Wednesday, February 1, 2017

2016 in Review

This is my last column for 2016. What a year it was, I am quite confident that there are many fortune tellers and others who predict the future that are scratching their heads and saying, “I didn’t see that coming.” I suppose every year is like that but this year seems even more surprising and unforeseen. But you must admit it was kind of fun, like a roller coaster or a movie with a great plot twist.

I know depending on your point of view it was entertaining or horrifying but just for one second remove your personal feelings and interests and look at what happened. TV writers couldn’t have come up with a better script to keep you on the edge of your seat. Again, you may have had your hands over your eyes or been pumping your fist. I am almost certain that no matter what your viewpoint you did both this year.

Yes, it was entertaining but I hope the events of this year are not a pattern or a sign of things to come. It seemed like everything was taken to the extreme. In the elections (let’s face it, the elections were the biggest, strangest, most entertaining event of the year) we had a choice between the two extremes. I guess the middle has become boring so we are attracted to the far end of the spectrum. Was it exhilarating for horrifying. I guess that depends on your own personal views and I prefer to keep mine to myself.

The work of our government also followed this pattern of extreme. Seemingly gone are the days of compromise and civil discussions. It appears you are a winner or a loser and the only way to get your point across is to shout down your opponent. Heaven help us if you lose, then pouting and protesting seems to be the order of the day. I certainly miss the days of civility and grace.

The markets also seem to have followed this trend of extremism too. Whether it is the stock market or the commodity markets, I do not ever recall such big shifts at one time. I remember the good old days when there were patterns to the market and you kind of knew what was coming. Now a gain one minute can be followed by a big loss in just a blink of an eye. I suspect there is a pattern to all of this but I have trouble seeing it.

Even the weather is marked more by extremes than I ever remember. Just look at last week. We are just coming off one of the nicest fall weather patterns in recent memory and boom, we go right to the coldest weather in many, many years. Then all the sudden we are right back into a nice, mild pattern in just the span of a couple of days. I know this is Kansas but give me a break.

I suppose most years are like this if you take the time to look at them in the rear-view mirror, but this year seems pretty wild. I remember when I used to watch TV dramas with outlandish plot twists because they were entertaining and thought provoking. Now I watch even the most far out show with the most outrageous script and that little voice in the back of my head says, “you know that it could happen.”

The one thing I will say about 2016 is that it was not boring. Years from now we will look back on this year with more clarity and know exactly what kind of year it was. Will 2016 be an outlier, one marked with extremes and once in a lifetime events or will it be just a marker on a trend line. I suspect the answer will be yes. Some of the events will be extreme and “once in a lifetime” happenings while others will be an indication of the future. Only time will tell.

Will any of this be an indication for what 2017 will be like? Maybe, all I really know is that I have no idea what will happen next year. I know, just like 2016, some of next year will be good, some will be not so good but all of it will happen no matter what I think of it.

However, as we bring 2016 to a close all I can say is that it was one of the wildest years I ever remember. In fact, it was so intriguing that I am anxious to see what plot twists and unexpected surprises the next year will bring us. All I can say is, take a deep breath, buckle up and hang on for dear life, here comes 2017.

My Christmas Wish

Judging by the music in the malls and the decorations that line the streets I would say that Christmas is near. OK, that really isn’t a good way to judge the time of year because the decorations have been up and the Christmas music has been playing since sometime early in September. However, the temperature and, more importantly, the calendar, tell me that Christmas is near. Maybe I ought to start my shopping this week. Awe, what is the rush, I still have five days.

Honestly, I haven’t even really had time to think about Christmas or even enjoy the season. It seems like every year the hustle and bustle of the season gets to be more and more, drowning out what are the best and simplest joys of the season. We all have commitments and obligations that spring up this time of the year and distract us from the real meaning of Christmas.

My wish for you in the next few days is to put aside the rush of the season and take a few moments to relax and reflect on what Christmas really means. One of my favorite things to do this holiday season is to plug the lights in on the Christmas tree, turn off the lights and the TV and sit in the quiet. It gives me a chance to clear my mind and focus on what really matters.

Maybe it is a side effect of getting older, but the highlights of Christmas are far different now than they used to be. Christmas is a time of renewal and anticipation, it’s not about presents, lights and noise. Christmas is the joy of Christ’s birth and the promise of a new life. I often think about the shepherds (I guess they are the group from the nativity that I identify with the best) and wonder what that experience was like for them. The faith and courage it took to seek out the stable is beyond my comprehension.

Christmas is also a time we spend with family and friends. This year more than any other I am looking forward to Christmas being a time with family. I suppose Ike being in college and coming home for the break might have something to do with that and I suspect as the years go on it will be even more of a highlight. I hope that you will not allow the preparations for those family events and homecomings get in the way of enjoying time together.

