Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Netherlandisch Proverbs--(vii)

This detail from Brueghel's Netherlandisch Proverbs, like every other square inch of the work, ist overladen mit visdom, wisdom we're meant surely to take to heart. (Look for this space on the top and in the center.) 

Upper left there's a poor man with a inflamed bottom, who appears to be waving madly toward that Dutch house at the top left, while three long-snouted animals (pigs?) are madly running into a wall that marks whatever kind of enclosure they're intended to be in. Atop the tower to the right, one man waves what appears to be a black flag, while another gent, armed with a huge basket, either catches or heaves away things that look to be coins.

Meanwhile, a sad sack in a white cap looks out the tower's window as some kind of bird--a goose perhaps--flies off. 

That's about all I know, so let's have a look at the answer sheet.

The sad sack with the white cap--he looks imprisoned, don't you think?--is watching the white bird, a stork--and nothing more. The Dutch proverb goes like this: De ooievaar nakijken: "gazing at the stork." I don't know why, and the Dutch would likely say neither does he. He's contemplating his naval--wasting time, staring at something totally unworthy of his time or yours or mine. Remember, Calvinists gifted all of us with capitalism. The guy in the window is doing absolutely nothing worth while. He needs to be told to get a job.

Poor guy above him isn't much better. That wide basket he's carrying is emptying as he's tossing out everything it carried--not coins but feathers. He may be working up a sweat, but what he gets done doesn't total a whole lot more than what the sad sack in the white cap has done. He's tossing feathers into the wind--pluimen in de wind waaien, doing nothing that'll get him anywhere, which is another way of saying he's wasting time, and, as Poor Richard told Americans, haste makes waste. This is real Calvinist stuff moral suasion.

The guy in the purple blouse is sitting on the corner of the ramparts waving what long-gone Flemish folks would have recognized as his own coat, waving his cloak in the wind.

The truth? I'm still in the dark. Zijn huik in de wind hangen--his coat hangs in the wind, a description which suggests his spinelessness. He'll wave his coat wherever, a man without principles. I think he's a politician.

That leaves us with the man with the inflamed butt, which happens to be my favorite, maybe because its got that sweet Dutch earthiness. The guy appears to be reaching for fire with his right hand--maybe even having eating it. Not smart. The result?--eat fire, you crap fire. Toy with horror and if you don't watch out, you'll get yourself in trouble.

That may be it, but there's another option. The guy is going wild up there, in sheer distress--look at him. Hij loopd alsof hij het vuur in zijn aars heft, simply translated: he runs as if his ass is burning, which suggests he's in a hurry and well should be. Right now, I might well be led to say that Ambassador Sondland, who faces a grilling from House Oversight Committee members today, in fact, loopt alsof hij het vuur in zijn aars heft, which is to say in all likelihood, tonight, he's in some considerable distress.

Finally, you're going to have to trust me. When we come up close, it's clear there aren't three pigs in the painting, there are six, three of whom have already escaped into the wheat field, and it's their having escaped that's the big deal. Zondra het hek van de dam is, lopende varkens in het koren--that's a mouthful: if you leave the gate open, the pigs, sure as heck, will get in the corn.

You know, a ton of these things sound vaguely parental. Somehow, when I reared my own kids, I missed 'em. Rats. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Small Wonders--Acculturation

I'm thinking there had to be a whole lot you didn't know. I'm sure some homesteaders read up on what they could, listened to the tales of whoever came back from the frontier to say hello or, sorrowfully, to admit that being the first white folks to live anywhere west of here required a whole lot more than they'd bargained for. But they couldn't know it all.

Isolation drove some of them around the bend, as it did Beret, Per Hansa's long-suffering wife, from Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth. Not long after arriving out here Beret falls into a grand funk and determines not to wish homesteading on anyone. She'd come along a dream fueled by her husband's visions. But what did they know, really--those crusading homesteaders? They were pioneers all right, sometimes prisoners of their own naivete. 

