Morning Thanks

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

Monday, August 31, 2009

Something of the story


This chunk of prairie--640 acres--is nothing to sneeze at. To my eyes, what's being done here is marvelously sweet because it's an attempt at reconciliation, in a way, an attempt to bring what's here into community with what once was. The State of Minnesota is trying to reupholster a half section of land to be what it was, almost 200 years ago, when no white folks were anywhere in sight.

That's a worthy ambition, but it's made even more worthy by the fact that this particular 640-acre parcel isn't just any Murray County half-section. It happens to be the place where a bloody fight took place between Dakota people and the white settlers marching slowly but relentlessly into their hunting grounds and over their culture. In fact, the place has been called "Slaughter Slough" by locals ever since 1862, when the swamp ran with blood, most of it from the settlers killed during a six-week conflict that claimed the lives of hundreds of Minnesota's earliest white settlers.
We visited yesterday. There's no signage about the battle in the postage-stamp parking lot along the road, only a few small signs indicating that the place is a waterfowl protection area. That's it. It was getting late so we didn't hike around much or we would have found the stone pictured above somewhere down the path cut into the prairie grass, a stone that tells something of the battle.

But what's agonizing about Slaughter Slough is not just the story. What's just as painful is the fact that the events that occurred here almost 150 years ago still can't be talked about--not easily anyway; it's hard, if not impossible, to tell the story at all. Who suffered most?--the white settlers, who were murdered here, or the Dakota, who lost their land, their culture, and their identity? And what was more brutal?--500 white settlers dead, or thousands, even millions of slain Indians, some tribes almost entirely wiped out by diseases carted along by those same European settlers, diseases for which Native people had no immunities? Do the math, if you can.

Honestly, you've really got to hunt for Slaughter Slough. It's 3 1/2 miles of gravel off an obscure county highway. You have to want to go there. The place gets no sidewalk traffic. And you've got to hunt for the Shetek monument too, not all that far away. It was set along the lake in the 1920s, when the events of just sixty years before were far more fresh, and white people were doing all the story-telling. Now, amazingly, it can be seen as something of an embarrassment.

There's so much that's horrible about that era in southwest Minnesota, that simply telling the story, even today, a century and a half later, creates great pain. So we hedge and dodge, we bob and weave, not because what happened in Slaughter Slough wasn't real but because it was.

Just down the road at Lake Shetek State Park, a little visitors center tells the story in a couple of wall plaques. "What happens next is not clear," it claims when it comes up the chapter set at Slaughter Slough. I've been reading a ton about the Dakota Conflict of 1862, but I've never seen that kind of hedging before--that the story isn't clear. "Reports say the pursuing Indians shot the initial volleys, but they did not strike the settlers. Other reports say shots hit the people riding in the wagon."

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the telling now moves into the present tense. "The fleeing settlers stop and abandon the wagon by a large slough." And stays in present tense. "They run for cover into the six to eight foot tall grass of a large shallow wetland called a slough."

Maybe the tense shift somehow brought the writer some comfort.

"Lean Bear approaches the wagon and begins to take the harness off the horses. He is shot and killed by the settlers. Other Indians and shot and killed by the settlers too."

The settlers are the aggressors here, even though their own people lay dead on the homesteads they left in an awful panic. Amazing.

But even though what actually happened at Slaughter Slough isn't that difficult or complex, what happened between white people and Native in this country's history is, remarkably so. That it is so complex explains the artful dodge that plaque offers. The truth is, the whole truth doesn't fit on a two-foot plaque.

Somewhere right now, I suppose, some Minnesota historians are trying their best to determine just how to tell that whole 1862 story again, anew, because in 2012, it will be exactly 150 years and some one will have to bring it all up again.

Meanwhile, every last high school history teacher for a hundred miles around ought to take his or her classes to Slaughter Slough and the Shetek Monument, not because the story of what happened is so perfectly told, but because the story of how we tell our story is.

You can learn a ton about history if you stand in the long grass of Slaughter Slough, even though there's no signs around. Their absence is itself a story, itself a lesson.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Saturday Morning Catch


Long ago, my wife let me know that some weeds were really wild flowers. I hadn't thought of that back then, on our way to Arizona, soon after we were married, the ditches speckled gloriously with bright yellow blossoms. I thought about that yesteday, early morning, when the gigantic wave of emerald out here--every corn and soybean field is mature--sparkled with black-eyed susans or compass plants. I'm not sure what they are, finally, but they're certainly ubiquitous, shining like stars in the green wave that is Siouxland.

They're not greenhouse-perfect. Bugs love the yellow trumpets more than most of us, as you can see if you look closely. Leaves are pockmarked, and, of course, and the elderly die slowly, in full public view, witnesses to the story of the earth.

Maybe they're weeds--it takes someone with more expertise than I have--but yesterday, early in the morning, royally bedecked with dew, against the unending green, they were, most definitely, wild flowers.

Friday, August 28, 2009

This Calvinist surge


Sometimes I feel like I'm riding a wave, even though I didn't even know I was surfing, much less in the drink at all. Christianity Today, once again (third time in the last few years), gives John Calvin all the cover's glory. Years ago, my parents raised me to be a tad suspicious of Billy Graham and his people, because, after all, the man believed in free will--and we didn't. Don't get me wrong--my parents loved Graham and the crusades and all of that. "There's this fault line between us, see?--but that doesn't mean that God doesn't use him." He just wasn't one of us Calvinists.

I didn't fully understand that variety of discrimination when I was a boy, but I swallowed it anyway so that it became part of my own vision of things, part of the package that was me.

But I got my college education at a place that only dug those lines even deeper. I was, I learned, someone raised in the thoughtful, Calvinist version of Christian faith. Hmmm. What's more, a portly Dutch politician/preacher named Abraham Kuyper played a significant role in shaping of the legacy I'd inherited, even though I hadn't heard of him until I got to college. And, some even more recent Dutch philosophers crowned all of that with a "neo," so that if I wanted to know exactly what I was, I really was identified by this name--"a neo-Kuyperian Calvinist Christian." That's what I was, I was told, and that's what I remain--certainly not as doctrinaire as some, but as opinionated as any. I'm not begging fight, just telling the story.

