Saturday, July 11, 2015

A tractor tenor's Top 10

April 1996

Tenors are handmade by God. Basses and baritones you get in twelve-packs at SAM'S. This profound truth is acknowledged by me and all my tenor friends. For musically challenged people, a tenor is defined as a man in love with the sound of his voice - and for good reason. Tenors are always the good guys in opera, and despite my personal experiences, should always get the beautiful girl in the end.

One of the best things about being both a farmer and a tenor (almost too much good fortune for one man) is being able to practice my art while on the job. Not only is this a pleasant pastime, but since hitting the really high notes is marginally easier if done loudly to very loudly, it seems to be a popular place with my family for me to sing.   

Oddly, singing in the shower, that old cliché, has fallen out of favor in my house. One evening not long past I was vigorously attacking "Una Furtiva Lagrima", an emotional tenor aria, using my own personal version of Italian, whilst pursuing my nightly purification. After several near misses at the dramatic high note, I called to my beloved bride in the adjacent bedroom, "Dearest, did that sound like "C" to you?"  "No, honey, it sounded like "L" to me," she replied. I did not have the heart to tell her that the scale rarely goes past "J", except during heavy metal concerts. 

So for many of us, our finest musical moments are lost to our fellow human beings because we are out in a cab somewhere, accompanied by the radio.   To enhance these lyric occasions I would like to offer the following list of Tractor Tenor Top Ten Hits. If you have a tape deck, you could create a collection such as this to bring hours of singing pleasure to yourself and your greatest fan (also yourself). 

  1. "Crying" by Roy Orbison.  Almost any song by Roy is great tenor stuff, but you can't match this one for cool background accompaniment.
  2. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" - Simon and Garfunkel.  This is not only groovy to sing, it will probably bring back memories of girls you always wanted to date, but never had the nerve to ask.
  3. "Cool Water" - Sons of the Pioneers. Drift back to those golden Saturday mornings of yesteryear, watching horse operas on a black and white TV. If you can manage the lilting "water" echoes of this song without sounding like a vulture dying of thirst, you're a real man, my son.
  4. "The Eagle and the Hawk" - John Denver. This mercifully short, but vocally brutal ballad can sprain all but the toughest of larynxes.
  5. Anything by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (i.e. "Woman, Woman"). After years of study, I have discovered that Puckett really only had one song in his brief career, and just kept singing it over and over - the same melody with the same words about the same thing.
  6. Anything by Ann Murray. On a good day a first-class tenor can sing most of her songs as written, although I was shocked to find she could hit low notes beyond me. 
  7. "Hallelujah" from the Mount of Olives  - L. Beethoven. When sung in a four part men's arrangement, this vocal obstacle course opens with a savagely high and loud series of hallelujahs, making it one of the most fiendishly difficult tenor pieces to do at an Easter Service. Don't even think about trying this at a sunrise service.
  8. "Along the Way" - The Association. This short poignant ballad sung quietly with just piano was a rapidly forgotten cut from a rapidly forgotten group, but if you can sing this with sensitivity and feeling without hurting yourself, you are a major tenor.
  9. "How Can There Be Any Sin in Sincere" - Buffalo Bills (From the Music Man) - just a short barbershop song with an aeronautic tenor part made famous by the Broadway musical. As a plus you will probably continue on through the soundtrack to chant the "Trouble in River City" monologue. 
  10. "Nessun Dorma"  - from Turandot by Puccini - This is the aria which has been dang near sung to death by the world famous "Three Tenors" (Luciano, Placido, and Harpo) that you will see approximately 8-10 times during your local PBS station Money Grubbing Week. Despite that, it may be the three best minutes in a tenor's life. Every time I come close to getting this right, I cry. When I don't everybody else cries. Music like this is what vocal cords are for. It is thought that this aria was almost the last thing old Puccini wrote. That would be like cashing in your chips right after harvesting 500 acres of 350 bushel corn.
  11. (Special Bonus Selection) - "The Star Spangled Banner" - F.S. Key.    This tune was originally an old British drinking song, which would explain the melody. Be that as it may, it is still a challenge for any tenor to sing well. Judging by what I've heard lately before championship games, we'd better all start singing it before nobody remembers how it really goes.

Many may notice that I include no Country and Western music here.  Despite years of listening to C&W in order to hear the markets, its manifest charms elude me. But if you enjoy listening to music sung through the nose by ear, and many do, I would commend to your attention works by Larry Gatlin or Jimmy Rogers. 

One last note: The greatest possible experience in an agritenor's life is the opportunity to sing in an empty Harvestore. Grain bins are OK, wells have a certain ambiance, and steel water tanks are not without their charm, but the Big Blues can do things for you voice that will make your family have to drag you out of the thing. I recommend "Santa Lucia". 

The cashflow that ate Toldeo

Mid-March 1996

I remember clearly when it all started. My banker leaned across his desk and handed me a large yellow sheet of paper covered with columns and lines.  "John", he said, "We'd like for you to fill one of these out this year."   I eyed him suspiciously. It hadn't been that long since the infamous Tap Dancing Incident, whereupon at a similar time he had asked me to do a short soft-shoe number in the lobby while yodeling a show tune. I was halfway through what I thought was a rather charming rendition of "My Baby Just Cares For Me", when I realized he was kidding, inasmuch as he was laying on the floor holding his sides with tears streaming down his cheeks, and quivering like a dog on the way to the vet.

Despite the fact that he sort of apologized ["Jeez, John, I never thought you would actually do it!"], and that I did appreciate the pocket change tossed by the other patrons in the bank, I had since sagely adopted a “you-can't-fool-me-more-than-six-or-seven-times” attitude. I carefully examined the document while he explained what a cashflow projection was. Farm magazines were plastered with helpful articles about this sort of analysis tool at the time, so I gingerly picked up the paper and dutifully trooped home to smear my figures across it.

Much to my surprise, I kind of got into the game. Even though I wasn't farming much, and the dollar numbers were minuscule compared to today, I found the exercise both helpful and revealing. I totaled up columns and rows and discovered I had actually created a sort of window to the future. If my numbers were fairly accurate, then this over here would be how things would come out. Cool!

The hook was set. The next day dawned and with it new ideas and plans. I decided to change some tentative spending and selling decisions before turning the form in. No problem. Just erase a few entries - but wait.  Changing this number meant changing all these, and these over here, and all the totals, and so on. Soon eraser holes began to appear all over the later months and annual totals. I applied multiple layers of correction tape until the document resembled a sort of financial chocolate chip cookie.   

My banker was not amused when I handed my homework in, but sympathetically declared my offering sufficient. His reaction was no longer important to me. I was now obsessed with the power and possibilities of a cashflow to tell my future. Meanwhile, as fate would have it, in a garage in California, young nerdlings were hard at work inventing the Tool of My Undoing.

The first time I saw a spreadsheet on a personal computer was like the moment in seventh grade when I realized that Phyllis Bishop was not just a lumpy guy. I knew I was looking at something great, but couldn't quite figure out what to do with it.

This was the turning point in this sorry saga. Once planted on the fertile soil of a spreadsheet program, my cashflow took on a life of its own, like a Crystalline Entity on Star Trek, expanding and evolving its way to sentience.  No longer a simple across and down table of estimates, it began to demand more detailed input numbers from me before it would spit out the prophesy.   As the what-if possibilities unfolded, separate versions became necessary, spawning entire families of possible futures. My time at the Keyboard Altar of High Technology soared, as raw data requirements grew exponentially.

Hardware, software and time passed. "Big C" was now on multiple pages and consumed continents of hard disk space. Not just content with an estimated price for future sales, it now could calculate the most probable number from weather, political, and consumer attitude data. Would the Republicans get the budget balanced? Was Madonna dating Bigfoot? Insert a probability and calculations for interest rates, beef consumption, and ski-lift prices responded appropriately, altering the outcome of ratios measuring everything from Debt-to-Equity to Waist-to-Inseam. 

Every morning it would call to me, hoping to be fed fresh data. I began reading the paper to it, typing in statistics from orange juice prices to turnover ratios. In the evenings, I would calculate new relationships, enabling Big C to estimate the influence of fluctuations in the pfennig on the rainfall in central Missouri. The sheer size of the program became prodigious - lights across a six square mile area would dim as it went into recalculation. 

But the futures it revealed! Big C became my Delphic oracle, revealing possible outcomes ranging from absolute financial disaster to (my favorite) my eventual buyout of Bill Gates and subsequent enthronement as Absolute Monarch of the Galaxy. The present became a pale pathetic shadow of a splendiferous future. Big C started sucking info straight from the Internet, creating more and more accurate predictions. I was hurtling across the line between foreknowledge and predestination, not so much seeing the future as actually creating it. We were becoming invincible. YESSSSS!!!

