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, November 17, 2017

Leo Dangel, "Pa"

Listen. This sounds like Jim Heynen, one of Sioux County's finest writers. The  two of them had to be friends, and they were, two boys Old McDonald farms, an era of cows and pigs and chickens, eggs that had to be gathered and barns that had to be scooped. 

Listen to this guy, Leo Dangel*. Here's a poem of his, just "Pa."

When we got home, there was our old man
hanging by his hands from the windmill vane,
forty feet off the ground, his pants down,
inside out, caught on his shoes--he never wore
underwear in summer--shirt tail flapping,
hair flying. 

Don't ask what makes it poetry, just listen. Leo Dangel is spinning a yarn made sad by the old man's horror--there he is, buck naked, upside down, hanging from the windmill. Don't laugh. Yet.

My brother grabbed a board.
We lugged it up the windmill and ran it out
like a diving board under the old man's feet
and wedged our end below a cross bar. 

Once upon a time farming, by necessity, created thousands of homepun engineers. How many kids today could jerry-rig a way to get the old man down? 

              "I just climbed up to oil a squeak,
reached out to push the vane around, slipped, damn
puff of wind. I swung right out."

If you haven't yet, it's now safe to chuckle.

We felt strange helping him down.
In our whole lives, we never really held him before,
and now with his pants tangled around his feet 
and him talking faster, getting hoarser
all the way down, explaining, explaining.

Human of the old man to fill up the air with explanations.  And the boys felt strange?--good night, what about him, born along like a sack of grain, the whole pink package of privates out there midday.

On solid ground, he quivered, pulling up his pants.
I said, "Good thing we came when we did."

The kid had to say something, right? Look, there's no damage here if you don't count ego. But you can't quite laugh either, the boys couldn't, I mean. At this point, even the reader has got to sort of grin-and-bear it, too. What happened to Pa isn't pretty. 

His eyes burned from way back. His hands
were like little black claws. He spit Copenhagen
and words almost together.

Poor guy. Poor, poor guy.

                                       "Could have hung on
a long time  yet. Anyway, you should have been home
half an hour ago."

If you ask me, up until that last line, it's all story. But when the old man lights into the boys the way he does, while still zipping his trow, this wonderful little tale pivots into poetry. All of a sudden it's ours because with that flung-out scolding, Pa isn't just pa--he's every last farmer, trying his everlovin' best to create order out of the chaos, make sense of the lunacy.

And he's even more, don't you think? "Anyway, you should have been home/half an hour ago" he says, a perfect delight of a line. His bibs still coming up, Pa, as all of us would, is doing what he can to snatch back some scrap of dignity.

I didn't grow up on a farm, never climbed a windmill, never lost my trousers; but that doesn't mean I've never been Pa.
*Leo Dangel was born and reared around Freeman, SD. For years, he taught literature and writing at Southwest State University, Marshall, MN. "Pa" is from his collection titled Home from the Field.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Report--Sherman Alexie's memoir

I think it was a therapist who gave me the line, a family therapist who was, she said, quoting someone else. When a mom or dad loses a child, she said, the rest of us simply need to look the other way for five years, minimum. We need to forgive anything and everything. Such is the ferocity of the loss of a child.

Not long ago, Sherman Alexie, certainly among the most prominent Native writers in America, lost his mother. He'd lost his father years before, but his father--quiet, unassuming, often not around-- was not so forceful an influence in his life. His mother's presence, on the other hand, filled every last room of the home, crowded out everything else even after he'd moved away.

Alexie's new memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, is a scorching indictment of her abuse--for that's what it was. I can't begin to count the times I wanted to look away from what Mr. Alexie earnestly determined to show me. The raw emotion on just about every page made me think Alexie should have waited five years to say what he does throughout. It hurts to read this book.

That his mother and her husband didn't know how to love their children is achingly obvious. For three long years, Alexie and his mother, a all-night quilter with a vicious tongue, didn't speak a word to each other. Today, he claims he doesn't remember why, nor does he remember how the silence finally broke. What he claims not to be able to forget is sitting beside her in a car in perfect silence--time and time and time again, saying absolutely nothing.

While he was on tour with this book, Alexie kept seeing ghosts of his mother's presence, so many and so vivid that he fell into a black hole of depression that forced him to cancel numerous appearances. I'm not surprised. To hear him read his work--he reads the Audible version--is almost as painful as what he's left the reader to stumble through on the page. Alexie hates his mother; it's that hate he puts under the microscope to examine and confess by way of 78 sketches and 78 poems, in commemoration, I guess, of his mother's 78 years. 

