Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks
"Eating Together"

Don't know the writer at all, but this morning's Writer's Almanac poem is a gem, methinks.

Eating Together
Kim Addonizio

I know my friend is going,
though she still sits there
across from me in the restaurant,
and leans over the table to dip
her bread in the oil on my plate; I know
how thick her hair used to be,
and what it takes for her to discard
her man's cap partway through our meal,
to look straight at the young waiter
and smile when he asks
how we are liking it. She eats
as though starving—chicken, dolmata,
the buttery flakes of filo—
and what's killing her
eats, too. I watch her lift
a glistening black olive and peel
the meat from the pit, watch
her fine long fingers, and her face,
puffy from medication. She lowers
her eyes to the food, pretending
not to know what I know. She's going.
And we go on eating.

from What Is This Thing Called Love. © W. W. Norton and Company, 2005.

Sometimes, as now, in the face of a New Mexico azure sky, life seems so full of beauty and opportunity that possibility itself takes your breath away. Then, hours later, that same sky goes unnoted, the march of events interminably wearying.
But we go on eating. Blessedly, we go on eating.

This morning's thanks are easy: a poem I'll hear in my heart all day long as I go on eating, remembering, although I'm alone, the blessing of eating together.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Something about language

My grandma told me, years ago, that when she learned her catechism, she learned it in Dutch, as required by her church in Oostburg, Wisconsin. It was the turn of the 20th century, and she didn't know Dutch; her family had been in America since 1840. The catechism meant next to nothing to her.


A friend of mine, whose family immigrated to Canada after the Second World War II, told me his mother's greatest lament about leaving her native Holland was that she lost jokes. Because she couldn't understand humor in her second language, English, when she lost her native language, she lost her sense of humor.


A recent Speaking of Faith, featured David Treur, an Ojibwa from Minnesota, who attempts to explain to listeners at least something of the immensity of loss that would occur if Native languages, like Ojibwa, were simply to go out of existence. I've listened to that program three times, and I still think it didn't convince me--not that I'm antagonistic, but I simply want to understand with the conviction of David Treur and so many other Native Americans who hold the same view.


In the last week, I've done several interviews with Navajos and Zuni Indians who say, "If they'd only have learned the language. . ." --they, meaning those early missionaries. Somehow, given my own lean understanding, I still think those Native people are right.


Two of the earliest Protestant missionaries here had fights that were legendary in the early years of the 20th century. One of them, I learned a few nights ago, was gifted in language. When he came, he was already tri-lingual: Dutch, Frisian, and English; once he'd arrived, incredibly, he picked up Navajo and Zuni. His compatriot could never become as fluent. One of their major fights occurred when the linguist kidded with non-linguist's interpreter in the Zuni language. The non-linguist simply didn't understand the humor. Eventually, the non-linguist left the mission field.


I've interviewed many people who say their parents didn't want them to learn their native language because the future belonged to those Native people who could speak English. Some of those people--not all--think their parents were wrong about that.


Sometimes the most progressive Native people I know, the ones with the finest educations, the ones most capable of making it in the white world around them--those Native people are the ones who most crave fluency in their native tongue. Sometimes I think that those Native people who are farthest from traditional culture are those most interested in maintaining that very traditional culture.


A woman named Lauber came to the Navajo reservation in the thirties with a primitive house trailer, chose a plot of land almost at random, and began a ministry she never left. She's buried here. During her almost 70 years on the rez, she created a church single-handedly and was absolutely central in the conversion of many Navajos to Christianity. When she was in her 80s, she would sit at a dining table with Native people and listen in to their conversation, having little idea what they were talking about. She simply could not learn the Navajo language; she lacked not the will but the capacity, the ear.


I have a friend who is nearly ninety. She knows--and loves--nearly nine languages.


The college where I teach dropped the foreign language requirement not long ago. I opposed the change, even though, were I still a student, I would have been jubilant.


I remember reading an essay by Richard Rodriguez that opposed bi-lingual education. Rodriguez's parents spoke only Spanish at home; that language, he believed, was his language of intimacy. The school had no obligation, he argued, to teach the language of intimacy. In fact, I'm not sure a school can.


Honestly, I wish I knew Dutch, but I'm not about to spend hours learning it. To me, there are far more valuable things to learn in the time the Lord gives me. I don't know whether I should repent of that attitude or not, but it certainly doesn't feel like sin.


Lots of writers--Joseph Conrad, perhaps most famously--wrote beautifully and powerfully in their second language. How did they do that?


There are things about language--and its link with culture--that I simply don't understand. But it's fascinating. I just wish I knew more. . .and better.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reading: the latest

According to John Wilson, of Books and Culture, both the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune are slimming down their book review sections significantly, as have many other major papers throughout America. Newspapers are in as much trouble as casette tapes, and they're all looking to slim down. One of the first sections to go, it seems, is the book review.

Sunday's NY Times Book Review featured a long story on reading in America, and how reading habits are changing across this country and culture. For years already, people have been saying that visual media was eroding reading ability; that's not a new argument. In the last few years, however, a counter argument has arisen: people don't likely read less than they used to, they simply read different materials; when people use the net, as I am now, they read. The NY Times article nicely summarized those arguments.

As a teacher, I've seen reading skills deteriorate in the last thirty years. Yet, it's very important to note that students aren't somehow dumber. They aren't. But they don't read as well.

Let me be clear: they don't read literature as well, and they don't read thoughtful books. If most of one's joy is in texting, reading even Edgar Allen Poe, whose sentences may well average 30 words, becomes a problem.

What the discussion about reading in the NY Times and the demise of book review sections of major American newspapers both suggest is not so much that people don't read as much any more, as that we simply don't read what has been traditionally called "literature." Twice in the last few years, the National Endowment for the Arts has said as much. What's imperiled by the new media, more than anything, is "literature," and, well, serious reading.