They took my computer away the other day. Jan tricked me with my favorite dessert while a Dweeb Swat Team immobilized Big C. Time and massive amounts of medication have started my healing process. I'm feeling much better now. Besides, I knew they were going to do that.

No, it's not a purse!

March 1996

It started with the cellular phone. They were being marketed like crazy and like most habitual technoconsumers, I suddenly found my life empty and horribly inefficient without one. So I whined and pouted, and, with these time-tested instruments of unassailable logic, convinced Jan I needed one.

I soon found out, however, that a phone was just the beginning. For instance, with my randomly accessible memory, how could I call someone without a number? About 50% of my bill was for calls home to get a number I really wanted to call. Add the problem of making notes when you are talking so you won't forget the conversation. I mean, if the call was important enough to make out in the middle of the field, it is probably important enough to remember.

So now I needed a phone list, a note pad, and a calendar to write down appointments/deadlines/due dates I had just agreed to on the phone.

Enter my good friend Steve. Steve is a nice guy, and, other than the fact that he is a farm manager, a really smart dude. We were together at a meeting in Chicago and I noticed he was carrying around a little notebook, into which he inscribed notes sporadically. I, of course, gave him a hard time about this, the approved "Guy's Response to New Things". Steve has a thick skin, arranged oddly, and shrugged off my jibes good-naturedly.

"You really ought to get a day planner", he opined, "especially considering your organizational skills". He showed me his little volume, explained vaguely how it worked, and before I knew it, I was in a store, plopping down an obscene amount of money for a similar device. To make matters worse, in a moment of foolishness, I also let loose of a not inconsiderable sum of money for a Course on how to use it and bring Meaning and Purpose to my so-called life.

When I arrived home and sobered up, I began to try to get some use out of the day planner. I entered a few phone numbers, started making notes in it, and in general, tried to replace the sticky-note empire that I had built. Having more hard info with me that (unlike my brain) I could revisit when needed soon became a welcome change to my heretofore normal state of agriconfusion. My phone bill skyrocketed with meaningful dialogues, all duly chronicled.

The best was yet to come. The Life-Changing Course was coming up and I was anxiously awaiting the Deep Secrets (prepaid) that would be revealed to us true believers. On the appointed day, I gathered with the other sincere neophytes. I could not help but notice the crowd consisted, with three exceptions, of young (25-40) women, earnest and well-dressed, each fiercely clutching her little book. The thought that Steve had set me up ran uncomfortably through my mind.   

This lopsided ratio troubled me. What if day planners weren't "guy" things?   What if being organized is somehow, well ... you know? About then the perky young woman next to me introduced herself, occupation, and vision-of-life in a single sentence. "What do you do?", she asked sweetly. "I'm a lumberjack." I snorted. She nodded and slid discreetly to the far end of the table.

The audience must have been typical, because when the instructor entered, it was apparent that he was the right bullet for this target. This guy exploded into the room with more teeth than Charleton Heston and Major-League Hair to boot. Within seconds he had induced more sighs and soft looks than all my Valentines gifts stacked on end. He was good. And he knew it. I genially hated him. Ignoring the three men completely, he proceeded over the next hours to imprint a SYSTEM on our lives, bringing ORGANIZATION and hence, FULFILLMENT and DEEP PERSONAL MEANING to our inept lives. In fairness, some of the stuff did help, but heck, 3x5 cards stapled to my forehead would have been a major improvement.

I began to use my day-planner more and more, discovering ways to adapt it to farm use. Crop maps, cash flows, repair lists, beeper/fax/phone numbers, and all kinds of be-here-at-this-time-or-be-in-trouble info started filling its pages. The planner itself, however, was taking a brutal beating from being thrown on the floor of the pickup/tractor/combine, splashed, smeared, and generally treated with the same tender care I give all my working tools.

I discovered the answer in the weekly Overpriced Catalog of Day-Planner Attachments: a genuine cordura-skin cover that zipped up and protected my planner, plus gave me pockets to hold keys, checkbook, M&M's, fuses, floppy disks - all kind of debris that go with work. It has a handle that makes it easy to carry, and looks a little like...well...sort of a....OHMYGOSH - I'M CARRYING A PURSE!

Friday, July 10, 2015

The end of approximate farming

Mid-February 1996

A skill I have long been polishing is about to become useless, buried under an avalanche of technology. I refer, of course, to approximate farming. This actually comprises several different skills developed to answer the age-old agricultural question, "What's the score?”  

It used to be a world of round numbers - 80 acres, $2.00 per bushel or 1000 pounds. The first hint of change was the governmental accuracy of the now relabeled ASCS. Fields that we always thought of as 40 acres became 38.8 acres. For a while we continued to think of it as 40, since it was an easier number to work with, but eventually we started multiplying and dividing by 38.8. After all, hadn't we all just got our Electronic Calculators for $39.95 that displayed SIX digits?

Bookkeeping was done on seed corn pocket notebooks, using numbers like 250 or 45 - not 38,750 or 6600. We could figure in our heads what a 5 bushel yield increase would mean at the end of the year and come close.  Small calculations were found on the backs of envelopes and crib walls - cute little numbers that look like my son's sneaker budget now. Actual annual profit was revealed by our tax-preparer in February, like a doctor announcing the results of an operation. Amazingly, the system was sufficient for the day. 

Feed was measured in number of scoops per trough, not in hundredths of pounds per pound of gain. Chemicals were added by "glugs" per tankful.   Seeding rates were crudely adjusted by sloppy mechanisms, but the actual result was unknown anyway, since we had estimated the amount of seed as we scooped it from the bin.  

The most painful leaps of accuracy were yet to come. The first I encountered was the shaft speed monitor on a combine. One of the few good byproducts of combine seat time was being able to recognize what THAT sound meant, and what THAT vibration warned of. The combine became an extension of our own sensory system. The readings were actually feelings - THAT vibration meant the fan was too slow, and THAT rumble meant grain was probably going over the sieves.

But then a small box made the most inexperienced operator just as capable to detect something amiss. Symptoms were announced with numerical precision, bombarding us with data. Alarms sounded, lights flashed, and digits danced, eliminating any need for experience or intuition, leapfrogging the inexperienced to new levels of competence.

One of the most difficult skills to master was applying anhydrous ammonia accurately. Watching the gyrating pressure gauge, estimating speed from the jiggling 4020 mph indicator, and measuring volume by the wonderfully accurate (if even operational) tank gauges meant if you came within 20-30 pounds per acre you were a master operator. Wild fluctuations in temperature when applying really added that element of chaos necessary to make this job a guess when done right, and a breath-taking fertilizer bill surprise when done wrong.  

The cruelest blow to hand-grenade agriculture came just recently when I saw a demonstration of yield monitors. Of course, being on the trailing edge of technology (the cheap edge, I would also point out), I am years away from actually owning one of these electronic dazzlers. It still made my rule-of-thumb blood run cold.

Over the years, my faithful combine, Lou Ann, and I have developed various yield estimating axioms. I quote from my painfully researched notes: "Half-mile rows - drilled beans - no end rows - 1/3 up the cab window (bent bolt) per round = 53-54 bu/acre." Armed with that kind of empirical accuracy, I could do all kinds of long division (do they still teach that?) in my head and make an Official Field Estimate soon after opening it up. The actual accuracy was not very high, of course, but I could constantly recalculate, adjusting for assumed moisture, guessing test weight, number of light poles passed, etc. to get some kind of yield guess. Meanwhile Jan was estimating truck loads by how the springs handled the bump right before the bridge.  

These techniques were applied to sprayer tanks (halfway between the seam and the paint splatter is 300 gallons), fields (the fencepost just east of the splice is almost 20 acres), and bins (if you can't climb in the bean bin, there is at least 3450 bushels). All these yardsticks were obtained at cost of brutal experience, and now all can be duplicated by any dope who can read a digital display.

I don't think that is what really bothers me, though. What I really miss is being able to arrange to get the answer I wanted (or wanted to publicize).   Instant accuracy is hard on wild-eyed dreams.


February 1996

Recently, I read an article about college education and farmers.  The purpose was to try to see if higher education was beneficial for farmers.  The yardstick was the usual one - MONEY.   If a college education makes you more money, it's a good idea.  If not, it's a waste of time.   Pretty straightforward logic.   However, it doesn't seem to cover the issue for me.

My father attended college only briefly before returning to the farm to replace a brother at war.  While he never actually complained of the missed opportunity, he raised four children to assume that they would graduate from college, just like high school.  Now as a father of teenagers, I am beginning to realize how great an accomplishment that was.  Also, how expensive!   My parents were not alone.   A large number of children raised on farms were encouraged to continue school, and now populate the ranks of active farmers.   As an industry, however, we seem to be ambivalent on the benefits of higher education.

