Morning Thanks

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

Friday, October 30, 2009

You gotta have the horses

He was built like a toad, short and squat, scrawny bowed legs over a wheelbarrow chest. And he was mouthy. Walk in a room with him, a dark room in a neighborhood Wisconsin tavern, and his balloon-ish personality inflated the whole place--that kind of thing. He was a lovable wise ass and one heckuva coach. I have no idea if he could play basketball, but the kids loved him, their parents loved him, and he was a winner. That's the way I remember him, the head man in the basketball program in the very first high school I taught, way back when. I liked him.

Like all good coaches, he was a gifted sandbagger, . "Oh, this year we shouldn't even get on the court," he'd say, even though he knew--and we knew--that wasn't going to be the case. "I look at my roster, and all I can say is, 'we're small, but we're slow,'" he'd crow, begging laughs.

But once he told me--when the stand-up routine was tucked away--that coaching really wasn't all it was cooked up to be. "It's all in the horses," he said. "If you don't have 'em, you can't play. That's the truth."

I thought of those horses last week. For a writing assignment I've given for years, I decided to add sports as a possible theme; they could write about nature, about travel, or about sports. A wonderful young writer was coming in, whose work had found its way into this year's collection of Best Sports Writing, I had students who loved sports writing, and I knew--because it was true of me--that loads of kids were ex-gym rats, a bunch of them not even ex-.

When you've been teaching for years, files collect on you like barnacles. I may be wrong, but I think students learn quickly when they read what other students--students who sat in the same wooden chairs years ago--did when they had to write a personal narrative set in the woods, on the road, or in the gym. "Okay, like that." The problem was, this was a new assignment (or so I thought). I had no factory samples.

So I'm looking through the old file cabinets, when one of those dog-eared manila folders jumps out at me because it's got "sports" scribbled on the tab. I grab it, open it, and I can't believe it--I didn't even remember giving that kind of assignment. It was that long ago. Maybe even pre-computer.

Inside are four student papers from the Age of the Typewriter, a quarter-century old. I'm not kidding. I can't believe it.

Then I read 'em. And I was mad.

No, I was shocked, dumbfounded, and then mad.

Those ancient papers weren't half bad. Shoot, they were good. All right, they were better than good--they were very good. One of them compared her puny high school's athletic endeavors--everyone was on the team--with the slick program in the big school she attended when the puny one shut its doors; she found the big one's wanting. One was a shadowy post-practice encounter with a teammate laid up with a weird ailment the narrator had no clue about; only later did it become clear to her that what was killing her friend was the darkness of depression. And the third recounted, painfully, an experience millions of kids go through every year, some of them multiple times--getting cut and thereby backhanded into high school oblivion.

Each story brought us vividly into the experiences it recounted. Each story did its work well. Each story was worth reading, worth showing off to this year's bunch of students. "This is how some nameless kids did it a century ago," I said.

But I could have cried--not because those parchment essays were so good, but because I had simply assumed--"could there be any doubt?"--that I, JCS, was one heckuva vastly superior teacher these 25 years later than I'd been woefully back in the Dark Ages. I had simply assumed my students were now at the foot of the master, who, with a thick record of publication, was a master professor of English. I'd simply assumed profound pedagogical progress on my part.

Poof! Dead wrong.

Those essays were dang good. What's more, I'm probably no better than I was. More experienced?--sure. But better? Doubtful. The proof's in the papers.

I was looking at essays written by my students' parents, who were doing just about the same quality of work as their kids. I'm not sure I made any difference at all.

Sometimes about the best I can say, I guess, is that I'm a steward, a caretaker, and--oh, yeah--something of a coach. Sometimes the fact is, to quote the toad, you're only as good as your horses. And I'm not sandbagging.

The anger is gone now, a week later; but what's left is a blessing. I'm humbled.

I'm not kidding--those old papers were really good. Seriously.

But I had the horses. Still do.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Much unloved

Don't tell her I told you, but my wife prays with the cat in her lap, and sometimes I think she ought to be ashamed. After all, aren't closed hands and eyes part of the Sunday School directives about prayer? Good night, we're supposed to shut ourselves off to the world when we pray, not offer our laps.

And what would my grandpa say?--that's what I ask myself, a church elder who often took delight in shedding tears about the burden of his own sin. Is it really a prayer if your lap disappears beneath an 18-pound grey tabby, your fingers lost somewhere in the fur behind his ears?

We have yet to determine where exactly, but our cat shows up somewhere, we believe, on the autism spectrum because he's so powerfully driven by his own rituals. Every night after supper, he leaves whatever warm corner he's in when he hears me read scripture. He bounds into the kitchen, not so much to listen but to get his ears scratched by the guy who's reading. Okay, I suppose I'm no less a sinner than my wife: I itch, she offers her lap. When what I'm offering gets old, he takes a leap. There he is, and then we pray.

There's something less than devout about him being there, and yet, when I read the latest stats from the Barna Group, I'm thinking maybe more of us ought to make a practice of impiety, ought to laugh once in awhile, maybe even at ourselves.

Honestly, the stats are far worse than I would have guessed. Evangelicals--and I am one--aren't much loved, or respected, or admired--at least by those between 16 and 29. The vast majority of those young'uns--the kids I teach, churchgoers or not--tend to see evangelicals as people who spend far too much energy pointing fingers, beating chests, and trying to form their lips around a dozen new ways to say no. We aren't much loved.

The Bible isn't much help here. Jesus came to bring the sword, right? If people hate us, we're just doing what he did, wielding that weapon rightly. When Cotton Mather wanted his flock to understand the witchcraft horrors sweeping Salem, he pulled out a biblical warrant: the witches were a scourge sent by the Lord, who only punishes those he loves. I don't doubt for a moment that some evangelicals look at Barna's statistics and slam their fists down on the desk in triumph--"we shall not be moved."

But then there's I Corinthians 13. Last time I read it--and I admit it was in The Message--it wasn't about slammed fists. Then again, as I remember it, Jesus had something to say about sins and first stones; and there's always that scary parable about the sheep and the goats standing there dumbfounded at the judgment, telling Jesus they had no clue that he himself could have been there when they helped out--or didn't--the poor and the naked and the imprisoned.

The Bible cuts both ways. The stats don't.

