Posted by: justawriter | May 6, 2015

Just so you don’t have wait for another post …

Especially since that post was just navel gazing, here is a pretty birdie. It is a horned lark I photographed at Harmony Lake north of Hazen.


Posted by: justawriter | May 6, 2015

Is there anybody here?

Urg! The door seems to have stuck. Must be warped. Well, if it won’t cooperate, force it is my motto. Uffda, what a creak. Bet they heard that across the lake. Wow, look at all the dust in here. It must be a half foot thick. How long has it been since I’ve been here? (looks at the ancient calendar) Double wow, the Twins were still playing good baseball back then. That is practically ancient.
Been a lot of water over the dam since then. When I started this, I was running the Beulah paper and reprinting my editorials here for the amusement of my friends. Well, that ship ran aground but I wound up on my feet on the north side of Lake Sakakwea, editing the New Town and Parshall papers. I have good times and a few stumbles, but I am still here. I am bouncing back from one of my stumbles and realized I have written just for the hell of it for a long time.
Far too long.
So I am restarting my little blog. This little space is my own, and the opinions express here are not those of my employers, or anyone else for that matter. So blame me, and only me if you don’t like what I have to say.
Not that I am going to court controversy much. There are too many in the country who argue for sport and not edification. I’m not going to get down in the mud too often. But if I have something to say, I will probably say it.
For a while I am going to find some of the things I have put on the net elsewhere. Maybe I will put up some of my photos too. But I want to start putting my thoughts in order again and the best way to do that is to write. Who knows, maybe I’ve found my long lost muse. I hope she sticks around.

Posted by: justawriter | September 20, 2011

Far Afield – Change is inevitable

Change is seldom comfortable. Since time immemorial people have adapted to the rhythms of days, weeks, seasons and years and just when they think they’ve got it figured out something happens to change all the rules.
For the first few decades of white settlement in the Dakotas, the settlers thought they could farm like it was Iowa and raise cattle like it was Kansas. It worked for a few years but soon blizzards and droughts destroyed the crops and killed the livestock and it was time for farmers and ranchers to adapt or leave. For 70 years farmers and ranchers became adept at conserving every rare raindrop that fell on their land. But in 1993 it started raining on North Dakota and it hasn’t stopped yet. Over the years the flooding has spread from the Devils Lake Basin to Grand Forks and Fargo in 1997, Bismarck and Beulah in 2009, and Minot this year. Even Lake Sakakawea wasn’t able to handle all the water that rushed down the Missouri this year and damaged homes and recreational facilities around its shoreline and downstream.
As one young farmer told me 15 years ago, “I spent my entire life learning how to farm in a drought. I don’t know how to farm in a flood.” We are learning those lessons now, but they have been as hard and painful as they were for farmers and ranchers in the 1920s and ’30s.
The North Shore of Lake Sakakawea is going through a change that is just as profound and dramatic with the unbelievable increase in oil drilling. The energy industry has brought in thousands of workers but still can’t find enough people to fill all the positions on drilling rigs or behind the wheels of all the trucks. Local employers are suddenly finding that their workers are no longer willing to take jobs that pay just a single digit per hour. Housing, a perennial problem in the region, has become a full blown crisis.
City, county and state governments have been accused of being to slow to adapt and cope with changes in the oil patch. I haven’t been around here long enough to know if it’s true or not, although I’m trying to learn.
However, I am seeing things change in just the few weeks I have been in the area. Parshall is working on annexing enough land to about triple its current area so it can offer city services to new industry. Plans for improved streets and new sewer lines are also on the drawing board. The New Town City Council has approved funds to extend sewer service to new parts of the city. That same meeting developers asked the council to annex more land into the city so they can build a new hotel near the new clinic that will open in October. Area schools are adding on to their buildings and building homes for teachers.
No doubt many will think this is too little, too late. That is understandable given the scale of the impacts the area is experiencing. But it isn’t enough to complain in the cafe or coffee shop about roads or housing or any of the dozens of other serious problems our communities are facing. People need to get involved with the boards and organizations that can do something about these problems. Whether it is the city council and county commission or Lutheran Social Services and Annabelle Homes, if you want them to do something you have to talk to them. You also have to listen to them. We need to have a conversation, not a shouting match, so everyone can work together to take advantage of this boom in a way that will make the entire region an economically stronger and better place to live for decades to come.

