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.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Morning Thanks--our Monarchs

It's a girl.

And, no, she's not being manhandled. She can take it, the naturalist says. Not to worry. For this little demonstration, she plucked one from a branch, pinched it delicately to open its wings and to reveal that this little beauty is lady. Men have spots down there on the bottom of the wings, and women have stronger lines, so this one's a girl. 

Who knew? Not me. 

They're unlikely rulers, these monarchs, so feathery fragile that they appear to be wholly unable to govern; but gorgeous they are, maybe like the royal family. If they qualify for their name at all, they do so only because they're the fairest of nature's fair, at least out back of our place. The truth is, they flit drunkenly from flower to flower, alight when there's bounty, then feast on whatever nectar they locate, nature's most delicate royalty.

For years, my father-in-law walked his bean fields, corn knife in hand, to knock down the blasted, persistent milkweed. He knew where it sprouted amidst those soy beans, because he knew very well he never got 'em all. They'd come back like a plague whenever and wherever you knocked 'em down. 

Once upon a time, those surgical swipes we took when walking beans was the only way to stop them. "They've got lateral roots," I remember him telling me when I came along, similarly armed. "If you knock 'em down here, they'll only come back there." 

Made the job feel like an endlessly frustrating county fair midway game until herbicides came along. Milkweed started getting, well, rare, so rare that crowds of these flighty little beauties seemed to thin, milkweed being their all-time favorite feast. It depends, I suppose, on how you measure your losses, but fewer monarchs seemed to leave the world a whole lot less beautiful, at least to me. 

It may well have been an off day, but a half-dozen years ago or so, I took my grandson to Oak Grove Park to tag monarchs. We got a wonderful lesson in butterfly lives, then took to the woods in search of these beauties, but found none. Not one. It was a beautiful day, the naturalist did a great job, but we saw no monarchs. None.

That didn't mean there weren't any. It's just that right then, they were probably all at a rock concert or a ball game. Maybe a swarm had stumbled on a warehouse of nectar. I don't know what happened, but that day they weren't to be found.

Saturday morning, a half-dozen years later, same place, same time of year, they were all over. All's right with the world.

Even so, they're packing right now, I guess, because some of them--the ones mysteriously chosen to be outfitted with the strength of wing a 3000-mile trip requires--will soon catch wind currents to southwestern Mexico. If any specimen of Noah's Ark collection seem ill-fitted for such a trek, these darlings, with their paper-thin wings, do so seem. What they do, year after year, is truly epic.

This young lady won't make it back to Oak Grove Park, but her descendants just might, and her people will. 

And that's just wonderful because out here on the prairie, as slender and slight as royalty could ever be, these fragile miracles, in all their tangerine glory, beauty to behold, still earn their name--they're monarchs. 

And this morning, they're blessedly deserving of my morning thanks.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--"The God of glory thunders"

The voice of the Lord is over the waters; 
the God of glory thunders, 
the Lord thunders over the mighty waters. Psalm 29:3

I was born and reared not all that far from Lake Michigan’s cold, western shore, close enough at least, to be able to hear the way a fierce west wind made it anxious to flood its beaches and angry about being confined. Once upon a time, a neighbor of mine went out after king salmon with his son, but they found themselves in the middle of a storm that flipped their fishing boat as if it were cardboard. They had to be fished out of the lake themselves, and for some time they lost their taste for salmon.
Last summer on a sweet little northern Minnesota lake, I slipped out of our dark and silent cabin while my wife was asleep, climbed in a little aluminum Lund, and took off about a half mile or so east, never all that far from shore, hoping for a walleye or two. A wind and a chop and even a little breaker or two came up, so I high-tailed it back. That weightless little boat, heavy-laden with overweight me back there with the engine, threatened to come right back up over my head more than once in that wind, and I got scared—I mean, scared.
What’s most horrific about storms on water—or, in water, as we learned again this week--is the sheer powerlessness one feels. Stephen Crane’s old classic “The Open Boat,” is a study in human powerlessness.

Because I am a “can do” person, maybe too much so, nothing is more fearful or more humbling for me than to be confronted with something I can’t do.  Maybe a month ago, hail rode along with gigantic winds and had the two of us cowering, scared to death it was going to take out windows. Most any time of year, the wind’s howling can paralyze you; there’s no on/off switch to hit. 

