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, July 31, 2009

Friends of idiots

Spoke loosens on my front tire. I'm not an idiot, I tell myself, and tightening spokes isn't rocket science, so I get out a tool--I've actually got one--and try my hand at the art of taking the ribbon out of the front wheel, here a twist, there a twist.

Gets worse. I take out the tool again and try to fiddle once more. Gets worse. I'm mad. Fiddle more. Gets worse.

So finally I take it to the dealer, the guy who sold me the bike, an old friend, who knows me far too well, and I tell him I was messing with the spokes myself instead of bringing it over to him the minute I discovered the loose one. He spins at the wheel. It wobbles as if drunk.

"Schaap," he says, "you teach English--is there a hyphen in dumb-ass?"

Ask me anything you'd like about Massachusetts Bay Colony, circa 1640, and I'm an expert; but something breaks down in the house and I'm am an idiot. Put a screwdriver in my hand and I'm closer to a murderer than a mechanic.

Last night when we came home we had water in places it's not supposed to be, and on three floors. Lots. Not a sea, but lots. And it's already 9:00 at night.

Credit me this, I'm smart enough to turn off the water to the offending toilet. But we got a mess.

"We got to call Bill," my wife says, another old friend. She's right. I'd thought of it before, but I hadn't said it. I'm male, after all, like Red Green.

But she's right, and I figure I don't need another spelling lesson. So we did. Bill comes over with his tool box. Honest-to-goodness, he comes. It's dark already, and he comes over, tools in hand. Bill teaches English too, but he's no idiot.

Anyway, I'm thinking that this morning's thanks ought to include friends like mine, friends of the truly needy, friends who teach you how to spell and who to call when you can't.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The dangers of clutter and cheer

My daughter stopped down here awhile back, looked around, and asked me if I'd like her to organize my basement office. Honestly, I wouldn't know how to do begin. There are tons of stuff that can be dumped down here--that kind of organization I understand. But it was hard for me to envision exactly what she meant, so great my messy sin.

Apparently, the mess'll kill me. I shouldn't be surprised. According to a story in the Daily Beast this morning, psychologists say that a personality disposition toward orderliness, toward organization and self-control, is a key toward longevity. Makes sense, I guess. Got get me some.

And then this. Those who see the glass half full depart the terra firma more with greater dispatch than those who see it half empty. That's right, a basic disposition of cheerfulness and what-me-worry can altogether too easily do you in.

Again, the reason is understandable. Hopeful, cheerful people tend not to indulge themselves in worry. A jolly disposition is sweet company, but, in this age as well as any other, well, dangerous. Paranoia and anxiety don't necessarily increase your years, but unbridled optimism generally posts no sentries and thus becomes victim to enemies the wary simply don't miss.

But then, who wants to live forever? You probably heard this one. Ed and Fred are playing a heavenly round of golf up in the clouds somewhere, enjoying themselves.

"Got to love the greens on this course," Ed says, putting his putter back in the bag.

"Never much of wind either," Fred says.

"Great food all over up here--you ever notice?" Ed asks. "Not only that, gas is free."

"And the weather is perfect--never too hot, never too cold," Fred says.

They're walking over to the next tee, when Ed says, "Here's what I'm thinking," he says, "--if we hadn't eaten all that stupid wheat germ, we could've been here long ago."

Yeah, well--time to clean up the basement.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Town of Wilson

Some day, I'm sure it'll be the death of me, but I'm the kind of person who can't stay out of a cemetery, especially if the place seems to be blessed with the stones of ancients. So I stopped at an old one in Wilson Township, Wisconsin, last week, Lake Michigan no more than a half mile east, when I saw a this odd black marker among the old white stones, learning hither and yon like a basket of tongue depressors.

It was early morning, and there's something sort of spirit-like in the way shadows run from stones in old cemeteries when the sun is inching up from the horizon, so I got out of the car and walked around a little. Besides, this cemetery isn't all that far from where I grew up. I was sure I'd find some familiar names--and I did.

Not all that far in, I spotted a stone with some kind of fungus on it, like a rusty carpet circling its little parapet. Contrasts are always interesting to a camera, so I came up and tried to determine how to tell this story with the lens. I took a shot or two at the nameless stone--150 lakeshore seasons had successfully bestowed anonymity, I figured--and walked around to the other side, where I noticed a brass commorative badge, of sorts, stuck in the ground--and a name.

The old man buried there, named Wildchure, I think, was a Civil War veteran. Without a doubt, someone in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, had discovered the names of all the county's Civil War vets and put down markers at their gravesites, more than a century after the fact.

I can't get that marker out of my mind. I'm not sure why, but I know enough about the way my mind functions to know that somewhere within the mysterious presence of that image there lies meaning I'm obliged to determine.

I'm happy and thankful for veterans, for our armed forces, but that's not all of it. I think what makes me remember that little commemorative badge at the gravesite of an old German farmer is that it reminds me that the entire Civil War saga isn't just some great story. It was real.

Dozens of state monuments stand all over the massive battlefield at Gettysburg--here Pennsylvania, there Delaware, Indiana, Wisconsin. What happened there was not only witnessed by people who lived with my ancestors, some of them never returned.

This man made it back to the Town of Wilson and lived a couple more decades. But he remembered, I'm sure. I'm guessing he never forgot.

And now it seems I can't. Maybe that's why I'm a cemetery freak, an inveterate reader of tombstones.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


In my first year of college teaching, in an effort to learn to write fiction, I scribbled out a short story a month. Here's the way I had it figured. I had no idea how to do it, never having taken a class, so I figured I'd simply find stories in the old books I was reading, books about Dutch immigrant pioneers to the Midwest. I'd find great old anecdotes, then try to write them into short stories. The result was my first book, published right here at the college where I was teaching--Sign of a Promise and Other Stories.

An old friend's father told me how his grandma had told him of a time in the history of Oostburg, Wisconsin, when all Dutch immigrant farmers--many of them having been in America only 10 or 15 years--came flying into town, armed to the teeth with muzzle-loaders, swords, pitchforks, hammers, awls, and what not, to fight off an imminent Indian uprising. I laughed when the man told me the story, as he did himself, because the attack they were afraid of never came. I thought the story was a riot--all those ancient psalm-singing wooden shoes holing up in town ready to die protecting their womenfolk, my own great-great grandfathers among them, when there really was no warpath for hundreds of miles.