Honestly, there's nothing pretty about the way people perceive us. Today, some claim that the word "evangelical" has more profound political meaning than religious or spiritual. But then, some might say that that's just exactly the way it should be.

I'm not in that bunch.

Here's what I'm thinking. Maybe more of us ought to pray with our cats in our laps.

The stats box is on loan from the latest edition (Nov. 7) of World magazine.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sloth--the Seven Deadlies

Just now, in an interview essay I was reading, a college student said that one of the strangest things he had to learn while spending a semester away in Africa was that the tribal people in the rural village where he was living didn’t really say much--or need to. They honored their guests—people like himself-- by hosting them, but not necessarily by all that much chatting. It was entirely possible, he said, that he could sit at their table in silence for a long time, no one saying a thing—and that the silence was just fine. The presence of the guest was itself the honor.

That had to be strange all right. Most of us are ADD.

The same thing used to happen to white folks who sat down with 19th century Native people throughout the West. The ritual confab began with the pipe, but little, if any fanfare dialogue. Often, stark silence drove white people crazy; after all, they had places to go, things to do.

And besides, the American conscience is filled to the brim with Poor Richard, that ambitious Yankee bestowed on us by Ben Franklin: “Dost thou love life, then do not squander time, for that’s what life is made of.” Or how about this?—“A sleeping fox catches no poultry.” To Franklin, laziness wasn’t the last of the sins of the flesh; it was instead, the granddaddy of all iniquity: “Wasting of time must be the greatest prodigality.”

Sloth may well be the least of our cultural and national sins, but I’m no judge. Count me with Wordsworth, among those who tend to believe the world is too much with us. Me too. Besides, I’ve got to get this done—I’ve got to get to the gym and work out.

Brughel’s depiction of sloth, the last of the sins of the flesh, features an indolent woman half asleep against the belly of an ass, the animal symbol, although a snail in the foreground seems vying for first place. The quip along the bottom of the image says, "Sluggishness breaks strength; long idleness ruins vigour." Three people slumber at a picnic table, including a woman pampered by a monster who’s bringing her a pillow. In the center, a giant’s bowels are being worked—or so it seems—by a bizarre team of naked enemists (I just made up a word I’ll never use again), two of them in Flemish cowboy hats. Weird. Makes me wonder if the Dutch/Flemish once repeated a quip that proposed some folks to be so lazy they wouldn’t s-h-i-t. Who knows?

In “The Imp of the Perverse,” a typically perverse little story by Poe, the mad narrator explains the evil that runs rampant in us all by noting the way we, as if by nature, procastinate.

We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until tomorrow; and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, – of the definite with the indefinite – of the substance with the shadow.

But, if the contest has proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails, – we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer-note to the ghost that has so long over-awed us. It flies – it disappears – we are free. The old energy returns. We will labour now. Alas, it is too late!”

Okay, I own up to that one. I too procrastinate. I too have sinned.
The K-State geographers’ map of sloth was created in a fashion that seems to me rather dubious—comparing the amount of money spent on arts, theater, and recreation per capita, with the level of employment. It's lazy to go to a football game or an art gallery?--give me a break. Anyway, regionally, once again Siouxland do just fine. Pardon our righteousness.

Personally, I prefer Brueghel. Not many of the schmoes on his drawings are headed to the theater.

But then, I’m likely carrying a prejudice or two.

And besides, right now it's quarter to six and this holy man is off to the gym. After all, he that riseth late, must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night, saith sage Franklin.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Palin's morning thanks

Don't know much about affairs such as those of Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol and her Levi, nor even much about that one, except that the two of them, without a doubt, created a real live child named Tripp, who almost stole the stage at the Republic Convention when his grandma was startling the world with her personality, charm, and fire.

And I don't know much about what Sarah Palin and her husband think of Levi Johnston these days. They're probably not talking about him--on a mike at least. The big news lately is that Levi the Hunk will flash the world with full frontal nudity in some near-future edition of Playgirl. "I just get naked," he told Us magazine; "that's what I do."

I think that's bravado and not confession, but who knows?

The whole mess is bizarre, of course, and hilarious. It seems the Alaskan Adonis has a manager named Tank Jones (the truth), who claims that his client "is pumped," and the upcoming shoot will be just fine: "We're going to play it by ear. I'm going to make sure it's something he's comfortable with and tasteful." Thank goodness--we wouldn't want the sensitive kid pushed around by testy feminist gargoyles. And then, Tank explained the whole project for all of us to understand: "This is art," he said.

Wow. I feel much better.

Pure b.s., is what it is. But then, there's nothing new under the sun. Mr. Johnston squirmed his way into his ten minutes of fame when his skivvies were on the floor, why on earth shouldn't he continue to make his living bare-bottomed? And, after all, this whole thing is art.

What a hoot. I don't know that anyone understands what goes on in the political mind of Sarah Palin, third-ranking candidate for President of these United States in the Republican field at this moment and soon to be best-selling author; but my guess is that she and her husband can't be thrilled by their grandson's daddy's flag unfurled all over the internet.

But, I can imagine something about Sarah Palin the mom. As sick unto death as she must be of this Johnston kid riding his never-to-be mother-in-law's blouse tails to media glory, as a mom--and a grandma--Palin must be, this morning and every morning, on her knees in grateful thanks to God that that naked, clueless moron is on a photographer's couch down in the lower 48, thousands of miles removed from her own beloved daughter's life.

That fact must bring her great joy. 'T'would me.

Monday, October 26, 2009


I spent what little time I had yesterday, a busy Sabbath (that's not a oxymoron in a church culture like the one I live in), with The End of Suffering, a slight, little book written by a friend, Scott Cairns, who's a poet by trade, and a good one, a very good one.

Slight is a slight, if you take that description wrong, because the book isn't--slight, that is, even though it's barely a hundred pages long. He calls The End of Suffering an essay, and he's right--a long essay, but it's a thin volume.

But thin won't do either, because in it Scott takes on an issue of timeless heft, the nature of suffering. His long essay isn't occasioned by any specific horror of his own, but by his own desire to discover something helpful about our own, steep mutual human burdens. The essay begins with his reflecting on the loss of his two big and beloved dogs, which, in a TV age, hardly seems cause sufficient for real grief, when matched about today's headline horrors--or yesterday's or tomorrow's. But the loss of pets is enough, as anyone who's lost one knows.

