Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.


 This season of gratitude, I am thankful for beepers. Where would we be without them? 

The alarm beeps to get us out of bed. Otherwise, we might sleep all day. 

The washer beeps to remind us to put the clothes in the dryer. The dryer beeps to remind us to fold. 

Recent dryers are more persistent. If you don’t get there right away, they will beep again in five minutes. 

“Fold the clothes now or they will wrinkle!” the beeper says. 

The microwave beeps to remind you to take out the mug of tea so you don’t find it there two days later, cold and dark. 

The oven beeps to tell you it has reached cooking temperature, and then it beeps when the turkey should be done. 

The smoke alarms beep when the batteries are low. More importantly, they  go into a full screech when the bacon has reached charred perfection. 

“Get off the computer and eat the bacon!” is the message. 

The computer calls me back to the desk with a beep that I have an email from Nigeria that demands an instant response or I won’t collect the $18 million waiting for me in a numbered bank account. 

When the septic system malfunctions, it lets out a beep that will awaken the dead and scare the rest of us half to death. No waiting for morning to fix that one. 

The garbage truck beeps so everybody knows it is time to run out with the garbage before the truck escapes and you have to smell rotting coffee grounds in the entry for two more weeks. 

Trains whistles beep to remind us that the economy purrs along and that when Christmas comes, there will be plenty of junk from China to buy the kids. 

The car beeps when there’s only fifty miles worth of gas left in the tank. The gas beep has saved me sometimes, but other times I ignore it until the twenty-five mile beep. 

I haven’t yet heard if it beeps when you have zero miles left. Maybe it doesn’t figure it needs to. By then, it is too late. 

Out here in Tucson, police sirens go off every couple of hours. It’s more a wail than a beep, but you get the point. The siren’s purpose is to wake up the coyotes so everybody can have a good howl. The coyotes awaken the dogs, the police helicopters hover overhead, and a general state of emergency prevails because some guy blew through a stoplight down on Speedway Avenue. 

Now I have one of those very intelligent phones which beeps at the slightest provocation. 

Beep! Somebody in China liked the photo you posted on Facebook. Beep! Your stocks are going down fast. Beep! You have a dentist appointment tomorrow morning. 

Fortunately, you can customize the beeps so you know why the phone has beeped without pulling the thing out of your pocket. At a restaurant, I overheard a man’s phone issue a cat screech. “Oh, that’s the wife,” he said. 

The most bizarre beep on my phone came in the middle of the night last week. It was so loud I jumped out of bed. 

It was an Amber alert. A child had been abducted. They have a system where every intelligent phone within 100 miles is notified, no matter what time of day or night. 

Our phones are now electronic milk cartons!

I consulted the internet. The victim is six years old. The abductor is her sixteen-year-old sister. She was last seen driving a gold Yukon. Big sister has no license. She was very upset the last time she was seen. Kids upset her, which makes you wonder why she was babysitting in the first place.

The other 53,000 people who were awakened probably thought the same thing.  

I went back to bed. Just as I fell asleep, the phone beeped again. It was the system just making sure that the first beep went through. In my slumber, almost started folding clothes. 

The beeper people didn’t beep again when the hunt ended, so I don’t know if they found the gold Yukon over at the boyfriend’s place or what. 

You can shut of the abduction beeper on your phone, but what kind of a person are you then? And who will find out that you have shut off your abduction beeper? The NSA? The Google machine? 

I can hear the newscast: 

“Bergeson’s poll numbers continue to plummet in the wake of allegations that he callously shut off his beeper while children were abducted twenty-five years ago.”

So, I left the abduction beeper on and went to check the microwave. 

There was my tea from Tuesday, cold and dark. 


Where is the money coming from?

 After a three-year absence from Tucson, I have been struck by the level of development, not on the city’s outer fringes, which stopped expanding with the recession of 2008, but in the downtown. 

The streets of downtown Tucson were moribund the last time I visited. Only on New Year’s Eve, or some other special holiday, did they fill with revelers. 

Today, the ground level is filled with bars, restaurants and art galleries. 

Fourth Avenue, long the artistic, bohemian center of Tucson, has been repaved. New streetcars patrol the rail on the old thoroughfare between downtown and the University of Arizona. 

New, new, new. Most of the old haunts have remodeled. A favorite Mexican restaurant has disappeared. An old general store is now also a micro-brewery. 

On Sundays, I try to get out of town for a drive. It is a bad idea, because everybody else does it, too. But I ambled down towards the Mexico border to the artist’s enclave of Tubac, a town which, last time I visited, was a funky collection of gravel streets, dilapidated art galleries and restaurants of every level of fanciness, or none at all. 

