Morning Thanks

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

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sins--Envy

Envy, like jealousy, begins with a faulty self-assessment, or at least a self-assessment that considers oneself less blessed than some other schmoe, a schmoe with something more than we have anyway. In Brueghel’s world, most of the specific references are long gone, so we’re left with a bizarre portrait that begs more questions than answers.

Some experts claim that Dutch/Flemish society was big into footware, which may explain how it is that Brueghel’s drawing is soverflows with shoes and boots of all kinds. Might it be related to our own line about some folks being “well-heeled”? Don’t know. Nobody does, I guess. But shoes are everywhere. Bottom right is a shoe shop where a half-prone customer, getting worked over by some kind of demon, is also being fitted. Bottom left, an old woman also seems to be selling shoes, a shoe on her head. Some bloke’s bottom half protrudes from the top of some onion-shaped domicile (far right), his feet adorned individually, one of them shot through with an arrow.

Okay, confession is good for the soul: I probably have more shoes than most men my age, but my overflowing closet space results from sore feet, not some weird Amelia Marcos fashion fetish. What I’m saying is don’t look for me in Brueghel’s phantasmagoria, which doesn't mean I'm not there--at least not for shoes.

Dame Envy wears what some experts say is a hat long out-of-fashion in Brueghel’s time. She’s eating something—most scholars believe it to be her heart, as in “eat your heart out.” Just beside her, some female demon offers an apple to another woman—the apple a long perceived symbol of envy. The original hollow man glides along in a boat at the left. Obviously, his innards are long gone. Envy has likely eaten him up from the inside.

For some reason, the turkey is the animal symbol associated with envy, which makes the leftover bird I had at lunch yesterday even more special. Peacock feathers, defecating monkeys, long lines of mourners—nobody knows what on earth Brueghel had in mind with all of these images; but even if we don’t know the specifics, it’s clear that Brueghel ain’t about to advise anyone to sup with this deadly sin—the second of the sins of spirit. Only pride is greater.

Envy is the dynamo that powers capitalism, the desire for more, the urgent wish to consume. But life isn’t solely economics, Marx or no Marx; and the God of Mt. Sinai gave envy—covetousness—its own significant standing in the Top Ten.

Whenever someone else has what we don’t—a five-grand Nikon, sweet love, sheer power, abundant youth, Tony Lamas, NY Times bestsellers, Vermont-quality maple syrup, buns of steel, apple dumplings, a keg of cashews, swanky legs, six-pack pecs, a six-figure salary, a photographic memory, an aptitude for language, a batting average of .300, a Browning automatic, a Dodge Hemi, big chest, little chest, brass guts, no gut at all, some sweet home on a lake in northern Minnesota, or you call it, fill in the blank—when someone has what I don’t have, the green-eyed monster is already feasting. Oddly enough, envy's vast appetite never leads to obesity, at least not within.
I can’t imagine not having it, really. And the truth is, I don’t know people who believe they’re the “well-heeled," because I don't think anyone ever thinks they really have enough.

Those Kansas State geographers had it easy with envy. All they did was calculate the total number of thefts and determine per capita crime. Here it is—Envy 2009.

If you’ve been following these little excursions, what’s becoming clear is that living out here in fly-over country may not be as bad as those hundreds of millions of coastal dwellers believe. Check out the swath of baby blue here. Of course, we haven’t really assessed self-righteousness either. Maybe next time—pride.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

Sometimes, even for a writer,
a picture is worth a thousand words.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Morning Thanks--a hymn for Thanksgiving

It may be difficult to imagine a war as destructive as the Thirty Years War, largely fought in Germany in the early 17th century. Starvation, disease, and out-of-control armies literally destroyed the countryside, and thousands and thousands of people died, mercilessly. Here’s a snapshot from Cicely Wedgewood’s history of that brutal war.

At Calw the pastor saw a woman gnawing the raw flesh off a dead horse on which a hungry dog and some ravens were also feeding .... In Rhineland[city magistrates] watched the graveyards against marauders who sold the flesh of the newly buried for food .... Acorns, goats' skins, grass, were all cooked in Alsace; cats, dogs, and rats were sold in the market at Worms ....
Political and religious hatred (Calvinists versus Roman Catholics versus Lutherans) went to war viciously, as Austrians and Swedes and just about anyone else looking for power on the continent took turns thrashing the life out of the German people and countryside. For Christian believers, the Thirty Years War is still a wound.

To those who lived through it, the steel wheels of that horrific war must have seemed to grind on endlessly. Thousands deserted farms and homes for protection in the old walled-in cities. But, soon enough, there was no room. At Strassburg, Ms. Wedgwood says, the living shut their windows to death groans just outside. In winter, people stepped over dead bodies left lying all over the streets. Finally, when the city knew it could do no more, the magistrates threw out 35,000 refugees to the terror and death that would stalk them outside the walls.

Spring came in long days of warm rains that kept the earth moist and rich for disease that flourished in the hot summer sun that fol­lowed. Plagues swept through the streets riding the gusts of warm wind. Out­side the gates, law and order crumbled.
At the end of this Thirty Years War, Martin Rinkert was a preacher in his own hometown, Eilenberg, Saxony. In 1637, at the height of the destruc­tion, thick in the swamp of life-draining disease, the only clergyman left in the city, Rinkert held funerals for up to fifty people per day, if you can believe it. Even his wife died of disease.

But sometime during those years--amid the groaning persistence of war's evil--the Reverend Martin Rinkert sat and wrote a magnificent, stately tribute of thanksgiving to his God, the ruler of a world that was crumbling all around him.

Thanksgiving. In the middle of all that horror.

"Now thank we all our God," he wrote, his nostrils full of the stench of death.

Today, almost 400 years later, thousands—probably us too—will sing that famous, powerful hymn, wrung from the sheer horror of war’s desolation, a hymn with an unforgettable story--for which I'm thankful, this Thanksgiving morning.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I suppose those two gifts weren't perfectly silly. Both Mother and Mother-in-law got some joy out of them a couple of Christmases ago. Both of them held one in their hands and watched delightful images of their great-grandkids dance across the screen. I remember both of them holding theirs, eyes aglow. I swear.

But soon enough those little electronic scrapbooks got stuck aside like any other photo album; and now one of them, the one we gave my mother-in-law, boomeranged back here into a far corner down of the basement, among the just-plain junk that accumulates over the years. Here it sits, lying on its back, tied up with its own cord.

Maybe I can unload it on my granddaughter.

It was the hot gift for a couple of years, at least--a magic screen that lit up and shuffled your best digital pix, a must for every grandparent. We bought in, twice, and gave them away--perfect for great-grandmas who want and need nothing you or I could buy anyway. One of those gadgets is down here and dusty, chuckling at me from its obscure corner. The other never gets used.

