Morning Thanks

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

Friday, September 28, 2012

On, Wisconsin

‘T’was markedly gorgeous in Wisconsin this week, temps hovering around 70, clear skies for the most part, nights sweetly September cool.  Here, as elsewhere, the drought abides, however.  Not once in our week-long stay did the skies even threaten rain; we’d have been much more beloved by the locals had we lugged along some significant moisture.
But drizzly skies on the lakefront would have made for a far less radiant vacation.

The Lake Michigan beach is wondrous wide, the water level almost historically low.  If I step out of the front door of the cottage we’re renting and walk only twenty feet or so, chunks of concrete still emerge from a storm of grass and weeds on the edge of an incline, marking—unmistakably—how high the water has been.  Today it’s almost unimaginably higher, fifty yards at least between the front door and the beach, which is, at least for vacationers, a rich blessing.  Maybe our host should have charged us more.

On Wednesday we travelled the peninsula, Door County, one of Wisconsin’s most-heralded treasures, a bit of New England right here in the rural Midwest. The weather was sharp and bright and fresh as a honeycrisp apple, the world peopled almost totally by retirees, like us.  I remember walking through the mall when my wife was pregnant and seeing expecting women by the dozens, as if they’d never been there before.  All we saw all day was people our age. There are no kids in the tourist spots right now, save a half-dozen home schoolers maybe.  No young couples either.  The world is gray.  And bald.  And slower.  And quieter. Okay, maybe a little less handsome and probably a lot more boring.  Door County was a huge couples club.

If I say the week was unforgettable, it’s not hyperbole.  The local news out of Milwaukee, all week long, was dominated by treacherous injustice.  On Tuesday, there were no other stories at all—it was all the game—how a Seahawk named Golden wrestled with a Packer back until it appeared to imbecilic replacement refs—one of them at least—that the hail mary was a touchdown, despite the fact that millions, even billions, of viewers around the world saw it as pass interference first, and, without question, an interception, saw it, in fact, time after time after time, in close up and slow-mo, time and time again, each replay proving those third-rate refs were in far over their head and that “the product,” the game itself, was compromised by the lousy owners, gadzillionaires themselves, all of them, except Green Bay, of course, where the franchise is publically owned, and they’re the ones who took it on the chin--no across the frickin’ chops, by the ragged tomfoolery of dopey refs culled from some silly petticoat league.  The truth.

The talk has not yet stopped.

Even Scott Walker sided with the union. Even Paul Ryan.  Even Mitt Romney.  The lion with the lamb.

Here’s what we’ll say twenty years from now.  We spent a week of our first fully retired month at a cottage on Lake Michigan’s western shore, a gorgeous week, the week the Packers got screwed.  Twenty years from now, most Wisconsinites will say, “Ja, sure.  Ja, that week.”

“It’s a day of infamy,” one fan said on TV.  He wasn’t kidding.

A day of infamy, and we were here, in Wisconsin, too.  We saw it happen.  We were there. 
That’s what we’ll say.

Tuesday morning the lake was rough and angry, threatening, as if it too had seen the horror, breakers thundering as far as out as some fourth sandbar.  This morning, Friday, for the first time since game night, Lake Michigan has settled down, as if finally listening to Green Bay’s stocky coach, Mike McCoy, who said, stoically, the moment the horror went down that his blessed team simply had no choice but to move on.

It’s time for the Badger State to milk cows and make cheese, time to move on.
But they’ll remember for a long, long time, and when the legit refs return on Sunday in Lambeau, the place’ll go nuts—standing ovation.
And a bunch of times we’ll say, I’m sure, “That’s the week we were there.”

Thursday, September 27, 2012

School Days--what's still there anyway

Seventh and eighth grades went passingly well.  The teacher was not Dutch and I knew it—not because I knew what Dutch was, but because it was somehow clear to me that he wasn’t what I was.  From those years, I remember specific lessons—about the Reformation for instance (the glories of the Reformers and the despotic Roman Catholics who were overweight and alcoholic and sold crappy indulgences stupid people were somehow willing to believe would buy them eternal life, a history it took me awhile to nuance), and about the Civil War (I got belovedly lost in the lives of the generals).

Mr. LeFever was Presbyterian of the Orthodox people, someone whose own recent history included breaking away from a liberal church.  I think he taught the Reformation itself with an intensity borne out of his own people’s story—hence, more martyrdom.  Martydom—people reciting the 23rd psalm as fire beneath them wretchedly licks out their lives—is of great fascination to boys in early adolescence, when very little is capable of grossing them out.
Spitballs were in during those years—not so much fired at each other, but as an element of the classroom’s interior decoration--on the ceiling, for instance, or on the bust of Abraham Lincoln.  The idea was to get a clod of that really soft paper that came in tablets given to little kids—soak it up with spit, and then throw the glob hard enough so it would stick somewhere glaringly public.  Me too.  I was among ‘em, the spitballers.
I got caught one Friday afternoon.  I’d taken a thick and heavy spit ball, rolled it out of my mouth, and then whipped it up against the window, where it hung like a barnacle.  It wasn’t really a public act—I mean, it wasn’t as if all my friends were watching.  It was what we did.  There that fat thing sat splatted on the window, a white plug of soggy refuse, gross as anything a middle school boy might love. 
LeFever must have seen me throw it because he said something I’ve never forgotten:  “You,” he said, “you—a Schaap.”

I don’t know that anything that happened to me during my grade school years mattered as much in my life as that pronouncement because I’d never before thought of myself as “a Schaap,” someone part of a wider community, an extended family, with its very own name and history.  Even though I knew my father was mayor and my grandfather had served as the preacher in the church downtown, they weren’t me because me was someone else, and the idea that somehow a single sloppy spitball was a blot on the honor of my family album stayed with me as I walked home that night.  That I was connected to something more than just my own body and heart and soul made me both larger than I was and, scarily, a whole lot more than what I’d ever wanted to be.

