Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Groundhog

Its been a while since I've written anything for my blog, but I have been doing a lot of writing for my Eng. 301 class. Most recently, we were assigned to write a descriptive nature essay, so I will share that here. Enjoy:

Like the omniscient groundhog, in whose shadow rests the very fate of winter, ripe blackberries mark the end of summer. The season itself may be at least a month from over, but shortly after people begin to pick blackberries, school resumes, and summer, as far as students know it, is finished. My last Sunday evening at home found me strolling through the fields of my parents’ farm. I carried with me a large, yellow, plastic bowl. I was going to check the groundhog.

The path leading from the horse barn to the back field is narrow, separated from larger pastures on either side by two short electric fences. I unhooked the chain that held the large steel gate in place and pulled it open, the metal clattering as it dragged against the concrete.

The worn grassy path dipped and ducked and the hills continued to shrink, leading to the lowest point on our acreage. Straight ahead, a small opening stood invitingly amid a tangle of leaves and white branches, the entrance to one of two small woods on the farm. The path, however, wound around the edge of the woods and opened into a field. The ground, a cheery yellow quilt of buttercups, sank slightly beneath my foot with a squish. Even during a dry summer, the field maintains the feel of a small swamp.

A familiar aroma wafted pleasantly through the air, something like honey. The fresh and lively scent came from the field’s most obvious landmark, a large Cottonwood.

An elderly man named Morton Lawrence owned the property before my parents, and lived there for 78 years. Morton always referred to the Cottonwood by a rather peculiar nickname: the “Balm of Gilead," for the sticky resin on the underside of the leaf, evidently similar in appearance to the healing balm sold by the traders from Gilead who also bought Joseph from his brothers in Genesis. The nickname is memorable, and makes the tree seem ancient, as though it is a tie back to Bible times.

The tree stands alone in the middle of the field, a giant patchwork of broad green leaves and the occasional yellow, bathed in a deep golden glow from the waning sun. The woods on either side of the field, with their warm cluster of Birch, Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar and Big-Leaf maple cause the Balm of Gilead to look simultaneously solitary and majestic.

During the spring, the rain causes the ponds in the woods to spill over into a natural stream that flows downhill out of the woods to the right, across the field, and past the Balm of Gilead, eventually curving into the woods on the opposite side. In late August, the dry streambed is nothing more than a shallow trench, a long line dividing the field in half.

Beyond the Balm of Gilead, the ground slopes back upward to a small bluff, and a barbed wire fence marks the southern edge of our property. A large field sits on the other side of the fence, and, beyond the field, houses. Despite the southern exposure, this field, tucked off in the corner of our farm with its lonely Balm of Gilead, and practically cocooned by two separate woods, offers a feeling of security and solitude.

Ironically, this sense of security and solitude makes this field an ecological hotspot. The zone in which the woods open into pasture teems with wildlife. Woodland creatures, such as raccoons, deer, rabbits and mice, use the edges of fields as a corridor of travel, as they move much faster in the open field. The presence of woods on both sides creates a natural freeway of sorts, several lanes of furry woodland traffic.

The protection of the nearby woods emboldens these creatures. Occasionally, they dare to linger in the field, foraging and hunting. Barn Owls, Red-Tailed Hawks and Bald Eagles discovered this wood’s edge phenomenon long ago, and countless times I've seen the hunter flying overhead or sitting perched in the top branches of the Balm of Gilead, waiting for some brave rodent to venture out of the woods.

I stepped across the dry streambed. Along the edge of the eastern wood grows a large thicket of blackberry brambles. Blackberry bushes grow rampant on our farm. We have burned them, mowed them, chopped them, and pulled them out by the root; yet they always seem to come back with a vengeance. Anywhere else on the acreage, they are a nuisance, but here, in this field, blackberry bushes are a treasure.

The large, dark berries glistening in the setting sunlight confirmed my suspicions: the groundhog had not seen its shadow; summer was over. Not that it would have changed anything; I had already packed the last box into the trunk of my Ford Taurus, ready to hit the road back to Iowa first thing in the morning.

The berries serve as a gentle reminder that life must keep moving. The plans of man for this life are nothing to the plans of God. If it were up to us, we would live in the protection of the forests and backfields in life, never daring to discover what lies in the open fields and beyond. God calls us to challenge ourselves, to step beyond the familiar, to allow Him to work in our lives, no matter how far from home it might take us.

I picked a plump blackberry from a thorny branch and placed it in my mouth. A blackberry is actually a collection of many tiny fruit that cluster together to form what most people think of as a blackberry. As I bit down, the juice of 60 small fruit burst in my mouth--dark, sweet bitter.

As tough as it would be to leave the comforts of home and summer behind, staying would get me nowhere. For my senior year of college, God’s plans called me back to a small Iowan town nearly 2000 miles away, and I knew that the best thing I could do was to trust and follow, even if the next step beyond that was clouded in uncertainty. The swallows were chirruping a brash evening chorus as I walked back to the house, the plastic bowl filled with blackberries that would stay at home.

Monday, September 3, 2007

In All Fairness...

In All Fairness

In notes past, I have described several cherished memories—cross country meets, the Easter Sunrise Service, choir tour and summer haying. More bittersweet, but no less a staple of my life is the fair. Indeed, the Northwest Washington Fair is an important ingredient in the lives of many.

For one week every year, the sleepy, conservative, Dutch town of Lynden awakes with a jolt as over 250,000 tourists, hailing from every corner of the Pacific Northwest and beyond pass through the city’s fairgrounds. Not only is the Northwest Washington Fair the biggest annual event in Lynden, it is one of the biggest fairs in the Pacific Northwest.

Farmers gather from near and far to display their finest livestock and produce. Local artists, weavers, collectors and photographers exhibit their creativity. And an audience of several hundred thousand watches the whole thing.

Although a large carnival section, and the allure of fairground exploration draw many people in, it is the Grandstand shows which provide the primary entertainment for the week. Twice on Monday, in the afternoon, and again in the evening, is the Demolition Derby.

The time-honored tradition of controlled car-crashes attracts a massive and truly diverse group. It is an interesting symptom of the human condition that so many people, young and old, male and female, urbanities and rural-dwellers, want nothing more than to watch cars careen headlong into each other.

I don’t understand it, frankly. I cringe every time I think about that sickening crunch of metal against metal. Perhaps that is just me. Many more people seem to derive enjoyment from it. One hilarious example, and case-in-point that people of all ages love the demolition derby is my Aunt Esther (Note: She's actually my Grandma's Aunt. Everybody in our family calls her Aunt Esther.) Aunt Esther is 94 years old, and due to waning mobility in recent years, decided not to attend the fair for the first time in 30-some years. Her greatest regret? That she would miss the Demolition Derby.

Many bands and musical groups have performed at the grandstand, for better or for worse. Most years, the quality leans toward “for worse.” Several years ago, the fair board invited the Beach Boys to sing. At the last minute, the Beach Boys canceled, due to one of their members sustaining a back injury. So, in a stroke of genius, the fair board called in a member of the top echelon of the music industry: an Elvis impersonator. His name was Randy “Elvis” Frisky, and he hailed from the paradise on Earth that is Las Vegas.

