Morning Thanks

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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Weather--blessings and curses


That spring has sprung out here isn't news. Southern winds trucked warm air up from this nation's sweet spots for several days already, howling along in fashion no one groused about, given the comforting warmth it was transporting so delightfull . You can actually just stand outside in shirtsleeves. Hundreds did.

For two weeks already the snow-cover has been gone, even though here and there dead sheep--the old dirt-spattered banks--still litter the place, a huge, dirty teepee still attending a giant maple right outside my office window. There's a pool betting on the day that glacier dies.

It was, methinks, the worst winter in my 40 years here on the edge of the Plains. The Old Man cut us no slack; what descended in November stayed put until March. When the college kid who scaled our roof descended, he told me he'd shoveled off two levels of powder between three levels of ice. No one ever pulled back the quilt winter laid all season long.

Most those men in seed caps just assumed massive floods once the sun came out again, but a slow rise in temps meant a leisurely melt--and, that massive snow blanket kept the ground snuggled. Beneath it, just an inch or so of frost stepped out quickly, and all that melting snow went straight down, where it'll do some read good instead of running off into the gutter and sewer. Winter's lion wandered off like some lost sheep.

But not until this morning, when I walked outside before five was I awakened to the new world by melodies of a couple of robust robins somewhere close. The almost-full moon lit the world nicely, throwing down shadows I'm not accustomed to seeing on my way out to the barn. But what was most noticeable--I wore shorts to the gym for the first time--was how warm it was. Fifty degrees. Almost shockingly warm. May warm. June warm. Not March warm.

Too warm. Scary warm.

So now this Calvinist is worried. After all, suffer as we did through the world's worst winter hereabouts, we don't really deserve this, all those blooming crocuses notwithstanding. Immediately--is it the Iowan in me or the old man or that rapscallion Calvinism?--I'm thinking that if its this warm, it's got to mean "tornado." After all, we can't possible deserve anything so sweet as early morning warmth. We're sinners. And besides, the weather in northwest is never that resplendent with grace. An old woman once told me that out here we get just ten good days a year, which was a way of saying shuttup and be happy wid watcha got.

Better get a flashlight and make sure the radio has batteries. Check the radar once in a while today. Can't be good. Anything this wonderful has to be trouble.

Beware.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Women judging men


“If the church could throw open its stained glass windows and let in some air, invite women to be priests, nuns to be more emancipated and priests to marry, if it could banish criminal priests and end the sordid culture of men protecting men who attack children, it might survive.”

Thus saith Roman Catholic New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in Sunday’s Times. I’m not a Catholic, and I’m not at all interested in suggesting what Roman Catholics must or must not do to change or save their church, our mother church. That’s not my business.

But I have great sympathies with what she says about “the sordid culture of men protecting men.”

Decades ago—the principals are all dead and gone—I sat in a consistory meeting as if I were the attorney for the prosecution. The alleged perp was a man who had—in my opinion—taken advantage of a much, much younger woman he claimed to be protecting from her own insecurities. In this drama, everyone had feet of clay, including me—let’s just make that clear.

But what became just as clear during the inquisition—and it was that—was that the alleged perpetrator had, for better or for worse, taken great comfort from the fact that the judicial body he was facing was entirely male. What he assumed was that they’d understand.

“Look, she wanted me to do it,” he told us late in the proceedings, simply assuming that the tribunal before him would shake their collected heads, shrug their shoulders, and declare him innocent—really, the victim. After all, if a man is somehow propositioned by a woman, a man—being a man—is, well, powerless to control that unique implement we are both blessed and damned, it seems, to carry.

He didn’t get away with that defense, but that he never doubted his own innocence, given the “she-led-me-on” defense, made perfectly clear he was confident a jury of his peers would exercise the quality of mercy. Equally clear to me was that if he had offered that defense before a board composed of the opposite sex, he likely would have fared no better than Custer’s men’s bodies before the knives of Lakota women after his—and their last stand.

I won’t criticize those who argue against women-in-office on the basis of their view of the integrity of scripture. I don’t believe those people are right about the nature of scripture, but I respect their views.

Still, I don’t think Maureen Dowd is all wrong in asserting that what the Roman Catholic church needed in the last four or five decades was some women to hear the cases of those young men aggrieved by priests who used their office as an excuse to abuse boys in their charge, like those in the awful Wisconsin case.

