Who Says You Can’t Go Home … To the House at Pooh Corner?

A fantastic new movie opened this past weekend, and I can’t recommend it highly enough: Disney’s Christopher Robin. Take a look at the trailer:

The film is essentially a spin-off from the classic stories by A.A. Milne. As you probably know, these stories were inspired by the imaginative games that his young son, Christopher Robin Milne, played with his stuffed animals. These stories were among my favorites as a kid, and I always sensed a special bond with the main character because we shared the same first name. It was lots of fun to read all twenty of the stories again about a year and a half ago, with my own son (then aged seven), and watch him enjoy them as thoroughly as I had. I’d add that the more recently you’ve read the classic stories, the more you’ll appreciate some of the references in the movie.

The “Christopher Robin” in the stories was of course a fictionalized version of the real-life boy. The film takes the fictional Christoper Robin (note that “Robin” is his surname, not a middle name) and shows what happened to him after the conclusion of the final classic story, when Christopher Robin must leave his animal friends behind in the Hundred Acre Wood.

[Warning: minor set-up plot spoilers, mostly fleshing out the trailer, ahead.]

Twenty years or so pass fairly quickly; we see him attend boarding school, fall in love, start a family, serve in World War II, and come home safely from that war to his wife and young daughter.

The heart of the story takes place in the late 1940s, with the daughter not much older than Christopher himself was when he left for boarding school. He’s now a workaholic who’s managed to claw his way up to middle management at a luggage company in London. He rarely makes it home for dinner with his family. The Hundred Acre Wood is long forgotten.

The key conflict arises when Christopher’s upper class twit of a boss informs him, on a Friday afternoon, that he must come in to work all weekend. The problem is, Christopher and his wife had longstanding plans to take their daughter on holiday in the country that weekend. He must choose … and he senses he doesn’t have any real option other than to stay.

Christopher’s wife seems unsurprised by his decision. She and the daughter (who had been very much looking forward to spending the weekend with her father, and is of course devastated by this turn of events) go to the cabin in the countryside by themselves.

As we watch Christopher trudge through a Saturday full of paperwork, we want to reach through the screen, shake him by the shoulders, and shout: “Look at yourself! What’s happened to you?”

We, of course, can’t physically reach Christopher. But a Bear of Very Little Brain might just be able to do it. Back in the Hundred Acre Wood, a crisis has arisen — and Winnie the Pooh (fantastically animated and voiced, by the way) thinks Christopher Robin is the only one who can solve it. He goes looking for his long lost friend, and through a miracle of fantasy stumbles upon a one-way portal to London.

The movie trailer implies that at this point, Christopher sort of drops everything and runs off to the Hundred Acre Wood to save the day. Without giving any spoilers … his transformation is more gradual. I thought the pacing of his change was realistic – and perfect. Along the way, we realize that the Silly Old Bear’s real mission isn’t to save his friends back in the Wood. It’s to save Christopher Robin – in more ways than one.

Kids will enjoy this movie a lot. My eight-and-a-half-year-old son certainly did, and so did the other kids at the theater. The CGI animals are a delight (I particularly enjoyed Eeyore).  It’s a fun story, and the collision of the animals with the outside world is especially so. Don’t be concerned by the PG rating; apart from the brief wartime scenes and explosions, which might frighten the youngest kids, there really isn’t anything inappropriate for older children. The rating seems due more to the nature of the story; some kids may need some “guidance” in understanding why Christopher Robin spends so much time at work and so little time with his family, or what the conflicts between his boss and the employees are all about.

And that gets us to something larger: as much as kids will enjoy this movie, it really isn’t a “kid movie.” The true target audience is middle-aged folks. Especially parents, and especially men. The struggle to balance professional responsibilities with family responsibilities is a tough one, especially for those of us who are self-employed and find it nearly impossible to completely disconnect.

And, yes, sometimes work does have to “win,” particularly if we have a known busy season. Hay really does have to be made while the sun shines. The harvest does have to be brought in when it can be brought in. And it’s not just farming. My father ran a retail clothing store when I was a kid; between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, we rarely saw him. That was tough on all of us, but we always knew things would slow down and we’d get Dad back. My own family has come to understand the same thing about public opinion research consulting; September and October can be a blur, but things quiet down after the first-Tuesday-after-the-first-Monday in November.

The problem is when work becomes something we habitually choose to immerse ourselves in, to the detriment of family, and to the point where we can’t say “no.” Work often provides tangible rewards and (especially) recognition more immediately than spending time with family does. That can become alluring. It can also ruin what’s most truly rewarding about life. Sometimes, what we really need is some time away in the Hundred Acre Wood.

