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, July 31, 2015

Where is thy sting?

When my sister called and asked, it seemed like a slam dunk. They're going to celebrate their anniversary, she said, even though they didn't last year when last year's was the royal one--the 50th. Perhaps because they didn't celebrate, this year they'd decided to go out with the whole family, she said, and we're invited. Never dawned on me not to accept. I told her we'd be there.

There is one catch, something I thought of even as I was telling her we'd come. We'll have two chances, up and back, to pass the exact spot on the highway where our brother-in-law was killed this spring, an overpass I'll always note with horror. Twenty years from now--when I'm so old I'll have forgotten most everything else--if and when I'm at that spot on the interstate, I'll remember. There'll be no cross, no shrine, no highway marker--there isn't one now. But I'll know when I'm there. You better believe I'll know.

Makeshift highway markers are everywhere in this country, turning every last blue highway and byway into an impromptu graveyard. Wherever you go you see handmade crosses hung with this, that, or the other thing, reminders of the man or woman who died right there just off the highway, tributes to imperiled memories too blest to forget.

In 1872, a family on their way to a Sioux County that didn't yet exist left Wisconsin with an entire family, but one--there's no record of his or her name or age--didn't make it. No one knows anymore how that child died, but somewhere just off a trail that covered wagon followed, the family stopped to bury a child at a spot marked for a time, I'm sure, but now long forgotten and since unmarked. His or her name is gone. That she ever lived at all is noted in a family history in a huge book few read.

S. M. Marshall, from Kentucky, died somewhere along the Sante Fe Trail, one of hundreds. Someone, likely a family member, wrote out what's here on the makeshift stone and left it, I'm sure, with the body. Today, that chunk of limestone is displayed at the Kansas Historical Society Museum in Topeka, of interest not because of who S. M. Marshall was--few if any know, I'm sure--but because the ancient stone marker is a symbol of the hundreds, even thousands, whose mortal selves were left behind on the way west.

My brother-in-law was killed at a spot on the interstate that's physically unmarked, but I'll know when I'm there. Even though nobody else in the cars and trucks around me will have even the slightest notion of what's story is playing in my heart in the car that everyone is passing, I'll know only too well.

I'm a Christian, a believer, and I've always thought Flannery O'Connor was right when she famously maintained that for a Christian there's things that are much worse than death.

And I get the Apostle Paul too. I believe him.

So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
I get all of that--I really do. I believe it.

But it does have a sting. Good Lord, it does have a sting.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Morning Thanks--Peace

I suppose it's possible to wax nostalgic about an era you didn't live through. Look at the Little House on the Prairie phenom, or think about America's one-time fascination with the Western. A host of millennials can't wait for the new Star Wars, even though Luke Skywalker, the Force, and that wacky space saloon never existed. All of that seems like a weird species of nostalgia, don't you think?

I was born in 1948. I'm one of those aging boomers whose opening movement happened when and where it did because my dad was finally back from three years (or whatever) in the Navy, the Coast Guard to be exact, most of that time somewhere in the South Pacific where he couldn't do what needed to be done to make me.

All I know about life in these United States during the Second World War is history and hearsay and what can be gained by taking note of posters like this one in the Kansas Historical Society's Museum. There's an old mower blade in that empowered fist and what not else, mostly metal stuff, a handful of scrap iron that somehow makes that American fist even more daunting. 

A poster like this is impossible to duplicate now, so many years later. The campaign to stop America from smoking created some memorable images, but this kind of propaganda is created only in a nation united mightily in a common cause that threatens its very soul.

Did people "get" the image? Of course they did. The common enemy was right there before their eyes. The entire nation journeyed down a single track. An old church bulletin from Orange City, Iowa, sometime in 1944, listed 35 of their own "boys" overseas. People got the message. They understood the fist. 

I see a poster like this, and I get nostalgic for a time I never knew, for a common cause, for a citizenry united, for an era when it seems to me people pulled together.  

Here's another.

She's patching his pants while he's fixing the lawn mower because we're at war, and it's not just "our boys" in the thick of it but our labor and goods too. I wish this great country would still be a place where posters like these would help us not to forget "the cause."

But it's not.

And we're not at war, at least not at a war. In 1945, my father was one of 85,000 in the Coast Guard, one of 3 million in the Navy, one of 12,200,000 in the U. S. Military. Amazing numbers.

And were the these United States fully united? If you needed farm machinery in Sioux County, Iowa, there were people who could get them. If you needed tires, you had to look in the right places. A woman I once knew never forgot those local farmers who took agricultural deferments when her betrothed took a bullet on June 6, 1944. War is hell.

I can't help but feel a little nostalgic because instead of the kind of ethic that makes these posters speak, we've got the Donald creating the national conversation and Planned Parenthood people talking about organs as if an abortion clinic was a packing house.

I don't know who said it, and it hurts to repeat it, but the old line seems ever to work: "tragedy unites, politics divide." 

That there are no posters like this today is not as sad as the plain fact that even our best minds couldn't create them.

All of that having been said, neither you nor I would ever want to go back to 1944 or 45. I'm aware that U.S. fighting forces are in harm's way throughout the Middle East, but this morning I'm thankful no church in town is missing 35 of its boys at war. This morning, despite the appeal of these old posters, I'm thankful for peace.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Morning Thanks--a quilt, a diary, a story, a soul

It's a quilt and a diary, and it's on blessed display at the Kansas Historical Museum in Topeka, on display for a thousand reasons at least. My guess is that a 150 years later--and more--no one knows much about a woman named Nancy Wright Wood any more. Even Google doesn't know she ever existed. 

