Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

Salad

Last week, I spoke to a women's gathering at an area Lutheran church. I arrived good and hungry because those Lutherans can really put on a spread. 

But when I read the program at my place setting, my heart sank. After the welcome, the devotional and the special music, it said there would be a "salad luncheon." 


Salad? For supper? Isn't there some verse in Leviticus which declares salad for supper an abomination, a crime against nature? 


I needed some protein! Would they have blue cheese dressing for the salad so I could get my protein there? Would I be able to fill up on croutons so I didn't collapse during my talk? 


The devotional lady talked about getting through hard times. She seemed unaware we were in hard times at that very moment. 


The devotional ended. We were then favored with special music, during which a miracle happened. 


As the song proceeded, a stately procession of Lutheran ladies bearing crystal dishes emerged from the kitchen. Each gently set their dish on the table and then floated back the kitchen to get yet another one. It went on and on. 


The three-table buffet filled with serving dishes. It was like Christmas. After the table grace, I invoked speaker's privilege and budded in line right behind Table #1. I piled my plate high. 


Silly me. I had forgotten about the Lutherans and their salads. 


Lutheran theology has loosened up a bit in the past century. Some parishioners think a little liberalization is just fine, while others have peeled away to form congregations with fewer impurities. 


But nowhere are the good Lutherans more liberal than in their definition of salad. 


Under constant pressure from the California lettuce cartels, the Food and Drug Administration has long insisted in order for a dish to be called a salad, it must contain 64.9% iceberg lettuce by weight. 


In 1975, the old Lutheran Church of America (which later merged into the ELCA), threatened then Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale that they would encourage their membership to write in Harold Stassen if the feds didn't make a religious exemption to the salad rule for Lutherans. 


Citing separation of church and state, Lutheran lawyers argued before the Joint Committee on Food Regulation that forcing Lutheran salad makers to include lettuce in every salad would ruin most Lutheran salad recipes, particularly the salad with whipped cream, Oreo cookies and jelly beans. 


The Lutheran lawyers then brought in the Lutheran theologians, who read from a long-outdated blue hymnal which contained liturgy whereby the minister would transfigure whatever food was on the smorgasbord into salad. Although the form of the food remained outwardly the same, after the minister's pronouncement, it was "salad" for legal, theological and dietary purposes. 


Confused by these religious justifications, FDA administrators agreed that salads served in Lutheran church basements would from henceforth and hitherto be exempt from the federal minimum lettuce requirement. 


To celebrate this great legal and moral victory, Lutheran women loosened the definition of salad to the point where it has lately become almost meaningless. 


Today, as far as I can tell, anything you serve in a church basement chilled, including jello with whipped cream, can be called a salad. 


Under the amended regulations, tater tot hotdish served cold can be called a salad if the planners of the Spring Fling decide they want something called a "salad luncheon" but still want to provide attendees a meal fit for a thresherman. 


In the case of last week's salad luncheon, the ladies served about a dozen dishes  which contained macaroni, meat, cheese and a handful veggies. They were little more than cold hotdishes. 


There was a taco type thing that contained beans, burger, cheese, corn chips––and two shreds of lettuce, which I think was a kitchen activist's (every church basement has one forward thinker, at least until they are ousted) defiant gesture towards the FDA. 


Every dish was excellent. When it came time for me to speak, I waddled to the podium, having overeaten once again. 


Nobody lost weight at this so-called "salad" luncheon. But so what. The scrumptious dishes provided us all much-needed nutrition for the upcoming spring rush. 


What a relief from the hypocrisy of other religious groups which serve their women's gatherings a bird's portion of egg salad dabbed on a croissant, only to force attendees to go home and eat butter pecan ice cream right out of the carton for twenty minutes just to fill up. 

 

Keep calm, carry on

You can take all the security precautions you want, but when a couple of self-destructive lunatics decide to create random, senseless mayhem, they will be as unstoppable as the weather. 

The thing to do is deprive the lunatics of their goal by refusing to flinch. Instead of going into full alarm, angrily searching for scapegoats, turning public areas into armed camps, we should keep calm and carry on, recognizing that life has risks, one of the smallest of which is dying in a terrorist attack. 


True, the lunatics usually die in the process of creating their mayhem. They don't often get to enjoy the attention from their own actions.


What we forget is that future lunatics lick their chops at the massive amount of attention given the lunatic who just died. Mass coverage of this attack plants the seeds of the next. 


If we could, and we probably can't, we should turn the attention given these bombings and shootings down to about zero. 


Keep calm and carry on. That's what the British people proudly did during the 57 consecutive nights of terrorist bombing by the Nazis which left 40,000 dead in late 1940. 


