Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

County Fair

The county fair comes to town this week. With it, hundreds of suburban expatriates return to their small-town stomping grounds for a big dollop of summertime nostalgia.  

The long rays of late-evening sunshine, the peak summer green in the fields, and the pleasant, temperate nights make it a prime time to come home and party around the clock with the old gang. 


Holler when its over so I can crawl out from underneath the bed and resume a normal life. 


Oh, I'll probably end up in town for some of the celebrating. I have enough adolescent left in me that it's difficult let a party pass for fear I might miss out on something crucial. 


I still don't know what that crucial something would be. I didn't know when I was a kid, either. Back then, if you missed out on an event attended by everybody else, whether it was an official event in the gym or an unofficial event out in the sandhills, it was social death. 


When people from the past return all at once, those long-repressed adolescent yearnings return, too. I want to be there so I don't miss out. On what, I don't know.


Maybe it is the vain worry that if I am not present, I might become the topic of conversation. If I am there, at least they'll have to lower their voices when they ask, "Is he still around here? Did he ever do anything with his life?" 


Or, maybe I have a deep need to compare myself to others my age and come out ahead. Ah, it is good to see that Paulsrud is using a walker. A lot of good those 1285 yards rushing are doing him now!


So, out of the recliner I crawl, into the car, off to town, onto the midway to wander amidst a eerie mix of dimly familiar faces from 40 years past. In the neon light of the rides and side shows, the ghastly faces slowly develop names and evoke memories. 


He smashed my teeth against the monkey bars on the playground. She played bassoon in band. In fact, we filled her bassoon with popcorn before the spring concert. 


Whatever it is, the need to be there gets less with every passing year––but only after I've already been there. 


The trick is to get there, sneak through real fast, say "you look great!" a dozen times, and squeeze out the back door before you get trapped in a corner justifying your existence by quoting from last year's tax return. 


It is like running through the sprinkler. You get a little splash of the old vibes, then you run out the other side, proud of your bravery, but glad its over. 


Some people can stand under the cold sprinkler with a goofy grin on their face for ten minutes. They're the ones who party with their classmates until four a.m. only to arrive at the first tee no worse for wear at 8 a.m. the next morning. 


Some times, despite the best intentions, you get trapped. As you pass through, you get pulled over to visit. It is as if you are in the tractor pull and the sled drags you to a stop. Now you're bogged down in awkward conversation with a group of people who aren't quite sure how to politely escape each other's presence. 


The sad part is that other people are as bored with me as I am of them, and it is the fault of neither of us. 


They have their lives, and I have mine. Unlike fifteen years ago when we were all out to conquer the world, we now really have nothing important to report. 


The best possibility is if somebody starts telling stories from the past. The truth goes out the window. If it is a good group, nobody spoils the fun by pointing out discrepancies. 


Oh, man, remember when we raced back from the drive-in movie at 110 mph, side-by-side, hanging out the windows? Lucky we survived!


Remember when we filled old Reynold's Lincoln Continental with live pigeons? 


Remember the icy day when we all shifted from one side of the bus to the other as we went around the corner causing old bus #7 (max. cap. 48) to slide sideways into the snowbank and confusing bus driver Cyrus to no end? 


Remember choking down whiskey behind Concordia Church over noon hour? 


Out comes everybody's varied memories. Lies pile upon lies. The stories improve with age, with retelling, and with questionable but very interesting new evidence provided by old classmates. 


Only by dwelling on the legends we have in common rather than the legends we think we've become can a summer gathering be fun. 




 

Scalpers

Major league ticket scalping is a man's world, a world of foul-mouthed, whiny, cigar-chomping, unsavory men convinced it is their god-given right to rip you off. 

Ticket scalping––the practice of reselling tickets to professional sporting events at a price higher than their face value––was for a long time banned by law, if for no other reason than that any activity dominated by such an obviously disreputable bunch of thugs must be a threat to the public good. 


However, in the past decade, Minnesota, in a rare example of a legislature lessening the reach of government, legalized scalping, figuring that it's going to happen anyway and we aren't going to be able to control it, so why not let it go. 


I am glad. I don't like to decide to go to down for games until the very last minute. I like to jump in the car on a whim at noon and get to the ballpark just in time for the first pitch. 


Legalized scalping enables me to buy a ticket at the last minute, often for a very good seat, and usually, as long as the Twins remain solidly mediocre, for less than face value.


The price? Dealing with a male species of human two steps beneath used car salesmen, tort lawyers and television evangelists on the ethical scale. 