I was surprised at the depth of emotions this movie stirred in me, and how thoroughly it stirred them. From conversations I’ve had with others, I know I’m far from alone. Don’t be afraid to take a handkerchief, and don’t be afraid to use it. I walked out of the theater feeling emotionally spent — but in a deeply satisfying way.  The story had taken me to a place which, like Christopher Robin, I had forgotten even existed: that enchanted place on the top of the Forest (and in my heart) where a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

I hope the story takes you there as well.

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In A Flash

How quickly, and how completely, can life change? I got a reminder this morning, when Facebook suggested a “memory” of a post I put up five years ago today, celebrating a new personal record time (12 hours, 15 minutes) for the 200+ mile one-day Seattle to Portland bicycle ride:

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I’m not sure WordPress is going to preserve the Facebook formatting, so here’s a fresh copy of the photo:

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I uploaded that photo at 5:30pm Pacific time, on a Saturday. I then enjoyed a nice dinner in Portland with a colleague, caught a bus back to Seattle, and got a good night’s sleep. I met an old friend for breakfast the next morning after Mass, then enjoyed the rest of the day in Seattle before hopping an overnight flight to Michigan.

Less than 36 hours after the photo was taken, I was driving home from the airport and making what I thought was a routine “Hey, I landed safely and am in the car” call. Instead, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer surprised me with news: the baby girl in utero, not due for more than five more weeks? Yeah, well, baby girl wants out. The water just broke. Come straight home and pack a bag, because we’re going to the hospital.

The rest of the morning was a frenzy of activity, followed by a long drive to U of M hospital, followed by … lots of tests and lots of waiting, but not a lot of uterine contractions. Eventually, they decided to admit MYF to the hospital for additional observation. I went home to the other four kids, all the while on edge and waiting for an update.

A phone call jolted me awake at something like 2am. MYF explained that she was now in active labor, but the baby’s transverse position required a C-section delivery. If I wanted to be there for my daughter’s arrival, I needed to get on the road. Now.

I drove straight back to the hospital, checked in, and donned the sterile garb required to take my place in the operating room. Things seemed to be proceeding normally – but then MYF’s throat began swelling shut (due to an allergic reaction to the anesthetic being used). I sensed the entire demeanor of the delivery team change, instantaneously. Everyone buzzed with an urgency and focus that’d been absent during the deliveries of our other kids who’d arrived via surgery.

A nurse put her hand on my shoulder, and physically directed me to the door. “Dad, you need to get out of here,” she said, firmly. Bewildered, I wanted to insist I was fine and that my presence would’t be a problem – but I was already out the door before I could open my mouth.

Back in the empty prep room, I waited for what seemed an eternity before the nurse (now all smiles) returned and asked if I’d like to see my new daughter. As we walked, she assured me that the baby was safe, and that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer had come through the surgery fine as well.

A couple of gowned doctors were finishing getting the baby cleaned up and measured when we arrived. The first thing I noticed about Little Miss Sweetness was how pink she was. The second thing I noticed was how large she seemed, for having arrived so early. I also noted that her ears seemed a little small, but to my untrained eye nothing else seemed unusual.

After chatting with the medical staff for a few minutes, I asked, casually, almost as an afterthought: “Do you see any abnormalities?”

The two of them looked at each other for a moment in silence, and then the woman who seemed a bit older took charge. “So,” she explained, “We have been making all of our initial observations and evaluations. We will pass those along to the team that is coming in, and then they’ll put everything together with their own observations.”

Or something like that. Five years later, the exact words are a bit hazy. I do remember thinking that I’d been around politics to know a “dodge” when I heard one. I also remember the doctor’s smile being so confident, I quickly assured myself everything would be alright. After all, Baby Girl sure didn’t look to me like she had any problems.

Is this a textbook example of normalcy bias? Maybe. But maybe I needed a few more hours of blessed normalcy.

Everything, of course, was not alright. That afternoon, we got the twin bombshells that Little Miss Sweetness was showing several markers for Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), later confirmed by additional tests, and that she had multiple holes in her heart that would require major surgery to repair. By the next afternoon, we learned that she also had duodenal atresia (a blockage between her stomach and intestines), which would require surgery the next morning to correct.

Longtime readers will remember an article I published when Little Miss Sweetness was eight months old, detailing the crazy events which followed. What I’ve been thinking about today, however, is being in the NICU on the Saturday after the birth. As I watched LMS sleeping, with all the tubes and monitors hooked up to her little body, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by how much our lives had been turned upside down in just one week.

Exactly one week earlier, I’d been celebrating the ride of my life. Everything had been perfect. And moreover, I’d been in complete control. Now, in what seemed the blink of an eye, it’d all been flipped over – and I was in control of none of it. The guy standing triumphantly at the finish line in Portland? That seemed like it’d happened decades earlier, and to a different person.

Does that Facebook memory really say “Five Years Ago”? It feels like it’s gone by in a instant. Today, Little Miss Sweetness is a happy and healthy young lady – and none of us can imagine life without her. Are there still challenges? Absolutely. But also tremendous joys, which are inseparable from those challenges.