And while many thousands left when they faced odds they knew darn well they couldn't win, some stayed; some held on despite the learning curve, some rolled with the punches and came up smiling. Mrs. LeRoy Sampson, for one, who came to Minnesota in 1854 with six other families from Rhode Island, ended up that first night in a flimsy cabin shared by all those people. She says she didn't sleep a wink that night, in part because the man who'd driven them out there hadn't either. He kept himself awake in a manner that they others simply couldn't miss.

Some woeful noise out in the wilderness all around kept them awake, some baying they all believed the hungry wails of some prowling beasts--probably wolves, they thought, because they'd heard about wolves, packs of  'em, hungry, ravenous wolves, jaws dripping blood. "We none of us slept that night in the windowless cabin," she wrote, on account of all that incessant horror. 

It took some daylight hours before they realized all that noise came up off the lake they'd parked beside, from a bird, a duck-like thing whose cry was more mournful in the first light of morning than it was threatening. Minnesota didn't become a state until 1858, and it would take another whole century before some bird-er declared the loon to be the state bird. But Mrs. Sampson and all those Rhode Islanders woke up to the fact that, "In the morning noise of the loons on the lake that had kept us awake." 

Mrs. Anderson came to Minnesota that same year, 1854, never, ever having met or even seen what she might well have called "an injun'" until one of the neighborhood natives walked into her cabin and, in silence, took a seat at her table. He was, she said, "hideously painted" and likely half naked. What's more, what hung from his belt was a knife so menacing it seemed destined for terror. 

She froze. Literally. "I was overpowered in fright, and for a few minutes," she says, "I couldn't do anything. Her husband was somewhere in the field, and her two little children were asleep behind a curtain hung in the one-room cabin. She said she determined that she needed her husband. She walked out as if the man's presence was terrifying, and then ran about a quarter mile down the path to the field, when "her mother's heart," she says, let her know she absolutely could not leave her precious children alone with that man."

Here's the way she describes what she found: "Entering, I saw my little two-year old boy standing by the Indian's side playing with the things in his belt, while the Indian carefully held the baby in his arms."

The first thing she did was bring out some bread and milk, and thus, with food, began a long friendship.

It happened, in the wild wilderness, out on the frontier. You can't help but think that some stories don't get told often enough.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Reading Mother Teresa--No small thing

“Where you die I will die, 
and there I will be buried. 
May the Lord deal with me, 
be it ever so severely, 
if even death separates you and me.” 
Ruth 1:17 

Hamlet – Act I, scene 1. Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears, speaks only to his son, tells him how his Uncle Claudius, now on the throne and in “the incestuous sheets” of Hamlet’s mother’s bed, murdered him, Hamlet’s own father, the former King. He then spurs on Hamlet to revenge. “Swear!” he moans, as if the fires of hell were already at his ankles. “Swear! Swear! Swear!”

On the first day we discussed the play, a student raised his hand. “They must have taken oaths really seriously in those days,” he said.

The subtext is obvious: the student figured that today, generally, people don’t. He may be right.

“Very seriously,” I told him. We didn’t talk about today.

Yesterday, in church, a young lady stood up and answered three questions and thereby underwent a liturgical ritual we call “Profession of Faith.” I listened to the questions, read them closely, far closer, I imagine, than I did when, almost 50 years ago, those same questions were read to me. Back then, I, for one, didn’t take an oath all that seriously.

That’s the measure of life experiences I bring to Sister Teresa’s oath, her “profession of perpetual vows,” on May 25, 1931, after a two years of initiation into the world she was entering, her novitiate, vows by which she promised a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Her vows, unlike mine, are much closer to those of Ruth, to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Sister Teresa’s vows were a heart-felt dedication built on generations of Roman Catholic tradition, an emphatic personal dedication, as pure as it was resolute. “Before crosses used to frighten me,” she wrote to her spiritual guide, “I used to get goose bumps at the thought of suffering – but now I embrace suffering even before it actually comes, and like this Jesus and I live in love” (20).