Posted by: justawriter | September 20, 2011

Far Afield – Guess who got hacked?

Guess who got hacked!
It was an interesting weekend for me.
Among the small chores I set for myself every Saturday is to check my bank and charge accounts make sure my fiscal ship is still afloat and not headed towards some nasty rocks. This was always a tiresome chore in the “good old days” when you received a flurry of statements at the end of the month that had to be reconciled by hand. If you were less than diligent keeping your check register current, you might find yourself scratching your head an odd amount from four or five weeks back.
I’ve always maintained that the good old days weren’t necessarily that good. They were just old. I am much happier knowing I can see the exact status of my accounts over the Internet any time of the day or night even when my bank is closed. So this weekend I opened up my laptop and checked my accounts and found that I had charged something at a hotel in Illinois that morning. Since I haven’t been outside the state of North Dakota for months, this was somewhat of a surprise.
Another great convenience of this age is that right beside that charge was a little button that said “Inquiry.” The button let me send the bank a message saying that to the best of knowledge, I wasn’t in Illinois that morning.
This being a Saturday, the bank would have been closed and in the old days I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about someone running around with my bank card until Monday. But thanks to this modern marvel, I had an answer in a few minutes saying my card was blocked and giving me a number to a credit security service. I spoke with a sweet young lady who confirmed that along with the charge in Illinois, I has also apparently been purchasing electronic gadgets in California, video games in Ohio and had requested a number of cash advances. She was able to pull the plug on all those transactions and deactivate my card, protecting my bank account from these digital looters.
All this occurred without me having to leave my living room chair. Of course, I would have preferred not to have had to deal with this attempted robbery at all. But it struck me how much more difficult it would have been to deal with something like this even 15 years ago. First off, I wouldn’t have known I was being ripped off for weeks, until the bank would have started sending me overdraft notices. Secondly, I would have had to take time off to go to the bank in person and explain what happened and beg and plead for the overdraft charges to be reversed, not to mention the bogus charges to my account. Finally, I would have had to go to places where my legitimate checks had bounced and explain the situation all over again and once more beg and plead not to clobber me with NSF charges.
What once could have been a major headache and kick in the pocketbook was reduced to a petty annoyance. Again, I would have preferred not to have been targeted by thieves, but thanks to some modern innovations, I was able to cut them off at the pass and keep them from getting away with the loot.

Posted by: justawriter | September 20, 2011

Far Afield – A land of extreme anniversaries

A land of extreme anniversaries
Anniversaries are odd things. They are occasions to remember the extremes in life, whether those extremes were happy or sad.
This year marks many anniversaries. They range from the terribly tragic 10th anniversary of the terror attacks in New York to the 20th anniversary of the Minnesota Twins second World Series victory. It’s also the 60th anniversary of the discovery of oil in North Dakota. There’s nothing like an anniversary ending in zero or five to give people a chance to reminisce.
I love North Dakota history. I was raised in this state and have made it my home for almost all of the 51 years. So when it comes to marking time, I like looking back at what was going on right in our neighborhood. It turns out that 75 years ago, Mountrail County became a part an historic season.
The year 1936 was a year for the record books. If the Great Depression wasn’t enough to depress you, North Dakota was getting the full Dust Bowl treatment. That was the year that of the Great Cold Wave and on the day after Valentines Day, Parshall saw the coldest temperature every recorded in North Dakota, a full 60 degrees below zero. I’ve heard it was so cold that people couldn’t even talk to each other because their words would freeze in mid-air and fall to the ground.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, that summer followed with the Great Heat Wave of 1936. Steele, not that many miles from Parshall saw the hottest temperature ever recorded in the state, a blazing 121 degrees on July 6. The sun beat down on the soil so hard that in some places everything in the top four inches of soil, even bacteria, was killed by the heat. In North Dakota, the Missouri was just about the only river with any water in it. The Red was dry in Fargo and Devils Lake was just a puddle four feet deep. If the papers of the day are to be believed, the grasshoppers ate every dry piece of grain and hay then moved on to fence posts and were even gnawing on the barbed wire before the drought ended.
Times have changed and the climate has certainly changed. Since 1993, North Dakota has had more rain and snow than it knows what to do with. That four foot puddle is now a 50 foot deep lake and still rising. Minot is just now starting to clean up from what may be the biggest flood on the Mouse River ever. Experts said in 2009 that Lake Sakakawea might take 10 years to refill, and in 2011 operators were forced to send a flood to Bismarck to keep things from overflowing.
North Dakota’s weather has always been one of the biggest challenges of living here. It still is. But our grandparents and great grandparents made it through the winter and summer of 1936. North Dakota has a lot more going for it than it did back then. So we will get through the tribulations of 2011 and rebuild, just like we did three quarters of a century ago.