What has hurt the Roman Catholic Church more than anything in the last decade is the way in which church hierarchy simply covered up sexual abuse. I think Dowd is right. Had that hierarchy included women, those most horrifying problems simply would not have occurred as frequently.

Are women smarter than men—more prescient, better judges of human character? Not necessarily. But I do think women have a richer and fuller understanding of what it means to be a victim of abuse.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Morning Thanks--the virtual end of hiccups


Not in my life ever before have I been a verifiable victim of hiccups. Once upon a time, years ago, one of my high school students had them, day-in and day-out, I remember. Couldn't shake 'em, went to the doctor with 'em, kept getting 'em. But while I've never had any more than the number most humans are alloted in a lifetime, I got them in spades on Saturday night--couldn't shake 'em, kept getting 'em. Even after they'd die for an hour of sweet peace, they'd come storming back.

Middle of the night they attacked once again, enough to wake me up, bouncing the bed; so I went downstairs to the doctor, which is to say, the internet, and googled "hiccups," which brought me to a monster of a sight called "WebMD" and 12 full pages of info on something called GERD, most of which I read and determined, perhaps wrongly, might have been the culprit. Don't know, for sure, but I came away from that site with yet another chronic condition to add to my rapidly growing list. Meantime, those blasted hiccups and the sour stomach they weren't helping were still in heathenish attack mode.

Googled again, and found a web page from some guy who says he doesn't know how and doesn't know why, but a little procedure he knows works--30-seconds, no props: take a huge breath, hold it, then swallow, then repeat, holding your breath as long as you can.

Which I did, forthwith.

Voila. End of hiccups. I'm not kidding. Immediately. Well, maybe thirty seconds later.

When they returned--and they did--me and my steeply inflated lungs vanquished them again, at least two or three more times with the blessed thirty-second cure.

Folk medicine maybe--who knows? But goodness me, it worked. No, it works.

So this morning, I'm thankful for some guy named Kevin Dommer, who laid out the means to an end for which I was desperate, and, at the bottom of his web page, related this horror story: "The Guinness World Record for the longest continuous bout of hiccups is held by Charles Osborne from Anthon, Iowa. The hiccups started in 1922 at a rate of 40 times per minute, slowing to 20 times per minute, and eventually stopping in 1990. 68 years of hiccups!"

Sheesh. Anthon, Iowa, is not too far away. Thank goodness too, I'm not going for the record.

This morning's thanks? The virtual end of hiccups.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Morning Thanks--no bad days


"My dad died on Thanksgiving day, in 82'," the note says, a note from a childhood friend I haven't seen in years, a man with the most perfectly distinctive Dutch name on Ellis Island--Klompenhower (wooden shoe maker). "The preacher had said that it was very appropriate that it was on that day cause dad's whole life was a life of thanksgiving to our Lord."

My friend's mom and dad are long gone. They come back to me from a half century ago, but not all that clearly. But the truth is, the only way I remember his father is smiling--only with a smile.

"I just remember Wayne Westerbeek coming over to me after the service and graveside ceremony," this old friend says in an e-mail two nights ago. "He said to me that in 9 yrs working with my dad, he never saw my dad have a bad day."

Seems impossible, doesn't it? I'm not questioning the assessment or the eulogy or my friend's integrity, it's just hard to believe.

The note goes on, "I thought about that, and I couldn't ever remember one either."

That's the man's own son talking--not a one bad day, not one, if you can believe it.

"My father‑in‑law is the same way," he says. "Always in a good mood."

And I'm thinking this old friend of mine has to be pulling my leg.

"I'm not as good," he says, "but working on it."

His mother is gone too, of course. Maybe if she wasn't, she'd shake her head and say her son thinks he knows it all but really doesn't. Then again, maybe she'd just nod and smile approvingly.

Hard as it is to believe, and whether or not it's true, somehow I'm buying it. It's a testimony that I haven't quite been able to shake out of my system--never a bad day. Really hard to believe. Always smiling?--give me a break, but somehow I'm thinking it's true.

What a witness. What a blessing. How do people do that?