I titled the story "Redskins." Even then, the word wasn't politically correct, but I meant it the opposite way--the white people having "red skins" for their insane paranoia. The Indian uprising they were fearing was almost exactly 500 miles west, in Minnesota, two full states away. But back then the news didn't come in 24/7, and the rumors of a blood bath spread out and away from its epi-center, the valley of the Minnesota River, as slowly as the ripples from a rock in a pond--and they didn't stop. Hence, a wild bunch of Hollanders prepped themselves for a bloody war. What a hoot, I thought. That's the way I wrote the story--Three Stooges-like comedy.

The only chapter of Great Sioux Wars about which I know very little is, oddly enough, the most local story--the Great Sioux Uprising in Minnesota in late months of 1862, much of which happened just a couple hours north of here. I've been reading personal narratives written about what happened back then, and it wasn't at all pretty. Wounded Knee isn't either. At Wounded Knee, events happened that shouldn't have, and the result was a massacre, the U. S. Calvary simply murdering Big Foot's band, more than 200.

But what happened throughout the Minnesota River valley in 1862 wasn't pretty either. Most accounts say it started when a couple of young warriors got themselves into a testosterone match and ended up murdering a pioneer family for no apparent reason, other than none of them wanting to lose a who's-more-of-a-man contest. To say those four kids started it and forget about broken treaties and the continual flow of new settlers (the Indians called them the Dutch, but they were mostly deutsch or German) into what people like me, white people, still call "the new land" is not only silly but sinful. The Sioux had every reason in the world to be mad, resentful, even violent; their culture was being annihilated, and culture gives meaning to life.

The chapters of American history that tell the Native American story are just plain awful, and this one is no better. What actually happened--how people were attacked and killed--is almost beyond words for a variety of reasons, one of which is that often the Native people who killed white settlers weren't strangers. Little Crow, the military leader of "the insurrection," went to church on Sunday; just a few days later, he was leading the troops, albeit reluctantly. Not all the Sioux was cold-blooded murders, but some most definitely were.

Frederick Manfred's Scarlet Plume tells the gruesome story--full bore bloodletting. Some Sioux warriors went berserk; they'd walk into a log house at dinner, speak kindly to the family, then, without warning, cleave the father's skull with a tomahawk and kill everyone else, often in horrible ways, which is to say, not quickly. Rape wasn't infrequent. Just think the worst. In some cases, imaginations don't even go as far as reality did. Over 400 white settlers were literally slaughtered.

Five hundred miles away the fear from that uprising still resonated. That far. That's what drove those lakeshore Hollanders to circle up the wagons along the Sauk Trail, ready for "redskins" who never came.

Somehow, now that I know much, much more about what happened in 1862, that story, once so hilarious to me, is just no longer funny. My great-great grandfather had good reason to be scared to death. He really did.
In a way, I'm sorry I wrote the story the way I did--as farce; but then I didn't really know and therefore didn't understand.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Morning Thanks

She watches too much Fox News and loves Glen Beck. “Don’t you watch him?” she says, knowing very well that I don’t. She’s not sure Obama is really an American citizen, and she’s sure we’re about to become Canada or the Netherlands with all that socialized medicine. She’s scared silly of what she calls “one world religion,” and she really believes Rick Warren is a shyster. But when I try to disabuse her of her worries, I get brow-beaten for having departed from the straight-and-narrow.

But she’s my mother. Some functions in all of us are factory-installed, mothering being one of them, I’d guess—especially with respect to issues that define what is and isn’t “orthodoxy.”

So we fight.

Although I don’t know if I’d call it a fight, really. She’s troubled by the fact that her only son could be so misguided. “Sometimes I wonder where you went wrong?” she says, in full lament.

My guess is that she doesn’t know another soul who isn’t as convinced as she is of the evils of the gay agenda. In her estimation, to be lukewarm in the culture wars is to sup with the enemy.

I wish I could stay out of the fray. The arguments never go anywhere anyway. But then I’m not sure she’d like it if I’d pull a turtle in her apartment either, sit there a go mute.

So despite the scars I carry (as does she) from a Wisconsin weekend like my last, I’m thankful this morning that she can watch Fox News, that she can hold her own in the kind of scrapes we’ve had for years, that she still does care about faith and the nation, and that, finally, she cares enough about me to try to shepherd me back to the good and faithful ways of the religious right.
My mother is 90. I just have to learn not to tell her that I don’t think I could ever vote for Sarah Palin.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Earlier this summer, I reread Peter De Vries's Blood of the Lamb and loved it. "Loved it" may be overstated--how about "found it riveting." I'm not sure if my reading of Frederick Manfred's Scarlet Plume now marks a return to nativism or what (both writers were born and reared in the Dutch Reformed world), but I just finished that novel last night and found it, too, riveting. I honestly don't know if I'd recommend the book to anyone, but I enjoyed it.

I'm interested in the 1862 Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota because it's a part of local American history that I don't know much about. Honestly, that's why I picked up the book--again (like Blood of the Lamb, I'd read Scarlet Plume before, years ago); it's a story taken from that sad history. Reading fiction from someone you know has its limitations because one's enjoyment is colored by one's acquaintence: I keep seeing Manfred when I read, sometimes seeing him at the expense of experiencing the story, if that makes sense.

What I disliked about the novel is Manfred's especially shaky appropriation of female-ness. I'm not about to claim expertise in that regard, but it seems almost irrefutable that the man--and he was a good friend--didn't "get" women, or at least didn't create them well. In Scarlet Plume, he finds himself between a rock and a hard place because his two major characters are--methinks--out of his range. On one hand he chooses a central character who is Native American. Being raised Dutch Calvinist may have its advantages, but one of them, is not the ability to know what goes on in the soul of a Yankton Sioux warrior at odds with the brutality of his band, circa 1862. I'm not convinced by Scarlet Plume, the book or the character.

Vying for our interest, and actually winning us over, is the real protagonist of a novel, a white woman who falls in love with Scarlet Plume, a woman who, early in the novel, is the victim of a beastly attack when the Yanktons go on a bloody rampage, as they did, by the way, in 1862. She's Manfred's main concern, really. I just don't think she's convincing.

One of the marks of a great novel is our unwavering conviction that the characters actually do exist--think Marilyn Robinson's Gilead, for example. When Manfred tries to climb into the psyche of a violated white woman in 1862, he doesn't do much better than he does with the noble savage with whom she falls in love.

In other words, I don't think he pulls it off. DeVries does. Blood of the Lamb is a much, much, much better novel.

