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.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Some people I know--mostly male--remember a massive repertoire of jokes. Not me. The few I remember almost always have memorable contexts--for instance, "a guy stole into a theater with a goose hidden in his pants." That's the set up. The joke is a rip and a little graphic, but I remember it because my uncle, an old Calvinist preacher, told it and laughed uproariously. That was shocking.

But another I remember has no context whatsoever. I don't know who said it or when. It's very "male," and probably not funny at all, if you're a woman: Woman goes in the ditch somewhere, flags down a guy in a big truck, and asks the guy to pull her out. "Wow," he tells her, "third time this week I pulled a pregnant woman out."

"But I'm not pregnant," she says.

"You're not out of the ditch," he tells her. That's the punch line.

It's embarrassing to tell it now. But it's one of just a few jokes I can remember, and one of even fewer whose context--who told it and when?--has no documentation at all. 

It's a joke about rape. Maybe it doesn't have to be. Not all casual sex is unwelcome, after all. Throughout history, women have occasionally propositioned. But the humor in that guy-in-the-pickup joke has its roots in rape. She owes him, after all, and he's not asking for money.


It would be nice to think my memory holds on to that joke because my conscience won't let me forget it's evil. I remember it because I wish I didn't, if that makes sense. I remember it because I remember thinking--way back when I heard it--that it wasn't funny, but that, in the company of men, I laughed anyway. I wish I could exonerate myself by claiming that guilt makes me pure. 

It would be nice if I could say that, but I won't try. I remember it, in great part, I'm sure, because once upon a time I thought it was funny, probably edgy too, but, back then, funny--and, decidedly, because I'm male.

That old joke comes back to me now with good reason. Rumors have it that investigative reporters are on the track of countless other male legislators who've put their hands where they were unwanted. What even men, "good-old-boys," can't help recognize is that men are getting pretty much what they deserve these days. The mighty have fallen, and there'll be more, many more--hopefully, many more.

Last week, The New York Times Book Review featured the story of the editor of the Paris Review, Loren Stein, who resigned his position for his boorishness, for creating an office where sexual advances were not uncommon, a toxic environment. “The way I behaved was hurtful, degrading and infuriating to a degree that I have only begun to understand," he said.

That he was guilty is beyond doubt, but in Tablet this week, Wesley Yang, who claims he knew Stein, tries to apply some brakes to a rage that promises write even more headlines. He says that we all need to remind ourselves that "sex is an intractable conundrum rather than a solvable problem." It's a mystery, a coordination of spirits and persons that requires some intricate orchestration. While what's happening needed to happen, and while men like Stein needed to fall right smack on their faces, if we believe we'll ever escape the mysteries of human sexuality, we are underestimating our own messy humanity. 

Yang ends that essay quite boldly with a Jeremiad aimed at feminists but applicable anywhere. "Nobody is so dangerous, to themselves and others," he says, "as a person or collectivity that wields power without acknowledging it."

Nothing in that sentence means to exonerate the mighty who've already fallen. He doesn't mean to call off the dogs or rebuild reputations, only to insist that power corrupts, and absolute power. . .well, you know.

Just strikes me that what Mr. Yang says is pure Niebuhr and unadulterated Calvin, as well as, well, biblical. 

And it's not a joke.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The lay of the land

In November of 2008, when the nation had just elected President Barack Obama, the percentage of Americans who called themselves Democrats (53%) quite significantly bettered the percentage who called themselves Republican (37%). Because that was true back then, commentators began to talk about the death of the GOP. 

Just a year later, however, that difference narrowed dramatically--44% claimed to be Democrats, 41% Republicans. Today Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the presidency, not to mention a majority of state houses and governorships. Rumors of the death of Republicanism were embarrassingly premature.

For decades, Democrats outnumbered Republicans. Still do. But a higher percentage of Republicans go to the polls, in part because they are both older and wealthier. 

So it's a little premature for Democrats to crow over what's happened since President Trump came into office. Excess glee could come back to bite you, as it has in the past. 

But, for Democrats, there's reason for hope because the numbers nationwide are moving, once again, in the opposite direction. The number of people who claim to be Democratic is seven points higher than what it was when Trump took office. The Democratic party is growing. The Republican party is not. 