It's hard not to become Chicken Little in all of this if you're a writer and literature teacher. But then, I'm coming to the end of my professional life. I'd love to know how graduate school curriculums are shaping up for the future; they must be changing. Sure as anything, we're entering a brave, new world.

But then, there's always the incredible Harry Potter phenomenon, millions of kids devouring huge novels.

Maybe things will change.

And there's this: the article about reading skills was, in fact, the most e-mailed article in the Times for two days. It's not that no one's listening--and it's not that no one's reading.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

The mystery of beauty

Digital photography has made a ton of people into amateur photographers and, I'm told, changed the nature of professional photography just as well. Count me among those who love to shoot. I always have.

Anyway, I'm often dumbfounded by what exactly it is that makes me say of a particular landscape, "Now that's beautiful." I assume that, were I trained as an artist, I'd know at least something of the answer to such a question, but I'm not and therefore I don't. I do know what I like, however--I can see it in a moment. What baffles me, for the most part, is why.

A couple days ago, I took a walk out into the New Mexico desert. The sky was full of drama, and the earth itself was famously red. Here and there, wild flowers festooned the place, but for the most part, what I saw was the desert's ordinary livery this time of year, I'm sure.

There's immense character in dead mesquite, of course, so I came up on this little scene right along the path, and I knew that somehow I'd like it--so I took a couple of pictures. I was right--I do. It's become my wallpaper. But for the life of me, I don't know why.

Let me guess. Symbolically, it offers some kind of combination of life and death. The sparse splashes of green in the left foreground contrast with the scraggly trunk and branches that dominate the scene. The thick clouds behind are somewhat fearful, but there's still enough blue back there to contrast.

More, there are interesting lines created by the dead bush. They seem to swirl outward toward every corner of the composition, and even though the shot itself has no peculiar heart, the swirling movement of the lines themselves create something that is oddly enough, a center or heart of its own.

Then again, the colors are incredible, although I may be saying that only because this Iowan is accustomed to a steady menu of emerald this time of year. That pumpkin orange ground is simply remarkable, the grays of the bush are almost silver, and you just can't help but love the dramatic tonal range of the sky as background.

Am I making sense?

Maybe I'm the only one who likes it. Maybe I like it because, like Georgia O'Keefe, one can't help but be taken with the peculiar light of the New Mexico high country, as well as the indiginous colors. Willa Cather knew it too, although she was a writer, not a painter. Read Death Comes to the Archbishop sometime, and her awe and near worship of the landscape is clearly evident. Maybe I'm just taken with the beauty of the shot because I'm taken with the beauty of the place.

No matter. This morning I'm thankful once again for beauty all around.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Calvinist in me

One risks piling on, but then extremism in defense of compassion is no vice. I have never heard a word from the mouth of one Michael Savage. I wouldn't know where to find him, nor when, on the radio dial. I know that, as a conservative talk show host, in listenership he ranks third behind Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. And I know that recently he said some incredibly stupid, hurtful things about autism.

I confess not knowing much about autism either. We have friends--several couples--who have autistic kids, and I know there is controversy galore about autism's origins. But I know this--it's real. Autism is not, as Savage suggested, simply kids whose behavior is out of control. He's dead wrong, and if he was the moral voice he thinks he is, he'd admit it.

But I'm piling on.

What I do know of Michael Savage comes from my mother, who has, occasionally, let out some invective about contemporary politics or cultural values that is so far from true, so laden with fear, and so close to hate that I know it can't be her opinion. "Where on earth did you hear that, Mom?" I'll say, and, she'll reply, sheepishly, "Michael Savage."

Last night, before a movie, we sat through a series of five action-adventure film clips advertising upcoming attractions. Both of us were almost ready to leave the theater. Film leaders make MTV look like a funeral dirge. The challenge must be to include as many ear-splitting explosions as possible in a three-minute clip. No shot is on the screen for more than two seconds. No two lines of dialogue are connected, and the number of fireballs per ten second segment is astounding. I never felt so much a part of Huxley's Brave New World and "the feelies," media programming that mashes the mind into gruel in an endless succession of blasts meant to spin psyches into sensory overload.

For a moment, just for a moment, I felt a bit of the Nazi in me. For a moment, I felt some sympathy for Islamic terrorists because what they don't want, what they hate about American culture is really what Hollywood does to us, playing to our basest instincts in a single-minded effort simply to make money.

For the life of me, I don't understand why my mother and millions of others listen to Michael Savage, nor why so many really, really wealthy people invest millions in production companies that turn out mind-numbing action adventures that, in turn, make millions more by selling entertainment to a culture that sometimes seems little more than hormone-mad, eighth-grade boys. Why do we put up with it? I just don't know.

That's entertainment, I guess. And the really sad news is that it takes a ton more than 9/11 to get us to turn off the hate, the madness, and the violence.

What is the magic of hate-spewing talk radio anyway? Why do people pay to be entertained by garbage?

"Certain it is," Herman Melville wrote in a review of a novel of Nathaniel Hawthorne, "that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance."

Makes great sense to me.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

The incredible New Mexico sky

It goes without saying that the world is full of beautiful places. Iowa, this time of year--and especially this year--is awash in a bath of emerald. But here in New Mexico it's the rainy season, monsoon season, and every day I've been here the sky is a pageant of dramatic clouds as storms--ten miles away--sweep almost languidly across the desert landscape dropping lightning as if it were seeding the land.

For a long time already, of course, artists have noted the peculiarly saturated colors of the desert landscape, especially, I think, at altitudes like this one--six or seven thousand feet. Yesterday I went for a walk and took fifty pictures of nothing other than land and sky and an occasional ancient skeletal mesquite bush against what seemed burnt red sand, soil that clings to your shoes forever if take a walk before it dries.

But, since I've been here, it's the sky that won't let me alone--at once full of rumbling danger, then a half hour later, little more than the detritus of broken storms cast against an often deep azure background, an incredible canvas.