Like Cabbage Patch dolls and those bizarre sequined toy ponies a decade ago or more. You'd think we'd learn.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Then Black Friday, as much a holiday, bigger maybe, with the economy is so far south. Black Friday buying will be a barometer of the national eschaton.

I don't know what's hot this year, but chances are we'll probably buy in.

There was a moment when those two great-grandmas held those screens in their hands and smiled sweetly. I swear it. I remember. I'm not lying.

I wonder if that thing still works.

Hear that cackling?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Uproariously scary

Thought I'd try something here. This video is a scream, literally. When you're not laughing, you're scared to death--at least I am. For someone like me, who has written some historical fiction, it shakes me to the bone because, yikes, I could be that wrong.


Anyway, it's hilarious, sort of.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Morning Thanks--a baptism

Yesterday, on the Sabbath, it was virtually impossible not to be charmed by the little guy. His baptism was put off for a time so his California grandparents could come, so he’s hardly a newborn. But there he was, adorned in a massive baptismal gown that’s been worn by five generations of his father’s family on two continents. Yesterday was a sacramental morning.

He’s no newborn anymore. Already, his cheeks are plumping like the squirrels who daily bloat themselves on the berries from two ornamental crabs just off our deck. He was not a newborn anymore, and , therefore, almost too big to be baptized. When the pastor doused him with streams of living water from the font, he really didn’t flinch. “Sure, whatever,” he seemed to say.

But he’s my grandson, and handsome—well, cute is a better word, cute as a bug’s ear, as my father used to say. And holding him, just holding him makes me feel I’m somehow rubbing up against the eternal. A baby, like things elemental—a campfire or waves on water or wind over prairie grass—is magically mesmerizing, more so when that baby is yours, maybe even more so when he’s a grandchild.

These days of his third month he’s given to smiling almost as if at will, indiscriminately you might say, his grandpa seemingly no more of a scream than a rotating ceiling fan.

But yesterday was baptism, cause for all kinds of seriousness, including this pathetically dark thought that crept, totally unrequested, into his grandpa’s mind: when the child is 20, I’ll be 80+, an ancient, wrinkled footnote. And life will go on. Who knows?—that may well be part of why, when I hold him, I can’t take my eyes off him.

I thought of my father yesterday, who’s been gone for several years—how proud he would have been, how enriched by the streams of living water, how much he’d have loved to hold this great-grandchild himself. In my father’s honor, in a way, I held my grandson in the crook of my arm, the way my father used to hold me, I’m told, and the way I remember him holding our own kids. I carted Ian around that way for awhile, the kid loving every last thing he saw.

But my father is gone, and this little boy will never know him. In fact, he may well never know me all that well either, should the Lord of heaven and earth not give me my own fourscore and ten, or whatever the ordinary allotments have grown to these days. My father is gone, and I’ll be.

But right above me, beneath the only window in my basement study, are two gizmos my dad jerry-rigged years ago already, when I needed something—twice—to use the window. Our house is a century old, so most everything belongs in a museum, and this old window swings open from hinges on the top. When it’s hot outside, I swing it open it and hold it there with a chunk of plaster lat.

But sometimes humidity makes it hard to open, so my father fashioned a homemade pull tab out of a hunk of clothes hanger, looped it into a ancient eye lag already there, and, poof!—stale basement air finds its way out.

And this too. There’s nothing to hold that window closed either, and when prairie winds blow, the dumb thing flies open, knocking over whatever’s on the shelf. My father took a look into that our dishpan full of nuts and bolts, pulled out a little aluminum something, and nailed it to casement. Flip it up, and this gizmo locks the window shut all winter long.

Both of those do-hickeys are poised together just off the shelf beneath the window above me, far less noticeable than the ceiling fan and just as deserving of a smile. I’m the only person in the world who knows that my father put them there. Someday, when finally we leave this house we’ve lived in for a quarter century, the place will be remodeled and those two gizmos won’t give some guy with a hammer pause for longer than a heartbeat before he rips ‘em out.

But for the time being they’re museum pieces.

Yesterday, before the baptism, I got an e-mail note from an old friend from Arizona. He found a quote from sage Pericles, something for a t-shirt, he told me. Goes like this: "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.

Woven, like those two gizmos here up on my window sill.

And more too. Lots more.

Woven like a baptismal gown a century old.

Morning thanks this a.m., is a slam dunk. This morning I’m thankful for yesterday and streams of living water.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Morning Thanks

Just before class yesterday, a old colleague stopped by, even more a classroom veteran than I am, and said he'd just finished teaching Hamlet. He looked beat. He said he just didn't know whether it was worth it anymore, his students having so much trouble with the language.

If you were raised on the King James, it's said, you have a leg up when it comes to the bard. Don't know if that's true, but it sounds right. These days there's texting, of course; Shakespeare's no picnic when your longest sentences are a couple of dozen clicks.

Sometimes a teacher, an English teacher anyway, feels these days as if he or she is speaking another language altogether, Elizabethan or Mandorin. When Twitter is a way of life, even "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber" can seem like forever. My colleague was beat like Willy Loman. He'd suffered the heartbreaking notion that even though he'd given himself away for an entire class period, he hadn't rung up a sale.

Someday I'll walk out of the classroom for the last time and retire forever that salesman in me. I used to love it--"get in there and sell them the vivid felt-life of story or poem or play." I'd go into the gridiron classroom like an all-conference linebacker, pumped for the fray.

No more. When I see a class with their eyes half-opened or, as if in chorus, downcast, I want to run because I know very well what sadness was written on my colleague's face yesterday; I've come back from class a victim of the same battle fatigue. Hamlet's done. The prince is dead--long live the prince. Such an incredible thing, that play--and they really don't give a hang, those kids.

Teaching puts food on the table and money in the pocket, and thereby preps me for the day, four years from now, when I'll sweep the books off the shelf and walk away.

But I don't teach for the money, really; I do it for the eyes. I do it because sometimes I see kids who love to tango with ideas, who come to class because they really do believe that what happens therein will matter. If I didn't see hungry eyes behind those desks,, I'd checking want ads yet this afternoon. I've got no desire to be or even play Willy Loman.

Anyway, all of that was right before class, and then I went off to my own.

So this morning--after finishing up Walden yesterday, no mean task--I'm thankful for what I saw there in my students yesterday afternoon, and for what I didn't. Right there in the landscape of their eyes I witnessed something abundant: life.

