The first farmer was the first man. All historic nobility rests on the possession and use of land. Ralph Waldo Emerson

29 March 2010

A Day At The Masters

Ten days from now the most revered and prestigious sporting event in America will begin its four-day run. It's known simply as The Masters--the first of professional golf's four major tournaments each year, and the most coveted championship any golfer can win. Why is it the most coveted? More than any other sport, golf is built on its traditions--and The Masters is steeped in golfing lore and legend. The tournament was founded by Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts in 1934. Jones remains one of the game's great legends, the winner of more major championships than any golfer except Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. During one remarkable stretch between 1923-1930, Jones won 13 of the 21 major championships played during that period.

In 1931, Jones and Roberts purchased the Fruitland Nursery, a former indigo plantation in Augusta, Georgia and hired Dr. Alister McKenzie to design a golf course there. The course opened in December 1932 and the first Masters tournament was played in April 1934. Of the four major tournaments (which also include the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship), only The Masters is played at the same course every year. And what a course it is. Augusta National is not the most challenging course for today's modern players, although it has undergone significant changes over the years to remain a world class course for professionals. But it is one of the most beloved venues in all of professional sports.

I had the great honor to be able to attend this tournament in 1995 and again in 1996. I was living in Atlanta at the time and a friend had connections. He was able to get me single day passes, which enabled me to enjoy one of the most memorable days of my life. Why? I got to take my dad with me to The Masters. For those of you who've never had the chance to be there (and only a lucky few of us have), let me try to describe the experience for you...

I remember when I was growing up, and I would watch The Masters and the sportscaster would introduce the tournament as "The Masters from Augusta, Georgia".  And then I would see these amazing pictures of the azaleas and the dogwoods and the redbuds and the brilliant green bentgrass and I would think Augusta must be one of the most beautiful small towns in America.

It isn't.

That was the first impression I had when I drove the three hours outside of Atlanta to Augusta. It wasn't of the course itself. It was of the dumpy, honky-tonk town of Augusta. I saw the main street filled with billboards for everything from Waffle House restaurants to Wal-Mart to Holiday Inn. I saw that not only were the streets not paved with gold, but the asphalt was buckling and the potholes needed filling after the recent winter frost.

And then we parked my car and walked to the gates of Augusta National. And all I can say is that--if that golf course is not Heaven, Heaven can't be far away. The course is absolutely pristine. Every fairway is perfectly green, the walkways are covered in pine straw, and--best of all--the azaleas, the magnolias, the dogwoods are all bursting forth in a showy splash of spring glory. Although I can't verify it, I've been told that the groundskeepers at Augusta National watch very closely the timing of the peak bloom of the azaleas and--if it's been a warm spring and they're ahead of schedule--will bring in tons of ice to slow down the plants until Masters Week.

When Dad and I visited, we had our plan. Get there really early. Make a beeline for the famous Amen Corner, which consists of the famous 11th, 12th, and 13th holes. Place our seats as close to the golfers as we can get at the 12th tee. And then take in golf history in an absolutely glorious setting. The 12th hole, also known as Golden Bell, is a treacherous Par 3 which requires the golfer to hit a postage stamp-sized green while shooting over Rae's Creek. What makes the hole so challenging is that the afternoon winds become particularly unpredictable and tempestuous, and are agonizingly difficult to judge. A par is as good as a birdie, and many tournament leaders have lost it all on this hole when their ball wound up in the creek.

In that 1995 tournament, we saw Jack Nicklaus, who had made the Friday cut but was not competitive in the tournament. We saw Greg Norman, a young Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson, Davis Love, and the eventual winner--an emotional Ben Crenshaw, who had lost his friend and mentor Harvey Penick just days before the tournament began.

We also saw the very first Masters appearance from a young player from California named Tiger Woods. He was playing as an amateur that year and finished in 41st place.

A couple of little anecdotes: at almost any major sporting event, you go prepared to being held up by the concessionaires. After all, they have what's called a 'captive audience'. If you want a sandwich or something to drink, you can't very easily leave the stadium or arena or--in this case--the golf course to go to the nearest McDonald's. But you don't get held up at Augusta. I remember paying $1.25 for a ham sandwich and 90 cents for a Coke.

Another anecdote: the sandwiches were wrapped in green wax paper. Why? Because if a patron (the tournament's name for the spectators) is careless enough not to put his or her wrapper in the garbage cans, they will at least blend into the emerald green landscape so as not to detract from the breathtaking ambience of the golf course.