Sarcasm aside, I simply cannot respect anyone who makes their career out of imitating someone who is dead (although I guess some would claim that Elvis is still alive. But that doesn’t matter, I don’t respect those people, either.). As bad as Randy “Elvis” Frisky was, The Beach Boys were not much better, when they did end up coming to the fair the following year. As it turned out, to advertise themselves as the Beach Boys was a half-truth (or more accurately, a one-fifth truth). Only one member was an original Beach Boy (he was the one who injured his back the year before; he was getting on in years), and the rest were little more than glorified impersonators.

Quality continues to be an issue: only several nights ago, I listened to Ted Nugent sing from my family’s horse display behind the grandstand. For those of you who are not familiar with Ted Nugent, which is likely, he is an aging, bitter man, who had achieved modest fame as a hard-rocker in the 70s.

I did not pay attention to what he was singing for the most part, although several things he said in between songs could not be ignored, not even by a large population of deaf, elderly Lyndenites sitting down to dinner in their homes (if the wind is right, the sound from the grandstand show can carry up to five miles). At one point, Nugent stated that he had promised to keep his performance PG-13 rated. Then he screamed “Free machine guns for the kids!!!” and proceeded to let loose with a stream of curses and profanities. After he finished, there was the creaky sound of several thousand collective jaws dropping, and then silence.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if an angry mob had chased Nugent out of town with torches and pitchforks. Apparently, nobody filled Nugent in on where exactly he was performing. While these worst-case scenarios do happen, there have also been many pleasant surprises throughout the years.

Nearly 12 years ago, Johnny Cash sang at the grandstand, Garth Brooks made a surprise appearance eight years ago (my uncle, who was listening from our display, thought aloud that it was a talent-less Brooks impersonator), and Rascal Flatts performed four years ago. Undoubtedly, there are still quality performances to come.

I should probably explain why I am even writing about the fair in the first place. I am a farm kid, and although I grew up complaining constantly about this fact, it is a background of which I am immensely proud today. As it was a hobby farm (my parents work full-time jobs in addition to owning horses), they never asked me to do the work that many farm kids do when the farm is their parents’ livelihood. They did, however, always ask me to help at the fair.

18 years ago, my parents built several outdoor stalls along the pony and draft horse barns, in a pleasant central location roughly 50 meters from the grandstand. From a young age, I have contributed in whatever way my parents needed: as a kid, I brushed the horses and spent time in the stalls with them to demonstrate what friendly family horses Haflingers were. It should be noted that I did not necessarily believe this claim at the time; I had my doubts about Haflingers after an incident when I was five years old in which a careless mare had trampled my legs while I was sitting out in the field.

As I got older my responsibilities grew. I became responsible for cleaning stalls at the fair and answering questions about the horses. I will not hide the fact that I often came up short in what was expected of me at the fair. That is not what this note is about. This note is about how my view of the fair has changed throughout my life so far (despite how little actually changes about the fair itself), and the various events, which mark those changes. For example, a child’s perspective on the fair is fundamentally different from that of a teenager, which is fundamentally different from that of an adult.

The fair as a veritable smorgasbord-orgasbord-orgasbord: The Childhood Years

Whether or not we will admit it years later, each of us loved the fair unquestioningly as children. And why shouldn’t we have? From a young age, children ingest an almost-sickeningly romanticized view of the fair. The classic children’s movie, Charlotte’s Web, comes to mind. Specifically, the scene where the nasally-voiced, morally ambiguous rat Templeton embarks on a musical eating spree in the fairgrounds after dark. Sure the food has congealed, the lemonade has fermented, and Templeton ultimately eats five times his body weight, but let’s be honest: Fair food has never looked better.

Carnival rides only serve to seduce children further. A child can spend countless hours repeatedly riding the merry-go-round or bumper cars, and may never tire of running through the fun house or riding the gigantic slide. Of course, we just stuck to the kiddy ride section, only occasionally gaping in mingled awe and fear at such hulking structures as the “Ring of Fire” and “The Moonraker”. Fortunately, the imposed height limits, represented by oversized wooden hands, provided us with a legitimate excuse not to chance these intimidating rides.

We also saw carnies differently as kids. We automatically assumed that carnies must be the happiest people on earth. I suppose we imagined that carnies lived on a steady diet of cotton candy, caramel apples, and corndogs (which at the time sounded pretty good), and that they spent all of their spare time riding the “Tilt-a-whirl” for free. Truly, we thought carnies led la dolce vita. So it was that my teenage years proved a rude awakening from this idealized view of the fair.

Starting when I was eleven, I accompanied my mom into the fair at 6:00 am every day for morning stall duty. Rather than spending several hours of several days at the fair brushing the horses, visiting such exotic animals as Holsteins, pigs, goats, and horses of various shapes and sizes, and riding kiddie carnival rides, I would spend at least twelve hours a day, for all six days, sitting at my family’s horse display, cleaning up after the horses as the need presented itself.

This was the year that the novelty of the fair truly wore off for me, and I realized that the fair was not just fun and games. Even my childhood penchant for junk food came back to bite me. One morning, I had purchased my favorite fair-week treat: a root beer flavored Sno-Cone.

I took a big bite off the top. My savoring of the simple combination of shaved ice and overly-sweet root beer-flavored syrup was cut short by a most unusual sensation. It felt as though there was a small piece of paper on my tongue, except the piece of paper seemed to be moving—crawling, in fact. This sensation was followed almost immediately by an intense stinging along the tip of my tongue. Spitting out a mouthful of partially melted Sno-Cone, I discovered the culprit: an extremely angry hornet sputtered on the concrete, rustling its sticky wings irritably.

Stomping repeatedly on my tongue’s attacker, I swore loudly. Or at least, I tried. The expletive stopped dead when it reached my mouth, because my tongue had swollen to what felt like the size of a bean bag. I ran over to my mom and attempted to explain what had just happened: “Mah tug! Mah tug! A hoe-net thtug mah tug! Id wah in mah thno-code ad id thtug mah tug!” Perhaps it was my imagination, but I believe I saw my mom stifling a laugh as I delivered my tearful account of the unpleasant event.

But then, it must have sounded hilarious: Imagine Sylvester the Cat of Looney Toons fame suffering from a head cold. However, after the one flicker that betrayed my mom’s amusement at my plight, she skillfully rearranged her features to express the motherly sympathy and concern I had expected in the first place. She quickly produced a small bottle of Benadryl, and gave me the maximum dosage. Ten minutes later, I was out cold, in the fitful sleep that only drowzying medications can induce.

I awoke six hours later at home (I hadn’t even remembered the ride home), my tongue still sore, but considerably less bean-bag-like. At that moment, I swore off the habitual consumption of fair junk food. Mind you, I would still eat meals at the fair, and treat myself to the occasional snack, but only once in a great while. Even now, 10 years later, I’m still not comfortable eating Sno-Cones, and will carefully scan it for hornets before eating, on the rare instance that I do so. It was this painful event that ushered in what I shall call the second stage of fair-life: the teenage years.

The Slide is Right: The Teenage Years

Now, the title “teenage years” is a bit of a misnomer, as it really lasts from age 12 to age 17 (at least that is how it played out for me). Gone are the idyllic visions of caramel apples and painted carousel horses of childhood. Yet, the teenage outlook was, in my case, still fundamentally immature. I would muck out stalls begrudgingly. I felt as though horses were not “cool,” and that the work was beneath me.

