Morning Thanks

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

Friday, February 27, 2009

Bill Holm is gone

"The weather was terrible in Iceland for most of the summer, mountains and sea shrouded in cold dense fog for a solid month, but I didn't mind. After the annual writer's week (which began with a howling blizzard on May 22), I hibernated at the table and finished the better part of two books. The Writers' Week crew this year were spirited and good humored but I was hot to scribble. One, a medium-sized essay on cabins, done for a Minnesota Historical Society Press picture book (Cabins) will come out in Spring; the Windows of Brimnes, my reflections on what the world and the 21st Century look like from out little northern perch, has one almost nothing else: "Partita #6 in E Minor", Liszt's transcription of the organ "Fuge in B minor", all 1.5 Sinfonias, Brahms' left hand version of the "Chaconne." Joyful, inexhaustible, stuff it braces the mind for the assaults of daily idiocy and violence. I recommend a half hour a day of Bach for the entire human race. Might save us."

Excerpt from Bill's 2006 Holiday Letter

Sometime this week Minnesota poet and essayist Bill Holm died. There are thousands, I'm sure--many of them students at Southwest Minnesota State University--who knew him far, far better than I did. I met him on several occasions, read him frequently, and once even made a kind of pilgrimage, along with my wife, to Minneota, the town where he lived--although he was born on a farm.

What I may well remember best about him was our first meeting, when he came into the house of Frederick Manfred, in Luverne, Minnesota, a featured guest of a gathering that drew dozens and dozens of people. What I'll never forget was the way he simply dominated the room. His gusto was nearly overwhelming, as were his opinions. He was as Icelandic and Manfred was Frisian, defiant and proud.

Like Manfred he was a huge man, a huge presence, and he was stubbornly committed to the region--Siouxland--that both of them considered home. Gifted in wildly diverse ways, he could make pianos do things they hadn't imagined.

But he was a writer and loved writing. Many in Minnesota and in this region don't know him, and that's sad. But those many who did know him or just read him know very well that the loss of Bill Holm, like the loss of Fred Manfred 15 years ago, leaves an emptiness that won't be filled.

The paragraph above is the post on his website, and it's him: Iceland, good writing, raucuous weather, music for the soul, and beefy opinions about the state of the world. There will be no other Bill Holm.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What do women want?

I'm told--which is to say I never read it in the by-laws--that the church where my wife and I are members determined 35 years ago, at its conception, that it would not have separate mens and womens bible study groups. After all, local church culture had it that way--full separation of genders--and it was an antiquated notion and segregationist and not normative or something to do things that way, and it simply wasn't going to go on anymore. About five years ago, women themselves seemed to forget that mandate. Now there's a women's bible study and secret friends.

I was part of the march on Washington, May, 1970, where, for the first time in my life, I saw fully registered political movements under waving banners--the gays, the SDS, and, yes, the feminists--"Feminists against the war," a whole gang of empowered women, something like a brigade. Okay, I'll admit it--it was a little scary.

I remember, back then, a Christian feminist colleague telling me that the only difference between men and women was plumbing. The reason I remember that statement is because it struck me as bizarre then, as it does now, but, good night, I didn't argue.

Once, years ago, three of us, all males, traveled to Madison, WI, for a meeting a magazine wanted me to cover, a meeting of the dairy interests in the middle of the farm crisis. As we were walking into the hall, one of us--not me--saw a woman lugging something like a bass viol case into the place, part of the musical entertainment, as it turned out. When he volunteered to help her--she did seem to be struggling--he was told rather impolitely to get lost. Chivalry, after all, was just another form of exploitation. We laughed half the way home.

And now here's this morning's story. Apparently, some small town in Maine has a coffee shop where the waitresses have gone topless. I did use the word waitresses because I saw nothing in the story about waiters, although I don't doubt for a moment in this day and age that topless male waiters with well-ordained, six-pack abs could draw customers too. Anyway, this one features females--or rather their breasts.

Some people in that town are mad--sure. Business is up, of course. The place is getting a ton of attention in the press, even from a blogger way out in Iowa--none of that is news either.

And neither is this, really. The owner says he hired ten young women from the 150 who applied. Now I'll grant you that unemployment is up too in these bad economic times. But 150 young women willing to bare-chest it to deliver hot lattes and an occasional frappacino suggests that some women at least don't mind at all being "objectified"--after all, I can say this with some experience, as a male: most customers won't be buying their Jo at the place on account of attractive personalities.

Someone asked one of the young ladies if she felt the whole idea degrading to women. "No," she said, "I love it. I find it very empowering, not degrading."

Tons of women loved Bill Clinton, even when he did his woman wrong. I never did get that either. There's a lot about gender stuff that I just don't get.

And that's okay, too. I rather like the mystery.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Rich Man

Happened last year, about this time. I had the opportunity to spend the day with a super rich guy, a mega-millionaire, who had me over to one of his houses. It's a long story.

Anyway, while there, he told me that the US was just a lap or two from a horrific economic collapse, something inevitable, he said. Because we were, he had already taken all sorts of precautions to protect his war chest.

First, he said, he moved the bulk of his massive portfolio overseas; after all, Wall Street was about to take a beating. Second, he told me he squirreled a ton of loot away (enough to keep his businesses afloat) in his mattress, so to speak. Third, he claimed he'd invested tons of what he had left in what he called "junk metal," gold and silver.

He was nice about it--thoughtful, even considerate. He was simply passing along inside info he knew, suggesting that, if I hadn't already, I too should quickly do the same with my millions, most of which would be lying around as vulnerably otherwise as his had been. I nodded.

That was February, a month after Obama had surprisingly won in Iowa, long before anyone ever whispered anything to me about economic collapse, long before bail-outs and toxic investments and shovel-ready infrastructure projects. It's possible that my rich friend was believing we'd have a Democratic President--after all, Bush wasn't exactly soaring in popularity a year ago. Maybe that's what he smelled just up the block--I don't know. But somehow the rich guy knew we'd soon be, economically speaking, in the slough of despond. Not only did he know, he acted. His bucks were elsewhere already, working for him, not for anyone else.