I was mad.  I thought it was awful of him to say that.  After all, what on earth had that spitball to do with Rev. Schaap or Grandma Dirkse and her bowtie?  I whipped that spitball, not them; but his denunciation had called my association with an entire family album into question in a way I thought horribly unjust and unfair.

No one talked much about “identity” in the late 50s.  If I brought up “my needs,” it would have been thought of as sin.  It would take the Sixties before people talked at all about “doing your own thing” or “finding yourself.”  When I was in eighth grade, I wasn’t undergoing some variant of an “identity crisis,” but I learned by way of what the teacher himself might call today an unwarranted and overemotionally untoward response—and I swear this is true—that I was not my own, but belonged to something, someone else.
And no, this isn’t going to end with “Kumbaya.”  Did that eighth grade spitball stick to my soul and alter the course of my life?  Absolutely, yes.  Did I become an Eagle Scout as a result?  No.  Did I go sinless throughout high school and commit a career in missions in Ecuador?  No.  But did what he said teach me something I never forgot?  Absolutely, despite himself, despite educational theory, and even what we might call appropriate teacher behavior.  In a way, you might say, that spitball was the best thing I did in eighth grade.

Somewhere in a short story, one of Alice Munro’s wonderfully complex characters, a mom, says that what she’s come to learn in the relationship she has with her adult children is that, tragically, some of the things her children remember best about their childhood are things she had never even regarded as important and totally, completely forgotten.
For the first nine years of my education as a child, I learned my multiplication tables and principles of English grammar; I wrote reports and did speeches; I’m sure I came to understand how birds fly and bees make honey; I knew something about the Civil War generals and a basic, hard-core Protestant view of the Reformation.  I read stories and wrote poems.  I made art—or something like it.  I read books that were assigned and some that weren’t; and when it was all over, I graduated from eighth grade into a high school career that were far more sports-crazy than it should have been.

 To say that what I’ve been writing is what I really learned is just silly.  But it is—for better or for worse—what stuck most tenaciously, and is weirdly instructive, I suppose, even for someone who spent his life instructing—classroom lessons from life itself. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

School Days--what's still there

Our sixth grade teacher was a goofy guy with an ebullient personality so Macy-Thanksgiving-Day-parade big that it simply filled the room, a whirling dervish of a teacher, who once upon a time strolled out on the newly black-topped basketball courts west of the school and hit a shot from half court that left all of us almost eternally impressed.

 Funny—it was a Christian school, and I’m sure Mr. Eggebeen told us story after story from the Bible, likely even offered a testimony or two, but I don’t remember any of that.  What I know is that once he hit that half-court shot, for the rest of the year, he could do no wrong.

I’m sure I was hardly saintly, but once upon a time, during the last hour of the day—and week, on Friday during art class, when things were chaotic anyway, I painted a halo and a beard on the kid on the safety poster that was taped up on the door to our sixth grade room, some little squatty kid like Dennis the Menace, adorned with the kind of police belt we used to wear to indicate our authority to help the little kids across the streets.
Strangely enough, I don’t remember Mr. Eggebeen being all that angry, perhaps because he didn’t make a federal case out of it in class, in front of the other kids. I didn’t get cited in any kind of public fashion that I remember.  But what I won’t forget is that the next report card I lugged home featured a big fat D in the box on Deportment, which is to say, of course, “behavior.”
My parents were aghast, purely aghast.  They did some detective work, as all parents would have back then, probably went to the teacher themselves, although I don’t remember them visiting.
Yet, somehow, I also remember that they weren’t as angry as he must have been.  By that time in my life, they were very much aware they hadn’t raised a sinless child, so a halo and goatee on a cartoon kid on a poster maybe didn’t constitute something close to the unforgiveable sin.

And me?--I still feel today somehow as if that grade was legitimate.  Why? I can think of only one reason:  Eggebeen was an excellent teacher who way back when hit a shot from half court and, even when he wasn’t trying, lit up our lives.
Amazingly, even then, I wasn’t mad.  Honestly, I’m sure I didn’t mean to deface anything or anyone.  It wasn’t a mean thing to do, a little sporty even.  No matter, I had the feeling that somehow I’d earned that big fat D.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Morning Thanks--just outside

The view from our front window--my morning thanks.

School days--what's still there

All of our father’s smoked back then, mine too—L & Ms.  I know because more than occasionally, I’d grab one or two myself because we were smoking too, on the sly.  I mention that, however, because in fifth grade Mr. Van Dyk smoked—in the classroom.  That happened in a Christian school, I swear it—he chain smoked until the board put a stop to it.

It was 1959, and Mr. Van Dyk was an immigrant from the Netherlands, where smoking in the classroom was simply what people did.  To us his thick Dutch accent along made him exotic, not like us at all.  He was very excitable and laughed, sometimes uproariously, in ways no teacher we knew ever had before, in a way we found almost cool.  What I remember is that he wasn’t condescending and he certainly didn’t expect bowties.  He was my, which is to say our  first male teacher—that, in itself, was fascinating, more so, I think for us boys than for girls, in part because some of us became convinced—I certainly did--that he loved our girls.  At times they’d sit on his lap, right there in the classroom.  I had no way of knowing whether all male teachers did that, and all of us, I think—well, most of us had at one time or a other been the subject of one of our women teachers’ loving touches. 

He had his favorites too—girls, I mean, and we knew it—or at least I did.  I resented what I read, even then, as seeming advances I thought, somehow, in my child’s mind, inappropriate.  I have no idea, today, if what he did with those girls was wrong in anyway, but it was with some of us boys.  And it was enough to make us almost angry.