However, what I like about Scarlet Plume is the broad sweep, it's thematic and moral target. Right now, once again we're in the middle of our own national problems with race and culture. The moment Obama used the word "stupidly" in his press conference two nights ago, I knew he was in trouble. In terms of the interaction beteen two human beings, in this case it's altogether possible that what happened in Cambridge was exactly what the cop thought it to be--an uncooperative suspect raising holy hell when he shouldn't have.

But that doesn't mean Obama was wrong. In light of the reality of racial profiling, in light of the fact that we're talking about an old man who walks with a cane and is 5'7" tall, in light of the fact that he was in his own house, and that he is the pre-eminent black historian in America, in light of the fact that the case was almost immediately dropped, it seems to me that the police did act stupidly.

Right now, as I go out to the rec center, I'll snap on the iPod and listen, as I have been, to another book, something titled Outcasts United, the story of an rag-tag bunch of immigrant kids from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, who tear up soccer fields in and around Atlanta, but generally butt heads with the white establishment in an Atlanta suburb, Clarkston, where they live. If there's any question about the reality of racial profiling, Outcasts United dispels it. It's almost impossible to see Prof. Gates's story apart from the realities of life and living here and now.

And, in Scarlet Plume the big story Manfred tells he has right, even though he handles the particulars, well, somewhat "stupidly." The big story is the immense gulf which separates national and ethnic and religious cultures. The big story is that the captive white woman and her Edenic Yankton lover would have had immense problems getting along in either society in the 1860s, if, in fact, they could have loved at all (a question Manfred never really entertains). They're as star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet, and their love is similarly destined to crash horribly.

The fact is that ethnicity and faith and nationality create cultures that don't mix easily, and anyone who says they do is smoking something potent. Just this morning, I read the horrific story of four boys, ages 8 -14, who raped an eight-year-old girl in Phoenix. Bad enough? There's more. The girl's father says he doesn't want her back. She's defiled and therefore brought shame on her family.

All five kids are Liberian immigrants who've lugged along their own dossier of cultural notions. The fact is, multi-culturalism goes over much easier at food fairs than it does in real life. In Scarlet Plume, Manfred--like Obama--got the particulars wrong; but the story right. People from wholly different cultures don't make sing out sweet Coke commercials as easily in real life as they do when their paid good money.
There was something plainly ironic last week about all those white guys chiding Sotomayor for suggesting that her being a Latina would have a bearing on how she saw justice itself. Their being white doesn't? Gimme a break.

All of that having been said, if you're among those who truly believe that if we in America only had a monochrome populace of good, white Christian people, we'd be just fine, you're kidding yourself. Some South Africans believed it not long ago, and they're still suffering. Then again, it might be difficult to find a more monochrome nation than South Korea, right? Well, check this out.

A century ago in the small Iowa town where I live, some Dutch people really disliked the wetbacks flooding in. Where were those immigrants from? The Netherlands.

And answer me this, why am I writing now, once again, second time this summer, unrepentantly, about a long-ago forgotten novels by Dutch-American writers?

Thursday, July 23, 2009


The death of Walter Cronkite, like the death of Michael Jackson, brings to mind the fact that we once lived in a different world--not necessarily better, but certainly different. To even imagine that a single voice in the world of news could be so highly respected and universally tuned in is virtually unimaginable today. TV news itself isn't what it once was; millions now get their news from the internet. "The most trusted voice in America," people said of Cronkite. When he publically withdrew his support for the Vietnam War, LBJ knew the cause itself had died--the man had that kind of voice, that kind of standing.

And now, oddly enough, after doing the research throughout the country*, Time magazine's polling operation declared The Daily Show's Jon Stewart as the most trusted newsperson in America. I'm not kidding.

The two of them--Jon Stewart and Walter Cronkite--seem opposites, from totally different planets. Cronkite's determined objectivity is a pipe dream, to someone like Stewart, self-delusion; Stewart's political spin operates nightly at full throttle. What's more, the nightly news on The Daily Show is peppered with f-bombs and junior high, locker room humor. Get a couple drinks in him, and apparently Walter Cronkite liked to do silly folk dances--but that certainly wasn't the on-air Cronkite America grew to love. That Cronkite was a Gibralter, rarely even spicy, steady and calm and blessed with the kind of gravitas we used to (and maybe still do) desire in our leaders. Stewart is a shill. He's a horse fly, a smart aleck, a wise ass. And, he's drop-dead hilarious.

But I understand why people trust him because nobody I've seen on television--certainly not CNN's Larry King--can do an interview like he can. Nobody. What's amazing about him is that he can be deadly--honestly, deadly--serious. But there's never a question about where he stands, never.

Stewart is as funny as Cronkite was sober. But you know where he stands.

Journalistic objectivity has always been something of a myth--for reporters, a goal, an ideal. Myths require faith because they defy our sense of what's real and actual. Today--for whatever reason--much of our culture doesn't believe the objectivity myth. We seem to like our newspeople up front about where they stand--witness the gigantic audience Fox maintains.

When Jon Stewart turns around, after all, Bill O'Reilly appears, his counterpart. Or Rush. Today's newsmen. For better or for worse.

But let's throw this into the mix--all of them are (were) really, really good at what they do (did). All are (were) excellent performers. All three draw (drew) huge, adoring crowds because of the immense quality of their individual professions (and that's an interesting word right there).

But what they do (did)--what Stewart and O'Reilly and Rush do on one hand, and what Cronkite did on the other--is just plain polar opposite.

Does Jon Stewart's ascension to the Walter Cronkite throne spell the death of the empire? What if Rush had won--would it then?

Pardon the pun. Stay tuned.
*Before presuming the decline and fall of Western culture, you should know that the poll conducted by Time was on-line.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Morning Thanks

Just one of the wonders of the human mind is the fact that some Alzheimer's patients, otherwise seemingly totally oblivious to what's going on around them, can, with the right prodding, break into song, into recitals of things that they've truly, as we say, learned "by heart." The mind must contain some strange memory device, some recording capacity that fills with what we deliberately memorize or else hear or speak or sing so frequently that it finds a place forever in that echo chamber. Patients who don't know their children from Ahab and Jezebel will suddenly hum ancient hymns in tact and not miss a note.

I've never been a good memorizer, so if that recording device in my mind has anything in it at all, it's likely got psalms. And for that, I couldn't be happier.

