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.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Morning Thanks—an old ethic

My father-in-law calls with a question. "There are six tapes in this package of Psalms," he says. "I got to wondering about who paid for them."

It's not a question I couldn't have predicted. It's very much like him to wonder about such things, about, as he used to say, "settling up." But we bought him the set, one of the few really good gifts we could ever come up with anyway. We were excited by possibilities of his loving them, and we were right.

"Not to worry, Dad," I told him. "It's no big deal."

I'm sure he'd thought of that answer too.

"Well, you know there are six of them in the set," he said. "You could take a couple along back with you and that way we both could enjoy them. Then, next week or so, we can exchange."

That was a proposal I couldn't have predicted, but once he offered it, I wasn't surprised.

Here's what I'm thinking. I wouldn't have thought of such an offering, and neither would our own kids. We can share this blessing—that's what he was saying.

My wife's father—like my own—is a child of the Depression. Call his ethic cheap, call it skimping, call him a Silas Marner, call him anything you want. What he was offering originated in a desire, deeply-held and graciously offered, that such a grand gift as he had should really be passed around. It was that good.

And this: our present economic doldrums might still exist if everyone thought that way, but I doubt it. His desire to share good things with us might well wreak havoc on industries throughout the country, but if more of us—me too—had a touch of ye olde ethic, all of us might well be a whole lot better off.

Nobody wants joblessness or recession or, certainly, another Depression. But there are lessons to be learned, methinks, in that single phone call from an old way of life—lessons about making do, about sharing gifts, and about thoughtfully considering others.

At 90, he's probably too old to send off to Washington. He wouldn't want a job anyway.

But that doesn't mean that what he was offering doesn't have some value, real value, for all of us, even for those who, sadly, don't love the Psalms the way he does.

This morning's thanks are for what once was.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saturday Morning Catch

For the first time in almost two months, I got up early for the dawn, which set in but fleetingly. You can tell from the first three shots how quickly the sun ducked away under a huge cloud bank that has been up there just about every last Saturday since December-something. But the sun was there, rising in an orange ball behind air heavy as it was with moisture.

Things got gray fast, and then, on my way home, as if it wouldn't be bested, the sun beat back the clouds again and began a reign which has lasted all day. Even a little melting.

I needed to get out to chase the dawn again.

It's fun, even though I never quite get it right. Next week maybe.

Then again, maybe not.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Morning Thanks--a boombox

Maybe if you're a gadzillionaire, it's easy buying gifts for old people, but I doubt it, even then. I've long ago passed the point in life where thinking about what I can get is more interesting than figuring what I can dump. For half of my life, probably, just imagining what goodies I could buy was wonderful; today--no kidding--what I can toss brings me more joy.

And I'm sure it'll only get worse. Buying presents for our two 90-year old parents is virtually impossible. Pictures of their great-grandchildren--that's about the only gift that scores.

So when I opened up the recordings of those old psalms a couple weeks ago, I got the grand idea that bringing them over to Dad's place might just be the kind of gift that blessedly goes on giving, even to a man getting startling close to 100.

So we brought over a couple of ripped CD/R disks, but his old machine wouldn't really hear of such new technology. Went back home, bought him the full set (not cheap), brought them over. For some dang reason, that machine wouldn't play them either, wouldn't play anything, for that matter, simply decided right there that it's playing days were over. We promised him we'd buy him a new one--"they don't cost dirt these days, Dad--no kidding." Last thing he'd want is extravagance.

Last night we picked up one of the only two boom boxes with a tape player left in town--he's got a few tapes he likes--and brought it over. "VOILA!" a few lessons on the buttons, and we've got music, Psalm 1, in fact, a college choir in gorgeous four-part harmony.

Now if he can master those buttons, we're all set.

My wife says she wants a cup of coffee, so the two of us set out for the kitchen at the Home, where the coffee's always on. When we get back to his apartment, Psalm 3 is playing, the college band. It's music he loves, but 25 years ago already his hearing was going, so the volume, a button he's found, is up there high enough to pipe the music down the hallway.

My father-in-law was a wonderful farmer, devoted to his work so greatly that he actually loved his hogs--I'm not lying. But I don't know that anyone ever begged him to join the church choir so he never did much solo work either. Music was never his thing.

No matter. Those old psalms filled a gap in his heart he didn't know had stretched there. Must have been a huge gap too, an echo chamber. He loved 'em. I just hope he remembers which button this morning.

Sometimes I think we're all slow learners, but maybe I shouldn't speak for anyone else. Maybe I'm the only one so challenged.

I mean, I've heard ye olde proverb for most of my life--that one about giving and getting. I know very well it's better to do one than the other. When I'm 92 and not sure of the buttons, I'm guessing I'll still know its somehow better to give than to receive.

But then I don't mind relearning it either, a reminder that there are times when you're just plain happy to be of service, happy to have dropped off one of the town's last tape-blessed boom box, happy to hear the volume cranked up way too high, happy to know that something you did, something you gave away, just made a beating heart sing.

Tomorrow, once again, I'll probably forget.

Oh yeah, and here's what I'm thinking about his neighbors. All of them are ancient Dutch Calvinists too. They won't mind those old psalms bouncing off the walls. Besides, only those with ears will listen.

This morning's thanks is for a boom box, a gift, and an old lesson relearned.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Living in Sin"

Living in Sin

She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate star would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own--
envoy from some village in the moldings...
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

Adrienne Rich

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems this old Adrienne Rich poem has disappeared from contemporary anthologies--at least it's gone from mine. I've taught intro to lit classes dozens and dozens of times, but not for the last decade; and now that I'm back in it again, I have to admit I'm enjoying it. But this old favorite of mine seems gone.

I'm playing around with theme, love, in fact, and I thought of this poem, which used to have a place in just about every anthology. It's wonderfully suggestive images make it fairly accessible to non-poetry types--like most the kids in my class.

It used to work well was because of a relatively wide-spread cultural attitude about the title: most everyone knew what "living in sin" meant--cohabitation outside of marriage. That broadly shared attitude made the poem itself more enticing, even though the portrait it offers isn't exactly a love fest. I'm not sure people talk that way anymore, even in a Christian college.

Honestly, I admit to once believing that "living in sin" was what "Living in Sin" was all about. Besides, if it was about that, it's a great poem to read in Christian college--delightfully moralistic--the wages of sin and all of that.

But the poem is slippery-er than my first reading. After all, there really is no mention of this sad couple's not being married. They could well be. And what happens if they are?

That slippery little ambiguity pitches the easy moralism right out of the classroom window. Maybe this couple isn't really "living in sin" at all. They're "hitched" (all of a sudden that words sounds awful).

If they are married, the dearth of love and joy in their lives suggests another definition altogether of "living in sin."

I confess to reading the poem poorly for a long time, or at least reading it too easily, too moralisticly, too, well "Christianly." The poem works wonderfully that way, that horrific relentless milkman, her inextinguishable guilt, marching up those noisy stairs and into her soul every dang morning. She should not be "living in sin," those footsteps tell her.

