Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

Ba$eball™

With the Twins mired in last place, the urge to flip on the television this summer dwindled to nil.

This is the second straight season where hopelessness has sprung eternal in Twins Territory™.


In June, while remodeling the driveway with the skid steer, I cut the coaxial cable that runs in from the dish. 


Because the Twins were on a losing binge at the time, one which would never really end, it took four weeks for me to ask handyman Ken to bring his tools out to the house and splice the cable. 


After Ken performed the magical splicing ceremony, the television sprung to life. 


Like finding a favorite toy you'd thought you'd lost, I spent the next three nights in front of the television enjoying the novelty. 


And then it wore off. 


If I hit the one night out of three when the Twins showed some life, I enjoyed the game, but as soon as things threatened to get out of hand, off went the switch. 


It is difficult to listen to announcer Dick Bremer search around for signs of life, signs of hope, signs of competence, on a team which is so clearly a flop. 


Baseball announcers are not journalists. They are salesmen. They have to sell stuff every time Rick Anderson makes a Quik Trip to the mound, or Willingham knocks a Coors Light "cold blast" out of Pamida Park. 


Not only that, but it is the announcer's job to fill the seats at the ballpark by trumping up every possible high point, every little sign of hope. 


After a wind storm in August, the television went silent again. "Searching for signal," said the screen. 


I let it be. For six weeks, I paid $2 per day to not watch 162 channels of trash. Twins' losses continued to pile up. 


Then the hated Yankees came in to play at Pamida Park. I decided to see if I couldn't fix the problem with the reception. 


Using my remote phone as a walkie-talkie so I could monitor the TV, I ventured through the poison ivy to the dish and climbed up on a chunk of firewood left there for the purpose. 


I bumped the dish one way. Nothing. So I bumped it the other way. 


Bonanza! Full reception once again. 


What a repairman I am.


And the Twins won! 


After over a month of silence, I relished every colorful moment of the televised extravaganza.


The next night, reality set in. The Twins lost. Again. Too many Quik Trips to the mound for Rick Anderson. Too many Coors Light "cold blasts" for the overpaid Bronx Bombers. 


Baseball media coverage has changed, and not for the better. 


There's just too much of it. 


In the 1970s, the Minnesota Twins fan was thirsty for any tidbit of news. After a galling loss, or even after a thrilling win, the radio station returned to farm reports the minute the game was over. 


No, not reports from Rochester or Toledo on the farm team, but actual reports on January corn and November wheat. The important stuff. 


Today, the poor announcers carry on for a good half hour of post-game baloney where the most useless journalistic enterprise in existence, the sports interview, is conducted over and over until you want to retch. 


"We didn't get it done tonight, that's all there is to it," says the manager, clearly longing for a "cold blast" of the non-home run variety. 


"No excuses, I didn't have my fastball tonight and I just left too many pitches up," says the pitcher, by way of an excuse. Or two.


The pitcher, unlike the manager, can afford a pitcher of something better than a cold blast even after he gives up a six-pack of cold blasts to the Bombed Bronxers.  


Even a win has to be followed by an interview with the hero, who looked so grand rounding the bases but now looks like a bumbling fool as he drops thirty "you know"s to fulfill the reporter's demand that he "take us through that last at bat."


That last at bat is never improved by an explanation from the participant. 


If anything interesting did happen on the field that we didn't see the first time, such as the time Rod Carew swallowed his plug of tobacco rounding third and barely made it home, today's players are so trained to say nothing of interest that it would never get reported anyway. 


Although baseball remains a beautiful game, coverage of it is not journalism. It isn't even entertainment. 


It is about selling. 


And sometimes it doesn't hurt to cut the cable. 





 

Ba$eball™

With the Twins mired in last place, the urge to flip on the television this summer dwindled to nil.

This is the second straight season where hopelessness has sprung eternal in Twins Territory™.


In June, while remodeling the driveway with the skid steer, I cut the coaxial cable that runs in from the dish. 


Because the Twins were on a losing binge at the time, one which would never really end, it took four weeks for me to ask handyman Ken to bring his tools out to the house and splice the cable. 


After Ken performed the magical splicing ceremony, the television sprung to life. 


Like finding a favorite toy you'd thought you'd lost, I spent the next three nights in front of the television enjoying the novelty. 


And then it wore off. 


If I hit the one night out of three when the Twins showed some life, I enjoyed the game, but as soon as things threatened to get out of hand, off went the switch. 