There were times--plural--when I thought I'd quit reading. I'd had enough. There are moments in abundance when I would have preferred him simply to have gone outside into a woods or open field somewhere and just howled. 

I can't help but think of Dutch Calvinists as being slaves to guilt. After all, I am one. Garrison Keillor claims Norwegians and other flavors of dark-visaged Minnesota Lutherans do it better than anyone else. But Jews claim when it comes to dark introspection, they'll take second-place to no one. In You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie becomes the Superman of guilt.

But he has reasons. As a child, he was sick, subject to seizures, a runt in a warrior culture. His father was hardly there, never had a job, drank for a living. His mother, among the last Native speakers in the Spokane community, was, to others, as great a hero as a horror. By any measure, she was not a good mother.

Halfway through high school, Alexie seemed to realize that the rez school he'd been attending would basically rob him blind. On his own, he opted out and walked away from what for him should have been and still is, home. He went to town, to the white people's school, where he became something he never was and would never have been on the rez, a hero and athlete. He went to a school where he was the only Indian.

He has good reasons for guilt. 

He's a man gifted with words, who has performed beautifully and thoughtfully for a largely white readership. To paraphrase the Bible, Sherman Alexie is not so much in his world as he is of it; and that uneasy positioning creates a tightrope that makes life treacherous. The sub-title here is telling: "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian." What's inside the man is soft, but he wishes it wasn't, so he rages--at everything, at his mother, at the rez that raised him, at the holy hell he came from, and the white world he lives in as "an urban Indian." 

All that having been said, at the end of this year I'm sure I'll find it difficult to name a single title that affected me as deeply and taught me as much as You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. I wish I could say I liked it. It was, throughout, painful. I wanted to read the book to know something of what it is like to grow up the way Alexie did, and that's exactly what I learned, in sadness and awe.

But then, a man or a woman--any reader--can learn a great deal from a sorrowful howl in the night. I certainly did.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Siege Mentality

A Handmaid's Tale

My mother died, a Fox News junkie. Hannity wasn't enough, in fact. She liked Michael Savage very much, and probably a host of other doomsday sages I never heard of. She was stoutly convinced that the world was in a cataclysmic downward spiral that would end soon- and-very-soon with a heavenly trumpet blast because the Lord God almighty just didn't have the stomach to put up with so much evil all around.

I'd like to be able to chalk up her fears to dementia, but she'd carried all of that for years and years and wouldn't hear her son's skepticism. She wasn't techie enough to buy into the ample paranoia of Y2K, but she didn't need a calendar to know the world was coming to an end in flames.

There was a time when I tried to talk her out of her visions, tried to convince her that Obama, born in Kenya, wasn't an agent of Satan. It was useless to argue because what she believed was her faith.

And she liked it. She took joy in believing the world was on a fast track to Hades. It gave her pleasure I didn't understand to prophesy the end in Oostburg.

I consider myself a Calvinist because I'm jolly well sure all of us, even Mom, tend to choose ourselves when faced with tests of our allegiance: will it be me or God? Most often, all of us, in plain old human fashion, choose ourselves--"me first." Not always, and not everyone. But mostly. Even our best deeds, the Bible says, are filthy rags. Yup.

That belief turns end-time arguments into mincemeat and won't tolerate golden age dreaming. It makes "Make America Great Again" silly--that's all there is to it. We are what we are and what we always have been. Things are not going to pot right now any more than they ever were. Deep down, the human character is what it was a thousand years ago. We move faster, but we aren't constructed of new materials.

David Brooks says what's bothering us now is the siege mentality. "The siege mentality starts with a sense of collective victimhood," he says. My mother surely believed that Christians were at great risk in our world because there was just so many of them out to get so few of us. "It’s not just that our group has opponents. The whole 'culture' or the whole world is irredeemably hostile." Yup.

But it wasn't just Mom. True believers on the left cower before their own bogeymen (and women). For me, Sean Hannity. We become convinced that "things are bad now. Our enemies are growing stronger. And things are about to get worse. The world our children inherit will be horrific." Yup.

On the left, we shudder to think that maybe Judge Roy Moore's fanatic Philistines will take over. Our own apocalyptic scenarios include A Handmaid's Tale and Louise Erdrich's new novel, Future Home of the Living God, a world in which my mother's people rule.

