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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A northwoods walk

The northwoods seem shy this year, or maybe we're just up here early. One way or another, the pines and hardwoods have kept their best closeted, which makes landscapes tough. Maybe by Saturday they'll get into their resplendent best.

All of which is not to say there's no beauty in the northwoods this late September. One just has to look a bit closer. Even if you can't see the forest, you can't miss the leaves.

Photography, after all, is all about light. You walk through the woods and drama abounds, not to mention color. Just a bit more abstract, maybe, than the usual. We may well be a week from "peak color," as they say, but I can live with second or third best.

A northwoods walk

Morning Thanks--Ruth Suckow

A short story, "A Start in Life," was in the anthology I was given to teach from, almost forty years ago, when I began my life as a professor of English. I'm not sure who told me, but I was aware, back then, that the author, a woman named Ruth Suckow, had been born in the county, out west along the river, in Hawarden. The story had a familiar feel because it's setting was a familiar place, a small Midwestern town not unlike the two I'd lived in for most of my life back then. But I was too busy to take note--two kids and a new career.

I've gone past her house dozens of times actually. It's now part of a little historical village in Hawarden, Iowa, the preacher's house, because her father was a Congregational parson at the turn of the 20th century, when Hawarden, and most of Sioux County, was little more than adolescent.

Let me put it this way--for years, I've eyed her from afar, but never really approached her with any determination, until last summer when I read a book of her stories, one of which just jumped out at me as something that could be brought to stage. Then, yesterday, just before a reading break, I went to the college library and took out Some Others and Myself, a collection of short stories and a memoir.

Last night, half asleep from a long drive up north to Minnesota, I started in on the memoir, and heard a voice I could have listened to all night. Her mother, she tells us, had difficult medical problems that left her--Ms. Suckow, then a little girl--alone with her pastor father. When he'd attend the problems of his parishoners, she'd go along, she says, in a little basket he fashioned on handlebars of his bike. Here's how she describes her world, which is my world:

That was when I came to know the deep brown loessal soil of that semi Western prairie region as my native earth--when the wild roses became my "favorite flower," and the meadow larks nesting along the bare roadsides my "favorite bird." The whole impression of this great open, rolling region on the edge of the West was of breadth and freedom under the immensity of the blue sky.
Sometimes I think I picked up this crazy passion to write because, years ago, I stumbled on the work of Frederick Manfred, from Doon, Iowa, whose work I read for the first time just at the moment when I was a kid who had to determine what I was going to become. I picked up The Secret Place in a bookstore in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, after Iowa friends told me about this giant guy who offended the heck out of local townspeople. I wanted to know that story better. When I read the novel, a whole new world opened up, but, ironically, it wasn't a whole new world at all--it was, instead, the actual world I lived in. It had never dawned on me that you could be a writer if you knew the people I knew. My people were way too ordinary, way too plain, way too unoriginal. Not for Manfred.

But Manfred made those people real in a fashion I'd never considered possible, and when I put down that book I told myself that it would be an incredible joy to be able to write stories about people, maybe even people I knew, but people who I knew weren't flashy or exotic or even, but were still very much worth a story. Manfred did it.

And last night, in the silence, I heard another very similar voice, this one a woman's. In her childhood memories of Hawarden, Iowa, Ruth Suckow reminded me gently, sweetly, of a truth I'd learned more than forty years ago when I finished The Secret Place, that there probably isn't a soul under heaven who isn't worth a story, and there probably isn't a place on earth that doesn't shine with the glory of the Creator.

Ruth Suckow died in 1960. For years I've lived in her own neighborhood and passed her house a hundred times. But last night, maybe for the first time, in a memoir of her childhood in northwest Iowa, I heard her voice, and it came to me as revelation.

This morning, that voice is reason enough for thanks.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Canadian complaining

Friends of ours have a son, an engineer, who married a Canadian girl, also an engineer. She's pregnant now, at the same time her husband's firm would like to transfer him to Phoenix on a temporary assignment. The company says her pregnancy is just fine--they'll fly her back to Ontario from Phoenix every time she needs to see the doc, weekly, if need be, because it's that much cheaper for them to fly her home than to pay the bills for a birth in States.

They're not afraid of quality, I guess. Amazing.

The rhetoric on the Canadian health care system, as I hear it, seems fearfully overblown, so much so that Shep Smith asked a Fox News reporter last night whether yet another report about Canadians flooding the border to escape horrifyingly decrepit conditions up north was, in fact, fair.

Fair, in this country's medical care debates, is hard to come by. All I know for sure is that in almost forty years of life among Canadians and with Canadians, I just haven't heard so many complaints as some news reports claim. One might think the only sounds emanating from up north are the sounds of feet shuffling through immense lines and concurrent volumes of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Not so--at least not so in my experience.

What seems obvious is that the Canadian health system costs less and delivers more. Canadians spend ten percent of their economy on health care; we spend 16--that translates to 80 billion dollars.

We have somewhere around 40 million uninsured; Canada has none. I don't know any or all of these figures end the argument, but Canadians have a much lower infant mortality rate (20% lower), and live, on average, three years longer.

No health care system is perfect. Most reports claim Canadians do wait longer for some elective surgeries, but what so many Yankees seem not to want to think about is that the whole problem of health care is immensely complex--immensely.

Take "preventive care," for instance, one of Obama's favorite choruses. Who can possibly be against "preventive care," right? Yet, if we exercise prudent "preventive care," people will live longer. If they do, their individual health care costs skyrocket. Therefore, if we argue by sheer bucks, we ought to avoid preventive care so all of us die young and thereby save money.

Or how about this.? Dr. Oz's free clinics see thousands of uninsured patients, a significant majority of which are obese. Obesity is a major American health problem, says this overweight guy, and a huge problem among children. On Morning Joe yesterday, Oz suggested that obesity among children is augmented by programs in physical education being cut, by no more school recesses, and by the fact that almost 90% of elementary school children in this country now take a bus to school, when they could and should be walking.

Health care is immensely complex and gigantic, and some people's knee-jerk responses are as silly as they are scary.

I make no claims for authority. Authority requires far more knowledge and experience than I have. What I know, however, is that through the many years I've worked with Canadians, and lived with them, I've never heard them complain as much as some segments of the press now claim they do.

This friend of ours with the Dallas-based son and daughter-in-law told me she didn't even dare tell her U. S. relatives that story, for fear they'd think her a communist. Our preacher is a Canadian--I'm not sure he could stand on the pulpit and offer his point of view. Likely as not, he'd get scalped.

