Posted by: justawriter | March 10, 2010

Far Afield – Lord preserve me from being fashionable

To say that I am not a slave to fashion is an understatement.
I generally have two colors of shirt for work – plaid and not plaid. It’s pretty much the same for pants where the two flavors are jeans and not jeans. I’m thankful that, on the rare occasions I really have to dress up, suit coats haven’t changed much in decades so it isn’t obvious that the coat has been hanging in my closet for the last 10 years.
I wasn’t totally immune from the fickle winds of fashion. I did live through the disco era of the 1970s. I don’t think there is a person who was alive in those days who doesn’t hope that all the pictures from 1976 to 1980 all disappear into a black hole. But for the most part, my choices in attire have been built for comfort and not for flash.
When I was little my outfit of choice was a good set of bib overalls. I’m told my mom once bought me a pair of overalls with sleeves and I tried to cut them off. Even at 4 years old, I knew what I liked and stuck with it.
What gets my goat about fashion is that it never knows when to leave well enough alone. Take ties for example. In the staid world of business the neutral colored suit is nearly a uniform. The only avenue to personal expression allowed is the tie, and the fashion industry has responded with a plenitude of choices of fabric, color and patterns. But then they go a step too far and start messing with the widths. Every few years we see the industry go overboard and ties are either so thin you could braid them into rope or so wide you could substitute them for the bibs at a barbecue rib joint.
Then comes the attitude. When the ties are narrow, the guy with the wide tie is laughed at. When ties get so wide you can use them for a hammock, the pencil thin ties are ridiculed. It’s like there is a nationwide case of amnesia that makes people unaware that they are only a year or two from being laughed at themselves.
Occasionally the fashion gods will get something right. But even then they can’t leave well enough alone. Blue jeans are a good example. They’re durable, cheap and after a few months of wear and washes just about the most comfortable pants you can find. But then about 30 years ago someone discovered brand labels. The idea that a 10 cent label on a $20 pair of jeans was worth $100 was marketing genius, I must admit.
After that came the idea that worn out jeans were better so they started selling new jeans that were prewashed, preworn and now even preripped and charged even more money. Now you can buy jeans that are so tattered they look like they’ve been driven over by coal trucks for a couple of years. It seems that the less fabric remains, the more expensive the jeans.
But my biggest beef with fashion is the idea of being “out of fashion.” If the lords and ladies of fashion do come up with something good and don’t ruin it, then they abandon it. I have a score to settle on a couple of fronts here. I am hard to please when it comes to colognes and aftershaves. I think it goes back to all those long car rides as a kid before they put air conditioners in cars. Mom loved a certain aftershave from Avon and bought my dad a lot of it. And he used a lot of it.
I was not the best car passenger as a kid because I could get motion sickness on a teeter-totter. My dad didn’t like the windows rolled down when we were traveling so the car would get hot and stuffy and the aftershave would be so thick in the air you could almost see it. I guess I associated that smell with my queasiness for the rest of my life. I’ve found that in my case, most men’s colognes share a base scent with my dad’s cologne. After searching for nearly 30 years I finally found a scent I liked that didn’t share that noxious base note.
Within a year, the producer quit making it.
Because of some lingering foot problems, I’m also sort of fussy about my shoes. I found a style I liked back in the ’70s, but when disco died, the shoes gradually disappeared. They were really comfortable and fairly attractive. I rejoiced about two years ago when I found they had miraculously come back into style. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Yep, after 18 months the manufacturer had moved on and that style is no longer available.
So maybe we need a fashion rebellion. People should dress for their own comfort and pleasure and not care what outfits their neighbors wear or what the neighbors think of their outfits. Except for plaid golf pants. We still need some standards, don’t we?

