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Nothing makes my hair stand on end like the words “I can’t.” In my years of conducting lessons, I’ve encountered more than a few children who, when faced with a simple task, too quickly drop it in frustration and say, “I can’t do it.”

I also have a three-year old who’s learning how to put on her own clothes. I hear “I can’t” a lot. Usually the words “I can’t” are tinged with a whine. Sigh.

She’s only three. I get that there are truly some things she isn’t yet capable of doing. As a parent, it’s my job to help her find the line between “I can’t” and “I can” and keep moving it forward. Take socks, for example. It’s much faster to simply put a toddler’s socks on for her and call it good. Some days, that’s all I have the time or patience for. But every time I do it is one less opportunity for her to develop the skill and confidence to do it herself.

Naya shoes

Shoes and pants are complicated for 3-year-olds to put on. Our rule is to say “I can try” instead of “I can’t.”

So when we have time, we talk it through. “Here’s the heel of your sock. Where’s your heel? Here’s the toe of your sock. Where are your toes? Okay, so when you put your sock on, your toes need to end up in the toe of the sock, and your heel in the heel of the sock. Remember, ALL of your toes have to go into the sock, otherwise it’s not going to work. Yay, Naya! You did it!” And she’ll do it again, and again, proving she can.

Invariably, a few days later, she will halfheartedly try to put on one sock, snag a toe in the opening, then whine, “I can’t do it!” And no amount of “Yes, you can,” and “Remember, you showed me you could do it yesterday” will overcome her self-defeat.

Recently, I found inspiration to try a fresh tactic. It was a Facebook meme of the words “I can’t” written in crayon, then transformed with a different color to read “I can try.” A lightbulb popped on in my brain. I decided to try something new.

I first tried my new approach at bedtime. Naya got frustrated while trying to put on her nightgown and wailed, “I can’t do it!” “Wait,” I said. “It bothers me when you say you can’t do something. Let’s try this. Instead of saying, ‘I can’t,’ I want you to say, ‘I can try.’ If you try and still need help, say, ‘Mommy, will you please help me?’”

By golly, it works! (Some of the time.) Now, when she says “I can’t,” I give her my “Oh, really?” look and she’ll correct herself, saying, “I can try.” She knows that “I can try” means she has to actually try. Quite often, she succeeds on her own or with just a little help. Parenting win!

Sometimes, though, “I can’t” really means “I don’t want to.” This is a harder nut to crack. I’ve noticed this is as true for adults as it is for toddlers. But adults are savvier. To avoid saying, “I can’t” or “I don’t want to,” they invent reasons why they don’t need to learn new skills, new technology, or new information. They attack the thing itself, as in, “We all got along just fine before smartphones and they don’t work as well as regular phones.” Some go further yet, disparaging users of new tools as lazy or stupid. “In my day, we didn’t need GPS because we knew how to read maps.” It’s a bit like if my toddler threw down her sock and said, “Socks are silly, and people who wear them are, too.”

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My daughter had her balance bike for a year before she finally said, “I can try” and ventured to ride it.

I’m not arguing that we all must learn every new thing that comes along. But I believe we should recognize and admit whether we can’t or don’t want to learn something, and not disparage the thing or those who do learn it. Figure out, for example, if you find social media frustrating because you struggle to learn it (can’t), or because you simply would rather not deal with it (don’t want to). If you realize you can’t, you recognize your limitations. If you acknowledge you don’t want to, you choose to limit yourself. Either is okay. Just don’t try and disguise those limitations by expressing disdain towards the thing or the people who use it.

Besides, whether you can’t or don’t want to do, there’s no harm in saying “I can try,” and “Can you help me, please?” You might surprise yourself.

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the June 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Waste not?

The crisper drawer in my refrigerator is mislabeled. It reads “Fruits and Vegetables” on the front, but it should say, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” In our household, there ain’t nothin’ coming out of there alive, or shall I say, edible.