And what's worse, we'd end up paying the medical care.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Habitat for Humanity

My father-in-law told me a story yesterday that had me seething. It seems he took a walk a few years ago, left the apartment in the retirement home where he lives, and wandered out toward town along the bike path around the golf course. Somebody was building a house down a road and into the trees, so he walked in, thought he'd check it out. He was, back then, just a kid--maybe 85.

He says a woman sauntered up to him and asked rather pointedly whether or not he was aware of the fact that the little road he was walking on a private road. He got the message: he wasn't supposed to be there. For heaven's sake, this is Orange City, Iowa, not Orange County, California. I would have liked to call in a squad of Lakota warriors, circa 1880s, to teach that woman a lesson about private property.

But then, he said, the house that was going up was something of a mansion, and he guessed that money had something to do with it--and sheer size. Apparently, if you're tossing a million dollars into your domicile, you've got a right to run off octogenarian riff-raff. In Orange City, Iowa, one never knows who might be a thug.

On Saturday morning I stumbled onto an abandoned farmstead again, out in the country along a gravel road in Plymouth County. Once upon a time, a house stood high above the road, but it was already long gone; here and there amid the long grass, sidewalks and concrete foundations still mapped the layout. The only structure still visible was what was left of the barn.

There's something haunting about abandoned farm places. I know a man who was embarrassed to show me the old barn on his place because it was in such decrepit shape, but when I asked him why it wasn't gone, he told me he just couldn't get rid of it--it was "the barn" when he was a boy, and it was, therefore, so much more than met the eye. It still haunted him, sweetly.

In Sioux County, one of the most prosperous counties in Iowa, there aren't all that many abandoned places because industrious farmers, energized by their reading of the cultural mandate, tend to raze old barns and houses to use the few additional acres for even more row-cropping. If you want to find abandoned places, you've got to go south or east, it seems, where people are either far more sinfully lazy or mindlessly nostalgic.

Anyway, this farm place had little to offer, at least in what met the eye, just a beautiful vista over thousands of acres east, into the sunrise. In addition to what was left of the barn, the only other visible structures were a half-dozen engineering marvels in the wet grass, spun there by noiseless patient spiders, a couple of whom were at work, as if the acreage were an open-air museum.

Just those marvelous spider webs and a single, abundantly fertile apple tree. There was something amazing about that tree, something almost triumphant, resplendent as it was, this late September, with apples. I'm serious. Even though everything else was gone, the farmer and his wife and kids history long ago already, that apple tree just keeps on trucking, growing tons of produce. Maybe I've read too much Thoreau.

Last week, my wife spent the better part of two working days making applesauce because her grandson loves it. We've got it stockpiled, as if the world were facing an apple crisis. We had no need of apples, therefore; we've got too many, so many I even dumped some. I could have picked the apples on that abandoned farmstead--it would have been somehow moral, somehow blessedly green, I guess, but I didn't.
I did pick a couple, ate one right there at the shrine; and I've got one now, right beside me as I type.

Nobody was there at that abandoned place to tell me it was private property. I was all by myself out there, with the spiders and one gloriously resplendent old apple tree, denying me nothing, full of offerings, full of life, full of sustenance.

I'm eating one now. Tastes almost sacramental.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Morning thanks--Hector

Once upon a time, when we played Gibbsville, Coach said it would be trouble because they had a pitcher, some Van Stelle kid, who was so big he could eat a bale of hay. I'll never forget the line. It meant he could throw heat, and heat, to a 12-year old kid, was fearfully scary. Coach would say whacky things like that as if out of nowhere, unlike a lot of our fathers, who were more reserved, more, well Calvinistic.

Somehow--I don't know how--I knew he'd actually been a coach, a real high school coach, at some high school somewhere in the state; and I knew that whole gig hadn't worked out. I didn't know how or why exactly, but I knew that Coach had left behind a wife when he'd quit that school and come back home to live and lay brick. He was divorced, which meant, at the time, that he wore something approximate to the awful mark Cain had as he roamed what was once Eden. It was as if he were Catholic, in fact. The man was divorced.

No matter. He knew baseball, and he loved us.

I remember crawling into the back seat of his car and seeing empty beer cans on the floor. It's not that my father didn't like a drink now and then, even grandma--but the back seat chaos, Schlitz cans clanging, made it clear to me that Hector was more than a step beyond a good Christian's comfort zone. He stopped at the bar in the middle of town, too. We knew that. Reguarly, too. He smoked, but then so did just about every other male his age back then.

Once in awhile, he'd cuss--no real blue tirade, just drop a shit in once in awhile in a way I knew my parents wouldn't like.

No matter. He knew baseball, and he loved us.

He was a wonderful, warm-hearted man, a sinner. He'd had more than his share of troubles, some of which, no doubt, he'd probably brought on himself. But he came out every night and threw batting practice. He was a southpaw. He'd run us through some drills. He was the first coach I ever had, and I thought he was absolutely wonderful, and so did all my friends. We were pee wees, the littlest of the little guys, and he was our hero.

Way back then already, sitting in that back seat, those Schlitz cans clanging beneath my feet, I had this uncomfortable feeling that I wasn't supposed to like him. And I knew somehow--age 12--that the world a good deal bigger than the one drawn up in Sunday School. This boozer who was divorced, this guy with the salt tongue, he loved us. And that beat all.

He was, I suppose, in more ways than one, my first coach. Yesterday, as if out of nowhere, he came back into my mind from the third base line of a dusty diamond a half century ago, that scorebook under his arm, his cap pulled over his forehead. For him, and the memory, this morning, I'm thankful.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A little more complicated :/

“Life just got a lot more complex in the last few years :/.”

That’s what she said, a student of mine, who’s experienced so much sadness recently. Spring '08 it was her sister, her little sister, who didn’t make it through operation after operation, even though the family prayed unceasingly, as did all who knew her.

Then, just last week, a good friend, a young girl, killed, shockingly, in a terrible accident.

So when this student sent me a note to acknowledge getting her essay back, she blurted out a sad assertion and typed in a contorted computer face I’d never seen before-- :/. If I hadn’t known her story, I wouldn’t have understood the key strokes; but I knew. Interpretating wasn’t rocket science.

But it’s not just that disturbed and distorted face; what stays with me is also her words—“life just got a lot more complex in the last few years. . .”

Teaching college kids means you watch ‘em mature from the sidelines. Part of me takes great joy at witnessing the demise of silly childhood. To watch kids grow into adults is a satisfying joy.