Another thing I have noticed is the greetings as Christmas gets closer and closer. People seem to be happier this time of the year and more often than not we wish each other a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year as we part ways. Did you ever wonder why we are more likely to wish people well this time of the year as opposed to other times? I think we might all be better off if we greeted and departed with the same attitude year-round that we do at Christmas time.

I want to share my Christmas wishes for each of you. They are simple but if we each find time for them I think it will lead for a much better and more meaningful Christmas.

My wish for each of you with these last few days of Christmas is to find that time to unplug, find that quiet place and reflect for just a moment. It might be in your easy chair in front of the tree, maybe with Christmas music, a hot cup of coffee and a cookie (that is the method I recommend) but take just a few moments and let the season soak in.

When you are with family and friends allow yourself to be there and enjoy the time together. Don’t let your mind get cluttered with the things you need to do, the obligations you may have or any other distraction. You can let your mind stew over those things later, but for right now focus on the people around you. For a little while let your worries and stress go.

Finally, I hope you find time to spend focused on what Christmas is truly about. I know Christmas Eve services and the services during Advent are some of the most meaningful for me. My favorite part of Christmas is a darkened church, lighted only with candles as Silent Night is sung. That is when I truly feel the Christmas spirit.

I hope that during these final days of Christmas you find time to unburden from the daily grind of life, and take time to remember why we celebrate Christmas. My wish for you is to be able to spend time with the people most important in your life and truly focus on that time together. Most of all I wish each and every one of you a Merry and Blessed Christmas.

Winter Preparedness

It looks like winter is finally upon us with the most bitter cold snap of the year. Just like last year, and the year before and the year before that, I am completely unprepared. Each year this first real arctic blast seems to catch me off guard and not ready. Never mind that it is well into the first week of December before we got really cold weather or that we have had a couple months of unseasonably nice temperatures. I am simply not ready.

Jennifer tells me that my unpreparedness is a chronic condition of my own doing caused by my tendency to procrastinate. OK, she didn’t put it to me that nicely and she may have said it when she mentioned that we should power wash the lambing barn on one of those nice sunny, seventy degree late October days. I think my reply to her was that it was too nice and I wanted to do something else that was of equal importance in my mind, I would do the power washing later when I had more time.

Despite the theory of my wife, I am sure that my unpreparedness is a result of an early winter and global climate change or something along that line. I just assumed that the seventy degree sunny days would last until at least Christmas. It is not my fault that the polar air couldn’t wait to make an appearance, who would have thought it would be here this early?

Last week we had our first little taste of cold weather when the morning lows dipped down into the twenties. That was when I made the shocking discovery that I did not have any insulated bibs. It did eventually come back to me that at the end of calving season my bibs were in such bad shape and so dirty that Jennifer strongly suggested I burn them rather that subject our washing machine to the terror of trying to clean them. I believe it came with the statement that the settings only went to heavily soiled and not gross. It was probably for the best, without all the grime holding them together they would have disintegrated anyway.

So, I had no insulated bibs and could not find any gloves. Did you ever wonder just where the gloves go? Each year I buy the biggest bundle of cotton gloves I can find and each year I am scrambling to find two gloves by March. As for my insulated hat with ear flaps, who knows where it might be. I am sure it will show up later (probably about April).

The prediction is for the bitter cold to be here tomorrow morning. I sure hope there are a pair of overalls that will fit me somewhere in Manhattan. Finding my size is not easy. I know if I lost weight clothes would be much easier to find and I will get right on that, later. I really don’t think I procrastinate, I don’t have time for it. Besides, without my insulated coveralls I might freeze to death if I wasn’t a little chubby.

Aside from my personal comfort, I am woefully unprepared for cold weather. I probably ought to have the tank heaters ready to go, barns bedded down and water hoses drained. I am sure that will all get done in the next few hours. I might even have time to get the chimney cleaned so I can fire up the wood stove and have a place to thaw my cold hands out. That really only matters if I find a little time to get some firewood cut. I guess these are all things that could have been done earlier, but what was the hurry.

The sad truth is that I do often fly by the seat of my pants. That would be an uninsulated, cold, hopefully not frost bitten seat of my pants. I have heard that preparation and planning do make life easier but what is the fun in that and where is the challenge? I think the thrill of the deadline and the exhilaration of the near disaster are much more exciting.

It is very difficult to plan for everything and who has the time to get all of that done ahead of time. I am sure the days are shorter and minutes go by faster these days. The weather should have given me more warning than the seven to ten days I got from the long-term forecast. These are all the excuses that will be going through my head as I am power washing the lambing barn on a day that is below freezing. Oh well, at least I will be warmer in my new insulated bibs and gloves.

Dad's Christmas List

The Christmas Season has officially started on my calendar. I know everyone was waiting with much anticipation for my signal to start the Christmas Season. Now I will acknowledge Christmas decorations, go Christmas shopping and listen to Christmas music. I guess one might say, “Tis the Season.”