She kept a diary in a quilt she pieced together for years. Some of the blocks are inscribed with an awkward hand that probably says as much about her as it does her emotions when she wrote out the lines. 

I couldn't do much better than this when I tried to photograph one of those squares. I can't give you the exact wording, but what is there will stick with you all day long, I promise.

At the very top is her son's name--one of her sons. She had 12 children, outlived nine of them in fact, lived somewhere out on the Kansas prairie. Two boys she gave to the war, the Civil War. Was ever a war so misnamed? 

What follows is her son's birthdate--August 8, 1830, I think, and then something about his enlisting in the Federal Army. And then, just as jaggedly, the news that he was shot "Feb 16 1865" and, I think, where--Mt. Kennesaw. Historians know that two of her sons were wounded in that Georgia battle; one of them died.

It's a quilt, meant to keep loved ones warm; but it tells the chilling story of Nancy Wright Wood's life. She finished it when she was 80 years old, but the very last line of this particular block of fabric is the reason the image stayed with me all the home to Iowa. It's maybe the only line you can read easily. Look for yourself. "Oh this war" it says. No end punctuation.

What follows is an act of human courage that makes the whole thing resplendent somehow. She attached some kind of bric-a-brac, a little piece of embroidery across the square, a decoration, a smile, a determined symbol of the absolute need to endure beneath the stark and horrible news and her heartsick judgment about war. 

The story is here in the quilt, just as she intended; but so is her mind, her thinking--"It needs something yet," she must have told herself. "It needs something here, something more." So she sewed in, by hand, a bit of bright orange and yellow embroidery, now faded slightly, but still smilingly beautiful.  

A million people have written a billion words and thousand books about the war, but there's always more to be said, isn't there?

In this quilt she pieced together long, long ago, a woman no one knows once spilled her soul out in three words and an embroidered smile. "Oh this war" she wrote, and then added a single braid of embroidery in bright colors. It's not just her story that's here; it's her very soul.

This morning's thanks is for a square of quilt I saw yesterday. Just because it's still there in Topeka doesn't mean I didn't take it with me.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Small Wonder(s) -- Heroes on the Plains

I should have taken a picture of that picture, a photograph I came to see as a work of art. It's up on a kitchen wall in the home of a woman who is herself an artist and has her early 20th century frame house decorated wonderfully, not in a "country"style but with a flair for the slightly stylized but decidedly local.

Local, in this case, is Chase County, Nebraska, a place made somewhat famous, somewhat infamous, by William Least Heat Moon's PrairyErth. We were in Chase County and in her house for the last several days, looking around the area but mostly suffering through a heat wave that made even the locals wilt. 

Anyway, there it was on a wall in the kitchen, a nicely framed shot of a rancher closing a gate in snow. Try to imagine--a human figure clearly identifiable as a cowboy--hat, boots, bow-legged--just closing a gate that is little more than a couple of lodgepoles, something like this really, except the gate is wood too.

It's not a blizzard, or you wouldn't see him. I'm not even sure it's snowing. It's just this black-and-white image of a cowboy and a gate in a world of pure nothingness. Let me try to bleach this one a little to get it to look a little more like that fine photograph.

Maybe something like this, although much stronger--and featuring a rancher bent over slightly against the snow. It was at once stark and, well, admirable. It made that cowboy look like a kind of hero, oddly enough, even though all he was doing was shutting a gate out in the middle of an ocean of snow.

I told myself, right then and there, that I understood the beauty of that photograph. I got it. Maybe it helped that I was in the middle of some of the broadest tall-grass prairie left anywhere in the world, but I somehow understood the stark portrait's soul because in a space as wide and naked as the broad landscape of the Great Plains, anyone or anything that stands up in that ocean is, after a fashion, heroic. 

Because the  world of Chase County--and Sioux County too--is not always Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sometimes, sure, it's blessed, alive with wildflowers; but last weekend, when the temps were sky-high, which is no cliche here; the world outside the door was forbidding and harsh, not at all welcoming to its tourists or accommodating to its few residents.

My files are literally full of landscape photographs of single trees against endless landscapes. I've got hundreds, I'm sure, maybe thousands. But I've always believed the reason for so many variations on that image originated in the plain and simple fact that the featureless plains have so very little to contrast with their own yawning emptiness. I've taken a thousand pictures like the one above because there's literally nothing else on the endless landscape that fits in a camera. 

But that photograph of a cowboy in the snow captured my admiration because there he was in the middle of all that nowhereness, securing a gate, trying to make some sense of the vast world around him, trying to bring some order to a world so vastly out of his control as to make him into something of a clown if he weren't so admirable. I understood the art because I sensed what the combination of elements was suggesting. He's trying, against all odds. He's human. 

There's nothing stark or forbidding about this photograph, the most beautiful shot I took last weekend in all that heat, beautiful because of the heavenly canvas background. But beautiful also because of the determined silhouette this particular tree makes in the endlessness. 

