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, December 31, 2010

New Years Eve

We'd started dating in January and had been married in June, a rush job, you might say, without the shotgun, both of us old enough and, well, passionate enough to know what it was we wanted. Thus read the calendar, so we were already married six months when we spent our very first New Years' Eve together.

And we were strangers in a strange land of cacti. I'd gone swimming on Christmas Day in the apartment complex pool just to say I'd gone swimming in Christmas, because in August we'd moved from Wisconsin to Arizona, where I was in grad school and my wife was a second-grade teacher. In truth, we hadn't established all that many good friendships in the Valley of the Sun, so when an New Year's Eve invite came we said yes and off we went, our very first New Year's party as a couple.

Some party. I was young. I'm sure I had in mind some rip-snortin' bacchanalia, party hats and clear plastic glasses sloshing with the devil's brew. I'm sure I was thinking that sometime, late, my new wife, dreamy-eyed, would fall into my arms and the two of us, still newlyweds really, would engage in some memorable marital rollicking.

Didn't happen. Oddly enough, that first New Years Eve we sat at a Formica-topped kitchen table I can still see in my mind almost 40 years later, the two of us quietly listening to a woman lament the sad state of her marriage, a union that seemed to us destined to failure. Her husband was working, as I remember--out. The story went on and on, an almost endless narration of neglect and unhappiness, just the three of us, nary a smile, paralyzed, dismally partying the night away.

And thus began an honored tradition we've lugged along painfully for most all of our 38 years of married life--a long line of undistinguished, eighth-rate New Years Eve partying. We've not progressed much since that dirge we listened too all night long years ago in Arizona.

It might be difficult, I think, to find people as destined for a lousy time on New Years Eve as we are. Maybe not. Maybe the whole bacchanalia thing is hype. I don't know that I've sung "Auld Lang Syne" swaying erratically, arms interlocked. I don't know that I've ever had much to drink for that matter.

Big deal. What is New Years Eve anyway but a pair of rumpled, dirty socks left behind on the family room rug? Tonight, you gracelessly throw them into the laundry tub and tomorrow reach in the drawer for something clean and white and new. Really, what's the big deal?

But you can bet I'll stay the heck away from Formica-topped kitchen tables, and I don't think it's necessarily against the law for me to hope for a couple of clear plastic glasses or a bit of late evening gymnastics.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, right?

By the way, that pitiable marriage?--it's still humming, thank the Lord, as is ours.

And there it is--hope's shining silver thread in this otherwise doleful New Years Eve tale.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Breathing room

Here's the way David Gibson, of Politics Daily, tells the story:

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared in a recent interview that she is proudly evangelical but also distanced herself from many of her fellow believers by saying that she tends to support abortion rights and civil unions for gay couples, and she feels evangelicals too often alienate others with in-your-face rhetoric.
You can read the entire piece here. Or, if you want to read the interview itself, from Christianity Today, you can do that here.

I've read wonderful reviews of her new book, Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family (Crown), which is, in great part, the story of her life as a black PK in the segregated South. And I always admired her as one of the most influential minds in the Bush Administration.

Condi Rice might make a terrific Republican Presidential candidate, but the CT interview virtually assures she has no chance because she questions the inviolable dogmatism that characterizes the Republican base today; so while she claims to be she's proudly evangelical, her love for what most Americans consider "evangelicals" will go unrequited, I'm sure.

She's less than black-and-white on abortion and gay marriage, after all. Here's what she says:

I'm generally pretty libertarian in these matters, because Americans are quite good, actually, at finding a way to deal with these extremely divisive and difficult moral issues. And it's not that I'm a relativist. It's not that I believe everybody has their own morality. But I do understand that there are different ways of thinking about how these issues are going to play out in people's lives, and I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt in governing their own lives. Sometimes when things are out of whack the government has no choice but to step in. But I'm wary of the government stepping in to too many issues.

And when it comes to same-sex marriage, she says, "I have lots of respect for people on both sides of this divide, because there are really hard issues. I don't ever want anybody to be denied rights within our country."

And then this: "It's extremely important not to assault people. . . Sometimes I think evangelicals come at people so hard and so fast and don't take time to listen to where somebody is. We can just try to have a lighter touch sometimes."

I'm sure to many evangelicals, "a lighter touch" means relativism or something considerably less than orthodox--or worse.

Me?--Condi Rice's interview in CT helps me breathe.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Just another snowy December afternoon

Somewhere in the slideshow there's a ice fisherman sitting all by his lonesome on one of the ponds at what old Sioux Centerites used to call "the sandpit." He couldn't stay inside, I guess, which is something akin to my own feelings a day or so ago. For some strange reason, the hoarfrost hadn't been skimmed from the trees for an entire day--usually it's gone by mid-morning; so the call of the wild got to me and I took off west, even though the wind threatened to blow me off the road.

My mother-in-law used to say that the first day of a south wind is brutal--and she wasn't wrong. But you can quickly forget that level of brutality if a south wind sticks around for awhile, as it has and will. Yesterday was a gorgeous December thaw. This afternoon, I'll have to seat belt myself down in the basement to keep from wanting a hike along the river.

We'll see, I guess.

Oh, yeah--the shot above? That's what I call Siouxland Gothic, sans the bald guy in the bibs and his sister, of course. Sometime I'll go out there and do a self-portrait, methinks. Got to love the windows.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

School for scandal

Someplace--I don't remember where--I heard someone once say that there ought to be a law against old men dancing. Once the adult male reaches, say, 40, he simply should desist any movement at all to music because something unseemly simply happens when old men dance publicly. I support that legislation.

And I know that ever since Mencken--well, maybe ever since Oliver Cromwell--we Calvinists have been seen as sworn enemies of good times, driven by diligence and cleanliness, dour, unflinching in our devotion to God and our abhorrence of all things human. Puritanism is the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere is having a good time, Mencken once wrote, and we've been living with that sentence for somewhere close to 100 years now.

So I know what I'm risking is potentially scandalous, an admission akin to double jeopardy, an old man and a Calvinist to boot about to say something that will undoubtedly register somewhere far beyond the far reaches of the "eeeeoooouuuuwww" scale.

But I'm going to say it anyway: this photograph--the one above--is, to me, or, would be for sure if I was considerably younger, well--I don't know quite how to say it--okay, sexy.

At the Getty Museum, I was walking above the courtyard here pictured, when I saw this gentleman taking aim at a lady friend who was draping herself rather daringly up against all that marble female nakedness. I grabbed my own camera and shot (I don't think anyone saw me).

There it is. I've said it. Confession is good for the soul, after all.

Forgive me.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Morning Thanks--First Family

Is there a learning curve when you're President? I'm sure there is. Did everything he touched turn to gold in his first two years? No siree. Did he push too hard on changing the way medical services are delivered in this country? Maybe--and maybe at the expense of the problems of the economy. Did he get shellacked in November? You bet he did.

Is the national debt really the curse people say it is? Yes, but the problem isn't just his, it's ours too; we didn't get where we are in the just the last two years.

Is he a socialist? Don't be silly. Is he a commie? Are you nuts? Was he born here? According to Hawaii's new governor, of course he was; the man even claims to have been around when that birth happened, even knew Obama's parents.

