Character building remains strong part of 4H


It’s been my experience, both as a participant and parent of a participant, that little builds character like 4H.

Back in the ‘80s when I was a member of Calamus, Iowa-based 4H group, the Marvelous Maids, my mother was usually at the helm of my projects, projects usually confined to sewing, zucchini bread and carrots.

My zucchini bread is a Mueller family recipe and was a definite blue-ribbon winner. Since then, I’ve altered it with walnuts and made it a muffin mix which is popular with running friends for the combined carbs and protein.

The original recipe, however, was used by my daughter Moira for her first club show a couple years ago. She easily carried on our family tradition of blue-ribbon baking.

I can’t remember baking anything else for club show, but do recall a last-minute garden entry in which I pulled a few pathetic carrots from the garden, slapped them on a plate and headed off. I’m pretty sure they may have won a “white.”

My projects generally went along with whatever type of crafting my mom was doing at the time. There was her latch-hook phase during which I completed a wall-hanging of Lucy from Peanuts. This phase abruptly ended after one of my younger sisters grabbed Mom’s hook off the table and shoved it in her eye, snagging the small, pink nodule at the inner corner. (Fortunately, my sister was fine, but Mom? Probably scarred for life.)

Her real forte was sewing and while Mom could wield a mighty needle and thread, whenever she set in to prepare me for the next sewing project, she never failed to remind me of the time she sewed over (and through) her finger in Home Ec.

This story cemented in me a healthy fear of sewing machines and thusly, my years in 4H were not many.

Of the two sewing projects I completed, I remember a matching short outfit in which the shorts were solid red and the red-trimmed short-sleeved shirt sported a complimentary watermelon pattern. It was pretty rad.

What wasn’t “rad” was the AWFUL fashion show in which I, Tami (Diercks) Nielsen and Carie (Sexton) Nelson had to model our creations in front of a judge, our mothers and whoever else enjoyed the sick pleasure of watching young girls suffer.

I’m guessing I was roughly 12-years-old and had there been a table nearby to flip, I surely would’ve done so. “Modeling?! Nobody said anything about MODELING?! This is so unfair!”

(Whenever Jimmy Fallon does his “Ewww!” skit on The Late Show, I’m 100 percent certain he’s channeling my 12-year-old self.)

Truth be told, I was likely informed of the fashion show aspect of my sewing project weeks in advance, but given my young self’s tendency to space out and forget uncomfortable or boring details, I stood gawking at the adults around me, ready to burst into hot, steaming tears.

We were told to “relax” and “have fun!” But even now, I challenge anyone to prove to an awkward, pre-teen girl how sashaying before family, friends and strangers can be anything other than terrifying.

I’m not sure how, but I made it through. Tami, ever the seamstress star, trumped Carie and I with some fabulously complicated creation. Both Carie and I knew Tami would be chosen to represent the Marvelous Maids at the county club show. The real question was, “Who would be second?”

Turns out, my pouty emotional “duck-face” was not what the judges were looking for. Carie, in her baby blue matching shirt and shorts, smiled and bounced happily before the audience. Using a tennis racket prop, she charmed one and all and was crowned “runner up.”

Was I bummed? Probably, but let’s be honest. Who wants a moody adolescent grumping about the county clubshow cat walk? The point of these fashion shows were (and probably remain) not to simply show-off one’s sewing ability and/or fashion sense, but to look fear in the face and suck it up! To persevere with shoulders back, chin up, eyes bright! To exhibit the maturity, the “moxy” that 4H instills in its members!

So to all the members of Clinton County’s 4H clubs, I encourage you to trust in the process of character building and go to it! The coming week will be filled with experiences both nerve-wracking and exhilarating so embrace it! Let the fun, the hesitation and even the fear that comes with having your efforts scrutinized by knowledgeable judges mold you into stronger, braver individuals. Have a great Fair Week!


Originally published 12 July 2014 in The Observer.

County fair crunch time leads to state fair crunch time!


And here I thought it was just my kids!

In talking with many parents, it’s clear that a lot of our 4Hers spend most of their year talking about projects and what they’re thinking about doing, but when it comes to the execution? It’s usually the two weeks prior to the county fair when the rubber meets the road and 4H Crunch Time hits.

