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TIME TO CHANGE

Randy Wedin pen down his feelings on this father’s day in The New York Times on 24th June, 2009 as follows:

My Dad never sat me down for a father-son talk about character and values, and I don’t plan to ever have an explicit discussion about character with my sons either. I learned values from my father at the grassroots level, from the ground up. And, that’s the way I’m passing my values on to my children.

My Dad loves grasses and legumes — from the lush expanse of Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) in our front lawn, to the yellow-flowered birds foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) planted as ground cover along the sides of Interstate 80, to the nutritious alfalfa (Medicago sativa) growing in my grandfather’s pastures in the heart of America’s Dairy land. My Dad is an agronomist, one of those scientists who studies crops and soils, and his particular area of expertise is forages and grasslands.

Now in his 80s, he’s still active and alert. Most recently he’s served as an author/editor of Grassland: Quietness and Strength for a New American Agriculture, a just-published book that explains the vital role of grassland to sustainable agriculture. (I’m very proud of him and his work but I rarely confess that to him directly. After all, we do live in the Midwest, where compliments and praise are doled out sparingly. I will, however, occasionally use a pun and tell him that he’s “a man outstanding in his field.”)

Looking back at my childhood now from the vantage point of several decades, I can see that many of the important life lessons I learned from my father grew out of his passion for grasses. These life lessons weren’t transplanted as full-grown character traits, but rather they started as tiny seeds. Over a period of years — as my Dad spent time with me as he shared his special interest and knowledge, and as he let me watch him live a genuine life — those tiny character seeds sprouted, took root and grew.

I was 11, for example, when my father introduced me to a family secret. It was the summer of 1967, the year before American society cracked open with riots, assassinations and marches on Washington. My life revolved around school, baseball and Spiderman comic books. I guess my Dad felt it was time for me to grow up and learn about some of the deeper mysteries of life. It was time for my initiation into manhood.

We ventured forth together, just father and son. We didn’t travel to a clearing in the deep forest, the top of a mountain or a secret cave in the side of a cliff. We went first to the garage and then to the front yard.

“Son, let me show you the diagonal cut.” After uttering that single sentence, he reached down, jerked the cord, and started up the lawnmower.

With a bluish puff of oily smoke, the lawnmower coughed a few times — first slowly, then more quickly. As the pace of small engine explosions quickened, my Dad bent over, pushed in the choke, and adjusted the gas flow.

As he pushed the lawnmower, I matched him stride for stride. He shouted above the drone of the motor, “We’re going to start in the corner and then make a diagonal cut right across the middle of the yard down to the other corner. It looks better that way. Here we go. Watch me.”

As promised, he set off diagonally across the middle of the yard, cutting one big swath that split the uncut lawn into two green triangles. He turned the mower around and pointed it back towards the far corner. “Now you try it,” he shouted. “Be sure to keep it nice and straight.” He stepped aside and motioned me to take the mower — the position of power and responsibility.

Fifty minutes later, I was done mowing the yard. Drops of sweat ran down my face and neck, leaving a salty trail that attracted dust, blades of grass, and gnats. My T-shirt clung to my skinny body.

After removing my tennis shoes (which had been white but were now green) and discarding my shirt in a clump on the garage floor, I brushed as many grass clippings off my feet and legs as possible; I crept carefully through the clean house to the bathroom. As I stepped into the cool shower, the first layer of grit came off quickly. The large clippings were whisked away and swirled around the drain on the shower floor. The layer of dust and dirt that clung to my arms, however, required more encouragement.

After drying off and donning clean clothes, I grabbed a glass of ice water and stepped out on the front step. As I surveyed the front lawn, I realized, to my surprise, that it really did look better with a diagonal cut.

If left to my own devices, I would have mowed the lawn in an ever-decreasing spiral starting with the outside edges. That’s the way I’d seen others mow their lawns. It would have been more efficient, perhaps. But it would not have been pleasing to the eye, and it would not have showed the world that I took care and pride in my job.

Maybe I really had completed a rite of passage. I had just learned, through a simple yet somehow significant experience, one of the lessons of life that my father believed important. Although he never spoke these words directly, I got his message, loud and clear:

Every day we make choices and take action. Some choices seem big; others seem small. But, in one sense, they’re all big. We can act with care, pride and planning, or we can just do it the way nearly everybody else does.

Forty years later, when I stand at the beginning of a project or face a decision on which path to follow, I remember the lesson of the diagonal cut. And, as I look back to see the choices I’ve made, I see those two green triangles. I’m cutting my way across the lawn of life — diagonally.

Now that I’m a parent, I’ve adopted the grassroots approach for character development. Instead of mowing lawns, my children and I are having fun with messy experiments we do in our kitchen and in their classrooms. I’m building character through chromatography, distilling morals from molecules, and crystallizing values.

Some parents do it while playing and coaching sports. Some do it while painting and remodeling houses. Others do it while fishing, cooking, or changing the oil in their car. Still others do it while involving their children in a family-run business or through active involvement in a church, synagogue, or mosque.

My Dad used agronomy. I’m using chemistry. I can’t wait to see what my sons will use when they become parents.

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