You may disagree, but little more than a long weekend in the wilting heat of the Great Plains makes me think of this tree, too, as something of a hero.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Nemesis

I am in the midst of lions; 
I lie among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows, 
whose tongues are sharp swords.” Psalm 57

Taking writing courses can be tough if you don’t have material. “What am I going to write about?” is often the most perplexing question students face—even college students—through an entire semester, which is why most teachers make assignments.  For years I sprung the same one on students on the first day of class:  in 500 words or so, go back to middle school and describe and define your “nemesis.”

It’s a winner because everybody has one.  The moment I say the word nemesis, eyes light up.  Somewhere through junior high, every one of us felt like killing the kid we thought of as the boss or the snob, the bully or the hot shot, maybe the teachers pet.  We’ve all had a nemesis.

Sometimes I’d give those essays to my colleagues in the Education Department, who used the stories in class to make sure future teachers remembered that school can be torture, and often is.  It’s a wonder some of us ever make it out of middle school. Those essays could make a ton of young parents think seriously about home-schooling.  Only once in twenty years did a student confess to being the bugger herself. 

One story I’ll never forget.  Its rising action is universal—little girl gets on the bus every day, teeth chattering, scared to death of the bully, an overgrown fourth or fifth-grade girl who makes her life miserable. I don’t remember the facts, but they’re all alike—mental abuse, physical abuse, even sexual abuse. It’s not pretty. Think the worst.

But this story didn’t end there.  Years later, this student, a junior in college, goes to a beautician to get her hair done and gets assigned a woman she recognizes as the satanic figure on the neighborhood bus. Chills flash up and down her spine, but she takes the chair, and the two of them start to talk, laugh. Eons have passed, of course, and neither of them are who they were. And yet both of them are.

The hairdresser takes a snip or turns or curl or whatever hairdressers do, then, out of nowhere, says, “I’m really sorry for who I was way back then.”  

Blew my student away, she said, and that’s the story she wrote, the only one I’ll never, ever forget. 

For the record, that’s an argument against home-schooling. 

I find it amazing that the attribute David first notes in his assessment of his fierce and overpowering enemy isn’t size or ferocity or tonnage. After all, Saul was a giant, an all-pro tight end, the kind of physical specimen just about anybody would want for a king.
We don’t know a great deal about David’s pecs and abs, but we know he was a mouse as a boy.  But then, with buff Saul threatening one’s life, most of us would be bloody scared.

Just exactly what he meant by “their teeth being spears” isn’t exactly clear, at least to me; but the next simile is transparent.  If their “tongues are sharp swords,” what he’s telling us is that his enemies cut him to shred with their words, which is itself imaginative language since no one actually bleeds when people say bad things about us.  But it’s almost hard to say that, isn’t it?—“no one bleeds when people say bad things.”  We all do.  Okay, not literally.  But we all do.  Everybody had a nemesis.  Some still do.

It’s not sticks and stones for David, it’s words.  And maybe he’s right:  the worst we can suffer is a shard of something hateful cutting through the tender fabric of our own very human heart.  

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Morning Thanks--Lessons from a kid

Who knows why anymore? It wasn't the first time, and I'm quite sure it won't be the last. He's not a tough kid to get along with, and he loves coming over to his grandparents' house. Every time he's here he asks if he can have a sleepover, even when it's impossible. But occasionally, just occasionally, he gets, well, impatient about what he wants. He gets a head full of steam and we just don't act fast enough to register on his speedometer.

Maybe like this. He's down here playing, and he suddenly gets in his head that he wants something to eat. I tell him okay, but I don't leave my chair. He wants whatever it is now, but I'm trying to finish a sentence or figure out where to go with things. "C'mon, Papa," he says, as if he were dragging an anchor. He says it with some feigned magnanimity, as if his having a cookie or a dish of applesauce or cooler is something the two of us will certainly greatly enjoy. It's generous of him but it's only a gesture, sheer rhetoric because he's not thinking of me.

"Hold on," I tell him, not looking up. "Just got to finish this a minute."

"Come on," he'll say, both words now plainly enunciated, all the patience of one of those clamoring grackle young'ins just outside my window begging ma every minute for some bit of whatever it is they pick up beneath the feeder.

"I'll be right there," I tell him--and I will.

"But I'm hungry," he'll say.

"Patience," I say again, then stop and wonder at my word choice. He's just a little boy. I tell myself he may not have a clue what patience means. "Patience," I say again. "Ian, you know what patience means?"

Immediate downcast eyes followed by a significant dramatic pause as he stands at the stairwell, moping. "Waiting," he says, reluctantly. This is not a quiz, and he's not asking if he's got his vocabulary right. 

His grandma and I both giggle. "He knows all right," his grandma says wisely.

He stays right there, doesn't move an inch. "Come on," he says, as if nothing right now is funny.

"No, he doesn't," I tell my wife. "If he did know what it was, he'd practice it." In a moment, I know I sound like some carping, self-righteous Calvinist.

She rolls her eyes at me. He's only five years old, after all. 

And then it hits me: our little grandson, cute as a bug's ear, is just becoming more like the rest of us, more decidedly human.

This morning I'm thankful for what you learn from your grandkids.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Me and the Winnebagos

I don't know how long it took me to wonder how strange it is that everything is "sioux" around here--Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Sioux County, Siouxland, Sioux Center, Big Sioux River, Little Sioux River. And yet, there's not a Sioux to be seen anywhere close. Most people come to that startling realization rather quickly because it makes no sense, or seems to. 