His emotions—all of them--came in spades.  I remember him standing up front with a blackboard pointer, disciplining a kid most of us didn’t really like all that much, a kid who stood there with his hand out for Van Dyk to whap, which he quite gleefully did, with memorable relish, the kid crumbling like as if right there before us we were observing a martyr going down before the horrors of the Inquisition.  This really happened—I swear it:  Van Dyk whapped the kid’s hand, then looked at us as if we were a hungry crowd in a Roman coliseum.  “More?” he’d say, and we’d yell for him to do it again.  Very strange, but I remember joining  in the fun.  Besides, we really believed the kid wasn’t suffering half as bad as his agony portrayed. By today’s standards, it was abuse.  But I also remember, not proudly, it was also great theater.

We lined up outside beneath the long corridor of windows on the south side of the building for an all-school picture that year, the boys sitting on folding chairs on the gravel, the girls standing behind us, an arrangement we felt somehow morally wrong.  While the little kids were getting in place, we boys, me among ‘em, peppered the legs and feet of the girls behind us with stones, making them dance—pure flirtation, no injury intended.  Picture this now—I’m looking down between my legs, under the folding chair, tossing stones, when I came up for air and just like that took a shot from Mr. Van Dyk across the chops that almost knocked me off that folding chair.  He came up and nailed me and just walked away; but somehow I remember feeling equal mixtures of embarrassment and honor by his fulsome slap across the face.  After all, I was now in the company of men.

Van Dyk had some immigration problems, I think, so we had, that year, a long-term sub, my mom.  That was strange.  I remember getting papers back from her with notes that started like this:  “Jimmy, I think you should work on your penmanship.”  She never called me Jimmy at home.  I was dealing with someone who wanted to be different in school, and that confused me.
It was 1959, and the most powerful story of the Christian life was the death of five missionaries at the bloody hands of Auca Indians,  somewhere in the rain forests of Ecuador.  My mother read the book to us, Through Gates of Splendor, or parts of it, and I sent a letter to the writer, Elizabeth Eliot, who wrote back to me.  I’m almost sure it was an assignment.  I’ll never forget receiving a note with an exotic stamp from Ecuador, never forget hearing from the woman who wrote that book, who was, no longer, simply a fiction.

As all of them were really, it was a year of tremendous growth, of wondering and imagination, a strange new world in which teachers had begun to teach us, not as if we were children, but something else altogether, something not yet adult, but something somehow closer to being just plain human.

Monday, September 24, 2012

School Days--what's still there anyway

Naughty Boy, Nw York, 1955 

The classroom my fourth grade teacher created was forever in chaos. My father was on the school board, and I remember some frantic end-of-summer scrambling to fill the position, and remember, roughly, that—how can I say this?—she wasn’t one of us, not really a Christian school teacher not at all. I don’t know why all of this is parked forever in my memory, but I still today have the unrighteous sense that she was somehow not among the chosen. I don’t know if that view affected my assessment; maybe it was simply a means by which I could judge her incredible ineffectiveness in the classroom. She was horrible. She tried hard, but she failed miserably.

One cold day out on a pile of snow when some of us met together, I tried—at my parents’ suggestion—to tell the really bad kids (I’m sure I was no goody-goody myself) that we all ought to cool it, that nothing good was happening in that classroom, that our ability to make trouble was destroying everything, the very same room in which Mrs. LeMahieu ruled just the year before.

I will never forget being very uncomfortable when chaos ruled. Here’s what I see when I remember that year—an adult woman hopelessly confounded by bad kids, mostly boys she was incapable of handling. I was no sweetheart, but in fourth grade there were days when I wanted to stay home. Kids may well think they’d like it, but they don’t—chaos isn’t fun. And I was no goody-goody either. I'm sure I participated.

About that conference on the plowed snow? I don’t know that it created any change. But isn’t it strange that I remember that—and so little else? Something, I knew, had to be done. I don't know how to say this exactly, but that day I felt myself, probably for the first time, as owning a prophetic voice. I tried to reason with the others--we all did. For a moment at least, we policed ourselves.  That it made any difference, I don't know. But I remember the noon-hour conference on the snow pile.

One more thing. I was a fourth-grader, and I was a boy.  It seems almost impossible now, but I remember that when she leaned over our desks--and she was not a young woman--we could quite easily observe a fulsome chunk of her breasts, and I don't think we called them "breasts." That too became a game in my fourth-grade classroom:  Gary would ask her to look at his worksheet, she’d lean over, and we’d all take a gander--the boys that is, maybe not even all of them. 

Maybe, in fourth grade, I was no longer a little boy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Hamburger

“All flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field.” 

Saturday, about midway through the afternoon, my wife informed me that, given all the preparations she was investing into tomorrow’s big Sunday dinner, she was not cooking that night. I’d just cleaned the grill, so I suggested I could do the job, but she insisted that wasn’t the point. She wanted out.

We’re not blessed with flashy bistros out here on the prairie; it’s tough to get anything more exotic than meat and potatoes, and neither of us wanted to drive for an hour. We settled on a little dive across the river, The Buckaroo, a bar/casino/eatery whose great claim to fame is a wall-sized painting of a cowboy on a bronc, something done by a local farmer a half century ago. Honestly, it is impressive—and we rather like the place.

“Let’s go get a burger and beer,” my wife said, echoing a friend of ours who makes the Buckaroo a habit.

We did. My wife had the Hudson, a hamburger named after the town and heavy-laden, oddly enough, with sautéed jalapenos; I had the Dakota, cajun-spiced, thick with veggies, and named after the state, even though Louisiana is a continent away. Truly post-modern eating. There we sat in a booth with a couple of great burgers and two cold beers in frosty mugs. Things could have been worse all right.

