Friday, August 19, 2011

The Woman Who Inspired An Entire Community

Well, the San Diego Chargers lost a fan today. No, she wasn’t upset over the lockout, nor did she storm off over some slight–-real or perceived. In fact it wasn’t about the Chargers at all. She left us, too. Around 4.00 this afternoon, my cousin Leslie lost her years-long battle with melanoma.

Sidenote: Go to your dermatologist. Get checked. Use sunscreen.

Leslie was a lifelong Chargers fan. Her very first gift to her grandson was a Chargers outfit. Every year she put a huge inflatable Charger figure in her lawn for the duration of the season. And every Sunday during football season she would gather around the TV with her family and cheer the Chargers on to (hopefully) victory. And among her last conversations as she lay in the hospital this week barely able to communicate at all, she talked Charger football with her son and daughter.

But beyond that, Leslie inspired an entire town. Shortly after she began this battle, in January 2008, she started a blog. At first it was just to keep far-flung friends and family updated on how her treatments were going and when surgeries and appointments were scheduled, but it grew into something much more. Over the last few years, she developed a strong following because of her infectious optimism, faith and enthusiasm for life. She was a teacher’s aide and while she drew a great deal of strength from her kindergarten classes, her students, co-workers, family and friends all drew an incredible amount of inspiration from her as well.

Leslie’s cancer spread from skin cancer into dozens of brain tumors. She went through Gamma Knife surgery three times, brain surgery once (without painkillers, because her body couldn’t tolerate them), dozens if not hundreds of chemo and radiation treatments, struggled with debilitating side effects from medications and treatments, and lost then regrew her beautiful, long blonde hair several times. But even though she suffered, she spoke on her blog about her wonderful husband’s chivalry, her month-long birthday celebrations, her sister’s and son’s travels, her grandson, who was the light of her life, and of course the Chargers. And in every photo, she was beaming with a bright smile and a light in her eyes (and usually wearing a Charger jersey).

When a few friends organized a craft fair fundraiser to help with medical costs a couple of weeks ago, hundreds of people in the community showed up. The event even made it into the local newspaper as one of the lead stories (it’s a small town, after all). Each person who attended the event had been touched in some way by Leslie’s generosity and spirit.

It was Leslie’s optimism, faith and positive outlook that allowed her to beat cancer twice. But it came back for her a third time. Last month she was airlifted to San Diego because she had an apricot-sized brain tumor that was bleeding. A few days later she had Gamma Knife surgery on her smaller tumors followed the next day with brain surgery for the larger tumor. Within a few days she was back on her blog posting photos of her grandson, laughing, and giving words of encouragement to people who were going through struggles that might have paled in comparison to her own. But it wouldn’t last, and on its third try, melanoma finally got her.

Did I mention? Go to your dermatologist. Get checked. Use sunscreen.

My story doesn’t really have a point, except to share with you the story of an incredibly inspiring woman whom I was privileged to be related to. You can bet that, even though he may not remember much about her, Leslie’s grandson will grow up knowing what a special woman his grandmother was. And though the Chargers may have lost a fan today, our entire community lost a beaming light, a good friend, and an inspiration.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

When Farmers Retire

My dad is a retired farmer. Well sort of. He traded in 800 or so acres for about 1/10 of that, resigned from about a third of the committees, boards and commissions he sits on, and called that good enough. He still farms, and he still sits on a half-dozen or so ag-related boards. But he actually has a moment or two of spare time now. In fact, he and my mom actually get to take a few out-of-town jaunts on occasion.

They took one of those jaunts a week ago--a quick 4-day trip to visit my sister and her family--and it was during this trip that I discovered just what farmers really do when they retire.

The afternoon they left, I was sitting in a meeting, and my phone rang. Three times. It was my dad. My mind started wandering through all the emergencies that could warrant three calls in a row, and I excused myself to call him back.

“Are you at the office?”
“No, I’m in a meeting, but I’ll be back at the office in a half hour or so.”
“Can you water my violet while we’re out of town?”
“Umm, sure.”
“OK, I’ll bring it by your office in a half hour.”

Vi, as I’ve begun calling her, is an African Violet that was given to my parents by my aunt. At first, my mom just stuck her in the window and watered her once a week or so. But to my dad, who specializes in precision irrigation, that was just sloppy and unacceptable.

My dad began weighing Vi daily on my mom’s kitchen scale to determine how much water she should optimally have. He hasn’t admitted it, but I’m quite sure there was a spreadsheet or two involved in this process.

When they stopped by my office to transfer custody, the instructions were specific. I must give Vi the right amount of water, every single day. She needs to sit in a south-facing window. And I must give her only purified water, because tap water is too salty. Tap water is too salty? This is the man who insisted that his kids eat the rotten peaches from the bunch so that they wouldn’t be wasted, and he is feeding his houseplant purified water?

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. When I was in college, my sisters gave me a plant that they said was “impossible to kill.” It lasted about 2 weeks. If Vi didn’t do well in my care, I was not sure how my dad would handle it.

