Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Boyd's Megarant Concerning Healthcare Reform Part 3 - LEAN

Toyota: Reputation for building high quality, long lasting, inexpensive automobiles.
Cadillac: Reputation for building high quality, long lasting expensive automobiles.

Two car makers, two very different philosophies on how to build a car.

Toyota is widely considered as the originator of the LEAN manufacturing process. Though upstart car makers like Saturn adopted the same principles before GM (the maker of Cadillac) bought them out and ruined them. The Toyota model looks like this.

One car built at a time. Every line worker has the power to stop the assembly line if they see something wrong or something doesn't meet a certain specification for quality. One car is built. When it rolls off the line it goes through one more quality assurance check and then is ready for shipment. This is called, in the vernacular, Single Piece Flow. Do one thing at a time, one product at a time, excellently every time.

What ruined Saturn? GM ruined Saturn and it basically boils down to their American philosophy of manufacturing. Every Cadillac built that leaves the assembly line goes to one of two staging areas; Minor Problems or Major Problems. In these staging areas, defects in the manufactured automobiles is corrected by a team of troubleshooters prior to being delivered to the dealer showrooms. This is called, in the vernacular, Batch Flow.

The result? Two high quality cars, one more expensive, not just because of the name on the badge, but because of the process taken to create them. One, Toyota, very efficient. The other, Cadillac, quite inefficient.

And now for health care... there are two very different kinds of hospitals out there - not to over simplify the problem, but every hospital can be categorized into one of these two manufacturing processes. Single Piece Flow (LEAN) or Batch Flow (the anti-LEAN). There are many at various odd stages between the two but really, our hospitals are efficient or not. If you've worked in or been the victim (benefactor?) of a hospital you probably have a pretty good idea of what I mean.

The Toyota model of LEAN manufacturing has been introduced into our health care industry in the United States. It started in the laboratories. I will now describe the processes in the Laboratory of two very different hospitals - the LEAN and the anti-LEAN.

Hospital A - Blood is drawn from a patient in their room by a Phlebotomist. The test tube is placed in a rack the technician carries around from room to room, floor to floor, until the rack is full and it is turned into the Lab for processing. The lab takes this rack of test tubes and collects them until the gather enough together to place into their mega standalone chemistry analyzers. This entire collection of test tubes filled with blood are all analyzed simultaneously ( or nearly so) and the results are all logged at once. The results are then delivered back to the units from which the blood was drawn and the logged in the medical record - generally manually and all at once. This is BATCH flow. The draw back? The first patient to have their blood drawn has had to wait an hour for their results. The last patient to give blood has waited, perhaps, 30 minutes or less. The Lab shows a turn around time of 10 minutes because it took 10 minutes to run the racks of collected blood. This "lost time" phenomenon is a hallmark of all BATCHING systems. If the analyzer breaks, ALL samples are delayed or lost.

Hospital B - Blood is drawn from a patient in their room by a Phlebotomist. This sample is delivered to the Laboratory within minutes of it being drawn. The barcoded tube is placed in the analyzer immediately and within minutes the results are returned to the doctor electronically and the medical record is updated automatically. The true turn around time for this blood sample is 15 minutes or less. The phlebotomist, meanwhile, has drawn blood from the next patient, the sample sent, analyzed, and results returned in minutes. The result? Every patient has the same quick turnaround experience.  If the analyzer breaks, only ONE sample is delayed or lost while the Lab reverts to their backup process.

This gives you the background for understanding how the LEAN manufacturing process is being introduced, at a cost of several hundred thousands of dollars per year paid to vendors or consultants who offer the analysis, LEAN training, and then get the heck out of dodge. Then it is up to the hospital to spend many more thousands on new Single Piece Flow analyzers, software and computers to crunch data, space renovations, and in some cases the addition of staff to monitor LEAN Processes going forward.

LEAN Basics- All LEAN programs can be boiled down to these basic tenets.

1) Eliminate Waste
2) Standardize Work
3) Single Piece Flow
4) Process Monitoring
5) On the Fly Corrections

1) Eliminate Waste - This is as simple as it sounds and yet much harder than one may suppose. This really means not having more supplies, tools, parts, etc. on hand than you need for a specified period of time. It also means the death of the souls of your packrats who save everything "in case I need it some day." The key to this tenet of LEAN is that one can not be concerned about "someday"; one is only concerned with now. Someday is taken care of in the next section.