Why do we believe such things? Because apocalyptic visions feel really good. 

Read that line again. "It gives its proponents a straightforward way to interpret the world," Brooks says, "--the noble us versus the powerful them." Want to understand the world-wide appeal of barbaric ISIS? Start here. "It gives them a clear sense of group membership and a clear social identity," he says. "It offers a ready explanation for the bad things that happen in life."

Yup. The "siege mentality" gives us this much at least: the deep faith that we are "the holy remnant," which is just another means by which we honor ourselves. Calvin wasn't wrong.

We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt, Brooks says, hard as that is. It ain't easy either, and I'm certainly not hereby proclaiming my righteousness.

We all need, he says, a good, strong dose of "confident pluralism," respect for "the other." My mother truly believed in Mexican drug-runners with calves big as muskmelons. She needed my Sunday afternoon story--she needed to believe in more Salvadorian Samaritans. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Morning Thanks--Rescue squads

I considered the thumb. I hadn't hitchhiked for a half century, but I thought of it, seriously. The woman behind the desk at the motel looked skeptical when I brought up the idea of my walking to town, but the sun was shining, it wasn't cold, and the idea of being stuck in a lousy motel--nice people but a mess in every other way--wasn't enticing. Besides, often enough, I walk two miles for exercise. Three shouldn't be too far out of the question. And I could always stick out a thumb.

The section of York, Nebraska, thousands of people see isn't really York, Nebraska. When you get off I-80, a couple dozen fast-food shops, two Chinese buffets, a Wal-mart, maybe a dozen gas stations and almost as many motels are jammed together right there at the exit. York--the town, York--is three miles north. 

Our old Buick choked out its death rattle, in a town named Beaver Crossing. Not long ago, we stuck a ton of money in that old car--it's a '98 with 160K--to keep that boat afloat, then bought a new car to replace it when it buckled again a week later. For a two weeks or so we had three cars for two people. 

I'd determined to sell it, but figured one last trip would be sweet. I'd not been to the new Willa Cather Center, Red Cloud, NE, so, when my wife and daughter were off to Oklahoma for a baby shower, I thought this young man, like so many others, would go west. 

Maybe a half hour from York, some horror happened in the innards of that Buick, and I pulled off onto an exit where there was nothing, no business. 

Long story short--the tow-truck guy with a skinny fu manchu ("a guy can almost make a living doing this along the interstate") said he'd get it in to his garage and take a look. Told me he could take it off my hands ("3.8?--great engine") if it didn't amount to much more than junk. So he and his son-in-law, the mechanic, told me it'd be at least $650, and he couldn't get it done until Tuesday at the earliest. 

I ended up at a grubby motel in its death throes for two days, until my wife could pick up her stranded husband on her way back home from Stillwater. A day later, cabin fever was about to claim a victim. I figured out York has a museum, the museum was hosting a lecture on the Holocaust, and I was half buggy from my prison cell, so I decided to walk three miles. Besides, I'd been reading frontier memoirs of homesteaders who walked back and forth to Omaha. What kind of pansy?. .you know.

So I did. I didn't have my best walking shoes, but I didn't try to break records, just took it easy, and I made it. Feet hurt a little, but I was, as you might say, "within walking distance" when this huge dark blue pick-up rolls up beside me. A blackened passenger-side window slid down slowly, and some Hispanic guy with even less hair than I have looked at me, smiling.

"I see you walking way down the road a while ago. Still walking now." I'm sure his Spanish would have come more smoothly, but I had no trouble reading his friendliness. "Get in," he said. "I'll take you to where you are going." 

Big pickup. I had to stretch to get in.

He didn't know where the museum was, and for that he apologized, then asked Google, who didn't appear to know either. I told him I thought it was just off Main, downtown somewhere--that I was sure we'd be able to find it by looking at the old buildings. He said he'd only been in America for a dozen years, was from El Salvador, loved York--very quiet, very peaceful, very safe, better than Columbus, where, he said, the cops didn't like Hispanics.

When we finally found it, he said he didn't recognize it because it was the gym and the pool--all in one building. His not knowing is not the unforgiveable sin. In a small town like York, you don't have to be a recent immigrant not to know the way to the museum. Same thing could happen in Orange City.

The docent, great guy, by the way--old as me, aren't they all?--told me that after the lecture we'd find a ride back to the freeway because, "you're serious? you walked all that way?" Well, yes, I said, except the last couple of minutes.

