Ultimate Star Wars

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the original Star Wars movie. I was only eight at the time, but still clearly remember the awe of watching it in the theater. I can’t possibly be this old!

Anyway, to mark the movie’s anniversary, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra is putting on a special event: they are performing the movie’s musical score, while the movie itself plays on an enormous screen. There are two showings; one was last night, and the other is tonight at 8pm. While driving to Chicago last month, I happened to notice a billboard advertising it. Once I got home, I jumped on the internet to get more details — and then bought a pair of tickets for last night’s showing.

All I can say is: if you’re reading this and you’re anywhere near Kalamazoo, you should try to get tickets for tonight’s show. If that’s not an option, then I highly recommend you keep your eyes open for a similar performance in your own town. It was worth every penny of the price of admission (we got $50 tickets, which were neither the least nor the most expensive), and worth every minute of the two-and-a-half-hour round trip drive.

I took my 15 year old son, who is a big fan of the Star Wars franchise. Each year, we try to arrange at least one special outing for each of the kids to do alone with me; it might be a trip to Detroit for a Tigers game, a day trip to Chicago (easier when we were living in Illinois), a trip to the zoo, or so on. He agreed that this would be an excellent choice for this year’s “thing.”

We arrived quite early, which gave us time to explore Western Michigan University; the performance was being held at Miller Concert Hall, on campus. We walked all over, and got something to eat before the show. We took our seats shortly after the doors opened at 7:30, so we were able to watch and listen as the orchestra warmed up.

Our seats were in the third row, toward the left. This put us a bit closer to the screen than I would’ve liked, but on the plus side we were very close to the orchestra. From the opening notes, I knew that having to crane my neck a little was going to be but a minor inconvenience; the music was so fantastic, it blew me away.

I don’t know any other way to describe it. If you’re like me, you’ve probably lost count of the number of times you’ve seen this movie. You can probably say half or more of the dialogue along with the actors. (I had a friend who could even do all of the “radio chatter” for the final assault on the Death Star.) You know every twist of the plot. But having a live symphony orchestra perform the Oscar-winning score? That made it almost a new movie. It certainly made for an unforgettable experience.

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One thing in particular that I’ll never forget: this is the first movie I’ve ever attended in which not a single person left once the credits began rolling. At first, probably out of habit, a couple of people started to stand up. But nobody walked out. Everyone remained riveted on the orchestra, until the very last note. And then every person jumped to his or her feet, giving a thunderous ovation. My son and I looked at each other, and I mouthed a “Wow!” He commented, “That was so good!”

At last night’s show, the symphony director announced that they are planning to put on similar live shows for the other two films in the original Star Wars trilogy. I’m not exactly sure about the timing; they might be planning to do one per year. I just hope they’re not going to wait for the 40th anniversary of each film before putting on those performances. But either way, I plan to be among the first to buy tickets.

And I bet every other person who was there last night plans to do the same.

Nobel Prize for Farming

No, they don’t award a Nobel Prize for farming. Not yet, anyway. But when I heard the winner of another Nobel announced on the radio this morning, it reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to post.

Last year, a professor at my alma mater won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. When I was on campus last October for my 25th reunion, the school had hung banners trumpeting the big news. Then, during a break in the football game on that Saturday, they made a special announcement and presentation honoring the professor. It was really cool, particularly when the stadium cheered as loudly as it would for a clutch touchdown.

Earlier this spring, our alumni magazine published a lengthy feature article about the professor, J. Fraser Stoddart. I didn’t understand much of the technical aspects of his contributions to the field, but still found them fascinating.

What particularly jumped out for me, though, were the details about his life, growing up on a farm in post-WWII Scotland. Please forgive the length excerpt; I’m pasting it all (with some emphasis added), because it’s definitely worth reading in full:

Stoddart’s father caught the farming bug as a child, and after graduating from college in Glasgow, he became the manager of two farms owned by the University of Edinburgh.