I'm not big on how-to writing. I usually don't pick up books that tell me how to live, other than the trusty old bestseller. But I'm interested the direction Scott Cairns's faith has taken him. At my age, I'm not likely to change denominational affiliations or become what I've never been, but Scott is passionate about his choices and direction; and, if the truth be known, if I were to move, I'd likely follow along in his direction, toward some variety of high church liturgy, something in the sacremental tradition.

Sometimes Protestantism's excesses seem so noisy and in-your-face. Scott quotes a monk who was asked by a young evangelical whether Jesus Christ "was his personal savior."

"'No,' the smiling monk said without hesitation, 'I like to share him.'"

That kind of thing.

Last night at a commemoration worship for the Reformation, I had to read a line from Second Peter: "For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain."

Standing up there before hundreds of worshippers, I felt strangely Lakota or Navajo when I read that line because there's something far more Native than Calvinist about a voice from heaven coming on a sacred mountain.

And yet, there's something in that verse that reminded me of Scott's urgings throughout this long essay, something I believe he's learned since his entrance into Orthodoxy; and that is, I think, that all the world belongs to God, that all human suffering is our suffering, that our directive to love God means is a command to love humankind, as well as trees, big beloved dogs, and sacred mountians.

There's an expansiveness to the faith Scott Cairns offers in The End of Suffering, an expansiveness I deeply, deeply respect, the older I become.

I don't know that he forever answers the myriad questions of human suffering in this little book, but it's not little, not at all. Knowing him, I'm sure he wouldn't claim to be the oracle on the sacred mountain. He's trying hard to find his way through dangers, toils, and snares, to know God better, to open his arms even wider to embracing God's world.

Wasn't a bad Sabbath, all tolled--yesterday, that is. We worshipped, spent time with a 90-year-old Grandpa and an 8-year-old granddaughter, had a wonderful dinner, celebrated the Reformation, and listened in to the revelation of a good friend trying find what's right and good, even in the hard times.

All in a Sabbath's rest.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Poetics -- A Sunday morning meditation

“The moon marks off the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens.” Psalm 104:19-22.

Things work. That’s the idea here, or so it seems. Things work, and they do so because of you, Lord, because it’s your world and you run the whole shebang. Things work because all of it is in your hand, under your care, beneath your authority.

“The sun knows when to go down” is fun, as playfully poetic as anything in the Psalms. Just for a moment, the poet gives a bit of human character to the sun, almost as if he were pagan. But he is being ironic; he doesn’t really mean what he says: the sun does not, on its own, determine when to rise and set, then post those times on its website. That’s not the intent, despite his language. Like lions who fill their stomachs once night falls, then rest when dawn paints the east, the sun goes down only because it obeys God’s specific directions, as does all of nature. That’s what he means.

What is suggested, poetically, is subservience. “The sun knows when to go down” suggests obedience not whim; the sun understands its job. It knows what is right.
Adherents of some of the world’s great religions like to think that all great theology is poetry. Questions can be begged of that assertion: what is “theology,” after all, and what is “poetry”?

But even defining terms reduces poetry to proposition. The great beauty of Psalm 104, the panoramic vision of God’s good world it offers, stem to stern, is put at risk even by my own parcing commentary. To cut the psalm apart the way I am is to reduce its joyous vitality. Maybe I should just quit thinking about it and love it.

But I wouldn’t have come up with that idea had I not worked at analysis. I might have read through the poem, noted its gorgeous mainstage production of creation, and moved along. The line “the sun knows when to go down” stopped me in my tracks and set me to smiling, then prompted me to think about why I liked it. Poetry without analysis is a risk, too, I think. (And when I say “I think,” Descartes is at my shoulder—cognito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. We’re back, sadly, to philosophy.)
Better minds than mine will argue the claim that all great theology is poetry. I’m not smart enough to answer the questions it raises. What I do know is, I really like the theology of T. S. Eliot, in “Ash Wednesday,” which is, really, just another take on this beautiful poem, Psalm 104.

Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.

Think about that. No, don’t.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The monster seagull

My backyard has turned into some bad Hitchcock movie. The worms have taken over. They're all over the sidewalks and the street, where soon enough they turn into long strings of peachy hamburger beneath the tires of passing cars. They're up top the ground, fleeing the flood that's turned their holey homes into an sea because it's rained for so long here that I'm beginning to think I'm in Seattle.

We're in the twilight zone. Day to day, the sun rises indistinguishably, and daylight--if you can call it that--dawdles for 12 hours, then leaves the stage as inauspiciously as it entered. It's depressing.


There are those who can't handle oppressive cloudiness, so much lack of sun. I never used to think I was among them, but I'm starting to believe my analysis was mistaken--whatever the infirmity is, it's a bug I'm catching. With the world a sluggish, gray miasma, there are no bright ideas; everything is colorless, becoming, it seems, that dark void God himself determined to animate with technocolor way back when. I wouldn't mind at all a similar such decision from Creator.

It's time to turn the lights on, Lord. I'd tell you that we're all getting blue, but most of us would probably settle for some sweet azure right now--any color at all, as a matter of fact. Slate-ish gray doesn't become your world.

Maybe this dark and dank world is why, this morning, I fell in love with an Austrailian seagull, a white monster that threatened Sydney. That curious seagull's the first thing to make me smile in a month of clouds and rain.

The worms are still in trouble.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A balloon boy Jeremiad

The "balloon boy" story/hoax has so many angles it could be fodder for the mill for a month, at least. The plot worked itself out with precise efficiency. CNN generated a "breaking news" e-mail sent to all subscribed, me included. I read it, went to, and immediately felt the chill.

A minute or so later, a colleague came out of her office, the mother of young children, and mentioned the story in a tone pitched somewhere between ominous and horrific. Some beautiful child was 5000 feet in the air, aboard some kind of flying saucer created by his now frantic father, all kinds of officials now trying to determine how they could rescue him.

'Twas a hoax, of course, the kid safely stowed in a corner of an attic. We should have guessed when the old man said the kid's name was Falcon. You've got to admit that the whole saga was brilliantly conceived--but then so was 9/11. Richard Heene gets an A for creative energy, but a jail cell for deceit.