Posted by: justawriter | March 3, 2010

Far Afield – The wheel keeps turning

It takes work to find the first signs of spring in North Dakota.
While more temperate climates are reporting that the cherry blossoms are out or the first crocus has been spotted, the clues that the seasons are changing are more subtle in the north country. But if you look closely, they are there.
The cliché sign of spring is, of course the first robin. There is a good sized flock of them around Beulah right now. But it turns out that robins are unusually tough birds. While they do migrate every year, they don’t fly as far south as many of our other feathered friends. While not exactly common, it’s not unusual to spot groups of robins in North Dakota in the depths of winter. These hardy birds aren’t our local summer residents but ones that nested farther north. They got this far and decided that our relatively milder climate would make a good stopping off point.
I’ve seen a few surer signs of spring this week though. As I headed off for a weekend vacation I saw two flocks of snow geese flying over Garrison Dam. These birds make an epic three thousand mile journey to their breeding grounds north of the Arctic Circle. Once the snow geese start making their trek, it won’t be long until Canada geese, ducks of every description and other waterfowl will follow.
I saw a bald eagle on my trip as well. While hawks are a sure sign of spring, I’m not so sure about eagles any more. Bald eagles love to fish, so they will stick around anywhere there is open water throughout the winter. With the tailrace keeping a good stretch of the Missouri unfrozen, I think this area could qualify as a bald eagle winter resort. Eagles also aren’t fussy eaters so an abundance of winter killed or road killed venison is a welcome break to their fishy diet.
Other signs of spring are open to dispute. March often sees a change in air itself. I don’t know if there is a bit more humidity in the air or what. But that first tentative thaw in March just feels a lot different to me than a January thaw. It could just be all in my head. I know the January thaw is a mirage. It’s just nature’s way of getting our hopes up before it really brings on the deep freeze. Even though I know there are more frosty nights to follow those first few March days above freezing, I can almost imagine I smell spring and summer being carried on the south wind.
I also noticed a difference in the snow. There is a difference between winter snow and spring snow. Winter snow is either fluffy or almost ice. Spring snow takes on a more granular feel like the snowflakes bunching together for a final farewell before making their mad dash to the nearest lake or river. It is like a halfway house between snow and slush.
I’m told that this is the time of year when all sorts of creatures from owls to foxes start making whoopie. I guess I can understand that a lot of creatures would evolve to take advantage of the large flush of food that comes with spring to help their offspring grow fast and strong before the next winter. The timing gets a little tricky, I’m sure, the years the cold weather is locked into may and even June. But most years it must work out because there are fox kits and owlets to populate the next generation.
Lately it seems, sadly enough, that the first sign of spring are sandbags. Most of the communities along the Knife River, Spring Creek and Antelope Creek have scheduled days for volunteers to make sandbags to protect vulnerable property in their towns. If you can help out, please take the time to do so. We have a good jump on the river this year. By pulling together we can prevent a repeat of last year’s disaster.

Posted by: justawriter | February 24, 2010

Far Afield – It beginning to feel like a rerun

The snow is as high as an elephant’s eye …
Lyrics like that are probably why Rogers and Hammerstein set their hit musical in Oklahoma instead of North Dakota (although “where the wind comes sweeping down the plains” would certainly still fit). As winter grinds on to the end of February young men’s fancy may turn to romance but older and wiser people’s attention turns to flood preparation.
My newspaper career has been defined by chasing down one flood story after another. I started off in Devils Lake about 15 years ago when the lake was just about half its current size and everybody was sure it couldn’t get any bigger. Back then we were told that eventually the larger surface area would mean more evaporation, which would balance the increased runoff. The Lakers up there are still waiting for that balance to happen. National Weather Service predictions indicate the lake will set a new record again this year.
The Lake Region really started flooding about 1993. My hometown of Edmore was hit hard that year. The mayor was asked by a television news reporter when the water was going to go down. He replied, “How should I know. We’ve never flooded before.”
Nobody seemed to have much experience with flooding in those days. Just about everyone planned their life and livelihood around not enough water, not too much. Farmers planned their rotations to take advantage of every drop of rain. Cities built reservoirs and pipelines to insure sufficient water for homes and industry. A lot of people honestly believed there was no such thing as “too much water” in North Dakota.
Oh sure, we suffered from occasional floods. But those were like lightning strikes, rare and unpredictable. Drought was the constant enemy that kept us all looking over our shoulders. I had a young farmer tell me, “I spent my whole life learning how to farm in droughts. I don’t know how to farm in a flood.”
Something shifted in the mid-90s. Devils Lake saw it first. While I was with the paper we started putting out annual flood editions. People got to know Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel on a first name basis.
The best known event in the early part of this wet cycle was, of course, the 1997 Grand Forks flood. There is nothing like coming close to losing a whole city that gets the nation’s attention. Soon after that I moved on to the Minot Daily News.
Flood stories continued to follow me around. I covered events both large and small. I remember kneeling in a Red Cross shelter in Belcourt so I could be at eye level with an elder to talk about the home she had lived in for nearly 80 years and now was gone.
Think Beulah’s potholes are bad? A flood in Upham left a gap a yard wide and 5 feet stretching across the whole of the town’s main street. I saw 6-foot culverts laying in the middle of fields at least a quarter mile from any road.
Even when I moved to Dickinson in 2000, there was some flooding on the Heart and Cannonball Rivers. I was starting to think I should hire myself out as a rainmaker.
In the decade that followed, floods and North Dakota seem to have been inseparable. It seems like it has crossed the line from common to the ridiculous. Something like 47 of North Dakota’s 53 counties had an official disaster declaration in 2009. This year’s snow accumulations have flood forecasters nervous from Bismarck to Minot to the Red River Valley to Beulah.
Flooding has become the new normal. In Devils Lake, which is now in the 17th year of its flood, most plans now start with “Depending on what the lake does …” Grand Forks is now shielded behind permanent flood protection and Fargo is considering how to do the same. Just like we came to cope with droughts that defined the North Dakota experience in the 20th century, it seems the state and its people will need to learn and adapt to high water in the 21st century.
There have been a number of meetings in the past week to prepare Beulah and its residents for what will likely be another spring of high water. There will be many more in the weeks ahead. A lot of information will be coming out on how to keep lives and property safe. I suggest that people heed that advice and watch out for themselves and their neighbors. Last year Beulah was caught flat-footed by the rising waters of the Knife River. It seems we are getting a rerun this year. Let’s give the story a better ending.