I have spoken to others with similar educational histories and am not alone in feeling that I must be very careful when I speak about the benefits of college.   Part of the verbal code of conduct for farmers is to not demean others.    Talk about college or the display of knowledge can be construed as showing off, or trying to appear better than others.  It is safer socially to affect an outward mediocrity that does not offend.   This includes agreeing that philosophy, calculus, and literature courses are nonsensical additions to a farmer's life.   The only acceptable excuse for attending college then becomes immediate and demonstrable financial gain.

Many of us have gone along with this charade all our lives, and are wearying of it.   Now that I am the father, I realize that belittling my education also belittles my parent's sacrifices for me to get this education.   I also have come to understand how profoundly it changed my life for the better.   So I offer these justifications for higher education.

  1. Chip Removal:   There is frequently a quiet sense of resentment between people, even friends, with and without degrees.   While I agree absolutely that education does not necessarily make a person better, neither does it necessarily make someone worse.  Finishing college allowed me to meet all kinds of people without having to assume a defensive stance.  This means that I stand eye-to-eye with professionals and executives from all walks of life, without any need to put up a strong front.   If we only had to deal with hometown friends, this would mean little, but the odds are we are going to have to do our business with landlords and vendors with considerable education.  A common educational experience speeds the process of turning acquaintances into friends.
  2. Flexibility:   It is a subtle process, but continued education has helped many deal with wrenching changes that seem to come with increasing speed.   The world as it is can be mastered by persistent trial and error investigation.   The tricky part is to prepare for the world as it will be tomorrow.   Older farmers can draw upon their own experiences, the accumulated data from the famed "school of hard knocks".   Younger farmers do not possess this resource, and must either borrow from mentors around them (Dad, Grandpa), or access the wisdom of thousands who have gone before (education), in addition to traditional sources.
  3. Ace-in-the-hole:  During the 1980's, there we many instances when Jan and I were discouraged about our farming future.  The possession of a marketable skill, obtained through college, even at entry level salaries, helped keep away a sense of despair.  Those days were not much fun and my degree provided some badly needed reassurance.
  4. World enlargement:  Recent trade agreements have made us more than ever producers for a global market.  A minor in economics has been invaluable to us to plan our long-term strategy.  I have also noticed that many of our most formidable competitors are extremely well educated. Also, our personal world is much larger as a result of our college experiences.  Keeping in touch with these old friends prevents the tunnel vision that can result from a closed community.
  5. Political image:  The "Old MacDonald" image may have served us well during the days of justifying subsidies, but it may not be the professional impression we want to leave with the critics of agriculture who claim we can't be trusted to treat the environment properly.  Engaging in dialog with these groups will require producers that can at least speak the language, and more importantly, appear in public to be as competent as we truly are.
  6. Technological advantage: The producer who can make the early decision about new technology will reap the greatest reward.  It is not necessary for you to be on the "bleeding edge" of technological change, but you must always keep in mind that your competitor, here and around the world, probably is.  Education is the single greatest advantage you can give yourself in this arena.
  7. Self Esteem: Believe it or not, they don't hand college degrees out willy-nilly.  Those who feel degrees mean little are often those who have not accomplished this task.   

In the end perhaps, it depends on how you view production agriculture.  Its long tradition of "sweat-measured" success perhaps does not gauge all the skills now needed to compete.  To comply with regulations alone means farmers must either engage the services of outside professionals or develop those skills personally.  We are not the only industry to see this change.   Some critics of increased education point out that a degree does not guarantee a job today.  While the expected high-paying jobs are not as easily found now, it does mean an army of well-educated job seekers will be strong competitors for lower level jobs traditionally held by high school grads.  

Of course, other factors can make a big difference in farming success.  Picking your parents carefully, or marrying shrewdly, or following a family

member can get you started.  The competition, however, will determine if you stay.  This competition is showing up very well armed lately.  At the very least, I am willing to let the flow of history decide which point of view is correct.   Twenty years from now, I believe that producers who have made the effort and sacrifice to advance their education will be the dominant force in our industry, both in terms of production and leadership.

All dressed up...

Mid-January 1996

And just nowhere to go. It is May 1. My tractor and planter, and Jan’s tractor and finisher, and the trucks, and the drill and the farmers are all ready. We were poised to plunge into planting like nine year-olds into Christmas presents. But it rained. We stand here, plantus interruptus, struggling with the immediate future.

Jan, in her usual efficiency, has meals prepared, frozen, and catalogued for use when busy. I have regreased every zerk, checked bearings, tire pressures, seal, gaskets – I even scraped out with a screwdriver whatever was growing in my water jug. It’s like that old Bill Cosby joke about a coach whipping a football team into a killer frenzy in the locker room before the big game only to find the door locked shut. As denial fades and the realization sinks in that a multi-day delay is in store a “Now what?” problem faces us.

Luckily for Jan, she has housework to do. It’s a lot harder for guys like me, who’s every fiber of being has been focused on planting. Refocusing those fibers is a lot like trying to get your mind on the sermon after hearing sirens go by the church. Since we have all been here before, there are some time-tested day-killer exercises that all farmers can use.

Weather fretting
No matter how grim the situation climate-wise, someone can predict worse. Usually, this guy lives close to you. “Why, I remember when it rained everyday for 32 weeks and then turned wet,” he’ll say, in an attempt to lighten everybody’s mood. The theory here is that by naming aloud the worst possible fears, discussing them boldly in great detail, and maintaining a stoic appearance, we can actually brace ourselves for the reality. It is not true, of course, but we all feel braver by thinking the unthinkable and imagining how it doesn’t worry us after all. This behavior seems to be caffeine-related.

Getting readier
This activity can lead you into an unfortunate laying on of hands. Fool around in the shop while it rains and the next thing you know, you are taking things apart looking for a “noise” or worse yet, to see “how it works.” With today’s machinery, replete with plastic housing, nylon fasteners, and delicate electronics, an unemployed curiosity seeker with a pair of pliers all too frequently leads to: (SNAP!) “Dangit!” On the other hand, it does solve the problem of what to do today. 

Author Richard Adams described a condition in rabbits he called “tharn,” which occurs in moments of stress. Rabbits sort of lock up mentally and sit motionless in perfect terror. Jan and I adopted this word to describe, among other situations, what happens to a child watching TV. Farmers, too, can go tharn. This type of suspended animation provides mental and emotional relieve. Good examples are mowing the yard, golf on TV, or waxing something. You can be brain dead for all of these activities, but at least you are not actively frustrated. 

Spending money
This is the inevitable by-product of going to town for some Stuff. Actually, all we intended to do was pick up some bolts and brake fluid, but we go to talking with the salesman and Voila! - we now own a new_________(fill in with your choice of unneeded item). Or we drive into town for lunch on a rainy day and stop at the mall. Remember, an idle credit card is the devil’s workshop.

Driving to X for Y reason
Sitting behind the wheel of a pickup presents an exercise that gives both the illusion of accomplishment (going down the road) with the effortless distraction of a familiar activity. The driving itself can consume empty hours, regardless of the fact that a phone call can accomplish the same task in minutes. An added benefit is that you can reconnoiter other farm areas to see who is ahead of you, or more wonderfully, to see who is lagging. Misery not only loves company, but will drive over to visit.

Often we do a lot of something we normally do just a little too much of, like eating or sleeping. However, this is not easy to keep up for long, as even farmer’s bodies have self-imposed limits. Even being crabby, a traditional habit during busy seasons, can be overdone.

Wasting time is not an easily learned art for many in agriculture. We really don’t have the distractions close enough at hand to make it easy. I marvel that we do as good a job of it as we do.

The men of winter

January 1996

My small farming community has a long and cherished high school basketball tradition. A few years ago, a neighboring town started a "Nostalgia" tournament for former hardwood greats and pretty-goods. It has become both an annual winter curiosity and personal pilgrimage for many of us declining hoopsters. My son has charmingly named it "geezerball".

While the game has changed, our memories of it have not. This introduces some discouraging moments, requiring both physical and mental adjustments. The earliest cruel realization occurs during the maiden attempt at a lay-up. We stride to the basket like always, gather our considerable personages, and launch into a long-remembered flight toward the hoop. At this point, reality rudely intrudes on this fantasy. As we gaze upwards, the basket grows only slightly closer, and then, far before we are prepared, the flight stops, and unprepared legs and feet stumble to regain balance.  Jumping, we discover, doesn't take as long as it used to, since we make a markedly shorter journey. This also shows on rebounds, as the timing required to snatch a ball off the boards is still imprinted on a mind that has been sharpened and refined by time, whereas the leg muscles have been reconditioned for use with brake pedals and recliner footrests. I have watched fellow veterans leaping at rebounds four feet over their head and coming no closer than 3 feet 9 inches.  

This phenomenon, playing [way] below the rim, is initially incomprehensible. I finally understood when Jan pointed out that my problem would be the equivalent of me at 17 playing with a 35 lb. backpack - well, more accurately, a frontpack. It is amazing I ever leave the earth at all. I also subscribe to the theory that, inasmuch as gravity is the attraction of two bodies for each other, I would seem to have become immensely more attractive to the rest of the world.