Little Miss Sweetness has taken us to a world we never saw coming. And sometimes, those turn out to be the very best kind.

Chicken Graduation Day

There were no caps. No gowns. No strains of Pomp and Circumstance. No long, boring speeches. But it was graduation day all the same … for our chickens.

Two months ago, we scored a fantastic deal on twenty Barred Rock pullet chicks. After several days in the brooder, they no longer needed to be kept inside with artificial lights — but neither were they ready to be simply turned loose in the barn. They would’ve been trampled, and they never would’ve been able to hold their own.

Instead, we moved the chicks out to a four-foot-by-eight-foot pasture pen in an unused section of the garden. The weeds in that part of the garden have been going crazy, and the chicks were happy to munch on them for us (and drop some fertilizer, for next year’s garden). We also gave them a high protein (23%) grain supplement, because weeds alone aren’t enough to get them up to their full adult size.

At first, while the chicks were still very small, we only had to move the pen to fresh weeds every few days. As they grew, however, so did their appetite and destructiveness. We were soon moving the pen daily, and the chicks were leaving obvious evidence of their path.

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Every time we returned to the local farm supply store, I kept my eyes open for a deal on unsold “senior” Cornish Cross chicks as good as what we’d scored on the Barred Rock pullets. Alas, deals like that are hit-or-miss. It soon became clear that if we wanted to raise a batch of birds for meat this summer, we would need to order them at retail.

Fortunately, our town’s local grain mill was putting together a group order for chicks. We got 25 of them, which came in a couple of weeks ago. The weather has been so nice, a single 75-watt incandescent bulb has provided plenty of heat for them — that’s the big advantage of waiting for June to raise baby birds. (The big disadvantage, of course, is that we won’t have fresh chicken on the grill until mid-August.)

With constant feed in front of them, the Cornish Cross chicks spent the last two weeks growing like weeds; no matter how many years we do this, it always astonishes me how quickly they grow up and feather out. Fourteen days is plenty old enough for them to go out to a pasture pen — especially in summer weather. And two months is plenty old enough for Barred Rock pullet chicks to hold their own in the barn.

Graduation Day had arrived.

I pulled the feeder and waterer, and moved the pen to a relatively fresh set of weeds. Then came the real fun: trying to catch juvenile Barred Rock pullets while keeping them from flying out of the pen. I would grab several pullets at a time, then put them in a plastic tub with a good lid. My eight-year-old son was of course eager to help, especially when it came to chasing down escapees.

Once I had ten pullets secured in the tub, I replaced the lid on the pasture pen. I hauled the tub to a spot deep inside the barn, near where we feed the adult laying hens, and emptied the pullets out. It’s always hilarious when they first look around at the completely foreign setting, and try to get their bearings. (The suspicious looks from the adult birds are always pretty amusing as well.)

By the time I returned with the other ten pullets, the first ten had begun exploring their new surroundings. Some had even begun pecking at the layer ration, or scratching at the straw on the barn floor.

My son and I now turned our attention to the Cornish Cross chicks. It took several minutes, but we managed to catch and secure all 25 of them in the plastic tub for the trip out to the garden.

The meat chicks were even more stunned at their new surroundings than the pullets had been in the barn. Think about it: your whole life, you’ve been in a 4×4 box with nothing but straw, a feeder, and a waterer. Next thing you know, you’re plunked down in the middle of this:

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I suppose it’s like Dorothy emerging from her black-and-white Kansas farmhouse, into the technicolor brilliance of Oz.

My son and I made sure the plywood lid was in place and sufficiently weighted down — but we weren’t finished. The garden terrain was just uneven enough to make me concerned about little chicks trying to wiggle out — or predators trying to wiggle in. Before going inside, we gathered up some scrap materials and laid them around the outside perimeter of the pen.

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Late last night, I took a flashlight to the garden for a quick inspection. The chicks had all settled in, and were twittering softly to each other. None had escaped. Good.

Out in the barn, the pullets had settled in as well. Virtually all of them had found places to roost. It always amazes me how deeply the instincts are rooted in these animals. Nobody needs to tell them it’s a good idea to spend the night someplace up in the air — or teach them how to do it. Some of them certainly looked like they were getting the hang of it more quickly than others, but all of them were figuring it out. This morning, when I went out to the barn, plenty of them were still happily roosting on the goat fence:

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As soon as I put feed down, they all came running. They’re certainly not stupid.

And back out in the garden? The Cornish Cross chicks had all had a good night, too. I gave them some feed, and enjoyed a quiet moment or two just watching them continue to explore their “Oz.”

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So, another successful chicken graduation day is in the books. It’ll be fun watching the pullets continue integrating themselves into the existing laying flock, and watching the meat chicks continue growing like weeds (as they mow down weeds for us).