But scalpers, as much as you wouldn't want your daughter (or son!) to marry one, are a necessary evil. 


Fact is, most good tickets are scooped up by large corporations before the season even begins. Companies intend to use the tickets to bribe clients, or to pacify their drone employees. 


But the baseball season is 162 games long. Of the 81 games at any given home stadium, not all of them are at times convenient for the corporate types. 


Rather than let those tickets go to waste, corporate employees and clients often prefer to sell them to scalpers and keep the cash. 


The scalpers, in turn, do the work of standing on the curb and getting rid of the excess tickets. 


Baseball teams have finally conceded that no matter how many tickets you sell to corporations, you still want somebody to show up to the game and fill the seat. Therefore, teams have softened their position on scalpers, who they used to view as adversaries. 


In 1987, when the Twins went to the World Series, scalping was still illegal. As a college student 275 miles north, there was no easy way for me to get tickets to the playoffs and World Series unless I got on the phone and tried to track some down. 


Much to my outrage, I watched the whole event on TV while people who didn't know what a stolen base was, but who had corporate connections, bragged that they were at the game!


Some of those obnoxious people were classmates who had mercilessly teased me in elementary school for my love of the then hapless Minnesota Twins. 


Now, just because these goons happened to be vice-president of elastics for Depends International, they got to attend a historic game which they couldn't even comprehend!


Not fair. If there had been legalized scalping at the time, I could have taken out a student loan and headed to the Metrodome knowing I would be able to buy my way in without fear of arrest. 


So, I was happy to drive down last Thursday for a game between two teams going nowhere fast, the Twins and the Royals, knowing I could get a good ticket from some cigar-sucking reprobate on the street. 


I thought I got a good deal. I paid $50 for a ticket with a face value of $60. 


The seat wasn't quite as good as the scalper claimed. No surprise there. 


But what was surprising was the father with two children who were sitting next to me. One of the kids was in my seat!


"Don't worry," the father said. "I had four tickets from my firm, and could only use three. I just sold your ticket to the scalper, so you can use whichever seat you want." 


I decided not to separate the kids from the Dad just to be in the right seat, so I sat at the end. 


"How much did you pay?" said the Dad, idly curious. 


I told him I had paid $50. 


"Oh man, that guy made a killing!" he said. "I dumped it on him for $12!" 


Embarrassed and exposed as a country hick ripe for the taking, I excused myself and found an empty seat far from anybody who looked like they might want to visit. 












 

General Grant's throat

 In 1885, Gen. U. S. Grant was dying of throat cancer. The former president was broke. Absent Social Security, which didn't yet exist, he knew that his wife Julia would be left destitute when he died. 


Gen. Grant's friend Mark Twain was aware of the great man's financial troubles. He also knew from reading Grant's letters that the former general had a gift with the pen. 


So, Twain offered to publish Grant's memoirs of the Civil War if the General could just get down to writing them. 


Fighting constant pain and a feeling of being choked, Grant wrote at a prodigious rate of 50 pages per day. Twain edited, but very lightly. The book was in final form from the beginning. 


Much of the book was written while Grant was high on cocaine, a pain killer and stimulant which has since been made illegal. 


Propped up with pillows, unable to dictate due to the loss of his voice, Grant finished the final chapter of the two-volume work in long-hand. He died five days later. 


Twain swung into action. Realizing that Grant's death would unleash a massive wave of interest in the general's Civil War career, the author built an army of 10,000 agents to canvas the nation and sell Grant's book for encyclopedia-like prices. The target audience: Civil War veterans who wanted to finally know what was going on  in the minds at the top as they had suffered on the field of battle. 


Inside the front cover, Twain had placed a handwritten letter that looked as if it were a personal note from General Grant to his troops. 


Mark Twain knew his country. Not only was he this nation's first great writer, but when he wanted to, he could put together a slam-bang three-ring-circus marketing campaign worthy of P. T. Barnum himself. 


Grant's memoirs sold like hotcakes. The first royalty check Mark Twain wrote to Julia Grant was for the princely sum of $450,000, enough to provide a retirement fit for a first lady and the wife of a great general. 


The story would end there if Grant's writing hadn't been so extraordinary. Treading a diplomatic minefield as he described events still remembered by others living, Grant deftly gave credit to others where it was due. Unlike the typical overblown writing of the time, Grant's prose was elegant, yet to the point and very personal.


Like Dwight D. Eisenhower, another great general and president who knew how to wield a pen, much of Grant's humor arose from his cynical view of military bureaucracy.


