The Milkman Cometh

When Little Miss Sweetness made her dramatic arrival two years ago, she had a gastric issue which required immediate surgery. She would end up hospitalized for the first month of her life as she recovered. She also had a heart defect, which would require a separate surgery a few months later. (All these issues are now behind her, and she’s a thriving two year old.)

For the first two and a half weeks of her life, LMS got all her nutrition intravenously. Only slowly did the hospital staff allow her to transition to breast milk; even then, it had to be delivered by NG tube, so she wouldn’t have to work hard sucking – and so the amounts could be strictly measured.

However, from Day One, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s milk supply was as abundant as it’d been with any of our other kids. So, as she sat by LMS’s side in the NICU, day after day, and week after week, she pumped. And pumped. And pumped. For one stretch, she was regularly producing 50 to 60 ounces per day.

One of my jobs was to walk the filled-and-labeled 2.7oz milk bottles down the hall to the hospital milk room, where they would be frozen. My other job was to scoop up another handful of empty bottles, and bring them back to MYF.

Little Miss Sweetness barely dented that supply of frozen milk by the time she was discharged. When the hospital milk room packed all those little bottles into Styrofoam coolers for us to take home, we were astounded at the sheer volume. The five coolers took up virtually the entire rear-most cargo portion of our minivan! I think I muttered something about being glad we had so many chest freezers back at the farm. We were going to need them.

And the milk didn’t stop coming. The doctors didn’t want LMS to nurse directly, or even exert herself sucking from a bottle, until she’d had the heart surgery and made a full recovery from it. So, with the NG tube in until at least November, MYF had to keep pumping. I made bulk purchases of larger milk freezer bags on Amazon, which were soon filled and added to our stockpile. I started wondering if we might also need another chest freezer.

LMS eventually had her heart surgery, made a strong recovery, and got the green light to begin nursing directly. She picked it up right away, much to our relief. And just in time: the pump had gotten so much use, MYF had literally worn it out and the thing was now falling apart.

What to do with all that milk in the freezer(s)? We had one 9 cubic foot chest freezer packed to the gills with nothing but milk, with the overflow stuffed into other freezers wherever I could find space.

We didn’t want to get rid of all of it; there was no guarantee that MYF’s milk supply would remain high enough for long enough. The “strategic reserve” gave peace of mind that we’d never have to buy formula. Still, barring a true catastrophe, it was far more than we would ever need. We wanted to donate at least some of it to a family that could get some good use out of it.

But how could we find that family?

MYF began making calls. The nearest milk bank was a long ways away, and wouldn’t take our milk anyway (understandably, because MYF hadn’t undergone a health screening, etc). The local crisis pregnancy center, which supplies formula for mothers who need it, didn’t know any mothers who wanted frozen breast milk. The local adoption agency didn’t know any adoptive mothers who wanted it. None of our friends had recently adopted a baby. No one knew anyone who’d recently adopted a baby.

So, the milk sat. And sat. And sat. We were now sure we would never need any of it for Little Miss Sweetness (who was rapidly becoming Big Miss Sweetness), but it was still not clear what we should do with it.

Finally, this spring, through word of mouth, we learned of mother-to-mother milk sharing networks. One of the largest is called “Eats on Feets,” and seems to operate primarily on Facebook. Mothers needing milk can post requests, as can families with milk to donate. People then connect through private messages, and arrange to get the milk from donor to recipient. In addition to the national Facebook page, there are numerous state-specific and region-specific chapter pages. This makes it easier to find local donors and recipients, so milk need not be shipped.

I browsed the Michigan listings, looking for families-in-need-of-milk that weren’t too far from us. Some of the requests were very simple, just giving a name and location. Others gave a fair amount of detail about the travails the family had been going through, and the lengths to which they were willing to drive for milk. It’s impossible to read these without being moved, and without wanting to help. I felt guilty that I hadn’t done more, sooner, to find this organization.