It is difficult to listen to announcer Dick Bremer search around for signs of life, signs of hope, signs of competence, on a team which is so clearly a flop. 


Baseball announcers are not journalists. They are salesmen. They have to sell stuff every time Rick Anderson makes a Quik Trip to the mound, or Willingham knocks a Coors Light "cold blast" out of Pamida Park. 


Not only that, but it is the announcer's job to fill the seats at the ballpark by trumping up every possible high point, every little sign of hope. 


After a wind storm in August, the television went silent again. "Searching for signal," said the screen. 


I let it be. For six weeks, I paid $2 per day to not watch 162 channels of trash. Twins' losses continued to pile up. 


Then the hated Yankees came in to play at Pamida Park. I decided to see if I couldn't fix the problem with the reception. 


Using my remote phone as a walkie-talkie so I could monitor the TV, I ventured through the poison ivy to the dish and climbed up on a chunk of firewood left there for the purpose. 


I bumped the dish one way. Nothing. So I bumped it the other way. 


Bonanza! Full reception once again. 


What a repairman I am.


And the Twins won! 


After over a month of silence, I relished every colorful moment of the televised extravaganza.


The next night, reality set in. The Twins lost. Again. Too many Quik Trips to the mound for Rick Anderson. Too many Coors Light "cold blasts" for the overpaid Bronx Bombers. 


Baseball media coverage has changed, and not for the better. 


There's just too much of it. 


In the 1970s, the Minnesota Twins fan was thirsty for any tidbit of news. After a galling loss, or even after a thrilling win, the radio station returned to farm reports the minute the game was over. 


No, not reports from Rochester or Toledo on the farm team, but actual reports on January corn and November wheat. The important stuff. 


Today, the poor announcers carry on for a good half hour of post-game baloney where the most useless journalistic enterprise in existence, the sports interview, is conducted over and over until you want to retch. 


"We didn't get it done tonight, that's all there is to it," says the manager, clearly longing for a "cold blast" of the non-home run variety. 


"No excuses, I didn't have my fastball tonight and I just left too many pitches up," says the pitcher, by way of an excuse. Or two.


The pitcher, unlike the manager, can afford a pitcher of something better than a cold blast even after he gives up a six-pack of cold blasts to the Bombed Bronxers.  


Even a win has to be followed by an interview with the hero, who looked so grand rounding the bases but now looks like a bumbling fool as he drops thirty "you know"s to fulfill the reporter's demand that he "take us through that last at bat."


That last at bat is never improved by an explanation from the participant. 


If anything interesting did happen on the field that we didn't see the first time, such as the time Rod Carew swallowed his plug of tobacco rounding third and barely made it home, today's players are so trained to say nothing of interest that it would never get reported anyway. 


Although baseball remains a beautiful game, coverage of it is not journalism. It isn't even entertainment. 


It is about selling. 


And sometimes it doesn't hurt to cut the cable. 





 

Football is doomed

It may take several decades, but American football is going the way of cigarette smoking, forced into near extinction by mounting scientific evidence that the activity kills and maims. 

We always knew football was hard on knees, but now studies show the sport is hard on the brain, too. 


A concussion, it turns out, doesn't just hurt the place where the head got bumped. The impact jolts every cell of the brain, causing a disruption of the cell's equilibrium and permanently altering the brain chemistry. 


Subsequent jolts, even minor ones, can multiply the effect. 


The result? 


Those who have sustained multiple concussions are several times more likely to suffer depression, memory loss, Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease and other horrible neurological syndromes. 


Lou Gehrig, the baseball Hall of Famer, attended Columbia University on a football scholarship at a time when football helmets were mere padded leather caps. 


Could the disease named after him, in his case, have been the result of his brief football career? 


Muhammad Ali, despite his excellence in the ring, took his share of blows to the head. Doctors agree hits to the head are why the great boxer was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at the tender age of 42. 


Gone are the days when high school football players would come to Social Studies class Monday morning and brag of not remembering the second half.


Coaches and team medical personnel now have a responsibility to make sure that players who get their bell rung do not sustain further damage. 


Head injuries are serious business.


Eventually, of course, people will wake up and realize that the risk isn't worth it. 


New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott will not let his seven-year-old son play football. 


Retired Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who has suffered episodes of deep depression, has said that the game of football will be eclipsed by less violent sports like soccer in less than ten years. 


Bradshaw, who has seen the effects on teammates and himself, probably sells football's staying power short. 


Not only are billions of dollars involved, but so are national rituals such as Sunday noon and Monday night. 