Ironically, and in my lifetime, church-going folks from the cultural and religious heritage I came packaged with tossed all that baggage as if you had to pay extra for it when you checked in for a flight home. Lay Calvinists dropped the whole theological business for a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. Cradle Calvinists pushed back the quilt and took up, mostly, with Graham's people--or so it seems to me. For good reason: they were the ones getting all the ink, after all. The predestined gleefully exercised thier own free will to join the free-willers.

Now get this, the old-line free-willers, Graham's people, if we believe CT, are moving the other way, but more quickly, ying and yang. They're pulling on the Calvinist breastplate at the same time the old Calvinists among my people are scapping it and going crusading.

Yesterday, I asked an early American lit class how many of them knew anything about the name of the college where I teach and they attend--Dordt. Two or three raised their hands, although none of them knew when the Synod of Dordt took place. To most students and constituency, the name is rarified history, pretty much irrelevant. The Synod of Dordt--sure? Next week, I'll pass out copies of Christianity Today so they can read up on their own heritage. Ain't we got fun?

Billy Graham and the free-will-ers decided, decades ago, to publish a magazine that now announces that it's hot stuff, this Calvinism, when, for the last several decades, some of us traditionalists have felt, well, left behind (I think there's a joke there).
Way down at the bottom of this page, you'll find a quote from Richard Mouw, which I may have to dispose of. Then again, maybe Mouw's the prophet.

Anyway, I like it--being part of the progressive movement again. Calvinism's back, or so says CT. I may live in Iowa, but this Calvinist surfer sure digs the size of these waves.

None of it makes much sense, really. Only to a sovereign God, I suppose. Saith the Calvinist.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Teachable Moments I


Jeff was, well, nerd-ish, even though, back then, I'm not sure the word existed. Not terminably so either, however, so maybe I'm overstating. Anyway, he was among my best students, and something of an eager beaver--aggressive in class. Ruddy complexioned, festooned with freckles, and just a little fleshy, he wasn't going to be all conference in anything--you could see that. He loved sports, I think, but didn't everyone back then? If he was on any team, he was, I'm sure, a bench jockey. But mostly, as I remember, kids liked him--at least, they didn't hate him, and there was an immense difference between those two attitudes in the high school where I spent my first year teaching.

A high-achiever maybe, come to think of it, a kid who really wanted to do well, not because it would look good on his record. That wasn't it. Jeff simply enjoyed school. Maybe that's the best way of describing him. He really did--honestly and truly--he liked school, liked learning. And he did well. He'd never be the valedictorian, but he did well.

I don't remember anymore who specifically it was we were studying that morning, someone 19th century, probably one of "the fireside poets"--Whittier or Longfellow. It wasn't Eliot or Pound or someone really, really dense for 16-year-old kids, but someone relatively easy, like Longfellow.

Maybe it was Oliver Wendell Holmes, "The Chambered Nautilus." That's a good bet.

"THE CHAMBERED NAUTILUS"

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,--
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,--
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

[There's more, but there's google.]

Back then, a month or so into my first teaching job, I'd become conscious of this odd talent I was somehow given: I could read stuff to kids and they'd be mesmerized, a talent I honestly didn't know I had. So I gave it my all, poured myself into the poem, read it--stem to stern--and looked up. They were perfectly mute.

"What do you think?" I said.

Nothing.

"What's Mr. Holmes saying here?" I probably said, or some other apt English-teacher question.

No one said a word.

"Any ideas?"

Jeff raises his hand. He's sitting in the front row. I call on him.

"It must be good," he says. "because I don't understand it. That's the way it usually is in this class: if I don't get it, you love it. This one is good, right?"

I laughed, but he didn't. No one else did, in fact. As Hawthorne understood, a man who laughs alone is scary.

I never really wanted to be elitist, and Jeff made it clear--no malice intended, no cynicism, no animosity, just the truth--that I was, and that literature could be snobbish and impenetrable, even though I didn't think so. . .some of the time at least. When no one else chuckled, I stood there alone.

Today, Jeff is 55 years old, probably a grandpa. I can't believe he'd remember that moment. But I do because for me it was a teachable moment--far more rich for the teacher than the student. There have been many. I was only five years older than the kids in my class, but I understood immediately how this kid, Jeff, had created his own aesthetic, even though he didn't know the word: if he didn't understand a poem, he just assumed it was probably really good. That's what I'd taught him.

When I think back, that moment was as telling a measure of growth as 12 years of class photos. Nerdy, freckled Jeff, sitting right there in the front row, taught me something about teaching, and living.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Lion King


In today's hopelessly polarized America, if you're a liberal, you're in sackcloth and ashes; if you're conservative, you're on your feet and cheering. Such is life. The man who likely worked harder on universal health care than anyone else is dead. Ted Kennedy, the youngest of four remarkable Kennedy boys, succumbed to brain cancer diagnosed only a year or so ago. He died just a few weeks after his older sister Eunice did, two of a tabloid-feature family that, for years, was America's royalty. Camelot is gone.

When "Lion of the Senate" weighed in, people listened, although his point of view rarely came as a surprise. What was surprising was how he frequently brought both sides of the empire together, often enough in secret. He was a good friend of a number of long-time Washington conservatives, men and women with whom, politically, he shared, seemingly, nothing. The man had people skills that vastly surpassed all of his equally-famous brothers, those who knew him say.

His life and career were forever tarnished by an incident never totally understood, a mystery that was seemingly left so. One night in July of 1969, young and randy Teddy, accompanied by a young woman, not his wife, veered off a bridge on the tiny Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick. Teddy swam away and lived; Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, did not. It seemed to me then--and to a ton of Americans--that even death, for the Kennedys was somehow political. That incident may well have kept him from the office one of his storied brothers held and another so deeply coveted.

But both of those brothers were murdered, one as President, the other as a candidate. Twice, Teddy stood by and watched his own flesh and blood fall at the hands of assasins. He ran, for better or worse, the final leg of the Kennedy relay, finishing strong, a powerhouse in the Senate, the lion.

There's so many angles to the story that it's not hard to see why we've splashed the Kennedys all over our magazine covers for so many decades. Poor Irish immigrants pull themselves up by their bootstraps to rise, in mythic American fashion, to the very top of the nation's elite, both rich and famous, although that ascension was more than a little inglorious. But they got there, and that's what matters in this country. From stem to stern, they were fast-livvers. When John F., was murdered in Dallas, he became more of a god than a man, even though his Princess wife, more often than not, had slept alone, unlike her husband the king.