I sent several private messages, through Facebook, to mothers who’d posted requests for milk. (At this point, I wasn’t sure I was comfortable putting up a post announcing that we had milk. Perhaps it’s because I’m male, and virtually 100% of all posts were by mothers. I don’t know.) Some never responded at all, most likely because FB segregates messages from “non-friends” into what’s essentially a spam folder. If you don’t check it, you don’t see those messages. Others did respond, but either (1) decided we were too far away, (2) had just gotten a freezer full of milk from someone else, or (3) didn’t feel comfortable using milk as old as ours.

I waited for the just-got-a-freezer-full people to contact me back, but that didn’t happen. So, the milk sat.

Finally, shortly before the Fourth of July, I decided it was time to make a post of my own on the Eats on Feets board. Within hours, I had three separate mothers contact me. I filled them in as to the age of the milk, and none was troubled by it. We arranged public meeting places at times that would work for us and for them, at gas stations just off the freeway.

What a joy it was to pack the milk back into those Styrofoam coolers the hospital had sent us home with! I packed and delivered roughly one-third of the milk one evening to one of the fathers, and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer made the other two trips. The last of these was to deliver to a mother who’d invested in an enormous amount of freezer space, so she took every remaining ounce I could find in every one of our freezers. This is what the back of our minivan looked like, just before MYF pulled out:

It’s wonderful having our freezer space back. And it’s even more wonderful knowing that we’ve been able to supply three families with something so valuable, it can’t be purchased in any store.

How Thick is Your Bubble?

I’ve read quite a bit of the advance press for Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, and am looking forward to reading it. I plan to blog about it once I do, as I think his central premise is important and on-target.

For an excellent overview by Murray, I recommend this recent WSJ article.

Murray has also put up a fun quiz, where you can estimate your own degree of cultural isolation or engagement with the broader American culture. My results (and a link to the quiz) are below.

How Thick Is Your Bubble?

View user's Quiz School Profile
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Score » 10 out of 20 (50% )
Result

On a scale from 0 to 20 points, where 20 signifies full engagement with mainstream American culture and 0 signifies deep cultural isolation within the new upper class bubble, you scored between 9 and 12.

In other words, even if you’re part of the new upper class, you’ve had a lot of exposure to the rest of America.

Quiz School Take this quiz & get your score

Just a Couple More

If you’re like me, you’re probably “Nine-Elevened Out” and overwhelmed by the number of remembrances that commentators have been offering up in recent days. The History Channel in particular has been wall-to-wall with 9/11 for some time. (If you watch just one program, make sure you catch their “102 Minutes that Changed the World.” It is phenomenal.) But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to offer just a couple of quick memories of my own.

By way of background, we’d just moved to our first farm, in Illinois, from California, a month and a half before 9/11. We were still figuring everything out, and hadn’t even ordered our first batch of chickens. Our house was a couple of miles outside a town of 420 people, and about 7 miles from a town of 4,500. We’d met a handful of people, but still didn’t have many friends. We’d decided not to hook up satellite TV, and were so far from the nearest broadcast tower that we couldn’t even get signals from the antenna. We had dial-up internet, which was pretty slow.

I’d been in Washington, DC, on business the previous two days, speaking at a conference. I’d flown back to Chicago the afternoon of September 10th, and driven two hours home in my vintage Italian project car as the sun set over the prairie. Everything seemed perfect. Only after getting home did I discover I’d left my sports jacket on the plane. I called United Airlines, asked them to look for it, and went to bed late.

Tuesday morning I slept in, and it was lazy. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and the kids had gone to town for something, and I enjoyed having the house to myself. Sometime in mid-morning, I got around to signing onto AOL for the first time, to check email. I was puzzled by the welcome page, which said something about America under attack and the World Trade Center no longer being there. It seemed so outlandish, I dismissed it as some kind of speculative “what if” scenario. But after a little more browsing, I figured out what’d really happened. And was shocked to the core.

And I’d never so badly wished I had a TV. I switched on the radio, and tried to get some news, but even that reception was pretty bad. I then called Dish Network, and arranged to have satellite service hooked up. Something told me we were really going to want it in the coming days and weeks.