Six months after Fraser was born in 1942, his parents decided to take on the tenancy of a 365-acre farm on the Rosebery Estate in Midlothian, about 12 miles south of Edinburgh.

As an only child, Stoddart helped his parents with chores from before sunup to well after sundown. There were dairy cows, cattle, “sheep of all different complexions” and hundreds of free-range chickens to care for. The family also grew everything from root crops to grain. And Stoddart was solely responsible for the fruit and vegetable garden.

With the arrival of the tractor and the car on the farm, he soon learned to take the simple and inefficient engines apart and put them back together.

“I had that wonderful time to watch a very big and fast change in technology up close,” says Stoddart. “So in literally 20 years we went from a horse-and-cart situation to combine harvesters with everything in between.

“The farm was very important to my training because it was multitasking on quite a large scale, particularly at high points of the year, such as March, when we were lambing, or in August and September, when we were bringing in the grain crops.”

In a letter to his daughter Fiona (excerpted below), Stoddart wrote of the significance of growing up on the farm and how it taught him discipline, resilience, resourcefulness and the nurturing of creatures great and small:

“I was present at lambings and calvings from quite a young age and was soon helping by myself to aid and abet the entry of lambs and calves into the world, particularly when it became a matter of life or death and the available work force was stretched to its limits and often close to exhaustion if the weather, as was often the case in that part of the world, decided to have its worst possible say. Wet snow was a killer, and very often newborn lambs had to be brought ’round from death’s door in the bottom oven of the Rayburn cooker in the farmhouse kitchen, while being fed hot cow’s milk laced with whisky! More often than not the lambs that survived this near-death experience were rejected by their mothers, and so the army of pet lambs that had to be fed by hand from bottles of milk four times a day grew to debilitating proportions. 

“During my professional lifetime as an academic, teaching and doing scientific research in eight universities on three different continents, I have no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that I learnt a lot more during my first 25 years on the farm than I have at all the universities combined over the past 52 years.

“Indeed, any modest successes I have reaped thereafter can be traced back to the University of Life in the Lothians of Scotland in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s as the country recovered gradually, under rationing in the beginning, from the devastation wrought by the Second World War.”

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The tenant farmhouse where Fraser Stoddart grew up, on the Rosebery Estate in the council area of Midlothian, Scotland.

We’ve found Professor Stoddart’s words to be as true for us today as they were for his own life. A farm is a wonderful first school, and an incomparable one, for coming of age.

Important lessons come not just from the hard work, or the discipline of having to get up early for chores. Or learning that death is an entirely normal part of the cycle of life.

Among the biggest lessons is that on a farm, there are some tasks that simply cannot be put off and must be done now. If rain is threatening, the hay must be brought into the barn. Doesn’t matter how hot the weather, or how heavy those bales are. Goats must be milked twice a day. Period. Somebody has to do it. It doesn’t matter how late the family got home from celebrating Christmas, or from that dinner at a friend’s place. Those goats cannot wait for the morning. The shivering little goat kid, or lamb, that the mother isn’t attending to (or that is having a tough time for some other reason) must be brought inside and warmed up. And fed, somehow. Now. And those other “bummer” lambs and goat kids? They must be fed a certain number of times per day, too.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the two oldest Yeoman Farm Children are now carrying these lessons over to college. Neither of them hesitates about putting in whatever hours are needed for study, and both are proving extremely diligent about getting their projects finished ahead of the deadlines — while continuing to pitch in a great deal here at home.

I don’t have any expectations of the Yeoman Farm Children growing up and winning Nobel prizes, but I am confident that no matter what the five of them do with their lives … they will be more successful at it for having grown up on a farm.

 

Betrayal and a Way Forward

The Knights of Columbus national organization has continued the push to replace our traditional Fourth Degree regalia with a more military-style suit and beret. If you haven’t been following this issue, two recent posts will bring you up to speed: Color Me Stunned and Doubling Down. (Incidentally, the latter was the most viewed and most commented-upon post in this blog’s history.)

