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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Morning Thanks--for peace amid the storm

Every few seconds, the darkness outside my basement window is washed away by lightning, heavenly strokes of incalcuable power that are not close, but yet close enough to turn night to day in shimmering tenths of seconds. The action seems south of here--I think that's the direction--probably moving this way. Most storms do.

Thunder rolls and rumbles when it's far off. If you're not scared to death, distant thunder is more amusing than anything, some madcap heavenly drummer, fifty miles away behind the thick curtain of darkness, doing his thing in fits and spurts.

The next county is probably catching the wrath of a storm. But here, just outside my window--and somewhere here in the basement--the crickets reign, chirping in chorus and desire, I suppose, looking ever so loudly for soul mates--and more, I guess. All that thunder hasn't stopped them. Either they have beans in their ears or they're simply not scared of the deluge to come. Or else they're so ginned up by desire they're semi-conscious. This time of year, horny crickets drive me nuts.

Sooner or later the storm will arrive. Sooner or later it'll lumber north or east, and the rippling thunder just above our heads may well wake school kids before their time. Lightning will crackle, and even the crickets will hole up somewhere out of the storm, turn on their computers in silence, and check out e-harmony.

Lightning is good for the grass, I'm told, and all kinds of living things because it produces "fixed" nitrogen. You might say it feeds us. I should be thrilled. Lightning brings life.

But it's also a serial killer whose tally of victims is second only to floods, I guess.

And even though that young grass outside my front door, the stuff that got planted after our new sidewalk went in, can certainly use a healthy shot of fixed nitrogen, when I see the flashes outside in the darkness, I can't help think of the kid who was killed in the Grand Tetons, blasted off a mountain ledge by the bolt of a killer storm, his parents still in deep grief.

So much of what we experience, day to day, comes in yin/yang, positive and negative strokes. Three weeks ago, I'd be heartsick by the storms marching up here this morning, scared to death the basement flood was going to reappear. This morning I'm cheering--we need the rain.

So much of life is a balancing act--maintaining, amid the storm, some kind of equilibrium.

Outside, right now, there's no drum roll. The lightning I thought was coming up from the south stayed west of us, it seems. Outside the window, no one is shooting with a flash. And there's rain, a blessing.

This morning's thanks is for rain and balance and all things in moderation--no killers, just the fixed nitrogen we all need. I'm thankful, right now, for peace.

I still hate crickets, especially when they invade my living space. But then, they've got their needs too, I guess.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Barnabas, my hero

It took years but we finally made it through the entire Bible for evening devotions, and when we did we felt almost like Adam and Eve, sort of nakedly out of the garden. Now what?

So I reached up on the shelf and pulled out a book of meditations by a whole posse of Christian writers, The Eternal Present, which includes a number of devotions from the pen (well, keyboard) of Madeline L'Engle.

I cringe to admit that fact, scared that someone out there will now refuse to donate to Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa. Twenty years ago or so, Madeline L'Engle was a lightning rod for heresy hunters. She was a universalist, they said, and therefore not a believer at all, a wolf in sheep's clothing whose books should be pulled from the shelves of schools who call themselves "Christian." Back then, if you liked Madeline L'Engle's much ballyhooed novels--and you worked in some Christian schools--you kept your head down.

I'm coming clean--I never read a single book by Madeline L'Engle. I'm really not that taken by the fantasy things she did. I met her, personally, several times, and found her a riot--funny as anyone I knew. She wasn't charming, really--she was rather rhino-like as I remember, tough as nails, and (I know this isn't nice to say about women especially) a huge presence. But I never once doubted her faith in Jesus Christ the Lord. We may well not have agreed on every last point of theology, but neither do I and Glen Beck.

Now, every ten days or so, my wife and I come to a little meditation by Madeline L'Engle, and I'm still shy admitting it. That's how virulently some well-meaning Christian people hated her a couple decades ago. But this morning I'm coming out of the closet: I rather like Madeline L'Engle, and I am blessed by her meditations.


The storm is long over anyway, thank the Lord. Maybe someone in cyberworld will read this and toss off a nasty letter to my boss or me, but the conflagration long ago burned itself out. Madeline died several years ago, after a long and sad bout with Alzheimers.

But, Lordy, Lordy, how we can go to war. When I was a boy, one of my favorite songs was "Onward Christian Soldiers." Of course, my dad and million others had just returned from Europe and the South Pacific having defeated the Godless enemy. Soldiers were us, back then. I still love that song, in part, I'm sure, because some remnant of my own sweet childhood comes charging back when I sing it. But I'm glad we don't sing it too often because lots of Christians don't need any greater call to arms than they already hear. It was red-blooded Christian soldiers who burned Ms. L'Engle's books.

All of that comes up once again because our pastor is preaching on the book of Acts. Last week's startlingly fresh insight was: two miracles happened when Saul/Paul was on the road to Damascus. One was the blinding epiphany, and the other was the mere fact that the Jesus people, who knew this Christian-killing wasp all too well, bought the man's unlikely tale of redemption. They let him in. They gave him a place among the chosen. I doubt it was love at first sight, but that the followers of Jesus even let him in the door is blooming miracle.

But behold! There's more to the story. Last night's sermon was on Acts 9:

When he [Saul, now Paul] came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.
Don't I wish I had the historical record. Don't I wish I could call up the disciples website and buy a transcript of the Barnabas' speech. Don't I wish I'd been a fly on the wall.

I think this man Barnabas should have his own fan club, a statue in Grand Rapids or something. Sometimes I think the gulf that separates Christians is wider and deeper than any other, as it was when some righteous readers went on a book-burning rampage against Madeline L'Engle.

Today, all of that consternation is hot air, only a matter of public record, if that. Tonight maybe, we'll read another meditation by Madeline L'Engle, and I'm sure it will be just fine. We'll be blessed.

What we need--what we always need--is another Barnabas. Don't I wish I could recite that speech.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Saturday Morning Catch--A windy morning in the valley

Still photography doesn't do wind very well. The morning's primary weather feature, yesterday, at dawn, was wind that could have powered a healthy-sized suburb--and probably did. It's here in this shot. You can see it in the trees on the ridge above the valley, but you'll have to look hard to find it elsewhere in the slide show. We buy cameras to stop action after all. I should have shot a video.

Not a spectacular dawn yesterday, but I stumbled on a road I don't think I'd ever traveled before, and the discovery was a blessing. I've been taking a goodly share of my Saturday mornings out west near the river for seven or eight years now, I think. I thought I'd hit most of them. Yesterday I found a new one in Lyon County.

I thought of my old friend Harold Aardema, who used to tell me there were more beautiful places in Lyon County than I could imagine or shake a stick at. He once sent me on a pilgrimage to his favorites. But yesterday I found a road he didn't show me, a road I'm sure he was on. He'd love these pictures, I'm sure. More, he'd love the world I visited yesterday at dawn.

But then, who knows exactly what it is Harold Aardema sees these days from some heavenly vantage point?

Maybe he was there himself. Maybe he was watching me yesterday in the wind, smiling eternally, chuckling about me in the middle of all that beauty trying to stop the action.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Call it what you want

Across the top of the story, the Huff Post runs a series of buttons that asks the viewer to describe what you'll see below. Here are your choices: Important, Fascinating, Typical, Scary, Outrageous, Amazing, Infuriating, and Beautiful.