Sometimes, we experience moments that we know we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. That day with my dad at Augusta National is one of them.

27 March 2010

The Queen Of All Flowers

God was smiling when He created the rose. It's beloved the world over, and it gives joy to its growers, those who give it as a gift, and to those sweethearts who receive them. In my garden, I have 42 rose bushes. Most of them are of the hybrid tea type--which is the most difficult to care for. Hybrid teas are a hybrid of tea roses which originated in China and Hybrid Perpetuals from Europe. They require pruning, fertilizing, water, and--most challenging--pest control. But their blooms are regal, and--thanks to the efforts of many large commercial nurseries--they're available in a cavalcade of colors.

Because hybrid tea roses are so challenging, many become discouraged with growing them. I find the challenge exhilarating, and the reward is when I am able to cut the blooms and bring them inside to enjoy for the next week or so.

Here in my garden in Northern California, the bushes have leafed out fully. The foliage is healthy and green--unaffected by the harsh summer heat that is coming in a few more months, when they begin to suffer a little. And the buds are forming--and in about two or three weeks, the garden will be bursting with the first flush of an array of reds and deep reds, orange, yellow, white, pink, and coral blooms that will beckon me to rush out each morning before I go to work to pause for a few moments, tinker a little bit, sniff the delicate scents, and wonder anew at God's creation.

23 March 2010

Thoughts On A Morning Ritual

A lot of men hate to shave. I don't. It's one of the morning's rituals I enjoy. I don't like the stubbly feel of a day's growth of whiskers and I enjoy a clean shave. But shaving is also expensive, thanks to some rather ingenious marketing by the companies that manufacture shaving supplies, especially Gillette. Shaving is a big business. In the US, it's valued at nearly $3 billion in annual sales. Gillette, now owned by Proctor & Gamble, is the biggest of the big names that supplies razors, blades, shaving cream, and after shave skin balms.

In 1990, Gillette truly revolutionized the shaving business when it introduced--with great fanfare--the Gillette Sensor razor. It was the first razor ever designed with floating, spring-loaded blades. And what a difference it made from the fixed blade design that had prevailed for the previous fifty years. The closeness of the shave, the comfort of the shave, and the near-complete elimination of shaving cuts likely put the makers of styptic pencils out of business.

But there was (and is) a catch: the blades are brutally expensive at a cost of about $3.50-$4.00/ blade. Gillette does, of course, have competitors. When their patent on the Sensor expired, Schick introduced their own floating blade razor, which seems to work just as well. But there's not a big price advantage for the consumer. And that means that the name of the game is extending the life of those expensive blades for as long as possible.

I've learned that the best way to do this is to shave in the shower. I rinse my face as soon as I get into the shower, and while I'm washing up, my beard softens. By the time I get my face lathered up and ready to put blade to skin, my whiskers have been soaking for at least five minutes. Most guys shave at their sinks. They splash water on their face, apply shaving cream, and start. I've tried this. And I can say definitively that my whiskers are much less pliable when I shave this way.

Now, I can't document how much longer one of those expensive Gillette blades lasts because I shave in the shower. I can say, however, that a blade lasts for about a month this way--and I shave everyday.

One more thing: Gillette's strategy--since their patent expired--has been to expand from the original Sensor dual blade design to three blades and then four blades. And they're apparently planning to introduce the first five-blade later this year. It's pure marketing, and it's overkill. They got it right twenty years ago when they introduced the Sensor. These huge multi-blade razors have gotten so big that I can't even shave in the tight corners (like under my upper lip) like I can with the Sensor. I also read in an article in the Wall Street Journal that private label blades marketed by the major drug store chains like Walgreen's now offer multi-blade floating head razors that will compete with Gillette. I may have to check that out.

20 March 2010

The Golden State

California is the Golden State. It's an apt nickname, for many reasons. Historically, of course, this is the place where gold was discovered in January of 1848 in the small foothill town of Coloma. Within a year, the California Gold Rush was on, triggering a massive migration of immigrants from around the world as well as emigrants from the East who came in wagon trains across the Plains and over the Rockies and the Sierras. These were arduous journeys made at great sacrifice. For those who sailed into San Francisco, they endured sometimes brutal conditions in steerage for months as they made their way around Cape Horn or through the perilous Straits of Magellan and then north for thousands of miles before reaching California. And for those who came from the East Coast across the broad continent, they endured brutal hardship, the constant danger of attack by various Native American tribes through whose land they were traveling, as well as disease and crushing fatigue. Many did not survive. In the ten years from 1850 (when California was admitted as the 31st state) to 1860, California's population nearly quadrupled, and the great social migration from East to West began. This migration, this amazing social phenomenon, has continued unabated for more than 150 years, making California the largest and most vibrant state in America.