It won't always be that way, and isn't. But yesterday, after the death of Hamlet, it was. And for that, this morning, believe me, I'm thankful.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Skin deep

There are those who’d say—and they wouldn’t be wrong—that if Obama wasn’t black (or whatever he is, having a white mom), he wouldn’t be President. That reasoning neglects the sheer power of his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, a speech that was shockingly good. Of course, that speech’s power was driven, in part, by the fact that it was being delivered by a black man, a black man much of white America found compelling, a black man even white folks could love.

Obama came on the stage out of nowhere. He climbed into national fame without breaking a sweat. What McCain argued about him wasn’t a rhetoric—Obama was almost impossibly wet behind those huge ears and was, therefore, an unlikely candidate for President.

Much of America loved him—Chris Matthews spoke for millions when he talked about that wild chill up his leg when Obama delivered a speech.

But many hated him and still do. Whether the reason is race or not, millions can’t tolerate hearing him speak, almost as many as adore his every word.

Sarah Palin’s fine legs are rather prominently displayed on a recent cover of Newsweek, and all kinds of people—liberals and conservatives—are upset. Newsweek defends their choice to use an old photograph of Alaska’s one-time gov, something she posed for a Runners’ World-type magazine. They claim that the nation faces a significant question about Sarah Palin: is she or is she not a serious candidate for President.

Sarah’s supporters howl. But then, some may remember that cover photo of Obama’s pecs as he waded through some frothy surf in Hawaii.

Both Palin and Obama have been gifted by their looks; cameras love ‘em, both of ‘em. Obama wouldn’t be where he is if he looked like Tip O’Neill, and millions wouldn’t be chasing Sarah Palin if she had a mug like Golda Meir.

As a nation, we’re almost hopelessly divided these days, although maybe it’s no worse than it ever was. In 1980, I remember the halls of the University I attended falling into morgue-like silence—after all, the worst thing possible had happened: Ronald Reagan had been elected. Fifteen years later, even though the national budget was balanced, we almost had an impeachment because of stained blue dress.

When McCain picked Palin, Democrats hooted because he’d nullified his most pointed argument about his opponent—Obama’s lack of game experience. After all, who knew Palin? After an overpowering convention speech, not unlike another, she blew into national politics like Superman, or Superwoman, and things haven’t been the same since.

Me? I think the Newsweek cover is sexist; but that doesn’t mean the picture doesn’t go to the heart of at least a goodly portion of her attractiveness. Sarah Palin fills a screen very, very nicely. She is a fine physical specimen. But John Meacham isn’t wrong—the question millions and millions of skeptical Americans is asking is whether she’s more than that.

They both show very well. Millions and millions, on both sides and with regard to both Obama and Palin, have already decidedly made up their minds on our two media darlings.

What’s sad—or so it seems to me—is that so many of us, on both sides, are in grave danger of becoming media dupes. Maybe, in this 24/7 media age, we're the ones in danger, perhaps, of being skin deep.

Me too.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Proverbial stuff

So you've got to keep yourself hip deep in projects--or at least I do. I mean, I'm a teacher; that's my day job. But I like to keep thinking ahead of the next major undertaking, so that when what's set out before me, writing-wise, is finally getting a wrap, I'm not going to be out of a job.

I've been reading Proverbs with my early morning writing class this year--a last minute choice, really--and have half-fallen in love with the book, thinking that, if I had more time, it would be good for me to take on some of the little gems that sparkle though the pages. Like this, from chapter four: Solomon says to avoid the wicked (surprise, surprise) for "they cannot sleep till they do evil; they are robbed of slumber till they make someone fall." Really? Is sin is a kind of compulsion? For the sinner in me too? Maybe so. Let me think about that awhile.

That kind of thing.

Now, years ago--almost 20, I think--I wrote a book of meditations on Proverbs, a little devotional for budding adolescents somewhere around the 8th grade level. I remember the title, catchy--Take it from a Wise Guy. I didn't write the title--that I remember too.

So I'm thinking maybe it's time for me to work on another little book of meditations. They're good for the soul, certainly better therapy than writing novels, a job I'd actually prefer, but a job that inevitably drags me through muck.

Proverbs, I'm thinking. Interesting. Maybe I ought to check out that old book of mine.

I can't find it. Anywhere. Not even in the cache of books I keep upstairs for my son. Not in my shelves, not in his. Nowhere. I don't have a single copy of a book I wrote myself.

Thank goodness for Amazon. I go on-line and find a couple, order the cheapest one, used. It costs me a couple of pennies maybe, and $4 for postage, and the note says it's a library copy, which means it got tossed from the shelves when it didn't get read. Sad. But, hey, at least I can still get one.

It arrived yesterday, a library copy all right that got yanked so efficiently that (surprise, surprise) it somehow meandered back, serendipitously, into the very hands of the guy that wrote it.

A church library. I'm not kidding, and I'm certainly not mad; good folks, after all, have to clean house, librarians included. Oddly enough, the church that tossed the book just happens to be one of my favorites, out in the middle of South Dakota, a place I've been often, in heart of Great Plains country I love.

Honestly, I'm not mad. I'm laughing. I swear, I'm laughing when I see the stamp of that little church out on the plains, a place where I've got good friends. I'm giggling because some fastidious librarian, doing her best, could never ever have guessed or even imagined that a little book of meditations for kids, a book that didn't get read, if tossed, dutifully, could ever possibly end up back in the hands of the guy who wrote it, stamped as it is with the tell-tail permanence of her library's own imprimatur.

I'm not the first to say it, but if the Lord almighty doesn't have a sense of humor, then, as Shakespeare says, I've never once written a word.

Take it from a wise guy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Big Brother

I'm told that there are places Google Earth can't reach, or won't. I find that comforting. I live in fly-over country, in one of those countless patches of iddy-bitty dwellings a few dozen travelers spot when they glance out of the windows of a jet on a clear day over the Plains. The only tourists here are relatives, and I've got to drive at least an hour to get a decent bagel. But I'm not complaining.

Take this guy. Chances are he scouted the area, chose his location meticulously. Good night, he's even adjacent to a dumpster. He probably knows very well that if he pees in the public square the way he is, he could be written up for some kind of salacious marketing; and all he wants to do--shoot, all he needs to do--is empty his clattering bladder. Look for yourself--he's trying to be circumspect, and what happens is he gets his mug all over the internet because Google caught him zipping--well, unzipping. It ain't fair.

Besides, what's a man to do? I was in the trees, along the river, Saturday morning, watching the dawn, when the urge came up like a migraine. Twenty years ago, out with an old friend, he excused himself, then reached for some kind of Tupperware gadget he had along in his briefcase and tinkled noisily right there in my car. I'm not kidding. He was in a wheelchair and thusly excused, but that was the first time I noted an unbecoming problem associated with aging. My father had it, and does just about every old geezer I know. Bladders get precarious and tip altogether too easily.