But if she's actually married to this hapless, lazy bum, that relentless milkman is but another reminder of the prison she was in yesterday, and will be in again today. Those footsteps have far less to do with her sin than her misery, and "Living in Sin" is a whole different poem.

And far more dangerous.

But I'll try it anyway this morning.

Maybe they'll just be bored. I hope not.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cougar night

So we're in San Antonio--me and a couple of friends even older than I am, and a couple of locals--and we're out for dinner. Well, not dinner really, but we're sampling spectacularly exotic munchies at a eatery/drinkery some people might call "upscale," a really ritzy food joint where the menu consists of dishes I can neither describe nor pronounce. That kind of place.

And the locals tell us that this particular fancy dive is one of three plotted out together, high-roller joints strategically placed in the heart of San Antonio's corporate center community or something, an opulent watering hole for the swaggering Texas execs. And, he says, tonight is "cougar night."

Fortunately, my friends are 15 years or so older than I am and not afraid at all of not knowing what on earth "cougar night" might mean; so they simpy and innocently shrugged their shoulders and admitted their stupidity. And they're smart people. They've written a ton of books most of you have read. Me?--I kept my mouth shut, even though "cougar night" was just as much puzzle to me.

Turns out this upscale joint with $30 appetizers (okay, they were terrific) actually lets it be known that on Thursday night they'll let "older" women in for cheap drinks, "older" women (actually those in the forties and fifties, which are, well, young to me) because the management would really like the place to be a kind of wild life refuge, you might say. Turns out "cougars" are older women who'd like to sink their claws into younger men, men like half their age. Turns out "cougars," this much-younger local guy tells us, are women who want to hook up with good-looking toy boys. "Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson"--that kind of thing.

I had no idea.

No clue whatsoever.

Of course, I live in Iowa.

And, thank goodness, my wife of almost forty years has already passed beyond couger-prime.

Look, at 62, in that wild life refuge, I was safe, not some yearling wildebeest. And to be truthful, even though I kept an eye out closely, I spotted no pride of cougars.

Still, cougars.

Good night, who'd have guessed?

Whatcha' don't learn when you're out of town.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Brave new literary world

In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, David Alpaugh, himself a poet, counts up "The New Math of Poetry" in astounding ways.

"Were a conscientious anthologist of this year's poetry to spend just 10 minutes evaluating each published poem," he says, "he or she would need to work 16,666 hours, which means it would take eight years to assess the eligible poetry for a 2010 anthology." That's how much poetry is being written--how many poets are writing! "If the current rate of growth continues," he maintains, "an anthologist trying to do that in 2100 will spend 141 years reading what promises to be that year's minimum of 1,760,750 published poems."

The grand democracy of the digital age has begotten a world in which everyone can be a writer--or a photographer. It'll cost you little more than time to mount your homemade video on You-Tube, or to create a blog to feature your favorite poets or to publish your own homespun novel. Don't like Best American Short Stories this year?--fine, simply create your own. You can.

Is this incredible sea-change a good thing? In some ways, it's absolutely wonderful. Today, no distinguished ruling tribunal determines what is thoughtful or epoch-making, what is good poetry; today, really, there are no rules--and, more significantly, there are no rulers.

What's incredibly sweet about this new world is that today we're all poets. What's awful about it is the same darn thing. If there are no gate-keepers, who will keep the gate? The answer, of course: no one. Today's literary world is, literally, a free-for-all.

These little shapes dancing out before me now, cured and nurtured into what I consider meaning, make me a writer, just as they would you. We're in a brand new world, where every kid with a guitar and an internet connection can be a musician--and where, therefore, it's becoming more and more difficult to determine really who is.

Take it or leave it--it's where we are today, bobbing along smack dab in the massive flow of the information age that has already devastated the music industry and print journalism, put real photographers out of work, and altered the landscape in publishing forever.

Just remember, it's not costing me a thing to say this either. I'm part of it. So are you. We're all in this together, and who knows where it'll go? No one.

Fascinating. Scary too, somewhat--but really, really fascinating.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Wild night, eh?

Look, some of my best friends are Canadian, eh? And the fact is, nobody-but-nobody really expected the US of A to pull it off last night, right? I mean, playing Canada on their home turf, in hockey, with most of the nation right there in the arena, tickets scalped for four figures!--who could have guessed, right?

It shouldn't have happened. It's like the Hawkeyes whacking Duke in hoops, or the Dordt College Defenders going to the Big Apple and besting the Yankees, two of three. Shoot, it's like Florida beating Iowa in sweet corn, or Tucson turning out finer metwurst than Milwaukee. Not in my wildest dreams. It's a sacrilege, really, like speaking in tongues at a Wicca convention or hearing sweet things about Obama at this weekend's CPAC.

We actually felt bad for our friends when Ryan Kessler flicked that one-hander into the empty net in the last minute. And our pastor, our dear pastor, so unflinchingly maple leaf! We almost prayed for him. Much as I didn't want them to lose, that young American team really should have. I mean, really. There ought to be a law, you know? Sometimes, like King David the poet, you start to wonder who really is in charge.

Among my people--the Dutch Calvinists of North America--the Canadians hold a special place, having come to North America only since the Second World War. The day they arrived in Halifax or Toronto or Vancouver, they were already a breed apart, most of them having stood tooth-and-nail against Hitler and his jackboots for four long cold years. Hard-nosed and opinionated, driven by their convictions, full of swaggering earthiness, they made mincemeat of their North American Dutch Calvinist cousins soon after they arrived, had us for lunch. We were fighting about movies, cards, and dancing; they'd just bested the Third Reich. They knew enemies when they saw them. They were a proud bunch, still are.

And then there's the sad misfortune of having to live next door to the world's only super-power (with apologies to China). Canada is the slight kid whose older brother won Punt, Pass, Kick two years running, not to mention the Nobels. We're massive in everything, including ego; they've got to fight for every bit of pride, especially since most Americans don't know what Saskatchewan is or where on earth to find it.

To most Americans these days especially, Canadians are stupid too, not to mention sickly, having fallen for socialized medicine, which means they stand in line even if all they have is the measles. Furthermore, socialists have no backbone. They don't believe in bootstraps, don't even have 'em. Besides, all those Canadians are on welfare, at least that's what I've heard. And they're unholy--they like gays. What's more, they let anybody into that country. Toronto's like the United Nations, full of burkhas, and who knows what they're carrying under all those robes? No one's in charge up there. And what's with that silly French language all over the place?--don't they know that English is the language of free people and good Christians?

The rhetoric from down here has to have been awful for the last year, just awful. But last night, something even worse happened--Team Canada got nailed by a bunch of upstart Yankees. They lost, 5-3, even though for the last ten minutes, they should have been shooting fish a barrel. They just couldn't hit home. Just couldn't.

Last night, I wasn't so much proud to be an American as I was relieved I wasn't Canadian--imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth, imagine the Labatt's, the Molson. This is how bad it was: by late last night, city officials took a look at a crowd of over 200,000 mad Canucks and shut off the beer. I'm not kidding. That bad. Would it have killed the US to lose?