The whole story makes me feel as if the entire culture--me too--could use some hellfire and brimstone. Yesterday I came across a screed penned months before the balloon-boy hoax by former NY Times reporter Chris Hedges, who puts one firm pointer finger to the country's sternum. I read it in Martin Marty's Context, but it appeared first on the website truthdig.

Maybe it's the Calvinist in me, but sometimes getting read out like this just flat feels good and right.

"The moral nihilism of our culture licenses a dark voyeurism into other people's humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal. Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, ridiculed and voted off any reality show. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame elect to 'disappear' the unwanted. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, nonpersons. Celebrities who can no longer generate publicity, good or bad, vanish.

"Life, these shows teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and constant quest for notoriety and attention. And life is about the personal humiliation of those who oppose us. Those who win are the best. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are ugly or poor, are belittled and mocked. Human beings are used, betrayed, and discarded in a commodity culture. . . . Compassion, competence, intelligence, and solidarity are useless assets when human beings are commodities. Those who do not achieve celebrity status, who do not win the prize money or make millions in Wall Street firms, deserve their fate.

"The cult of self . . . dominates our culture. This cult shares within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt. . . . This is also the ethic . . . of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. It is the celebration of image over substance.

"The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to drain us emotionally, confuse us about our identity, make us blame ourselves for our predicament, condition us to chase illusions of fame and happiness, and keep us from fighting back."


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lechery--the seven deadlies

Brueghel’s depiction of lechery, or lust, understandably, is all about excess. At the heart of the woodcut, a naked Dame Lechery sits on the lap of some monster, the two of them doing some frisky groping. Just above them stands a rooster, the Flemish animal symbol of insatiable sexual appetite.

Atop the strange, antlered teepee is what appears to be a clam holding a pearl that somehow contains a pair of lovers. Your guess is as good as mine, but some experts believe the pearl is really a soap bubble, Brueghel suggesting that this couple's naked dalliance will burst momentarily.

Bizarre fleshiness litters the landscape. What on earth can be said about the monster whose face is his nether region? Very strange. A pair of dogs coupling over by the fence are about to get whacked by some other monster. In the bottom right hand corner, a male is about to unman himself with huge knife, offering the viewer the central truth of the whole presentation, according to some: lechery ultimately unmans us, makes us less than human, less than what we are or can be.

In a way, maybe, the whole thing is 16th century porn, our interests piqued by equal ly disturbing urges of repulsion and fascination--and a shot of high-road righteousness. We don’t want to look but we can’t help it.

I’m not sure why, but, of the seven deadlies, lechery or lust sometimes seems the most beloved, yet beguiling domain of American Protestants, like Hawthorne's Arthur Dimmesdale, a man whose preaching, oddly enough, improved post-liason with sweet Hester. In the last few years, how many high-and-mighty haven’t fallen? TV preachers and family-value politicos seem most readily victimized by their own wanderlust. But they're not alone.

Years ago, when my parents retired to winter in a trailer park in Florida, where most of whose residents were also Dutch Reformed, I couldn’t believe the ribald jokes they’d repeat, one after another, below-the-belt humor shockingly uncharacteristic of my parents, who wouldn’t have tolerated such earthiness a few decades before.

For me back then, a young father, sexuality wasn’t something to laugh much about. It was deadly serious business. Marriages explode for one of two reasons, I’m told—sex or money. At thirty, at least for males—and for me—bawdiness may well have been laughable, but real human sexuality wasn’t much of a joke.

Some feminist manifesto a decade ago was titled Our Bodies, Ourselves, or something like that, suggesting that one’s femaleness, one’s very identity, is a there in female body itself. In a vague, male way, I think I understand the notion. But today, at sixty+, I think all of us seniors have become female because our bodies have already begun define us--cholesterol levels, blood pressure, our latest EKGs.

Today I understand more fully how potty humor and flaccid appendages could so easily tickle out belly laughs from a silver-haired crowd of snow bird church goers in white, patent-leather shoes. Sex wasn’t exactly left behind, but those beastly urges—see Brueghel—are more comfortably behind us. At least, the pressure's off.

Enough. Sex is still hard to talk about for this Protestant. John Updike never had that problem apparently, Protestant though he was. Or maybe he did. Maybe his excesses in portraying open sexuality were manifestations of a libido that he thought he could control, ironically, only by letting it go.

Anyway, the Kansas State researchers compiled the number of sexually transmitted diseases — HIV, AIDS, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea — reported per capita in the country’s counties to determine sin--lechery--in these United States. I'm sure there are other ways.

What they found is almost comical: by their calculations, lechery is higher in the rural south than in San Francisco--and even Las Vegas. Once again, out here in the rural Midwest, things are lookin' pretty darn righteous. Oddly enough, it's the Bible belt that seems in no position to throw stones; but then no one should. According to Jesus, throwing stones isn't anyone's job.
Enough. I'm off to a cold shower. That's a joke.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Morning Thanks--A Pastor

I didn't know my grandfather well. He died when I was five years old, and I have but one curmudgeonly memory of him, a time he yelled at me for wasting water--I was standing with my arms up over the sink, my fingers in the stream from the faucet, waiting for the temperature to cool.

I have a audio tape of him preaching, which I've listened to more than once. He's not a preacher I would have loved week after week, but a Dutch Calvinist preacher, back then during his career--early to mid-20th century--was cut from a sharp and well-drawn pattern, and not always interested in being loved. Grandpa Schaap, the Reverend J. C. Schaap, was a dominie, a Dutch word I heard once in awhile as a kid, often enough to know it meant, the preacher.

Dominie meant more than that, really. In a community still thick with old country ways, the dominie was often the only one with education. He was someone to be admired, certainly, but respected, more so. Loved?--maybe, maybe not. He was to be feared, as the Lord our God was to be feared, back then.

I'm not so sure any of the preachers I had as a boy was a bona fide dominie. After all, by the 50s, with all those GIs back in churches and communities, men who'd fought their way across Europe or the South Pacific, it had to have been more difficult for preachers to be the only real big men.

When Dutch was finally abandoned for English, dominie was traded for reverend. "How are you doing, Reverend?" people might ask. Language had changed, but, substantially, attitude hadn't.

Today, "Reverend" is also something of a relic, jettisoned by the kindler, gentler "pastor," as in Pastor Schaap, a title my grandfather might have had trouble recognizing.