In this country, Ted championed every liberal cause known to man. But if, right now, he were leading the Senate and not Harry Reid, conservatives from Glen Beck to Joe Scarborough would find it harder to scream. He was, by all reports, a very kind man, sensitive, made that way, perhaps, by his own personal history. He carried so much story with him that sometimes, I'm sure, he found all of it very difficult to shoulder.

But he's gone now, and, although the family isn't, for the most part his passing closes the book on a story that's really a whole family of novels.

Regardless of his politics or yours or mine, the Kennedy story is quintessentially American and bigger, even, than they are. Finally, Camelot is more about you and me than it is about them--that's how big it was.

And now he's gone, and they are. Cry or cheer, it's the final chapter. But then, these mortal coils turn to dust long before legends die. The Kennedys were a legend.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Not a bad gig


Tomorrow, school begins for the 38th time in my life. Once upon time, way back when, I wanted to be a photographer. But my father, a fine Christian man, told me that just shooting pictures wasn't really a "calling" in the Calvinist sense. But then, the only photographer he knew was a guy who did weddings; his idea of art was church music. Photography simply wasn't noble enough for his only son.

Last Friday night we had dinner with two professional photographers, good friends, and I told them how my father had ruled in 1966. Maybe telling them that should have been embarrassing, but, strangely enough, it wasn't; and I've been trying to figure out why.

Now teaching, my father said--that was a noble profession. There are teachers galore in my family, so when I went through what college students here did yesterday--registering for their first year of classes--I signed up for education. I was going to be a history teacher. I liked history. But the major didn't really matter because for most of my high school life I wore a jock strap--I wanted to coach. Back then, when you signed up for education you had to sign up for some other major in order to get the real gold. I was a history major--PE minor. I wanted a whistle hanging around my neck. I wanted to coach.

I don't know that my father cared much about that. He just wanted teaching.

Things changed, sort of. Not long into my very first year of high school coaching, I realized, oddly enough, that my heart wasn't in it. I was third-rate and I knew it. But in the classroom my students' eyes made me believe I was no slouch. I was teaching English--not history, although a lot of it was history. I got into literature because somewhere during that first year in college, I got royally seduced: writing swept into my life passionately and took me out at the knees.

Last week a couple of ex-students from a two-year high school teaching stint in Arizona long ago somehow found me on Facebook. That was sweet. And a kid from my very first year of teaching in rural Wisconsin--1970--still sends me glorious chunks of Green County gold--the best Swiss cheese money can buy. As some might say today, this teaching thing hasn't been a bad gig.

Yesterday in our office pod we met the new English majors . For me, they're the beginning of the end, because when they graduate they won't be the only ones waving goodbye. A school is a revolving door--kids come and go. Because English teachers are often privy to the inside stories of their students' lives, we sometimes we fall in love--male and female, makes no diff. After all, we get to know them so well--or so we think--that we actually come to rely on them for joy and inspiration. Then they graduate, and they're gone. And another bunch walks in, like yesterday.

But for me, this one is the last. Four more years.

Maybe I wasn't all that embarrassed to tell those photographers that my warm Christian father didn't think a lot of what the two of them did for a living because maybe--just maybe--within the limits of my father's definitions and his own son's life, he was right. Teaching hasn't been a bad gig. Maybe even a calling.

Besides, I still take pictures.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Various prairie fantasies


Long, long ago, when we moved to Iowa, I started jogging with a passion, so much passion that I subscribed to Runner's World. It's hilarious to think of it now--me reading Runner's World. Passion be darned, I'm no better outfitted to be a marathoner than a ballerina. Reading that magazine was pure fantasy.

Maybe two years ago already, I think I already surpassed my personal quota of Viagra commercials. I've seen enough. I just shouldn't have to see any more--there ought to be a law.
Impotence, I'm sure, is no picnic; but it's difficult for me to believe that the incessant "male enhancement" ads on TV are in any way, shape, or form indicative of the rate of impotence among paunchy old American men. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think Viagra is just another Runner's World, a fantasy for old bucks--and a cash cow for pharmaceutical companies.

So here's a scenario. Someday soon, midday too, I come home to my wife and tell her that I've got this plan. "You know the old Vander Meer place, that abandoned farm on the blacktop to Hudson? I've got a couple of great old clawfoot tubs out there full of bubble bath just sitting on the yard, no one around. How's about right now you and me gettin' naked and sittin' out there and holdin' hands under the spreading chestnut trees?"

She'd smile, walk into the living room, call about a half dozen of our close friends, and beg them to come over for an intervention. Either that or 911.

Or how about that other one? First, this geeky Santa Claus with the enhanced package hauls out his driver (it's almost impossible to avoid double entendres here--I mean the golf club) and whacks a 300-yard drive. Then the voice-over asks a room full of also-ran, bald, fat guys, "How many of you would like to try some male enhancement?" and four or five of them raise their hands meekly, as if they're coming out of the closet.

That's the one that features TV's most imprudent phallic symbol--the North Pole--and a bevy of unlikely middle-aged babes, all of whom are somehow in line to beg Santa's favors, I guess, but who squeeze and squirm thier bunsies when they whisper to each other about what's really there in Santa's enhanced lap. (I know I'm going too far, but I'm trying to control myself.)

And can we just put a ban on any talk of four-hour erections? Where is Groucho when we need him? Can you imagine him taking a healthy slug of Cialis and running around the way he used to? I'd pay premium for that show.

Are there really that many men in need? There must be, right? How else could all those companies pour all those bucks into incessant commercials? What I'd like to know is, how many of the wives of those paunchy old duffers really want their husbands toting loaded guns around anymore?

"Quick, call this number today and we'll send you--free!--a two-weeks' supply of topical rush." Topical rush? I don't even want to know.

I better shuttup. I'm not getting any younger. And the fact is--I'm a little reluctant to admit it--but there are two claw-foot tubs in our house. I'd have to rent the football team to get them out the bathrooms, but where there's a will, there's a way, I guess. And where there isn't, there's Viagra.