Reason enough for morning thanks.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Morning Thanks--Flannery O'Connor


Somewhere in a file down here in the basement, I have at least a half dozen old stories, some published, some not, that bear the unmistakeable influence of Flannery O'Connor, a woman who, more than anyone else, was, once upon a time, my role model. I think I came to know her best when I first started teaching in college--her bizarre ledger of freaks and misfits, her whacko humor, her Southern gothic sensibility. When I first had time to write, hers was the only path my heart knew toward writing stories.

What both impressed and challenged me was her uncanny ability to let her faith move mountains in the weird tales she told. "The Catholic novelist in the South will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all," she once wrote. "I think he will feel a good deal more kinship with backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists than he will with those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development." The supernatural descends often brutally in O'Connor, most often with a vengeance. God is there. Be careful.

Born and reared a determined Roman Catholic, she sometimes appears, in her stories, as if she were some strange holy roller herself. Her characters, she most famously admitted, were Southern, and therefore "Christ-haunted"; but in a way, so was she. Her God was very real and identifiable, even if he appeared as a rogue bull or mad man. "You shall know the truth," she wrote once upon a time, "and the truth shall make you odd."

Flannery O'Connor's popularity crossed over the oldest boundaries of all--between nature and grace. When I had Ray Carver as a teacher in the summer of 1981, he assigned Mystery and Manners, her essays; that book was required reading, even though he never said a word about religion, and M and M is full the brim of her faith. Somehow, everyone--or nearly so--loved Flannery O'Connor, believers and non, and that's why, for several years, I tried to be her, tried to write like her, tried to pattern my stories after her.

Lord knows I could have had a worse heroes back then, even though I didn't stand a chance in the world of ever doing anything akin to what she did. She understood that. She had a very deterministic sense of particular calling--and she was right: "The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live," she once said. One has to find one's own voice--that step may be the first and foremost in the life of any writer.

Nonetheless, she was there at the very dawn of my own desire to write stories, an inspiration--and she still is: "Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not."

She died young, a victim of lupus. Like Dickinson, once she received her education--including a stint at Iowa in the early years of the program--she returned to her childhood home in Milledgeville, Georgia, rarely left, and finally died there, at just forty years old, having completed only a couple dozen short stories and two very strange novels.

"All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful," she once wrote and amply demonstrated through her odd, short lifetime as a writer.

Today she'd be 85 years old, had she lived. If I had the time to write fiction, I think I'd still try to write like she did, just not so much in her way. What she saw is what every Christian writer sees, or should: "The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location."

This morning's thanks is a belated happy birthday wish to someone who has played no minor role in my life. My guess is she's somewhere not far off, scribbling away.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Morning Thanks--comfort


A half dozen years ago, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death when I sat for several days at the bedside of my father, who was dying. I knew he was going, even though the doctors and nurses wouldn’t say it and my family couldn’t believe it—after all, what had brought him to the hospital was only searing back pain.

But I knew he wasn’t going to get out of that bed on his own again because in the time that I spent with him, he gradually became less and less communicative. We never had a final talk, in fact. We never spoke in that blissful way that most of us fantasize might occur in the final moments we share with those we love.

I helped him when he needed to drink, when he needed to urinate, when he felt deep pain; but honestly I don’t think he knew I was there—or rather, who was there. The intensity of the pain and the effort his body was mounting simply to stay alive drew all of his strength and will and consciousness.

Only those who’ve kept similar vigils will understand what I mean when I say that those days were among the best days of my life. Maybe things weren’t said that could or should have been; and, sure, if I could rewrite the scene, I would. But I don’t remember another time in our lives when I simply sat beside him, the man who had given me life itself—and always loved me, even when I didn’t deserve it.

A man came in one afternoon, a man from my father’s church. I knew him from my childhood, of course, but he wouldn’t have been the man I thought the church might send. He was my father’s district elder, and it was his job, I know, to visit. But he was there. When he came in, I told him my father likely wouldn’t know he was there.

That didn’t stop him. This burly guy I remember as a truck driver walked up to the bedside, took my father’s hand, and spoke to him as if he could understand every last word, even tried to engage him in conversation that didn’t have a chance of starting. Once he realized that, this burly angel of mercy simply talked, told my father that throughout his own life he’d always looked up to Dad, told him how as far as he was concerned, my father was one of those men he’d call truly Godly, how much he’d meant to him, a model of a Christian.

