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.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Wrath

“Who knows the power of your anger?
For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.”
Psalm 90:11

I’m going to go to make a generalization I’ve no right to. Here it is. One of the good things about aging is that, through the years, we simply grow less angry—Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Grumpy Old Men notwithstanding. Old bucks like me have less testosterone, less dignity to protect, less turf to maintain, and therefore fewer reasons to boil over.

Hairlines aren’t the only thing to recede, so does quarrelsomeness. Aging means fewer people notice us. There’s just plain fewer risks. That reality doesn’t make you mad, just bad-tempered. Being peevish isn’t necessarily being wrathful.

Maybe I’m wrong about that.

Last night I was mad. Last night, I used language I shouldn’t have, even to my daughter, who didn’t have it coming, who had nothing to do with why I was boiling over. Last night—memorably, I might add—this old guy was spitting fire.

This morning I could still throw flames; in fact, I just sent out an e-mail I probably shouldn’t have. But I’ve calmed down a bit now, a bit; and thinking about that rare chunk of rage at arm’s length this morning is helpful when reading this strange verse from Psalm 90: “Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.”

It’s helpful because normally it’s easy for me to be embarrassed by the OT’s occasionally draconian Jehovah. I find it hard to know that hellfire God, maybe in part because at my age I don’t know all that much anymore about rage myself. Wrath may be one of the seven deadlies, but it’s not one I spent all much time repenting. I’m too old.
Not last night. The provocation, basically, was injured pride—I was convinced that certain people didn’t respect me. That explanation is half truth. What blew my cork was that I didn’t get my way. We’d worked our duffs off, but the whole project shipwrecked because someone in authority thought maybe someone else might be hurt. Honestly, the whole story is not worth a story.*

But my wrath is worth a story when I think about this line from the venerable 90th Psalm. Here’s what I’m thinking: maybe the OT God isn’t a far cry from who I am. If I read the whole Exodus narrative, it seems that what God wants more than anything is not to be an also-ran. In the panoply of gods running kingdoms in the Fertile Crescent, he doesn’t want to be just another graven image.
“Who should I say this God is?” Moses—the writer here—asks of this God.
“I am the always,” he says.

End of story.

And when people create golden calves of whatever size and extremity—this God, Jehovah, spits and fumes and, sad to say, often enough people die. He’s like me that way. Sort of. But nobody died last night, I’m happy to say.
Oddly enough, I wonder if I don’t think of God as human enough. If I were him and people didn’t really give me the dignity I’d deserved, I’d be mad—like I was last night. Maybe all that anger—it’s behind me now—maybe even all that blasted wrath is helpful. You think you got dissed?—just think of Him. And it happens on a daily basis, too. Shoot, hourly.
That’s more than a little scary. And that’s only half of it, this verse says. That’s not even the whole story. Your wrath is everything we can imagine, Lord—that’s what Moses says.

And then some.

And a great deal more.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Voter fraud

If Donald Trump is right, and his disciples stand guard at the polls to make sure nobody votes twice or three times or thirty, and if Rep. John Lewis is right in asking President Obama to send out thousands of federal election observers to make sure things go well, think of the size of the gathering outside the voting booth. Could be dozens out there watching.

Trump thinks the thing is rigged, although he hasn't been saying that lately, at least not as often or as loud. "Folks, the whole system is rigged," he'd say in the olden days. You remember.

That's why he told his people to hang around the polls and make sure none of those frauds sneak in a half-dozen times. If good people don't take the law into their own hands these days, you know what'll happen. 

Yes, we do.

You heard him say it. "The whole thing is rigged." His trainer has him on a leash now, looking more presidential. But if you ask, he'll still say it: "Get out there and supervise, you second-amendment people." You know Trump.

Now Rep. John Lewis, who marched in Selma a lifetime ago, is asking Obama to send election observers out because he doesn't trust the polls either, for opposite reasons. He's sure there'll be intimidation, sure some potential voters will be sent away without having filled out a ballot, as is their right. He may well be afraid of Donald's disciples. 