Don't touch that phone.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A holy place


If I wouldn't have had a guide, if I wouldn't have known ahead of time that the Sioux quartzite out there was full of ancient etchings, I swear I could easily have missed them, even though I walked right over them. Of course, I visited the Jeffers Petroglyphs in the middle of the day, and I was told that when you're there determines their relative visibility--just exactly how the sun hits them makes for significant differences. Nonetheless, I must admit that some of them I simply didn't see.

But they're there, and about that there is no doubt. Nobody knows who did them, which is to say nobody knows much about just exactly what kind of tribe and culture was here. The pictures themselves tell us just about all we know. They were hunter/gatherers who ate and drank, loved and died, and, unless our speculation is silly, they had rituals, which implies some kind of faith. The Red Rock Ridge--what locals call the site--has likely been, and still is today, a holy place.

Which is, to my estimation, understandable. When you stand beside ancient etchings that are, anthropologists suggest, at least 10,000 years old, when you see striations carved into the surface by a glacier that was here even before that, even the arrogant have to grab a breath. Almost all faiths, or so it seems to me, begin on the knees with a volley of stuttered breaths.

To some, I suppose, it might be tough to see a place like the Jeffers Petroglyphs as a holy place. If you stand up on the highest red rock there, you're no more than twenty feet above the lowest place within miles. Red Rock Ridge is a prairie high, really, and hardly a "ridge" at all. It's not the Royal Gorge or the Grand Canyon. There's no risk from that strange instinct some of us feel when we stand up at a precipice, an oddly suicidal urge to jump. Nope. Leap from the Sioux quartzite at the Jeffers site, and even the aged would have trouble breaking a bone.

But if you've lived out here for awhile, it's perfectly understandable how--way back when, and even today--people continue to wander out to the site to sit and meditate. I wish it were closer to home. If you sit on that stone, surrounded by the emerald prairie, miles of open land yawning out in every direction, and realize that, long ago, men and women in bison skins sat here too, inscribing their visions in the pink rock, you'd have to say, in the parlance of the young, "whoa."

"I'm like, 'whoa.'"

That's really where faith begins--"like 'whoa.'" I like that.

I'm not sure a church can do that--or wants to. Some of the old cathedrals?--maybe; but today's more contemporary spaces? ex-shopping centers? new churches created to resemble skating rinks? Nah.

No matter, I suppose--as long as somehow, at some place in the liturgy we can't help ourselves from muttering, "like, 'whoa.'"

You know what I like best about Jeffers Petroglyphs? You can go there anytime. There's no fence. There's a wonderful little visitor's center, there's miles of native prairie, but there's no fence, which means, hard as it to believe in this day and age, it's always open, as a holy place should be. I'm not kidding. You could go there tonight, late, when there is nothing but moon and stars, and sit on the ridge. You could. No one would mind.

Like, "whoa."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Beauty, eh?


To a certain extent, people are right--it's in the eye of the beholder. But not totally either.

Exhibit A, the above. How do you like them tamaters? They're mine. Well, sort of. I planted 'em late last spring, watered them three or four times, and them relied on whatever was in their DNA, plus the kindly weather. All summer, it was relatively cool and rainy, probably the perfect storm for good tomatoes, at least this year we've got ourselves some bounty.

There's a joke making its rounds out here, and it goes like this:

Q. How is it Sioux County people lock their doors every August?

A. They don't want the neighors leaving their blasted zucchini.

Whatever.

But back to beauty. Here's what I'm wondering: Is the above a "beautiful" picture? I think it is. Try to look away. But is my judgment skewed by my ownership--I mean, they're mine. Is the beauty a by-product of the mean fact that they're from the plants I put in the ground last May?

I honestly don't know. What is, really, beautiful. What about this?


Sweet sweep of lines here, eh? Know what it is? A twist of tooth floss on my desk--used tooth floss (sorry). I don't care--somehow it's pretty.

Go figure.

In this dark world, it's our job, I think, to find it--beauty that is. Sometimes you don't have to look far.

And now it's time for salsa.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Invisible


Aside from swollen knees, shrunken bladders, and a host of other maladies I'd just as soon not go into, one of the most disconcerting aspects of aging is growing invisibility. As a phenom, I first learned about it in Ralph Ellison's famous novel, Invisible Man, but his claim is race-based--that Blacks are, to most of white society, invisible.

That was book learning--and this white man would be the first to admit that what I feel is not the same. But I remember one Sunday morning ten years ago already, when a young family walked into church, three or four kids behind Mom and Dad, and how I felt clobbered by the realization that this institution--this church--wasn't really about me anymore, but about them, about the young. Odd feeling. It wasn't envy that crept into me; didn't even feel like much of a sin, in fact, just a kind of sharp realization. Just true.

I feel it more and more, it seems, every year--or maybe I'm just conscious of it at times like these when hoardes of young people descend on campus. Invisibility. You get older, the thinner you become, in an odd kind of anthropoligical way.

Maybe that's why I loved this morning's poem from the Writer's Almanac.

Straightpins by Jo McDougall
 
Growing up in a small town,
we didn't notice
the background figures of our lives,
gray men, gnarled women,
dropping from us silently
like straightpins to a dressmaker's floor.
The old did not die
but simply vanished
like discs of snow on our tongues.
We knew nothing then of nothingness
or pain or loss--
our days filled with open fields,
football,
turtles and cows.
One day we noticed
Death has a musty breath,
that some we loved
died dreadfully,
that dying
sometimes takes time.
Now, standing in a supermarket line
or easing out of a parking lot,
we realize
we've become the hazy backgrounds
of younger lives.
How long has it been,
we ask no one in particular,
since we've seen a turtle
or a cow?
 
from Satisfied with Havoc. (c) Autumn House Press, 2004.

Yeah. Sheesh, I wish I'd written that.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Freedom


I'm no socialist, and neither am I surprised by the frenzy that arises in the American populace when they believe their freedoms are endangered. What people used to call "the American experiment" is still, to me at least, amazing--and I say that vehemently, having just come out of two or three days of faculty meetings. The idea that we can rule ourselves is just as radical today as it was in 1776. Freedom--and democracy--requires, as Franklin told us, immense vigilance.

What does surprise me, however, is the tenacity by which some good praying Christians honor freedom, as if freedom were the cardinal principle of the Christian life. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the virtues of freedom aren't so vehemently preached in the New Testament--or Old, for that matter. And, if you want to measure importance by column inches, justice certainly appears to me at least to be a far more important matter--making sure nobody goes without. I'm no socialist, and I'm certainly not a Nazi.