A big man with his hair square as a GI, a guy I had some trouble thinking of as an elder, a man I don’t know that I’d ever spoken to before—that man looked into my father’s agonized face, held my father’s hand, and told him in no uncertain terms that as far as he was concerned, my father had modeled Jesus Christ in Oostburg, Wisconsin.

And then he backed away from my father’s bed, looked at me, shook my hand, and left, wiping away tears.

I honestly don’t know whether any of that got into my father’s mind, whether he heard those words or picked up a hint of the warmth of the hand that held his. My guess is that he didn’t, but I don’t know. The nurses told me they’d often been surprised by what people in my father’s condition did hear.

But I know I heard it—every single word of that truck driver’s testimony.

Here's a great promise from Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.”

That afternoon, He sent a truck driver.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Morning Thanks--miracles


For the last ten days, I didn't work out once, not once. What's more, for most of that time, I was living on a college campus and eating at a college food service. Now I know that college kids think their cafeterias are as exciting as cattle troughs, but if you've not been on a campus for awhile, you really ought to check out the incredible cuisine.

At least--at least!--four entrees, every last meal. At Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia, students get whatever's hot, plus lots more--something sandwichy, like a hamburger or a corn dog, and always, always, pizza, tons of cheese and toppings, really good pizza--I'm not kidding.

Oh, yes, and every meal something sort of special in a far corner of the cafeteria--crab cakes, or some kind of exotic burrito, a specialty corner that always drew a crowd.

But I'm getting ahead of myself--a garden of eden of salads, a dozen dressings, mushrooms, carrots, peppers, cheese. Got a cold?--how about soup? Sure. Different kinds too.
And real sandwiches on really fine breads--I mean, Dagwood's delight, build your own from a meat counter that won't quit. Fixin's galore, and veggies. Who needs Subway?

Deserts? Good night, what a bounty. Rich pies (pecan, of course--we're in Georgia) and huge layer cakes swirling in frosting, a Devil's Mound of cakes the likes of which you haven't been seen since the 50's, I swear. Ice cream, of course, all kinds of toppings. Why not put it on the pie or cake? Sure.

Daily--three times!--I grazed at that cafeteria. By Saturday, I cut back my visits to twice a day, scared to death of having to tack on an additional air fare for the bulky freshman fifteen I figured, optimistically, I was lugging back to Iowa--and I was there at the college for only a week.

It was wonderful, really. At every last meal I had to drag myself away. Here at home, the most I have a single bowl of honey-roasted something-or-others (whatever's on sale). Down south, three of six mornings I was there, I had a french waffle swimming in butter and syrup--and bacon. Once two. And eggs.

Before I'd left home, I'd started a diet and lost eight pounds in a little less than two weeks. Then came that Christian college's hedonistic emporium of edibles, a sinful bazaar where I broke covenants left and right and thought seriously about stopping at Wal-Mart to pick up a new belt, but doubted they stocked any long enough to encircle in my embarrassing girth.

Yesterday, back home, I went to the gym at quarter to six, got on the machine and lifted weights, took up the old a.m. ritual once again, then, sweaty and tired, got on the scale, holding on to the wall in front of me forever in hopes of postponing the bare naked horror turning up on the face of that uncaring machine beneath me. Finally I glanced down and found--Voila!--I hadn't plastered on a extra pound. Not one.
I was still eight pounds down.

Okay, okay--for that I'm thankful this morning.

But I'm also ticked because those red-stick numbers should have shown at least a shot put more heft. For ten days, I did nothing in any gym, I mainlined calories like a junkie, and when I came home, the scale says, guess what?--no change.

So what am I starving for? Why am I working out? I felt like Oprah.

This morning for breakfast, pancakes.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Union



The most disappointing moment in the last ten days was listening to a man tell a packed house in a college chapel that government welfare creates mindless dependency. That it does, is undeniable, in some cases. That's it's allowed others to get on their feet is equally beyond dispute.

I once did a story on a man named Bass Van Gilst, who was, at that time, speaker of the Iowa House. When I asked him, this staunch Calvinist, how it was he was a Democrat, he told me that FDR had saved his family when it gave his father a job with the CCC during the Depression. For that welfare, he said he would always be grateful.

