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 30, 2007

The power of story

The boy on this picture is my grandfather, who lived with his immigrant parents on a farm in the middle of South Dakota Dutch settlement. His father and mother didn't stay out there very long; there were hard years, and many who'd come, seeking a new life on cheap land, eventually pulled up stakes and departed back east after successive droughts, hungry hoppers, and intense heat and cold successfully killed off the dreams that brought them there.

My grandfather graduated from high school in Parkersburg, Iowa, in 1898, and left for Michigan, where he graduated from the Theologische School of the Hollandsche Christielijke Gereformeerde Kerk in June, 1900 (his diploma is on the wall beside me); and from seminary a few years later.

Somewhere along the line, he got married to a sweet woman--or so I've always heard--who was also a distinguished seminary professor's daughter.

They're all long dead now, of course, so I can only speculate; but I'm quite sure the homesteader's son "married up." After all, the Professor was a Professor from Holland, from the old country.

Grandpa's first church was, oddly enough, back in rural South Dakota--not Harrison, the place he'd left as a boy, but Bemis, farther east, but just as rural.

We have letters from the Professor to his son-in-law and daughter, telling them that he's doing all he can in Michigan to get them out of there--and soon. It's very clear the distinguished Professor assumed Bemis, South Dakota, was the end of the world.

The Rev. John C. Schaap, my grandfather, and his wife stayed in South Dakota less than two years before taking another church back in Michigan, back in civilization.

I would love to know what went on in Bemis, South Dakota, for those two years. Was my grandma homesick? Was is tough for her to adjust to being married? Did she really despise South Dakota? Did the Professor miss his darling daughter?--did his wife miss her? Did they really believe their sweet girl wouldn't survive the west?

There's an additional irony. When the Rev. Schaap decided on Bemis for that first call, he knew he had a sister there because one of the women in the picture above had married earlier and moved, with her husband and family, to the neighborhood of the church he left Michigan to pastor. So, while South Dakota may have been prairie, and rural, and maybe even (by his father-in-law's standards) backward, the young marrieds weren't going somewhere completely foreign.

My grandmother--the Professor's wife--died during WWII, when she and my grandfather had five stars on their front window, five kids in the war effort. She was not healthy, my father used to tell me. Every single child--she bore ten--used to talk about my grandma's grace, her loving nature, her goodness. I believe them because they all had her grace herself. The Schaaps were warm and wonderful people.

Last night at a dinner for scholarship donors and recipients, I sat beside a distant relative, a descendent of that sister of the preacher, one of those in the picture above, the one who lived in Bemis, South Dakota, when Grandpa Schaap and his new, young wife made their short stay at that rural church.

When I mentioned my grandfather, he smiled. "You mean the one with that uppity wife?" he said, chuckling.

It's now an entire century since the Rev. Schaap went to Bemis, SD, and then left, the horses hardly rested. But the spin that this distant relative puts on a story I know from an entirely different side makes me marvel and even rejoice at the sheer power of story, the power of myth.

Hardly anyone else in the entire world could have that conversation--most of my relatives know nothing about my grandpa's whirlwind first charge. Few relatives of this distant cousin of mine, sitting next to me at the table, know a thing--or care--about what their great-grandmother thought of her little brother's wife or their quickly aborted stay out on the frontier.

But the story--and the spin--still exist and will be told, as it is here, one more time.

A couple of my students are writing papers on the powers of myth in Native culture and religion. I should really tell them this story. Others should know :).

Saturday, September 29, 2007


It's not particularly easy for a writer to admit, but some pictures are worth 1000 words, shots like this one, for instance. Just a few days ago, in a speech before the UN General Assembly, President Bush said almost nothing about Iraq, but went into a rant on Burma, or Myanmar, where protests have become bloody and horrible. "America is outraged by what's happening in Burma," he said, or words to that effect.

The Daily Show's Jon Stewart used the line, as I guessed he would, because there was something sharply ironic about Bush waxing frantically on Burma, when the country he leads is split like a ripe melon about the never-ending war in Iraq (at what point can we start giving that phrase upper case treatment?). Ask people about Myanmar and most would shrug their shoulders. What he said made no sense.

On the other hand, maybe what he said brought more attention to that region of the globe than anything else could. Maybe his saying that we were outraged fueled some embers which were barely glowing. Maybe what he said made us more interested.

But my sense is that a picture like this does it better. It's an incredible composition.

You want to know what's going on in Burma, look at this.

Spilled human blood is always a horror--anywhere, anytime. But its pooling here, and the soiled flip/flops, combine to evoke a revulsion which is palpable, I think.

Somewhere in the world, innocent people are being killed--that's a thousand words right there.

Friday, September 28, 2007

American Savage

We took off for the Pipestone Nati0nal Monument yesterday for two reasons: first, because it was the only day in American Lit that we do much with the aboriginal history of this country; second, because I hoped that a little trip would help to bring students together, get them to know each other. Okay--a third reason, too, because it was a gorgeous fall day, too abundantly beautiful to sit inside.

I don't know whether my students would say it was a good day. I kept telling them that the Pipestone quarries were hardly the Grand Canyon, as a kind of preparation for a place that might well be, to most kids, rather generically ho-hum. What's there, is a significant vein of soft pipestone beneath a hefty layer of Sioux Quartzite. The great draw is that Native people from all over North America come to these humble quarries to dig out pipestone, just as they have for centuries, in order to make ceremonial pipes.

Pipestone National Monument is holy ground to some Native people, a concept which is almost impossible to convey to Western kids, who, like most of us, simply don't think of anything as being holy. Maybe they ought to read the Old Testament.

I don't know that it was worth it--the trip. But I loved getting away. The fields were crawling with monster bean harvesters, kicking up dust as they munched through the yellowing rows.

But then something happened that colored the afternoon. We stopped for ice cream at a McDonalds, and some guy--maybe 50 years old--got too friendly with my students, my female students. He was dressed in white shirt and tie, some businessman probably, but he didn't know how to act and he offended them, I'm sure. He touched them. I don't know if his fat fingers scared those young women or just made them nauseous, but in his feeble and barbaric attempts at being nice--I'm sure, if accused, he would say he was just trying to be friendly--he went too far and boorishly violated those young women's personal space.

He didn't touch them in a way that would get him arrested, but he sure as heck touched them inappropriately.

I could feel, in own my aging male soul, at least some of the distaste that coursed through those young women. I don't want to be presumptive: I'm no young woman, so I don't know. But their physical repulsion was clear.