British public figures, most prominently their Queen, appeared in public only to show their fight, their spirit, and in the Queen's case, their refusal to leave the besieged city for the safer pastures. 


For her efforts, Hitler called then Queen Elizabeth "the most dangerous woman in Europe." He recognized her vital role in keeping up the stern resolve of the British people. 


Queen Elizabeth wouldn't have been half as dangerous if, instead of being a symbol of strength, she had chosen to be the national comforter, dispensing long hugs and delivering weepy speeches as our presidents have been expected to do since Ronald Reagan initiated the novel and unfortunate tradition of public presidential grief. 


No, while tens-of-thousands of her subjects died, the Queen showed only strength and defiance, exactly what the British needed to survive and eventually win the Battle of Britain. 


Our recent shootings and bombings are pin-pricks in comparison to the London Blitz. Yet the non-stop media coverage makes it seem as if the country has been rocked to its very foundations each time. 


The unexpected death of anybody is a tragedy. Shootings and bombings are abhorrent. However, we should recognize that these bombings and mass shootings have become media events way out of proportion to their almost non-existent impact on our national security. 


In Boston? Horrific scenes, yes. But that same day, many more injuries and deaths happened to Americans in other areas for other reasons. Probably there were as many unrelated deaths in Boston itself. 


But because the injuries were concentrated in one area, because there was a lot of video, and because there was the sense that this was done by an enemy, we predictably and sadly reacted just how future idiot bombers and shooters hope we'll react: We gave the incident our full, sustained attention. For days.


A much worse explosion happened in Texas the same week. But because the culprit in Texas was a pile of fertilizer and not a deranged human, media coverage was a fraction of what was given to the incident in Boston. 


No crowds at ballgames spontaneously sang The Yellow Rose of Texas. Nobody raged against fertilizer makers. The president didn't show up to give hugs and emote. 


If we really want to lessen the threat of frequent mass attacks by self-destructive, attention-starved lunatics, we must deprive them of their oxygen: Attention. The thrill of creating mass fear. The weird allure of going out with a blaze of glory.


We must also discontinue our unattractive habit of going into a national spasm of mourning whenever one of these desperate, inconsequential and relatively minor terror attacks happens. 


The families of the victims get our full sympathy. They deserve it.


Everybody else should take a pill. 


Let's quit lowering the flag to half staff except for the death of a head of state, as used to be the custom.


Let's not expect the president to show up at the site of every disaster to hug survivors and shed tears. In fact, let's expect him or her to stay in the White House and act like things are normal until they're truly not. 


Let's realize that solid behind-the-scenes police work prevents more terrorist attacks than frisking Grandma at the airport, an embarrassing practice which should end tomorrow as a matter of national pride and dignity. 


In short, let's start doing what the British people did in 1940 under much more dire circumstances: Keep calm and carry on. 




 

Build your own job

 Last month, I met for the first time a 23-year-old shirt-tail relative in Los Angeles named Sarah. Fully-employed in a well-paying job she loves, Sarah is the face of our new economy. 

Sarah has a college degree, but it wasn't the degree that qualified her for the job of her dreams. It was her love of video games. 


Thanks to her passion for video games, Sarah landed a job in a growing company in a growing industry, a job good enough to allow her to life comfortably in a trendy neighborhood near West Hollywood. 


What does Sarah do? 


I really don't know. After hearing her talk about her job with another video game player for over an hour, the best I can come up with is that Sarah consults in the creation of promotional online videos for new video games to help the game gain acceptance with the gaming audience. 


Video gaming is a fast-moving multi-billion dollar industry where creating a buzz for your new game can mean the difference between success and failure. 


Success? Your game generates hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue in a short time. 


Failure? The millions of dollars and years of time you spent on a staff of dozens of creative geniuses will go to waste. Your investors will take their money elsewhere next time. 


As a part of her job, Sarah maintains a popular weblog which reviews new games. I visited the site hoping to learn something about her job, but found the jargon of the video game world impenetrable. 


What I did understand is that Sarah's job, as well as the company which hired her, didn't exist two years ago. 


Using her quick mind and street savvy, Sarah grabbed a position she knew could be transformed into a job of her dreams by her own drive and creativity. 


In other words, Sarah's present job wasn't advertised. She applied for an advertised position knowing that she would quickly turn it into something else all together. 

 

Sarah already has her eye on the next job she hopes to create for herself. I wouldn't bet against her. 


The skills Sarah used to build her career weren't taught in her college classes. Her savvy, her patience, her drive and her ability to look around the corner and see what is coming were taught her by the video games she grew up playing. 