In the spirit of adolescent laziness, I would generously allow others to handle stall duty, if possible, and spend the day sitting around with friends. Socializing became my primary objective during fair week. My friends and I would sit around our display’s canopied table and chat idly. Often, we would talk about girls, gossiping about who was going out with whom, and speculating on the dramatic details of these short-lived junior high/high school relationships.

We played hours of “silent football”, a game so random and complex that I won’t even try to describe it, sufficed to say that the loser would be required to complete ridiculous dares of the winners’ choosing. One example was the time that my brother had to approach a stranger and shake his hand, saying, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” This statement apparently rang false with the heavy-set gentleman who had been the object of our dare, and he responded with a several-minute rant about the government: “The government?! Let me tell YOU something about the government!”

One year, my mom rented CB radios to keep in touch with one of our cooperating farms that had their own display set up several barns over. Of course, my friends and I were more than happy to utilize these glorious inventions for the purposes of entertainment. Mostly, we would interfere with the other people on our CB frequency: One time, Callie Haan made a date with several other kids on our frequency who were also at the fair. She arranged to meet them at Fountain Square at 2:30. As they described in painstaking detail how tall, muscular and handsome they were, we noticed three short, scrawny, greasy, thickly-bespectacled kids walking past our display, talking on their own CB radios. It took us a split second to realize that their mouths were moving in perfect synchronization with the voices on our radios: These were Callie’s tall, handsome dates.

Fortunately, they did not notice us, not even when several of us snorted loudly in an attempt to hide the tidal wave of laughter that was threatening to break out. At a quarter past two, we gathered a short distance from Fountain Square to see if the trio would show up. Sure, enough, they showed up ten minutes early, each fumbling nervously, wiping their sweaty palms on their high-water pants and glancing around twitchily in the anticipation of meeting an actual girl face to face.

At this point, Callie, who felt bad, decided to step forward and confess that it was all a prank. Of course, it didn’t end in complete honesty—Andrew Dickson also stepped forward, pretending to be Callie’s boyfriend, and told the very-frightened looking kids to stay away from her. We all enjoyed a hearty laugh at the time, but looking back, our little prank wasn’t funny at all—actually quite cruel. Well, maybe it was a little funny.

It is during the teenage years that one comes to simultaneously dislike and pity carnies. As it turns out, the childhood estimation of carnies subsisting on a diet of fair food was dead accurate, but by this time in our lives, we knew better than to think that such a life was “the sweet life.” We realized that the raucous, outgoing and bizarre quips and antics of the carnies, which had captivated us as children, might just be influenced by over-consumption of alcohol.

This revelation came to me one time when I happened to walk past the gigantic slide in the carnival section. The carnie taking tickets beckoned me forward in a loud voice, speech slurred: “Welcome to the slide is right!” I stopped in my tracks and shot him a look of complete befuddlement. He must have felt pressured to follow up this invitation, for he added what he evidently thought to be a fitting punch-line: “WITHOUT Bob Barker!” I did end up riding the slide that time, but mostly out of pity for the ticket taker, who was laughing unrestrainedly at his own joke, and who, I surmised, was completely hammered. As I departed, he called after me: “Don’ ferget to have yer pets spayed and neutered!”

My pity for carnies occasionally wandered into the territory of irritation and dislike. One unforgettable occasion, I was riding the double-ferris wheel with my brother. Several minutes into the ride, a putrid chunky liquid rained down, splattering our heads and shoulders. Someone on the upper ferris wheel had succumbed to nausea, and their aim had been true.

Fortunately, my brother and I had strong stomachs (Some people would not have been able to endure the smell, and would likely have touched off some horrific peristaltic chain reaction. The ride seemed to go on forever. My first indication that something was amiss came when, in glancing at my watch, I realized that the ride had continued five minutes longer than it should have. Looking down, I could see our carnie, 30…20…10 feet below, enjoying a corndog with the carnie from “The Octopus” which was out-of-order.

Frantically, I began to call out every time we descended to eye-level with the carnie, in a futile attempt to get his attention. Unfortunately, the general noise level at the carnival—a mixture of excited screams, loud conversations, blaring music, bells and whistles—swallowed up even my loudest pleas. After finishing the corndog, the carnie decided to have a smoke, and apparently felt that he couldn’t stop our ride at the same time.

By now, disgruntled fair-goers who had waited for too-long in line were shouting angrily at the carnie, who merely blew out long puffs of smoke as he stared dazedly into space. Finally, after close to 17 minutes, the carnie stopped the ride and let us go. My shirt and hair caked in dried vomit, it was all I could do not to tell the carnie off. However, I was a skinny 14-year-old, and this fellow looked as though he had survived several vicious bar fights, so I thought better of it.

When reality chooses to present itself, it hits hard, and plays dirty. The teenage years are when a person realizes that the fair is not all it is cracked up to be. Despite the feeling of let-down that accompanied my transition into these teenage years, I found just as many redeemable aspects to fair-life in some of the most unlikely places.

That’s Fair to Say: Redeemable Aspects of the Fair

As I have labored to establish in previous writings, I am not a morning person. I will grant, however, that there are few settings as peaceful as the fair first thing in the morning. The roads are empty on the drive into town, and the sunrise casts a pleasant golden glow over the pavement. The morning air, brisk and refreshing, rouses even a slow-riser like myself.

The stalls are always dirtiest first thing in the morning, and require several loads of sawdust. Additionally, the display needs to be swept heavily after the sawdust truck passes through. Somehow, none of this matters, because the morning atmosphere is so contagiously enlivening.

After the work is done, our morning crew migrates seventy-five meters northeastward to Kathy’s Coffee. While I enjoy both Woods and Starbucks, I am not afraid to say that neither can hold a candle to the beverages at Kathy’s. Kathy has watched my brother, my sister and I, and a number of our friends grow up in the ten years that we have worked the morning shift. Each year serves as an informal reunion of sorts, as we bring Kathy up to speed on what each of us have been doing since the previous fair.

Amazingly, Kathy is able to keep track of not only our names, but also our favorite drinks. I tend to go with coffee—usually, a 20 oz. Vanilla Latte--as it gives me energy for the day ahead. My brother, Ben, and Andrew Dickson, on the other hand, order Italian Sodas.

Through trial and error over the last decade, they have made a crucial discovery in the field of Italian Soda making: the power of white chocolate. While it is uncertain who ordered a white chocolate Italian Soda first (Ben claims that he did, while Andrew maintains that it was himself), one thing has become clear: White Chocolate can be combined with just about any other flavor to make for an exquisite Italian Soda. Ben describes it as the “hydrogen bond” of Italian Soda chemistry (in future writings, you will come to see that this is a typical Ben-ism).

As Ben and Andrew endeavor to expand their hypothesis every year, Kathy responds in mild amusement: “So, what’ll it be this morning? 16 oz. White chocolate with…?” The resulting concoctions are so flavorful, I have even broken my long-standing coffee tradition on several occasions to try such delicious combinations as White Chocolate Raspberry and White Chocolate Orange, on my brother’s recommendations.

As we walk back to the stalls to enjoy a breakfast of donuts or biscuits and gravy from the nearby PTA booth, Ben and Andrew swap notes on their respective experiments. They have even recruited apprentices to test the hypothesis in as many ways as possible: Chris Vander Haak ordered a Blackberry Hazelnut Italian Soda, and effectively proved that without the base of White Chocolate, negative chemical reactions can occur (the drink was terrible).