Now we got a situation. Of course 

There Are Nearly 300 Cases of Voter Fraud in America

or so said the headline in a right-wing website last year. 300. That's right. Think of it this way: if I gave you a bowl of Skittles, and 300 of them were bad, would you still count the Skittles? You know.

Amazing, isn't it? Amazingly silly. Real-live studies show voter and voting fraud is almost non-existent

No matter. Donald says the whole thing is rigged, even though conservatives have been rewriting suffrage laws to make sure those 300(!!) cases don't surface again.  The purpose of all that legislation is to counter all that voter fraud. 

No matter, I guess. Still rigged, Donald says.

Last week I watched forty-some brand new citizens swear allegiance to the United States of America. Never before had I witnessed a real naturalization event. The American Legion marched in the colors, opening remarks were given, four politicians sent staff to read their congratulations. 

Then a silver-haired woman sang a medley of patriotic hymns--"America the Beautiful," "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," a chorus or two of some old faves like "Yankee Doodle Dandy." She had a great voice, walked among those brand new citizens as if wooing them.  National anthem too.

Finally, the presiding judge, in his robe, delivered a bit of a homily and had all forty stand, raise their right hands and solemnly swear allegiance to the United States of America, which they did. Many had family standing and watching.

I couldn't help noticing that only one of the new citizens was white--from Eastern Europe. The rest--all of them--were people of color: African, Mexican, Central and South American. 

When it was over, the judge sent them all to a voter registration table set up just outside the room, where they formed a line. 

I doubt President Obama will do anything with Rep. John Lewis's request, but when I think about what I watched just last week, I can't help thinking, like Mr. Lewis, that maybe, come November, we'll need more people at the polls. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The plague of the biting midge

By nature and conviction, I swear I'm not paranoid, and certainly not subject to insane conspiracy theories. I tend to believe in experts and expert opinion, but on this one nobody freaking knows. Go ahead--do the research. Look for yourself. 

Right now the real terrorists in the neighborhood aren't religious or fanatic. They're a mite-sized bug so small you don't have a clue they're on you until you feel a needle of pain. Then you look and see nothing. The pain gets worse, and then there's another on your ankle, and you're wondering what kind of Twilight Zone you've stepped into. You stop what you're doing and look close, and then--and only then--do you see this itsy-bitsy beast, and only when you look really, really close. They're awful, and they're everywhere. They slip into the house as if a screen is a joke. They're on this page, for pity sake.

Two days ago, after two weeks away, I was looking forward to working outside, ripping out twisted tomato plants that still haven't worn out even though we have. There was a jungle out there, but it was a perfectly sweet late summer afternoon and would've been a great day if I hadn't spent more time whacking an invasion of irritation than I did deconstructing plants. I went inside, put on a bigger shirt--that helped, but I would have had to don something from a Hazmat locker to escape 'em.  

Yesterday, same thing, same time, same station. I lasted twenty minutes before I threw in the towel.

Yesterday my wife went to town and claimed she heard all kinds of people cuss about those tiny little insects.  "They're awful. What are they anyway?" I'd begun to regard them as the kind of curse arranged for country people only. Nope. They're townies, too. The whole region's besieged. 

Truth be known, I'm starting to think no one knows what they are, and the reason is simple. My armchair research says that they're some nameless branch of the fly family, from the Order Diptera in the family Ceratopogonidae, a definition which does nothing to quell my outrage. Here's the real bottom line--there are at least 4000 species of these terrifying tikes, which means that your guess is as good as mine or Dr. Insector Inspector down at the state u. I swear I'd nail it all down, but I can barely see the dumb things. 

Call 'em what you want. Everybody else does. "Biting midge," one website says, is a common name, but here in North America (they're everywhere, they're everywhere) people frequently call them “no-see-ums,” which isn't bad but feels sort of gracious to me, given that they chased me indoors for two afternoons straight. People in the northeast call them “punkies." They aren't. They're the real darn thing. 