Posted by: justawriter | September 12, 2011

Far Afield – That day

As I remember it, it was a lovely morning that day.
I was in a rush, so I didn’t have time to listen to the news that morning. I got to my office and the office manager said, “Have you heard about the terrible accident in New York?”
The Internet was really still pretty new back then and my little branch office still had a pokey dial up connection. But I was still able to visit a few news web sites and get an idea of the massive destruction that was happening half a continent away. Then the second plane hit and it was clear that this was actually an attack and not a horrible accident.
At the paper, we reporters were put into full scramble mode to find stories that were relevant both to the disaster and our readers in North Dakota. I knew of an organization that sent members on a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., that day. So I called the group’s office and eventually they were able to put me contact with their members, who were sequestered in a room at their hotel.
One staffer I talked to that day had brought her daughter on the trip. She wanted to show her how the government worked and that people could make positive change if they worked at it. The staffer told me about the rumors of crashes and explosions that were flying around D.C. that day and about the sirens and smoke that were fueling confusion in the nation’s capital. Then she told me her daughter said, “I’m 11 years old and too young to die.”
That young lady is now 21. She has seen her country change in many ways in the decade that followed.
Quite honestly, that was about the extent that I was directly affected by 9-11. I had a couple of acquaintances on the East Coast but no close friends. The aftermath of that day, on the other hand, has directly affected my family along with tens of millions of other families.
I assumed we would hunt down the people responsible and punish them appropriately. I didn’t realize that an out-of-control administration would use the outrage over the attacks to pursue its irrational obsession with a tinpot tyrant who was a bigger danger to himself than the rest of his world. Meanwhile, the mastermind of the attacks was allowed to slip away and his date with justice had to wait for a more rational president to be elected.
Meanwhile, we have become a nation that is seemingly permanently at war. It has become such a fact of life that our casualties barely rate a paragraph in the newspapers. Only the local news covers the impacts, the tears and sadness when servicemen’s and women’s families accept that final flag.
The cost of our multiple wars, declared and undeclared, have beggared the nation. We are told that we can no longer care for our poor, our sick, our elders and even the veterans themselves. We are told that throwing more money at those who have more than they could spend in a dozen lifetimes is the only way to rebuild the country, even if it means taking food out of the mouths of children.
It has been ten years. The madman who started all this pain is dead. It is time to declare victory and celebrate the peace and start rebuilding our own country. We must never forget the dead, but we also need to care for the living.