The psalms are wonderful testimonies in the broadest sense: they record just about every emotion any human being could ever know. It's all there, from exultation to despair, from ecstacy to horror--on-one's-knees thanks and damnable anger. The psalms record what it is to be a believer, a truly human believer.

There are times, there are moments, when nothing seems quite as daunting as perfection, as dispelling as a smiley face; there are times when happy Christians make me nauseous. But that's all there in the psalms, too. There are few emotional destinations that aren't already mapped in that wonderful book of poetry. Need a pal in the darkness?--you'll find what you need in the psalms.

Maybe the most lied-to question in the world is the one we throw out by rote--"So how's it going?" or the one I'll be facing soon: "So, how was your summer?" Maybe it wasn't good. Maybe it was the pits. Maybe it wasn't worth a shit--but we smile and nod our heads and lie, at least some of us. "Oh, just fine, and yours?"

The psalms don't lie, but neither am I going to lie right now because the fact is, I haven't been reading them. They're all around me here in the basement, but I've not been thumbing through 'em. But then, I know they're there. I know they're there.

And that's reason to be thankful this morning. I know exactly where to reach to find them, because I know they're there.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009



Friday I sniffed it
in the grocery store, turned it
in my hands, looking
for bruises
in the rough, webbed rind.
My mother's voice--the one
I carry always in my head--
pronounced it fine. Ripe,
but not too soft.
I bagged and bought it,
would have given it to you
for breakfast--this fruit
first grown in Cantalupo, not far
from Rome.

I imagined you,
my sleepy emperor, coming
to the table in your towel toga,
digging into the luscious
orange flesh
with a golden spoon,
and afterwards,
reclining, your smile

Now I open the trunk of my car
to find the cantaloupe
still there, flattened, sour,
having baked all weekend
in August's oven.
Grieving is useless,
my mother would say,
Just get another.

But why am I so certain
that no other fruit
will ever be as sweet
as that--the one
I would have cut in half,
scooped the seeds from,
that one I would have given you
on Saturday morning?

Lee Robinson

If I've got this poem right, then Lee Robinson, who is a lawyer as well as a fine poet, confesses that her own considerable imagination made a single cantaloupe more worthy than any other. She's wrong, of course, but she's moving her pen across the page while fully licensed poetically, and all of us understand what she's up to.

Our imaginations are themselves extremely valuable commodities. What we invest in, we tend to esteem, even treasure--and there lies, or so it seems to me, one of the realized benefits of reading, as opposed to watching. When we read, our imaginations create the pictures; they're not just there for us. The imagination has to kick in or there's nothing on the page but strangely positioned black insignias of no particularly meaning. The strange shapes you're moving through right now get translated into sounds we understand, then sent to the imagination to be videoed.

Not all of them, of course. I looked forward to reading Roger Scruton's On Beauty for months before it was released. I was looking for someone to explain what makes one image striking and memorable, and the next one a rangy mutt. But that book is still sitting on a living room table, half read. It's theory, philosophy, and I'm not blessed with enough will power to want to wade through it. You might say I don't care for it because it doesn't have any pictures.

But a story--like Ms. Robinson's poem (taken from a recent Writer's Almanac)--prompts our imaginations to create pictures. I can see that rotting cantaloupe, even smell it because my imagination has created the image. Ms. Lee says she'll never find another cantaloupe quite as perfect; that's the lie of the poem. She could, but she says she won't because it's this particular one into which she invested a whole story--her husband as toga-ed emperor, etc.

Cute, and true, methinks. Sort of. I'm guessing she's already found another.

All last week I read stories to some good church folks in California. It's hard to believe, but the crowds grew; every night there were more people. Getting people out of their homes four nights in a row of any week is tough. I felt blessed.

Why? Because of the power of story, methinks. Reading--or in this case, being read to--prods the imagination into life, forces us to build settings, characters, and action within the playgrounds of our own consciousness; if the stories are good, they charm us into playing along. And when we invest in a single cantaloupe, then that canataloupe becomes really something.

I don't write my own reviews, but I honestly think that what I read went over well. If that's true, it's true because lots of people invested their own imaginations in the cantaloupes I was setting out for them, some of which, I'm sure, will certainly, finally, get left in the trunk.

That's okay. Nothing is forever. And there's always more down at the store.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Freud in the Home

My mother, who's 90 years old, confesses, with some glee, that a naughty dream played lustfully in her head a few nights ago, something she's not yet gotten over. It seems that an old brother-in-law of hers appeared, as if out of nowhere, and wooed her, somewhat successfully. She didn't give me all the lurid details, but did admit (as I said, with some glee) that there was a significant bout of kissing, enough at least for her to divulge the delightful sweetness of her adulterous sin. "It was nice too," she told me. "I haven't been kissed like that in years."

My guess is only Calvinists confess their sins gleefully.

She claims that the others in the home laughed bountifully when she told them her story, but she still hasn't been able to get over it herself . She's hardly a harlot, after all. What's more, this particular brother-in-law has been gone for more than half a century; he died young, tragically. She claims she doesn't remember ever harboring any attraction to him whatsoever. It's not the kiss that stresses her, after all, that makes her confess all of this to just about anyone; it's the fact that her philandering mind didn't conjure a Clark Gable, but instead a particular, long-gone and much admired brother-in-law, then veered off the straight-and-narrow like some randy, drunken sailor.

And all of this--believe me--is confessed with some relish.

Methinks, there's no sermon here, just joy--and that ain't all bad when you're 90 and in the home. I loved it and gave her the absolution she wanted, not needed.

Mom, dream on.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


They’re called Annabelle Hydrangeas. I didn’t know, so I had to look ‘em up, even though we’ve lived with them for 25 years. Our entire south side is annabelles, and, as you can see, they’re in their prime as we speak, the heads on those flowers as big as a buffalo’s (a bit of a stretch). Really, roll up three of those huge blossoms and you could build a snowman, mid-July.

A friend of ours who grew up out East in the neighborhood of a slum claimed that in her own racist girlhood (she’s white and all of that is behind her), people she knew used to call them “ghetto roses,” because, she said, hydrangeas were so hearty they’d burst forth in beauty even in some blighted inner city.

The only thing I do is chop down stalks in late fall, and they come back like gangbusters year after year after year. Right now, the blossoms are albaster bowling balls. But the truth is, we hardly look at them at all.

Why? Because they take very, very little care. You don’t have to whisper sweet nothings or anoint them with some punchy organic perfumes. Unlike the peonies on the other side of the yard, the annabelles never have bad years. They’re as dutiful as they are beautiful.