A second reason California is the Golden State has to do with economic opportunity.  Despite our overwhelming economic difficulties which have pushed the state to near-bankruptcy, California is still the home of Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the high tech revolution and still the most robust and powerful engine of technological prowess in the world. It's the home of the San Joaquin Valley--the richest agricultural region in the world--and the home of some of the most diverse agriculture anywhere. This year, California will produce more than 350 different crops, much of which will be exported to other nations and will thereby help to offset America's continuing trade imbalance. And California is home to Hollywood and the film industry--an icon which is small compared to high tech and agriculture--but which also contributes to a fourth major industry here--tourism. I have been fortunate enough to visit 47 of the 50 states (I still have not been to Alaska, North Dakota, or Delaware) during my lifetime. And I can say that in a nation blessed with an astounding abundance of natural beauty, California stands alone for its jaw-dropping diversity of beautiful places--from our 840-mile long coastline to our majestic and rugged Sierra Nevada mountain range to our beautiful cities including San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and many others to the rich and pristine Napa and Sonoma Valleys where some of the world's best wines are produced to our climate which Sir Francis Drake called 'the most sublime and gentle in all the world'.

The third reason we're the Golden State is that we're largely a natural desert. Except for the extreme northwestern part of the state near the Oregon border, most of the state will not see rainfall from roughly early April until sometime in October. The winter rains, which have been plentiful this year, have left us in a state of lush verdure--something we especially appreciate since we know it will soon give way to the dry season. The green foothills will turn brown (or, as the Chamber of Commerce likes to say--"golden") and the beauty we see around us will fade until next fall.

But for now, we'll enjoy this spectacular beauty. The wildflowers are bursting forth in the foothills. And around the beginning of May, the winter snows will be melting and the waterfalls at Yosemite will be booming. It is an utterly beautiful time of the year.

15 March 2010

Hubris or Leadership?

The week ahead will be full of political theater. Democrats are poised to force a vote on the House floor for President Obama's healthcare reform package, which would federalize one-seventh of the the U.S. economy. What's remarkable about this legislative effort is that the President and Democratic leaders in Congress continue to push this unpopular bill in spite of the fact that the American people--after more than a year of debate--are clearly telling their elected representatives that--while they want healthcare reform--they do not want this bill to become law.

According to the latest Rasmussen poll, 43% of Americans support the bill while 53% oppose it. More telling, only 23% strongly favor the bill while 43% strongly oppose it. This sentiment is not just being expressed in public opinion polls, but in the polls that are the only ones that count--the ballot box. During the fourth quarter of last year, Democrats suffered defeats in Virginia (a moderate, usually right-of-center state), New Jersey (a consistently left-leaning state), and--remarkably--Massachusetts (the bluest of blue states and consistently liberal). Yet in spite of these electoral losses and the clear message that voters seem to be sending to Washington, Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid have clearly adopted a "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" strategy. They are leaning heavily on Democrats to vote affirmatively on the bill, even though many of those Democrats sense that a yes vote will mean a quick ticket home when they come up for re-election this November.

Some see this as leadership--the notion that the President, against a wave of negative polls and the headwinds of public opinion, will lead us out of the morass and into a new era of prosperity with healthcare coverage for all Americans. I see it as hubris on a grand scale.

During a moment of unguarded candor, Obama opened a window on to his view of the often messy democratic legislative process in an interview with Katie Couric of CBS News on February 7: "I would have loved nothing better than to simply come up with some very elegant, academically approved approach to health care, and didn't have any kinds of legislative fingerprints on it, and just go ahead and have that passed. But that's not how it works in our democracy. Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people." 

When one parses this quote, some interesting undercurrents in the President's thinking are revealed:

  • He believes that an 'academically-approved' approach is the best. Clearly, if we would only allow the academic elites at Harvard or Yale to figure out this healthcare mess for us and then enact their solutions into law, all would be well.
  • Not only is the academic approach best, but it would be 'very elegant'. The democratic process which includes lobbyists, deal-making, public polls, town hall meetings with voters, and commentary from the pundits is unsavory and beneath the dignified, direct, and monarchical approach which Obama would clearly prefer.
  • Having 'legislative fingerprints' on a piece of legislation just messes things up. The Constitution is incredibly inconvenient for a man of Obama's intelligence, sophistication, and prowess.
And so it ends with a health-care vote expected this weekend. I wonder at what point the administration will realize it wasn't worth it--worth the discord, the diminution in popularity and prestige, worth the deepening of the great divide. What has been lost over the past year is so vivid, what has been gained so amorphous. Memo to future presidents: never stake your entire survival on the painful passage of one bad bill.

