We Flu the Coop

There are certain times in my life, like last week, when I’m particularly glad I wasn’t born several centuries ago. For starters, it would have been an even longer ride to Myrtle Beach–if you think traffic is bad going around Charlotte now, just think what rush hour must have been like with a toddler in the back of the horse-drawn wagon. 

Second, if your toddler, unbeknownst to you, is secretly transporting an incredibly contagious gastrointestinal virus inside himself while you travel to your coastal destination for rest and relaxation, you would likely not have the advantage of having multiple bathrooms in days gone by. Instead, the whole family would be sharing a beach front outhouse as you all spend vacation vacating your stomach contents, violently and repeatedly.

Nor would you have a convenient CVS Minute Clinic nearby to diagnose family members in rapid succession. Had we had the foresight to combine all our prescriptions together, we likely could have qualified for a bulk discount on Tamiflu. 

Puking your guts may not sound like much fun for a family vacation, but I’m trying to look on the bright side: we could have been puking our guts two-hundred years ago when there was no such thing as indoor plumbing. Possibly, the only advantage to going on vacation two hundred years ago is that there were no such things as phones back then, meaning your neighbor couldn’t call you in the midst of your rest, relaxation, and retching to inform you that one of your cows is wandering around the pasture with a five-gallon bucket stuck on his head. This literally happened. 

So not only am I sick, I’m now worried sick that one of my cows is going to die from suffocation. My farming reputation is already pretty low, but losing a cow to a stuck five-gallon bucket would make me the laughing stock of every gas station grill in the county. Thankfully, my neighbor called back about an hour later to inform me that the cow had managed to self extricate his cranium from the bucket, at which point I breathed a sigh of relief before continuing my regularly scheduled regurgitation. 

So the moral of this story is a) animals always do stupid stuff when you go on vacation and b) get your flu shot. This year, flu b is no joke. 

I Told You So

It only took 97 needles in my back for an allergy doctor to confirm I’ve made poor life choices. And I’m not sure what was worse—the 97 pricks or the intense itching afterwards. 

ALLERGIST: “Where do you work?” 

ME: “At my local agriculture office, but I spend about half my time in the field working with farmers.”

ALLERGIST:“You picked the wrong profession.”

ME: “Well, I like working outdoors.”

ALLERGIST: “You may like it, but your immune system doesn’t. It looks like you’re allergic to the whole grass family. To be honest, I’m surprised you’ve survived this long.”

Normally, I don’t profess to have psychic powers, but as the allergist continued to examine the welts on my back, each corresponding to a prick infused with a different contagion, I had a strong premonition, namely that of my wife’s delight in uttering the words, “I told you so.” Don’t you hate when medical professionals confirm what your wife has been saying for years?

For years, she had been telling me to ask a doctor for an Epipen because I keep bees. Of course, my rebuttal was that I wasn’t allergic to bee stings, so that was stupid and a waste of money. But here’s the thing I’ve learned the hard way: Life is full of irony.

Yes, it’s a little ironic that I chose agriculture as a profession when I’ve had a lifelong allergy to hay and grass, which the allergist confirmed in the skin-prick test. But I wasn’t there because I was worried about sneezing and watery eyes from hay fever. I was there because my favorite food rebelled against me. For decades, my shrimp intake rivaled that of a krill-gulping whale. But that was before an insurgent shrimp infiltrated my stomach through a bowl of shrimp and grits and convinced my white blood cells to try to strangle me from the inside out. That’s why I was at the allergist. 

The doctor confirmed that I now have a severe shrimp allergy and that if a shrimp ever got anywhere near my gullet, I’d likely go into anaphylactic shock. She said that it wasn’t uncommon for adults to suddenly develop a severe allergy, even to something they’ve been exposed to often. At this point, I mentioned that my wife was worried I might suddenly become allergic to bee stings.

“Absolutely, it could happen with bee stings,” the doctor said. The doctor said that, given my allergy history, I shouldn’t work with bees without an Epipen nearby. 

ME: “You mean, I should listen to my wife?”

ALLERGIST: “Exactly.”  

A Boy and the Beekeeping Bug

Men, if your wife is trying to tell you she’s pregnant, whatever you do, don’t turn to her and say, “But I don’t need one, I’ve already got three.”

Not that I had three children already, I had three bee jackets. The fact is I didn’t have any children–my wife and I had been trying for years. Once you’ve been married for eight years, you start to resign yourself to the possibility that the only offspring you’ll hear in your house will be when you rediscover your long lost burnt CD collection in a storage box1 (sorry, if you didn’t get that joke, it was really very clever–you just weren’t a teenager in the 1990s. Please refer to footnote #1 for historical context). 

So I certainly wasn’t expecting to be greeted with life changing news when I walked through the door one Friday after a long day’s work. Still, I should have known something was up because on the kitchen counter was an envelope with my name written in my wife’s handwriting. That should have been a red flag because it wasn’t my birthday and, after a quick mental panic, I realized it wasn’t our anniversary either. My wife then handed me the envelope and told me to open it. 

“What’s this for?” I asked. 

“Just open it, and you’ll see,” I said. 