The speech I heard was really aimed at government in general, in a way, at the attitude that government could do good things. The speaker wasn't at all sure it could. In the shadow of the health care vote, the implications were clear.


Yesterday afternoon, a gorgeous spring day on Lookout Mountain, I spent sometime outside at Point Park, a place that commemorates the fights that took place up here and battles that occurred in the greater Chattanooga area in 1863, when General Grant and thousands of "federals," as the South likes to call them, took possession of Chattanooga, a shipping and railway hub important the South and the war itself.

Ten thousand people died here 153 years ago, some of them right on the promontory overlooking Moccasin Bend, an incredible loop the Tennessee River takes just beneath the promontory where Confederate cannons still sit, as they did long ago, in a wonderful position to lob death down on wagon trains and supply lines.



The real battle wasn't on the mountain--and there was more than one. The first battle in the neighborhood, at Chicamauga, was perhaps the last great Confederate victory. But a brash new Union general named Grant came in with Union reinforcements, and, in some ways, the fate of the Seceders--as the Yankees called them, was sealed. Not long after the Union victory, Sherman left from here to Atlanta on his infamous March to the Sea.


Maybe you have to be alone, as I was, to feel the ghosts all around, to see them up on these rocks, high above Chattanooga. Maybe you have to be alone to spot those pickets, to hear those cannons roar. But real battlegrounds still have voices, I swear.

The place is kept up by the National Park Service, who keeps a little museum at the entrance. If the government weren't there, the ravishing beauty of the scene below would have been bought up by a couple of millionaires long, long ago and turned into private property. Yesterday, about a hundred people were walking around in a park, reading the story. Thank goodness for government.

In the second half of the 19th century, America, it seems, was monument crazy. There are, in the woods beneath the top of Lookout Mountain, lots of stone monuments to the soldiers, blue and gray, who died here. Some of them, it seems, you would have to hunt to find. In a way, all of them died for freedom--at least their own. Some died to hold on to a way of life they treasured, even for its inhumanity, the institution of slavery. Some died opposing them.

Up top the mountain, at Point Park, there's a big one, in memory of those who died from the State of New York, those who died, the monument says to bring blue and gray together again.


Freedom is a blessing, that speaker told those students; but so is justice, just as precious, just as worth dying for.
Yesterday I was thankful that I could spend an hour or two far above Chattanooga, Tennessee, reading a story I hadn't known of people I never knew, men who died here 150 years ago. I was thankful to be able to walk among the ghosts, thankful to be reminded, thankful to be able to remember, there among the hickory at the top of Lookout Mountain.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hope


At the turn of the 20th century, what Willa Cather experienced as a child out on the Great Plains, surrounded as she was by a weave of ethnics, recent immigrants all, was something she never forgot and always celebrated. My Antonia, a great pioneer novel, has given us one of the most powerful women characters in American literature, Antonia Shimerda, whose strength of character and purpose simply will not be defeated.

And Antonia’s was not an easy life. When she was still a girl, her father, an educated musician in his native Bohemia and someone clearly not fashioned for the hard work of opening the rugged prairie, takes his own life one cold night in his first winter as an American. Because he was a suicide, the local cemeteries wouldn’t take his remains; the most unpardonable sin at the time, it seems, was the despair he suffered, the abandonment of hope itself, which is to say, the abandonment of faith. Mr. Shimerda, who shot himself in the barn, was buried in the road.

Willa Cather frequently drew her stories from her own experiences, and if you’re ever blessed to visit Red Cloud, Nebraska, the place where she grew up, you can follow dusty roads through the bleak and unforgiving landscape she loved, roads which pass places where she dug out the roots for some of her stories. Mr. Shimerda had a prototype on the land west of Red Cloud, and on one of those roads you can actually drive over the intersection where an anguished suicide, forbidden a place in the local cemeteries, was once buried, very much alone. Driving through that intersection is an eerie feeling, even though the man’s remains have long since been moved.

Today, suicides are not refused burial in any local cemeteries that I know of, and, for that, all of us should be thankful. I can not sympathize a whit with those who kept Mr. Shimerda’s body out of proper burial, but some passages from the Bible allow me to at least understand something of their fear, for fear is what it was, I’m sure. Those who take their own lives appear to take little comfort from the eternal truth of what David says, for instance, in Psalm 37: “though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.”