But Grant's true achievement was to write an interesting account which gained the respect of those who fought with him, as well an account accurate and insightful enough to be used as a resource by historians yet today. 


I have been thinking about Gen. Grant a lot this week. 


After years of fighting chronic tonsil episodes, I finally decided to get the beasts removed last Monday. I was warned up front that tonsil surgery in adults is a completely different animal than tonsil removal in children and that I should set aside weeks for recovery. Yes, weeks. 


Oh, those doctors, always exaggerating to get your attention. No solid foods for two weeks? Silliness. 


The first few days after surgery weren't too bad. Narcotics helped. Jello is the food of the gods. So are popsicles. 


But then it all stopped working. I started to feel like Gen. Grant. I must be dying of this. I wondered: How am I going to write this column without the aid of cocaine?


Fortunately, we have this thing called the Internet today where people who have something to complain about can find others who are complaining, too. Good thing we didn't have it during the Civil War!


According to the complainers, of which I found hundreds, I am doing very well with my tonsil surgery. It is normal for the pain to peak 6-10 days out. It is normal for you to feel like you're going to die. It is normal for your ears to hurt out to their tips. It is normal not to eat anything solid for two weeks, not due to doctor's orders, but simply because it hurts too much. 


I even ran across several mothers my age who reported that they would far prefer another childbirth to an adult tonsillectomy!


Boy, am I glad I didn't read those forums before surgery. I would have never done it. As it is, I know that within a couple of weeks, I will be free of tonsil trouble for my remaining days.


Now, if I could only pull a Grant and use the throat pain, as well as the accompanying medicines, to produce 50 pages per day of a book that will eventually sell millions! 



 

Country funeral

 The Saturday before Father's Day, Dad and I shared pall bearer duties for the funeral of Bernice, one of the last of the old neighbors. She died at age 95. 

 

Bernice spent most of her life in a farmhouse a mile north of our farm. It had no electricity. She cared for her parents until they passed away in the 1950s. Then she lived alone, keeping an immaculate yard and making her famous crescent rolls loaded with bacon fat. Her rolls were as sinful as Bernice was saintly. 

 

For fifty years Bernice was Sunday school superintendent at St. John's Lutheran Church, originally known as the Swedish Lutheran Church. In addition, Bernice taught religious release time to elementary kids in our town school for years. 

 

As a release time teacher, Bernice had to deal with the big-town Lutheran minister, a Norwegian who teased her mercilessly about she and the other "dumb Swedes" out at St. John's. 

 

Bernice was deeply hurt. Racial tensions between Swedes and Norwegians ran hot at the time. Only after the Catholics arrived did the rival Scandinavians bury the hatchet and form a unified front.

 

For decades, Bernice worked along side other neighbors for my grandfather, later my parents, sorting trees in the root cellar in the fall and transplanting seedlings in the spring. 

 

April Fools day was her favorite. There wasn't a year Bernice didn't convince me I had a growth on my nose, or blood running from my ear. 

 

In elementary, I ran out to the root cellar after school. Bernice and I would sing a burlesque version of "His Eye is On the Sparrow," which included a slide down the scale on the word Spar-ROWWWW which left us both in giggles. 

 

Grandpa did not approve. 

 

After Bernice moved to town, she continued her jokes. In her mid-80s, she got me good. On April Fools, Bernice called and claimed to have ordered 100 Chinese pussy willow, when could she pick them up? 

 

She carried on the charade for five minutes, throwing a temper tantrum when I said there was no such thing as Chinese pussy willow, questioning my integrity as a businessman, the works. She stayed in character right to the end. 

 

The next year, I decided to return the favor. I called Bernice posing as Rev. Ralph Nelson of the Committee to Convert the Lutherans to True Christianity, (the CCLTC). I asked for a $5000 donation so we do outreach in the local area. 

 

This did not go down well with Bernice. When I finally confessed, she was truly hurt, and I had to apologize. 

 

Bernice remained delightfully sheltered all her life. At her funeral, the minister told of her first and only trip through a drive-through. She couldn't imagine what sort of people would allow strangers to drive up to their kitchen window and ask for food. 

 

On the last day of release time instruction in sixth grade, Bernice got very, very serious. We kids fell silent. We were about to enter high school, Bernice said, a time where we would be tempted. One particular temptation worried her the most. In hushed tones, Bernice warned us against the dangers of "seps." On and on she went, talking about the evils of seps, and how we should save seps for marriage. 

 

We had no clue. 