He's sincere, thoughtful, and very bright. If the Lame Duck means anything at all, he's willing to compromise, more than willing to take on his own base if and when he thinks it's required. He understands--better than most on both ends of the political spectrum--that politics is about governing and governing is about compromise.

Yesterday, the President and First Lady visited a marine base in Hawaii. Was it a photo op? Sure, but check out these pictures--they're wonderful and warm. Can you imagine Nancy Reagan ever, ever hugging ordinary people the way Michelle does?

When I think of the opposition--Palin, Pawlenty, Newt, Huckabee, Romney, Haley Barbour, not to mention the man who's changed his political clothes almost pathologically ever since losing in '08, the ever-fuming McCain--I'm still glad I voted the way I did.

I'm quite sure--I live in the most rigidly Republican county in the nation, after all--that the Lord almighty fields millions of passionate prayers for Obama's collapse and demise, millions of requests for a good Christian man or woman to take over the office.

So this morning, let me just register my side in the onslaught. This morning's thanks are for this President, his wife, and his wonderful family.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The one who stayed behind

And what about the poor schluck who stayed behind while the crew took off for Bethlehem? What about him? They had to leave someone behind to tend the sheep. I mean, had the whole bunch taken off for town, who knows what would have happened? Nine chances out of ten every one of them would have been out of a job. I mean, as compelling as all those luminiscent, heavenly robes and all that music must have been, someone had to mind the store.

I'm betting it was the captain of the guard, the Alpha-male, the administrator, the only one capable of pulling rank. Every last one of them must have wanted to go. After all, the angels didn't mince words--it was the Messiah. We're not talking about some media star here, but the savior of the world, the Messiah, the one all the books are written about--that Messiah. The only one of the shepherds with sense enough to stay behind was probably the boss, a kind man who figured it was at once a gift to them and an act of self-denial.

So there he sat alone, that incredible star's intensity never waning. There he sat, listening to the sheep rustle and some occasional braying. Nothing out of the ordinary. No wolves that night, Christmas night. He never had to lift the cudgel because that night there were no assaults, no murders. Peace on earth.

Maybe a birth. And maybe this one guy who stayed behind attended, not that he had to. Normally, the sheep did well all by themselves; but maybe when he heard that one ewe's frantic crying, he took off across the hills to find her because he figured on this night it would only be right for him to attend the birth.

So he did, and he found her, but there were no complications. How could there be?--it was Christmas.

The whole time he sat there beside her, watching that brand new little lamb flop to earth and get a royal treatment from his mom, he probably couldn't help thinking of how strange it was for all those heavenly angels to mention, as if in passing, that a sign of this grand Messiah's birth was swaddling clothes and of all things, a manger, a feed trough. Give me a break.

And it couldn't have been a hoax either because it's not every night a company of angels shows on those Judean hills, a whole choir. Good night! Scared the bejeebees out of them when suddenly, poof!--they were there.

Still, a manger? Somehow it was a unthinkable mismatch, so oxymoronic (he'd studied poetry)--the actual, in-the-flesh, long-promised Messiah, the king of absolutely everything--in a barn?

I wonder if, that night, with that newborn lamb right there before him trying to get his legs under him--I wonder if the boss second guessed himself about letting the boys leave for Bethlehem. I wonder if he ever felt like kicking himself for being so silly as to stay behind and not go along, this being Christmas, after all, the actual, real-live birth of the Messiah? I wonder if he rolled his eyes at his own stubborn practicality, if he told himself once again that he was way, way, way too attached to those stupid, blasted sheep.

But maybe then he heard them, a mile off on those hills, the whole crew, making enough noise to wake the dead. That star sheds glory over everything that night, and soon enough he can even see them coming back to the job. They're not running, but they're not quiet. He looks at his watch. They can't shuttup, even though it's after two in the morning. They're actually singing.

I bet he tells himself that even if the only birth he saw was the one delivered by this sweet ewe in front of him, even if he didn't take off for Bethlehem, even if, once again, he let his work be the boss, this night will forever be a night to remember. Two concerts in the hills, after all, one of them angels--who would believe it?--and the other the lame brains he works with, day-in, day-out, who don't sound half bad coming home from town.

Here they come now, he thinks, singing. It never dawned on him they could even hold a tune.

How about this? All the way back to the sheep, those shepherds sing like the angels. And the boss is smiling, just to hear it. And then the most amazing thing happens. Just like that, that brand new little lamb, still wet from birth, gets up on his feet and joins in, makes harmony. It's not to believed, he tells himself. Not to be believed.

But then, he knows it's Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

True Grit II

What gathers the stars for any Coen brothers film, it seems, is their immense attention to detail, maybe even at the expense of story. Stars love the Coen brothers because the Coen brothers respect them, respect the medium, respect the entire enterprise.

What brings viewers to theaters, methinks, is plot; but what characterizes almost anything the Coen brothers do is meticulous attention that cares as much about the trees as it does the forest. They love what film can do. Hence--this is just the observation of someone who doesn't consider himself any kind of an expert--their genius is in pure and simple: they love every bit of what they do--script, actors, cinematography--and they do it with joy.

There's a hanging in True Grit. Three men, one of them an Indian, is strung up before a small-town crowd assembled on Main for the doings. That scene is tangential, at best, to the plot, altogether avoidable, not irrelevant but, at best, expedient. Yet, one of the moments that sticks with me most is that wild scene--an entire town in dour black coats, three luckless scoundrels up there on the scaffold. The Coen brothers could care less that the scene is expendable; they do it as if that set piece was central to everything--because to them, it is.

Once upon a time, I wrote a story on a man whose lifelong business was moving houses and barns. I spent a couple hours with the him and came away enthralled at the enterprise, moved deeply by the owner's passion for what he did for a living, for life itself. I didn't ask for a job, but every time I see some old house up on the bed of a semi, lumbering along some country road, I get it because I think of him.

I don't know why the Coen brothers (I keep wanting to put "brothers" in upper case because maybe it should be) wanted to do True Grit again, but they did. John Wayne is gone, of course, the icon who made the original the classic that it is. You might think no one would be foolish enough to try a remake without the legend whose shadow lies permanently over contemporary story-telling; but the Coen Brothers (there, I did it) must have determined that the story could sing even without the man whose very presence once filled the theater.

And they make it sing all right. We saw True Grit last night--why? because a Coen Brothers film is always worth seeing. Memorable roles abound.

One of the oldest rules for scriptwriting, I'm told, is that the writer to stay the heck out of the way, that words do little more than serve action. Dialogue that can be shown shouldn't be told. Use the medium, pros advise, and the medium is visual. Movies don't tell, they show.

But the Coen Brothers don't give a rat's behind about that rule. This True Grit is as much about dialogue as it is about action. Its treasures--and that which keeps the audience giggling throughout, even through the suspense--are what this gaggle of memorable characters say and how they say it.

Maybe that's why I like them--and True Grit. The Coens care about words. They really care about words, maybe even more than action. They shouldn't, but they do. And there lies at least part of the difference.

Westerns, once the staple of American story-telling, are passe today, maybe because we've all seen too many box canyons and broad western landscapes, too many thick-tongued Injuns, too many gunfights, too many OK Corrals.

The Coens don't care. They're sure there's still gold in them 'thar hills, and there is. It just takes some genius to mine it.