Well, no announcement was made. He forgot, and I wasn't that driven to ride because the sun was still shining, and my feet weren't falling off. Legs felt like concrete, but, I figured, if worse comes to worse, I always had my thumb. Hadn't used it in fifty years, but I'm in rural Nebraska, right? People'll give you the shirt off your back.

I started out, got to the edge of town, maybe twenty minutes out, and a dark blue pick up--big one--stops in the parking lot of a farm store. Black windows slides down. I can't believe it. He's taking his wife off to work now, he says, and I should hop in because it's too darn far to walk all the way. 

If my need were more dire, I suppose I could call him my guardian angel--I mean, I wasn't bloodied and in the ditch. But it took no more than ten minutes and I was back at the dirty front door of a motel that's less than a year from death and destruction. Pool doesn't work. Neither do a couple of vending machine--oh, and no ice either. 

But nice people. Hey, I was in rural Nebraska, right? The Huskers took a beating on Saturday, so I could expect a foul mood; but these people are salt-of-the-earth. I could have hitchhiked, I'm sure, and lived to talk about it.

A couple thousand people probably drove past me as I walked, but they had no reason to stop. I wasn't in any trouble. I probably could have made it back, would have, if it weren't for shirt-off-their-backs people in rural Nebraska. 

This morning I'm thankful for the first-responder who pulled over, twice, and without even being asked. This morning, I'm thankful for a sweet Salvadorian Samaritan from rural Nebraska--York, it's just up the road a couple of miles from the interstate. People'll do you well there, all of 'em. "Red and yellow, black and white,/they are precious in his sight."

Friday, November 10, 2017

Morning Thanks--Sheer Genius*

His grandma says he came downstairs with her last Friday because she was cleaning up down here, doing some dusting, getting ready to show the house.  She says he went for the Aeron chair right away, climbed up and in after announcing to her that it was, of course, "papa's chair."  Then he pulled that chair up to the desk and grabbed my reading glasses, far too big for him, of course, and attempted to slip them on his face. She had to help, she said.

He's two-and-a-half, a babbler, talks a mile-a-minute, but says things only his mother can hope to translate.  So all the while he's pulling this acting job off down here in the basement, he's talking, saying important things, I'm sure, jabbering away.

There's a scratch pad on the desk, and at least a dozen pens, so he grabs one of those pens and starts writing.  There he is, my wife says, in papa's chair, with papa's reading glasses perched on his cute little button nose, one of papa's big pens in his hand, writing something or other on papa's paper. 

I'm not sure what king of blog post he was composing just then, but I have the manuscript right here. This is it, in fact. Have a look. I'm quite sure it's profound, as fine a piece of work that's come out of the basement for quite a while.

Isn't it great?  Quite frankly, I think his writing is beyond words.
This morning's thanks is for the sheer genius he left behind down here on that yellow pad.   

Trust me on that--I taught writing for 40 years.  Besides, I'm his grandpa.

Posted 2/27/2102

Thursday, November 09, 2017

A Prairie Story

Legend has it that back in the fifties, when the county spread blacktop over the gravel on the road straight west to the South Dakota border, one farmer held out. “That cottonwood,” they told him, “is going to have to go before the road goes in. He’s too blasted close to the roadbed. Look there at the way he hangs over.”

Farmer shook his head, said no way. Farmer said he loved that tree, cottonwood or not, tallest one on his place, best shade too; and you know what?-- he could give a fig for their blacktop because life who needs the traffic out here anyway?

Road crew was adamant. “We’re not interested in fighting about this,” they said. “It’s got to go. Law says it.”

Farmer looked out into the horizon. “Sorry,” he said. No smile. “Don’t mean to stand in the way, but I’m not going to take kindly to your taking down that tree.”

Road crew left that afternoon. They figured the old guy’d blow off steam that night and they’d do what they had to the next day.

So the next morning, when they got out there, they got out of the truck to find that farmer sitting in front of his cottonwood, on his rear end, legs crossed, arms cradling a shotgun.

If you doubt that story, go see that old cottonwood for yourself. It’s even bigger today than it was seventy years ago, and it still leans over B-64 west of Sioux Center. Farmer is long gone, but that cottonwood still lords it over the blacktop, stubborn and crooked as the guy who once held out with a shotgun.

That characters of that old story are the stock fare of prairie life. The farmer is lean, his shoulders stooped, a road map of a face—a man who might step out of a portrait by Dorthea Lange. And that cottonwood, majestic but bent up and torn by big winds.