 

Bernice taught Daily Vacation Bible School into her later years. She was expert at moving the pieces of the tabernacle into the proper position on the flannel board as she explained the symbolism.

 

Overnight during one DVBS, some pranksters rearranged the letters on the church sign to read "Devil" and "Satan" and other shocking words from the dark side. 

 

Bernice was naturally upset. "You know what?" she whispered to a fellow teacher the next day, "I think it was vandals!"

 

We moved from the church in town to the graveside in the country. The sun shown down on the most beautiful day yet. We stood in silence observing the stunning floral casket spray in the sun. 

 

Two teams of Amish plough horses clopped by, one team pulling a hay wagon, the other team trailing behind. A half-dozen barefoot Amish children with straw hats and suspenders dangled their legs from the hay wagon and watched the silent gathering just across the ditch. 

 

After the committal, the women dabbed tears while the men drifted two or three graves down to mumble about crops. 

 

Once we reached a safe distance, the pall bearers one-by-one said, "Well, I suppose..." and made a break for home to cultivate. Or mow. Or nap. 

 

Another beautiful country funeral for a dear neighbor. 

 

I was honored to take part. 

Pianos and Heroes

In a resigned response to last week's continued wet weather, I sat at the old upright piano at our place of business and played some somber hymns. 

The piano sits in the same room where my grandfather played hymns on another old upright when the ups and downs of business got to him sixty years ago. 

The piano I now play then sat in Grandma and Grandpa's living room. It is an ancient upright once covered in thick, black lacquer. 

In the 1970s, in a characteristic outburst of creativity and hard labor, my mother stripped the crusted layers of finish and found the piano's original beautiful wood, which she then stained. 

After spending the 1990s in an unheated garage, a fate which would crack the soundboard of lesser instruments and render them mute, the old piano found its way back to the farm. 

The tuner says we need to get rid of it. The hammers are deeply grooved. The low notes don't hold their tune. The pedals malfunction. The bench squeaks. 

No way, I say. The old piano stays. It is part of the family. 

Those who play know that some pianos draw you in while others put you off. Some instruments, new or old, feel like an old friend. They join you in making music, while other pianos, even the new and expensive, battle you from the first note. 

A piano's friendliness has nothing to do with its price or appearance. It has everything to do with touch and tone. A few have it. Most don't. 

"Oh, I have always wanted a baby grand," say social climbers, not realizing that they have just identified themselves as non-musicians. 

Baby grand pianos are for socialites who want charming accent in their perfect living room. The designer suggested an ivory finish. Nobody checked the instrument's sound or craftsmanship, which in many cases is that of a Cracker Jack toy. 

Baby grand pianos in expensive homes get played only when the party stretches past midnight. By then nobody notices the piano's atrocious tonal quality as some inebriated ham pounds out "Chopsticks" and "Heart and Soul." 

Baby grands are furniture, nothing more. 

A well-built concert grand piano, however, can be subtle, warm, friendly, or grand and rumbling. The rub: a quality concert grand costs up to ten times the baby grand. No wonder social climbers would rather buy the inferior baby grand for appearances sake and spend the difference on wine, which, in  certain quantities, will make the guests content with a kazoo. 

An inexpensive alternative? Find an old upright like Grandpa and Grandma's that still has its tone. Anybody who plays piano can tell in an instant whether a piano still has its magic, if it ever did. 

A friendly, quality, subtle piano is essential if you hope that your children will play. Electronic keyboards are an abomination. Cheap, new but bad pianos will send a talented kid crying to their room rather than suffer more ugly sounds.  

But the rare good old upright, which you can sometimes find for free if you are willing to break your back and the backs of five of your friends moving it, can make the difference in a child's musical career. 

As the rain poured on and I finished the hymn "Go to Dark Gethsemane," a grandfatherly voice behind me jokingly asked, "So, is this where I can order a beer?" 

I whirled around to find my friend and hero, former Minnesota State Representative Bernie Lieder. 

Bernie is one of the few World War II combat veterans still living. He is featured in the present exhibit on World War II at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. 

At nearly 91, Bernie is older than the piano, and every bit as warm, friendly and gracious. A savvy veteran of life's rougher side, Bernie is also a classy gentleman whose strongest expletive is "by golly."  

I have been watching World War II documentaries lately. Grainy black and white. Gruesome scenes of death which seem so distant. Unbelievable destruction, carnage and cruelty.

Bernie was there for the worst of it. During the ugly Battle of the Bulge, Bernie became separated from his unit and was almost executed by his own side as a spy because of his knowledge of German. 

And there he sat last week, visiting with me as the rain poured down. 

