killed. That was a big deal! Time to turn on the TV. 

I flipped on the television only to find the commentary on every cable news channel so insipid, repetitive and trite that I shut the thing off and ran back to the computer. 

Won't I miss the weather on the local channels? 

Over the years, I have discovered that the weather happens whether you watch the weather or not. Plus, you can get the latest radar on your computer.

I no longer need the local weatherman. Sorry, buddy, you're obsolete!

Cutting off TV might seem virtuous. In fact, in the flush of excitement after I shut off the satellite, I was primed to brag to friends and relatives of my righteous decision to cleanse my life of 300 channels of trash. 

I came close to posting word of my big decision on Facebook so the world would know of my goodness. 

But honesty required me to face the hard truth that I still maintain several electronic vices which verge on addiction.

For example, if I forget my cell phone at home, I panic, certain that I am going to get caught on a township road in a blizzard without candles or clothing––even if it is eighty degrees, sunny, and I am cruising down I-94. 

Another electronic addiction: If I go more than fifteen minutes without checking my email, I begin to shake and twitch. 

Yet when I am traveling and have to let email go unchecked for hours on end, nothing happens! The world doesn't end! 

Deep down, I am probably offended that nobody noticed or cared that I was disconnected for eight hours. Am I that unimportant that I can just disappear for eight hours without somebody sending out a search party? 

Speaking of the economy, if I go more than a half-hour without checking the Dow Jones Industrial Average on the computer, I start to feel faint. 

Yet, if the Dow goes up 500 points today, it will go down 600 tomorrow. None of it will affect me until I retire at which time I’ll probably have to stock shelves at Walmart anyway. 

So, why worry? 

If I go more than three hours without reading some political commentary on the Internet that makes my blood boil, I start to feel like an irresponsible citizen. 

After all, aren't we supposed to stay informed so we know who to vote against?

But for all the reading I do of the latest political gossip, not one item has changed the way I vote. And not one outrageous news article has made me a better citizen. 

I would be better off if I spent the time doing something about the problems right on my doorstep.

For starters, I could simply sweep said doorstep. And then seal the porch.

So, I have a long ways to go before my life is cleansed of destructive and time-consuming electronic habits. 

But for the moment, at least, I have escaped the evil clutches of television. 


An olfactory revolution

During a tour of the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan a few weeks ago, one historic tidbit stuck in my head that won't leave. 

Tenements were cramped sweatshops where poor immigrant families not only lived, but where they sewed the garments that provided their meager living. 

Somebody asked the guide about sanitation.

There was a two-hole outhouse in the back yard that served dozens of families, she said. It also served the tavern on the first floor. 

Most families simply maintained a chamber pot up in the apartment. 

Curious me asked about hauling the full pot down to the outhouse.


The guide shook her head. 

Tenement dwellers just chucked the contents out the window onto the street below, she said to groans from the group.

I couldn't imagine the cumulative aromatic effects of such precipitation from hundreds of windows per city block. 

It hit me: Is there any part of modern life so different from the past than what we smell each day? 

History books seldom mention past smells, good or bad. 

Only novelists, such as the great Charles Dickens, who captured the gist of Victorian England with his vivid descriptions, mention smells. 

Early in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens describes a carriage ride. His recitation of myriad smells inside the hired horse-drawn vehicle, including the rancid straw on the floor, fired my imagination more than any history book could. 

"We all stunk!" my father says bluntly of the motley crew of neighbor kids who attended country school with him in the 1940s. 

One bath a week and chores every day in between would tend to do that. Everybody was equally rancid, so nobody minded. 

One can only imagine the smells emitted by the early English settlers, who thought it unhealthy and immoral to bathe more than once per year. 

The settlers looked on in disgust as the primitive Native Americans washed themselves once or twice per day. Such immodesty!

No sense is so powerful as smell. Researchers have proven that smells from the first decade of life can later stir memories that would otherwise lie dormant. 

Fresh bread. Chocolate chip cookies. Wood smoke. The old cellar. Fresh alfalfa. Sweet clover. Fresh strawberries mashed into the knees of your jeans. 

The smell of chipboard brings me back to when I was four years old and Dad put skirting around our trailer house. 

The smell of hot tar brings me back to when they fixed the street past that same trailer house at about the same time. 

Musty, yellowed paperback books carry the scent of a Hardy Boys adventure. 

The rich aroma of ancient, unpainted lumber in a granary or attic reeks of history and conjures up the ghosts of long-dead relatives. 