Posted by: justawriter | February 19, 2010

Far Afield – Everyone picks on February

It’s hard not to feel sorry for February.
It didn’t start out to be the shortest month you know. Way back when, the Romans were conquering the world. They were among the world’s most bloodthirsty soldiers. They invented the word decimate, meaning “kill every 10th person.” How many languages need a word for that? Running the world turned out to be hard job, much harder than conquering it. In response to that challenge, the Romans created one of history’s greatest bureaucracies.
Bureaucracies thrive on paper and calendars. In old Rome, the second of those requirements was a real mess. It didn’t have leap years and was 10 days shorter than the solar year. The practice was to throw in an extra month every few years. But then the politicians got involved and they started sticking in extra months when their friends were running things and withholding them when they wanted an election to come sooner. By the time Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and took command of Rome, the calendars were so confused many people literally didn’t know what day it was.
Caesar used his dictatorial powers to impose a much more sensible calendar on people. Astronomers had long known the year was 365 days long plus about a quarter day. So Caesar said that all years would be 365 days long, with an extra day every four years to make up for the quarter. His calendar left February short changed compared to the rest of the months. It’s worth noting that the Romans named two of the longest months after Julius and his successor, Augustus, and nice warm months at that.
So the second month of the year has been kicked around for the last couple millennia or so. Maybe people thought the winter would be shorter if they carved a few days out of it and moved them to the summer months. If so, I don’t think it worked.
To me, February is an adolescent month. It’s too old for joy-filled communal winter celebrations of November and December. Think about it, when was the last time the neighbors called the cops on your Presidents Day party? It’s too young for the exuberant excesses of spring. Much as we would like to enjoy the longer days after the depths of December and January, snowbanks and wind chill conspire to continue our hibernation.
It is a month of waiting and planning. Seed catalogs arrive and are scoured like they were holy books. Sports fans check the paper to see if their favorite baseball team has put the pieces together to contend for a pennant while they wait for their favorite players to gather in Florida and Arizona for spring training. But for February, all the flowers are still just pictures. And as the great philosopher Charlie Brown once said, “Nothing is sadder than a pitcher’s mound covered with snow.”
To get us through the month, we’ve come up with a bunch of distractions to help us forget winter and focus on the coming spring. We start with prognosticating rodents that are pretty much useless in North Dakota because we know we will always have at least six more weeks of winter.
Then there is the commemoration we hold to support candy companies, florists and jewelers – all in the name of love.
Then we remember the presidents, not just the ones born in February who, on the whole, were pretty good. But we commemorate all them, including Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan, who have a hard time being remembered in history classes.
I think the ones who get celebrating in February correct are the Cajuns. If I were in charge of everything, I would have everyone celebrate Mardi Gras, New Orleans style. Mardi Gras is a celebration of making it halfway through a long hard winter. It is celebrated with parades that are too gaudy, food that is too spicy, music that is too loud and parties that go too long into the night. It’s a day when too much is just enough. It is a breaking of the shell we build around ourselves in winter, a splitting of the cocoon that releases the beautiful butterfly inside.
It’s also a profoundly religious day. For Christians, it marks the beginning of the holiest time of the year. Mardi Gras came to the Catholic Cajuns (and others, such as the Brazilians who call it Carnival) from their European forebears as a celebration to polish off the last of the meat and other foods that were prohibited during Lent. Since it was a feast the day before Ash Wednesday, it was called Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. It was a day of feasting before the 40 days of fasting that preceded Easter and the first glorious days of spring.
I hope everyone had a vigorous Mardi Gras this week and that you were able to break out of their winter shell a bit. We are on the downhill side of winter and soon the first signs of spring will be appearing, like the sound of a baseball hitting a catcher’s mitt.