Posted by: justawriter | April 7, 2010

Far Afield – Time to count our blessings

I took a little ribbing with last week’s front page headline canceling the flood, but in the end it turned out all right because the National Weather Service’s initial forecast turned out to be the most accurate. Despite an ugly few days of rain and snow, once the Knife River started falling, it continued to fall.
I freely admit I got lucky on that one. I think it is usually the case that luck is what separates a prophet from a nut.
So I count the river doing what the experts said it was going to do (at least once) as a blessing. I think this spring is bringing lots of blessings this year. I’ve heard that word a lot lately. Even in poor circumstances, this year people are thinking, well, it could be worse.
Just today I ran out to get pictures of a hay fire south of Golden Valley. The owner said that if it had to happen, at least it happened this year when there was plenty of hay. The same fire last year would have been a disaster for him. There is enough moisture this spring that we have a good start on another hay crop as well.
Even though we had plenty of winter to complain about, we had an almost ideal month of March. The beginning of the month saw most of the valley’s residents on pins and needles. But we missed our usual inch of precipitation and the temperatures slowed the melt to a month-long trickle. Experienced river watchers said they’ve never seen a month of March like this since they have been keeping records.
Even the last storm that passed through on Easter weekend wound up freezing things up after a two-day warm spell looked to open up the countryside and let all the water pour through. That prompted a drop in the river level that amounted to 10 feet by Monday afternoon. So even if it did make my drive back to my hometown miserable, it wound up being a good thing for the area.
The cattlemen around the country are just loving the weather as well. One rancher I talked to described this year’s calving season as “fun,” especially when compared to the misery of last year. There’s nothing like a dry pasture, plentiful feed, sunshine and above freezing temperatures for a fat and healthy calf crop.
All the events that were held up, canceled or compromised last year are coming off without a hitch.
Farmers are chomping at the bit to get out into the fields. The fields are still a bit muddy I think, but I think most farmers would trade a few extra days for plentiful soil moisture.
We’re still in the first full week of April, so we still have plenty of frosty nights before we can put the tomatoes out. But that doesn’t mean garden planning and preparation can’t be in full swing. There’s nothing quite so restful and relaxing as being out in the yard getting my fingers dirty coaxing rampant growth from the soil. I’ve got seed catalogs dancing in my head, just waiting for the sign that we’ve probably seen our last hard freeze.
I think we can even look at the threat of the flood as another blessing. The history in Beulah seems to be that we have a lot of concern and activity after every flood. But because historically, there has been 10 or 12 years or more between floods, the plans and precautions get shelved and people become complacent. This year’s threat is a good reminder that if we want to seek permanent solutions to Beulah’s flooding problem, we have to take advantage of the time between floods to get things done. Once the water is roaring down the river, it is too late to start.
It’s also a blessing that we saw that neighbors are willing to help neighbors when things look their worst. When the call went out for sandbags, the people of Beulah came out and filled more than twice as many bags as needed. A few of you even headed over to Zap and helped out their flood fighting effort. The Army Corps of Engineers also stepped in and offered assistance. Zap took their help while Beulah didn’t, but at least we had the choice.
So, as we head into a promising spring, no matter what our personal cares, maybe we should take the advice written by Cole Porter and sung by Bing Crosby:
When I’m worried and I can’t sleep,
I count my blessing instead of sheep.
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.