Maybe that’s especially so for the high-and-mighty, the potentates David addresses in this psalm. When your every wish is a command, the only voice you can’t shush is a monsoon. So much the worse if you’re on a ship.
I can’t blame those scaredy-cat sailors for dumping Paul into the stormy sea. In the grip of that monster storm, they tried every last weapon in the arsenal to get relief. “Here, take Paul,” they prayed, scape-goating, hoping for the god of the roiling waters would be appeased.  People do almost unforgivable things when they’re desperate. We all do.
Verse three begins a ten-verse litany of extolling “the voice of the Lord,” specifically his awesome power in nature. Native people who lived with volcanic eruptions almost always identified some rapscallion deity in the bowels of the mountain because it’s hard not to when all we can do is cower.
Think about this, Presidents and Prime Ministers, he says: think about the way a tsunami shrugs off ostentation. Think about being shaken down by 8.3 on the Richter scale. Consider, o high-and-mighty, an F-5.
In a minute, in the twinkling of an eye, God almighty has erased entire kingdoms. We all live in little aluminum fishing boats. Sometimes the best we can do is silent prayer.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Lake Floyd returns

Let's just start here.

There are hundreds, no thousands of people in the Carolinas who can do nothing but watch trillions of gallons of water from Hurricane Florence slowly move east to the sea, in its path, little but destruction. Rivers have turned to seas. Half the counties in the state of South Carolina are under flood warnings. In many places, rebuilding will actually be starting over.

Just yesterday, the biggest wildfire in California state history, the Mendocino Complex was contained, 100 per cent contained. It's entirely possible you've forgotten the destruction; just for the record, the Mendocino Complex burned California for two months--hundreds of homes, 500,000 acres. The Mendocino National Forest won't really reopen until December. Some people lost everything. Everything.

Just for the record, it's been a good year for tornadoes, one of the best, in fact. Not one  touched down during the first half of the year. But, also for the record, almost 800 were reported, and of that almost 600 were verified. You can't tell victims it was a good year.

What I'm saying is, I once cried out because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.

In Sioux County, Iowa, lots of folks are shop-vac-ing this morning, trying to stay ahead of water oozing in from wonderful northwest Iowa ground that's saturated from endless rains (in September!). My neighbors had it bad yesterday, when the river rose into a sea, and for them it's not over yet.

My feet down here in the basement are still dry, for which I'm thankful. We have no water in the house, but yesterday Lake Floyd broke records it set just a few months ago. Flooding shut down the road to the bridge for the first time and crept--sometimes slowly, sometimes not--all the way up to our rock garden, maybe twenty feet farther than it had ever crept before. 

Sometime around 5:00 the heavens determined to send one final typhoon, so much rain in raging wind that outside our windows it seemed a blizzard. Sideways rain, maybe five minutes worth, and all of it at the very time when the monster out back was coming up ever closer to the house than it had ever done. 

When, earlier, it poured in over the field behind us, I was more than anxious. Barbara claims that when I called her, my voice was shaking. Truth be told, the last two floods didn't scare me, in part because I truly believed we'd already had our one-hundred-year flood, the flood to which nothing could compare. Wrong. The neighbors said we were nowhere near the crest. I didn't need my wife to tell me my voice was shaking.   

Here's what I'm thinking the morning after. First, it's no darn fun to be powerless. It's strange to sit here and realize that nothing can be done to stanch what simply will happen. We picked things up off the basement floor, and could have, I guess, called someone with a dump truck to bring in sand for a makeshift dike (a guy offered), but powerlessness is a  malaise, something I swear you feel in the stomach, even though it's affects the soul.

Second, it's not that difficult to understand why, on Black Sunday, in 1935, some fine religious folks were sure the end of the world was upon them. No, I wasn't that petrified, but the stark realization that what's coming is so much bigger than you are combines with our instinctual urge to understand what's happening--all of that helped me to understand need. 

At the worst of times, I didn't feel somehow as if this was the apocalypse.  But I was reminded of something an old preacher told me long ago, when he said that during the really bad times, some believers, out here, used to hang their hats on Habakkuk 3:

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

How incredible that commitment really was, and how difficult.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Impossible Thanks

Related image

At Calw, the pastor saw a woman gnawing the raw flesh off a dead horse on which a hungry dog and some ravens were also feeding...In Rhineland [the city magistrates] watched the graveyards against marauders who sold the flesh of the newly buried for food ....Acorns, goats' skins, grass, were all cooked in Alsace; cats, dogs, and rats were sold in the market at Worms....
Cicely Veronica Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War is loaded with passages equally repugnant. She found it difficult, I'm sure, to describe the scene without documenting the bloody horrors all around.

Between 1618 and 1648, political and religious hatred teamed up to create a war in which the Austrians and Swedes and just about anyone else looking for power on the continent took turns thrashing the very life out of the German people and countryside.

To those who lived through it, the steel wheels of that war must have seemed to grind on endlessly. So many thousands deserted farms and homes for protection in the old walled-in cities that, soon enough, there was no room.