Posted by: justawriter | February 19, 2010

Far Afield – an amazing day in February

I don’t know if the stars aligned a certain way, or if it was just coincidence but this week marks the 201st anniversary of an amazing day.
Feb. 9, 1809, saw the birth of not one, but two men who single handedly changed history and created the world that we live in today. The two men and their paths through life could not be more different. One was born on a frontier, educated himself and became a country lawyer. The other was born into a family of famous thinkers and industrialists but left a comfortable life for an epic journey of discovery that circled the globe.
One became famous for holding his country together when it was nearly shattered by war. The other saw a pattern where others saw a confusing jumble. Both were masters of the written word. One inspired and rallied a nation with his speeches. The other convinced a skeptical world of the truth of his scientific vision.
Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were very different men who shared more than just a birthday. Both helped create the modern world we live in today.
Before Lincoln, there was a powerful debate in the United States whether we were one nation or a collection of separate states. People were as likely to declare themselves a Virginian or a New Yorker before they would consider themselves an American. That identity, and the idea that the states themselves could break the bonds of nationhood, were close to the heart of Civil War. For five of the bloodiest years in this country’s history, brother fought brother over the issue of whether we were one Union or a collection of states.
Throughout the increasingly bloody conflict, Lincoln held the nation together through sheer force of will. During the dark days of 1861 and 1862 when his armies seemed to be outfought at every turn and there were cries from his allies and enemies alike to end the war, Lincoln held firm to his belief that the United States was a single nation and people. And when the fighting was finally done, he was preparing to welcome the prodigals back into the family when an assassin’s bullet felled him.
But his contribution lived on. One of the greatest legacies of Lincoln was the passage, after his death, of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Prior to its passage, many argued that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were only binding on the federal government and not on the states. The Amendment made all people born or naturalized in the United States citizens and that no state could abridge the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. With that, the United States truly started on the path of becoming “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Darwin was a man who loved nature. He studied to be a doctor but was repulsed by the bloody savagery that was 19th century surgery. His family, which included famous doctors and scientists as well as the Wedgewood pottery empire, were preparing him to be a country parson, a profession that would allow him to continue his hobby of bug collecting and provide him a modest income.
Fate intervened, and he gained a position as a companion of the captain of the HMS Beagle and a role as the ship’s naturalist. The Beagle was to sail around the world with a primary mission of mapping the coast of South America.
What the young Darwin saw on that voyage didn’t register at first. But after he returned to England he studied his extensive notes and the thousands of specimens he had collected. The pieces soon began to fall into place and he began to grasp that the great diversity of life he had seen was not only related, but had to be derived from common ancestors.
He spent the next 30 years collecting evidence and honing his arguments while publishing important scientific works on coral islands, barnacles and earthworms. He published his great theory in 1859, just as Lincoln and the United States were facing his great conflict.
Darwin worked out that force that shaped living things was a process he called natural selection. It was such a simple and profound idea that the 20th century biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” If one looks carefully, evolution’s fingerprints are visible on every aspect of modern medicine, agriculture and even genetic engineering.
I doubt anyone on a frosty cold morning in 1809 would have predicted that two tiny babes would so effect the course of human history. One preserved freedom by preserving his country. One shined a light on the story of life itself. Just imagine all that potential within every newborn drinking in his or her mother’s milk. As Darwin concluded at the end of “On the Origin of Species,” “there is grandeur in this view of life.”