2) Standard Work - this simply means that no matter who is doing the work, the work is always done the same way; tools are always where they are supposed to be; supplies are always stocked; supply reorders are always done at the same regular intervals; documentation is always kept uniformly. This way whomever is completing the task knows where things are, when to reorder supplies, and how to do the job.

3) Single Piece Flow - this is vital to LEAN processes. Take care of one thing at a time. In spite of our culture's insistence - or ability - to multitask, taking care of one customer at a time makes the customer feel special and allows the server to concentrate on just them. Taking one test tube at a time, within reason, makes turnaround time consistent for all customers. Repairing one machine at a time, does the same thing for a customer waiting for their machine and allows the technician to focus on this one thing, increasing thoroughness and efficiency, clear work spaces, all tools readily available; no searching through tool kits to find the ones needed for multiple jobs, etc.

4) Process Monitoring- during LEAN assessment, consultants will stage video cameras around the area being assessed, allow a few days for staff to forget the cameras are rolling, and then record a normal business day. From this comes the concept of "Move the Damn Box". During at least one video session it was noticed that staff were like ants in a disturbed anthill, walking all over the place, sometimes miles of cumulative distance in the period of a day. Sometimes these miles are logged inside one room. It is all done in short bursts of frenzied activity. During one of these sessions an equipment operator kept tripping over a box that had been "stored" in a walkway on the floor. When the video was reviewed, the consultant apologized, in advance, to the operator and then asked, "Why don't you just move the damn box!?!" Monitoring the process to make sure it is as efficient as it was first created eliminates what is called "behavior creep" - lapsing back into lazy, sometimes dangerous behaviors over time.  If something isn't working making adjustments.

5) On the Fly Corrections - comes out of constantly monitoring the processes  and being flexible enough to make common sense adjustments to keep things efficiently running. This is kind of like performing a daily (hourly?) tune up of one's car.

The modern health care institution has become so layered with bureaucracy, inefficient process layers designed to correct inefficiencies in other layers, that LEAN is no longer a concept, though EVERYONE I've ever trained in these concepts ALWAYS says something like "that's just common sense! I naturally think like this. Why are you wasting my time training me on something that's just common sense?". Unfortunately they say these things as they are returning to their desk, piled high with stacks of papers and folders, to work on 3 different devices disassembled on their workstations. It sounds simple. It is. But training healthcare workers in these simple principles costs health care facilities hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

LEAN is good. LEAN should be implemented in health care - all departments from housekeeping, clinical engineering, facilities maintenance, nursing, administration, dental clinics to ICUS and Open Heart rooms. Any attempt at health care reform that does not mandate efficiencies, like LEAN, to be implemented is putting a bandaid on a sucking chest wound.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Boyd's MegaRant Concerning Healthcare Reform - Part 2 - The Consultants

The consultant for a hospital for which I was working, briefly, introduced himself as an expert in Evidence Based Medicine. The $10,000 in fees, plus travel and lodging expenses the hospital paid, I should guess, made him the happiest of all men. In exchange for this handsome sum he was to provide us department directors a two day seminar, which will provide us with tools we can use to promote a "new paradigm in the management of patient care to meet the challenges of the Affordable Care Act." Sadly, or not unexpectedly, there was not a physician or front line nurse in the room.

This "new paradigm" is summed up like this: Hospitals must learn to use the evidence they see before them to diagnose and treat disease and injury.  Ahem, wait, were we NOT doing this? If not, what are we doing?
 This evidence should include feedback from the patient, the patient's family, the technology we use to measure anatomical processes, the electrical signals from the heart, displayed as an EKG; the microscopy used in automatic urinalysis that shows the chemical make up of what leaves the kidneys;  the sodium and potassium levels in the NaK pump within our cells; the black and white (and more frequently) color images from various xray scans which show the internal workings and health of our structures and organs. All too often, the gentlemen said, physicians rely on things akin to trouble shooting charts to determine diagnoses and treatments. They use it like this:

The patient has a rash, a headache, no fever. Look up rash, headache, no fever follow the column over, okay she must have this. Now look up the disease, she MUST have, and prescribe one of these medicines. Have a nice day! (I have yet to run across a physician I've used that actually says Have a Nice Day after he gets done prodding you and making up illnesses for you, so consider this poetic license to show the the doctor's thought process has concluded and you no longer occupy an iota of memory space in his brain.)

Then there's the docs who make frequent use of WebMD and Google (or Bing) to diagnose and treat you.