There's nothing criminal about what he's doing, really. And the fact is, I was at least fifteen minutes from the nearest convenience mart. It wasn't that early--7:30, I suppose--but not for a moment did I entertain the notion of knocking on some farmer's door and asking to use the porcelain.

Out in the woods, a man is a boy at heart. If Thoreau didn't write that, he should have. Besides, he did joke about watering all the berries around Walden Pond, a line I've always read as shadowy confession. If he built an outhouse out there, he never said a word, and I know Kohler wasn't making toilets for another several decades.

Anyway, confession is good for the soul, and my excuse for running this great picture is that I can't help but feel sorry for the shlep. Good night, he gets blindsided by his bladder's faulty siren and there's nothing he can do but find a corner.

And then there's Google Earth. That's exactly the horror Orwell had in mind in 1984. That's dystopia all right, the evil eye of Big Brother.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Morning Thanks--the leaf on a cottonwood

Like a deer hunter, I leave home in the darkness and try to get to just the right spot as the eastern sky awakens and slips on its colorful robe. Maybe it's the shadowy burden of my Calvinism, but it seems to me that, amid life's abundant sadnesses, I need to look for beauty, not just easy-chair it and hope some radiance comes along and fills my lap. So I hunt for what I can find; and, if I'm lucky, sometime I take bits of it home in digital bites that never seem quite so charming on screen as they were out there in the wild.

What continues to mystify me is why some shots are "better" than others, how it is that a certain arrangement of the materials of the composition--that cottonwood off to the left, for instance, not in the center--can be somehow "better," somehow more pleasing. There must be a science to composition, but after a half dozen years of early Saturday mornings, I'm still in the dark about that.

Best of show last Saturday, methinks, goes to a single leaf against a river made golden by the dawn. There's a story here--look for yourself. It's about a man or woman who simply refuses to leave, even though everyone he knows is long gone. It's about a kid who hears a different drummer, a student who falls in love with Emerson--"He who would be a man would be a nonconformist."

Or it's an old man alone, his wife already gone and in the ground; it won't take much more than the next strong wind to bring him down too.

Maybe it's about sheer stubbornness; the rest of the world's opinion already departed, this blockhead leaf just won't throw in the towel.

That leaf could be a bullhead or a small catfish just now pulled from the river. My childhood is there in the silhouette.

And the shot wouldn't be what it is if the river was sheer mud. Instead, it's golden and suggestive to me, at least, of something heavenly. This leaf, holding on heroically, is about to be taken to streets paved with gold. My mother would like that.

Maybe I should have to work harder at meaning. Maybe interpretation simply comes too easily becaue the shot is way too artful, too sentimental, almost pushy. Maybe some real artist would roll his eyes and call it calendar art or something.

Probably would.

No matter. I can't confer masterpiece status any way; only Father Time can do that work. The best I can do is look at this one, the pick of the litter, and say that, something there is in this shot that holds my attention and suggests a bigger story. It's a picture of the very last leaf on some old river cottonwood, but then somehow magically, it's that and more.

There's always room for us in art, always room for what we think, what we see, what we feel. Art is full of gaps that pull us in--me and you, in often wholly different ways.

Sort of goofy. Sort of mysterious. But worth getting up for, early Saturday mornings.

This morning I'm thankful for art's playful seriousness. No matter if it's not worth a dime to Wall Street, something about art not only keeps us human but even suggests the divine in the very last leaf on a branch in mid-November--and the divine in us, cast as we are in God's very own image.

I'll try again next week.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Saturday Morning Catch

Warm for November, but already the world is russet and tawny, otherwise largely colorless. This morning the sun whispered its way into the eastern sky, then left again behind a mask, just as surreptitiously. Dawn didn't make a bridegroom's entrance, but I couldn't have been at a better spot, sitting along a very quiet Big Sioux. It's that time of year when the sun comes up directly over the big bend--I'll probably be right there again, often, in the next few months.

There's something about water, something about a river early morning.

On my way home, I stopped at the childhood home of Iowa writer Ruth Suckow, where a company cats was clustering, as if Ruth's father, the preacher, was about to deliver a thoughtful morning's meditation.

No trophies today, but a favorable helping of sweet peace.

I'm reading Walden again. Thoreau would have found it very nice. Wish he could have come with. "I've traveled a long ways in Sioux County," he might have said, a wry smile across that long face.

November morning on the Big Sioux River

Friday, November 13, 2009

Morning Thanks--Grapefruit

Just one of the bizarre attributes of Poe's short fiction is the grotesquely upholstered rooms in which his characters have their being --think "Fall of the House of Usher" or "The Cask of Amantillado." Poe's stories take place in rooms that feel very much like coffins, not that I've been in all that many. But then, well, that's Poe, who wanted us all in his ghoulish nightmares.

All stories create rooms, metaphorically at least, open spaces in which, oddly enough, we now and then stumble on ourselves--and not necessarily because we've been there either, but because something of us is already there.

Take as odd a yearn-spinner as Jack London, in a brutal tale like "To Build a Fire." I've never been that cold or that close to death, never been anywhere near the frigid wilderness that is the "room" that story creates when my eyes run over the page. But when he takes me there, somehow, oddly enough, I'm not a stranger. Some undeniably human part of me knows its way around.

Some say our love for stories--we're hard-wired with it, methinks--derives from little more than a hungry ear for gossip. Maybe so. Who doesn't want to know at least something of the latest?

But then gossip is penny-ante sin. If there's going to be some iniquity in our passion for stories, let's hike it up the register to pride, the first of the seven deadlies; because it seems to me that one of the great human joys of an accepting story is finding ourselves in a high-minded New England town, adorned with a scarlet letter. Lo and behold, we're there. Thank goodness. Maybe there's something sort of arrogant about that, finally, somewhat egocentric.

The joy of my night last night was "Yurt," by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, in the 2009 Best American Short Stories. I've never been a young, female, and treasuringly naive grade school teacher, but that wonderful story of miscreant passions creates an oddly familiar place where, somehow, I live. I don't think it a sin, either, because finding myself in a story--I don't care what flavor--still feels to this old fart like bona fide growth.

And then there's this slight poem slipped into my in-box this morning from Garrison Keillor's friends:


by Ted McMahon
My grandfather got up early to section grapefruit.
I know because I got up quietly to watch.
He was tall. His hairless shins stuck out
below his bathrobe, down to leather slippers.
The house was quiet, sun just up, ticking of
the grandfather clock tall in the corner.

[Neither of my grandfathers ever cut me a grapefruit, and the house where I grew up didn't have a grandfather clock, but I'm here somehow, in the kitchen in the morning.]