The other evening, in a burst of unexpected ambition, I decided to clean out the fridge. There was a little bit of room left in the dishwasher, and I recalled seeing a couple containers of leftovers of dubious vintage in the refrigerator. If I threw those leftovers away, I reasoned, there was just enough room in the dishwasher for the empty containers.

Several smelly containers and a bottle of moldy apple juice later, I was still feeling energetic and decided to tackle the crisper drawer. I knew there was a package of aged celery in there that was probably ready to hit the compost pile. I pulled open the drawer and was abruptly faced with several weeks of good intentions gone horribly wrong.

There were two packages of baby Portabella mushrooms, one still unopened, both exhibiting impressive growths of furry white mold. (Reflect on that for a moment: fungus, growing on another fungus.) I had purchased them on sale with the vague idea of using some in omelets and the rest for an as-yet-to-be discovered recipe on Pinterest.

There was a shriveled orange still in its woven nylon bag, and no fewer than four plastic produce bags containing two to four wrinkled apples each. There was a half a bag of sprouting baby carrots. There was a large green pepper turning grayish and pitted with age (also intended for the omelets I never made).

There were several restaurant-issued, single-serve condiment pouches. (Why these were in the crisper drawer, I have no idea.) The unopened package of celery I had first thought of was there, the stalk ends turning yellowish-brown.

And on the very bottom of the drawer, partially flattened under apples and oozing a greenish, pinkish, brownish slime, was another produce bag containing something I could neither recall nor identify. Yuck!

I hate wasting anything, especially food. I hate having wasted the money spent purchasing it, and I hate that while others go hungry, food is going uneaten in my fridge due to my bad planning.

Recently, my food waste frustration intensified when I joined a Facebook group called My Job Depends on Ag. Founded by farmers in California, many of the group’s members are produce growers. Now my social media feed includes glimpses into the work of growing, picking, packing, processing, and shipping products like cherries, watermelons, or tomatoes.

It’s one thing to know that growing food is challenging and labor-intensive. It’s quite another to actually see it happening. I find it humbling to see the passion that farmers, farmworkers, truckers, and others have for their work to bring us food. Now, when a half-eaten bag of sweet cherries goes bad in my refrigerator, I am ashamed. I’ve seen the labor, time, energy, and resources that went into getting those cherries into my hands, and I feel like I’ve squandered it.

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Wasted food that I discovered in my fridge. I took this photo in August of 2016, meaning the item on the left had been in my refrigerator for TWELVE YEARS.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, “In the United States, 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten.” That’s nearly a third of our food! And the lion’s share of that—21 percent—happens at the consumer level. Yikes, that’s me. Me, my slimy forgotten carrots, and that leaky can of tomato sauce that expired seven years before my daughter was born.

Food waste is obviously a bigger issue than what happens in the far reaches of my refrigerator. But I can be a part of the solution. We all can. For my part, I plan to try these things: 1) have specific meals planned before deciding what groceries to buy, 2) take inventory of what is already in the fridge, freezer, and cabinets and use those items first, 3) buy less than what I think we need, and 4) stop purchasing perishable items with only vague ideas of how I might use them.

I need to clean out the freezer. Does anyone have a recipe for freezer-burnt fish?

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the August issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

If you want to push one of my hot buttons, just make a spiteful comment about how teachers have it easy because they only work for nine months and get summers off. It will get me going every single time.

Although I’m trained as an educator, my last experience with formal classroom teaching was 24 years ago, when I spent a semester student teaching a multiage first and second grade classroom in central Illinois. Those few months left me with empathy for teachers that will never, ever, leave me.

Here’s what I learned about the life of an elementary teacher.

First, I discovered that teaching is physically tiring. During the school day, the constant instructing, standing, and moving combined with the bombardment of need from 20-some little people is draining. And it doesn’t stop when they leave the classroom. I’ll never forget the late nights reviewing that day’s student work and trying to create engaging, hands-on lessons for the next day. It felt like I never got enough sleep before it was time to gather all my supplies and head back to the classroom.