Posted by: justawriter | February 19, 2010

Far Afield – Groundhog day, more than just an oversized rat

Growing up on the Northern Plains, Groundhog Day always seemed to be the silliest holiday. After all, if you tell a North Dakotan in February there will only be six more weeks of winter, we would all be doing cartwheels and handstands. Shoot, 12 more weeks of winter would still qualify for an early spring around here.
Actually, the origin of the holiday is much more interesting than the sleeping habits of some oversized gopher. Groundhog Day is what is called a cross-quarter day. It falls halfway between the official first day of winter and the official first day of spring. Around these parts, we are aware more keenly than most that these dates have to do more with the sun and stars than the thermometer.
Winter starts on the shortest day of the year, and of course, the longest night. Slowly the sun starts creeping on its long journey back north. About this time of year the longer hours of sunshine really start to become noticeable, if only because we can get to and leave work with a few minutes of precious light to spare.
When our ancestors were completely at the mercy of the climate, keeping track of things like the progression of the seasons was more important than our relatively sheltered lives. By this time of the year, worried eyes would be cast at the quickly emptying granaries and root cellars. Knowing when the first green herbs of spring would be available could be the difference between survival and starvation.
All sorts of traditions and commemorations grew up around the cross quarter days. As with most pre-existing celebrations, the Church moved in to claim it by establishing the Feast of Candlemas, which marks the presentation of Jesus to the elders at the Temple. Groundhog Day seems to have been a legend from Germany that immigrated to the United States with the Pennsylvania Dutch. In the original version it was a badger that popped his head out of the hole to see spring had sprung. That’s one reason the hoopla around the day is centered in the Keystone State, especially around Punxsutawney. Punxsutawney Phil receives most of the media attention but there are nearly a dozen other notable groundhogs who make predictions on that day.
I don’t know if the Germans who settled western and central North Dakota carried that same tradition when they came to plow the prairies. If they did, I don’t think the tradition likely lasted more than a couple of stormy winters. But in the relatively balmy climate of the East Coast, the story was able to take root and become something of an industry. I’ve heard that Punxsutawney gets something like 40,000 visitors around this time of year waiting for the pronouncement of the rotund rodent.
Boosters of the farsighted furballs say they are much more accurate than the weather service. Killjoys who actually try to keep track of such things give them a score no better than random guessing. The scoring is complicated by the fact that most years the dozen or so groundhogs give different answers. In that case, do we go with a majority vote?
In any case, I think the best course is just to have fun with the day and not plan your fieldwork around Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostications. Maybe watch a Bill Murray movie, over and over and over again.
I suppose I should share my own prediction for spring, since I have been dissing our bucktoothed friends so much. My father always said that an early Easter meant an early spring. This year Easter is on April 4, which I consider to be early. So, you heard it here first, 2010 will see an early spring. If we are shoveling snow in May, you have my permission to point at me and laugh.
Six weeks from Groundhog Day is St. Patrick’s Day, more or less. So I am also predicting that in six weeks there will be a mysterious appearance of green beer. I think that’s a prediction that will hold up better than whatever Phil and his furry brethren say.