"It is the paradox of modernity that as choice and material prosperity increase, health and personal satisfaction decline. That is now accepted truth," or so says Peter Whybrown, author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough. I don't know Whybrown, but if that sounds like the mutterings of a pinko, it also sounds a ton like Jesus. "And yet it is the rare American who managed to step off the hedonistic treadmill long enough to savor his or her good fortune." [Seems right to me--that I don't really need another digital camera certainly doesn't mean I don't want one--I mean, really want one.] "Indeed," writes Whybrown in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, "for most of us, regardless of what we have, we want more, and we want it now."

Sheesh. Feels like something close to "the American way." But then, what can one expect from the Chronicle of Higher Education, right?

The first time in my life I heard the phrase "free enterprise" publicly heralded was when, 37 years ago, we moved to Arizona. There, the schools were tangling with the legislature, who wanted to make every Arizona kid take a course in "free enterprise." I was 26 years old or so, had taught high school English in Wisconsin for a couple of years, and had a college education--a Christian college education; but I didn't know what the Arizona legislature meant exactly by "free enterprise." I learned quickly.

Apparently, we must have succeeded. After all, Phoenix--where I taught--set a national record for number of gun-toters at a Presidential town hall last week, with a dozen. By the way, that's a record I hope stands forever.

Whybrown thinks our present economic woes may change all of this. "Now," he says, "with reality challenging the laissez-faire ideology of recent decades, we have the opportunity to take stock with a renewed self-awareness, curb our addictive striving, and reach beyond immediate reward to craft a vigorous, equitable, and sustainable market society--one where technology and profit serve as instruments in achieving the good life and are not confused with the good life itself. The dream that material markets will ultimately deliver social perfection and human happiness is an illusion."

Okay, I'm not telling the whole truth. There are moments in the essay, moments I'm not quoting, when Whybrown refers to our "evolutionary history." Some of us can breath easily because the guy's got to be a Darwinist.

Still, he does sound a ton like Jesus. Okay, not quite as radical. After all, for Christ, the love of money was the root of all evil. But then Jesus was sometimes given to hyperbole--just read the Sermon on the Mount sometime.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Morning thanks--Facebook


Once upon a time, a former student wanted to show me some pictures. The best way to do that, she determined, was by way of Facebook. So I got an odd little invite in my e-mail, an invite that told me this student of mine wanted to be my friend. Weird. I had no idea what that meant, but I'm usually game for computer stuff so I signed in and up, and, lo and behold, I was on Facebook.

Big deal.

Some time later, some students told me they thought I was cool--their old chrome-dome prof was right there on Facebook. I didn't know exactly why I was so cool, but at my age you don't fight with such judgments when they come your way. So I went back to Facebook and filled out some questions, including one that asked about marital status--yes, I'm married. Soon after, some students it was a hoot to hear that Dr. Schaap just got married.

My daughter is a heavy Facebook hitter, one of those who writes a lot of things. When I kid her about it, she says she talks to people--including cousins--that she'd never keep up with if it weren't for that massive social networking site. Okay.

So I went back about a week ago and looked at my Facebook page again, something I've done very rarely in the five years or so that I've been on it. Some old students of mine from years and years ago wanted to be friends--sweet. One of them told me I was "the best English teacher on the planet," which made my day, although her judgments were constructed on a tenuous 40-year old appraisal. Who cares?--I'll take the strokes.

Then, last night, when I was on, a new phenom. Suddenly a box jumped up from the lower right-hand corner of my screen. Another ex-student from long ago somehow discovered I was on the site and opened a chat box. I hadn't heard from him for dozens of years--nice. We chatted--nice. It didn't take long, and I asked him what he was up to, etc., and he delivered the goods. His marriage had gone south, water under the bridge was the way he said it. And it must not have been pretty at all. Ugly, in fact. Don't know the details--and I don't want to. I know too many bad stories.

My daughter is right--Facebook gives me occasion to yak with people I wouldn't likely yak with otherwise. But last night I discovered it can also be the bearer of bad, bad tidings.

Still, I'm glad I know. I really am. This morning, I'm even thankful for Facebook.

But sad, too.

I guess that's possible--both thankful and sad. Feels, well, human, I guess.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ars Moriendi


It's time to toss it, this plaque my father received from his employers at the bank for 27 years' worth of a job well done. When he died, I just couldn't throw it, even though no one else wanted it, a handsome brass plaque set on maple commending his dedicated service. So it came along to Iowa, where for the last five years it hid behind some books in a basement book rack.

A couple days ago I found it when I cleaned up. No one's looked at in the five years that have passed since he died. It really has no particular use anymore, part of the detritus we all leave in a wake when we go.

"Death sets a thing significant," Ms. Dickinson once wrote, "the eye had hurried by." I suppose that's true of this old plaque too--I wouldn't have lugged it along to Iowa if my father's death hadn't bestowed additional significance upon it. Five years ago I couldn't toss it because it felt like I was tossing him, but whatever significance it carried back then has significantly lessened today.


Last week, in Minnesota, I walked through a cemetery adjacent to Ft. Ridgely, site of one of the battles of the 1862 Sioux Uprising. I must have been there for an hour or more that day. It was hot, and I was all alone.

I stumbled over this grave that day, along with some others that dated from the era of the uprising, the gravesite of one Eliza Muller, a stone inscribed this way: "Her valor and devotion to the sick and wounded soldiers and refugees during and after the Sioux Indian Outbreak of 1862 will forever be cherished in the hearts of a grateful people."
Like I say, I was totally alone, the cemetery is a long ways off the beaten path, and her stone stands far back in that graveyard, in the shadows, surrounded by other unreadable ancients. It is, by all estimations, out of the way. I don't know any more about Eliza Muller than what her stone explains, but it seemed, that day, that "forever cherished" was, at best, empty rhetoric because what seemed far more real than the eternal regard the gravestone pledged was the dark gray fungus spreading like the glove of the Joker over its marble.

I won't pound a nail in my father's coffin by throwing out this useless plaque--he's already gone, after all. And besides, I knew my father well enough to understand that, honestly, he wouldn't care if today--or five years ago--this commemorative plaque went in the barrel. Whatever service he did to "bank and community" was done not because he hoped someday to get some kind of good neighbor recognition; whatever service he did on the terra firma was done, I know, from his own sense of obedience to the God he loved.