That's why I don't have a whole lot of sympathy or patience for Republic braying these days, why my receptivity for "free market principles" works about as well as analog tv transmission. The rich guy knew what was coming. It wasn't fortuitous that he acted; it was, on his part, prudent.

I've got nothing against him for making millions (his is a pure American rags-to-riches saga), nor for being bright enough to know how to stay afloat in the perfect storm he saw coming, even though it was months from any horizon. But he knew, and he acted.

Good for him.

Today that guy doesn't need anybody's help. He'll weather the storm. His millions won't get away. He's still got eight houses and sixteen Harleys. He'll do okay. Bully for him.

He doesn't need a break.

Millions of others do.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sweet Slumdog

I should have known better because it's happened before. A movie gets all kinds of rave reviews, and the buzz claims it will sweep the Oscars. Then, we go, and the thing just doesn't live up to the billing, as if any film could.

We saw Slumdog Millionaire on Saturday night, and on Sunday, at the Oscars, it made the rest of the 08 films look like chopped liver. It won for very good reasons. It has, after all, just about everything a winner needs--it's indisputably of the underdog genre, although it has the prerequisite elements of a shoot 'em up, action adventure, all of it crowned by--why not?--a love story. If the game show winner and his sweetheart would be whisked away by aliens at the end, it would be a little sci fi too, although the credits sequence is its own kind of unearthly blessing (if you haven't seen it, you have no idea what that means).

It is the quintessential feel-good movie. Maybe that's why I came out of the theater feeling a little less than blessed because, well, slightly manipulated. After all, I'm a bit too old to believe that everything is just that peachy. The poor kid from the slums--the slumdog--just happens to get the only questions he could answer, his boyhood girlfriend emerges from graft and corruption at just the right time (a brother redeems himself by giving his life away), and the beloved couple ride off in a limo, leaving the slums behind after a dance number so sweet it almost makes you cry all by itself.

The film itself has a feel-good story. Didn't look as if it would ever get shown in American theaters until Fox Searchlight picked up distribution rights. Without that, it would have simply been burned into cds and lost forever. It's British, of course, shot entirely in India, where people are deeply divided, it seems, over its content--specifically, whether the film honors its setting or simply uses it as a celluloid form of 21st century colonialization.

Once, years ago, when I wanted to write a book about a Lao preacher, publishers told me--Christian publishers--that American Christian readers didn't really want to read much about mission work or other cultures; what they really wanted was books about how to raise their families--how-tos on child-rearing, prayer, and a deeper devotional life. I think it's fair to say that Americans are well-insulated, self-insulated, so I'm really happy that a movie like Slumdog gains as much favor as it has. The only thing truly American about it is its "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" theme. I'm told that many, many Indian films are feel-good; Americans don't own the film rights to pure escapism after all.

I also found it refreshing to watch a film that didn't feature the beautiful faces of almost iconic celebrities. What's more, it cost on $15 million--it's now made 160. That's a great story too.

Maybe I was less than thrilled when I left the theater Saturday night because I'm just a bit too cynical to leave my doubts at the popcorn stand. Sure, the kid won millions, got the girl, and escaped his shitty (literally) childhood. Sure, the cops--corrupt thugs--were converted by his life story. Sure, good things happen for no good reason. Sure, I wish the world were rid of slums and we didn't have an economic crisis and my mother-in-law wasn't dying. Sure, if you clean up poor kids they'll be almost sinless. Sure, hope is real.

Sure, sure, sure.



Monday, February 23, 2009


It was wicked of me, but I like him and the guy is just plain interesting. He's as old as any autistic person I know, nearly 50, blessed somehow with a unique warmth. But because he is driven by his schedule, his own well-plotted labyrinth of rituals, any opportunity which threatens the march of events he's charted in his head is wretchedly troublesome. "Is there church tonight?" is the first thing he says when I pick him up on Sunday morning. And when I say yes, he'll say, "And will you pick me up?"

Okay, that's a lock.

So last Sunday I told him he should come along to a potluck we were having at church this week--after the worship. The guy loves to eat. He's slippery as an eel if, after church, someone brings cookies. By edict, he's supposed to eat only one, but he'll slicky-slicky as many as he can get if no one calls him on it. His paunch makes seat belts more impossible every week. Besides, he's told me a thousand times--literally--that he has a TV dinner for Sunday lunch.

I told him about tomato-y lasagna, barbequed chicken, a dozen cheesy hot dishes, and a whole cafeteria of deserts. "I like TV dinners," he told me again, but I knew I had his heart wrenched. Coming to dinner with us meant departing from text, and departing from his schedule was impossible. But that didn't mean that the forbidden apple wasn't dripping with sweet cider.

"How long will it take?" he asked me. Sunday afternoon he does his laundry. I knew that too. He's told me fifty times. I told him the potluck would take an hour. "How long is an hour?" he asked.

"About as long as church," I told him. "From the moment we sit down until Pastor Herman says 'amen'--that's an hour. That's it," I said.

"I do not know how long an hour is," he said.

"From the time a TV show starts until the next one does," I told him.

"I do not know how long an hour is," he said again.

"It's not all that long, Stuart," I told him. "Great food, too--cakes. Chocolate cakes."

"I do not know how long an hour is," he said again and again and again and again, until it was absolutely clear that, in his mind, maintenance had already bulldozed the potluck, no matter how chocolate-y.

It was evil of me, the tempter, so I retreated. "Besides," I said, "you like TV dinners."

"Do you like TV dinners?" he said.

Couldn't resist. "I'd much rather eat at church," I told him, devilishly.

And then he started again: "I do not know how long an hour is," he said, at which point the sentence became a solace, a mantra, not only to him but even to me. "I do not know how long an hour is," he said again, and so did I, and that blasted line stuck with me all day, as well it should have--a man whose impatience overflows regularly, who wishes all too frequently for the end of this, the end of that--"I am anxious to retire," "I can't wait for spring break," if I can only make it to the end of the week. . ."

"I do not know what an hour is."