Yesterday, in that young lady’s home, where her profession of faith I’m sure was certainly celebrated, her mom and dad threw a great party, thrilled to the soul at what their daughter committed herself to in our public worship.

It’s altogether possible that Sister Teresa listened to voices more akin to Hamlet’s father’s demands, and it goes without saying that she took her “profession of perpetual vows” vastly more seriously than I did, years ago, when I stood before a congregation of worshippers and professed my faith publicly. But neither that young lady yesterday, nor Sister Teresa, nor me – nor anyone else, for that matter – no matter how seriously we take our oaths, is ever going to believe that what was said, what was sworn to, even in the presence of many others, will be some kind of spiritual shield against sadness and woe in this vale of tears. It won’t. It couldn’t have been. Such vows never have.

Still, I hear that ghost. “Swear!!!” he told his son. Heard him just yesterday again, in fact. As did a young Albanian school teacher, in the soaring heat of New Delhi, India. She too swore.

And when she did, all the ghosts, I’d like to think, went joyfully silent. Mother Teresa never simply went through the emotions. She played for keeps. For her, I'm sure, such swearing was no small thing.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Small Wonders--A blizzard where the road ended

General George and Elizabeth Custer
The moon's out right now, so bright the stars are hidden in its glow. 

Be not deceived. It's winter, and that bright and shiny stillness skimming the land'll turn on us, as it has before, and whirl us all into blizzard-y madness. 

My memory may be foul, but we haven't a bender for a couple of years now, a tempest, a two or three-day massacre that stops everything dead, puts the entire region in its place and keeps us there for so long we'd feel downright imprisoned if it weren't for the madness just outside our doors and windows. 

Miss those massive blizzards, do you? Tell you what--do a little reading sometime and you'll start dreaming of daffodils. Elizabeth Custer was out here with her famous husband, late winter 1874, two years before Little Big Horn. Her rock star husband--when the man got a haircut, he liked to give his blonde locks to all the women travelling with the Seventh Cavalry--General George Custer was, as they say, under the weather, with something akin to pneumonia. 

His darling wife Elizabeth tended him faithfully--in truth the two of them, Armstrong and Libby, seemed a textbook model of wedded bliss. Yankton was a brand new town back then, its citizens recently settled. Most of the Army brass stayed at a place called The St. Charles Hotel, but the General and his sweetheart got themselves a little half-finished shack just out of town, adjacent to the place where the Seventh set up their camp. Once the snow started falling, Custer chased his men into town, telling them to knock on doors and stay with townspeople. They did. 

Some, I suppose, may have sensed it coming--the Yanktons probably, the only ones with any history here. But Libby claims in the way she wrote up the story that she had no clue what was coming. When rain turned to snow and wind started bellowing, when what they saw out there before them was a sheet of endless stinging whiteness, she knew it was no passing fancy.

Make no mistake--Libby Custer was a writer. She knew how to handle pen a good deal better than her husband, or so it seems, knew when to ride into battle. But she tended to look on the bright side of things, and describe them delightfully.  

But this storm, right here in Yankton, wore no smiley face. And the two of them--she and her sickly husband--weren't alone for most of the battering.
During the night, I was startled by hearing a dull sound, as of something falling heavily. Flying down the stairs, I found the servants prying open the frozen and snow-packed door to admit a half dozen soldiers who, becoming bewildered by the snow, had been saved by the faint light we had placed in the window. After that several, came and two were badly frozen. 
Meanwhile, she says, "The snow continued to come down in great swirling sheets, while the wind shook the loose window casings and sometimes broke in the door." Warn't fun, is what she's saying. A horse came up close and whinnied, "almost human in its appeal," she remember, so human-like, in fact, that they pried the door open only to find it was horse "peering in for help," giving her an eye she claims "haunted me long afterwards." 

Occasionally, a lost dog "lifted up a howl of distress under our window," she says. Worse, the General's beloved greyhound puppies, despite the attention the soldier specially commissioned to care for them, had frozen "one by one."