When faced with scientific evidence that their favorite activity is harmful, the masses would rather kill the scientist than change their ritual. 


Ninety-nine percent of climate scientists say global warming is not only real, but might be addressed with changes in human behavior. 


Fat chance of that! We don't want to change our behavior. No wonder deniers of global warming make millions spouting their false claims. 


What has happened whenever science has discovered an unpopular truth? No matter how much evidence the scientists stack up, the masses tag the scientists as agents of Satan.


Instead of attacking the evidence, they attack the people who have assembled it. "They hate our way of life," they say. "They must be communists!"


Columbus was mocked for assuming the world was round, even though the Egyptians and Greeks had discovered the fact a thousand years earlier. 


Copernicus was persecuted for proving that the earth was not the center of the solar system. 


Just watch over the next twenty years as an entire set of folk beliefs will arise  to combat the scientific evidence that football reduces the brains of its participants to quivering blobs of goo. 


One pop theory I recently heard on the street, and this is a doozie: Black players are more susceptible to head injury. If there were fewer black players, concussions wouldn't be as much of a problem. 


There is no evidence to support the assertion, but if you're going to be ignorant, you may as well go for the gold.


Others will tout the toughness spawned by football, the discipline, the character development. Only football, they say, teaches young men to sacrifice all for the team. 


If this is true, there are a lot of men filled with character limping around wondering where they are. 


Thank goodness they played football or they might be trying to rob a bank.


Eventually, the argument for football will look much like the argument against forcing motorcycle riders to wear helmets: 


Do people have a right to expose themselves to harm, especially when society eventually pays the cost? How much harm is too much? 


The powers that be may eventually decide that, since playing football is voluntary, those who partake, like cigarette smokers, know the risks and have the right to take them.


Even though the rest of us will eventually pay the price, we may decide that the cost of the damage is worth keeping our fall Sunday afternoons and Monday nights intact. 









 

Football is doomed

It may take several decades, but American football is going the way of cigarette smoking, forced into near extinction by mounting scientific evidence that the activity kills and maims. 

We always knew football was hard on knees, but now studies show the sport is hard on the brain, too. 


A concussion, it turns out, doesn't just hurt the place where the head got bumped. The impact jolts every cell of the brain, causing a disruption of the cell's equilibrium and permanently altering the brain chemistry. 


Subsequent jolts, even minor ones, can multiply the effect. 


The result? 


Those who have sustained multiple concussions are several times more likely to suffer depression, memory loss, Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease and other horrible neurological syndromes. 


Lou Gehrig, the baseball Hall of Famer, attended Columbia University on a football scholarship at a time when football helmets were mere padded leather caps. 


Could the disease named after him, in his case, have been the result of his brief football career? 


Muhammad Ali, despite his excellence in the ring, took his share of blows to the head. Doctors agree hits to the head are why the great boxer was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at the tender age of 42. 


Gone are the days when high school football players would come to Social Studies class Monday morning and brag of not remembering the second half.


Coaches and team medical personnel now have a responsibility to make sure that players who get their bell rung do not sustain further damage. 


Head injuries are serious business.


Eventually, of course, people will wake up and realize that the risk isn't worth it. 


New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott will not let his seven-year-old son play football. 


Retired Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who has suffered episodes of deep depression, has said that the game of football will be eclipsed by less violent sports like soccer in less than ten years. 


Bradshaw, who has seen the effects on teammates and himself, probably sells football's staying power short. 


Not only are billions of dollars involved, but so are national rituals such as Sunday noon and Monday night. 


When faced with scientific evidence that their favorite activity is harmful, the masses would rather kill the scientist than change their ritual. 


Ninety-nine percent of climate scientists say global warming is not only real, but might be addressed with changes in human behavior. 


Fat chance of that! We don't want to change our behavior. No wonder deniers of global warming make millions spouting their false claims. 


What has happened whenever science has discovered an unpopular truth? No matter how much evidence the scientists stack up, the masses tag the scientists as agents of Satan.


Instead of attacking the evidence, they attack the people who have assembled it. "They hate our way of life," they say. "They must be communists!"


Columbus was mocked for assuming the world was round, even though the Egyptians and Greeks had discovered the fact a thousand years earlier. 


Copernicus was persecuted for proving that the earth was not the center of the solar system. 


Just watch over the next twenty years as an entire set of folk beliefs will arise  to combat the scientific evidence that football reduces the brains of its participants to quivering blobs of goo. 