Wherever he is right now, groggily asleep in his bed at home, I'm sure he believes he was being nice, conversational, a friendly kind of Joe.

But he was a jerk and a cad, a slobbering, fat fool, a jackass. He was worse than a jackass; he was a particular orifice of the human anatomy. He was a male--and an aging one--at its worst. I'm sure none of my female students ever, ever care to see him again.

We spent about an hour at a vein of pipestone, for centuries thought sacred to many thousands of American Indians; but we had to get down the road to a McDonalds to find a verifiable American savage. There was nothing noble about him.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Morning Thanks--An Apple a Day

Every day an apple. So we run out. I go to the store, pick some out, bring them to checkout. Clerk says $10.00 and change. I'm non-plussed. She checks the apple's little stickers again, punches in the numbers once more, and the tally rings up the same. Amazing.

I don't want to look cheap. I buy the apples.

And here one sits--a huge honeycrisp, the queen of apples--so sinfully juicy I've got to put down a Kleenex beneath him or he simply spills his excess all over the desktop. Sweet like you wouldn't believe, tart as September morn.

It's a hybrid, created by some scientists at the University of Minnesota, I remind myself when it's going down.

Thank God for science, I say.

Paid good money for them--probably too much. And I won't buy them again. We don't need honeycrisps, not when some Granny Smiths or Jonathans or even a golden delicious will do at just about a buck less @pound.

Nope. Too expensive.

But that honeycrisp, right now, is dripping like a leaky faucet, so full of juice.

Maybe once or twice a honeycrisp.

Like this morning.

Keeps the doctor away.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Morning Thanks--a.m.

For thirty-some years, coming close to 40, I've taught students in high school and college, never really altering a basic mode that developed early on, beginning at a time I didn't recognize it as my own. I remember a time, during my first year, when I told myself--based on the eyes of my students--that this teaching thing was a job I could do. I hadn't really known that, going into that year. On the other hand, I never once feared failure as a teacher. I don't know why.

What's become my trademark is something, well, I guess, Madden-esque. I once asked a student, who was imitating an entire gallery of his profs--my colleagues--how he did me. He hunched his shoulders and turned into John Madden, who--you might have noticed--does not gesticulate as generously as he once did. I suppose none of us do. But that's who he did--John Madden. That's Schaap, he said.

Whatever the visage or character, it's not something I plan or execute. It's in me to be who I am. I tell my students that they'll never write well until they are comfortable with their voice. I don't know if I write all that well--I've never been in the NY Times--but I do know that I'm okay with my voice. I've got sea legs in a classroom too, which is a related kind of characteristic.

But I think its my energy in the classroom, when there's a crowd around, that creates my deep appreciation for solitary early mornings. I used to think it was the old days on Lake Michigan--duck hunting, trapping muskrats, just charging through the woods or along the rivers at the crack of dawn. Some boyhood thing.

But that isn't all of it. There's more.

This morning, before five, I walked outside and was greeted by the brightest possible moon staring down from the western horizon. I grabbed the camera, but I don't have the technological heft--if there is such--to capture the immense and brilliant presence. It was beautiful. And quiet. Silence.

I love the morning, the early morning, I think, because of the silence, because there's no need for the John Madden I can be, no call, no show. In the earliest hours of the morning I draw about myself a cloak of darkness emblazoned with a single brilliant moon, and stand alone in the darkness, smiling.

Tomorrow too, I'm sure.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Reading the Great Plains

If I never teach again after this year, what I most won't miss is the kind of day I'm facing right now--a day when what I lug along into class is disliked by students as heartily as it is beloved by me. That dissonance is always disheartening, and my getting older only makes it worse--and more frequent.

This morning, Ian Frazier's Great Plains--case in point. Frazier's book is a junk drawer of info that, most of the time, looks incredibly out-of-control because, for the most part, it is. It's a mess. It's a playground.

But then, so are the Great Plains, Mr. Frazier would say. They've been a playground for as long as Europeans have tried to live out here. The very first white settlers to come in masse to these climes--my own neighborhood--were the raucous sons of English land barons who came out here to do little more than hunt fox on their loyal steeds [see yesterday's post].

Ian Frazier pushes that thesis into absurdity, really, claiming that the greatest Great Plains-er of all was none other than George Armstrong Custer, who, with his men, got himself slain but good on the banks of the Little Big Horn. But doggone it, Frazier says, the man had a great time out here on America's playground.

Absurd as it may sound, that claim is probably more right than wrong. Why else would the man lead his troops into a Sioux encampment as big as Chicago? We're going to whup us some savages, he must have thought. Yeeehaw!

Captain Reno and his men, who weren't that far from the carnage, were in the battle themselves, but some distance away from the hill where Custer and his men were being slaughtered. What all reports of the battle describe is thick clouds of dust and smoke raised where fighting raged, and such was the case on the hill where Custer was killed. Reno and his men saw that mushroom cloud over yonder, but they still had no idea where in the world Custer had gone. It never once dawned on them that Gen. Yellow Hair could have a run smack dab into a Cheyenne and Sioux buzzsaw. It was literally beyond imagination.

Why not? Because their white imaginations simply could not create a scenario of fear: it never dawned on them that Custer and his men would get slaughtered. So absolutely sure were they of the white man's superiority, of European sovereignty, that they absolutely could not imagine what had, in fact, happened. I'm not speaking in cliches here: the fact is, Reno and his men couldn't believe what was happening, so they didn't, not until they came face to bloody face with the mutilated corpses.

It's an amazing story. A whole company of white men, victims of their own limited imagination. Wow. I wonder if that's ever happened to me?

But Frazier says that the whole Greasy Grass story, the Battle of Little Big Horn, was a grand time, and no one loved being part of the whole spectacle more than Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who didn't walk away from that grassy knoll.

My students will struggle to stay awake, and I'll come back from class ticked--not only at them either, but at myself for not finding a way to make them like it.

Anyway, that's this morning. Ain't we got fun out here on the Plains?

Four years have passed since I was in the classroom, ten years since I wrote those words. I'm proud to say that Tuesday night, next, Ian Frazier's Great Plains is up for discussion in a book club I'm leading. 

I've just been reading it again, first time in years. What a ball!