This is also the time of the year when my family asks for a Christmas list. I must admit that making that Christmas list is not nearly as much fun as it was forty years ago, Then the formulation of such a list required many hours of study using advertisements and catalogs. Yes, forty years ago, was back in the dark ages back before the internet. Kids have it so easy these days.

In any case, it is much harder to come up with a wish list at my age because, let’s face it, if I need something I usually go out and buy it when I need it. Couple that with the fact that I am old and boring and really don’t require much to make me happy. I have settled into being “Dad” and making it both easy and hard to buy Christmas presents for me. So, I thought I would help with a handy guide to buying gifts for the ag dad.

Tools are always a great idea. Tool supplies seem to dwindle as the months go along with spikes in disappearances coming during planting and harvest. Often wrenches are missing from sets, usually the 9/16 and ½ inch wrenches but if you need an 11/32 I can almost promise it will be gone too. Buying the whole set often just leads to the surplus of 11/32 wrenches and sockets (of course, until one is needed). One novel idea is just to go to the various tractors and trucks and simply collect the misplaced tools, wrap them up and save some money.

Shirts are always the go-to present for any dad but especially the ag dad. It doesn’t mean we will wear the shirt. Often, they languish in our closet as we wear the same shirts day after day because they are our favorite. That is until we are either publicly shamed into wearing other shirts or our favorite, thread-bare shirts just disappear and we are forced to start wearing and breaking in new shirts.

Coffee mugs and travel mugs are nice gift ideas but I also suspect you could use the same tactic as I mentioned in the tool section and simply retrieve the mugs left in our trucks and tractors. This method will require much cleaning and often a strong stomach. Gloves are also another much needed and very appreciated gift and you can also recycle those found in the pickup, however, good luck finding a matching set, one without a hole and a right had glove of any kind.

Hats are tricky. While they may be appreciated by ag dad, they probably will be viewed with a great deal of disdain by ag mom and may suffer the same fate as the gift shirt and spend years of gathering dust while the favorite hat is worn into oblivion. Socks are a great gift because none of us have too many socks, this is in stark contrast from the wish list of the six-year-old me. I guess it is just lowered expectations and greater appreciation for the little things in life like not having holes in your socks.

On our farm, gifts often reflect the passing of various tools such as axes, hammers, fencing pliers, etc.… throughout the year. Sometimes the tool is broken and this is the best way to replace it. Most often, the tool has gone missing and in many cases, the person giving the gift is most responsible for the disappearance. On a side note, many times I get the idea that my Dad’s gift to me is often a message to quit borrowing that tool. I probably need to be much more strategic in what I “borrow” during the year.

If your ag dad tells you all he wants for Christmas is world peace, a million dollars or everyone to just be happy it is a stall tactic. It is not that he doesn’t really want those things because they would be great. However, it is more likely that he really cannot think of anything and it is the buying him time.  Before he gives up and gives you his old stand-by answer, a new shirt.

As I get older most, if not all, of my satisfaction from Christmas is derived from watching others receive their gifts. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate and like the gifts I get, but my perspective has changed. The bottom line, at least for myself, is that we ag dads are basically very simple guys and we really like what you give us, it is really the thought that counts and the clean pickup.

Leon Cline, My Friend

One doesn’t often think of the county fair in November. I don’t know about you but I put any thoughts of the fair out of my mind a day or two after the fair and don’t even start thinking about it again until sometime the next spring. This past week I spent a lot of time thinking about the Pottawatomie County Fair. I must say it was very bittersweet.

I have had the privilege to be a county agent in four different counties and I have judged the county fairs of over sixty counties in Kansas, a couple in Colorado and a few in Nebraska. I have observed many a fair board. I know every county has a small group of people who spend a great deal of time, year-round planning the county fair. Pottawatomie County is no different. We have one of the best, most dedicated fair boards around. But it is a fairboard with a big, gaping hole in it.

This past week the Pottawatomie County Fair lost Leon Cline. The best way I can describe Leon was that he was the heart and soul of our fair. I don’t think it has hit home yet what a fair without Leon might be like, it was an honor to work with him and a blessing to have called him a friend. Leon was one of the most selfless, caring, community minded people I have ever met. He was a shining example of no matter what hand life dealt you, you could serve others and enjoy the life you were given.

Leon loved every part of the fair and hardly ever missed a minute of it. In fact, when Leon was healthy I doubt he missed a minute. In later years, his health failed him and he was forced to rest, I know it bothered him greatly. I also suspect that he sacrificed his health against the better judgement of his doctors to be at the fair. Driving around in his golf cart, making sure everyone was taken care of. But that was the essence of Leon, putting others first. The thing about Leon I will miss the most is the friendly greeting that helped make even the most hectic, fair day seem better.