Rev. John Olthoff was my first real "pastor," and I say that because he was in office during the Sixties, when I wasn't so easy to deal with and neither were my friends. From me at least, the Sixties demanded my taking positions--on war, on race, on the place of women, on the culture--positions that almost always were troublingly contrary to my parents and to my church, even to the staunchly Republican community in which I was reared.

Here's what I remember: him taking hold of my arm during those years, holding me just below the elbow, his head nodding slightly, his face enriched with an edgy smile. He was not a large man, and I think I towered over him; but he wouldn't judge--that's what I remember very well. He wouldn't judge, he'd simply talk--and listen; he'd simply ask me about things. He was being a pastor, my first.

Throughout my life, people have told me about Grandpa, who was said to have a wonderful sense of humor and may have been more gifted at giving funny speeches at weddings than dour sermons from the pulpit. If there ever was a strict, standard image for Dutch Calvinist preachers, for dominies, then, I'm sure, my own grandfather probably wasn't it--if, in fact, any ever were. We're humans, not caricatures--all of us.

Nonetheless, when I think about it now, Rev. John Olthoff, who taught catechism very well to a gaggle of hormone-rich high schoolers, me among them, became, in the next few years, my first pastor, when the precepts I began to embrace weren't exactly those of my parents'. He listened, smiled, nodded, and never let go of my arm. Oddly enough, the preacher didn't preach.

And now the Reverend John Olthoff is gone. For the most part, after I left home for college, I heard him hold forth only when I'd come back, so he hasn't been my preacher, my pastor, for forty years. But he died just a few weeks ago, well into his nineties. I would have liked to thank him. I should have.

This morning's thanks are for John Olthoff, who was my very first pastor. I only wish I'd told him.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sunday School

A guest reader--that’s what I was, and the book was a classic, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. I was supposed to read it for all the Sunday school kids, even though I guessed that supercilious eighth graders would be bored to tears. To me, on first glance, it seemed pure kiddie lit.

And a real downer, oddly enough. By the end of The Giving Tree, the little boy is a scrunched-up octogenarian, the tree nothing but a stump. The story is a trip through life that doesn’t end in a particularly heavenly fashion, that’s for sure.

I’m guessing that nobody would have read it to me when I was six, certainly not in Sunday School. Back then, some eager beaver superintendent would have scanned the tale and tossed it as being unsuitable Sunday School material. The tree loves the boy, after all, which is a little weird; and the depth of that love is nothing to sneeze at, because throughout the boy’s life the tree gives him just about everything he needs, just gives it away—apples, branches, even its trunk. What’s worse, that creepy, bizarre tree love is almost totally unrequited. “Trees don’t love us!-- that’s flat out pantheism,” some warty old doctrinalist would have said.

So first I giggled, as I often do these days, shaking my head at how the world has changed in Midwestern burgs and their little churches.

In the parable Silverstein tells, that sweetheart apple tree is a kind of God because it continues to love “the boy” even when he doesn’t deserve it--which is to say, the tree loves unconditionally. Shoot, by the time the boy is an old man, the tree is nothing but a hassock stump. So the old man sits down. Leafless, branchless, trunkless, the giving tree has given the boy everything, but it still loves the kid, who’s no longer a kid.

"I really cannot help you if you ask for another gift. I’m nothing but an old stump now. I’m sorry but I’ve nothing more to give."

"I do not need very much now, just a quiet place to rest," the boy whispered, with a weary smile.

"Well,” said the tree, "an old stump is still good for that. Come, boy,” he said, "Sit down, sit down and rest a while."

And so he did and oh, the tree was happy. Oh, the tree was glad.

End of story. I’m not making this up.

Where on earth are the orthodoxy cops these days?

I wasn’t about to pull the cork myself, so, as requested, yesterday morning I read the old Silverstein classic, and the kids seemed to like it.

And I had to giggle because at the very moment I was standing up there, reading and showing them Silverstein’s illustrations (hearts carved into the trunk, by the way), it dawned on me that the whole story was set deeply in the cultural tradition of the Yankton Sioux, who, 200 hundred years ago, may well have chased down buffalo right there where the those kids were sitting yesterday, if we could turn back the calendar.

The Sioux would have loved The Giving Tree, wouldn’t have thought of it as a sad or strange, would have passed the story along to their kids just as I was that morning. All living things have life and mystery and are blessed by Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. A people who would offer a prayer to a freshly slain buffalo, thanking that animal for feeding the people, is a tribe of folks who wouldn’t question for a minute whether a giving tree could love a human being.

This morning, I’m sure, most of the kids won’t even remember The Giving Tree, but that doesn’t mean the story’s not there, packed away in the fables by which we create our sense of the world we’re in.

Here’s what I figure: it wouldn’t hurt for most of us out here in the land of agri-business to take a lesson or two from the Lakota culture we so rudely displaced with our Calvinist/capitalist ethics, even if that lesson comes by way of Shel Silverstein, a Jewish boy from Chicago, who probably never saw a buffalo or set foot in Siouxland.

Somehow the whole thing still makes me giggle, and, believe me, it ain’t kiddie lit.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Something about it just sticks in my craw, even though the longer I think about it, the less surprised I am. Shoot, I could have guessed. Still.

According to NPR, a company called Music Intelligence Solutions--and that makes sense--has created a computer program that assesses a pop tune's marketability. If you're a singer/songwriter--and there are millions--you fork over a hundred bucks or so, submit your latest to their software, and its crystal ball lays out your success or lack thereof. A low score, and you do some tinkering. Creating and selling music isn't hocus-pocus, and writing it isn't magic. It's science. A computer can do it. Art by algorhythm.

There's something repulsive about that, even if it isn't shocking. After all, I could dang well increase the sales of my novels if I scribbled out a full-blown bodice ripper: say, under a yellow, harvest moon an aging, paunchy college English professor/werewolf hunts down young couples taking late night walks in the shadowy cottonwood grove just behind the President's house--no, make that "President's mansion." Hmmm. I'd bet good money I'd increase sales locally a hundred fold. Cut the werewolf and make him a vampire, and I'll do even better these days.

Aging, paunchy, scar-faced English prof mysteriously transforms his American lit class into attack-dog zombies, who march en masse on Wal-Mart singing Ms. Emily's "Because I could not stop for death" to the tune of "Amazing Grace"? That'll get some attention.