However sobering this loss of an entire dimension is to us, we have found a way to compensate. All of the effort and energy expenditure formerly used to attain altitude is now turned to what we innocently refer to as the "Horizontal Game". Action under the basket in our games resembles a rugby scrum or a Tokyo rush hour subway. Imagine sumo-basketball and you get the idea.

There are a few pathetic advantages of age. Our width-enhanced bodies are much more effective setting screens than our former frames, best described as height and an Adam's apple. No one challenges you on a steal and breakaway basket since the odds of a successful conversion are only about 50-50 anyway, and it would involve running the entire length of the court.  Selecting court apparel is not difficult, since every type of uniform we wear provokes badly hidden smiles and snickering. Luckily, it is usually possible to find one other guy who looks dumpier than yourself.

Changed too is the concern of the players for injury. The cry or sight of a teammate or opponent going down with a hamstring, knee, or ankle injury is painful to us all. Running through every mind is the career adjustment each of us would have to make should the situation be reversed. The last words many of us hear as we leave for practice are not "Good luck", or "Go get 'em, tiger", but rather, "Try not to get hurt, dear". Above all, nobody takes a charge. The satisfaction of a good defensive play seems a small reward for the certain damage involved. Hitting the floor hard is no longer a trivial outcome. The only time we bounce well is when we run into each other.

Another not-so-subtle change involves the referees. Bearing in mind that yelling at the zebras at a high school game is the most aerobic winter activity many of us have had for years, the possible confrontations during geezerball are fraught with peril. We are no longer teenagers with an active, albeit deteriorating respect for grownups and officials. Nor are we safely confined to the spectator area. Nosirree - we're out here where we can get right in their faces, and usually have several years/pounds of moral advantage to our arguments, and absolutely no hesitation about airing our grievances. As a result, absolutely NO lip is allowed in this league. At the first sign of difficulty, players are hustled to the bench.  Above all, always keep in mind that the guy you are elbowing could be a land owner, loan officer or cop.   

As filled with absurdity as this exercise is, I still enjoy the effort. Once in a while, during a game or practice, I catch a glimpse of a past filled with astonishingly innocent joys, especially by today's standards. For a moment, we are not just a bunch of guys all named Dad. We are Athletes, caught up in the contest and the minute we are living, celebrating again the joy of being seventeen and indestructible. Best of all for me, after years of the solitary economic existence of self-employment, I am part of something larger than myself, able to do what only a team can do. This feeling comes too rarely to be ridiculed.

And it's not for thought of beribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his captain's hand on his shoulder smote.
Play up!  Play up! And play the game!
- Brooke -

Besides, if you think we look silly, you should see the cheerleaders.

Beyond the salad shooter

December 1995

Fellow farmers, of all our many agricultural talents, effective Christmas shopping is not one. Our wives have long known and born the brunt of this disability, and an entire industry of uniquely bizarre appliances (does the Veg-o-matic ring a bell?) has profited from it.   

But no longer. Thanks to modern merchandising, the men of agriculture can now upgrade their status from gift-giving agridolts to sensitive rural romantics. Your wife and/or sweetheart could be beaming with delight and come-hither affection this Christmas, with a minimal amount of fuss for you, the busy modern farmer. The resultant status upgrade can last not only for the holidays, but throughout the year, as your spouse, having once experienced a thoughtful and well-chosen gift, will inevitably hope for a repeat performance on a few other occasions, such as Mother's Day, your anniversary, her birthday, Valentine's Day, Arbor Day, Columbus Day, National Dairy Month, etc.

Before we get to the actual step-by-step instructions, however, some intelligence (and I use the word loosely here) work needs to be done. Since we are trying to find gifts that are appropriate and fit the person, we need some hard data on the person involved, i.e. sizes. This can be done by (1) going to the closet or bureau and rooting through her clothing looking at the tags or (2) asking. Both methods are fraught with peril. In the first case, you may run into numbers or words that you will not recognize as a size. An example: Men's underwear is sized by the approximate distance around the waist in inches, such as 36 or 122. Women, on the other hand, have picked an arbitrary numbering system that makes their waist seem numerically small, like 7 or 10.  7 or 10 what is the question. Or they use words like petite or misses or queenly. Imagine if men bought sport coats classified by brute, wiry, or wimpy. Above all, the risk of being caught in the act of research can (the voice of experience speaking) only lead to a scene straight out of a nightmare, as any attempt to explain your actions only increases the fearful suspicions.  

Simply asking for sizes is, of course, far too straightforward and logical to be tried first, but when you get around to it, remember this: Ask for ALL of her sizes. Simply saying, "So, honey, me and the guys down to the feed store were just wondering what your sweater size was”, might provoke a surprising reaction. Many women would deduce from this statement that you were either going to buy her a sweater for Christmas or spending entirely too much time at the feed store. No, instead ask her to write on a small card all her sizes. One side benefit of having this information is that you and your buddies can swap cards for fun during boring Farm Bureau meetings - it's really interesting and always good for a laugh. One word of warning: Don't use your business card. You will inevitably hand it out to a machinery salesman somewhere who will then (a) know more about your wife than may be desirable or (b) be afraid to be alone with you.

Armed with these statistics, you are ready to go shopping. The thing to remember is that the object of shopping is the same as harvesting: TO GET DONE. Hitherto, we farmers have always had this as the only goal, but this time we are actually going to try to select appropriate gifts.
Suggestion Number One: Cashmere Sweater - ($140). The operative word here is cashmere, not sweater. This is a "can't miss" item, as no woman has too many cashmere sweaters, like guys and power tools.   As far as styles and color, when in doubt get a crew neck pullover in navy blue. This is the female equivalent of the flannel shirt - always in fashion. You can order this through the mail from Lands' End (800-356-4444). A true no-brainer.

Suggestion Number Two: Jewelry. I know, you have thought of this before, but this time we are not going for sheer size or flashiness as the primary criterion. If you can swing it, buy her a string of real pearls. Pearls can be worn with practically anything (or - ahem - nothing) and especially with Suggestion #1. Real pearls are real pearls, regardless of where you buy them - Cartier or Walmart - but more expensive ones may have better stringing, which could avert a catastrophe. The shorter lengths, such as the alarmingly named  "choker", work fine, and are actually more useful. If this is too expensive, think about small diamond earrings. Teeny little stones that can fit your budget still allow her to say offhandedly that her husband gave her "Diamonds" for Christmas. [Mucho points]  As a final fail-safe gift, try gold chains. Again, like crescent wrenches, you just can't have too many.

Suggestion #3: Perfume. The only problem with buying perfume is where you have to go to purchase it. The truly desirable fragrances are to be had at the perfume counters in large department stores, and can be identified by their suggestive names: "Seduction" or "Unbridled" or "Peach Cobbler" (just kidding - but it works for me!). To make the experience even more frightening for simple country gentlemen, these provocative products are sold, with intense vigor, by The Perfume Ladies. These women are the retail equivalent of Imperial Storm Troopers. They assault you as you enter the store with importunings to try their product. Unlike most women you are around, Perfume Ladies have access to cosmetics at wholesale prices, and take maximum advantage of this privilege. Plus, I have noticed most of them seem to enjoy experimenting with repositioning their eyebrows in various places around their faces. Last Christmas, at a major Chicago department store, I swear I saw a PL with both eyebrows above one eye. At any rate, keep your cool, do not stare, and above all, do not get samples sprayed on you! Wives can smell strange perfume on your clothing at concentrations as low as 1 molecule per cubic mile. Not good. (When I mentioned this in a speech once, a gentleman came up to me afterward, glanced around and said "Diesel fuel - just a few drops.” winked and walked away. Whatever could he mean!) Try to make a choice within three samples, as your olfactory nerve goes numb about that time. Remember, none of them smell bad. Also keep in mind that perfume is priced in the same range as Pursuit™. It starts at outrageous and goes higher. As a rule, get the cologne - at least you feel like you're getting more for your money. Above all, do not use perfume as a stocking stuffer. If there is an $80 bottle of perfume in her stocking, what will she expect to be under the tree?