You've got to be nuts to call it beautiful, but what's amazing about this video is that its star (well the guy in it), Khurram Syed Sher, 28, a Pakistani immigrant to Canada, was arrested and appeared in court yesterday, part of an alleged terrorist plot against targets in his new country and abroad.

Eight years ago he arrives in North America, three years later he throws his hat in the ring on Canada's version of American Idol, and just two years after that he wants to bring the whole place down.

That absolutely impossible juxtaposition of events suggests the goon's militancy likely blossomed here, not Pakistan. There ain't a thing "beautiful" about that, but it certainly is all of the rest--Important, Fascinating, Typical, Scary, Outrageous, Amazing, and Infuriating.

Meanwhile, here in America--in Florida--a wild-eyed Florida preacher tells Chris Matthews that not even if his own political hero, President George W. Bush, would call him before Sunday would he stop his congregation from a public burning of the Koran that he's planned this week because he and his disciples want to make a statement to the world's muslims.

Won't be long, I suppose, before someone starts campaigning for a crusade. Tons of muslims won't be surprised.

The Sunday morning after 9/11, a man came up to me before church, thinking I was some kind of guru, I guess. "Why do they hate us?" he asked me, as if I knew the answer.

Maybe if Mr. Sher's act had won.

I don't know.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Carpe diem

Twenty-some years later I went back to southwest Wisconsin because I was writing a novel that was set there, in the neighborhood where I first stepped into my very own classroom. I went back because I wanted to look at the land in a way that I hadn't during the two years I lived there, wanted to get off the highway I'd taken to work--to school--twice a day, wanted see where my students lived. I wanted to describe it for what it was, and that meant going there again and seeing it really for the first time.

It was mid-winter and remarkably cold, even for Wisconsin. I arrived on the coattails of a storm, on the same frigid northwest wind that had tucked in a new white quilt right up to the noses of a whole region.

I spent hours driving up and down roads I'd never taken, past farms I'd never seen. The region is bumpy and hilly, so much so that I'd come down a slope blindly, make some jagged turn on an old Indian trail, and run smack dab into a dairy farm--or what was once a dairy farm, as if it were purposely hidden between the hills. The Norwegians and the Swiss who colonized the whole region wanted land that felt as familiar as back home. My wife's father's land is flat as the sea, like Holland.

I didn't come away from that little trip with a novel. That manuscript is still somewhere in this computer. What I did take home from that precious and cold over-nighter to a place I'll always love--the first place I taught--was a moral lesson. I couldn't believe I'd never scouted that land before, never browsed those hills. If I had, I told myself, I would have understood much more about the kids in the seats in front of me back then. I would have treasured them more than I did, knowing where they ate their suppers.

I should have been out there in their world instead of locked up in my own. I should have taken the time. I should have smelled the roses. I should have wandered those fields, followed the winding Pecatonica River. There was so much I should have done.

Yesterday, at a commemoration for the college kid the Lord chose to take home from atop the Grand Tetons, one of the hikers who'd been with him on his last climb told 1300 students that if he'd learned one lesson from that horrific mountain-top experience it was to live his life to the fullest--carpe diem. Follow your passions, he said. Life is short. Brandon's death had taught him to treasure life itself--and so should you, he said.

Meaning them. But meaning me too.

It was a warm moment in a poignant celebration of the life and death of the kid who's on some heavenly mountaintop even as we speak. But if I've heard that bell rung once, I've heard it a thousand times--"live life to the fullest." I wish I knew better what it really meant.

This morning I'll face new classes of students for the 40th time in my life. They'll come from broad plains and rolling foothills, from city streets and lakefronts. Doctors' kids, teachers' kids, milkers' kids, and children of the unemployed. Most of them will need me only for three hours' credit; they won't be looking for someone who wishes he knew more about where they come from or wants to know their backroads. Most of them will have their own issues--or they'll soon acquire them.

But this morning I'm thinking, I can't worry so much about them. The single fate I hold in my hands is my own. I'm the one who needs to take that hiker's sermon to mind and heart. I'm the one who has to live with passion, to smell the roses, to see the world around me, to find more than I've ever seen of this grand creation, His. I'm the one who has to live for the day, to consider the lillies.

And if I do, I'll make myself a better teacher because those lillies will make me a better me.

That may be a place to start anew this morning, God helping me, forty years later.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Morning Thanks--reprieve

The temp didn't dip like we thought it would last night. Right now, it's 56 degrees, just about ten degrees warmer than everybody predicted, and that's okay. I guess. In truth, I was looking forward to the first two-dog night--in our case, one-cat night, looking forward to a first fresh gift from the great northwest.

Still, 56 degrees is nothing to sneeze at because I'm not sure we've ever run air-conditioning more than we did this summer. It's seemed infernally and eternally hot--and humid. I can spend all day long in a haze of sweat. I walk home--two blocks--and I've got torrents down the back of my neck. I don't think we topped the century mark once, so my son in Oklahoma would have no sympathy, I'm sure; but it's been beastly hot.

And I know--I remember--last winter's beastly cold. I remember snow coming day after day, week after week, and, like some stupid, thoughtless visitor, never even considering what we thought. I remember fat clots of ice forming like miniature glaciers above our gutters. I remember crunching snow beneath my feet, frozen car seats, and tires seeming out of round. I remember festooning the basement water pipes with electric wire to keep the darn things from spouting gushers. I remember being locked up in the house for what seemed forever. I remember praying for warmth--I remember all of that, I swear.

Still, I'm just dying for cool weather and thankful, this morning, for a reprieve.

Fickle old fart.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


"Something vital was lost on the pilgrimage from the Second Vatican Council," writes Father William O'Malley, S. J., in a recent issue of America. "Amid all the attempts—laudable or lamentable—to reform a feudal church, what got lost on the trek was the transcendent God."

I don't have a history with the Latin Mass. The last one I remember was in a beautiful cathedral somewhere in Belgium, where a half dozen of American Protestants worshipped with barely a half-dozen Belgians, all of them old, and all of them women, as I remember. Seemingly, we sat a hundred yards away from the priest at the altar.

I came away from that Sunday morning worship understanding a great deal more about my Protestant heritage. What was remarkable to me was that, for the most part, the priest went about attending the elements as if almost disregarding those few of us who'd gathered. We were, it seemed to me, merely spectators, blessed, supposedly, simply by attending the sacred rites performed way up front in that ancient, beautiful cathedral.

While that may be true, I can't help but believe that O'Malley is somehow right. He says that what Roman Catholics miss in worship is some sense of God's transcendence, moments like that experienced by Job at the end of the book, when an immensely omniscient God tells him that he and and his friends and their combined reach comes nowhere near to his.

"Such immensity tempts one to humble one's intelligence, like Eastern mystics before the ultimate--before whom all words fail," O'Malley says. And then, "If bishops wonder why Catholics are not coming to church, this is the reason: They don't find there a personal connection to that enthralling God, which is what the word religion means: to connect."

O'Malley isn't wrong about today's populist Protestantism either. We too have decided that church should be more democratic, worship itself something of a variety show, the performers moving on and off-stage before us. We'll keep people in church by giving them each their own ten minutes of stage time, and we brandish new songs weekly to keep ourselves fresh.

But so much of that--and so understandably--is about us, not God. So much of that is about getting our precious needs met.