Two nights ago, a double rainbow dug itself into the earth right here, at Rehoboth school. I didn't take this shot, but I wish I had. It's enough to make an ancient skeptic heart really believe, once again, that the rainbow is whole lot more than a peculiar mix of rain and sun.


This morning, I'm thankful for the theater that is the New Mexico sky.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Twin Twins

One night, a month or so ago, two of my nephews were completely out of sorts. One of them, that very night, was getting married; he seemed lost in another world.
During the always painful ritual of post-wedding photographs, the other nephew was totally distracted by a baby, his, who simply would not, or could not, stop crying. He was trying to be a really good father, but that child gave neither him nor anyone else any peace. This nephew, the groom's brother, only recently became a father, and, if the truth be told, he's no longer a kid. He got himself married late, then, with his wife's help, of course, had twins. I'd never seen that nephew as a father before, and the whole scene made me smile because while almost every parent has been there, this moment of sheer exasperation was undeniably his first.

I have a niece, cousin of the groom, who is presently trying to determine how on earth she's going to live with two similarly new editions. My sister says the babies are lovely and just a joy, but they tend to usurp almost everything else from my neice's life. Like her cousin, this niece of mine is neither no longer a kid. Both are well into their thirties.

And both were coached along significantly by fertility specialists. My mother was suddenly gifted with four beautiful new great-grandchildren with the significant help of medical science.

I say all of that because today, I just read, is the thirtieth birthday of Louise Brown, of Oldham, England, the world's first in vitro baby. Just a few years ago, Ms. Brown had a baby the old-fashioned way, which is to say that she's just about as normal as can be.

Today there are four new names on the Schaap family tree because of a procedure that I'm quite sure most of the good Christian folks of thirty years ago wondered greatly about, as some still do. But it's hard to argue with four babies, even if one of them bawled up a storm.

Here's my problem. I appreciate the fact that some good Christian folks shake their head at the inroads science can and does make into the otherwise ordinary progression of our lives. Cloning?--is it right? Designer babies?--is that what God wants us to do create? I appreciate well-meaning people who ask questions where others claim the only cause is progress.

But it's impossible to argue with that bawling sweetheart who wouldn't pose for family pictures. It's impossible to argue about the beauty of four gorgeous new human beings, bringing exaspiration--sure!--but sheer joy too, right now, into the lives of a niece and a nephew and their tired, loving spouses.

That science doesn't necessarily listen only to the most conservative religious voices in society is a good thing. Had Dr. Patrick Steptoe simply put away his glass thirty years ago, there would be no Louise Brown.

Life is more nuanced than some would have us believe. Lord, help us negotiate all the angles.

No matter. This morning, I'm thankful for four little babies.

(Here's hoping their parents are doing okay.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


Maybe it's the CNN Specials on television lately, terribly interesting. Maybe it's because I'm now on a committee that studies the issues connected with it and advocates when necessary. Maybe it's because I've been in up to my eyeballs in the story of Native American boarding schools for so long or because two of my last writing projects involved minorities. I'm not sure why, but I'm deeply conscious of racism lately.

Not the KKK kind or the Third Reich's peculiar madness--that's too easy. I'm conscious of ways in which I am racist, of understanding how firmly set the infrastructure of racism is a part of the way I see the world.

Yesterday, in a long interview with a retired Navajo couple and their daughter in a quite typical reservation home, out in the middle of the wide open spaces of New Mexico, I had a great time with good, good people, who were more than happy to share their story--and stories--with me.

When I was packing up my gear, their daughter produced a book of mine, Near Unto God, pointed to the name on the cover, and asked if that was me. It was, of course. The book was beat up and richly scribbled in and highlighted--in other words, well loved, well appreciated. She didn't have to tell me that book was closely read, well-used.

Now the racism. I was shocked that she had that book. Near Unto God is a heavily paraphrased version of Abraham Kuyper's To Be Near Unto God, a book, at one time, I thought would really sell and be deeply loved. Yeah, well. Never did much at all, in fact.

My mother loved it, but she said she had to read the meditations three times in order to really appreciate them. I simply assumed that, as meditations, people prefered sweeter, more easily digestable material. Really, sales were very disappointing.

That the single book of mine this young lady pulled out was Near Unto God just about took my breath away. Most of the tonnage of that shock was created by circumstance, thus prejudice. Here I was on the Navajo Reservation, in a typical Navajo home in the middle of the vast open spaces of high desert, this couple's sheep just a stone's throw away, and one of them produces a book I've always assumed to be loved only by those who were purposely curious about Abraham Kuyper, very thoughtful, and willing to sink deeply into the devotions that likely secured for Kuyper a deep and admiring audience and following among my own people.

Just as quickly, I realized my own racism: it never dawned on me that some reservation Navajo would not only have within her possession but even appreciate that particular book of mine--others, sure, but not that one. That unrealized judgment is intrinsically racist.

Racism grows so deeply within us that most of the time, some of us at least, don't even know it's there. When it forms like some putrid scum on freshwater lake, finding it is no joy. But at least, this morning, I know it's there.

And that's what I'm thankful for this morning. I caught racism in my own soul yesterday, and there's always something sad about its discovery, and yet liberating.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jimmie of Albuquerque:
The First Subject

When you leave the rental car facility of the Albuquerque airport, you look straight out west through the valley of the Rio Grande and over miles of suburbs toward a vast open horizon that reminds you you've arrived in the American West. Out there somewhere off I-40, is the Coors Exit, which I took, years ago, to try to find the home of a subject for a story.

I was working for the Back to God Hour then, doing a collection of stories on the lives of people who'd been deeply affected by their ministry. This subject was first--her name was Jimmie something, and even though I don't remember her last name, I'll never forget her face or the radiance of her personality. She and her husband were African-Americans, Southern folks who'd come up North, to Michigan, I think, with hundreds of thousands of other Southern rural black folks in the Great Migration, for jobs.