Well, I didn’t see. The greeting card had two little cartoony bees on the inside, and it said, “I’m so happy to bee with you.” Underneath that, my wife had written, “It looks like you’re going to need a new bee suit.” And underneath that, she had drawn a tiny little bee, about the size of a popcorn kernel. Likely, because I’m a man and was too busy wondering where the gift card was to pay for said bee suit, I overlooked that baby bee and blurted out, “But I don’t need one, I’ve already got three.”

And my life has never been the same since. Thomas is now two years old, and I’m actually starting to shop for his first beekeeping apparel. Now that he is old enough to run, I figure he’s old enough to run from bees with me. Secretly, I do hope that Thomas will one day enjoy beekeeping. Growing up, my dad always took me fishing and metal detecting, his two favorite hobbies, and some of my best memories are from spending time with him doing those two things. That said, beekeeping is a lot more like work than fishing or metal detecting, so I’m not terribly optimistic. Right now, he does have some semi bee-related interests, namely rolly-pollies and caterpillars. Mostly, though he just like trains, firetrucks, tractors, and monster trucks.

Even if the beekeeping bug doesn’t bite Thomas, a boy has got to develop a good work ethic, and there is no harder work than lugging honey supers around on a hot July day. We will see.

1In the 1990s, there was a popular band called The Offspring and this thing called Napster where teenagers downloaded music for free to record, a.k.a. to burn, onto CDs. This was more or less illegal, but everybody did it.

How A Church Implodes

Growing up, when a phone would ring during the middle of the night, it meant someone was either sick, dying, dead or drunk (you’d be surprised at the number of people who want to absolve their soul in the midst of an all night binger). For any of the three former options, it often meant my dad, a pastor, would get out of bed, throw on some clothes, and rush out the door to a hospital or house.

To me, death and dying just seemed like a normal part of life. Who was sick and in the hospital was a frequent topic of conversation at the dinner table. Even today, if I catch a whiff of a home cooked meal, I long for pleasant small talk about health prognosises. That was just the norm in our house. 

But I can only imagine my dad’s burden underneath the matter-of-fact dinner discussions. If I know one thing from farming, I know death weighs heavy. Watching animals die that are in your care and husbandry is tough. Being a shepherd of a human flock means facing the grim reality of decay and death, often of friends. Like most traditional baptist churches these days, his congregations skewed older, with more gray hair, with funerals greatly outweighing baptisms and weddings. There were no miraculous healings. People died, and my dad was often by their bedside when they did. 

We now live two hours from my parents, so we attend a Baptist church here locally, which is as equally old and gray (my beard now included) as the one I grew up in. Although I’ve grown up with an insider’s view of the church, I’ve never witnessed or experienced a church split. Now I have. Really, as is the case with most church divides, it was a mutual running off, with both sides playing a game of church chicken to see who would leave first and be the last one standing. First, some staff members bucked the new pastor and resigned. Then many families followed them to another church. Then a few weeks ago, the deacons, fearing another large revolt of families, pressured the lead pastor to resign, at which point he did resign, at least until his final farewell sermon, after which an impromptu church conference broke out with lots of finger pointing, some screaming, and little resolution. The final farewell sermon resulted in our pastor temporarily rescinding his resignation, only to resign again, and in so doing causing another revolt of families leaving the church in solidarity with him. 

Part of the issue was our new youngish lead pastor was, understandably, a new school pastor–a unilateral CEO, TED TALK type who preaches in skinny jeans sitting on a stool. He had the worthy goal of trying to appeal to millennials and young families, and his focus was on leadership and discipleship, not old school flock tending. Needless to say, it was a tough transition, as evidenced by the implosion of the church.  

My dad always said people need to get to know and trust you before they’ll follow you. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, especially if you wear skinny jeans and preach from a stool in rural western North Carolina. That said, the focus on discipleship, on creating lay people who can minister to one another in lieu of the pastor at times is a worthy goal. A pastor is merely one man (or woman), and a regular diet of death and dying takes its toll, not only on the pastor, but his family.

For my part, I remember regularly sitting in the backseat of the car for what seemed like ages as my mom and dad went through long visitation lines at funeral homes. I remember the hospital lobbies and the pungent nursing home hallways with the senile old ladies pushing walkers. I remember going on vacation, only to have my dad return home early to preach a funeral. I don’t begrudge it now, but I remember it now, likely because I begrudged it in the moment as a child. But what child doesn’t begrudge their parents’ work, stealer of time, energy, and attention?

So, I suppose there are pros and cons to both the old school shepherd pastor and new school CEO pastor. How a church smoothly transitions from one to the other is a different story though. 

The Pond Builder

The Pond Builder

A legacy is

wood ducks, willows, and bubba,

a giant beast who boys tried 

to catch fishing on the 

red clay core, clay stripped and packed

tight by some man on a dozer.

He laid this rusted riser,

checking heights with transit

and rod. He closed the valve

waited for rain and hoped to God 

the pond would hold—maybe 

for ducks and boys, but mostly 

for his name among 

those who build

and understand what holds water.

Some Farm Ponds We Built When I Worked for Soil and Water Conservation