There's just something disappointing about artists sticking their work in a computer and altering thereby. I know, it's done all the time. People used to say that the most-read Iowa novel of all time, The Bridges of Madison County, was written by a marketing formula--by a business prof, too. It was schmaltzy and steamy, but good night did it sell copy--and a movie.

It's not rocket science, after all, to guess how my two favorite novels of the last few years became so. One, Marilyn Robinson's Gilead, is basically the reflections of small-town Iowa preacher who calls himself a Calvinist. The other, Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, is a series of short stories connected, basically, by a retired teacher in a small town in Maine. Hmmm.

Of course, I'm not alone in my leanings. Both won Pulitzers.

Maybe I ought to be the machine that calls winners.

Here's my take. Maybe algorhythms can predict platinum, but not every last winner. There's always going to be those stories and tunes that come out of nowhere. There's always going to be the outsider, the shocker, the one that no one would ever have guessed. There's always going to be a dark horse. There has to be. I wouldn't want to live in that other world.

Here's what I think--there's always going to be the miracle.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Morning Thanks

The note comes on a page of prayer requests, just one of several announced in our church on Sunday morning, when we were away. There really is no profits to be had in comparing personal tragedies. While someone's sadness, someone's horror, may grotesquely overshadow all the rest in the ears and hearts of those who hear them, each request for prayer, in distress, bleeds with sadness.

Yet, one of those prayer requests jumps off the page and superglues itself to my psyche for next two days--and it's still there. The grandson of a woman in our church who's known enough grief already in her life is beginning "intense chemotherapy tomorrow for leukemia. He'll receive treatments two times a week for the next two months," the note says. And then this: "Please pray for Raymond that the side-effects will be tolerable and for the family as they care for him during this time."

If that request would be an essay, I would cut the last line because the specific instructions actually undercut the horror. Here's the story: two chemos a week for two months for a little boy, maybe five. Some sadness is borne from worlds so dark the very finest words are none at all. I simply can't imagine those young parents, or that grandma.

Life may yet afford me more lessons on sadness, but I think I've come to know that no hurt goes quite so deep as that of a parent watching a child, his or hers, suffer. Makes no difference if the child is five or fifty.

When my wife lost an uncle a quarter century ago, her grandma sat in the receiving line at the funeral home, and I asked her--she must have been in her eighties back then--how she was doing. "It's not easy to bury a son," she told me. I'll never forget that moment because in some ways I hadn't even thought of the two of them as mother and child and that this man who died was the third of her boys to leave before her.

Our son called last night with bad news, nothing anywhere near the proportions of twice-weekly chemo or sudden death, but bad news nonetheless. From this father's perspective, he and his girlfriend have suffered enough bad news; they didn't any more. Their sadness, 500 miles away, left my wife and me in silence for the rest of the night.

I need to tell myself again, in times like this, that the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, is also a parent, and also a father who also stood by and watched while his beloved child suffered and died. That the king of the universe knows our sorrows and sadness, that he's been there, that he's shouldered the same damned yoke--all of that is really, at times, our only comfort.

The only blessed truth worth repeating, again and again, is that He knows. And for that divine fact, this dark morning, I am deeply thankful.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Avarice, sixth of the seven deadlies

Dame Avarice has a lap full of money in the Bruegel print, but she’s reaching for more, although the chest behind her is being filled by a couple of monsters. She’s oblivious to all that, of course, but then she’s oblivious to everything around her, obsessed as she is with bucks.

Her animal sidekick is a toad because ancient moralists claimed that while toads eat dirt and thus would never run out of food, they’re afraid to anyway, lest they should—sort of like me, with cashews.

Behind Dame Avarice, a winged monster points at debts on a sheet of paper while lecturing a naked couple (some Puritan undoubtedly gave them their underwear) who have outspent their Mastercards. The moneylender—that’s his hut—catches his victims in a massive scissors, but no matter: the moneylender is himself being robbed—there’s a thief on his roof.

Over on the left hand side, a couple of shysters are attacking an onion-shaped piggy-bank. One man is getting a coin out of the slot with a long pole, another has climbed a ladder and is about to smash it.

If you hadn’t determined what’s going on yet, it’s avarice, the sixth of the seven deadlies.

When it comes to greed, I’m pretty clean. I’d pay way more than I should for a good caramel apple this time of year. If anything, I’m spendthrift. No one’s ever called me Silas Marner. Ask my wife.

Avarice, by way of the Catholic Encyclopedia, is, simply stated, “the inordinate love of riches,” and none other than Christ himself says the love of money is the root of all evil.

The doctrine of inerrancy is nothing to sneeze at, so pardon my spotten here. But I’ve always doubted “inerrancy” in the way the fundamentalists trumpet it, because on this one at least, Christ just can’t be exactly right. If the love of money is the root of ALL evil, I wouldn’t have missed the payment day on my credit cards last month and forked over more cash than I care to admit—again. Love of bucks certainly isn't the root of all evil in me. I think our savior sometimes pulled hyperbole out of a bag of rhetorical tools he carried. I’m a sinner, no doubt, but greed isn’t my stock in trade. Sometimes I could easily stand to turn it up a notch, in fact.

But then most of us out here on the edge of the prairie aren’t, if the geographers at Kansas State are accurate. What the Siouxland righteous have always known is that real sin sprouts only on the coasts, among the heathen there. Anyway, Kansas State's portrait of American sin paints the country this way, with a belt of near sinlessness smack dab down the middle, the reflection of so many blessed halos:


Measurements were taken by comparing average incomes in a locality with the total number of inhabitants therein living beneath the poverty line. I’m sure the God of heaven and earth has other criteria.

But, like I say, for Calvinists at least, it’s always kind of fun to think about sin, probably more so if it ain't yours.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bow tie horrors

I woke up alone this morning, something of a shock after almost forty years. My wife left me for her granddaughter, only a door away, in the bedroom her mother slept in for most of her childhood. Our granddaughter is in third grade, and her favorite thing in life, apparently, is weekend sleepovers with her friends, events which--according to her mother--she has far too many of.