I found that teaching is also mentally and emotionally exhausting. Every lesson, every interaction with a student is fraught with possibilities and pitfalls. I remember a highly-involved lesson that went so well I felt giddy afterwards. I also vividly recall too-harshly reprimanding a child and watching his face crumple into tears. Whether positive or negative, teachers will tell you that experiences like these are emotionally demanding.

Like the physical toll, I learned the emotional toll doesn’t end when the kids leave. One evening, I enlisted the help of a friend to decipher a sentence scrawled by a first-grade boy. After several minutes of scrutiny, we interpreted these words: “It scares me when my mom and dad yell at each other.” My heart ached for this child, whom I had previously only viewed as a classroom mischief-maker. Ask any teacher and they will tell you similar stories of students whose circumstances kept them awake at night with worry.

As demanding as it was, my student teaching experience still didn’t include many additional stressors that today’s classroom teacher contends with. I didn’t have to administer standardized tests, for example, nor was I required to interact with school administrators or parents.

So. Those summers off after the school year ends? After all the long days, late nights, and weekends of preparation, grading, and worrying, I believe teachers urgently need and richly deserve time to relax and recharge before the next school year begins.

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Teachers on their summer “break,” participating in our 18th annual Summer Ag Institute, a 40-hour NIU graduate course.

As soon as school was out this spring, however, 13 local teachers spent several long days of their “break” time attending our Summer Ag Institute (SAI), exploring ways to inject food, farming, and career information into their classroom teaching. They joined many colleagues who ended their school year only to begin courses or attend conferences to further their professional development.

A week later while I was attending the National Ag in the Classroom conference, the previous week’s SAI participants still weren’t resting. They were working on their course assignments. Every day I received a barrage of emails with lesson plans, journals, and papers attached. In the meantime, most of my fellow conference attendees were—you guessed it—teachers on summer break. What is this “summer break” people speak of? When do these teachers rest?

From what I can tell, the answer is: Teachers do rest and recharge in the summer… but not for the three months non-educators may imagine. Many teachers spend early summer taking professional development classes and workshops, mid-summer squeezing in a family vacation, and the final weeks of break preparing for the new school year. Some also teach summer school or work part-time jobs.

Even addressing health challenges often waits until the school year ends.  A fourth grade teacher friend of mine had knee replacement surgery within days after school let out. She’ll be having the other knee replaced yet this summer, allowing enough healing time so that she can be on her feet to teach again in August. Summer “break?” Yikes.

As is true for most working adults, I don’t get a summer break. But I still don’t begrudge teachers theirs.

And to the 220 area teachers over the past 18 years who have spent the first part of their summer break with me, participating in the Summer Ag Institute, thank you. Thank you for devoting so many hours of your “break” time to continue learning so that you may enhance your teaching.

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the July 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

I think my husband heartily regrets the day he surprised me with my first smartphone. Why? I enjoy reading about science, and I quickly discovered that a world of knowledge was Literally. At. My. Fingertips.

There was a day when I would readily lose myself in a book or a magazine article. Not so much anymore. Now I have my phone, or my tablet! I can still shut out the rest of the world within moments by stumbling across an interesting article posted on Facebook by Science News, Biofortified, or dozens of other science or ag organizations.

Science on social media

Links to thought-provoking science and ag-focused articles abound on social media, but the comments can be caustic.

The pitfall of following science news sources online, though, is the comments sections. Back in the day, if you read an article about a new science discovery in a paper magazine, you might discuss what you just read with someone nearby. But that was pretty much it.

 

But now! We have the ability to comment immediately, online, about everything! See a headline that grabs your attention? Click! Read! Comment! Oh wait… I know what I think just by the headline; I don’t need to read the whole story. In fact, I’m going to post a comment expressing what I think [types feverishly…]. There.