True Grit ain't for everybody, but I loved it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Good Christian people they were, but they had a son who wandered far, far from home, all the way to San Francisco, where what he would have called "his orientation" brought him into places where unprotected gay sex resulted in fatal diseases. AIDS. He got it, and, even though he left the bathhouses and took up residence with a single lover, over some several horrifying years he died an awful death.

But in those last years, those good Christian people watched while their son's committed lover tended their dying son's every need. Those good Christian people couldn't help but thank the Lord for the man who stood by their son every single day of his torture, cleaned him, and cleaned up after him. Those good Christian people knew very, very well that their son, in his agony, could not have been more deeply beloved than he was by the man they had great difficulty even talking about to others because they simply didn't know what to call him.

That man, their beloved son's lover, and their son called the two of them to bedside in the final weeks of his life and showed them a pink triangle, a Holocaust symbol sewn on the lapels of gay prisoners at Dachau and Auschwitz. They both wanted that pink triangle affixed to their son's lapel in the casket he'd be buried in. Their son told his good Christian parents that he loved the Lord they'd served with heart and soul throughout their lives. He said there were years when he hadn't, when he'd strayed; but now, as he approached his death, he was at peace with his Maker and his Lord.

But he wanted a pink triangle on his lapel for the funeral. He wanted the dignity of who he was to be seen and understood by those who would view his body in the casket back home.

Now those good Christian people knew very well that in the small town where their son would be buried that pink triangle would make other good Christian people shudder with repulsion, even though in that good Christian town everyone knew how it was their son had died at such an early age. AIDS was no mystery to them.

But the good Christian couple knew the pink triangle was, to most of the good Christian people an anathema, an unChristian symbol of all that was wrong with what used to be good Christian America. Even worse, that pink triangle would be an affirmation good Christian people would find unfathomable and appalling, maybe even a symbol of hell itself. Those good Christian people from the good Christian town hadn't gone through what the parents of the deceased had. They wouldn't understand. They would only condemn.

But this good Christian couple listened to their dying son's wishes for that pink triangle--and the wishes of the lover who'd loved him through all that suffering--and they'd pledged their sacred honor.

But then, when the body came home, this good Christian couple was conflicted about what to do, still deeply grieving and unsure of almost everything connected with the death of their own flesh-and-blood son, who'd been savagely taken by the beast named AIDS. They didn't know what to do. After all, they'd promised their son to pin that pink triangle to his lapel, but they didn't want the good Christian people of the town to be as conflicted as they were.

They decided to pin that triangle on their son's lapel, just as they'd promised, but inside the suit coat, where no one could see it. Today, their son's body is buried just that way in the earth of a good Christian town.

As of yesterday, "don't ask, don't tell" is history, and I'm thinking, maybe, even in a good Christian town, that story can finally be told.

Or should.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday afternoon catch

I remember hearing once upon a time that one of Hollywood's most trusted rules is never, ever set a film in snow--no one wants to see it. It'll be a disaster. Yeah, I know--Fargo. Sure, but the exception proves the rule. Honestly, I don't know how good a photographer I'd have to be to sell a winter photograph. But really, who on earth would want a gorgeous winter landscape on their wall all year long?

And yet there's something really elegant about snow and cold on the plains. Maybe I'm deluded.

Got my grades in late this morning and decided to head west to see what I could find. The snow is abundant already, and there's more to come tomorrow, I guess. No real drifts, but enough cover to turn the whole world shiny and bright.

The sun was a huge luminiscent smudge in the sky, but the northwest wind biting, even though I had on every bit of winter gear I could get into without stumbling around like the Michelin Man. So before the cameras freeze solid, you look for interesting lines against all that alabaster. I think I found some.

And once I had taken just about every shot I could imagine out west, I turned back east towards home. The plastic window in the back of the Tracker is cloudy as fog, and I wasn't looking over my shoulder; but suddenly I turned around and some cloudiness had snuck in and painted the sky a bright orange sharper than anything I'd seen since Pumpkin Land. I wasn't in a great place to catch it sweetly, but for just a few minutes there was, out west, a dusk to die for.

'Twas the very best therapy the doctor could have ordered.

But it was cold, temp in the teens.

Morning Prayers--at Christmas

A couple decades ago, I served on a church committee that proposed doing away with the traditional brown bag of goodies given to all the Sunday School kids after the church's annual Christmas program. Kids didn't need it, some said. Way back when--maybe even the Depression days--a little brown bag full of peanuts, a couple of chunks of hard candy, and an apple or an orange was an incredible Christmas blessing to kids who didn't get an iPod or a Wi.

Motion failed. Not to hand out those little brown bags after the service felt, to some, as if it were a form of heresy. Didn't it say so somewhere in Leviticus?

We're rich today--those of us who aren't unemployed anyway--and because we are, Christmas creates nightmares. In the last two days, my wife and I spent way too much time trying to determine what to buy for our grandchildren because the evidence is incontrovertible: we have way too much money and they have way too many things. Today, the salient question is what should we buy?--and should lugs hefty moral questions into the mall, on-line or suburban.

Should is a Calvinist word. It builds prickly walls made of nothing more or less than guilt. I can afford the little camera they both want, but do they need it? Of course, not--in a day, it'll sit downstairs in the toy room/museum in the basement. Inside a week it'll be broke. What's more, they won't value it anyway. Good night, it costs major bucks.

Guess what?--this morning two of them are aboard some UPS truck, as we speak. We spent hours agonizing and then simply decided to do away with the pain. Of course, the kids'll be thrilled. There's that too.

Last night I finished reading a little self-published book given to me by a man whose family immigrated from the Netherlands following the Second World War, a book he wrote as a tribute to his parents, who not only slugged their way through the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Holland, but risked their lives and their family in the process simply because they were committed to the notion that Christians oppose the evil that Nazism was.

I've a read a hundred of those accounts in my lifetime, even published one myself--Things We Couldn't Say, a book which is still in print 15 years after its publication. That I've heard a shelf full of similar stories doesn't mean I'm numb to their extraordinary power. I am still stunned when I try to imagine how so many Resistance fighters and their families lived.

Here's a story the writer told. When he was a boy, his father was frequently gone because he was often carrying out jobs for the Resistance, as well as running from the Gestapo. Once, almost without notice, his family had to vacate their home immediately, and go to some other small Dutch town somewhere, a place where they knew no one, some place some other Resistance family would put them up. His mother left all her precious things behind, never saw them again, he says.

Now the man who wrote this book was a boy back then, ten years old, in the last year of the war, young enough to avoid suspicion by the Germans, old enough to figure things out, things that could put his own young life in peril. Once he biked back to the little town where they'd lived before having to move, where he visited his old haunts and was thrilled to find, out in the backyard of the wonderful neighbors who lived next door, hidden away in the things out there, his own father's bike.

He hadn't seen his father for weeks on end, but when he found that bike, he says, he knew immediately that his father was in hiding with the neighbors, their good friends the Van Dixhoorns. So he went to the neighbor lady and told her what he'd found. "Is my father here?" he asked.

"No," she told him, "he's not. You're wrong."

How on earth could a loving mother tell the neighbor boy, a boy she loved, a bald-faced lie?

She did.