Really, we felt bad last night. Really, we did.

Goliath dodged 40-some stones, then just reached over and smacked down the shepherd boy. That kind of thing. You sort of feel bad.

Sort of.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Morning Thanks--it won't be long

On the way to Hudson last night for a burger and a beer, we crossed the Big Sioux, where a big herd of deer were standing on the frozen river bed. It was deepening twilight just then, but up against the snow they were unmistakable--it was no vision--just standing there, barely mindful of a Buick that slowed unnaturally as we tried to count them, at least a couple dozen, probably more.

There are more deer in the neighborhood than there were when Siouxland was nothing but an ocean of grass. The prairie is all corn and beans these days, of course, and, for most of any year, food, generally, is no problem. It's not unusual for us spot them were they stood last night, but only occasionally do we see that many. Maybe fifty. Maybe more.

"Where do they sleep?" my wife said, and I couldn't help but wonder myself. The snow this year is remarkable. It's all over, several feet deep on open field and in that strap of woods along the Big Sioux, even over the ice that blankets the river. At the end of our alley, there's a pile that's taller than I am.

A dozen times at least I've walked through woods and tall prairie grass and come on rounded bedding grounds, but I don't know that I could find such things this year, bare spots of ground where they might, for a few hours at least, escape the snow. I didn't have an answer.

And what would they be eating now--saplings, maybe, stripping bark? Maybe that quiet herd on the river were as stupified as they seemed, unsure of how or where they'd spend the night or feed their yearlings. Maybe they herded up because they'd come to realize their only hope for staying warm was being together somewhere, sharing each other's body heat.

I don't repent for braying about the winter of aught-nine, as I have. We've had more snow and cold, without respite, than I can remember; and I've lived here now for more than forty years. I don't even put away the shovels I fight it with anymore. They're stabbed in piles of snow in convenient places for a job that seems and is unending. Just Thursday the temps rose to 26 or so, and I chopped the ice off the front sidewalk for the first time since mid-December, looked back at what I'd done, even took a picture because that patch of dark cement felt like some kind of harbinger of spring. I'm not overstating. It's been a long winter, and next week's forecast promises no particular respite.

But those deer and their sleeping arrangements prompted a verse of scripture to arise in me, part of the legacy of faith, I suppose, something about fox having their holes and homes when the son-of-man has no place to lay his head.

But this winter, I'm not so sure about the critters as Jesus was, over there in warm Palestine. Where do the deer lay their heads, really? How do they endure the cold that seemingly has no end? I'd have liked to slide a microphone up to one of those big bucks along the river and ask him where on earth they found a bed. I wonder. Would he have trembled like an anxious father, his answer a kind of prayer for spring? How are the critters doing this February? I honestly don't know. Are the pheasants finding something, somewhere?

Crows do fine, I guess. I just walked outside to check the sky, and somewhere, maybe a block or two away, their ridiculous cacaphony was already raising a ruckus in the pitch dark of early morning. They come into town and pick a tree together somewhere and swarm. All that noise didn't seem fearful, just loud. I guess they're okay.

It won't be long now, and I'll go back upstairs and crawl back into a bed. Our electric blanket is kicking up a fuss lately, flashing FF, whatever that means, and shutting itself off by early morning, as if it really can't or won't keep up the pace.

No matter. Even without it, we could warm a bed, my wife and I. It's a burden she tells me she must endure--my coming back to bed to wake her. I crawl in beside her to beg the most blessed warmth any one of us can ever share.

All of which reminds me that long ago, when I started this blog, I'd determined to try to bring thanks every morning--for something, anything. We'd all be better off, Garrison Keillor once said, if each of us would take a pledge to be thankful, daily, for something at least.

So this morning it's not that goofy electric blanket for which I'm thankful, it's that warm bed, a place to lay my head and ward off the cold, and the fact that I know my wife will have me.

Last night, for the first time since November, the skies were light enough to see the deer on our way to Hudson. For the first time, we didn't cross the river in darkness.

No matter how high that pile at the end of our alley gets this winter, daylight's lingering now, and it won't be long. It won't be long. It won't be long. Maybe those deer understand that too. I hope they do.

That too is reason for heartfelt thanks. You just know--even though you have to remind yourself--that spring will come. And it won't be long. It won't be long. It won't be long.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Sentimentality, in writing, I'm told, should always just threaten. John Gardner used to say while a story or novel should never be downright sentimental, it should come ridiculously close. What good readers don't want--not all readers, but good readers--is a bulldozer pushing their emotions around; they want to feel on their own, not be told how to feel. Makes sense.

But then, there's the Olympics. Yesterday at this time, no one--not even Evan Lysacek--thought Evan Lysacek could win the gold in men's figure skating. He was, after all, chasing a legend, Russia's defending champion Evgeni . When Plushenkoh walks into a rink, his very presence sucks the oxygen out of the air, as one commentator put it a few nights ago. Sheesh.

The commentator was probably right. No one thought Lysacek would win. No one.

But last night he did.

When it comes to the Olympics, I'm not only a red-blooded patriot, I'm an emotional train wreck. Americans get on the podium, the American flag appears out of nowhere, the National Anthem starts to play, and I get ridiculously teary, even when the winners don't tear up. I'm a sucker for Olympic sentimentality. I sit in the easy chair like Adam, shaking his head, an apple core his hand and a magazine over his privates, Eve delightedly leaving the room in a thong. I fall for the Olympics.

But I can't help it. There's something so innocent and sweet, so pathetically sentimental about David and Goliath stories; and when that level of upset happens at the hands--or feet--of an American (no matter how outlandish the costume) I can't help myself. I'm just so much mush.

And, really, somewhat unapologetic. After all, the Olympics isn't a novel. It's a story, all right, but it isn't imaginative literature. The Olympics are really going on in Vancouver, as we speak. Somewhere, today, Evan Lysacek is having breakfast, a bagel maybe, or those new chocolate Cheerios.

I said somewhat unapologetic. I get this way every four years (well, now every two). And it'll pass. I know it. Ye olde stoic will return. The omniscient narrator will take his rightful place, emotionless and cynical. I'll put away the Kleenex once more, become a good reader once again and maybe even a good writer.

But occasionally, I must admit, there's a darling forbidden pleasure in simply letting yourself get bulldozed. Who's up tonight?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Witless fear and hug lines

It's easy to forget how incredibly scary it is for a student, for the first time, to lay out a story he or she has written in front of her peers and let them go at it. I often tell students that I was scared witless that first time, and I was 30 years old, at least. What's more, I got filleted. I got ground up and spit out. I got dragged behind a semi for more highway miles than I could count.

And then, two weeks, later, that story got published.

All true. That's what I tell them.

But, like I say, it's not hard to forget.

So this week my students' first stories came in, two of them with e-mailed notes admitting they were scared, witless. Like I say, I'd sort of forgotten. But those two notes helped me remember.

So this year I did something I've never done: I gave them a trial run. I went back into the files and found a story from a dozen years ago, relatively short, somewhat ordinary. I ran off copies, brought them along to class, and handed them out, broke them into groups--they'd, of course, never seen that story before--and told them to come back to class in twenty minutes with their copies well marked. And we'd talk. And we did.