I’ve deliberately not posted on the topic in a while, in part because I wanted to see how the controversy played itself out. I also wanted to gather and organize my thoughts before adding anything to what I’d already said.

These past several weeks, as I’ve communicated with Knights from around the world, a dominant theme has emerged: a deep sense of betrayal and breach of trust, previously unheard of in a fraternal organization such as ours. With this post, I hope to explain what’s driving this sense of betrayal, and to suggest a possible solution.

The central problem many keep coming back to is the rationale that Supreme has repeatedly implied (and continues to stand by, without further elaboration) for the uniform change: that the design of our traditional regalia was an impediment to recruitment, especially of younger members. In Supreme’s own words:

For years, supreme officers and directors have received comments from members and prospective members that the old regalia was a barrier to membership overall, or to membership in the Fourth Degree.

In an email to all K of C members, dated August 4, 2017, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson stated:

The cape and chapeau, while popular among some Fourth Degree members, have become dated and are increasingly cited as a reason that eligible Catholic men, especially young men, do not join the Knights of Columbus.

To put it directly, these assertions simply do not resonate with the lived experience of virtually anyone I have communicated with. I have been in touch with a large number of people about this, inside and outside the organization. Some of them have held high (district-level) offices in the Order. I have not heard anyone outside the Order speak badly about the regalia. To the contrary, people often tell us how much they love it. Furthermore, no member I’ve spoken with can think of a man he tried to recruit, who cited the Fourth Degree regalia as a reason not to join.

I’m having trouble even imagining the conversation. But I’m a novelist, so let me try: Continue reading

Flying

Early on a spectacularly sunny Friday morning in July of 1991, I steered onto eastbound I-90 and officially put Seattle in my rear view mirror. My heart raced, and I think I let out a little whoop.

The whole thing still seemed unreal. My first real car, the trunk jammed to the gills with all my worldly possessions (including my just-minted college diploma), a couple of pillows on the back seat (so I could just pull over and sleep at rest stops), a Rand McNally atlas spread out on the seat next to me, and 2,300 miles of open roadway ahead to my first real job, in suburban Detroit.

And all across the country, as radio stations faded to static and I rolled the dial to find new ones, one song played more than any other: Tom Petty’s Learning to Fly, one of the biggest hits of the summer. I loved the tune, and every one of the lyrics seemed to resonate with the enormous leap I was taking into adult life.

To this day, Learning to Fly is one of the few songs that always makes me stop scanning on the car stereo. From the opening chords, it never fails to take me back to that sunny July weekend when I watched the whole country roll by. As the music swells, my mind fills with the breathtaking view cresting Lookout Pass into Montana (the moment I finally understood why they call it “Big Sky Country”). With the lyrics and chord progressions, all my hopes and dreams return in a flood, blurring into the memories of Wyoming and South Dakota landscapes. I’m back in that magical weekend, when all of life was still open ahead of me. That magical weekend, when no dream seemed impossible.

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So, as I raise a glass and mourn the passing of the great Tom Petty, you know which song will be looped on my Spotify account tonight.

Timber

Fall has officially arrived, but you’d never know it from the temperatures. After a cold snap earlier this month (we actually ran the furnace a couple of times), we’ve been in the upper 80s / low 90s for several days now. The local high school cross country team even moved their practice to 6am yesterday, so the kids wouldn’t have to run in the afternoon heat.

We’ve been taking advantage of the nice weather to chip away at all the little projects that need to get done before things turn nasty. For example, a week ago, we butchered a young goat. And that reminds me: I need to start butchering the old, burned-out laying hens, so we can have soup all winter.

The biggest project, however, involves taking down dead limbs and trees. About a month ago, I finally invested in a really good chainsaw: a Stihl Farm Boss, with a 20″ bar. The price was about double what we’d spent in the past, for cheap chainsaws at Walmart. Those saws never seemed to last for long, however. And we now have an enormous amount of firewood to cut: in addition to dead trees on our property, we also have several other large trees to cut up — road crews took them down earlier this year, as part of a repaving project, and left them in the pasture for us.