What a surprise. Tubac is now a mall. The warm clime allowed them to build a mall without a roof. None of the more rugged restaurants are left. Only fancy-pants places with a $16.95 lunch entrees remain. 

Where is all this growth coming from? 

I know that the 4th Avenue rail project used stimulus money. The University of Arizona also contributed to the neighborhood by building new dormitories. 

Instead of putting the new dorms on campus, the University placed them behind the shops along 4th Avenue. The influx of students has made 4th Avenue bustle every night of the week. 

The old crowd of homeless people, hippies, artists and professors has been embellished with college students, who, for all their clean-cut appearances, are a bit more rowdy.

“I am challenging you to a fight!” said a drunken student, pointing at me. I declined as I haven’t been doing a lot of sparring lately and I didn’t want to break my bifocals. 

He went on to the next potential combatant, a homeless man who didn’t respond. In the end, the kid had no takers amongst the mellow 4th Avenue old guard. 

The new dorms have changed the neighborhood, and are part of a national spending boom by large universities to keep their students happy. 

Modern students have cars. New ones. Modern students don’t want a bare tile dorm room with steel bunks and cinderblock walls. Modern students don’t want to be forced to eat dorm food. 

So universities are borrowing billions in a battle to keep up with the other universities which are doing the same. 

Will tuition ever go down? More to the point, will it ever stop rising? Not if universities are in hock for decades into the future. 

We hear talk about the economy, how it is limping along, how nobody has money to spend, how our infrastructure is falling apart, how there is no longer a middle class. 

And then you take a look at a city like Tucson, which seems, outwardly at least, to be booming. 

Things are a little more grim in the suburbs where home prices have only recently started to climb after the real estate crash of five years ago. 

On the north edge of Tucson is a massive strip mall, built six years ago, which still sits empty. Large houses still don’t sell very fast, at least if the owners don’t want to take a loss.

Some expensive homes have been trashed. Others have been broken into and stripped of copper tubing. 

Then you look at the railroad which passes through town, the main transcontinental line for the southern United States. Ten minutes don’t go by without another 110-car train. 

Next to the railroad is Interstate 10, the the United States’ southernmost coast-to-coast highway. It is a wall-to-wall trucks day and night. 

I can see and hear both transportation arteries just over a mile away from my front porch. 

Of course, most of the trains traveling through Tucson are loaded with containers coming from China, or cars from Japan or Korea. And most of the containers go back empty. 

And yet we muddle on. The economic disaster everybody seems to feel is imminent never comes. 

And if Tucson is any indication, North Dakota isn’t the only place in the country experiencing some growth. 

But my question remains: Just where is all the money coming from? 


Glass cottage

 Tucson has managed to retain its historic roots, despite rampant growth. One of the city’s cultural traditions is the urge to put a guest house out back. 

The guest house is for visiting relatives. But the relatives rarely show up, so in this day of person-to-person internet marketing, the owners put the cottage online in hopes of getting a little rent from their back yard boondoggle. 

That is where northerners like me swoop in to scoop up tremendous deals––that is if you want to live in somebody’s back yard for the winter. 

This year, I hit the jackpot, a little two-room cottage in the 3-acre yard of a lawyer so busy running around the world lawyering that he won’t be home for the entire winter. 

Not that I’d mind meeting the man, but the privacy of being at the end of a gravel road means the only crunching of an approaching vehicle on the rocky gravel I have heard thus far has been the UPS man with a package. 

That’s about right. 

The cottage was designed, not to house visiting relatives, but as a writer’s retreat for the owner, who also publishes academic legal books. 

The cottage is made of glass, and I am its first winter-time renter. 

The two rooms are separate. You must walk outside to travel between them, hardly an onerous task in sunny Tucson.


The bedroom is a pie-shaped room pointed towards the Catalina mountains to the east. The kitchen is another pie-shaped room which faces the Tucson mountains to the west. 

And that’s it. 

Floor-to-ceiling glass with no curtains makes the bedroom a mountain panorama, which troubles the majority of humans who prefer to sleep in a cave. 

I would prefer to sleep under the stars but in a comfortable bed. Here, I have the next best thing. 

Despite my quest for isolation, I immediately walked over to meet the next-door neighbors, a delightful couple who once owned the entire 40-acre plot.

They warned me, with a little smile, not to leave any rare steaks on the back porch as there is a mountain lion in the neighborhood. 

Almost every morning, coyotes amble through the yard. At night, I can hear the little desert pigs, javelina, snorting around the yard.