My friends in the southwest call them "pinyon gnats," which suggests that they terrorize people out gathering nuts, which is sad. Down south, they're “five-O’s" because they don't start their assault until late afternoon (Reb insects are lazier than Yankees), and Canadians call them “moose flies." Canadians are a hoot, aren't they? Talk about oxymoronic.

Tell you what, I'll just call 'em a plague and hope their shelf life is two or three days because I'd like to get back outside without dressing as if I'm from the bomb squad. 

Seriously, they're everywhere. Yesterday I had a meeting, sort of, downtown. We arrived a little early, had to stand outside until the chair arrived. Guess what? In no time at all we were slapping at invisible enemies. There they were AT CITY HALL.

Pharaoh must have been insanely stubborn. This plague we're in is something awful. I'd have let those people go.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

From the Homestead (10)--Mystery and Miracle

The story goes that a man named John H. MacColl suffered mountain fever after coming west to Nebraska for his health, of all things. Wasn't just a set back either; inside of a day or two he was unable to move from the waist down, fully paralyzed. Somehow, he made  it to Fort McPherson, forty miles away, to see the post surgeon, who, after those visits, simply told Mr. MacColl that there was nothing he could do. 

Here's where the story gets going, the incredible complication of the old story. A traditional medicine man just happened along, or so the story goes, and somehow--the two of them not sharing a language--managed to explain to the bed-ridden MacColl that, if MacColl truly believed him, the old medicine man could heal him up good. 

Keep in mind that John H. MacColl had absolutely no choice at this point. Out there in the middle of nowhere, his life's prospects weren't exactly soaring, so he signed in for the treatment. 

The next day the medicine man brought along an interpreter to make clear what he'd  try to say the day before--that he could heal MacColl if MacColl would submit to the treatment he was offering. Once more, MacColl agreed. 

What's to come here isn't pretty, but then, I imagine, neither was MacColl's paralysis. 

The medic took a saw-tooth knife out of his pocket and began making a whole series of open cuts into MacColl's buck naked body, a hundred of them, or so the story goes. What it was, MacColl never really knew, but the medic took some kind of herb or something from a pouch and started to chew it as if it were tobacco. 

That munching accomplished, he spit something of whatever he was chewing into his fingers and proceeded to rub it into each of those hundred cuts.

That was the promised treatment. That was all of it. Trust me, I'm not swearing by any of this.

In three days, Laura MacColl says--John's sister--her brother could actually stand alone. A week later, he could walk.

Lots of talk about miracles as of late, the Vatican having substantially proven two of them attributed to Mother Teresa, the requirement for Roman Catholic sainthood. In a recent New York Times op ed, Jacalyn Duffin recounts a story for which she was subpoenaed to testify, the case of a woman so far gone with cancer that there was no question she'd begun the inevitable march to her demise. 

Not so. Months later--years later--the patient was still alive. Jacalyn Duffin was asked to testify, even though the hearing was ecclesiastical and Duffin an atheist. She was asked because the church wanted to know whether what happened was or was not a miracle from the likes of her, a physician of repute who's actually a certified atheist. Duffin says she made very clear that there was no scientific reason for the patient's still being alive. Here's Ms. Duffin's final paragraph.
Respect for our religious patients demands understanding and tolerance; their beliefs are as true for them as the “facts” may be for physicians. Now almost 40 years later, that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle. Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because that is how they are lived in our world.
So don't ask me about John H. MacConn. The whole story could be a fib or a myth or sheer happenstance. Maybe John H. simply had a bad case of gas and it passed--I don't know, and no one ever will.

As Ms. Duffin the unbeliever says, "Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump" the MacConn story? 

I'll just shake my head and let it be. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


At least the shootout at OK Corral ended. Guns were drawn, shots were fired, and some of the tough hombres went down and didn't get up. Blasted cowboys got theirs at the quick hands of the Earps, who had enlisted Doc Holiday as a ringer. Ended the feud just like that.