But then for most of my life I didn't know the word "sioux" was a slur, that people who are Sioux today don't like the word because it was given to them by the Ojibwa who, once upon a time, ran them out of Minnesota. "Sioux" means "snake," like the one my wife spotted in the rock retaining wall out front yesterday and then told me it was time to sell the house. 

Maybe palefaces like me should rename everything Sioux with snake so that we'd live in Snake County, Snakeland. Maybe the town at the heart of Snake County, the town we lived in for most of our lives, Snake Center, should be just up the road from Snake City, Iowa, and down the road from Snake Falls, South Dakota. 

Not going to happen.

I grew up 500 miles east in what was once the homeland of the Winnebagos, a powerful tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in wood-framed dwellings up and down the woods along the western coast of Lake Michigan. I didn't know any Winnebagos. I might have, I suppose, had I tried to hunt some up. But they were pretty much gone from the southern lakeshore already when, long ago, my great-great grandfather came from Holland. Here's what his obituary says: 

With his father and the remainder of the family, our subject came to this [Sheboygan] county in 1846. They were compelled to take their axes and cut roads land, paying $1.25 per acre. This property was in the midst of the forest and had never before been occupied by while settlers. Then the hardships and trials of the early pioneer were experienced, for they had very little to eat, not much clothing, and scarcely any of the comforts of life. The red men were still numerous in this section, but were not troublesome to the white settlers, except as beggars.
By the time I came along, a whole century later, those beggars were long gone.

Some were "up north" in Wisconsin, but many Winnebagos were here, just down the road in Nebraska, on a little reservation along the Missouri River. I know now that I've always lived somewhere alongside the Winnebagos, just never knew any. That, I guess, shouldn't be surprising. I've lived somewhere around all kinds of people I never knew too.

But I knew their stories--the stories of other European settlers. I was taught "the hardships and trials of the early pioneer" who had "very little to east, not much clothing, and scarcely any of the comforts of life." I knew something about that. Somewhere along the line, I was taught that story.

But my family did move those Winnebagos out.

And often. In the 1860s, the Winnebagos just down the road in Nebraska moved there from the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, where they'd been shipped after Minnesota literally got rid of all its Native people following what white folks called the Sioux Uprising of 1862. That horror happened a couple hours from here. Not all that far, really.

How the  Winnebagos got to Minnesota is another story. When people like my great-great grandfather (his wife had died just after he immigrated) moved into the lakeshore woods in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, a goodly chunk of the Winnebagos got moved from Iowa, where they'd been sent after the Blackhawk wars of the 1830s, to Crow Wing, Minnesota, and then to Blue Earth, Minnesota, because the land they'd been given when they lost the lakeshore, land in southwest Wisconsin, was full of lead mines white people wanted. Wanted badly, in fact.

Is this making any sense?

Unlike the Sioux (Lakota, Dakota, Nakota) and all kinds of Great Plains Native people, the Winnebagos were not nomadic, not out chasing buffalo while living in tents in movable campgrounds, like some people today do in--guess what?--Winnebagos. That's a joke.

What I want to say is that the Winnebagos were, in some ways, what white America wanted their Indian people to be--largely settled, living off the land. And basically, we still handled them like soccer balls, which you don't "handle," per se, but kick.

What's more, the Winnebagos had sometimes worked for the Great White Father. They'd been peacemakers when some of their neighbors kept killing each other; they moved into zones were they became the buffer between endless battling. Numbers of Winnebagos had served as scouts for the American cavalry. Today, we might just call them heroes. Back then, they were Redskins.

Here's the story--my story. I grew up on land that once belonged to them. When I lived in southwest Wisconsin, Lafayette County, I lived on what could well have been their land before they were moved west to Iowa. Some of them lived in Iowa when my great-grandparents on my father's side immigrated from Holland, and, for all of my life here in Siouxland--forty years and more--they lived just down the Missouri River a ways.

That I didn't know any Winnebagos really isn't a surprise, but that I didn't know any of this for maybe sixty years of my life should be. I never knew they fought with the British during the American Revolution, then again in the War of 1812. I knew nothing at all about them, even though chapters of their story are just a few pages away from mine throughout most of the Upper Midwest. Nobody ever told me about them. No one ever said.

That I know so little is amazing, really, isn't it?

Of course--yuk, yuk--this is Siouxland.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Jim Heynen's Boys