One pop theory I recently heard on the street, and this is a doozie: Black players are more susceptible to head injury. If there were fewer black players, concussions wouldn't be as much of a problem. 


There is no evidence to support the assertion, but if you're going to be ignorant, you may as well go for the gold.


Others will tout the toughness spawned by football, the discipline, the character development. Only football, they say, teaches young men to sacrifice all for the team. 


If this is true, there are a lot of men filled with character limping around wondering where they are. 


Thank goodness they played football or they might be trying to rob a bank.


Eventually, the argument for football will look much like the argument against forcing motorcycle riders to wear helmets: 


Do people have a right to expose themselves to harm, especially when society eventually pays the cost? How much harm is too much? 


The powers that be may eventually decide that, since playing football is voluntary, those who partake, like cigarette smokers, know the risks and have the right to take them.


Even though the rest of us will eventually pay the price, we may decide that the cost of the damage is worth keeping our fall Sunday afternoons and Monday nights intact. 









 

Soft skills

There's talk in economic development circles these days of a "skills gap," the notion that people who graduate from high school or college aren't trained for the jobs that are available. 

I can't imagine this. I wonder just what it is that today's kids can't do. 


Most of them can type faster with their two thumbs than the rest of us can type with all fingers. 


Most of them can figure out how to run any gadget within seconds of breaking the seal on the packaging. 


Most kids can jump on your computer and within a minute or two install a bunch of unnecessary software updates that render unfamiliar a machine which you thought you knew pretty well.


They can figure out all the buttons on the cameras, all the features on the iPods, all the gizmos on the cell phones and all the secrets of Facebook. 


So, just what it is that today's kids can't do? What do businesses want schools to teach their students? 


The missing skills have nothing to do with technology, it turns out. 


Companies are now hungry for graduates who possess what are now called "soft skills."


As far as I can tell, "soft skills" is a fancy term for manners. 


Companies want to hire people who know how to look somebody in the eye, how to hold a conversation without staring at the floor, how to smile and execute a warm handshake. 


Computer skills? Kids have them. People skills? They are apparently scarce.


Soft skills sound pretty easy to those of us in the second half of our time here on earth, but apparently the younger generation is clueless. 


I recently heard of a college student who, rather than meeting with his advisor directly, preferred to sit in the lobby and communicate via text message, even though the two were only a few feet apart. 


That's not only a problem, it is just plain weird. 


To be fair, as I recall the kids with whom I have spoken over the past several months, both college age and high school, every one of them was completely polite, even courtly. 


The only teen who got a bit snappy with me did so after I called her the wrong name for the third consecutive time. 


My excuse that "you all have the same hairdo, how am I supposed to tell you apart?" didn't go over real well. 

 

Companies that call for "soft skills" make it seem like the college graduates they hired thirty years ago weren't a bit rough around the edges. 


In many ways, I would argue, manners have improved in that time. 


Think about smoking. Thirty years ago, people could blow smoke in your face and you were expected to take it with a smile and find them an ashtray to boot. 


Today, people who dare light up indoors are immediately assumed to be drunk and are subject to arrest. 


I can't think of the last time I found a chaw of chewing tobacco in a drinking fountain. When I was in college, the football players left such deposits all the time. 


People used to throw junk out the windows of cars without thinking forty years ago. The roadsides were littered with garbage. 


Today, people who litter are viewed as social misfits, unworthy to be included in polite conversation. 


The problem is really with the gadgets. Modern rudeness usually has something to do with a gadget, and kids aren't the only guilty ones. 


With a few basic rules of gadget etiquette, I think this whole alleged "soft skills" problem could be cleared up in a flash. 


So, don't read your text message when you are conversing with a real human. Don't cruise the internet while you are on the phone. 


Don't walk, run or drive while immersed in your gadget. 


Don't allow your gadget to make noise during meetings, concerts or plays. 


When your gadget does make noise, admit it and shut the thing off. Don't pretend it isn't yours and wait for it to stop. 


Do not sit at the restaurant and send gadget messages to others at the table about others at the table. That's worse than a loud belch.


Probably the best way to practice your "soft skills" is to go for five minutes without looking at your gadget. 


Look people in the eye. Say hello. Converse.


After a week, try ten gadgetless minutes without looking at the gadget screen. 


Be careful, as withdrawing too quickly from gadgetry can cause twitching. 


In the end, however, the "soft skills" you gain might get you a job. 






 




















 

Homecoming!

