Two Years Ago

This past week, we celebrated the second anniversary of Benedict XVI’s election as pope. There was a great deal of wonderful commentary around the Catholic blogosphere, and I enjoyed recalling that day when, working away at my computer, I’d had the “St Peter’s Chimney Cam” up in the corner of the screen. Once the white smoke appeared, I flipped on EWTN and called for the family to join me. We all screamed with joy and literally jumped up and down with excitement when the name was announced. Once we’d composed ourselves and the news had sunk in, we all gathered around and recited the Te Deum in thanksgiving.

But that week was also tinged with sadness, because my grandfather was approaching death. Just a couple of days after Benedict’s election, I would be climbing on a plane for Seattle to be with my family as we said good-bye. Interestingly, it was an incident from that trip which provided my most poignant memories of the pope’s election.

I got out to Seattle on Thursday night, April 21st, and drove a couple of hours south and west to where my grandfather was. By then, he was not communicative, but the most important thing was that we were all together with him. Things only got worse on Friday and Saturday. As I was scheduled to catch the redeye back to Chicago late Saturday night, I drove the couple of hours to Seattle at lunchtime and then spent the rest of the day in the City.

I wanted to go to Mass that evening, but for a host of reasons the best one (for both schedule and location) turned out to be at 4pm at Holy Martyrs of Vietnam parish. Yes, this is a Vietnamese parish, and Mass was all in Vietnamese. That was actually part of the attraction, as I was writing a novel which included Vietnamese-American Catholic characters. It had been awhile since I’d attended a Vietnamese Mass, and I figured the experience would help me write those characters more realistically.

I could devote several posts to the various things I saw there, but suffice it to say this: I got there early, but the place was already almost full. I was astounded at how young and vibrant the place was, and how many children were there. There were some seats available, but I felt like such an interloper that I felt more comfortable standing in the back than wedging myself into a pew. (There was only one other Caucasian in the building, and he was clearly married to a Vietnamese woman.) By 4pm, it was standing room only. Mass didn’t start until nearly 4:30, and by that time the place was jammed.

And that’s when it got interesting. When the priest processed in, he was led by several altar boys — carrying a large, framed picture of the new pope! When they reached the altar, they put that picture on the floor in front of it, so the whole congregation could see it during Mass. Right then, though I still felt like an interloper, I no longer felt like an outsider. This was my family. We were all children of the same Father God in heaven, and the same Holy Father here on earth. At a time when the patriarch of my own personal family on earth was just hours away from leaving us, this was an incredibly reassuring experience. Here I was, surrounded by people I’d never met and in many cases couldn’t even carry on a conversation with, and yet we were all one family in this truly universal and catholic church — all through our unity in the man in white whose smiling picture gazed out on all of us.

I couldn’t understand a word of the Mass, apart from “amen” and “alleluia,” until the homily. The homily was also in Vietnamese, of course, but with an interesting interjection. The priest began speaking in the sing-song tones of the Vietnamese language, but after a minute or so paused and pronounced slowly, in Latin, “Habamus Papam.” I smiled, as I knew exactly what he was talking about. “We have a pope,” he added, in English. More sing-song Vietnamese followed, and then he paused to pronounce slowly, in English, “Cah-dee-nahl Raht-zing-uh.” I smiled again, and looked with gratitude at the picture under the altar.

I didn’t understand any more words that afternoon, but I didn’t really need to.


This piece in National Review Online is one of the most powerful and poignant reflections on the Virginia Tech madness that I’ve come across.

It’s not hard to imagine it. A regular, ordinary Monday morning. None of the students thought it would be their last. None of them imagined, pulling notebooks out for class, they were about to get caught in the middle of a killing spree. None of them. It’s just not the sort of thing you expect. Death disguised as an ordinary Monday morning in an ordinary classroom on an ordinary American campus. Hell in Blacksburg — hell on earth.


What sense is there to be made of hell on earth? And why is it always catching us by surprise?

Please click through to read the whole thing.

The 200% Lamber

Dot delivered twins last night, making ten lambs in five years to her credit. (Amazing that we’ve really been raising sheep for over five years.)

When it became clear, around 6:30pm, that she was in active labor, the kids and I hung out in the barn to watch. It was fascinating to watch her pattern with each contraction: grunting and scratching all the bedding up, then laying down, twisting her neck, pushing, then standing up and turning around to see if anything came out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. At long last, she stood up and we saw a little white lamb on the bedding, which she immediately began to lick off. This is homeschooling at its very best.