The good guys walked away. The shootout at OK Corral, Tombstone, AZ, way back in 1881 may well remain the most important showdown in western American history; and it wasn't going to be repeated because Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers never got up off the dirt again.

Not so next week. The only matter beyond speculation is that both hombres will live to duel again--twice, in fact. There'll be two more debates after next week's, no matter how much blood is left on the stage or whose it is in a pool. The whole darn world expects Hillary the wonk to try to bring the Donald to his knees with facts and figures and specifics. If she wins, it'll be because she's a vastly better engineer. She'll kill him with competency.

Donald takes no prisoners and only punches below the belt. Hillary will be getting into the ring with a animal armed with chain saw. Unless his incredible manager has his ears and tongue pinned, all you can expect is the unexpected. He's amoral, knows no boundaries. It'll be the engineer versus the cave man, and nobody--nobody!--knows who'll step out of that ring the winner.

Besides, it's completely unlikely that anyone anywhere close to that ring will come away with a changed mind. The whole blasted shootout is being staged for the hearts and minds of but a sliver of uncommitted voters. The insane hate for both combatants is so high that each of the candidates will hold on to the vast majority of their supporters but convert no one. Trump was right when he announced just down the road (at the college where I was employed for most of my life) that he could kill a man on Broadway and still be loved by loyalists. Millions of America would rather elect Satan.

But then, for millions, Hillary is Satan. That's where we are.

Whoever gains the victory next Monday night, or come November, will face four more years of bloody warfare. The truth is, there are so many checks and balances written into American democratic system that it's virtually impossible for any one man or woman to lead all the rest of us into some kind of spiritual or physical Armageddon. Even Trump can't trump Congress and the Supreme Court all. the. time. Hillary, singlehandedly, can't flip America suddenly third world.

No matter who gets up slowly a week from now on Tuesday morning, no matter who Fox News or CNN or anybody else declares winner, the madness will go on.

And on. And on. And on. Neither of them, all by their lonesomes, will lead America to ruin. Only the rest of us can do that.

The only casualty will be the body politic, and we've been staggering around with a gut shot for a long, long time. 

You can't help but wish Wyatt Earp were in the race. That whole shootout only lasted thirty seconds.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Morning Thanks--the murmuring of innumerable bees

Mostly, they're sweethearts, honey bees that is. Mostly. Health-food nuts love 'em. Our grandson wouldn't think it's Sunday dinner if honey weren't on the table. If you like sweet, honey's for you. If you aren't thrilled about what corn syrup has done to this world, honey is downright righteous. 

These guys are bumblers, not honey bees. But no matter--they still make the world go round.

The truth?--bees are selfless to a fault, communists and not libertarians. They don't give a hang about freedom or hanker over workers' rights; they're union is non-existent. Their industry ends only in their demise. They're forever on task, and their forever doesn't amount to much: a lifetime is less than a season. 

A bee-keeper friend of mine told me just a couple days ago that if they're at work, they'd sit on your finger and not sting--if you could get them to sit on your finger. "You're serious?" I said. "When they're at work, they're way too busy to bite," he told me.

So when we spotted an innumerable mass of 'em out back on a late-flowering perennial, I tested the theory, poking my lens up-close-and-personal, sitting there beside them, in the wake of their passion, for ten minutes. Not one of them looked up. I was in their face for a long, long time, but no one raised a stink or a sting. 

If some supervisor was on duty, he did not distinguish himself by keeping an eye out on the others. But if you're a portrait photographer, good luck on the eyes. The whole lot of 'em were driven so hard that getting a close up of a bee's face when he's burrowing is next to impossible. Not that I didn't try.

That same bee-keeper was out here a month ago or so, looking over our many plantings, when he spotted one of his sweeties and pointed, as if I'd never seen one before. "Isn't that beautiful?" he said. 