She'd simply been listening to the radio one morning, in Alburquerque, where they came to live after the Second World War, and she'd accidentally tuned into the Back to God Hour, where she'd heard Brother Eldersveld, she told me. The ministry had changed her life, and every year since she'd sent in a donation, with a letter indicating her appreciation.

Jimmie and her husband were my first subjects, and they were immensely gracious. I had dinner with them, in fact; they'd asked me to stay. Somewhere, even today, I have a picture of her standing outside with her flowers, an early and amateurish attempt at portraiture.

She was thrilled that I'd come, thrilled with the story, thrilled when it came out, thrilled to be part of the book that celebrated the ministry itself. But then, Jimmie was easily thrilled. She told me in a letter early on in the process that she was a member of the First Baptist Church, Albuquerque. She seemed by that note--and others--almost to be too good to be true, so I called the First Baptist Church just to check to see if she was everything I thought she was. I remember the secretary describing her as the only African-American woman in the congregation, and a joy to all.

Two years later, I believe, I somehow got word that Jimmie and her husband, coming home from visiting one of their kids, were in a horrible auto accident, in which Jimmie was killed, her husband severely injured.

Every time I fly into Albuquerque--and I've done it frequently in the last year--I pull out of the rental car facility and look west over the Rio Grande valley, then eventually pass the Coors Exit, and remember my nervousness, this big white guy going to the home of an African-American couple, armed with a tape recorder and a camera, going to do a story, one of several I was going to be doing for that book.

I remember the time because of who I was, but more because of who they were--wonderful people taken far, far too quickly from this world.

Today--not all that long from now--I'll pack a camera and a digital voice recorder and head out to a trailor where I'll meet another couple, this one Navajo, and I'll do the whole thing over again, many years--and many interviews--later.

Sometimes I feel like I'm little more than some ruthless businessman, stepping into people's lives, making the sale, tugging at their intimacies, then, a few hours later, getting the heck out of Dodge. Journalists wear two hats--the sweet confidante and friend who will smile his or her way into a subject's heart, and the cold-blooded killer who will do anything to get the very best story possible. To subjects, sometimes I think I must be as mysterious to them as the Lone Ranger. "Who was that guy anyway?" they must say a week after I'm gone.

But sometimes--often, in fact--they really do stay with me. I hope they know that. They gain a foothold in my heart, like Jimmie did, and create images I'll never forget.

Everytime I look west from the Albuquerque airport, I'll think of her, I'm sure. She made me more than a camera and a voice recorder.

She was one beautiful child of God.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


This round of Presidential sweepstakes have been unique right from the get-go, perhaps because, for a long time, the two candidates creating the biggest headlines were not white males. Poor pasty McCain, who everyone describes as a maverick, can hardly be all that maverick-ish when contrasted with an authentic African-American. Yet, his having been a maverick is absolutely essential to his success; were he a traditional Republican, there would be no race at all.

Then, too, there's the near total demise of the religious right, whose traditional leaders are either silent, no longer with us, or simply disregarded. Who could have guessed the dissolution of that group could have happened so quickly or totally? Amazing.

And now Obama has begun a world tour. Everyone is watching--the entire world. And the commentators here at home are stressing the importance of his tightroping. On the one hand, it's important for Americans to see him as someone who will break through the animosity which has existed throughout the world toward the U.S. since the Iraq war; when Europeans hail him with big crowds, a new kind of world leader will be obvious. On the other hand, Obama has to be wary of some kind of premature coronation: if Europeans fall all over him, will the American electorate rebel? No master writer could have created such an unusual scenario.

Last week, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has been Bush's own man in Baghdad, appeared to agree with Obama on a timetable for a troop withdrawal in Iraq, his own people even using the word. Go figure.

It's a mess, but messes have a way of birthing new orders. I suppose how one looks at all of this depends greatly on how one sees what's immediately behind us. But then, the Republicans have selected a maverick, and the Democrats finally thumbed out the most prominent Democrat in the last two decades. Nothing is "traditional" here--nothing at all. We're in a topsy-turvy world, politically.

Actually, I still think--as I have in the past--that it's all a lot of fun.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Sixty at Sixty

It's not everyday I get to say I'm thankful for a new book with my name on the spine. My first was published almost thirty years ago now, something called Sign of a Promise, a collection of stories about Dutch Americans set throughout the upper Midwest. I'd determined that I would learn how to write fiction by reading ancient anecdotes from my own ethnic background, then writing them as short stories. I won on that all the way around--not only did I learn how to write, I published the workbook, as if I'd won the basketball game simply by taking layups.

Hasn't always been that easy. I've got two novels lying around this house that some publisher could buy, cheap, and a bunch of other projects that never really made it out of the blocks. But Sixty at Sixty is the latest manuscript to find its way between covers--and hopefully not the last.

Throughout those thirty years, I've written several devotional books, almost always for kids. One of the best sellers is Intermission, first published in 1985 and still selling a few now and then, a tour through the Bible written for 12-year-olds (or so). Sixty at Sixty is my very first devotional book for adults--old ones at that :).

For several years I wrote devotionals from the Psalms, as much for myself as anything. I took the style from Abraham Kuyper's Near Unto God, a book I revised substantially a few years ago. Kuyper often simply took a verse out of a chapter and took off, did a riff on the idea. I liked that. Besides, I'm no theologian or linguist. I'm just a guy who reads the psalms.

I quit when I'd accumulated somewhere around 365. The original idea was to use only those Psalms that had reference to wide open spaces. I'd been fascinated by this land on which I live, the emerald cusp of the Great Plains, as I still am; and I thought I'd write from this time and place specifically. Somewhat arbitrarily, I decided to go for two manuscript pages a piece, which is far, far longer than most meditations people actually read today.