Now that old story had a drug scene, and even though I think it safe to say that my students--on the whole--aren't users, nor do they know the whole drug scene all that well, they obviously knew enough--even from TV--to sense that this story's writer, a decade ago, didn't know much either.

"I don't know about the whole drug thing," one student said, skeptically. "It just doesn't feel right."

We've talked about authority in writing, how crucial it is to be able to sell the givens of a story. If you want to hold on to the fictional dream (John Gardner), you can't have people sensing that you don't know diddly about what you're trying to make us believe you do.

"So how many of you agree?" I said, and most of the 20-some students, somewhat fearful of their own skepticism, reluctantly raised their hands (I have sweet students). But that first comment broke through the reluctance, and condemnation starting rolling down like justice is supposed to. Right before my eyes, a bandwagon appeared.

There was a hangin' coming, I knew, so I told the madding crowd that next week--when their own workshopping begins--the same darn thing is likely to happen, only they'll be looking at the actual writer, not thinking of her in the abstract, because next week the writers R US or whatever.

That quieted the mob into stony silence.

Teaching can be fun. If it wasn't, I'd quit in a minute.

"So," one of them says, meekly, "when we're done, can we have a hug line?"

Simply wonderful moment. I still laugh to see that line on the page.

When I came home that night, I spotted the phone off the hook, which told me my wife had fielded a difficult call--I knew it. And I was right. I heard the story.

What I'm thinking is that maybe the student is right. Maybe there ought to be more hug lines.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Field of Dreams

The first time my mother saw me all scrubbed up and church-clean, the doctor had me under her arm like a bed roll, she says. When she put me into my mother's lap there in the hospital room, that woman doctor told her that her new baby boy was so healthy she could throw me out in some field somewhere and I could just as easily make it on my own.

My mother told me that story a dozen times, maybe more, a birthday story, but I've never told it myself. Seems a bit vainglorious, and the truth is I've not always been the picture of health anyway. Not that I'm complaining.

That open field talk happened 62 years ago today, which means that today is my birthday. And even though my mother is likely to tell me the story again when I call this morning, I thought I'd beat her to it.

All of which has me numbering my days again. Not that my opinion carries much weight, but this morning I think I'd tell Bret Favre to retire, if he'd ask. What he did last year is one fine swan song, and odds are he won't repeat. But then, who knows?--maybe he'll come back and try it again, take a shot at the top for a grand finale.

But I remember Willie Mays too, how he played with gimpy knees when his legend vastly surpassed his diminished abilities. I remember seeing him gimp along, a man who once upon a time could cover center field like no one else in MLB. I remember catches he didn't make, running, as he was, on little more than reputation. Favre risks leaving that sad species of memory in the minds of kids of all ages.

And me? For the first time in my life I'm sort of proud to say it's my birthday. After age 21, most birthdays feel like the opening bars of a funeral dirge; but now that I'm steadily climbing toward retirement, and retirement seems something akin to the Elysian fields, I'm not shy about flashing the numbers. "Four more years," I used to say, as if it were a political convention. Now it's only three.


Then again, maybe more.

But what happens if between now and quitting time the knees go? What happens if I become Mr. Wilson, the bald old grouch next door in Dennis the Menace? What happens if I stand up in a classroom and make center field a joke?

I don't want that to happen. I want to quit at the top of my game--or at least somewhere I'm not limping along.

Here's what I'm thinking. That woman doctor who delivered me had absolutely no idea I'd end up out here on the edge of the Great Plains, but seeing that here's where I am, I'll take her out-in-the-field gambit and do her one better. Here where the buffalo (used to) roam, the ancient bulls knew dang well how to number their days; and when they did, and when gimpy knees and shortened breath seemed all too regular, those old bulls simply and silently walked away from the herd. No cakes, no retirement watches. They ambled up and over some prairie hill to get to a place where they'd be alone; and that's where it ended, all by their lonesomes, away from the herd. At 62, that's the kind of all-alone field I tell myself I want to be in.

Sometimes I tell my students that someday they'll see me walking up one of those hills just east of the Big Sioux River, maybe a little gimpy, but moving steadily, like an old bull, walking away, full of dignity and pride.

With this catch. Somewhere just over that hill, in a stretch of meadow between some scrub oaks, I'll have a cabin like Thoreau, with a soft chair and an ottoman, a desk, and an laptop, a shelf of good books and a chaise lounge just outside where the jays, the squirrels, and the deer can entertain. And my wife will be there too, just the two of us.

That's what's in that field where, even at 62, I could grow up all by myself.

Just last week, me and the orthopedic surgeon had a powwow. He said he didn't really want to put me under the knife. If those bad knees kept hurting me, he said he'd squirt me full of steriods, like a ball player, like some hobbling center fielder. We struck a deal.

And that's okay. Maybe the knees aren't what they were, but I'm thinking I've still got some hills to climb.

That open field never sounded quite so good.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Morning Thanks--family

My morning thanks are for this wonderful traditional folk tune on an album from Chanticleer, Our American Journey. Their rendition is haunting and beautiful, but the poem itself--the text--is spellbinding. If you click on "Calling My Children Home" in the box to the left, you'll hear it. It's worth your time.

It's very simple really--just a mother, talking, hoping. Just a mom. Just her prayer. I decided to use it this morning as I try for about the fortieth time to awaken some kids' to the beauty of poetry, the first in a bunch of great poems about family. Why not start with this sweet lyric? They're young, but they'll get it, I think. I hope. I pray.

"Calling My Children Home" is, really, a blessing, this morning or any. Here's the old lyrics, the poet unknown and gone, but not forgotten:

Calling My Children Home

Those lives were mine to love and cherish.
To guard and guide along life’s way.
Oh God forbid that one should perish.
That one alas should go astray.
Back in the years with all together,
Around the place we’d romp and play.
So lonely now and oft- times wonder,
Oh will they come back home some day.

I’m lonesome for my precious children,
They live so far away.
Oh may they hear my calling...calling..
And come back home some day.

I gave my all for my dear children,
Their problems still with love I share,
I’d brave life’s storm, defy the tempest
To bring them home from anywhere.

I lived my life my love I gave them,
To guide them through this world of strife,
I hope and pray we’ll live together,
In that great glad here afterlife.

I’m lonesome for my precious children,
They live so far away.
Oh may they hear my calling...calling..
and come back home some day.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sweet Talk

"Should I turn it down some, sweetie?" he asked her, his hand caressing her bare arm.

"Oh, snookums, you know I love the bee gees," she told him.

You know what I'm talking about--the kind of smarmy chatter that oozes out of mutual infatuation when two love birds are head-over-heels gone. Sweet talk is language that makes sense only when it's being blubbered intimately by two people so far gone they can't help themselves. Hide a digital recorder behind the visor of a parked car some night when a couple of 17-year-olds are hooking up, and you'll get all sorts of silliness.

