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.

 

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.

Almost Made It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Week. Two Babies

I don’t simply dislike celebrity culture. I actively avoid it. Award shows, Oscar nominations, celebrity deaths, celebrity scandals … I can’t change the channel or click off the page fast enough. I even try to pick the lane at the grocery store with the fewest tabloids displayed.

That said, I confess there is one young celebrity to whom I pay attention, whenever he happens to be in the news. I became interested in him purely by an accident of timing, and in a sense against my will. But because of how that initial interest came about, I’ve subsequently found him difficult to ignore.

His name? George Alexander Louis, AKA “Prince George of Cambridge.” With the start of school this past week, he’s been back in the news — and back on my mind.

But why? Why would The Yeoman Farmer be the slightest bit interested in a toddler on the other side of the world? A toddler whom his family will never meet?

As I said, it was an accident of timing.

Our youngest daughter, “Little Miss Sweetness,” was born in mid-July of 2013. She arrived nearly six weeks early, and was immediately transferred to the NICU for observation. That afternoon, a test revealed she had several holes in her heart; these would require open heart surgery in a few months to patch. The hospital ran this test because they strongly suspected our daughter had Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), a diagnosis which was later confirmed with further testing, and heart defects are common in newborns with DS.

As none of these issues had been detected prenatally, or even previously suspected, to say we were in shock would be an understatement.

While we were still processing these twin bombshells, the next day we learned she had an even more immediate problem: duodenal atresia, or a blockage of the connection between her stomach and intestines. As with heart defects, it’s also common in newborns with DS. She was immediately scheduled for gastrointestinal surgery the next morning.

The procedure went perfectly, but required a nearly month-long stay in the NICU for recovery. This was obviously an extremely stressful period for our whole family, with many emotional ups and downs. Longtime readers may remember the article I wrote about the experience (Stage Six: Joy), and the follow-up article (Breaking the Circle of Sadness) I wrote a year later.

That month also included even more long hours of doing nothing but waiting, and watching television. One of the biggest stories of that slow news month came when Little Miss Sweetness was just a week or so old: the birth of Prince George of Cambridge, third in line to the British throne. With nothing else in the news, coverage of the event seemed unending — particularly after the royal family returned home and this official photo was released:

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Meanwhile, back in Michigan, even being able to hold our newborn required a major assist from NICU staff (on account of all the lines she was hooked up to). On virtually the same day the above photo was taken, this was us:

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As I held my daughter in that windowless cell of a hospital room, I couldn’t help sensing the enormity of the gulf between our situation and that of the royal family half a world away. It wasn’t a feeling of sorrow at what we were going through. It was more an overwhelming sense of distance between the Perfect Royal Baby, object of the world’s interest and acclaim … and our Little Miss Sweetness, greatest shining treasure of our family, but an absolute zero in the eyes of most of the rest of the world. (Or even less than zero … as you might imagine, the recent reports about Iceland boasting of eliminating babies like our daughter hit particularly close to home.)

It would’ve been easy to have sunk into self-pity, or even jealousy. Instead, as I contemplated the gulf between “the world’s” values and the little person who was of so much value to our family, it only made me all the more fiercely devoted to that little person. I wanted to pour out all the more of myself for her, and give her all the more of my time and attention. I didn’t think it was possible to love her any more intensely than I already did. But that’s precisely where the celebrity news out of London ended up leading me.

And that’s why I still pay attention to news about this one particular London celebrity, and why I’ll probably always have a soft spot for Prince George. Every story about him takes me back to those weeks which were so critical for the life of our own family. Every story about him reminds me of that long-ago coverage, which led me to an even greater devotion to Little Miss Sweetness. And all those reminders help make me all the more devoted to her even now.

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Play Ball!

What’s your favorite annual sporting event? Which one gives you the most joy every time it rolls around?

The Super Bowl? The Tour de France? March Madness and the Final Four? The Bowl game to which your alma mater garnered an invite?

While I look forward to all of the above, none is quite as much fun as what’s transpiring right now in the the little town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania: the Little League World Series. If you haven’t been watching, I strongly recommend you give it a try. The various ESPN networks are airing virtually every game, with the especially big Sunday games being shown on ABC. The action runs through next weekend, and there are games scheduled pretty much every day this week.

I first stumbled upon this event many years ago, while scrolling through the cable channels. Who would want to waste time watching a bunch of kids playing baseball? I wondered. They’re not as good as the pros. Why on earth is this even on television?

I changed the channel almost immediately.

Only with time did I realize how mistaken I’d been. A couple of years after first encountering the event, I stumbled upon it again. I’m still not sure why, but I decided to watch for a few innings.