Cute? Yes, but the javelina, with their tusks, are not to be petted. Just before I arrived, one inflicted a $200 veterinary bill, all in stitches, on a local dog. 

The rattlesnakes are in hibernation, but a harmless little lizard, a skink, darts around the yard during the heat of the day.

Two screech owls inhabit the exterior alcoves of the lawyer’s house. Burrowing owls apparently scurry around the desert floor, although I haven’t seen them, and Great Horned owls swoop down from the mountains during the night to snap up rodents on the desert floor. 

A second neighbor went outside to barbecue a few weeks ago had the feeling she was being watched. Eventually, she found the source of her anxiety: A bobcat was stretched out on the adobe fence under a tree scrutinizing her every move. 

She went about her work, but the bobcat was only feet from the BBQ and wouldn’t budge. So, she made a move to start the gadget, when she felt another set of eyes. 

She looked up. In the tree right above her was a baby bobcat. End of BBQ. The woman scurried indoors. You don’t want to get to close to mama bobcat’s offspring. 

Although I missed the holy and sacred deer hunting holiday back in Minnesota, hunters will note that two mule deer bedded down a few feet from the cottage three nights ago. 

It is not deer season here, so I didn’t shoot them.

My only complaint remains that Tucson song-birds continue to reject my offerings of feed. While the neighbors draw crowds of finches, my feeder hangs in abandoned silence.

Thinking the seed might be old, I dumped it out on the desert floor, where it was snapped up by Gambel’s quail, and refilled the feeder with a new mix. 

Five days later, nothing. At a neighborhood gathering this past weekend, I compared notes. I am doing nothing wrong, according to local experts, but the birds are apparently shunning me as a form of initiation. 

Or maybe its all the glass, which throw rainbows all over the yard during the day. The glints of scattered sunshine must scare away the skittish finches. 

So, I’ll have to be content with the cactus wren which is building a nest in a prickly cholla ten feet from the bedroom windows. 

You can’t have it all. 


Dia de los Muertos

 Twenty-four years ago, Tucson artist Susan Kay Johnson decided to honor her recently-deceased father by organizing a small procession of her friends down 4th Avenue on Dia de los Muertos, otherwise known as the Day of the Dead. 

The rag-tag band carried pictures of the deceased and painted their faces white, like skeletons, in the ancient manner. 

The tradition of honoring the dead through putting on skeleton costumes and walking in a procession arose in Mexico and can be traced back to Aztec times. 

Of course, such processions are utterly absent in the dour, Protestant-permeated Upper Midwest! 

But in funky Tucson, Johnson's idea took off.

Last Sunday, over 60,000 people from Arizona and around the world converged for the annual procession in downtown Tucson, an event now surrounded by a weekend full of activities. 

This year, the procession started at 6th Street and 6th Ave. at 6 p.m.

Make of that what you wish. 

As we walked towards the starting point, women of all ages in bridal gowns strolled down the street, their garb worn in honor of a Mexican woman named Catrina who was once painted as a skeleton wearing a wedding dress. 

People carried mini-shrines made of shoe boxes containing pictures of dead relatives. 

Others foisted banners on poles in the air. On the banners were printed pictures of and tributes to the dead, with dates of birth and death.

Stilts are a favorite Day of the Dead tradition. Dozens upon dozens of people of all ages, including children, proceeded on stilts as if they'd been using them all their life. 

One confident young woman tapped along on stilts while cradling her infant child against her cheek ten feet up!

Those were the participants whose costumes I understood. It seems people dressed as anything they pleased. Jesters. Monsters. Terradactyls. You were left to interpret the costumes and the dances on your own. 

To this northerner, it seemed like Halloween combined with Memorial Day. 

On the sidelines, I visited with a young woman who had moved to Tucson eight years ago.  A native of Ohio, she was unfamiliar with Dias de los Muertos. 

When she saw her first Day of the Dead procession and realized what it was about, she ran back to her apartment to get a picture of her late husband, who had recently drowned in a diving accident. 

She put on one of his hats, held his picture and walked in the parade. 

A professional psychologist, she said it was one of the profound experiences of her life. 

This year, she carried a picture of a dear friend, an artist, who died last month. 

"She was an addict, but a deeply caring person," the young woman said, eager to share her friend's story. 

Through the procession, specially-trained ambassadors armed with pens and paper loudly invited the crowd to write a note to their deceased loved ones. At the end of the parade, the collected notes end up in a huge urn, which is lifted high and lit on fire to a massive cheer. 

The procession is utterly chaotic. People join and leave at will. There are three rivers of humanity. The main one moves down the middle of the street and goes the fastest. The two on either side eventually fold in behind the main procession and embark en masse towards the final urn burn. 