The boys went for a hike around the section. Four miles. They packed a lunch in an empty gallon syrup can and set off at noon. They knew they'd be doing some things along the way--watching for wild strawberries, checking out a couple creeks, crawling through some culverts, maybe chase a few calves, make a visit to their favorite apple orchards, tease a few geese if they came toward the road, that sort of thing--but they figured they'd be done by four o'clock. Plenty early for afternoon chores, anyhow, so no one would complain that they'd been gone too long.
And so begins one of dozens of Jim Heynen's tales of "the boys," some blessedly generic farm kids who wake up to life itself through barn windows and pasture gates. Heynen's boys abide in a world that's almost gone, even here in the neighborhood where Heynen himself grew up. It's difficult to imagine too many ten-year-old boys who'd think of a hike around the section as being any kind of adventure. . .as long as they'd be home before milking.
You can't plan for blisters on your heels or sunburn on the spot where your shirt sleeves are too short. You can't plan on bumblebees in the roadside ditches, or for twisted ankles from jumping off a little bridge. No one expects barbed wire cuts or getting caught in somebody's apple tree, or getting nipped by a goose that has a worse bite than a rat terrier.
But the boys, their lunch in an empty syrup can, know darn well that a hike around the section will be an adventure because their world is elegantly simple, ripe with possibilities once they clear the driveway. They're adventurers, explorers, even a little criminal. They're boys. 
And who'd expect to get bawled out for using a few leaves of corn for toilet paper, or that there'd be leeches in the neighbor's creek? And what's wrong with putting a seed corn sign at the edge of an alfalfa field as a joke? And how much trouble could it have been for people to find their mail when it had been switched to a neighbor's mailbox that was only a half-mile away?
They're bound to get into trouble somewhere around the section, even though land there is so flat and exposed they never got out of sight of someone's kitchen window. They're boys, and if they're not whacking each other or picking sputzies off telephone lines with BB guns, they're peeing somewhere they shouldn't.
And if somebody's bull is mean, why not tease him a little by waving a shirt to show him he shouldn't be so serious about things? and isn't it a good idea to throw some weeds over the telephone wires so birds can eat without worrying about lurking cats? And who would ever think there's be a problem with filling one end of a culvert with stones so that the next rabbit that thought it could run in one side and out the other would have another guess coming? 
Once in a while I see two or three or four of them along the river out here, maybe toting a five-gallon bucket or two, a fishing pole thrown over their shoulders, skinny kids walking along in shorts and sneakers, suntanned boys out to nab some frogs or polliwogs. 
And so what if there's an apple stuck in the end of the muffler on somebody's tractor--it would just blow out when the tractor started. And just what good do the glass insulators on telephone poles do anyway? 
How were Heynen's boys to know that a little hike around the section would take 'em all afternoon, that they wouldn't get back until six, "that they'd be scratched up, bitten, stung, tired, hungry, let along practically crippled, and screamed at like some kind of menace to the community?"
And that so many people for miles around would waste their own time yelling across the fences and fields and using what was left of their telephones just to ask each other, Where are they now and what are they up to?
I see them myself occasionally around in the neighborhood, walking along the old railroad tracks, a gang of boys out on an adventure, getting soakers in the creek or wading through the trickle the river becomes in thick July heat. It's a half-century later now, more than that really, and, come summer, most boys are in this, that, or the other program most all summer--music, sports, summer bible school. 

And besides there's iPads after all, and more fancy shoot-'em-up electronic games than a parent can ever stay up on, new stuff all the time. Videos, thousands of them, right there in their fingers.

But when I seem them walking along or riding bikes down to some crick somewhere, whenever I stumble on a couple of Jim Heynen's boys hanging out on the river, a handful of little guys straining their arms and backs to catch frogs or do whatever they came to do or shouldn't be doing, totally oblivious to any world but their own, I can't help but think the world still holds great promise. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Donald Rambo

Donald Trump

The Donald got trumped last week by Huffington Post, who told its readers they would no longer cover Trump's supposed run for the American Presidency in the Politics section of the website because The Donald isn't about politics or the Presidency. The Donald is about The Donald, so all news stories about him will be in the Entertainment section, which he's provided for America for most of his life, actually.

Said Huffington Post: "Our reason is simple: Trump's campaign is a sideshow. We won't take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette."

"But he says what others are thinking and saying," some of his loyal defenders say. Honestly? So does a macaw. "You got to like him. After all, he speaks his mind." As does a braying mule.

His latest obscenity is a rip at Sen. John McCain, as viscous as it is idiotic. He said it right here in Iowa, at Vander Plaats's Family thing in Des Moines, in a venue begun with prayer, I'm sure. Most people believe McCain's military service record qualifies him for whatever highest honor America's military can afford. But here's Trump among the Christians in DesMoines: "He's not a war hero. He was a hero because he was captured," saith The Donald. 

Say what? 

And then the greatest obscenity of all. "I like people who weren't captured."

The Donald only likes Rambos who take out deadly pillboxes singlehandedly in a blaze of glory. He likes his GIs to handing out beau coup purple hearts to the enemy, not getting them. He likes his superheroes capturing the bad guys, not getting captured. 

McCain spent years in a Vietnam prison camp.

The Donald likes winners, not losers. McCain is a loser. 

What scares me is that many others are thinking what Donald Trump dares to say. Honestly? About John McCain? 

Probably not. About winners and losers, yes.

After all, Trump's comments are just a good tweak or two away from Mitt Romney's famous in-house speech to the super rich--the one in which he simply determined that 47% of the American people were Obama supporters because the government supported them. Romney likes winners, too, not losers. 

The bad news is that there are losers, and the Bible says they'll always be here too. Some people die in prison camps. Some people get hit by cars. Some people lose their jobs in corporate buyouts. Some kids get reared in homes where no one eats breakfast. Some boys grow up without fathers. Some kids don't have iPads. Some women get raped. Some chicken farmers lose millions to avian flu.  

I have friends who truly believe that the quality of life in any nation--or in any group of people, for that matter--can best be determined not by who has the most toys, but by how that nation or community loves those who have least. I think those friends are right.

Donald only likes people who weren't captured.

He must love Huffington Post. After all, they were certainly not captured by him. 