Posted by: justawriter | February 15, 2010

Far Afield – Playoff football and blizzards

I suppose it was inevitable. Another disappointing end to a Vikings season in the middle of a blizzard.
After all, we are talking January. There are two constants for this time of year, at least in this part of the country. Playoffs in the National Football League are something fans share in every corner of the nation, and the Vikings have made the playoffs 26 of their 48 years in the league. Plus, along the northern border, January is prime time for winter storms and blizzards. So it isn’t an incredible coincidence that some of my most memorable memories combine Vikings football and snowfall.
The storm this weekend seemed a whole lot like the game. The start was fast and furious, then there was a lull and the ending was downright miserable. As far as the game goes, it has to rank up there with the 1999 NFC championship debacle against the Atlanta Falcons.
I don’t know what it is about these New Age Vikings and missed field goals. I think an old-fashioned drubbing feels better in the long run that choking the game away in overtime. I don’t remember that day a decade ago as being particularly stormy, but looking up some old weather records it seems the state had received three times normal snowfall that January. So I guess I will rack that one up for the old snowball-football connection.
The gold standard, of course, became known as the Super Bowl Blizzard, in 1975. The weather system stormed out of the south forming 45 confirmed tornadoes from Texas to North Carolina to Indiana that left 12 dead. It slammed into cold air from the north and dropped more than 2 feet of snow across the Dakotas and Minnesota. That same weekend the Steel Curtain wrapped up the Purple People Eaters in a game where legends were burnished as Franco Harris gained more yards by himself than the entire Vikings offense. It was the first of four Super Bowl victories for the Steelers and was the third appearance in a Super Bowl for the Vikings.
But the 1977 Super Bowl has to be the most memorable one for me personally. Looking back, it was the sort of experience that taught me you can get through almost anything as long as there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
I was a junior in high school way back then. I think it was just after the Christmas break when I was talking to a friend who told me her vacation had been ruined because she had come down with a bad case of shingles. I didn’t know it at the time, but shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus. When most people have chickenpox, their bodies eventually beat back the virus. However, the virus is tricky and doesn’t disappear altogether. It retreats into nerve cells where the immune system can’t find it. For any number of reasons, including extreme stress, the virus can bust out of the nerve cells and cause a bad localized rash called shingles.
Why go into all that? Well, at the age of 16, I had never had chickenpox. Yep, shortly afterwards I was a pimply, scabby, itchy scratching mess.
Well, it turned out that year the Vikings had another good year and rode 38-year-old Fran Tarkenton’s arm and the rushing of Chuck Foreman and Dave Osborne to another conference championship and berth in the Super Bowl. And just like mud follows a rainstorm, another blizzard roared through North Dakota.
Now I have to give you another piece of background information. The house I grew up in was the very last house on the REC power line. It looped west out of Langdon and then south so I’m guessing that line was at least 50 or 60 miles long. What that meant in practical terms was that no matter where there was a break in that line, our house was going to be blacked out. And when there were many breaks in the line, all of them had to be fixed before our power was restored.
Well, I’m sure you can see this coming, that blizzard snapped the line between just about every power pole in the country. Or at least it seemed that way to me. So by Super Bowl Sunday we had been out of power for four days or something like that.
Did I mention that we relied on an electric pump for water? And the house was warmed by electric heat? Dad had a small propane heater that kept the pipes from freezing, but by game time the house had hovered in the mid-30s for quite a while. Obviously, I didn’t get to watch the game on television, but we had a transistor radio for entertainment.
So if you can picture it, there I was itching like crazy and fighting the urge to scratch, bundled in blankets against the cold, nicely ripened after four days with no shower, listening to the pregame show on a tiny AM radio. The only light was coming from a pine scented Christmas candle. It was already shaping up to be a memorable game for me.
Of course you know how the game turned out. The Vikings were handed their record setting fourth Super Bowl defeat. Fred Biletnikoff was the MVP for the Oakland Raiders, but my main memory of the game was hearing “Mark Van Eeghan crashes into the line – First Down!” over and over and over again. In the darkness, the Purple went down to their final ignominious Super Bowl defeat.
It was unimaginable at the time that it would be the Vikings’ last grab at the brass ring for more than 30 years. Since then, with five straight losses in conference championship games, I think we fans have gotten used to the Vikes being the ultimate “close but not quite” team. But both the Vikings and I survived, and there is a lesson in that. Maybe it’s a good thing they haven’t won a Super Bowl. If they won, it would probably have taken us months to dig out from the resulting blizzard.