While, the percentage of Republicans who stand behind the President hasn't changed-- 82% still back the President--surveys indicate there are simply fewer Republicans. Republicans still love him. Democrats hate him, and Independents, more each week, don't like him. If trends don't change, other Republicans may begin to talk about running against him in 2020. 

Why? When, several days ago, Senator Kirsten Gillebrand called for the President to resign because of the volley of accusations from women, she triggered the President's ire, which notably doesn't take much. Yesterday's tweet storm included a line many--most--found especially repulsive, given the attention the nation is giving to sexual harassment. Trump trumpeted that Ms. Gillebrand “would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago” and then added, in parenthesis that she would “do anything for them.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders claims only those whose minds are "in the gutter" would read that as sexual innuendo, but many did. Thousands. Millions. Including the editorial staff of USA Today, who rarely engage in the fisticuffs going on around President Donald J. 

"With his latest tweet, clearly implying that a United States senator would trade sexual favors for campaign cash, President Trump has shown he is not fit for office," they said. And then, "Rock bottom is no impediment for a president who can always find room for a new low." And there's more:  "A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush."

USA Today is in the gutter, I guess. Fake news.

But there's more: "This isn't about the policy differences we have with all presidents or our disappointment in some of their decisions. Obama and Bush both failed in many ways. They broke promises and told untruths, but the basic decency of each man was never in doubt."

Yesterday, Mark Galli, in a Christianity Today essay titled "The Biggest Loser in the Alabama Election," surveyed the damage being done to the Christian faith: 
No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted US Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith. When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.
Those harsh words may explain another phenomenon. Just a few days ago, Pew released polls indicating that support among white folks has dropped from 49 to 41 percent, just as it has dropped among those 50 and older, from 47 to 38 per cent.

But here's another: the percentage of Trump supporters who call themselves "evangelical Protestants" has also dropped since he took office, from  78 percent to 61 percent. 

Just for the record, I'm over 50, white, and for most of my life considered myself "an evangelical Protestant."

Last night, Trump lost. He chose to campaign for Judge Ray Moore, chose to have one of his campaign spectacles in Pensacola, Fl, close enough to rile Alabama voters to cast their ballots for a man plainly neanderthal--Muslims should be denied public office, the nation would be better off without constitutional amendments allowing women and African-Americans to vote, practicing gays should be imprisoned--all in the name of Jesus. Oh, yes, this too: the American family was better off during slavery.

Last night, Moore lost. So did Steve Bannon, big time. So did Donald J. Trump. Forty per cent of the electorate turned out in Alabama.

This morning, that's the lay of the land.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Morning Thanks--All is Calm

If I heard him once, I heard him tell the story a dozen times of how the family's attitude changed.

The story went like this. One of his early novels included a racy scene or two the relatives, his own kith and kin, found distasteful. And there were such.

His first homecoming after publication was not heartwarming. It was a bit chilly, but the family waited until Sunday dinner to open the discussion. "There are things you write in that book, Feik, of which we don't approve." Some aunt, maybe even his step-mother, lugged her disapproval into dinner because one simply doesn't not mention such grave offense.

They were eating, he says. No one looked up. No one spoke. All sipped their soup determinedly. The reproof son Feike received just then from the relatives was immediate, rapt silence, its own kind of excommunication.

If he tried to explain himself or legitimize the scenes they had determined to be off-color--well, let's be frank, indecent, dirty, and downright wicked--the novelist never talked about it. Perhaps he let well enough alone. His set-up moment for this favorite story of his was the profound silence that followed a Jeremiad delivered, as if on cue, around the Sunday dinner table by a woman.

That wasn't the end of the story. Later that afternoon, when it was time to milk, Fred Manfred claimed he went out to the barn with the rest of the men (he was the oldest of the Feikema boys--six in all). Once they were they were milking, the novel came up once more. "You know, Feik, my favorite part was right there on page 105, you know, where the guy. . ."

Frederick Manfred loved that story, even used it as a foreward to a later novel, loved it not only because he lived it but because it legitimized his sometimes graphic descriptions. Women may have hated all of that, but men?--they liked it. Even read over the hot spots.

