Racing in the Rain

One week from today, the movie version of The Art of Racing in the Rain opens in theaters. I haven’t seen it, so can’t comment on the quality of the film. The TV commercials look good, as does the official trailer.

Why would I put up a post about a movie I haven’t seen, and can’t review? Simple: to encourage all who have seen the ads, and heard the buzz, and who are planning to go to the theater to watch … to read the book first. It’s been my universal experience that I appreciate a movie much more if I’ve first read the book. Movies typically include lots of references that fans of the book pick up on, and will have more meaning for those who have read the story.

And it really is an excellent novel. As you may have gathered, the book is narrated by a dog (Enzo), in the first person, which makes it particularly fun (especially the way he manages to recount events that take place in areas where dogs are not allowed, such as hospitals). I very much enjoyed the story, and thought the canine narration was well-executed and effective. It’s well-written, well-paced, funny, and emotional. I grew to really care about the characters, and about seeing the central conflict resolved satisfactorily.

I’m not at all an auto racing fan, and know next-to-nothing about it, but interpreted the sections devoted to racing as thought-provoking metaphors for “real life” and how to better react to the circumstances that get thrown our way.

Furthermore, as a Seattle native, I enjoyed reading a story set in the Pacific Northwest. Immersing myself in the novel’s narrative and setting was like taking a mini-vacation back home.

That said, I did have a couple of problems with the book — and I hope these issues don’t carry over to the movie.

First off, there’s a little too much Eastern mysticism / Zen spirituality / reincarnation for my taste in some of the themes. I was fine with this up to a point; after all, the narrator is a dog, and at first it seems he simply picked up these notions from watching television. However as the story progresses, Enzo seems infused with his own mystical knowledge and speaks with the certainty of a Zen master.

The other thing that bothered me is that one particular teenage girl — whose “bad” behavior is key to the central conflict — is said to attend Holy Names Academy, which is an actual, real-life, prestigious Catholic high school in Seattle. Her school affiliation is given in a single throw-away line, and is irrelevant to the plot. Why name the school at all (or why not invent a fictitious school with a prestigious-sounding secular name), unless it’s to take a cheap shot at a Catholic institution by associating a “bad” girl with it?

That said, I would emphasize that this an otherwise absolutely wonderful story — and one I’m looking forward to seeing on the big screen. I might even try to read the book again before I go. I hope you have the chance to read it, too.

The Great Cheese Plea

This may be the first post I’ve made from an airport. I’m sitting at the gate at DTW, waiting to board a much-anticipated flight to Seattle. After a four-year layoff, I’m at last able to make it out for the big Seattle-to-Portland bicycle ride. (This is of course the event at the center of my novel, Full Cycle; this Saturday will be the first time I’ve been able to participate in STP since the novel’s publication.)

As much as I’m looking forward to the big ride, I’m especially happy to be able to see friends and family while I’m out there; it’s been way too long. Tonight, I’m having dinner at a cousin’s house. My contribution to the evening: a nice container of goat cheese from our farm.

Or at least that was the plan, until TSA intervened. At the checkpoint, my backpack sailed right through the security screening — but my bag of food was yanked for further inspection. The agent took a look at the cheese, in its plastic container, and said it wasn’t allowed. It’s too soft, he explained. Can’t have anything spreadable.

I replied that I had no idea I couldn’t bring it; I thought all food items were acceptable. I would’ve put it in my luggage if I’d known.

And then I rolled the dice and played the Farmer card. “It’s homemade goat cheese, from our own goats. My daughter made this. I’m supposed to be taking it to dinner tonight at my cousin’s house.”

He looked at the container more closely. “Your own goats?” he asked. It wasn’t so much incredulity; it was more a tone of “Yeah, nobody could be making up a story like this.”

I could sense him hesitating. He stepped away for a moment, and conferred with another agent. The only words I picked up were “homemade cheese” and “own goats”.

He returned with the cheese after that brief conversation. “Okay, we’ll allow it this one time, if it passes the surface test,” he told me. “Next time, check it in your luggage.” He swabbed the surface of the cheese container, inserted the swab into some sort of machine, and got the test results.

Satisfied, he returned the cheese to me. I smiled and gave him a heartfelt thank-you, and then packed everything up and cleared the security checkpoint.

I’m not sure what it was about my Great Cheese Plea that changed his mind, but my sense is that most people have a special appreciation for food that’s crafted at home on a farm. Who could bring himself to toss in the trash something that’d been put together with so much care and attention? Perhaps he sensed that saving my cheese was some small way he could participate vicariously in the life of a farm. I don’t know. I’m just really thankful that someone appreciated our farm produce enough to give that extra consideration. We will certainly remember his kindness tonight at dinner!

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:

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

STP 2013

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.


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:


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.


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:


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.”


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!

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.


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).

Paint Bucket.jpg

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.



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.”


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.



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.


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.