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.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Just Authority*

Image result for comedy and tragedy

Way back in graduate school, I remember reading somewhere that only certain cultures can produce Aristotelian-level tragedy the way the Greeks and the Elizabethans could.  The requirement, if I remember right, was a certain kind of belief in the individual--that he or she could create significant change, could demonstrate leadership, but also could fail miserably, a kind of high view of the human character.  The kind of tragedy Aristotle touted had this purgative, cathartic effect--it changed us, from the inside out.  It was imminently moral.

I thought of that idea when I read David Brooks whose column "The Follower Problem," a day or two ago, wasn't so much about tragedy as it was about what he calls "just authority." Some societies recognize it, he says, even glory it in.  Some don't.  Because they can't.  

"We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to the victims of power than to those who wield power," he says, sounding like the conservative he is.  He may well be right.  He also believes that we so taken with the notion of equality that "it's hard in this frame of mind to celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves." 

But then he says the real moral problem is our inability to think about power itself--about "just authority," which, he claims, is constructed in very fragile fashion on a series of paradoxes:  "that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it," for instance, or that "great leaders are superior to their followers while being like them."  Leaders have to be superhuman characters who never forget that they aren't.  How's that?  

The older I get, the more I believe in reign of paradox. "Truth is always elliptical," I was told years ago by an old preacher I really respected.  It's never circular.  It always has two centers.  It forever requires balance.

Finally, Brooks cajoles us, as he often does, for being poor followers, given to believe that our leaders are only in it for themselves, that they're all schmucks, that none of them is as pure as I am pure.  "Vast majorities," he says, "don't trust their institutions."

Count me in that bunch.

Once upon a time, I received a D in geometry from an eccentric little mathematician who was, quite likely, too brilliant to be a successful high school teacher.  He loved math more than he loved us--and for that odd penchant we found him mysterious and fascinating.  In a way, I think I envied his indomitable passion for the digits scribbled all over his blackboard.
But I didn't do well in his class, and my mother would have nothing of it so she set me in the car with her one night, drove me herself to that little math teacher's apartment to ensure her wishes would be carried out.  I don't know if she had, ahead of time, set up an appointment; in my mind and memory, I was the supplicant, forced to a blind and painful confession.  

What I had to do, she insisted, was beg the man for help.  I had to tell him that I wanted, above anything, to improve, and then promise, on my honor, to do better.  I had to get rid of that report card D.

It was an extremely painful moment, as I remember.  There I stood in his apartment, towering over this strange, little man, while outside my mother's engine was running.  I took a beating that night even though no one laid a hand on me.

My mother trusted that little man's "just authority."  She simply assumed the problem belonged to her son--and she wasn't wrong.  The institution of school--she was a teacher herself--loomed more significant in her mind than her son's guilt or humiliation--or her injured pride at her son's malfeasance of office. In the classroom, he was the leader and I was the one obliged to follow and to learn, no matter what I thought of the man or his mathematical genius.

Nothing close to Aristotelian tragedy happened that night, but I think David Brooks would like that story because that moment dramatically explained to me at least what it meant to be a citizen of the society my mother inhabited, a society in which trust was lavished freely--maybe too freely--to the institutions of our lives.

There's another side, of course--there always is, with paradox. I'm a child of 60s, when authority of all kinds went up like kindling in the fires that incinerated much of the institutional trust my mother honored. That loss Brooks laments.

He may well be right here--he often is.  We'd all do well to both understand and honor "just authority."  I would.  Besides, I'd make my mother proud.
*First appeared here June 12, 2012.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Morning Thanks--The Alton llama

I don't know why they get an extra l, but they do--and, well, I think they earn it quite frankly. I'm told gelding llamas are the ones most committed to mission, or were thought to be until unbred females were put to the test--with great success. All the way around, the unattached or attach-able, are just plain less randy, I guess. 

Not every llama is wired for guardianship it seems, but those who are become beloved to the flock, like this one, on watch, so to speak. It's somehow rich to think of these noble beasts as eunuchs and spinsters, the chosen few.

Even though some few dead-as-a-door-nail coyotes would, if they could, disagree, generally, the book says, llamas are not killers. They've been blessed with a variety of defensive weapons capable of keeping fox or coyotes at bay. They spit--for one thing, a behavior that must be as repulsive to predators as it is to humans. Their number one weapon however, or so people say, is not their hooves or their bite but the screeching they emit when at their protective best, a double-barreled weapon that shoos coyotes away and keeps sheep on their toes (well, hooves).