And all of that is understandable--and not wrong. Life is immensely democratic these days--anyone can publish a book, anyone can be a photographer, anyone can create a magazine like this one. Who on earth would like to go to a church where we don't really matter?

But then there's this: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" God says to Job.

And so much more:

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I reserve for times of trouble,
for days of war and battle?

What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed,
or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?

Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a path for the thunderstorm,
to water a land where no man lives,
a desert with no one in it,
to satisfy a desolate wasteland
and make it sprout with grass?

I think Father O'Malley is right and not just about his own faith tradition. The immense changes in worship styles in the last few decades have done wonders to make God's imminence vital and clear. But what we've lost in the switch--and will continue to as long as the fashion lives--is the immense touch of his transcendence.

We miss awe. We're good at imminence, not good at all at transcendence. In this me-centered world, we need to know and to feel that we don't matter, that only He does.

I find something of that reality on Saturday morning in the country, but not much of it on Sunday morning in church.

"Nothing is so obscure or contemptible, even in the smallest corners of the earth, that it cannot display of the power and wisdom of God," Calvin says. Or how about this: "When we behold the heavens, we cannot help but be elevated by what we see to him who is their great Creator, and find in those marvelous heavens evident proof of his providence." Or this: "We need not stare above the clouds to find God. He meets us in his world and is everywhere we look, offering us scenes that rob us of the very breath we might use to describe him."

"Liturgies that make the community as important as its Host miss a crucial truth; so we ought not limit ourselves with the Good Shepherd," O'Malley says. We need to be "connected into an Inexhaustible Energy whose infusion ought to make us recognizably more alive the rest of our week."

I think he's right.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Morning Thanks--best friends

I’m not sure where she found them, but leave it to my granddaughter to discover things in our house, things she can use or would like to. Jocelyn may well have a better sense for where my stuff is—even here in the basement—than I do.

Her mother was no different. I remember my mother-in-law, out on the farm, deliberately asking her granddaughter—then eight or nine or ten—where something was, maybe a serving plate, because, she’d say, little Andrea would know.

As does her daughter. Is that genetic?

Anyway, Jocelyn found these cards her grandmother probably lugged home purposefully, then promptly forgot to give away when the kids came. Lo and behold, she freed them from whatever junk drawer dungeon held them.

Immediately, she went to work. She once told her mother—she was no more than seven years old—that she didn’t have to clean up after her multitudinous projects because, well, she was an artist. I’m not sure that appraisal cemented any kind of bond betwixt mother and child, despite similar genetic codes.

But Jocey found ‘em, a whole ton of cards, then came up with a magic marker and began to address them, alphabetically, to her friends.

Just one of the joys of childhood is spontaneity, I guess, because once the card thing got old—maybe ten minutes later, they were abandoned, some of them dutifully addressed.

So when she and her brothers left that day and the dust had settled, I picked up after her, not being an artist myself and therefore sadly subject to Adam’s fall. Maybe a half dozen were addressed, but three even had messages. The first one—to Brianna—said, “Thank you for being my best friend.”

Now it doesn’t take much for my granddaughter to sweep me off my feet, so I thought that was just darling, even a little saintly.

Then I opened the second—to Makala—which said, “Thank you for being my best friend.”

You can guess the third. Three sweet little cards to three best friends.

Is it any wonder why Jesus just loved kids? Sheesh. Wouldn’t I like to go back to a time when I could, in haloed innocence, repeat a single, stand-alone superlative three times over? I’ve seen sin in six-months-old kids, but I honestly don’t think that Ms. Jocey had any sense that what she’d written was duplicitous. She doesn’t even know the word. Of course, she is my only granddaughter.

She’s going into fourth grade this week. I’ll give her this year—at best—in which she can get away with that kind of overdraft , and then, sadly enough, it’s the end of childhood, I suppose, and she becomes ineligible to sit on Jesus’s knee with the rest of the squirts.

But really--still. . .cute, eh? My goodness. When you're a kid you get three best friends.

Grandpa speaking, of course.

And that’s my morning thanks.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Saturday Morning Catch--August mist

Two major stories dominated the dawn this morning--one was mist, thick as pea soup when I left home, but burning away slowly once the sun slipped up like a shiny gold coin from behind that gray shawl. No more than a half hour or so passed, and a massive fog bank rolled back in from the west--see the funeral gray behind that telephone poll--and threw dingyness over all creation. I headed east and home.

But the curtains pulled again, and a thousand cobwebs appeared magically in the roadside ditches, fantastic designs, much like snowflakes because I swear no two of them were similar. It's impossible to imagine how much care goes into these things, even though many won't last more than a day. Heck with the ant--go to the spider, thou sluggard.

It was a strange day for shooting pix. When I drove home, I thought I'd be lucky to get three or four decent shots, but I ended up with more than I thought.

Old Henry David Thoreau might say if a man (or a woman) sets out in the direction of dawn, he'll never guess the blessings with which he'll return. Except Thoreau would say it better.

The morning wasn't long, but it was rich. That'll do.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Morning Thanks--freedom

Some local governor in Chile banned the mini, it seems. Not for long. He simply wanted to "put things in order" or something, someone there said, by telling women to pull down their skirts (that didn't come out right) and cover up their shoulders. When the whole idea was laughed out of town, the gov's spokesmen claimed it was just a joke from the get go. If he'd actually meant it, he would have got trounced come election time. More mini-skirts would have showed up on the streets of Santiago overnight, I'm sure. And sure as anything he'd have lost the male vote.

If I could grow hair, I might just go blue. Apparently, it's all the rage, the new blonde--at least that's what I've read. Blue hair--I can't imagine what I'd look like, but it sounds good. When school starts next week, we'll probably have a few.

Once, in Tokyo, I sat on a commuter train like Moby Dick, the great white whale, the only non-Japanese, one of only two or three men, and a whole generation older than the bevy of schoolgirls that filled that car, each of those young ladies in matching skirts and sweaters, holding matching cell phones and school bags, a hall of mirrors.

Community is a big deal to the Japanese, I think--looking and acting in a fashion that doesn't bring attention to the individual but satisfies clearly established standards of dress and conduct. But that day in Tokyo--and on that train especially--it felt strange to an American.

A bit later that afternoon, our friends took us to an international neighborhood, where I saw a guy--a Japanese guy, in fact--with blue hair. Right then, something about the guy made me breathe easier, if you can believe it. For the first time that day, I felt as if I was home; people just didn't look so much alike.

I've got a Puritan streak in me; after all, I'm a Calvinist. I'm for law and order. I'm glad my daughter never donned apparel like the one above, and I'd rather my granddaughter didn't either.

But this morning, what I'm thinking is freedom is a blessing, even if it means tattoos.

This morning, like that afternoon in Tokyo, I'm happy to see a guy with blue hair.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Poor kids

I noticed, last night, that the parking lot is filling, an omninous sign. What it portends--no, doesn't portend but signifies--is that they're back, the students I mean. The football team lumbers in, grunting, then the more graceful soccer teams, then a dozen lanky volleyballers, and finally the all-American dorm counselors. In waves they arrive, a couple dozen at a time, until what was a wonderful campus ghost town is magically repopulated, the sidewalks resounding with the pitter-patter of flip-flops.