School is in session, and with it comes a new round of rules and regulations designed more to keep the school out of the paper than to benefit the children. 

In the latest spate of insincere foolishness, spooked school officials solemnly line up the year's anti-bullying policies, procedures and programs. 


Are they really trying to civilize the little monsters in their charge? 


No. They're just trying to stay out of the newspapers and the courts in case something bad happens. 


If school boards, teachers and administrators were at all serious about their anti-bullying mission, they wouldn't give their approval to the asinine practice of selecting a homecoming queen. 


The archaic, sexist, damaging––and mandatory––pageant that is homecoming coronation does deeper damage than peer-to-peer bullying because it carries with it the active participation of teachers and administration. 


We're supposed to see kids for who they are, see the beauty inside, treat all fairly and equally, celebrate our different shapes and sizes––and yet, a little while after senior girls show up for their senior year, five of them are raised up as more popular and/or more good looking than the others. 


If you think those who lose out don't feel bad, you have a short memory or you don't know a kid in school. 


Harmless tradition? Good clean fun? 


No sir, this is serious business. 


See what happens when the kids try to expose the whole coronation sham by nominating somebody who is actually not all that popular, or who is the wrong gender for the position nominated. 


In march the teachers and administration to make sure that the person selected is actually, truly and authentically popular enough. The integrity of the holy and sacred popularity pageant must be maintained!


Might it not occur to somebody at some time in this process the moral depravity of this whole sordid affair? Wouldn't the teachers forced to make the decision on the worthiness of a girl for the Final Five realize the sheer cruelty of what they were doing and refuse to participate? 


Why wouldn't the school board in their wisdom just step in and say hold a nice formal dance, but there is no need for a school-sanctioned mean-girl popularity contest? 


Apparently, everybody is scared to death of the Mean Mamas who get their jollies from this sort of thing. 


Sometimes I get the impression that it is the Mean Mamas who really run the school. 


Mean Mama, keenly aware that she won her last pageant on her wedding day, lives to recreate her past glory through her little princess. 


Sure, she could enter Princess in state-wide pageants unrelated to school. But that wouldn't be any fun. 


What's irresistible about homecoming is that all senior girls are entered whether they want to be or not!


So, when Princess gets in the Final Five, Mean Mama has bragging rights. She has won! It is wedding day all over!


Are some girls hurt in the process? 


Well, they need to get over it! That's life! 


That's the rallying cry of bullies everywhere: Get used to it, it is good for you. Conform or die. 


News flash: High school isn't life. It is more cruel, more cliquish and more humiliating than anything any normal person will encounter later. 


The empathy lobe in the adolescent brain simply hasn't developed yet. The results, when you have dozens of adolescent brains grouped together in one building and segregated by age, aren't pretty. 


It is up to the adults in the community to reassure young people of all shapes and sizes of their worth as they struggle to sort out the conflicting messages they get from the world. 


It is also up to the adults to crack down on adolescent cruelty, not jump on the pile. 


Mean Mamas don't get this, and that is inevitable. One has to understand how difficult it must be to have your main source of significance in the world fade beyond the restorative power of cosmetics. 


But Mean Mamas don't have to run the school. The school board, administration and teachers should have some say. 


The coronation tradition arose in a time when women were taught to passively wait for a Prince to sweep them off their feet and carry them off to a castle. 


Today, we live in times where, in theory at least, girls have the right to be anything they want without having to rely on their looks. 


It is time for schools to catch up with the times, do the right thing and end the obsolete and cruel practice of crowning a queen. 

 

Breaking up

Modern communication has improved to the point where I find myself yelling, "You're breaking up!" several times per day into my phone. 

That never happened in the old days with those clunky dial phones. Once you got connected, you were connected. 


You had to stay close to the kitchen, at least until they started to sell those long cords at Radio Shack, but you didn't have to scream, "I am losing you!" to loved ones while you were in the frozen food aisle. 


"What happened if something happened?" I heard a relatively newborn person ask the other day about the dark ages before mobile communication devices. 


She meant: How did you find each other at the mall? How did you survive when you got a flat tire? How did you know when to pick up your kid? 


You know, I don't recall it being a problem. I do not recall once having to drive home from the mall during the 1980s because I couldn't find somebody due to the lack of a cell phone. 


What did we do? We planned ahead. 


Dropped calls. Dead batteries. No bars. Messages that show up four days late. 


With new technology, we are free not to communicate from almost anywhere. 


Just when you reach the point in the conversation when you are going to end the relationship, the person on the other end says, "I am losing signal," or "my battery is about to go dead, here, we'll talk some other..."