To succeed in the notoriously sexist online gaming community as a participant, Sarah created male alter-ego as her character in the games she played. "Most female gamers do," she shrugged. 


Last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman penned a column entitled, "Need a Job? Invent it!" 


Sarah could be his poster child. 


Friedman argues that the days of "finding a job" are over, at least for highly-paid, highly skilled positions. If you want a satisfying, well-paid job, you are going to have to create it yourself.


Otherwise, get ready to wait tables. 


Fast-moving technology requires nimble feet. Your college diploma, for which you likely paid way too much, is no longer a ticket to a tenured corporate position from which you will retire with benefits in thirty years. 


Our elephantine education system is slow to respond. High schools and colleges need to prepare students; to think on their feet and respond to the openings created by technology. 


Last week, I ate supper at the bar of a fun restaurant in a trendy St. Paul neighborhood. I listened to the waiters banter. Their intelligence was evident. All were college graduates and one had a master's degree.  


To pass the time, they had developed a game, one they took seriously. As customers came in, each waiter wrote down what they believed the customer would order from the extensive menu. The bartender kept the chart. 


Of course, the waiters were free to coach the customers towards particular items. When a customer complied, the waiter went behind the partition and pumped his fist in celebration. He won the pot! 


And yet, these college-educated guys were waiters. Waiting tables well is a noble calling, but I suspect it wasn't the profession they imagined entering when they chose their major as a freshman. 


They were waiters because their college degrees didn't qualify them for a better-paying profession. 


They were waiters, you could argue, because their education did not teach them the most crucial skill of them all: The ability to analyze the fast-changing economic and technological landscape and create a job for themselves that didn't exist last year. 



 

Slow melt

 Spring is arriving slower than the last day of school in sixth grade. 


If delayed gratification develops adulthood, most of us in the northland will be grown up and a little gray before the apple trees bloom. 


Despite our foul mood, we know in our heads that the slow snow melt is good. Perhaps the threat of yet another spring flood will fizzle. 


As the massive snowbanks shrink, local sages observe that very little water has run off. Is most of the moisture sinking into the soil? One can hope. 


I still hope for enough run-off to fill the swamp in front of the house. It dried to nothing last summer. 


The swan pair has flown over the swamp twice, but they won't land and start a new family unless there is enough water to float their little fleet. 


No muskrats, no beaver, no ducks, no geese. Not without water. 


The only wildlife so far in front of the house, save for songbirds, has been a family of three desperate deer who forage for millet beneath the bird feeders. 


When last year's fawns hungrily horn in for some fallen food, Mama Doe kicks them with her hooves! She's had enough. Time for the kids to move out and get a job. 


Apparently, Dad Deer didn't stick around to help raise his young, the irresponsible jerk. One feels for the fawns, raised without a male role model. 


Hunger makes deer almost tame. During summer, deer hear your feet hit the floor when you get out of bed and they gallop down the drive in terror. During this late spring, I rap on the window inches from their nose and they gaze at me with mild interest. 


An excruciatingly slow spring melt reminds me of when my parents, in an attempt to teach me financial responsibility, started me up with a passbook savings account at the bank. 


They tossed in $45. I added $5 plus change from my ceramic piggy bank. 


The way those passbook savings accounts worked was that you could go into the bank every now and then and the teller would add up the interest, scratch it in your passbook, and you could see how wealthy you were becoming. 


So, I went in to the teller after months of waiting with my passbook under my pillow and found out my $50 had grown into...$52.17. 


I was supposed to be thrilled that I earned $2.17 for doing absolutely nothing for six months. Instead, I was disappointed that the endless months of hard time hadn't made me wealthy. 


Two bucks! That was barely enough to order a family of sea monkeys from the back of the Archie comic book!


The lesson learned? Take your piggy bank money and order the sea monkeys. Today. Don't wait, for we know not what the morrow brings. It might snow. 


Cod liver oil. Broccoli. Interest payments of $2.17. Vitamins. Early bedtimes. Long, slow snow melts. Late springs. They're all the same. They're all good for you, but I am getting too old for them to improve me any further. 


Like the thirsty Greek mythological figure Tantalus, who was forced for eternity to stand neck-deep in pure, cool water which would recede if he attempted to drink; who, additionally, was subjected to the sight of beautiful grapes which would pull away before he could pick them––spring forever recedes into the distance, just out of our reach. 


Drip, drip, drip goes the slow Minnesota melt, a form of Chinese water torture specifically designed to test the stoicism of already overly-stoic northerners.


The trouble with living here for a long time is that you start thinking you must endure endless misery (March) in order to enjoy a smidgen of happiness (four nice days in October). 