After dinner, we came out to check on her. Wasn’t long before the black twin joined us. Both are males, and both are doing great. We’ll likely move them all to pasture tomorrow.

Adventures in Voting

Not only was today Tax Day…here in Illinois, it was also Election Day. If taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society, our family will be experiencing a lot of civilization this year. I’m just hoping that someday they move Tax Day to coincide with the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The races on today’s ballot, at least around here, were for educational offices like school board and community college trustees. Almost all were uncontested. “Choose two,” and there were only two candidates. Or “choose one,” and there was only one candidate. The one exception, and the primary motivation for us casting our ballots, was for the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school board. There were four candidates, but only three open seats. On one level, this election doesn’t affect us: as homeschoolers, we will never send our children to the local public schools — or any public schools. But, in a place like this, where the closest Catholic school is 18 miles away, public schools are the reality for almost every other family. School boards can make important decisions about what will be taught—and what will not be taught—to the children of those families. Two of the four candidates are friends of ours from the parish, and active in the Knights of Columbus; we thought it very important to cast our ballots in support of those two voices on the Board.

We took all three kids with us, as they enjoy the whole polling place experience as much as we do. And I still remember going to the polling place with my mother when I was a child; I think that may be the origin of my fascination with politics. As we pulled in to the Wall Township Hall, we gave them the usual high-minded words about civic duty and participation, and what a great country America is, and the value of showing up on election day. Funny, though, despite the “Polling Place” sign and American flag outside, there were no other cars in the gravel parking lot. Puzzled, we opened the door…and no lights were on. The place was cold and deserted. Had turnout been so light that they closed early? If so, why hadn’t they locked the door?

We went back to the minivan and talked it over. The county seat was about 10 miles away; surely we could cast a ballot at the County Clerk’s office. And perhaps they could tell us why the election judges had all left.

As we drove to Paxton, we passed the farm of one of the school board candidates. Much to our amusement, he pulled out in his pickup truck just ahead of us — and we ended up following him all the way to town. “He’s why we’re doing this,” I thought.

The Clerk’s office was open, and the young woman immediately recognized me; I’d been in the day before, getting a sample ballot. “Can we still vote?” I asked, glancing at the clock. “Our polling place shut down.”

“Wall Township, right?” she asked, astonished. “They haven’t shut down.”

“We walked in, the lights were off, and nobody was there,” I explained.

She thought for a moment, then her eyes went wide open. “Ohhhhhh!” she exclaimed. “They moved it.”

“But the polling place sign was up, with the flag,” I told her.

“No, no,” she said. “They moved it to the new addition part of the building, around back.”

“I thought that was a storage shed over there,” I frowned.

“It was. They finished it off. Sorry about that. I should’ve told you yesterday when you were in here.”

“Can we just vote here at the Clerk’s office?” I asked.

“Sorry,” she replied. “You have to vote at your precinct. Sorry again about that.”

I grumbled a bit, but we soon loaded the kids in the car and were cruising back toward Wall Township. We easily could’ve gone home. But at this point, casting a ballot was no longer about high-minded civics ideals…or even about getting two good guys re-elected to the School Board. This was now about The Principle Of The Thing. We’d already spent the better part of an hour driving all over rural Ford County. There was no way we were going home with nothing to show for it. Besides, elections are what I do for a living. I simply couldn’t not vote.

We soon arrived at the Township Hall, drove around to the back, and found where the poll workers had parked. It was a beautiful, sunny day and they had the doors propped open; we were soon chatting and joking around with them. What’s amazing is that they had FOUR election judges manning the precinct…and yet, at 5:15pm, my wife and I were Voter #23 and Voter #24 that they’d gotten all day. By contrast, in last year’s primary, I think we were #55 and #56 at about the same time of day.

How rural is this place? Wall Township includes 36 square miles. There are no retail business establishments I know of. According to the 2000 Census, there were only 218 people in those 36 square miles, 148 of them aged 18 or older. Every single one of those 218 was white, making my wife now the only minority in the township.

UPDATE: We learned the next morning that our two friends from the parish were indeed re-elected to the school board. So, I guess all is truly well that ends well.