How could a father who hadn't seen his son in weeks and weeks simply stand somewhere in that house, watch his own boy out back, and not run from the back door and hug him?

He didn't.

Simply enough, in the horrible world of the Nazi occupation, some things simply couldn't be said.

Because if they were, really awful things could happen.

And did.

So lies were told, and life went on.

Today, of course, he knows his father was there, in the house where the beloved neighbor lady looked into a boy's excited eyes and, like common criminal, simply lied.

The year was 1944, province of Gronigen, the Netherlands. I know the man who was the boy, and I'm guessing, because today he is, as I am, a rich man, that he too wonders about what Christmas presents he should buy his grandchildren.

How can we build character in an age of affluence?

Maybe the only way is by telling stories. By not forgetting. By our grandkids knowing that not every fourth grader in the world gets a digital camera.

Lord, help us do it right.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Nightmare--a story (finis)

Their present came up when Cami, Deb’s youngest, delivered the box to them, third round of presents, the whole ballroom littered with electronic gizmos and flat gift certificates or shiny debit cards. “Says ‘for Grandpa and Grandma,’” she told them, when she handed it to Mavis, who’d wrapped it, of course.

“Well, I’ll be,” Mavis said. “I wonder who this is from.”

“Santa Claus,” Cami said. “It’s from Santa Claus.”

All eyes were on her. Henk didn’t move his head, just his own eyes to make sure he saw what was going on.

Mavis tugged on the ribbon ends she’d left accessible and untied the bow as if it had been dipped in gold. “What have we here?” she said.

Even Markie put down his giant transformer—that’s how quiet it became in the Ruth’s museum room with the vaulted ceiling. Matty sat in her grandpa’s lap with the cloth doll she’d got in the first round.

Mavis took off the paper, lifted the cover from the shoe box, and seemed stunned to find another wrapped box inside. “Is this a joke?” she said. “Who is this from?”
The kids looked at each other sheepishly.

Mavis carefully unwrapped the second box, opened it, and acted totally shocked to find another. And another. And another. And another.

And all this time, no one spoke. Henk kept watching his kids out of the corner of his eye because no one knew what was coming down the pike here, at the very soul of an annual exercise in which the women knew exactly what was in almost every last package. What was worse, of course, was that the drama was building because all of them must have wondered who on earth went way over the line and bought something the rest of them hadn’t agreed upon ahead of time—and then kept it to themselves.

“I’m sorry to hold you up this way,” Mavis told her kids and grandkids. “There’s always another box.”

And then she got to the last one, a little white square box that once held a pearl necklace. She opened it up to a piece of paper, neatly folded, then brought that paper up to her eyes, unfolding it slowly.

Even the dog was still.

She took her time, read through what the secretary had copied from Mavis’s note, then dropped the paper suddenly and reached for her eyes, as if what she’d read had moved her very soul. “What can I say?” she asked. “What can I possibly say?”

“Read it,” Henk told her. “It’s for me too.”

“I don’t know that I can,” she said. “I just can’t begin to thank you all.”

The kids looked quizzically at each other, their eyes ablaze.

“It’s just perfect,” she said. “It’s the best gift you could possibly give us.”

“What does it say, woman?” Henk said.

Slowly, she brought the paper up to her eyes, looked all around the room appreciatively, her smile itself a blessing, then started in.

“’Dear Mom and Dad’-- And then she bit her lip, which Henk thought might have been a little too much, but then he expected that kind of theater from her since she was the one who was always went for skits at their friends’ weddings in the old days.

“’Christmas can be such a nightmare,’” she read, and then added, looking up, “Isn’t that the truth though?” She grabbed Henk’s glasses off his nose as if she couldn’t read without them. “’We never know quite what to get you,’” she read, “’so with this note, we give you our love.’”

A little too mushy for their family, Henk thought, but when she’d asked him if that would be okay when she wrote the note, he’d let her have her way, like he’d done plenty often in the last 60 years.

“’But even more than that,’” Mavis read, “’we give you our pledge that no matter what happens in this life, we will always love the Lord.’”

There, that was it. Henk watched Mavis’s eyes clear like morning summer skies as she looked around the room, at each of her children, one at a time.

“’From all of us—your children,’” she said, and put the paper down.

Perfect silence. Even the grandchildren didn’t move.

“That’s very nice,” Henk said, “but I was thinking it would be that Carribbean cruise.”

“You, shush,” Mavis told him. “We could not get a better present.”
Still, no one moved.

“There’s nothing we can say,” Mavis said, “—isn’t that right, old man? This is just perfect.”

In the room, even though there was all that wide open space, you could feel fear and anger like a deep evening fog. Maybe it was going too far now, Henk thought. Maybe this would go somewhere they hadn’t planned, and that wouldn’t be good.

“Old man?” Mavis said again. “Isn’t this just the best thing we could receive?”

Even Ruth had nothing to say. Deb’s mouth stood open like a cave. Sweet Janice was almost in a swoon, and Sarah, tough-as-nails Sarah, the artist, looked mad, like the men, who felt, in a way, he thought, betrayed. After all, who had the right to make them pledge to something they hadn’t? Who had the guts to sign all their names on the dotted line?

“This is what we wanted,” Mavis told them all, breathing out something huge, as if all her trials were behind her. “This is exactly what we wanted for Christmas.”

Sideways glances were veering like bayonets all over.

“And that’s exactly what we wanted to tell you,” Henk said, because he just didn’t know what was going to happen.

But no one understood.

He held his darling granddaughter in his lap. “When you asked, ‘what is it you want for Christmas, Mom and Dad?’—when you asked us that question, we got to thinking that there was nothing our children could give us—nothing at all—nothing we want or need, but this: a testimony from that always in this world—no matter how much money you have, always in this world—our Lord and Savior comes first in your lives.”

No one spoke, until finally, it was Timothy, the youngest, the artist. “You mean, you two pulled this whole thing off yourselves?” he said. “You put that whole present all together like that and made it yourselves?”

“Sarah had a baby at ninety,” Henk said. “Read it yourself in the Bible. You think two old people have no more tricks up their sleeves?”

“I don’t know what to say,” Ruth muttered.

“It’s not something we’re asking you to say,” Mavis told her, told them all. “You asked the question, and we gave you the answer—this is what we want for Christmas, for every Christmas, even this one, which may be our last.”

It was clear none of them knew what to say. What they’d got from their parents was the answer to the question, something each of them already knew.

Little Cami got up and went for the tree because it was time for another present.

“Wait, wait,” sweet Janice said. “I think we ought to pray. I just think we ought to pray and praise the Lord.”

Henk wasn’t so sure, but then, he told himself, there are a lot of things that happen in life you just have to take, so he was the one who said “the doxology.” So they sang. Later, Mavis told him he should have picked out a carol.

And then there were more presents. And then there was apple dumplings with lots of carmel, which some of them shouldn’t have had, Mavis thought. But you only get Christmas once a year, after all, she thought, and really, the whole season can be such a nightmare, if you let it.

And it shouldn’t be. No, no, she thought, it shouldn’t be.

When it was all over and that great room a royal mess, Reinder the dreamer pulled out some mistletoe and hung it over their heads—Henk and Mavis, who thrilled everyone, even the little kids, with a big fat wet kiss for Christmas.