I guarantee that the next feature of the fair week I plan to discuss will sound downright weird to the uninitiated: Coloring books. Years ago, my mom purchased coloring books and crayons for my sister to work on during the long stretches of down time at our display.

Several days into that particular fair week, I opened one of the coloring books, and in a fit of boredom, defaced it. Using a dark pen, I was able to embellish and change the pictures in the coloring book in such a way that my changes looked as though they had been part of the book originally. Ben, Andrew, Brent Lindquist and several other friends quickly followed suit, and soon our family’s display developed a reputation for what was surely a bizarre image: several high school guys sitting around a picnic table working intently on children’s coloring books with black ink pens.

By modifying the pictures and captions, we were able to disfigure even the most innocuous coloring book with our twisted brand of humor. Coloring book characters would sprout extra limbs or faces, Winnie the Pooh would become a political parable of epic proportions, Dick and Jane would become a violent grudge match, and Sesame Street would become a gang of freakish mutants (which is saying something, considering that Muppets are freakish mutants to begin with). Rather than describe the details of each coloring book we distorted, I shall provide several examples of our artwork:

Cookie monster is stricken by "Grover Growths"

Bears may attack aggressively when surprised

I wish I could say that I have outgrown this odd tradition now that I am practically out of college, but alas, the de-facing potential of each new coloring book is too strong to pass up. I suppose that the coloring books serve as an outlet for my bizarre sense of humor, especially after several long days of doing nothing but sitting around, cleaning stalls, and eating fair food. I just shudder to think of how my children will one day approach coloring books with my shining influence. Maybe I’ll find less intrusive ways to express my sense of humor. But probably not.

What can be fair in farewell? The “Responsible Adult Presence” Stage

Between high school and college, the fair scene changes drastically. For junior high and high school students, the fair is a chance to reconnect with friends and classmates after a long summer break. Friends compare class schedules in an attempt to determine who will be in their classes, and dream up elaborate schemes for the upcoming school year, all the while enjoying carnival rides and playing CB radio pranks on unfortunate victims.

The shift that occurs between high school and college is abrupt—there is nothing gradual or easy about it, no harbinger to prepare students for the next stage. The fair is a much more somber occasion for college students. Where they once compared class schedules and schemed with friends, they now bid those old friends farewell, and spend fleeting moments with their families before heading out into the “real world.” The fair literally shifts from being a place of “hellos” to a place of “goodbyes.”

It is for this reason, I think, that so many college students simply stop going to the fair. Some find themselves leaving early because school starts early. Others occupy themselves with summer work, or vacations that take them out of town. This is part of the process of moving on, and it is both healthy and necessary.

As I worked this year, I noticed that there are many high schoolers, slightly younger than me, who chat and scheme idly as I did, and many young couples only slightly older than me, pushing strollers containing young children, who absorb the garish sights, sounds, and smells of the fair for the first time.

Precious few college-aged people, though. I avoided the fair as much as possible after my first two years of college. I, like so many others, found work that would call me to be elsewhere. The time I did spend was not especially helpful to my parents, either.

This year, my parents were confronted with a dilemma: several girls who had been diligent workers and talented trick riders were going to be absent after three years of immeasurable help. As my parents contemplated their busy work-schedules for that particular week, and how little time they would be able to devote to the fair, I did something that defied every instinct of laziness or negativity that I’d held toward the fair for so many years: I volunteered to work at our display for the whole week.

In response, I received a unique promotion: I was to be the “adult presence” at the stalls in the absence of my parents, responsible both for cleaning the stalls and supervising several high-school aged workers. I am proud to say that I worked harder at the fair this week than in any previous years.

Despite my hard work, I fudged on the responsibility aspect on at least several occasions. Late in the week, we found a toy bow with suction cup arrows abandoned on our display’s picnic table. While the safe suction cup arrows provided modest entertainment, greater possibilities presented themselves in the form of a wooden stick.

For lunch, David Vander Haak and Ben purchased the meal that had become the talk of the fair for the week, alligator on a stick (the alligator tasted like deep fried clams, but the alligator is irrelevant, it is the stick which is important to the story). David, like any honest 14-year old male, decided that it would be a good idea to sharpen the stick into a crude arrow, as this would be much more fun to shoot than the harmless suction cup arrows.

Ben, who was supposedly another adult presence, agreed, and even helped to sharpen the stick. Being the other responsible adult in the scenario, naturally I watched in mild amusement.

I watched as Ben, Chris and David all tried to hit the poor apple, which had been chosen as a target. I watched as several stray shots pierced the tablecloth. I watched as the arrow punctured a full water bottle. I watched as the arrow twice sailed out of our canopy, settling near the feet of passersby, miraculously maiming no one. I even took a shot myself, and hit the apple dead on, piercing it to the core (imagine if any of the stray shots had hit the passersby. Yikes!).

The concept of being a “responsible adult presence” is one that I am still working on. Later that day, David decided to play with our industrial stapler. It was fool-proofed to prevent staples from shooting out, and would only launch a staple if applied to a surface of some sort. In an attempt to shoot a staple, David inadvertently provided an adequate surface: his finger. The result was a small hole traveling through his fingertip and out his fingernail, where the staple had punctured, and his older sister Emily (my co-“responsible adult presence” for a good portion of the week) confiscating the stapler for David’s own good (even with a hole in his finger, he was laughing about the whole situation, and trying to take the stapler back so he could try to shoot a staple again).

Perhaps “responsible adult” status can only be achieved through such trials and errors, but it is unfortunate when the trial is a staple gun, and the error is a puncture wound in David’s finger.

The fair is a bittersweet beast, to be sure. It is a place where young children can ride painted horses and eat bag after bag of fluffy sugar. It is a place where teenagers can talk incessantly about members of the opposite sex, play pranks, and mock carnies. It is a place where people like me can try to figure out just what “responsible adult presence” means.

For all of its quirks and foibles, I do appreciate the Northwest Washington Fair. Although I still defaced several coloring book pages this year, I spent even more time writing this essay. Is this a sign that I am growing into the “responsible adult” role? I’d like to think so. I was even able to put my five-year-old bitterness about Haflingers aside and enjoy several evening rides in the outdoor arena.

The fair is truly one of a kind. It is an event that defies physics: Even though the individual days drag on and on, the week as a whole is over in the blink of an eye. Nowhere else can fourteen hours spent doing virtually nothing be even remotely amusing, as the fair can be, at some of the most random times. I am, however, glad that it only comes one week a year. As I recover from the long, exhausting week, and steady diet of fair food with a semi-relaxing road trip, I can only imagine what next year will hold.

Thanks for reading!
God Bless,
Nate G.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hay Good Lookin' (or The Buck Stops Here)

After several months of silence, I am picking up my pen once again and etching the exciting details of my summer for all to see (okay, so its not really a pen, more of a keyboard, and my silence was strictly proverbial. As for exciting? Well, that's up to you, and it really depends on what you have or haven't done with your summer.)
I am writing on what may have been the hottest day of the year. With a high close to 100˚ and humid, I think that today safely dispels the mythology of a perpetually rainy and mild Washington. And, of course it stands to reason that this life-sappingly hot week should coincide with that staple of summer in a farming community: Bucking Bales.