That story isn't as funny as it once was. Manfred wasn't wrong in telling it. It wasn't, at base, evil. Today, a century later, gender differences still exist. I didn't mind skipping the baby shower down in Oklahoma when my wife and daughter went.

But the plague of men behaving badly is not only embarrassing, it's unnerving if you're male. Once in a while some female teacher gets fired for dallying with her male students. It's men who perform the madness, men who are out of control, men who belittle, who strike fear, who abuse again and again and again. Men are the villians, the sick-os.

A couple weeks ago now, a choral group--all men--performed a piece of musical theater that was beautiful, not simply because of the virtuosity of their performance or the poignant story they told, but also because it offered me--and other men--a moving, blessed picture of men behaving well.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 was, for me at least, a bromide of gender therapy. What happened in the trenches at Christmas, Germans and the Brits celebrating Christmas together, featured more than its share of drinking and smoking and carrying on; but for a moment at least, it threw the spotlight on men putting war behind them, even if only for a day.

Instead of shooting, they sang carols. Instead of machine guns, they brought out the grog. Instead of killing, they helped each other bury their dead. Instead of death, they chose life.

All is Calm was, for this male, a Christmas gift for which I'm greatly thankful. If, when the curtain went down, those nine men had said they were going to do the whole show over again, I'd have sat back down in a heartbeat. It was great theater, awesome music, and, in a world of men behaving badly, a reminder that it doesn't have to be that way.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Morning Thanks--Christmas lights

In two churches in two weeks in two towns, we just happened to hear the same preacher, a sub. One of the churches is newly vacant, the other needed a fill-in, their own under-shepherds (as old folks used to call them) out of town. 

You can't blame the sub for double-dipping. I've done it myself often enough, and I'm quite sure we were the only ones in the congregation that second week who'd been in the other the week before. 

She took her text from John 1, and proceeded to hold forth on verse 5: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." It was, as all good and healthy sermons are, expositions on the same tune an angel choir sang in the night sky long, long ago: "Fear not." If the Bible says "the darkness did not overcome it," and it is "word made flesh," than why should we be weary with worry?

In the cold of winter, 1863, three or four persistent missionaries wouldn't forsake hundreds of Dakota people imprisoned at Ft. Snelling after "the Sioux Uprising." Hundreds of settlers had been brutally murdered in a killing spree quite unlike anything anyone had ever seen or experienced. Hatred grew into a flame in Minnesota, only recently become a state. White folks wanted all of its Indians dead or gone. 

Those missionaries ministered to suffering, innocent Santees and were filleted by the press for squandering the riches of the Christian faith on animals. I could quote. More than once, when they left the prison, they were beaten.

I doubt any schoolchild in the state of Minnesota heard that story this year. Emboldened by faith and the Word Made Flesh, those missionaries would not let the darkness overcome the light. 

But then, I could run through a list as long as my arm of stories that feature men and women who believed themselves to be children of the light, and, Lord knows, were not. 

Two weeks in a row I heard that same sermon, but left, sadly, unconvinced, not because she did a lousy job, but because that arm's length-list doesn't disappear beneath a sport coat's long sleeves. I know dozens of such stories. So do you.

An old fashioned light stands beside me in my window down here, something my wife's aged aunt left behind in her attic. Replacement bulbs may not be available anymore, but right now, dawn still two hours away, that phony plastic candelabra is pure beauty--a light in the darkness.

I put an old artificial monster out in the garden, a tree our kids gave up on. We've got no real trees in the backyard, and Lord knows we get wind, and will today again, forty-miles-an-hour plus. Already I hear it moan. 

I put up that tree a week or so ago, tied it down with twine the wind snapped as if it were wound from toilet paper. The morning after our first snow, that old tree was lying there dead in the snow, in pieces. I wrestled it back up, strung it with new lights, and wired it in place this time. It's doing well, tipped a bit southeast, but I would be too out there in our relentless northwest winds.

So this is what I see when I look outside right now. I'm not about to win a contest, but it's light in the darkness. The darkness has not overcome. 