I had to look up at him to see if he was joking. He wasn't. It may be something of an acquired taste, but he's not wrong, maybe especially when you see them up close--and they're not angry. Furry little things in designer coats bedecked with waxy wings. Not exactly a nose to be proud of, but still--kinda cute anyway. Kinda.  Beautiful? For me, that's still a stretch.

Unlike every species of bird that comes to our feeders, they don't fight with each other; they're just too busy. Dozens of them were aboard this single plant yesterday, dozens. I'm poking at them with my lens, inches away, and not once any one of them take the time to bully another. They're absolutely driven. They're hard drinkers all right, but it's what they do. Time isn't something they have much of, so they make use of it. Do they ever.

And honestly, what they do is a job that has to be done. They're irreplaceable in the hive and the whole blessed scheme of things. Without their hard work, our own backyard wouldn't be so comely. Their ruthless dedication to task plays a vital role in producing one third of everything we eat--broccoli, asparagus, cantaloupes, cucumbers, pumpkins, blueberries, watermelons, almonds, apples, cranberries, and cherries, for starters.

But they sting, you say.

Yep. Yes they do.  Good night, they do.

But not yesterday. These bumblers were waaaay too busy--and on the Sunday too. Sabbatarians they're not.

This morning, I'm thankful for these furry little selfless workaholic sinners. 

As I should be. After all, it's time for breakfast. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--"We fly away"

The length of our days is seventy years—
or eighty, if we have the strength; 
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, 
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”  Psalm 90:9

Geraldine Brooks’s novel March recounts the harrowing Civil War testimony of Mr. March, a character notably absent from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the father of the girls at the heart of that novel.  Brooks used Alcott’s own father as a prototype, the legendary New England transcendental idealist Bronson Alcott.
March’s abolitionist views prompt him to enlist into the Union army as a chaplain, but war is never kind on idealists. By the end of his testimony, he’s dying.

His wife, Marmee, who, throughout her life, has known little more (or less) than the comforts of small-town New England patrician culture, finds her disease-stricken husband amid the horrors of a Civil War hospital, where he’s near death.

At one point in the novel, Marmee, who is searching for a black nurse, walks into a hospital laundry, and finds herself suddenly in a “dead house,” surrounded by mutilated naked bodies of Civil War soldiers. There she finds “an elderly negress,” washing the “abbreviated body” of a double amputee, “singing as she worked, which struck me as unseemly until I realized what she sang was a hymn.” In the billowing clouds of steam from the laundry, Marmee says that woman appeared to be “a large black angel serenading the men to heaven.”

I know the song, even though Geraldine Brooks doesn’t give a title. I’m guessing it’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” If it isn’t, it’s another from that memorable book of Negro spirituals, because, well, what else could it be?—a black woman, born a slave, doing a job no white folks want in the bowels of dreaded darkness.

Brooks doesn’t give the hymn a title because in all likelihood, Mrs. March, an early feminist, an affluent white, educated woman from New England, simply doesn’t know that music, not from the soul  To be truthful, neither do I, not from the soul.

Confession:  I don’t know the suffering required to create Negro spirituals. I don’t know the horror that would prompt human beings to beg deliverance so desperately  from life itself. I have never known oppression, only freedom. I’ve not watched people die when it wasn’t their time. I haven’t buried a child. I’ve lived a good, good life.

And that’s why, in part, I’ve never known the despair required to utter a verse like this one:  The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”

I’ve never known life to be so pitiable a master as to turn my face toward death, but I know what Mrs. March senses when she walks in that dead house and hears the music. She’s beginning to sense that others certainly have.

The Bible is a big book.  There’s room for far more than me and Marmee in its loving grasp. When I consider a verse like this one, I’m struck by two things: first, thanksgiving—how blessed I’ve been not to have known so much suffering; and second, fear—how just because I haven’t doesn’t mean I won’t. 

I’m thankful for Negro spirituals and Psalm 90, not because I can identify, because I can’t. I’m thankful for hymns like “Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot” and “I Fly Away” because those old songs teach me—teach us—about both heaven and earth.