I've been reading some of it lately in a batch of papers from students, the very same sappy stuff, and most of the time it just doesn't work, which is to say it just doesn't sound convincing, not because the student writers aren't good--they are--but because, I'm convinced, a writer simply has to earn emotion.

If you talk about wiping away tears, I tell my students, then you dang well better make the reader reach for Kleenex. I've never said it yet, but it's equally true of this lovey-dovey stuff--you have to earn it. Otherwise sweet talk just sounds sappy--worse yet, tinny. It makes us laugh. When it shouldn't. For a story-teller/fiction writer, inappropriate guffaws are deadly.

So anyway, last night at church a few people tried their level best to read the Song of Solomon dramatically; after all, the lines are clearly marked--the beloved, the lover, etc. The only problem is, some good guy from the congregation going on about his beloved's breasts like a pair of white-tailed deer just sounds goofy--yeah, and tinny too. Giggle-able. Why? Because the words just don't ring true out of the bedroom, certainly not in the public square. What I'm saying is that the Song of Solomon isn't meant for choral reading, and I don't care if the male lead is Leonardo DiCaprio. It's blubbery. Love talk sure as anything has its place. Confession: I've used it myself; but when the praise team does it, the eeeuuuuwww factor climbs precipitously.

But then there's this: our preacher says that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the very last weeks of his life, found great comfort in the scriptures, as one might expect, but especially, our pastor said, in the Song of Songs. That's right. And that is rich, and even understandable, life itself drawing to a close.

But even that usage is private, or so it seems to me. Everyman was all by his lonesome when he finally faced the grim reaper, and that lesson was never so clear to me as when my own mother-in-law died just a few months ago--or my father before her. No one comes with us to the grave, save the Lord, the true and eternal lover.

All of that makes darlingly good sense, or so it seems to me, the cynic.

Don't get me wrong--I'm happy the Song of Songs made it into the canon, snookums.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ash Wednesday--a story. Part II

Jamie Laarman rolled his eyes. "Give me a break--I got ticked off because of the way he looked at me, not because of the ash."

"You think,” Conroy said, “that today when they come back from church with ash splashed on their foreheads, they turn into angels?"

Laarman shrugged his shoulders. "Why go through all the lunacy of putting. . ."

"See, 'lunacy,'" Conroy said. "You said lunacy, didn’t you? You're prejudice all right--"

"I didn't mean it."

"And it's not lunacy."

Finally Laarman sat down. "I'm sorry I said that," he said. "I didn't mean it that way."

"You know what it means?" Conroy said.

"'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust--I may have been raised Protestant, but I'm not feeble-minded."

"Frailty," Conroy said, "you know anything about fraility, about sinfulness, about weakness, Jamie?-–you ever hear that kind of language in your church?"

"Of course,” Laarman said. “I’m sorry--I never saw anything like this. I look up at my kids after lunch, and half of them have smudgy foreheads, including Bob Westgard, the biggest jerk in school." He pointed, pointedly, at Conroy. "You tell me what did it mean to him? Ash Wednesday?"

"You Protestants,” he said, “you’re big on judging, aren’t you?”

"Now who's prejudice?" Jamie said.

"Seriously," Conroy said. "It's a thing with you have, isn't it–looking at people as if you can tell whether or not they’re glory bound."

"I'm not sending the kid to hell," Jamie told him. "I just don't want him in my class. I don't ever want to see that kid again. He's a slime ball."

"Let me tell you something, Jamie," Conroy told him. "You're one of the finest first year teachers I've ever had, and it's because you're a believer.” He sat back down, put both hands in front of him. "But you don't know a thing about Catholicism. Those smudgy foreheads mean we got burned, Jamie–-you and me, Catholics and Prots–-we all got burned when we got locked out of the garden, when we got banished." He pointed. “You know what I’m saying? The ash says we’re out–-you and me both.”

"And Bobby Westgard,” Jamie said, “because that's what I want you to do: boot him. I won't have the kid in my class," he said. "That's all I came to tell you--he's not coming back."

"So much for the whole damn human race," Conroy told him.

Laarman rolled his eyes. "I don’t want to argue Catholic tradition here, okay?” he said. “Besides, I say it means nothing at all to kids like--"

"Who's talking Catholic here?" Conroy said.

Jamie looked up angrily. "Well, look at this," he pointed to his forehead. "There’s nothing here!"

"You're proud of that?" Conroy said.

Jamie got back up on his feet. "Look, I got to get back to my class. You talk to him, all right? You tell him I won't have him back. That's all I'm saying."

“He gave you a look you didn’t like, right? Like Adam, maybe.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake.”

Conroy reached into his desk, took out a pencil, and started shading a circle on scratch paper, a circle of darkness a half dollar wide. "I'll talk to Bobby Westgard," he said. "I'll tell him he can't go back to the garden."

“Is this some kind of morality play? Give me a break.”

Conroy kept darkening the circle. "So tell me," he said, "just how long did the two of you boogie around the cars out there before you finally threw in the towel?"

"Too dumb long," Laarman said.

"And Westgard’s still out there, I suppose?"

"I couldn't catch him."

"Ticked you off, I bet," Conroy said.

"I'd have killed him."

"I believe it." Conroy dropped the pencil and pushed his thumb into the black spot he'd pencilled in. "Tell you what–-let me make you a Catholic–-just today," he said, raising his thumb, black from the pencil lead. "Come here," he said, getting up off his chair.

"I'm not wearing no smudge," Jamie said. "I’m already embarrassed.”

Conroy looked at his thumb. "I guess it doesn't matter, does it?--whether the ash is up there on your head or not," he said. "Just as long as we all know we got smudges–you and me and Bobby Westgard."

“What are you trying to say?”

Conroy put his thumb up to his own forehead and smeared it with pencil shavings. "The odd part is, I can't see it myself. It's meant for you too--after all, right now, you're the one staring." He picked a Kleenex out of the box on his desk, wiped off his thumb, then pointed up at his own forehead. "Ask not for whom the ash smudges, Mr. Laarman," he said. “You get what I’m saying?”

He held that sheet of paper out to Jamie. “I’m no priest,” he said, “but you’re no Catholic either.”

“You really want me to?” Jamie said.

“Just as long as you understand,” Conroy said. “Just as long as you understand, you hear?”

Jamie took that sheet of paper out of his principle’s hand, looked at it carefully, then folded it, neatly, and stuck it in his pocket. “I get it,” he said. “I’m out of the garden, just like all those kids.” He laughed to himself. “It’s something I always knew, I guess,” he said. “When you grow up a Christian, you learn some things, but I guess that doesn’t mean they stick, does it? You have to learn it over and over, don’t you?”

“There isn’t a one of us who’s really honor roll,” Conroy told him. “Now you better get back to class before those kids take your room apart.”

“They're going to laugh,” Jamie said. "They saw me out there chasing the kid."

“I can’t help it–-so am I,” Conroy told him, “once you leave this room. You think they look funny–-all that ash on their foreheads--just think what you liked chasing Bobby Westgard around some Grand Am. What a hoot.”

And with that, Jamie Laarman laughed. He opened the door, smiling, and when he walked out, he greeted the secretary sweetly, in a way that shocked her, after the rage she'd seen when he stormed in.