In the middle of the storm, darkness all around, the wind pummeling a cabin could hardly be a fortress until it had to be, Libby said she "realized, . . .that we were as isolated from the town, and even the camp, not a mile distant, as if we had been on an island in the river." There they were in the heart of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called "the tumultuous privacy of storm."

It was a blizzard, right here on April 14, 1874, just outside of Yankton, and it was beyond brutal. But today it's almost totally forgotten, buried itself by horrors General George Armstrong Custer perpetuated at the Sand Creek massacre, and then suffered himself on a hill just above the Little Big Horn. 

That unfinished two-story cabin is long gone, I'm sure, just like the St. Charles Hotel. But if it wasn't, I'm not sure if the Yankton Chamber of Commerce would put it on their webpage--you know, "George Amstrong Custer slept here." I'm dubious. 

Libby would, I'm sure. Libby remembered. Once her husband was was killed in battle, she kept putting ink on the page because she wanted so badly not to let anyone forget.

But Yankton--like all of us--was different back then, much different. It was the place where the frontier began. 

Listen. The Seventh Cavalry took a Dakota Southern train out of Sioux City and into Yankton. "After so many days in the car," Libby says, opening sentence, "we were glad to stop on an open plain." They were, she says, "about a mile from the town of Yankton," she says, and then, "where the road ended."

Get that? "Where the road ended." Right there in Yankton, she says, "the road ended." 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Remembering the first impeachment

You shouldn't think of him as a victim because he wasn't. The truth of the matter is, as President of these United States, he took reprehensible positions in the long, dark shadow of the greatest horror in American history, the Civil War. 

Andrew Johnson was--as VPs often are--a fine political choice. He became Vice President of these United States because Lincoln hoped that Johnson would be the healer Lincoln believed was needed on the ticket. Johnson was, after all, a southerner by birth (from Tennessee), but a patriot, one of the "Union Democrats" who had stood up before the country and pledged allegiance to the Union, not the Confederacy. That difficult choice of his was not his problem; it got him the job. He became VP in March of 1865, just a month or so before Lincoln's fateful visit to the Ford Theater. 

Johnson's commitment to the Union didn't mean he shared Lincoln's beliefs about slavery and race. On that score, he was every bit a southerner, so he got in trouble almost immediately when he refused to sign bills that guaranteed voting rights for former slaves and favored leniency on members of the ex-rebel military. 

He was an out-and-out racist. On that score, he certainly and defiantly wasn't alone. He told Congress that it was unthinkable to force southern states to enforce voting rights for blacks because "wherever they have been left to their own devises they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism." Ron Chernow, in Grant, his huge biography of President Ulysses S. Grant, says that message "claimed the dubious distinction of being the most racist such message ever penned by an American president." 

While it wasn't a single act that destroyed relations between President Andrew Johnson and, especially, the "Radical Republicans" from the north, Johnson's dismissal of Edwin M. Stanton (a true leftie when it came to voting rights) from his position as "Secretary of War." Stanton was a Lincoln man, a Lincoln appointee. When Stanton got the boot, Republicans (who were the lefties, remember) went ballistic. 

Technically, they charged Johnson with disregarding something called "The Tenure Office Act," which established legislative power over the executive branch by making both the appointments and dismissals of some cabinet-level positions subject to approval by the legislature. When President Johnson fired Stanton without approval, whatever bridge still stood between the aisles were no more. 

When the resolution for Johnson's impeachment finally came to a vote, it was supported by only three major arguments, instead of the nine with which it started or the 23 into which it grew. What happened in both houses of Congress was more of a dog-and-pony show than what we're watching today, since the proceedings were composed only of senators offering rousing displays of their rhetorical skills before a packed house. 

Johnson himself never had opportunity to speak, but he was not silent, meeting the public in a series of press conferences. There's no record of his tweeting, but no one was in the dark about his positions. 

When push came to shove, the vote for his impeachment on those three articles gathered a significant majority but fell one vote short of the two-thirds vote required to remove him from office. Johnson remained President.