There really are no spectators. Everybody takes part. 

The music is primal. Native drum groups. Chaotic, cacophonous bass bands. Mariachis. People on stilts playing fiddle, but not in any organized manner. 

As the tens-of-thousands throng along, there is a somberness––yet no shushing of children or anybody else who wants to make noise, for that matter. 

Like so many Mexican festivals, Dia de los Muertos combines Catholicism with native traditions and whatever else anybody wants to add. 

Indeed, there were groups commemorating the dead in Iraq. Another group carried posters in honor of those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

An unusually large group silently carried posters protesting the deaths of 10 people in Turkey last May in a protest against the Turkish government. 

The most moving scenes, however, were the people carrying pictures of their recently deceased loved ones, some of them children. 

There was a dignity to their tributes, whether in a shoe box or on a banner. It was clear on their faces that commemorating their dead publicly, and with thousands of others in the same boat, was important to them. 

In addition to the seventy-degree weather, observing my first Dia de los Muertos procession was a good reward for getting to Arizona a little earlier than usual. 



Last week, I passed the final test for adulthood. 

The exam? Not only did I make an appointment for my first colonoscopy, which we're supposed to do at about age 50, but I showed up for it and sailed through without making a single juvenile, smart-aleck remark.

My restraint lasted until the next social occasion when I delivered a detailed monologue about the whole procedure. But by then, I had passed. I was officially an adult. 

I have dreaded reaching this age for years, not because I am getting older, but because it means that I have to get probed and prodded for no good reason other than to stave off death. 

Filling a tooth is painful, but after thirty minutes, you are better off than you were before. 

Having some brute dig out your ingrown toenail is unpleasant, yet after the procedure, you are better off than you were before. 

But all these after-fifty probings and tests improve nothing. Either you are normal, in which case the test was a waste of time, or they find something very wrong you didn't know about hours before. 

The natural human response is to not want to know. Psychologists call it denial. Putting off important but annoying health procedures is denial. 

We procrastinate until something is really wrong, which is like not checking the oil until the heat light comes on. By that time, it is too late. 

Adulthood means tackling unpleasant tasks and putting them behind you, knowing that you put up with a little short-term misery for long-term peace of mind. 

What I didn't realize is that adulthood also means you become eager to discuss intimate medical procedures at the dinner table. 

My parents, certified adults both, have done this for decades. A little surgical discussion over mashed potatoes doesn't bother them a bit. 

At age 43, I was promoted from the kids folding tables in the rec room up to the big table for Thanksgiving dinner. I longed to find out what they had been talking about all these years up at the adult oak dining set. 

I should have stayed at the wiggly kids' tables. Even if I don't understand the kids' video game talk, at least it doesn't make me gag. 

Talk at the solid adult table always turns to medical matters, at least if there are no pending divorces. Medical matters provide the only drama in their otherwise stable existence.   

We have a pharmacist in the family. When he shows for Thanksgiving, you barely get past the table prayer before somebody starts quizzing him about their innards and outards. 

In fact, Mr. Pharmacist got promoted to the adult table long before he turned forty-three. I realize now it was due to his medical expertise. He is more a consultant than a cousin. 

In New Zealand they have a phrase which signals that medical talk during meals should stop: "We're having tea!" somebody yells.

"Tea" has nothing to do with tea. It is their word for supper.  They don't even serve tea at tea. 

The answer to the question, "What are we having for tea?" is usually meat, potatoes and beer in the countryside, or tofu, lentils, spinach and chard if you are within a mile of a university.  

But "We're having tea!" always means shut your mouth about blood, guts and other grit and grime. 

I always wished we had such a phrase in this country, one which would immediately silence the "organ recitals," as my musical aunt labels the listing of one's most recent visits to the clinic. 

For my first decades, I was a prude about medical matters, mainly because I start to feel my stomach weaken when they come up. I holler, "we're eating!" but it was a cry in the wilderness, at least at the adult table. 

With that history, I was thrilled last week to awaken alive and well from anesthesia and realize I now had a story for the Thanksgiving dinner table to compete with the adults' tales of gore. 

I think this means I am finally an adult myself.

Not only did I sail through a procedure which many people put off, but once it was out of the way, I became eager to talk about it! 

Thanksgiving can't come soon enough. 

Ever wonder what happens when you take 16 doses of laxative in one hour?

Come over for turkey and I'll tell you. 



I love to do mushrooms! 

No, I am not using them to see visions and travel to distant lands from my living room. 

Instead, I have been charmed by the taste of the hundreds of edible shaggy cap mushrooms which sprung up in my lawn during the wet fall. 