One of the most beautiful psalms of all doesn't belong to King David, but to Moses, a man whose impatience kept him from the promised land after 40 years of wandering the desert with a gang of eternal whiners. In Psalm 90, Moses begs God to teach him to number his days, his hours, as if they were precious--because they are.

It was Psalm 90 that dropped from the sky when the words of Brother Stuart, the oracle, started making sense in my soul. I wish it weren't true, but far too often, just like Brother Stuart, I too do not know what an hour is.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Kurt Cobain

Today is the birthday of Kurt Cobain, a man--a musician and celebrity--who I never really knew; and there lies the tale.

So he died. So he killed himself, in fact, the man known, in some ways, as the original grunge band musician, a kind of ordinary guy who did extraordinary things, a man who bucked the system in very unconventional ways, as well as, tragically, very conventional ways. His role in my life is far less mysterious than it is important.

Cobain took his own life in his Seattle home on April 8, 1994. He'd been despondent and desperate, drug-addled, for most of his adult life. Just exactly why he was a hero back then remains something of a mystery to me, but an entire generation of listeners found his stubborn refusal to sell out to the music industry somehow heroic. He wasn't going to be hogtied by the almighty dollar; he wasn't going to genuflect to commercial success. He was an indie musician, and committed to it almost heroically. But, it seems, he couldn't live with himself. Wish I knew more.

On April 9, 1994, I got a call from a woman whose son was a friend of my son. I picked up the phone, and she said, "How's your son?"

I think we'd just finished supper and I had, I thought, no reason to worry. "Fine," I said, having absolutely no idea why she would ask.

"I just wondered how he was doing because the kids are really upset about the death of Kurt Cobain," she told me.

My parents and I used to fight about the music I played up in my bedroom, but then I didn't grow up with ear buds. I had very little notion of who Kurt Cobain was. I was a 45-year-old father of two kids, the boy an early high-schooler, and I had absolutely no reason to wonder why he'd be upset. I knew, vaguely, about Cobain's death, knew, vaguely, about Nirvana; but to me it was just another rock musician offing himself. I had no clue that my son even knew the man's name. Apparently, he did. Apparently, the man's death had hurt him badly enough for some other kid's mother to call. Apparently, there was an inescapable conclusion: miles and miles of rich and undiscovered territory existed in my 15-year-old son's psyche, territory I neither knew nor understood.

I guess I would have liked to think I was a good father up until that point. I would have liked to think that I was gracious and loving and kind.

But when I think of it now--on Kurt Cobain's birthday--when I remember the aching discovery that I knew absolutely nothing at all about a human being who was, for reasons I never have understood, very near and dear to the heart my own growing boy, I knew, for sure, that I was not as smart as I thought I was, and certainly not the blue-ribbon dad I'd thought myself to be.

That night I didn't push it. I didn't tiptoe up to his room and have a heart-to-heart with him about Kurt Cobain. I let him have his mystery.

What the death of Kurt Cobain meant to me, however, was that my kids were really not DNA-ed clones of their parents. Within my son's heart lay deep concerns his father knew absolutely nothing of. He had a life that I didn't know a thing about, and that conclusion was painful.

You might say that I was the one who grew up that day.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Let me do it

Nothing works. There are two xerox machines available to me at night, but they're both kaput. One of them announces it's wrecked with a handwritten sign, the other simply refuses to spit anything out. And I've got class in five minutes. Make that three. Sure, if I'd prepared earlier I wouldn't have felt murderous, but who's not keeping these machines up anyway? Sheesh.

Punt, I tell myself. You can't do what you'd planned, so come up with something else. So I did. And it worked. It worked well, probably better than anything I had planned with the assignment the xerox machines wouldn't deliver.

So right in the middle of a amazing comeback, a last-minute success borne out of sheer frustration, I tell myself once again that an old dog just doesn't learn new tricks, at least not quickly. I was born and reared on the lecture, I was once good at the lecture, and I'll probably die a lecturer, even though the lecture itself is dead in the water. The fact of the matter is, college students today--at least mine--want to do it themselves. Don't talk at me, don't ask me to take notes, don't demonstrate that you're the one with the education and experience--all you've got to do is administrate, set up activities we'll do, and then sit back and sip that Diet Coke.

They are experiential learners. They learn best when they do it themselves, which makes sense. I still remember some papers I wrote in college--my own work--but most of the lectures are long gone (which doesn't mean the content has leaked away). I'd say it's a major difference between the college students I teach today and the ones I taught 30+ years ago: today, kids want to do it themselves.

Which is fine, to a point. In a wonderful interview on Mars Hill Audio's last issue, Prof. Mark Bauerlein talks about the insulated world of kids today, specifically how social networking and cellphone obsequiousness allow them to live in the total comfort of the confines of their worlds, as if youth culture were the only culture.

I sat in an auditorium full of kids last weekend for the award ceremonies of a 48-hour film festival. The place wasn't jammed, but it was full, far more kids there than anyone could get for almost any speaker or lecturer, even a celebrity. Creating a short film in 48 hours is nothing to sneeze at; the job requires steep investment from a team of competent and creative kids. But the reason the place was full of kids was that making a film in 48 hours was something they did.

All fine and dandy. I've got no complaints and nothing but admiration for the kids who actually pulled the whole thing off.

But I wonder sometimes what might be lost in collaborative learning and the proclivity students have for doing things on their own. I wonder if maybe curiosity has waned. There's nothing wrong with the kid who insists "let me do it," but there is when they are the very heart of the learning process. If the only thing that really makes sense is what they do, then what they do will be, at least to them, the only things that really make sense.

But then, why bite the hand that feeds you? What am I complaining about? I got by slick and easy the other night by letting them do all the work. Who needs xerox? Sit back with that diet coke.

The new trick the old dog has to learn is to let them do it.

Then hope for the best.

Which is all we could ever do.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Okay, let me be a little petulant, a little whiny. After all, when I started teaching American Literature at this college, enrollments went as high as seventy. Last year, I had twelve.