And the most fun of all will be feasting on fresh grilled chicken later this summer!

Calvin’s is Back!

If you’re an ultra-distance cyclist in the Midwest, there are precious few organized, single-day events beyond 100 miles or so to choose from. For many years, the Calvin’s Challenge 12-Hour Race in central Ohio was one of those few. With the same organizers for a very long time, “Calvin’s” grew to be a mainstay of Midwestern ultra cycling.

A couple of years ago, those organizers announced that they were retiring and seeking new ownership for the event. Sadly, no one came forward. When we gathered in Springfield in early 2016, the event’s definitive demise had not yet been confirmed — but a serious pall hovered over the mood nonetheless. As if to confirm the mood, a steady rain began falling after just three hours. That rain continued the entire rest of the event. Although my daughter and I had still had a good time riding, we went home saddened that this might be the last year we would get to participate. (To make the event a bit more memorable, I’d even competed using a long-obsolete classic steel bike from the early 1980s.)

Without a new director, Calvin’s went dormant in 2017. Then, later that year, came a big announcement: Maria del Pilar Vázquez would be assuming the reins! Calvin’s was back!

All of that is by way of introduction, and to say that my daughter and I were very excited to make the trip back down to Ohio earlier this month. And I can say, unequivocally, that as good as the “old” Calvin’s was … the “new” Calvin’s is even better.

How so?

For starters, the location. Virtually all 12-Hour / 24-Hour races have a base of operations, where participants park and set up their supplies. The race is then run using one or more fixed loops of roads. This allows participants to bite off chunks of mileage as they are able, to pick up fresh supplies (and have access to a toilet) at regular intervals, and to have a place to rest if needed. The old Calvin’s used a school property, which worked alright, but the school itself wasn’t open for riders to go inside. The new base of operations is a few miles up the road, at a Knights of Columbus Hall.

Of course, as a Knight, I immediately felt “at home,” but that is the least of the reasons why I prefer the new location. The building itself was open for us to use, and it had plenty of space (and indoor toilets, to supplement the port-a-potty outside). Moreover, the building was open the night before. My daughter and I were able to set up our bikes inside, including our basics like helmets and shoes. This meant one less thing to worry about in the frenzied pre-race morning.

Why was the building open the night before? Actually, it was open all night — and that brings me to the next of the event’s enhancements. Calvin’s now includes a 24-Hour option, in addition to the 12-Hour and 6-Hour options it’s had previously. Furthermore, the three starting times are staggered so all finish at the same time: 6pm on Saturday. The 24-Hour riders kicked off at 6pm Friday. We 12-Hour riders started at 6am Saturday. The 6-Hour folks got riding at noon.

As an aside: no, we didn’t even think about trying the 24-Hour option. I’ve done 24-Hour races before, and my daughter and I will be doing one next month. But I in particular wasn’t even close to being in shape to do one the first weekend of May — especially not with the nasty weather we had all “spring” this year. Moreover, the Calvin’s 24-Hour race is strictly non-drafting, because it serves as a qualifier for the Race Across America. For me and my daughter, this is a deal-breaker. We think a big part of what makes these events fun is being able to ride together, and to ride with the other enthusiasts who love this crazy sport. That said, it is really cool the 24-Hour option was available, and it should raise the event’s overall profile and “draw,” even if this particular format isn’t a fit for us.

Out on the road, the course itself was quite nice. At 23.2 miles, the main loop was a nice improvement over the approximately 50-mile main loop used in the past. It was still long enough to be interesting, but brought us around to our supplies more frequently. I only had to carry one water bottle instead of two. Also, toward the later part of the afternoon, we didn’t have to worry about not being able to finish a final big loop before time expired. In the past, we would switch to the 6-mile short loop after 150 miles, to play it safe. Problem is, those short loops get boring pretty quickly. Having a 23-mile main loop allowed us to manage things so perfectly, we only rode the short loop once. Moreover, both loops were virtually all rural, with wonderful farm scenery, and little traffic. There is enough gently-rolling terrain to be interesting, but only a couple of big climbs (and less than 1,000 feet of climbing on each long loop).

So … how did we do? In a word: GREAT! We didn’t set any personal records, but both of us exceeded our expectations, and were very happy with our results. We both turned in good, solid performances and went home more than satisfied. I finished right in the middle of all 12-Hour men, and she finished right in the middle of all 12-Hour women.

The 6am start meant we needed to have lights for the first trip around the course. We stayed with a good group the whole way, and averaged a bit over 20 MPH. Back at the K of C Hall, we rolled through the timing station and kept going without a break, so we could stay with that group. This allowed us to continue averaging around 20 MPH, without a lot of effort. Coming back around to K of C the second time, we were still feeling good — but we needed to take a quick break for supplies and the toilets. So did a lot of other people, so our group dissolved.

