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, October 30, 2015

Morning Thanks--the music of the spheres

Just a couple of weeks ago, a gymnasium full of grandparents, ourselves among 'em, were serenaded by seventy-some kindergartners who stood up in front and told us in song, rather shamelessly I might add, how terribly much they loved us. Okay, when it comes to such buttering up, consider me a sweet roll. Emotionally, I'm a pushover. They were darling. I'm speaking of my grandson, of course. 

His class of five-year-olds were put up to it by teachers who know very well how their bread is buttered.

I've attended Grandparents Days for years, school holidays where we're encouraged to sit beside grandchildren on plastic chairs I'm sure have a weight limit I wholesomely surpass. But it's fun, and I take my little seat, and there we sit doing math problems or word games and listening to them sing. We are loved. They are too. It's all charming.

I confess to have missed a few. My wife can probably tell you when and how many. But those days are a joy and a PR bonanza for the school. If you don't roll up early, you park somewhere across town.

The oldest of our grandkids is now in high school. I don't know if there is a Grandparents Day for her this year, but I sort of hope not because any time kids do anything in public already there's already an SRO crowd. You want to fill an auditorium, put people's kids on a stage or a court and we'll drop everything. I sound like an old man, which I am.

So we went, last night, to my granddaughter's very first high school music concert. The place was jammed. Started with the high school band, which would have been far better had my granddaughter kept up with her flute, but she didn't so the performance was close but not a ringer. 

Then a troupe of underclasswomen sang, including our Joce. They were fine. My wife says every high school girl today has long, straight hair. If they're almost all thin, tall Dutch-Americans, finding your own can be a problem. 

Then the fledgling choir, hers. Nice, fine, but the foggy voices of adolescent boys generally aren't ready for prime time music. Give 'em a year or two, voices will deepen, and they'll be fine.

Then the traveling singers, the real musicians, who were not just good, but incredibly good. Amazingly good, I thought, but I'm not a musician.

Then the concert choir, upper class upperclassmen.  Totally awesome (I'm trying to be hip) Listen, they were terrific on music that seemed incredibly challenging.

Finally, half the school, a mass choir accompanied by a quartet of instrumentalists on "Holy, Holy, Holy," an arrangement the director introduced with a testimony that left the packed house ready and willing to be utterly moved.

We were.

I don't know how to describe that anthem. But after years of Grandparents Days and a calendar full of grade school concerts where our fancies were tickled in ways embarrassing to admit, this concert was something from a different planet altogether because I didn't watch my granddaughter, didn't focus on the way she looked around or didn't. I didn't fawn over progeny.

This time it was music that filled my soul, music that brought tears, music that filled that auditorium with love and worship. This time it was the sheer magic of nothing more or less than art that glorifies God and thrilled me, music as praise, music as worship, because where words stop, some old sage once said, music begins, a different language, but a language we all understand somewhere deep within. 

It wasn't "charming." A stage full of first-graders singing "This Little Light of Mine" is charming--especially if one of them's yours. 

That concert last night spoke the language of the spirit, human and divine. From where we sat, I could hardly see my high school granddaughter, but that's okay. I didn't need to because I could hear her music. I just hope she was listening too.

Last night, after that incredible concert, we drove back home straight into the big bright face of a Hunter's Moon, lighting the earth like none other.

This morning's thanks is for the night, the music of the concert, the music of the spheres.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

No Black Friday at REI

That it's cynical to say it doesn't mean it's not true--"life is marketing." Look at Trump. He didn't get where he is on ideology or compassion or breadth of vision. He doesn't have the world's best hair. He's a salesman who rather consistently makes Jeb Bush look like a tree stump. Sometimes you just can't help thinking that life is just all about marketing.

I don't remember where I read it, but some business grad somewhere determined that marketing has gone through three clearly identifiable phrases. First, the era when retailers simply sold items they had and you wanted. 

This old Irish newspaper advertisement might well sell a little nationalism, "Made in Dublin," but basically what's for sale here is a bicycle, "the easiest running cycle ever ridden." What's for sale is the product, the thing. That's chapter 1 supposedly.

Along came Don Draper--well, Don Drapers were all creating copy all over Madison Avenue long before the late 50s because what ad men learned to pitch in this second era wasn't so much a bicycle as that precious "something other" that only a bicycle could afford. "See the U. S. A. in your Chevorolet" doesn't focus on the durability of the carburetors or the plush upholstery in the back seat. What marketers sold was a Chevy that would make your world a moveable feast. With that car, you're always on vacation. 