Monday, September 24, 2007

All Things Must, yeah, Pass

Yesterday, I was delivered of (something about it feels almost passive) a speech I've now given three weekends in a row--twice here in Iowa, and once in Michigan. That essay--part research paper, part ethnographic study, part devotional--took great chunks out of two years of my life. For a long time, I watched tea leaves, listened to national news, read op-eds, and studied the sociology of religion, in order to accomplish a task I was, well, assigned: to create a crystal ball to determine, as well as you can, whether or not the denomination to which I belong, the Christian Reformed Church, has another 50 years.

The answer to that question? I don't know.

But the essay that came out of all that study and time--originally just about 60 pages long--and the presentation--which included videos from visits with people from a variety of churches--is now history. There will be one more publication thereof, but otherwise all of that work will now exist only in the back forty of a single microchip buried somewhere in my computer. Really, a chapter of my life is over.

I don't know that I'd call it a chapter, really, but it was a goodly chunk of time. The project was a challenge, an exercise that was good for me. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed presenting it. I enjoyed people's steady, open eyes, yesterday, as they listened. I believe it went over well.

For the last couple weeks, our old barn has been a kind of canvas for the incredible work of more than a few noiseless, patient spiders. Were I an expert, a real-live arachnologist, I'd know why now, this time of year, a certain species of spider chooses to festoon the corners of our barn with their webs. I don't. All I know is, those spiders suddenly create elaborate webs right about now.

One day last week, a spectacularly-designed monster web was simply gone, blown away, I think, by winds that rush around the prairie just about daily in September. It had been an incredible piece of work; but when I went out there to get my bicycle, it was gone. Felt sorry for the ugly little fella who'd spent himself beautifully, who did all that work.

That night, when I got back home after teaching, it was there again, miraculously. He'd built it again in an afternoon, spun it out of his silky entrails and was crouched there in the middle, legs drawn up in a fetal position, as if he were just plain pooped. Really, of course, he was waiting for some woebegone bug. A web, no matter how beautiful, is a little more than a highly elaborate murder plot. Poor guy's got to eat.

It was gone. Several hours later, it was back. He'd spun that masterpiece out of nothing in no time flat.

Yesterday, the wind. Yesterday, once again his workmanship was gone. Maybe this time get smart and seek out some less public triangle.

It's humbling to have to admit it, but I probably feel sorry for him because I feel sorry for myself--so much work so quickly gone.

But making webs what he does--or she; and I imagine in that little spider mind of his, he's not subject to the vagaries of hubris. He's not thinking that something important he did--or she--is now gone. He's not thinking a life's work has to be eternal.

He's just weaving what he weaves, doing what he's does. Making breathtaking webs is what sets his mind to. Somewhere, right now, he's is probably plotting another piece of silky architecture, an elaborate trap for just another supper.

His persistence is as remarkable as his accomplishments, and its own kind of meditation.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The New Church

This morning's NYTimes' most e-mailed article is terrific and very much worth reading. It's the story of Clarkston International Bible Church, of suburban Atlanta, a place where good Christian folks have taken on the world, not by sending missionaries to Angola or work teams to Mexico (laudable as those enterprises may be), but by offering a welcoming place to hundreds of international immigrants who have come to live right in the shadow of their steeple.

And that change wasn't (and isn't) easy. The Clarkston Bible Church was Southern Baptist, but in order to become what it is today it needed to change radically, become accepting of all kinds of people and those people's radically different expressions of worship. That change required the Clarkston church to give up a goodly chunk of its own tradition.

Such radical transformations don't come easily--not to most of us, me included. Pitching out one's own way of worshipping the Lord for the sake of a more inclusive congregation requires some kind of sacrifice; and it's important to remember that, for some of us at least, how we "do" church can be, like the gospel itself, far more precious than silver or gold.

But the story is that Clarkston International Bible Church made the change, lost some members who didn't want to give up being Southern Baptist (didn't want to give up ye olde favorite hymns and the organ), but gained a rainbow community and found itself in the admirable position of giving refuge and love and witness to people who were far, far from home in the suburbs of Atlanta.

It's a fascinating story because it's all about us--about America today--and about Christians today.

Honestly, I'm not sure what all I'd give up to be what Clarkston International Bible Church has become--I really don't. And everyone did: the immigrant Nigerians had to make adjustments and give up precious things too, including (most difficult, I'm sure) their language. Is it right, is it good to ask a people to give up their language for the sake of Christian unity? Quite frankly, I don't think those questions are as easy to answer as one might think.

But the Clarkston story is a great story because it's a good story, for once, about evangelicals. Sociologists say there are basically two ways communities deal with radical and difficult change. Some hole up, build a fortress, solidify their creeds, and generally take up arms against what they see as the madness going on outside the gates. Others don't circle the wagons. Others take up the challenge of having to live in a new and changing world.

Clarkston International Bible Church has chosen, somewhat heroically, to take up the second challenge. Are they winning? Who knows?--the NYTimes thinks so, and so do I, even though I don't know how I'd react if I'd been a member there for 20 years before all the change.

Nonetheless, I'm thrilled to read about Clarkston because it's a good story about an evangelical church, and for so long during the Bush Administration, so much of the news of evangelicalism has been the opposite, various defensive methods of building forts in a spiritual wilderness, of making war, not peace.

Clarkston admirably threw open the gates. What they have, undoubtedly, is a mess. Things aren't as cut-and-dried as they were when the benches were lined with aging, cookie-cutter, white folks. It's a new world.

And nobody ever said it would be easy. The only thing everyone really likes about everyone else, the preacher says, is each other's food. Their potlucks must be richly peaceful.

I'm guessing there's a sermon in that idea somewhere.

P.S. The story includes video. When the NYTimes says they're not going to be printing on paper in five years, what you'll see at is what we're going to get. This is the new face of print journalism. Very interesting.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Dreamin' and Squirmin'

The word from Steve Laube, my agent (still feels strange to say that phrase) is that he's got one good strong bite on a new novel of mine, something I call Irresistible Grace (and, in case you're wondering, yes, that is the I in T-U-L-I-P). Simply stated, it's a novel of sin and redemption set right smack in the middle of the Great Plains on one long, extraordinarily cold night. A variety of voices tell the story.

Writing a novel is a painful and blessed business. There's nothing I'd rather do, yet the job empties me; and now, when it's on the desks of eleven publishers (placed there by my agent), its simply being judged that way scares the bejeebees out of me. I've had winners before, but I've had losers too--and I don't want this one to ends its life somewhere in the bowels of this computer.

A novel is expensive to write but even more expensive to lose.

Here's the good news: one of those eleven publishers as much as told us they'd be making an offer. Best case scenario?--another three of four do too, which will allow us to make a choice.

