Sunday, December 27, 2015

My dad was a farmer

He was born on a farm in the small farming community of Hastings, Minnesota in 1909. His dad, an Irish immigrant, was also a farmer, and so was his brother.

downtown Hastings

When dad was 11 years old, his mother passed away, which forced his father to raise his 2 sons and 5 daughters by himself.

When dad was 20 years old, his dad died of a heart attack, just a few months before the start of the Great Depression. Dad and his brother Clem bravely kept the farm going, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor inspired dad to join the Army in 1942, shortly after his 33rd birthday.

Clem and his young bride Miriam kept the farm going for another 20 years of so, before shifting into semi-retirement in the small town of Forest Lake, Minnesota.

The year that dad was born was considered to be the Golden Era of farming in the United States. The vast majority of the workers in America earned their living as farmers, and most of them were considered prosperous. The number of family farms in America peaked at 6.4 million in 1910, but has dropped dramatically since that time. Today, there are only about 2,000,000 farms in America, and many of them are no longer family farms.

An article in this morning’s Chicago Tribune highlighted the problems facing a particular type of farmer, the cranberry farmer of the Midwest, primarily those in Wisconsin.

Cranberry prices, due in part to over-production, are now at their lowest level since 1959, the year of the “great cranberry scare” . It costs about $30 to produce a 100 pound barrel of cranberries, but retail prices are now hovering around $8 a barrel, a steep drop from the $40 a barrel they were selling for just 5 years ago.

The salvation of the cranberry farms lies in two unlikely sources: insurance companies and exports.

Large life insurance companies (like John Hancock of Boston) have agricultural investment groups. The returns from those agricultural groups have averaged 14 percent over the last decade, nearly twice the return on investments in the Standard and Poor 500 list.

The average American eats about 2 pounds of cranberries a year, primarily during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. That amount has remained unchanged for more than a decade. However, more than 30% of our cranberry production is now exported, and China is now the fasting growing market for our cranberries.

Roughly 4 years after his death, Paul Harvey reminded us (in a 2013 Dodge Superbowl commercial) that God made a farmer. It’s worth watching again, and it may bring a tear to your eye.

2013 Dodge Superbowl commercial

Farming is not an easy life, but the blood, sweat and tears that are needed to sustain a farm also enable the folks that “bust the sod” to lead long lives. My dad lived to be 85 years old, and his younger brother lived to be 87. My dad never had any buildings named after him, he never held political office, and he really never made a pile of money. Although he was known for a lot of years simply as “Larry the mailman”, deep down he never really changed, and I’m proud to say what he was.

My dad was a farmer.

Monday, December 21, 2015

It came upon the midnight clear

Christmas is traditionally a season of joy, which we are constantly reminded of by several dozen well known songs that we hear every year - over and over again.

One of the songs that many people call their favorite is a poem that was first published in the Christian Register in Boston on December 29, 1849. It was composed by a Unitarian minister named Edmund Sears, not long after he suffered a nervous breakdown from overwork.

The year before he wrote the song, a “people’s revolution” racked Europe, fueled by some of the same issues that caused the Arab Spring revolution in 2011. Early in the same year (1848) the United States concluded its war with Mexico, which greatly expanded the borders of the United States.

Due to his personal problems, as well as his concerns about he felt was general chaos in the world, Edmund Sears was a very melancholy man, since he felt that the world was no longer hearing the Christmas message.

Over the years, the song has been performed by hundreds of performers, and it’s been paired with two different melodies, either “Carol” in the Untied States or “Noel” in the United Kingdom. One of my favorites is the version that was performed by Bing Crosby many years ago:

let’s listen to Bing again

If you’ve ever watched “The Newsroom”, starring Jeff Daniels (as Will McAvoy) you may remember his rant where he reminds us that America only leads the world in 3 areas - number of incarcerated citizens per capita, defense spending, and number of adults who believe that angels are real.

As usual, “Will McAvoy” is right on the money, since a recent Associated Press poll found that 77 percent of the adults in our country believe that angels are real. Surprisingly, even a healthy percentage of the people who don’t consider themselves religious still believe that angels are real.

Despite his melancholy, Edmund Sears ended his poem on a note of optimism, as evidenced by the last paragraph in the original version:

For Lo! , the days are hastening on

By prophet bards foretold

When with the ever-encircling years

Comes round the age of gold

When peace shall over all the earth

Its ancient splendors fling

And the whole world give back the song

Which now the angels sing

Edmund Sears was absolutely correct in his belief that the world is no longer hearing the Christmas message. Most of us have long felt that Christmas has been too focused on the commercial side of the holiday, and we look with horror at the ever expanding “Black Friday” shopping hours. For once, let’s tune out all the holiday madness, and let’s just listen to the angels sing.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn

When “Gone With The Wind” was released on December 15, 1939, Clark Gable shocked theater audiences when he uttered the phrase above to co-star Vivian Leigh, just before he turned and walked into the mist in Atlanta.

closing scene to Gone With the Wind

The film earned 12 Academy Awards at the 12th Academy Awards, and when adjusted for monetary inflation, it is STILL the most successful film in movie history.

Since “Gone With The Wind” was released, public conversation has become significantly courser, both in real life, and in the movies. It’s difficult to watch a movie, or walk through a modern high school, without hearing the “f bomb” dropped on a regular basis. I’ve occasionally reminded some of the students that I teach that really, really stupid people use a lot of profanity, and intelligent people don’t.