Another disturbing trend in healthcare is the number of specialty physicians. There is a prevalent myth amongst many of us, that the best thing for us when we think we have something wrong with us is to see a specialist. Here's the deal. A dermatological specialist, has a basic education in general physiology, which may, or may not, be sufficient to begin with, but has spent the last 3 to 4 years learning, in specialty, about the skin. He then diagnosis what is wrong with your skin. He also prescribes therapy based only on his special knowledge of the skin and what his books tell him to prescribe for your current problem. Unless you find the rare "holisic" thinking specialist - holistic as I use it here means "taking in the whole" body and all of its processes and functions and how it affects the skin - this doctor will not even pursue, based on other evidence, what may be causing the skin to be in the condition it is in. For instance, he may treat just the skin, but ignore, because of ignorance, or because he doesn't really care, how one's digestion, diet, lifestyle, or body chemistry is manifesting itself in the boils, fungus, blotches, or acne displayed by one's skin. If you doubt, think about a time you've had a particularly difficult to get rid of condition, when you've been from specialist to specialist and they all run the same tests, get the same results, and frequently prescribe the same medicines in larger and stronger doses. If you've been through this, you are the victim of what I call Specialist-Troubleshooting Guide Medicine. Now the juxtaposition. Evidenced based medicine will take into account other evidences that may be leading to your condition. We should be worried. First of all, because this happens much too frequently. And secondly because hospitals, are spending your deductibles and the 20% you still owe on your last hospital visit to train their staff on something they describe as the new thing in medicine. Evidenced based medicine.

Wasted on All the Wrong People

It has occurred to me, on more than one occasion, that sometimes, good things are wasted on all the wrong people.

"Youth is wasted on all the wrong people", said the old guy on the front porch, as George Bailey hesitates to kiss Mary in the hydrangea bushes in It's a Wonderful Life.

Tornadoes and hurricanes occur with unheard of ferocity, at least in my life time. Once lush, fertile farm land has, in these days, become dry, hardpan, cracked, surfaces of clay that extend feet into the earth. High winds topple century old oak trees killed by drought. This hard clay of earth, now holds no water, even if it comes hurling from the sky. Inches, nay, feet of water pounding, compacting the already hard-rock soil, runs off carrying things with it, into our low places. The timing is all wrong too. When once we counted on a bounty of Spring rains prior to the blast furnace of the western Arkansas summers, and then bountiful fall rains to replenish the soil for the winter greens and soon to come spring asparagus, we now get a deluge in late March or early April, and then nothing until November.

But that is not all. Climate change, or whatever you want to call it, also wastes the bounty we do receive on all the wrong people. Not only does the cool weather finally come up to a month later than it did at the turn of the millennium, the heat comes later and is more intense. Stretches of drought and 100 degree days, make the long hot summer that much longer and that much hotter, and the farmers like me that much grouchier. It makes us wonder why we do what we do...

As I left the office building in downtown Little Rock, where I am attending some training, the clouds rolled in, the thunder boomed lowly, and the lightning cracked. By the time I finished my taco to head back to class it had come a deluge. "I wish it would stop raining. Everyday this week its rained right at lunch time and I get soaked on my way back to the office", one fellow diner bellowed - not using her inside voice at all.

It was then that it occurred to me that this rain, this bounty from heaven has been wasted on this ignorant urbanite. Farmers in 91 counties in Arkansas would give, their whatevers, for an afternoon rain shower for a week. While I am taking city water from the reservoir to water my garden, the Big City is taking rain that should be falling on my garden, collecting it in gutters and drains connected to underground pipes and dumping these gallons of life sustaining liquid, now mixed with city-filth, into the Arkansas River.

This rain today and like the rain of the past week has been wasted - on all the wrong people.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Lost Art of Writing, Communication ShortFalls, and the Disappearance of the Semi-Colon

 Here is an actual email I received at work today. See the bolded line below. I am pretty sure this is not what the salesman meant to say. I wonder if he were hand writing this note if he would have made the same mistake?

From: [Name and Company Redacted]
Sent: Thursday, July 18, 2013 3:14 PM
To: Hutchins, Boyd M
Subject: Re: [Name Redacted] Email

Perfect. Thanks for your help with this. If I can help with anything do hesitate to call. 
[Name Redacted]
Regional Vice President
Mississippi  Region
[Company Name Redacted]
Cell - xxx-xxx-xxxx

On Jul 18, 2013, at 2:40 PM, "Hutchins, Boyd M"  wrote:
Okay – UPS should be picking up the loaner this afternoon.