Fresh coffee mixed with with musty panelling smells of country church basement and rattling dishes. 

The first whiff of mowed grass in the spring jolts one awake from the winter doldrums like nothing else. 

Can you imagine what the smell of the coal smoke at the steam threshers reunion recalls in the minds of the old-timers? The smell of lye soap? Of candles burning? 

Not all smells can be categorized as good or bad. The smell of lutefisk, for example, draws in some people but repels the non-Nordic. 

The rich smell of a barn filled with cows, hay, straw and manure is nostalgic and wholesome to some. To others, it smells like hard work. 

Whatever it is that makes all old garages smell the same should be bottled and kept. 

In fact, olfactory scientists are working to bottle old smells. 

According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, an olfactory library in France keeps smells distilled in special tubes, with emphasis on smells that may vanish, like those produced by nearly extinct plants. 

Archeologists have deciphered the recipes for perfumes from ancient Sumeria and Egypt are have handed the information over to perfume makers to see what they come up with. 

Even some perfumes from recent history now exist only on paper. 

A recreated popular perfume for women from the 1920s shocked modern sniffers with its bold leatheriness. What got into those flapper women? 

Today, we live in a sanitized society that insists upon manufactured pleasant but uninteresting scents.

Too many manufactured scents, in fact––at least for those with allergies. 

"Wear no perfumes," is a common request for gatherings. 

We've come a long way since the contents of chamber pots rained down on the streets of our major cities. 


Yes, we're still dead

 Last week was an awful week for rural America––at least if you watched the news. 

First, the United States Postal Service announced the possible closing of 3,700 post offices, many in sparsely populated rural areas. 

Second, Delta Airlines announced that it was cutting service to at least twenty-five smaller markets. 

Finally, researchers released a study of the 2010 Census figures which revealed that only 16% of Americans live in rural areas, an all-time low. 

The above hard facts triggered the news organizations to send their cub reporters out to find real-live people willing to whine on camera about the changes. 

Doom and gloom. A way of life is dying. The kids are leaving for the city. No jobs back home. Tumbleweed bounces down Main Street and nobody who lives here is spry enough to catch it. 

The story won't die. National press organizations love to send their crews out here every few years to see how dead we are. 

Of course, they never present the whole story. 

First, the post office closings: With email, electronic banking and electronic paying of bills, isn’t it inevitable that post offices will be squeezed? 

Doesn't the USPS have to figure out a better business model, one which might include more counters in grocery stores and other ways of cutting costs to match the reduced revenues? 

As for the airlines, service to small towns has been supported by the government for years with Essential Air Service (EAS) subsidies.

Whenever an airline cuts service, mayors and businessmen howl up a storm. Senators and congressmen then swoop in to cook up some additional subsidy to keep the airlines flying empty planes to and from towns to which nobody wants to fly. 

It is an old story, and one that will keep recurring. 

As for the decline in percentage of people living in rural America, it is worse than the statistics indicate: Rural, in this case, was defined as an area having fewer than 50,000 people!

That's a big city to me. 

No, the real story is that the rural America of people's imaginations has been dead for decades. The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie countryside culture built by the pioneers began to decline in the 1930s and never stopped. 

Kids leaving town? Most high school graduates from small towns have fled to the suburbs since the 1950s. 

In fact, one senses that the process is nearly complete.

For better or worse, the countryside has been transformed from a lively, messy collage of 160 acre farmsteads into a streamlined, efficient, endless sea of farm fields punctuated only by an occasional slick, well-mowed complex of bins, offices and gigantic machinery sheds. 

It is over. The old countryside is dead. The old-timers are almost all gone. 

Now, those of us who have chosen to stay are starting something new. 

In fact, things have already gotten better in the countryside over the past few years. 

The internet has put us in touch with the world. You can read 10 newspapers before breakfast in your cabin in the woods. 

We ain’t ignorant rubes no more. 

For better or worse, cable television has buried rural children with precisely the same trash children get in the suburbs. 

You can order your basic needs online and have them delivered to your door by FedEx, UPS or the USPS. 

No, we don't have immediate access to big box stores or urban style coffee shops. But such amenities aren't far away. 

What's an hour drive, anyway? I know people in the suburbs who spend a two hours in traffic every day just getting to and from work! 

Last Sunday evening, I went for a walk down the gravel county road that runs past our land. 