Posted by: justawriter | February 15, 2010

Far Afield – When you give, keep it simple

Once more Americans are opening their hearts by opening their wallets.
The earthquake that has rocked Haiti has prompted an outpouring of aid to assist the relief effort to rescue the trapped and feed, clothe and house the dispossessed. It is one of those times where tragedy brings out our better natures.
It also brings out some of the dark underbelly of America as well. A certain rotund radio host has proclaimed that our simple humane gesture of sending troops to help in the recovery efforts was really about the president securing the black vote. A television preacher and activist dragged up an awful legend that Haiti brought this on themselves by making a deal with the devil to defeat France and gain independence more the 200 years ago. Fortunately, America is made of better stuff than that and those buffoons were largely ignored.
By and large, as a country we are a giving people. Whether the crisis is a medical emergency or a school trip or rescuing abused animals, there are always people willing to give their time and money to help others in need. That is one of the reasons the United States is a great country.
The fly in the ointment is that we often let our own prejudices and self-interest overrule our generosity. One example is a requirement I understand is attached to some federal food aid grants that the cash can only be used to buy American commodities. This puts a burden on charities who could buy more food from local sources and not have to waste thousands of dollars shipping it halfway across the world. This practice also steals customers from those local farmers and processors, actually taking away jobs from those we are trying to help.
In-kind donations are another sort of double edged sword. There are times when it is appropriate, such as sending construction equipment to Haiti to help dig out trapped people and clean up the devastation. But some manufacturers have used charities to clear unsaleable merchandise from their inventories and get a tax break to boot.
I remember reading about a charity in Somalia opening a crate from a manufacturer and finding it was full of women’s high-heel shoes. Not the most practical gift in the midst of a famine. Other gifts are useless because of ignorance of other countries. Following the devastating Christmas tsunami of 2004, winter coats were sent to Indonesia, a country that almost defines the word tropical.
We also have a tendency to only want to help the “deserving.” There is no way to kill a useful program or charity than to claim to have seen one of its recipients eating steak or driving a fancy car. Certainly there should be efforts to prevent widespread fraud against charities. But these measures can be taken to the point where help is denied to hundreds in order to stop one from getting a few undeserved dollars, not to mention all the resources need to investigate and account for each penny that could have gone to helping hundreds more.
The best donations possible are money, followed closely by time. With a few exceptions of charities specifically geared to handle them – such as food banks, blankets, clothing, and food – are more trouble than they are worth to charities. The clothing has to be cleaned. All of it needs to be sorted and warehoused and then transported to where it is needed. All that has significant costs for the charities involved. Sometimes the donations are sold for pennies or just thrown away because they are not worth the trouble.
Money, on the other had, spends everywhere. It can be moved around the world electronically at the speed of light. Charities can buy the material they need close to where the crisis is occurring, which also helps prop up the economy of the people they are trying to help. It also is much easier to keep track of and simplifies the accounting (what is the value of a $600 spike heel designer shoe in a famine?).
The same goes for volunteers. Doctors, nurses and people with construction skills are badly needed in Haiti and thousands of generous and brave people are in the country or are headed there. Others, like newspaper editors for example, would most likely just get in the way and should be content with sending money.
The American Institute of Philanthropy has a list of its most highly ranked charities working in Haiti. To receive a top ranking from that group, a charity should spend at least 75 percent of its budget on program services and spend no more than $25 to raise $100. The list can be found at

Posted by: justawriter | February 15, 2010

Far Afield – What would you have done?

I was saddened to hear of the passing this week of Miep Gies at the age of 100. If you don’t recognize the name, maybe you’ll recognize the name she will be forever associated with, Anne Frank.
Gies came to Amsterdam as a child after leaving Austria because of the massive food shortages there that followed World War I. She worked for Anne’s father Otto in his spice company starting in the 1930s. The shadows of war returned to Europe and Hitler’s storm troopers marched through the Netherlands and conquered the small country.
At the time, about 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands, including the Franks. Like everywhere else, they were put under increasingly harsh restrictions and finally rounded up and put on trains to the extermination camps in Germany and Poland. More than 100,000 were taken from their homes and delivered to their fate. Fewer than 6,000 survived.
It is one of the most compelling stories of the war that across Europe, brave men and women resisted the Nazi war machine and hid Jews even though it would mean a trip to the death camps for themselves. It’s estimated that the Dutch helped hide 24,000 Jews during the war. About one in three of those hidden were found by the Nazis. Gies and her husband Jan were among those brave souls who hid Otto Frank, his wife, two daughters and several others in a hidden room in Frank’s warehouse for more than two years.
During that time, Gies, her husband and several other Dutch people helped the Franks by illegally gathering food for them. Miep helped keep the young Anne’s spirits up by bringing her newspapers and other reading material, and small gifts, including a notebook. Anne used that notebook as a journal, assembling the document that became known as the Diary of Anne Frank. That book became a classic because of the honesty and bravery Anne exhibited in the face of unbearable conditions.
For 25 months Miep and Jan smuggled food and other necessary materials into the secret room, but eventually the Franks were betrayed. They were sent to the camps where Anne died from typhus, at the age of 15, just three weeks before the camp was liberated by American troops. Otto Frank survived the war and returned to Amsterdam. Miep had preserved some of the papers left behind, including Anne’s diary. That act saved a cornerstone of world literature and in a way, made sure that Anne would live forever.
Gies downplayed her role in the story for the rest of her long life. She said Jan and other members of the resistance took many more risks than she did. I think, in part, her attitude came from a desire to make sure nothing overshadowed the story of Anne and the others, so they would not be forgotten.
Gies said in 1997, “Imagine young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty. I am afraid nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was not. I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary.”
How many of us today would risk our lives in the face of such a monstrous enemy? How many would do so not because they want to be heroes, but because it was simply their “human duty.” I remember a short story in which a group of people mobilize to help a fellow in trouble. The fellow said “But people don’t act this way.” The main character replied, “Upright apes don’t, people do.”
You never know until you are put into an extreme situation how you will respond to it. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I had lived during the days when jackboots marched through the streets rounding up my neighbors and marking them for death. I would be afraid, certainly, because that is only natural. I just hope if the time ever comes I have the moral fiber to push the fear aside and act like a person, and do my human duty.