Let me inform you that I have been out and about this winter and have discovered places on earth, namely California and Arizona, where suffering is limited to traffic jams and occasional loss of life and/or property, where a cold day means wearing a sweater, where a little snow means dancing outside with jumping dogs and happy children, where almost daily sunshine warms one to the bone. 



If we had the sense of our ancient ancestors, Minnesotans would become nomadic. With modern technology, we could migrate more easily than the ancients. 


Forget the camels and pack mules, let's get together a caravan of flatbed trucks and move the entire town to the Arizona desert for five months per year. School, nursing home, cafes, bars, churches, the works. 


When the geese fly north, so would we, but not until. Nature is trying to tell us something with this slow melt. It is time we listened. 









 

Baseball, Inc.

 Advanced statistical analysis has changed the game of baseball, and not for the better. 


With ruthless determination, computer nerds have proven that statistical probability governs the game of baseball more than anybody ever imagined. "The law of averages," my Grandpa used to call it.


But Grandpa meant that if Hrbek was 0 for his last 10, the law of averages said he would more than likely get a hit his next time up. The computer nerds go much deeper. 


Statisticians have found just what type of ballplayers and what type of strategies contribute to winning games over the long haul. They found that the traditional measures of individual success, batting average for hitters and wins for pitchers, mean little in terms of winning games.


What matters is getting on base any way you can. What matters is taking pitches so the pitcher gets tired out. What matters is striking batters out, since any ball hit into the field of play has a statistical chance to be a hit. 


So now we have some guy standing up there and fouling off ten pitches, then grounding out to second base, only to have the announcers congratulate him for a great at-bat. 


Statistically, forcing that pitcher to throw those ten pitches increases the likelihood of a win.


Wilkin Ramirez ripped the cover of the ball for the Twins in spring training and was rewarded with a spot on the roster. 


Analyst Aaron Gleeman scoffs. Ramirez's 40 at bats this spring are statistically insignificant, he says. What matters are Ramirez's 4000 mediocre minor league at bats. He'll be gone soon. 


Meanwhile, rookie Aaron Hicks is taking over in centerfield for the Twins. He has great minor league statistics. He had a great spring. He could have a great career. But what do the computer nerds advocate doing with Hicks? 


Statistically sound long-term thinking, they say, would have the Twins send Hicks to the minors until June in order to prevent him from becoming a free agent for an additional year in 2018!


Thank goodness Twins management has a little old-fashioned romance in them. They're bringing up Hicks right away because they know he'll put fans in the stands. 


Billy Beane, the pioneer of statistics-oriented baseball management, would have sent Hicks down. 


Although I admire Beane, it says something that he is impatient with the actual baseball game as it is played. He can't bear to watch. 


To Beane, and to the statisticians, baseball isn't beautiful until it starts to conform to the averages. 


A second-baseman who hits his first home run in 1,000 at bats to win a game doesn't make Beane's heart flutter with joy. In fact, that second baseman and his odd-ball home run are an irritation to Beane and the statisticians. 


Statistics say pitchers who consistently throw over 100 pitches wear out. A pitcher can be cruising along pitching a beautiful game, but if he reaches 100 pitches, out he comes. 


The obsession with long-term thinking breaks down during the playoffs when too few games are played to allow statistical probabilities to kick in. 


No wonder the World Series has become a bore. The teams best prepared for the long haul don't get there. Some other pipsqueaks, namely the Giants, sneak in and steal the ring. 


So conditioned are baseball people to long-term thinking that a team which wins the title on inspiration and an a good run at the end is viewed with suspicion. 


Let's get this straight: Our national pass time is so tied up with long-term thinking that fun and serendipity has been stripped from the individual games. 


Meanwhile, our national government can't think beyond next month, they're so tied up trying to win today's news cycle! 


We're facing an age wave that is going to bury our nursing home system, but anybody who sounds the alarm is ignored. 


We've got things backwards. Politics has become our baseball and baseball has become as bureaucratized as government. 


Let's make a trade. I propose sending all of baseball's statisticians to the federal government in exchange for a hot dog. 


There they can analyze Social Security, Medicare, defense spending and the like and come up with winning solutions for the long haul. 


Meanwhile, put all the short-term thinking politicians and media in the stands of a baseball game where they can boo loudly when Casey strikes out, or cheer at the top of their lungs when the Babe knocks one out.  


For the general good, let's return romance to baseball and rationality to government, where they both belong. 






 

Angel in Billings

The trek from California through the mountain states towards home landed me in Billings, MT mid-day last week. 