Breaking up, indeed.


Last summer, I told a friend on the phone a funny story. It was a really funny story. Maybe a little off color, but really funny. 


The story was so funny that when it ended, I laughed myself. 


My laughter was greeted with a stony silence. 


Oops, maybe the story wasn't so funny. 


"I guess you had to be there," I stuttered, trying to backpedal a bit. "I mean, it was funny at the time." 


Silence. 


Wow, I goofed this time, I thought. My tasteless humor went too far. 


"You surely must know I've got nothing against Helen Keller," I stammered, getting a little irritated, "I just thought it was a good joke."


Complete silence. 


"Well, for gosh sakes, if you can't even tell me what I did wrong, how am I supposed to apologize?" 


It was then I realized that my normally talkative friend wasn't offended. She simply wasn't there. 


Why hadn't she called me back after the line went dead? Because it took her five minutes to realize I was no longer listening politely to her boring tale of woe!


Somehow, we had simultaneously launched into monologues at the very point when the call was dropped. 


When we finally got reconnected, we not only had forgotten what we had been talking about, but we had to establish we didn't hate each other. 


The endless wonders of modern communication! 


Now, you can see which calls you missed. Thinking every missed call must be either love or money, I eagerly dial back without any idea who I am calling.


"Did somebody from this number call my number?" I say, waiting for them to say I miraculously won the lottery without buying a ticket.


"Uh, no, this is the post office," says the person on the other end. 


"Well, why is your number on my caller ID?" 


"I have no idea." 


"Okay, sorry."


"No prob."


Is it any wonder our economy is sluggish? Is it any wonder that productivity has sagged? 


We're all on the phone with each other trying to figure who called our number at the same time we're sitting at a four-way stop blocking traffic. 


Or, we're all dialing one for English, two if we are a new account, three if we want to know our balance, four if we need a hug, five if we want to apply for a job. 


Where's the real person option? What is the trick to get a real person on the other end of the line? 


Ah, that's where the internet comes in. Go on the internet and on the message boards, they'll tell you to push two even though you don't want a new account and then pretend you're confused about where to send a big check and you'll get a real person. 


When you get the real person, stand real still so your phone doesn't cut out and you have to start over from the beginning.  


If that person actually listens to you, push star seven to give them a hug. 

 

Save the Planet, buy our soap

 My plastic bottle of dish soap claims using their brand "saves wildlife." 

On the bottle's label, a mama duck cuddles a baby duck in a manner more designed to trigger the human "oh for cute" response than to reflect any actual scene in a swamp. 


To find out just how buying X brand of soap saves wildlife, you must visit the website. 


Once there, you find out that the soap itself does nothing. Neither does the company that makes the soap until the customer "activates" a donation to a wildlife organization by typing in a long number off the bottle into the website.


To "protect the integrity" of the website, one must also copy a code filled with a confusing mix of numbers and letters in to a box. 


Every one of these steps, of course, eliminates 95% of the buyers from taking part in any effort to save wildlife. In the end, only a tiny, tiny pittance goes to the wildlife organization.


Of that tiny pittance, a good chunk will go to pay the administrative staff of the wildlife organization.


In the end, the whole nationwide soap program will likely result in a few dozen ducks getting a bath after an oil spill. 


Of course, saving ducks was never the point. The whole point was to sell soap by using guilt and the "oh for cute" impulse as a marketing tool. 


Last week, we went on a little vacation to the North Shore. 


Very nice. 


However, you can't walk three feet without running into some marketing ploy intended to play on the guilt of suburbanites for being gluttonous pigs the rest of the year. 


The coffee is "free trade." Some of it is even "hand-crafted!" 


The eggs in the breakfast buffet at the hotel were "cage-free." 


Somehow, the mention of a cage, even in its absence, didn't improve the breakfast experience. 


It really got deep at the foofy seafood restaurant where we were fed local organic micro-greens off handcrafted plates made by local artisans. 


The chairs were made with local wood. The fish was caught out the front door. 


The honey in the salad dressing was from local clover collected by unionized bees with full health benefits.


All of this self-righteous baloney on menus and soap bottles is driven by one thing: Marketing. Polls show that if you throw the word "handcrafted" into the mix, sales go up. 


Court cases show that anything can be called "handcrafted," as long as a hand of some sort moved a lever on the machine that did the work.


Meanwhile, on the way back to the suburbs, the tired family stops at the supermarket to pick up a bag of Idaho potatoes. 