I shouldn’t have worried, I suppose. With the precise instructions--and purified water--she has thrived. My parents returned from their trip relieved to find out that Vi was healthy and happy. I will be returning her to their care as soon as their air conditioning gets fixed.

Yes, my parents can live just fine in a non-air-conditioned house, but the a/c must be functioning before Vi can come back home. Yup, my dad is definitely a farmer.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sharing Agriculture's Story

Growing up on a farm in a largely farm-centered community, I took for granted that people generally understood agriculture. I have learned over the years that that's not the case, even among people who are surrounded daily by some of the most productive agriculture in the nation.

After letting it nag at me for years I've finally come to the realization that the only way to counter all the misconceptions about agriculture was to put forth some personal effort toward sharing the story of agriculture.

I'm taking a step in that direction today by starting a new blog on agriculture. I hope you will take a moment to check it out.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dear NFL: You Are Dead To Me

Because I did not purchase $100+ tickets to see your game in person, you feel that it is wise to punish me by not letting me watch your ADVERTISING-SUPPORTED broadcast, punish your sponsors by cutting them off from a huge chunk of their potential viewers, and punish your broadcast partners by forcing them to broadcast a rerun of This Week in Needlepoint during a time slot when they would typically have a 30+ share in the market.

You follow the RIAA’s playbook like it’s a Bible, so I expect that you’ll begin suing your fans soon enough. However, you failed to jump to the final chapters where Big Music’s revenue is plummeting and it is becoming less and less relevant (See: Nine Inch Nails). When you keep chasing your consumers away, eventually they realize that there are other things to do on Sunday afternoons. Maybe it works in Detroit or New York where there really ISN’T anything else to do on Sunday afternoons, but in the civilized world that’s not the case.

Watch your mentors, the RIAA. Beating their consumers with sticks did not help to make those consumers fall back in line. It chased them away. Maybe if you get someone under the age of 72 in your front office, they will see that trying to FORCE your consumers to buy your product only works if you’re the government.

Newspapers: Take note. You are next.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Information Age... or is it?

In the information age, everyone’s an expert.

He’s watched every season of Deadliest Catch to date, so he’s an expert on weather systems in Alaskan waters. She read an in-depth article about Lindsay Lohan on, so she can tell you the ins and outs of the drug rehab process.

It is the age of the Internet, after all. Information that, just 15 years ago, would have taken hours of combing through dusty volumes in the library can be found with a 0.14826-second search on Google.

With all this information at our fingertips - quite literally - shouldn’t we all be experts?

More information is available to my 9-year-old nephew in an afternoon of casual browsing than was available to Pythagorus and Socrates throughout their entire lives. Seriously. Stop and think about that for a moment.

And yet, in an age where we have such easy access to so much information, we are more gullible than ever before.

Somehow, in today’s world, Yahoo Answers is a go-to source. Wikipedia is as venerable as Brittanica. And Twitter is as reliable a place to learn the facts about news events as the L A Times.

We have become a society where a few tidbits of information, confidently conveyed, make you an expert. It doesn’t matter that your information is from a dubious source at best or completely made up at worst. If you sound like you know what you’re talking about (particularly if you are confirming a person’s preconceived bias), you must be an expert.

I cannot fathom why someone would ask about the contents of Arizona’s AB1070 on Yahoo Answers, when the entire text of the bill is easily available on any number of readily accessible web sites. “Is Zac Efron hot?” Now that’s a question that the Yahoo Answers’ brain trust can handle. But I don’t think that I’d ask about the legal nuances of a summary process action on the same site where one of the more common questions is “Are psychics 100% accurate?” And yet people do!

In an era when fact-checking is so stupidly simple, no one does it. But why?

Perhaps it is the school systems. Are we so focused on math proficiency and standardized testing that it comes at the expense of teaching research and critical thinking skills? Or maybe it’s the mountains of homework that are assigned starting in kindergarten. Are parents so overwhelmed with all the homework that they succumb to shortcuts and don’t take the time to ensure their kids are using sound research skills?

Maybe it is the very availability of all this information. Are we so overwhelmed with the vast breadth of information available that we fail to look at any of these subjects in depth?

Or is it our demand for immediate access to information? Don’t get me started on newspapers and how they have precipitated their own decline, but traditional media are faced with competition from web sites that believe in posting first, verifying later. The L A Times was roundly criticized because scooped it (by all of 30 minutes) in announcing the death of Michael Jackson. While the L A Times staff was double-checking and verifying its information so as not to post something so inflammatory without being damned sure that it was accurate, TMZ got a tipoff and had posted the news for the world to see within a few minutes.

In the end, it’s up to those of us who are in the business of convincing people of something (sales, public relations, politics, issue advocacy...), along with those who are in the business of sharing information (educators, journalists...) to determine whether we continue down this road or not.

Too often the conversation goes like this:
Sure I understand why the issue of toenail fungus research is important, but the general public isn’t interested in the details and won’t understand the complexities, so just give them a pithy soundbite and push the emotions.