I don't know that another soul on earth is blessed by what's here. From the road, you hardly notice. Lights of the cattle trucks on Hwy 60 go by at all hours, but from there, I'm sure, no trucker notices anything. 

There's no shortage of Christmas lights. Lots of folks in town go all out--dangling icicles, inflatable Santas, homespun creches, all of it lit for Christmas.

And there's this little gem. My wife buys a tiny tree every year, something small for down here.

Just one of the blessings of Christmas--and there are many--is lights in the darkness. Lord knows they can get garish, but the older I get, the younger I feel around them, enchanted really. 

The wind right now is howling all around. The lights are a blessing. That tree is taking a beating again; but listen! the darkness does not overcome. That's what she said. Twice I heard it, but then, even at Christmas, it bears repeating.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Jerusalem the Golden?

“Extol the LORD, O Jerusalem; praise your God, 
O Zion, for he strengthens the bars of your gates 
and blesses your people within you.”  Psalm 147:12

For as long as I can remember, no one seems to have listened to this command. The command to praise, the very heart of the psalmist’s cheer-leading, is here given to Jerusalem, to Zion, to the heart of the nation of Israelites, to a very real place, a city.

But for as long as I can remember, Jerusalem the city has been anything but Jerusalem the Golden. Its gates offer little safety, and its residents seem not particularly blessed, at least with peace. Jerusalem’s thousands are cordoned off from each other as if they were their own worst enemies, which they seem to be. Jerusalem is a hand grenade, no more holy than Vegas, maybe less so, President Trump's latest directive notwithstanding.

Some claim Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to be the site of the first and the second Jewish temple. When the Messiah returns, the third and final Jewish temple will be built there too, or so goes the tale. Jerusalem’s Temple Mount may well be considered the most holy site in Judaism. 

But it is also the site of two major Muslim shrines, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. To Islam, Temple Mount is the place some Muslim clerics and historians claim to be the third most holy site of their faith. 

The dirt on and around Temple Mount was the earth God chose to form Adam, man, in his very likeness, some say, and the place where Adam, in turn, made sacrifices to God.  It’s the place where David bought a threshing floor and built an altar. Temple Mount is rich with biblical history for Christians—as well as Jews and Muslims.

This paean, the pageant of praise that is Psalm 147, surveys nothing less than creation itself for the first ten verses, then marries a promise to the exhortation of the very first line of the poem: praise him, Jerusalem, because he keeps you safe and blesses you. The psalmist knows a different Jerusalem than I do.

Biblical language always spreads a wide tent. Maybe Jerusalem doesn’t mean the Israeli city at all. Maybe Jerusalem means, in a sort of general way, all believers, the church—or maybe, well, just me. Maybe it means the small town where I live; some of my neighbors think so. But then some believe the Jerusalem of verse 12 is the United States of America. One can wander far in the broad landscape cast by these words.

But then, maybe my pre-conceptions are wrong; perhaps peace isn’t the blessing that war is. Perhaps the ongoing warfare of the Middle East, in Jerusalem as anywhere, is really a kind of joy, keeping believers on their knees. Maybe peace is as much a curse as affluence, fear a blessing.

Maybe today, this verse means nothing at all. Maybe it meant something when the psalmist sang it because Jerusalem was soon to become address of God’s own house, the temple, the city of God. Maybe the line is an artifact from ancient Mesopotamian history.

Maybe Jerusalem has simply never taken the command to heart.  Maybe if it would, its defenses would be strengthened, its people blessed. 

But then maybe none of us have listened. Maybe none of us have extolled. Maybe none of us bring praise. I’m sounding like a Calvinist.

Still, he loves us.  Listen to this: “For God so loved the world.”  “Jesus loves me, this I know.”


Friday, December 08, 2017

Who Didn't Want an Indoor Toilet

The preponderance of a four-letter word makes this little meditation about change a shade on the scandalous side, but it's just too good. It's the work of my friend, Jim Heynen, a Siouxlander, who here catches the same theme that was pushing me around yesterday with the new keyboard. It's always been (blush!) a favorite of mine.

When times got good, everybody got indoor toilets. Most people kept the outdoor privy too for when the weather was nice or for when their feet were too muddy to cme in the house. You had to be a pretty bad farmer not to be able to afford an indoor toilet.