But there’s always a death. When kids become people, they shed childhoods. No matter how you look at it, death sucks, even—and maybe always—the death of silliness, the death of innocence.

Part of me cheers. Gone forever is cocky self-assurance, that la-la happy-face stuff, and a quiver full of sure-thing opinions, all that kiddishness replaced by anxiety once they discover themselves aboard a world of gray, and feel all around them, maybe for the first time, some very real doubt.

I’ve been telling myself lately that faith without doubt—like faith without works—is dead. Wish it weren’t so, but in this vale of tears, or so it seems, it is. Some doubt can be manna for the soul. It’s all over the Psalms, all over. But I just don’t care to be its agent.

Here’s Cotton Mather defending the proceedings of the Salem witchcraft trials, quoting someone he says is “a most worthy person”: “’The Mind of God in these matters, is to be carefully looked into, with due circumspection, that Satan deceive us not with his devises,. . .” That “circumspection” created certitude that put 18 accused witches to death by hanging. Like those judges in Salem could have, some of my students can use a little doubt.

That kids shed some certitude is healthy and normal—or so it seems to me. And yet there’s this tech face at the end of my student’s note-- :/.

Good kids, right before my eyes, grow up every day. And growing up’s a good thing, isn’t it? Sure it is.

For an old man like me, it’s a triumph that’s feels, at times, more than a little cheerless.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Morning glory

This morning Writer's Almanac features a good friend, Luci Shaw. To open the in-box and hear her voice this early morning was a joy.

Not a color I've wanted to wear--too
innocently girlish, and I'm not innocent,
not a girl. But today the gnarled cherry trees
along Alabama Street are decked out
like bridesmaids--garlands in their hair,
nosegays in their hands--extravagant,

finally the big spring wedding to splurge,
and hang the cost. Each really wants to be
the bride so she can toss her bouquet until,
unaccustomed, the gutters choke
with pink confetti that flies up and whirls
in the wake of cars going west,

flirting shamelessly with teenage boys on
the crosswalks. The pale twisters,
the drifts of petals, call out to me, "Let go;
it's OK to be giddy, enchanted, flighty,
intoxicated with color. Drive straight
to the mall and buy yourself a pink Tee."

Now this old buck male says that Luci's "Pink" is a determinedly female poem. What's more, yesterday, for the first time this term, I wore corduroys because it's just now officially fall, and cold, and we're an entire gray winter from Ms. Shaw's sporty spring. Sorry, Luci, but this old man isn't about to run out and buy a cute little pink Tee for any reason--just wouldn't be me.

No matter. I love it--the poem that is, nature's gaudiness begging us not only to take note, but to change course altogether, to doll up on our own lives, to run out to the mall and hunt down some showy stuff ourselves quick-a-minute.

Maybe a new button-d0wn shirt. I'll check Eddie Bauer. Maybe even pink. Some guys wear it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Morning Thanks--sanctification

He tells me that he remembers how she told him that if he'd sing a solo at some school event he barely remembers, she'd transpose the music, bring it down to another key so that piece would fit his range. He says that singing a solo in front of people was not what he thought of as a good time when he was in seventh grade, but that she talked him into it, not by ramming his arm up behind his back, but by an enthusiasm that wasn't just in her words but in her eyes.

He says he sang the solo because he knew she seriously wanted him to, even though that seriousness was never expressly verbalized. She had the ability, he claimed, to let you know that her enthusiasm for you was intense and real, without saying it--and that she always wanted the absolute best for you. All the kids knew it, he says.

He says when he did it--the solo--he watched her face. He says her eyes were closed the whole time, but the look on her face expressed intense satisfaction--and joy.

He says that was why the kids loved their substitute teacher. She was so accessible emotionally, and what they instinctively knew was that she honestly wanted the best for them.

He's an old, old acquaintence, a couple of years older than I am. We both went through the same Christian elementary grade school. He called last night because he wanted to ask some questions about fiction. He's written a bunch of books, and now he's interested in trying to take on a novel.

The woman he was talking about, this woman he remembers so well having coaxed the best out of him, that woman is my mother.

We talked about a lot more in two hours' worth of conversation, and not all the stories we shared were that wholesome or sweet. But this morning I'm thankful for that one story, thankful to know more about compelling eyes and silent, earnest love. She's 90, and I'm 61--but I'm happy, this morning, to know her better.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Youth Culture

Just opened a note from a woman in Pennsylvania, who wants to know if I'd be willing to share a few things about a story she and her home school consortium students will be reading soon, a story I wrote. I'll be happy to oblige her. A significant chunk of motivation for my own birth as a writer came by way of meeting someone who was.

I'll admit that I'm not a rabid home-schooling partisan. Just a week ago I read through 30 quick little essays in which students described memorable schoolmates, many of whom were rousters, trouble-makers, bullies--the kids other kids hate to love but suck up to anyway, the kids parents hate. Some people find those cocky jackasses reason enough to keep their children from the hazing that seems a component part of traditional classroom education.

What home-schooled kids don't learn, however, is that even the bullies can be human. I could cut and paste a half-dozen stories in here of kids who hated other kids, then learned to like them, even love them (for a year now, one young woman has dated a boy she once attacked with a pencil she'd sharpened expressly for the stabbing). Some of life's great lessons happen in the classroom, and they have only secondarily to do with the Peloponnsian wars or an isosceles triangle.

What home-schoolers often do learn, however, is immensely enriched study habits, including a mature sense of initiative. In my experience as a college teacher, home-schooled kids often have the kind of curiosity teachers will die for. Not always, but more often than not, home-schooled kids really want to learn. They're hungry.

And that's nothing to sneeze at.

An article titled "Revenge of the Nerds," in September's Wired, helps me understand why. In it, Daniel Roth quotes an educator named Alex Grodd, who, at a convention of techies talking about education, stood in front of the steamroller of excitement over innovation and technological change when he told the geeks that their newest innovations would likely meet with jeering because "The driving force in the life of a child, starting much earlier than it used to be, is to be cool, to fit in."

The article goes on to quote Larry Rosenstock, the founder of a consortium of charter schools in San Diego, whose schools are turning out students hungry to learn. The key to success in those schools is keeping the students surrounded by adults, not other students, Rosenstsock says.

"A big high school has a youth-owned culture," says Tom Vander Ark, who used to steer Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's money into education. "You've got to break that."

Hmmmm. Is that another way of saying, "kill off the kid"? I never thought of school's problems quite in that way before, but I think there's something to it.

