Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Down to earth in Prairie Home

Garrison Keeler would have been proud. Prairie Home, MO, has everything Lake Woebegone has only in dreams.
Saturday, Cecile and I took a winding ride to the 100th annual Prairie Home Fair – an event unlike most of us have seen for decades.  It’s not one of those cows, pigs and jelly jars fairs.  This is community celebration of games, songs and good times. And it is all the better for what it doesn’t have.
Like mobile phones.  The grandstand was full and there were the requisite number of bored teenagers. But not a one was texting, not one was playing a game. And none of the adults were checking email. Their eyes were on the arena.
We arrived just as the kids bicycle races were hitting their mark. About 75 kids from 5 to 12 raced by the handful around four orange cones on a bare-dirt lot. First peddler to make two circuits ahead of the crowd could coast over to a wooden shed and collect $5, cash.
A few more things were notably missing:  Bicycle helmets, clinging parents, knee pads – and lawyers. When kids spun out at that tricky first turn, they rubbed their knees got back on their bikes and peddled like crazy.
But one of those wipe-outs left me a spectacular memory. Two 12-year-old boys who were obviously friends jockeyed for the pole (or cone) on their small-wheeled bikes.  Inevitably, one tumbled and tumbled hard.  He got up, but spilled at yet another corner.
His friend coasted to the booth for his five $1 bills. But as he walked away, he stuffed the bills into his fallen friend’s pocket.
Ain’t that America?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Father's Day Thanks

The Hallmark people got Fathers Day all wrong. Instead of getting gifts, I should be sending thank you cards to you and your brother.
Garrett, me and Dad
Women enjoy a physical and intractable bond with their children, something of which all men are secretly jealous. We instead must cultivate our connection with that squirming little bundle of life.

But you make it easy. I earned my “Dad” the first time you looked up and smiled as I held you in my arms. I’m forever blessed that neither you nor Garrett ever stopped smiling. Thanks to you, happy Fathers Day to me!

Biology being what it is, I’m not only a father but also a son. So I’ve puzzled through the Fathers Day gift from both sides. Mothers Day gifts were always easy – something pretty, something clutzy I made myself or just flowers. Hugs, kisses and joyful tears guaranteed.

But what to get Dad?

If flowers are the default for Mothers Day, tools are the norm for Fathers Day. But you’ve seen Dad’s shop. Buying another tool for him was something like buying another reindeer for Santa.

Not that he minded. An extra screwdriver or pair of pliers can always find home on the workbench. He was a Dad, after all. The real present was the smile and gleam in his children’s eye.

Some of the best presents you and Garrett gave me were the little trinkets you made yourself. And I actually love getting ties. My favorites are the two you made for me with handprints of your own children. Grandkid chic. Those ties also marked my graduation from mere “father” to “grandfather.”

Son-to-father-to-grandfather. Some men never make it or don’t appreciate it if they do. But I find it wondrous. My dad’s genes became my genes, then yours and Garrett’s genes, the Briton and Evie’s genes. Garrett is next in line to move up from sonhood.

Fathers Day reminds me that I have a responsibility to the future and a legacy no one can take away. I see my dad now only in photos and the Bentley nose. But I feel him in the things I do and the words I say. Sometimes it is the way I stand or the way I walk. The Father of All Fathers Day gifts is catching those same mannerism in you, Garrett or even Evie or Briton.

So thanks, Gillian. You made my (Fathers) Day.


Monday, June 08, 2015

Thankfully, there is no cure for the Green Plague

It would be overly polite to call the place where my father grew up a “dirt farm.” Dirt, yes. Farm, no. It was more of a divot in the vast forest of northern Idaho with enough bare ground that you could coax cabbage, potatoes and other hearty vegetables through the brief mountain summer.
The 10 Bentley kids did the vegetable coaxing at the end of hoe handles, but only because my notoriously stern grandfather had and used a bigger stick. There was no way in the world he was going pay good money for undistilled consumables.

Dad, then, had a hard time seeing gardening as a hobby. It was a chore that put food on the table. He planted gardens during the leanest times of my boyhood, but treated them a small farms that would ease the grocery budget. He even tried to introduce us to a frost-fighting, north country favorite – Swiss chard. My brother and I drew the line there. We would hoe the weeds, but not eat something with the culinary appeal of pond scum. Or kale.

But when I was in about seventh grade, I caught the Green Plague. I was a voracious reader who became fascinated by stories of farm life, huge vegetables and loan between your toes. Dad thought I had gone mad when tilled and planted a plot near the house. I’m sure he chuckled, however, while I was learning that pulling weeds and

Friday, May 29, 2015

The little cockroach who could

I think my car may be a cockroach. If Armageddon ever comes, it won’t be the meek who inherit the Earth. It will be all those unkillable cockroaches – driving Geo Trackers.