I'm betting Eliza Muller, whose husband was a doctor once upon a time in New Ulm, Minnesota, did her heroic work for much the same reason, not to be celebrated by the Minnesota Historical Society, but in obedience to God who made it clear during that bloody seige that simply letting people die wasn't the way for anyone to live.

Somehow there's a lesson there, but it so dumb hard to learn.

There's an ars moriendi theme in all of this, something about the art of dying. But then, as many much smarter than I am have long ago pointed out, we're all on the same trajectory, which means practicing the art of dying is really becoming accomplished in the art of living.

And maybe I should just stay out of cemeteries. Then again, maybe not.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Beauty


Twice this summer, I spent some time in old cathedrals, and loved the visits. A month ago, we walked through one of California's ancient Spanish missions, San Luis Rey de Francia, in Oceanside, founded in 1798, the largest of California's 21 Spanish missions. Last week, a whole cultural world away, I spent some time in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, a beautiful house of worship that has served New Ulm, Minnesota, for more than a century.

Cathedrals, even in small Midwestern towns, inspire awe. Ceilings rise like inspired visions, creating space for the astonishing art work unlike anything in the Protestant and Calvinist churches in which I grew up. Sculptures sit in every corner, on every wall--saints and holy mothers and suffering Christs. Cathedrals offer so much to see that it's almost impossible not to meditate.



In New Ulm, late morning, I walked in to the sanctuary and interrupted a woman who was singing an evangelical praise song--not well, I might add. Despite my assurance that I didn't want to interrupt, my walking in embarrassed her. Not long after, she quit and left. But if you really (and simply) want to sing to the Lord, an empty cathedral is as good a space as you'll find--no matter whether you're Catholic or Protestant.


At least part of the motivation for all of the artwork, the visual imagery in any Roman Catholic mission, is nothing more or less than the motivation to tell the good news. After all, parishoners were poor and often as not illiterate. "Show, don't tell" was the guiding principle for bringing the stories into the hearts of the people--Native Americans in missions like Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, or German-Americans in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.

During the Reformation, when my own spiritual ancestors cleaned up what they thought of as the papist mess, they called their stripped down church building a "meeting house," and ripped out every last shred of image-making, delighting in their own new squeaky-clean, bare bones aesthetic. Something got lost.

Yesterday, back in our own church, I noticed that someone--probably the pastor--had laid that bulky pulpit bible on the communion table and spread it open to the congregation. That open Bible reminded me of an English law, circa 16th century or so, that demanded churches create just such a display--and for good reason. What the Reformation stood for, as much as anything, was the people's right to the treasures of the Bible, the Word of God. Post-Luther, what was formally accessible only to the priests became open to the people. If you want to know the beginnings of American democracy, all you need to know is that English law. Or else, just walk into Covenant Christian Reformed Church, Sioux Center, Iowa. What's inside won't take your breath away, but what's there right now is just as historic and just as fundamental to faith.



What's more, it's that tradition--the Calvinist tradition--that valued education like none other. Calvinists threw out with the pictures and hailed the printing press. The Puritans were not anti-intellectual; after all, it was the Calvinists who created Harvard. The Puritans--America's most famous Calvinists--honored education because now that the Bible was opened, it had to be read, had to be understood individually. Hey, power to the people!
Not that that ethic is divine either. Today the democratic church is so fragmented that talking about unity in the Word or Spirit is all but impossible. Politics divide believers across a Grand Canyon gulf.
Today we all simply get a piece of the divine pie. Someday we'll sit around eating the whole thing and just chuckle at the way things used to be.

Until that day, I guess, it's our job to find beauty in inspired art work and open Bibles and the whole bright and wide world. But that's no cakewalk. Take it from me. I'll be starting a new semester next week, and I teach literature to a visually-inspired generation, writing to Tweeters.

But then whoever said it would be easy?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The truth


What happened just up the road in southwest Minnesota in 1862 goes by a variety of names these days--the 1862 Sioux Uprising, for one; Little Crow's War, for another; and the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. I have no idea which one is politically correct right now, nor why. All I know is the horrors of just a few months' bloodletting doesn't have a single name.

Through Dakota Eyes is a wonderful compilation of narratives created by Native people after the fighting had ended. It's a wonderful book because it captures the humanity of the whole story. What's irrefutable, of course, is that white people moved into Native territory and took it. That's the cause for the conflict. There's no debating that fact, a reality white folks yet today have to deal with.

But after that basic truth, all bets are off. "White people died because Indians were starving"--well, yes: the Sioux were promised goods they didn't get. It was 1862, the Union was at war with itself in the South, and there were dozens of paleface liars and cheats and crooks throughout the Minnesota River valley. All of that is true.

But the war started when a crew of teenagers, on a dare, brutally, and without immediate provocation, simply butchered a white family, unleashing horrors so awful I don't even want to describe them, 150 years later. Think Sudan. Think Ruanda.

What those narratives also make clear, however, is that some Native people hated those who slaughtered white settlers in cold blood, shot them in the back--then butchered their entire families. What those descriptions also make clear is that mixed-bloods (and they numbered in the hundreds) were victimized by both sides; yet, they were immensely heroic in freeing the hundreds of prisoners--mostly women--kept (and often used) by the warmongers.

Not all Indians took part. Some who did had far more noble reasons--"this is our land and not theirs"--than others. Some warriors were, without question, savages. Others most certainly were not.

The trials afterward were, largely, a farce. Although the near riots that broke out in small communities when the Native people, in chains, were taken to Mankato were completely understandable, those riots were savage themselves. War is hell.

Through Native Eyes is a rich read, but it's hard to come away from all those memories without coming, once again, to a conviction I come to more often the older I get, a notion once explained to me by an amateur philosopher and fully licensed theologian named Leonard Verduin--to wit, that truth is elliptical, not circular. There are always two foci, two centers--the truth lies somewhere in between.

Jesus Christ is Lord, but he's, at once, both God and man. Deal with it. "Thou shalt not kill" is a biblical principle Moses lugged down from on high. But war?--well, sometimes you have to stand your ground.

Truth has two centers.