Only once in my life have I had a choice with a book, and that was Things We Couldn't Say. That book has sold 46,000 copies.

I can only dream.

And squirm.

Dreamin' and squirmin'--that's about it.

My life at sixty: "dreamin' and squirmin'." Ought to be a song.

Don't touch that dial.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

"Too many mosques"

And that's the kind of statement that makes headlines. To say it is to court Nazism, of course; but that doesn't mean the idea is any less foreign to us than the very people he's characterizing.

Just how many true "foreigners" (people who seemingly despise the culture in which they've chosen to make their livings) can a nation hold without becoming something that nation has ever been. But then, what is nationhood anyway? What does it mean to be an American?--Does anybody have a good answer to that question?

One of the most difficult questions we face as a nation--and Europe even more acutely than we--is whether or not immigrant Islamic people can make the cultural transition into Western-style democracy, where toleration is a required component of peaceful co-existence.

I could argue, and I have, that this college--not long ago vastly Dutch-American in demographic character--has become more "American," now that we play football. We've become less strange, less peculiar--and more like everyone else, more American.

I'll let others argue whether that's good or bad--I was a soft-spoken advocate myself--but the transition I'm talking about is a process by which a people, an immigrant people, become "Americanized." It happens--or has happened--to all ethnic and religious groups, really, including, even, the Jews, many of whom, today, don't quite know what to do about the rapid rate at which their people are "fitting in," losing distinctness, become, well "American."

The as yet unanswered question is, will that process of Americanization happen to our Islamic neighbors. Will they also pick up the toleration required of those who live in a pluralist society? Can they modify their faith to become advocates of a system so alien to their culture, believers in "separation of mosque and state"?

Nobody knows.

Tons of us worry--as I do.

And many wonder just exactly how many mosques this country--and Europe--can tolerate, especially when it's fearfully clear that some of those mosques (the English terrorists have been almost entirely homegrown) don't preach toleration at all.

How many sworn enemies can a culture gingerly adopt and still live at peace?

The odor of Rep. King's comments smell so much like the stench rising from Auschwitz that most of us hardly dare admit even thinking it. But that doesn't mean his question hasn't arisen within some of us before. I'm one of them.

How, on earth, do we get along with people who have no desire to get along with us? How many sworn enemies can a democratic society tolerate?

It would be easy to dismiss King's question, to villify him, call him an Yankee Eichmann, if it weren't for the fact that some of us at least feel a whisper of the very same notion.

Orhan Pamuk's Snow scared the dickens out of me for a ton of reasons, but one of them was that the radicals were young, like the 9/11 terrorists--and educated, all of them.

On this question, there aren't any more good answers than there is to how on earth we end the mess we created in Iraq.

Still, King's question scares me, just scares me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Making it a Business

Making it a Business

My son, who T.A.s at a state university, gives me the numbers on the first papers he had to correct--vastly more Ds and Fs than As and Bs--and I'm shocked. "Good night, they're making you a Nazi," I tell him. I haven't graded papers in those proportions for years.

He says the prof he's under claims that unless students get the message that sloppy laziness isn't tolerated, they'll give you sloppy laziness. I don't think I disagree. The class is Intro to Film, and my son claims that his prof says a goodly percentage of people think a class like that is simply fun: "Hey, just watch movies all semester--how bad can that be?" Well, bad, or so says the prof, who doesn't like their dinking around. One of the first orders of business, he says, is clearing the air. Nothing does that like bad grades. Get rid of the loafers. They'll quit the class and make everyone else's life better. So goes the argument.

I've been thinking about that idea for days--and nights--because that method of operation is anathema around here, for the most part. At a small college, where one of the only assurances that there will be life next year is signing up enough warm bodies to occupy the seats, tending the students' needs seems paramount. If we don't have the kids, we don't have a job. Nobody says "Get rid of the loafers."

Maybe that's why the institution where I teach is run--or so it seems--more and more like a business. It is a business--if we don't have customers, our doors close. At state universities a different kind of ethic is possible, simply because keeping customers happy isn't a requirement.

I'm very uneasy with the idea of an institution of higher learning being, first and foremost, a business. I'm uneasy because what really sits at the heart of this institution is the absolute importance of ideas, at least in my estimation. We're not a trade school, although we function more and more like one, as do many colleges and universities today. We're a place where thoughtful people go to learn how to negotiate the landscape of this world by thoughtful pursuit of nothing less than truth itself.

At a Christian college that mission statement has to be shaped by the necessity of recognizing the Creator in every aspect of life itself, but that peculiar commitment doesn't in radically modify the central goal--that a college has to be an environment where ideas thrive, right and wrong, where a marketplace of ideas exists and students learn--if nothing else--the importance of weighing ideas and finding their way. That's why education that isn't dangerous isn't education at all at this level.

Everything I'm saying sounds sadly old-fashioned to many today, even to many associated with higher education. Such notions are remnants of a time when the humanities were essential in colleges and universities. Today, the humanities--literature, history, art, music, philosophy--are all struggling, in part because higher education is, more and more, a business. (See "Canon Wars Take a Toll," below). Education is certainly a business here, where student-teacher ratios are used to determine what areas suffer bloody personnel cuts.

A friend wrote a hot-tempered e-mail criticizing the drift of things in this institution, and now the administration is threatening depositing a letter of reprimand in his personal and professional file, a letter that, thereby, indicates the administration's disapproval. All of this is happening despite the fact that, almost inevitably, a majority of the faculty agree with his analysis, many of them even approving of the content of the note. All of this is happening despite the fact that almost all faculty feel that some kind of free speech code is being undermined by the desire of the administation to muscle out dissent in all forms.

But, another friend says, a business doesn't tolerate that kind of dissent. He'd be gone.

I don't know if that's true, but even though I've got limited time left at this institution, until I go I'll argue vehemently that this institution, on the basis of its particular calling as a place where ideas must have importance, is not only a business. We may very well prepare students for vocations outside the institution, but our first order of "business" is honoring the importance of ideas, even of dissent--maybe even most importantly of dissent. There are many--me among them--who would argue that the greatest problem facing Christian education today, at all levels, is its failure to be as counter-cultural as Christ would have us be as his children.

I've been here for more than thirty years. Maybe the institution I've served for that long has become too much a business. I believe it's in the interest of the institution itself to consider that possibility. We are a business; we have a bottom line. But when we're only a business, then we're only a business whose job is turning out products, goods and services. Maybe that's exactly what we are, what we've become. Maybe I'm a dinosaur.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Why do they hate us?