Except one rich farmer. He didn't want an indoor toilet

When other farmers asked him why he didn't have one, he told them things like this.

Houses are places where you go to have good times with your family. To eat. To sleep. To play with your children. To make children. Now you people with your indoor toilets, what have you done to your houses? You put a place for people to shit in them and call it improvement! Think of this--somebody says, I have to go to the toilet, and instead of going outside they just go into the next room. Now how are the rest of you supposed to feel when you know that person is right on the other side of that door--only a few feet away--shitting! At least people with chamber pots could hide them behind the bed. But your indoor toilet is always there. Pretty soon your kitchen smells like shit. And you call that modern! You call that civilized! A houses is almost a holy place. Now you tell me what kind of person would build a room for shitting in a place like that! Not even a dog shits in his own house.

Nobody could argue with him really. They just tried not to talk about toilets with him. Because when they did they couldn't help feeling a little bit foolish for what they had done too themselves and their homes.


"Who Didn't Want an Indoor Toilet" is from You know What Is Right (North Point Press, 1988). It's not printed with permission. I expect a law suit sometime next week.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The persistence of change

I loved the old one. That's why I bought another one just like it. I can't do a thing about the size of my hands. They're big, so I need one that spreads across half the desk, and that's what I had, for years. 

Worked fine, but like everything else below the heavens, it took on dirt. Gross, my wife said. Four years ago or so, I chipped out the keys and let 'em soak in a sink-full of hot water, then went after the miniature dust bunnies inhabiting what spaces they could find beneath the keys. Wasn't a hutch exactly, but the numbers were substantial.

You can stop reading if this is getting too graphic, but the fact is the keys had somehow, through the years, gained an infestation of foul detritus. I cleaned them each in a way the Dutch pride themselves, reset every last one (I'd taken a picture of the keyboard before I'd started, to remember what goes where--that's what the You-Tube said to do), and voila! my sweet keyboard worked perfectly. And, it was as clean as Orange City's Main Street. 

Six months ago, the infestation had returned. I went through the same process--a veteran now. But when it was over, the blasted space bar didn't function well from the right side, right thumb. I took it off again, reset it--still bad. Again, still bad. Again, still bad. Let me put it this way, the space bar worked, and then again it didn't, which is to say it didn't work. I couldn't trust it.

My-size keyboards aren't cheap, so I figured I'd stay with the old one, just learn to adjust. Maybe ten keys lost their ID through the years--pure wear. The bottom row's nakedness is almost embarrassing, but I don't look at the keys so I didn't miss the lettering, mostly. But I spent the last month or so editing a 330-page novel. I can feel where the M is if I'm using both hands, but if I'm hunting-and-pecking, finding the right blasted key requires a thought process that got old fast.

Christmas. Time, I figure, to get a new one. Got to be a sale somewhere. I hunted on-line. Cheapest Logitech jumbo was at Best Buy on Cyber Monday. 

The new one looks exactly like the old one, except the bottom jaw has all its teeth, so to speak. Nothing has changed in appearance and function. I didn't use half the keys before, nor will I now. Logitech's R and D didn't do a thing on this item in a decade. That's okay. Didn't have to as far as I'm concerned.

This new one is sparkling clean, and I'm more efficient because I'm not constantly going back to get the blasted spacing right. The space bar is wonder, a joy, a blessing.

But, the shape of the mouse changed. It's touchy, much more touchy, and my pointer finger--I'll admit it--is a shade less reliable, likely to move a bit even if I don't call on it to do such.

And it's driving me nuts because that new mouse registers heartbeats, I swear. Extra clicks are no fun. Confession? I've repeated some naughty words when that mouse clicked and wasn't supposed to--and it's happened too blasted regularly. 

I could go back to the old mouse. I think I could make it work. 

Besides, I'm telling myself that I'm not that old, doggone it. I'm not that old. I can still adjust. I can still change. I'm not stuck in my ways. I'm not that old, see? I'm not. I'm not.

Get used to it, I tell myself. You'll get used to it.

And for heaven's sake, don't be so owly.  That's what I tell myself. 

It's a beauty--this new keyboard. It is. It's a beauty.