That’s all it took. I was hooked. It’s now “appointment television” for me, and I start thinking about it early in the summer each year.

So, what’s the LLWS? And what’s worthwhile about watching “a bunch of kids playing baseball”?

littleleagueworldseriesday53rcx6mkptn3l Continue reading

Doubling Down

Despite a tremendous outcry of protest over the last week and a half, the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council has confirmed and doubled down on the decision to move forward with new Fourth Degree uniforms.

According to the K of C website, the board made the decision because of:

the aging of our Fourth Degree membership, the slow growth of the fourth Degree, (fewer than 20 percent of Knights are Fourth Degree members, and only a fraction of that number even serve as honor guards), and consistent reports that the old regalia presented a barrier to Fourth Degree membership, especially among younger men.

Further down, they say:

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.

Of course they have. I’m sure they’ve received all kinds of comments, from all kinds of people. But as someone who has been a professional public opinion researcher for over twenty-five years, I’m not convinced by anecdotes. Everyone in my line of work remembers what that one focus group participant in Omaha (or wherever) told us that one time.

The question is: Where are the numbers? What kinds of comments have they received or solicited from current members? How many of those members joined precisely because of the traditional regalia? And let’s not forget another important group: what does the average Catholic in the pew think about the traditional uniforms, and the proposed new ones?

There’s a more fundamental question that’s not being asked, however: Why is the Color Corps disproportionately composed of older men? This question is critical for understanding why it will be so difficult to grow the ranks with younger recruits. And you don’t need survey data to answer it. Continue reading

Color Me Stunned

Well, I didn’t see that coming.

Last week, at the Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson announced a major change to the Order’s uniform for the Fourth Degree. For decades, our official uniform has been a black tuxedo, a white ruffled shirt, and French cuffs. Note, in addition, the red-white-and-blue social baldric. Here I am, with my son, when we joined the Fourth Degree last year:

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A relatively small subset of Fourth Degree Knights also serve in the Color Corps — the most visible portion of the Order. You’ll see us as honor guards at funerals and other important Masses (especially when a bishop is presiding), in parades, and at other events where we want to lend special dignity. On top of the base tuxedo uniform, CC regalia includes white gloves, a cape, chapeau (the feathered cap), and a service baldric (which holds the sword) replaces the social baldric:

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Jackson (MI) Rose Parade, June, 2017

When a Fourth Degree honor guard processes into a church ahead of the priest (or bishop), swords drawn and at attention, you know something very special is happening.

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Going forward, K of C Supreme says, the cape and chapeau will be retired, and the official uniform will look like this:

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From the Knights Gear website:

The official dress uniform (Official Navy Blue Blazer, Official Fourth Degree Gray trousers, Official Fourth Degree Necktie, and Official Fourth Degree Black Beret with Fourth Degree metal badge) is purchased as a set.  Individual items are not for sale at this time.

The garments of the official dress are tailored in Italy.  The fabric used for both blazers and pants is woven in Italy specifically for the Knights of Columbus from a high quality super 130 wool.    The blazer buttons are made in Italy. The KofC blazer patches are completely hand embroidered.  The tie is Italian silk, but made in the USA.

Once you receive the uniform, please take it to your tailor for professional finishing.  Trousers come with an unfinished hem.

When I first saw this announcement, on social media, I thought it had to be a joke or a parody piece from The Onion. Ironically, in the days since, it has in fact become the basis for biting satire in the Catholic version of The Onion.

Reactions on social media have been overwhelmingly negative, especially when intensity is taken into account. It seems Supreme was as blindsided by this negative reaction as those of us in the Color Corps were by the announcement itself.

Supreme was looking for a way to energize the Fourth Degree — and they’ve done so. Just not in the way they were intending. I’ve never seen my brother Knights rally together so vocally as they have in reaction to this announcement.

The stated intention is to make the Color Corps more attractive to young men, who supposedly find the traditional regalia off-putting. I’ll believe that when I see a scientific, random-sample survey of the membership, rather than the handful of anecdotes offered so far.

But let’s grant for a moment that the new uniform is more popular with young Knights than the traditional regalia is. I would argue that it doesn’t matter. For at least several years, the new uniform would actually significantly depress Color Corps participation. The reason is simple: coming up with $510 (plus the cost of final fitting, and plus a dress shirt), for a super-high-quality Italian wool suit, is beyond the reach of many young people (not to mention the retirees on fixed incomes).

But … but … but … doesn’t the traditional regalia cost just as much? And don’t you also have to buy a tuxedo, in addition to the roughly $500 for a traditional regalia package? Continue reading