Suggestion #4: Lingerie. All right, take a deep breath and keep reading. I'm not talking about some flimsy baby doll nightgown or thong teddy - well, not necessarily. I'm referring to elegant and tasteful intimate apparel, chosen with care and dignity. [I'm not going to continue until you stop snickering. That's better.] In case you haven't noticed (or have been living on Pluto), women are now wearing underwear ON THE OUTSIDE! Especially under suit jackets, you now see glimpses of garments that, in an earlier age, the sight of which required you to marry the occupant. This type of fashion is something we as guys definitely should be encouraging - but only in women, of course. These "lacy tee shirts" are called camisoles and can, if carefully selected, convey to your lady love a true idea of how breathtakingly feminine you find her to be.   Purchase is not difficult, as lingerie stores are now staffed with helpful and non-judgmental salespersons who can aid you in your selection.   Armed with your lady's size (see above), just look for a pleasant color (tractor colors may not be the most appropriate here) and plenty of lace, and 15 minutes later it can be all over, including the gift-wrapping. As an undeserved bonus, you may find yourself on the mailing list for one of the greatest catalogs ever mangled by US Postal Service. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving!
Suggestion #5: Dressing Table. I realize there are farmers reading this article that are too insecure in their masculinity to actually go through with any of the above purchases. For them, I suggest a dressing table, for two reasons. Not only will your wife love it, but also your bathroom sink/medicine cabinet will be unburdened of the massive load of chemical beauty enhancement products and devices necessary for a woman to look even faintly presentable. Dressing tables, or makeup tables, are small desk-like pieces that have a hinged, mirrored lid, and drawers for Beauty Paraphernalia. Transferring the unguents and appliances that are the basis for modern womanly appearance from your bathroom sink means you may be able to shave somewhere within focusing distance of the bathroom mirror when rushing for a social engagement. If you have room (about 2' by 4') somewhere in your bedroom, this can be a truly surprising gift with wonderful benefits, plus the big box will drive her nuts.

I can personally vouch for the efficacy of the above gifts, but the crucial point to remember is, that while a gift can help say something about your feelings for this special person, they can never replace your own efforts to speak the words. The fact that this Christmas you went places and did things you really hate to do sometimes is more important than the gift itself.  Consider all the times your wife went places she was uncomfortable being (the parts counter at old-fashioned dealers) and did things she really didn't want to do (bid on a cultivator at an auction) for you. Your very best effort this Christmas may only be a down payment on a larger debt. And maybe you'll find it is the most enjoyable debt you'll ever have to repay.  

Take me to your liter

November 1995

We in the US have resisted the inevitable valiantly, but the handwriting is a meter high on the wall. We need to convert to the metric system. No industry has dug in any harder than agriculture, but let's face it - there is no way to kilogram.

Urgent Reasons for Converting to Metric:

1. Profiteering Opportunities - there will be a brief period of adaptation with some attendant confusion. During that period, occasions will abound for entrepreneurs to take advantage of a neighbor's relative ignorance. For example, I can imagine the following exchange between fencerow rivals:
Bob: Say, Warren, why don't we swap some ground and square up our farms.
Warren:  Swell idea, Bob. What do you have in mind?
Bob: Well, I'll give you 55 newtons of my south 80 for 16 hectares of your west 40.
Warren: Sounds fair to me, Bob.
[Warren, of course, is unaware that the newton is actually the metric unit for fig size.]

2. More Creative Statistical Atmosphere -  Stop in the elevator and put the word out that your beans are making well over 6 [tonnes/hectare].  Even if you are widely known as a yield inflator (not me, of course), your competitors won't know whether you are blowing smoke or not.  However, I did try this once, and one particularly surly comrade merely grunted and, without batting an eye, replied "Crumblin' cowpies, Phipps. [Author's Note: We talk this way to amuse the tourists.] The beans on my poor ground made over seven and a half."
3. Improved Fitness - Conversion will bring immediate rewards to the gravitationally challenged. My weight will drop from somewhere approximately in the vicinity of the neighborhood of 170 lb. to a svelte 77 kg. At the same time my height will soar to a towering 180 cm. All the artificial benchmarks that have taunted us all our lives, for example, running a 10-minute mile, will become meaningless. We will be able to drive at speeds over 120 with a clear conscience. Food critics will applaud the healthier portions, as the ubiquitous Quarter-Pounder will be a mere Tenther.

4. Simpler Calculations - Conversion to metric will aid our math-deprived populace by making thousands of everyday calculations easier. Here on the farm, for example, figuring out how many gallons of herbicide should have been used for a 4 ounce rate on 752 acres requires the use of a sing-song chant "Thirty days hath September...", no, wait - not that one, "A pint's a pound the world around", plus the added information of "2 pints equal one six-pack" and finally "If the sun rises in the east and it's four o'clock here..." to yield the following answer: The invoice is probably correct. In a world of metricness, for the same rate [1360 grams per hectare] and the same area [304 hectare], you simply multiply all available numbers together, including the price [$975] like this: 1360 x 304 x 975 = 403104000.  Then set the decimal point one place to the right of the largest amount you had imagined for chemicals, in this case $40,310.40. Try this one at home: You need to cut a board into three equal pieces. It measures 14'8¼" [450 cm].  How long should each piece be? (Answer: They will all be too short.)

5. We'll All Get Rich:  Gasoline prices will fall to about 25¢. Land selling for $2000 will soar to $5000. Corn could be $100, beans $220, cattle $1.65.
Compelling Reasons Against:

Don't Wanna. As card-burning members of what may go down in history as the most self-centered generation since Louis XIV, many people my age feel that sacrificing any personal ease of life is too much to ask. After all, this is the group that didn't want to 1) go to war or 2) cut their hair. If you listen carefully to the arguments put forward by the foot-pound-galloners, this is the underlying thought. The inconvenience of a switch to metric would be felt only by those making the change and not those who follow. My suggestion to fellow Boomers is: Why not play the martyr on this trivial exercise and then, claiming we have done our part, take a pass on important stuff like dealing with Social Security? Even whiners need to think ahead.

We can, of course, simply ignore the issue and let it happen, as anyone who has bought machinery, medicine, or soda pop has already realized. Besides, it is not as if we are all alone here in America defending a measurement system based on royal body parts. Nope, it's us and Burma against the world.  This is a battle we could afford to lose. How about this angle: we learn metric, they learn English.

The britches of Madison County

September 1995

Roberta fished in her purse for another stick of gum as Kissinger, her trusty old Lexus, shot down the gravel road, raising a dust plume like a dry land skier. Her destination was uncertain, but the thrill of flying down back roads was not, and for the time being it was enough. This current photographic assignment, commissioned by the makers of Guess What jeans, had kept her on the road for several days, prowling rural America to capture images of denims at work for a new ad campaign. Strange work, but Roberta was a professional. In fact, her work with pants had become her trademark. In one shot now widely recognized in the industry as a modern masterpiece, she captured a pair of chino cargo pants backlit by a sunset in Tanganyika in a photo that was rumored to have made the Land's Edge company over $22 mil in increased sales. And while the money was good, Roberta found more important the chance to express herself as an artist, one of the great trouser shootists of her time.

Passing a neat farmstead, Kissinger swerved in the loose gravel as Roberta braked, seeing an ideal shot just waiting for her. She slammed into reverse and headed up the drive, her right hand reaching automatically for her venerable Instamatic and a handful of flashcubes. She darted from the car and began framing her shot, expertly capturing the morning light dazzling off the rivets of the jeans. Then she was shooting, immersed in the poetry of pants and perspective; her gum snapping softly as her left hand automatically replaced flashcubes and film.

Frank grunted painfully as he plunged headfirst into the cavernous engine compartment of the old Chevrolet grain truck. While trying to get the starter lined up with the boltholes, he kept hearing strange noises - curious, but not alarming enough to justify the wrenching effort of becoming upright. He thought a car had pulled in the drive, but that would just be Sneeps, his neighbor. Then a series of quiet, almost familiar clicks, and the scuffling of gravel made him realize someone real was here. 

Extracting himself took a few moments. He blinked at the bleary image slowly coming into focus in the bright summer sun. A strikingly attractive woman about his own age was slowly walking from side to side in front of the truck, taking photographs feverishly. "Can I help you?” Frank asked.   She dropped her camera and smiled brilliantly, sunlight glinting off what Frank estimated was 15 to 20 thou of dental artistry. She was appealing in that superficial way Frank found intriguing.   

"Roberta Trask," she said offering her hand. "I'm from New York, doing a shoot of men at work for a major jeans manufacturer. I hope you don't mind my photographing you just now, but the light and the composition were too perfect to wait."
"You were shooting me, leaning into the truck - from the rear?” he said uncertainly.
"Very impressive it was, too. You're not angry, are you?” She flashed him another brilliant smile. 

Frank wasn't sure what he was. Even through the familiar odors of the shop, her perfume was wonderfully noticeable. Frank suddenly became uncomfortably aware that a beautiful stranger was taking pictures of his posterior. He also realized he was staring. "Where will these photos end up?", he asked, affecting some rural indifference.  