I stopped for a quick bite to eat, then ordered a souped-up coffee at a local cafe, coffee which was intended to amp me up enough to reach Bismarck, ND. 


The oil rush means hotels between Billings and Bismarck are expensive and scarce, so I brought my laptop into the cafe in Billings and rented a room in Bismarck online. 


Feeling quite smug about my planning and organizational skills, I grabbed my coffee, threw my jacket in the back seat of the car and headed down the interstate, determined to make quick work of the 411 mile trip. 


Montana traffic moves at a steady 80 mph, and with the tunes blaring and a double shot of caffeine coursing through my veins, I felt in the driver's seat in more way than one. 


Then my cell phone rang. It was my brother, back home in Minnesota. 


"Some woman just called from Billings," he said. "She says she has your laptop." 


Oh, for stupid. I had left my laptop at the coffee shop! 


Turning around to go back to get it would mean getting into Bismarck an hour later. Uff da. Could the woman mail it? 


Then I thought, its just an hour, I have nothing better to do. I took down the woman's number, which I assumed was that of the coffee shop, declared myself an "authorized vehicle," and made U-turn at one of those crossings for authorized vehicles only. 


Zooming back towards Billings, the phone rang. It was the woman from Billings. She had my laptop and was willing to meet me outside of town. 


 I said, "are you going to have to take off work at the coffee shop?" 


"What coffee shop?" she replied, confused. 


"Well, where did you find my computer?" I asked. 


"In the gutter on the street in front of Wal-mart," she said. 


Wow. I was even more stupid than I thought. 


Then my memory returned. I had left the laptop, a razor-thin McBook Air, on the hood of my car. Silver in color, the computer apparently blended in so well that I didn't see it as I drove the first couple of blocks. 


Eventually, it fell off the hood. How I missed seeing or hearing it is beyond me. Was I putting on my seatbelt? Was I turning up the tunes? I'll never know. 


The woman, named Kristen, whom I have dubbed the "Angel of Billings," saw the laptop on the street, opened it, found my name, took a picture of the computer, posted it on Facebook assuming that I was from Billings and that somebody might know me, and then undertook an internet search to find how she might find me. 


She saw that a person by my name was associated with a nursery in northwestern Minnesota, and called that nursery. 


Once we connected, she offered to come out meet me at the Flying J truck stop on the edge of town, saving me twenty miles. 


Was I glad I had turned around! I wanted to meet this person who had gone so far out of her way yet sounded as if it was no big deal. 


When I pulled into the Flying J, there stood Kirsten, a tiny thing with fashionable glasses, in sweats. She had been apparently working out. 


Only twenty-three years old and working retail, Kirsten didn't want to take anything for her kindness, but I said take it and hand it out to the bums if you feel guilty. 


Technology being what it is today, we were friends on Facebook by the time departed from the parking lot. 


According to her Facebook profile, Kirstin is also a "bikini athlete." That is, she lifts weights and conditions her body to enter bikini contests. 


As far as I am concerned, Kirsten is already a champion, bikini or not!


When I left the parking lot, I was sky high. What a wonderful kid! What a great boost in my faith in humanity! 


As you can imagine, I was in a far better mood than I was before I found out my computer had been found in a gutter. 


The computer had a dent, which I fixed with a plier. Otherwise, it is fine. 


Oh, the hassle Kristen saved me with her act of kindness. 


The trip to Bismarck flew by. It was a foggy night-time as I passed through the southern edge of the Bakken Oil field. Flares lit up the sky. Drilling rigs glowed with klieg lights. Dickinson bustled, even at 10 p.m.


It looked like Christmas out there on the prairie. I felt like it was Christmas to me, too, thanks to the Angel from Billings. 

Caifornia dreamin'

For all the congestion in its populated areas, the bulk of California's land area is wilderness, some of the most spectacular wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. 

Those who announce with pride, "I have no desire to ever go to California" will miss out on some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in the world. 


The Big Sur, a rugged 120-mile stretch of coast between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, will give you enough seaside drama for a lifetime as huge waves crash incessantly against the battered base of the coastal range. 


There is no greater constant display of nature's power. The endless spectacle has run for thousands of years without interruption. 


A short hike into a forest of Redwoods fires the imagination. What wondrous behemoths! Some of the venerable giants are over two thousand years old. 


The massive Sequoias, a bit higher up in the mountains and more endangered than the Redwoods, are now protected. Sad that thousands were cut down, as the lumber of such large specimens is useless. 


We forget that the largest natural feature in the state of California is the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range 400 miles long and 75 miles across. 