Unfortunately, from here on out, my daughter and I were pretty much on our own. From time to time, we did connect with a handful of other cyclists — but that was unusual. Our laps 3 through 5 were all about 15 minutes slower than our first two, with our MPH dropping to the mid-16s. Not bad, just a little frustrating. We made a quick stop after each loop, for a fresh bottle and to use the toilet.

The weather, BTW, was perfect. Low-to-mid 60s, largely overcast, with minimal wind. I wore tights and an extra shirt for the first two laps, but was comfortable in just shorts and a jersey the rest of the day. Staying hydrated was easy.

The sixth time around, we managed to hang with a few strong riders who helped us pick up speed (to nearly 18 MPH). We lost them toward the end, however, so stopped for a break at K of C.

We were now at roughly the 140-mile mark, with a little over three and a half hours remaining. I personally find this to be the most difficult stretch of any ultra-distance event. You’ve been on the road a long time. The start is a distant memory. But the finish still seems impossibly far away. (If you’ve done the Seattle to Portland one-day ride, or if you’ve read my novel which brings that event to life, think about the stretch from Lexington to St. Helens.)

We forced ourselves back on the road, with much of our conversation focused on a strategy for reaching the 190-mile mark. We hadn’t begun the day with any hard and fast mileage goals, but we agreed it would be really nice to finish with a “190” handle rather than a “180.” If we pushed ourselves, and didn’t take too many breaks, it seemed we might have just enough time to get there.

Lap #7 went well enough. We rode for a while with one of the six-hour participants, and talking with him helped take our minds off the late afternoon tedium. We began Lap #8 at about 4:15pm, which was right before everyone was required to switch to the short loop.

We could’ve switched to the 4.9-mile short loop, but my daughter preferred to do the long one again. She reasoned that if we kept coming around to the start/finish so many times, we would be tempted to stop more often. Being out on the long loop would force us to keep going. Moreover, only complete loops count toward one’s mileage total. If time expires before you get back, you’re out of luck. We were sitting at 162.4 miles. One long loop and one short would get us 28.1 additional miles, or 190.5 total. Five short loops would get us only to 186.9. And we weren’t sure we had time for a sixth complete short loop. (As an aside, late in the day, doing this kind of math is one of the best ways to keep your mind active and to avoid going crazy!)

We ended up being basically the only riders on the long loop our last time around. We passed no one, and were passed by nobody, which was weird but kind of cool.

We swung through the time station at 5:43pm, and I got a huge adrenaline surge. The time remaining was barely enough for five miles. “Go! Go! Go!” I shouted, as the two of us sped back onto the course.

I’m not sure where that second wind came from, but it sure was fun. Out on the road, once we were over the one big climb, I laid down a blistering pace the rest of the way. With my daughter close on my tail, and course officials waving us through intersections, we passed other riders left and right. Finally, we came back round to K of C … with a few minutes to spare. We’d averaged 19.1 MPH for that loop – a pace we hadn’t managed since early that morning. I threw my arms up in triumph, like I’d won the Tour de France. Having given everything I had, and coming across the line just in time, it really did feel almost that good.

How did I manage such a strong finish, despite not having done as much training as I would’ve liked? A lot of it is psychological. The more events of this length that you do, and the more years you do them, the less intimidating they seem. Even more important, though, is effective fueling. I’ve come to swear by Hammer Nutrition products, and wouldn’t think of doing an ultra-distance event without them.

My main fuel is a mix of two powders: HEED (for carbs and electrolytes), and Vegan Protein. This approximates their flagship endurance fuel product, Perpetuem, but without the soy (which gives me digestive problems). In addition, in a small bag mounted to my bike’s top tube, I carried about a dozen little baggies with a mix of several Hammer supplement capsules (Mito Caps, Race Caps Supreme, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Endurance Amino, and Endurolytes) in each; I consumed one of these packets each hour on the road.  I also carried a flask of Hammer Gel, for supplemental calories and energy. At the finish line, I mixed up and drank a big serving of Hammer Recoverite, and used it to wash down several additional supplements. As a result, I actually ended up feeling pretty good the next morning. I am not by any means a paid spokesman for Hammer. I just love their stuff so much, I want everyone to know about it.

BTW, the fueling took years of trial and error to figure out. Getting that dialed in has been just as important — if not more important — than the number of pre-event training miles I manage to log.  I’d only done about 1,000 total miles going into Calvin’s. I only did three 50+ rides, and none longer than 60 miles. This certainly wasn’t by choice, and I would’ve liked to have done more training. But experience and effective fueling let me climb in the saddle for 190 miles without fear, and to feel surprisingly good at the end.