Tracking number xx xxx xxx xx xxxx xxxx

Boyd M. Hutchins, CBET, BMET iii
Clinical Engineering

I started writing at least 1 handwritten note or letter per week. Sometimes I just hand deliver it to the recipient, other times I send them through the mail. I have yet to receive a hand written response to any of them. I have received some verbal "Thank Yous" the next time I meet them, but that's it. Actually, one lady I sent a note to actually lauded the fact that I took the time to hand write the note, the quality of my penmanship,  and that it is rare for anyone to hand write a note anymore. She was impressed! She communicated this to me via email, stating, she wished she had more time to hand write a note but thought email would be quicker.

I am saddened by the discontinuation of the semi colon in the English Language. This curious punctuation mark  was in its heyday a prominent addition to almost any descriptive paragraph; now one must click options, insert symbol, scroll through the other antiquated symbols on the list, click add, and then 'X' out of the options back to the screen on one's phone where one types their abbreviated text message. Fortunately the semicolon still holds a place on the computer keyboard, just below the colon on the key. I believe it is one of the least used keys on my computer because it is the cleanest. The semi-colon key is the anchor of proper typing technique. Index finger on the 'J'; middle on the 'K'; ring on the 'L'; pinky on the ';'. And this is still a testament to the semicolon's endurance as a grammatical device, but it in no way approaches the glory of its former days, as its use in a two page paragraph by Hugo or Dumas, or IN THE WORD OF GOD!

For those grammatical connoisseurs who still relish the use of this altruistic punctuation mark; I salute you! For those who have never used a semi-colon; or used it improperly; below is the definition of the semi-colon, what it is used for, and, perhaps for the first time for you, a semi-colon actually used in a sentence. Though I have used no less than 5 times already.

NOUN: the punctuation mark (;) used to indicate a major division in a sentence where a more distinct separation is felt between clauses or it
on a list than is indicated by a comma, as between the two clauses of a compound sentence.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

I Had A Feeling - Deep Down In My Gut

Shamrock and Thistle Farm, 5:30 AM
Somewhere in the middle of Blast Furnace, Arkansas

Up early is the only way during this time of year. Work until 10:00 AM. This is when the too-close Sun breaks the top of the trees lining the eastern border of the property and begins to try the resolve of those humans and animals still living, or mostly living.

I was able to plant 60 feet of green beans in our slowly-being-renovated garden. I meant to take some pictures to post but as the sun cleared the trees, the batteries overheated; chemicals raised in increasing amounts of agitation, boiled over, rendering the electronic device obsolete. It occurs to me that, back in the day, when picture taken relied on mechanics, optics, and the inverse square law, batteries were not required. The chores were done and some staging for some night time projects completed, I surveyed the farm just to check up on some things. The cross garden is coming into shape and the tomato plant located there, which had given us our first tomato of the year, picked too soon as it always is, had turned two more smaller fruit that had turned a deep salmon color and felt soft to the squeeze. I almost picked them - almost, but remembering the tartness of the first I decided, against something in my belly telling me to go ahead, to give them one more hot day to ripen fully. I went inside, got some things in the house accomplished, a big breakfast gulleted, the nap time she comes and goes, and then, the time being fulfilled, I go outside to pick our tomatoes which should be very ripe and ready to eat.

Apparently something got to it before I did. An eyewitness described a Female, Black and White barred, rose come, slightly pink legs leaving the scene while they were closing the gate of the garden. A warrant was issued for the apprehension of the alleged perpetrator. It will be served tonight. A trial will be commenced. Due to the egregious nature of the crime, the proceedings will be without a jury and I will be the judge. The hen will get a fair trial, then I will incarcerate her in solitary confinement for a period no less than 3 days. If this hen doesn't lay 2 eggs during the 3 day sentence, she will be executed at dawn on the fourth day...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Boyd's MegaRant Concerning Healthcare Reform - Part 1