"Mostly Eastern mags, like Fairly Vain, or New Yorkperson." she replied. "I doubt if your friends will see you - let alone recognize you, if that's what you're worried about".
"Doesn't bother me," he lied.  
They chatted meaninglessly for a while, as Roberta took several more shots.  At her request, Frank did some welding, trying hard not to remind himself where she was aiming. She talked a little about her work and the complexities of professional pants photography or "panting" as they called it in the industry. Then, in a fit of uncharacteristic boldness he never would understand, Frank blurted, "Would you care to stay for lunch?" He tried to forget that he had already taken into account the fact that his wife and children were gone, visiting Annette's sister in Chicago. Startled by his own words, he stood awkwardly, unsure of the response.

Roberta, more amused than surprised, hesitated only briefly before accepting. She had no schedule to keep, and Frank was an attractive man from any angle.

As they walked to the house, he explained nervously about his family, all the while trying to figure just exactly what he thought he was doing. Roberta listened and smiled from time to time. Luckily for Frank, Annette had left his favorite lunch already prepared - tuna salad. She often did when she was going to be gone, since Frank liked to eat it with peanut butter, a difficult meal for her to enjoy. Frank began to prepare the food as they talked quietly.

Roberta watched him move - powerfully, but clumsily - about the kitchen.   The muscles of his tanned forearm flexed smoothly as he spread the peanut butter to the very edge of the bread in a thoroughness she found mesmerizing. He asked what she would like to drink, and when she asked for bottled spring water, he smiled and handed her a beer. "That's how it starts out, you know", he joked. They laughed together.

Frank could not stop asking himself, "What is happening?” as the lunch and conversation went on. He seemed to be trying to find some missing element for his life, and Roberta seemed to possess it. But what was it? He and Annette had a wonderful, exciting, and fulfilling marriage and career together on the farm. Their children were a joyful addition to this world.  The farm was a struggle, but every now and then they made some progress.  Frank was driven by a stronger and darker need, perhaps, than this rich life could supply. In a sudden epiphany, he realized it was a life too happy and fulfilling that burdened him. He had no great sorrow, no racking guilt, no hidden remorse. Oh sure, he wished he had planted deeper in 1990, and sold sooner in 1992, but his past contained no hint of profound regret from committing a Great Stupidity. Now as he looked at Roberta, he somehow knew she was a woman with whom he could do something very stupid. She was an animal he could not quite name, with a feline, feral grace like an...he'd just seen it on PBS...yeh, that's it - she was like an ocelot an awful lot.

Roberta watched Frank as she ate, talking of her work, her dreams, her travels, her clothes, her charge accounts, herself. She found Frank surprisingly astute, even urbane, and coupled with his rural animal magnetism and the faint smell of brake fluid, she found herself drawn to him. Then suddenly, as she reached for the jar of sweet relish, Frank did too, their hands touching on the cold wet glass.

Eyes met. Words failed. Pulses quickened. Breathing slowed. Mouths dried.  Palms moistened. Possibilities spawned. Consequences loomed. Time stopped. Relish plummeted.

Frank knew from sad experience what pickle juice spills could become if you didn't clean them up in the first day or so. He rushed to the sink and, in a decision that would torment him for the rest of his life, defiantly chose the NOT-ON-THE-FLOOR Sponge. Turning his back on his wife's careful training, he mopped up the relish, and then shamefully threw the sponge in the trash to hide his guilt, already concocting a lame excuse involving the family dog as scapegoat. Roberta sensed his inner torture, and that she was the cause. 

"I'd best leave", she said sadly. The previously sunny day now seemed dimmer, eclipsed by her clouded spirit. Abruptly she turned, kissed him fiercely on the lips, and whispered to him, her gentle tuna breath soft on his cheek, "Remember me, Frank. I am the ptarmigan and the interstate and all the ice cream you could ever eat."   

Frank was stunned. (He'd always thought the "p" was silent.) How could he ever forget her? He looked down as he walked her to the car. Tears formed in his eyes while he ducked the gravel spray as she accelerated out the drive.  Pausing at the road, she waved wistfully and was gone.


Frank flipped the welding helmet up to check his work. The last few weeks had been uncomfortable. While no one had initially recognized him when the photographs were published, he had forgotten about the truck license plates. Annette got the magazine from her sister and left it open on the coffee table, saying nothing. His friends, however, rapidly made him the literal butt of their jokes. Annette somehow never asked about that day, but from time to time she would glance at him and smile or chuckle for no apparent reason.

For the hundredth time, Frank went over to the field cultivator frame he had repaired that afternoon. Shiny, even beads, like a row of dimes formed every fillet. He had never welded so well before, and never would again. It was her.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A life apart

April 1995

The way we live in rural America is rapidly becoming so far from the American norm as to boggle the urban mind. The scientific definition of rural is farther from a town than the distance that can be traveled at mildly unsafe speeds before a fresh pepperoni & sausage pizza decomposes into male teenager breakfast food. The next time we want to impress upon city voters the desperate plight of farmers, forget about crop prices and weather.  What will win their sympathy are the staggering disadvantages we live with every day of our lives.

It only starts with no pizza delivery. Order a Major Power Tool - say, a Delta Unisaw with Full 52" Unifence ($1499 plus shipping) [ideal for Xmas, every man needs one or two, hint, hint] – and then try to get it delivered to the farm. Freight trucks, whose burly drivers routinely park nonchalantly in warehouse districts where Rambo is afraid to go, are obviously too fearful to venture six miles from a street address to make delivery.  I usually have such deliveries made to my bank in town, but recently they have begun to object to the fencing and plumbing supplies laying in the lobby until I can get in to pick them up. I don't know why, since technically, they own a larger percentage of the supplies than I do. Suffice it to say that when city dwellers are rushing to order pizza delivered at 9:30 pm. (in Pavlovian response to the commercial during half-time), some of us are moaning softly on the outskirts of civilization.

How about the highly touted and over-metaphored INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY? The cruel truth is that for those of us who could use information the most, chronically under-entertained provincial hackers, the phone call likely is more expensive than the information service itself.   Meanwhile, urban dwellers living within spitting distance of huge libraries (yes, I have checked this), can dial up the Internet with a free local call.  Like all the other major routes, the new I-WAY is not passing anywhere close to my house and will be a toll road to boot. And I'll probably be nearly dead (i.e., over 55) before optical cable comes to my farm. Don't tell me life isn't tough on the frontier.

Or try to get your garbage hauled in an environmentally responsible manner.  With teenage boys on a growing ration, the Snapple bottles alone provide a stream of outgoing refuse roughly equivalent to a small third world country, such as Oklahoma. However awkward this is in the city, it is magnified by infrequent garbage pickups, for us a random "monthly" event. We use about seventeen cans to accommodate the volume. A little more inconvenient than remembering to wheel a single can to the curb every Tuesday, I'd say.

The absolute clincher to explaining how rural life is different is WATER.  Around here, a good well is more precious than rubies. No, wait - that's a good wife is more precious than rubies. Whatever. When our city friends visit, adding a load to already limited aquatic resources, the possibility of running out of water seems to horrify them as no nuclear threat has ever done. The idea of showering to get clean, rather than as a method of steam therapy, as well as other simple conservation measures, strike them as draconian. They marvel at how we can stand such abysmal living conditions.  Like we have a choice. Sometimes just to blow their minds, I use my Serious Grownup Voice to suggest certain water-saving practices in the matter of flushing. Their horrified repugnance to these practical economies seems strangely incongruent in people who spend a lot of time with a "pooper-scooper". However, it is a sure fire way to wrap up one of those seemingly endless, but always enjoyable visits.  

It is not just the amount of water, but its quality that is a true blessing in the country. Water free from iron and "floaties", or at least translucent, with hardness somewhat less than liquefied limestone, is a real treat in our area. Oodles of city water being delivered to you for a nominal sum seems utopian.  Any rural homeowner can testify to the sickening feeling of arising in the morning to gurgling or sputtering, or worse, total silence when the faucet goes on.  Pumps enjoy failing in the same way as children tend to get sick - on Friday evening, during snowstorms, or right before leaving on a much needed vacation. Livestock farmers know this casualty all too well, but even for a household, the adventure of hauling water (assuming the old hand pump will prime) wears thin quickly. Forget about the hard work in the fields. This is what it means to live in the country.

Above all, don't get me started on cable TV.

Nothing exceeds like excess

Mid-March 1995

Just one more twist, just one more bushel, just a little closer. These thoughts spring to mind like whispered encouragements from one of those little cartoon devils that tempt us to do the wrong thing. To make it worse, we go along with the suggestion for the best of all possible reasons. The logic is unassailable – if a little is good, a lot is better. We are the victims of our own zeal to achieve maximum efficiency.