As fantastic as the “new” Calvin’s Challenge event is, I would offer a few suggestions for ways it could be even better next year:

  • Add additional toilets, and put them in a more prominent place. The K of C Hall had one small bathroom for each gender (one stall and one urinal in the men’s). There was one portable toilet outside, but way on the far side of the parking lot. Ideally, there would be at least two portable toilets, and they would be set up along the main driveway (in front of the building, just past the the start/finish).
  • Speaking of that main driveway, riders should be allowed and welcomed to set up their coolers and supplies along there. I may have misunderstood, but on Friday night the race director said she expected most people to set their things in or near their cars, in the parking lot. We did so, and it worked out alright, but a few people set up along the drive — which was a much more efficient place. Had I known that was allowed, I would’ve done it.
  • The course was extremely well marked, and I never once worried I’d missed a turn. However, there is one really dangerous “blind” intersection which could use some warning. About halfway through the long loop, the route crosses Selma Pike. Riders were supposed to stop, but almost everyone treated it like the overwhelming majority of intersections, where it was possible to simply slow down and look for cross traffic. The problem is, the cars on Selma Pike go fast — and are impossible to see until you’re actually at the cross street. I recognized the blindness of the intersection right away, and stopped every time, but many riders did not. I witnessed multiple close calls, which could’ve easily ended with severe injuries or worse. I would suggest a sign or two, and perhaps pavement markings, insisting riders stop. An announcement at the start line wouldn’t hurt, either. Nor would an informal warning sign on Selma Pike itself, cautioning drivers about heavy bicycle traffic as they approach the intersection.
  • The food and drink selection was great, and I wouldn’t add anything. Although I do have a preferred fueling routine, it was nice having extras like granola bars to break up that routine. My only issue with the refreshments is I was unclear as to whether all the drink coolers had only water, or if some contained other drinks. Content labels on the coolers would’ve been helpful.
  • Regarding food: an optional post-race meal would’ve been fantastic. The K of C Hall is of course set up perfectly for this kind of thing. I was even a little surprised the local Council didn’t put something on. (Last summer, when there was a big boat race near our church, our Council did the award ceremony dinner as a fundraiser.) It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. A simple but hearty buffet would’ve been wonderful. I would’ve gladly plunked down ten bucks for that, and enjoyed swapping stories with other riders while we ate.
  • With the electronic timing chips, our results were available instantly on a website. That was very cool. It took little while to find the right page on my phone, though. If there was a way to print out a simple report, and to have posted it on the wall for us all to see, that would’ve been really nice.

Overall, I can’t say enough good things about how nice it is having Calvin’s back — and how much I appreciate the improvements the new race director has made. I hope the event continues to grow. Speaking for ourselves, my daughter and are already looking forward to coming back in 2019.

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How Do You Know You Live in a Small Town?

It’s the summer of 1986 or 1987. I’m a high school kid, on my way home from my job at McDonald’s in the Seattle suburbs, and stop at a 7-11 for gas. I go inside, give the clerk ten bucks, go back out, and start pumping.

While I’m using a squeegee on the windshield, an old sedan pulls up to the other side of the pump. The car looks like it’s been on a long road trip, and has a couple of kids (with pillows and lots of other stuff) in the back. It’s a warm day, and the windows are rolled down. A middle-aged woman jumps out of the car and puts the nozzle in her gas tank.

A moment later, she yells in frustration to her kids: “Oh! We have to pay first! I forgot we’re not in Eastern Wahrshington [sic] anymore! Nobody here trusts anybody!”

As she slammed the nozzle back into place and stormed into the 7-11, I couldn’t help snickering at the whole thing and wondering what her problem was.

That was over thirty years ago. I’ve of course grown up a lot, and my attitude toward country life has shifted 180 degrees since high school. But I’ve never forgotten that incident at the 7-11. To this day, I use the availability of “pump before you pay” gasoline as an indicator of small town trust that truly distinguishes these places from larger communities.

Our town has three gas stations. Two are just off the freeway, and have standard pay-at-the-pump credit card readers. If you want to pay with cash, you have to go inside and pay before you pump – just like I had to, at the 7-11. Given the proximity to the freeway, and the large volume of travelers coming through, this isn’t at all surprising.

The third station is different. It’s much farther inside the town, on the main feeder road coming in from the country. That station is owned by the Fogg family, which has been in the area forever (and even has a rural road named after them), and which also runs a propane / heating oil delivery service out of that building. There’s no pay at the pump option. Whether you’re using a credit card or paying cash, you pump first. Then you go inside and pay.

And you know what’s even more remarkable? When I need to order propane or heating oil, I don’t need to give my name or address. I’m not a famous guy. I don’t order oil or propane more than a couple of times a year. But, without asking, they know (1) who I am and (2) the address to deliver to. (“Oh, yeah, the truck is going by your place tomorrow morning. I’ll have them stop. How empty is your tank?”) Needless to say, you don’t have to pay first for heating oil, either. If I’m home, I’ll write a check when they deliver it. If not, they leave the slip and trust me to send in a payment.