And it wasn’t a nightmare at all, Henk thought. Not at all. Shouldn’t be either. Not Christmas.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Christmas Nightmare--a story III

A decade ago already, Ruth started having Christmas Eve over at their place because Mom and Dad’s, she’d said, didn’t hold all the kids anymore—grandkids and their spouses, and even great-grandkids, in fact. Ruth, whose Ben never really stopped working, had this big house down in the valley, a place almost without walls, so long and large you could have bowled in the living room. Neither of them could guess where Ruth got their tree, so big it was a shame to cut it down.

And their present to themselves—and from their kids—wasn’t hard to sneak in either because on Tuesdays, when Ruth was working at the store, Mavis went over there to cook supper. Not that she had to. Mavis just loved to cook. So two days before Christmas Eve, she simply took that shoebox over to her daughter’s house, along with the salmon she was going to fix, and slipped that gift in with the other pretty ones, just one of several dozen beneath that huge pine.


Mavis is right—they’re good kids, all of ‘em. Not that they’re not sinners, but then, as the Psalmist says, who can stand before the throne of God? They show up for church, which is important, Henk and Mavis both say, but sometimes there’s no lights on there, and there should be. They don’t think like Christians in the business world, Henk had come to believe, despite the fact that they were taught not to leave their love for the Lord somewhere in the warehouse with the trade-in mattresses.

Ben works hard, not a lazy bone in his body, but sometimes he doesn’t pay a dime’s worth of attention to Ruth, who carries way too much of a load at home and always did. Deb and Reinder talk a lot about the Lord, but the others sometimes want to oust him from the business because dreamy Reinder has this habit of not showing up for work, then telling the rest of them that he was doing Habitat work, or buying hamburgers for the homeless.

Silent Sam isn’t the brightest lamp in the showroom. What he really loves is his four-wheelers, and he wouldn’t miss a race all summer long if Deb didn’t make sure he showed up once-in-a-while for church. Tim and Sarah are the artists, too cool for their brothers and sisters, both of them sporting tattoos and an array of earrings you only see on pirates, Henk says.

Not a bum in the bunch, but Mavis and Henk just weren’t sure any of them really loved the Lord, just weren’t sure the message ever got through, and just weren’t sure where in this life they’d gone wrong.

(to be continued)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Nightmare--a story II

Ever since he’d retired, his kids let him have an office in the original store, a little one, sort of out of the way, but at least a place for him to go to when he needed to, which was generally at least once a day, sometimes more, because he still liked to talk to customers when they came in, even if the sales itself he gave up long ago. But you work in a place for a half century, and you can count the people you don’t know—even if it’s only by their Grandpa’s last name—on one hand.

So the way he and Mavis had it figured, they needed to have someone else do the printing because both of them had handwriting their children knew better than their own, most people typing nowadays and writing almost nothing. Through the years, Henk’s writing had descended into wretched squiggles he could barely read himself. Mavis could still pass eighth grade penmanship if she wanted, the line of her hand more fluid than any of her daughters’.

So he took the project to a secretary, whom he swore to secrecy. She was the one to write on the card and take care of everything else that had to be done. Henk had the feeling, when she’d finished, that she had absolutely no clue what was going on, but that was all right because, after all, what do you expect of kids nowadays, he told himself.

When he came home, Mavis had assembled a series of boxes, each a little larger than rest, like those little Chinese dolls, one inside the next, the last one big as a shoebox, one of Henk’s too, who, when he was seventy used to moan about the fact that an old man’s ears—his were floppy as a mule deer—like his feet, never stopped growing, even if almost everything else shrunk to miniscule. Well, except a prostate.

Mavis packed it all up sweetly, wrapped it like only women can, Henk told her, put a bow around it the old fashioned way, curling the ribbon with the blade of a scissors, then anointed it with the name tag that secretary had printed herself. “To Mom and Dad, from all of us.”

Perfect, they thought. Just perfect.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas Nightmare--a story I

Daughter Ruth was always last to leave on the Sunday family dinners. She would be the mom, Mavis thought, once Mavis passed on—at least that was taken care of. It was always the same ritual, really: first Tim and Sarah (if they showed up at all); then silent Sam and sweet Janice, who often had afternoon plans; then Deb and her Reinder, and finally, the oldest, Ruth and antsy Ben, who really couldn’t sit. It went that way every week, like the Walton’s at bedtime.

This time Ruth had motive. “So Mom,” she said, poking her pointer in the carmel apple dip—and she didn’t need the extra calories, “what on earth are we supposed to get you and Dad for Christmas?” She checked to see if any of her kids were looking, then stuck her finger in her mouth. “Every year it gets tougher and tougher,” she said. “We all go crazy—all of us kids—trying to figure out what to get.”

“A fancy Caribbean cruise, like my globetrotting kids,” her father said from behind the sink, where he stood, apron-bedecked, his hands in the dish water.

“You’re so full of b.s., Dad,” Ruth told him. “You two wouldn’t go if we paid you.”

“That so?” her father said. “They got beaches there where the women wear nothing on top,” he told them, gesturing with his wet hands.

“That’ll do you a lot of good, old man,” Mavis told her husband.

“I read on Drudge just last week—a man of ninety was just now a father,” Henk told them, nodding his head in affirmation. He half-turned, far enough to see his daughter giggle. “And you be quiet, Ruth, or I’ll call in the bears.”

“I’m serious, Mom,” Ruth said again. “And now that Dad has that camera he bought, we can’t give you pictures anymore either—and he doesn’t wear ties,” she said pointing at him. “Bubble bath?” she asked.

“I got a drawer-full you can take home right now,” Mavis told her, “or wait until we pass away. Either way you’ll get it.”

“Oh, Mom,” Ruth said, “it’s always the same old song—Christmas is just such a nightmare.”


Christmas is just such a nightmare.

That’s what Henk and Mavis kept telling each other after that Sunday in early December. “Christmas is such a nightmare,” they’d say, even though it wasn’t when they were kids, even though all they got one year in his family up north, Henk told Mavis for eleventy-seventh time, was an orange, just an orange. “And that was plain wonderful.”

If that Michael Jackson guy proved one thing, Henk thought, it was that Jesus Christ wasn’t wrong about money—it never really did a thing for happiness. And even though he and Mavis had far more than they could count or even spend for that matter, even though any one of the kids could send their parents to the Riviera, according to their oldest child, Christmas was just such a nightmare.

“I’m not letting you anywhere near those beaches,” Mavis told him one night when they were sitting home alone in the family room. “Only if you let me go topless too.”

“They got laws against that,” Henk said, looking up from the Banner, over the top of his half-glasses. “Or I do.”

Henk had started house-painting when he was sixteen, never finished high school. Soon enough he owned the company and hired six men, all year long, interior and exterior. Things grew. And grew. What followed was a furniture business, then eight stores throughout four counties, and even some interior decorating, which Mavis, often enough, got done herself in those early years, before they hired some prissy professional, and then fired when Janice showed up and married Sam. Janice had the eye. She was the only of the girls who really showed much interest in the church.

Not that the others didn’t go to church—off and on, at least. But Henk and Mavis had often told each other that their kids likely made a point of going to church because of their parents, because they were family and all, and, although no one would say it, they were scared stiff about being left out of the will.