On the Sunday morning after 9.11, a man came up to me in church and asked the 64,000-thousand dollar question: "Jim, why do they hate us?"

Let me count the ways. How about this? 1) Once again OJ is in the news, a man who really deserves the national spotlight. This time, he's been arrested in Las Vegas (which is #2) for strong arming a pair of jerks who make their living selling sports memorabilia (how about our mad adulation of athletics for #3?). It seems the jock salesmen were marketing things like the suit OJ wore during the infamous trial (#4--the OJ Trial). The reason they were selling such nuttiness is because the celebrity-mad (#5) American public will buy such commodities--not only that but pay big prices for them.

Are we there yet?

But there's more. It seems the two shysters who were selling such precious items as an old OJ suit thoughtfully made a tape recording of the whole event, which was smart, of course, because now the whole world can hear OJ's Tony Soprano-type rant, laced with obscenities (you can hear it on-line somewhere, and let's just make that #6).

But there's more. It seems the two shysters who were selling the "memorabilia" didn't turn that tape over to the cops right away. Strange. Instead, they waited until some media mogul--this time them for it so they (the media outlet) could put it 0n their website and thereby attract millions of loony listeners (that's us again, and I'm calling it #7) who hungrily click their way into madness by trying to hear the blow-by-blow account of the Vegas hotel-room heist, as if hearing that m-f-ing rant is going to be something really special.

Let's make sure we understand this: these two memorabilia salesmen went running off to the law, scared silly by OJ and his mafia-type henchmen, but waited a few days to forward the tape recording of the event so they could sell it to the media. Ain't we got fun.

What am I up to? Nine is me for even writing this. If anybody deserves to simply sink into the primordial ooze without anyone ever being heard from him again, it's OJ. He doesn't deserve the fifteen minutes it's taking for me to post this.

And ten, well, you're not going to like this either, but it's you for reading it.

When it comes to OJ and Paris Hilton, I side with the Islamic radicals. I'll defend freedom, but I hate it excesses--and we've got excesses as huge as Las Vegas casinos. What terrorists don't want--is to be like us. More specificially, they don't want Las Vegas or OJ or Paris Hilton, and I don't blame them.

Freedom, as George W Bush is fond of telling us, is a wonderful ideology. But it ain't perfect, and neither are we.

That's enough. Forever.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Canon Wars Take a Toll

This year, my American Literature class has just a dozen students. Five years ago, it had twice that number. Twenty-five years ago, it had seventy. Of course, back then, it was required. Hasn't been for a long time.

This one I'm not blaming on myself. I don't think the trajectory of my teaching skills has followed that curve. As a society, we don't value literature as we once did, in part, I'm sure because in the information age, we don't value any bit of information as any more worthy than anything else.

In a straight-to-the point essay in yesterday's New York Times Book Review, Rachel Donadio, brings up related issues with a sting that's been with me all day (and night) long

Donadio quotes Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago, one of those who, like many academics, panned Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, when it came out twenty years ago, when he tried to revalue the canon, something some academics thought almost Nazi-like.

Today, however, Nussbaum's tune sounds different. “Our nation, like most nations of the world, is devaluing the humanities vis-à-vis science and technology, so constant vigilance is required lest these disciplines be cut.” What Nussbaum sees--and what prompts Donadio's article--is the diminishment, culturally, of the humanities--art, music, literature, and history--in society in general, but in higher education particularly.

In higher education today, professional education rules--students want educations that have specific professional applications--and with good reason. College education costs money, big money. If you're going to make that kind of investment, then somewhere along the line that investment has to pay off.

It hasn't always been hard to "sell" the humanities, but it certainly is today. Telling students to take history and literature when those courses have no apparent practical, professional, resume-building value is like telling them that eating brussel sprouts is better for them than Big Macs, or that religion is far more important than filthy lucre. It ain't an easy sell--that's all there is to it. And, given the decline of deference to all forms of authority in our culture, those arguments are made even more difficult. Prescriptive courses of study, when the price tag is as high as it is, are difficult to maintain and exact, not only because the academy has trouble determining what is worthy of all of our attention, but also because students want control of their own education.

I don't know whether anyone has any idea what can be done to reverse the anti-historical sense of our contemporary mileau. I don't. But I remain stubbornly convinced that a sense of history, a sense of place, a sense of the human condition--the kinds of commodities the humanities bestow upon all of us--remain requirements for a more fundamentally human society.

But I'm not at all sure how to market that, and neither is anyone else apparently.

Meanwhile, our numbers continue to decline.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Morning Thanks--carmel sundaes

The big speech is over and it went well, I believe. One tends to be congratulated only by those who appreciated what went on, but I do think it was very well received.

There is a great joy in reaping the rewards of very hard work and deep investment. So I celebrated with a carmel cashew sundae from the Culver's on the east side of Sioux Falls--my second one in three days. I'm sorry, but I guess I'm that carnal.

Anyway, it's over--this long two-year assignment--and it went well. It was intended to be provocative, and it was as fully honest as I could be. I intended to tell the truth, not to fudge.

Which is maybe why I got a carmel sundae.

And now, once again, the real world. By Thursday, I'll have 70 more student papers to read. They're already accumulating in my in-box.

All-in-all, a very good thing--and I'm thankful, for the assignment, for really finding the subject intriguing, for grace along the journey, grace on Friday night, and grace throughout my life, grace to cover all my carnal sundaes.

Sunday morning. Sabbath. A blessing. I hope I was. I hope I am.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

the big speech

Off the Michigan today for a conference. Big presentation on Friday night, a speech that's been in my head for two years about to be delivered. Hope it's good. I'm not particularly nervous about it because it's me. If people don't appreciate it, I can't do any better or any more. I've put it all down there, everything I could learn, everything I could muster. Let it be.

Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson -- 1876 - 1941
Today is the birthday of American writer Sherwood Anderson, who fits squarely in the tradition of American realists--Mark Twain before him, Ernest Hemingway after him, Ray Carver and the dirty realists a century later.

I read Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, when I was in college, I believe, and absolutely loved it. Its pageant of town eccentrics reminded me of the characters in my own hometown and the stories they created on its streets. Like Fred Manfred, who I also read at the time, Anderson inspired me to try to write a bit myself. At the heart of his work--a clear-eyed look at the the inspiring lives of ordinary folks (with a twist of eccentricity) who the world might well have considered not worthy of the stories he gave them--sits subjects I thought I knew.