Posted by: justawriter | February 15, 2010

Far Afield – Starting the year off with a bang

Everyone would like to start the new year off with a bang. But that’s not always a good thing.
Especially not when it is a literal bang and it comes from under your vehicle.
I was driving back from some holiday vacation with my family and as I got a mile or two past Mandan I heard a sharp bang and then it sounded like someone was shaking ball bearings in a coffee can. The good news was that fourth gear still worked and I was able to limp back to Beulah. When the good news is “fourth gear still worked,” you know the bad news is going to be really bad.
I shouldn’t complain too much. I only had about $1,500 invested in the vehicle, most of which were for a new rear end and tires. Had the little truck lasted until April I would have gotten two year’s use out of it, which isn’t a bad deal. So I’m not too upset that it looks like my little truck is headed to the great junkyard in the sky. It’s just that the timing was really bad. My vehicles always seem to know when my bank account is a bit thin and take that opportunity to lay down and die.
I never was a car guy. If it gets me where I want to go, I am pretty much satisfied. So I am content to let others have their fancy rigs and big monthly payments. I’ve always thought the worst investment decision in America outside of sending money to a Nigerian banker who sent you an unsolicited e-mail was driving a new car off a dealer’s lot. Is there another major asset that loses so much of its value the first day you own it?
I let other people pay the depreciation on my vehicles. The money I’ve saved over the years I’ve put into cameras and computers. I probably would have been better off putting the money into savings, but I’m satisfied with the trade.
I can’t say that I’ve been disappointed by the results over the years. My truck was only the second of my vehicles to give out completely. Over the course of 30 years, that’s not too bad a record. Usually I can tell when the normal rattling of an older car becomes something more serious. Then it’s a quick drive to the nearest “pre-owned” car dealer and I have a new rattletrap to bop around in for the next couple of years.
I get the appeal of owning a new vehicle. I like new stuff myself, when I can afford it. But unlike a lot of the guys I grew up with, I never saw a set of wheels as an extension of myself. For many people, men especially, their car or truck is a way of telling the world who they are. To me, a vehicle is just a tool, something to get me where I want to go as quickly as possible.
In large cities, cars really aren’t practical. Forward looking cities try to develop neighborhoods where most of what people need is within walking distance and then create strong public transportation between those neighborhoods. North Dakota has too few people and too many miles to make that kind of development practical. I can make it through a few days without my own wheels but I will need to make arrangements for a new vehicle quickly. It’s one thing to walk a few blocks for your mail. It’s quite another to walk to Zap or Stanton for a story.
I must say, however, that my few days as a pedestrian have shown me that Beulah isn’t a bad town for walking, if you don’t mind the snowbanks and cold. Most of the necessary services are available downtown, so for someone living in the original townsite, things aren’t too bad. Still, when that early morning thermometer reads 20 below later this week, I will look forward to wrapping myself in a nice warm car instead of bundling up to hoof it to work.

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