For the record, guanacos and alpacas--all South American--may apply for an opening because they too have proved themselves useful, even invaluable, in the pasture, where, like their llama cousins, their not just hired guns. Sweet llamas--and there are many--really love their flocks and bond better, in fact, if they get acquainted with moms-to-be before the kids arrive. Look at that picture--the only quadruped on watch is the llama, the rest of the gang is buried in emerald, belly-deep pasture. 

I'd suppose most people would drive right by, but if you're just south of Alton and your name means "sheep," you can't help but love this gracious godfather or mother, a warm-hearted shepherd who, true to the genes, is keeping watch over the flock by night--well, evening anyway.

Long, long ago, I had an English prof who couldn't get through a swimming scene in a short story or novel without claiming what we were really reading was a symbolic baptism. More to the point, the guy--we loved him, by the way--wanted to call just about any giving character a Christ-figure. As you have likely observed, I've been aching to do that; but then, as I told you, my name is Schaap, which has to be at least part of the reason I found this good-shepherd scene so sweet.

And why, this morning, my morning thanks are for this guy--or girl. The Creator of Heaven and Earth sometimes does things with nature I'd rather he wouldn't--three backyard floods in the last year. 

But you just can't help taking special note of the righteousness of a good guard llama like this one, just on the other side of town, who I might just call a savior at least. If all these woolly guys were my sheep, I dare says I'd quite easily go that far. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

William Styron's gift of darkness

William Styron's first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, is about suicide. I've not read it and probably wouldn't. I'm sure it's written powerfully because everything Styron ever wrote was written powerfully, but at this time in my life spending a couple of days pouring over a book that features the darkness is not particularly compelling. 

At one time, I did read his memoir about depression, his depression--Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, which wasn't at all pleasant, but moving and memorable, what a memoir should be. Being young is a heady advantage when it comes to appreciating writing that's all about darkness, a subject Styron used his immense literary power to create and to examine throughout his life.

Strangely enough, he wasn't afraid to go where few writers dared. The Confessions of Nat Turner examined slavery through the eyes of a Black man. Styron was white. That he could go, with authority and power, into African-American experience and consciousness the way he did is a measure of the sheer power of his work. The novel is convincing despite the fact that it's a white guy creating the voice of a black man. Very, very few can do that convincingly.

He did it again in with Sophie's Choice, a novel about the holocaust, thought to be the province of Jewish writers alone, not a Gentile like Styron. In 1995, I taught a "special topics" class in the literature of the Holocaust, fifty years after the whole world discovered the stark evil Hitler's hate had designed and created. It may well have been the best classroom experience of my entire teaching career. Community members showed up for a host of specials like local vets who had, half a century earlier, stumbled unknowingly into concentration camps, survivors from near and far, WWII historians. The class met at night, seven to nine, during a year in which the country was remembering not to forget World War II. 

Every week, a book. The Assault, a Dutch novel, documents the aftermath in liberated Holland, where the war continued between the resistance and the collaborators long after the Nazis had left; Elie Wiesel's Night, my own Things We Couldn't Say, short stories by a Polish survivor whose unpronounceable name I couldn't spell and can't remember, a collection of fables written by Hassidic Jews, The Diary of Anne Frank, holocaust cartoons in Maus I, and more.

But it was the worst of times too, at least in my soul. Personally, I hit a wall sometime towards the end. With maybe a month left to go, I began to feel as if the Creator of Heaven and Earth had put a governor in me, a thick iron door that swung closed after some predetermined amount of lit documenting holocaust horror. I simply could no longer read the very material I had required. I did--I didn't quit, didn't drop out of my own class; but I couldn't go on. I'd suffered through so much horror, if only as a reader, that I hit a wall.

Even today, amid all those searing stories, Styron's Sophie's Choice preserves the most abhorrent moment: a young mother, under penalty of the death of her entire family, forced to choose which of her two children would live and which would not. Sophie's Choice is set after the war, but that moment in Auschwitz is what Sophie, a Polish Catholic, can put behind her, Styron suggests, only by ending her life. Styron's novel was best because, in unforgettable ways, it was worse than all the others.