Conroy stepped into the corridor. “He couldn’t catch him,” he told his secretary. “He chased Bobby Westgard all around the parking lot, and he couldn’t catch him,” and then he burst out laughing.

“What on earth you say to him anyway?" she asked him, looking up. "And by the way," she said, somewhat testily, "I wish you'd tell me when you step out--I'd like to know."

"I've not been gone," he said.

"Even to go to church," she told him, and when Conroy looked at her strangely, she pointed up to his forehead.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ash Wednesday--a story. Part I

It was lucky Conroy was in his office, or in his total exasperation Jamie Laarman would have spilled it all to the secretary--that's how angry he looked and how badly he needed to unload his frustration.

"He's not coming back in," Laarman told his principal. "I've had it with the kid. He's a jerk, and he's pushed me over the line. He's out of my class forever."

Conroy swung his chair away from the computer screen and stood. "Shut the door," he said. "And right now, who's with your class?"

Laarman felt behind him for the knob. "Nobody's got my kids. They're ripping the room apart, and frankly, I don't care."

That Jamie Laarman didn't slam the door seemed to Principal Conroy a sign of hope.

"I came to tell you that that little fiend is not coming back into my class."

"What'd he do?" Conroy said, pointing to a chair that Laarman refused.

"Smarted off," Laarman said quickly.

Conroy let that comment sit for a minute, didn't push this first year teacher's rage, pointed instead once more at a chair that once more Laarman refused. “What’d he do?” Conroy asked.

Laarman looked up to the ceiling as if he’d suffered a Titanic’s worth of exasperation. "He gave me this look," he said.

"What'd he say?" Conroy asked.

"He just gave me this look–he didn't say nothing," Laarman told him.

Jamie Laarman was a first-year English teacher and a good one too, so Conroy let him have that double negative–it was for emotional emphasis after all, and emotion was something Laarman was full of. "You want me to boot him out of your class because he looked at you funny?" Conroy said. Do I have this right?"

"You didn't see him," Laarman said. "It was pure belligerence."

"He didn't say a thing? he didn't moon you? didn't slug anybody? didn't cuss? didn't flip you a bird?"

"Don't take his side," Laarman said.

"I'm not,” Conroy said. “I'm trying to find out what happened–that’s my job, remember?" He pointed again at the chair.

"I left my class alone," Laarman said. “I don’t have time to sit.”

"Once more now, Jamie. Tell me again how it went–he gave you this look, right?"

"He gave me this look, and I blew up," Laarman told him. For the first time since he’d stormed into the office, Jamie looked ashamed. His eyes dropped. "And he knew it. The minute he saw the look on my face--I didn't even yell--he took off."

"He took off?" Conroy said.

"Out of the room."

"Out of the room?"


"Running? Where?"


"Outside the school?"

"Right out the door and outside the school."

"So Mr. Laarman actually chased Bob Westgard right out the school–-through the hallway and everything?"

"Into the parking lot."

"The parking lot?"

"Around the cars."

"You’re pulling my leg."

"I did."

"And you never caught him, either."

Just like that, rage darkened Laarman's face. "How did you know?" he said.

"Westgard's half your size–-like a middle guard chasing a wide receiver.” Laarman looked ashamed again. “Besides,” Conroy said, “if you'd caught him, right now you'd be confessing to murder–-mad as you are."

"That's right," Laarman said. "And what gets me too is that stupid ash on his forehead." He pointed to his own face, pulling his eyes cross-eyed.

Conroy broke into a laugh. "Let me get this straight here now–-Bobby Westgard, who’s not one of my all-time favorites–-comes back from church at noon hour with ash on his forehead; he smarts off in your class, gives you some kind of mocking look that threw you into righteous fit; you chased him out of the room and into the parking lot.” He couldn’t help but chuckle. “And you didn’t catch the little devil either, so the two of you–oh, no,” he said. “So the two of you probably did this dance around the cars, right?”

Jamie Laarman looked out the office window.

"And the whole class was watching?"

Jamie looked down at the clenched fists.

But Conroy was on a roll now, so he didn’t let up. "And all of this happened on Ash Wednesday, and what really ticks you off, Jamie, is that this Catholic kid smarts off while he's got ashes on his forehead."

"No," Laarman said. "It's not prejudice."

"Come on," Conroy said. "That's what gets you, isn’t it? that the ritual doesn't count-- that ash on his forehead doesn't mean diddly to this punk, Westgard." He stood up and put both hands on the desk, then leaned slowly backward. "You got burned by a kid with ash on his face, and you’re thinking that if he’s so religious as he thinks he is, then he ought to behave like it that's what you're steamed about, isn't it? Sheesh, this is Ireland all over again, you dirty rotten Protestant."

(to be continued)

Friday, February 12, 2010

The winter of the rooftop glacier

So anyway this friend of mine, a colleague, says he calls it "the winter of the icicle." Good night, he's not wrong. The town's a cave of mammoth stalactites, Rip Van Winkle beards hanging low wherever you look. Everyone has them, and some of them are just plain huge.

Generally, snow out here on the edge of the plains won't pile up because the wind takes it elsewhere. Where, I don't know. But most winters, cross-country skiers have to go north for their workouts, or simply hit their basement Nordic Tracs. Not this year--this is the year for cross-country skis. You can go anywhere, even down the street. Since January. Shoot, since Christmas.

The snow has accumulated, piled up like bread a'risin. Even on roofs. So we've had this strange combination of listless snow, cold temps, and just enough sun to make roofloads of snow melt down ever so slowly. The result is icicles for the record books. Like I said, they're everywhere.

And if the global warmers are concerned, as they should be, about melting glaciers in Alaska or wherever up north, they shouldn't worry that we'll forget the concept. In the town where I live, everyone has glaciers, too. I'm more of a worrier than my colleague, I guess, because I'd prefer to think of it as "the winter of the glacier," huge bulging ice chunks threatening the heck out of my gutters and everyone else's.

Okay, I admit it--I didn't climb up on my roof last fall and empty the gutters of leaves. In a village of Calvinists, in a normal year, my sin might well cry out mightily. But this year, roofs are covered in a wave of glaciers that make it impossible to judge thy neighbor's indolence. Everybody has icicles, and everybody has glaciers. They come with the territory, so to speak.

I worry, of course, that my gutters will soon come a'tumblin' down, once the melting starts--and it will, despite the epoch-making winter. With the cold continuing, that fat lip of ice just above the gutter will only grow, I'm sure, it's bulk threatening the entire gutter system.

No matter. For awhile at least, it's instructive, I think, to see before me the very principle of the glacier in evidence on my very own roof--and my neighbor's. In spades.

So last night I was thinking about that while observing the phenomenon, hunting like Thoreau to find some corresponding life's moral in the sagging bulge on my gutter. All I could come up with was this: when things get old, they eventually start to sag, badly, into unsightly lumpiness--and get heavy, very heavy. And cumbersome, moving very, very slowly, moving glacially, one might say. And then, if they don't ruin everything, finally, their cold lives behind them, they simply melt away.