They do just fine all by their lonesome. They don’t need us. Maybe that’s it.

Like our car. Our previous cross-country bus was a massive Olds Aurora. While neither of those brand names have any descendents these days, for some blessed reason, we loved that car. Honestly, I don’t know why.

Now we’ve got a big boat Park Avenue Buick. It rides like a dream, gets wonderful mileage for a yacht, and hasn’t had a thing wrong with it for years. Nothing big anyway. We ought to love it, but it’s boring, a yawner, the car every last retired couple in the county would buy if we had it on the market. The thing is, we got it at bargain basement prices—or less--when my mother determined that her driving days were over. We didn’t earn the Buick; it was something of a gift (which is not to say it was free). Besides, it came with a humongous gash where my mother had whacked some truck, which prompted her resignation from the wheel.

Our tomato plants are threatening the whole backyard it seems, which means we ought to have a madcap harvest, despite the fact that we’ve only got four plants. I’ve watered the tomatoes, fertilized them, put them in neat wire stanchions because they needed support. They’ve been treated like queens. And you want to know what else?—there’s not a tomato on the market that tastes are good as the ones we grow ourselves. That good. We nursed 'em. We love 'em.

Kids get the urge young—or maybe that’s simply because I live with so many Calvinists. “Me do it,” they’ll say long before their thumbs come out of their snoots. “Me do it”—we want to achieve, most of us at least. We want to do it ourselves, and when we do, we love it.

In Frederick Manfred’s odd novel about the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, Scarlet Plume, a woman taken captive by the Yankton Sioux cannot believe what she’s seeing when the Sioux practice “a giveaway,” a self-less ritual (it was actually banned by good Christian white people) in which people literally gave away all those things most important to them. No, not the stuff that goes to Goodwill, but those possessions most treasured. Her culture, she knows, deeply Christian, practices absolutely nothing like it.

It may well be an underlying principle of American capitalism. I've got sweat equity in those lovely tomatoes, but those huge white annabelles are “ghetto roses.”

We love what we do. And that’s truly as wonderful as it is pathetic. Because we love it, we fence it up. Because we earned it, we think everyone else should too, even though we’re not all the same. Because we did it ourselves, we think whatever it is is ours. I do anyway.

Consider the annabelle hydrangea.

That’s what I was thinking today when trimming back the bushes. Honestly, they’re gorgeous, but who really cares? Doesn’t take a genius to grow ‘em, not even a green thumb.

The heck with the lilies of the field—there aren’t any anyway. Consider the annabelles, I’m thinking.

Today there’s a few in a vase on the dining room table. We’ve got dozens. They’re drop dead gorgeous--and if you've got ears, they even preach a little.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Crystal ball

She is a cousin, in-law. My wife feels her death more than I do, I'm sure, because she is--was--relation. What's more, my wife remembers, very sadly, the early death of this woman's father, an untimely event that caused her family great grief years and years ago, an early tragic chapter in this young woman's story.

But there's more. She married a great kid, and the two of them left for a relatively new Christian high school in Wisconsin, where they lived for a time. One morning when he was playing basketball, he fell over. A heart attack. I don't even know if he was thirty. From a distance, it seems not.

Eventually, she came back home to live here, a very young widow with three little boys. Eventually, she found a new husband, and, eventually, the two of them had a little boy of their own.

This morning, she's gone, victim of a brain aneurysm that took her just as surely, if not quite as quickly, as her first husband. She was just fifty years old.

As a cousin, I knew her somewhat; as a student, thirty years ago, I may have known her--at least back then--somewhat better. Writing teachers know more, perhaps, than math teachers; writing teachers know students, frequently, from the inside of their experience, although I won't lay claim to knowing this particularly young lady, thirty years ago, any better than any other students in English 101 that year.

But it is, oddly enough, as a student that I remember her best, more so than an in-law, a cousin. And since the new school term--close to forty of them behind me--is rapidly approaching, I can't help but think again about a bunch of 19-year-old kids facing me, first year of college, few of them having chosen to be in an intro class, most of them already hating what's coming--essay writing.

I don't like to think that my being 60 makes me any more serious, more dour, less joyful than I was at say, half my age; but I'm guessing that such an assertion can't be all wrong because sometimes I wish my students were a little more mature; sometimes I wish they'd all suffered a little bit and weren't as childish.

I never call in the bears like Elijah did when he got mocked, but sometimes I feel Jeremiah rising up in me when I know they could and should do their work with more purpose and consistency. But then I remember who I was and get down off my high horse.

Nonetheless, what I see before me, at the death of this young, devout Christian woman, is an image of her as a tall and thin college freshman, sitting in the second seat from the back, left side of an upstairs classroom at a college where I still teach, a classroom where, in a month or so, I might just look over a whole new bunch.

And what I feel this morning, the morning of her sudden death, is what I've felt far more often as I've aged--that is, a desire to say to all of those kids I face, "You know, you ought to remember the woman who once sat right there, right in that very chair, and was just like you. She fell in love here at this place, got married, moved away, then buried her husband. And now, she too is gone. If I could have told her that life would carry such immense miseries back then, . . ."

And then the Jeremiad stops, right there. I don't know what I'd say.

But what if I'd start the year with that story--first day of class, tell them about one of them who sat right there 30 years ago, a whole life story? What if I'd tell them they ought to take heed of time, take heed of life, of what's real, of what's important? They ought to be less childish, more adult.

"What if we'd come back and tell our brothers about hell?" some hot folks once asked the Lord in one his parables. "How about you give us a chance to tell them the truth?--then they'll miss all of this." Remember that story?

Christ said, "They won't listen. They already have the law and the prophets."

And neither will my students. If I do the Jeremiah thing, they'll hit the off button so fast the screen will darken before the machine even cools down.

Some things you just can't say. Oh, you can say them all right, but no one will listen. Some things can only be experienced. Some things can only be shown and not told.

Like immense tragedy.

And, strangely enough, like grace. Same thing.

Besides, maybe it's a good thing they don't know what's coming down the pike. Maybe it's a good thing none of us possess truly prescient crystal balls. Maybe it's a good thing we don't know, and maybe it's a good thing that young people, by nature, see visions.

Let 'em be kids, like I was. Call off the bears.

There will be time enough for funerals. And they will come.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Leaving the nest

The reason we don't need the whole Sonja Sotomayor discussion right now is that the Democrats almost entirely control the outcome of the hearings. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said yesterday, barring a "complete meltdown," she was, without question, in.