14 March 2010

Life Lessons From Pruning Trees

Each winter when the harvest has been completed, we begin the laborious but vital task of pruning the orchards. This is laborious because the trees are so tall that a man must use a pruning tower (similar to what is commonly known as a cherry picker) to get up into the tops of the trees to make his cuts. It's vital because pruning removes the deadwood and promotes growth of fruitwood, making the tree more productive. More on that a bit later...

The pruner has two tools he uses to make his cuts: a shear for smaller cuts and a saw for the larger ones. How he selects what to cut and where is crucial, for he must be able to look at the overall structure of the tree and maximize the growth of fruitwood in the spring while ensuring that he does not weaken the overall structure such that, if a big crop is set in the late spring and into the summer growing season, a heavily-fruited branch may break, thereby losing that portion of the crop he worked so hard to promote.

The guiding influence the pruner must have is to "open up the canopy", meaning that he wants to remove unproductive wood that will shade the interior of the tree more than is necessary. When the canopy is opened, sunlight filters down into the tree's interior, thereby offering the chance for more fruitwood to develop. A fully-shaded orchard floor may be aesthetically pleasing, but it's also a sign that the trees have not been properly pruned during the preceding winter.

The pruner, when selecting his cuts, looks first for deadwood. These are branches that have shown signs of vigorous growth, but without any or little evidence that they bore much fruit. A branch that grew a great crop of foliage again may be aesthetically pleasing, but it does little for the farmer's bottom line. The deadwood is cut away in order to promote the growing vigor from the tree into the more productive and potentially profitable fruitwood.

Often the fruitwood is not as pleasing to the eye as the deadwood; it's more gnarled, it has knobs and spurs which are evidence that it bore fruit there during the previous season. It's usually not as long or extensive, but is more stunted. But that fruitwood is the key to a grower's livelihood, and the grower will do all he can to maximize its development and continued growth. He will prune to allow more sunlight exposure to the fruitwood, and he will give the tree nutrients designed to maximize the tree's vigor and health such that more fruitwood will grow.

By now you've probably already recognized the parallels between pruning fruit trees and living a balanced and productive life. But, at the risk of declaring the obvious, here are the lessons I draw from this:

  • When we put our energies into activities and events which are solely self-focused, they make look more aesthetically beautiful to us but they often bear little fruit that benefits others. That makes those things deadwood, and those things must be cut away and removed.
  • God told us that He is the light of the world. So when we remove the deadwood and open our canopy, we also open ourselves to His wisdom and strength and provision, and we offer ourselves to become more productive, more relevant, more purpose-driven.
  • Like the fruitwood on the tree, there are parts of us that look more gnarled and which aren't as attractive or presentable to the outside world. But the important thing is not what we look like, but what we do and how productive our lives are for the good of others.
The pruning is done now. Very soon, our trees will be blooming and the pollination will take place. And within a few weeks we'll be able to see the first signs of the kind of crop that's being set and how well we did this past winter to remove the deadwood, open up the canopy, and promote the growth of the fruitwood and the fruit that will issue from it.

04 March 2010

A Reading Recommendation

When I was in college, I took a fun elective course called The Mystery Novel. I don't remember any of the authors I was introduced to in that class--except one. One of the books for assigned reading was entitled "Too Many Cooks" by Rex Stout. And it was through that experience that I was introduced to the wonderful world of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. If you've never read a Nero Wolfe mystery, you don't know what you've missed. Allow me to give you a brief introduction...

Wolfe is brilliant and brusque. He lives in a brownstone on West 35th Street in Manhattan. He is a confirmed bachelor and has a strict daily routine which he follows almost without exception. He enjoys a refined and comfortable lifestyle which is supported by the expensive fees he charges his clients to solve crimes, mysteries, and problems that they put upon his desk when they have nowhere else to turn. His reputation throughout New York City and the surrounding region precedes him.

While Wolfe is the genius, he would be helpless without his right arm--Archie Goodwin. Where Wolfe is cerebral but barely moves a muscle, Archie is the one who chases down leads, gathers evidence, and reports his findings back to Wolfe. Where Wolfe has an almost abject fear of being alone with a woman, Archie loves women, especially if they're comely, sharp, and have curves in all the right places. Where Wolfe is a confirmed gourmand, Archie is just as happy with a ham sandwich and a glass of milk.