Even though, out here on the Plains, we have come a long way from Mr. Shimerda’s—and others’—horrific rejection, we still don’t know quite what to do with those among us who depart by taking their own lives. We don’t know what to do with them, in part, because we do know—those of us who are believers—that the act of suicide feels a lot like someone defying the eternal hope of a verse like that and so many others from the Word of God almighty.

Not so long ago, it happened, in a community not far away. I didn’t know the man, never met him, but I know his family, several of the members, and I know of their profound grief. Since it happened, no one has said much about it because, well, there’s not much to be said. By all accounts, he was a believer. And he suffered, suffered badly, inside, for the past several years. I know very little else.

What I do know—what I can believe because I know this much of the Almighty—is that he alone will judge the living and the dead.

And I trust him. I trust God and his promises. I trust that he will do what he has always done and promises he will do forever—he will love.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Let the sunshine


I suppose, in retrospect, the late 60s, when I came of age, wrought just about equal amounts of happiness and havoc. If ever there were a generation markedly different from parents, the boomers were, in all respects. Tom Brokaw calls them--our parents--"the greatest generation," and they may well have been. We were their spoiled rotten kids.

I'm enough of a flower child to pity kids today, who certainly don't grow up the way I did--taking on anything and everything around them, thumbing our noses at the world and sitting cross-legged in parks and on streets, smoking something. Sure, a lot of it was just plain silly. I remember living just south of Madison, Wisconsin, in 1970, when some campus building got bombed and a very innocent graduate student was killed--by anti-war peaceniks. Something in me said that the dawning of the Age of Aquarius had just been smudged out by fog and rain. Hippie happiness went up in the smoke of its own explosiveness.

Don't care. Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of that famously sweet ditty from Hair, the Fifth Dimension's "Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine," and all I had to do was hear a few bars, and my spirits lifted. I'm not kidding. Music does that.

It's been cloudy here forever now--and drippy. Ugly weather. At least the mountains of snow are departing. It's not mud-luscious either, just muddy, ugly. And Lord knows we've got enough to worry about.

But just a few bars from that paunchy, middle-aged tune, and I smile. Laugh, actually. Not in derision. Just happiness.

Like I say, it wasn't all groovy either. People died, in Vietnam, Alabama, and at Kent State. Really, the old hippie anthemn is just as goofy as this old video.

I don't care. Play it again, Sam--we could all use some sunshine.



Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Prayers of the saints



Why she prays the way she does is perfectly understandable. Unless she's a charlatan, a hypocrite, a deceiver--and she could be--she feels, desperately, that her values, her biblical values, are under siege by a God-denying culture whose voice, the media, is as omnipotent as it is evil. All of that is understandable.

But what about the prayer itself? Is God listening? Well, of course, he is, Christians will say. She's calling on the name of the Lord, after all. Whether he listens, whether the Creator of Heaven and Earth dumps a dozen network execs and the publisher of the NY Times is another question altogether, I suppose.

Janet Porter is, without a doubt, "calling upon the name of the Lord" with unsullied respect and zealous faith. I'll grant you that the prayer is as much sermon as it is supplication, but she's on fire for the Lord. I'm guessing she truly believes that the God she is addressing will somehow flip franchise owners like he did those temple gaming tables, so that Janet herself--or at least some folks of whom she approves--will take over Fox News, and Pat Robertson owns every square inch of that other CBS.

I don't think she's crazy, but she is--and it hurts to admit it--very, very scary.

At least a decade ago, I read A Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's novel about a repressive, theocratic America of the future, and didn't like it, felt it crucified Christian people by making them bible-toting totalitarians no different whatsoever from militant Islamic murderers. I still think her vision of America is preposterous.

But Janet Porter scares the bejeebees out of me, praying the way she does before a huge crowd at Convergence 2010: A Cry to Awaken America. She makes me rethink the uncomfortable contours of Atwood's Christian America.

What just about kills me, however, is that I know, deep down in my heart and soul, that that's where I come from. There's a passage in Chaim Potok's The Chosen, when a father and son are talking about some Hassidic Jew they spot along the street. The son makes fun of the old man--all that old-fashioned silliness and piety; but his father tells him not to mock the guy or his ways because that Hassidic is right there close to where the both of them have their being. He is their roots. He is, at bottom, what some part of them still is.