Every time I bite into a Buckaroo burger, every time I take on a ham-and-swiss sandwich or a BLT, every time the plate in front of me holds an Iowa chop (delicious!), a rib-eye sizzling from the grill, or a hunk of perfectly pink prime rib, I’m celebrating the awesome love of God for me, for humankind, a love so unbelievable it sets David’s harpist’s fingers awhirl in Psalm 8.

I admit it. I ate that Dakota burger joyfully and never once considered that its pleasures were mine because some steer along the road to the Buckaroo took a trip to the slaughterhouse.

What on earth is man that you give him and her such rulership? David can’t believe it, and sometimes we forget.

It’s said that the old nomadic Lakota, who ranged over this land where I live, would sometimes cut the heart out of a buffalo they’d just killed and eat it raw as a respectful tribute to the very heart of the mighty beast whose death kept the people healthy and happy. Sounds barbaric, doesn’t it?

But on our way to the Buckaroo, we drove through the western half of a county that leads the state of Iowa in both hog and beef production. We passed hundreds of cattle, and, safely confined, tens of thousands of hogs; we never gave them a thought.

And sometimes I wonder whose practice of dominion is more respectful of the miracle of life. Sometimes I wonder who is more barbaric.

I’m not a vegan, and I never will be. Neither were the Lakota. But this rulership business is every bit the incredible blessing that David says it is. God made grasshoppers too, and killer cicada wasps. But he didn’t give them dominion. He gave that only to us.

Amazing. Just amazing. May our rule be a blessing to us—and to the flocks and herds.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

School Days--what's still there

Third grade was split—the smart kids in one section, the not-sos in the other. I was with the smart kids, and I knew it. I'm sure those who didn't make the cut knew what they were too.  

What remains in my mind of third grade is all great. The teacher was a consummate professional. I had loved Miss DeVries, but I had absolutely no similar feelings for my third-grade teacher, who I respected her immensely.  I don't her remember her being harsh or strict, or somehow without tenderness. I suppose I was simply getting older and some of the childishness was disappearing, loving morphing into respect.  When I see it in my imagination, walking into her door was a good, good thing because good things happened in that classroom.

I don't know where educational theory is on tracking these days--for it or agin' it.  But I know this--it was a big deal to be among the bright kids, and I wonder if maybe I wasn't pushed along simply by the knowledge that more was expected of me.  I can't imagine that those third-graders who stayed back in the second grade room didn't find themselves also affected by the choice the teachers made some night before school started. But for me, there's no question--it was a good choice.

It helped to listen to fourth graders, too, which is why when country kids my age revel in their one-room school memories, I buy their charmed nostalgia. You couldn't help but listen to the older kids, so it was like getting two grades for the price of one.

I remember Mrs. LeMahieu as a master teacher, entirely capable of juggling two grades at one time without missing a single beat.  Kind, judicious, and always interesting, she was, I think, some kind of teacher, always a soft voice, always in control.

One of my classmates was her son. Once that year, he invited me to their farm to stay overnight, the first time in my life I was invited to what my granddaughter fetchingly calls a “sleepover,” maybe even the only time.  At dusk, we went out to the barn with BB guns and shot sputzies in the rafters, the first time I ever killed something otherwise alive.  I wish I could say I was horrified, but I wasn't. 

I felt like a man. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

School Days--what remains

What remains in my heart of second grade is love, oddly enough, and in heavy doses. I don't know how to say it otherwise:  I was in love with Miss DeVries.  I'm sure I learned some arithmetic, worked on my penmanship and some kind of science stuff; but all of that is neatly shelved somewhere else. What I remember can be described only in these words: I was in love. Whether or not Miss DeVries showered me with favor, I don't know. Was I a teacher's pet? I really don't think so.  But I thought the feelings were delightfully reciprocal.  

But then, maybe I was just one of many.  Maybe I wasn't as special as my memory argues. Maybe this passionate longing I felt to be near her was all just me. Maybe she never knew.  Maybe a seven or eight year old's imagination is capable of creating wonderfully sweet tales that unabashedly feature no one other than yourself.  Maybe ego is simply a way of life and not a sin when you're a kid.  Maybe.  

Years later, when I was somewhere in my thirties and speaking at a teachers’ convention in Wisconsin, Miss DeVries came up and introduced herself.  She was married of course, which, even then, was a little sad; but I recognized her immediately, even though I remember thinking that there was something of a grandma's soft puffiness in her face a quarter century later.  She was heavier too, but how could I forget her! Still—honestly—years later, my soul piped a lovely song when I saw her, almost as if, really, little had changed.

Let's be clear.  In second grade, I loved my teacher.

And I should add this.  I had a girlfriend too, my first, a little girl named Mary. Somehow I remember Miss DeVries sort of enjoying that match, as if Mary and I were a couple of her own childhood dolls pairing up sweetly.  

When you're eight years old, polygamy is no particular problem. No one gets hurt. No one feels jealousy.  It's all just love.  Sounds hippy-ish.

Maybe second grade--1957--was some kind of precursor to the Sixties:  "Love is all you need, love is all you need, love is all you need."  

It's certainly all I remember.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

School Days--what remains

In first grade, I was conscious of the fact that my teacher lived right next door and was not, therefore, only my teacher, but also my mother's good friend.  I remember not being able to quite figure that out—that a teacher wasn’t just a teacher who lived in the school and had no other life.  It seemed, somehow, that in her I actually had to recognize two different women.

I remember meeting a student in a mall in Phoenix one afternoon, something, oddly enough, that rarely happened when I taught in an urban setting. I'll never forget his slack-jawed shock.  "Mr. Schaap," he said, almost aghast, "what are you doing here?"

In his mind, I suppose, I had become a function of my function.  He likely figured I shrunk into something out of Gulliver at night and slept comfortably in the gutter of the blackboard or maybe amid the pens in junk drawer of the desk up front.  Maybe the school gave out sleeping bags.  It was a chore for him to think of me as human, I guess, and not just, well, Mr. Schaap his teacher.  