Times change, of course, and Am Lit hasn't been a general education requirement for years. What's cool, what's in, what's hot--all of that is as subject to time and place as the cut of your suit's lapels or the daring-do of your neckline. For years already, the people in the business department--even in the academy--ruled the roost (what roost there is to speak of in higher educuation). The biggest problem in business departments was finding business people dumb enough to turn down six-figures for a chance to correct term papers.

But maybe times are a'changin' again. Reading the business pages these days is a reminder that maybe, just maybe, Jesus wasn't wrong about money. "Global Economic Crisis Worsens as Stock Markets Plunge," one headline reads this morning. It seems that sales of private jets have fallen off for the first time in five years. How about this?--Donald Trump is in trouble, and one of his billionaire buddies from Texas is accused of "massive fraud." Hmmmm.

Some of it sort of feels good, but other headlines carry real pain. General Motors is going to need another 30 million in order to survive, and that's after cutting an additional 47,000 jobs. More horror for Michigan.

It's hard to imagine a mega-operation like General Motors, with its own storied history, actually buckling into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but the government (which is to say, me) can't afford to throw billions into a black hole.

Word has it that fewer incoming college students these days are declaring themselves business majors. Running businesses may seem less glamorous when fat cat CEOs get their pictures hung in post offices.

The thing about biblical truth is that it sneaks up and smacks you when you don't expect it. You know some of it your whole life--"the love of money is the root of all evil"--but cliches simply lose their tart and the sentiment becomes a convenient truth, spoken solemnly in the sanctuary on a sabbath morn, but put on and taken off with a Sunday-best wardrobe. "Of course, it's true, and of course we believe it--now, deal the cards. This is business, after all."

Really, it's hard to imagine the US without GM because an institution of its size was once almost as omniscient, as beneficient, and as sovereign as most gods claim to be.

But it isn't, wasn't, and never will be. Maybe there's some poetic justice in a shrinking business class, saith the envious teacher of Emerson and Thoreau.

Whether our idols are Melville and Hawthorne or Merrill Lynch and Citibank, the real lesson here is old as the hills: in our worship, we keep getting it wrong, keep messing up, even if and when we know better.

But then there's this: shockingly, He keeps taking us back. Really, He's the only one holding trump.

Amazing grace.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Job's Place

Once upon a time, my colleagues and I had dinner with Chaim Potok, who's now gone, but whose birthday it is today. During a sweet few fat years in the college's history, the President decided to get some big-name guests for public lectures, so he inaugurated a Presidential Lecture Series and the first guest was the rabbi and Jewish novelist Chaim Potok.

The auditorium was full. I can't imagine filling it for anyone these days, much less a novelist. But Potok was a big name because lots of evangelicals loved The Chosen. That novel's success is likely why he was asked to come. That night, before his speech, we had dinner.

I don't remember the lecture, but one thing he said I remember well. In the middle of high-spirited conversation around the dinner table, for some reason we were talking about the book of Job, at which point he said he thought that the writer--whoever he was--had cheated by deliberately sweetening the ending of the book because he wanted so badly to get his work into the canon, into the Bible. At which point, we all chuckled.

Just exactly what creates the adhesive that makes certain things stick to the memory isn't easy to know, but that comment about Job stays with me. Even in jest, it offered, I suppose, a whole new way to talk and think about the holy scripture, a way that was and is far more peculiarly Jewish than Protestant Christian. What he said was shocking, even though it was a joke.

To imagine holy scripture being handwritten by some hack trying to figure out how to finish the story was an image I couldn't have made up because "the inspiration of scripture" allowed me only a picture some elegant saint resembling Jesus himself, quill in hand, his perfect head surrounded by the warm glow of heavenly light. To think of a biblical writer as if he were human would have been impossible for me then, had it not been for Chaim Potok.

I didn't convert. I still believe in the inspiration of the scriptures. But that memory comes back to me this morning on Potok's birthday as an example of the dangers of learning, because I don't think I've ever imagined what "inspiration" meant in quite the same context. And that's okay. It was a moment of growth, a spurt of growth. Life became, thereafter, more complex. I got older--and wiser--for that reason.

In that way, the night was a birthday, as today, February 17, is for him. And me.

We may have even had cake.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Brother Andrew

It started with the Great Plains, the lure of the openness, maybe, the exploration of Lewis and Clark, who, only an hour away, stopped to investigate a bump amid all the flatness here, a place they called "spirit mound" because the native people claimed tiny little human beings, a foot tall, lived there. No such folks then or now in our backyard.

From the plains, my interests moved to Native people themselves, especially "the Ghost Dance," prelude to Wounded Knee, as a religion, "the first real American religion," Ian Frazier calls it in his book The Great Plains. My interest in the Ghost Dance resulted in a novel, Touches the Sky, a novel that brings together my own ethnic and religious heritage with the story of the Lakota just west of here.

From the Lakota, my now much sharpened interest moved to education: the story of Indian boarding schools and the effects of mission efforts on the reservations west of here, a story that is, at best, a mixed bag of blessings.

And now let me throw this all into reverse for a moment. A quarter century ago I wrote a story about a woman who was then quite elderly, a woman named Dena Vander Wagen, daughter-in-law of a pioneer missionary, Andrew Vander Wagen, to the Navajo and Zuni Native peoples of western New Mexico. When she told me her father-in-law's story, I was taken by his willful immersion in the culture. This cowboy Vander Wagen wasn't a missionary in the traditional sense, a man determined to go out on a errand from which he'd return, a mission to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, as if his service was some special calling. When he came to New Mexico in the late 19th century, he came to live, to stay. The church that sent him didn't know quite what to do with that--someone who actually wanted to live with the people, not simply preach to them (although he wanted to do that too).

So five years ago already, I came up with an idea for a novel--the story of a man like Andrew Vander Wagen, pioneer missionary, set in South Dakota, among the Sioux, because I know far better how the sun rises and sets on the Great Plains than I know what the world looks like on the high deserts of New Mexico. My interests married, in a way. There's a novel I'd love to write, I told himself. . . .when I retire, when I retire.