As Janet Porter is of me. I too pray earnestly. I too believe it is my joy and thanksgiving to call upon the name of the Lord. I too believe. I too ask for impossible things. She is a part of me--that I know, even if, I'm sure, she'd be among the first to say that I am not a part of her because should that God of hers deep-six all the brass at CNN, he won't come knocking on my door--not her God. He is, according to Janet Porter, after only the truly righteous, specifically those who she defines as such.

Pity poor Pilate, in a way. His age-old question is ever relevant: what is truth?

Today, like back then, it's just not so easy to come by.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Morning Thanks--the books I want to read


There are literally thousands in our house, so many that simply moving them will require a van, I'm sure--or a dumpster. Thousands will have to go eventually, be swept away from book racks throughout this big old house of ours.

For the most part, they're worth nothing. I could try to sell them on e-bay, but the few times I've put them up, I've not been successful. I could spend the first several months of my retirement d0ing nothing but listing used books.

But here beside me sits a single little stack, the books I want to read for no professional reason at all. Two were Christmas presents; it's now mid-March, and their bindings are still stiff as boards. The third is one I ordered just last week. All three will simply sit here until summer--a biography of Raymond Carver, Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer-winning latest, and a book about Native life.

They won't get touched for quite some time. I'm far too busy to read for pure enjoyment.

But someday.

So even now, unread, they're a joy because they have a place in the mess: they sit here motionless and remind me that, yep, somewhere down the line there will be a "someday."

I hope.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Cheers for what's real


And now I've got to see The Hurt Locker. I've never liked war films much, still don't, especially when the horrors are just as visible on the nightly news. But this one must be good, so I'll go.

Truth be known, I was sure Avatar would go home with all the gold--after all, they've already got all the money. Cameron's other-worldly epic got all the ink long ago already. Celebs were genuflecting to it all night long at the Oscars last night. It was the champion of all the gnostics, of whom there always are many; thousands of fans are insanely passionate about finding a fare to Pandora, Avatar's beguiling world, at any cost whatsoever.

For the record, nobody's booking trips to Iraq, a place you can actually get to.

When the guy who did special effects for Avatar picked up his Oscar, he said something very sweet, I thought--something to this effect: "Just remember that this world is just as beautiful as anything we could have created." That was nice. And true. And boring.

But there were darn good reasons to root for Hurt Locker. After all, Kathryn Bigelow was in the running and could be--and was--the first woman to win Best Director. Plus, of course, there was a sexual politics storyline since Ms. Begelow is James Cameron's ex. Wait a minute--he's her ex. Don't know that it matters one way or another to her, but her win carried with it some sense of justice.

Maybe I hang around too much with students, but I feel somehow exonerated. I'm a realist. I liked Avatar, found it marvelously entertaining--but that's all. My students have--for the last decade or so, absolutely adored fantasy, reared as they were on Harry Potter and computer games. Makes sense they'd adore the far-fetched.

But me?--I'm glad Hurt Locker bested the Cameron cadillac because if you look at a globe, there actually is an Iraq. We've been there for years, lost plenty of sons and daughters, as have the Iraqis. What's more, we'll be dealing with that war and its after-effects for at least another generation or two, no matter who won yesterday's elections over there. Americans on both sides of the political aisles will be battling each other over that war's legitimacy until finally our great-grandchildren are writing the op-eds.

It's real. It's not always as beautiful as Avatar's tech guru suggested, but it's this world, and we're in it, and we're not about to leave any time soon. And this world has plenty of stories, enough for all of us to tell, to live through.

Fantasy's fine. I've got to see Alice in Wonderland, one of the most famous stories of all time.

But this morning, I'm happy. What won last night is what's real.

I feel younger already.

Friday, March 05, 2010

"Snow babe"

Picked up this news story on Drudge and thought it was a scream. Then I discovered we had yet another nakedness problem at Dordt. Every few years, the art department decides to show its wares and ours in poses that make some people blush and others take up arms. Don't know if I dare to snap a picture.

Unlike the "snow babe," our own offender is male. Very. So, I'm wondering if we ought to just call him "the Defender offender." Or maybe "the offending Defender." Whatever. There's sure to be a controversy.