Have you ever furtively Googled a texting/commenting abbreviation because you didn’t know what it stood for? Yeah, me too. Last week I looked up this one: tl;dr. If you’re old like me (I’m in my mid-40s, which feels dang old if you spend any time in the social media world), you may not have known that one. I’ll save you looking it up. It means, “too long; didn’t read.” Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted a comment on an article you didn’t read all the way through, or (ahem) didn’t read at all. Go on, raise that hand, no one’s watching you. (Seriously—they’re all looking at their devices.)

I’ve actually caught myself gauging whether or not I want to take the time to read an article by perusing the comments first. I’m not sure this is a healthy habit, and I have yet to discern what it is about the comments that help me make up my mind. Whatever it is, reading online comments is an interesting and often depressing foray into human nature.

Judging by what I read in online comments, a whole bunch of people’s moms must have told them as children, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Unless you’re online, then you may type whatever the #%&! you want.” The mean stuff bothers me, of course. I remind myself that there just SEEMS to be a lot of hateful trolls, but (hopefully) they are a small minority of folks who make a lot of racket.

The commenters who irritate me most, however, aren’t the trolls who simply thrive on poking people to get emotional reactions. No, it’s the people who casually make snide comments who really disappoint me.

Want to fall into a comment abyss? Read the comments regarding a topic like pesticides or GMOs. Along with outright hateful statements, you’ll run into stuff like this: “Know anything about how toxicology works?” And, “Science, much?” I think the reason these more subtle jabs irk me so much is that they often come from people who otherwise share valuable, credible information. Then they ruin it by being snide. It’s as though they care more about being right than about advancing the conversation.

Here’s something to keep in mind if you’re commenting online. The people “listening” aren’t just the ones commenting. A whole bunch of folks like me are reading quietly, taking in information, and deciding for themselves who and what to believe. And they won’t say (type) a word.

Relationship researcher John Gottman found that contempt is a key predictor of whether or not a marriage will last. I believe this is also true of the often invisible interactions that take place online. It doesn’t matter how much valuable information you can share; if you present it with even the tiniest bit of scorn, readers will “divorce” you and stop listening.

If you really want to maintain a happy “marriage” between your ideas and the people you hope to share them with, online or IRL (in real life), restrain yourself from being sarcastic. Truly. Just be nice. I’m listening.


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the April/May 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Years after my grandparents got out of the egg business, the area just inside the back door of their farmhouse still smelled faintly of chickens.

That’s where they hung their “chicken clothes”—the overalls, coats, and hats they would wear when doing chores like collecting, cleaning, grading, and packing eggs.

It wasn’t an offensive odor, unlike the chicken houses themselves which smelled strongly enough to make my eyes water on the rare occasion I stepped into them. No, the smell of that small passageway was always a welcoming reminder that I had arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Throughout my childhood, their farm was place I loved to be. I played outside. I sang along to Grandma’s records. I followed Grandpa around. And I learned a whole lot about eggs.

In the summers, I often stayed the night. Many a morning would find Grandpa and me in the kitchen, he standing at the stove making breakfast, me at my usual spot at the table as sunlight streamed through the screen door. Naturally, breakfast was usually eggs. Grandpa liked to experiment with spices, and would often make each of us a uniquely-seasoned one-egg omelet.

While we ate, we would talk. It was over those breakfasts when I learned that very young hens were most likely to lay odd-sized eggs or eggs with a membrane but no shell. Grandpa taught me how to divide a Julian date by 30 to figure out approximately when a carton of eggs was packed. If he happened to have recently collected particularly tiny egg, known as a “peewee,” it was at breakfast time when he or Grandma would wrap it in a paper towel and place it in an empty margarine container for me to take home.