All Together Now

We made it home today from visiting family, and found all the newborn lambs were doing well. As the weather was beautiful, we turned all the ewes and lambs loose in the pasture. The one exception is Dot, our leader sheep and queen of the flock. She still hasn’t delivered, so I set her up in the lambing stall in the barn. She looks absolutely enormous, and has begun the heavy breathing associated with the beginnings of labor. I’m going to check her frequently tonight, as I doubt she’ll still be pregnant in the morning. The kids and I are hoping for quadruplets; if she manages to pull off that feat, she will have “lambed for the cycle” on our farm. (Okay, okay, we’re obsessed with baseball around here.) Dot gave us triplets her first year, twins the next, a single the following year, and twins again last year. All we need now is quads.

Even if we “just” get triplets, we’ll be looking at an astounding 200% lambing from the flock – by far our best ever. Five of the seven mature ewes have twinned, one has singled, and we’re just waiting on Dot.

The two newest lambs are these black twin males from Licorice:
Her sister Nera (also solid black) produced one black female (with an interesting white spot on top of her head, just like Nera’s sire had) and one male with the wildest markings ever:
Bianca is taking good care of her white male lamb. The black female she rejected is thriving on milk replacer under Matthew’s care, and is not pictured because she’s at his farm (see yesterday’s post for details about that story).
Enigma’s chocolate male continues to thrive:
As do her daughter Conundrum’s twins:
And Maybelle’s twins:

Bad Shepherd/Good Shepherd

I committed the cardinal sin of shepherding this weekend: I left town during lambing season. It was our last opportunity to visit my wife’s family in Michigan before gardening starts up, and I figured there couldn’t be that many lambs born in just a few days. After all, our lambing usually stretches well into May or even June. We left Friday morning after chores, and planned to return by Monday early afternoon.

Thankfully, we left the farm in good hands. A sixteen year old home schooled neighbor, Matthew, who has the maturity of a 32 year old, agreed to handle the chores and keep an eye on the sheep. He has extensive experience managing his own family’s farm and livestock, and plans to attend veterinary school some day.

This weekend, he got lots of material to use on his application.

He called Friday afternoon to let us know that Bianca had delivered twin lambs in the pasture shelter. This was a big surprise, as Bianca had just lambed in August; I hadn’t been expecting her to lamb again so soon. It must have happened right after we’d left that morning, because they were dry and getting around nicely. Last year, she rejected one of her lambs. Matthew still remembered helping me hold Bianca so the rejected lamb could nurse, and said he’d keep close tabs on the situation this weekend.

Saturday morning, he called to tell us about two more new arrivals: Nera twinned out in the pasture. They looked okay, and Bianca’s lambs seemed to be doing alright, and the weather seemed fine, so we didn’t think any intervention was necessary. But by Saturday evening, Matthew was very concerned: the weather had turned miserable, and only one of Bianca’s lambs was following her around. The other was huddling weakly in the shelter. Together, he and I talked it through and improvised a strategy (thank God for cell phones):

1) Move the the goat buck in with the two does and the kids in the barn.
2) Move Conundrum and her two well-established lambs from the super-enclosed barn stall out to the goat buck’s good, but only semi-sheltered, fenced area.
3) Move Dot, who hasn’t yet lambed but who “looks like she’s swallowed a washtub,” into the buck’s area with Conundrum.
4) Move Bianca and her two lambs, and Nera and her two lambs, into the super-enclosed barn stall. Try to get Bianca’s other lamb to nurse again. Let us know what happens. I told Matthew that if Bianca was rejecting this lamb, he and his little brothers could have the lamb for free if they wanted to bottle-feed her.

Some time later, I checked back. All the moves had been made, but Bianca’s lamb seemed too weak and cold to really get nursing well. Matthew had taken her home, bedded her in a warm place, and managed to get some of our goat milk into her. He wasn’t optimistic, but hoped she’d survive the night. Meanwhile, I was climbing the walls with frustration that all this was happening back home and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. If I was there, I’d have put the lamb under a heat lamp and spent hours in the stall getting her to nurse. Wouldn’t have mattered how much or how little sleep I got. I should be there, and I wasn’t. And couldn’t be. Because I’d made a stupid choice about traveling during lambing season.