And all around, a looming third character is the wide prairie, so featureless the first white men here called it an ocean, a sea of grass on rolling hills beneath the big bowl of broad horizon. It’s a land described with elegance by dozens of writers—Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, even a couple of discoverers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis; and our own ancestors--Rolvaag, Manfred, and Suckow.

The open prairie makes the farmer's story go. A prairie sun blotches the skin on his face, and prairie winds twist that cottonwood. The wide land we live in frames their mutual stubbornness, makes the farmer look up at that cottonwood as a sidekick in the prairie epic.

Trees are no mere commodity here. They stem from immigrant stock, as most of us do. Even today, locked in the security of luxurious tractor cabs, a farmer’s livelihood is determined hailstorms and the grace of threatening winds.

It’s easy to get stubborn out here, in the cold and the heat and forever wind. It’s not hard to get stuck in the old ways--immovable, armed to the teeth, as if forever holding our claim.

When strong winds stagger the trees out front, you can hear startled branches through closed bedroom windows. We all worry about our trees. Lose a branch from some maple out front—who hasn’t? --and what’s left looks like a spread compass, that snapped limb half-hanging to the ground. There are moments out here when each of us become a stubborn old farmer sitting out there beneath our trees, shotgun in arms, saying no.

We measure ourselves by their reach, after all. They grace our lives with their comely brokenness, show us what beauty is and isn’t; at times before them we stand in awe, sometimes in sadness. Our trees are our stories.

There’s a time for everything, says the preacher: "a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones." Maybe even a time for a shotgun.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The pagan brawler goes down

And, good Lord, what a year it's been.

He came in by way of shock and awe. No one really believed things would turn out the way they did. The man Stephen Mansfield calls "the pagan brawler" sang from the hymnal just well enough to sway the hearts and minds of evangelicals who, like no other voting block, gave the guy their nod. What happened a year ago is still shocking to just about everyone, including his followers. People like Stephen Mansfield are writing all kinds of books to explain why so many Christians took a knee to a man who is himself far more Harvey Weinstein than Jesus Christ.

Last night, a year later, the man Mansfield calls "a pagan brawler," took a beating, his first loss since he scratched and slapped his way up to what he thinks is a throne. Four special elections had gone his way in the last year, not decisively but substantially. Who knows?--last night's losses may be a fluke. Donald J. Trump has been underestimated since that morning he and his love floated down butterfly-like in his New York castle, then stung like a bee--or worse with that line about "Mexican rapists."

He's not taken the pivot he claimed he would ("I can be more 'presidential' than any one but Lincoln"). Last night, characteristically, he turned around and bushwhacked his fellow Republican, Ed Gillespie, who took a beating in Virginia because, Trump said, the sorry loser wasn't enough like him. Typical fat-mouth Trump. Gillespie's political playbook will now be tossed: the theory that trumpeting "Trumpism" without bringing in the lord-and-master himself to campaign for you didn't gather the votes. What most considered a tight race turned into a thumping, in Virginia and elsewhere.

The imponderable facts his own brawlers have to acknowledge is that no American President in modern times is as greatly hated as President Donald J. Trump. His evangelical Christian base was totally there behind him--last night, 80 percent of them voted Gillespie; but no one else. Trump keeps the gun crowd in ammo by claiming mass murder is simply mental illness. More church goers ought to be packing heat these days, ushers with AK-47s.

Those of us on the left who hoped he would be gone by now, like to invest in Robert Mueller; but so what if Mueller proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that there was Russian collusion? What if Mueller finds really despicable financial dealings? Will the Christians care? No. Paul Ryan will still genuflect. You know how this goes--the man could shoot the Katy Tur dead on Wall Street, and his disciples will trumpet his marksmanship.

The man is ours now, and will be, even he chooses to be loved only by those who voted him in. The stock market has risen to another stratosphere, everywhere you look there are "help wanted" signs, and a conservative is on the court, poised to rescind Roe v Wade. Isn't it amazing?--the pagan brawler will make America Christian again, so say the true believers. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.

When my grandson was in kindergarten, he crawled into my lap and told me in no uncertain terms that Obama was a baby killer. He's a ninth grader today--I've got no idea what he thinks. But in '08, when he was five, from sources unknown, he'd already picked up the hate that ultimately brought the Donald to the throne.

But--get this!--last night 40 percent of voters indicated the most important issue in their playbook was health care--not guns, not immigration, or the national anthem. Health care. 

There's hope.