They did a Rambo on the Donald. I say, good for them.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Confidence

“He sends from heaven and saves me, 
rebuking those who hotly pursue me; 
God sends his love and his faithfulness.”
Psalm 57:3

“He who, struggling with his own weakness, presses toward faith in his moments of anxiety is already in large part victorious.”

May not seem like John Calvin, at least the caricature John Calvin, but it is—from Book III, chapter II of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a section in which he is discussing “Faith in the struggle against temptation.”

I’m just not sure there is a way of understanding the frenetic modulation of emotions David not only lives through but sings about and of in Psalm 57—and elsewhere—without understanding the character Calvin ascribes to believers in this section of the Institutes

David has, after all, every reason to be deathly scared.  It’s the King, King Saul, who’s hot on his trail, who has threatened his life, whose poison envy is more terrifying because it is so immeasurably beyond reason.  David sits in a cave, surrounded by his closest friends and family, nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. I like to imagine him composing, singing, alone, maybe at the mouth of this craggy spot, nothing to be seen over the land before him but eerie shadows created by the doubtful light of the moon. 

Outside the cave is madness, but he knows he can’t hide forever.  He has a mission.  Deliberately, benevolently, he has given Saul grace and allowed him to live when, with good cause, he could have killed him with his own hands. Instead, he took a shard of his robe.  But Saul, who David refuses to see as anything other than God’s own anointed, won’t purge the envy that has poisoned his soul; instead, he gorges on it.

That’s why David cries the way he does:  “Have mercy,” and then again, “have mercy.”  There is nowhere else to turn.

“And yet—and this is something marvelous,” says Calvin, “amidst all these assaults faith sustains the hearts of the godly, and truly in its effect resembles a palm tree:  for it strives against every burden and raises itself upward.”

Verses two and three—amid the harrowing fear—is heart-felt testimony:  you offer your wings as a refuge, Lord; you use me for your purposes, you hold back my enemies, you send love and faithfulness.  David is still sitting there where he was, the moonlit landscape’s eerie outlines still teeming with terror, but he’s saying that he knows.

Maybe it’s a kind of mantra he’s offering, in part to God, in part to his own anguished soul.  Maybe he’s remembering the chapters of his own story, when, not by his strength but by his God’s, deliverance was his blessing, his good fortune.  Whatever the reason, faith, like that palm tree, is growing, right there from the stone on which he sits.

Faith, Calvin says, means a sure knowledge of God’s will, of his faithfulness, something which arises from a knowledge and assurance of his Word.  Faith is a sure confidence in God’s will of love.  “Unless you hold to be beyond doubt that whatever proceeds from him is sacred and inviolable truth,” as David does, Calvin says the terror of those shadows, like the voracious appetite of Saul’s insane envy, will overwhelm.

Seems to me that David’s song—his fears and his testimony—at the mouth of a quiet, silent cave is the Word of the Lord.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Morning Thanks--Still the Aeron (II)

That's not where I'm sitting right now. The buffalo skull is still behind me, that ancient army surplus file cabinet is still here, much of what adorns the walls is somewhere nearby, not all of it on display. We live twenty minutes away now, out in the country, where a bright morning sun is pouring gold over everything out back of our new house.

This post is old--five years old; but it deserves another run because that chair, that great Aeron chair, still holds me close and never lets me go.  

So forgive the repetition, but I owe it to my ride, the blessed 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.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Working out

Kids--boys, girls last week, I guess--have been squeezing into the gym every day and night, each outfitted in t-shirt and baggy shorts, some kind of backpack strapped over skinny shoulders. It's basketball camp time for middle-schoolers, a whole week in the gym.

The first time I ever played golf I was probably fourteen. My uncle took me. But I'd been swinging golf clubs for years already, going across the street to a school playground and whacking smiley Acushnets with cast-off wooden clubs a neighbor had left out front with his junk one morning. Those clubs were a treasure.

I was in sixth grade, maybe fifth, when, once a week, we actually got to play in a gym, a grade school cracker box that was absolutely nothing more than a playing floor but felt like Madison Square Garden. I'd been playing basketball for years, shooting hoops on the schoolyard just across the street or right there at the bucket on my own driveway. The gym was pure gravy.

I started playing pee-wee baseball when I was a little boy, going off to other towns in the county and squaring off against their kids. I remember little else from that time in my life--that's how important pee-wees were; but I didn't learn to field grounders or shag flies in pee-wee leagues. I'd been doing all that with neighborhood kids for years, playing ball games that we invented once we knew how many of us had showed up at the sandlot diamond. Playing ball was my life as a kid. 

Basketball camps didn't exist back then, so I never trooped off like the army of boys all over the campus right now. But yesterday, when I was working out, a roar blew off the courts not far away. Kids were swarming around some little boy, and I knew in an instant the ingredients of the brew. Some kid threw something in right at the buzzer, a hail mary maybe that hit nothing but net. You just know those things.

It's a tough time at the college down the road. Lower enrollments have the institution in a squeeze. Last week in church, a faculty member asked for prayers for those who were getting and giving pink slips. She didn't need to say there will be tears. Cutbacks draw blood and sometimes spite. I've lived through them.

Meanwhile the college gym is full of wide-eyed kids learning about buckets. It's a PR thing, bringing all those kids on campus and wowing them, putting them through the cafeteria line, letting them eat as much ice cream as they want, bunking them up with each other. "You like it here? Isn't it fun?" Nobody needs to ask the question.