In 1955, I was only in the first grade, but I remember being somewhat confused by the reality of multiple personaes--the woman I recognized in front of the classroom, and another who laughed a ton and sat around the dining room table with a cup of coffee in her hand.  

Otherwise, there’s no single memory of what I learned or what we did in first grade, save one.

The boy who sat in front of me, Ivan, a rambunctious kid, maybe somewhat out of control but only slightly, perhaps embarrassingly so for a sweet little boy like myself, reached back over his head one morning and laid an arm or two on my desk.  I grabbed it/them.  Nothing frightful or at all too disruptive that I remember.  To this day I have no idea what classroom code he/we broke, but Miss Sneider blew a gasket.  "Both of you," she said, angrily, "out in the hall."

Neither of us had a clue what “out in the hall” meant--good night! we were first-graders.  But we dutifully left the classroom, sure somehow that we’d sinned horribly—after all, this was a Christian school.  We didn't know exactly what it was we'd done, but we knew dang well we shouldn't have done it.  

But going "out into the hall" seemed  to us a strange thing for her to order up.  After all, being outside the class wasn't exactly painful.  Besides, Ivan said he had some food in his lunch pail, so there we sat on the floor beside our winter boots and ate Twinkies.  Wasn’t all bad.  Not at all.

My very first run-in with the law ended with Twinkies.  I loved 'em.  Still do. 

Isn’t it amazing, what sticks?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

School Days--what remains anyway

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
We have come to our real work—

That’s the first line of a poem by Wendell Berry, a poem Garrison Keiller used on the Writer’s Almanac not long ago, a poem that has stuck with me, for a variety of reasons, ever since.

Why?—those lines are me.  For the first September since 1954, I'm not in school.  Honestly, this is the first September I stayed home, the first September I haven't sat or stood in a classroom, the first September from the morning I took a seat in Mrs. Nyenhuis’s kindergarten room, Oostburg Public School, 1954.  Can you imagine?  Makes me feel I wasted my life.  

Mrs. Nyenhuis is a woman I remember fondly as a wonderful teacher, even though, for the life of me, I don’t remember why because I can't remember a thing that happened inside the classroom--not a thing. But then, kindergarten teachers have to be great lovers because their kids are--well most of them.  For all of us, I suppose, it's a match made in heaven.

Three stories rise from the miasma way back when—one is a bowtie.  My parents were gone somewhere, so I stayed with my grandparents, just a block away from school.  Grandma Dirkse could not imagine me, a “scholar” she called me, going to school unspiffy, so she made me wear a Sunday bowtie.  I was grandly horrified.  I was only five, but I was already torn apart by two fashion visions—my grandma’s stodginess and whatever was cool with my classmates.  It seems amazing to me that two opposing value systems locked horns that early in my school life, but they did.

I really hated that stupid bowtie.  I felt Little Lord Fauntleroy, but I remember that I wore the dumb thing.  Grandma Dirkse was, after all, my grandma.  A year later, I'm quite sure I'd have stuck it in my pocket.

Mrs. Nyenhuis's kindergarten class had an act in the gala grade school show that spring.  Each of us was outfitted in a costume we'd painstakingly made ourselves, then we were set out on the stage of the gym to dance aimlessly to music from the Nutcracker—“Dance of the Reed Pipes.”  Every time I hear that music, that huge production comes back to me, strangely enough.  The costume was a 360-degree sandwich board pasted into a funnel, with huge black buttons we painted up the front to resemble stops we were supposed to finger as we jounced around.  It sounds almost terminally dorky, but I was five, and nothing is truly dorky to you or your parents when you’re five years old.  It was a ball, and "Dance of the Reed Pipes" is terminally stuck in my memory.  Go figure.

When the year was over, Mrs. Nyenhuis wrote a note in my school yearbook, a note whose contents I never forgot because she said she expected great things of me someday.

I can still see her handwriting on the page—in the book and in my soul.  I was one of hundreds of five-year-olds she taught during her lifetime, I'm sure.  The possibility exists, that she wrote something exactly like it in every last kid’s yearbook.  That I remember, however, makes me wonder if, as a teacher, I ever imparted such a tender, loving legacy myself.

That's all that's there of 1954.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Morning Thanks--Saturday afternoon

I haven’t bought as much bird seed in my entire 64 years as I have in the last two months.  We never, ever had a bird feeder before—now we’ve got three of them. . .well, four if you count the one I tried to make in the shop.  My word, I never had a shop before.  Or tools.
We haven’t had TV since we’ve moved in.  For cripes sake, we’re not Amish; we’ve got a Roku and an HTMI cord to connect to the laptop.  But if we want to watch news, we see it a day later, even the conventions.   I’m not sure we’re worse for the wear, we two old folks.

We plan our weeks around necessary trips to town, loading up on tasks as if we can only pack so much on a mule.  We only rarely get out, although we’re still somehow gone a lot.  I’m not sure how that works.
We moved into the new/old place too late to have a garden, but I’m already plotting next year.
We haven’t yet played a game of dominoes or put together a 1000-piece picture puzzle, but they’re here, waiting for action.  It may well be just a matter of time.

Last Saturday we walked out back and went fishing again—not me, but my grandkids and their friends.  The lunkers the four of them pulled in were fingerlings, but beloved crowd-pleasers.  The kids had so much fun they want to come back.  I spent most of Saturday putting on worms and taking out hooks.
And then there’s this—on a whim, I grabbed a couple of ancient bamboo poles from the nails where they hung in a shed out back, put two worms on a pair of hooks huge enough to hang a curtain, and set those poles—ten feet long at least--in the willing hands of a couple of the kids, who thought it was so cool to fish the old-fashioned way.   Amazingly, one of them caught two little bass—on cane poles.
I’m not lying.  Check out the picture.