The air was still. You could hear the corn rustle with the slightest breeze. The birds sang. The insects in the potholes buzzed. The smell of clover wafted up from the ditch.

But what amazed me the most was that I walked the entire four miles without hearing a single sound from an internal combustion engine, even in the distance.

No planes overhead, no droning truck tires, no horns, nothing. 

There are people who spend tens-of-thousands of dollars to get that far away from it all!

And I get it for free.

A Protestant in Cooperstown

 My first childhood baseball hero Bert Blyleven was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY last Sunday.

I couldn't bring myself to watch or care. 

Nothing against Bert. I am still a fan. The man could pitch. And pitch. Deep into every game. He completed sixty shutouts in his twenty-two year career. 

Blyleven's curveball, many say, was the best ever thrown. 

If anybody deserves the baseball equivalent of sainthood, it is Bert. His statue belongs along side the baseball greats. 

But that's the problem. I was raised Protestant, the sort of Protestant that doesn't think much of saints or statues. 

It all goes back to the Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation. 

The medieval church had gotten a bit carried away with saints, icons and relics.

Con-artists created a lucrative market in pieces of the original cross, hair of John the Baptist, fingernails of St. Francis of Assisi, that sort of thing.  

Holy peddlers would come through town promising to knock a few years off of your time in purgatory if you either bought a relic, or paid to see one. 

One creative priest in pre-Reformation England built a huge cathedral with funds raised selling people the right to eat butter during Lent. 

Martin Luther and several other reformers thought this was a bit much. Attention to statues and relics distracted one from truly important spiritual matters, they argued. 

After several years of hullabaloo, Luther started the Lutheran Church in protest. He was one of the original protesters, or "protestants." 

The freshly-minted Lutherans still indulged in some pomp, ceremony, candles, stained glass and robes, but other Protestants went further. 

Puritan Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads in England saw fit to destroy the icons of the old churches––as many as they could reach, anyway. 

To this day, many churches and cathedrals in England bear the scars inflicted by the clubs of men in Cromwell's army. 

Cromwell and his extreme Puritan Protestants were "iconoclasts." That is, they showed a contempt for external religious symbols and signs and attempted to purify England of them.

In stroke of good luck for modern tourists and historians, gargoyles and stone saints on the upper levels of English churches remain untouched. 

In the New World, the various Protestant sects built their churches from the ground up, most of them completely barren of statues, candles, carvings, paintings, even large musical instruments. 

Instead of concentrating upon external idols and signs, parishioners were to concentrate upon their inner spiritual condition. 

It was in this iconoclastic protestant tradition that I was raised. Without paintings, statues and robes to mesmerize me, I spent childhood Sundays counting the cinder blocks on the wall behind the preacher in various high school gyms. 

Over the years, my philosophy has loosened. Today, I can be charmed by a Lutheran or Catholic service where they light things up, chant liturgy and march around in robes. 

But some of the early lessons still come back: Statues, saints, relics and icons are pagan, my gut tells me, as are pilgrimages to see the same. 

So, when I went on a baseball tour a few years ago which included a pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, I didn't look forward to the day. 

I walked in, read a few of the plaques and glanced at the statues of saints such as Rod Carew. 

I took a peek at some of the relics. Babe Ruth's bat. Satchel Paige's uniform. Home run balls hit by Roger Maris. Brooks Robinson's magical glove. 

I knew Cooperstown was supposed to be a sacred site, a religious experience, the baseball equivalent of the St. Peter's Square. I waited to be entranced. 

But the baseball shrine with its statues and relics left me flat. And who are humans to think they can determine who is a baseball saint and who isn't, anyway? I thought.

While the rest of the tour group wandered the marble halls in reverent silence, I rushed through the exhibits and snuck out the back door. 

With three hours still left on our tour, I walked down the Main Street of tiny Cooperstown and found the beautiful lakefront.

No more statues, relics and icons for me. 

In a park near the lake, I found a nice park bench in the shade. 

In a Cromwellian act of rebellion and sacrilege, I took a two hour nap within a stone's throw of a statue of Ty Cobb. 

Typical Protestant. 


Heat Wave

 It doesn't take long. 

After a couple of days of sweltering heat with heavy humidity last week, coupled with swarms of blood-thirsty mosquitoes, the entire six months of winter is forgotten. 

Sure, the heat makes the corn grow six inches per day. Everything green needs the heat. Without it, the flowers won't ever bloom nor will the apples ripen.