I remember a time in my first year when, stupidly, I accepted a challenge from the heavyweight in the school's new wrestling team, who said he wanted to arm-wrestle. I said okay because I figured I'd have nothing to lose. Amazingly, I beat him. I'm not sure that any poem I taught or story I read had quite as much influence on my eventual success than that moment because, shockingly, I bested the beast. Physically--which is how adolescents (for better or for worse) tend to view each other--I'd won. In their world, I was estimable, and that helped me out. They'd listen.

But I don't think Vander Ark is all wrong. The truth that home-schooling brings to the educational table is that kids can be hungry to learn and interested in achievement, not just for achievement's sake either. A classroom of home-schooled kids might be annoyingly narrow in the way in which they view the world, a by-product of their own educational isolation; but I'll bet any money most college teachers wouldn't mind teaching that class if for no other reason than the job would be a ball.

Education--like the health industry--has its immense horrors and its bountiful blessings. It would be nice if the San Diego solution--surround the kids with adults--would turn schools into learning laboratories. Tell you what--shut down all team sports too, while you're at it, breeding grounds for more "survival of the fittest" mentality, the attitude that breeds bullies by making physicality the litmus test for determining who will be, male and female, top dogs.

The answer to bad education may well be to make the kids adults, asap. Maybe.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

The race card

A dozen years ago maybe, I stood just outside a huge slum in Brazil with a couple of high school kids, Brazilian high school kids, who were talking about prejudice as they saw it in their worlds. They were brother and sister, and they were, I suppose I should say, "mixed race." Brazil has so many shades of racial identity that "mixed race" doesn't mean what it used to in this country, of course. Their mom was white, a missionary's daughter; their father was native Brazilian.

We were talking about race, especially the way in which I'd been perceiving Brazil as light years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to negotiating the difficult thickets of race and racial prejudice. Brazilians--or so it seemed to me--were every last color of the rainbow.

"You know, she'll have it tougher than I will," the boy said, nodding toward his sister. He was older, as I remember, maybe 17 to her 16.

I had no idea what he was talking about. "I don't get it," I told him, them.

"My sister's more dark-skinned," he told me. "Look."

From my point of view, it was very difficult to determine a difference, and I found it uncomfortable to be pushed to look, but he was right--there was a color difference, however slight. "You're kidding," I said. "I never noticed that."

They told me that it might seem to me as if there were no racial prejudice in Brazil, but they insisted that, even in colorful, multi-cultural Brazil, people made color a big deal.

It seemed to me then--and now--that some kind of prejudice is almost inescapable, for any of us, for all of us. There are no Jim Crow water fountain signs around here that I know of, but that doesn't mean that people this far north don't still draw lines visually--or that those lines aren't rooted in attitudes, stereotypes, caricature. Me too.

And that's at least partially why I think former President Jimmy Carter is right about the hate that's grown up around Barack Obama, why some people who believe him a Muslim are convinced that his birth in Hawaii was somehow fraudulently recorded--that he isn't, after all, one of us. Racism exists.

But unless you're hanging Jim Crow signs outside public restrooms or keeping Native American kids from the pool, unless the evidence is tangible enough to be lugged into court, no one wins when someone red, black, yellow, or white accuses someone else of racism. It's an incendiary charge that's impossible to prove.

All it does, finally, is create a more problems, making us more, not less, conscious of color and facial features. Carter may be right, but I'm not sure it does a dime's worth of good to say it--and I wish he hadn't.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Order bests chaos--Morning thanks

Like the trains in Tokyo and the trams in Holland, I'm on time. Regular. Steady as she goes.

When I was fifteen, my heart galloped away from its normal rhythms when my junior varsity teammates and I were taking layups before the big game. THE big game. The stands were full because the Oostburg/Cedar Grove game was a family feud. We were the Flying Dutchmen; that they were the Rockets didn't change the DNA. They were just as Dutch. It was almost brother against brother, an uncivil war.

I'm nervous, and boom, my heart goes off. I tell the coach that something's wrong and he points me to the locker room. Not amazingly, our family doctor was in the crowd. He comes in, checks me out, says I'll be okay once it stops. It's no big deal, he says. Sometime later, I went into his office, and he told me it wasn't a dangerous condition. "You're heart just takes off on you once in a while," he said. "It'll keep you from getting drafted."

It did. But the condition stayed, and I've had all of my life. Not long ago, an EKG's mad patterns told my own doctor that my ticker had become "irregularly irregular." I didn't love the condition, but the description was wonderful. Made me feel like Thoreau, a different drummer or whatever.

"You've got a chaotic heart," he told me. I thought that description was precious too.

But the madness was enough for him to send me to a specialist, who seconded all the improper motions and put me on some drugs, told me to get weekly EKGs, and sent me off. I'd likely have to have a procedure called an ablation, he said, something shocking to get the heart back on time.

But, lo and behold, somehow the drugs did the trick. Like I said, I'm on time now again, my hearts about as regular as my kidneys. No shocking ablation required.

And for that, this morning--and for health itself--I'm thankful. No sweat coming up with the goods this a.m., the good news is my heart's steaming along right on time.

So anyway, the cardiologist asks if I've got any problems. I tell him no. The only thing is, I say, if I skip a pill or two--if I forget--I can feel a flutter, enough to remind me I've forgotten.

"Okay, then," he said, with a slight roll of the eyes, "just don't forget."

Last night, a half dozen hours after the free pass already, I forgot.

I wonder if there's a pill for that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

James Fennimore Cooper

It was hot and I was sweaty, having done the lawn. Really hot. I went into the gas mart at the end of the block and got myself a huge fountain coke, a ton of ice. When I went up to pay, the kid behind the counter said, "The old lady got ya' doing the lawn."
I couldn't help it--I laughed. It was a hilarious line because the image of my wife, hair up in curls, false teeth out, broom in hand, screaming out orders at beleaguered me--a Minnie Pearl to my Dagwood--was just a scream.

But that's the way I see James Fennimore Cooper. One of my favorite literary stories of all time is the story of how Cooper, who never had a dime's worth of aspiration to write anything, was suddenly given inspiration by his wife, who told him, one bony finger raised menacingly, that rather than sit and complain about how bad the books were that he'd been reading, he ought to get off his fat butt and write one himself.

Cooper heard that as a calling.

So he did. And what she created is America's very first real story-teller. I'd hesitate to call Mr. Fennimore Cooper an artist, but he listened to that screeching wife of his, got out the quill and the ink, and started in. Never even took a class.