Last night I opened a self-published family saga written about that man's life, a loving tribute created by Andrew Vander Wagen's granddaughter, Elaine Thomas, and I discovered, on the third page of the manuscript that this pioneer preacher and cowboy and horseman and Indian trader, this tough guy saint, this man I've so long admired, was, in fact, a relative of mine. His grandfather was my great-great grandfather.

Now that's an immense stretch, and I know it. Most people couldn't care less. But among the Navajo he loved and served, that blood link would certainly be enough for us to call each other "brother." Among the Sioux, our being family would mean a great deal.

I'm not a mystic. I have trouble with sweet Christian people telling me that God told them to do this or that or the other thing. I'm likely too much a rationalist and a realist--I'm not into magic of any sort really. I'm not like Andrew Vander Wagen that way; he says one day, back in the 1880s, he was pole-axed by the Holy Spirit when he was on his way to train and run horses in Springfield, Illinois. I never got myself tripped up, run down, or chased across town by the Holy Spirit.

But last night, on the third page of a book about a man I've admired for a quarter century, I discovered the two of us had some shared DNA, and I felt the closest I've felt in years to an outright call from on high.

Awhile ago a friend of mine asked me if I'd contribute a story to a collection he wanted to edit, a collection of stories about saints. I was born and reared too much a Calvinist to have any significant knowledge of saints, and I told him so. "No, no, no," he said. "Don't think of it that way." He said he meant contemporary saints too, people whose lives were somehow exemplary. He's no more a Roman Catholic than I am.

I told him I thought I could do that, and I had just the man in mind, a pioneer missionary cowboy.

And now it turns out we're relation. Amazing. Last night I got pole-axed.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Morning Thanks--"The Hurler"

"The Hurler"

She's something of a loser, I'd say, someone who never got an even break. Her parents cared more for their stuffed hedgehog than they did for her, she tells us. One day, after her parents are both dead, she gets the grand idea to create a catapault because she's ridding herself of their things and there's a junk yard right next door.

She builds the hurler, launches her dad's bagpipes--and a ton of other things--over the fence because, she says, she loves to see things inflight. Soon, her equally woebegone neighbor comes over and tells her they can turn a dollar on this machine if they advertise its nearly magical power to make you feel better--after all, watching the detritus of our lives fly, fly away offers a emotional uplift to hurler as well as the hurlee and who not else.

They advertise. People show up by the dozens, some of them--and here's the magical part--actually reaching right into their chests, extracting their own broken hearts, and gleefully launching them, two-pound bloody messes, into the oily goo on the other side of yonder fence. It's great fun. In fact, once she's seen it done, the woman who dreamed up the gizmo pulls out her own bloody muscle and launches it herself.

It's a short story by Gina Ochsner, something titled "The Hurler," and it's in her book People I Wanted to Be, and yesterday in class I was surprised when no one wondered about the efficacy of such behavior. The woman who launches hearts doesn't feel much relief when hers is catapaulted into the stinky morass. What she did haunts her, in fact.

I have good students. They're smart kids. But this parable baffled them--they were sure that the story was meant to show how good people with broken hearts could simply toss them away like bad habits.

Then the old man--me--comes along and asks them if suffering is ever good for them. Their faces twist as if they've just bitten into something sour, and I feel like the dentist who's telling them that chocolate bars are a no-no. What does the Bible say, I ask them, like some mid-20th century Calvinist preacher? They look down at their desktops as if they're expecting a caning. Nothing worse for Christian students than to flunk--publically--some kind of righteousness test.

Slowly it comes to them--suffering builds character, and etc. (Romans 5, I whisper). But the answer brings no relief. "Oh," they say, as if disappointed. The idea of just flinging your broken heart away and ending all your sorrows and all your miseries and all your horrors is just too blasted good.

And it is. Sometimes I just don't know how God almighty expects us to buy what he says. Sometimes it's just too hard. Load up all your cares and burdens on a backboard-sized platform, trip the magic trigger, and whoosh!--they're launched into an oily mess of gunky horrors. Done.

Who wouldn't stand in line and pay good money?

No, no, no, Paul says. Understand. Broken hearts build character. And character brings hope--and all of that. Sure. Read it yourself.

But I feel the sour look on my students' faces. I say, with them, bring on the hurler.

This morning I'm thankful for a short story that made them think--and me too. Even if it hurt.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Morning Thanks--Stump

Something I didn't need to hear: some body parts never stop growing, even when most of us does. Noses and ears, for example, just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger, which accounts for the fact that crowd of old men, especially when they're bald, may occasionally be mistaken for an ensemble of elephants. 

I can say these things--I'm an old guy.

There's something unbecoming about people who zannik, as the ye olde Dutch folks used to say, people who bellyache out loud, so I won't go on and on here, but it's often struck me that this nation could rid itself of the horrors of Islamic terrorism if we were simply to loosen ourselves from the strangehold the Middle East has us in by rounding up a half million old men, putting them in a bubble for a week, and feeding them roughage. Poof! Methane for the ages. Really. We could run a country--I swear.

Indignities abound in aging, so many that if we wouldn't laugh, we'd cry. These days, I'm beginning to understand why my parents--quite saintly Dutch Calvinist folks--would return from their Florida trailor court toting a telephone book full of tasteless jokes about flattulance, constipation and a host of other plumbing problems.


So I come home from night class on Tuesday night, and my wife is watching the Westminster Dog Show, which has, sad to say, nothing to do with the Westminster Confession (if the Presbyterians were as smart as they think they are, they'd buy ad time). The only competition left is "Best of Show." I like dogs, but they refuse to use cat boxes so we don't have one. The annual Westminster thing is always a treat anyway, even though sometimes it seems to me that the idea is not to reward the best-looking dogs, but to reward those owners who do the zaniest upholstery.

Anyway, IMHO, as we say, the whole bunch of winners were sorry excuses for the kind of dog that really looks like a dog. But what the heck--"Best of Show" at Westminster is high drama, seriously.