When MYF and the kids got home, we called one of the few friends we had in the town of 4,500 (a family from our parish). We asked if we could come over and watch TV, and they said “absolutely.” We sped into town, and spent a couple of hours glued to the footage while our kids played with theirs. Particularly striking was the reaction the husband of this family had to the events. He was an auto mechanic, and about as strong a guy as you’ll meet. He’d come home from work for lunch, and watched the news with us as he ate. As he was preparing to go back to work, even he had tears in his eyes.

Anyway, I’ll cut right to the biggest thing that struck me about being in a rural community that day. The town of 420 had a Catholic church so small that it didn’t have its own priest. The pastor from the larger town drove out twice a week to say Mass: once on Sunday, and once on Tuesday evening. I’d attended that Tuesday evening Mass pretty much every week, and there were usually about four or five other people in attendance. But on Tuesday the 11th, I counted fifty-five people in that little white frame building. It looked almost like a Sunday morning. Somehow, as the events of that day unfolded, a lot of people were getting the same idea: I need to get to church. I need to come together with other people. I need to pray. It was nowhere so pronounced as in that little town on that night. The sense of “togetherness” in that building was palpable.

Then, after Mass, as we began driving home, I spotted something strange: a long line of cars at the one gas station along the highway that cut through the town. There were so many cars, they were backed up for a long distance around the block. It looked like pure panic-buying of gasoline, but I couldn’t help thinking if maybe all these people knew something I didn’t. Would gas soon become scarce? Would prices go through the roof? I decided it’d be better to be safe than to be without gas, so I got in line and waited a half hour or whatever until I could top off my tank. All the employees were working to get people through quickly, but I had a chance to chat with one of them as our gas was pumping. “You could probably raise your prices and make a fortune,” I commented. “Supply and demand, and all.”

“Oh,” she replied, almost taken aback, “we would never do that. We’re just going to pump until there’s nobody left or we run out of gas.”

As I drove home, I reflected on how strikingly different this place was from Los Angeles. How much the community had come together. How much people seemed to be looking out for each other. And how very glad I was to be living here.

in the closet, I gave the pockets a closer inspection. And found that, in addition to my business cards, I’d also left my boarding ticket there. The date was printed right in the middle, and jumped off the paper at me: September 10, 2001.

I stopped and shook my head. September 10th seemed like an entirely different country, in an entirely different world. Everything, it seemed, had changed. And I was deeply grateful I’d be getting to spend the post-9/11 world in a rural community like the one we’d found.

Civic Pride

It’s well known that Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I much prefer country and small town life to that in even a medium sized city. But cities have their place, and can be valuable for the resources they provide and their opportunities to connect with others.

Some time back, a national magazine put our state’s second largest metro area on its list of “America’s Dying Cities.” But rather than taking the designation laying down, the people of Grand Rapids responded by putting together what may be the most remarkable production of community and civic pride we’ve ever seen:

Videos don’t embed well on my blog, because of the narrow text template. This link will let you watch it on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you watch it. It is truly amazing.

An NPR story supplies more of the backstory of the video, and is definitely worth reading.

Much has been written in recent years about the decline in American “social capital.” Technological changes, such as television, have led to the dissolution of traditional means (such as civic organizations) by which people used to connect with one another. That may be true, but productions such as this one demonstrate that it doesn’t always have to be. Perhaps particularly in smaller cities such as Grand Rapids, there is still a thriving base of social capital; productions like this one couldn’t be made without it.

And as closely as I watched it, I found no one in the video who was “bowling alone.”

Don’t Call the Cops

They won’t come. Not for a long time, anyway. Unless it’s a real emergency. And even then…who knows?

That’s essentially what’s happened here in our county. While most people are aware of the dramatic police and firefighter layoffs in big cities like Camden, NJ, there is a somewhat different — and more interesting — dynamic at work here in our little corner of Michigan.

Like most counties in our state, the territory is divided up into large townships of about 30-35 square miles. Within these, there are pockets of incorporated municipalities which are administratively separate from the surrounding township. Our particular rural township has about 2,400 rural residents, and there are about 2,300 people living in its one incorporated municipality.