I wonder what his wife thought of his novels. I've got no idea. But tons of people bought his books because he was just about the first to do what needed to be done: he wrote truly American stories. Up until his time, Americans read Brit lit, which was just fine. But when Cooper's wife got sick-and-tired of his belly-aching and told him to put up or shut up, she created, for the most part, something altogether new, something called American fiction. Only Irving preceded him.

Cooper created American icons like Natty Bumpo, the first American Indian dime-novel hero, the great "noble savage." Mrs. James Fennimore Cooper did a lot more than push her old man to do the lawn; she got him to put the first few titles in a real Amerian library--The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Prairie, The Deerslayer, and 40-some more.

Was he good? Well, yes. He instituted American story-telling. Was he beautiful? Not really. When his wife got him off the couch, she also gave Mark Twain the opportunity to savage her husband's bellicose style in an essay Twain titled, simply, "Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offences," a piece which lists Cooper's sins so cruelly, one might think Twain was a hanging judge.

Such as--

5. The requirement that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.

It's a hilarious essay, and, if you've read Cooper, it's on the money.

No matter. Today is Fennimore Cooper's birthday, and while I'm not sure I'll mention it to the Lord, I'm thankful for his contribution, his immense contribution, to American literature. For goodness sake, he built he built the book case.

And the greatest story of all is how the old lady put him up to it.

p.s. Wouldn't you know it? I couldn't find a picture of his wife.

Monday, September 14, 2009


My granddaughter, who is just now starting third grade, is already waxing nostalgic.

Here's what she says. "You remember when we still lived in the old house, and you used to walk me home on Sunday afternoons?"

Sure, I remember. It was a joy, but then so much about grandchildren is.

"Remember that?" she asks. "We'd walk in the grass and I'd find all those golf balls?"

Her grandmother and I would walk her back to her house, cross-lots, through the thick grass of a perfectly manicured field behind a college dorm.

"That was really fun," she says.

That's what she remembers. And I don't know what to feel.

Once upon a time, we crossed that broad lawn, and I found a golf ball. Some college kid must have pulled a 9-iron out of his bag and hit a few, and left one lie there or simply lost it. She was four, maybe. That bright white golf ball picked out of the long grass was like some totally unforeseen Christmas present. She loved it.

So, on a few subsequent walks home, her grandpa snuck down in the basement first, grabbed a golf ball, and set us both up for her joy. You can't blame me, right? We'd walk home--same route--and when she was chasing a monarch or watching robins, I'd flip that golf ball out where I knew she couldn't miss it. Once again, those darling eyes would dance, and all the way home she'd hold on as if that ball were some precious jewel.

And now--wouldn't you know it?--those sweet little walks are in the scrapbook she's already putting together in her memory. There it is, listed prominently in an abundant category titled "Sweet Things": "the-times-Grandpa-and-Grandma-walked-me home-and-I found-all-those-golf-balls."

The truth is, the whole thing was a set up. Grandpa planted that joy. Those precious golf balls weren't there by chance but by determined manipulation. The truth is, there aren't brilliantly white golf balls just lying out there randomly for kids to pick up, just like there is no Santa Claus and no free lunch. The Wizard of Oz is really just as funny-looking as the Emperor with clothes.

In trying to be nice, her grandpa just set her up for a imminent fall.

So should I tell her? She ought to know the truth, right? I can't have her go on thinking that just behind that dorm lies a harvest of Titleists?

Here's what I'm thinking. If I'd tell her now, it jolly well wouldn't matter anyway. If I'd take her aside, tell her that her Grandpa planted all that joy, stuck all those golf balls out there just so that she'd find them, she wouldn't even wince. Wouldn't bother her at all. She wouldn't get cynical or swear never to speak to me again. She's a kid, after all, and her faith is legendary in its simplicity. Even Jesus loved it.

She'd probably just say the same thing she always does: "Grandpa, I'm hungry--got any cookies?"

"Do we have cookies, my dear?" I'd say. "We've got something around here somewhere for you, I'm sure."

And I'm sure we got golf balls.

So the deception goes on, the madness resumes. Truth be hanged. This old man'll do anything to stay in the joy column of that scrapbook.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Where I was on 9/11

That Unforgettable Morning, on the Prairie

Out here in Iowa where I live, on the eastern emerald cusp of the Great Plains, on some balmy early fall days it’s not hard to believe that we are not where we are. Warm southern breezes sweep all the way up from the Gulf, the sun smiles with a gentleness not seen since June, and the spacious sky reigns over everything in azure glory.

On exactly that kind of fall morning, I like to bring my writing classes to what I call a ghost town, Highland, Iowa, a place whose remnants still exist, eight miles west and two south of town, as they say out here on the square-cut prairie, a village that was, but is no more. Likely as not Highland fell victim to a century-old phenomenon in the farm belt, the simple fact that far more people lived out here when the land was cut into 160-acre chunks than do now, when the portions are ten times bigger.

What’s left of Highland is a stand of pines circled up around no more than twenty gravestones, and an old carved sign with hand-drawn figures detailing what was once a post-office address for some people—a Main Street composed of a couple of churches and their horse barns, a blacksmith shop, and little else. The town of Highland, Iowa, once sat at the confluence of a pair of non-descript gravel roads that still float out in four distinct directions like dusky ribbons over the undulating prairie.

I like to bring my students to Highland because what’s not there never fails to silence them. Maybe it’s the skeletal cemetery; maybe it’s the south wind’s low moan through that stand of pines, a sound you don’t hear often on the treeless Plains; maybe it’s some variant of culture shock—they stumble sleepily out of their cubicle dorm rooms and wake up suddenly in sprawling prairie spaciousness.
I’m lying. I know why they fall into psychic shock. It’s the sheer immensity of the open land that unfurls before them, the horizon only seemingly there where earth seams effortlessly into sky; it’s the vastness of rolling land William Cullen Bryant once claimed looked like an ocean stopped in time. Suddenly, they open their eyes and it seems as if there’s nothing here, and that’s what stuns them into silence. This year, on a a morning none of them will ever forget, when we stood and sat in the ditches along those gravel roads, no cars went by. We were absolutely alone—20 of us, all alone and vulnerable on a swell of prairie once called the village of Highland, surrounded by nothing but startling openness.

That’s where I was—and that’s where they were—on September 11, 2001. My class and I left for Highland at just about the moment Atta and his friends were steering the first 767 into the first World Trade Center tower, so we knew nothing about what had happened until it was over. While the rest of the world stood and watched in horror, my students and I looked over a landscape so immense only God could live there—and were silent before him.
No one can stay on a retreat forever, of course, so when we returned to the college we heard the news. Who didn’t? All over campus, TVs blared.