Posted by: justawriter | April 7, 2010

Far Afield – This is why we can’t have nice things

I had an interesting chat with a local businessman the other day. He was explaining why he hardly ever wanted to put anything about his business in the paper.
“If you write that I’m doing well, the coffee drinking crowd will start saying I’m cheating my customers. If I say things are slow, I’m a whiner. Shoot, if I make a donation someone will say I just did it to get some free advertising.”
This person was honestly concerned that sharing a little good news, something that would indicate to the rest of the world that Beulah is a growing and thriving community, would cost the business customers. This is something I have seen again and again over the years reporting on communities in North Dakota.
I grew up in a town not much bigger than Zap. My dad moved there when Truman was president and he was still one of the “new people” in town when Clinton was elected. I understand how stories get started in a place like Beulah and how the “Coffee Shop Press Service” operates. Getting together and sharing what is going around in the town is part of the glue that holds a community together. It is integral to make us human, going all the way back to when everyone was sitting around a fire in a cave.
But the morning coffee culture can have its dark side. The juiciest stories, the ones most likely to be repeated all across town are the ones that have the potential to be the most hurtful. What did the star athlete get caught at? Who was seen in Bismarck with someone who isn’t their spouse? The more prominent and upright the person, the more titillating the rumor and the more it is repeated.
There are a couple of things wrong with the “Coffee Shop Press Service.” One is that often we don’t know how these stories got started. By the time the story is repeated the third or fourth time, the original teller is forgotten. The other danger is that the stories grow more lurid over time. Like the old parlor game “telephone,” details get added or dropped in each telling until the original teller wouldn’t recognize the story. “An officer stopped to help Johnny change a tire” becomes “a cop pulled over Johnny” and ends up “Did you hear Johnny got a DUI?” Which is a huge surprise to both Johnny and the officer involved.
Much of what passes through the coffee shop are harmless stories of weather, fishing or calving. The stories that do affect people in a bad way are generally limited to the people involved. But the strength of the coffee shop crowd can hurt a community.
Recently there was a story out of Hazelton about a couple who took advantage of a local program for attracting new residents. They came from out of state and wanted to fix up a house and start a business. But they never felt accepted by the community and left after about a year with a very bad taste in their mouths. I have heard similar stories about many other towns in North Dakota over the years.
Our insularity – the things that bind us together as a town – is one of Beulah’s great strengths. It is what gets dozens of volunteers out to fill sandbags. It’s what drives people to hold fundraiser after fundraiser for both people in need and the local agencies that help them. It is what makes us reach out and lend a hand whenever it is needed.
But that same impulse also makes us suspicious of the stranger, the new person in town. We look for differences that highlight their strangeness and use that as fodder for the gossip mill. Being new or different in a small town can be a lonely, isolating experience. Not every person is like that and neither is every small town. But that impulse is common enough that it can make small town America an unappealing place to relocate to live or start a business.
Mercer County is blessed in a way. The energy plants have drawn employees from all over the state and nation over the last 25 years. The recreation opportunities make our area a place where people want to come to retire. We have passed the critical point, I think, where there are enough “new people” in the area where being new isn’t such a strange experience anymore. It is one of the things that make Beulah an attractive place for people to move to and settle down. We need to work to keep it that way.

Posted by: justawriter | March 25, 2010

Far Afield – Keep your hands off my food

I have a confession. I like to cook.
It’s mainly a side effect of being a bachelor who likes to eat. I make no claims to being a gourmet but I do seek out unusual and quality ingredients. I collect interesting and unusual cookbooks and books about food. When I get a chance to cook for other people, they generally appreciative and free with their complements.
As part of the my interest in food, I regularly peruse food magazines and web sites for new and interesting ideas. Going through the articles and blog posts, I see a lot of reviews. Or at least what passes for reviews. More of them are critiques rather than reviews.
I learned fairly early on that there is a significant difference between a critic and a reviewer. A favorite author of mine once explained that he had been offered a book column in a major publication. He told the editor that he would only accept the position if could be a reviewer and not a critic. He explained that a reviewer gives the reader information necessary to decide whether or not they would like a book. A critic tells the reader what he or she should like.
There are certain topics – mainly food, music and politics – where people with no experience and little insight seem to think they know more about the topics than people who have been working in those fields their entire lives. What they lack in expertise they try to make up with volume and venom. But that isn’t the their defining attribute. No, just about anyone can be an ignorant, obnoxious loudmouth. I think it’s even in the Constitution someplace. No, it is the firm belief that they know the “One True Thing” about something and will defend their definition of reality to the end that makes a critic.
It’s the nature of the Internet, I think, that has created a golden age of the critic in our society. Now anyone with a laptop and an opinion can create his or her own forum for their expertise.
I think my first exposure to real food fanaticism on the ‘net were the Great Chili Wars. I knew about the BBQ wars with Texas, Kansas City and just about every other state, town and bend in the road laying claim to the “One True BBQ” stand. But let me tell you, those folks are one big happy family compared to the veterans of the Chili truth squads.
The partisans of the various styles of chili – ending with an I, mind you, the peppers end with an e – remind me of religious schisms. There are the ultra-orthodox for whom any ingredient other than beef and chiles – with an e – are automatically excommunicated. The mainstream allows for tomatoes and onions in the mix, with branches differing on whether it should be a thick stew or a soup. All branches look down on the addition of beans, which makes the cook a heretic or something like that. Other variations like Cincinnati chili, which can be flavored with cinnamon and cloves I guess would qualify as cults.
What stood out for me was how firmly the partisans stood behind their various recipes, even to the point denying the existence of alternatives. Even if you could get a grudging admission that someone else made a pretty tasty product, you would be dismissed with, “It might be good, but it ain’t chili.”
As for myself, I decided that in matters of taste, I would take a different path. A critic brings to the table every plate he or she has ever eaten. Whatever is in front of them must be measured and ranked with the hundreds of other bowls of chili they have ever eaten. If it doesn’t match up, it must be denounced with great vigor. I try to take a different tack thinking about food. I take the food in front of me as standing on its own. Is it thick or thin? Does it have lots of meat? Is it spicy or mild? Is it a satisfying bowl of chili? That way I can give a description of the meal that will give a reader an idea if he would like to eat that bowl of chili, or if he would be better off with the next restaurant down the road.
I think a lot of things would be better off if people examined what they had in front of them instead of comparing it to some theoretical ideal. I have been lucky enough to have eaten some things that have made me sit back in wonder at how good they have tasted. Those opportunities over a lifetime are few and far between. Knowing those moments exist shouldn’t detract from joy we can take from plates of good, plain, satisfying food that lift up our everyday spirits. The peaks may define the mountain range, but life thrives in the valleys between them.