How many carts does one department need? I walked into our parts room one day to retrieve our magnificient, 24v Craftsman, cordless drill with the laser sight and "work piece" LED lighting system, and chuckless auto-power bit grip (this will show up again on my list later, and began the long and tedious process of moving various odd carts, portable storage bins, and hydraulic lifts out of the way to get to the back corner wherein our most glorious drill is propped, prominently, on the gray painted altar we fashioned for her and realized that, these carts, storage bins, and hydraulic lifts are always right there, impeding the fulfillment of my immediate need for the exalted drill. I mean, how many carts do we really need? I ventured a thought, which died a quick death, like so many clay pigeons at a skeet range. I thought, perhaps, that these carts and things were always here because my coworkers put them back here after they are used. But, knowing Clinical Engineers the way I do, I realized that they NEVER put tools back where they got them after they are done with the job. Here is the sad, sad truth. A cart is made to have wheels. A cart without wheels is generally referred to as a...wait for it...a table. So, a cart still possessing its natural gift of wheels, that never moves, is being prevented from fulfilling its destiny. The cart, in effect, is performing the job of a table. And like 90% of Americans, according to Max Lucado, the cart, possessive of its wheels, is in the wrong job; as many of us, possessing certain talents, skills, and dreams, are disappointingly so, in the wrong job.

I had to clean water-boogers out of an incubator in the Lab one day. Let me explain. The Blood Bank freezes platelets collected during blood drives and such, for use in patient care. The platelets are frozen to extend their life to keep them viable for use in the human body. There are many uses for this portion of our blood, too many to mention here. Now, in the old days, Pre Y2K, platelets, prior to being used in the human body, were removed from the freezer and placed on a table (without wheels) upon a bed of paper towels to thaw to room temperature which, in a hospital, is usually kept at right around 73 degrees F. When they reached room temperature, measured by seeing that the bag is completely thawed, they were delivered to the unit performing the infusion therapy, where the bag is placed into what is called a blood warmer, a calibrated machine which heats the contents to body temperature, a precise 98.6 F. This process was effective for decades. This process had few fail points. Paper towels don't fail. Room temperature doesn't fail and unless room temperature gets above our body's natural temperature, it never will. But if it does, the last thing on the lab tech's mind will be the platelets on his counter. He'll most likely ignore the rapidly thawing bags and be on the phone calling the facility maintenance department to fix the air-conditioning. Alas, as my good friend and coworker says, "Progress has gone on for far too long." Now we have incubators for platelets. Bags are placed in an insulated box, equipped with heaters and airconditioners to "regulate" the thawing process. Thawing too fast? Turn on the air. Thawing too slow? Turn on the heat. Sounds great right? But wait, there's more. The incubator has temperature monitors that send electrical signals to a box inside the incubator which translate those signals into binary information a computer can understand. Why? Because there is a computer sitting next to the incubators - a $2600 medical grade computer, which takes the binary code, inserts into special proprietary software to graph the thawing process, write reports, and send the reports through the hospital network to the Technical Chief sitting in his office, the insurmountable distance of 10 feet away from the incubator. Additionally, because the thawing process is made more linear by agitating the platelets, an optional "shaker" cabinet can be purchased, and was in this case, which sits inside the incubator and gently, at the soothing rate of 60 oscillations per minute, shakes the bags back and forth. Of course, the computer controls this rate of shake, based on the thawing curve, speeding it up if the linearity gets out of whack, slowing it down too, of course. This shaker, in order to operate, has a CAT-5 network cable connected to a network port, which then links, as well, to this computer. All of this technology, and I had to clean water-boogers out of the incubators drain. Because it is equipped with A/C, there is an evaporator installed as well, outside the incubator, crudely bolted onto the back. When condensation collects, the water fills a pan inside the incubator and is supposed to drain to the outside and fill the evaporator. When this process occurs, the computer, you may have guessed it, signals the evaporator to turn on. It sounds fancier than it really is. The evaporator is a box, open on the top, in which resides a heater coil, that boils the water so it, well, evaporates. Remember the old way I described? Condensation would also occur with the room temperature method of thawing platelets, which was remedied, not by a computer, and miles of network cabling, but by simply taking one of those paper towels and wiping off the bag. With this new-fangled technology, the water tends to grow algae - water, heat, closed places, trays open to heated air, and city water tends to grow things I call water boogers. I have to clean these growths out of these drains twice a year on both machines to keep the evaporated pans from over flowing into the incubator's electronics cabinet which is conveniently located in the bottom of the incubator.  To make matters worse, the lab is so congested with technology like our incubator and many other things too wonderful to tell, I have to go to my parts room to retrieve the hydraulic lift cart (a cart with wheels and a hydraulic cylinder used to lift the deck of the cart to counter-top level so I don't have to lift a heavy instrument, I can just slide it onto the cart) to remove the incubator from the lab, and roll it 1.2 miles down hallways which make up this little city that is our hospital, to our shop and my workbench. The resident engineer who clocks in at 7:30 AM, assumes his position at his bench closest to the front door, legs extended, leaning back in his chair, both arms raised and resting, criss-crossed upon his head shouts - it seems this is his function - "Whatcha gonna work on Boyd?"
"A $25,856 paper towel," I grumble.