But I like to think that maybe my students were best prepared for the horror of that morning not by our having been warned, but by our having been awed.

Every year it’s a joy to sit out there and try to describe the character of the seemingly eternal prairie, but this year our being there on September 11, I’m convinced, was a blessing.
A year later, Jane Robinette put together a number of readings by Iowa writers to commemorate 9/11, a project titled Beyond 9/11: The Art of Renewal in Iowa. The writers met and read their work in Des Moines. To hear a short interview and an excerpt from that reading, click on the top posting under "Readings" on the left hand column of the blog. The essay above appeared in a number of magazines and journals.

Morning Thanks

I talk a ton about retiring. It's four years away, and sometimes I wish it would come a lot sooner. Sometimes, just for kicks, I count my fingers.

Then again, sometimes not.

For me, classroom teaching is over for the week. I pack my Tuesdays and Thursdays, which leaves me weary but allots some extra time, or so it seems, on M,W,F.

Last night I proofed, once again, a manuscript I finished last summer, then slept well because it was a good week. Tuesdays I had six preachers into my writing classes to talk about how they write sermons. I thought the classes went extraordinarily well. Yesterday was a good day, too--you can always tell by the eyes. I yakked a ton--too much by contemporary pedagogical standards, but my wife agreed that I knew a bit more about Puritan New England than my students do. She's told me that lectures are just fine, but then she's old-fashioned and never cared much for small groups.

The dashboard on this blogger site says this is my 675th post. Just more than two years ago, I committed to a blog, not only to understand a bit more about the revolution going around me, but also simply to keep writing. With age, I get progressively worse at multi-tasking. The school year means I'm a teacher; during the summer I'm a writer. Never the twain shall meet. And it's getting worse.

So "Stuff" keeps me at it, and that's good.

And I know this too--I'm a heckuva lot easier to live with when I'm teaching. Somewhere, I'm told, Hemingway used to say writers shouldn't talk about either sex or writing, and I know what he means--about writing anyway. When I go on and on about what I'm working on, I let the air out the whole thing. So, during the summer, I walk around in this world, carrying an entire other worldin my head--the world of the novel--telling no one, showing no one, just keeping it all going inside. I get hard to live with. Ask my wife.

September comes, students walk into my office, the novel gets saved to a disk or sent off, and the social Schaap shimmies out of a file cabinet. I talk. I laugh. I joke. A kid comes in for help on an essay, and when she leaves, I tell myself that I'm not as much a dinosaur as I think. If my feet don't hurt, I walk home with some lilt in my step.

Somewhere else, Hemingway once said that writing is never a full-time job. About that, he's right too. If I had to find everything I write in the stuff in my basement, I'd not only find myself starved, I'd be crazy as a loon. Life is good, but life is also full of material--sounds crass, I know, but it's true.

I got body-slammed in the last couple of weeks by the Pequod War, a bloody mess in and around Massachusetts Bay Colony that I knew almost nothing about. I have a Ph.D., in American literature, a speciality in Colonial Lit. I know all the Puritan writers. I've taught the course for a quarter century, and I understand the troubles Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson brought to those beloved, pig-headed Calvinists doing their best to create a truly Christian nation.

But I never knew a thing about the Mystic Massacre of 1637--not one thing. I should have. I wish it hadn't happened, and the story isn't pleasant. But I learned something, and at my age, learning something, having your mind and heart and head twisted in a new angle, toward a new vision, is an immense joy, because the pressures of age are limiting. When we age--trust me on this--our worlds get progessively smaller and, sadly enough, what remains within them gets, understandably, even grotesquely, bigger. Maybe I ought to say it this way--what happens outside our worlds is of less consequence, while what happens inside the ever-decreasing circumference looms even larger. So here's what I think--I take great joy in learning something I never knew, even if I should have known it before. Even if that-I-should-have-known is the lesson. I should have known the Mystic Massacre. Teaching helps me learn. I'm a teacher.

674 posts ago I started this thing, taking Garrison Keillor's advice and giving thanks for something every last morning. I didn't really abandon that goal, but now, more than not, I depart from text.

So this morning, after a good week in the classroom, after enough shining eyes to put me to sleep (at night), after too much yakking, I suppose, but warm and eager kids, I'm getting back on task and being thankful for darn good work, for life with purpose, and the education that I still get, day to day, reading and, well, yakking. Meaningful employment not only puts food on the table, it can be just as good as the Bible says it is.

If you're wondering about sex, don't ask. I won't tell.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Sometimes I think we all take too much for granted the incredible fragility of "this great American experiment" we call democracy. A few weeks ago, in a backyard in California, a woman and two children were discovered, essentially slaves--for many years--of a man and his wife. In our democratic system, that man has just as much power, finally, as, say, Walter Cronkite--each has a single vote. Incredible.

Last night's speech has been and will be reviewed sweetly and sourly, I'm sure. I thought it was a good speech, but then I don't hate Barack Obama. One man, obviously, does--Rep. Joe Wilson, Republican from South Carolina, who yelled, "You lie," at the President during the speech.

Democracy affords Wilson his opinion, an opinion shared, I'm sure, by millions. He won't be placed behind bars because democracy also affords us all free speech.

But I'm hoping that his stunning and emotional denunciation of the President of the United States brings some kind of order back to an electorate so deeply divided as to endanger the fragility of this outrageous political experiment.

Democracy gives all of us a voice, but on an issue like health care, an issue that has effects in every last aspect of all of our lives, we will do better--or so it seems to me--to listen, to discuss, even to comprimise, than to scream so bitterly.

Maybe last night Rep. Joe Wilson taught us that lesson more effectively than any soothsayer could have. I hope that's true.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Outcasts United

If there's one thing I get sick of, it's politicians, no matter what their stripe, repeating the mantra that the American people want this or that or the other thing.

In this season of health-care madness, I don't think anybody knows what the American people want, even though the last few months' town-hall brawls have been dominated by those who make their opinions perfectly clear. Glen Beck does it, and so does Ed Schulz--when they argue their positions, they all say, "The American people want. . ." as if they've got a scientific reading on their own personal political barometer.

Well, here I go. The American people ought to read Outcasts United, a wonderful book by Warren St. John, the tale of a scrubby soccer team named the Fugees, in Clarkston, Georgia, a hardscrabble lot of refugee kids from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe. They're a fruit basket upset, really, a multi-cultural grab bag of kids who can't understand each other's languages, each of them equally bewildered in a country and culture they don't begin to understand.