I fell in love with my 1990 Tracker almost the moment you and I spotted it at the dealership in Pendleton, Oregon. No worries that it was seven years old. It was tiny, it was bright white and it was four-wheel-drive. And best of all, it was a convertible.

Well, I suppose the best of best of all was that it was cheap. We didn’t need a limousine, just a snow car. This one might actually qualify as a snowmobile.

I loved it, but only expected to see it around for a couple of years.

But it didn’t die in the eastern Oregon snow. And when

Monday, May 18, 2015

Growing a crop of graduates

No one likes to say goodbye. But twice a year I do it with a wistful smile.
For graduation week at the University of Missouri, I put on my bright green doctoral robe, cocked my tasseled tam and made march of pomp with my professorial colleagues.

With us on the arena floor, scores of black-robed students laughed nervously. In the bleachers around us, parents looked on with that special mixture of emotions: pride in accomplishment, relief in completion and worry in a yet-unsettled future.

I understand those emotions – mine are just as mixed. But let’s step back a few months.

Professors could trade their fancy robes for bib overalls. What we do is very much akin to farming – with a 15-week crop cycle.

We do an awful lot of plowing the first few weeks of the semester. We dig up the bits of knowledge students picked up from other teachers, turn it over repeatedly and mix it well with composted lectures.

When their brows are properly furrowed, we plant the seeds of knowledge and cultivate intensely. Somewhere around midterm, they sprout. Or at least the lights go on in their eyes. From that point on it's a race to keep ahead of them.

Then at the end of each fall and spring semester, we harvest the best of them.

Watching the students you impatiently tended walk across the stage and into their future is the greatest reward of teaching. It comes with a cost, of course. By the time they get to caps and gowns, they have a piece of us with them. And as proud as we are, it hurts when that piece goes away.

There's a secret to making the most of academic life, though.  It's the same tip that a student speaker gave to his fellow fledgling citizens of the world:

"Keep moving. Just don't stop moving."

Friday, May 08, 2015

Life in three paragraphs

I feel both old and young today. Very tired but very invigorated. It’s one of those days when nothing seems as it appears.

The spring semester ends this week. But while classes are over, I’m faced with a pile of complex final projects. The constant parade of bright students young enough to be my grandkids reminds me of how gray I am – but the mere fact I am around them puts a bounce in my step. Even the weather is contrary – sunbreaks between rain showers.

But I’m happy. The love of my life smiled to me when I awoke. I had breakfast looking out over a rapidly-greening forest viewed from our one-of-a-kind house. I walked onto a gorgeous campus to do the work I love. Tonight I will dine perhaps too heartily and later kick back and read notes from the two no-longer-children who make me proud. I will have sweet dreams. Guaranteed.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

What goes around comes around

The Columbia Earth Day celebration was rained out last week. Seems fitting, in a way.
Rain is the epitome of recycling: Raindrop to stream, stream to ocean, ocean to cloud, cloud back to raindrop. Repeat for a million years or so.

Earth Day is very special to me. I was a freshman in college in 1970 when θ -- the Greek letter theta – began appearing on bumper stickers and posters. Theta on a green field was the new symbol for ecology, which itself was a term that never made it into my textbooks.

By April, I was wearing the symbol myself and part of the organizing team for Earth Day 1 at Shasta College in my hometown, Redding, CA. I have seldom felt so proud as when I carried the giant θ-emblazoned flag as we marched through downtown.

I tell that story to my students now and their eyes roll. Few know what “Earth Day” means – nor do they care. I suppose I should be upset, but I’m strangely pleased. Their ambivalence means that hippie-haired gaggle of protesters in 1970 succeeded. We changed the world.

Earth Day did not arise to promote hemp seed, belly dancing and henna tattoos. It came on the heels of warnings by Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and others that we might not make it to our dotage unless we started taking care of our world.

In my hometown, the lumber mills burned their waste in huge “teepee burners,” which likely were not as bad as the noxious clouds from the burning garbage dump. Clear Creek, near my home, was anything but and lined by 20-foot-high rows of gravel left behind by the dredges that plowed the valley for gold nuggets.

The national picture was bleaker. I remember my eyes burned and I hacked up brown gook while visiting Los Angeles. The Potomac in our capital was known as the river you could smell before seeing. Bald eagles were fantasy creatures – on the verge of extinction from the effects of DDT pesticide.

So we marched. Better yet, we voted. And year by year, life not only went on, it got better.

Now my students watch bald eagles glide over the Missouri River, put their cans in city-provided recycling bags and think DDT is a rap group. Blissfully.

And Earth Day? Just a rain delay. The anger was mostly gone, replaced by gardeners, solar panel salesmen and kids with face paint. But you can’t keep a good movement down.

Like a raindrop.