Therefore, words are, well, silly, in a way, and when they are, they get spent frivolously, as they will in the hearings, not because they have any effect on an already foregone conclusion but because they allow the opportunity for senators to preen to their voting bases, a behavior which ain't as pretty as preening is supposed to be.

And the reason that preening isn't pretty is that these days "the base" of each of the political parties could hardly be farther apart. Sometimes it seems that this country is entirely ripped in half, the world we live in entirely black and white. Common sense says life itself ain't that way, but posturing and political pundits, the blowhards from both sides only deepen the colors.

Sotomayor's hearings can and will descend rather quickly into the forbidden territory of race because she's of Puerto Rican descent and has frequently been outspoken about the way in which that heritage colors her own judicial activity. That kind of subjectivity scares some white folks because nothing rattles most of us worse than conceding power, especially if we've never been less than the majority. The photo above is as disconcerting to many white folks here as it is to the Russians, who, according to experts, tend not to trust Obama because he isn't, well, "one of us."

All of that is both confusing and complex, and it's fair to say that racial problems in America go far deeper than politics. I know good Native American Christians who simply say that until white America confesses the sins it perpetuated against Indian people, starting in 1620, there's no escaping greater national turmoil. African-Americans can and do speak similarly.

The Sotomayor hearings offer an opportunity for racial divides to arise, front and center, once again, and to do so with impunity because the outcome is pre-determined, as Graham said, which means that posturing is the name of the game. Yucch.

I'd vote for her today. But she doesn't need my vote, and therefore the blubbering will go on as our wonderful reps fill the air with talk designed primarily to position themselves for re-election, talk that tends to distract and divide. Not fun.

Ever since Bork, Supreme Court nomination fights have been mud fights.

Race in America is a complicated mess, and it will likely stay that way for a long, long time because all of us--white and black and red--like to feather our own nests with stories that we think make those nests stronger and sweeter, stories that are often conveniently half-truth, which is to say not truth at all.
That having been said, maybe we really need Judge Sotomayor right now. There are issues, deep issues, that have not been resolved--and won't be--for a long time unless we try to talk them through. Maybe her nomination gives us that opportunity by tossing us from those nests.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I had this grand idea for a book--a collection of nature photos sweetly punctuated with some of John Calvin's most profoundly beautiful assertions about creation, about nature. Well, few people publish books anymore unless the writer pays for them, so I went with the new media and just created it myself.

The Institutes start, in a way, with the assertion that anyone who's really seen the magnificence of nature has begun to know that there is a God--and that, conversely, we (that is, human beings) aren't Him. Calvin's take on Socrates would be--or so saith this amateur--that knowing thyself means knowing we aren't God (which seems to me to be something of AA's first step as well).

Anyway, because he puts so much oom-pah on the sheer, and divine, beauty of nature (so did King David, of course--as in "the heavens declare the glory of God"), Calvin churned out some incredibly powerful and beautiful lines about creation, as in, "There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice," which is startlingly antecedent to Abraham Kuyper's much quoted "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" Quite frankly, I prefer the Calvin take, for sheer economy.

So I dropped some wonderful quotes from Calvin into a whole parade of Siouxland landscapes, added some choral anthems for background and created this ten-minute visual thing that you'll find directly to the left here, under "Readings." If you've got ten minutes, you might just like it. You may have to click through some boxes, but I think you'll find it there. I did it on Calvin's birthday, in fact.

Enjoy. My Sunday morning mediation, I guess.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dakota Afternoon

I spent Tuesday in one of the most beautiful places in North America, a place that's miles off the map, the Missouri River valley in South Dakota, where I did some shooting for a story, plus a few shots of the place in general. The clouds forming in a few of the shots in the little slideshow below turned into a storm that eventually beat me up on the way back and has been hanging around here ever since, dumping more rain than we know what to do with. Today, maybe, more sun.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A most insidious pride

When I think back on it, I think it's fair of me to say that I've lived most of my life with depression. Even though I've not been its particular victim, it's never been all that far away. But proximity hasn't helped me understand it, if indeed it can be understood, especially by those who are in the neighborhood; but then, I'm not sure it's victims understand it either, if anyone does.

Several years ago I was doing a book of stories about Southeast Asian immigrant Christians, telling their stories. Most all political refugees tell tales unlike any North Americans could even invent. Brutality, violence, concentration camps, dangerous deep-of-night escapes through rivers and jungles. Any one of them could make Indiana Jones look like Tom Swift.

There was a time, back then, when I thought it might be interesting to videotape all of those interviews. In order to get that done, I'd take someone along to run the camera. One of those students was a kid I knew with depression--I assumed it would do him good to hear the story.

That night, for three hours I interviewed a man who, I don't doubt, killed people once upon a time, a man who'd then ended up in the area when some church decided to take on a refugee family. Incredibly, one day in a grocery store, he ran into another Lao man he knew back in the old country--in fact, they'd been enemies of a sort. Imagine that--two Laotian tough guys with histories ending up in the same aisle of a grocery store in some Iowa town, literally a whole world away.

One of them had been here for awhile and become a Christian. The two of them got together after that chance meeting and soon enough the other became a believer as well. His was the story, and it could have made a movie.

After it was over, our things were packed, and the two of us were back in the car on the way home, I said to the kid, "That was something, wasn't it?"

The kid didn't really even look at me. He simply gave me a tepid shrug of the shoulders.

At that moment, I understood something I'd never before picked up. There is no room for anything else in a mind that's possessed with depression--nothing. That night, the kid had kept the camera trained on the subject, but he'd never really heard the story, not because he wouldn't listen but because, really, he couldn't. His own concerns were so obsessive that they simply filled up his consciousness. Nothing else got in.

Depression sometimes seems, to those on the outside, the most insidious form of pride one could imagine, not because it has any arrogance to it. Most depression starts from the other side of the ledger--from incredibly fragile or non-existent self-image. But its manner seems a species of pride because in the darkness that forms in the lives of those who are depressed, it's that person's own unique and obsessive concerns that eclipse the light of day. The depressed simply can't think about other people; they are the only people on earth who really matter.

But not by choice--and there lies all the difference.

They can't help it.