But, unlike people from parts of the country with sauna-like conditions much of the year, I find the muggy weather as debilitating as a blizzard in January. 

Air conditioning saves the day. Without it, I think I would move to Alaska for the summer. 

Then there are severe weather threats which scroll across across the bottom of the television screen for much of the summer. 

One day, I want to travel to all those counties out in Dakota listed in the storm warnings just to see if anything's left. Stutsman. Griggs. Traill. Steele. Ramsey.  

I know the county names by heart due to the National Weather Service’s monotone storm warnings, but I have no idea where the counties are. 

All I know is that those same counties seem to get beat up nightly all summer. Due to the prevailing westerlies, we later get what they've got now, so it's a good idea to watch. 

Eventually, the nightly booms and crashes disturb sleep enough to tire a person out, causing one to drag even more during the heat of the day. 

Yet without the five severe weather threats per week summer brings, we wouldn't have enough rain for the crops to grow. 

Yep, the Larson's grain bin got tossed across the county line last night––but we sure needed the rain. 

It's too bad the old cottonwood fell across the driveway––but we sure needed the rain. 

How soon we forget the trials of winter. It is human nature that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. 

The other side of the fence, in this case, consists of a cold, clear December evening where the sun sets at five o'clock and you load the stove with wood come in for the night to pork roast and mashed potatoes. 

After a soul-warming supper, gobbled in the warmth of a well-lit house, you stretch out on the recliner for a little nap. There is nothing else to be done but light some candles and play Scrabble. 

After a sound winter night’s sleep, you get up to sip a cup of coffee and watch the sun rise in the crystal-clear sky. Frost festoons the tree branches and the world is at peace. 

During summer in the northland, the sun gets up so early that I can count on one hand the sunrises I actually see between Memorial day and Labor day. 

For most of the summer, I awake to see the orange spot on the wall from the low morning sun and take that as a signal to roll over and sleep until a decent hour. 

By the time the decent hour arrives, the sun is so high in the sky that it is already hot and you feel as if you missed the one chance during the day to get anything done outside without getting heat stroke. 

We spent six months of winter waiting for summer, but the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

When summer comes, I think about October. Isn't that about the nicest month of the year? The skeeters are frozen off, the pie apples are ripe, the leaves have turned, the sunrise burns off the fog in the morning and the sunsets are quick but spectacular. 

The cool evenings can be spent watching the Twins lose to the Yankees, an annual autumn ritual. 

When people leave the area and move to soft climates like Arizona, southern California or Florida, they often report that they miss Minnesota's four seasons. 

They usually say this while back visiting during the summer. Most of them haven't experienced a winter in thirty-eight years. If they had, I suspect their nostalgia for the four seasons would fade. 

Yet, there is something to be said for our annual cycle of natural calamities. There's always a carrot out on the end of the stick, something different ahead. 

The snow will fall, the snow will melt. The water will go up, the water will go down. The rain will come, the rain will stop. The leaves will sprout, the leaves will fall. 

If you're bored living in the north, don't blame the weather. 


Cramped but content


Because Manhattan has long been a center of world commerce, it has drawn immigrants from the world over since its founding. 

By 1900, people and money had gobbled up the twenty-two square miles of the island. Prevented from moving out, the city moved up. 

The island of Manhattan is essentially one big rock. With solid mooring inches beneath the topsoil, the only limit on the heights of buildings is the ever-improving strength of building materials. 

For the eight decades from 1890-1974, the tallest building in the world was in Manhattan. 

The narrow spire of the now-defunct Singer Building pierced the skyline in 1909. It was superseded by the Met Life Building in 1910. 

In 1913, the stunning Woolworth Building, which still stands in 57-stories of ornate gothic splendor, was completed and held the title of world's tallest building until the glistening Chrysler Building took over in 1930. 

The Chrysler Building's hold on the top spot lasted one year. Once the Empire State Building was finished, it stood as the tallest building in the world for the next 40 years. 

Since then, hundreds of lesser but still impressive buildings have crept up in height on Manhattan's bedrock. 

The result? More and more people who live and work high up compete for space down on narrow streets and sidewalks that were laid out in the 1800s. 

"First we shape our buildings, then they shape us," Winston Churchill said in 1943. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Manhattan. 

Sheer shortage of space defines life on the island. 

The average price of a hotel room in the city is $247. For that amount, don't expect any leg room on the other side of the bed. Or a tub.