The 5ft Tape Measure was broken. To make an accurate x-ray, to eliminate any magnification of the image, the distance between the source of the xray and the film must be maintained at an optimal 40 inches. This is called the Source to Image Distance (SID). In the old days, x-ray machines had a built in measuring tape that the technologist, once the patient was positioned on the table, would draw down the tape while adjusting the tube, as read on this measuring device, to the required distance. Then, technology took a step in the right direction - that is, technology attempted to become more precise while eliminating the possibility of human error - by installing detents in the tube crane that snapped the tube at 40" from the film with an audible click and electric brake. The technologist no longer had to worry about getting the SID to exactly 40". Starting, perhaps, right after Y2K, technology made a wild leap forward (?) and here is what happened. The xray machine we needed to fix had a tape measure mounted to the side of the tube assembly to measure the SID. The tape, after many uses, snapped in two. A Clinical Engineer working at the hospital placed an order for a new tape measure from the manufacturer, thinking this was a special tape measure as there were no markings to indicate that it was an off the shelf brand. The company informed the engineer that the SID Calibration Assembly (tape measure) would cost $753.12. After the engineer said a few choice words to the manufacturer he decided to disassemble the xray tube house to see if he could identify this measuring tape and find it somewhere else. When he got it off the machine he turned it over and saw the word STANLEY in its familiar black and yellow logo on the side - the side that was hidden during mounting. The engineer went to Home Depot to find a new one, found the same model and length, and bought it for $4.98. Problem solved right? Not so fast my friends. The manufacturer had machined little rectangular holes along the length of their STANLEY tape measure and installed sensors to count how many holes passed by, and then using a computer to calculate the distance, a signal would be sent to the tube crane to turn on the brake. Understand that these holes were punched into the tape, obliterating the markings one finds on a normal tape measure. For this advancement in "technology" your health care plan deductible barely pays for this one part.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Sometimes Dreams...

Corinth Mississippi, Airport East of Town on State Highway 72

Summer 1996


The distance from the squadron of Air National Guard C-130 gunships overhead to the wide brown eyes of the 6 year old below must have been insurmountable to him as he gazed into the sunlit sky. Round and round they circled. As the little boy held the hand of his father with his small right hand he shaded his face from the sun with his left. As the planes circled, his head followed them slowly. The rumble as they passed by parallel with the runway shook them both and the dozens of other spectators who had assembled for the free air show. Round and round they went as they broke formation and aligned themselves nose to tail for the final approach.

“Looks like they’re going to land,” his Dad said to him. The child was mute, awestruck, standing there in his shorts and tank top, tiny water bottle strapped to his fanny-pack.

The gunships made their approach from the north flying lower and lower, one pass, from right to left and then another. Lower and lower they went until the spectators could read their tail numbers. Slowly the rear door of the planes opened simultaneously, and they circled one more time. Doors now fully opened, they made their sweeping right hand turn and lined up with the runway again. In a single line and in order from the front aircraft to the last men started falling out of the doors. One after the other falling into the air. And then like popcorn the little dots exploded into white clouds as the chutes opened.

The Dad looked down at his son, still speechless, mouth and eyes opened wide. The inexpressible joy that is regularly seen on the face of the young and only rarely on the old lit up the father’s heart as one by one the men dangling from the white cloud of chutes dropped silently to a low spot in the ground across the runway from the crowd.

There was a moment of silence as the planes flew off into the southern horizon and the little boy looked up at his father and then back to the empty runway and then back again as if to ask in that wordless way children can do, “What’s next?”

Suddenly the boy jumped as loud pops sounded, startling the crowd back into the moment. Smoke rose from the trench in red, white, and blue colors filling the sky and the runway. Nothing but smoke could be seen the runway had disappeared into this patriotic cloud. They stared into this cloud and eventually detected movement as the Airborne Rangers snuck silently, slowly through the smoke, weapons at the ready. As they emerged, in full gear, they formed ranks with precise half left and half right turns until the entire squadron had cleared the cloud slowly dissipating into the hot Mississippi air.