The grapefruit were always sectioned just so,
nestled in clear nubbled bowls used
for nothing else, with half a maraschino
centered bleeding slowly into
soft pale triangles of fruit.

[I've seen such grapefruit in restaurants, but I've never had one. I don't even care for marashino cherries, although my granddaughter loves them on her ice cream, so we have got a jar full in the fridge. That cherry bleeding into the fruit--that's nice, isn't it?]

It was special grapefruit, Indian River,
not to be had back home.
Doves cooed outside and the last night-breeze
rustled the palms against the eaves.
He turned to see me, pale light flashing
off his glasses
and smiled

[Just a smile, nothing more. I hope I'm that grandpa. Maybe my wife and I ought to have a sleepover, take some pressure off our daughter. Oops--there's no end punctuation]

I remember as I work my knife along the
membrane separating sections.

[It's a memoir, of course. I should have known.]

It's dawn. The doves and palms are far away.
I don't use cherries anymore.
The clock is digital
and no one is watching.

There's just a nip of bitter herbs here to avoid sheer sentimentality, but I don't know that "no one is watching" is meant to be a downer. Who cares, really? What sustains this guy is the sheer joy of memory, a yesterday conjured by sectioning grapefruit, at dawn, alone--but really not so. There's still a grandpa there. I like that.

What I'm saying is, I'm in the room. Been there, done that.

Somehow I'm in the room. Somehow I find myself right there. He's wrong--someone is watching: me.

This morning, peanut butter probably, and honey, on toast. I've already had my grapefuit.

"Grapefruit" by Ted McMahon, from The Uses of Imperfection. (c) Cat ‘n' Dog Production, 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I suppose "9/11" has already edged out "11/11" as a really memorable icon in our national numerology, but my guess is that I'm forever imprinted with the latter too, so, in me at least, the two will forever co-exist. And one reason I remember 11/11 is what happened at exactly 11:00 a.m., on 11/11, when I was in high school.

That was less than twenty years after the end of the Second World War, and just about everyone's dad had served somewhere back then, including my own father--four years in the South Pacific.

On 11/11 we'd file into the gym and take a seat in the bleachers. We were purposefully hushed because we knew what was coming: there'd been a similar exercise for years--how long, I didn't know. A uniformed color guard would march in--several of our fathers, shoulders rifled, uniforms pressed, black boots spit-shined. One of them would have the flag. We'd stand, hand over hearts.

Nobody messed around. Nobody yakked or whispered or beat on the kid in front of them. The men in uniform were our fathers or grandfathers, on their faces they wore a sturdy seriousness we'd otherwise never see. This moment, for them, was the closest they could come to reliving--in a public way--what they'd gone through chasing the Huns across Europe or freeing a hundred Pacific islands.

Some preacher would say a few words, and even though I don't remember any particular oration, I could write the speech they always gave--it was about spirit, the American spirit, about freedom and its immensely high cost, all of that and God's good favor.

Then that color guard would march--literally--right out of the gym, come to an immediate halt just outside the front doors, and offer a salute with those rifles, ear-shattering gun shots exploding around that tile-floored gym. What I'll always remember, I guess, is the rifles, the firing.

I used to wonder why my father never marched with those Legionaires, even on Memorial Day. I wonder why he never said much about the war. It wasn't because he'd seen things he didn't want to remember. His greatest horrors were being away from his family. He'd been aboard a little tugboat whose only job was to pester battleships in and out of south seas harbors. I don't think he ever saw a Jap. Maybe he didn't participate because he thought all that honorary marching belonged to those who'd actually slung a rifle through the carnage of Anzio, Guadalcanal, or the Battle of the Bulge. Maybe as a signalman on a cute little tug, he didn't think he was much of a soldier at all.

I missed Vietnam with a heart malady. I have no brothers, so one in my family spent a day in a southeast Asian jungle. But five of my uncles and aunts were overseas during World War II, and two others, chemists, were part of the Manhattan Project. My family, like almost every other, has a war history.

But perhaps the reason I'll never forget "11/11" is a great uncle, Edgar Hartman, who died just three months before 11/11, in a trench in France, when a grenade took him. He was Grandma's brother, her only sibling, and she never forgot. As far as I know, for generations, he's the only family member who paid the great price of supreme sacrifice, in Holland or America.

It was always 11:00, in fact, when that color guard would march into the high school gym--11:00 a.m., on the nose, the moment of armistice. No one on those bleachers wasn't paying attention either, the gravity on those men's faces something other than anything we ever saw, ever noted. This, we knew, was serious stuff.

And it was. And it is. And this morning, a day late, my morning thanks is for sacrifice, my Uncle Edgar's too, so much of it, and the freedom I have this and every morning, my fingers curled over these keys.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What hath God wrought?

A friend of mine remembers the moment rural electrification lit up his family's farmhome. He says it was amazing, and it must have been. In the house where he grew up, one moment there was darkness, and then, in a flash, the darkness was gone. Let there be light, and there was.

Not all of the immense changes we experience are so dramatic or instantaneous. Take this machine in front of me right now. The computer has altered our lives in ways that we’re only beginning to understand—in ways that will require tons more study to, well, compute.

When I first started teaching, I went to the coffee shop twice a day, along with a gaggle of other profs. That habit or practice ended years ago already, but if I try to determine a date and time, it’s somewhere close to the time all of us got office computers, which was only shortly before we started e-mailing. The average office worker, researchers say, reads 200 e-mail messages a day. E-mail messaging—just one function of this machine in front of me—has changed my life.

What’s most interesting is to watch the chatter about the effects “what hath God wrought” by way of what everyone calls “the information age.”

Ben Macintyre, in the Times of London, says people today are in “Continual Partial Attention.” “The information we consume online comes ever faster, punchier and more fleetingly,” he says. “Our attention rests only briefly on the internet page before moving incontinently on to the next electronic canapĂ©.” He claims we are “too bombarded by snippets and gobbets of information to focus on anything for very long. Microsoft researchers have found that someone distracted by an e-mail message alert takes an average of 24 minutes to return to the same level of concentration.

Macintyre calls us all “magpie readers,” picking and choosing momentarily “before hopping on to the next shiny thing.” Memorable image.

According to Joel Achenbach, in a recent Washington Post article, the Japanese have created “mobile phone novels,” actual novel-length stories that can be read, one screen at a time, on your cell.

“There are two ways to look at this situation,” Achenback says. “One is to make the electronic gadget the star of a heroic tale called The Changing Media. New gadgets can do anything! They can not only put you in touch with friends, they can store your photo album, tell you your longitude and latitude, and write fabulous novels.”