Last night, I helped my family pick up our modest harvest for the year: 463 bales. The backbone of bale bucking, and the most essential step once the grass is cut, is assembling a hay crew. When the Gibsons put up hay, it is, at its core, a family affair. We are like the Von Trapps, except with dead grass (Although I guess we did sing for a bit while loading the wagon last night.) In addition to our five family members filling various tasks on the field and in the barn, we usually call in several friends to join the team.

A farmer gathering a hay crew strongly resembles a college attempting to recruit athletes. Since most farms tend to put up hay at the same time, the competetion to procure the best workers can be fierce. Thus, employers must offer competitive pay (generally upwards of $10/hr), and perks such as lemonade and food. Once your prospective "buckers" sign with your hay crew, the game can begin! (By game, please realize that I mean sweaty, horribly horribly exhausting, dusty labor) This year, we signed two rising all-stars in the haying circuit, Andrew Dickson and Brent Lindquist.

For the benefit of those who have never bucked bales before, I have taken the opportunity to provide you with a bucking glossary of sorts:

Field: Place where grass grows, is cut, raked, baled. Hay crew is responsible for loading bales onto wagon.

Gloves: A necessity. Do not think that you are impressing people by going "commando." Others will think less of you for it, and you will come to regret it the next day, when your hand is permanently stuck in a fist.

Driver: The one who helms the tractor or truck which pulls the hay wagon. Ironically, the driver is often the crew member without a driver's license.

Wagon: That which will contain the hay.

Bucker: Typically 2-4 on a crew, buckers walk on either side of the wagon, picking up bales and placing them on said wagon for stacker.

Stacker: Typically 1-2 on a crew, the stacker stays on the wagon and receives bales as buckers bring them, stacks them in the most efficient manner possible.

Roller: Rolls bales out of way of driver. This job is typically assigned to children and the elderly.

Backswath: The outer edge of the field, where bales tend to be heavier. The backswath sucks.

Barn: Place where wagon is eventually unloaded, and hay is stored.

Elevator: Conveyor machine that transports hay bales from wagon to barn, when unloading.

Encourager: Serves no other vital role, little more than an observer.

Anti-histamines: Keeps those with hay allergies alive.

Wee-folk: Refers to the smallest people on the crew, who are capable of stacking in especially tight places in the hay loft.

Food preparer/Lemonade bringer: Unarguably, the most important person on the crew.

Before we even set foot on the field, we came face to face with a devastating obstacle. My brother, Ben, who has served as our designated stacker for several years, found out he would have to work late at Haggen that evening, and therefore miss out on haying. My dad, a veteran stacker, took Ben's place, while Brent, Andrew and I bucked the bales onto the wagon. My sister drove, and my mom alternated as roller and food preparer/lemonade bringer. As I scoured the fields, picking up bale after bale, the twine digging into my gloved fingers, I began to feel a sense of satisfaction at the hard work I was doing. However, the field work was merely a warm-up.

We pulled our full wagon up alongside the barn and scaled the wooden ladder into the hay loft. Defying all laws of meteorology, the temperature inside the hay loft was perhaps 500˚ hotter than the temp. outdoors just several feet away, on the other side of the wall. Also, it immediately became apparent that fresh air was a luxury, not a right. Sadly, it was a luxury the loft could not afford. In flipping on the lone lightbulb which shone dimly from high in the rafters, we were amazed to find that we could actually see what little air was in the loft simply by looking for clear gaps in the haze of dust.

Then, a familiar loud, rickety sound echoed through the loft: the hay elevator was running. As the bales rode up the elevator single-file, advancing like a small grassy army of the dead, we came to meet them head-on. We would grab the bales as they approached the end of their lemming-esque march and stack them from the corner out, building an imposing wall of hay along one side of the loft. As we built higher, we would send one of the wee-folk (Andrew and myself served as wee-folk on this particular occasion) up to the top of the stack, allowing us to keep building in areas beyond our reach. As luck would have it, a group of neighboring farmers, who were putting in hay of their own on the other side of our barn, pitched in. Soon, we had our own army amassed at the end of the elevator, lined up, each of us waiting to claim a bale.

In virtually no time at all, we had unloaded the first wagon, and could emerge into the refreshing evening air (which we had previously, and might I add, foolishly, thought to be too hot and humid) for a lemonade break. Although the time in the loft was brief, every second felt like an eternity. Each breath taken decorated the lungs with several pounds of hay dust. We realized that we had found muscles we didn't know we had and had begun to sweat profusely in places where we had thought we couldn't. After spending time in the loft, a return to the field sounded like a veritable vacation. Andrew, in particular, was so overcome with zeal that he was moved to lead our crew in repeatedly singing the first line of the Dean Martin classic, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie" (that first line being all any of us knew). Of course, it became tiresome to try and sing raucously and buck bales at the same time, so we stopped after repeating the one line about twelve times.

As we finally approached the house for dinner, a night of haying behind us, we silently reflected on the work that we had done, the honest labor that had taken us from the field, to the barn, and now back to the house. The reflective silence was broken when one of our numbers remarked in amusement that his snot was black from the hay dust. We all started to laugh in agreement, then groaned horribly in pain when we realized that it hurt to laugh.

While our hay work only took one evening, many farms pick up thousands of bales over the course of several days. Imagine waking up, your whole body itchy and sore from the previous evening's work, only to repeat the process for yet another day or two. Needless to say, I was glad to put it behind me for the year. Yet, in spite of my relief at being done, I do not think that summer would be summer without that evening (or two, or three) of back-breaking, bale bucking, dust sucking labor. Truly, bucking bales is a staple of the summer experience.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Finish Line and Beyond

I haven't written in a while, mostly due to the sheer busyness of the last three weeks. So, it only seems fitting that the last three weeks of school be the topic of my newest blog. This is just a collection of reflections and observations that seem to describe those last moments of the school year fairly well.

Perhaps the most deceptive name ever given to a week, yet still painfully accurate in the sense that you do feel dead (or at least, less alive) by the time that Friday finally rolls around. As a naive freshman several years ago, I welcomed dead week with open arms, having misunderstood just what was supposed to be dead about the week, anyway. This year, as a junior, I sat and waited in grim anticipation of the incoming tsunami of homework and research projects. A more effective approach may have been to actually work ahead and finish things up in a timely fashion, so that every lingering academic commitment did not come crashing down on top of me at once. I should try to learn a lesson from all of this now, before it is too late. However, it is in my nature to procrastinate, and for procrastinators, there is always a tomorrow (how optimistic!).

Hand throbbing, you set your pencil down on the stack of lined paper in front of you, which you have just filled with several haphazard streams of consciousness in the form of semi-legible handwriting. Although the pink eraser hardly makes a sound as it hits the paper, its significance echoes through your mind with the resonating finality of a judges' gavel: Junior year is over. Rising to your feet, you collect and staple your test papers, handing them to the professor, who looks on in mild amusement as several of your classmates scrawl frantically on their test sheets with one eye always on the clock. In a whisper, your professor wishes you a good summer, but you stare back blankly, only managing perhaps the faintest smile and "you too." Your mind is simply too numb from writing essays to handle basic speech just yet. You walk back to your dorm room in a stupor, only vaguely aware of the people around you, or the car that braked hard to avoid hitting you when you stepped out in front of it.
The test went well, you think. The first essay was easy, you knew exactly what to write, and managed to fill two pages, front and back. Your second essay was easy too, although you only used one side to answer the question. By the time you made it to the third essay, however, you were getting tired. The question looked like a jumble of nonsensical words on the page, and as soon as you deciphered what the question was, you realized that you did not know the answer. So, you made the answer up as you went. Fortunately, if Dordt offered a B.A. degree for B.S., you would graduate with honors, so you are not too concerned.

