Archive | March, 2008

What a mess

March 31, 2008

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I waded through a mess last Friday known as the Wisconsin DNR computer licensing system. At 10 a.m., surplus wild turkey licenses were supposed to go on sale. My two sons and I already had been picked in the regular turkey lottery and had our licenses. But, I was trying to help a young boy get his.

A week ago, a good friend of mine told me about his 13-year-old nephew who likes to hunt. But, his father died when he was 5 and he has had to rely on other adults to take him out. The boy’s grandparents own a nice farm in Wisconsin that I hunted successfully last spring for turkeys, so I called his mother to try to help her buy him a surplus turkey license on-line.

Unfortunately, the computer system crashed and was down most of the day. Finally, in the evening, the system went up again and she called the DNR to buy the license. Sadly, she was told the licenses for the zone in which their farm is located had sold out. She called me with the news and I looked on the DNR website to see if that was true.

To my delight, it showed that there were, indeed, licenses left in that zone and I immediately called her back. We bought the license on-line while I was on the phone with her. Thus, our persistence paid off.

Because of my experience with the DNR computer system, I was able to stay on top of things and get accurate, up-to-date information. I don’t know why the person on the phone said there were no licenses left. I guess all of the glitches confused even some of the people who work with the computer system. I’m just very grateful it all worked out for this young boy to go on his first turkey hunt.

The best part is I have a friend who’s an expert turkey hunter and has agreed to serve as a guide for my friend’s nephew. I’m excited to help make this happen for a boy who surely continues to feel the pain of the loss of his father. I can identify with this because my two oldest boys lost their mother in 1995 when they were 4 and 3. I pray God will bless the hunt and make it memorable for all of us.

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Tragedy that is Brazil plays out in nun’s martyrdom

March 30, 2008

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“The Greatest Gift,”
by Binka Le Breton

Read this story about the life of Sister Dorothy Stang and you’ll get angry about the evil and the injustice in our world.

Sister Dorothy would look you in the eye and very kindly tell you not to get angry — do something about it.

This sister with a passion to help the poorest of the poor and a mind all her own about how to that help would tell you that working for justice is difficult but wonderfully rewarding. Unfortunately, Sister Dorothy isn’t alive to tell us anything. A pistol was emptied into her in the Amazon jungle in Brazil just three years ago.

Fortunately, because the murder of this petite Sister of Notre Dame de Namur happened not long ago, many who knew and worked with Sister Dorothy are around to tell her story: the poor who strive to eke a living out of Amazonia; other nuns and lay people who shared her work; a bishop who opened his house to her whenever she needed shelter and sanctuary; and even an eyewitness to her murder.

“The Greatest Gift” shares a little of what many will find typical in the early life of Dorothy Mae Stang, daughter of a Dayton, Ohio family. Those early-life chapters may be the only ones in the book that don’t deliver eye-opening insight into the violence that is life for so many in the developing world. This is a book that lets us in on what is happening in parts of the planet where “development” equals greed and where law and civic authorities fail in their duty to protect people’s rights — even their right to life. It’s a book, too, that explores just what it is that makes a person live and die for a cause, for others.

Initially a teaching nun and then a principal in the United States, Sister Dorothy’s work with the migrant community in Arizona earned flattering copy in the Arizona Republic. It was that work with the poor in the Southwest that whet her appetite to work with those who have little or nothing. She asked to be assigned as a missionary, and spent 30 years in Brazil, most of it helping that country’s poor stay alive, feed their families, and take steps toward fulfillment — both temporal and spiritual.

When Sister Dorothy arrived in 1966, the part of Brazil to which she was sent was best described as a feudal state controlled by a few families of landowners and politicians. When the missionaries put religious texts to Brazilian music, the authorities confiscated the song sheets and threw some priests in jail. Their crime? The lyrics said that God created all people equal. Obviously the ruling class couldn’t have that.

During Sister Dorothy’s three decades in Brazil, the government was encouraging large-scale settlement of the western Amazon. The mantra was “Land for Men for Men Without Land,” and the poor and the landless poured into the forest, felling trees and planting crops by the thousands of acres. Sister Dorothy was one of the missionaries who went west with them. She taught people about their rights, helped to establish farm workers’ unions, gave literacy classes, built a center to train teachers, started some little stores, a warehouse, a fruit processing plant, a community trading post, a women’s association that focused on health care.

It was when she fought for land reform that she ended up on a death list. She stood up for stewardship of the land, conservation and interdependence with nature. She developed a program — adopted by the government — that taught people an agriculture method that utilized the forest instead of cutting it down. She travelled to civic offices to secure the paperwork that would verify her people’s ownership of the tracts they had settled on and planted only to have corrupt politicians, police and the Brazilian military sit by and watch greedy ranchers send armed men to chase the poor off that same land.

Her best friend, Joan, talks about Sister Dorothy Stang with these words:

“She was a strong woman,” Joan said, “but sometimes very obstinate. She had a soft voice that echoed through the halls of government offices and bounced off the giant trees of the forests, the same soft voice that could soothe an aching heart and assure someone that God loved them.”