People are prejudiced against lawn mushrooms because, it is true, some of them will kill you. Slowly and painfully. Or, if they don't kill you, they might inspire you to see visions and start a new religion. 

We don't want that. We have enough old religions. We don't need any new ones. 

However, if you do a little research, you will find that the really deadly mushrooms are rare around here. Meanwhile, the healthy mushrooms, namely the shaggy caps, are easy to identify and lovely to eat.

I didn't just jump in to eating the mushrooms in my yard without testing and research. Guinea pigs were needed. 

I conned my brother and his wife to dig up a few. They ate them in fairly large quantities, and survived to tell about it. 

After a delay of a couple of days, during which time I evaluated their vital signs, I jumped into the mushroom business myself. 

The shaggy cap mushroom is a typically wondrous fungus. Although they have a gentle, foamy texture, a colony of them can lift concrete as they grow. 

For a day or two, the shaggy cap is a vigorous thing of beauty, a upright oval of white. But as it matures, the mushroom issues a chemical which destroys itself and turns the white cap into a mucky, black, dripping blob of inky goo. 

The goo turns to spores, which hide in the soil until whenever the conditions are right for them to form new mushrooms. That could be forty years from now. They aren't fussy. 

The trick is to catch the mushroom before the goo stage and harvest it for food. 

To do so, you take a knife and dig in the soil about an inch beneath the soil surface at the base of the mushroom. 

Once the knife severs the root, the mushroom pulls out effortlessly. Toss it in your bowl and move on to the next, which isn't far away: if there is one in your lawn, there's a thousand. 

Once you have a basket full, you take them back to the kitchen. You must process and freeze the mushrooms within a couple of hours or they'll turn to black ink. 

A sharp knife will easily scrape away the humus which clings to the root. What remains of the root is the best part of the mushroom. It is as meaty as steak. 

But the upper part which is hollow, and the cap, which contains a million folds like an accordian, is good too. 

With a little practice, the mushrooms are easy to clean. Cut them up, spread them across a cookie tray and throw them in the freezer. 

About two hours later, the shrooms are ready to be scraped off the cookie sheet, put in baggies and thrown in the freezer for use through the winter. 

That is, if they last that long. The forty bags of mushrooms I put up this fall are disappearing quickly into the morning frying pan. With a little bacon grease and some salt, they make store-bought mushrooms seem like those styrofoam peanuts that they use for packing. Tasteless!

To use the frozen mushrooms, just dump them right into a hot, oiled frying pan, tinkle, tink, tink, tink. 

After they sizzle for five minutes, add the eggs. Or meat. Or whatever. 

No matter what you add, be it meat, noodles, or purslane, it is guaranteed that the shaggy cap mushrooms gathered from your lawn will be the star of the meal. 

Yes, you'll pick them out first and eat everything else later.

When the first frost came last week, the shaggy cap mushrooms on the lawn turned to goo. However, when the weather warmed, new ones shot through the fallen leaves within hours. 

I gathered a few, but regretted that I had not put up more when there were thousands pushing the gravel of the driveway. 

As the world burns around us and we wonder what the next lunatic political disaster will bring, it is comforting to know that we have healthy food, and plenty of it, right in our yard. 

Due to marketers, we have become brainwashed that store-bought food is acceptable, but things gathered out our front door are creepy. 

We need to get over our ignorant prejudices. 

Right out our front door is a bounty. With the modern luxury of deep freezers, we can eat like kings all year.


Sound and Silence

Last week, I reported my thoughts as I looked out the window at bustling city scenes from a skyscraper in the middle of the night. 

Back home this week, I stepped onto the porch and into crisp night air back in northern Minnesota and experienced the exact opposite: absolute, complete silence. 

Earlier that day, an autumn gale pelted drizzle and falling leaves against the windows. Thunder rumbled in the distance. 

As the sun set, the sky cleared, the air stilled and by nightfall there was utter silence.

No insects. Too cold. No ducks. Apparently we're out of their migratory path. No geese, even in the distance. No swans. They've disappeared for the winter. The hoot owl didn't hoot again until morning. 

Cows, coyotes and crows apparently fell asleep, worn out by the day's wind.The grain driers a mile to the south were shut down. No combines droned in distance. The dozens of gravel trucks which have howled down the highway for the past month stopped for the weekend. Beet harvest was on hold. 

Enough leaves have fallen so I could see the flicker of the nearest neighbor's yard light through the woods one-half mile south. 

I have no yard light. I like to see the stars. That night, it was so quiet you could almost hear the Milky Way hum. Orion stood out, signaling winter. 