This is a bittersweet experience, and really the last chance for roommate bonding during the schoolyear. An example of said roommate bonding:
Me: "Hey Dan... I'm going to throw out this salsa. It expired last December and there seem to be sentient lifeforms growing in the bottom."
Dan: "Okay, whatever. By the way, I found a pack of Slim Jims from first semester behind your fridge. They were hot and it looked like they had started to melt, so I trashed them."
Me: "Oh... you should've asked me first... how melted were they?"

Okay, so maybe I didn't really make that last comment, but I am not kidding about the Slim Jims melting. I'm not sure what chemical property allows mechanically seperated chicken and beef parts to melt, but they had definitely melted. We're talking microwaved freeze-pops melted here. Sufficed to say I may never snap into another Slim Jim again, as long as I live. But that does answer the question posed in so many Slim Jim commercials this year: How do you catch a "Snap-a-lope"? Well, apparently you just need to crank up the heat. Yeah... that's gross.

As soon as the beds are rearranged, the melted Slim Jims/living salsa thrown away, and your earthly possessions packed into several 20"x18" cardboard boxes, you take one last look at your room. The room feels rigid and cold, identical to nearly 100 other rooms on campus. Whatever it was that made it your home for the better part of nine months is gone, and until you turn off the lights, turn in your key and take your leave, you are the last remnant of Cv. 161, 2006-2007 (or whatever room you lived in). This feeling always makes it a little easier to re-adjust to non-dorm life with your family for a few months.

You know the drill. Even though you might say it a little bit differently to each of your friends, it all boils down to the basic formula of "have a good summer and see you next fall." For many, you still consider your college friends to be your new friends, and you take comfort in the fact that you still have ample time left to have fun and hang out. What hit me hard this time was the realization that next year is the last year. As I was saying goodbye to one of my friends, we realized that we would only be on campus together for about nine weeks during second semester (she will be off-campus first semester, and I will be gone student-teaching during the second half of second semester). My point is, don't take your college friends for granted. It may feel like you only just met, yes, but those four years fly by, finished before you know it. Make the most of the time that you have. Go to Blue Bunny. Go to the Corn Maze. Play a game of sardines in the campus center at midnight. Walk to the Sioux Center Wal-Mart at 3:00 am. Do something. Just don't assume that you'll always have time to hang out later, because later could mean your 25th class reunion (scary thought, huh?).

Well, those are my reflections on the end of the school year. While I would rather you not try to emulate my tendency to procrastinate or B.S. exam questions (I didn't actually have to do that this year), I do hope that you will take to heart my advice in the preceding paragraph. College goes by in a flash, and each semester seems briefer than the one before it. I intend to make the most of my time on campus next semester, and enjoy being a college student while I still can. The past three years have been simultaneously fun, challenging, exhillarating and exhausting, and I cannot wait to see what God has in store for me senior year.

Have a great summer!
Nate G.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Unspeakable Evil and Amazing Grace

On Monday, Virginia Tech was shaken by an unthinkable tragedy--the worst shooting in American History. In the last 36 hours, the whole nation has rallied to support the school in prayer, vigils and in remembrance of the lives lost. Police and many others are only beginning to determine just what motivated that young man to committ such a terrible act--in an angry and lengthy note written prior to the shootings, he blamed "rich kids and religion." The indictment of religion, in particular, left me with an indescribable chill of dread. Creation has been thoroughly saturated with sin, and we ourselves are no exception. But to reject the very idea of God, to outright deny that innate sense of a divine creator to the point of taking 32 lives? That is the embodiment of evil. That, friends, is Satan at work.

However, just as the fall is a recurring truth in History, a greater truth is that of redemption. God uses even the most despicable sins and tragedies as He works out His plan. This shooting is no exception. Even in the midst of death, sorrow and confusion, there is a story of grace to be found, and that is the story which I will briefly relate here:

Liviu Librescu taught engineering and math at VA Tech. A 76-year old Romanian Jew, Librescu had survived the Holocaust, fled Communist Romania, and forged a career as an aeronautical engineer & educator. On Monday, the elderly Librescu had blocked the door to his class, enabling his students to escape by jumping out the windows, before he, himself was shot and killed. This act of grace and sacrifice is a beacon at such a dark time. I can only hope that Librescu's students will live the rest of their lives in eternal gratitude to his sacrifice; that they will show such grace and selflessness in everything they do.

Even when Satan strikes a devastating blow, God's saving grace endures. It may not always be obvious, especially when grief clouds our vision and the thick fog of despair gathers around us. Even though sin is so painfully obvious in every walk of life, we must not lose heart. Even in the face of suffocating doubt, we must not reject God, our Creator. He is always there. And He will Triumph.

Nate Gibson

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter Sunrise on Walnut Hill

"After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men." Matthew 28: 1-4


"Nate, time to wake up." Even though mom is not shouting, her voice is louder than my alarm, which had blared and beeped for five minutes without waking me.

Sluggishly, I open my eyes and look to the clock on my nightstand. I blink twice and the blurry red digits slide into focus: 4:50 am.

"There's coffee in the kitchen. I'll be outside setting up. No rain, so we'll be up on the hill. Happy Easter!" Mom leaves the room swiftly, and I wonder to myself just how I missed out on her “morning person” genes.

I step out of bed and dress clumsily, nearly falling over twice as I climb into my own jeans.

In the kitchen, I pour myself a cup of coffee and take a seat by the window. The sky is dark, except for the moon, shining brightly above our barn.

My brother, who did inherit the "morning person" gene, strides into the kitchen.

Setting down my mug, I grunt a jumbled combination of "Good morning" and "Happy Easter." The coffee will take a few minutes to kick in.

Fortunately, Ben is used to my incoherent morning mumblings, and returns the greeting. "Dad's bringing the truck down to the barn,” he tells me, “You ready?"

I tip the mug over my lips and catch the last few drops before grabbing a pair of ratty barn gloves and stepping out into the crisp April morning.

"The angel said to the women, 'do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay." Matthew 28: 5-6


I jog down the hill to our old red hay barn, the brisk air cutting through my lingering sleepiness with every breath. The first traces of morning are touching the night sky now, cloaking the farm in an eerie shade of blue.

Ben and Dad are already tossing hay bales onto the back of the Chevy pickup. I hop into the pickup bed and stack the bales.

Dad throws the last bale on and Ben and I climb the stack, and take a seat at the top. We duck to avoid branches and power lines as he drives up the path. Ahead, the lone, tall tree atop our hill stands out against the fading night sky.

Dad parks the pickup twenty feet from the tree. Ben and I jump down and unload the bales, then arrange them in five rows of four, with an aisle down the middle. It’s a crude sanctuary, bales for pews.

We stack several bales at the front, and place our old Yamaha keyboard on top. In just an hour, family, friends, neighbors, people from church, and even strangers will fill this cold hilltop chapel in the bonds of Christian fellowship.


"Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying... At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
'Woman,' he said, 'why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?'
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, 'Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.'
Jesus said to her, 'Mary.'
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, 'Rabboni!' (which means teacher.")
Jesus said, 'Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: 'I have seen the Lord!' And she told them that he had said these things to her."
John 20: 10-11, 14-18


Mom is setting up silver pots filled with coffee and hot chocolate on card tables in the barn. Our inquisitive horses poke their gray noses out from their stalls. Several years ago, one of our mares decided to have a foal on Easter, early in the morning. We named the filly "Alleluia.”

People start arriving at 6:30. An assortment of cars transforms our driveway, front lawn, and horse arena into a sprawling makeshift parking lot. I return to the top of the hill and begin to pass out bulletins fresh from our kitchen printer.

Familiar and unfamiliar faces gradually fill the pews of hay. Families bundled up in several layers of sweatshirts huddle together under quilts and small children run around giggling, weaving between the bales, somehow immune to the cold.

I sit down between Ben and Lea on one of the front bales. Mom, seated at the keyboard, begins to play "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" in a faux organ tone, and the sound of our hilltop chorus breaks through the still morning.

In the distance, the sun is rising behind Mount Baker, shooting vibrant rays of yellow across a mellow orange horizon. Trails of light dance off of the clouds and the mountain shines brightly as if the sky burst open right behind it.

As we sing the closing line, "Christ has opened paradise", the significance dawns like the sunrise itself. Christ allowed himself to be mocked and tortured, humiliated beyond comprehension. He died in history’s most gruesome manner, hanging like the most despicable criminal. He endured an inestimable number of eternities in hell for the sins of every single person who ever lived, including each of us here this morning, and yet...

And yet, he conquered sin and even death itself, leaving the promise of redemption. Of paradise.

The sun rises high above the mountains as we worship, illuminating Whatcom County in a golden glow and the wonderful assurance of this promise is cast over our small congregation with the sunlight: Christ the Lord is risen today.



The Easter Sunrise service tradition on our farm was started decades ago by a man named Morton Lawrence (from whom we bought our farm). When my parents bought the property 17 years ago, one of his conditions was that we keep this tradition alive. Every year, my parents faithfully organize this service. We put a notice in the Lynden Tribune, and in our church bulletin. We buy bulk quantities of Cinnamon Rolls, hot chocolate, orange juice and coffee for refreshments after the service. My dad puts together a brief meditation on a variety of themes that connect to the resurrection, and recruits scripture readers (usually my brother and I are among the recruits). Together, we pick songs to sing during the service. If the weather is good, we meet on the hill as I have just described. If it is raining, we meet in the hay barn. In any case, rain or shine, this tradition has caused Easter to stand out in my mind and soul. When I think of Easter, I do not think of a giant pink bunny, or Cadbury Creme Eggs (even though those are pretty good). I think of the sun rising over the mountains as we sing of the greatest truth in history: the promise of redemption, paradise and shalom offered to us by Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord, our Savior.

It is my prayer that all of you will consider this amazing truth on this day, as well. Happy Easter and God Bless!

Nate Gibson

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Wayfarers all

Every so often, I have one of those days where it feels as though the walls are closing in on me. My dorm room seems to shrink (which is an impressive feat), and the quiet life at Dordt just doesn't seem to cut it. Usually, when this happens, my roommates and I make a midnight WalMart run, just to get off campus. However, the harrowing late night journeys to the south side of Sioux Center just aren't enough anymore.

Something quiet and distant is calling out to me, beckoning me to travel and explore. I've heard it for a while now, and chosen to ignore it. But every time I ignore it and try to go on with the comfortable routine that I know so well, it comes back again, resolutely offering its persistent plea. The road is calling me, but I don't think that it is calling me westward, back home to Washington. Not yet, anyway. Instead, I find myself looking east, toward the Atlantic and beyond. Celtic ruins, historic battlefields, massive stone castles, ancient cities and other places which I cannot even imagine are calling out to me.

When I was home for Spring Break, I listened to a friend talk about some of his own travels overseas. His goal was to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, but even getting to Africa was a horror story. He spent over 36 hours in Heathrow airport in London, trying to track down the elusive Ethiopia Airways, with whom he had booked his flight. As it turned out, Ethiopia Airways was literally just a desk and a chair, and it soon became apparent that he would have to make other arrangements. He got to Africa by the skin of his teeth, but landed 6 hours south of where he needed to be. So, he took a chain of city buses North until he arrived at Kilimanjaro. This horror story should have snuffed out any desire of mine to travel, but instead I found myself thinking about how cool it would be to have a story like that, of my own.

To use a tired cliche, I want to see the world. Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand... Last semester, Dr. Fessler told our Civil War History class about how he dropped out of college for a semester to backpack around Europe. I don't know if I could do that, as I would be losing some valuable scholarships. But, if not now, when? Before I know it, I will have my own classroom, and I will be responsible for teaching high schoolers about World History. How will I be truly qualified to teach World History if I confine myself to two small Dutch communities in Washington and Iowa? I should be visiting a REAL Dutch community in the Netherlands, or perhaps an Italian community. There are limits to what I can learn sitting behind a desk or writing papers in my dorm room, and I think that I am approaching these limits.

I need to keep going about my business, reading my textbooks, taking my tests, and writing my papers. I have worked hard for nearly 6 semesters, and only have a couple more to go. However, even with the end in sight, I cannot help but feel distracted as I think about what lies just out of reach, beyond the cornfields, and across the ocean...

Monday, April 2, 2007

Cross Country and the Meaning of Life

I’ve always wanted to write about Cross Country, and the complex & fascinating mental process that goes into a race. Here goes. Enjoy!

Time seems to slow to a crawl as the crowd hushes, and in that eternal instant, your mind goes blank. Although there are 200 other runners lined up beside you, waiting in perfect silence, a wave of solitude passes over you. Like a tiger about to pounce, you stand poised, with one leg behind, and one ahead, toe touching the fresh line of chalk. You are keenly aware of even the gentlest breeze–after all, your worn, thin jersey provides little insulation, and your shorts stop a good 10 inches above your knees. Yet, you do not feel cold. Instead, you are completely focused on one thing: the man with the pistol. He raises his pistol arm.


Anxiously, you shift your feet.
He raises his other arm.


Any lingering nervousness and second thoughts evaporate as you wait with baited breath for th–


Without thinking, you spring from the starting line at a full-out sprint, your legs pumping with stunning automaticity. The cheers and chatter of the spectators on both sides are nothing compared to the thunderous roar of feet pounding all around, and the rushing of air as you dash through a tunnel of runners. Gradually, your mind takes over, and you regain control of your own legs. You dodge and weave, passing as many other runners as you can, before you settle in, pushing hard, yet breathing steady, at your race pace. By this time, you have crossed a large field, and you follow the chalk trail into the woods. As you look up, you notice a chain of runners in front of you. Quickly, you decide that you will try to pass five of them before you emerge from the woods at the 1.5 mile mark.

As the woods close around you, you speed up slightly to catch up with the runner in front of you. Black jersey, seems to be breathing pretty hard. He slows a little as you approach and you quickly pass by him without a hassle. As you slowly work your way up the chain, the trail becomes narrow and windey. Purple jersey is next in your sights, and he seems to be going strong and–wait! He stumbles on a tree root while rounding a corner. He doesn’t fall, but this destroys his momentum. Now’s your chance! You speed up again to pass him, putting a safe distance behind you before you return to race pace. You look ahead again. Red jersey is going strong about 10 feet in front of you. From his form, you can tell that he is holding back a bit. You decide to stick with him for a while before striking ahead. He will not let you pass without a fight.