Here’s what I’m thinking.  Retirement is making me feel more and more like I’m the tin-rimmed, balding subject of a Norman Rockwell magazine cover.

Is that good or bad?

All I know is I wouldn’t trade my Saturday for anyone’s.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Morning Thanks--an email from nowhere

I honestly haven't a clue how I got this note, but I know Eunice, the woman who wrote it.  She's somewhere in her eighties, I think; and I know, as she reports, that she's wrestled her cancer to the mat--and it's over.  She's a retired teacher who spent years at Zuni Christian Mission School, where I met her last week; and the e-mail arrived just last night, as if out of nowhere.  I don't remember giving her my address, but if I did, that was one blessed move.  Best story I'll hear all week, I bet.

Texas and New Mexico Sept. 5-13, 2012,  A year of being on the sick list.

I flew to Dallas to meet a former colleague.  My day there was hot but we walked the campus of SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) where Wycliffe translators have a museum of things they collected from their fields of work.  I recognized arts, pictures, and crafts I had/have from areas around the world.

[Getting around is no problem. Well, not much of a problem, I suppose, if you've just licked cancer.]
We drove through Texas oil fields, cattle ranches, bare fields and by wind turbines getting into New Mexico in time to visit John who was laid up with a knee replacement.   (He would have gone beserk with his camera anyway.)  I took Joanne to a Navaho supper with people I had known when I worked at the CRC in Zuni.

[Don't know who Joanne or John is, but John must have been thrilled with her visit and I'm sure he got a picture.]

The celebration at the mission Sunday and Monday was glorious.  Hundreds of people who had worked there at one time or another came.  Anglos outnumbered the Zunis but former students, parents of present students and the Native American staff was there leading the program.  Such fun meeting and greeting them again, and eating Zuni bread at pot lucks! We were there to dedicate the splendid new school building built to replace the temporary ones which have been used since the fire destroyed our home, church, and school in 1971.  We also saw the groundbreaking for phase 2 which will replace the housing units.  Zuni has changed of course and I loved the improvements; new trading posts, pavement, a bed and breakfast (the same Vander Wagon home I stayed in the first night after the fire), a museum, and firm foundations to prevent floods.

[It was a treasure--the weekend, I mean.  I loved it.  She'd been there for years and years and years, and was there in 1971, when a fire burned the school to the ground, burned everything, as she says.  I can only imagine how much she loved the reunion.  I met Eunice in the b and b, the old Vander Wagen home, where she stayed when her apartment burned down with the school.

And then this:]

I splurged on a nice motel for a night in ABQ with a free shuttle to Old Town so guess where I ate and bummed around for the afternoon.  I was riding on air flying back.  A man saw my cane and offered to trade his first class seat with me.  In Chicago I had a three hour layover so I ordered a sangria cocktail at a crowded kiosk.  It had wine, apple, orange, lemon, lime and cherries.  Customers gave me a seat, watched, smiled, and remarked so I told them it was I was a three way celebration; my birthday, the new school, and my better health after a year of working toward it.  When I went to pay the bill had been paid by a Lebanese girl from Boston.  Another birthday I will not forget.

[You ever think the world is going to heck in a handbasket? Well, not yet.  Think on these things: one luxury motel room in ABQ--free shuttle, too; bumming around Old Town on a cool morning; some guy in first class with huge heart; a blessedly thoughtful Lebanese girl from Boston with a handy credit card; and a three-way birthday Eunice will ever forget.

I don't have a clue how I got this note, but I'm so blessed by the story that it may just as well have a return address from somewhere in heaven.  She didn't sign it, but I know it's Eunice.  Still, out of nowhere like that, the wonderful story it tells is my morning thanks.]


            And if you're wondering, the woman in the pic?--that's Eunice--and her 98-year old friend and ex-        colleague, Art.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds -- Dominion

“You put everything under his feet.” Psalm 8

When I took my first steps over native prairie—good, rich Iowa earth that has never been cut by the plow—I was amazed at how soft it was, spongy, in fact. The rich accumulation of centuries of perennials creates vast root systems, not to mention a mushy mattress of mulch. The cushion-y earth beneath your feet makes you feel as if you’re walking on a cloud.

Which is not to say that walking is easy. I’m told there are places on the Oregon Trail, that mid-nineteenth century freeway west, where even today, a century later, wagon tracks distinguish themselves. After walking on native prairie, I know why people kept their oxen on the trail. Original prairie may be soft, but it’s not easy walking. The earth is not flattened; it’s humped and bumped beneath the heavy grasses, tough on the ankles.

At one time, on this ground where I live, there was centuries of life underfoot. Today, of course, that’s no longer so. If you want to hike on native prairie, you’ve got to hunt to find it because of all the states in the Union, Iowa, where I live, boasts the most altered landscape. That fertile soil created by native grasses is, today, almost completely under till. Row crops run like power lines as far as the eye can see so that today, out here on the edge of the Great Plains, there is much, much less underfoot.

Some time ago I showed a tour group around the region where I live, offered them a little local history. Most of them, like me, were Dutch-American. I told them what I just told you—how spongy and rich the Iowa land was when it was untouched. I told them how awed Lewis and Clark at the vast tall-grass prairie that existed all around.

The thought occurred to me, right then and there, how my narrative might differ if we’d been touring fifty years ago. I’ll bet the back forty that I would have been braying about how hard work and buckets of sweat had subdued the earth, turning all that dense prairie grass into endless rows of corn and soybeans. To people whose ethnic past includes turning the sea into farmland, the row crops all around us would have undoubtedly been enriching.