If you want an apartment, you have to buy one. Average price in 2007: $1.4 million per unit. 

After you complete the purchase, you pay a monthly "maintenance fee," which runs run into the thousands of dollars. 

If you are silly enough to keep a car, you pay an average of $6000 per year to park it. Recently, the New York Times reported the sale of an apartment parking space for $225,000. 

Most parking garages use a system of stacking cars with cables. When you want to leave, you have to order your car up in advance. 

The people who do the work in Manhattan don't live in Manhattan. They can't afford it.

The space squeeze doesn't just affect prices. It shapes the culture of the city.

Slip out the door of your hotel and you are immediately buffeted by the hordes. As the honks of the taxis echo through the concrete canyons, you elbow for space on the crowded sidewalks. 

Rich smells, from the foul smell of sour milk to the delicious smell of ethnic foods, bombard your nose. 

New Yorkers seem immune to both. 

In fact, they are willing to spend $250 for lunch while sitting with their elbows tucked in at a tiny little table on the sidewalk only six feet away from a pile of garbage awaiting pickup. 

Shortage of space breeds tremendous efficiency. Cars stacked high. Bookshelves hanging from ceilings. New buildings built to actually encase and rise above historic old buildings. 

Nowhere is efficiency more evident to the visitor than at a New York deli. 

"Whatdayawant?" comes the yell from behind the counter seconds after you enter. 

The experienced yell their order back right away. The inexperienced get pushed to the side. 

The second day, I qualified as experienced. I yelled "ham and cheese omlette," and I tell you the instant the words came out of my mouth, the guy at the grill started to crack eggs.

"Four minutes," he hollered, and I got in line to pay. 

Four minutes later, I walked out lugging a massive omelette. I ate it off a little hospital style rolling table while sitting on the bed in the hotel, elbows tucked in. 

So why do 1.7 million people live jammed on the little island of Manhattan? Why do another 44 million people visit each year? 

The answer, I think, is obvious only after you've spent a day on the streets of New York. Worn to a frazzle, you stumble into your hotel room, take off your shoes, rub your blisters, lay back on the bed and stare at the ceiling.

Then, like a kid at the county fair who goes over and over on a ride that tosses him around like a rag doll, you say, "That was fun!" 

By morning, you say, "Let's do it again!"


Big city and small town service

You wouldn't think that New York City has anything in common with the small town, but one commonality stands out: restaurant service. 

When you walk in the small-town cafe, Agnes the waitress does not introduce herself and announce that she'll be "taking care of you this afternoon."

When she takes your order for a hot beef sandwich, Agnes does not cheerfully chirp, "Awesome choice!" 

After she brings the food, Agnes does not immediately return to ask, "How are the first few bites?" 

After all, a hot beef is a hot beef and you had the same hot beef last week. 

In New York City, the restaurant service is just as good, even if you weren't there last week. 

The ethic in New York: Everybody assumes you are in a hurry. Everybody assumes you have better things to do. 

No waiter or waitress imagines you need to know their name. 

No matter what ethnicity the food in New York, Abdul, Francois, Fujisama or Humberto are trained to get you the food, not become your new best friend. 

Agnes is much the same. Sure, she'll engage in friendly banter if she suspects you're lonely, down and in need of a chat, but if it is clear you are in the cafe to visit with a particular person, she honors your privacy even when other diners sometimes don't. 

The perceptive and competent service in the small town and New York City is the exception in this crazy world. 

Most restaurants in this country are suburban chains, companies that have decided their key to success is training their waitrons to grovel, pester, interrupt, introduce, be clever, sell desserts, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. 

One particular chain has great food, but when I go in for the great food, I quickly am reminded why I left with indigestion the time before. 

The servers, as they are sometimes called, are trained to annoy. 

Usually, they are of college age. Too old to be cute and too young to be interesting, they try to be both. 

Corporate headquarters has mandated that they use catch phrases like, "how are we all doing here?" at least once every five minutes. 

Corporate headquarters never tells the servers that it is rude to interrupt a conversation. 

Corporate headquarters also has no clue that if something was not OK, a perceptive server would notice immediately without having to ask. 

Last week, I slipped away from the tour group and ate alone at a Lebanese restaurant near the White House in Washington, D. C.

I wasn't only alone at my table, I was alone in the restaurant. 

My server, whose name I wasn't told, had plenty of time to nag me about this or that detail of the meal. 