From downtown Los Angeles, you can see the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra on a rare clear winter's day, as you can from downtown Sacramento, 400 miles north. 


However, due to cloudiness and the very gradual rise of the Sierras, the millions in California seldom see their mountains in their full grandeur. 


In fact, the best view of the range is from the opposite side, in central Nevada, a perspective seen mostly by jackrabbits and antelope. 


In a scenic oddity, the massive Sierras are made famous by where they aren't: A relatively tiny notch carved out of the mountain chain by a glacier. 


Yosemite Valley was popularized by photographer Ansel Adams. However, Adams' photographs celebrate the texture of the massive granite walls more than their sheer size, which no picture can capture. 


Rising straight up 3,000-4,500 feet off the floor of the little valley, the granite cliffs  beggar belief. On a clear day, there is really no way to put them in perspective and understand how large they really are. 


However, this past week I was lucky to hit Yosemite Park on a day when it was raining in the lower elevations and snowing higher up. The swirling mists added depth to the scene. 


Tire chains weren't required on the valley floor, but 200 feet up the side of the cliffs it was clearly below freezing and snowy. 


With the precipitation, the waterfalls which thunder down the valley's cliffs were in full throttle. Some of the mist turned to snow on the way down, creating a massive pile at the bottom. 


Yosemite Valley has the feel of an eerie gothic cathedral. The rain, mist and fog, made the experience more ghostly and ethereal. 


In an additional bonus, the miserable but dramatic weather kept the throngs of tourists at bay. 


During summer, Yosemite is overrun by people from all over the world. Even during winter, the tour buses can clog up the relatively tiny valley. 


But on this sleety, misty, mystical day, Yosemite Valley was pleasantly empty. It was 33 degrees and sopping wet in the John Muir meadow where we stood. I snapped some pictures, but the real pleasure was in just absorbing the scene. 


After Yosemite Valley was reached by road, it became commercialized in the 1920s. Large lodges sprang up. A steam boat was launched on the lake. Plans were for it to be a tourist mecca.


One can imagine Yosemite Valley could have turned into the Wisconsin Dells: A touristy place people travel to with little idea what natural feature actually drew them there!


Ansel Adams, who had a studio in the valley, led the charge to get rid of some of the buildings, limit access and keep Yosemite Valley from being completely overrun. 


In the end, the true lover of wilderness majesty might prefer King's Canyon, an equally beautiful but much less-traveled glacial notch in the mighty Sierras. 


But one trip to Yosemite should be on everybody's bucket list. 


Some places have a little of everything. California, which is really a country onto itself, has an excess of everything.


From the sooty sixteen-lane freeways of Los Angeles, to the Redwoods, to the elusive Sierras, to the dramatic glacial valleys of Yosemite and King's Canyon, to the dunes of Death Valley, to the bountiful Central Valley, to the whales of San Diego, to the stars on the red carpet in Hollywood, everything about California is bigger than life. 


It is a place everybody should see once. 


 

Tale of Two Vallies

 The white flakes blowing across the freeway in California's Central Valley looked like snow, but the temperatures were in the 80s. 


The flakes were petals blowing from thousands of almond trees just finishing their bloom the first week of March. 


Almond farmers hope the honey bees, some of them brought down from the Red River Valley of the North just to pollinate the almonds, did their job, for the Central Valley provides 70% of the world's supply.


At 450 miles long and sixty miles across, California's rich Central Valley is similar in shape, size and quality of soil to the Red River Valley of the North. 


Farms of the Red River Valley fill the baking supplies aisle of the grocery store, while the Central Valley takes care of the produce section. 


The 260 cash crops raised in the Central Valley include anything you'd want to eat. Or smoke, for that matter. 


You wonder how a California farmer decides which crop to raise. Should he put in an almond orchard and wait seven years for a possible multi-million dollar crop, or should she raise tomatoes and two other crops on the same land in one year? 


The bounty is evident as you drive the highways. Immense warehouses for a single crop like tangerines. Or garlic. Or asparagus. 


Fallen oranges litter the highway near a citrus orchard and nobody picks them up. 


The world's largest farm machinery expo is held in Tulare, CA, each winter. I attended once. I couldn't identify what 98% of the stuff did. 


Believe it or not, you can buy almond tree shakers that shake the nuts off the tree and automatically collect them on a canvas. 


The overflowing richness of the Central Valley has been drawing immigrants for generations, including thousands of farmers from North Dakota during the Depression. 


My maternal Grandpa Geiszler made a living hauling German-Russian families from North Dakota out to Lodi, CA, where they quickly found work in the fields or the processing plants. 


It isn't in the official family history, but word is that on the return trip, he filled his truck with contraband casks of California wine. 