 

After breakfast it would be time to head out to work. To me, the most interesting activity took place in the small egg packing room located on one end of one of the long, low chicken houses. Here, Grandpa dunked wire baskets of eggs into cleaning solution, Grandma perched on a metal stool candling eggs, and an automatic egg grader clattered rhythmically as it sorted eggs by weight. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Grandma carefully rotating eggs in front of the bright bulb on the end of the grading machine, looking for cracks in each shell or blood spots on each yolk.

 

Grandma and Grandpa’s egg delivery route included restaurants, bakeries, and other businesses, mostly in the Rochelle area but also in Rockford. One of my favorite childhood memories is of the day their blue “egg van” pulled up to the rear entrance of Kings School while I was outside at recess. I streaked across the playground in excitement to see them, bursting with pride. MY grandparents provided all the eggs we ate at MY school!

A year or so before he died, Grandpa told me about Pearl Valley Eggs, a modern Illinois egg farm he had recently visited. He was very impressed by it, and said he would like to take me there sometime for a tour. By then, I was working here at Farm Bureau and intrigued by any new farm experiences I could take in. But it wasn’t until some years after he passed that I finally got a chance to visit that farm.

In 2009 and again in 2012 I took groups of teachers to Pearl Valley Eggs during our Summer Ag Institute. Each time, I could imagine Grandpa being there with me, taking in the sheer size of the hen houses, the freshness of the air within them, and the clean, healthy birds in their cages. I could picture him shaking his head in bemused amazement at how many tasks are now automated, including collecting, cleaning, and candling the eggs. I could especially envision him marveling at the robotic egg packing process.

I’ve been told that Grandpa was known by many as “the Egg Man.” I wish he was still here, so we could talk some more about eggs.

Note: Julian date = day of the year. A Julian date of 094 on an egg carton means the eggs were packed on the 94th day of the year, or around April 4, because 94 ÷ 30 = 3 months plus 4 days (where an average month is 30 days long).

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the March 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Absurd worries

Do you ever worry about something—either to yourself, out loud, or maybe on social media–and suddenly realize it’s kind of absurd? I do. I just did it this morning, in fact.

I was bent over zipping up a pair of dressy black ankle boots when this thought flitted through my mind: “I think square toes have gone out of style. I should probably get a new pair.” As I straightened up, my next thought was, “Really? These keep my feet warm and dry, and they’re reasonably comfortable. I can’t believe I just thought about getting a new pair.”

As I continued to get ready for work, I thought of bombed-out cities in the Middle East, starving families in North Korea who have no electricity, and children in Flint, Michigan drinking lead-laced water.

I thought of refugees across the globe who are hungry, cold, miserable, homeless, penniless, and mourning the violent deaths of loved ones.

And my boots are out of style? Does this really matter?

So I started thinking about other absurd things we worry about in our developed world. Does this vehicle have voice-activated GPS? Does that house have granite countertops? Did this bottled water come from a tap, or a mountain spring?

Perhaps nowhere is the absurdity more evident—and more rampant—than in the grocery store. Were the hens who laid these eggs fed a vegetarian diet? Does that soft drink contain high fructose corn syrup? Is this salt non-GMO?

When they first arrive, many immigrants to our country are flabbergasted by the sheer amount and variety of food heaped on our grocery store shelves. Instead of finding it amazing, however, those of us who’ve lived here all our lives analyze labels and fret over the relative merits of things like natural, organic, conventional, and local.

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Food companies amplify our worries using savvy marketing. Whether we realize it or not, worry guides many of our purchasing decisions.

Companies are quick to amplify our worries using savvy marketing. Whether we realize it or not, worry guides many of our purchasing decisions. If we’re worried about the environment, we’ll buy all-natural, biodegradable shampoo. If we’re worried about our health, we’ll buy foods with health claims on the label. If we’re concerned about animal welfare, we’ll buy products labeled with statements about animal care. (Never mind that many such claims are misleading, made-up, and/or downright false.)

