Officially Fall

How do you judge the official arrival of autumn? The first time a southbound gaggle of Canada geese honks overhead? The first explosion of color in the trees? The first time you can rake enough maple leaves to get an aromatic bonfire roaring? The kickoff of the World Series?

All are good candidates, and all serve as good markers that the seasons are really changing. But for us, the ultimate indicator came in the dark, early yesterday morning: the first frost. Once that settles in, it’s the end of the growing season for a large portion of the garden. Oh, sure, there is some cold-hardy produce which can still be harvested even later in the year: leafy greens (such as collards and kale), root vegetables (beets, potatoes, etc), and so forth.  But frost means the end of the line for tomatoes, peppers, and many other cold-sensitive plants. If these sensitive varieties are still out there after frost arrives, the produce is lost.

We’ve had frosts here as early as the 20th of September. Yes, that’s before fall has even arrived on the calendar. Get surprised by something like that, and you lose a lot of the hard work that went into growing now-wasted produce. As a result, we keep a close eye on the weather forecast after Labor Day. Fortunately, this year we were blessed with above-freezing temperatures until well into October.

But that doesn’t last forever – and especially not in Michigan. When we saw lows of 30F forecast for Wednesday night, we swung into action. Once his schoolwork was finished, the 15 y.o. hit the garden and began bringing in everything he could. When his two oldest siblings got home in the early evening, they jumped in to provide reinforcements. The three of them didn’t finish until well after it was too dark to see.

Where does one put that mother lode of garden produce until it can be sorted and consumed or preserved? Anywhere you can. Such as, I don’t know … maybe we could stash some buckets of tomatoes in a bathtub?

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And maybe some baskets of peppers could be placed in the kitchen entryway? (Note the crates of potatoes that still need to be sorted and taken to the root cellar. That’s what the kids had been working on before the frost warning arose.)

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I’m not even going to include a photo of the living room, the floor of which is now completely covered in butternut squashes (brought in last week, to cure, before going into long term storage).

What’s my favorite part of autumn? Running the wood stove has to be near the top of the list. Thursday morning, the house was the coldest it’s been in a while. I laid a fire, and in no time had a wonderful little blaze going. Absolutely nothing heats a home as cozily as a crackling fire. Note the large kettle, which from now on will provide a near-constant supply of hot water on demand. And the nice warming platform for my French press coffee. Not to mention the hanging string of peppers (far right) getting dried for preservation.

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No doubt about it. Fall is officially here. I think we’ll celebrate by making lamb stew for Sunday dinner this week. And throwing another log on the fire, of course.

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.