You pick up your pace a bit to keep up with him. He hears you coming, and as you expected, defensively moves directly in front of you. You shift, so as to shadow him at an angle, but you cannot think of passing him right now. The trail is too narrow, and your sudden change in pace has caused a dull gnawing pain in your side. Without sacrificing your speed, you take a moment to check your breathing, and notice that it has become uneven, and shallow. At this point, you do as you have trained yourself to do and start playing the 3rd track from Coach’s Enya CD in your head. As you start taking full steady breaths again, courtesy of Enya’s hearty Celtic beat, the sideache ebbs. It won’t dawn on you until after the race what a ridiculously silly habit this is. But, silly or not, it works. You hear someone ahead calling out times. Hmm… must be the mile mark. They call out 5:55 as you run past. 5:55 is a little faster than usual, but you are still feeling relatively good.

However, it would appear that your red friend is still feeling good too, and you know that you will have to push yourself to the limits and beyond if you want to beat him. Ahead, you see daylight: the end of the woods. However, a steep upward climb separates you from the open trail. You decide that this is your time to attack. As you approach the hill, you lean forward and sprint with all of your might. Evidently, red hadn’t been expecting this display of energy from you, and you blow past him with ease. You reach the top of the hill, heart pounding, and realize that you had just taken a gutsy, and calculated risk. While you are now halfway through the race, and passed up red by a longshot, your charge up the hill was exhausting. You begin to feel your faster-than-average pace catching up with you. As you coast downhill back onto the grassy field, you realize that the next one and a half miles will be an uphill battle. A mental fight to the finish.

Your lungs are burning and your legs are beginning to feel like dead weight, but you force yourself to keep moving. As you follow the trail along the fence, you notice that you are approaching one of your teammates. He too, looks as though he is hurting. As you come alongside, you summon the breath to choke out a hoarse “Keep it up, bud.” After a short pause, he responds with an equally hoarse, “You too.” Even in an individual and somewhat solitary sport such as Cross Country, there is room for teamwork and encouragement. You notice that the trail continues on the other side of the fence, as the runners at the front of the pack fly past. A short distance beyond them, you catch a welcome sight: a chute lined with plastic flags. The finish line. Less than a mile to go, you determine. With this optimistic realization, a second wind hits you, and you push forward once again.

Rounding the end of the fence, you become aware of someone coming up fast right behind you. Red’s back. In seconds, he has passed you up, and is plowing forward with a vengeance. You have arrived at the moment of truth. You could coast to the finish now, and still wind up with your best time yet. Or, you could use of every ounce of energy and beat the red guy. Of course, you opt for the latter. One is rarely capable of making rational decisions after running for more than 2 miles. The brain just doesn’t respond well when it has to share that much oxygen with the legs. You speed up, until you are neck and neck with red. He is visibly annoyed by your determination, and leans in, in an attempt to cut you off. However, you quicken your step and hold your ground.

By now, you are rounding the final corner into the homestretch. Some 400 meters stand between you and the chute, and you realize that neck and neck won’t work in the chute. Someone has to break away.

300 meters. You feel something change within your body. You no longer feel tired or sore or achey. As the tidal wave of adrenaline crashes within you, your mind once again goes blank. As at the start of the race, your legs start pumping automatically. You feel your arms flailing at your sides. You hear your parents and friends cheering you on, but they sound distant and incomprehensible. The chute seems to draw closer and closer, and you are only aware of one thing: That you are moving faster than you have ever moved before. Red is fighting with every last ounce of strength: He was saving his energy for this very moment. The chute is approaching rapidly, much as the ground must look to a sky-diver in a free-fall. 20 meters. 13 meters. 7 feet. With one final push, you propel yourself into the chute and cross the finish line, a split-second ahead of red.

You stumble out of the chute, and lean over, hands on knees. As you fight to catch your breath, sweat stinging in your eyes, you hear your parents and coach talking to you all at once, congratulating you. Somebody hands you a plastic bottle. Without hesitation you unscrew the cap and drink. Water? No, too sweet… Gatorade. Lemon Lime. Greedily, you drain the bottle, as the endorphins start to kick in. Wiping your mouth, you gesture at the stopwatch that your coach is holding. In a half-coherent mumble, you ask for your time. Fortunately, your coach seems to be fluent in half-coherent mumbling and responds to your question: 18 minutes and 41 seconds. A personal best, by 25 seconds. Chatting and comparing times with your teammates, you slowly make your way back to the chute to cheer on the runners who are still finishing, regardless of the jersey that they wear.


It has been nearly six years since I ran in my last Cross Country meet, but these images and memories are still vividly fresh in my mind. As pathetic as it sounds, I even got nervous just writing about those moments before the race. The 5K Cross Country race is a battle, to be sure. You need to push yourself physically, and when that becomes too difficult, you need to push yourself mentally. I think this is an apt metaphor for life and school as well. You cannot simply coast. The most rewarding end calls for hard, even exhausting work in the meantime. I need to constantly remind myself of this, particularly as I come into the “homestretch” of the school year. I hope this is something that all of you will consider, as well.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7

Spring Break 2007

For the last four days of Spring Break, I experienced a sensation that I’d not had in over 18 years: I was the only child. I’m told that I wasn’t too thrilled about giving up this role 18 years ago when my brother was born. However, my temporary return to this solitary office showed me just how far I’d come in 18 years. With my sister Lea gone on a field trip to California and Ben gone to all-state choir, my quiet Spring Break got a great deal quieter (in other words, more boring). With 21 years under my belt, I can now see what a red-haired, pudgy-faced bratty toddler couldn’t: having siblings is WAY cooler than being an only child. I noticed the gap particularly at dinner on Thursday night. My parents took me out to the Fairway CafĂ© and we mostly just talked about how their work was going, how my classes were going, and the problems plaguing education today. Useful, from the perspective of a future teacher, but totally devoid of any humor or light-heartedness. Typically, my brother and I will banter back and forth at the dinner table, with a wide variety of inside jokes, and humorous stories from school. Sometimes, my sister even joins in. I missed that. I think that too often, we take our siblings for granted. Although one may never articulate it, siblings are often among the closest friends one has. In short, I am grateful that I did not remain an only child (and am slightly bummed that I had to spend the rest of my Spring Break as an only child).

After a busy first couple of days at home (I think I drove 100 miles just going back and forth from Lynden over the weekend), Spring Break ended on a quiet note. As for now, it is back into the chaotic mix of hard work, sleep, fun and boredom that is college life. Except that, coming into the home stretch, the hard work will be harder and the sleep will be scarce. Although it will be challenging, I look forward to all of the good times between now and the end of the school year.

So... I guess I'm a blogger now?

Over the last couple months, I've done a ton of writing in my spare time. Most of it has gone into my notes page on Facebook, so I decided that I might as well just start a blog. I'll upload the last couple notes that I've written on Facebook over here to start. More than likely, I won't post everyday (maybe not even every week). If you don't see a post from me in a while, it doesn't mean that I am dead or that I've abandoned my blog. I'm just waiting for another good topic to write about. In the meantime, enjoy some of my more recent writings!