Reading narrative accounts of that old war doesn't confuse me or my principles one bit, but it makes me more sure that life itself is as fully as complex as we are. And we are.

The truth is, we all have sinned, we all have feet of clay.

By the way, the Reverend Leonard Verduin grew up at the turn of the 20th century on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Into the Wild


If there really is no check of political views at the door, if the climate isn't any different in New Hampshire, Colorado, and Montana than it's been anywhere else this August, and if he really pulls them off as planned, then Obama's foray into town halls this week ought to be great theater.

He plans three trips into the hinterlands, three town halls, messy democratic (small d) enterprises that can be, at once, the very essence of a free people and, simultaneously, the epitome of nutty tastelessness. All that's sweet and looney in American democracy could well be on display. What Obama experiences in those town halls--and what we see because every news outlet will be there--will be fascinating.

If the madness is in evidence, the image of the protestors as grass roots patriots will take a hit because when they shout down the Pres they'll look like the wingnuts progressives claim they are. On the other hand, if none of the rancor appears, Obama will suddenly morph into George W., whose town halls were perfectly manicured tea parties.

Maybe I'm weak-kneed, but I can't help but get a little scared. I remember sitting in fifth period Civics, upstairs, southeast corner of the old high school, when the voice of the principal came from a wooden speaker up on the wall beside the clock. "President John F. Kennedy is dead. . ." I don't remember the exact words, but I do remember feeling emptied, even though in the town where I grew up, levels of hate and fear about Kennedy, the Roman Catholic, were likely equivalent to the emotions aflame about the baby-killer, this nation's first African-American President, in the town where I live today.

When a vice-presidential candidate in the last election accuses the President of designing "death squads" to rid the world of down-syndrome children, the level of rhetoric is creating an atmosphere dangerously combustible.

Who knows what will happen this week? Stay tuned. I certainly hope that what we witness will only be great theater, and not history.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jack London


I went on a Jack London spree yesterday, because a story I read years and years ago--in high school maybe?--stuck with me, left me frozen, you might say, a story titled "To Build a Fire." What I remembered was the oppressive, naked cold that London created spectacularly in that story, and I wanted to read it again because it's hot and muggy right now and I'm trying to write a scene that takes place on the coldest night of the year in the Yukon of the Great Plains. What better preparation than a Jack London chill.

Amazing story, really--and London is an amazing writer. I'd never read Call of the Wild before, a incredibly famous short novel written from the point of view of a dog. It didn't have me on the edge of the chair like "To Build a Fire," but I had no trouble determining how it is that Jack London still, a century later, has an immense and loyal following.

Maybe I just don't go there anymore, but it seems that the world he chronicles no longer exists with the end of the frontier. Really, in both stories, a major antagonist is nature itself. I can't even remember the last book or story I read (Steinbeck, maybe) in which nature plays the villian or even has a starring role. I suppose it's a sign of the times: even as a nation we don't make things anymore, don't create, don't cut a swath through uncharted territory; we just buy and sell paper, wheel and deal, some say.

London was a strange guy--a socialist who was as much an entrepeneur as anyone in turn-of-the-century San Fran, where he grew up; a avowed racist who deplored the way white people decimated native cultures; a champion of women's rights--and multi-dimensional female characters--who treated those women closest to him like a mysogynist. I suppose one might say he was mightily human.

After reading "To Light a Fire Again," I still feel cheated when I think that London himself never almost died in -75 degree temps somewhere out in the Yukon. I'd swear he did. That he dreamed it all up seems such a lie, a cheat.

But then, most fiction is--a lie, a cheat. Maybe that's why writing novels is hard on the soul and why Plato hated it and many do.

No matter. Saturday night, I loved Julia and Julie--a great film--even though you could count the men in the theater on one hand. Yesterday, however, a Jack London Sunday and the first day of NFL football, I was back in the world where, if you got an itch, you scratch it--man and beast, life and death. Grab me a helping of that testosterone.

All of that from Jack London, a guy known in his day for his rugged American individualism as well as his streetcorner socialist rants.

Ain't we got fun.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Saturday Morning Catch


Another somewhat non-descript dawn this Saturday, but I found a new place to shoot--quite a ways away, but there's some beautiful yawning country out there at the dead end of a low-maintenance road, a place that's full of possibilities, the kind of place to which I'll certainly return.

There's even some prairie up there, long grass I had to wade through, like water, full of wild flowers. I think this shot--above--is was today's trophy, if there is one. That blurry barbed wire back there only enhances the tenuous glory of the black-eyed susan or rosinweed or whatever that graceful beauty is. If you look close, a little bee swoops like a P-38, just beneath left-most petal of the left-most blossom.
It's a great place--360 degree turn and not a confinement in sight. That's a blessing, too.

A wonderful discovery.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Queen


Sometimes when I watch Tiger Woods, I can't help but think he's an absolute gift to humankind. Now and again he doesn't win, but when he doesn't lose--which happens more often than not--he can be magnificent, and magnificence is a gift. Something done very, very well simply bespeaks glory--not personal glory either, but human achievement, what can be done. It's a gift to all of us, a measure of who we are and who we might be.

Last night, the Colbert Report featured Meryl Streep, whose new movie, Julie and Julia, premieres today. Sounds like an interesting idea for a movie--old bumbling Julia Child and some young woman who tries to bake her way through Ms. Childs' famous cookbook in a year, while keeping a blog describing the dirty deeds. Okay, maybe it doesn't so appealing. Colbert tried his now-famous interview schtick on her, but even the whackiest of late-night comedy hosts couldn't hold character in the presence of the queen. Even Stephen Colbert was in awe.

Julie and Julia stars Meryl Streep as Julia Child, and any film that features Meryl Streep, in my book, is worth the price of admission because Meryl Streep is the Tiger Woods of Hollywood. She's just head-and-shoulders above the mob on the red carpet. She ain't young, and she doesn't toss herself around ingloriously to get attention; she just does her work better than anybody on either side of the coast.

On the screen, she's just plain excellent, and sometimes in this life, flat-out excellence is just plain magnificent, and magnificence is an inspiring gift for which, this morning, I'm thankful.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

You gotta love this


from the New Yorker

Ther perils of professionalism


Here's the problem. He wants to switch majors, not because he didn't like what he was studying but because what he's studying isn't exactly what he likes. What he likes is writing, not fiddling with technology. Unusual these days.