Sometimes I hate 'em. That may be overstated, but there are time when I want to shake 'em up as if they were asleep--because they are. But then, sometimes, I love 'em so intensely I don't want 'em to leave. After 40 years of teaching, they're family, capable, half the time without knowing it, of turning me into both saint and a serial killer.

But for about a decade already, when I think of them as a generation, I can't help but feel sorry for them. I remember signing a check for the second semester of my senior year--May, 1970. It was $740 bucks, total--room and board and tuition. In those days, a kid could work a good job in the summer, clean toilets or wash dishes during the school year, and walk away with a few bucks in his billfold. No more.

Some kids leave owing tens of thousands of dollars, and U. S. News recently had us--the college where I teach--way up on the list of good buys. We charge a pittance next to a ton of other liberal arts college. We're a steal. Still, some kids leave in debt up to their schweinhocks.

And then there's this mysterious demographic development. Lo and behold, their generation is moving back home in droves, postponing the battery of traditional rituals--marriage, first jobs, home buying--that earlier generations have undertaken post-college. Instead, they're going home, eating Mom's cookies, and holing up in their bedrooms with their iPads. And nobody knows why.

One of the most e-mailed stories from yesterday's New York Times held forth on the profound mystery that's occuring all around and has absolutely nothing to do with our present economic crisis. Twenty-somethings simply don't "grow up," at least not in any traditional meaning of that phrase. They hang around. They don't engage. They don't get moving. They don't marry. They don't get a job. They have no clue where the starting line is.

Meanwhile, last week, when a high school kid and her parents stopped up in the English Department while scouting for colleges, the first question she asked--probably at her parents' prompting--was "But what can I do with an English major?" We hear that question ALL THE TIME.

When they're paying umpteen thousand dollars for an education, they'd like to know, please, if it's possible for them somehow, four years later, to pay it back. I understand that. And our standard answer--and it's a good one--is "If you can write, you can do anything." Which to them is really like saying you can't do anything at all.

Yesterday, I sat through a faculty in-service that just about slayed me. Of course, no teacher as old as I am should be required to attend such annual dopeyness; old farts should earn some parole at least. Anyway, the in-service had to do entirely with numbers--how to crunch them and where to put them, and why everyone must create websites, etc.--all of this driven by the most dreaded word in education, "assessment." Sure, it's more than four letters, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a word more slimy. Grades, you see, don't mean anything anymore. You've got to prove your worth by cold hard facts lest the lawyers come in a sue for false advertising, I guess.

This is how it works. Administrators attend exciting conferences, then come back buzzing with new ideas about how I should be doing work that will make their jobs easier. It's very simple.

Don't get me started.

Anyway, higher ed is all about numbers these days, and it's all about recruitment, and it's all about marketing, because at a small college like this one, it's all warm body count. Higher education has morphed into business, a business in which my first love, the humanities, are simply dying. Of what economic use, pray tell, is Ralph Waldo Emerson? How's Abraham Kuyper going to help me get a job? He's dead.

We're professional these days, offering new and sure-thing professional training, like a tech school with a social calendar, because. . .well, because the students are paying mega-bucks for an education from which they want a whole lot more than transcendentalism. They want jobs. Hence, "But what can I do with an English major?"

But then there's this, from yesterday's Times:

The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch [emphasis mine, by the way]. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.

Here's the pinch they're in, and remember I started this rant by saying I felt sorry for them. The fact is, they demand an education that will train them for a job many of them won't take. In higher education today we're asked to be vastly more pre-professional because students demand job training, even though many of them are at least a decade away from making that kind of major decision, a decision which, often as not, brings them into a workplace that's tangentially related, at best, to the degree they attained in college. Go figure.

It's a frickin' mess, is what it is, and that's why I feel sorry for them. Here they come, soon to unload thousands of dollars for an education that's doing everything it can to sweep philosophy and history and literature under the blasted rug so they can find a career. Yet, when they graduate, millions of them don't go there. They go home. They go to Korea and teach English. They want like mad to stay in the youth culture. They don't take the jobs they claim to want. They don't know what they want, and it's costing them an arm and a leg.

That's why I feel sorry for them. Poor kids.

And, here's the real rub. When they sit in your office and talk, most of them don't have a clue about any of this. In some ways, they're just kids, dumb as sheep, even the smart ones.

Anyway, they're here. And my syllabi are still in shambles.

At least our wretched in-service assessment is history--we finished it yesterday afternoon, dispatched with blinding speed so we could get back to the real work of trying our best to figure out how to make what happens in the classroom, day to day, worth their time and ours. Thank goodness, the administrators are back in their fortress. I think we got our ducks in a row.

Now if we could only figure out what to do with the sheep.

You can read the NY Times article at

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The word "Christian"

Christianity Today features a lengthy interview with the mega-popular novelist Anne Rice, who formerly turned out vampire novels, then converted and has written some much-honored books on the life of Jesus Christ.

Ms. Rice is making the news because she somewhat formally announced that she is renouncing the adjective "Christian" when it's applied to her. "For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."

Ms. Rice was reared Catholic, and it was to the Roman Catholic church she returned when she came back to the Christian faith. Apparently, this new resolution includes her not darkening the cathedral door, even though, she says, she will by all means remain a follower of Jesus Christ.

CT casts about for some evil motive--the fact that she has a son who is a gay activist and the possibility of this whole thing being a publicity stunt for a new book. Anne Rice vehemently denies such allegations and insists that she feels a "mounting discomfort with the public face of Christians and Catholics."

I don't know the whole story--maybe her announcement has to do with maintaining a reltionship with her son, maybe it will generate more sales. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

But I for one have loads of sympathy for her abandonment of the adjective: in this country at least, the public face of Christianity appears to radiate far more darkness than light.

She's out, she says, a decision which is likely more difficult for a Roman Catholic--she'll miss the mass, of course--than it might be for a Protestant.

Me?--I'm not at odds with my church or my denomination. I'm not leaving. But I certainly understand why Ms. Rice would say she doesn't want to be hung any longer with the associations that particular word communicates--"Christian."

I get that.

I remember a sermon by an old stemwinder, maybe 35 years ago already. He talked about his public embarrassment on a street in Chicago when some sandwich-board street preacher was howling on and on about the Judgment Day coming next Tuesday. You know. The old stemwinder rolled his eyes. Yet, he said, that man was still a brother in Christ.

Maybe so. But that was before talk radio, cable TV, viral e-mail, and Newt Gingrich.

Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ghost Town

It may well have been the very first time I used a camera for something other than family pics. It was an old Argus C-3 I bought second-hand from a camera store in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, when I was still in high school; and my wife and I were in an old copper-mining town in the Arizona mountains, a place called Jerome. It was 1973.

Jerome was a ghost town. Once upon a time, the population peaked at 15,000, but, by the early 1970s, very few people still lived there. Mining fortunes had been made, I'm guessing--the mine itself was still there but not running; but most of those who'd pocketed the loot or run the bank or worked the drills were long gone. It was a Twilight Zone, streets empty, a grotesque parade of a hundred different houses caught in anguished disrepair, as if they were being forced to undress slowly right there on the street.

If I go a half hour in any direction from my home, I'll run into an abandoned farm because they are everywhere in the rural Midwest. I see them weekly, I'm sure, but they're still haunting because somewhere in the shape of things falling apart there still lives some remnant of a family's fallow dream of what could be--and wasn't.