And the kids are thrilled to be there, even though there is no sandlot ball anymore and hardly anyone shoots buckets in a schoolyard. About the only place kids learn are venues run by adults. An old man like me can't help but think that's sad.

But it's life in the here and now, especially in small-town America. At the college where I taught for most of my life, faculty positions were cut while the institution forked over the cash for a football program that doesn't run on peanuts. Just down the road, a sprawling new PE facility is going up this summer at the very same time some of its profs are getting the news that they'll be saying goodbye. The millions of dollars going into that athletic facility. . .well, you know.

But then, as every kid in the gym on campus knows, in their local newspapers, no matter which burg they come from, high school sports get vastly more column inches than anything else--half the newspaper. It's what the public wants and where the money is. 

I played basketball until I was thirty, baseball--softball--until I was 55. I still work out, walk daily. I feel guilty--I don't feel like I can rest--until I sweat. And I know what it's like to hit a buzzer beater the way some kid did yesterday. I'm sure he told his parents when they called to find out how his day went at basketball camp.

I know that glory.

But I also know the woman in church who asked for prayer last Sunday. I recognize the weariness in her voice. 

I know that sadness too.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Morning Thanks--a letter and Marilynne Robinson

It's a blessing afforded to all of us, I imagine, but in abundance to old teachers. Out of nowhere, you get a note from some kid no longer a kid who was thinking about this or that when his or her old teacher, as if out of nowhere, made an appearance in his or her mind, she says. Maybe it's a he. "Was just thinking about you and thought I'd send you a note thanking you. . ."

Those who can do, those who can't teach; but those who can teach get their own rewards. Such notes are one of them.

Got one about a month ago from a woman I didn't remember--and her husband. Both were members of the very first class I ever had, class of 1972, seniors in a rural Wisconsin high school. Honestly, guilt grabs hold of me when I think of them because I knew so little and taught so poorly. The note was handwritten, six pages long. Every square inch got used. 

Most of it told the story of their son who joined the Navy, became a Seal, and then was shot in a live fire exercise, his life, for a time, in real danger. He was saved, they said, by a man I may have heard of because his book was a bestseller and there was a movie. . .

They wanted to tell me the story, I guess, assuming Mr. Schaap loved a good story. Evangelism wasn't a motivation, but the remarkable events in their son's life were preciously couched in piety that I didn't expect. "Every day we thank God for our son's Rebirthday," Sandy wrote. "Life has had its ups and downs. But God has blessed our marriage and our family. Hope this was not too long and boring."


Nearly a half century ago, it was almost impossible for me to consider my first high school students to be Christians. They weren't like me, weren't born and reared and educated as a Dutch-American of vintage Calvinist persuasion. I didn't think about them as pagans or atheists, but getting that note last month was another reminder of the blinders of my own youthful religious vision. I needed to grow up.

I'm thinking about that letter and those blinders because of an article in Christian Century by Marilynne Robinson, who may well occupy an office otherwise vacant in America, our national theologian. Ms. Robinson's essay questions our use of the word "secular" because, she says, she wonders whether there are all that many "secular" folks around, especially when we use the term to designate those we think somehow "unspiritual." 

"All I wish to suggest," she writes, "is that faith lives in the human world by the grace of God, because of the love and loyalty of God." Which is to say, of course, not because of us or our orthodoxy or our pieties. And that faith lives "in the presence of God, which is free, and indifferent to our anxieties, to our categories, and, quite emphatically, I think, to our very negative judgments about the spiritual state of our neighbors." 

Perhaps we have a mutually short-sighted sense of the Almighty, she suggests. We perceive God by our standards, in part because we can't judge him by his--we're human. "If the churches are uneasy about their status in contemporary society, these are problems for the churches to deal with," she says. "Their waning, if it is real, cannot be interpreted as an invidious change in the Divine Nature."

Because God doesn't change. 

And we certainly do. 
If we suppress that slightly inquisitorial impulse to fret over the state and the nature of belief among those around us, we will no doubt find ourselves inclining toward at least a tentative universalism, toward extending the courtesy of nonjudgment very broadly indeed in deference to human mystery and divine grace.
The older I become, I feel that tendency toward universalism more and more, specifically in light of the limitations (the blinders) I once so broadly and even proudly drew out over other human beings, those who weren't of my tribe. There was us and there was them; the only difficulty was determining who was with us and for us--and who was not. 

It's amazing when I think of it, that I didn't know my students, even though I wanted to, even though I tried to. Years after I left, I drove through the farming communities that consolidated district considered its own, past dairies and old family-run cheese factories lying in and around the hills of southwest Wisconsin, and I told myself I should have made that same trip when I teaching there because I never really looked up close at the farms and acreages where my kids grew up. I should have. I didn't know them.

This morning, in the face of yet another gorgeous summer dawn, I'm thankful for the Haffeles, for their letter and the life of their son, their blessings of God's good graces, and for Marilynne Robinson's explanation of why we all too easily use the word "secularism," when what we do most often in employing the word is undercut our own faith in real live human beings, who are, we profess, created in the image of God, each with their own holy of holies. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Morning Thanks--an old town barn

So this kid--I didn't know him, not at all--tells me, "Hey, I grew up in your house." He's not a kid really. He's maybe 25 years old. Doesn't live there anymore of course, but once upon a time, he tells me, he and I lived in the very same house, Superior Avenue, Oostburg, Wisconsin.