That's what I was thinking. Don't you hate moralists?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Morning Thanks--and what belongs to Caesar

Not everything Jesus said was so straightforward, which is not to say the answer he gave his badgering critics was still all that clear. They were after him when they asked him whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Rome.

Luke's account of the story says he wasn't naive--he knew their game. "Show me a coin," he told them, and when they did he asked them whose picture they saw.

"Caesar's," they told him.

"Then give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

Cute. Sharp. Easy enough. An answer for all times and places.

Don't I wish?

An op-ed in this morning's New York Times makes the argument that Iran is changing because the people seem to be learning that Christ's answer to that question is far better than the mullah's. They're discovering that rule by religion not only isn't working, but isn't healthy; so they're becoming, as we are, Reuel Marc Gerecht asserts, secularized.

Let's be straight: the good news is Iran is changing, which is to say that Islam is changing. Hallelujah. We'd all sleep a better if Islamic radicalism would bow out quietly, not with a bang but a whimper. We'd all breath more easily if some Muslims--lots of them--weren't convinced God wanted them to root their government in laws defined and determined by their honcho religious leaders.

Wouldn't it be great if the Middle East suddenly decided that the separation of church and state wasn't a bad idea? Pax Romana. Pax whatever. Sing Hallelujah.

Iran is becoming, Gerecht says, more like us, more secular.

Confession: I'm personally not particularly comfortable with that label, but I suppose it's true. I am secularized. Wow, sort of hurts to say it. But the fact is, I'm not campaigning for a biblical takeover of Washington. I'm willing to live and let live, even with some things that strike me as wrong, biblically--say legalized abortion on one hand, and libertarianism on the other. There are times in this country, when, as an American, you've got to hold your nose, or shut up, or only work, well, personally, when and how you can at significant change.

In fact, in this country at this time, I'd just as soon avoid religious fundamentalism (think Pat Robertson's views of history and Haiti) as that old nemesis, "secular humanism."

Does that make me anything less of a believer? I don't think so. I'm not giving away my identity or my confession. I'm just giving to Caesar what is his--and to God, what is God's. Or at least, I hope I am.

I wish that whole business were cleaner than it is, but my guess is it never will be--as Christ obviously knew. I wish it was all black and white. I wish that if all Christians would sit down and list what goes on either side of the Caesar/God ledger, our lists would look exactly the same--but Lord knows they don't or wouldn't.

So we try to get along. We scrape and we beef, and sometimes we call each other names. But all but the most ideological among us still believe something of this: to live together we can't tote our religious loyalties, like Browning Automatic Rifles, into the fray. We have hold some things back.

We're secularized. I'm secularized.

Something about that line still hurts. But then, in life, you learn to play with hurt.

Anyway, I love it when sweet secularism sweeps through Iran. I'll believe it when I see it, but this morning I'm thankful that, according to Mr.Gerecht, it's happening.

Becoming secularized never sounded quite so good.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Morning Thanks--old yeller

It's steel corners are curled up like a fairy's toes, its yellow paint mostly stripped long ago. If it's not stabbed in a snowbank, you'll see that where that paint isn't the blade is tinged with rust. Its handle is smooth as glass from all the handling, all the work it's done for a quarter century. By far--by far!--it's the heaviest of the shovels in my aresenal, and the oldest.

Some winters, I swear, it never gets out of the barn rafters where I keep all my snow shovels. It stays up there with the ice pick. Some winters I get by with the plastic ones--thank goodness--or barely anything at all. Some winters, for the most part, a leaf blower might get me through to March. I swear that happens.

We've had cold since mid-December, snow for just about as long. Last week, snow showers fell constantly from Thursday until Monday afternoon--I'm not lying. Intermittent sleet only makes things worse of course, because a treacherous layer of ice on just about everything makes keeping the walks clean an almost impossible task. Almost. Here and there one can locate truly righteous people by their bare, naked cement; but for the most part the frustration and even anger about this incredible, eternal winter is witnessable in the lumpy footpaths that are all that's left of the sinners' abandoned sidewalks.

Something popped in my knee last week, and I haven't walked well since. Makes no difference. Even if I were fit as a fiddle, I'd look like an old man walking home from school, each foot thoughtfully placed beneath me to balance my bulk. I'm all slow motion these days, sheer ice on street and sidewalk.

But I was talking about that ancient yellow shovel, curled up like a plow, the one that sometimes doesn't even get out in the winter. This year it's the only one I use, heavy as lead or not. It's the only one that gets anywhere close to shaving off the heavy stuff that alights (bad word) on those sidewalks of mine. It's sharp blade digs deepest. That beast is a blasted pain to lift, of course, and the banks are climbing close to three feet on both sides of the walk; but old yeller is just about the only one I use. This year.

This year.

So, Ms. Granddaughter, when you come downstairs with your grandpa and, in sheer awe, ask me what on earth I'm going to do with all this stuff in the basement when I die, let me tell you about that ugly old yeller shovel leaning against the barn, the one that's shed sheets of its paint a decade ago already. Let me remind you that several times I've thought of just tossing that ancient implement of winter war, that rusty, old hernia-maker, but never quite carried out the plan. It just got stored again.

You never know, you know? You just never know. Some of this stuff might just come in handy when the blizzards arrive, my dear. You just never know.

Saith the hoarder.

This morning, I'm thankful for old yeller.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Once upon a time, I met a woman who, like me, was, back then, an aspiring writer. Because her parents were Dutch Reformed, we found, almost immediately, a kinship that lasted for at least a couple of days. She was married, I was married, but we were thrown together at a writers conference and, for a time at least, spent some time with one another.

Not long after, however, this young, beautiful woman got herself royally wooed by a celebrity poet, and for the ten days thereafter the two of them were never out of each other's presence. Never.

When the conference ended, the two of us left on the same flight. It was a small airport, and I remember walking up a staircase to the plane. We'd been talking, about things in general. I'm sure I didn't say a word about her romantic coupling, even though, at the conference, it certainly hadn't been secret. Anything but.

We were on our way up those steps, when she said something to me that I've never forgotten. "Jim," she said, "I hope this plane crashes."

There's more to the story, much more, really, because that moment created the space for a self-evaluation in me, a bout with the possibilities of death itself. I was 32 years old. But that's another story.

As it turns out, she left her husband for the celebrity poet, and then, later on, divorced him as well. She's gone on to significant fame as a poet herself and written two memoirs which I haven't read and didn't even know of until just Sunday, her birthday, when I read a bit of news I must have missed months ago.

It seems she'd married a third time to a man who, not long after, had died of cancer. Many of her subsequent poems laid open her pain at his leaving her.

In April of last year, the cruelist month, she left home and walked to the football stadium of the university where she'd taught, climbed up to the highest row, and leaped to her death. The police ruled out foul play, but suicide is definitely a form of foul play.

I didn't know any of that until Sunday.

Thirty years ago I knew her, and I'll never forget the last words she said to me: "I hope this plane crashes."

Thirty years later, for reasons I don't know, in a way, I guess, it did.