Anderson put a pen in my hand, back then, and therefore stands tall in the pantheon of literary folks in my mind. Today, I'm afraid, my students wouldn't be impressed. Realism is a genre that's quite out of vogue. Writers who fail to allow the fantastic into the worlds they create get little attention. Yesterday, I spotted a collection of Alice Munro stories in my bookcase and felt an odd jolt of relief: maybe, if I stop teaching, I'll never bring her into a classroom again. That would be a blessing. Alice Munro is so incredibly good that she's downright inspiring, but not to college students. I can do without those kinds of moments in the classroom. I can walk away from the times I love the stuff and students don't. That's pain I can leave behind.

These are hard times for realists, hard times, I suppose, for Sherwood Anderson. Will things change? I'm guessing they will. Sooner or later, this world will become more interesting than Harry Potter's or some Star Wars future century. Sooner or later, escape won't be as much a seeming requirement. Sooner or later, staying here and really seeing will be in vogue again.

But for now Sherwood Anderson gets little more than a peek in anthologies, I imagine. But then, who knows--maybe somewhere out there some kid will stumble into Winesburg, look around at some grotesquely familiar faces, tell him or herself there's more to say, and start her fingers dancing on the keyboard?

For me, Sherwood Anderson was a giant.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Another 9/11

Another 9/11

I'm not sure it's over yet, but America has spent the last two days listening to the much balleyhooed reports from the field by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the near messianic General David Petraeus, a couple of men Maureen Dowd calls "the Surge Twins."

The verdict is in, but then, in some ways, it was in before the first microphone malfunction. Everyone knew they'd say the surge has put some sort of lid on civil war, been a bad deal for Al Quida, and generally created some space for everyone to breath. In other words, it's been a good deal and we ought to keep on, keeping on.

On the other hand, no one has been surprised by the Surge Twins admitting, sometimes almost embarrassingly, that the government in place in Iraq isn't doing diddly, that it's dysfunctional in fact. And what most everyone knows is that things won't change in Iraq until there is a government in place which can insure the public mean.

So, on we go. If you liked the war before the Patraeus report, thought it absolutely essential to our future as a nation, believed everything Bush has said since the WMDs, then you're happy we're staying the course. If, like the majority of Americans who, in the 2006 Congressional election, voted to throw the bums out, you're even more disheartened.

The magic number is 67, and it doesn't look at all favorable for the Democrats to pick up enough dissenting Republicans to overturn a Presidential veto on any war change. It's not going to happen. Yet.

So the beat goes on--over there and over here.

We're gridlocked. We're split right down the middle, although it seems difficult to argue that a majority of Americans don't want us out. The man who came in with a minority, still has that minority--but it's enough to keep him on top.

Bush thinks of the Truman Presidency as his path in the woods: hated while he was in, revered since he's been out.

Maybe. Maybe not.

We're split down the middle, following one of two lines of thought that are as different as day and night.

General Petraeus says he doesn't really know whether or not all of this Iraq-war business is making life safer for Americans. The messiah hasn't been asked to think that far, even though the President assures us that it's Petraeus who is making the decisions over there, the man with his boots on the ground--and not the President himself.

For a moment, under the intense questioning of Sen. John Warner, the emperor, in his military fatigues, looked stark naked.

And, for all the world, we look split like some overripe melon.

This September 11 was another sad day.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Tribulations within and without

I know people who are victimized by their inability to read an audience. I feel decidedly sorry for them, and yet there are times when I wish I was one of them.

After a major speech yesterday, I came away feeling less than satisfied with what I'd done, largely because someone told me it was, well, a bit too long (which it likely was). This morning my freshmen class was blessed with a couple of students who slept through everything, even though I hadn't lectured all that much (at least by my estimation). I come out feeling like a failure.

Is it but another earmark of the aging process that we feel more acutely the challenge of loss? What about 42 students who didn't fall asleep this morning? Is it my fault that those two couldn't keep their eyes open?

Or is it simply another utterance of my own Calvinist heart that I tend to be devoured by what didn't happen when I should take some joy at what did? Don't know. But I don't like the reaction that I feel, like doubt, in my soul.

On the other hand, the sense of not delivering always prompts me to try to push harder, to do better--which has to be good. I don't think of myself as a perfectionist, but I don't want to be a failure either. Maybe it's the writer in me that won't let me forget the worst enemy of all in public forums--books, articles, speeches--is, well, being boring. Sleeping students drive me nuts.

On days like this, I look forward to retirement, to not teaching anymore, not so much because of any fiendish sense of failure, but because, I suppose, I can be my most worst enemy and inflict the worst bruises myself. It's a battle within, I suppose, and I don't care to wage it anymore. Don't I wish I couldn't see--or wouldn't?

No, not really.

When my father-in-law quit the farm, he shocked both of us--my wife and me. We couldn't believe it. Why?--we said. "Because I just don't need another harvest." He didn't need tension that courses through his soul when the beans the corn need to be in. He simply didn't care to ride all of that out again, not one more time.

I don't harvest corn or beans or bring the hogs to market. But I believe I know exactly what he means. I look forward to the day when I don't put myself on trial to get what has to be done, accomplished.

Is there such a time? Even if there isn't, it's always nice simply to believe there is.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Madeline l'Engle

Madeline L''Engle is dead at 88 years old. I have good friends who consider her a very good friend, although I met her only two or three times and spoke to her hardly more often. What I remember best of her was her incredible resolve--she didn't question what she believed, as some do. She was especially tolerant--except of those who had no tolerance themselves. She was back then--ten years ago--adamantly sure of where she stood on some of the toughest issues faced by the evangelicals around her, me included.

She once told me I shouldn't live where I do. She felt that artists needed to live with other artists, writers with other writers, because, in many ways, their work feeds off interaction with others who struggle through the creative process.

It's almost hard for me to write a sentence like that one, not because I don't have sympathies for the ideas, but because--or so it seems to me--the ideas are so incredibly old-fashioned. Ms L'Engle was of my father's generation, of Fred Manfred's. I was educated in the drawing shadows of that generation, so I understand something about "the artist" and "the creative life" and all those lines and phrases that constitute the kind of deification given to writers and artists and painters in most of the decades of the 20th century.