Today, honestly, I lament the fact that we’ve so completely altered our landscape. We’re much, much richer because we broke the soil, of course; but I wish my grandchildren could see at least something of the great sea of grass that left the Corps of Discovery speechless. I wish they could slog through verdant prairie grasses. I wish they had at least a sense of what this world was before the plow.

Dominion, David says, is what God gave us—what a blessing. We rule. Over the works of his hands, over God’s own creation, he gave us rule. What’s at the heart of things here in this entire psalm is still sheer awe. This cosmic mosquito, humankind, actually rules over a vast range of flora and fauna. Why on earth should this mammoth God care so much for lowly us?—that’s the question that sends David’s mind awhirl.

What an immense blessing—this dominion we’ve been given. What admirable authority he’s given us. He’s put so incredibly much under our feet. In a way, he’s signed over the works of his hands and blessed us with his own treasured abundance.

Lord God Almighty, thank you for your love and your kindness and your regard.

Now help us, please, understand how to rule.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Saturday Morning Catch--Harvest

We've lived here for two months, and this was the first early Saturday morning I left the acreage, cameras dangling around my neck.  Drove east, where the land is a row-cropped carpet with just a few too many confinements.  Still, harvest is underway all over, all those fields of beans and corn now brush cut almost militarily.  Autumn is a harvest of gold, and the early morning sun just hyperbolizes all the bronze, nary a cloud in the sky to mute all those glorious earth tones.

Truth is, fall is one of the few really good reasons to live in the Upper Midwest. It can be glorious.

Often is.  Like this morning.

And check out St. Mary's brand new bronze towers jutting from the Alton hills.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Nakoula Nakoula

There is, of course, that old saw that claims "freedom of speech" does not give you license to yell 'fire' in a crowded theater."  I mean, everyone knows that line.  There are limitations.  But still, acknowledging that truth is only a bit less difficult than really making an application in real time. 

What on earth does a culture such as our own do with Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, a man with a hefty criminal record in money-laundering and drug-trafficking, the man who--the stories suggest--is the idiot who made the film, a film which can hardly be called that, a dopey, tenth-rate digital story that has American embassies throughout the world under siege and, by motivation, caused the death four good people?  What do we do with Nakoula?  What do we do with free speech?

Did you see the film? It's beyond weird. If it birthed riots, it would be hilarious--crude and awful. It's junior-high in absolutely everything except hate-mongering.  I take that back--it's vastly worse than junior high.  It's idiotic. It's imbecilic. It's reprehensible. It's pathetic. It's too stupid to be called evil, but it is nonetheless.

But what do we do with Nakoula's freedom of speech?  What do we do about an American ethic that's almost as precious to us as Mohammed's face and reputation is to Islamic extremists?  And how on earth--literally, on earth--do two kinds of people, so radically different, ever learn to get along?

Nakoula is a Coptic Christian, which shouldn't, I hope, make him any kind of hero. Gadzillions of Americans think he's a pig-headed idiot and simply assume that his brain is as fried in hate as it could be in the meth he's been arrested for peddling.  

But Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, American, has all the benefits of American citizenship, including freedom of speech.  Here in the U.S. of A., he can peddle hate and not be touched.

Meanwhile, the fierce piranha in the Middle East, the bloody fanatics that kill Americans and burn embassies, are little more than animals. It's a stretch to call them humans.  

And here we are, as a nation and a culture, bloodied by the damned extremists on both sides.  Here we are in the middle of fiery muddle of sheer madness, because of a ridiculously ham-fisted film somebody stuck up on You Tube. This is crazy, but it's also deadly.

I'm about ready to hit "publish" here, and I'm very much aware of the irony of what I'm thinking.  And what I'm thinking is that what's going on here, emerging right in the middle of industrial-sized vats of hate boiling up all around us is the dark underbelly of the internet and the democratization it has created. This immense blessing--an information highway that has already begun to reshape forever almost everything we do--can be a monster.

Yes it can. Watch the flames again today, created by animals who know nothing but hate. 

On You-Tube.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sacrifice VI

Left alone in the streets with a fallen Dutch woman, Tina hears the sounds of Allied tanks.

Sacrifice VI

On the lady's naked legs she could see German hands, clean hands with ringed fingers smoothing the skin.  The others, the celebrants, were somewhere else down the street now, far away.

"For God's sake, untie these ropes from my feet," she said.  "Let me walk at least."

From somewhere east came the low and constant grind of sound she recognized immediately.  It was the tanks approaching.  The streets were emptied now, because the Allies were coming.  She could run to her mother and tell her now that the day of liberation finally had come, the streets would be full, and finally, she could throw open the curtains.

"I know what you did," Tina said.  "You slept with Germans."

"Just help me up," she said.  "Just let me get to my feet."  She twisted her head around as if to point.  "It's over for all of us.  Can't you see that?  The Canadians are coming."  She sat flat on the ground, her tied legs hooked beneath her.  "It's all over, honey.  Now get me up, will you?"

She watched the lady's helplessness.  Soon the streets would be full of cheering people.  Already within her she could feel the urge to scream for the liberators.  The world would be straight, delivered from chaos.  Her mother could live again.

"Please?" the lady said.

Tina looked down the emptied streets.  She walked over carefully, afraid, and waited for a moment, listening to the lady's breathing, then fell to her knees beside her.  It was the old man on the bicycle she remembered, the old man lying there bleeding and helpless in the ditch and the Nazi jacket in a heap at the side of the road.  She couldn't simply let the woman lie in the street.

Dirt stuck in the sharp knots of twine pulled tight around the lady's ankles.

"Just let me loose," the lady said.

"I know what you did," Tina said.  "I know."  She looked at her own trembling fingers, then leaned over and worked at the stubborn knots.  But they wouldn't come.  She jerked at them again, her fingers turning raw against the sharp strands in the twine.  "If I had a knife--" she said.