How many people out of the billions on our planet can step outside their door (provided they have a door to step out of) and be greeted by total silence? 

How many, stop to think of it, can even see the stars?

Very, very few. 

To enjoy such silence, city people not only have to go to a national park, but they have to hike in deep enough to get away from the hordes of fellow tourists who also seek silence once per year or so. 

When I hike up into mountain canyons in Arizona during the winter, just when I think I've found silence, a fighter squadron roars overhead on its way to the air base. The rumble of passenger jets is constant no matter how high you get up the side of a mountain.

Parks in the city, no matter how large, can never completely shut out the constant roar of tires on the pavement from the nearest traffic artery. 

One of the great scourges of modern civilization, I have decided, is the constant noise. By living in the middle of nowhere, I sometimes, late at night, escape it. 

Winston Churchill despised the internal combustion engine, which he said made the modern world unbearably noisy. What would the old man think of today's noise machines? 

There's enough noise in our world without us creating more. Yet, many people can't stand the sound of silence. To prevent even the possibility of silence, people turn on even noise makers!

What is it with all the televisions blaring in medical waiting rooms? Do people really hear the insipid, insulting daytime programming, is it just background noise? Are we really stupid enough to gobble up such junk?  

In hotels on the road, you clamber half-asleep to the breakfast bar in the lobby only to be jolted by CNN blasting the latest noise about some abduction in Alabama as if we're supposed to care. 

How can a person have a calm, meditative morning if the first thing you hear once out of bed is gibber jabber about all the bad things in the world? 

Do we really need to know this stuff? Are we obligated to care? 

Does the Weather Channel really need to be on all day in the oil change waiting room even when there is nothing of interest brewing within 1,500 miles? 

Of course, basic knowledge of the goings on in the world is a good thing. 

We wouldn't know how good we have it if we didn't realize every so often that most people in this world are much, much worse off. Hunger, war, pestilence and poverty should not be hidden from our view. 

But to deliberately and constantly pipe the pain of events we cannot control into our living rooms, kitchens, cars and workplaces seems insane. 

As I stood out on the soggy lawn absorbing the silence, a lone jet flew over, beginning its approach for a landing within a hundred miles or so. 

I wondered if I knew any of the passengers. Were they looking down, contemplating smattering of yard lights spread across the quiet landscape below? 

Or were they distracted by the flash of explosions from a movie fifteen inches in front of their nose, deafened by crashes, screams and gunshots rattling in their headphones?


Vancouver high-rise

The city fathers of Vancouver, British Columbia, where I visited last week, made a fateful decision in the 1950s. 

They decided to build up, not out. Not only Vancouver's office space, but also its residential areas would consist of high-rises, not sprawling suburbs. 

The planners didn't have much choice. Vancouver is tucked tightly between a deep ocean harbor and mountains of the coastal range. 

There are suburbs around Vancouver, but they cling to the mountainsides which rise up from the harbor. Most people live downtown. 

My hotel room was on the 31st floor. It had floor-to-ceiling windows, as did all the skyscrapers around. 

And me without my binoculars. 

I once stayed on the 33rd floor of a building in Manhattan. My host, like most people who live or work in a forest of skyscrapers, had a pair of binoculars at the ready. 

This might sound creepy to flatlanders, but from my window in Vancouver, I had a bird's eye view into about 1,500 other rooms.  

Before you think bad things, realize that these were office buildings. Most rooms were empty conference rooms, dimly lit at night, hauntingly beautiful. Thousands of swivel conference chairs. Empty. 

The temptation to try to figure out what is going on across the way is irresistible. If you were there, you'd do it, too. Admit it. 

During the day, I witnessed a moment which interested me about 10 floors below. A young gentleman, power dressed in a powder blue shirt and a bright red tie, sat at his desk in a plum corner office, full of windows, shuffling papers, looking busy. 

As I watched, a balding older man, shirt untucked by his paunch, sleeves sloppily rolled up, barged in and plopped lazily in a chair. His appearance caused the younger man to sit bolt upright and adopt a defensive posture. 

Was the older man president of the company? Or was he the guy who fixes the copier? Either way, why did he invade the younger man's office without knocking? 

I'll never know. If I had my binoculars, or maybe a telescope, I could have read the documents on his desk and had some sort of answer. 

As it was, I felt as if I was interpreting an Edward Hopper painting. Stark anonymity allows the imagination to roam free. 

A well-planned vertical city creates a great walking city. When you stack people fifty to sixty stories high, the street life below is vibrant, busy, bustling at all hours. 

Grocers, delis, bars, shops, pack together on the ground floor to serve the multitudes above. 