But it seems to me that that kind of worship is gone today, departed from our midst just as surely as writers who hold some place in the national psyche, or visual artists whose work is anticipated by a beloved audience of millions. "The Artist" truly in vogue today no more or less a hack than anybody else in the hands of big business. There may well be millions of people, like me, trying to write books; and there may well be more books published today than in the 60's, when L'Engle's classic children's tale, A Wrinkle in Time, was published. The idea of the artist as some kind of visionary has long gone, however.

Maybe that's good. Whitman does sound silly today, confident as he was of his prophetic character. The idea that some of us are endowed with special spiritual vision was quite often a license for silliness or inanity too.

But I rather dislike the idea that we're all just functionaries, or that publishers care not a whit about vision but think only of sales, feeding the insatiable appetite of a mass market. The old "artist-as-prophet" thing offered its excellences too, I suppose.

And maybe all of this is simply the lament of a advocate who hasn't made it, hasn't achieved. Who knows?

She had a great sense of humor--that too I remember; and she was constantly willing to surprise you. She'd say outlandish things delightfully. I think she was deeply blessed to be able to hold strong opinions playfully, and I don't think she ever preached. She knew her voice and was dead-on sure of the efficacy of grace, the love of God.

For awhile--at the time I knew her--huge debates raged among evangelicals about Madeline L'Engle being "new age." Was she?--I don't know. Some of her characters got messages from sea creatures--does that mean we burn her books? I'd rather be Madeline than her persecutors--I know that. And I know she loved God and believed in the saving work of his son, Jesus Christ.

She's gone now. She had Alzheimers for quite a long time. I remember a story her friend told about visiting there: one day Madeline seemed oblivious to her good old friend's presence; the next, they giggled together like grade school girls.

There's a story there too, of course--and it's a story I think she knew. All things must pass--save grace. Save grace.

She sold millions of books, touched millions of souls, had a wonderful life. May she rest in the peace of the Father she knew and loved.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Top Ten Stuff

Top Ten Stuff

One sweet night last night. An old woman who grew up here used to tell me that Siouxland has just ten glorious days a year--"and you better enjoy 'em." If she's not wrong, then we had one yesterday. Northwest winds carried dry (and cooler) air over this quarter of the plains in a fashion that had everyone smiling. Summer's dog days departed somewhere south, where they belong.

We took off for Spirit Mound, an old Lewis and Clark stop, where the Native people claimed little tiny humanoids, demonic things, lived atop an odd land formation--a tiny, miniature mountain. It was hot that day--as I remember the tale--so hot that their huge black Newfoundland, Seaman, got a little sick.

Not so last night--perfect weather, top-ten variety. We were mostly alone, just a few other older couples also walking out there to the top. The corn in the neighborhood looked pretty bad from the drought, but the beans are yellowing now, creating a little medley of color in the broad landscape. The Missouri River valley looms south, but otherwise, from the top of Spirit Mound, you can see for miles and miles. There's something about a sweet day in a place like that to steady the soul. No demonic humanoids either, just pilgrims.

We drove south to a place called Mulberry Point, where an overlook offers a very unusual view of the Missouri River. To say the river is wild at that point isn't totally true. The flow of the Missouri is controlled by the dams upstream; it can't flood like it once did, seasonally. But Mulberry Point still offers a view of ye olde Missouri, one that looks far more untamed than the river people see in more familiar crossings. It's braided, thin and rangy, and seemingly unspoiled. Even though it isn't uncontrolled, its wild looks are a reminder of what that river once was, years ago, untamed and gutsy, cutting a new channel wherever and whenever it wanted.

The river is an inspiration at Mulberry Point--it looks to be its own boss, even though it isn't anymore.

We were there at sunset, and my camera's battery was dead as a doornail. The last of the great photographers.

What a night. Out here in Siouxland, you only get ten of those per year. You better mark 'em. We did.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Pavaratti and Pronoun Usage

Last night, I finished my very first batch of ENG 101 papers for the semester; there will be many more. I can't explain why exactly, but when the last one was on it way, electronically, back to the student, I felt a sense of accomplishment that I haven't felt since, well, last year.

Teaching's immense rewards are immediate--a completed batch of papers, shining eyes, a sense of dedication that's palpable in the essays I read. Students learn; I win. It's as easy as that--and as good. Last night, I watched an episode of The Sopranos that I didn't think I'd earn the time to do. I finished up with those papers earlier than I'd anticipated and gave myself a reward. My wife made popcorn. "Let's celebrate," she said.

Either it's an odd world or we're just strange beings. I'd give anything to write more and teach less. Yet, inexplicably, teaching seems to offer these immense and immediate rewards. All summer long I write, and I'm a bear to live with. I worry about whether the ending of this last novel is right, worry myself sick, even though today the manuscript is on the desks of eleven editors right now. The books of meditations I've been working through look good, but I'm not sure anyone wants them--which is to say, wants me. Geesh. I hang my head. Writing--art--makes horrific demands on the psyche and the soul. But it's what I want to do, even more today than when I was thirty. As they say, "go figure."

Think of the nation of people who want to do art--busboy actors, taxi-driver dancers, thousands of pianists sitting next to single-fingered seven-year-olds, an sprawling army of teachers of every sort because "those who can't. . . Shoot, eighty per cent of the American public thinks they're going to write a book someday.

What is it that drives such lunacy? A desire to say something unique maybe, to do something utterly and wholly one's own, to make one's own statement, press an impression? In my case--chasing a dawn or finishing a novel and polishing a meditation or creating an essay out of nothing more than words--I think it's this ravenous desire to do nothing more than offer the world just a little more beauty.

Pavarotti died yesterday. We lost a voice. We lost a whale of a man with a tenor that soared to the heavens. We lost an inspiration. We lost some kind of beauty.

Enough tomfoolery. I've got an English class to prepare for--punctuation, mechanics, number and case of pronouns. It's got to be taught. Those who write clearly, think clearly. Writing is a skill you can take to the bank, honestly--far more than writing meditations or mid-list novels. I get paid good bucks to teach because the whole culture needs the instruction I'm about to engage in--"fourteen rules for comma usage."

But we need our Pavarattis too. We really do. We'll miss that voice. We'll miss that beauty.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Benny the cat

This morning, the rug is clean. But lately, for about two weeks now, there's been a dead cricket lying somewhere in the middle--dead as in squashed, although only partly, as if someone had decided, at the last minute, not to step on it but simply skewer it with a sharp stick.

But dead, and that's the great thing. I've actually learned to live with bats in this old house--although we got the place bat-proofed, supposedly, a couple of years ago, and haven't seen once since (well, one). But every year about this time, the blasted crickets appear--or at least their infernal chirping arises from all corners of the natural world just outside my basement window.