Sweet new technology has ushered us gloriously into a new Golden Age.

But there’s another angle, he says, another whole way of seeing things. “The story, not the gadget, is what's irrepressible. So powerful is the story as a way of communicating that it will even sprout in a cellphone.”

Now that, for a sometime fiction writer, is deeply reassuring. Our need for story is something seemingly hot-wired into us, but as visual media has stormed into the forefront of our culture, print stories have—without a doubt—fallen on hard times.

Achenback claims nobody knows what media will eventually die off in the brave new world. “Is it print? Or just long stories? Or just bad, boring, dishwater-dull stories?”

And then he throws our present Facebook fascination into the mix: “Facebook is another big challenge for narrative. It's hard to sustain a story on a page designed to put you in contact with your 1,374 close personal friends. Writing on someone's "wall" is often just a step up from spray-painting a railroad overpass.”

Will stories survive? Don’t know. Nobody does.

And then there’s this.

Ben Yagoda, in the NY Times Book Review, isn’t particularly taken with the Jeremiad John Freeman creates in his new book The Tyranny of E-mail, and maybe for good reason. He ends the review by noting that, in his opinion, the short sentence style of most electronic communication has done much to clean up bad sentences, including those of Freeman himself.

“E-mail in particular and online writing in general have their well-known flaws and limitations, but they have also served as cleansing agents for prose, much as journalistic writing did early in the 20th century,” of so says Yagoda, who then adds, somewhat keyboard-in-cheek, “That is, while they may disinhibit inappropriate declarations, they also inhibit dull, abstract wordiness.”

"Early in his book, Freeman writes, “No one can predict the future of a technology, and this book is certainly not going to try, but it is essential, especially when that technology has become as prevalent and pervasive as e-mail, to examine its effects and assumptions and make an attempt to understand it in a broader context.

"Maybe the best thing I can say about ­e-mail is that I can’t imagine anyone using it to compose such a sentence.”


What’s clear is that nobody knows where this machine is taking me or you or anyone else. What’s clear is that it will and does light up our life in ways we never thought—or even think—imaginable. Right here, in the loneliness of my basement, my fingers pound out electronic blips and goinks that change history.

And you want to know what else? I’m using a blog. Not only that, I’m condensing longer material, right?—three articles scoured and shrunk for quick consumption.
I am, it seems, both blessing and curse.

Something comforting anyway: at 61 years of age, I’m still very much an agent of change.

Got to run. Somebody’s on the phone.

MacIntyre’s fine article you can find at ;
Achenbach’s interesting dissection of narrative in the media age is at ;
and Yagoda’s review of Freeman’s book is at

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Morning Thanks--Waldo

Today, Emerson. Today, "Self-Reliance," for just about the fortieth time.

No matter. Still thrills my soul--or Oversoul, or whatever weird spiritual essence the dreamer Emerson had in his sights. I admit I'm powerless in the man's charms, even though I've been over and over and over that silly essay. I know it's crazy, just so much dreamy madness, the rantings of a parlor prophet who watched the heavens so fervently his feet only rarely touched the ground. I know it. But no matter.

Transcendentalism was among the goofiest excuses for a religion America ever birthed. Ian Frazier calls the Ghost Dance, a cultic phenomemon in Native America in the late 19th century "America's first religion," and skips thereby New England's hybrid Transcendentalism. But then, there were Europeans similarly convicted; the roots of Emerson's dreaming lay as much in Europe and the Far East as his own native soil. Even though it grew here, I suppose it wasn't born here.

In whatever soil it took root, Transcendentalism was a hazy hybrid that curled up and died in 1860, once this nation went to war. When blood flowed as deeply as did then, reality brought transcendentalism down like fire did the Hindenberg, and Emerson and his band of New Age groupies became little more than a chapter in a history book.

No matter. I love him, always have. "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." Those were marching orders way back when, during the late 60s, I first read Waldo. And they still thrill me, even though when I look back it's hard to conceive of a life's path that has been more conventionally institutional than my own. Mark me among those most rarest of evangelicals--I never left the church into which I was born.

No matter. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Still thrills me, even though, after years and years and years, I still call myself a Calvinist.

No matter. "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." Still thrills me, even though I've been on boards and committees more often that I care to count, even chaired 'em. I've been a conspirator myself, for heaven's sake.

No matter. "I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim." Still thrills me, even though I came to place where I teach close to two generations ago and, like a barnacle, never left.

No matter. "Nothing is at last sacred by the integrity of your own mind." Still thrills me, even it's as heretical as it is poppycock.

No matter. "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." Still thrills me, even though, methodically and even consciously, I just about always do the opposite.

Today, in class we have Ralph Waldo Emerson--flaming heretic, peddler of grandiose illusions, pie-in-the-sky romantic, dizzy dreamer, buzz-bomb idealist, founder of the uniquely American school of positive thinking, half-whacko, three-fifths genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.

Today, Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay, "Self-Reliance." Forty times over, I'm still thrilled.

Today I'm thankful for a heretic, a lovely dreamer named Waldo. I'm no disciple, but he still gives me goose bumps.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Good Sam

She startled me, or rather her presence did. With haze in the air, my windshield glazed with frost, and the morning dark, she seemed to appear out of nowhere, sitting on the curb on the edge of the campus, a sweater or sweatshirt roughly thrown over her shoulders, a cigarette in one hand, a cellphone up to her ear in the other, her legs splayed uncaringly in front of her. It was very early, and she wasn't dressed for the cold.

On first glance, she seemed distressed. But when I drove up and turned down the road just in front of the corner where she sat, my headlights splashing over her, she never looked up, seemed not to care. She was not looking for help, or so I thought; so I drove into the campus, parked the car, and never looked back. Maybe I was wrong about the distress.

Somehow, the image she cast made me think of my life as a teacher because sometimes I feel very much like those two bureaucrats in the parable, the two who just walked on by the beat-up chump in the ditch. But then I tell myself that more than occasionally there's a very thin line between a Good Samaritan and just another enabler.

Should I have walked over to see how she was? I don't know. Should I have asked her for a cigarette and sat there with her? Maybe. Should I simply let her work out her own problems and wait for her to come to me, rather than going over like some do-gooder fixit man?

What seems a thousand years ago, I went through an immense character change during the years I was in college, pretty much on my own. Every year I've taught here, all around me, hundreds of kids stumble through similar crises, sometimes joyous, sometimes not--most often, in fact, heavily bittersweet, and almost always trying. Do kids do such things best on their own, or do they need someone to hold their hands. And if so, who? And what's the distinguishable difference between butting in and helping out?

I read the emotional content of that image in a flash of headlights. But she didn't look up when I drove past, and when I parked not more than 50 yards up the street, she made no move to come get me.