I got to know Leon twenty years ago when I came back to my home county to serve as the 4-H Agent. Leon was on the fairboard and he had a vision of what the fair should be and his vision included entertainment. He loved going to the talent showcase at the Association of Fairboards meeting and lining up acts for the next year. Leon brought jugglers, balloon artists, chainsaw sculptors, magicians, bands, singers and some acts that defied description. Leon’s vision worked and the acts added to the allure of the fair and brought in many new faces and added to everyone’s experience.

Leon’s legacy goes far beyond the fair. He was that rare person who put community and others first. I know without a doubt that serving others and seeing them happy was the most important thing in Leon’s life. He served the community in many, many ways and I am sure I will miss more than I mention. I know he is remembered by some as a bus driver, others as a school custodian, a dispatcher, a volunteer firefighter/ first responder and to many as a DJ at thousands of dances. He wore many hats but it is safe to say that to everyone who met him he was an incredible friend and a shining example of a life well lived.

This past week I have spent a great deal of time thinking about Leon and just how much I will miss him. The fair might not be the same this year. I say might not because as I thought about Leon this week I thought about the example he left for all of us to follow. Living our lives like Leon lived his would be one of the greatest tributes we could ever give him.

Even if you never met Leon Cline, the example he left all of us would be one worth emulating. Go out each day putting the happiness and well-being of others first. Making the people around you happy will make you happy. No matter what hurdles face you, they don’t have to stop you and most importantly those obstacles should not stop you from caring for the people around you. Enjoy the little things in life and revel in them.

If there were more people in this world like Leon Cline, it would be a much better place. We can never replace Leon but we can make sure his memory lives on in the example he gave us. Take care of those around you, make sure their happiness is your priority and enjoy life to the fullest. That is what Leon would want.

Thankful Thanksgiving

This week is Thanksgiving and to many of us it is an excuse to stuff ourselves with turkey, stuffing and all the fixings and take a long nap while pretending to watch football on TV. That is OK and it is certainly in my plans. Thanksgiving has also become known as the start of the Christmas shopping season with some stores opening during the holiday. I will leave that rant for another time and all I will say is that Christmas Season should not start until at least the day after Thanksgiving.

I think Thanksgiving should be more than a day to stuff ourselves, watch football and start our Christmas shopping. Those things are all fine but they should not be the focus of Thanksgiving and they are certainly not what was intended by setting aside a day to give thanks.

We have just come through one of the most contentious years in my lifetime. I am sure there were other years in the history of this great nation that were just as tense and full of controversy but I don’t remember them. I certainly don’t remember an election cycle this acrimonious. That gives this Thanksgiving even more meaning and purpose.

I don’t care which side of the elections you were on; we all have a lot to be thankful for this year. We have proven that we could come through the most unpleasant election season and emerge on the other side still holding our place as the greatest nation in the world. Sure, there will be many more bumps, heartburn and worry but I have complete confidence that we will come out stronger and better for all of it.

Instead of worrying about what is wrong with our nation, we should celebrate and give thanks for what is right. Most of us have shelter, food and clean water. Everything after that is gravy. We live in relative peace and safety. Just having the basic needs is something a great majority of the rest of the world doesn’t take for granted like we do and we should be thankful for all we have.

I would also like for us to take this day of thanks giving to reflect upon just how good we have it and carry those thoughts into the next year. We live in a land of abundance and we take that blessing for granted. Recently I had the opportunity to work with Rick McNary. Rick has dedicated his life to helping those who are not as blessed as most of us and who do worry about having enough to eat each day. You can’t be around Rick and not want to do something about hunger.

I am quite certain that food is something most of us take for granted. We have always known that we will have our next meal and that there will always be food in the pantry and the refrigerator. We are blessed to have enough that we turn our noses up at certain foods and often a large percentage of what we do have goes bad before we can eat it. We should be thankful enough for what we have that we start working on this problem.

I am not trying to make you feel bad because my house is just as guilty about wasting food. I just want us to think about how good we have it and what we can do to try to pass some of our blessings on to those who are less fortunate. Just think about what we could do if, instead of wasting that food, we used that money to help feed those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Dealing with hunger is an overwhelming task if you look at the totality it. However, if we all do small things to help we can chip away at the mountain one stone at a time. Those of us in agriculture know about doing our part. I am also just as sure knowing that many people do not have enough food and that we need produce even more in the future is a part of what motivates us to do our jobs.

I will leave you with this wish. I wish that for one day we would put our differences aside and not worry about the events of the past year. Let’s celebrate the abundance and blessings of this great nation with a day of rest, relaxation, food, family and fun. During this celebration, I hope each one of us will take time to give thanks for all that we have and reflect upon how we can be good stewards of all we have been given. I ask that you think about how you can share those blessings with others. Then maybe one shared blessing at a time we can start to mend fences. That would be something we could all be thankful for.