One of them, a Sussex spaniel, had the tell-tale droopy ears of an old man--and is. He's ten, which translates into seventy in human terms, which makes me think I'm a kid. He cut so low to the ground he'd come off as a dachsund if he didn't have all that fur and bulk--think of a handsome Bassett maybe.

Okay, it's old news. Who cares? This old Sussex, a old man named Stump, won Westminster's Best of Show. I don't know a thing about his gastric system, but the old guy came out of retirement and fired a no-hitter.

Nuff said. This morning, who of the millions of aging boomers in this country isn't thankful for the old guy who looked mighty good running around the carpet on those fat little legs? There's reason to be proud, reason to give thanks.

"Hope is the thing with feathers," Ms. Dickinson once wrote, "that perches in the soul." Sure, but Tuesday night if you wanted a pinch of hope all you needed to do was look for the floppy ears.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

a year of morning thanks

Just a little braying

It would be silly and thoughtless, even heartless, to rank it ahead of the birth of my own children, but there is a difference. When our daughter was born, I remember being stuck in traffic on a freeway, fifteen minutes from the downtown Phoenix hospital where she was to be born. Stuck--as in "not moving." It was rush hour, my wife was in labor, and we were standing still.

Eventually, we made it.

I was hardly a casual observor at that birth, but neither was I much of a participant. I took the good news in a waiting room, far removed from the pressures and agony of the action.

Our son was born here. I wasn't a participant--are any husbands really?--but I stood beside my wife and held her hand, while the doctor, a handsome, older man with a thick Dutch brogue, went on and on about articles he'd read that I'd written, as if the third person (and fourth) was a fifth (and sixth) wheel. I remember feeling useless, really, almost obstructionist, and I remember the relief when the little toehead was delivered.

Maybe I was too close to the births of my two children to fully value the magnitude--too scared maybe, too worried, too struck with the mammoth responsibilities. All of that, probably.

That's why I say, unabashedly, that one of the great moments of my life was holding my infant granddaughter for the first time. Honestly, I don't remember holding my own children so breathlessly--I wish I did. I know exactly where I was standing in a new house in Lynden, Washington. I know the angle of the sun, the time of morning. And I remember, right then and there, forgiving all of our annoying friends who kept braying about the grandkids and telling me I'd love being a grandpa--I am remember forgiving them because they were prophets in their own right.

Today that very granddaughter, eight years old, does her own hair, her mother says. She has her friends and her sleepovers and cares way too much, I'm told, about her clothes. I'm sure she likes her grandpa, but my stocks are falling, just not precipitously. Our grandson is a whirling dirvish, stand-up comic, but he's got his hockey and kindergarten, and sooner or later he's going to have teeth again after knocking his fronts out two years ago on the frozen snow. He's a kid and only secondarily a grandson.

So, I'm both proud and humbled to announce by way of this blog that my wife and I are going to suffer once again the great joys of grandparenthood. One more time I get to hold a grandbaby. One more time I get to hear my name lovingly mispronounced for two or three years. One more time, I get to open my arms to a smile as wide as a prairie sky. Once more, I get to be the beloved finish line.

I've known it for weeks, but mum's been the word and all of that. Anyway, this morning I'm free to say it, so here goes: This morning I'm deeply thankful that the Lord himself (this child was not in anyone's plans but His) decided to fashion another life in this family. I have no idea why or what tasks this child will eventually be assigned in the kingdom where he or she will live and have her being, but I'm thankful already for her--or him--because soon enough a proud grandpa gets to hold another immense and eternal blessing, in Pampers. Sometimes dirty.

Pardon me for braying, but once again I'm going to be a grandpa.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What we want to believe

Received one of those forwarded e-mails from an old friend this morning, something supposedly penned by a Prof. Joseph Olson of Hemline School of Law, St. Paul. It was a Republican rant disguised as some sort of scholarly appraisal which supposedly proved all those who voted Republican in the last election were good, honorable, tax-paying, flag-waving Christian Americans, while those who didn't were welfare queens and drug-addled heathens.

Pure bogus. Really, it was nothing more or less than hate mail.

What's scares me, really, is the propensity we all have for hearing only what we want to hear. I'm not above that weakness. I choose the reporters I want to listen to. I dislike both Keith Oberman and Sean Hannity, but only Sean Hannity makes me sick. My mother believes that Glen Beck is an oracle, and she's mystified that her educated son doesn't too. Where's the truth?

Maybe, just maybe, wisdom is everything the Book of Proverbs claims it to be: "How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver!" There's a suggestion here that we don't often pick up, and that is that wisdom is harder to mine from life's underground caves than is gold and silver. It's harder work, finally, to gather up wisdom than it is to create a fortune. It's that rare--wisdom, that is--and therefore that valuable.

I don't claim to have it. All I'm suggesting is that those who think it comes easily, those who truly believe they have it, those who swear the crystal clarity of their own vision are those I least trust having it in hand--wisdom that is.

"Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding."

No kidding. Lord help us all.

Monday, February 09, 2009

a year of morning thanks


Although some people claim that, as a Pulitzer-prize winning play, Doubt was vastly superior, we saw the film on Saturday night, in an empty theater, save us. First time in my life we were so totally alone.

Although Doubt doesn't really answer its own major conflict--did the priest do it or not?--I found the film profoundly engaging. The four major characters were simply wonderful--the priest himself is warm and gregarious, so sympathetic it requires a good deal of toothy cynicism to believe he could really be molesting the kid in question. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is Old Ironsides, the nun who runs the school with hellfire. Amy Adams is perfect as the sweet and innocent Sister James, and Viola Davis takes on in a thankless but absolutely crucial secondary role as Mrs. Miller, the boy's anguished mother.

Doubt has little to do with good Christian people abandoning hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's about faith we have in each other, faith in what we say we are doing, faith in our mutual commitment and trust. It's about that faith being broken and the cynicism which gives rise to another kind of faith, a faith in one's own basic instincts about perfidy and innocence. Sister Aloysius becomes a fire-breathing true believer when she scribbled down enough about Father Flynn to build a case for him as someone not to be trusted with her schoolchildren.