Amazingly, of the 19 senators who voted against impeachment, seven were "Radical Republicans," the lefties who had virulently opposed Johnson's politics; but those seven couldn't vote for what impeachment (this was the very first) would do to the union. Among them was an Iowan named James Grimes, who said, “I cannot agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution for the sake of getting rid of an Unacceptable President.”

So, Johnson's Presidency was saved. 

Sort of. In 1868, Andrew Johnson failed to win the nomination of his own Democratic party. Even though he'd not been thrown from office, he never won back favor, even from his own. 

There are those who say they believe--even hope--that that's what will happen today: to wit, that Donald J. Trump doesn't get tossed, but is removed eventually--by those who chose him. 

We shall see. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hearings. . .again

Geographically, I was in Arizona, maybe the most conservative state in the Union back then, 1973. With a year of graduate study behind me, I was taking summer classes at that moment. Televisions were set up in the hallways, and what I remember best is streaming outside into those hallways the minute we'd break. The Watergate hearings were front and center on all the TV networks anyone could watch back then. You couldn't miss them. 

I knew all the characters--Rep. Sam Ervin, the Southerner who offered the nation more country wisdom than Pieter Brueghel or Ben Franklin; Sam Dash, a committee council; John Dean, who with his neatnik wife caught the country's attention with color-coordinated outfits; and a rather clumsy blue-collar guy named Alexander Butterfield, who brought down the Nixon White House with the simple testimony that all of this tomfoolery was--guess what?--on tape. End of story.

Geographically, I was in Arizona, but emotionally, I was in Washington because politically I was a confirmed leftie. Me and just a handful of others across the nation had voted for South Dakota's George McGovern a year earlier, my first national election, when even McGovern's home state wouldn't have him and voted instead for Nixon, who beat the tar out of my guy by carrying every state, save Massachusetts. Wipe out. 

That election hadn't gone down easy, but neither had it dampened my anti-war sentiment. It had come as something of a surprise that a heart condition meant I wasn't eligible for the draft. But for some time already--through college and two years of high school teaching in Wisconsin--I was among those who flew an anti-war banner. 

What's more, right then, in that very class, I'd become friends with a kid--a man--named Ron Ridenhouer, who, as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, had heard about a place called MyLai, collected accounts of what went down there from buddies who knew first hand, and then sent that info out to a couple dozen congressmen. His work led to the imprisonment of William Calley and aired public laundry that documented flat-out mass murder. Some called Ridenhouer a rat, a switch, a stoolie, even a traitor. I liked the guy, but he was scared. There were lots of people who had different opinions.

Politically, I really disliked Tricky Dick, so in June of 1973 I was all in on Sam Ervin's Watergate hearings, listened as soon as we walked out of class. Soon, the President's defenses fell away and left him skinny and naked before the world, doing that stiff-shouldered victory thing, both arms above his head, as he left Washington on the helicopter. 

When push came to shove, I didn't side with President Bill Clinton, hadn't voted for him, in fact. I thought his lying to the nation about his hot stuff with Monica Lewinsky, not to mention a bevy of other women he not-so clandestinely rolled in the hay, was wholly reprehensible. 

But I disliked sanctimonious Ken Starr and the holy-roller Republicans more, so when Clinton wasn't forced to step down, as Nixon had been, I was relieved. But I never trusted the "big dog," as people used to call him. He was the kind of guy an old friend of mine used to say could shake your hand and pee on your foot all at the very same time.

I was all ears when the press got close to the blue dress and finally brought it out of the closet. I wanted the guy caught with his pants down, and he was. But I thought his dalliance--and flagrant lying about it--insufficient grounds to toss him out.

In three hours, they'll start up again--the third round of impeachment hearings in my lifetime. Not much drama this time, I'm afraid. Donald J. Trump is the lousiest excuse we've had for a President since Andrew Johnson, who, by the way, was also impeached but not run out of office. Trump is a crook and a dullard, a man who can barely write a sentence and knows nothing about history or government or law. He is, as Hillary and at least a dozen Republicans once claimed, totally unfit for office.