I can understand the reasoning behind this position. After all, my job isn’t to educate the world, it’s to bring in funding for toenail fungus research. But remember that the opposition can play that game just as well as we can, if not better. In a battle of pithy soundbites and emotional appeals, the guy with the fewest scruples usually wins out in the long run. And if you haven’t built up credibility and a basic level of knowledge in your audience, then when the other guy starts using misleading emotional appeals and out-of-context soundbites, you have no way of countering his attack.

It may take more effort and time, but we must return to the appeal of facts and information. That people don’t understand the ins and outs of toenail fungus (or whatever your raison d’être) isn’t reason to gloss over the information. It’s all the more reason to explain the facts, clearly, accurately and succinctly.

Sure, emotional appeals are important, as are pithy soundbites, but they have to be backed up by real, factual information that is presented in a way that your audience can understand it, and your opposition cannot find fault with it. It may not be easy to take a complex issue and explain it in a way that makes sense to the average citizen. Factual but clear explanations take time, research, and a lot of rewrites. But in the long run, we have to get back to explaining the facts if we want to turn the Information Age into the Informed Age.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What They Say vs. What They Mean

Experience has taught me that when people say “You’re too busy. You need to learn to say ‘No’ to people.” it’s never their projects they want you to learn to say ‘No’ to.

I have learned that when people at work say that you need to work on your prioritization skills, what they really mean is that you need to stop putting your own work and other people’s projects before their pet projects.


So what do you do when faced with this? You do what is right. You do what you believe is best for the organization. The people who are really in charge will recognize this and act accordingly. And if they do not, they are not the kind of people you want to be working for anyway.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Coming to Terms with an Addiction

I realized this morning that I have an addiction. It began when I came into work and discovered that our email was down for the day. At first I was fine with it. But then I started to wonder how many messages were sitting in my inbox waiting for that click of the mouse that would release them onto my screen. I buried myself in my work and tried to put them out of my mind, but I couldn’t. I found myself longing to know what Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day was, wondering if I had received a bill from Paytrust or a note from my sister, even yearning for the inevitable junk mail. By 9:30 I knew this was serious. I couldn’t stop thinking about my messages trapped in a server somewhere waiting to be downloaded and read. And I knew that since today is Friday, if I don’t read those messages before I leave work, they will be locked in that server all weekend. To make matters even worse, our Internet access was down as well, so I couldn’t get my email fix by checking my online email account. My entire routine was thrown off. Every morning I read my email, then go online to check the news. That is how I stay in touch with the outside world while I work. But today I was isolated. It was just me alone in my office. My only access to the outside world was... my telephone. How primitive. If only I had gotten that cell phone with web access. I was kicking myself now.

By 10:00 I couldn’t stand it. I opened my email program, hoping against hope that it would miraculously have been fixed, but of course it had not. Knowing I was setting myself up for disappointment, but not being able to resist, I tried to open my Internet browser. No luck there either.

As the day progressed, my isolation became more and more painful. At 11:15 I ran across a word I didn’t like in a handbook I was editing. No problem, I thought, I’ll just go to Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus to find a suitable replacement. Not today. I had to actually brush the dust off my paper thesaurus and use it instead. At 12:03 I needed to know where the accents are in crème brûlée. It’ll be a snap. I’ll just go to’s online food dictionary. But once again I was forced to use an actual paper book for my research.

As with most addictions, a person has to hit rock bottom before they will admit they have a problem. Rock bottom came for me at 1:57 p.m. PST. I wanted to check my email. I wanted my Word of the Day. I wanted to go online to see the news and look up some new words. I wanted to find out if we were in PST or PDT. I wanted to send an email to my sister to tell her I found that Georgia quarter I had been missing. I wanted to check my bank balance, dammit! I couldn’t take it anymore. I finally broke down. I had to get out the office. I raced home, ran into my house and started up the computer. I was beginning to panic as I double-clicked the Netscape button. But then I heard the familiar beeping and fuzzing of my trusty dial-up modem. What I saw on the screen were the most beautiful words I have ever read, “You have 27 new messages.” I spent my entire lunch hour reading the Apple and QuickTime newsletters, looking at a photo a friend sent and even reading through the 17 junk mail messages. No way was I going to just throw them out without reading them. Not today.

Finally, when I returned from lunch at 3:08 my email and Internet were fixed. Once again I was connected to the outside world. Now I could look up words online. I could send that email to my sister. I could check the news and do research. The world was once again a friendly place.

Now in the aftermath of this traumatic day, I must face the fact that I am an addict. I will never again take for granted the beauty of electronic communication. I will never again fool myself into thinking I can quit any time I want to. I will buy that Internet cell phone and I will read my Word of the Day every single day, which, in case you were wondering, was vulcanize.


In case you were wondering, based on the references to Netscape and a dial-up modem, this diatribe was written some years ago. It is only now that I can face up to the horror of that day.