I'm sure my dad didn't buy a BB gun because he saw an ad. His kid probably hounded him until he went to Daane Hardware and bought one. My dad wasn't a hunter, never picked up a gun in his life as far as I know, not even during the war. What he needed was the assurance that buying an air rifle for little boy was a good thing, a safe thing. 

So Daisy, who still makes BB guns, tried to sell him peace of mind--the family that shoots sputzies together, stays together. That kind of thing.

The ad says nothing about operation or function, nothing about parts that won't wear out. An ad like this--and they're still all around us--doesn't claim to sell a BB gun; what it sells is a happy family. 

The third phrase--I honestly don't remember where I read this--begins with the product's disappearance altogether so that advertising isn't really about product at all. That's right. The seller isn't selling the product because the product isn't important. What the seller sells is ideology, a way of life.

REI, an outdoor gear retailer who operates as a coop, announced this week that they were simply not opening for business on Black Friday. That's a man-bites-dog story. Just about 90 million Americans shop, a lot, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Christmas season-opener. If you want a hoodie from REI--on-line or from one of their 189 shops--you'll just have to wait because REI is staying home and asking you to do the same.

They're selling everything but product. In a way, of course, it's fitting for a outdoors-y retailer to tell its customers stay out of malls and go snowshoeing. Makes sense. Go on and take a holiday. Gear up for it before you go, of course, but stay the heck away from Walmart. Go snag a walleye. Take a hike. 

To say that what REI is doing is unconventional is gross understatement. They're betting the business on the ploy because retailers nation-wide stay out of the red only because America goes shopping-crazy on what's become a holiday. 

We're a culture of Jabba the Hutts. We live and die on consumption. Nowhere else in the world are storage units a multi-billion dollar business and growing. Just up the road, a local non-profit collects people's donated "stuff" in a couple of trucks that are wide open 24/7 and always full. 

Listen, you don't have to be cynical to recognize that not opening on Black Friday is just another sales pitch. But for REI it is a real gamble. And I like it. 

So I'll buy from REI. Don't know that I need anything exactly, but I'll head over to their website, maybe not this morning, but sometime before Thanksgiving. I will. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Remembering Wounded Knee

Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, 
but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.
Reinhold Niebuhr

I wish I knew his work better than I do. What I know of Niebuhr is a foggy assessment of his having been something of a Calvinist, or at least a preacher who couldn't help but see evidenced of original sin all around. Like so many others of his era, he became a pacifist after the carnage of World War I; still, he worked hard, years later, to enlist others into taking on Hitler in WWII.

He seemed to see life as a balancing act, as the quote above illustrates. Because we can do justice, democracy has a chance; because we do injustice, it's a requirement. He seemingly could not assess human nature without adducing the darkness he saw within--not just in others, but ourselves, America included.

Niebuhr was the kind of person mainstream culture once regarded as important, a moral and spiritual voice, not simply for souls, but for living in the here-and-now. He was a public intellectual whose wisdom on ethics and morality put him on the cover of Time. I'm not sure we have anyone like him these days. It would be good if we did.

I thought of him this morning because the mail this week contained the newest edition of South Dakota Magazine, a glossy celebration of South Dakota life written primarily for those who live there, but beloved, I'm sure, by thousands of Dakotans in the diaspara, those who live elsewhere but whose heart and soul is back in the homeland.

I've never lived in South Dakota, but I count my frequent visits as pure delight. We took our grandchildren to Spirit Mound last week, and that odd little hill north of Vermilion showed up in the five-year-old's Sunday School drawing. We spent three days in the Black Hills with one grandson a couple months ago. Loved it. So did he.

This isn't a sales pitch. Not everyone who reads this will be equally taken, but I really love the magazine. I'm embarrassed to count up how many magazines I get and don't read, but I read all of South Dakota Magazine.

The new issue made no mention of Reinhold Niebuhr, who was born in Missouri and lived most of his life in New York City. But it's Niebuhr I thought of when I saw it and read it, because this edition of SDM is devoted primarily to a single story, the Massacre at Wounded Knee, which happened 
125 years ago this December, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Maybe ten years ago, on the day after Thanksgiving, I got up early in the morning, drove the six or seven hours it requires to get to the hill overlooking the creek named Wounded Knee, walked up there myself, alone in the wind because I wanted to be there to see the place--not experience it, just see it. I was writing a novel, and I had to see it to describe it. But to see it was an experience all its own.