Are you dragged down by the rain? I was. 

But sitting at an old piano playing old hymns, then shooting the breeze with an old-timer who actually experienced the bloody, full-color reality behind those grainy World War II films, did wonders for my perspective. 

Old pianos and old heroes: Listen to them while we can!

And let the rain pour down. 

 

Swamp things

This cruel, late spring moved swiftly from drab grays and browns of late winter to bright greens of aspen leaves and fresh grass, as well as the blooms of the fruit trees and tulips.  

Spring colors couple with spring scents: Fresh cut lawn, plum and apple blossoms, lilacs and, out in the woods, the heady, bitter, hop-like smell of aspen sap. 

 

And sounds: How is it that the frogs survived last August, September and October without water, only to return to sing their wall-penetrating songs this spring? 

 

Only a few weeks ago, the log in the middle of the swamp sat on dry ground. Now, a dozen turtles clamber out of the water and sun on the log every sunny day. Where did they hide? How did they survive the drought? 

 

From sensory deprivation to sensory overload in two short weeks! That's the roller coaster ride of seasons in the land-locked north. 

 

From the crow's nest in my living room, I use binoculars to look down on the bird life which flourishes in the reeds and bulrushes that circle the swamp. 

 

Snowmelt and spring rains filled the swamp in front of the house enough to allow a swan pair to return and nest for the 10th consecutive year.

 

Some scenes, such the swans and the flocks of goldfinches at the bird feeder, are annual and familiar. The orioles show up as soon as you put out grape jelly. The rose-breasted grosbeaks struggle with feeders built for birds with smaller beaks. Robins skip the feeder to live in their world of worms. 

 

As soon as the mosquitoes hatch, the cocky barn swallows arrive to show off their astonishing aerobatic talents.

 

Others sightings this spring have been completely new, at least to me. 

 

The biggest surprise came when a scarlet tanager, a chubby neon-red bird, showed up at the feeder. I had never seen one before. For three days he hung around, brightening the scene and scaring off the finches whenever he wanted a snack. 

 

Then, when I was looking the other way, an indigo bunting showed. Boldly blue, the bunting is truly camera shy. In fact, if you glimpse one out the window in the corner of your eye, don't turn to look or it will fly away. 

 

The yellow warbler is as pure and deep a yellow as a dandelion, until you focus in with the binoculars and see jagged streaks of orange on the breast. Judging from a only few glimpses, it is my favorite this spring. 

 

For those who relish combat, the churlish red-winged black birds fight just for the sake of fighting. The bigger the bird, the more likely the red-winged black birds will take them on. 

 

Red-winged black birds remind me of Billy Martin. The pugilistic but slight baseball manager fought all comers, including players half his age and twice his size. If there wasn't a fight, he'd pick one just for sport. 

 

Over the past two days, the red-winged blackbirds have carried on an ongoing dogfight with a red-tail hawk in the neutral airspace above the swamp. One feels for the lumbering hawk as he soars majestically, only to have the nimble red-winged blackbirds nip at his his wings from behind. 

 

In time, the even graceful 30-lb swans will glide into black-bird territory with their new brood, only to be attacked mercilessly from above. After a few minutes, the swans lose their cool, fly into a rage and hiss and lunge at the swarming blackbirds, who seem to never meet defeat. 

 

As with Billy Martin, you don't have to like red-winged black birds to admire their pesky determination. One attacked his reflection in the window each morning for five summers before disappearing, probably dead from exhaustion. 

 

Other birds have disappeared as well. It has been at least six years since I have seen a football-sized green heron. The water has apparently gotten too deep for the larger, salamander-gulping blue heron. 

 

No rocky mountain bluebirds here, although neighbors report plenty. No redstarts have bustled in the reeds, nor have any egrets stopped by to balance on one leg like a swamp thing from Dr. Suess. 

 

Rails, birds we rarely see because they nest in swamp reeds, haven't shown up. Neither have the woodcocks. Both were one-year phenomena on the swamp.

 

But for those with eyes to see, or a good pair of binoculars, there is no shortage of bright plumage. 

 

In fact, the beauty here in spring, when it finally arrives, rivals that of any tropical paradise, and without the venomous snakes. 

 

 

 

 

 

Just the facts, ma'am

 During the aftermath of the recent tornado in Oklahoma, at least two reporters made fools of themselves as they worked to turn tragedy into entertainment for the masses. 