To get the same feel in the Midwest, imagine the mall on Black Friday. However, unlike the mall on Black Friday, people who live in high rises are used to a bustling street life. They keep their cool. They maintain their manners. In Vancouver, the people seemed upbeat and happy. 

What a mix of cultures and languages on the Vancouver streets! French, of course, but also Chinese, Thai, Russian, Japanese, Hindi, and most everything else.

Food? Spectacular! Just get on the street and walk a few yards and you'll find something new and wonderful. 

Through my hotel window, I watched cranes load a container ship on the harbor through the night. Seaplanes took off and landed all day. 

When you're used to watching finches at the feeder back home, a bustling city out your window can overstimulate. I couldn't fall asleep.

So, I went down to the street, found a pub and met some people. 

Americans are strange. We spend our social hours discussing our occupation. In other countries, even those as similar to us as Canada, the last thing you want to do in your free time is talk about work. 

Sure enough I happened upon a visitor from Boston who sells screws, surrounded by several bemused Canadians who impishly prodded him to reveal more about the screw business. 

His company sold 1.4 billion screws last year. If you put up a building, you likely used his company's screws. If he gets the Vancouver market, that number will go up!

Was the screw salesman curious about what the Canadians he just met did for a living? Nope! He's American. We talk about ourselves. 

It would have been funny, except twenty minutes later I found myself doing the same thing: carrying on about myself to a panel of seemingly curious Canadians. 

Embarrassing. You can't escape your own culture. Oh, well. I'll never see them again. 

With that, I disappeared up to my 31st floor room and scanned hundreds of eerie conference rooms until I found one being cleaned.

I watched with envy as the lonely night janitor pushed his vacuum, essentially farming the carpet. 

If I lived in the big city, I would want his job more than any other. 


Border Crossing

Crossed into Canada and back last week, which required I go through the checkpoints at the border, a process that undoes me every time. 

When I encounter people who have absolute power over the rest of my day, I seize up. 

Border agents don’t have to let you through, and some of them want to make sure you know they have that authority. 

As the agent acts all tough and tries to throw me off to see if I am actually a drug runner, or a terrorist, or an undocumented something or other, I start to wonder if I am actually a drug runner or a terrorist or something or other. 

What if a stem of wild marijuana wrapped itself around my driveshaft? What if I forgot a pint of whiskey in the trunk even though I don’t drink whiskey? 

What if there is a dried up apple under the passenger seat and I just lied when I said I had no fruit? Ecoterrorism!

What if they decide that I just look suspicious and need to be taken out back and shot? 

My guilt-ridden Upper Midwest upbringing––which we all share unless we turn out to be sociopaths who never feel guilty for anything, even things they’ve actually done––haunts me at the border crossing. 

Sociopaths sail through border crossings and other encounters with power-drunk bureaucrats by projecting breezy confidence. 

True Midwesterners doubt their own innocence as soon as they pull up to the booth. 

Going into Canada, my guilty look got me pulled into the office for a background check. 

“Have you had any trouble with the law?” the agent asked, after brusquely grabbing my passport as if I was guilty of murder. 

“No,” I said, then paused to think. 

“I don’t think so!” I added. 

“Okay, if you have been in trouble with the law, it will be easier for all of us if you tell us right now,” the agent said, and looked at me as if he was sure I something was going to come out. 

“I got a warning for speeding six years ago,” I said, wanting to be forthright.

“I think you know what I mean!” the agent snapped. 

While in college, we crossed the border to see Huey Lewis and the News in Winnipeg and when the agent asked if I had any drugs, I breathlessly confessed to having two cold medications along.

“I think you know what I mean!” the agent said then. 

So, Mr. Border Agent, if you actually meant illegal drugs, why don’t you say illegal drugs? You said drugs, and over-the-counter drugs are still drugs. 

If I am trying to get illegal drugs across the border, why would I suddenly decide to confess, “Yes! I have illegal drugs! They are in the air filter! I will show you!” 


But they’re in charge, they do what they want. 

Some countries actually train their customs agents and passport control people to represent their country with kindness and competence, while our customs officers seem to make it a point to bump you around a bit so you know who’s in charge. 

Of course, they have an important job. Of course, they run across bad people. 

Like me. 

“Whose car are you driving?” the agent asked this past week as I attempted to cross back into the USA.

“Mine,” I answered. 

Finally, I had the good sense not to get into the technical issue that I haven’t paid it off yet, so actually the bank still has the title. 

“Why were you in Canada?” the agent asked, offended that I would want to leave our great nation.

“A meeting,” I answered. 