From the ranks the four squad leaders quick-timed to the front and in unison, shouted:


“We Are Army Rangers! Attack Dogs for Democracy!”

The Dad teared up a little bit. The little boy looked up at him and said, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
Sometimes dreams come to pass...sometimes they are not what you expected. They are dreams fulfilled nonetheless...
 Aaron serving on the color guard for the exit of General Petraeus in Afghanistan. (before all the scandal)

Aaron in his Class As

Thursday, July 4, 2013

VietCong Grass, Miniature Roses, and PBA Backsliding

 Wow! There is Oregano in there! It took almost two hours to pull the Vietcong grass out of this 12 SqFt patch of Oregano. I found several dozens of Dutch Iris Bulb we had planted 5 years ago that had never been thinned. They are being moved to another area in the garden tonight. The VC grass was quite the challenge. I call it Vietcong grass because its roots burrow deep into the earth and criss cross in a network of interconnecting tunnels. And just when you think you have won, you look back and ask why did I spend so much time and energy reclaiming such a tiny patch of real estate. And then you realize that you didn't win - it's more like a tie. Eventually it will be back and you'll have to do it all over again.
 These are miniature roses that Martha Stewart says aren't worth the trouble to transplant. These are the kinds of roses you give to  someone else as gifts. You'll see them in grocery stores from time to time. Ostensibly, there purpose is to die shortly after the holiday for which you bought them is over, becoming root bound, if they are not root bound already when you bought them. To transplant these we used a technique described by Michael Pollan in his book Second Nature a Gardener's Education. Digging the hole twice as large as you think it needs to be, filling it with water, removing the plant, not so gently from the pot it was in, and then tossing it, again not so gently into the hole, covering with rich loose soil, and then watering again. Here Patt has mulched with leaves after removing VC grass. Through out the spring they have bloomed at least twice. Patt has dead-headed them in the hopes of more flowers in a couple of weeks.

 The gargantuan plan behind and to the left of the sunflower speaks to the fertility of our soil in the cross garden. A whole lotta plant but not a whole lot of tomatoes just yet. This variety is the Carbon tomato which will be a deep purplish, almost black color when they are ripe. The cross garden used to be part of the back yard, tree stumps, VC grass, and rocks. Now, after years of amending the soil with organic matter, digging, and planting, it has become the most fertile patch of land on the farm.

The sunflowers, as a side note, were planted by the many species of birds that feed from a nearby bird feeder.

After a week of mowing with a push mower and weed-eating the  thigh high grass and weeds that are goats are incapable of keeping up with we now have a clear path from the house to the barn. There's Disle, my truck off to the right. I told Patt that we are now officially Arkansas Rednecks in that we have 4 vehicles, only one of the running the way it should, and I just mowed around my farm truck, because, Disle won't start.

Farming Makes You Stupid Addendum - The Muscadines

One of the smartest men I know, Lester, was relating a conversation he had with his good buddy Ry one Saturday afternoon concerning his struggles with keeping weeds out of his Muscadine  beds.

"Ry, I've tried everything. Can't get a lawn mower in between the plants. A hoe goes too deep and it cuts some of the roots; the weed-eater slices up the trunk of the vines, or I end up clipping some of them off. Don't want to spray weed killer because if I put too much or get too close it deadens the plant," bemoans Lester, "you've got muscadine vines, what do you do?"

In one of those eternal moments where actions communicate more fully than words ever could, Ry gets down on one knee next to one of the vines and within 10 seconds has pulled every weed from around the plant, by hand.

The fact that Lester let everyone know this happened is a testament to his humility and to his understanding that modernity, while sometimes extremely nice in its convenience, is not always the best way of doing things.

This is another illustration of how our dependence on machinery to do our farming for us has made us dumber. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I've been mowing and weed-eating all week - since another friend of mine fixed my Craftsman Lawnmower in exchange for two loaves of Patt's bread, and I finally figured out how to load string in the weed-eater.

I preach and preach on this blog to NOT use fossil fuels - or at least I encourage others to do as we have done and eliminate them wherever possible - in their small scale farming. From time to time, however, we find ourselves falling behind for various odd reasons and the only way to catch up is to crank up a gas powered machine. I guess that is the difference. In our case we use it only when necessary. In Lester's case, the machine has just always been there and, in a way, the machine trains us to use it to the point we sometimes forget the great joy and simplicity of simply stooping over and pulling the weed.