I was already well aware of Matthew’s maturity, but this incident brought it out in spades. All of our conversations seemed like they were taking place between two adults. He suggested possible courses of action without hesitation. When I apologized for all the extra and unexpected work, he immediately interjected with “It’s no problem. I told you I’d take care of everything while you were gone, and this is what we’ve got.” I can’t imagine another sixteen year old who would’ve stepped up to the plate and taken the kind of adult, personal responsibility for our farm that he did this weekend. Anyone curious as to the results of growing up in a large homeschooled family should sit down and talk with him and his siblings.

Bianca (so-named because she has a solid white fleece), had one white lamb and one black lamb. Interestingly, she neglected/rejected the black one. The white one was doing great. Even more interestingly, she’d done exactly the same thing last year: nurtured the white lamb, and rejected the black one. My wife and I joked that we should re-name her “BianKKKa.”

Joking aside, we’d already agreed that we needed to cull at least one ewe this year. Bianca’s second lamb rejection in as many years pretty much sealed her fate, regardless of the color of the rejected lamb.

That brings us to tonight. Matthew called again with an update: the rejected lamb is still holding her own with bottle feedings. The ewes/lambs in confinement are doing great. Dot hasn’t delivered yet, but Licorice had twins out in the pasture shelter. That leaves only Dot who hasn’t yet lambed. What should we do?

We agreed to move Conundrum and her lambs out to pasture, put Bianca and her white lamb in the goat buck area, and put Licorice in the nice barn stall with her sister Nera.

And that’s where things stand as of now. I don’t have any pictures yet, because there are six lambs I haven’t even seen. Come to think of it, we have more lambs I haven’t seen than lambs I have seen. And if Dot delivers tonight, lambing season will be all over before we even arrive home.

Coco Puff’s Revenge

Yesterday morning, with considerable satisfaction, I took Coco Puff the Psychotic Ram off to the slaughterhouse. Actually, “satisfaction” isn’t quite the right word. “Relief” is more like it. It’s always a little poignant when we drag the sheep out of the back of the Bronco or the station wagon, and move them into the holding pen at Forrest Meats. Even when the animal is an obvious “cull,” or has caused danger or damage to our farm, I can’t help feeling a little sad.

Not so much for the lambs, when we take them in at the end of each year, because we never have them long enough to consider them long term residents of the farm. The rams are different. As much as I despised Coco Puff for the damage he wreaked on the fences and pasture shelters, and as many times as Coco Puff’s sire, Buddy, injured and tried to kill me, they were still “part of the gang” in the pasture. A flock is an organic unity that goes beyond the sum of its parts. Seeing one member of that flock isolated and standing alone in the holding pen at Forrest Meats never fails to bring on an odd mix of emotions. Add to that the dreary, cold, rainy weather yesterday…and that only made the emotional mix more strange.

But that’s all part of farm life, and I turned the Bronco for home. Later that day, the call came from Forrest Meats: Coco Puff dressed out to 62 pounds, and how would I like him prepared? I asked them to grind up everything they could, and to make soup bones out of everything else. Easy enough, they replied. I really like this place: they’re a small operation in a small town, part of a dying breed of local custom slaughter operations. The building isn’t much to look at, but they give wonderful service. I just wish there was something closer: Forrest is 34 miles from us. In years gone by, there were slaughterhouses closer to our town — but with consolodation, they’ve been closing down everywhere. It’s like everything else in rural America these days, it seems.

A storm came blowing in at about 4pm, with lightning and very strong wind gusts. As the kids and I watched from the window of my office building, the entire pasture shelter that Coco Puff had bashed the supports out of just plumb picked up, smashed, and blew over the northwest quadrant of the pasture. I muttered something under my breath about Coco Puff’s revenge.

Once the winds died down, I went out to inspect the damage. It was a total loss: both the sides and roof were blown away and smashed. This left the flock with no remaining shelter from this nasty weather. And I couldn’t bring them all into the barn. The one remaining shelter still had its roof, but no sides (thanks to Coco Puff). Fortunately, I’d managed to salvage those sides and stack them in a safe place, so in the spring I could repair them.

Guess what my project is for today? This morning, I got all the old manure and bedding shoveled out from the shelter area. The power drill is charging. A little later, my son and I will go out and see if we can get those sides refastened…and the flock a place to escape from the frigid wind. All I can say is: good thing no lambs were born last night.