Remember those two gas stations near the freeway? The Fogg family owns one of those, in addition to the smaller one with pay-after-you-pump. It has a large display sign – the kind with movable letters, that someone has to use a long pole to arrange. The messages change pretty often, and make all kinds of community announcements like “CONGRATULATIONS BOB AND LAURA SMITH MARRIED 50 YEARS”.

You might see a sign like that in a larger town, especially if “Bob and Laura” are well known. But I can pretty much guarantee that a message they displayed last week will never show up outside a small town like ours:

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Yes, you are reading that correctly. Someone in the Fogg family needs a kidney – and  they are using this sign to spread the word.

Suburban Seattle High School Me would’ve seen this and wondered what the Foggs were thinking. “After all,” SSHS Me would’ve thought, “who would donate a kidney to a stranger?

But you know what I’ve learned in the 30 years since high school? No one in a rural community is really a stranger. This place is a community. I think it’s wonderful that news and needs can be shared this way.

And it would not surprise me in the least if someone around here calls that number and offers to make that donation.

Chicks for Cheap

Chickens don’t have to be expensive!

Unfortunately, it took us many years to learn this lesson. When we first moved to the country, we routinely ordered batches of baby birds directly from the hatchery. There are several good suppliers out there, and their catalogs (now websites) are fun to browse. We were able to try out various breeds, and arrange for delivery on specific dates all the way into August or September. If there’s a very particular, obscure poultry breed that you’d like to try out, a special order from a hatchery may be the only way to go. And the highly reputable hatcheries, like Murray McMurray, would even provide a refund if any birds arrived dead or died within a certain number of days of arrival.

The hatchery route isn’t a bad way to go, but it can get pricey. Do you want 25 pullet chicks from a good egg laying breed like Barred Rock? At McMurray, those will cost you $2.89 each, plus shipping. From the hatchery nearest us (a couple of hours away), the price is $2.75 each for a box of 25. Then add $15 for shipping. If you want a smaller order, you’ll pay significantly more per bird.

Each spring, our local feed store / grain elevator puts together a large group buy from that hatchery, with orders arriving on specific days. That saves on shipping, and the price per bird is a little less.

Also in the spring, for several weeks the big farm stores like Tractor Supply will put out large tubs with baby chicks and other poultry, under heat lamps. It’s actually a lot of fun to visit the stores during “chick days,” and to be able to browse all the various birds that are available. You can mix and match whatever you want, and there’s no shipping. Prices are similar to what you’d pay from the hatchery ($2.99 for a Barred Rock pullet chick, for example). The downside is, you’re limited to what they have on hand. If you want something unusual, you’re out of luck.

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When we first started doing this, we were big on trying unusual and different breeds of birds. Over time, we came to settle on some favorites — which, fortunately, are the favorites of a lot of other people … which means they are widely available. When it comes to layers, we like Barred Rocks and Buff Orpingtons, but aren’t averse to New Hampshire Reds, Rhode Island Reds, and some of the others like ISA Browns. During spring chick days, farm stores have plenty of birds from these common and popular breeds.

Hens are reliable layers for about two years; after that, their egg production slows — so, we like to butcher our hens in the fall of their second year. How do you know how old a hen is? It’s tough to tell by looking. We solved this problem by getting a very different looking breed each year. In 2015, we had Barred Rocks. We butchered them last fall. In 2016, we got Buff Orpingtons. They’re still going strong. In fact, we got too many, so we didn’t get pullet chicks last year. We will butcher them this fall.

So, as you might guess, it’s now a Barred Rock year. We need about twenty to provide the eggs our family needs. However, given how long the cold weather had been lingering in Michigan this “Spring,” I’d been holding off on actually buying the chicks. Cold and rainy weather means the babies need to be brooded under heat lamps for a longer time, until they’re fully feathered and strong enough to withstand the elements.

With the arrival of nicer weather, I’d begun browsing the local farm supply stores. Yesterday, I hit the jackpot: Family Farm & Home in Mason had a large tub of “senior” Barred Rock pullet chicks, marked down to just one dollar each. They were mostly feathered, and the sales clerk estimated them to be about a week and a half old. That means we’ll only need to keep them in the brooder over the weekend, and we’ll be able to get them out into a pasture pen on Monday.

I bought twenty. And, lest you fear that the store was losing money on me … while I was there, I also bought a new chick feeder and a new waterer (our old ones had definitely seen better days).

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Getting chicks this way is hit or miss, but when you get a hit … the payoff is big. This score is right up there with last fall’s post-Halloween pumpkins, (though not quite as good a deal as the absolutely free December 26th Walmart Christmas trees.) Not only did I save around $40 compared to full retail, but I also saved the cost of running a 250 watt heat lamp around the clock for about ten days. Plus the cost of feeding the chicks a high protein ration for about ten days. We also saved ourselves ten days’ worth of the hassle of checking on the brooder a few times a day. Not to mention the fact that chicks are most fragile, and therefore most likely to die, in their first days of life. The twenty I got yesterday are well established and have proven themselves strong.