At Strassburg, Ms. Wedgwood says, the living shut their windows to death groans just outside. In winter, people stepped over the dead bodies all over the streets. Finally, when the city knew it could do no more, the magistrates threw out 35,000 refugees to terror and death outside the walls.

Spring came in long days of warm rains that kept the earth moist and rich for disease that flourished in the hot summer sun that followed. Plagues swarmed through the streets in gusts of warm wind. Outside the gates, law and order crumbled into dystopian chaos as men formed marauding, outlaw gangs who murdered each other for food.

Sometime during the final years of that war, Martin Rinkert, a preacher in his hometown of Ellenberg, Saxony, found himself, not by choice I’m sure, in the heart of all that horror, thick in the swamp of life-draining disease. Rinkert, the only clergyman left in Ellenberg, held funerals for up to fifty people per day. One day, that number came to include his own wife.

But sometime during those years—during the groaning persistence of the Thirty Years War’s evil, Martin Rinkert sat down and wrote a hymn that a thousand churches in a hundred different countries will sing sometime before Thanksgiving, a stately, magnificent tribute to the God he loved and worshiped, even though the world around him had seemingly descended into madness.

Thanksgiving—imagine that. Thanksgiving in the middle of all of that death.

“Now thank we all our God,” Rinkert wrote, his own nostrils full of the stench all around. In spite of the horror, the man was still counting his blessings and offering thanks.

Some stories have to be told and retold and retold again. Then again, some simply have to be sung.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

In never-never land

I'm not altogether sure if it's good or bad to be out-of-it, so completely out-of-it that just about anything I read on a subject seems astonishing. I mean, I knew Bill Gates was mega-rich, that his philanthropy is astounding--giving 30 million for Alzheimer's research just lately; but the whole culture of Silicon Valley is something I know far less about than even the technology with which my new/used car is blessed, about which I seem to know very little.

If I were shopping for a guru, I might just choose Alan Jacobs, who formerly taught at Wheaton and is now at Baylor. In a review in the Weekly Standard, Jacobs reviews Valley of Genius, a book he claims fawns pathetically over the world of Silicon Valley by lauding the sheer genius of its miracles. Jacobs, who writes with his own thoughtful Christian perspective, finds that fawning distasteful. 
Many, perhaps most, of the readers of Valley of Genius will share this belief in the inevitable victory of our genius technocratic overlords. Some of them even welcome it. As for me, when I got to the end of the book, I thought, “Well, that was fascinating! Now let me just go take a long soak in a big tub of disinfectant.”
There at which he sneers is the vainglorious atmosphere borne out of the place's own rags-to-riches stories--and they are legion. That photo above accompanies the review and probably says it all. Those two kids, if like me you wouldn't recognize them, are Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniac, co-founders of Apple, Inc., presently the richest corporation in the world. You read that right. 

That picture is the Silicon Valley story, or so says Alan Jacobs of Valley of Genius, a book whose time may well have come and gone at the moment it appeared. Critiques go beyond the obvious: has Twitter made the world a better place? Hmmmmm. 

The line I found most interesting is the comparison Jacobs draws between the failures of Silicon Valley with decadence of ancient Rome. What Jacobs insists is that the outline of the Silicon Valley story is as old as the hills: yet another rise-and-fall saga, this time of the nerds, the filthy rich nerds. Except for Silicon Valley there's a twist:  
Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the progenitor of the genre, had a simpler tale to tell, because he could show Rome declining in power as its ethical foundations crumbled. The moralistic among us can take comfort in such a narrative. It is harder to find satisfaction in reading about people whose moral decline is accompanied by ever-rising bank balances, whether you think the wealth caused the moral collapse or vice versa.
Moralists like me expect that ethical decline means economic decline; we feel comfort in such failures. But Silicon Valley's decline cannot be measured in dollar signs. The wealth, at least for the rest of us, remains unimaginable--and growing. As it will, says Alan Jacobs.

But then, two decades ago, the words borne by that cursor slowly moving across the bottom of the screen right now wouldn't be there, would they? And, if you're eyes are following them right now, you wouldn't be here either. My grandfather closed his blacksmith shop when technology made farm tractors affordable for just about anyone working the land. He must have wondered where the world was going.

I won't speak for Alan Jacobs, but I can't help but think that the old man in me is making his fully-expected appearance right about now (I am 70 years old) when I say "amen" to Jacobs' overall appraisal, especially when he says that after reading this glorified testimony to the grace of Silicon Valley, he'll feel refreshed only after a long bath in disinfectant. 

I know the feeling. That much I do. 