One historian claims that by 1933, over half of the population of Lodi, CA consisted of German-Russians from North Dakota. 


No more. Immigration has continued, and from all over the world. Today, six million people live in the farm cities of the Central Valley. 


Where every eight miles we might find a farm town of 800 along a highway in the Red River Valley, in the Central Valley those towns are 8,000, or 80,000, or even 800,000.


All you have to do to understand the overcrowding is step outside and feel the sunshine, see the masses of orange wildflowers in the the ditches and enjoy the thousands of blooming fruit trees. 


Or, pick up some fresh citrus for a couple of dollars a bag. 


The weather and the food is why the people came. But like much of California, the Central Valley feels over-run. Highways are crowded and in tough shape. Downtowns are shabby. Crime is evident. 


Most troubling is the potential for water shortages. All of the Central Valley is irrigated. Farmers fight a constant battle to keep the water flowing. 


In fact, a war over water is probably the biggest cloud on California's agricultural horizon. 


Do you dam up all the streams in order to replenish the reservoirs, thus killing the salmon? 


Do you force city people to leave their swimming pools empty at 101 degrees so a few orange trees can bear more fruit? 


Do you let the golf courses turn brown, thus annoying the Silicon Valley big money, in order to keep the price of strawberries down? 


The tug of war is constant and will just get worse. Billboards all along the Central Valley's highway system make the farmer's point: Less water means fewer jobs. 


Climate aside, the biggest economic fact separating the Red River Valley of the North from the Central Valley of California is the nature of the water supply. 


We have wet years and we have dry years up north, but unlike the arid west, we don't often go to court to fight for our water. It comes or it doesn't.


But what if snowfalls decline in the Sierras for many years in a row, leaving California's reservoirs empty and taxing the aquifer beyond its capacity to recover? 


The fight over who gets water during a severe shortage wouldn't be pretty. 


Back in the Red River Valley, we grumble about the rain or we grumble about the lack of rain, but we are truly blessed in one regard: None of us has figured out how to control it. 


Business management

 The last day in Arizona featured the best and worst of customer service and business management. 


First, a hotel from the nether regions. 


I won't name the establishment because I met the sleaze bag owner and I know he would sue me, even if what I write here is true. 


What was a comfortable, if dated, hotel when I stayed three years ago has turned into a sleazy den of iniquity. 


The desk clerk lied from the beginning, saying that if the internet didn't work, it was my computer's fault. 


"Don't listen to those lying bimbos," said the janitor I when I asked him about the wireless. "The internet hasn't worked in that wing for months." 


It was no surprise when we walked into the room after dinner to find soggy ceiling panels on the floor with water splashing on the carpet from leaking pipes above. 


I called the front desk. It was clear the leaking pipes were my fault. Big sigh. I said we would be happy to leave. She said, nope, you already paid, we'll get you another room. Sigh.


As I waited for new keys at the front desk, the clerks bickered. One ran off sobbing to the sales manager's office. The other called the owner and said, "she's givin' me attitude!"


I checked out the next morning only to find that I was charged $50 extra for the replacement room. I knew not to argue. Online reviews, which I should have read much earlier, said the owner would scream, holler, yell and not give an inch.


After checking out of Hades, it was time to find breakfast. Random choice: U. S. Egg in Tempe, AZ. 


Saturday morning. Big breakfast crowd. Bustling restaurant. Yet we were seated immediately, given coffee immediately, fed almost immediately and were back in the car twenty-five minutes later. 


The college students waiting tables hustled to the point of jogging. Overseers with walkie-talkies sped things along. The maitre d' , if you can call the head honcho at at greasy spoon such a lofty title, dispatched his troops with calm confidence. 


The little restaurant whirred with activity and purred with competence. The employees, to a person, looked to be enjoying themselves. 


One way to pass time on the road is to observe business management styles at hotels and restaurants. Which establishments are happy places? Which restaurants work? Why? Which are failures? Why?


This restaurant worked. Brilliantly. I asked the maitre d', "who runs this place?" 


"I do," he replied. I wasn't surprised. The best restaurants are those where the boss greets the customers. 


The genius of the breakfast place wasn't only that people were getting fed quickly and well. It was that the people doing the work were so obviously happy.


We talk about helping professions: the ministry, nursing, medicine, teaching, social work, psychology, counseling, the like. All noble pursuits. 


But what about the above managers, like the above maitre d', who create a joyful, fulfilling workplace? 


Most people spend the bulk of their best years at a job. Sadly, most people in jobs are miserable. The problem? Usually bad management. 