Posted by: justawriter | March 17, 2010

Far Afield – The wearing O’ the green

It’s funny how symbols can sometimes seem more real than reality.
This week saw one of the biggest symbolic holidays on the calendar, St. Patrick’s day. Full disclosure, my ancestry on my mother’s side is full of Clearys, Dunnigans and Browns. So I take some personal pride in all the hubbub and hoopla that accompanies the day. From New York to San Francisco revelers turn out in massive numbers for parades and festivities, even turning entire rivers green to commemorate the ancestors from the old county. Everyone is Irish that day, even if their name is Johansen, Chu or Gonzalez.
The irony is that back in the old country, St. Patrick’s Day is, at least until recent times, a solemn and quiet holy day. It was marked mostly by church services and reflection. Dublin has had a St. Patrick’s Day parade since 1931, making it considerably younger than such celebrations in the United States, many of which date from the 1840s and 50s in not earlier.
It has only been in recent years that the Irish back on the Emerald Isle have taken to using St. Patrick’s Day as a celebration of Irish culture. I think that is more a reaction to the flood of would-be Hibernians looking for the party than the actual heritage of the day. Shoot, the Irish didn’t even let the pubs open on St. Patrick’s Day until 1971.
No, it was the Irish diaspora that created the symbolic event we know as St. Patrick’s day. Driven by poverty and famine, the people of Ireland wound up on many foreign shores. A very large number landed in the United States. That was much to the consternation of the protestant residents who had themselves arrived less than a century before.
Fearful of what in those days was called “popery,” businesses posted signs that were sometimes shortened to NINA – No Irish Need Apply. In the face of that discrimination, the Irish community bonded together tighter than they would have back in the old country. While they could be denied economic opportunity, they couldn’t be denied the vote. The rapidly expanding country provided opportunities, both economic, political and educational, so that while the Irish were building the country’s railroads, they were also building schools and communities. And they kept voting for candidates that would battle for the interests of their people.
Anyone dedicated to a cause will tell you that just constantly fighting for something is unsustainable. People need celebrations to take a break from the endless wear and worry of trying to get things accomplished and having a life besides. Communities also need celebrations to define who they are and bring their members together. So it is that the shamrock came to grow on many foreign shores. Back home, the Irish didn’t need to be reminded they were Irish. But their sons and daughters around the globe needed something to bind them together so they would not be overwhelmed. So the Irish marched on St. Patrick’s day and became more united than they ever were. That’s what created the devotion to Ireland that sometimes I think even the Irish wonder about.
The symbols, and the community’s need for them, have become stronger than what they symbolize. Take the University of Notre Dame. The school’s official colors are blue and gold. But because of the “Fighting Irish” nickname, you are more likely to see the school’s athletes and alumni decked out in bright green. Indeed, I would wager that most people outside the university probably think green is Notre Dame’s school color.
So if you sipped on a green beer, munched on some soda bread or savored some corned beef and cabbage, remember and honor of a group of people that has contributed great things to our country. And think about the symbols that tie us together as a community.

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