My mother-in-law was always concerned about what people thought of her, a mid-1950’’s mindset that contributed greatly to the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses”, and is still very prevalent today among the more conservative members of our society (some of whom sincerely believe that gay marriage causes hurricanes).

In order to remain calm and un-stressed, it’s important to not be overly concerned about what people think about you, or to worry too much about things that are difficult to control (like trying to keep high school students off their phones during class time.)

The best way to do that is to adopt the elegant art of not giving a s**t, and the link below provides more information on that very important attitude.

how to stay calm

There IS a time for profanity in our lives, as long as it is used appropriately. Few of us would hit your thumb with a hammer and just say “darn”, since a stronger word would be more appropriate.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was no stranger to cuss words, and he actually used the word “nigger” more than 200 times in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. However, he also was aware of the need to use profanity sparingly, and only in appropriate situations.

His wife, (born Olivia Langdon) came from a wealthy East Coast family, who raised her to be a prim and proper lady. On occasion, she would let loose with a string of profanity after her marriage to Samuel Clemens, who would usually remind her that she “might have the words, but doesn’t have the music”.

When it was virtually unheard of to use profanity on the screen, Gable’s use of the word “damn” on the screen provided a perfect ending to a movie that carefully documented the horrors of the Civil War. If the movie were remade today, and Gable used the slightly stronger, “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a s**t”, the ending would actually seem a little silly.

In many ways, “the good old days” WERE better in at least some ways. However, as we are reminded almost daily by our chief buffoon, Donald Trump, the days of polite public conversation have, quire literally, gone with the wind.

Monday, December 7, 2015

When better cars are built, part 2

If the title above sounds familiar, it’s because I published a story with that title roughly six years ago. At that point in time, Buick sales in China exceeded sales in the United States, and had been doing so for at least three years. By the time of the publication of the article shown below, sales of Buicks in China were FOUR TIMES the sales of Buicks in the United States.

when better cars are built

Some time between 2009 and today, various proposals have been made to sell cars made in China in the United States. Until recently, though, none of those plans have come to fruition.

Until now.

At some point in 2016, a car made in China will be sold in America and it will bear a very familiar name.


The vehicle will be a compact sport utility that will be called the Envision. Since Buick has seen sales fall for its “traditional “ vehicles, but sales have expanded in its SUV line, the introduction of a compact sport utility will help to increase Buick sales.

To be fair, this vehicle won’t be the first foreign made car that Buick has sold in America, since German-made Opels were introduced here in 1958, Today’s Buick Regal was assembled by Opel in Germany, starting in 2009, but production for the vehicle shifted to Oshawa, Canada in 2011.

Both Jaguar and Land Rover are owned by an Indian company, and Volvo has been owned by a Chinese company since its divesture from the Ford luxury division. SOME of those Chinese made Volvos have actually made it to our shores, but not in numbers large enough to make a dent in our domestic market.

As a group, Buick owners tend to be older and more conservative (precisely the situation that Cadillac finds itself in) which may have been one of the reasons that its sales have slipped in recent years.

Traditionally, Buicks have been large and heavy cars, and the picture below shows how “politically incorrect “ some of those older versions were:

This vehicle, incidentally, was 219 inches long, and weighed almost 5000 pounds. It’s 364 cubic inch engine got 12.2 miles per gallon.

take a test drive here

Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?

If you’re a young professional, looking for a compact SUV, you’ll probably say:

是的 (shi)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

‘Twas the night before Christmas

“A Visit From Saint Nicholas”, also known as ”Twas The Night Before Christmas” was published anonymously in 1823. It was later attributed to Clement Clark Moore, who finally acknowledged his authorship about 15 years later.

Since it is one of the most famous Christmas poems ever published, it has been the subject of many parodies over the years, which I wrote about a couple of years ago:

politically correct Santa

It is indeed the HOLIDAY season, since there are numerous other holidays that are celebrated in December in addition to Christmas.

other December holidays

Contrary to what people hear on FOX “news”, there is no war on Christmas. The red coffee cups that Starbucks sells this time of the year have NEVER said “Merry Christmas” on them, and you can view past examples at the link below. Starbucks, in case you have forgotten, DOES sell Christmas blend coffee and Advent calendars.

Starbucks red cups over the years

If you have any doubts at all that the folks at FOX are truly deranged, bear in mind that one of the FOX news “analysts” recently stated his opinion that the recent shootings in San Bernadino were a “literal attack on Christmas”.

However, the birth of a child to an impoverished refuge family (are you listening, Republicans?) over 2000 years ago is unquestionably one of the most important events in the history of the world. The world has always been, and will always be, a troubled place. However, for one brief shining moment (in 1914) the lure of Christmas was strong enough that warring soldiers set aside their differences to celebrate Christmas together in the trenches of the first world war.

Little noticed by the world, of course, was the birth of a baby girl (their first child) to a young and struggling family in a brutally cold land known as Minnesota 66 years ago, on December 24. They named her Sharon Ann, and she was joined a few years later by two additional sisters, who they named Donna Jean and Victoria Lee.

She never graduated from college, or made a pile of money, but Sharon took on a more important role in 1972, which she became my wife, and (later) the mother of a son and a daughter.

Due to decreased income, and increased expenses, the Christmas season always seems to be a time of stress, but that stress quickly fades away when I’m reminded (once again) of the importance of couple of birthdays, both of which happened a long time in the past.

Happy birthday, Sharon, and Merry Christmas!