This morning I'll bring a pair of gym shorts over to the gallery.



Thursday, March 04, 2010

Vanity, all is, and all of that. . .


Look, it was my second year of teaching. I was at a little high school in rural southwest Wisconsin, where I'd decided, after just a week or so, that teaching was something I could do.

The fancy letter came in the mail--a decade or more before e-mail--and it offered, well, celebrity. I was young, all right? What did I know?

So I filled out the form, got accepted, and then was contacted by the publisher to see which of the elegant symbols of my acceptance I'd like to order--which book, in fact, and, well, how about the paperweight, too, done on real marble? What a keepsake!

I bought the book and the paperweight because, after all, my being selected for that year's volume of Outstanding Secondary Educators of America was a significant professional honor.

Wasn't it?

When the book came, there were tens of thousands of us printed up on already yellowing paper in 8-point font. And I realized me and my pride took a fall--$50 worth.

Yesterday, 38 years later, via e-mail, I got two more such notes inside of an hour. More honors--they just keep rolling in. "You were recently chosen as a potential candidate to represent your professional community in the 2010 Edition of Who's Who among Executives and Professionals," one of them said triumphantly. The next one--same exact look, by the way, but different Nomination Committee Secretary--offered the considerable esteem of the Emerald Who's Who. "Emerald"--no less, and I'm not even Irish.

From each, I'm sure, I'm welcome to buy the book that lists me among the greats--and the paperweight and the t-shirt or sun visor or Emerald panty-hose--whatever it is they're offering this year to my self-esteem.

But I know the scam, and I've got a 38-year-old book and a marble paperweight to prove it. The e-mails are gone.

What I'm saying is, I know better.

Then why on earth did I answer one a couple of months ago--University Professors or something? Why did hit return instead of delete? Why did I fall for ye olde hoax when I'd discovered, years ago, that the whole stinking silliness was nothing but a play to my vanity?

I know well and good, dang it, why yesterday I received two more sweet offers in less than an hour. Someone somewhere is selling red hot lists of sure-thing e-mail addresses to other vanity outfits, the names of bona fide, red-blooded American fools.

And I'm on it.

Maybe today I'll get another, this one touting Outstanding American Suckers. "Congratulations," it'll say, "you've been selected. . ."

That would be an honor I've earned.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Getting buff


The way I figure, it's not just old age that's making it hard for me to tie my shoes lately, it's also the ever-thickening paunch between my arms and my feet, a barrel that's not getting any smaller, it seems, despite the fact that I haul off to the gym and work out every other day.

No matter. Getting rid of body fat isn't rocket science. When more goes in than comes out or wears off, it's got to go somewhere; and with me, and most old men with a similar problem, what doesn't exit simply finds a comfortable spot just above the beltline.

I tell my wife I'm just getting old, but neither she nor my belts are particularly comforting. So yesterday I weighed in for the first time in a year or so, ate nothing but slaw for lunch, and forbad myself my normal late-night fixins. I'm on a diet.

Happens every once in awhile. I'll shed a dozen pounds or so, wear my pants more comfortably, and think I'm svelte. Then, slowly, I inch back up again to the place on the scale where I am now, which is somewhere near treacherous.

But then, this morning, I see that Spencer Tunick is at it again, a man known for mass nude photo shoots. This time the scene was the Syndney Opera House, where 5200 Aussies doffed it all for art's sake.

For most of us, of course, Adam's fall had deleterious results; there's been good reason ever since to keep on one's clothes. Now I'll grant you that the original olympics offered athletes in the buff, and most of those competing in Vancouver, male and female, could likely have made at least some of us forget Adam's curse. But most humanoids look far better in bell bottoms and turtlenecks, I'm sure, than they do without them, although I shouldn't speak for others.

Nonetheless, I'm thinking of getting in touch with this bloke Tunick, and asking him to bring his art work to Sioux County. We've got a great courthouse in Orange City, a sort of pinkish thing that might just look even better with a few thousand buck naked Sioux Countians in the foreground, maybe throw in a few hundred pinkish hogs too, the county's finest. Set it for Tulip Time, I'm thinking--perfect, late May, sweet weather.

Think of it--say, 5000 Hollanders and and a couple dozen porkies, in the buff, right there on the courthouse steps. That's art.

What a great incentive to diet.