When I finished, I had a volume akin to a telephone book. Who on earth would buy it? Nobody. I'll concede this much about my abilities: I've always been a better writer than businessman.

Along the line, I gave some of those meditations to our pastor, who said he enjoyed the ones about getting older (he's almost sixty himself). Honestly, I wasn't aware of that being a theme in the collection I'd been writing; but I wasn't surprised that it was. So Faith Alive Publications went after the idea I tried to sell them--sixty meditations from a guy who was sixty years old: "a boomer reads the psalms."

For me, reading meditations like these in a book is different than reading them on the screen in front of you. For the first time, really, it struck me that what I'd committed to paper was what I was going to have to live with now that they were all between covers. It struck me that I'd been far more "personal," in a way, than I'd ever been before. Scary, really.

Anyway, those meditations are no longer locked up in this computer. They're out there, suitably arrayed with what I think is an attractive cover. Looks like a book of poems, really, which may well be the kiss of death, poetry selling as poorly as it does. Regardless, I think the book looks good. I have no idea what readers will think. We'll see, I guess.

And--oh, yes--I've got to mention that the foreward is written by Eugene Peterson. There--that's worth the price of admission all by itself.

This morning I'm thankful to hold this thing in my hands, just as thankful as I was thirty years ago. It's still a great thrill.

Should you be interested, saith the huckster, you can find it here:

Friday, July 18, 2008

[No Picture. Read on.]

A Year of Morning Thanks
Okay, that we're alive

We started out third in a group of three. To be honest, I was a little surprised my wife, who really hasn't spent any time at all in a canoe, was so open to the idea of taking on the Niobrara River, not that the Niobrara is so rough or challenging. But she was game, so off we went, totally unpracticed.

Once we were in the water, Barbara asked me what she had to do. I told her simply to be vigilant about dangerous-looking riffles that formed over rocks we'd just as soon not hit. I'm not sure she knew exactly what "dangerous-looking riffles" were. She was unsure of how to hold the paddle.

Maybe five minutes in the river, we were floating merrily along when I reached for my camera because I wanted to get it out of the case should I need it, which I would have, of course.

Anyway, when I was fussing with the camera (and not steering or even looking where we were going), the canoe decided to veer left and, in so doing, hit, sideways, a rock the size of Volkswagon. Neither of us would have made Lewis and Clark's team, of course, so the slam-bang movement was enough to make us both shift our weight, which is, of course, a deadly course of action in a canoe. In a spirit of togetherness, we leaned away from said rock, and when we did the blessed canoe rolled back toward the flow of the river and, in a second, dumped us, prefering river water, I guess. We both did belly rolls out and came up sputtering.

Not to worry here--the Niobrara is not deep, but it zips along rather effortlessly in spots (like the one where we capsized), so much so that getting one's footing was no simple task. Somehow--a curse, I'm sure--my sandal flipped back so that the front of my foot was no longer wrapped up, forcing me to walk like a loon might have on solid ground--which is to say with all the grace of a hippo. Meanwhile, my wife is simply trying to stand up.

My camera--I saw it--stayed afloat for a minute, along with everything else--an oar, a plastic bag with our drinking water, our plastic picnic cooler, and, of course, the camera bag. The river is pleasantly clean, so that floatilla would have made a rather comely still life, were I in the mood, which I wasn't, still sputtering as I was from the baptism. And, of course, I had no camera anyway.

Did I mention my hat was gone too? It was.

At this point, Barbara wasn't at all sure of the whole canoeing thing, and we were just five minutes into the trip. She's looking at me as if a divorce were a pleasant thought, and I'm thinking--no, not thinking, but simply reacting. With no measure of restraint or discretion, I thought I could turn into some Mike Fink River Super-Hero and single-handedly dump the water from a canoe that was itself nearly under water. With barely any footing, I gave the monster a heave, assuming some holy strength would miraculously infuse my aging body. No such holy strength arrived, however, and I pulled something sixty-years old in my back, some muscles I wasn't even sure I had. But I did, that particular muscle more than happy to let me know it was there.

"What are we going to do?" Barbara said, and I told her we needed to get the canoe to shore so we could flip it--me and some weightlifting team from on high.

By now, our goods were floating merrily down the river, sans camera which drowned rather quickly and hasn't been seen since, I'm sorry to report.

Like some testosterone king from the Corp of Discovery, I somehow got the canoe to shore, pulled it up and out of the water, and actually tipped out the water. I don't know how. Then, undeterred (that's a lie), two of us crawled back in and simply kept on going, even though we had only one oar. I have no idea how that one stayed behind or even whose it was.

Ain't we got fun.

Three hours later or so, we came out of the water, and nearly had to rent a wench to lift me out of the canoe, so wrenched was some obscure back muscle. I'm still suffering.

For the rest of the float, we stayed cool, of course, thoroughly drenched, the only blessing.

Some gracious floaters collected our gear and left it on a sandbar, where we picked it up ten minutes later, except for the camera, as I've said.

Here's the moral lesson (I'm sorry--I'm a Calvinist). At the very height of our angst, both of sputtering, me trying to lug a swamped canoe to the shore, our gear innocently floating away in Mother Nature (who is not a sweetheart, by the way, but immensely uncaring), a couple of canoers slowed down as they passed us and politely asked if we needed help.

Where on earth does a man get the arrogance to answer the way I did? What kind of macho silliness made me say, "Naaah, it's no big deal," as I continued to spit out river water? Insanely, I refused to look as incompetent and silly as I was.

And yet, I don't find it hard to believe I shrugged off their offer of help because, given the same circumstance, I'd be willing to bet I'd do it exactly the same again. "No big deal," I said, trying to clean and jerk a canoe that had to weigh a ton. "No, I can handle this," as if our being flipped was sheer comedy. Maybe it was. Maybe I am.

And so it went--just a day on the river.

Barbara says it's maybe the only one. "A person should go canoeing for the first time when he or she is sixteen, not sixty," she says.