I ordered her two memoirs. They'll likely arrive today. I want to know more about her life, want to know if after she got on that plane and it didn't crash, she ever found happiness.

I hope so. I really do.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Morning Thanks--for a minor prophet

Had she harbored some design for what she said, I would not have been so shocked. If she had been talking about wanting something from down here--say, her great-grandmother's dusty old hourglass or that little sculpted peasant from Brazil--I would have given it up, anything at all, for that matter.

Besides, my granddaughter is not that wiley. Had she wanted something, she would have asked, straight out, "Papa, may I have this little sheep here?" and I wouldn't have--I couldn't have--said no. She is, after all, my granddaughter, my only granddaughter.

But what she said didn't have an agenda, nor was she being cute or coy or cunning. We'd come down into the basement here together because I wanted to grab a camera, and she was standing beside me, in a kind of vacant awe, gazing at the detritus all around her here in the basement.

That's when she said it, somewhat haltingly. "Papa," she said, pulling the hair back out of her eyes, "there's just so much stuff down here." In a kind of awe, really. She said what she did because what she saw before her was, simply, something remarkable. And then, "What are you going to do with all of this when you die?"

Not a bit rude or presumptuous, just honest awe.

I just shook my head. "I don't know, my dear," I told her.

That I'm still laughing doesn't mean that I don't have to think more seriously about cleaning house.

Nonetheless, she gets minor prophet status today for such a grave warning.

And my morning thanks.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Morning Thanks--Birthday greetings

They never crossed paths, although they each spent considerable time in each other's neighborhoods. One of them, a daughter of the pioneering days, didn't write much at all until she looked back on a girlhood she thought of as idyllic, even though most of it happened the rough American wilderness was still being settled. You can find a dozen towns in the American Midwest today that celebrate their right to the beloved heritage of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The other, a much younger male, got sick unto death of what that same world looked like once all the pioneering dust had settled. Sinclair Lewis made his literary fortune by making fun of the descendants of the people Ms. Wilder loved, people from whom he'd himself come, ordinary folks from small-town Minnesota, the same folks Garrison Keillor has made a career of chronicling.

It's their mutual birthday today--Ms. Wilder and Mr. Lewis, highly esteemed writers from America's Upper Midwest, as honored and celebrated as any writers whose roots are here. But they couldn't be more different.

Laura Ingalls Wilder loved her world and those who peopled it. Lewis hated it. Wilder romances the reader with sweet tales sixth grade girls can love. Lewis's bitterness enchants cynics. Both bring joy, I suppose, but the tonal qualities are at exact opposite ends of the spectrum.

Wilder's books have never gone out of print. I'm sure Lewis's haven't either. But the only place you'll find Sinclair Lewis these days is English departments. Laura Ingalls Wilder's books still find their way into the hands of new readers, none of whom read them for credit.

Takes all kinds, prairie wisdom asserts, and it does. Garrison Keillor isn't all warm fuzzies, and part of the attraction of the Cohn brother's Fargo is that the film about the very same region has a sweet bit of Laura Ingalls Wilder, as well as a good stiff shot of Sinclair Lewis.

The truth is, I've read a ton of Lewis; and even though I've seen hundreds of Little House TV episodes, I've never read a single Wilder novel and probably never will.
But even though that's true, and even though I'll likely not read either of them again, of the today's two birthday people, I'd rather be Wilder than Lewis.

And I can tell you why, too--through the eyes of another Midwestern writer, Ted Koozer, in this morning's Writer's Almanac, where I discovered these birthday parties. Ted Koozer knows how to count his blessings. Ted Koozer knows how to offer morning thanks. Ted Koozer knows what he wants, and it's not much.

This Paper Boat

Carefully placed upon the future,
it tips from the breeze and skims away,
frail thing of words, this valentine,
so far to sail. And if you find it
caught in the reeds, its message blurred,
the thought that you are holding it
a moment is enough for me.

Something tells me Ms. Wilder would like that poem. Mr. Lewis would just cackle.

But they're all wonderful blessings--Wilder, Koozer, Keillor, and Sinclair Lewis too, all of them. This Sunday morning, I'm thankful, seriously, for each of them.

"This Paper Boat" by Ted Kooser, from Valentines. (c) University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
You can listen to this morning's Writers Almanac at,k68d,dv,ch2w,1k6c,lxj6,d21w

Friday, February 05, 2010

Morning Thanks--a poem

If I'm not mistaken, it was the very first writing conference I ever attended--at UW-LaCrosse--and the featured writer was Robert Bly, Minnesota's ace, who later went on to make a mint beating his chest for men's stuff. No matter. He read his poetry while accompanying himself on his dulcimer at the conference, and I thought the whole thing enchanting.

I remember him quoting Whitman in a kind of swoon. "I heard you, solemn sweet pipes of the organ. . ." He made me appreciate Whitman in a way I never had before.

But only one thing he said that night stayed with me, and that was a kind of encyclical he pronounced almost in jest: "No one should write anything until they're 35." I'm not sure he made the pronoun error I just did, but that was the effect. I'm quite sure I wasn't--35, I mean; but I was old enough to understand what he meant.
And it's Robert Bly I thought of when I read this morning's Writer's Almanac poem, so wise it stops me in my morning tracks, because this guy knows, too.

Father to the Man

Tom C. Hunley

The OBGYN said babies almost never
arrive right on their due dates, so
the night before my firstborn was due
to make his debut, I went out with the guys

until a guilt‑twinge convinced me to convince them
to leave the sports bar and watch game six
on my 20‑inch, rabbit eared, crap TV. After we
arrived, my wife whispered, "My water broke"

as the guys cheered and spilled potato chips
for our little dog to eat up. I can't remember
who was playing whom, but someone got called
for a technical, as the crowd made a noise

that could have been a quick wind, high‑fiving
leaf after leaf after leaf. I grabbed our suitcase
and told the guys they cold stay put, but we
were heading for the hospital and the rest of

our lives. No, we're out of here, they said.
Part of me wanted to head out with them,
back to the smell of hot wings and microbrews,
then maybe to a night club full of heavy bass

and perfume, or just into a beater Ford with a full
ash tray, speeding farther and farther into
the night, into nowhere in particular. Instead I walked
my wife to our minivan, held her hand as she

stepped down from the curb, opened her door,
shut the suitcases into the trunk, and
ran right over that part of me, left it
bleeding and limping like a poor, stupid squirrel.

from Octopus. (c) Logan House, 2008.

There is, of course, no accounting for taste, and on the night before the birth of our first child I certainly wasn't out with the boys at some sports bar or watching the NBA finals with a gang of Schlitz swillers in our apartment. Nothing like that at all.

But count me among those who would say, unequivocally, that while getting married didn't alter the course of my life all that much, the ship of state got totally rerouted when that first child made her glorious debut.

Some old self, sure as anything, got flattened; and when I remember that moment now--happily, I might add, looking down the long road behind me--I sure as anything see that poor, stupid squirrel.

This morning's simple thanks?--for a story, a poem, and a poor, stupid squirrel.