A lot of this problem has to do with being self-employed. If the outcome of our performance has no effect on compensation, then enough is a reasonable goal.  But nooooo! We are always trying to get the biggest edge possible, to push the envelope, to stretch our resources.  Hence we find ourselves in situations like:

  1. The Stripped Threads - Back in the Dark Ages before the invention of the lock washer, I gather that bolts were made fast by sheer brute strength. I have watched my father on many occasions strain to add that last bit of torque to a nut to insure it would hold tightly. Unfortunately, the usual outcome of such an endeavor was either stripped threads or a twisted off bolt - both of which were greeted by a stunned silence as the magnitude of the repair effort suddenly increased tenfold. That one extra turn to be sure has stayed with me and my generation, making it a difficult process to get used to o-ring hydraulic connections that are designed to be just "snug". Or how many farmers actually follow the instructions on oil filters, which state "Tighten until gasket makes contact, and then 1/2 turn more." Sure we do. I'm probably the only farmer who tightens the filter as tight as I can. Right.
  2. The Overfull Truck/Wagon - When I came back to the farm, I allowed my father to drive the combine, since he was well past 55 and needed an easy job during harvest. I drove the trucks, both to our bins and the elevator. He had the irritating habit of trying to get every possible kernel on every truck, which made driving without spilling on corners impossible. We had serious talks about this problem almost daily, during which he would promise to do better. There was no change. I have a friend who even calculates which side of the truck he can heap up the highest considering the turns to be made by the truck. The most horrifying part is that I have been having the same earnest conversations with Jan, now that I am driving the combine, and she is driving the trucks. Something about us won't allow a truck to leave without the maximum possible load. And if you think I went crazy over a little grain on the road, you haven't seen anything. I think I know where it began.
  3. Burning the Trash - It is all my mother's fault. One of my many odious chores as a boy was to burn the trash. [As all rural residents know, trash is what you burn; garbage is what you haul away.] The important thing to remember when burning the trash was to take it all in one trip, since that would take the least time. The fact that I could not begin to carry it all at once was beside the point. It was obviously more efficient to spend 20 minutes loading up and another 20 minutes struggling to the burner than to make two 1-minute trips with reasonable loads. Everybody knows that.   
  4. The Field Cultivator Proximity Temptation: Back when discs were 11 feet wide, a skilled operator could shave the soil around a power pole with surgical precision. We continue to assume this is possible with 40-foot finishers at 8 mph.  Not. Look around the base of any field marker, fencepost, or light pole, or check the outboard ends of the harrow on the implement and my point is made. But still we try to get that last ragweed - just a little closer and - rats! It comforting to know that this recurring temptation is shared by my partner Jan, who has been hitherto immune to the "Little More" syndrome. I have been far too considerate to mention this failing, of course.
  5. Glue/Caulk/Paint/Sealant/Ketchup Applications: Several thin coats?  Don't make me laugh. Why do you think they sell this stuff in two-gallon containers?

This all stems from the same logic that I used to figure out how they establish load limits on bridges. When I was a boy, it seemed reasonable to build the bridge, and then keep driving heavier and heavier trucks over it until it collapsed, then rebuild the bridge. Now that I am a fully-grown engineer, I know better. We just guess. At any rate, the empirical method of try it and see left us forever vulnerable to "just a little more" thinking.  Whether it is a good idea or not, it feels like you have gotten something free.  And every now and then it works.

What are the odds, anyway?


I attended a conference on food safety two years ago and discovered a disquieting pattern in discussion with other participants. I was one of a few farmers in a group of mostly urban advocates for more stringent food safety rules. As we discussed some differences of opinion, (and there were many), I began to notice that common ground eluded us, despite sincere efforts to understand.  

After many mental replays of the conversations, it has occurred to me that we used two distinctly separate sets of criteria to decide if food was safe. My opinions were based on what has happened, while their arguments were based on what might happen. My arguments centered on the fact that food was extremely far down the list of things threatening our health (way below automobiles, smoking, handguns, stress, etc.). Food was not a big sweat, in my opinion, especially if you bothered to cook it.  

The countering argument reversed the burden of proof.  Prove to us our food supply will not possibly cause this phenomenon, or contribute to this condition, they challenged. I could not do so to their satisfaction, largely due to the actions of too many science teachers who made me understand that the world does not deal in absolutes (never, always, impossible).  They were uncomfortable with what I considered negligible risk. We differed in our methods of assessing risk, just like all people do.

People do not simply look at numbers to evaluate personal risk. Other factors skew their judgment. People are more comfortable with a larger risk from a familiar situation (smoking) than a smaller risk from a little known source (pesticide residues), regardless of the actual hazard. Familiar risks, like driving fast, seem to be under our control. Dangers that are controlled by others loom larger before us. People nervous about nuclear weapons often sleep peacefully with loaded weapons in the house, for instance. Even technology, which fascinates Americans, because we are increasingly incapable of understanding its new forms, has become suspicious. Simply put, it is easier to fear an unknown than learn about it.
Here on the farm, we don't help our own cause a great deal by using such fear exploitation to resist everything from landfills to high-voltage lines. I often suspect such concerns reflect less the actual fear for personal safety than unhappiness with economic changes, but the argument has been most effective. If we are unwilling to accept negligible risks, we should not be surprised when our customers demand the same right. Additionally, as we have demanded to know what the exact odds are for any action, science has gotten better at telling us. It is ironic that with more precise evaluations than ever, we are less willing to accept any risk, however small. Given a "one-in-a-zillion" chance, we choose the "one" or the "zillion", as needed, to argue our case. 

Most troubling is the naive belief that any safety risk outweighs any economic cost. The slightest threat to one life is too great to bear, especially one of "our" lives. What is not widely explained is that economic costs end up as personal costs. Raising the price of food with needless regulation, as an example, to accommodate a remote risk, results in thousands of Americans finding good nutrition a little bit farther beyond their reach. Aid programs to overcome this causes a tax burden that repeats the process. The choice is not just sacrificing some dollars to be sure, but sacrificing the well being of one group for the peace of mind of another. The needs of the many should outweigh the fears of the few. This is even more reasonable when the benefit for the few is slight. We all have the right to reach our own conclusions about personal risks. It is particularly self-centered point of view to consider our anxieties the responsibility of others.

Respect your zzzzzs

March 1995

The innocent sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care. - Shakespeare

Right on, Bill. Scientists tell us that we will spend a third of our lives sleeping. To which I can but reply - gosh, only a third? Those of us true connoisseurs of unconsciousness spend our lives in the profound appreciation for a gift that has become woefully misunderstood in our world, and especially in agriculture.

I have friends who like to brag about how little sleep they get during the busy season. It could be all the caffeine from the three hours in the coffee shop. Sleep is not an inconvenient necessity; it is a wonderful vacation we get to take every night. As powerful as the restorative action to our bodies is, the mending of our minds is even more astonishing. The problems that seem insurmountable in the evening are much less daunting in the light of morning. Sleep grants us a fresh chance, a new beginning.

Bad things happen to us more often late in the day. Meatloaf supper, for instance. We have more accidents, and tear up more machinery. Some of our decisions made late in the day seem less wise the following morning. (Ask when most men proposed). Frustration and anxiety clouds our judgment making decisions more difficult. Like all fussy children, we should be sent to bed.

True, some people need less sleep.  I wonder why we find this an enviable characteristic. Perhaps it is like cooking has become - something we don't enjoy because we are not doing it very well. Many of us hibernation experts have discovered that sleep is not an activity to be taken lightly, if you want to do a good job. Some hints:

  1. Get to bed. Although this seems obvious, people often forget this essential step. Too many TV addicts zonk out watching the ridiculous drivel that passes for late-night entertainment. Falling asleep watching TV is like eating a world-class dessert (cherry cobbler with rum whipped cream, for example) cold from a styrofoam cup while driving a car. It can be done, but why?
  2. Choose your bed seriously. You wouldn't farm with broken machinery and expect good results, would you? Find sleeping equipment that matches your particular needs. You and your sleeping partner may even need separate beds, like Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore.  It may look silly, but good sleep is worth it.
  3. The Mattress. Considering the amount of time you are going to spend in contact with this equipment, choose carefully. Trying out mattresses in a store is difficult, of course. Lying down on a bed in public is not a comfortable act, but a serious test drive is essential. If you want to try out the bed for bouncing, remove your shoes first.
  4. Pajamas. We can talk about this. Jammies are, scientists tell us, what separates man from lower life forms. No animal other than homo sapiens has special clothing only for sleeping (cocoons do not count).  Truly great jammies need to be soft, nearly worn out, and loose.  Nightshirts are acceptable, but the critical factor is the deep and lasting relationship that is established between wearer and garment. During the course of the night, you and your jammies are going where no one has gone before. Also, always remember that in an emergency, you could be interviewed on TV in your night attire. 
  5. The sleep environment. Have a little respect for the task at hand. Put the kids to bed - whether they want to or not. This sadistic practice is the reason we became parents in the first place, right? Get your children used to darkness and quiet, and you will almost certainly ensure they will return to the farm often without ever knowing why.