What makes the Wolfe novels so much fun to read--aside from the way the mysteries are solved--is the witty, sometimes sarcastic dialogue and the entertaining way Archie guides us through the story as our first-person narrator. Another thing many readers will enjoy is that these novels are not dark, not 'hard-boiled'. They are written to entertain, not to expose the seamy side of society.

During his career, Stout wrote more than 70 Wolfe novels before his death in 1975. The Nero Wolfe corpus was nominated in 2000 as the Best Mystery Series of the Century by Boucheron, the largest mystery novel convention in the world.

If I've piqued your curiosity, go to, type "Nero Wolfe" in the search bar, and pick out "Fer-de-Lance", which was Stout's first Nero Wolfe novel. Once you open it, you'll be hooked. And you can thank me later.

02 March 2010

Rain, Snow, And Water

It's raining today in Northern California.  And it's going to rain tomorrow, with perhaps more rain later this week. It's all very welcome, because we're in the fourth year of an ongoing drought which is straining California's economy and has proved devastating to segments of the agricultural sector. I'm grateful for the rain, and even more grateful for the snowpack in the Sierras--which I can see from my window as I write. In my town, we're ahead of normal rainfall for early March and only slightly behind normal rainfall for the entire year, which is measured from July 1-June 30 of each year.

As important as the rain is, the snowpack in the mountains is the real key to the water needs of thirsty Californians. And even though the snowpack is also ahead of normal, the actual water content in the pack is at just 87% of normal. Which means that--barring a very wet March and April--the water wars in California will continue.

Here's the skinny on the water issue from my perspective:

  • California's population and economic growth are largely dependent on good, reliable supplies of water. The bulk of this water comes from the seasonal rains and snow which fall on the state during the months of November-early April. If we get a dry winter, we won't make up the deficit during the late spring and summer months, when we often go for 150 days or more without a trace of rain. As California has grown, however, its capacity to store and hold the water that falls on the state has fallen far behind the state's demand for water.  Consider this: in 1960, California's population stood at 15.7 million.  Fifty years later, the population is expected to exceed 37 million--an increase of 135%.
  • In spite of this growth, environmentalists have blocked construction of new dams and water storage projects.  The last major dam to be completed in California was the New Melones Dam near Jamestown in 1979. It has storage capacity of 2.4 million acre feet. Since the New Melones Dam was completed, California's population has grown by nearly 60%. And yet not only do the environmentalists oppose the construction of new dams in the Sierras to create new reservoirs, they actually support tearing down the O'Shaugnessy Dam which supplies the water and some of the electricity to San Francisco. This dam has storage capacity of 360,000 acre feet.
  • Some two-thirds of California's water supply comes from a huge estuary called the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Standing at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the Delta has been a major source of water for Southern California. However, as Southern California has grown and its demand for water has increased accordingly, the fresh water supply has been depleted and incursion of salt water from the San Francisco Bay is now creating a different set of environmental effects in the Delta. Not only that, but the massive pumps used to move the water to and through the 715-mile aqueduct system is depleting the population of a 2-inch long fish called the Delta Smelt.
  • The smelt population was officially classified as endangered in 1993. Because its habitat has been shrinking owing to the incursion of the bay's salt water--as well as its being sucked into the huge pumps that supply the aqueduct, and because it's a food source for the non-native striped and largemouth bass--the population has been steadily shrinking to the point that the fish stood on the edge of extinction in 2004. 
  • On August 31, 2007, Judge Oliver Wanger of the Federal District Court ordered that water deliveries be severely curtailed from December to June. Farmers have received increasingly smaller supplies of water since the ruling was issued and thousands of acres of prime farmland have gone fallow over the past two summers. This has driven the unemployment rate to over 16% in Kern County, nearly 17% in Fresno County, over 17% in Kings County, and 17.5% in Tulare County.
So the economic impacts to agriculture and the California economy overall are severe.  Here's the irony: it's not that California does not have enough water from natural sources.  The truth is that an estimated 60% of California's rainfall is not only not captured, but flows straight into the ocean. Until Californians realize that the Sierra Club and other environmental interests are paralyzing the state and its economy, California will continue to shrink, will continue to export jobs to other countries and other states, and will lose huge swaths of one of its most important and lucrative industries--agriculture.