I'm not sure we can either.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sarah Barracuda, Point Guard

Sarah Palin was, by all accounts, one fine point guard when she was in high school. I wasn't. But there was something in her basketball description/analogy/metaphor that struck me as wrong, and I did play--and coach (not successfully). Here's what she said:

A good point guard drives through a full court press, protecting the ball, keeping her eye on the basket... and she knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can WIN. And I'm doing that - keeping our eye on the ball that represents sound priorities - smaller government, energy independence, national security, freedom! And I know when it's time to pass the ball - for victory.
Some called the speech "rambling" and even "incoherent." With respect to Palin, beauty is most assuredly in the eye of the beholder, but even this paragraph won't serve as a model for clear writing. She says that a point guard should have her eyes on both the basket and the ball. What's right, in principle, is that a good point guard has to have his or her eyes on more than one thing--peripheral vision is a blessing.

But it strikes this ex-coach that if you've got a point guard who's looking at the ball, you're not going to win games, and you're not going to score like you could in a fast break. Good point guards don't watch the ball. What's more, if she's looking at the basket, you're not going to score well either, because she ought to be looking at her fast-breaking teammates. The talent of the finest point guards--junior high to NBA--is not their ability to watch the ball or see the basket, but their ability to shovel it off, which is why fine point guards lead the league in assists.

What you really want--or so it seems to this ex-coach--is a point guard who sees the other players and, only secondarily, the bucket, and certainly not the ball.

I'm tempted to say that something important is revealed in her description, but even if I'm right--even if Sarah Palin's real reason for resigning her governship is to collect on the fortune that is hers and her family's because of immense opportunities now offered her by her new-found fame and fortune--who cares? The Palins are not among the super rich. Let them go for the goal, for pity's sake. If she wants to keep her eyes on the money when she's running a fast break--if she wants to pull up and hit the jumper herself, fine. It's a free country, as we like to say.

Sarah Palin is a phenomenon, a woman who, like Obama himself, like Michael Jackson, creates throngs of devoted and passionate disciples. Wherever she goes, she draws a crowd. She can spit and fume and holler about the nasty, liberal mainstream press, but they love her--even when they hate her; without them, her only fans would be Alaskans. They've played a huge role in creating her. Yesterday, she dominated the talk shows, every one of them, Fox to MSNBC. Some hate her--no question; others would crown her Queen tomorrow, if they had the chance. She's a full-blown celebrity. Immense benefits accrue to celebrities, and problems--witness Jack-O.

And who knows, some loyal Republicans, even Palin-lovers who've questioned what on earth she's doing by retiring her governorship may be dead wrong. Maybe she's still got a political future--if not in 2012, how about 2024?

To heck with basketball, how about this? Sarah Palin just might take the money and run.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Summer Solstice

Want depressing? How about this, the earth has begun it's inevitable spin away from the direct rays of the sun. Even though we may well be closer to the sun in January, our take from its heat is more of a glancing blow than a direct hit (in the northern hemisphere, that is).

Anyway, here's the upshot: the days are getting shorter. That's cause for sadness. It's not unexpected since it happens every year at this time, but it's still depressing to think that we're all marching towards years end, which, here, means cold.

Then again, there's nothing quite as cheerful as the recognition that, come December, days are getting longer. It's a trade-off, I suppose, the growing darkness now for the growing light then.

I wonder whether life is that way--a trade off, a half-dozen bad news stories for six sweet ones. Lord knows, there are enough things to worry about. Last night, in church, it was announced that the cousin of a three-year-old whose been hospitalized for e-coli virus and is in sad, sad shape--that child's five-year-old cousin was is in intensive care for some gastronomical abnormality whose symptoms resemble those his cousin showed last week.

It seems that the older I get, the harder it is to take tragedy--and we've had a ton as of late. Almost more than I can handle. Almost.

And it's a heckuva a long wait till winter solstice.

Xavier Le Pichon, on Speaking of Faith, told a story about his mother, a tough cookie, who brought up her family in a Japanese in a concentration camp during WWII. One morning, he says, the commandant simply announced that many of them would be put to death the next day. Le Pichon's mother, seemingly undaunted, told her kids that day that they were going to learn their lessons regardless. About tomorrow, she told them, we know nothing--just go to work.

Best advice I've heard. Lord, help me to listen.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

the Fourth

The butterflies were everything I thought they'd be--and much, much more. It seemed like a great idea to take the grandkids into the Butterfly House, where they'd never been, and let 'em, like us, both educated and delighted by a thousand butterflies and moths flitting all around.

Turns out there's something sort of psychically irregular about living things flitting around your head. Reminds you of bad dreams, or something. I admit it--took me a minute or two to get used to butterflies landing on your head or arm, but once past some initial hesitance, the whole experience was remarkable.

Not so with our grandkids who kept thinking those giant, gorgeous insects were bats or bees or flying spiders. Both of them were scared. I'd say they shook, but the climate-controlled butterfly house holds a temp of somewhere above 80 degrees, with humidity at just about the same level. You can sweat just sitting on a bench.

But, finally, there is something unnatural to it--a couple dozens humanoids walking around in stylized rain forest, a thousand fragile little energized kites in magnificent color fluttering all around, so many you can hardly focus on just one. There's absolutely no reason to be scared, of course, but there is a weird kind of dissonance--like, "this just isn't right" or something.

But they're as beautiful as advertised, these fragile, dusty little bugs with wings made of the most gorgeous wrapping paper. They're stunning, really.

Rained all day, but the clouds broke up by nightfall, so I went out west to see what the sunset was going to bring. Wasn't bad. Wasn't bad at all.
And since grandparents pay in all these doings, let me just see that the butterflies weren't free. The sunset, on the other hand, was there for all the world to see, not that there weren't mosquitoes buzzing around.
I was in an easy chair for the Fourth-of-July fireworks. Heard 'em, but didn't see 'em. But then, maybe I had.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


Don't have any firecrackers today, no sparklers, no bottle rockets. I could have. Last night, in the rain, I passed on by the state line shack where I've bought them in the past (they're legal in South Dakota). Maybe I'm just getting old.

But the truth is, what I'm doing right now is a far better way to celebrate "the Fourth." That I can sit down here in the semi-darkness this morning, punch keys, create sentences, and send them forth hither and yon is a striking act of independence. It can't be done these days as easily in Iran, or in China or certainly that most bizarre of places, North Korea. But here, in my basement, I can say just about anything I want, including blashphemy, vulgarity, and outright, deliberate, character-maiming falsehood.

That I can do what I'm doing is a blessing attributable, of course, to Jefferson and Franklin and the 54 other signers of the Declaration of Independence, who did so today, many years ago (you do the math). The fact is, this piece of technology in front of me has made us all more independent, more free, less restrained by corporate or media will. Today, we choose almost everything we do. And that's an absolutely beautiful thing. [Note to self: a little John Phillip Sousa would do well right here.]