But Jerome was no single family dwelling; it was an entire abandoned city, a mile-high metropolis almost completely abandoned. Once upon a time kids played on streets grown yellow with weeds. I don't remember a single house being lived in, but there were a few businesses open in the old downtown. Jerome was becoming an artist's colony back then, and Main Street held little but that kind of store, those kinds of businesses. Otherwise, nothing but desolation. A kind of open-air museum, post-apocalypse. Absolutely haunting.

I loved it--look at the pics. They say as much about me as they do about Jerome. I'd love to go back.

But I can't.

Along some Jerome street, we met a man who pointed up at a rundown place and told us it was his. He owned one of houses falling apart.

"What's going to happen here?" I asked him. He was a friendly guy, I remember--and he too loved Jerome.

"I honestly don't know," he told us.

"I hope it doesn't change," I said. Jerome was a ghost town, pure and simple. "I hope it stays just like this."

"That's not an option," he said. "Nothing stays the same."

Right then and there, I understood that what he said carried meaning far beyond the empty streets of an abandoned copper-mining town. Those dilapitated houses, as artful as they were back then--and as photogenic--couldn't stay in disrepair. There were only two choices, he told me--fix 'em up or let 'em rot. After all, nothing stays the same.

And that, of course, makes these old pictures--maybe the first attempt at art on my part--museum pieces themselves, I guess. I found them last week in the basement flood.

Were I to go up the mountain to Jerome sometime soon, lugging a digital onto those empty streets, what I'd shoot wouldn't be what's here in these old pics. That's long gone.

Nothing stays the same. A lesson both sad and sweet. Like truth itself.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"The American people"

I think it's time for a moratorium. Any politician (someone voted into office or presently running) should be forbidden (or something) from wantonly using the phrase "the American people," as in, "It's perfectly clear what the American people want."

They all use it--left and right, toss it around as if it were David's shepherd-boy slingshot. Here comes one now--"the American people are tired of _____________." (Fill in the blank with your favorite pet peeve.)

The fact is, no one--not even the pollsters--really know what the American people want because not even the American people do. What do the American people think of the Tea Party movement? Well, stand on a city street and grab people's lapels. You'd get a meeting hall of different voices and opinions, most shot from the hip, and at least a dozen would tell you to deposit your question in some available bodily orifice.

The American people are not monolithic, and there is no "the American people." Attack us--as in Pearl Harbor or 9/11--and one angrily arises; but otherwise, we're an Old McDonald's farm, beliefs, opinions, and visions sticking their mangy heads out of every available window and barn door. We're an eighth-rate choir who only rarely carry a tune.

And yet pols say it constantly--"the American people demand," "the American people love," "the American people tell us" as if our collective fingers are tapping out some silly solitary e-mail.

This morning, 49% of the American people think Barack Obama isn't doing the job; 42% do. Okay. But the "the American people" are not of one mind on anything.

Here's what I wish--I wish the American people would collectively bounce, right out of office, those bozos who use that phrase like a mantra or a weapon. Right or left, red or yellow, black or white--tell them all to go home and put a finger on their own pulse.

"The American people?"--sure. But it seems to me that right now, as always in a democracy, where two or three are gathered, someone doesn't agree.

Which is why "the great American experiment" of "government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" is still such a immensely fragile thing.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Morning Thanks--"The Boys"

The Boys is not an easy read, but then the lives it documents weren't at all easy either. John Terpstra, a poet and a carpenter by trade, chronicles the life of a New Jersey family, his wife's family, in this uniquely personal memoir of suffering and death--and life.

His wife, Mary Ann, had three brothers, all three afflicted with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. All three lived energetically right up until their deaths in their late teens, and those deaths, astoundingly, came within six months. Life in Mary Ann's house was not at all easy.

A woman I once met lost her husband in a construction accident. She had, at the time, a score of little kids. On the day of the funeral, the house full of mourners and food, her kids, she says, were almost out of control, begging for sweets. "Oh, go ahead and have more chocolate cake," she told them after too many bouts of begging. "How often does your father die?" That line came up from her soul in a fashion that black humor does with most of us, like a salty blessing that doesn't so much disguise pain as season it.

The Boys has some wonderful black humor, but not too much, because too much would poison the telling with sentimentality, a silliness this beautiful book evenly avoids. Terpstra's own poetics grace the telling, sentence by sentence, page by page. There are no page numbers; the story is told in 213 chapters, some of them no more than a sentence long. Some really sharp reviewer could explain the eccentric story-telling, but I can't. All I know is that it works. You don't breathe easily through this memoir. Life itself is just too precious.

In a number of ways, John Terpstra was faced with an impossible task in writing this book. Here's just one. Effective story-telling requires that he show us what he wants us to feel, not just tell us. Yet, almost every last action required in the treatment of his three brothers-in-law in those last years, as well as the boys' own gutsy reactions to that treatment, are painfully ugly. What their father went through, what their mother went through, what their sister went through cannot be imagined. Neither he nor anyone else, finally, can do that job. Imagine a house where three perfectly normal teenage boys lie dying, arms and legs rendered useless, purposeless, by a genetic killer that's taking all of them at one time. It is beyond imagination. But it's not imagined. It's true.

What John Terpstra struggles to show us is that despite the immense horror and the unimaginable suffering, even in despair, even in grief, even in anger against God, life in that New Jersey bungaloe was somehow good. I'm not sure any writer can do that job convincingly.

We finally believe John Terpstra only because the intimacy he opens makes it clear and vivid that he knows. We believe him not because of the story itself but because what he creates in this story has the authenticity of truth. We believe that somehow those horrible final years of his brothers' lives were good because we believe him and in him.

Why this family? Terpstra is believer, as he testifies in another book of his, not so much by choice. Why do good people suffer so horrendously in a world filled with God's unfailing love? Terpstra asks those cosmic questions we all do and answers them no better than any of us have ever done. Some answers will only come beyond the grave.

All he wants us to know, finally, is that he knows--from the heart of the family story--that those boys' lives, taken as early as they were, filled with incomprehensible pain and suffering on all sides, were still good. He wants us to know that, unbelievably, those years were among the best of times.

On the back of his tombstone, an old friend of mine wanted--and got--this line: "It was all marvelous. I don't regret a minute of it. Even the pain and hunger were sweet to have. It was life, not death, and all moments of life are very precious."

There's more death in this book than most of us care to encounter anywhere, but what Terpstra makes very clear is there's also abundant life.

I don't know exactly how he does it, but I believe him.

The Boys is a story you'll never forget.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Here's what I'm guessing. Somewhere there's a mayor--maybe suburban, maybe smalltown (see the row crops on the right)--who may well know his workers well enough to guess who the heck screwed this up. Right now, this mayor is shaking his head because he knows--or she does--that somehow heads must roll. After all, her desk is where the buck stops. But she'd really rather not fire the dork.

This great shot is all over the internet and cable. The mayor's poor burg is the laughing stock of the nation. Someone is going to have to get tossed under the bus, as they say.

Besides, what are we going to do?--paint over the h and c and get out the stencils again? Are we just stuck with this for the next decade?--the mayor is asking himself. Or herself. We can't let that happen.