Instead, he stood up front and merely kept an eye on me. 

When my glass needed filling, I just raised it an inch. He was right there to fill it without a comment. 

The waiter never once asked, "Is there anything else you need?" He knew that if I needed anything else, I would have the brains and gumption to catch his eye. 

Usually in the big city, and in the small town, you don't have to catch the server's eye. The good ones have have a sixth sense, not only to detect when you need something, but often to know exactly what you need. 

Agnes the small-town waitress and Abdul the big-city waiter realize that there job is not to be the center of attention, but to deliver the goods. 

In the suburban chains, these lessons are lost, and canned corporate training only makes it worse. 

In fact, some of the corporately-trained servers are so chained to their corporate training manuals that they forget basic matters like greeting customers as they come in the door. 

No, that's not my job, they seem to think. Amanda's the greeter. It is her job to smile at the new people. If Amanda's busy, the people can just stand there until Amanda returns. It's policy. 

Abdul from New York City gets tips for doing a good job. He needs the cash to pay the rent.


Amanda's colleagues in the suburbs get tips whether they deserve them or not. They need the cash to pay for tuition. 

But poor Agnes, working to supplement her Social Security. 

We take her for granted. 

We shouldn't. 



The Smithsonian Institution has a lot of junk in its attic. 

Over 134 million items gather dust in the Smithsonian's warehouses spread throughout suburban Virginia. 

Admittedly, about 70 million of those items are insect samples kept in drawers. 

But the other 64 million items in the collection include spaceships, tanks, ships, cars and and other bulky items not easily filed away. 

It is the job of museum curators to decide which tiny fraction of the items in the collection will go on display in the 19 museums lining the Mall in Washington D. C.

Last week, our group of history teachers from Northwestern Minnesota heard several of those curators describe their job. 

The curator's basic problem: How do you pull together pieces of junk in a way that tells a story easily understood by the thousands of schoolchildren and tourists from around the world who pour through the museums each day?

Once you've decided which junk to display, how do you explain it? 

You'd think the curator's job would be boring and uncontroversial, but when you dabble in history, you often step on toes. 

In the mid-1990s the Smithsonian put the Enola Gay, the aircraft which dropped the first nuclear bomb on Japan, on display. 

As a part of the display, curators included pictures which showed the human toll of the bomb on the ground. As you can imagine, those pictures were gruesome. 

Veterans' groups protested, saying that the pictures didn't tell the entire story, particularly the story of the millions of lives saved by dropping the bomb that awed the Japanese into immediate surrender. 

Emphasizing the human cost of the bombs made those who dropped them look like criminals, some claimed.

So, the curators took the gory pictures down––only to have Japanese-American groups protest that showing the Enola Gay without mentioning the human devastation it caused sanitized the horrible event. 

Eventually, the Smithsonian just hung to Enola Gay from the ceiling with almost no commentary as to why it was even there. 

Curators tiptoe through a minefield when they pull junk from the attic and put it on display. 

Every decision curators is colored by human bias, just as the decision to include certain facts and exclude others from history text books is subject to politics.

Texas history textbook standards, for example, now make no mention of the civil rights movement. Segregation didn't happen, to hear the Texans tell it. Martin Luther King wasn't even necessary.

The apparent rule in Texas: If we ain't proud of it, we ain't gonna bring it up. 

The Smithsonian and most museums have higher standards of truth. 

For example, the curators at Monticello now include the children Thomas Jefferson fathered by his slave Sally Hemmings in their presentations. 

They didn't always. Yet the information is important. 

Yes, Jefferson hoped for an end to slavery, but not for reasons of human dignity and freedom for enslaved people. 

No, Jefferson wrote that slavery brought the races into too much contact. Slavery should be ended so blacks could be sent back to Africa where their genetics wouldn't co-mingle with the Anglo-Saxon races!

Jefferson wasn't always consistent, and that is part of the story. 

Curators must present the truth or history degenerates into propaganda and fantasy, which many people actually prefer. 

So it is no surprise that curators of the Smithsonian's collection don't please everyone, even me. 

Included in a beautiful exhibition of 1940s paintings in the Museum of American Art were several paintings by George Ault showing scenes from a farm yard. 

"Haunting and eerie," is the description offered by the curator on the placard. Ault, through his paintings of dark, empty farm scenes, depicted the dark psychological landscape of the home front during World War II, the curator wrote. 

The wires running from the barn to the house "run like the scrape of a cat's claw" across the tormented scene. 