Three days later, when I lie in bed I still can't turn over without shrieking. If Barbara would visit the doctor, her black-and-blueness would land me in jail as an abuser.

Was it fun? Yeah, in the rear-view mirror. Am I glad we did it? Sure--mostly we had a great time.

Would we do it again?

Stay tuned on that one.

I've gone almost a year now with this blog, and I'm quite sure if you look back at the 300 posts or so, you'll not find one that doesn't have a picture. Except this one.

I'm mad. And camera-less. And embarrassed, sort of. I can't think of a better time not to have shot of all of this comic opera.

And no, I can't think of why I should be thankful right now. Maybe that we're not dead?--okay. That I didn't break any bones?--sure. All right.


Besides, my back hurts.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Saturday Morning Catch

Wish there were a slide show, but dawn came and left through a revolving door this morning. "Partly cloudy," the weather report said, but 98 percent overcast made the sun's appearance a momentary photo op. Suddenly, maybe ten minutes before sunrise, the cloud cover lit up, but I was tooling along gravel roads looking for some kind of silhouette when it happened, in no position to get something really jaw-dropping.

As always, it was a joy to be there, to watch magenta splash over the thick clouds, but the show was over quickly, the overcast spreading to the horizon. Three minutes, maybe, start to finish, and the camera and I simply weren't ready.

Even though this morning's catch creates no strain on the stringer, I'm still be thankful for having been there.

Friday, July 11, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Not Getting it Right

My pictures just don’t turn out like I think they should. Through the lens of my camera, they look terrific, I swear. When I bring them up on the little screen on the back, they look fine. When I get them on my computer, however, they’re fuzzy or muted or just sort of blah.

Digital photography means no more darkrooms, no more foul developers, no more waiting for prints—and thousands more shots. But only rarely does something turn out as well as I imagined.

So I try it again. I stay at it, finagling this or that, changing a lens or filter, adjusting light and time.

The truth is, I don't think I've ever shot a landscape, taken those shots home, and then thought them more beautiful than what I saw with my own eyes. That has never happened and probably never will.

But the opposite phenomenon happens ALL THE TIME. It's become a game I play against myself, trying to get it right. Drives me nuts.

Who am I kidding? The fact is, at sixty years old, I rather like learning curves, more than I did when I was younger anyway, and I've got more time. When I think about it, I’m thankful that "getting it right" isn’t as easy as it sometimes looks. Keeps me young.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Fun Stuff

More laughs.

Apparently, somebody has a new book out on Madonna, the "material girl" Madonna, who is, we're told, head over heels into what newspeople call "a Jewish cult" named Kabbalah, which is, we're told, a brand of religious faith that must have special appeal to celebrities, because, we're also told, she's not the only A-level headliner among the adherents, all of which may explain why A-Rod, the New York Yankee star, is leaving his wife and kids because, we're told, Madonna's been evangelizing him, in addition to leaving her own husband, all of which makes good sense, right? But none of that is really news. Here's the news: we're told this new book, soon available in every Barnes and Nobles in the country, has an astounding thesis--that Madonna's true love is herself. Shocking. You can buy it pre-pub, I bet.

Some Nebraska storm watcher sold video of a Valentine, NE tornado to the Associated Press last week ($295 reportedly). Soon after, however, some other storm watcher protested, told the AP that what they'd put on their website was his own video from four years ago, just altered. Cute. Isn't it something what photography can do these days? Create a tornado were there weren't one at'all. If you can't trust a picture, tell me--what can you trust?

Apparently, Victoria's Secret is introducing a new line of "intimate apparel" with college logos, a whole new marketing strategy. A number of universities, including Harvard and Berkeley, have already tried them on, so to speak. Think of it--we're only a year away from Dordt College Defender thongs. Get your order in now.

And finally, Jesse Jackson got cooked by an open mike. Apparently, in reference to Barack Obama, Jackson, thinking himself off camera, told a news commentator that he'd like to wield a knife expertly enough to make Obama a soprano--words to that effect. Commentators believe Jackson's gaffe is likely good for Obama. Michelle has yet to comment.

Ain't we got fun?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


If you haven't heard, you've got to love this.

This two-faced English comedian named Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame (no, I didn't see the movie; and, yes, my often non-existent scruples somehow emerged to keep me away) pulled yet another incredible and deceitful stunt, this time on hundreds of people in Texarcana, Arkansas, plying them into a fairgrounds arena with dollar beer and the promise of a couple of bloody bouts of cage fighting. He called it "Blue Collar Brawlin'," did all the necessary marketing, and filled the place, sold all kinds of beer, then brought two gay guys into the cage. Instead of wrestlin', the two of them stripped down, did a little exotic body humping, and kissed.

As kids say, "Eeoouw," or however you spell it.

To say the least, the natives grew restless. A goodly portion of that cheap beer got flung into the ring and those gay guys sought a hasty, pre-arranged exit.

"We had a contract for cage fighting. We were deceived," said Dwight Duncan, president and CEO of Four States Fair Grounds in Texarkana.

No kidding.

Baron Cohen became a national celebrity after his 2006 hit movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in which he played a bumbling reporter from the Central Asia nation and conned people from throughout America, but often from the South.

One of these days, some redneck will grab Cohen by the short hairs and give him some comeuppance. That's just fine with me. On the other hand, the idea of a hard drinkin' crowd of wrestlin' fanatics getting snookered by a couple of nearly naked gay guys is almost righteous in and of itself. Don't know who to love least here.

Think I'll just giggle.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Writing across the curriculum

When the SAT college entry exam was revamped to include a writing segment in 2005, most of the educational world paid close attention. Two years have now passed, and studies are beginning to appear. This, from this morning's Chronicle of Higher Education: "In the latest, a study by researchers at the University of Georgia has found that the new writing section is a much better predictor of academic success than the test's critical-reading and mathematics sections."