When a story avoids answering its own central question, it risks a silly kind of cleverness. It's easy to feel hoodwinked. That's what happens here. When all is said and done, you wonder if the writer wasn't a little too cute by keeping us in the dark when the lights go up. The only justification here--or so it seems to me--is that among the myriad abuse accusations the Roman Catholic priesthood has suffered in the last decade, some must be bogus. In other words, maybe there are some stories, like this one, where the truth will never be known.

Maybe, but the burden of the truth definitely lies with Sister Aloysius, and it's hard not walk out of that theater believing her accusations about Father Flynn are legit.

What I loved about the movie is that it drew real red blood when it scratched the skin of our human character, it drew blood. Beneath the celluloid, there's bones and tissue and a human heart. I've never been anywhere close to such a situation, never been a Roman Catholic, never lived in NYC, where this film is lovingly shot; but somehow I know the essential emotions that John Patrick Shanley explores in Doubt. Somehow, I know I've been there, and therefore, to see and feel them again means I've been blessed.

This morning I'm thankful for wonderful plays and films, like Doubt. We may have been alone in the theater, but I swear, whole civilizations were there beside us.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

a year of morning thanks


Okay, I know that the Apostle Paul did not have northwest Iowa in mind when he wrote what now appears in Romans 5. Nor did he have the American Midwest, nor any of the cold spots where people have been shivvering for the last three or four months. I don't care. Somehow Romans 5 makes sense this morning: ". . .we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint. . .

When the temps get into the 40s, we're seventy degrees warmer than we have been and rivulets of water ooze out from the dirty snowbanks just off the street. This morning, the sky is azure, the sun a indefinable blaze, the air full of hope.

We're nowhere near spring, but it's hard not to rejoice because everyone knows that even though we're going to clobbered a time or two or three, the worst is behind us. Hope does not disappoint.

Friday, February 06, 2009

a year of morning thanks


In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Biff Loman, Willy's fair-haired son, can't keep his grubby hands off a pen and takes it along with him when he leaves the office of a man who Willy thinks is going to finally set his sweetheart boy up with the job he'd always deserved. Doesn't happen, of course. Biff ends up with the pen and his old man ends up dead.

A memorable moment in literature. Running off with pens is a sin into which I could be seduced. I love pens. Always have. Even though right now, the nearest pen is six inches away and I'm hammering away on a keyboard like most everyone else, this messy office space is awash with pens. I've got dozens, probably hundreds, some of them stashed in drawers I don't even remember, dried up tight, I'm sure.

Not only that, but all over the house we've got pens--on desks, in drawers, leaving half-dollar-sized, plum-colored stains inside sport coats. Lots of them have advertisements-- this or that Holiday Inn (cheapos) or some local business (usually of more heft and thus a better catch).

No matter. Yesterday, in the bookstore, I walked past the pens and had to restrain myself, avert my eyes like some ink-seduced Jimmy Carter, who just by looking claimed to be an adulterer. That I didn't buy one--or two or a half-dozen--doesn't mean I wasn't sorely tempted. But the truth is, I didn't look. But then the college bookstore doesn't really have the supermodels; now, Staples or Office Max. . .I don't even want to go there.

I can't go to school without one in my pocket, can't even trot off to church. We walk most places in our lives, so I can easily enough forget a billfold, but I'm stark naked without a pen.

Technology has changed our lives in the last decade, but the ball-point pen is as stable a fixture in function and design as a table knife. Sure, new gaudy gels make what you see on paper snappier these days, but ye olde ink pen hasn't changed a whole lot and sure as heck doesn't show its age.

So that's what I'm thinking of this morning. There are five within a foot of this keyboard. They're everywhere, they're everywhere--and that's the way it should be. This morning I'm thankful for pens.

I just wish they didn't last so long so I could buy more. Not steal. Look what happened to the Loman boys.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

a year of morning thanks


Just another puzzling thing about King David, the singer, is the near ecstatic joy he gets when he's on his way up to the house of the Lord. To him, of course, God almighty had an actual street address. Ye olde Israelites found the I AM locally, in the temple, so a visit meant actually greeting the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

Now I know church is supposed to be that, too--I mean worship in church--I mean going to an actual building, entering a sanctuary, singing a few hymns, doing some thoughtful meditation, praying, giving gifts--I mean doing church. I mean, God is supposed to be there--and he is. But he's also here in the basement beside me, and on sweet Saturday mornings I meet him on the bluffs above the river west of town too. He's everywhere. What I'm saying is, it's just not the same today as it was in Israel is 800 B. C. Not that I want to go back.

Church, today, is probably as much about fellowship as it is about actually meeting God. I'm not complaining or saying the sky is falling, and I know there are people, loads of them, who are doing all they can to make worship a heavenly experience. That's all fine. These days most people don't go to a specific church because of a particular brand of theology; they may choose on the basis of a particular style of worship perhaps, but my guess is that an even more important ingredient is the accessibility of real fellowship. Show me a church without a fellowship hall, and I'll show you a graveyard.

Once upon a time I played a secondary role in the start-up of a brand new church. That was an exciting time because it seemed we were writing our own rules, tossing old wineskins, creating something out-of-the-box. You never knew who might show up week to week, and most people didn't yet know each other well enough to get annoyed by any of our all-too-human peccadilloes.

Last night we celebrated the birth of a church, not the one I was a part of, and the opportunity to remember brought a rosy glow to the faces of those who were there 35 years ago. The ambience was soft and loving and sweetly nostalgic. Those people, I thought, love to remember that exciting new fellowship being born around them.

Once the Grim Reaper comes to Everyman with news of his impending demise, the very first comrade to leave, if I remember correctly, is Fellowship, whose quick desertion makes him seem about as shallow--and cold--as the patches of ice in our driveway.

The fickleness of fellowship isn't the point, however, and last night was sweet and loving. Besides, fellowship is not some fair-weather friend. Sure, when we die no one comes with, but that doesn't mean that those we love won't stand by as long as they can, an army of heavenly angels in jeans and Nikes, toting lasagna and almond bars when you most need them, praying on-call, 24-7.