I started with the trees that’d fallen along the pasture fences, and gradually got the chainsaw broken in. I’ve been extremely pleased with the Stihl so far; it’s very reliable, has lots of power, and runs forever on a tank of fuel.

I’ve since moved on to the dead trees that are still standing in the pasture; I wanted to get this done early, while of most of the foliage is still on the branches, so it’s easy to remember which trees are alive and which are dead. I’ve taken down several, and have just one or two remaining.

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Taking a break from the pasture, this weekend I turned my attention to something Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has wanted taken care of for a long time: a large branch on an enormous maple tree in the front yard. The branch was very much still alive, but in a precarious spot. It was growing straight back over our nice chain link fence, and then it took a sharp 90-degree turn straight upwards. We could see clear hollow spots near the base of the branch, which made us wonder just how secure that branch was. If an ice storm were to come roaring through, and take that branch down, it would crush the chain link fence.

Now, feeling empowered with an excellent chainsaw, I felt ready to take it on. I first got a ladder, and tied a rope as high as possible on the vertical portion of the branch. Then, with the oldest three Yeoman Farm Children pulling on the rope, I began cutting through the horizontal portion of the branch. I picked a spot safely on the other side of the chain link fence – so, even if the kids couldn’t pull the branch hard enough, it wouldn’t crush the fence. (How embarrassing would that have been? Talk about defeating the whole purpose of taking preemptive action…)

It’s sometimes hard to get kids to do chores on a farm. The exception, I’ve found, is anything related to bringing down trees. At least with our kids, few things get them as excited or ready to come outside and be part of what’s going on. The Yeoman Farm Children cheered enthusiastically as they pulled the cut branch, and it smashed into the front yard. (Yes, well clear of the fence.)

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Immediately, a fat, gray mouse scampered from the hollow section of the branch and staggered onto the lawn. He looked disoriented, and the kids offered to kill it. Without realizing this mouse may take up residence in our own house, I let mercy prevail and allowed the mouse to escape. (Only later did I realize we probably should’ve dispatched it while we had a chance. Oh, well.)

A quick inspection revealed the branch was even more hollowed-out than I’d initially thought. I was immediately glad we’d taken it down before it could cause trouble.

I set to work slicing the fallen branch into fireplace-length pieces, starting at the point farthest from the base. As I worked my way backwards, the pieces of course got increasingly thick. But then, as we got close to the base, we discovered something really interesting: an enormous infestation of wood-eating insects. I’d been cutting, and cutting, and then suddenly…when the saw went across the branch, a stream of bugs came pouring out. I cut again, and the volume of insects was even larger. And again. Larger.

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As these insects continued streaming all over the lawn, I regretted that we didn’t have any chickens handy. The flock could’ve feasted on all these things. We did run to the barn and try to grab a few, but most of the flock scattered. The handful of chickens we did manage to catch and release in the front yard were too flustered and disoriented to notice the bugs. They instead wandered off, and browsed the windfall pears under another tree. Note to self: next time, have a cage of chickens in the yard and ready to go before starting.

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Some animals did end up feasting on what came down from the tree: our goats. The Yeoman Farm Children dragged the most heavily leaf-laden branches off to the goat enclosure near the barn, where we’ve been isolating the males during the day. They ate their fill that afternoon.

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Then, when the rest of the herd returned that evening, every leaf disappeared within minutes. Next thing I knew, there were nothing but bare branches littering the goat area.

Much as I enjoyed watching the goats devour the leaves, I was especially glad we’d gotten that hollow branch down before Mother Nature took care of it herself.

Here’s hoping the weather stays nice enough, long enough, so I can get everything else checked off my list …

 

Car Culture

What good is a farm without a classic car hiding in one of the outbuildings?