So I chose not to walk over, but that doesn't mean she's left that place in my mind.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sins--Wrath

We're moving from the bottom up. First, the sins of the flesh: gluttony, avarice or greed, lust or lechery, and sloth or laziness. Bad?--sure. But none of them have the pedigree of the three that remain: wrath, envy, and pride, the sins of the spirit.

Whatever ancient divine designed the seven deadlies didn't mean to imply, I'm sure, that an adulterous male becomes nothing more than the viagra-ed saturated organ of his mischief, although Bruegel or Heronymous Bosch would have loved the image, I'm sure. The sins of the flesh still connect with the soul.

But, traditionally at least, we've now arrived at the Big Three, the Sins of the Spirit, the first of which (actually third) is wrath.

The military plays big-time in Bruegel's depiction of Wrath, a landscape full of soldiers. The central figure is a male here for the first time, adorned with a helmet that's already taken an arrow, strangely enough. The animal symbol, understadably, is a bear. A phlanx of soldiers emerge from some odd dwelling, several of them toting a gigantic kitchen knife they use to slice up naked people before them. In a horror-filled smoke house behind them, another soldier has a victim on a spit and is pouring hot something into his mid-section.

An immense man of war straddles a barrel in which some jackel has a knife to another guy's throat. At bottom right, something half-human, half-lizard unsheaths a sword to do battle against whatever monsters emerge from behind a mobile fortification.

Wrath unleashes violence and death, or so the message seems, although I'd love to be able to read Bruegel better.

No one seems to know as yet what prompted Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan to kill his fellow soldiers yesterday at Ft. Hood, but there can be no doubt that wrath was at the heart of things, an blinding emotion so terrible that hate eclipses love and leaves us seething. Today, 13 are dead, hundreds are mourning, because one madman's wrath hammered every bit of goodness from him.

I wasn't a young man anymore when this happened, and I was getting too old for fast pitch softball anyway, methinks. I swung at a pitch that glanced off the end of the bat and sent a squiggler down the line towards first, madly spinning in the infield dirt. You didn't have to be an all-star to make the play.

The first basemen picked it up and waited for me on the baseline. I played enough baseball to know there was going to be a head-on between two adult bulls, so I lowered my head. I'm not to be taken lightly, but this lanky first basement took the best shot and decked me. I went down like a dead man. He left me squirming in the dirt like an upturned beetle, and I was mortified--worse, shamed. I came up with my fists.

Fortunately, I was old enough to recognize what I'd become--I was stupid, just plain nuts. What coursed through me was a charge of wrath so lethal that it nearly bore a monster, something right out of Bruegel. I didn't fight the guy, but when I look at Bruegel, I see myself.

They're in all of us, these seven deadlies. Or maybe just in me. That's why they're so compelling. Sins-R-Us.

The Kansas State geographers used FBI statistics on violent crime--murder, assault, rape--per capita to chart out where people lose themselves most frequently to blind rage. Wrath festers and breaks in the red zones, above.

Once again, folks in the cornbelt come off as pretty darn even-keeled. The only place meeker than Iowa is North Dakota, where never is heard a discouraging word. You don't have to go south to find wrath, of course, but if the geographers are right, you certainly don't have to look far once you're there.

I think of Plato: There are two things a person should never be angry at--what they can help, and what they can't.

Or First Corinthians 13.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Morning Thanks--Life

Ademir Jorge Goncalves, 59, a Brazilian bricklayer, stayed out past his due at some truck stop, imbibing a bit too much of the local hooch--this according to a news story I just read. When a fiery crash occurred in the neighborhood, his family, noting his absence, determined that the mangled corpse was poor Ademir. So, in the custom of the local populace, they held the funeral the next day.

When the bleary-eyed Goncalves finally stumbled home, he was brought to his senses quickly when he discovered that he was, just then, being buried. He rushed out to the cemetery, where, according to a police spokesman, the impossible happened: "Before long, the walking dead appeared at the funeral. It was a relief." Best looking zombie anyone in Santa Antonio da Plantina had seen quite some time, I bet.

The dead invariably come back to life in Poe, but it seems such transformation always means madness. Not so Ademir. Maybe I've been reading too much of E. A. Poe lately, but this fine Brazilian story feels almost like an antidote.

An old friend tells me stories of his life, not all of which are sweet--some are sour, in fact, and worse, rancid. Yesterday, at a visitation, we walk past the casket of a woman who'd almost beaten cancer, then was taken, almost in an instant, by a blood clot. Her husband, a good, good man, is alone.

I read an obituary in yesterday's paper. An old woman who never married and once lived for a time across the hall from my in-laws at a local retirement home, finally passed away. I knew her only by name. The last line of that obit is simply chilling: "Survivors include distant relatives, such as cousins, some in the Netherlands." She was, it seems, unthinkably alone.

Yesterday, one of my students' lost a little sister, just as did her friend, another of my students, just two years ago.

Not often in life do people like Ademir show up at their own funerals, but sometimes I am simply amazed at the blessed way we're cobbled together, because somehow, it seems, God helping us, people can be horribly broken and still wake to see the dawn. We can survive so much. And we do.

Sometimes I think it's a miracle the way people I know can come back from the dead. That's the blessing for which I am thankful this morning.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Highland, 2009

In the dozen or so years I've taken kids out there, lots of students--even some from here--have told me how much they loved a short trip to Highland, the ghost town, where, at their prof's request, they do nothing more than look at the broad and seemingly empty world we live in here on the emerald edge of the Great Plains.

For me, at least, Highland is a highlight of the whole semester. I bring them out, show them the old graveyard, and then set them loose with notebooks to describe what they see when they look west, miles and miles into an endless horizon, a 180-degree invisible seam of earth and sky. Just look, I tell them. Just stop what you're doing and look. And write. Show me.

This year, I waited for three weeks because a soggy fall meant every last class brought overcast and rain.

So I kept putting off the trip, until yesterday. said rain at 11, but at seven, when it was time to decide, the sky wore only a glaze of clouds. By eight, when we left, it was thinly overcast. By 9:20, when I left with the second class, we were met by what weather folks call these days, "a wintry mix."

Wasn't pretty. It was cold and cloudy and even rainy out there at the ghost town. Windy too. Not nice. I'll admit it--quilted harvest landscape or not, it wasn't a morning to stand out on the prairie and drink in the endless beauty. Yesterday, when we got back in the van, no one left speechless--just shivvering in the pesky, wet cold.

I prefer Mother Nature domesticated; I'd just as soon she'd humbly serve me. I like a prairie landscape conveniently lit by a smiling sun over all that open land kind, the whole place sweet with the music of meadowlarks, warm to the skin, and manure-less.