Wolf Blitzer of CNN interviewed a young woman holding a baby amidst the rubble of her home. Blitzer apparently thought the way for an educated eastern snob like himself to relate to a hick from the Bible Belt would be to condescendingly ask her if she "thanked the Lord" for her survival. 



"Actually, I'm an athiest," the young woman replied, as she struggled to hang on to her wiggly toddler. 



An atheist in Oklahoma? Who would've thunk? 



Later, a truly ditzy CBS reporter interviewed a delightful old woman who stubbornly refused to get emotional as she described what happened. 



The old woman was the better journalist of the two: She told how she hid, she told how the tornado came, she told how she dug herself out, and she said matter-of-fact that her dear dog was somewhere in the rubble, presumably dead. 



Just the facts, ma'am. 



Yet the reporter continued to attempt to get the woman to cry. 



"I mean, have you even began to comprehend what happened here?" she said, in a question which should be banned for its sheer stupidity. 



"No, I know exactly what happened here! Exactly!" the woman said, still being polite despite the obnoxiousness of the reporter. 



Once again, the reporter probed, trying to get tears. 



"I mean, I can't imagine...this is your neighborhood!" 



"That's life in the big city!" the old woman shrugged. 



Just then, the woman's dog, until now presumed dead, stirred in the rubble. The poor woman moved to help the dog. As she did, a brutal gash on the back of her arm flashed past the camera. 



Yes, the woman was physically hurt. But did the reporter ever ask about her physical condition? Did the ditzy, dastardly reporter put down her microphone and help the poor old woman dig in the rubble for the dog? 



Of course not. For now the reporter and her camera person had possible irresistible footage of a woman digging out her dog. You don't want to interfere with that. And maybe, just maybe the woman would finally display some emotion!



Wolf Blitzer should have been there. After the dog struggled loose the woman said the Lord had answered both her prayers: first, the prayer that she would be okay and second, the prayer that her beloved schnauzer would live. 



"He answered both of 'em!" the woman said in a touching way, still refusing to break down in a manner that would make for an irresistible lead to the evening news segment. 



Back in the early 1980s, Dave Kingman of the New York Mets hit three home runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers. After the game, a reporter asked Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda if he had "any thoughts" on Kingman's performance. 



Lasorda lost it. "Any thoughts?" he said. "You're asking me if I had any thoughts? We just got trounced and you're asking if I have any thoughts?" 



Lasorda then let loose with a delightful and appropriate tirade that cannot be reproduced here. 

The crusty but saintly old woman in the rubble in Oklahoma would have been justified if she had pulled a Tommy Lasorda. Instead, she kept her manners refused to do what the reporter so badly desired: Lose her composure, and her dignity, for a national audience. 



In the old days, reporters probed for facts, not emotions. Today, television news has become utterly unbearable in part because the reporters don't report, they titillate. 



The sports interview, which always was a worthless endeavor, has become an exploration of feelings by amateur counselors posing as reporters. 



"What were your emotions as that 97-miles-per-hour pitch sailed towards your temple?"

With reporters determined to uncover emotions rather than matters of fact, is it any wonder that the appearance of the grief counselors merits just as much coverage as the tragedy itself? 



Who are these grief counselors whose arrival brings such instant relief?



Lacking photos of an actual death, is it any wonder that the focus becomes the sobbing teenage girls on the scene? 



"An angry London grieves," blared a headline after last week's beheading on a London street. 



Somewhere, I hope some old cranky journalism professor holds that headline up in front of Journalism 101 class and gives a Lasorda-like rant. 



"A city can't get angry! A city cannot grieve! A city is buildings, rivers and churches! They do not get angry! /People/ get angry!"



Just the facts, ma'am. They're bad enough by themselves.

First Thunder

After the desolate roar of those last spring blizzards, what fun it was last week to curl up in bed and hear the comforting crackle of the first thunder! 

Last Saturday evening, a storm cell formed just overhead. The billowing cumuli sent out strobes which made the swamp out front flash in stop-action like a nightclub dance floor on Hennepin. The house shook as if a coal train was rumbling by. 


Unlike some storms, this one didn't blow off the side of oak down the drive with one violent crack. Just a constant rolling rumble, all so far above as to be harmless to the oaks and transformers below.


With the storm came a needed rain. One could debate its timing, but it is better not to quibble when rain comes, especially after last summer's drought. 


I remember a dry spell in the 1970s when it got so bad that they held an interfaith service in town to beg the higher powers for relief. 


To add emphasis to the request, organizers put three ministers of differing denominations in a Cessna 172 and flew them over area fields in a twenty-mile wide sunflower pattern at the very same time as supplicants filled the gym below. 