What hath God wrought? 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book Review--Girls and Boys

Trust me--it's not my cup of tea.

But the recording was a giveaway from my Audible library, and it looked interesting because it wasn't simply fiction but a piece of writing meant for the stage. Audio books have a theatrical aspect to them; professional readers have to animate. But Dennis Kelley's Girls and Boys was, first of all, a theater production, a one-hour narrative drama, a one-person show. I didn't know a thing about Dennis Kelley, but I've always liked one-man shows myself. Besides, you couldn't beat the price.

The story? In a sentence, she married a whack job and there was hell to pay: that's the story line. But the guy bowled her over the first time they met. She didn't know him; they were standing in line for something; I've forgotten what; and when he kissed her. . .well, you know. That she fell for him when he wrestled her into submission is so politically incorrect that it's impossible not to note Mr. Kelley wrote Girls and Boys before Me, Too. 

Just before actually, no more than three years ago. He admits the script is dated. No thoughtful writer (no male writer for sure) would or should create that scene in the present climate of gender relations, even though every last form of imaginative literature used the trope for centuries. Leading men made a career out of stifling kisses. Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Clark Gable all thus swept women off their feet, so to speak.

Despite that anachronistic start, Girls and Boys preaches a contemporary sermon. It's a male-basher. The woman who tells her story--she's unnamed--becomes a victim of the latent brutality her husband was, for a time, able to hide. What happens in the play--off-stage, of course--is the very worst that could. 

When it does, she can't help but wonder if what some sociologist claimed isn't true, that society itself is a construct created fundamentally to control aggression quintessentially male. Untethered by law, men would not only not use seat belts, they'd turn country roads into Autobahns. In a discussion of Girls and Boys at the end of the recording, Dennis Kelley says he doesn't like to think it's true, but he can't help wonder as much himself.

Nor can I. 

If he wasn't in the news constantly for the last month or more, I would never have heard of Drew Kavanaugh. Although my Democratic friends can't abide his taking Justice Kennedy's swing position on the court, fearing the right's total domination, he seemed to me as highly qualified as any nominee could be. What's more, the political theatrics that accompanied his nomination--the theatrics that accompany every nomination hearing these days, libs or cons--is itself frighteningly embarrassing and often obscene. 

I have no idea if this psychology professor from California is writing her own one-woman show. I doubt it greatly, but she may well be. Our capacity for making up stories is legion. What actually happens in life doesn't always follow rules. If what we're about to hear on Monday is a classic "he said/she said," the outcome, like the process, will be disaster. 

And the cons have so much to lose. White males may well love the Donald, but every other segment of society despises him--and, increasingly, them. Five white men going after Kavanaugh's accuser may well look brave or courageous or even considerate, but it will only to other white men, and women in MAGA caps.

Did he do what she says he did? I'd love to believe he didn't. But like Dennis Kelley, a white male himself, says, there are moments when he wonders, like the widow in Girls and Boys, and me too, if society hasn't been created simply to control male aggression. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Morning Thanks--the lakeshore

Lots of heat this summer, and the whole lakeshore region was more dry than normal--so I was told. And then came buckets of rain--eight to ten inches in a week or so. Then a return to heat, so vivid it birthed gadzillions of mosquitoes that kept people indoors. Seriously, it was an angry mob. They were everywhere.

I went, as always, to the lakeshore at sunrise, an exercise which normally nurtures the soul. Saturday, mostly what I did was bat mosquitoes. Inside of a couple of minutes I swear I'd taken on at least a half dozen bites up top, where a bald head get mushroomy when the swells arrive.

The lake, mostly asleep, was unbothered and traditionally gorgeous, a pastel quilt seamless as far as I could see. But I conceded to the mosquitoes, turned around to return to the car, then noticed the sun rising and couldn't leave.

The sun's generosity crowns everything in early morning. There's gold everywhere. 

I think I could deftly slip the shot below into a collection of frames from Siouxland, and nobody would know the difference--a single tree against a wide open sky. This one reminds me of the old line about the prairie as a sea of grass, moving in the wind like waves. I could have grabbed this picture anywhere in South Dakota. 

Maybe. Maybe it's got to be lakeshore. Whatever its identity, it's just plain beautiful, and I knew it when I shot it. Some, you just know are going to be stunners. 

This one I couldn't snap on the Great Plains. It's all lakeshore. 

Stunning is what's always there at big dawn. This morning, a couple of days later, I'm still thankful for that Saturday morning blessing, busy as it was with those lousy mosquitoes. 

Here's what Calvin says: "When we behold the heavens, we cannot help but be elevated, by what we see, to him who is their great Creator, and find in those marvelous heavens, evident proof of his providence."