I wanted to change the subject because, quite frankly, I didn't like having to think about him being there. Nothing against him--I didn't even really know him; but something in me felt violated because, after all, I grew up in that house, and it pained me greatly when my parents pulled out, downsizing just as everyone must someday. 

That kid took showers in my shower, ate in our dining room, munched Cheeriors at the bar where I used to eat my breakfasts. He peed in my toilet, maybe slept in my bedroom, the strange one with the round window. My house was my house, not his; and I resented hearing him talk about it because the house I grew up is still my house. He was talking about a spiritual place as if it were nothing more than truck load of dry wall. And it isn't--in my mind, it's a shrine.

So I understand my daughter's stubborn sadness. A few days ago, the old barn out back of our old house went up in flames. It's not leveled, but it's likely not going to be rebuilt--it's probably too far gone and a century old. The present owners were out-of-state, there's no electricity in the old place, and the closest lightning that night was a hundred miles away. My guess is someone torched it, some fire bug, some arsonist.

But my daughter's near tears didn't well up because of some wanton criminal act; the sadness in her soul arose from childhood memories of the old barn out back, an old barn she holds dear. Those flames touched her very soul. . .

a good deal more than they did her father's. My wife and I raised a family in that place, a great old house with an old town barn in the backyard. We spent most of our married life there, a beautiful century-old home, a dominie's house, as a friend of ours used to say, because it felt like a manse, beautiful oak woodwork. It's an old Arts and Crafts place on a sprawling corner lot. 

It was, once upon a time, the Jongewaard house and barn, built lovingly by the town's very first veterinarian. A two-holer was built into the barn's far corner, a feature that had to be coveted in its day, an oddity I kept locked up for obvious reasons. "E. J. Jongewaard 1935" was painted on an inside wall, graffiti-ed, I should say, when someone emptied his paintbrush. The right side door out front was significantly taller than the door to its left; it was the carriage door. And the carriage side still had a manger, too. When we moved in, it still held hay.

If that old barn goes down, my daughter's father will feel some sadness, but mostly for the town. It was really part of Sioux Center's history. I won't hurt like my daughter does. She called yesterday from the driveway out front. She was looking at it for the first time, and I swear her voice almost broke--more than once. 

There aren't many town barns anymore in Sioux Center, Iowa, if any at all. It'll be a sad thing to see it go, her father thinks. After all, that old Jongewaard barn told vintage Sioux Center stories.

But she wasn't sniffling for Sioux Center. She stood there in sadness because, after all, she grew up there.

It's said that most writers really have only one story to tell, the story of the paramount pilgrimage of all of our lives, the ever difficult initiation we all have to make into the real world from the storybook of our childhood.  

My father considered the little town of Lucas, Michigan, to be his home. As a preacher's kid, he lived in a half-dozen places; but he used to say that he grew up in Lucas. In that sentence, grew up isn't something measured in height and weight. Grew up is a metaphor we all understand.

I think that's why I'm so unemotional and my poor daughter, standing right there in front of the carriage door, is weepy. 

There are moments in all of our lives when every last one of us would like to go back to some place and time that, sadly enough, no longer exists.

Such is life.

But this morning, thinking of her tears, I'm thankful for an old flame-scarred barn that will still exist in her memory even if and when it's old blackened timbers finally go down.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Calvinist's sneaky suspicions

When this mangy grackle hopped up early Sunday morning, he looked like he'd just suffered one monstrous Saturday night. Around the feeder, grackles don't take much from anybody else. When they show up, often in gangs, sparrows and finches clear the heck out. This guy looks like he met his match in some seedy dive, doesn't he? Must have been some weekend.

Maybe he was just back from Vegas. His chest looked like a bad pillow.

Don't be so quick to judge, I told myself. Maybe the poor guy is a kid who's just molting. I googled "molting grackles" and found a thousand great shots of grackle teenagers, none of them featuring anything like this mess. Still, the errant feathers are brownish, aren't they?--which may mean he's just singing the puberty blues. 

Nah. Look at the way he has to work to keep those spindly legs of his beneath him. He's still unsteady the morning after. It was just a long, bad night on the town. The wages of sin and all of that.

But then, I know ton of adolescents have been in the neighborhood. You can't miss 'em because grackles spoil their kids rotten. Whole families glide up together. Mom scours the ground, the kids squawking, shamelessly out of control. They're as big as she is and she jams seeds down their screaming throats as if they were still in diapers. It's embarrassing. 

Seriously, here I was making him a carouser, and there could be another explanation. Maybe the poor kid is just suffering throbbing hormones and the turmoil adolescence really is. You know. Maybe that mess of feathers is just grackle acne.

Be nice, I told myself. Show a little grace. You're just being the kind of Calvinist H. L. Mencken skewered so famously: "Calvinism [maybe it was Puritanism--no matter] is the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere is having a good time." 

Look at him. How'd you like to look like that on Sunday morning?

I just don't know. Take your pick: he's either a Sunday School lesson in how nothing good ever happens after twelve, or some poor grackle kid in puberty. I'm not sure what's worse.

Then again, maybe he's a she. 

Don't even go there.