History does not record if they sacrificed a goat. 


The faithful's pious efforts were rewarded with three-eighths inch of rain a week from the next Tuesday. 


Rain comes when it comes. All we can do is sit back in wonder and enjoy the storm. 


I wasn't always so happy to hear storms. For some reason, lightening and thunder were my worst childhood fear. 


When I was four years old, Mom and Dad moved our family from the city back to the farm. We spent first two nights back home under the pitched ceiling of Grandma and Grandpa's bat-infested attic. 


The scratching and squeaking of the bats inches above my nose while in bed didn't bother me. But the thunderstorm that hit the second afternoon did. 


Crack! A big bolt hit the massive basswood behind the office, killing it instantly. 


I looked out the upstairs window. A ball of lightening rolled across the yard. For the only time in my entire life, I saw Grandpa break into a run. 


Something's really wrong when Grandpa has to run. 


What a start to our life on the farm! There had never been lightening like that in the city. I was convinced that not only had we moved from the city to the farm, but from the New Testament to the Old, to a place where locusts, floods of forty days, burning bushes and sacrifices of kids named Isaac could happen at any moment. 


But thunder and lightening were the worst threat of all. Whenever distant rumbling began, I took my pillow, crawled onto the floor of Mom and Dad's room and plugged my ears so tight that those little cartilage tabs which protect the ear canal were worn raw by morning. 


To obscure the lightening, I scrunched my eyes shut and buried my head in the pillow. 


I slept very little. 


I feared those thunderstorms, but for all the wrong reasons. Today, I think of the 100-year-old cottonwoods which flanked our trailer house. If one of those behemoths had keeled over, it would have squished us like bugs. 


At the time, however, I was just scared of the big hit, the big flash with no time lag until the big boom, which meant the strike was close. 


By high school, I loved thunderstorms. As the years have gone by, I have come to think of the 60,000 foot-high thunderheads which pass to the east at sunset in July as our prairie mountains, much better than actual granite mountains because you don't have to drive over them to get to Duluth. 


Other parts of the country may have a more forgiving climate. They may be able to grow peaches. They be free of mosquitoes. But they don't have our mountainous summer thunderheads. 


I made my peace with thunderstorms. But if one comes over which sends down a bolt of lightening just down the drive, one with the flash and the boom at the same instant, I admit that for a few seconds I feel like pushing those ear tabs in hard and scrunching my face into a pillow.


Old fears die hard. 








 

Time Warp

 The latest crop of fresh-faced graduates is about to march up for their diplomas. I include college graduates in that crowd because I no longer can tell the difference between high school and college students. 


It is a phrase used only by closed-minded bigots, but I'll use it anyway: They all look the same! 


Last year, I asked a kid what grade he was in only to have him inform me he is in his third year as a software engineer with Microsoft. He told me in very kind way, as if I had dementia. 


A neighbor kid who I am sure I saw toddle across the lawn in diapers last summer passed me doing 80 on the way to town in his Dad's pickup last week. 


That should be illegal. Not doing 80 mph, that's already illegal. It's growing up so much in one year that should not be allowed. 


Our local newspaper prints profiles of graduates from the local high school. In each profile, the grizzled seniors are asked what profound wisdom they would like to pass on to naive underclassmen. 


"Enjoy your senior year, it goes by so fast," most of them say. 


Really? You think time is going fast for you now? Wait until you turn around and realize your classmates have become gray, fat and old! Wait until you realize that you, too, are gray, fat and old!


Turn around once more and realize that those who were in kindergarten during your glorious senior year are also now gray, fat and old. 


That's when you realize time goes fast. The march of human decline always outpaces the mind's ability to adjust to the decay. 


People do exist who improve with age, that is true. Some get fit. Others find happiness, and it shows. Perhaps the third marriage was the charm, or the new career. 


However, I now suspect that people don't actually improve, they just cling to a rock for a while as their peers get washed further downstream towards that great ocean where we'll all end up. 


Some of us will grab a rock for a few years in our fifties and stay the same while those around us decline. Others will wait until they're 82, and then not change a bit until they're ninety-four. 


Others live hard early and become well-preserved in a leathery, mummy-like state. They look sixty now and they'll still look sixty in thirty years when they actually turn sixty. And they'll look the same when they're eighty. 


Everybody wonders how they could still be alive. You ask them, they'll light up a cigarette, take a long pull, look off in the distance and say, "You just can't let stuff get to you."


And they're probably right. 


There was a time when I used this column to preach my accumulated wisdom to graduates. 