Sometimes, of course, the find their way in. Like mice, they skinny into cracks and crevices that we live with, oblivious. And if they make it down here into the basement, they make my life miserable because of their scratchy, eternal chirping, which they don't stop until, I suppose, they find the lover they're crooning about or for, or the sun rises, which ever comes first.

But lately they've being murdered, which I like greatly. I hear them now, just outside the window, which is where they belong.

Lots and lots of wonderful things have been written about cats, but one of my favorites is this: cats don't really live in your house, they allow you to live in theirs. So I'm being presumptuous if I say that Bennie, our cat, really has never really pulled his weight in this household; that statement assumes he's some kind of employee, which he's not. He's a cat. He's not even our cat--he's simply a cat.

He's just about fifty, in cat years, and therefore, I suppose, believes himself somewhat superior to us, his significantly older and more feeble housemates. But he's a big fella, and sooner or later those extra pounds are going to catch up with him, as they do with all of us.

Maybe it's a workout thing with him, I don't know; but, this summer, lately, one dead cricket sits right in the middle of the basement rug down here when I come in the morning, his gift to me (maybe I'm being presumptuos again). Bennie is, in no in any shape or form, proud of what he's done. If he were, he'd stand here panting, dog-like, and beg for some kind of bone-dry dog treat. But no, discreetly and not as if to be so needy as to trumpet his own virtues, he's usually elsewhere when I come down in the morning and find this one partially-quashed cricket, dead as a mackerel, right there in the middle of the rug where the game ended.

I'd like to say he's finally earning his keep, but that too would be, well, somewhat typically "colonial" for a white, European male.

Maybe I ought simply to be thankful that his recreation contributes to the public mean in the Schaap house. I think he'd like it said that way actually. Certainly--for sure--he's not killing crickets for us.

One of our friends once called our Bennie a "blue-collar cat," and he is. The Schaap cat which preceded him was a snow white tom who considered himself regal, very important. Bennie looks quite generic.

But, he's a cat. And, with unspoken dignity, I'm sure he'll appreciate the fact that I've dedicated the morning's post to him. After all, he's deserving, always--squashed crickets or no squashed crickets.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The (first) big game

The Big Game
'Twas a perfect night for football, a perfect night for a very first game. Almost storybook. We lost, but no one seemed to care because, in part, everyone expected it. It would have been too much to hope for that a college's very first junior varsity effort could be that successful.

Big deal--the score was only 15-7, and if Morningside hadn't scored on a fluke play early in the first quarter, we could have won. Shoot, we could have won with just three minutes left in the game. We were never out of it. That's how close it was.

There were just about 4000 fans in attendance. I don't believe anyone imagined that kind of crowd. But it was an epoch-making night, for better or for worse; and thousands of people were there to witness.

The coaches looked terrific, the team looked tough, and the night was a honey. Dordt College now plays football. For most of its existence, people would have laughed at anyone who tried to use the school and the game in the same sentence. But lots of the names that came over the p.a. system were from the traditional constituency of the school, kids who likely wouldn't have come to Dordt if it didn't have football, but who were more likely to come here than go somewhere else, because we do.

The most powerful argument for football has always been that our most loyal and faithful constituencies have it. A small college like Dordt needs to nurture its relationships with its most loyal constituents, and we'd not do that by continuing not to have football. The only other reason is sheer numbers--that we need warm bodies.

The greatest scare I felt last night was to see Morningside's hordes. They had more than 100 junior varsity ballplayers, at a college that's smaller in size than we are. The plain facts here are evident: when a college loses its vision, its particular sense of purpose, its constituency--when a college loses its reason for being here in the first place and its mission disappears, it dies. Like everything else on the Great Plains, it blows away.

And one of the earmarks of a dying institution is great numbers of athletes, kids who are at a college simply because they're paid to play football or volleyball or whatever sport. When Yankton College died, all that was left in the cafeteria was athletes, none of whom really cared a whit about that particular school.

Morningside's hordes made me fearful. If it had 100 junior varsity players, it likely has close to 100 more on varsity. Their enrollment can't be much over 1000 students. We don't ever, ever want to be Morningside.

Put it this way--we won't be Morningside, because if we are, we won't survive.

It was a great night, a beautiful night, and there were thousands there, thousands. Amazing.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Vermont Fallen Families

Maybe it was because the best book I read all summer--or at least most memorable--was Martha Radaatz's The Long Road Home, a painful reenactment of a surprise attack on the streets of Sadr City, Iraq, in 2004, a book that documents the pain and anguish of war from the battlefield to the family dinner table.

Maybe it was because, when I was in New Mexico at a faculty retreat not long ago, a middle school science teacher was called out of the meeting because his son had been killed when his helicopter crashed in Iraq.

Maybe it's because I remember far too well the way some guys my age came back emotionally crippled from Vietnam.

Maybe it's because I disliked, greatly, Pres. Bush's sense that we really don't have to give anything up because of the war, because of the terrorists, that the rest of us should go shopping.

I suppose I can trace the cause to a ton of reasons, but last Saturday night CNN aired a short piece of video created by students at Norwich University, something titled Vermont's Fallen Families, families remembering those two emissaries from the American military, two people at their front doors to tell them that their son or daughter or husband or wife would not be returning--and I found that short cut absolutely riveting.

And that's why I wrote the teacher--Prof. Bill Estill--and I told him that his assignment--and his students' good work--was a incredible blessing to me, not because it was about the war, but because it suggested that he'd found a way to engage his students in a way that would affect them for life. That assignment is wonderful in conception, in operation, and in result. I can't imagine that his students are the same after doing it.

If you're interested in a copy, e-mail him. He'll tell you can get one for $10.

Another example of this strange world. Compare the millions craftily spent to keep us in the multi-plexes. This little piece of film has more heart and soul than most all of what we'll get from Tinseltown each week. Yet, this little piece of film struggles to make a meager budget. Is it any wonder why Islamic radicals claim there's something spiritually bankrupt about the West? Really, is it any wonder why they don't want to be who we are?

The video itself is immensely sad and tragic. But it's true. In all our talk about "staying the course," it's in our own interest not to look away from the coffins as they come off the transport planes. We can know the importance of our efforts only if we can actually tally the costs. Not to know the pain is to act blindly.

Prof. Estill's class, like Martha Radaatz, has given us eyes and ears and, most of all, heart.