She added, “Dot had a mind that could understand the laws of land reform, the intricacies of sustainable farming, the impact of the destruction of the forest on the world now and in the future, and the hope and conviction that one voice could make a difference.”

In June of 2004 the Brazilian Bar Association gave Sister Dorothy the Humanitarian of the Year Award. Nine months later, a paid gunman shot her down on a dirt road in the jungle. More people need to know about this heroine, so that her work continues. — bz

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I can see clearly

March 25, 2008

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I just bought a new pair of binoculars after weeks of research. I settled on a pair made by Nikon called the Monarch. There is a staggering array of choices out there and a very wide price range, from about $50 all the way up to $1,900. Because I am a photographer, I appreciate quality optics, but my budget would not allow me to shop the high end of the price scale.

So, like many others, I tried to figure out a way to get the most bang for my buck. I went to three different stores and people at each store recommended the Nikon Monarch as a quality binocular at a reasonable price — $270. It comes close to matching the high-priced ones in quality.

As I looked through my new binoculars at home, I couldn’t help but think of Father Tom Margevicius. He is an avid bird watcher and he took me out last spring. He is passionate about this hobby and he owns several pairs of high-end binoculars. He is adamant about getting the best optics he can so that he can achieve the sharpest vision. This is critical when trying to see all of the fine details on the dozens and dozens of small birds that he observes on his many outings. When it comes to binoculars, he settles for nothing less than the best.

As I reflected on this, I began to wonder about spiritual vision. How much do I care about seeing spiritual things clearly? God doesn’t offer us spiritual binoculars, but he does give us His Word, the Church, the sacraments and other brothers and sisters in Christ. If we use all of these things, our spiritual vision should be good. And, most of all, we should pray daily. Now that we are in the Easter season, this is a good time to commit to daily prayer. It’s a good way to clear up any spiritual fog.

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“I absolve you from your sins”

March 20, 2008

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I never tire of hearing these words from a priest: “I absolve you from your sins.”

I heard them again on Tuesday of this week during confession at my parish, Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul. I went to a communal penance service, which our parish offers before Christmas and Easter. I like to take advantage of the opportunity to go to confession during Holy Week and right before the Triduum services of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. The event was well attended and all of the folks there, including me, got a chance to go to private confession. There were nine priests there and I thank them all for taking the time to come and serve us in a very important way.

Later on that evening, I reflected on those words priests are trained to say to each person who comes to receive the sacrament. You could say that hearing those words means your confession was a success. I couldn’t help but compare that to success in the outdoors. When it comes to catching fish or harvesting game, a host of factors determine whether one will be successful — weather, skill in pursuing the quarry, mood of the fish or animal, etc.

But, in the confessional, all that is needed is a genuine act of contrition. Once you have made an honest confession, you are guaranteed to be forgiven. In fact, that is the point of the sacrament in the first place. God instructs us to go to a priest, not to bind us, but to remove any doubts about his forgiveness. That is something to celebrate during this Easter season. I plan on enjoying that gift now and God’s gift of the outdoors in the weeks and months to come. Next week, turkey scouting begins!

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Try a slice of politics, Chicago style

March 19, 2008

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“Windy City,”
by Scott Simon

My wife, Barb, who grew up in central Illinois farm country, used to say that my Chicago friends and I were afflicted with the same disease: “You guys think that Chicago’s the only place to live.”

At the time, her diagnosis was spot on.

Chicago can spoil you, and until you take the antidote of living elsewhere, love for Chicago is a tough illness to shake.

Obviously I’m not completely cured, despite having lived away from the Windy City for more than 25 years. When I spotted Scott Simon’s book, “Windy City,” at a bookstore, I didn’t think twice before plopping down $24.95.

The novel starts with the city’s long-serving mayor found dead at his desk, his face in a prosciutto and artichoke pizza. Finding the killer or killers is part of the unraveling, but to be honest, solving the crime is really only background music. A whodunit this ain’t.

The plot? Chicago politics. In the raw.

The characters? Chicago’s aldermen. In all their humanity, all their sins, all their antics, all their shenanigans, all their deals, all their in-fighting, all their “character.” How they work with and around one another in complex relationships that can’t be described as all bad– but they aren’t all good, either.

What keeps you turning the pages, ostensibly, is the storyline about who will become the next mayor, since the City Council must elect a replacement until the next general election.

One aldermen recommends that another vote for a certain candidate because she “knows how to express her appreciation,” wink wink.

But Simon, the host of National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition,” has put together a package that combines accurate descriptions of Chicago’s ethnic variety — ward by ward — with an inside-baseball view of Chicago’s City Council and its city government operations. He captures life as every Chicagoan will tell you is exactly the way it is.

It’s the speeches at the Museum of Lithuanian Civilization, the Baptist church and the wedding reception in a Chinese neighborhood, the flashbacks to how the now-dead mayor forced Chicago to live up to its motto as “The City That Works,” and insight into machine politics — aldermanic votes are dependent not upon who is best for the job but who will agree to put a police station in their neighborhood or vote for a tax enhancement zone in their ward. You get to keep you seat on the council if you do two things: fill the potholes and clear the snow off the streets.