This grandparent sleepover, however, comes not by choice but directive. Last Friday she came down with H1N1, one of more than a few in her school, and the doctor thought it best that she stay far away from her little month-old baby brother. She stayed home for a couple of days, and her baby brother came here (with Mom and big brother); and now, the contagious part of her affliction behind her, everyone simply switched places.

Just exactly why our minds flashback the way they do is beyond me, but as I crept out of the room early this morning, an ancient childhood memory played in sepia tones on the screen of my memory, something so far out of the subterranean past that I'm surprised I even remember. In 1954, for reasons totally unknown, I stayed with my grandma and grandpa, right downtown, Oostburg, Wisconsin, where Grandpa had a blacksmith shop that was, right then, turning into what we used to call a "filling station."

What I'm saying is, once upon at time way back when, I stayed at Grandma's house too, and I remember, somehow, having to go to school, just a healthy block away or so, marching off down the street from the opposite direction. And what I'll never, ever forget--who knows why?--is the almost unspeakable humiliation of having to wear a bow tie. It must have come with me, I suppose--I can't imagine Grandma would have simply grabbed one of out of Grandpa's closet or something--but she made me wear a bow tie to school, forced it on me, as if not wearing it would be unthinkable for "a scholar"--that's what she called me. That's what I remember--a bowtie is somehow fitting, I suppose, on a scholar.

Of course, Grandma was really old. She went to school before the first World War. Grandma buried a brother, her only brother, when he didn't return from the trenches of France. Grandma raised her children in the Depression. What I'm saying is that when I was a boy, Grandma was really old.

Yesterday, my granddaughter and I went to the greenhouse at the college and shot pictures of plants. She says she wants to come along with me some Saturday morning, and I thought some fun with a little digital camera would be in order--and a way of making sure she didn't get bored staying at her grandparents'. Hence, the picture at the top.

But this morning, creeping down the stairs in utter darkness, I suffered another one of those horrific senior seizures because suddenly my own grandmother, eons old, came back to me in a creepy memory more than a half-century in the dust. Try as I might, I couldn't help remembering that, even then, to me, a five-year-old, my beloved Grandma seemed absolutely ancient, a museum piece, someone beloved yet curious, and, well, embarrassing as a bow tie.

So, in complete darkness before five this morning, my granddaughter asleep in the room at the head of stairs, I'm descending steps, hands up on the wall like an old man to keep my balance, caught up somewhere half way between deadly serious bouts of giggles and tears.

Offer me a thousand dollars, and I won't do it. I won't say one blessed thing about she'll wear today when she trots off to school. You can count on that.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Morning Thanks--St. Paul Fat Tuesday

Once in awhile, just once in a while, we all have to splurge. Make it an apple dumpling or a weekend at a water park--I don't care what. Once upon a time an old man told me in deep reverence how, mid-Depression, all he got for Christmas in one of those lean years was one beautiful, blessed orange. I don't think I've eaten one since without remembering the reverence of that man's divine memory.

Once in awhile, you've got to bless yourself.

So my morning thanks this a.m., is for a gathering of writers last weekend in St. Paul, where several hundred faithful were kind enough to listen to me and others read some work and make a few comments. Hemingway used to say that writers shouldn't talk much about their work, and he wasn't wrong. But once in awhile you just have to splurge. There really ought to be, in everyone's life--even a Calvinist's--a Fat Tuesday. Maybe two. Maybe three. No more.

That's what it was, this Saturday--at St. Paul's immensely beautiful House of Hope, a storied Presbyterian church just down the block from Garrison Keillor's place on Summit Avenue, and a dozen other places where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to hang out, and Sinclair Lewis, and August Wilson, the neighborhood where Patricia Hampl has been a resident for her whole life.

Today, Monday, it's back to that other, unkind Phillistine world. But just last Saturday, on the morning of the first snow, for a couple hundred writers who love to talk craft, it was, thank the Lord, Fat Tuesday in St. Paul.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Superintendent Sterrett

I haven't seen him in 33 years. For a time in my life, he was my boss. But twice, years ago, he said things that hang in the museum of my memories, and the first was, "You're hired."

When my master's program was over, I wasn't enamored with graduate school, and I missed the high-maintenance life of a high school teacher. So I signed up for an interview with the Glendale AZ high school district when the employment office at Arizona State University notified students of their coming.

Maybe I wasn't as hungry for a job as some might have been. As I remember, at that time I could have come back to the Midwest and taken a job in a Christian high school--I already had an offer. But I'd always wanted to teach in a big city high school full of kids of all colors of the rainbow.

There was a table between us--that's all I remember of where the interview took place; but I'll never forget the first question he asked. He looked at me, nodded his head as if maybe I'd already passed the first quiz, and then said, "If you had just one sentence to define yourself, what would you say?"

I wasn't then, nor am I now, a particularly up-front Christian. No matter. I had no idea how to answer, no idea. I'm political enough--aren't we all?--to want to put the best foot forward, of course, but I had no clue what he wanted me to say, and no answer except the one I had long ago recited, the answer to the first question of the catechism I'd learned as a kid. So that's the answer I gave him, couched in something of an apology: "I guess I'd fall back on what I learned as a kid, that 'I am not my own, but belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ." That's what I told him.

He looked at me and said, "You're hired."

He was himself an evangelical Christian. There were, he told me later, other exegencies. He wanted a male, because I joined a department that had only two others, of twenty English faculty. He wanted an M. A., which I'd just completed. He wanted an experienced teacher, and I'd taught well in rural Wisconsin before starting graduate school. Everything lined up, and I won the job with the first answer of the Heidelburg Catechism.

I can tell that story now because an old colleague from my high school teaching days in Arizona just sent me a note saying that Bob Sterrett, the man who sat across the table that morning at ASU has died--without knowing how much he affected my life.

But there was also another morning, a morning which came at the end of my two years at Greenway. I was ready to move on, and when my alma mater called and asked if I would be interested in coming back to teach there--at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa--I was. We'd just had a baby, our first, and I'd always thought that if I was going to write, I had to be teaching in college.

When I went in to talk to Mr. Sterrett, the boss, he leaned back in that big chair of his and shook his head. "Why on earth would you want to go back there?" he said. "You're going to a place where you'll be just like everybody else--here, you're really different." He was as angry at that moment as he had been happy to sign me up.