Throughout the county, there were sanders sanding, photographers photographing, painters painting, bakers baking and knitters knitting. It doesn’t matter how detailed their plans, how pure their intentions, every year the ball-and-chain that is ‘procrastination’ bites many a 4Her in the keister.

2014-07-09 09.10.52Why? As has been our case for the last four years, I listen to their grandiose ideas for numerous 4H projects. These projects remain lofty ideals as Moira and Maclane try to convince us their “plans” are stored right upstairs, tapping their temples.

Those plans remain closeted safely in their minds until finally, usually sometime in late June, do those plans jostle loose after receiving a loud dose of motivation from their loving father.

It’s only after those pep yells talks begin are those dreams parsed from “what can I do to help myself learn and grow as a person” to “what can I get done in two weeks?”

To their credit, both Moira and Maclane had decided months ago what they wanted to do for their fair entries: Moira would refinish a dresser once owned by the late Joe Brown, and Maclane would create a new sign for the late Bruce Bielenberg’s Lake Loretta.

There’d been talk of photography exhibits, baking, gardening, maybe even a little knitting, but when 4H crunch time hit, they both chose to focus on one large project. Again, I have to give them props because they certainly didn’t gain this less-is-more mentality from their mother. I’m notorious for taking on more than I can handle . . . must be those sensible Murrell genes.

For this, I am grateful, because shouldering just the one project held within it many more meltdowns within the two-week 4H crunch time than I ever could have imagined. Literally spitting mad, Moira would burst through the backdoor, gagging and yelling. “Sanding is terrible! It keeps getting in my mouth!” (Maybe next year we’ll remember to dig out the dust masks?)

2014-07-09 09.19.32Then there was Maclane’s behemoth eight-foot-by-four-foot sign that required the same design be painted on both sides. He struggled with the design process and accepting that the little, happy trees in his mind are not easily translated onto canvas, er, plywood.

And just managing the size of the project, sent him spinning. More than once hot tears sprang loose when a strong wind would come up and blow the sign over. Admittedly, there were moments when I wanted to get in there and help him, but Marty and I agreed, they must do their own work.

In spite of the heavy angst each project caused the kids, they hung tough. Neither were easy, nor impossible . . . it’s weird how they each chose the perfect project for themselves.

That’s what is so impressive about the county Fair and touring the auditorium where each club displays the efforts of its members. The creativity, ingenuity and unique designs are inspiring! Every year, without fail, I end up strolling around with the same giant, weirdo smile on my face—we grow great kids here in Clinton County!

And though Moira and Maclane didn’t execute their projects for the accolades, it’s what they received! Each were practically floating on Monday when, during the judging process, they both learned their entries were considerations for the state fair.

I really hate to admit this, but selfishly I’d hoped they’d remain considerations. How could we possibly fit a visit to the state fair into an August schedule that’s already laden with a week-long vacation and the annual insanity that is our early school start?

And then there’s the potential heartbreak and havoc of having one child’s project make it to the state fair and the other not. Sure, we’d navigate those waters just as we’ve done every other crisis, but . . . fortunately for 2014, we don’t have to.

As luck would have it, we don’t have to find out: BOTH ARE GOING!

This is truly a fresh experience as neither Marty nor I had any project at the state fair. Though my nephew, Jacob Reemstma has shown livestock, this is virgin territory for our gang!

So I guess we squeeze a second trip into our tight August schedule. I think it’ll be worth it. While the state fair is a big deal, I believe the best part of this year’s 4H projects happened the day before our local Charlotte club show on July 11.

Moira walked up to Marty and asked, “So what furniture can I do for next year?” Do I dare hope she start that project sooner?


Originally published 19 July 2014 in The Observer.

Grateful to put county, state fairs behind us


What was the best thing about the 2014 Iowa State Fair? Leaving.

I’M SORRY!!! Between the crowds, the sun and the motorized scooters, I just couldn’t take it! I keep thinking if I’d had an umbrella with me, to provide perpetual shade, then maybe I could’ve sucked it up. But the little I saw showed me little has changed since I last visited the fair in 1995.

Dad Olson poked fun, “You mean to tell me, you run all these races, out in the heat, and you couldn’t take the fair?!” Yes.