Here’s looking forward to lots of wonderful eggs in the fall, at a price that can’t be beat!

The Great Lamb Heist

Lambing season drew to a close on Friday, with a twist we’ve never seen before.

Unlike some years, when upwards of five ewes would all deliver on the same day, this lambing season has proceeded at a nearly perfect pace. All the deliveries seemed to have at least a few days between them, allowing each new lamb (or set of twins) to settle in with Mom and get acclimated to the flock before any new arrivals brought disruptions.

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We knew exactly which ewe gave birth to which lamb(s), and got each one tagged and recorded promptly. Better yet, up through Lamb #12, we hadn’t had a single death or a terribly complicated delivery. Every lamb got on its feet quickly, and began nursing.

We had a bit of a scare last Saturday, when the ewe we call Paint Bucket (because she looks like someone dumped a pail of black paint onto her head) delivered twins. One was very large, but the other looked impossibly tiny. His twin dwarfed him, and he seemed to weigh almost nothing. Although he had managed to get to his feet on his own, I didn’t really expect him to survive. He’d be a nice bonus if he made it.

A week later, little Pint Bucket (I confess, I just made that name up) is not only holding his own … he’s thriving. He gets around just as well as the bigger lambs, and already seems to be putting on weight nicely (he’s the mostly white one, on the right).

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We were stuck at a total of twelve lambs for several days, with the last two bred ewes looking like they could deliver at any time. And yet, day after day, we had no arrivals. Finally, on Friday morning, these two gave us the surprise we never saw coming.

At lunchtime, I gave the barn a quick inspection. Rachael, our solid black ewe, was acting like she was in labor, so I hustled to her first. Sure enough, in the bedding behind her, was a little black and white lamb sopping wet with amniotic fluid. (I call the stuff “lambniotic fluid.”) I set the lamb in front of her, and she began licking like crazy.

That’s when I noticed the other ewe, Holstein (so named because her spotting pattern makes her look like a dairy cow), was also licking off a lamb. So far, everything seemed perfectly normal. Two ewes. Two lambs. I went to the house and got lunch.

After lunch, I returned to the barn to see if either ewe had delivered a second lamb. Neither had, but the lambs had come together — and both ewes were now licking both lambs. Rachael in particular was very aggressively trying to butt Holstein away, as if trying to claim both lambs as her own. But at the same time, Holstein seemed to think that both lambs were hers.

Naturally a bit concerned, I tried to push the two ewes away from each other — and then I noticed it. Only Holstein had bloody afterbirth hanging out of her rear end. Rachael’s rear, and udder, were perfectly dry. That was my lightbulb moment: Holstein had twins. Rachael hasn’t delivered. I kicked myself for not being more observant earlier.

I dragged Rachael out of the barn and into the beautifully sunny outdoor area, with her bellowing the whole way, and latched the door securely. Even then, she wouldn’t budge from the door, trying to nose it open with her muzzle while she called desperately to “her” lambs – both of which were now being well cared for by Holstein.

By late afternoon, when I had to reopen the barn, Rachael had a long strand of stringy mucus hanging from her birth canal — a sure sign that delivery was imminent. I had to leave for a function in town, but briefed my daughter on the situation and asked her to keep an eye on Rachael.

When I got home later that evening, my daughter gave me the sad report: Rachael had twins, but the first was stillborn. The second died almost immediately after birth.

As I went about the dreary task of disposing of the cold, wet lamb remains, I couldn’t help noticing that Rachael was remarkably nonplussed. She was continuing to horn in on one of Holstein’s lambs, insisting on licking it and trying to get it to nurse. I wondered if, that afternoon, she’d somehow known that her lambs weren’t going to make it. Perhaps they’d already been dead or dying inside her, and she’d sensed that Holstein’s lambs were the only ones she would have a shot at mothering this year.

Regardless, I decided not to intervene in the Great Lamb Heist now unfolding. Rachael is a very milky sheep (she’s raised triplets unassisted), and it would be a shame to let that good stuff go to waste. If she wants to help, I don’t mind letting her.

The two ewes spent much of Saturday squabbling over the Holstein’s lambs, with the little ones largely oblivious to the drama. As of this morning, Rachael seems to have settled on one of the two as “hers,” and is leaving the other one for Holstein. Still, when I opened the barn doors this morning and let the flock out, both ewes and both lambs seemed to be sticking together as a unit. A sometimes tense unit, but a unit.

20180422_193421.jpgAnd you know what? It’s actually kind of fun to watch. We’ve certainly never had anything like this happen before. The deaths on Friday night had been a sour note in an otherwise perfect symphony of lambs. Rachael and Holstein are doing everything they can to return that music to its harmony.

 

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