And then there's this sad sign painter himself--he can't be a woman, not that women don't have their own unique sins. Poor schmuck was thinking of something totally other than spelling when he put down the stencils. Maybe he was too blasted concerned about spacing, getting the distance between the letters just right. Maybe he was thinking of his daughter's big volleyball game. Or her knee sprain. Maybe he's just bamboozled, sure his wife is having an affair.

Maybe he's planning a late summer fly-in fishing trip to Canada. Maybe it's not his wife who's got something going on the side, maybe he does. How about this?--he was trying to put together his own blessed fantasy football team. Men are so easily distracted. He didn't mean it, for pete's sake, and he's not a moron.

Yesterday, just down the block from where I live, the first pitter-patter of students' flip-flops arrived on campus. We're still a week away from the first class, but I, for one, rather like this goofy screwed up street sign because somehow it resonates in my very soul. Even though I've been at it for forty years, some guy's unbelievable gaffe creates a portrait that testifies perfectly to what I feel at this very moment, just a week away from opening day.

Don't toss that pink slip in the office mail, Ms. Mayor. There's so much unemployment. The poor guy's obiously got his troubles. Turn his howler into a tourist trap. Make some bucks. Think of the publicity. Any ink is good ink, right? It's an honest mistake, and people all over the world love it.

At least I do.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Heart of Darkness

My guess is it was just about 25 years ago, sitting here in a different chair behind a different desk, but in the exact same spot here in our basement, I was writing a book of meditations for junior high kids. The news that morning was that some damnable gang of Islamic militant thugs had boarded a cruise ship, picked out a Jewish hostage and killed him--him alone, the end of terrorism finally being simply more terror, I guess.

I was writing out part of that story that morning because, in light of the Bible verse I was illustrating, it made perfect sense. But I remember thinking, sitting right here, that by the time the devotional book would be released, that particular despicable act would have been trumped by a dozen others with more extensive casualty lists and that no one would possibly remember--a year or so hence--a Jewish man in a wheelchair murdered on a cruise ship. In a year, at least a hundred others would be sliced and diced by other bloody, fiendish terrorist monsters.

I'm sure my crystal ball was working that morning. I'm sure I was right.

Last week there was another horrific, unspeakable act. Ten members of a relief team who'd just returned from a medically-underserved Afghan village so remote that just getting there would have been a project even if it weren't a war zone--those ten people, including Cheryl Beckett, above, Christian professionals who'd given up their own practices and lives to serve the Afghan poor, some of them having been there for years and years, aid workers armed with a hundred toothbrushes for people who'd never seen them--those very selfless saviors were brutally murdered by the Taliban, who bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything even remotely called "human." To call them animals is bestow vastly more favor than they deserve. We don't really have words to describe them--even vermin is too kind.

"They were Christian missionaries," one of the Taliban brayed, "and we killed them all."

Honestly, I hope every last one of them is even more viciously murdered. I hope they get their just reward. If I were at the controls of some airborne drone and I knew where they were perched, I would take the greatest human pleasure in steering that weapon down and killing them all, spraying their guts like a bloody fountain over those craggy Afghan mountains. Watching them die would be sheer pleasure.

Love your enemies, Christ said. Love your enemies.

Give me a break. I know better. I'm human.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Morning Thanks--sweet nothings

I remember exactly where I was standing when the guy did it--I was just off stage in an old gym. I was about to go up and stand behind the podium and give a speech or read a story at a fund-raising banquet, and the guy who was introducing me was doing it with a joke--a joke about a bald man.

That there was some empty spaces above didn't come as a surprise. I remember washing my hair the night before I left for college and finding enough to bale. That someday I wasn't going to be among those blessed with gorgeous hair was old news. Eventually, 't'would be a desert up top.

And I wasn't pulling some ridiculous comb-over either. The woman who cut my hair told me once upon a time that the day I started trying to rotate a crop I didn't have, I could find some other place to sit in the chair--she wasn't going to take my money anymore. My wife wouldn't have let me either.
I knew I was going shiny on top, but I guess I really thought no one else did.

The night I was introduced with some lame joke about a bald guy remains a searing memory. I could just as well have been standing there in my jockeys. Some sweet voice must have been telling me that I was the only who'd seen the vast empty spaces across my pate.

And now another. Not long ago, I ran into a former student--maybe five years ago--who gave me a huge smile, held out her hand, said nice things, and then, almost slack-jawed, said something like this: "You're retired, right?"

Now the truth is, I'd love to be retired. Love it. Just two nights ago, I had a double dose of my old teaching nightmare--I'm standing up in front of students, but not making a bit of a difference. They could care less. I've had that nightmore for 39 years, at least. I'd love to be rid of it, once and forever.

But that former student's unfeeling and even salacious salutation ranks right up there in my list of perfectly awful hate crimes with the show-stopping bald joke. I wanted to say, "Do I look 70, really?"

I went home and cried.

Then, just a few days later, another former student walks into my office, this one having graduated a decade earlier. "Dr. Schaap, you can't be 62--you just can't be," she says to me with totally unfeigned shock.

That comment was plain music to my soul, and thus I'm ready for another day, maybe even another semester.

I'm not stupid. Her surprise may have been self-referential--you know, if-he's-that-old-then- I'm-really-ancient sort of thing. I don't care.

She was Florence Nightengale that morning, stanching my agonies.

Vanity, vanity--all is vanity, saith the preacher.

I don't care. This morning I'm thankful for the utter shock on my ex-student's face, the second one, the one who made my day--and that was a week ago.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Divining American pieties

I'm don't know everything there is to know about that region of the country, but here's what I heard from some people in the know about northwest Washington. On a plot of land where once there were fifteen farms, now there are four. You know the narrative: agriculture has become big business, and only the big businesspeople are in it anymore. Fewer farms mean fewer people on the land.

So, I asked my hosts up there, now that berries have become so big in the region and berrying doesn't require huge plots of land (as grain farming or raising cattle does here in Siouxland), why aren't there more farms instead of fewer? Why aren't more traditional (read Dutch Reformed) families staying on the land? Good night, they've owned the territory for a century already.

The answer I was told--again, I'm no expert--is that East Indians are buying the land when it becomes available. The highest bidders wear turbins, not wooden shoes.

Q. And how can they afford it when the locals can't? That makes no sense.

A. Because they work ALL THE TIME. They pack multiple families in single houses. They live frugally and get rich. In that region of the country, it's the East Indians who are most fully energized by "the American dream."

One can see the same dream in my neighbors, Mexicans, lots of them illegal, I'm sure. One woman told me her first job in Sioux Center was sticking her fingers into the skull of a just-slaughtered hog and jerking out the brain. I have no idea how much a packing house would have to pay some white guy to do that job, someone other than an immigrant.

I say all of that because Peggy Noonan's last column in the Wall Street Journal (August 7--"America is at Risk of Boiling Over") gets really serious about America's problems. "The biggest political change in my lifetime," she writes, "is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did. This is a huge break with the past, with assumptions and traditions that shaped us."

I think Peggy Noonan is one of our culture's finest columnists quite frankly, but I think her fears arise from a half-truth. She's right about "our" no longer assuming our children will have it better than we did. I'm the son of a man who worked a factory job he tolerated but never once wanted for me; I had to go to college so I could have a better life.

Yesterday, my father-in-law told me that his grandfather, a Dutch immigrant at the turn of the 20th century, came to this country because he wanted farmland. If you have land, he used to tell his son, at least you can eat. He came to America to get land so his family would have food. He wanted more for his children than he had in the old country.