She clearly thought I was lying, so I began to wonder if I was lying. I pondered, what were my real motives going to Canada? 

Maybe it was an urge to escape the debt crisis. Maybe I secretly wanted to hear spoken French. Maybe I hoped to see a polar bear. 

In any case, if the agent had hooked me up to a lie detector, I would have failed no matter what. 

“Is this your name?” 

“Well, actually, Mom was hoping for a girl, so she had picked out Chris, which works both ways, but...”

Beep, beep, beep! 

Sorry sir, you will have to be shot. Step this way. 

In reality, I answered in one syllable grunts. It worked. I didn’t get shot. The criminal background check revealed nothing, to my surprise.

“Have a nice day,” the agent said without making eye contact, in a tone which felt like “Get out of here, you sorry waste of time.” 

Welcome home!


Something to Ponder

 Christian Ponder, like every Viking quarterback in the history of the Minnesota Vikings franchise, has grumpy Minnesotans convinced he is the source of all that is wrong with the world. 

Ponder’s wife Samantha was in Fargo this week broadcasting for ESPN and couldn’t escape without seeing a poster chiding her husband:

“Samantha, can Christian even pass the salt?”

Nice insult. And typical of Upper Midwesterners to pile their rage on a single scapegoat, the Vikings quarterback. 

The Viking quarterback position is the least desirable job we have. No matter what happens, you will be criticized. 

New quarterbacks waltz in thinking they are going to bring a Super Bowl to these nice, mild-mannered Upper Midwesterners, and what happens? 

They become a lightning rod for all that is dark and sinister in our brooding, repressed culture. 

Crops looking bad? Blame Warren Moon. Mother didn’t hold you enough as a baby? Buy a ticket and boo Daunte Culpepper.

Even the great Fran Tarkenton was jeered more than cheered. The economic downturn of the 1970s was his doing, if I remember right. C’mon, Bud, bring in Bobby Lee. 

Tommy Kramer engineered some great comebacks, but most of the time he was in the doghouse as the fans demanded he be benched in favor of the great Steve Dils. 

The back-up quarterback becomes the fans’ long-awaited Messiah, at least until he enters a game. 

Randall Cunningham had one of the best seasons on record in 1998, but only two games into the next season, fans chanted for back-up quarterback Jeff George. 

The Vikings quarterback position is the most visible example of what happens when passive Upper Midwesterners bring in an outsider to run things. 

We turn to an outsider because during the interview, they actually seem to want the job. We know the job is not worth having, and are amused by their interest. 

Take the job of president of one of our universities. It is the second worst job in our region. The job draws naive outsiders who promise big things. We know they will fail, but we enjoy watching them twist in the wind. 

We lure big shot outsiders in with tales of wholesome goodness, neighbor helping neighbor, unlocked doors, light traffic, happy cows, plentiful hunting and fishing. 

Salary’s a little lower, sure, but think of the low cost of living! The fringe benefits! In fact, let’s go throw in a line off the company pontoon this afternoon!

The interviews never happen in January. 

Eventually, it becomes clear that the hiring was a savage act of cruelty. What we really want is to watch Mr. or Ms. Bigshot from Back East twist slowly in the wind for two years before they retreat to their native land wondering what they did to deserve blame for three hard winters, two floods and one big budget deficit. 

The first big moment comes when they bitterly complain as the temperature dips into the 20s their first November. 

In the door to work they come, hair disheveled, shivering, all that urbane sophistication and polish wiped out by winter’s first little squall.

“This is nothing,” we tell them with unconcealed glee. “It just gets worse!” 

Equality! After feeling inferior to the big city types for all of our lives, now we have lured one of them in and have started to wear them down. 

The weather is just one of our tools. Next, the new executive will try to change the parking scheme, or set up a campus-wide committee to develop a new strategic plan to find and develop cross-disciplinary synergies designed to bring the University of Norskeville into the 21st century. 

Or something like that. It doesn’t matter. We’ll just stare at them like cows. For two or three years. And they’ll go away. They always have. 

There is one advantage to being the Viking quarterback: At least the bitterness and resentment is out in the open, on posters, on talk radio and in the stands. 

Others who come in from outside and attempt to lead institutions in the Upper Midwest aren’t so lucky. 

They get paranoid. They start to wonder: Is that guy who just pulled me out of the snowbank actually nice, or is he part of the massive conspiracy against me? 

Is that person who just picked up the tab for my meal really that generous, or is she just making sure I have a nice meal before I get the axe?

The answer? Both. Just ask Steve Dils, or any Viking back-up quarterback. 

You’re the messiah one day, a scapegoat the next.