In my defense, my miles and racing drop significantly in the summer. And when I do run, I’m mentally prepared for the gross dirtiness (and it’s usually at some ungodly pre-dawn hour).

mo 4h dresser ribbon winnerThe weather, as many of you know, has been quite mild, but bright, blinding sun does a number on me. No, I’m not some delicate flower. I think I’m more vampire.

Even so, I just couldn’t get excited for the state fair. This lack of interest wasn’t helped when the night before, my father-in-law, who’d just come from the fair and seen Moira’s blue-ribbon Joe Brown dresser and Maclane’s red-ribbon Lake Loretta sign, told Maclane he thought his sign would’ve earned a blue ribbon if his project book had made it to the fair.

WHAT?!!! The next 18 hours was a mix of high-pitched emotions ranging from my husband emailing ISU Extension and ringing up different county fair board members to my son crying himself to sleep.

Marty, I and the kids all agree it was a painful lesson in not leaping to conclusions. Just because someone says it’s so, if we’d waited and seen for ourselves, Marty’s lunch would’ve had fewer feathers and Maclane’s pillow, less sodden.

WP_20140709_003Turns out, after making our way from the north entrance of the fairgrounds all the way to the southern edge and the Poultry building where the 4H exhibits were displayed, it was written right on Maclane’s tag that his project book was, in fact, there. There was no way of attaching the book to his project, so his along with other books detailing other projects, was kept in a separate area of the building where visitors could ask to see it.

I was simultaneously relieved and livid. Maclane and Marty had been put through hours of wasted emotion, yet it was wonderful watching Maclane’s attitude transform. From slow-footed and frowny to skipping and gleeful, proud of his red ribbon, the boy was back to his wise-cracking, comic self.

After snapping pictures of Moira with her gorgeous dresser and Maclane with his colorful sign, we headed to the cattle barn to meet up with my sister’s family, the Reemtsmas. While Moira and Marty were excited to see more sights, Maclane and I, along with nephew Nicolas were ready to leave.

The grit behind the livestock fanfare

Walking through the cattle barn was probably my favorite part of the whole fair. I’d much rather walk up and down the rows of cattle pens vs. stand in line to see the Butter Cow. To see how different families camped out, with food spreads, lawn chairs and hammocks was fascinating, likely because I grew up on what I used to call a “nice” farm i.e. just crops, no manure.

As a kid, I loved not living with the aroma of hogs and cattle, but as an adult? There’s a certain ‘grit’ one develops when working with livestock. Watching Phil and Jacob fluff up the steer’s coat, Phil working a brush on the legs while Jacob wielded a blower, I couldn’t understand how the beast was so still, how Phil wasn’t getting kicked in the head.

I may have thought such detail work was reserved for a couple weeks during fair season, I was quickly informed this is the daily grind for many “real” farm kids. The feeding, the cleaning, the walking, the brushing, the washing—all in a day’s work. I can’t help, but giggle thinking this is my sister’s brood.

In June, having stopped by Angie’s place for a visit, a nearby oinking alerted us to a hog on the lam. Looking north into their pasture, we saw cows curiously walking along the fence-line, following the jaybird-hog.

With the Reemtsma men away, we took it upon ourselves to right the situation. Despite her best efforts to scold the pig into submission, clearly Angie (and I) were ill-equipped to deal with loose livestock.

While it’s one thing for a mother to threaten and coerce her daughters into modeling their sewing projects, clearly it was Angie’s lost battle trying to reason with a pig.

Had we been real farm girls, maybe we would’ve know that a boot to the side would’ve nudged the pig along. That a rightly swung shovel provided more motivation than a stern look and a hand on the hip as Angie yelled, “Bad pig! Go to your pen!”

Such is life on a real farm.

In spite of my lack of enthusiasm, I think our area kids, not to mention my family, did pretty dang awesome in the world of fairs this year.

And though Maclane and Nic were happiest while swimming at the hotel, and Angie and I, resting pool-side, Marty and Moira “fair’ed” their hearts out, returning to the hotel that evening, bellies full of cotton candy and funnel cake.

I can’t be the only one who’s glad it’s over, can I?


Originally published 16 August 2014 in The Observer.