 

I’m not saying we’re bad people for worrying about style, food safety, or animal welfare. What I am saying is that many of our worries are overblown. It’s far too easy to forget how fortunate we are, and it’s our good fortune that allows us the luxury to worry.

I had to laugh at myself for thinking I needed new boots. I may still buy them. But I’ve made a pact with myself: When I catch myself worrying about things like out-of-style boots or free-range eggs, I’m going to remind myself that my feet are warm and my tummy is full.

Oh, and speaking of absurd, I must mention:

  • Chickens are by nature omnivores, not vegetarians.
  • High fructose corn syrup is remarkably similar to table sugar.
  • Salt isn’t an organism, and therefore has no genes to modify.

It’s natural to worry. But I’m going to try and keep my fretting in sharp perspective, and recognize when my worries are absurd.

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the February 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

It’s not easy, actually.

Asking others for help has never been my strong point. I’m a fiercely independent introvert, and I tend to want to figure things out on my own while talking to as few people as possible.

It’s not that I don’t like people, or don’t like talking. If you halfway know me and ever happen to drift by my office, I might talk your ear off.  I’ll probably say ten awkward things before I finally remember that you have other things to do. Then you’ll leave, and I will take a deep breath and let my scattered thoughts settle for a few moments before I continue working. I’ll be delighted to have talked to you, but I’ll still have to regroup afterwards.

I like people, and I like talking, but it wears me out. Susan Cain, author of the (terrific) book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” explains that extroverts are energized by stimulation and social interaction, while introverts are energized by quiet reflection. I am at my most productive and creative in a quiet space.

But it’s January, and it won’t be quiet long. January in my world means gearing up for our Ag in the Classroom program. Gearing up for Ag in the Classroom means fielding requests for presentations from 140-150 teachers. It means obtaining, organizing, and preparing supplies (like corn and soybean seeds for first graders to plant and rock salt so second graders can make ice cream).  Most of all, January means I will be busy asking at least 100 people for help.

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Preparing Ag in the Classroom supplies means asking the Ag Literacy Committee for help!

That’s how many people it takes to visit all those first through fourth grade classrooms to teach kids in our county about agriculture. And you know what? It’s AWESOME. I love it. I love the energy, enthusiasm, and generosity of our volunteers. I love hearing from teachers and sometimes even parents what a profound impact those volunteers have on their students.

But it’s not easy. Introversion aside, I am acutely aware of the fact that each prospective volunteer, upon receiving an e-mail or a call from me, may think something like, “Oh, shoot. She found me.” As you read or listen to my plea for help, all the things that are on the plate you call life will flash before your eyes: Getting your farm tax documents in order. Attending your kid’s dance rehearsals. Delivering seed. Your mother-in-law’s illness. Your other kid’s sporting events. Your job. Your… whatever. I get it—you’re busy.

And here I am, asking you to volunteer. To walk into classrooms and talk to kids about agriculture. You know it will take more time than just the hour or so spent in each classroom. First, there’s the training (if you haven’t presented in the past). Then, reviewing the lesson plan, preparing the materials, and contacting the teachers. And then returning your supplies to my office afterwards. I’m asking you to devote a lot of precious time, in a life that’s already full. I know this.

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I know that volunteering for Ag in the Classroom means trading productive time in your farm shop or bank office for time spent in a few rambunctious classrooms.

Plus, the thing about volunteering is that you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to add another thing to your list of things to do. I know this, too.

This knowledge is ever-present as I carefully phrase each e-mail or mentally rehearse each call before I pick up the phone. So if you get that e-mail or call from me, please know that it wasn’t an easy thing for me to do.

But I also know that what you will do if you say yes is harder yet… and even more important.

P.S. If you have a passion for agriculture and would like to volunteer, you don’t have to wait for me to contact you. E-mail me anytime at rcollins@dekalbfarmbureau.org or call 815-756-6361. I would love to talk to you!

 


 

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the January 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.