My advice was predictable: Don't abuse credit cards. Skip the first marriage. Don't waste money on college until you have a clue what you want to do. Travel. Read. Meet new people.


Be nice to dogs and children. Smile at old people. Don't belch in public. Cut your hair. Don't put a tattoo on your face. Don't stretch your earlobes out because they will stay that way, and they will droop more and more as you age, making you look stupider and stupider instead of wiser and wiser. 


Learn a trade like welding to go along with your degree in Medieval French Literature. Something you learn has to pay the bills. 


Get your nose out of your phone, please. Look at me when I talk to you, please. Pull up your pants over your underwear, please. Turn down the tunes so you don't wreck your ears and ours, please. Conceal your ample muffin top, please.


Realize the difference between a senior photo and a Victoria's Secret spread. Realize that drunken photos on Facebook are in the public domain. Realize that these days, most people with master's degrees make lattes for a living. 


Yes, I am usually full of advice. 


However, I am now too old and demented to give advice to the young. If I can't tell the difference between a ninth grader and a software engineer at Microsoft, it is time to quit dispensing advice to anybody, even those who look like children. 


So, I will simply paraphrase the advice given by the wise seniors to their ignorant underclassmen: 


Enjoy life, it goes by fast. 










 

Settings

A message from the old fogies to the younger generation: Don't mess with our settings!

Just when you get on friendly terms with your computer, some kid sits down at it and starts tapping furiously. If you don't shoo them away in thirty seconds, they will turn the machine into a foreign country so fast that you won't know which end is up. 


"But you haven’t installed the updates!" they say, incredulous that you don't care if  you are up to speed on every little improvement to come in from Seattle, or wherever the computer gurus reside. 


Thirty seconds is all it takes for a kid to screw up everything you take for granted. Email. News. Weather. Suddenly, it is all gone. 


Oh, it's there somewhere, but it is now unavailable to anybody over twelve years old. 


"How do I get out of this screen?" I scream. 


"Just right click! Don't you know how to right click?" yells computer kid, who has now moved on to blowing up planets on a machine in the next room. 


I now have a phone that is smarter than I. It is smarter than most people. It has more computing power than Apollo 13. And I want to shoot it. 


People are bad enough. Now, even my phone condescends to me! 


The phone will tell me the Twins score, but I have to ask politely or the woman who lives inside the phone gets smart and says, "Your anger is unbecoming. The Twins are doing fine without you."


So I bow and scrape and say "please" and find out that the Twins are losing to Cleveland 7-2, which isn't the phone's fault, but sometimes you just feel like killing the messenger. 


The more things change, the more I wish they'd just stay the same. 


I now own a car which has no keyhole in the trunk. You can hold the key in your hand, but there is no way of inserting the key anywhere into the car to get the trunk to open. 


Yes, there is a button on the key which opens the trunk, but that button only works if the battery in the key is charged. 


Since when do we need batteries in car keys? Who did this to us? 


So, let's say the key battery is dead. I want to get in the trunk. After much thought, I have figured out I have one option: punch my code in the door keypad, get in the door and push the button that opens the trunk. 


But for that to work, the car battery must also be charged. 


We are now at the mercy of batteries. If your batteries have died, the world will stop.


What happens if nothing is charged? Is there any manual way to get in the vehicle? 


There is not. 


A couple years ago, I stood for two hours outside a van that locked itself shut and wouldn't let me in while it was running. I didn't know the combination for the keypad. Neither did anybody else. We ended up busting out a window. 


A kid would have had the van's combination memorized, just as the same kid has his or her thirty-four character passwords memorized for every website on earth. 


And those kids, knowing full well that other kids are equally smart and can hack their way into anything, change their passwords every three weeks and manage to remember their new passwords. 


This is how the world is going to end: The kids are going to remember their passwords. The old people are going to forget their passwords. The kids take over without a shot fired. 


Right now, I am okay with my car. I know that to get in, I punch a five digit number into the keypad. 


The first two digits are one of the years the Twins won a World Series. The last three are the number of a highway that runs east of Waubun, MN. 


If you can figure that out, welcome to my car. Enjoy the cold coffee.


But I am waiting for my car to insist that, for security reasons, I am going to have to change my password. 


At that point, I will be unable to get into my car unless I have written my new security code down in my wallet. However, I probably will have left my wallet in my car, so that would do no good. 


To get my car open, I will call some central agency which will require me to know some other number that I have forgotten. 


The last time I checked, I do remember my mother's maiden name. Can't you just ask me that?