Peggy Noonan isn't wrong; I am different. I want the best for my children, but I never once thought about working my duff off just so that they would live a better life than I have. Nor did she, I'd guess. Never. If I've worked hard--and I hope forty years of classroom teaching is nothing to sneeze at--I've done so because I liked the job, even loved it, not because I was investing in a better life for my children. The only thing I've wanted for them is a good life, not necessarily a better life. I've got a good life.

Noonan is right. Things have changed.

But she's wrong in assuming that somehow the change is always destructive: "inner pessimisim and powerlessness," she says, "is a dangerous combination." Sure it is, but I don't find myself in that equation and neither do my Mexican neighbors, nor the East Indians buying berry land up in Washington. None of us are either pessimistic or powerless, quite frankly.

I'll certainly grant her this much: there are people who are pessimistic and powerless, and there are lots of them. She's not wrong here either--that fact makes things feel dangerous, as if this country is at risk of boiling over.

Just who does she mean by we? When she uses the collective noun "American," as in "Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did," who exactly is she talking about, because it's not my neighbors or the East Asians in northwest Washington. And it's not me either.

I'll dare to bet she's talking about lower-middle class white folks, the people raising hell at tea parties, the people who devour anything Glenn Beck drudges up, and ditto heads. Real Americans, Sarah Palin might say. They're angry because they think they're powerless and that makes them pessimistic.

Forty years ago already, Daniel Bell, in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism argued that the old 19th century, "American dream" paradigm--with its emphasis on the self-discipline, delayed gratification, and restraint--is very much alive as a doctrine of American life. However, amazingly, the old way of seeing things crashes head-on into a popular culture where such values as hard work and self-discipline are totally rejected (think Lady Gaga, the SuperBowl, Dancing with the Stars). That makes sense to me.

And things get even more thorny, according to Bell, because we're in the shape we're in because capitalism has worked. Seriously, in a global sense, it's made us all rich. Hard work created prosperity and prosperity killed off hard work.

Forty years ago in northwest Washington, come berry season, kids would be out in those strawberry fields forever, picking strawberries, little kids. Lots and lots of tuition money for Christian schools was earned, essentially, by child labor. In my own life, I worked harder baling hay than I did at any other job I ever had. I was a seventh grader.

Here's the story of white America--or so it seems to me: we've worked very hard for a better life, so hard we may have forgotten to work hard (think about those East Indians). But we have definitely got a better life. That's for sure. Nobody wants to give that up--me either.

Here's where I couldn't agree with Noonan more: maybe it's not going to get any better for all of us, for our children. Maybe so.

She thinks that's awful. I say, maybe living with something less than a dream isn't all bad.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Saturday Morning Catch

Warmest Saturday morning I can remember--but then, I can't remember much. Somewhere east--maybe Mason City or so--rain was falling, rain they, like us, probably don't need. A hump of clouds kept the sunrise from irridescence, and when it finally slid from under all that moisture, it lit up the land almost half-heartedly.

No matter. There's no shortage of color out in the country as of late. The emerald remains as royal as it could be. Very nice.

Friday, August 06, 2010

To be religiously convicted

I can only imagine how angry some muezzinine must be. They're the men--an office apparently not open to women--who, five times a day, call their fellow muslims to prayer. In Cairo apparently, soon enough they'll be out of a job.

According to NPR yesterday, "no longer will the melodic call, the azan, be delivered by a sea of voices from minarets across the sprawling Egyptian capital," because in Cairo the call to Islamic worship is going solo: the Ministry of Religious Endowment has announced that, each day, a single voice will sound throughout the city, not the hundreds now employed at the task.

Why? Because some believe the cacophony is just plain out of control. Imagine a couple of hundred singers--not all equally talented--singing what have become different songs at once over powerful public address systems. From the other side of the world, I can hear the need for change.

Up close, I'm betting the unemployed muezzinine are singing a different tune. You just don't mess with what people--all people--hold sacred.

Years ago, I was on a denominational committee studying whether children should participate in holy communion. I remember that one of the first things our chair said was that we don't mess with holy things with impunity, something that had to be remembered.

All of which reminds me of this Wisconsin highway sign, something I found on-line.

The second paragraph says, "On April 6, 1832, a dissatisfied faction led by Black Hawk returned [east over the Mississippi] with 400 warriors and 1200 women, children, and old men. Why he risked this return to "my town, my cornfields, and the homes of my people" in the face of certain opposition is not clear. . ."

Say what?
I'd just finished reading The Autobiography of Black Hawk, where the old chief makes very clear why he crossed the Mississippi east to return to his homeland. "Would you leave all, even the graves of our fathers, to the mercy of an enemy without trying to defend them?" he asks the reader, not without sarcasm. And later: "What right had these people to our village, and our fields, which the Great Spirit had given us to live upon?" And more: "I refused therefore to quit my village. It was here that I was born, and here lie the bones of many friends and relations. For this spot I felt a sacred reverence, and never could consent to leave it without being fored therefrom."

"Why he risked this return. . .is not clear?"

Okay, maybe Black Hawk is blowing smoke in his autobiography, trying to justify the violence his own bands perpetuated on white settlers. But I doubt it. The truth is, he went back over the Mississippi in 1832 for deeply religious reasons. One doesn't need to embrace his theology to understand why he felt so strongly. God himself, the Great Spirit wanted him back there east of the river.

When people mess with the faith of others, there's going to be return fire. Watch it boil now, with the California court's decision on gay marriage.

For better and for worse, what human beings hold sacred doesn't go down without a fight. A couple hundred silenced Cairo muezzinine will let you know, I'm sure.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Morning Thanks--the Aeron

I don't know when or where I heard about Aeron chairs, but once upon a time I did. Years ago, a man in town had a business that bought up semi-loads of used office furniture. This guy had one, I remember--maybe $100, used, of course, the smell of smoke lingering in it somewhere since most of his office furniture did. I sat in it but didn't buy it, not when I could get some padded monster twice its size for half the price.

Now I remember. A friend of mine in Michigan told me that his daughter worked at the Herman Miller corporation, one grand place to be employed. "Have you ever sat in an Aeron chair?" he said. I knew what they were from the fire sale. He couldn't stop singing their praises.

And then the really good news. "You can pick up something refurbished right from the back of the factory in Zeeland," he told me. I was going to be nearby the next day, so I stopped at the factory, picked one out, and had it shipped to Iowa.

That was ten years ago at least, probably more, a dozen years during which my considerable bulk has been comfortably situated in a bona fide Aeron right down here in the basement. It's wonderful.

Last summer, mine stopped rocking. It was still a great chair, but one of its many glorious movements quit, and I missed it. I downloaded the service manual, then pulled and pushed all the buttons--nothing.

So I e-mailed the company's service department and got a really helpful guy named Brandon, who told me to call him. It was August, school was starting, and things got busy. I didn't. Listen, if you've got an Aeron chair and it doesn't tip politely backward, that doesn't mean you're bloody dying.

This summer I called Brandon, as instructed, and he was still there. Seated right here at my desk, I listened to his patient advice, pulled and pushed on every last button and switch on the dream chair, as requested, all to no avail. It still wouldn't rock.