“Windy City” was a fun read for me because I was able to identify with so many of the locales that Simon takes his readers to and with the ethnic mix that has such an impact on politics in Chicago.

Others will love the circus-like atmosphere in the City Council chambers that Simon portrays perfectly, almost historically!

There’s really great writing, too. Simon doesn’t just say an alderman is “in bed with” one of the city’s unions, he “shares bedbugs” with it. When a City Hall worker commits suicide from a high-rise apartment, the police officer involved admits his investigation hasn’t produce any reason. He tells an alderman, “All we know for sure now, sir, is that he wasn’t Peter Pan.”

The amazing thing about “Windy City” is that Simon doesn’t involve the cardinal-archbishop of Chicago in the story — not in any way. In this day and age, an author deserves a plenary indulgence for resisting the urge to take a cheap shot or to pile on the hierarchy and the church.

The most religious action in the whole story comes just before Chicago’s 50 aldermen are to vote on the mayoral replacement. Because the Rev. Jesse Jackson is unavailable, an alderman who is also a rabbi is asked to do the invocation for the council session. And there’s a bit of good old Chicago pride that seeps through, as you’ll see in this excerpt:

“May God give us wisdom today. And if we don’t choose the best or the brainiest candidate, please let us at least find a good man or woman who loves this city and will grow wise in the job.”

Now for the worst part of “Windy City” — the jacket design. A weather vane with a donkey, an elephant and an American flag, plus convention-type boater hats. Please. Chicago politics isn’t akin to a party convention. And there’s no Republican anything in Chicago, not even a weather vane. Sure, you could vote Republican in a city election — but why waste your vote? — bz

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Get ready

March 11, 2008

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The warmup is finally starting. After a cold — actually, normal — winter, the mercury is climbing above freezing and the snowpack will soon turn to puddles. Actually, a year ago, we had 20 inches of snow on the ground, thanks to two big snowstorms in late February and early March.

So, despite all of the cold we’ve had this winter, we have less snow on the ground than we did on this date last year. Naturally, I’m looking ahead to spring turkey hunting and the fishing season. My imagination is coming alive with dreams of getting a big gobbler and a trophy bass, but I’m also engaged in the preparation for those experiences.

This is a great time of year to get ready for your outdoor adventures. I’ve done more work than normal to prepare. I’ve bought a fishing boat and am doing some tinkering to make sure it’s fully operational come opening day. I also have been hard at work getting places to turkey hunt both in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I have talked to landowners in both states and gotten permission to hunt on some great farms that have lots of turkeys on them.

Once the snow is gone, I’ll go out and do some scouting. In the meantime, I have been spending time on a great software program called Google Earth. It provides satellite photo imagery that you can manipulate in a variety of ways, including tilting to see changes in terrain.

This is important in turkey hunting because hilly terrain is generally more appealing to the birds. You also can find out where the woods are and where the open areas are, including crop fields. Turkeys roost at night in the woods and spend some of the daylight hours there, but also spend lots of time in the open, feeding and breeding.

I have found Google Earth to be an invaluable tool, especially for scouting new areas. I have used aerial photos and topographical maps, but I like Google Earth much better. Plus, it saves money that I previously have spent to buy aerial photos. This is one instance where technology has made hunting more fun. In just a couple of weeks, I’ll begin exploring the places I have been viewing on Google Earth. Can’t wait!

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Dust Bowl history makes sad era a reality show

March 10, 2008

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“The Worst Hard Time,”
by Timothy Egan

You may have seen photos of the Dust Bowl, but read Timothy Egan’s comprehensive history and you can taste the dirt and feel the wind blast against your skin.

Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl,” paints such a vivid portrait of those 1930s years of dry, violent storms that you’ll find yourself coughing and swallowing hard just imagining what it must have been like when nature punished farmers for turning millions of acres of grassland into billowing towers of dust, dirt and sand.

Imagine how hard times must have been that people in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and southwestern Colorado would be driven to eat pickled tumbleweed to survive.

Imagine going three years without a paycheck.

Imagine your small town newspaper editor describing as “sissies” those who — after losing all the top soil from their land, not having anything to feed their cattle, watching their children, spouses and relatives die from “dust pneumonia” — didn’t have the “courage” to stick out the hard times.

Through interviews with people who lived through the 1930s in the Dust Bowl counties and terrific research, including amazing diary entries from a farmer who lost everything, Egan helps his readers know this little-known era of American history.

It’s a dense work, filled with information, especially information about real people – how they felt, how they cried, how they survived.

It’s an honest history, too, one not afraid to acknowledge both the failed recovery programs of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration and the conservation-minded ones that began to work to revive the land in places.

Whether or not you believe that the planet faces climate change today, this is a book that should help everyone understand how connected humanity is to the soil. The consequences of not valuing the soil result in tragedies like the Dust Bowl — something no one who reads this book would ever want to go through. — bz

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