An uncle of mine was a psychologist and tried to help people with their problems. He grew tired of seeing the same silliness over and over, so he changed professions. 


In his second career, he became president of a company which employed 1,000 people. 


I visited the company on a typical work day and later attended a company party. 

What fun! Everybody was relaxed. Nobody was afraid to be themselves, nobody put on airs to climb the corporate ladder. 


All employees seemed in their groove. All were on board with the company's mission. They felt productive and respected.


So, where did my uncle most help humanity, in a traditional helping profession as a counselor untangling marital issues one by one with mixed results, or as a capitalistic boss who created a joyful atmosphere for 1,000 people to use their talents? 


Hands down, his second job benefited humanity more than the first. 


My question: Why isn't business management regarded as a noble pursuit? 


The best companies to work for, such as Google and Southwest Airlines, make money by making sure their employees enjoy their days. 


The worst businesses, such as the above unnamed hotel, torment their parade of workers for years and years, sending ripples of misery into families and customers alike. 


It doesn't make for a rousing rallying cry, but maybe what the world really needs is a few good managers. 

 

Spring training

With fifteen major league baseball teams training in the Phoenix area, you would think that a baseball fan would be in heaven, racing from ballfield to ballfield collecting autographs and taking in the atmosphere. 

On that premise, I looked over the map of stadiums last week and decided to drive to see the Dodgers practice. 


I chose the Dodgers not because I am a fan of the team, but because I have never seen them play in person and likely won't. 


The Dodgers recently were purchased by former basketball legend Magic Johnson and friends. The group is plush with money and throws it around as if they are the Yankees. 


I looked forward to possibly sighting the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, Sandy Koufax. Now in his 70s, Koufax shows up at training camp to dispense advice to young pitchers. 


Phoenix goes on forever. It took me an-hour-and-a-half to reach the complex which the Dodgers share with the White Sox. Although I was chomping at the bit to see baseball, I decided to quit acting like a 12-year-old for a bit and stop for a leisurely lunch on the way. 


When I pulled into the complex at quarter past noon, the fields stood empty. I asked one of the guards if there was any activity. 


"Nope, they finished at noon." 


Well, I asked, when do they start? 


"Nine." 


Not a bad life, I would say! Multi-million dollar salaries for three hours of work per day! 


I walked around back where some minor leaguers were running base-stealing drills. I heard the thump of the ball hit a glove. I heard the crack of bat on ball. 


That was good enough for me. I jumped back in the car and headed back to the house.


I wish I could say the return trip took only took an hour-and-a-half. However, the only highway out our way is Highway 60, and if anything odd happens, it slows to a crawl. 


The something that happened was President's Day and a two-for-one ticket sale at the Renaissance Festival, I found out later. 


You couldn't get me into a Renaissance Festival if you handed me the tickets for free. But the rest of Phoenix thought otherwise, creating an 18-mile traffic stop-and-go traffic jam on Highway 60. 


For eighteen miles cars lurched forward, stopped, switched lanes for a brief advantage––only to have the other lane go faster––honked, pulled off to the side to see far ahead, jockeyed for position. 


A traffic jam is a test of one's equanimity. Teachers of inner peace often use the traffic jam as an example of something out of our control which anger will do nothing to improve. Through enduring a traffic jam, we learn acceptance. 


If you have the calm of a Zen master, you will accept the traffic jam as part of life, even learn to embrace the traffic jam and hold it in a place of wonder. 


Or something like that. 


I didn't attain inner peace, but after an hour of not knowing how long this fiasco was going to go on, I gave up hoping the jam would end and started to ponder why I was out on the road in the first place. 


What was I hoping to see at the spring training? The teams weren't yet playing actual games. From what I have seen of practice before, baseball players mostly stand around, spit tobacco juice and swear. 


"You really get to see the players close up," is one spring training enthusiast's explanation to me. 


HD television allows us to see where Joe Mauer missed with his razor and other details best left blurry. If I want to see players close up, I can count their pimples on TV.  


Say I ran into Sandy Koufax. What in the world would I say to him? Why would I want to bother the poor man? 


"It was kinda cool," is what people always say when they run into a celebrity. "Pretty cool." 


To my thinking, there is nothing "cool" about panting like a needy puppy around a celebrity, no matter how famous or talented. 


The coolest response for an adult is to let the ballplayers play ball and don't abase yourself by pestering players for attention even when you have a chance.  


The traffic jam, I finally decided, was a karmic teacher. 


Enjoy the game of baseball, the traffic jam told me. But don't turn into a geeky 48-year-old who thinks his obscure existence will be glorified by a moment of proximity to the overpaid lunks who play it.