"Where are you?" he says. I tell him Iowa, far northwest, close to Sioux Falls. Pause. "Brown and Sanger," he says, and he gives me a phone number. "They'll work on it for you."

"No kidding?" I said, and he told me to give them a call.

Now I figure I'm going to be really high on their list, some schmuck more than an hour away with a single chair that stopped tipping its hat. Give me a break. Besides, I know I can live with this petty misdemeanor--so what if it won't tip back?

But I went to their website and sent an e-mail to their service address. Within the hour, I got a response. [This story is not fiction.] "I'm coming to Sioux Center tomorrow--I can take a look at it then," the guy said, a man named Brad.

Can you believe that?--curbside service. A house call. Sure enough, Brad shows up, comes down here in the basement, fiddles with the knobs, jerks on my blessed Aeron as if he were a bonzo chiropractor, but still nothing.

"I'll take it along to the shop," he says, "and I'll let you know when we got it finished. Oh yeah--see this back brace?--I'll fix that for you too, toss on a new one." Then he lugs it out of the basement.

I'm not kidding. This is all just the way it happened.

A weekend passes, then an e-mail. Yesterday, my son-in-law and daughter stopped at Sioux Falls's Brown and Sanger and picked up my sweet Aeron, and, voila, I'm right here in the throne as we speak. NO CHARGE. I'm not kidding. Chair has warranty, Brad says. I swear, I'm not making this up.

If this incredible saga sounds like some marketing scheme, then, dang it, so be it. I love this chair, always have. I was more than willing to spend the rest of my life in it even if it didn't do me the pleasure of tipping back--as I said, I'm not suffering. Besides, my Aeron is not young anymore and neither am I. I don't tip backward easily myself, for heaven's sake. This blessed chair is the best piece of furniture I own.

But if you read this blog at all, you know that at its heart is thanksgiving, daily thanks; and that's why, this morning, in a rugless, almost bone-dry basement, the shop/vac still standing across the room like a sentry, I am thankful--really, really thankful--not only for this sweet chair but for people from Herman Miller and Brown and Sanger, people like Brandon and Brad, who've treated me royally, start to finish, treated me as if this great Aeron really is a throne.

Just amazing.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Morning thanks--a shop vac

Just one reason for the agricultural abundance of this area is a kind of perfect storm of environmental kisses--dark, healthy soil, a substantially long growing season, and fairly stable 20-inch rainfalls.

Until now.

My daughter says the facts go like this: we've had 8.99 inches of rain in June--double the average amount; 10.59 in July--TRIPLE the average amount; and over three inches in August--and it's only the 4th. In other words, we've had our normal allotment of annual moisture in little over two months. Just so no one can be mistaken here, that means anything else--including the wettest winter in years--doesn't really matter. We live in a jungle here, a swamp.

Just outside a town, a thoughtful, bearded man once thought to be lunatic, is busily building an ark.

The good news is, this morning there's somewhat less "'stuff' in the basement." The bad news is, it's gone because we tossed stuff just to accomodate the tidal waters. Monday morning, a friend of mine and I were shaking our heads in wonder because neither had water and the rest of the world, it seemed, did; Monday afternoon, it was pooling. Monday night, we were ripping out carpet.

Honestly, far worse horror stories exist. Last night, a friend stopped over, wondering how we were doing and I proudly led him into the disaster area that is our basement because I was so dang proud of the fact that the flood waters had subsided; it was as if I was showing off some cool remodling job. There's so much water in the earth here, and it's so high, that it's a wonder some houses don't simply float down the gutters in the run off.

I've spent more time with a shop vac in the last 48 hours than I have on the computer who seems to be nesting in a tangled bush of wires I pulled two nights ago. I'm not sure they'll ever all fit back in.

I've decided to nominate the shop vac for "Invention of the century." Without it, I'd be spearing carp.

And this beast came from a neighbor. I'd run to a store in town to see if I could buy one; they were out already a week ago. Had one left, the guy said, a little two-gallon thing which I madly bought (only port in the storm, so to speak), took home, and quickly decided I could do better with a drinking straw, an assessment I passed along to my neighbor, who then selflessly ran to his office in a nearby town and picked up his own horse of a shop vac whose fierce roar has been something akin to the "Hallelujah Chorus" for the last two days. What a blessing!

The upshot is, this morning there's less stuff in the basement because a bunch of what certainly didn't need to be there simply got dumped in the madness. For awhile, of course, there was a whole lot more stuff in the basement, all of it uninvited, gurgling up from cracks in the floor, seething into the rooms, and pooling in low spots. Awful stuff, water. Just awful.

There are two kinds of people in town these days, I'm told: those who have water in their basement, and liars. It's horrible.

In the middle of the war two nights ago, my able and beloved neighbor slicing out long shards of heavy, wet carpet that's been there, cork dry, for thirty years, told me to quit my bitchin', at least that was the upshot. "At least it ain't Katrina," he said.

Anyway, there are mega-reasons for thanks this morning. For wonderful, selfless neighbors; for the seeming cessation of the monsoons (for a day--only a few sprinkles yesterday), for an absolutely beautiful mess down there in my blessed and gorgeous DRY basement.

Oh, yeah, and that wonderful shop vac. Without it, I'd have alreadly developed gills.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Morning Thanks--"the Amish are coming"

Apparently, while most of white America--and the white world--register birth rates that, someday, threaten extinction, the Amish are proliferating, doing quite well, thank you--so well, in fact, that they're needing more land and finding it, even out in this direction, near Tripp, SD.

It's hard not to love the Amish. They're so diligent about things, such idealogues, so blasted sure of their version of the truth. It seems they could care less about what other people say or do or think of their creeds or their language or their macabre carriages.

Are they a cult? I don't know. But the vast majority of their young people stay, even though each one of them has the opportunity to leave during a wild and crazy time they call "Rumspringa," which means “running around” in the Pennsylvania German dialect. Get this--85% stay Amish, even not a one kid has an iPod--if they do, they're tucked furtively beneath their straw mattresses.

I swear, I wouldn't want to be Amish, but it's wonderful having them around. Few of them, I'm sure, go searching for their ten minutes of fame. When they got it a few years ago--when some madman murdered their school children in Pennsylvania--they got as much ink for their incredible forgiveness than they did for the horrifying bloodletting.

I hope--I may be wrong--that not a one of them has ever heard of Glen Beck or Lindsey Lohan. I hope--I may be wrong--not one Amish person heard the latest Mel Gibson rant, nor know a guido if they saw--or heard--one. Their kids don't need cars, although I'm sure they eye each other's horses enviously (sin doesn't really respect centuries). And in their schools, they get along quite well without team sports, if you can believe it. Oh, yeah--and I'm guessing that when they get together to sing, it's not the your or my brand new praise chorus.

Strangely enough, they're growing by leaps and bounds--and they don't even do evangelism.

They satisfy one of Christ's most puzzling paradoxes--"be ye in the world, but not of it"--in a most admirable way, having determined that what the Lord wants of us is to live the way good, stout agrarian people did in the early 19th century, the Golden Age.

I'm not joining, but you have to admit they've got sturdy furniture, great breads, gorgeous quilts, and strawberry jams and jellies to die for.
And cute kids. Tons of 'em. And, apparently, many more on the way.

This morning, my morning thanks are for the Amish. More power to 'em, I say.

Horse power anyway.