I'm not particularly surprised. It's not that, if you know how to write you can do anything; nor is it that people who can't write can't teach or learn. But when I read these latest study results--if you can write, you likely can do college--it makes perfect sense to me.

Writing requires thought, from word placement, to sentence structure, to paragraph construction. Writing requires ideas, but also rhetoric--how to shape those ideas into what it is you want to say. Writing isn't easy, and teaching writing--teaching good old freshman English--is, IMHO, the toughest job in any English department.

The college in which I teach will embark on a new core curriculum this year, a set of required courses that, for the first time, won't include "freshman English." If a kid enters the college with a 24 SAT or better, the writing requirement is waved. I should be happy: the toughest course to teach in our English curriculum has vanished.

But I think the change is resoundingly short-sighted. Students today do not write better than they did forty years ago--and for a ton of reasons.

Number me among those who are not surprised that writing ability is perhaps the best indicator of potential success in college. Number me among those who say that being able to write clearly is certainly among the foremost gifts of any education.

Monday, July 07, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Teaching--during the summer, that is

For most of my life, I've been mocked unmercifully for summer vacations, but then I live among Calvinists, most of whom believe that work--getting-one's-hands-dirty work--is the only true measure of saving grace. To have three or four months off every year, as teachers do, seems to most of them to be a sin. The fact is, the truly righteous are damnably guilty of one of the seven deadlies--envy. But then, because they work all summer, most of them believe the sweat of their brows simply places them beyond transgression.

The first year I lived out "in these parts," as old-time Westerns used to say, I simply lied. When asked by my beefy softball team members what a young prof like me was going to do now that summer had arrived, I told them I was going to work for my father-in-law, an Iowa farmer. That answer saved me from the silent derision and strange looks I would have suffered had I told them that I was "writing." Thirty-plus years later, most people now understand that writing is what I do because I have a track record; but when I didn't, most of them would have simply thought me as slothful as any other teacher.

Shoot, I've got that perception in me myself. If I sit around all morning and write, by afternoon I've got to mow the lawn or do something else to work up a sweat or I start feeling indolent. Somehow a teachers' three free months still feels a little like an abomination, even to me. But not much.

We're midway through summer's full glow--the Fourth has passed so we're no longer ascending, but the days are already getting shorter and sweet corn's not in yet so neither have we truly arrived. It's early July, and I flat-out love summer, just love it. Summer may well be the best reason to seek the profession of teacher. I'm getting my work done, and loving it. I'm doing what I want to do, and I won't worry much about what others need of me until the first week of August, when, slowly, this heavenly stretch of free time draws to an unforgiving end.

Right now, today, this early July, I'm just thankful I'm a teacher.

So there.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

A Good Show

Last year already, a student told me about Into the Wild, the Sean Penn-directed retelling of Jon Krakauer's book of the same name, but I didn't see it until last night. It is the story of Chris McCandless, who walked away from the life his parents--and everyone else--expected him to take after college graduation, when, instead, he tried to do a kind of Walden Pond thing in Alaska. The story is dark; Thoreau spent two years at Walden, after all, then left the cabin in the woods. If McCandless's story would have proved some kind of success, I suppose it would never have been a book or a movie. If you haven't seen it, be warned--there's no sweet ending here.

But I really loved the film, loved it because Penn probably over-indulged it with landscape shots of sheer beauty, not just from Alaska but from wherever McCandless's sojourn took him. Sean Penn seemed to care greatly about McCandless, his sometimes idiotic romantic spirit, and the world in which he came to want to try himself and his own humanity.

A film like Into the Wild, from my point of view, refreshes my hope for Hollywood and, thus, for the character of the human spirit. McCandless doesn't make it out of the wild, but his trip into it is extraordinarily rich in the telling. This morning I'm thankful for good movies--good stories.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


When the dust storms rolled over the Great Plains week after week eighty years ago, many good people, good Christians, were so terrified that they began to believe the world was coming to an end. The perception of "end times" is an almost instinctive reaction among Christian believers--and actually almost everyone, it seems. The idea that our world is falling apart is never all that far from human consciousness, and may well be more characteristic of folks in a democracy than in other forms of government. After all, we have no king, no one to lead us toward the light. If it's a job that must be done, we have to do it. Scary.

Pick your issue: abortion, gay marriage, prayer in public schools, falling educational standards, the national debt, the social security crisis, illegal immigration, ever-increasing gas prices, an incredibly expensive war that won't end, NAFTA, pornography, the demise of the middle class, $400 million for Rush Limbaugh, Iowa floods, international terrorism, media power, the deification of athletics, Hollywood excesses, loan defaults, wholesale bankruptcies, Wal-Mart, liberals, conservatives, dollar doldrums, rotten tomatoes--there are ample reasons to be scared.

Me?--I point at the TV Guide channel. Their split screen offerings includes the daily television schedule, along with some drivel from the world of celebrity silliness. My guess is no media programming better illustrates the daft American character than whatever appears above the scrolling program schedule--I don't care what it is. A succession of beautiful people talk about some inane subject as if it is holy. What the moguls at the network offer us on the top half of the screen judge as the most fascinating to most Americans is what's there, or else they'd put something else on top, like C-Span or something from the History Channel. Instead, we get the paparrazi's greatest hits because, ostensibly, glamour and celebrity are of most concern to most Americans. I watch what the TV Guide programs, and I think, "end times." Of course, so does Osama bin Laden and every fear-gripped radical Islamic terrorist in our world.

Yesterday, Independence Day, is a celebration of the birth of democracy in this country. There's nothing sacrosanct about our history, and patriotism can well be, as someone once said, the last refuge of a fool. Nonetheless, the idea of a democracy--the idea that people can govern themselves--remains the most revolutionary idea in the annals of political history.