We grow potatoes around here, but can you buy Minnesota or North Dakota potatoes other than at a farmer's market? 


Nope, all you can find on the shelf at the supermarket are Idaho potatoes, apparently shipped 1,500 miles. 


Or more. 


While sitting at the counter of an area cafe, I struck up a conversation with an over-the-road truck driver. I asked what he carried. 


"Potatoes," he said. 


I pounced. Why in the world do we have to get our potatoes from Idaho when we have perfectly good potatoes grown right around here? 


"Well," he said with a wry grin, "your potatoes are probably grown around here, anyway." 


Turns out, this truck driver drives semi-loads of potatoes from North Dakota out to Idaho where they are bagged into bags that say "Idaho potatoes" and sent back here, often in the same truck, to be sold. 


So powerful and profitable is the brand "Idaho potato" that it is worth it for the food people to pass their potatoes through Idaho just to get the label. 


When we're on vacation, we savor locally grown, hand-crafted potatoes fertilized with the manure from virgin cows. 


On the way back to our normal, wasteful, gas-guzzling lives, we pick up a bag of potatoes that might well have taken a 3,000 mile round trip to Idaho before ending up on our plate. 


Either way, it is the marketing department, not the quality department, which makes the decision. 


Either way, the emotions and knee-jerk impulses of the ever-stupid consumer are played like a fiddle by people who really don't give a rip about anything but the bottom line. 


To find the truth, you just have to find a truck driver. 


They know the shortest routes. 


And they know where the potatoes have been. 





 

Hideouts

 

As summer winds down, the boy in me dreads school. 


In August, my dreams at night revert to themes of missing the bus, of going to school in less than proper attire, or of forgetting my lines in the all-school play. 


The deeper dread is of the resumption of twenty-four hour adult supervision. 


Town and city boys used to build secret clubs in tree houses as a rebellion against constant adult oversight. 


Even after homes became large enough and families small enough for every offspring to merit their own room, having one's own room wasn't private enough. 


In your room, if the experiment started on fire, or if there was a large explosion, or if the rat started screeching, some parent would be there in a flash to interfere with the research. 


And so, suburban boys had secret hideaways in tree houses our out back behind the garage where they could count their baseball cards, conduct vivisection on animals and plot neighborhood wars. 


No need for a secret hideaway on the farm! Everything was a secret hideaway. 


My Grandpa assembled a small town worth of old buildings on the farm. His office was in a retired school house with a bell tower. 


The bell itself had been taken down and mounted by the old house. Mildred, the cook, used it to call the men in from the field for forenoon lunch, noon dinner or afternoon coffee. 


That left the tower for me to use as an office. With a commanding view of the whole farm, I kept Twins statistics on 3 x 5 cards which I filed in cracks between the ceiling boards of the little roof which once shielded the bell. 


The granary, a sturdy eighty-year-old building propped on an open foundation of field rock, stored grass seed, fertilizer, anything that needed to be dry. 


For added storage, they threw scrap plywood and two-by-sixes across the rafters. That is where boxes of old tax records and the like ended up. It was an archive.


I trace my love of history to long summer afternoons digging through musty boxes, finding out from a 1926 yearbook that Grandma had a boyfriend before Grandpa, or from a 1956 letter that my aunt planned to marry a man who smoked cigars. 


No need to put a "secret" sign outside the granary's sliding door. I knew the place was full of secrets, and I knew that if I disappeared up the ladder for five hours for research, nobody would care unless I missed two meals in a row. 


Grandpa was a dreamer. The farm was littered with abandoned inventions, machines, and public works projects. 


A set of canals designed to bring in water for irrigation had long been abandoned and grown over with willow. 


I plowed through the canary reed grass, threw a big oak slab across the canal, walked across, pulled the slab up on the opposite side for security reasons, and had myself an island. 


On the island, I built a sod hut. When the hut became infested with garter snakes and unsuitable for meetings, I cut down saplings and built a teepee. I don't believe an adult ever saw what I was up to outside of hunting season. 


Things have changed so drastically, and for the worse! 


The sanctity of summer has been violated by the endless scheduling of the lives of children into competitive, organized soccer matches supervised by some of the least imaginative adults available. 


Why does every child over the age of three have to play soccer? And not just once per week, but every single day, every weekend.


Can the suburbans come out to the farm for a weekend? No, they have a soccer tournament in Des Moines at five on Sunday morning. 


Do any of them ever go on play soccer in high school? Very few. 