Most of the incorporated municipalities, including the one we live just outside of, have a small police force. (They seem to spend much of their time camped out with a radar gun at the municipal line, where the speed limit suddenly drops from 45 to 25.) However, that police force will not respond to crimes on our property; their responsibility ends at the municipal border. We and all other rural residents are under the jurisdiction of the County Sheriff, whose services are paid for by our property taxes.

Last summer, the County announced that they would need to slash the Sheriff’s budget by $2.2 million for 2011, and that they would no longer have the resources (i.e. deputies) for routine patrols or response to non-emergency rural calls. If we wanted more police coverage than that, we would need to approve a special millage on the November ballot. The money raised would be used to contract with the county sheriff or a local municipality for police coverage, or to form a new rural police force.

The assessment would’ve been about $150 per residence and $250 per business. Of course, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I voted in favor. We tend to oppose most millage proposals, but police coverage should be a no-brainer. Public safety is one of the few truly essential and appropriate functions that government provides. I simply assumed it would pass, and didn’t even bother checking the election results for several weeks.

As it turns out, the millage in fact failed. Miserably. Each of the thirteen townships voted separately, and the measure only (barely) passed in one. It came close (49%) in one other township. Five other townships were in the low forties. None of the remaining seven townships, including ours, could muster a “Yes” vote in excess of 37%.

Interestingly, the one township which passed the millage has chosen not to contract with the County Sheriff for services. They are instead going to hire a local municipality’s police force to cover them.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have been scratching our heads and trying to understand the election outcome. MYF’s working theory is it’s similar to the “boy who cried wolf” one too many times not getting taken seriously. She reasons that voters have gotten sick of being told the sky would fall down if they didn’t approve an additional property tax hike, and finally decided to stop listening. That’s a plausible explanation, especially given that our property taxes are supposed to be covering police protection in the first place — and that, according to some locals we’ve spoken to, the county commission has proven itself less than trustworthy on some occasions. No doubt, some voters thought the County was playing “chicken” with us, and would blink if we didn’t.

The County didn’t blink. The first week of January, they in fact cut the Sheriff Department’s staff from 223 to 187 employees. That leaves exactly two deputies on duty at any given time to respond to calls in the entire 440 square miles they are responsible for.

What does that mean, exactly? We’re starting to find out. Earlier this month, when a student took a loaded handgun into a rural middle school, it took deputies 20 minutes to get there.

Fortunately, our townships are not high crime areas. But many of us are concerned that could now change. If you’re a burglar, what better place to ply your trade than one where, even if you’re surprised by a homeowner, it takes the cops 20 minutes to show up?

Of course, burglars know that most of us here in the country are fairly well-armed. Few would be stupid enough to break in when a rural resident is at home. Our family is especially fortunate in this regard; because we homeschool, and because I work on the property, someone is nearly always here. We’re also on a fairly well-traveled blacktop road that’s not far from a municipality, so lots of eyes would be upon someone carting property out of our house. But that’s not true of most other rural homes; many sit empty all day, and are on isolated lanes. What better target than a house where it’ll take a deputy several days to come out and even file a police report of your burglary? Just imagine how contaminated the crime scene will be by then!

Already, there is talk of putting another police millage on a future ballot; it’ll be interesting to see if, as residents experience the reality of life with reduced sheriff coverage, support for a special assessment increases.

In the meantime, what’s especially heartening is the grassroots response in some townships. People aren’t just sitting back and waiting for the criminals to strike, or for government to act on our behalf. In the true American civic spirit, they’re forming voluntary associations to address the problem themselves. Residents of one township, for example, have been extremely aggressive in forming a neighborhood watch. Signs like these:

have popped up all over the rural roads. The churches, including the Catholic church in that township, have been especially active as centers of coordination. Down in the church basement, there’s a big stack of these signs that the Knights of Columbus and others have been working to distribute.

It reminds me a lot of something that happened when we lived in Illinois, and someone in our rural county began setting fire to barns on isolated properties. As the size of territory was too large for police to keep an eye on, a group of locals began organizing active patrols of roads with likely targets. I myself started taking a different route into town, just so I could drive past and keep an eye on more isolated structures. Anyway, after just a couple of weeks, one of the local patrols caught the arsonist fleeing the scene of a fire. They held him until the cops could arrive.