Back then, in literary circles, there was much talk about the futility of literature of the holocaust. Some survivors angrily claimed nothing on paper, nothing anyone remembered or imagined, could come anywhere close to the reality of suffering undergone by so many millions. Some claimed all holocaust literature failed.

That may be true, but Styron's Sophie's Choice left its mark on me. It's a memorable, powerful story that I will never read again. 

Just about everything Styron wrote is dark and manic, as was his life. That having been said, for all the dark grimness of his life and work, our world is a far better place for the stories he told. 

Today is Anne Frank's birthday. Yesterday, it was William Styron's. He would have been 94 years old.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

And the rest of the field (2)

Got to finish up. 

There were, famously, nineteen candidates, each of them given five minutes. Period. When five minutes were up, music played softly, then louder, then loudest. End of speech.

Think of these pictures as vacation postcards vacation--DoubleTree Inn, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a big place filled to the brim. Many of the attendees carried in signs and posters. Cory Booker's people--there were a ton of them--had posters with lights on 'em. When he came up to the rostrum, the place was full of flashing billboards.

I didn't know what to make of this candidate, a captivating presence, which is, I suppose, a "Me Too"-era way of saying a very good-looking female. She was selling love as the answer to all of our problems, which is, of course, a great idea and much in demand, given the schoolyard bully in the White House. I mean, sure, love is the answer, right? But who's going to fix the bridges? If the Gov of Love has a plan, she's waiting to announce it.

Must not lie. How can I say this delicately?--because I didn't say it about the men. . .There were no shortage of good-looking candidates, some of them female (does that pass muster?). Yesterday I put up a New York congressperson (right word?) Gillibrand, then, just now, the Gov of Love, and now a comely Hawaiian named with the memorable first name of Tulsi. 

Let me try to get out of trouble by featuring a couple of males. Eric Swalwell, who was happy to let the crowd know he was born in Iowa, which would have been close to legal tender in that convention center if his parents hadn't left the southwest corner of the state for greener California pastures. 

Senator Michael Bennett, from Colorado (there are two Coloradans) may well be a great guy, bright, a strong leader--all of that; but I'd say he may well be the candidate most likely not to make the next cut. Well, let me qualify that--male candidate. But the entire world was wrong about Trump last time around, so don't bury him or anyone else quite yet.

Then there's another Rocky Mountain entry--this one the Governor of Montana, who had me wondering how good he could be, having won his last election with ease while Trump took the state overwhelmingly. A lot of Montana folk had to split tickets.

Then again, some candidates need no introduction.

Lots of folks are astounded how "Pocahontas" is rallying. No candidate has been so derided by Mr. Marmalade than she has, but she's moving up dramatically by talking specifics.

This isn't vintage Kamala. I came home with a Kamala t-shirt, not because I think she's the best candidate (I'm nowhere near a judgment on that one), but because she laughs well. This isn't a good picture--I'd have caught her more wholesomely if you'd see one of her hearty smiles. She can light the place up.

Another governor, Gov. Inslee, of Washington, is putting climate change at the pole position in his race. More power to him. 

And then there's the guy with the totally unprounceable name, the least likely to succeed who is, at this moment, succeeding beyond anyone's expectations despite the fact that he's the only openly gay candidate in the bunch and the least politically experienced as the mayor of a lowly Midwestern city (with a great university). It's amazing, really, that I don't even have to tell you his name. Already, this early in the race, he's that well known, a phenomenon. 

He's a little man who's a war vet. He's gay, but utters religious truth with an unmistakable authenticity. Not only that, he plays a mean blues keyboard, did so at a picnic his followers set up a couple blocks south of the DoubleTree.

Lots of talent, lots of good talk. Nineteen candidates for the office of President of these United States, each of them given five minutes (no more!) to shivver the timbers. And they did, all of them.

No matter. The highlight of the Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame Dinner was the delegation from Sioux County, praised and honored for doing what no one believed they could, building a local Democratic party in a county where not long ago, people said, the local Democrats were so few and far between they met in a phone booth. No more. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Some shots from the Hall of Fame Dinner

Never have I been so close to so many personalities who would, yet that day, be somewhere on national news. Some might well have considered it a meat market, but the Iowa Democrats Hall of Fame Dinner--which wasn't really a dinner--featuared 19 or the 22 or so declared candidates for the Democratic nomination, all of them more than ready to take on the Marmalade Beast. We shall see.