Do any of them ever become good enough to compete on the world stage in those incredibly boring matches between Brazil and Cameroon on cable TV? 


Nope. Never. All of those hours, weeks and months of childhood soccer are utterly wasted.


The only purpose for suburban childhood soccer is to prevent children from having one unorganized moment alone in a secret hideout. 


If some rebel child snuck away to a granary, crawled up a ladder and looked through old tax records for dirt on his ancestors, the parents would have the poor kid's name streaming across the bottom of the TV screen by noon. 


"I'm bored," cry the modern children if they get so much as one free moment.


No wonder. They've been managed, watched, scheduled and soccerred into unimaginative little dolts. 




 

 

Olympic agony

The Olympics make me nervous. Most of the events are designed for heartbreak. 

Those poor kids leave home, practice for years, live like monks, win the months of qualifying rounds––only to have somebody from the French Antilles step on their shoelace in the 5000 meter race and ruin it all. 


Or, like the Egyptian wrestlers, they fail to show up for their match on time and forfeit, thus becoming national jokes even though you know it was the fault of some bus driver who took a wrong turn. 


Or, they get a mind cramp right as they get ready to hit the vault and twirl through the air like a maple seed only to land on their butt and lose the gold to somebody who played it safe, twirled once less, but nailed the landing. 


Science has improved training to the point where only a select few can even hope to reach the Olympic stage, and those few must be utterly devoted to a single, sometimes obscure, sport. 


Split second decisions. Psychological war. Unfair results. Silly rules. Years of preparation ending with an inglorious plop. 


A highlight of the Olympics for me was a diving event when the camera focused on an aging Frank Viola. He was in London to watch his daughter, who finished in fifteenth place. 


What a shock to find that the younger Minnesotans with whom I was watching had no idea who Frank Voila was, much less the pivotal role he played in 20th century Minnesota history. 


Our education system is failing! 


Later, I got to comparing Frank Viola's athletic experience with that of his daughter. 


The Twins pulled the elder Viola out of their minor league system way before he was ready to pitch in the major leagues. 


Frankie Viola embarrassed himself on the field, not for one Olympic moment, but for two full seasons as he struggled to master his change-up. For two years, he was one of the worst pitchers in the league. 


Then, under the tutelage of pot-bellied pitching coach Johnny Podres, Viola mastered a deceptive pitch called the circle change-up. 


Podres, a lefthander like Viola, was a mediocre pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers until the fall of 1955 when he burst into prominence by pitching the long-suffering Dodgers past the mighty Yankees for their first World Series title. 


Podres' star student Viola burst onto the national stage in the fall of 1987 when he pitched the long-suffering Minnesota Twins past the St. Louis Cardinals for their first World Series title. 


For the next few years, Viola was the premier pitcher in baseball. He painted the outside corner of the strike zone at will with a pitch that died half-way to home, crossing the plate long after tantalized batters swung. 


Viola's artistry and orchestral surname inspired his nickname "Sweet Music." A fan spray-painted the silly moniker on a crude banner which hung near the foul pole at the Metrodome for Viola's every start. 


That banner is now the property of the Minnesota Historical Society and is every bit as important to our state's history as Fort Snelling––or Jesse Ventura's feather boa.


Like many Minnesota athletes who find success, Viola longed for more money and a bigger stage. Savvy Twins general manager Andy McPhail traded the disgruntled Viola to the New York Mets for four pitchers, three of whom helped the Twins win a second title in 1991. 


Twins fans are used to treason. Mercenary Jack Morris left after only one season. Rod Carew fled to California. A young Bert Blyleven forced a trade to Texas. Larry Hisle signed with Milwaukee. Johan Santana followed Viola to the Mets. 


But Minnesota welcomes back its prodigal sons: Morris and Blyleven are in the Twins broadcast booth. Carew is on the spring coaching staff. 


And although Frank Viola still works for the Mets, when he appeared on the screen cheering on his daughter in London, it was like running into an old friend. 


This is all to say that the young Olympians who fell, tripped, cramped, forgot to show up or just plain fell on their butt should realize that life is not like the Olympics. 


No, life is more like baseball. 


You work. You fail. You work some more. You get lucky. You embarrass yourself, but you come back the next day and try again. If you succeed thirty percent of the time, you're pretty good. 


If you persevere over the course of many years, your failures will be forgotten and you will be judged primarily on the balance of your results over the long haul. 


Unless you're poor Bill Buckner. 


But that's another story.