Anyway, he and his mother are in my office (parents being parents these days) because he's wondering about changing majors--should it be English or Communications? "What should I major in?"--that's what he wants to know.

Piece of cake, right? If you want to write--if that's what you really, really, really want to do--then you learn best from those who do it. Read Shakespeare, Donne, Hawthorne, Poe, Eliot, Pound, Hemingway, Fitzgerald--and those are just the old white guys. Read people who write and write well. Major in English.

But I know from too many conversations just like this that that's not the advice they're looking for exactly; the goods they want me to deliver have much more to do with this kind of unstated question: "if I do major in English, where can I get a job, what the heck will I do?"

I've got a friend who's news director at a big local television station. She says she doesn't care all that much about technical skills; "if you can write," she tells my students, "I'll hire you." That's what I tell this student and his mom. "Look, if you can write, you can do anything, get any job you want."

But such a pledge rings a little hollow because the two of them--and so many these days--link a college education with a real, live profession. What they mean is "what specific job can I get when I graduate?"

And I can't blame them for feeling that way, really. When the costs of higher education run as high as they do these days, there's got to be some immediate bang for the buck. If a $100,000 sticker is the stick, what's the carrot? It's getting almost impossible to deliver the old answer--"well, listen son, you'll be a much better human being." Besides, there are tons of educated fools and jerks and probably even a few mass murderers. Take the una-bomber, for instance.

In this morning's Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein, who's always interesting, laments the story of the student from New York City who is suing her content deliverer, Monroe College, for damages because she hasn't gotten any job offers, just having stuck $72,000 into a Business Administration degree, specializing in information technology. On the job market, she ought to have been a slam dunk--that's what she was likely told when some professor advised her what to major in.

"It just isn't fair, she insists, and she suggests," Bauerlein writes, "that other students who've graduated and haven't found a job file suits of their own."

[Note to Admin: Duck.]

Higher education can't avoid being career-oriented today--it just can't. And that's going to leave all of us in it wide open for lawsuits. Why on earth would someone major in English (or history or art or sociology, or anything that doesn't have immediate professional application)? From a certain point of view, it makes no sense. It's plain lucky that old "liberal arts" colleges (something of a swear word these days to some) haven't all blown away or morphed into fancy tech schools with wondrous athletic programs.

Besides, there are those who say the writer of this blog post can write--so just exactly where did writing get me? Nowhere near six figures, that's for sure.

This suing student's case is "a lesson to teachers," Bauerlein writes. "Admissions and marketing offices have to do what they have to do." Professors, however, he says, "must address the careerism of undergraduates with an opposing ideal, namely, that of learning that doesn't have an immediate commercial value, knowledge that can't be placed on a resume, studying that may issue in nothing more than a thoughtful mind and a discriminating taste."

I think he's right, but it's a dang hard sell.

So here's the comprimise. I tell the student in my office that he's got another semester to decide. "Try an English course," I told him. "See if you like it."

Try an English course. Pull on Henry David Thoreau, as if he were a pair of baggy shorts or a Nike t-shirt. Try out Hawthorne--see if you like him. Check to see if Mark Twain turns your crank. If not, toss the whole mess of 'em and go with public relations.

Why do I come out of those meetings feeling comprimised?
_________________________

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

"in defense of liberty"


When Barry Goldwater announced to the 1964 Republican Convention that "extremism in defense of libery is no vice," I cheered, at least inwardly. Somewhere in the relics of my high school years I still may have a Goldwater bumper sticker, although I never put it on the car, strangely enough. I was just 16, just driving my dad's Chev. I thought of myself as a real Goldwater patriot.

A sweet man, a good friend of my parents, asked me back then if I wanted to come along to a meeting one night--with him and his son, my friend. Didn't say what kind, just asked. I went. That meeting was held at maybe the biggest lakefront home in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in actuality, a mansion. We sat on wooden folding chairs in one of many rooms of that palace and watched a slide/tape presentation that showed Dr. Martin Luther King shaking hands with communists, asserting that was one of them. We were, back then, in the icy-est years of the Cold War, the Cuban Missle Crisis just a few deep breaths behind.

I was 16, but I was smart enough to know that what Goldwater was talking about, that he was legitimizing was outfits like the John Birch Society, a meeting of which I'd attended in that lakefront mansion. He was finding a place for the true believers, the zealots.

But it didn't take long for me to know that extremism in defense of anything is, well, extremism, and that King was no more a communist than I was. That what King stood for was the recognition of sins white America had to face--slavery and racism.

But then, change didn't feel like a patriotic thing in the Sixties, especially if you were white and as rich as the guy who owned the mansion. The man had a ton to lose to change. It didn't take me too long to realize that what motivated those who attended that odd clandestine meeting in the county's biggest mansion wasn't patriotism but fear, specifically fear of losing power.

Today, I feel fear myself when I hear, as I did last night, that Eric Prince, of Blackwater fame, its fearless leader, has been accused by his own former associates--they may well be disgruntled--of all sorts of heinousness, including being part of an effort to silence critics in his own organization. Read "silence" as if we're in a segment from The Sopranos.

These are allegations and they're reported by media known by the right to be lefties, but there's something in the allegations that scares me. Here's my fear--that a potent cocktail of religious and patriotic fervor can altogether too easily ignite into hysteria--and even worse. Prins, heir to his father's millions, a man who left the Naval Academy because the place was not conservative enough for his tastes, created Blackwater, a mercenary army that President Bush found useful in Iraq. Although tens of thousands of such mercenaries were part of the war effort, they weren't as policed as U.S. troops, of course, and were therefore capable of pulling off stunts no Congress oversight committee would approve of or even know about. Problems arose.

In addition to being an ex-Navy Seal and heir to millions, Prins is a Christian school graduate, twelve whole years, Holland Christian, Holland, Michigan. Clearly, some of what he learned stuck. After all, some describe him as a strong Christian, a "crusader" against the Muslims, a word with specific historical connotations, at least to the Islamic world. One gets the sense that, like Barry Goldwater, Eric Prince was absolutely sure that extremism in defense of liberty was no vice. Like I said, some of what he learned, stuck. Some.

There's just something about that whole story that scares me, I must admit, but more that simply makes me very, very sad.