I’m sure hoping it doesn’t come to that here in Michigan. But we’re all ready to step up for our community if it does.

Saturday Morning at the Post Office

I stopped by the local post office at about 9:30 this morning, to mail a package. As the clerk was weighing it and printing up the postage, I heard a woman’s voice call out from behind a divider.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “You’re here.”

The woman emerged from where she’d been sorting mail, and I instantly recognized her as our own rural mail carrier. “Since you’re here,” she smiled, handing me a bundle of mail, “You might as well take this now.”

I smiled, laughed, and thanked her for saving me from trudging through snowdrifts to the mailbox later that afternoon. “I love small towns,” I added.

Can anyone even imagine something like this happening in a city?

Really Big Neighborhood Watch

There’s been an unusual crime wave in our neck of the woods lately. Over the last week or two, someone has set a string of several arson fires. Most of the fires have been in empty (or abandoned-looking) old barns sitting by themselves out in the country. In other words, easy targets for a bunch of teenage punks who want to see how big a blaze they can start. But over this last weekend, a couple of sheds/old barns right in the town of Loda were torched.

The reaction has been interesting. Out here, we literally cannot rely on the police to come to our rescue. Loda has no police force, and most of the blazes have been in rural Ford/Iroquois counties. In other words, the chances of a cop coming across an arsonist are slightly less than zero. So, residents are taking things into their own hands. Some of our neighbors are drawing up lists of all the known abandoned/isolated buildings that dot the open prairie, so as to better keep an eye open for suspicious activity. And some of these buildings are not truly abandoned; they sit on what used to be homestead sites, but now are simply a big machine shed housing a farmer’s equipment (the farmer himself may even live in town).

Abandoned or not, what all these properties have in common is that no one is around to watch them. Our neighbors are now going out of their way to watch them. Out here in the country, all the roads form a grid; each road is one mile away from the next. In going from Point A to Point B, most of us have a fixed route we tend to use — but it doesn’t really add any distance if we instead jog down a different set of streets on the same grid. (It means some extra turns, but not any extra distance.) The general color, make, and model of the arsonist’s car is known (a red, late model, Pontiac Grand Am), so all of us have been keeping our eyes peeled for that as we jog around the grid roads looking at the isolated buildings.

Despite the vigilance, the arsonist(s) hit again last night. Just as we were about to put the kids to bed, a fire truck went screaming down our road. “Go follow it!” Mrs Yeoman Farmer urged. I grabbed a large flashlight…and a large caliber handgun with a full magazine. If I happened to come across a car matching the suspect’s, with a group of teenagers sitting on the roof admiring their latest blaze, I didn’t want to have to rely on the police to come protect me from them.

Turns out, a lot of other people had the same idea. Up and down our road, other vehicles were coming out of driveways and following the fire engine. We found the blaze; it was about five miles north, and was an old barn. Nearly a dozen emergency vehicles, from all the tiny surrounding communities, had responded and the fire was smouldering by the time I got there. I spent some time jogging up and down grid roads, working my way home, but didn’t see anything. Stopped at a neighbor’s, and the teen aged son was standing in the driveway with a 12 gauge shotgun; his father was still out driving up and down rural roads looking for the suspects. Their own outbuildings didn’t have night time security lighting, and the son had stayed home to make sure those buildings didn’t become an easy target of opportunity while Dad was gone. We chatted for a few minutes, comparing notes, and then I went home to call it a night.

Our property has a couple of very old outbuildings that would make inviting targets for an arsonist like this one. It’s been gratifying knowing that (1) our security light keeps most of them illuminated all night; (2) our two dogs bark and anything that moves; and (3) especially, our neighbors are keeping a close eye out for suspicious activity.

The latest update is that neighbors are talking with the county Sheriff’s office to coordinate stake-outs of some of the more isolated buildings tonight. How to best accomplish that, without tipping off the arsonists, will no doubt be the biggest topic of discussion.

On the one hand, it’s terribly dispiriting to know that a serial arsonist is on the loose in this tranquil, low-crime community. But on the other hand, it’s been incredibly inspiring to watch that same community organize itself to take that arsonist off the streets.