I like nature on my terms. Yesterday, she'd have none of that.

In the first class, two young women went down the road when the others headed into the cemetery. They hiked off by themselves and sat on the edge of the ditch, far from the madding crowd. When I walked to down to visit, one of them was writing, while the other lay back in the grass. I made no commands. College students are like adult children; you don't generally order them around. Besides, both of them are good kids.

Anyway, I thought my trip to Highland this year was pretty much of an unqualified failure.

And then I got an e-mail from one of those two who'd left the pack, an note she sent to tell me her little sister had been taken to emergency back home in Illinois, that the prognosis wasn't good, and that she would likely go home, asap. She was one of the two who avoided the cemetery, the first stop on the sweet prairie tour. She was the one who wasn't writing, the one lying back in the cold grass of the ditch.

And then I remembered that two years ago now, the girl with whom she'd found company, the two of them all alone down the road--I remembered that student, the one beside her in the ditch, had back then lost her own little sister.

My own plans for a sweet trip to the edge of the plains didn't work out. Nature did everything but throw us a blizzard. But maybe, out there in all that openness, there was yet another reason for me to take the whole bunch out there, a cause I had nothing to do with, a mission only the God of heaven and earth could have designed.

Maybe it was good for the two of them to be there, alone, along a country road. Maybe for them it was warm in the cold.

I don't know about Mother Nature, but sometimes I think it isn't half-bad being used.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


Her hair was thin, streaked with a bothersome auburn rather amateurishly rinsed in. She wore more makeup, I thought, than most other 50-year-old women I knew; her cheeks seemed glazed, her lipstick a bright, cardinal red against her shiny, dark skin.

She was Cuban, she told me, a refugee. She spoke with an accent, and she was unlike any other student in my college writing class. I was fifteen years her junior, and, like most of the rest of the students, I was lily white--in country of origin, like them, some flavor of European.

Writing teachers get to know students well because what we read from them comes from the insides of their minds and hearts and souls. I looked forward to reading the Cuban woman's papers because I wanted to learn what she could teach me.

When she wrote her personal narrative, I expected something as fascinating as she was. What I got was an account of the what she felt, years before, at the near-drowning of her daughter on a beach in Cuba--how breathlessly scared she was at the moment, how awful it might have been to lose that child.

I expected something exotic written by a middle-aged Cuban emigre, and what I got was the story of a mom. I expected the specific, but what I read was far, far more universal.

I like to think that beneath the colors of our skin there lies a humanity with more to share than to differentiate. The horrors of the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota began when four young Indian males got out of control, just lost it, did insanely stupid things. Does that ever happen in other cultures? Seems it does.

Honestly, I have an aversion to bean-counting, to tallying the numbers of minorities in any given situation, as if making sure we have a token person of color on our committee insures righteousness or equity or that totally blessed word these days, "diversity."

However, yesterday I sat in a lecture hall to hear yet another white male hold forth--admirably, I might add--before an assembled audience of college students, most of whom had their note pads out in front of them. Another white male. Like me. When it was over, someone announced the next speaker in this semester's special series. Yet another white male.

Twenty years ago, I taught--for the very first time--a course in "the short story." There among my more traditional students was a non-trad, the wife of a visiting professor, who took the course. After the final class period, she came up to me. I remember the room, remember it empty because she waited. She told me that she enjoyed the course. She was polite, not pushy.

And then she said the line that I'll never forget. "Do you realize that all semester long we didn't read one woman writer?"

What hurt even more than the truth of her assertion was that I honestly didn't realize what she said was true. I hadn't thought about it. Skinheads and neo-Nazis aren't the only folks guilty of racism or sexism. I was. I am.

Some of us--me, for instance--have to work at being deliberately inclusive.

Why? When I was one of those students, years ago, I read a book by a man named Frederick Manfred, who'd come from northwest Iowa, where his roots were Dutch Reformed. When I read his novel, I suddenly understood that the very life all around me, as a Dutch Reformed kid, was fair game for fiction. I didn't know anyone in my childhood who wrote books before I met Frederick Manfred between the covers of one of his own most obscure novels. But when I read him, I knew I had a place, even a calling.

And there's this. The most significant cause of the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota wasn't a bunch of testosterone-wild kids gone berserk and out of control; it was starvation, poverty, and cultural genocide created by the Great White Father and his minions, who perhaps would have been more generous and just (that's speculation, of course) if it hadn't been for the fact that in 1862, no one in Washington D. C., was thinking about the lowly Dakota out in the territories. There was, after all, this war going on, the Civil War.

Yesterday, an uninterrupted string of white males reminded me of all that, but most specifically of a day I stood in an emptying classroom and discovered something about myself and my course I honestly hadn't realized.

Something I haven't forgotten.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Morning Thanks

When I was a kid, it was a joke that grew out of the hard work of memorizing bible texts, a task at which I was not among the gifted.

"What's the memory verse again?"

"John 11:35: 'Jesus wept.'"

Ha. Ha.

"Jesus wept"--the shortest verse in the Bible. In the Christian school I attended as a child, Bible trivia sometimes seemed less an appetizer than a main course. "What did Adam say on the day before Christmas?--'It's Christmas, Eve.'" That sort of thing. Or this: the teacher reaches for the Bible, and we insist she read Psalm 117, which is, of course, the Bible's shortest chapter. Same genre.

So yesterday, when the death of Lazarus was the text for the sermon, I flashed back, instantaneously, to the old days and had to giggle. "'Jesus wept'--sure enough, thar' 'tis. Sweet little childhood joke. 'Member all that giggling? 'Jesus wept'--isn't that cute?"

It is cute, really, if cute means precious. That Jesus wept at the death of a friend, that he wept when he felt so much pain all around, and when he recognized the empty chair at the table is infinitely precious because those very salty tears testify to his plain old humanness; and if he weren't human, the world would be a different place altogether.

Our preacher's take was precious too. That he cried, that he hurt, that he decided, right then and there, to conjure stinky Lazarus right back out of that musty tomb--all of that testifies, our preacher says, to how much Jesus hates the grim reaper and, conversely, how much he loves life itself. Amazing how much content there is in the shortest verse of the whole Bible.

This morning's thanks is just that simple--"thanks for life." Not all that profound or poetic.

And a picture, above. Forgive the vanity. I find myself most thankful for life when I hold a baby. Doesn't hurt, I suppose, that he's my grandson. My daughter took him in last week for a ritual check up, and the doctor told her he was perfect. That wasn't news.

On the pastor's suggestion, the tears of a savior, and what courses through me when I'm holding that child, my morning thanks don't amount to a whole lot more than, "Thanks for life."