This morning, after a night of celebration for a birthday I don't remember, I'm deeply thankful for fellowship, something I'd wish on everyone. Fellowship may not die with us, but it certainly makes life more rich and abundant.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

a year of morning thanks

That toothy lapdog

The problem with euphoria is that it ends. As it has.

Yesterday, the new Obama administration ejected two of its chosen, Tom Daschle, from South Dakota, and Nancy Killefer, nominated to be the government's first chief performance officer. Already tossed off was Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, whose sleaze possibilities tipped the new ship of state perilously.

Daschle, who not long ago thought a frenzied tax payment might band-aid his sin, was an especially painful loss; many saw him to be among the few and the wise who understood the medical morass this country is in, and a possible pilot of our escaping all of that. He had few enemies in Washington and was considered a good, good man. Turns out he'd fudged the IRS out of a chunk so hefty the interest alone cost him 12 grand.

It's February, and just about time to go through all those receipts again, one after another--computer ink, paper, postage, books I needed for teaching--add up the whole bunch (never anywhere close to a thou), paper-clip them together, and file them neatly in hopes that should IRS thugs come around, my nickel-and-dime financial life will be in good order. To think that a guy like Daschle would sidestep a 128 thou makes me not only angry but resentful. Does everybody do it?

All that blessed penny-ante revenue calculation I've got to do again is a job the fat cats hire East-coast elite lawyers to accomplish, professionals at dodgeball. Get this: when Daschle got the message that his non-payment would put his appointment in jeopardy, he spit up the entire $140,000. What is that, loose change?

The first casualty of high-flying euphoria is simply high spirits, but the next is nothing less than faith itself. Cynicism, a toothy little mutt who never leaves your lap, starts his infernal yipping: shoot, they're all rotten crooks, the whole buggerin' lot of 'em.

I know that isn't true, but believing it's not requires something bigger than life--that requires faith.

This morning I'm thankful I've got it--a pure gift. Faith, that is.

That doesn't mean it doesn't get tested. After all, here I sit, growling.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

a year of morning thanks

If the joke's on us. . .

Some of us anyway. I admit to knowing next to nothing about global warming. I also must admit to taking a side on the issue on the basis of politics, therefore often favoring those who claimed it was and is a reality. But then I also must admit that I was never a big Al Gore fan, didn't even see his movie. But you have to admit those those pictures of the melting polar ice cap plunging into the sea are memorable. Okay, okay--what do I know? Nothing. When pressed, certainly I'd never fight.

This morning it's bitter cold again--temps submarining. Hope springs eternal, however: the weekend looks promising, temps back into the forties. Besides, it's February. There's more frigid temps behind us than before us. I must admit that making an argument for global warming after a winter like this one takes some strong-arming. And it's not just here either. New Orleans had snow. The whole blame country froze.

Let's just say Al Gore was dead wrong. Let's just say that Oklahoma's Sen. Jim Inhofe ends up being the oracle here, a voice in the wilderness, the only true prophet--I can live with that. I'd have to swallow some pride, but then I never pitched a battle over the issue, never went to war.

What it might mean, of course, is that the planet itself isn't so imperiled. I could live with that. What it would mean additionally is that tons and tons and tons of us--including the scientific team that did up Al Gore--would end up eating crow.

But I could live with that too, because, I admit, a bit grudgingly, that it's good for all of us every once in awhile to be flat-out, dead wrong, to have our pride crunched like the blasted frozen snow beneath the boots.

Science is fun, but it ain't a savior. This morning I'm thankful for a little egg on the face. Once in awhile. Not all the time.

Besides, it's just cold.

Monday, February 02, 2009

a year of morning thanks

"I will yet. . ."

This morning I'm thankful for David--the king, the poet, and fancy dancer, who had this habit of singing, no matter whether he was leading the empire or hiding out in a tent. In his songs, his madly emotional peregrinations, one finds elbow room for just about all of us. You want to hear unfettered praise?--read the psalms. You want to know the darkness?--read on. You want to hear to someone else rant?--David did that too, and in song, if you can believe it.

We own two Dutch psalters--135 years old--one from my grandma, one from my wife's grandma. Those two song books were used 500 miles apart, in two Dutch colonies from two different immigration eras. No matter--both of them show very clearly that Psalm 42 was, for those two grandmas, some kind of favorite, so heavily trafficked the ancient pages are stained. For some reason, both grandmas loved 42. Why?--I don't know. That question requires a historian.

But, I'll tell you why yesterday, to me, Psalm 42 rang true, even without the music. David's opening allusion isn't to Bambi--it's to some starving doe whose throat is as parched as her stomach, an animal who's almost dying. He pulls out the simile to describe himself, of course, because he's the one who's starved, dying on the vine.

The chorus that runs through both Psalm 42 and 43, linking them, goes like this:

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

What's humanly distressing--at least to me--about the flagellation of those rhetorical questions and, so quickly, the sturdy, heartfelt pledge is that one comes almost to doubt the depth of David's emotional starvation, the extent of his darkness. How in the heck did he change so fast? In real time, it takes him about thirty seconds to shake the horror by doing nothing more than pledging to praise God. Okay.

My problem with such a phenomenal turnaround is my own sense that the horror doesn't blow away just that easy. One doesn't languish near death in whatever horror one confronts, then simply bleat out a few words, no matter how righteous, and then get righted, back on the track to glory. Life just doesn't work that way.

But I do take comfort in David's verb form--"will yet." David says, "I will yet praise him--" that's something close to future tense. He says he's sure the hour will come--or the day--when he knows he will praise God once more. But implied in the commitment is verifiable real time. Maybe not right now, but sometime, even soon.

I think he's saying, "Right now, I'll bide my time. Right now, I'm not in the thanks mode, but I will--I know I will. I'll promise you that sometime in the future "I will yet praise him."

That's a promise I can live with.

Who knows what an ancient Hebrew potentate meant when he penned the words? Nobody. All I know for sure is that somewhere in the spaces he left behind, even in a verb form, I can find a place to pitch a tent of my own.

And for that habitation, this morning, I'm very thankful.