We’re blessed to have just such a vehicle: a 1975 Fiat 124 Spider. My father bought it from the original owner (a close family friend), around 1980. My siblings and I had a blast riding around in it, crammed in the tiny back seat, on gloriously sunny Pacific Northwest summer afternoons. It’s amazing the three of us actually fit in there. I still remember things like stopping and getting a bag of cherries from a roadside stand, then eating them and tossing the pits as we cruised on rural roads.

Once I got my license, and learned to operate the manual transmission, getting to drive it myself was a very special treat. It was the ultimate “date night” car.

As my folks began downsizing and preparing for retirement, in the late 1990s, Dad finally started thinking about parting with the Fiat. I managed to get it from him, and arranged to have it shipped to the Los Angeles area (where I was finishing grad school), toward the end of 2000.

For years, I simply enjoyed driving it and keeping it in good running shape. I did hire a neighbor, who was laid off from his job in a body shop, to fix all the little dents and do the prep work for a basic paint job. I then took it to Maaco for a simple respray. Otherwise, I didn’t do much restoration work. As the years went by, there was so much to be done (seats were trashed, the dash was badly cracked, carpets were worn out, paint from the simple re-spray was getting chipped, etc.), I felt too overwhelmed to start on anything in particular.

That changed a few years ago. Just for fun, I took the Fiat to a car show I was planning to attend as just a spectator. It was kind of embarrassing, parking it alongside all the perfectly restored vehicles. But then I started looking around, and was heartened by the number of other “cool but rough around the edges” cars. In the wake of that show, I decided to begin chipping away at making my Fiat more presentable.

Among other things, I’ve:

  • Had all the seats reupholstered;
  • Replaced the dash, all the dash wood paneling, the dead clock, and added chrome bezels to all the gauges;
  • Replaced all the carpets, repainted the center console, and repainted most of the interior panels;
  • Replaced both mirrors;
  • Repainted the steel wheels; and
  • Replaced the front and rear stainless steel bumper bars, and repainted all the black rubber bumper inserts.

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The Spider is now to the point where it draws a fair amount of attention wherever it goes. Even at the grocery store, it’s not uncommon for strangers to call out “Nice car!”

The only problem is that, with every improvement I make, the remaining faults seem to stand out all the more! I now see how easy it is to dump way more money into a restoration project than a car is worth.

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The biggest thing I’m holding off on is a new paint job. It looks good now from about ten feet away; much closer than that, and all the chips and dings become apparent. Getting it done right will cost a small fortune, and once it’s done … I know I’ll be paranoid about picking up even the smallest scratch. I’ll be afraid to drive the car. And when I am driving it, I’ll be too worried to enjoy the drive.

All that said, despite the scruffy paint, I’m now getting a bigger kick out of car shows than ever. What’s struck me most about these shows, however, is the contrast with what I experienced in California — and what that says about regional differences in car culture.

In Los Angeles, there were certainly plenty of American muscle cars at every general-interest show, but there were always a great many imports as well. And there were so many enthusiasts devoted to particular types of imports, it wasn’t unusual to have a large car show exclusively for (say) French / Italian makes.

By contrast, at a big show I went to over the weekend here in Michigan, among the 113 total entries there were (drum roll, please) … five-and-a-half imports:

  • A 1967 Ferrari Dino
  • My 1975 Fiat 124 Spider
  • A 1974 MGB GT (hardtop, hatchback)
  • Two VW Beetles; and
  • A 1973 De Tomaso Pantera, an Italian car built with Ford components (thus the “half”)

The 1967 VW Beetle won Best Import, and definitely deserved it. It was beautiful, and flawless down to the last detail. Unsurprisingly, it was sporting a California black front plate.

Tonight, at an even bigger show (122 vehicles, at the Jackson County fairgrounds), there were — believe it or not — even fewer imports. And, most remarkably, my Fiat was the oldest of the three. The other two were a 1984 Jaguar sedan, and a 1994 Honda Del Sol. Both were pretty typical daily drivers. Had there been formal judging, in specific categories, my car actually would’ve had a strong claim for being the best import. Yes, it would’ve been largely by default; until I get the car repainted, it won’t be a contender against any real competition. (This show had an informal “everybody just cast a vote for whichever car you like best” kind of judging, which is fun as well.)