I'm an avid listener of American Public Radio's Speaking of Faith, which is itself a terrific, free course in ethics, morality, faith, and world religion. Yesterday, via podcast, I heard an wonderful interview Krista Tippett did with Xavier Le Pichon, a French geo-physicist, who happens to be among those rarest of birds, a devout Christian and a world-class scientist, a man who lives in an intentionally-Christian community that puts those members of the community with mental and emotional illnesses at the heart of all their lives.

Le Pichon claims that God creates us with the potential to evolve. He is himself an evolutionist--and a devout Catholic; his argument is that we can and do learn to be better human beings by taking care of those who are not as blessed. Somewhere late in the interview he said something to this effect--what all of us require as human beings in this evolution is "an education of the heart."

An education of the heart. What a great thought. It begins at a place most Christians understand, the biblical thou-shalt of loving God with heart, soul, and mind--and the gent or lady next door just as much as we do ourselves. Le Pichon says it's actually an ethic hard-wired into us because only humans don't leave their weak somewhere behind them to die. Animals do. We don't--many of us anyway. But even though our care for the less fortunate is remarkably unusual in the animal world, it's still an attribute we've got to practice to learn, to get right.

There's some shady paradox beneath all of us this, of course, as there is beneath most truth. Today is a day to celebrate our independence, which I'm doing right now, as these odd little squiggles march up and out of nowhere across my computer screen, but it may well be that our greatest joy in life itself arises from exercising that independence by being dependent on others.

Or something like that.

Listen yourself to Le Pichon. Interesting ideas for Independence Day. [Okay, turn up "Stars and Stripes Forever."]

You can hear the Speaking of Faith interview at

Thursday, July 02, 2009

King Beaver

Among the myriad facts I never knew is this: in 1624, the very first year the Dutch were in New York, New Amsterdam's first residents sent a couple thousand beaver and otter pelts back to Holland--because that's how big beaver hats were. It's another one of those astounding facts of history that a weird European fashion--hats made from beaver felts--was the most obvious cause of European settlement in the New World. Once upon time in most of these United States, beavers were royalty.

The very first paleface explorers to the whole region--the whole great "northwest" (which includes Iowa and Minnesota) --were the frontiersman who made their living by trapping beaver and trading with the Native people who did also. All for beavers. All for furs. All for fancy hats that were so much all the rage that Europe had depleted their own supply of the rotund furry rodent. Hence, on to the New World--all because of beavers.

We watched them last week--beavers, that is--in a couple of ponds along an old railway bed now paved as biking trails. We were lucky enough to see them, lucky enough to hear one of them blast the water with the massive, scaly tail each of them is blessed with. I couldn't have made more noise if I'd cannon-balled into that murky mess myself. None of them w0uld crawl out of the water, but one of them did some Olympic swimming dance routine for us before surface diving and simply disappearing, the routine over.

Beavers are monogamous, and couples have twins annually. They live in mud huts that dot the whole region, fabricated with branches and cattails and whatever else they can pile up, but suitably equipped with underground doors. They're big--we're not talking muskrats here; beavers look like big, fat cocker spaniels. And their brown. And they're fun to watch.

We stood out there gathering horse flies and mosquitoes longer than we should have, but they deserve some attention and honor, after all. Once long ago, they were monarchs of the realm, royalty of the region. Able-bodied men--red and white--made it their calling to catch 'em.
Think of it this way--we're here in Iowa, all for the love of a hat.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Michael Jackson, 1959-2009

The world is agog over Michael Jackson. I'm not.

In 1962, I sat in the backseat of a car full of guys and guns, going rabbit hunting somewhere in the lake shore woods of Wisconsin, when a DJ on WOKY, Milwaukee's rock radio, announced that a new British band was going to rewrite pop music. That was the Beatles, and, honestly, I remember hearing "I Want To Hold Your Hand" that afternoon in the January cold. I don't know that I was immediately impressed, but I do know that, once upon a time, I owned every album the Beatles ever made.

My love affair with rock music was brief but intense, and it lasted for a decade--the Byrds, the Stones, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin, Iron Butterfly, Dave Clark Five, a bunch more of the bands of the era can still take me back to technicolor moments--not all of them admirable--from those years. Only Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had any staying power, really, most the others becoming, at last, simply sweet cures for fond memories.

By 1970, I was teaching at a small, rural high school in Wisconsin, and our affair was largely over. I remember the James Gang, and I often played rock music in class because it was the only poetry my students cared for, but there are no pop music numbers that recreate old stories in my mind from that point on.

In the years that followed, one couldn't really miss Michael Jackson, and of course I remember that prancing little wonder who was the centerpiece of the Jackson Five. But Michael's super-stardom was achieved without me, for the most part, never bought an album, not even Thriller. My memory has recorded fleeting glimpses--the moonwalk, that weird whatever on top of a black van when he came out of a court trial for child molestation, the baby hung from the hotel window, and of course, his increasingly spooky appearance. But, other than "Thriller," his music doesn't resonate in me like that of the Beatles, although I'm sure I'd recognize it.

I haven't rent my robes about his dying, quite frankly, and the homage the media pays to him seems to me to be vastly overblown. But then, he wasn't part of my world, like he was so many others.

On one of the Sunday morning talk shows recently, Peggy Noonan said that what was really interesting about his death was that he may well have been the last real cultural icon. There was a time when a much more streamlined media was laser-like in its creation of superstars. Everybody listened to one of only three TV networks, many had subscriptions to Time and Life or Look, and where I grew up every last teenager tuned to WOKY, Milwaukee. We were, as a culture, far, far more unified. What they played, we bought.

Today, no more. If I were to ask a class of my students whose music they listen to, I'd get a dozen different answers. Albums are largely museum pieces; most buyers download by the cut. Hundreds of TV networks stream into our homes, and one can even choose the slant of the news. Time magazine is a quarter of its old size, and newspapers are no bigger than advertising circulars--without the advertising. Simply put, we live in a new world.

Once upon a time, like many, many others, I wanted to write "the Great American Novel." Who talks that way anymore? There simply aren't cultural icons anymore because we live in a land of immense diversity, thousands of Americas--and that's both good and bad.

But it's also a fact, and that's reason enough to pay attention to the passing of Michael Jackson, even if he never once made me swoon.