They're led by a driven maniac of a coach, Luma Mufleh, herself a Jordanian immigrant, a Muslim, who makes it her calling to take these kids through the paces, not only on the soccer field, but also in their schools, and in their lives at home. Luma is no soft touch. Far from it--she expects sincereity and moral behavior and dedication to task, and when she doesn't get it, she snaps out the lights. Once, when one of her teams threw in the towel, so did she--she simply canceled the season.

Liberals will love the book because it's unsparing in its documentation of racism in the Atlanta suburb where the kids play their soccer. But there's more to cheer for progressives--after all, we've got a Muslim superhero in Ms. Mufleh and rainbow of kids with unpronounceable names and violent histories in their native lands. Outcasts United is a profoundly moving portrait of the new, darker America.

But conservatives will love it too, because Luma, who may well be a Muslim, adopts a playbook strategy right out of the Autobiography of Ben Franklin. If these kids are going to make it in this new country, she insists, they'll have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, by their own hard work, and their dedication to teamwork and task. No handouts from their Jordanian coach. She cuts the kids who don't play her game; she can be ruthless. Conservatives will love her.

And that's why I say that the American people will love this book. Or should. It's a great tale, even a bit of a feel-good story, with something to love for every last corner of this immensely polarized culture of ours. Even if you've never heard of a corner kick or a header, I'm betting you'll like Outcasts United.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Morning Thanks

Two groups assembled in that lakeside Bible camp this weekend--a hundred or so dressed-down students, and a hundred or so dressed-up retirees. Both groups sang music, but not from the same hymnal. The students' music was far more repetitive, more chant-like. It went slower. I'm not kidding.

Somehow, for the students, I was the speaker, a man forty years older than they are and far closer in age to the old folks toting well-worn Bibles to and from their own sectionals.

When I was introduced, the campus pastor told the kids (I'm mean no disrespect) that they were lucky to have me for a speaker (sweet talk) because I was something of an anomaly, inasmuch as old farts don't normally communicate as well as, supposedly, I do. They laughed, and I know a compliment when I hear one, even if the package it comes in ain't pretty, so I laughed too. Besides, like parenthesis around the whole retreat were two sweet trips to a hospital nursery, where this grandpa couldn't get his fill of another another kid, of another generation entirely.

The weather was perfect, so the retreat kids chose to worship and stuff outside, at a fire pit that fills most of a thin finger of earth, lake water on both sides. Friday night, the sun set west and the moon rose east in amplified, saturated technicolor, thanks to visiting smoke from California fires half a continent away. On both sides of that fire pit, red beauty raged. I should have just shuttup and let the heavens preach--it was perfectly gorgeous all over.

Out here in Republican country, the college where I teach doesn't celebrate Labor Day--the students just got here, after all; I haven't had a Labor Day holiday in almost forty years. No matter. I may have missed a day off, but between gorgeous skies, fun kids, a few good jokes, and a brand new grandson, I couldn't have done any greater celebrating.

And for all that, this morning, this grandpa is proudly thankful.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Growing up

Forgive the braying. I'm a grandpa, and when it comes to grandkids, everyone of us, I think, is as much a jackass as I am. But, check this out. If you look closely at the little guy above, you can tell he's trying to see. He's barely three hours old, but he's trying to spot something around him that'll give him a reading on where on earth he is. He's not quite sure of what's up and what's down, but he's already trying to find his way.

You want to know how things are going?--here's the score. This little guy's grandma is in love. His mom is doing very well. Dad holds his new son dearly, peacock-proud. His big sister, who's nine, is thrilled. But his brother isn't quite sure what's on his plate.

He came into the room on Friday, late afternoon, walked up to this brand new baby lying there beside his mother, turned around just as quickly, and walked away, as if he'd seen enough. Something in him recognized, after a fashion, that while he'd gained a brother, he'd lost a place. It'll take him awhile to understand what it is he feels, I’m sure, but he knows he’s no longer the baby. He’s always been more cuddily than his sister, but now there's less time and room for all of that. Now he's only a middle kid.

So I got to thinking. The only way to understand what was happening in his little heart is to say he’s growing up. That phrase always feels a little bittersweet because it usually suggests that someone's being tossed from some kind of garden. Life is never going to be the same for the baby's big brother because now he's going to be one--a big brother. He’s going to have to learn to do with less. He’s going to have to grow up a little.

But that’s okay, too. And it's in the shape of things. To say he's growing up doesn't necessarily suggest that all of life's joy is in the rearview mirror. He’s just a bit more responsible for finding it himself. It’s not going to be sumptuously served up anymore; his baby brother gets that delight. Big brother is, more and more, going to have to fend for himself.

Check out those eyes, if you can see 'em. They're trying to figure out what's up. Really, both of the boys--both the brothers--are looking around right now, trying to determine who they are and what they're up to. But then so is Mom and Dad and Grandpa and Grandma.

For all of us, it's a new world once again. Ain't one of us who isn't--growing up, that is.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Twice in the last few months I've had to deliberately steer away from the moment to wrestle back tears. Once was in May, when my son got just a bit choked up himself when he read his grandma's obit aloud at her funeral. And the second was yesterday, when I saw my new grandson.

The first is explainable, I think. I had to gut it out because it's never been easy for me--nor for any parent--to see kids hurt, especially their own, even when the kids aren't kids. I sat there in church and yawned awkwardly because somewhere in me I felt the hurt in him. It wasn't so much his grandma's death that tore me up, it was his grief at his grandma's death.

Yesterday's stuttering is not so explainable. It had nothing to do with grief. We walked into the hospital hallway, where a wall of glass was all that separated us from a baby boy born no more than two hours before. He laid in a plastic basket, naked as a jaybird, here and there a tube or wire. I can't begin to describe how perfect he looked. My face arched into awful contortions.

I suppose it's fitting--death and life; nothing could be contrary, yet more elemental.

I'm still not sure what drew yesterday's brew of near tears, but it has to be something like awe, sheer awe. There's a new baby, and it belongs to my daughter, my son-in-law, and their two darling kids. My wife claims it too, I'm sure, as I do.

I just couldn't believe the beauty of that child. If I was any younger, I think I'd have said, "Like, whoa."

Awe at life itself. Just life. What a gift.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Hate crimes

I'd like to ask my father what he remembers of JFK's assasination--and how he remembers it. The whole world seemed to stop, back then. I remember he stayed home from church on Sunday morning, ill, and thus was a witness to one of the only live-broadcast murders ever to take place on TV, when Jack Ruby did in Lee Harvey Oswald with a handgun in Dallas. "I saw it," he said, when we got back home later that Sunday morning. "I saw it happen."