I’m not complaining about the few imports at these shows — just pointing out that these regional differences in car culture are really interesting to observe. And it’s actually a blast being part of a small fraternity at these gatherings. While everyone else at the weekend show was talking “Mopar” this, and “Edelbrock” that, the MGB owner and I were discussing the challenges of finding good, reasonably-priced, wheels and tires that even fit our cars!

I especially appreciated that Mr. MGB seemed to be taking the same attitude toward his GT as I am toward my Fiat: wanting to make it look nicer, and to perform better, but without dumping so much money into it that we’re afraid to take the car out on the road.

Because what fun is a classic car if you can’t relax and enjoy driving it? There is no joy quite like that of steering a vintage Italian convertible along meandering country roads, soaking in the late-afternoon sunshine, and admiring the emerging fall colors.

Here’s hoping that the cold weather holds off for many more weeks!

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Almost Made It

She gave it her very best shot, but she didn’t quite make it.

A couple of months ago, I put up a post about our oldest ewe, Licorice. She turned twelve this spring, which is quite old for a sheep. Despite her wavering health, we were hoping she’d make it through to fall butchering. The plan was to take her in with the lambs, the first week of November or so.

Unfortunately, she came up about six weeks short. This afternoon was the end of the line.

She’d seemed to have been holding her own until very recently – which is pretty surprising, given the effects age was having on her. She’d gone almost completely blind, and was finding her food by smell and feel. However, there was an even bigger problem (and one we didn’t fully appreciate at the time of the previous post): she had lost all her teeth. Every single one. I don’t know how she was managing to chew the grain we gave her, or the windfall apples she enjoyed so much.

We’d never had a sheep lose all her teeth to old age, so this was new territory for us. It’s something we’re going to need to be keeping a close eye on with our next-oldest sheep, Pachelbelle. She’s now the last remaining animal we brought with us in the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels” from Illinois at the end of 2007; she was born in the spring of that year, so made the trip as a lamb. I think we’ll let her go one more winter, at the most. It’s looking like letting these sheep go all the way to twelve is just asking for trouble.

Back to Licorice: this morning, she was very unsteady on her feet. The rest of the flock was actually starting to trample her. I managed to get her up, and lead her out to the back yard, but it was clear she didn’t have the energy or fight left to keep going much longer. I made her comfortable under the apple tree, with some grain and a water bucket. She did gladly eat the grain, and took some water. Later, she even got on her feet and walked around a bit. The Yeoman Farm Children cut up an apple for her, and fed it to her in pieces.

Thinking about her toothless mouth, I suggested we try feeding applesauce. That was a flop. She didn’t like it.

As the afternoon wore on, we got busy with other things. At around 3:30 or so, one of the kids found me and reported that it looked like Licorice had died. I jogged out to the apple tree, and confirmed it.

This evening, a couple of the kids helped me dig a grave for her out in the pasture. As the sun settled on the horizon, we brought her back out through the barn, and through the pasture gate, and into the pasture one last time. Then, at the graveside, immediately before laying her to rest, we used a saw to remove her horns. These we will dry, and keep as a reminder until we eventually sell them on Etsy.

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You’ll notice that one of the horns is slightly longer than the other. That’s because, several years back, one of the horns was growing in a dangerous direction and threatening her eye. We used a set of bolt cutters to trim that a bit, and the two sides were never again the same.

It was of course sad to lose our oldest sheep, and one of the final remaining ties to our original farm. I’ll say this, though: at least we saw it coming, and weren’t surprised. And I’m especially glad we were able to give her one last beautiful, sunny, almost-fall day with the family, under the apple tree in the back yard.

I don’t know if there’s a Rainbow Bridge for livestock, but if there is … I hope she crossed it. And is enjoying a grassy orchard of apple trees on the other side tonight.