“So what do I tell them anyway?” Mavis said to him rather quickly, knowing that it wouldn’t take long—Banner or not—before her husband would be nodding off. “Today it was Deb, called,” she said. “What can we get the two of you for Christmas?—same question as Ruth.”

“They got too much money,” Henk told her.

“Well, so do we,” Mavis told him, “and what’s worse, we gave it to ‘em ourselves.”

“They don’t know what it’s like to be poor—none of them,” he said.

“Oh, get off your high horse,” she said. “They’re all good kids, all of them, and you love ‘em too.”

“Doesn’t mean we didn’t spoil ‘em,” Henk told her.

She didn’t need to look at him because she knew very well where this conversation was going. They’d been there before, and besides, there was never all that much new under the sun when you get high into the 80s, she’d come to think. “So what do I tell ‘em?” Mavis said again.

“Well, what do you want?” Henk said.

“What I want is for all of them—up and down the whole family, the whole shooting match—what I want is that each and every one of them loves the Lord,” she said. “And so do you.”

“We can’t give them that,” he said.

“They can, sure as anything, give it to us,” she said.

“What are you thinking?—thumbscrews? You can’t wring blood out of a turnip,” he told her.

“Not a one of ‘em is a turnip,” Mavis reminded him. “And we’re not talking about blood either, except maybe the Lord’s.”

“The Lord’s blood,” Henk said, “has been given once and for all.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I could still get you into seminary,” Mavis told him.

“I’d get stumped by the Greek,” he said. “We got to think some.” He put down the magazine and sucked, noisily, at whatever little chunks of chicken were still jammed between his teeth. “Let ‘em give it to charity—“

“Ten years already they’ve been doing that,” Mavis told him. “’Christmas is such a nightmare.’”

“No it i’n’t,” he said.

“Wasn’t me that said it,” Mavis said. “It was your firstborn. So what do you need anyway?—what do I tell ‘em when they ask? You got a half-dozen pairs of house slippers—which wouldn’t be half bad if we still lived in North Dakota.”

“How do we get them to give us what we really want?” he said. “That’s the question.”

For a moment, the two of them sat there, a men’s quartet coming sweetly from the Bose on the shelf—“O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“Maybe we ought to just do it ourselves,” Mavis told him.

He looked up at his wife. “You’re not making sense, woman,” he told her.

“Maybe—maybe not,” Mavis said.

And that’s how the plot was hatched. It was Mavis’s idea, really, but as soon as she told her husband what she was thinking, he went for it, as if the two were one flesh, which they were. Mostly.

(to be continued)

"Christmas Nightmare" appeared in The Banner just last Christmas. The illustration is from Marius van Dokkum, a Dutch painter and illustrator.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

God bless the moderates

Whenever I hear someone like Glen Beck rant on Islam, whenever I hear someone say Sharia law is coming to Sioux Center or South Carolina, whenever I hear someone remark that we Christians are, as we have always been, at war with Islam, I think of Kareen Abdul Jabbar, the world's tallest Muslim, and a member of whatever Hall of Fame NBA stars call home after careers the stuff of legends.

Jabbar is, at least for me, a symbol of the fact that not all Muslims are Mohammed Atta and that some clandestine plan for mass murder isn't being hatched right now by the millions who bow in prayer every day. Jabbar reminds me that Islam--like Christianity--is hardly monolithic.

But the story of Aasia Bibi makes me shudder, not simply because her sentence is so impossibly barbaric (it is), but because there appears to be nothing anyone can do about it, including the Pope, who has begged for her release. Bibi, a Christian who was talking with other field workers like herself, simply asked her Islamic co-workers what the prophet Mohammed ever did for them? After all, she told them, Jesus died for my sins.

For that crime--Islamic traditionalists call it blasphemy--she will die.

You read that last line correctly: she will die.

Islamic fundamentalists are not the only dogmatists around, but they are among the demented few who would rather kill than co-exist. And what seems perfectly clear to me in our shrinking world is that such barbarism and the law that perpetuates it must change.

And who can do that? Apparently, not Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, who is called Pope Benedict XVI; not Barack Obama, or his bully pulpit or his conquering armies; not Roger Ailes, who runs FOX News; not Jim Schaap, who runs the basement.

Only Kareen Abdul Jabbar. Only moderate Muslims. Only those who pray daily and also see the looming death of Aasia Bibi as despicable, unspeakable barbarism. Only those who, from the inside, can reform faith, which has, after all, little to do with tanks or missles, but is--for Muslims and for Christians--"the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Only the faithful can help the faithful. This world needs every Kareen Abdul Jabbar we can get.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Morning Thanks--Art Lensink

My mother says he just gave out. He was 94 and certainly among my own mother's last best friends, without a doubt her last best male friend. For most of the last decade, the two of them--with and eventually without their respective spouses--lived beside each other at the same old folks place, just as they had lived beside each other for 40 years in Oostburg, Wisconsin.

I can't begin to draw the immense presence Mr. Art Lensink created in my life. He and his family lived just across the alley, three minutes from our back door. He taught me to trap muskrat. He taught me the absolute elegance of dawn. He taught me the shining beauty of the lakeshore's very first, early spring buttercups. He showed me Dutchmen's Britches, a slight little early bloomer in the pines and hardwoods that belted the lakeshore where I grew up. He taught me to love the graceful silence of a deer.

He was an artist, truly an artist. I'm blessed to have one of his paintings on my study wall at school. I could weep when I realize how little that painting will mean to my children when I'm gone because it would be almost impossible for anyone to buy it from me today, a sole hunter, toting a shotgun, on his way to lovingly familiar lakeshore woods. Art Lensink taught me the difference between the Great Plains and the lakeshore where I was born and reared. Once he and his loving wife came out to Iowa with my folks, and he told me he didn't think he could live here because there's no place to hide. In that comment, there's an entire novel--Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth.

Once upon a time, he tried to teach me how to fear too. He took me to a meeting of the John Birch Society, where I watched a slide/tape that had actual photos of Martin Luther King shaking hands with known communists. That was 1962. He was wrong. Somewhere along the line, he picked up a virus that threatened all the goodness within him, a rabid anti-communism that had him seeing danger behind every lakeshore birch.

But he never lost something so much more immensely precious, a deep and abiding love for creation, for this world, for God's world. Even after the Berlin Wall fell, he feared the communist menace; but somehow his spirit remained preciously devoted to sea shells, to mornings along a creek bed, to dandelion wine, to all things bright and beautiful.

He's the prototype for my first novel, a man who likely knew every last buck in the lakeshore woods, their comings and goings forth, their habits and paths. And even though he was out there opening day in his red plaid coat and his old single shot, a yellow hunting licence pinned to his back, as far as I know he never took a deer home. How could he?--like no one I ever knew, he knew their beauty.

When the art department of the publisher of that novel created a cover illustration, he or she drew something so similar to the painting here above my desk that it's uncanny, maybe even, today, sweetly providential. See for yourself.

Art was a believer, the kind of Christian who carried his faith into every moment of his life, a faith that undoubtedly shaped and sharpened his own trembling fears. Had he not been a Christian first, he likely wouldn't have co-mingled with the Birchers.

In spite of what he would have wanted perhaps, that equation of faith and extremist politics taught me something when I was a boy. I was 15, and I left that almost clandestine John Birch Society meeting thinking there something awfully amiss in an atmosphere of so much hate.