All of them--Amy (the neighbor) to Beto--save one, the leader and former VP, whose granddaughter was graduating or something.

Now that I've heard him, I sort of get what all the fuss is about. He's an attractive candidate.

Which is not to say that some lesser-knowns weren't. You may have heard about this Asian guy candidate, he said, who's going to give everybody a thousand dollars," this guy said. "Well, it's true." Fascinating theory from a guy who claimed he was the opposite of Trump--a person of color who loves math. He was terrific.

Then again, some need no introduction. Bernie made his entrance from a march through town surrounded by McDonalds workers looking for a raise.

I shook hands with Cory Booker (and Amy). Booker's the stemwinder, the orator.

Delaney did well, but he's not going to win anything. Then again, he's the only bald one in the bunch.

I thought Tim Ryan was terrific--not as radical as some Dems might like, but convincing.

Gillibrand is like a foot shorter than her fellow New Yorker, DeBlasio, who, for some reasons, is no one's favorite.

But the stars of the show were a trio from the neighborhood, the Sioux County Dems, who won a spot in the Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame for buckin' the odds in the reddest county of the reddest corner of the state of Iowa, for getting licked but coming back fighting, for growing, for raising up a crop of new members in a place where people might believe hadn't seen rain since Roosevelt. 

When the three of them came off the stage, they did so to a standing ovation. 

Friday, June 07, 2019

Still Life*

I'm getting a pizza, driving into town like I do several times a day, when I glance to the right and see something I never did before, a cocktail of images that add up to something gorgeous, if I can get it in a camera.  So I pull over.  

I don't think Joyce Kilmer had a cottonwood in mind when he made his outrageous claim about poems and trees.  Cottonwoods are quintessentially gnarly. They're oversized, an awkward scramble of branches, perpetually disfigured--all of them--by the battle they wage all year long with prairie winds. They're not beautiful, but they are an unmistakable presence.  They're native, and buffalo loved them because that shaggy bark made for a great back rub.  Years ago, right here, trappers found knee deep buffalo fur beneath big ones like these.

When cottonwoods this size shed their cotton, we get winter, sans temps. Endless whiffs of airy whiteness float like feathers, fill the air and the garage.  And, yes, people sneeze.  But in the right light, they bestow something almost manna-like.  Like this.

Now the Alton pond is kind of sad really.  By November it was pea green.  Right now, it's chocolate after all the flooding, but I'm dissing the word chocolate when I use it that way because the pond is just plain dirty, muddy and muddied, and I can't imagine it holds anything but fat old carp.  

But when the sun sets--the sun we haven't seen for a week--Walden has nothing on Alton Pond.  

So what pulled me out of the car on my way to get pizza was big trunky cottonwoods, wispy cotton, a brassy sunset, and a little pond that was going nowhere. Mix 'em sweetly and what you get isn't bad.  I wanted to see if I could catch the concoction, all that worthless beauty.  This was the best I could do.

Not bad for ten minutes on the corner at Alton.  Just another late afternoon, but I got some of it, some of it at least.  And all of it got me.

If you're wondering, we didn't care much for the pizza.
*First published here June 11, 2013.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

All about June 6, 1944

I didn't know him--couldn't have. He was killed four years before I was born. For years I wouldn't have known his story any more fully than I might have known the stories of any other veteran who didn't return from Europe or the South Pacific, any of 16 million Americans who served our country in World War II. 

I knew my dad spent the war years aboard a tugboat, pushing destroyers hither and yon in the South Pacific. Eventually I heard my step-father talk about his long trek from Normandy to Berlin in the motor pool, where he and his gearhead buddies repaired everything that should have moved and couldn't--jeeps and tanks and dozens of deuce-and-a-halfs. Those two were the only WWII stories I knew in even modest detail.

Gerrit Ter Horst's story slowly came into focus years later. Ter Horst was an Orange City boy, a farm kid who'd be 100 years old on September 4 of this year. He went to Christian School and Northwestern Academy, where he graduated in 1935. In telling the community the news of his death, the newspaper makes claims Orange City-ites would want to hear: "He was faithful as a church member, a member of C. E. and the Sunday School of the First Reformed Church."