I couldn't have disagreed more. 

To me, the lone yard light hanging on the granary, the long shadows cast long around the yard, the heavy wires swooping from the granary to the house, the red paint with white trim, the slightly sagging rooflines, the utterly dark sky––the whole scene was warm and homey.

To one raised in such a scene, the absolute peace of a quiet farmyard wasn't eerie at all. It made me want to go home and sink back into it. 

I suspect those of us comforted by the sight of a lone yardlight in a quiet farmyard are now a tiny minority in this country. 

The curator got it wrong, but it won't do any good to call our senator over it. 


In the summer of 1981, Mom and Dad loaded up the family in the Dodge and took us for our first family trip east. 

Looking back, I think they went east to appease their eldest son's interest in history. 

We visited Washington, D. C. and then headed out to see George Washington's Mt. Vernon. 

A few old signs led us to the house. We parked up near the mansion and went up to the door where a guide let us in. 

There weren't that many people there. The tour was short and sweet, and we walked the grounds afterwards in relative peace. 

Then we drove down to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's signature mansion near Charlottesville, Virginia. 

We drove right up the mountain, parked in a graveled lot and darn near had to knock on the front door to get a tour. 

The place wasn't particularly well-kempt. Just as at Mt. Vernon, the guides bemoaned the lack of funds to keep up the decaying mansion. Repairs progressed very slowly, they reported. And the grounds were a bit of a mess. 

Fast forward to this past week. As a part of a history tour with a group of history teachers from Northwestern Minnesota, we stopped both at Mt. Vernon and Monticello. 

What a difference thirty years makes!

Now, you can't even get close to the presidential homes in a car. You park in beautiful parking lots, walk through immaculate landscaping to get to the mega-million dollar visitors center. 

There's a gift shop. A foofy cafe. A state-of-the-art movie theater. A museum. An education center. 

To get into the actual Monticello mansion, you must buy a ticket. Then you have to stand in line for a shuttle that takes you to the top of the mountain. 

Then you are herded into a new line where you are divided into groups of twenty-five or so. 

Finally, you get ushered Jefferson's home where you are led through the rooms in a carefully choreographed process designed to pump the maximum number of tourists through mansion in the minimum of time. 

At Mt. Vernon, they don't even divide you up. The poor tour guides just shout at the passing lines of people and start their speil over ever three minutes. It is pitiful to hear them repeating their mantra like parrots as you move on to the next room and transfer your attention to the next guide. 

In 1981, Monticello and Mt. Vernon were the only presidential residences open in northern Virginia. 

Last week, we also stopped at the residence of James Monroe, which is now well-restored, as well as the residence of James Madison, the mansion of Montpelier, which has recently undergone a significant renovation. 

By significant, I mean the remodeling project has thus far cost $25 million. 

That amount does not include the cost of the beautiful visitor's center, the immaculate parking lots and perfectly groomed grounds. 

No, they spent that $25 million just on the house. And they're just getting started. 

What is happening here? Where is all this money coming from?

Rest easy, Tea Partiers: The cash comes from from private foundations, not the government. Etched on a marble wall at the sparkling museum at Mt. Vernon are the names of hundreds of donors. 

To help with funding, they not only charge an entrance fee, but most people get trapped in the enormous gift shops for at least a half-an-hour. Few leave empty handed. 

Usually I am immune to such temptations, but at the James Monroe museum gift shop, I stumbled on a rare treasure: A paper doll book of the Richard Nixon family. 

There is Tricky Dick on page 3 in his underwear. Pat is on page 4 in the same state. The rest of the book provides cutout clothing so you may dress up the couple as you please. 

How could I pass up such a rarity? 

Virginia's presidential homes have changed remarkably in the past thirty years, and the well-stocked gift shops are just the tip of the iceberg.

Thirty years ago, only a few eccentric families with kids interested in history showed up at the doors of the aging mansions. 

Today, throngs of school groups, tourists and weekend thrill seekers drink Starbuck's coffee as they sit in the air conditioned multi-million dollar multi-media museums getting a little taste of history. 

Emphasis on little, for as history goes, the presentations provide pretty thin gruel.


Every display, every movie, unabashedly promotes the memory of the president who once owned the estate. 

Yet, one has to be heartened that both wealthy philanthropists and vacationing masses seem to be interested in preserving and enjoying our past. 

The shamelessly commercialized results are better than the alternative.