But approximately a third of the nation believes he walks on water. The economy is flying because he's pulled out a hundred safeguards and let purebred capitalism have its unfettered day. He's done political bribery of another nation in an attempt to secure his own political fortunes. No one can deny that. 

But the outcome of what will soon begin is already established. Republican reps are scared to death of the 80 percent of their base who believe Trump's the Savior. What's more, they're scared of him because he wields that 80 percent like a machete through a week-old bag of bananas. 

So there will be much talk, but the decision will finally be up to the people of this nation, come November 2020. All Congressman Schiff can do is raise some dust. There'll be no shootout at Washington's OK Corral this time, so no one will go down, not surely the guy with the orange hair. 

We're going to have to do that job ourselves. If the Donald is going to go, the people will have to do it. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Nederlandisch Proverbs--(vi)

That Dutch I'm not. Both my dad and my father-in-law loved pickled herring, but I didn't grow up with the madness some Dutch folks carry about in their genes, a sinful lust for a fish so small they should really be thrown back. They eat 'em raw, too, which is almost enough to make me pledge my ethnic allegiance elsewhere on the continent.

I remember once being in Amsterdam at that much ballyhooed time when the new catch arrives, late spring to early summer. Herring don't suddenly appear in the North Sea; for most of the year the tasty little morsels lack the plumpness the Dutch love. Hence, come June, when they're well-rounded, fresh-from-the-sea herring--brine-d or soused--hit the market in a storm of well-relished saltiness, and the Dutch go all fish-y.

And, no, nobody frys 'em or bakes 'em or rolls 'em in corn meal. They eat 'em raw. Grab 'em by the tail, raise 'em up high, and lower them onto the tongue. Not at all Calvinistic.

Herring are so unmistakably Dutch that, as you can imagine, even in the 16th century Breughel couldn't leave them alone--whole schools of herring proverbs are here on this famous canvas.

On the far left, a third of the way up, on his knees inside the building, a man is working hard at cleaning fish--herring, of course. You can hardly see him. Let me bring him up a little.

--this guy, flailing away with his left hand. You're going to have to trust me on this--or rather Wikipedia--because even up as close, it's a stretch to see he's cleaning fish, but he is. What I'm told Brueghel has in mind is the old saw, De haring braden om de hom of kuit, which likely doesn't translate well, but is meant to suggest that he's doing way too much for far too little, frying all of the fish for the sake of the roe, the meaty, delicious part--which is to say (maybe especially to retired people like me), you're taking far too long to finish something that could have been done in an hour. (Couldn't help saying that because here, as we say, "the shoe fits.")

But there's more. The poor guy is simply working too hard at getting the goods ready to eat. De hering braadt hier niet, is another old saw that works, I'm told. It's an assessment that may well have to be translated into the present tense--"the herring is not frying well here." In other words, poor guy is working way too hard, which suggests that things are just not going all that swimmingly.

Above the guy's head another poor herring hangs, the source of yet another proverb. If you look on the canvas, you'll see him right beneath the globe . Here he is, up close--

Real Dutch scholars assign two old aphorisms to this fated character. First, De haring hangt on zijn eigen kieuen ("the herring hangs by his own gills"--which is to say, he's the culprit who got himself in trouble). More than a little unkind to a sad little fish far out of water. A rough English equivalent is "hoist by his own petard," which is not Dutch, but Shakespearean (Hamlet actually), suggesting that none of these wise little proverbs are "just" Dutch. Really, they're all unmistakably human. It's just that the Dutch are preachers. Me too.

Last bite of herring? How about this: Daar steekt meer in dan een enkele panhering, which roughly translates this way: "there's more in it than an empty herring," or there's more to it than meets the eye.

It's all rather catechism-like, don't you think? This entire painting, loaded to the gills with wisdom, is a sober course in life itself. 

Today, I swear, I'm going to buy some pickled herring and try to figure out what both my fathers loved so well. If I don't finish it, I'll send you what's left.