My own father was a lovely man, an endearing Christian with a marvelously gentle soul, a man whose favorite hymn was "Blessed Assurance" because it never dawned on him that he wasn't divinely loved. I have him to thank for whatever graciousness is in me because his soul was extraordinary. He was, in an angelic sense, a gifted lover. A crowd of people I know would call him a saint. And he was.

But our neighbor across the alley, Art Lensink, taught me something my father never quite understood, a way of living that I hope reaches across generations, something akin to what the Navajos call "the Beauty Way." On Sundays, while my father napped, I'd go with the Lensinks on walk in the lakeshore woods just to see what flowers were emerging, just to see what was happening with the flora and fauna. It would be hard, impossible, to say there could be a better Christian than my father; but from Art Lensink I learned the concept of Sabbath.

He taught me to take divine joy in little things, to see God's radiance in buttercups. In him--in his artistic attention to beauty in this world--I came to see the sheer glory of creation. Art Lensink is in my books, my writing, and every last one of my Saturday morning photographs.

Because of so many gifts he gave me, gifts that so fruitfully go on giving, I am thankful, this morning, for the life of the artist, that neighbor of ours across the alley.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Morning Thanks--a high school choir

It’s almost enough for me to endorse the across-the-board Bush tax cuts. A visit to the Getty in LA on Saturday made me rethink, a bit, the efficacy of allowing our good old American mega-billionaires to have all their money because I’m quite sure if the American public had those superfluous millions they wouldn’t build an incredible art museum on a hill above Westwood. Saturday, I spent some thanks for the oil billions J. Paul Getty accumulated because a significant chunk was spent on that sprawling, glorious hilltop museum.

In one exhibition after another, I got myself transfixed by beauty and truth, with ever more of it just around every corner. A Chinese photographer creates fascinating redux from yellowing propaganda photographs from the Cultural Revolution by lining up the very subjects Mao had sit for the original, forty or fifty years earlier, the result a fascinating study in time and humanity. Medieval illustrations from old manuscripts picture Mary the Virgin at the moment of the Annunciation in colors so radiant you’d think the page itself was lined in gold. Renaissance portraiture, landscapes, sculpture—I’m not sure where the Getty ranks with American’s finest art museums, but it was enough to stop my day and fill my heart on Saturday, when we had two hours to wander and look and think.

But the highlight was a couple dozen high school kids and their passionate maestro, whose rendition of some ancient Latin choral texts while they stood at the very heart of the museum’s entry hall and created music that was unquestionably sublime.

Why did hundreds of museum-goers stop to listen? First, the music—transcendent. Second, the place, as accommodating acoustically to what those kids were offering as any European cathedral.

But just as enriching—or so it seemed to me—was the realization that such heavenly sound was coming from kids—maybe 16 years old. By my unlearned ear, what they offered in that entry hall could have come only from from a professional ensemble; but those kids were outfitted in teenage garb and looked no more or less than their age than any of the kids who stopped to listen. That part--their age--made them seem, okay, angelic.

I know it’s a stretch, but you had to be there. For centuries philosophers have speculated about and heralded “the sublime” as an effect extraordinary, something so rich and uplifting as to remove the viewer or participant completely from his or her time and place. The word has, therefore, some relation to the soul of religious experience, something so profoundly moving that we ourselves are moved out of ourselves. We become, for a moment, truly selfless.

I think it was Kant who said it most succinctly—“we call that sublime which is absolutely great,” or something to that effect.

The truth is, I don’t know why that little high school’s choir offering skied as it did; a perfect storm of factors, I’m sure.

But this I know, for ten minutes on Saturday, the blessed voices of those American-standard high school kids lifted me right out of the Getty, right out LA, right out of this world in a way which prompts me to respond in the only way I can, with gratitude and this morning’s thanks.
I caught just a couple of bars with my little camera. If you'd like to hear the entire piece, you can listen here to a rendition of the entire piece, Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria," by the Dordt College Choir at the Grote Kerk in Dordtrecht, the Netherlands.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Murder at the Dakota

“I Want to Hold Your Hand”

It was cold, but I was sitting in the backseat of an old Chevy, while somewhere in the trunk my shotgun was lying stowed away with four or five others. I was out north of town with some other high school guys, about to start hunting rabbits, when the DJ on WOKY-Milwaukee, announced he was about to play something so new and amazing that no one should miss it.

“The Beatles,” the DJ said. “They’re Brits, and everybody is talking about their music.”

Something like that.

I was 15, I think. What did I know about music that late December afternoon? Nothing, really, but somehow that snowy Wisconsin Saturday is fixed in my memory by a DJ’s constant trumpeting and a new pop song from floppy-haired crazies, a song whose lyrics I still know by heart.

“And I Love Her”

That summer, just as sexually stupefied as most 15-year-old males, I went with my parents to a cottage on Shawano Lake. Somewhere down the beach, at night, from some cottage I don’t believe I ever saw, “And I Love Her,” along with a lilting medley of other sweet nocturnal emissions from A Hard Day’s Night would sally up the lakeshore and outdo any inspiration my parents’ old hymns could muster. Fanny Brice stood no chance against Lennon/McCartney. I don’t have any memory of the girls who played that album hour after hour that week, but they sauntered saucily through my adolescent imagination.

Even today, the word “Schwano” still prompts “If I Fell” to play from the juke box in my mind, just about all I remember from that family vacation.

Of course, my parents never knew.

“Strawberry Fields Forever”

By the time I went off to college in 1966, Hard Days Night went along, as did Rubber Soul, Revolver and just about anything else I could get my hands on. By then, good Christian parents knew what was happening because what the Beatles did beside sing had become news, enriching the imaginations of a Sixties-era kids like me with their excesses. They were almost contraband withun the eyes of the administration of the college I attended. If you played them, you kept the volume down because they definitely, in a Sixties’ sense, revolutionary.

The world as I knew it was coming apart at the seams. Without a doubt, they were, in fact, far more dangerous than the old pietists even understood.

At an art exhibit at a Christian college in Chicago, I heard “Strawberry Fields” played as part of some artsy student thing—aloud!—over and over again, and my mind got blown, not by the music, but by the fact that this Christian college tolerated something mine never would, a fact which made no sense really, except to sweep more sand into the line that once was cut deep between my own parents’ sense of the City of God on one hand, and the City of Man—Vanity Fair—on the other. I stood there in that art exhibit listening to other cuts from Sgt. Pepper and knew for a fact that nobody really knew what the heck they were doing. Let “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” reign because what is good and pure and righteous is now, by official proclamation, completely up for grabs.

I felt freed--in an existential sense--fearfully.

"Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"

“Rocky Raccoon," "Back in the U. S.S. R," and “Obla-di, Obla-da” didn’t press my buttons the way some of those earlier hits had, but I bought "the white album" anyway and played it incessantly, if for no other reasons the sorrow of a gently weeping guitar and a call for revolution.

The Beatles were far beyond me then, in 1968, the year almost everything changed. People were marching in Alabama, cities were burning, too many guys my age were coming back from Southeast Asia in body bags, and we had this creep for a President, a man who seemed clueless, Tricky Dick. The Beatles were beyond me, cutting a swath I wanted badly to be part of, a kid with the sweetest Christian parents.