What he said---and I knew it--was entirely immersed in our shared confession of faith. What he was saying was that--as a believer--I was really needed in a school like Greenway, where 60% of our students came from broken families, most of them new immigrants to the Valley of the Sun, their busted-up parents coming from hither and yon across America, many of them with heavy baggage but hoping for a brand new start. He thought going to a Christian school was akin to abandoning that very profession that had landed me here, at this job.

Time and time again through my life I've wondered what would have happened to me had I taken that prophetic warning and stayed in Arizona. Who would I have become? What would our kids be like? Would I ever have written a book? What would my life have been?

What made those words stick was the realization that tough choices are made that way because sometimes there are no easy answers. What Bob Sterrett meant was that a Christian teacher like the one he'd hired on a single answer in an interview should not retreat from the good fight to some wilderness fortification out in the middle of the prairie because the good fight was right there among his 2000 students. He honestly believed I was running away from the calling he and none other than Jesus himself had given me.

Was he right?

Yes, and no. And there lies the dilemma.

He's gone now. Like I said, I haven't spoken to him for more than thirty years, and he has no idea, perhaps, how he affected my life.

But just this week I got an unsolicited paragraph of praise on a social networking site called Linked-In, when a former Dordt student told me that she'd come to the conclusion that we simply ought to thank some people for what they've done. She was thanking me.

She's right. I never thanked Bob Sterrett. I should have. I don't know what kind of reading glasses heaven affords, but I hope that his divine self is now capable of transcending time and space and maybe even reading these words--or at least understanding. I'm writing all of this this Sunday morning, sitting in the semi-darkness of a room in the St. Paul Hotel, because I can't help thinking about this man, Bob Sterrett, who shaped--literally--my life, and the fact that, now, he's gone.

I should have thanked him.

But listen to this. That student who blessed me with unsolicited praise, ironically, was a student of mine at Dordt College, in 1976, my first year, the fall after I left Bob Sterrett's office the time he told me I shouldn't leave.

Somehow, there's a story here. I hope I'm telling it the way it should be told.

No matter. This Sunday morning I'm thankful for a man named Bob Sterrett. Maybe if heaven isn't wired, I'll run into him someday myself and let him know.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sins--Gluttony

Countless renderings of "the seven deadly sins" exist, but, if I'm not mistaken, I stumbled on them first in graduate school, in some early English literature course. (It's something of a sin that I attended a Dutch Calvinist college but had to be introduced to the seven deadlies at an unholy state U :)).

I believe they come marching along in Spencer's Fairie Queen, if I'm not mistaken, but they may also appear in Chaucer, somewhere along the road to Canterbury. They are almost ubiquitous (why not use the word when you get the chance?).

I've always found them handy, useful, really, for understanding myself as well as the world we live in; and I've never forgotten the mnenomic way I learned them way back then, for a test I suppose: P (pride), E (envy), W (wrath), S (sloth), L (lust or lechery), A (avarice or greed), and finally G (gluttony)--PEWSLAG.

Their most memorable rendering may be a series of woodcuts by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a mid-16th century Flemish artist (see above). My own Dutch roots, I suppose, prompt me to love Bruegel's bizarre imagination, because it seems to me that one characteristic of the Dutch (and some Flemish)--of the Dutch Reformed particularly--is seemingly paradoxical penchants toward both piety and earthiness, as in, "oh, shit, I forgot to pray." If you hear that kind of thing, don't be afraid to ask about TULIPs.

Bruegel's versions of the seven deadlies flash that whacky trait in spades, delightfully moralistic in a delightfully earthy way.

I'm starting from the bottom, Gluttony, the least fatal of the sins of the flesh. The fat woman in the foreground is Dame Gluttony, an ordinary Flemish house wife who's she's riding a hog with the tailend of a jackass, for allegorical reasons. You might note that the beast too is indulging him/itself in what-not from the emptying barrel. And, of course, Dame Gluttony is drinking from a pitcher because an itsy-bitsy glass just doesn't do the job.

Darling little allegories abound. To the left, a man hurls from a bridge, while being held by a drinkin' buddy who's ready to give the poor sot yet another jigger of John Barleycorn. Pitilessly, the poor soul's vomit washes over another sad sack, who drank himself into the river.

Just behind all the vomiting, a naked man and woman (she looks "with child," but extended bellies in this woodcut are themselves ubiquitous) cavort, well, sort of--in a miserably drunken way, suggesting, of course, that gluttony leads to lust and lechery.

Over to the right, the extended legs of some guy protrude from a barrel of booze into which he's fallen. Maybe the most memorable little icon is right behind him--some fat guy lugging his behomoth belly in a wheelbarrow.

It's just plain great stuff. Read 'em and weep. Venture a glance and be wise.

Not long ago, reseachers in the geography department at Kansas State University released a study that tried--vainly, I'm sure--to show where and why seven-deadly-sin-ners really flourish in the good old U. S. of A. It's all in good fun, really, and, honestly, not to be taken too seriously, at least by a Calvinist like me, who's always understood that sin is more of a condition than an brazen act, even though the brazen acts get all the headlines.

Anyway, for gluttony those geographers searched out those areas of the country that have the highest rate of fast food restaurants per capita--to wit, where can you get a mushroom cloud-sized Hardee's Angus burgers every other block? And here's what they found. Red is bad.

Like Brueghel, these telling maps are really precious too. Whether or not they make any sense is another whole question. If I hadn't read the Apostle Paul, I'd wonder whether most of the country wasn't sinless. But then most quarters come out yellow, which, if you check the scale, is nothing to write home about either.
A week ago, my wife and I ate at a German restaurant in northern Minnesota. On special that night was schweinhachs--pig legs. Never one to turn down a good hog thigh, I ordered one, then ate about a third. I'm not kidding. What I took home has kept us eating through two more entire meals. Not only that, all three times I jawed on that hunk of hog, I've come away not wanting to eat for days.
Gen. Stan McChrystal, the man in Afghanistan right now, the general who's ordered up 40,000 new troops, eats just one meal a day--any more than that, and he feels lazy, I guess. He's up at four, running in the streets of the Afghan capital.
He's not on Brueghel's woodcut, but I am.
But if national surveys aren't woefully wrong, much of the U.S. of A., is running around with schweinhachs, red state or no.
Oh well, this old Calvinist thinks, for sure, it's never a bad idea to think a bit about sin.