"Please," the lady said again.  "Keep trying--"

Her fingers seemed useless, so she bent her face down to the woman's feet and took the dusty knots in her mouth to soften them slightly with her own spit so she could take them, gritty and tasting like wood, in her front teeth.

She put both her hands on the lady's leg and bit deeply into the twine, then jerked hard with her neck, biting and ripping, until finally the stubbornness gave and she could feel their grip breaking.  Then she came up quickly and wiped the moisture from her lips with the back of her wrist and finally slid the knots open easily in her fingers.  Beneath the unraveled twine lay red scars across her ankles where the twists had already burned her skin.

When she stood, she looked around and saw that the two of them were still alone in the street.  She stretched out her hand to help the lady to her feet.  The bright spring sun made the red patches shine across her forehead.  When the woman finally got to her feet, Tina was surprised to see that this painted lady stood no taller than she did herself.

"Thank you, honey," the woman said.  "I don't know how to thank you enough."

They stood there together in silence.

"Hear the tanks?" the woman said.  "You can almost feel them beneath your feet."  She pointed away, her hands still bound.  "We all—all of us—can have a new life," she said.

It was the day of liberation.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sacrifice V

As Tina walks away from the empty boxcar, she witnesses retribution from the people.

Sacrifice V

Six blocks or more from her father's store, she saw the commotion in the middle of the street.  Three of them held the lady down until a man wrested both her arms behind her so that her chin came up in a violent thrust of pain.  They pushed her to her knees, helpless, while another, a woman, took the lady's hair up like handfuls of sand in her fists and jerked back her head, the proud, white lines in the lady's neck stretched and exposed beneath the anger of her avenger, the woman with the shears.

The lady spit profanity in questions thick with rage.  "What have I done?" she screamed.  "Tell me what the hell I have done!"  Over and over again she said it, not as if to plead her innocence, but instead to accuse them all of evil, to indict them--her own neighbors, standing there gleefully.  She was incensed at all of them, because, she said not one of the crowd who had stood and cheered as the good townsmen had beat down the door of her apartment and wrestled her into the street, not one of them was pure.                     

"What--have--I--done?" she screamed, the flattened pitch of her defiance, like the cry of a cornered animal, overpowering the mob's cries for vengeance.

Tina watched from behind an old silent man in a wool coat who kept nodding approval.  The woman with the shears chopped and slashed at the lady's hair until her scalp came up in splotches of milky white, and the only mark of her prettiness was a single gold earring left dangling.

Her voice softened into moans.  The men used twine to tie her hands and feet behind her back, so she knelt, erect, her chest forward boldly.  But she kept her eyes clenched shut, her face lifted so it shone in a yellow mask of bright sun.  Anger stiffened her, kept her eyes aloof from the evil in the faces of those screaming for more humiliation.

A coatless man came up behind her with a can of paint, and the old woman held the lady again, this time by the ears to keep her head still, while the man painted a red swastika over her forehead.  Paint ran down her temples, around the bottoms of her ears, and into her neck.  The crowd cheered wildly when he dabbed her with a Fuhrer's red mustache, and they roared when it was through, when she stood there, still perfectly straight on her knees, crowned in what seemed like blood, her mouth forced open for the sheer volume of her breathing.

Tina knew why it had been done.  Her mother would never had told her, never have mentioned the particular sin, but she herself knew which women had slept in Nazi beds.  Everyone knew who hadn't suffered.  No one had forgotten.  And now there was punishment for those who'd grown fat on the German bile.

Much of the mob moved away quickly once the humiliation was over, anxious to find other collaborators, some spitting on the young woman as she waited, still motionless and proud in the echo of their derision.  But Tina waited and watched the scarred lady until finally, almost totally abandoned, the woman's anger broke and she slumped to her side in the dirt.

Her gray blouse gaped across the front to show a line of thin lace across her chest.  Perhaps she had tried to disguise herself that day, to look like all the others who had starved, but they hadn't been fooled.

Her staggered breaths seethed like the sound of someone left shivering in winter.  Her bare legs angled beneath her in the dirt, and she struggled to stretch one elbow down to keep herself from lying helplessly.

At first it had been hard with Jaap.  Even the third time she had been sick when he left.  She could not understand how a woman could be the way this lady had been with the horrible, proud men in those boots.  She wondered how many of them had seen her body naked, how many had laid themselves over her.  The very thought turned her skin brittle.  At the very beginning the Nazis had enchanted her with their neatness, with the way their caps stood and peaked in a crest where the eagles were pinned.  First, they seemed so strong.  Now she hated them for everything they had done, even to her.

Her eyes still closed, the lady turned her naked head round and round against the wet, spring air.  The lines in her forehead softened as her anger abated.

"Damn," she said, the thick red straps of paint bending crookedly over her head in a pattern that seemed already only a faint resemblance to the Nazi's crooked cross.  Tina's mother would have shouted at the woman for her profanity.  She would have clasped her daughter's ears, shamed that a child should have to hear such horror.

"You reap what you sow, you know."  Tina said, standing close enough to look down at her.  "My mother would say that.  She would say God is punishing you."

The woman opened her eyes, her head slowly turning to locate the voice.  She winced a bit as if she were looking into the dawn.  "Who are you?" she said.

"They suffered--all of them suffered when you were wearing lace."  She kept herself away far enough, because her mother would have warned her not to get close to such a woman, even though she seemed powerless to get up off the ground.

"You're just a baby," she said, "aren't you?"

"I'm fifteen," Tina said.  "I know what you've done.  Everyone knows what you did with the Nazis."

The lady pulled a shoulder up to her mouth and wiped off the dirt, but the red of the mustache streaked across her lips and cheek.  "I chose how to suffer," she said.  "Choosing is my sin.  That's all."  She ran her tongue over the sticky paint on her lips.

Tomorrow:  Tina's peace.