I was conflicted but I'd turned my back on old-fashioned righteousness. We'd come into a whole new world.


Last year I taught a class at a Christian college in Georgia, where, students told me, if you climbed up in the tower that is the very symbol of the college, rumor had it you could still find, somewhere in the rafters, the carved initials of Mark David Chapman, who, 30 years ago yesterday, gunned down John Lennon in front of the Dakota building in NYC, where Lennon and his partner Yoko Ono lived with their son.

Somehow, Chapman’s having been a student in a Christian college in my own tradition is a fact that sticks with me, even though I know his pathology is wider far than his own deep dalliance with faith. He was obsessed with Catcher in the Rye, was the carrying the novel when he shot Lennon four times in the back, had scribbled into its pages that the novel itself was his statement. He was deranged, a pitiable soul at once obsessed with Lennon and incensed with him for daring to compare the Beatles’ popularity with God almighty’s.

And yet, something about all this fits. To me, the Beatles never were nor ever could be simply entertainment. In a way that parallels the lives of literally millions of people my age, it’s fair to say that I grew up with them, and that the old pietists—like the old pieties—weren’t necessarily wrong about what Fab Four represented. In a way, I can't help thinking that Chapman was their own demented hero, carrying out an act so devoutly to be wished.

The Beatles weren’t acting alone throughout that whole era, they may not have even the most powerful agents of change, but in my life at least they were not only everything my parents feared--and more; they were also everything that WOKY DJ ever thought they’d be when he trumpeted them like he did, December of 1962--this hot new rock group from Liverpool, England, who was going to be something we’d never forget.

About that, he was absolutely right.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Morning Curse--Benny

The cat will be the death of me. In the last decade, cats have become the shared motif of a thousand one-liners, as in "trying to deal with the faculty is like trying to herd cats." Our cat is getting revenge, it seems, for being the butt of a thousand stale jokes.

He herds me. I have no idea why. His motives are beyond explanation. But he has it in his craw, two or three times a day, to steer me around his house, we being his guests--his favorites, of course, but guests nonetheless. It is, after all, his house.

Like this morning. Like just about every morning. If he's in the bedroom--in other words, if the bedroom is the warmest dive in the house because he will find the cushiest spot to lay his head--if he's in the bedroom when I get up, he hugs my ankles the minute my feet hit the floor. I don't know why.

All the way down the stairs, through the house, into the kitchen, and then down the stairs to the basement--all the way, every step he's right there beside my bare feet. Literally. He's not out front. I feel like an errant steer, honestly. Sometimes this cowboy cat won't take a step until I do.

Now I'll admit that, come winter, I sort of the like the darkness, and besides, we live in town. I'd just as soon not flash the walkers and joggers on the street outside our windows, not that sidewalks are teeming at quarter to five in righteous Sioux Center. I'm sorry--I prefer the darkness, and we all have a right to our peccadilloes.

But there's the problem. Bonzo Benny is constantly underfoot. If, by chance, my size-15s catch his tail, he'll raise holy h-e-double hockey sticks in a howl so insistent that I fear the SPCA has already been notified. So I swerve to avoid him--IN THE DARKNESS--but the farther I go, the closer he clings. And I'm hardly agile in the immediate a.m.

He doesn't seem to be steering me. This morning his dish was delightfully full, tender morsels galore. It wasn't food he was after. He just likes to think he's showing me the way down life's path, like some good-hearted Sunday schoolmarm.

When we get down into the basement, he charges into my office area as if he's just been released on the Las Vegas Strip. I sit down. He looks around, rubs his mug against one or two of his favorite wall corners, and then quietly departs, as if, once again, he's therefore accomplished the roll he's been called to.

But one of these days I'll pinwheel down the stairs. Well, pinwheel may be pushing it for a guy my size. I'll go down anyway.

And he'll scream, and my wife, who's a world-class sleeper, won't hear a bit of it. Then, come coffee time, she'll groggily come down the stairs herself and find me there in a hideous bundle of flesh, something akin to a yet-to-be-cooked Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing all amiss.

The cat will sit right there beside me and stare up at her with his huge green eyes. That constant cheshire grin has no innocence in it, and, obviously, he'll be thinking nothing at all of my death. He'll tip his head as if what happened was simply unfortunate, then trot along with her as into the kitchen, hoping for a morsel of toast or a splash of milk.

Such is life for him.

And death for me.

When doing a book on a number of Navajo families, I sometimes wondered why those folks kept sheep. After all, they're hardly a money-maker these days, and they're not as valuable to the culture as they once were.

But then, I wouldn't think of ousting our Benny, who is himself, he thinks, something of a shepherd. Maybe he knows I am a Schaap.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Morning Thanks--Shane Claiborne

This novelist Frederick Manfred used to tell me that one of the grandest blessings of a small-town writer was the opportunity to watch generations unfold--as in, "Good night, that kid walks just like his old man" or "if you only knew her mother, you'd understand" or "the apple doesn't fall from the tree."

He used to say that such generational shadowing was itself an exercise in cause/effect, which is, of course, the essence of plotting--"this happens, then that happens, then--oh, my goodness--that happened!"

All I know for sure is that if you live in small towns all of your life, like I have, you find yourself constantly asking strange questions that take weird lingual forms, like "Who is she of?" What I saw in my own parents--that they could most easily simply skip a generation in an assessment of individual identity--has now become my fate.

"I was saying to Betty--"

"No, Dad--Betty is Julie's mom."

Oops--skipped an entire generation.

Fred Manfred used to claim that the multi-generational thing was a blessing, especially when it operated in a roughly biblical sense, as in the sins of the fathers unto the third and fourth generation thereof--you know what I mean. And why is that the Bible never talks about the sins of the mothers?--but that's for another time.

Anyway, I'm thinking that, as a blessing, at best living in a small town is "mixed" because last night I listened to Shane Claiborne, a wonderfully goofy speaker with pitch of passion that is just impossible not to sing along with, a barn-storming evangelist for counter-cultural Christianity, a dread-locked, nerd-ish, bespectacled charmer, if you can believe it, a man with a message that I hoped might just upset some folks in the most conservative corner of the entire U.S. of A.

Honestly, I loved it. I'd heard him before with Krista Tippett, really liked him there too. His agenda wasn't news to me, nor was his peculiar and particular message, which is essentially, they'll know we are Christians by our love, not by the scriptures on our t-shirts. He's a ball, really, which doesn't mean he doesn't leave a stinger or two buried deep in the heart when it's all said and done.

But what I couldn't help think yesterday, as I listened to him--twice!--was how much his whole approach and even his style was ripped from the playbook of one Tony Campolo, who was, in fact, his prof and, obviously, his hero, the man from whom he took his marching orders (I mean Campolo and Christ himself, of course). I kept thinking how proud Campolo must be of this kid, who's now directing traffic in evangelical circles just like his professorial old man did. Claiborne even quoted him: "The Christian life is a party."

It was one of those moments when you say, "Oh, sure, that kid--that's Tony's boy."

Makes all kinds of sense. Sure he is. Isn't that something?

What a treat. What a blessing.

This morning's thanks are for Tony's kid and what he brought to our campus yesterday. And oh, yeah, for Tony too.