And, to most of us, its continuing success remains remarkably precarious, as it likely always has and always will. The Calvinist in me still can't believe it works; the idea that people will do the right thing out of their own self-interest isn't an idea worth taking to any Calvinist bank.

And yet, somehow, it's worked.

Will it keep on working? Nobody knows. It's an immensely grand experiment, full to the brim with foolishness, radical beyond comparison--yet, for the last couple of centuries successful beyond anyone's dream.
And therefore very much worth celebrating.

Today, the day after July 4, I'm thankful for freedom.

Wary, but thankful.

Friday, July 04, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Good people

A former student, now an editor, put me up to it--would you go over and shoot some pix of a family in your neighborhood, a family we're featuring in our magazine? Who me? I just point and shoot, mostly at landscapes. Taking pictures of a family is something I've only ever done for my own. I'm not at all sure of myself with moving targets.

I went. Afterward, I gave myself, first test, a C-. Somewhere along the line, I must have tripped the little toggle that moves the camera's lens over to manual focus. The blessed thing chirped at me for awhile, but nervous about the job, I simply let the chirping go as if the camera was simply annoyed with me. When I looked at the pix, they were a couple of inches short of sharp focus.

So I had to go again and did last night. The family is as sweet as the picture above--strong, loving, and helpful. They're organic farmers, and committed to it, as, I suppose, a family has to be once they start down that road. They're great people, and they showed it not only in the loving care they give to a circus full of animals on their farm, but also in the way they put up with a rookie photographer who wasn't at all sure of himself.

Done now. Got some good ones, I think. Learned some lessons, too, which isn't bad for an old man doing new tricks.

This morning, Independence Day, I'm thankful for a sweet and dedicated farm family, good people, just down the gravel road. What a treasure.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Thoughtful Truth

Lord, keep me from becoming Dave Barry, the humor columnist, who once wrote that, as an English major, he quite regularly wrote "lengthy scholarly papers filled with sentences that even he did not understand." That according to this morning's Writer's Almanac.

And this, too, it's featured poem:

The Rider

A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn't catch up to him,
the best reason I ever heard
for trying to be a champion.
What I wonder tonight
pedaling hard down King William Street
is if it translates to bicycles.
A victory! To leave your loneliness
panting behind you on some street corner
while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
no matter how slowly they fell.

Naomi Shihab Nye, from Fuel, BOA Editions, 1998.

Lord, help me not to be Dave Barry, but I wish I knew why I found a poem like this one as beautiful, as I do. Not everyone does, I'm sure. After all, it's depressing--pink petals fall, loneliness is real, shit happens; and all of that is true even if we roller skate fast enough to be champions. That is depressing.

Then why do I like it? Probably because it somehow approximates what I think, what I see, what I feel. I could tell stories--we all could. Poetry is, Frost once said, a momentary stay against confusion. Here's Athanasius, talking about the Psalms, "the Psalter":

it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety of movements of the human soul. It is like apicture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you real only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour's coming or you turn to the historical books to learn the odings of the kings and holy me; but in the Psalms, besides all these things, you learn about yourself.
It's the function of poetry, as it is of the Psalms, to show us to ourselves. It's the function of art to do that--stories too. It's the function of television to make money, as cinema. And there is a difference. "The Rider" speaks the truth.

And that's encouraging. That's hopeful. When I read "The Rider," I hear my own voice, feel my own heart, touch my own soul. So even though I'm well aware of the fact that, in this life, shit happens, I know this much at least--that I am not alone. That's good news.

This morning, I'm thankful for thoughtful truth, on roller skates.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Just a little sin

Yesterday, I talked to two good friends who I've not seen for a month, and I came away angry--well, not angry but sinfully covetous. Both of them, I swear, shed some considerable weight from the heft they'd normally carry out front, as I do. Sometimes I feel like one of those men wearing an empty barrel, except I don't have the barrel. I've got to watch what I eat, I told myself for the umpteenth time this summer.

But then at a Farmers' Market, I spotted a bushel full of homemade cinnamon rolls. I'm not kidding--what seemed an entire bushel. At my age, I'm not sure anything could be more seductive as a hundred cinnamon roles; but, girding my loins with as much moral courage as I could muster, and with the aid of what must have been a batallion of guardian angels, I said no to sin and walked away undefiled, but deeply shaken.

Without my knowing it, however, my wife--playing the Eve--picked one up for me. She must have noted the jittering sweatiness, the abject wan-ness all over my face. Bless her.

So this morning, after I work out, I'm having one of those grand cinnamon rolls for breakfast.

Somewhere, the Bible says "everything in moderation," right? Even a little sin.

This morning I'm thankful for just a little sin.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

St. Robin

That robin's arresting song begins every last morning just after four, I swear. It's dark, that's for sure, when he starts. I'm no ornithologist, but he has to be a male.

Sometime in April, when the temps begin to warm, his song is a joy. Really, it still is. But he sings it every day of the summer--every morning, very early. One can get too much of a blessing, after all. Always doing the right thing gets annoying, patriotism--Lord knows--has gotten good people into all kinds of problems, and even darling grandkids can drive you nuts. What I'm saying is, this robin's song is just as beautiful today as it was the morning the frost seeped out of the ground, but I wonder why he couldn't set his alarm back an hour or so.

Besides, I'm told (by experts) that the real motivation for his sweet singing is likely one of two, well, basic motivations: sex and greed. He's either bringing some lover close or keeping some upstart rival land baron away. Christians like me tend to think of a robin's song as some kind of feathery praise to the Maker. I'd be better off not knowing that this morning hymn likely arises from some horny old miser.

So now I'm mad--mad at my professor friend who told me that birds want sex and property just like the rest of us. I'd be far better off thinking this singer just outside our bedroom window is an oblate in the Order of Saint Robins, a repentent sinner who, for the remainder of his days, has pledged himself to opening every last morning of his life with praise to God.

That feels so much better.

But it's still terribly early in the morning.