On January 23, 1943, in Virginia, Pvt. Ter Horst began his first fourteen weeks of military training, along with a buddy named Ken Jacobs. The two stayed together for more than a year. From Virginia, Gerrit went to a Replacement Depot in Pennsylvania, and then New York. In late May he and literally millions of other GIs, including my father-in-law, set sail for Europe, the war zone. In the entire time he served, Gerrit Ter Horst was never furloughed, never saw again the beloved he'd left behind. 

His stone in the Orange City cemetery carries the date of his death as June 6, 1944, D-day, 75 years ago today. 

Pvt. Ter Horst--one of the letters calls him "Gerry"--served in the Combat Engineer Corps. From this point on, the story I can tell is based on lore passed along through the years.

Somewhere on the English shore, Gerry likely spent the night of July 5 wide awake, conscious of something huge in the wind, something far bigger than anything he could have imagined. The skies were so full of planes you could walk on them. 

Sometime during that night, he may have been one of the troops who saw General Eisenhower come through the lines. In all likelihood, surrounded by buddies, some of them he couldn't have known, all of them friends, buddies, he was likely as ready as he could ever be, his ample gear in perfect condition. He had to be scared. Everyone was. His imagination probably wasn't broad enough to conceive the scale of Operation Overlord. No one could.

I'm guessing Gerrit Ter Horst knew his mission: to lay in whatever explosive devices he could and thereby destroy the iron works Nazis had set into the shoreline just off the beach. Get himself out of the landing craft and take out whatever mines or barriers he could find, quickly and efficiently, to make the invasion possible.

Hundreds of landing craft rolled up to the Normandy shore that day, thousands of GIs looked to secure a toehold on beaches heavily fortified by German armaments. Many in that very first wave never made it to sand, dozens--maybe hundreds--drowned. Those who stumbled and sloshed to the beach faced withering machine gun fire that shredded the front. The U. S. Army suffered 2500 casualties that morning on Omaha Beach, all of it 75 years ago today. 

Pvt. Gerrit Ter Horst was one of those who didn't make it to shore, one of those who knew the invasion only from the water. The story goes that he no more than stepped out of the landing craft and caught the bullet or bullets that killed him. That he never accomplished his mission doesn't make him any less a great hero. 

I have a stake here, telling this story. One of the beloved Gerry Ter Horst left behind was the woman to whom he was pledged to marry, a woman that newspaper story names as Bertha Visser, the 1940 Tulip Queen. On June 6, 1944, I'm sure it was impossible for her to visualize her future without Pvt. Ter Horst, without Gerry. 

But a telegram from the Army ended that dream long before it could have come true. I have no idea how Bertha Visser endured that sadness or dealt with what had to be her own immense grief. That she may not have been alone in her deep sadness didn't mean that what she'd suffered wasn't devastating to heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Just a few years later she married my father-in-law and had a daughter, who became my wife. Bertha Visser Van Gelder was my mother-in-law.

When she was alive, I couldn't help thinking it would be inappropriate to ask her how she dealt with that horrific loss. Did the man she married fill what must have been her grievous emptiness? Did his presence send the shadows away? How long did it take to forget? Did the sadness ever leave? How did you find comfort?-- all questions I never asked.

What I know is that one day a young woman once betrothed to a man who died in the shallow water off the Normandy beach took some time before she walked downtown Orange City, stepped into a jewelry store, then lifted her hand to the jeweler. It was time, finally, to remove that diamond from her finger.

So she did. 

I like to think it was the jeweler who thought it a good idea for her to exchange that ring for a beautiful desk clock she could set anywhere in the house, one of those nautical clocks that chimes at any hour if you so choose. Whether or not he did, when she left the store, that clock was in both her hands. 

That clock now is ours today. It doesn't chime; it's not plugged in. But it has a very special longer and sadder story than anything else among our most treasured possessions. 

Even though he never had a day of furlough, even though she hadn't seen him for a year and a half, even though she likely never forgot the day the telegram came or what she was doing or how short her breath must have come, all these many years later, I like to think the story that nautical clock still tells is only somewhat about D-Day or war or death itself. 

More to the point, I'd like my mother-in-law's grandchildren, and theirs after them, to know that old, otherwise indistinguishable nautical clock is really all about life, even very much about their own.