What I'd like to ask him was what he thought of JFK after that whole horrific ordeal because I know very well he didn't like Kennedy--not at all. On a Sunday night in the summer of 1960, when I was still just a kid, an uncle of mine came to our church to talk to whoever wanted to stay after worship. His subject?--how a vote for Kennedy was going to be a vote for the Pope, and why therefore, all good Christians shouldn't vote for senator from Massachusetts. Rome will run America, he said.

I was just a boy, and the speaker was my uncle, my father's brother, but I honestly didn't believe him, even though I wouldn't have dared to say that in our house.

And then there's this. In 1992, I was doing a writers-in-the-schools, week-long stint with a fifth grade class. Part of my gig included the students' having to write their way out of a short story I'd begun. That story was about Socks, the "first-cat," the Clinton's sweetheart house pet (unless you hate cats); and it went like this: Socks gets out, wanders off, and gets lost (my part), now you (my fifth-grade writers) have to get poor Socks back to Chelsea.

I didn't vote for Clinton. He wasn't my hero. I never really trusted him. But that day, when I read the first six pages of that story to the kids, then told them I wanted them to finish it, I looked at numbed eyes. I'd really thought they'd like the assignment; I'd used it at other Iowa Arts Council gigs, in other schools, and it had gone over well. But the kids in front of me seemed frozen. None of them were angry, but they seemed incapable of doing the assignment.

I may be wrong, but I felt, honestly, that some of them, at least, found it impossible to think good things about anything connected to Bill Clinton, a man who'd been so villified by their parents that simply entertaining a sweet fantasy about his cat was nigh unto impossible.

I admit it--I've laughed at John Stewart's outrageous caricatures of George W. Bush in the last several years. To me, George W. often seemed a poor excuse for the leader of the free world. I honestly believe our world doesn't need any more American Cheneys. Even though I've never been a registered Democrat and I have been a registered Republican, I'll admit that for the last five years of the Bush/Cheney White House, I really, really disliked out administration.

But I can't imagine forbidding my children listen to a speech by George W. Bush--or calling the school to make sure no one else's does. It's impossible for me to understand how legions of parents have now called in to say that their children shouldn't have to listen to their President, a man duly elected by a significant majority of American citizens. I just can't get my mind around that much hate.

And what hurts me even worse is that, once again, it's Christians leading the assault. I can't imagine my father, who utterly opposed JFK's candidacy, feeling any joy whatsoever in 1963 during those awful days of national horror when everything stood still. But neither can I imagine him wanting to protect his son, his child, from listening to the first Roman Catholic President of these United States in school or at home. For the life of me, I can't.

Did I mention that the kids who found it hard to write about Socks the cat were students in a Christian school? Did I mention, it was actually the school my own children had attended?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Morning Thanks

In some ancient culture, I once read, soon-to-be fathers lie down beside their spouses and howl as their wives give birth, thereby taking upon themselves some mysterious dose of their lover's travail. I don't know that's true. It's just what I read.

I did no moaning myself. At the birth of our two children, to call myself involved would be a stretch--well, a lie. Even though we'd done all the Lamaze exercises--pillows and breathing and timing and soothsaying--when the moment finally came and I stood there beside her, even though I think I held her hand in mine, I didn't feel at all like a participant in the process, more like a criminal.

An old friend--female--once told me that if men would really like to know what childbirth is like, it's not all that difficult: just take your upper lip, she said, and pull it back over your forehead. That's all I need to know.

Some warm and wonderful couples, I know, manage to share the pain and joy, the pangs of childbirth, and do so triumphantly, dutiful hubby recording every last glorious moment on flip video ultra series camcorders. Some beloved husbands are teammates, guides, honey-throated sweet-talkers; but when my wife had our two children, any perception of the two of us being one flesh was just so much hooey. I was useless, like some say, as teats on a bull.

Tomorrow, God willing, I'll be a grandfather again. It's a boy, and we pray he's got all his fingers and toes. I won't be sitting on pins and needles as I was that day in Phoenix when my daughter was born, nor will I be as anxious as I was when my daughter's first--our first grandchild--made her worrisome debut in Bellingham, Washington. But right now I'm still, well, expectant, I guess I might say--expectant and worried, a little.

So this morning's thanks is for my daughter, whose last few weeks haven't been any more sweet than those unending early nauseous weeks were. She's about to do something half the world knows absolutely nothing of, something profoundly primary and vastly beyond my imagination, something that literally will change our lives forever--she'll have a baby. They will--she and her husband. Because he'll be there too, probably just as much a spectator as I ever was--and just as humbled.

This morning, I'm thankful for our daughter. And worried. And anxious. And expectant.

What a great word--we're all prayerfully expectant.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Morning Thanks

What do I hope for, really--I mean, as a teacher? Curiosity, above all, I suppose, and a good healthy dose of spontaneity. To me at least, in the classroom, excellence doesn't necessarily mean sky-high IQs. Give me a kid who wants to learn, who wants to discover, and I'll swap a six-pack of distinguished scholars. Show me a kid whose eyes shine, and in a heartbeat I'll give up a whole drawer full of perfectly structured, five-paragraph essays.

Give me some hunger, some good old American pull-yourself-up-from-your bootstraps, and I'll cash in a couple of valedictorians. Show me eyes that shine, and you don't even have to pay me to stand up there and direct traffic. (I won't be quoted on that one.)

You walk into a dream class prepared to lecture, but never even pull the notes from the bag because the hullabaloo gets you where where the class should go anyway, borne along on the riptide currents the students themselves generate. That's the dream.

All of that doesn't happen often, of course. Dreams wouldn't be dreams if they were every day reality. Sometimes, you got to pull teeth, turn somer-saults, do all the dang work yourself. Sometimes, it feels like no matter what you do, you lose. Sometimes you're the voice crying out in the wilderness.

When I was a high school teacher, I had a reoccurring nightmare of walking into class and not being seen. I'd try to get their attention, but to the kids in the chairs in front of me, I wasn't even there. I'd yell. No matter. Scream. Nothing. Then I'd wake up and thank my lucky stars.

We're just a couple of days into a new semester, my 39th, I think, and I'm optimistic. So far, so good. I've seen enough hunger to make me think this just might be a good year. That's wonderful because finally, Donald Rumsfeld wasn't all wrong--you go to war with the army you've got.

This morning I'm thankful for a what seems to be a pretty good-looking regiment of bright, curious eyes.