Above all don't feel guilty about getting your rest. Consider that when you are asleep, you aren't a) saying something you might later regret, b) worrying obsessively, or c) voting - three actions that have caused us a great deal of trouble in America lately. Anyway, who is more impressive, those who can only get their work done by eliminating one of the most pleasant aspects of human existence, or those who can do both.  

Here in farm country we should set an example of what proper sleep fitness is. Perhaps I could put out a Jane Fonda-type video to help those poor sufferers of "sleep anorexia". It could start with some warm-up "sermon naps" and work up to (only after rigorous conditioning) an all-out, 22 hour, harvest-is-over sleep-a-thon. I could even use my college age son as a role model for endurance sleeping events. Hey - this could be big! First, I've got to get some spandex jammies...

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hats off, gentlemen

Mid-February 1995

"Never wear a hat with more character that you have." - John Foster Dulles

Probably, it started with the invention of the plastic snap-adjusting strip in the rear, creating the true "one size fits all". Or perhaps it coincided with the zenith of popularity of baseball players. For whatever reason, about twenty years ago, "baseball" caps became the headgear of choice for our industry - a fad that has outstayed its time.

We all own dozens of them. Salesmen and organizations hand them out like candy to children. I have friends who collect them, for Pete's sake. If we ignore for the moment the obvious aesthetic questions, we are still left with the increasingly serious medical issues that have recently been identified as a result of chronic use of farmer caps.

  1. The Heartbreak of "HAT-HAIR": Prolonged use of a farmer cap can cause the socially humiliating condition known medically as folliculus ridiculous, or more commonly, "hat-hair". It is characterized by a horizontal dead furrow above and below which the hair resumes its normal shape. I have discovered many farmers spend an astounding amount of time distributing their dwindling hair resources strategically about the skull, often resorting to part-lines that start just above the shoulder in order to cover the top portion of their sparsely populated dome. These efforts, however valiant and transparent, are severely impacted by the effect of a farmer cap. Even robustly hirsute (hairy) persons are scarred for hours with what looks like an O-ring groove around their head. This alarming situation then reinforces itself by forcing the wearer to keep his cap on to prevent ridicule. 
  2. The "Cap Tan": The persistent use of farmer caps has caused the widespread incidence of a peculiar marking from solar exposure. From the hat-line downward, the wearer sports a (until very recently) fashionably deep brown pigmentation ending with startling abruptness just above the ears. This coloration can cause a stunning monotony in conversation, as every observer assumes he or she is the first to notice it and can't wait to slip in an unoriginal zinger. To top it off, so to speak, we now learn that such headgear does little to protect its owner from damage to the skin from the sun.
  3. Button Indention: At the top of all farmer caps, integral to the construction, is a small metallic button that goes virtually unnoticed until the occupant rises up under some very firm, immovable surface, such as a field cultivator frame. This action can drive the afore-mentioned button deeply into the delicate tissue of the upper skull, with an attendant pain not unlike childbirth, or so I guess. This effect is magnified by the usual scarcity of natural ground cover in the area, leaving only a thin, but extremely sensitive, skin layer to assume the full force of impact. Scientists have documented cases where the small button had to be surgically removed at (surprise, surprise) great cost.
  4. Ingrown Hat: Partly due to the medical miseries listed above, but also abetted by lackadaisical social training, is the unfortunate phenomenon of the ingrown hat. This pathetic situation occurs when the wearer has lost the ability to tell when it is appropriate to wear a hat and when not. Sufferers can be seen wearing hats when indoors, when speaking to ladies, when the flag passes or during the national anthem, or at a funeral. It is also reported that unfortunate sufferers of ingrown hat have been seen eating with work caps on. While this is hard to believe, especially considering the opinions their mothers must have of such conduct, not to mention the obvious food sanitation problem, it is not incurable. Intensive therapy and support groups, coupled with a national telethon raising lots of big bucks should be planned to cope with this social malady. This author, for instance, could be a poster child.
  5. The Billboard Hat: Along with the bumper sticker and T-shirt, the hat has become the main channel of self-expression for many people, almost eliminating the need for coherent speech. We proclaim our allegiance to this team, idea, seed corn, or product by our choice of headgear. Things we would not say in public we place on our hats to be seen by all.  Who says the First Amendment is in jeopardy?
It is not hard to long for an earlier time when hats had mystery, and a certain je ne ce quoi (literally, studliness). For that matter, they often worked better to protect the owner from the elements. To make it worse, because they are now so inseparable from the image of a farmer, we are branded by the cap's shortcomings. For instance, nobody can look even mildly intelligent when they have pulled their cap down tight during a stiff breeze. Because they are used as parts carriers or grain samplers or insect obliterators, our hats are seldom examples of cleanliness. Since this is unavoidable in our profession, perhaps we should develop some detachment from these old friends. To which end I offer these simple rules of hat etiquette:
  1. Take the hat off indoors.  The reason for wearing it, after all, is to protect from the outside environment.
  2. Don't wear words on your cap that you wouldn't want your grandmother to ask you about.
  3. Change your cap every three thousand miles or three months.

One final note: Until the telethon to fund research into Farmer Cap Syndrome (FCS) is in operation, you can send your contributions directly to me (cash).

How to size a cat 
and other pet care advice

February 1995

People frequently ask me, "Are you out of you mind?"  Other times they ask me about pet care. Not really, but that is what I'm writing about. Since there is so much misinformation in the media concerning pet care, I figured a little more couldn't hurt. Some common questions:

Q: How small a hole in a garage door can you push a cat through?
A: A perceptive question. I myself have spent some time working on this one with our cat-like organism, Scamper. To allow the cat someplace outside safe from our dogs, Spike and Psycho, we have decided to cut a "cat hole" in the garage that Scamper alone could fit through. My engineering training led me to evaluate on an empirical basis exactly how large this orifice should be.   I settled on a methodology of cutting a small hole, trying the cat for size, and enlarging as necessary. Scamper did not seem to fully enjoy the first few attempts. In fact, it is amazingly difficult to push a sulky cat through a small hole. 

It was then that I remembered the Lorentz contraction. No, it has nothing to do with Lamaze training. This physical phenomenon was explained, at the top of his lungs, to my Physics II class in college by Dr. Rhee, a quaintly abusive, but largely unintelligible professor from Korea.   He introduced me to the charming Oriental custom of handing out exam papers by calling the student forward in front of the class and loudly ridiculing his mistakes and commenting on possible genetic shortcomings and emotional problems to be overcome. 

I went to college in Indiana, a Midwestern state the size of Hungary populated by people with an aversion (or inability) to setting their clocks, so that the state does not believe in daylight savings time. The result is that much of my higher education, especially physics, occurred in pitch black winter mornings. In fairness, I must admit the state is much prettier in dim light. Such were the conditions for Physics II, quantum mechanics; the sole fact from which I remember is the Lorentz contraction. It stated that things get shorter the faster they are going. Wild, huh?

Reasoning that Scamper would experience this same transformation at higher velocities when running for the door, I initiated a series of experiments to test this theory. Holding the now outraged feline around the body, I would run toward the hole in the door and thrust her rapidly at the opening. The results could set modern science on its ear. Cats do not shrink at high speeds! In fact, they are capable up puffing up to nearly twice their normal size, counting the claws. (Note: always wear welding gloves when experimenting with cats).  In this rigorously scientific manner I have determined that a cat hole should be 8.1 cm. in diameter, or for non-metric readers, .00000023 furlongs.

Q: How often should I wash my dog?
A: Never.  Dogs work very hard on their personal grooming. I have personally witnessed our mutts pass twenty different roadkill carcasses before finding just the right one to roll in. Humans have been woefully shortchanged in the nose department (excluding Prince Charles, of course), and cannot begin to understand the importance of scent to our fellow mammals. The olfactory nerve in dogs for instance, is wired directly to the small, but underpowered, reasoning center of their peanut-sized brains. To them, a powerful aroma is a bold statement of personal power, not unlike the French. When we eat breakfast on the porch during the summer, the arrival of our dogs from a night of canine carousing causes the milk to curdle and Sugar Pops to sink.  And from their behavior, you know they could not be prouder of themselves. Besides, for outdoor dogs, the effects of a bath will last, at most, 35 minutes.

Q: Should I get my daughter a pony?
A: The operative word here is not whether, but when. I have seen strong, otherwise rational farm professionals reduced to mere puppets by the devices of an eight year old daughter. The daughter's infatuation with horses will last for several months (until she discovers boys), but the pony will be around forever, sort of like a pasture ornament.

Q: Do you support the theory of global worming?
A: I have been hearing a lot about this scientific problem lately. While I'm not so sure how it really will help the climate, perhaps it wouldn't be asking too much for all of us to be internal-parasite-free. However, it is going to be even harder to push the pill down Jan's throat than it is with Scamper.

There are many other pet questions you may have, such as "How many gerbils can fit in a Pringles can?"  Thank goodness I'm here to help.