I'd read about the massacre. I accumulated such a library of info that my personal ebay page still tries to sell me things--books, artifacts, art work--that refer what happened there. When I stood on the hill at Wounded Knee, it was not difficult for me to imagine the 7th Calvary all around, the largest encampment of U.S. fighting forces in one place since the Civil War.

I knew where Big Foot's band had camped, could see smoke rise from a hundred campfires, could hear kids playing. I knew where the cavalry pushed the Big Foot's band to gather, could see dozens of thin, cold Lakota surrounded by heavily armed blue coats. I knew what Big Foot himself looked like, wrapped in blankets, suffering from pneumonia, his nose bleeding.

I have other memories of that holidays that year, I'm sure; but none are cut in glass like the hour or so I spent in a cold wind up on a hill in the company of hundreds of Lakota buried there in a mass grave. No one is ever really alone in a graveyard. Not there especially.

This year, on December 29, right between the holidays, it will be 125 years since the massacre where upwards of 300 Native men, women, and children were slaughtered. What happened at Wounded Knee is not a treasured memory, and I'm sure some would say it's thoughtless, even ghoulish for South Dakota Magazine to rip open old wounds. Let sleeping dogs lie, after all.

But me?--I think Reinold Niebuhr would stand to applaud the SDM staff because, well, our capacity for justice makes democracy possible, and reconciliation not impossible. However, our inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary and reconciliation incredibly difficult.

Witness Wounded Knee.

South Dakota Magazine courageously brings us there, up there on the hill, to remember and not to forget.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sympathetic souls

Let me try to get this straight.

Once upon a time, years and years ago, I sat down with a soon-to-be-retired woman, a court stenographer, a particularly good one, a woman who showed me, proudly, a book she'd written, a guide to the kind of stenography she did for most of her life. I remember where we sat, and I remember her, her face and feisty-ness, her ebullient personality; but from the long interview and the story I wrote about her, I remember only one aside.

She mentioned how tedious she often found divorce proceedings, having to record every word from the mouths of snarling husbands and wives telling the tales that had led them to think they couldn't live another day with that man or that woman. I swear I remember her rolling her eyes. "'My word, lady,' I'd say to myself. 'Get over it.'" That's what she told me she couldn't help thinking. "'Who on earth doesn't go through that? I could tell you worse. Get a life!'"

It wasn't a joke. She was dead-on serious. Whether or not she and her husband ever came to blows I didn't ask, but she gave me every reason to believe that marriage--hers or others--wasn't always the sweet song some dreamy-eyed Facebook folks make it out to be.

I bring that up because of an NPR story, one of those aired by Shankar Vedantam, who does occasional stories on hot research in the social sciences. This one is truly man-bites-dog. People who suffer through a particular difficulty--let's just say migranes--tend to have less sympathy for others who suffer likewise. You read that right--less sympathy, not more.

Seriously? Years ago, a distant family member suffered through the death of a child, an adult. I attended what we call here "the visitation," a wake-like event when hundreds of well-wishers drop to say what they can in relief. The two of us lived a long ways from our mutual neighborhood, and I told myself I was the only relative at the visitation, the only family.

He did little more than shake my hand because his attention was fixed--it was obvious--on the guy behind me in line, a man who, like him, had lost a son. I wouldn't be surprised if both of them squeezed tears from the great embrace those two suffering fathers shared.

Yet, new behavioral research suggests that, like the court reporter, if you've slogged through muddy battlefields yourself, you may well be tougher on those who are similarly bogged down.

Seriously? Yes, say Rachel Ruttan, Loran Nordgren and Mary-Hunter McDonnell at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "Compared to people who've never been unemployed, those who've experienced unemployment show less compassion to people currently dealing with unemployment," Vedantam explained. "It's not so much, I think, you're less likely to care. You're more likely to think, if I can get through this and I can find a job, so can you."

If that research is right, then what makes AA so very successful isn't mutual sympathy but mutual discipline.

An old friend was going through some emotional depression. I mentioned it to another old friend, a battle-weary vet of his own wars. "What he needs," he said of the other guy, "is someone to kick him."

I was shocked and even saddened, but new research says I shouldn't be. When we've gone through the hard, hard work of putting something huge behind us, it's easier for us to believe someone else can--even should--too.

Still, I find it amazing and counter-intuitive. But then, as the Bible says, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  What a surprise it is, sometimes, to be human.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Morning Thanks--What light brings

We're tilted at a different angle these days, and that's not some kind of parable. For a couple of months during the summer, if I step out on the deck just outside the door down here, I can watch a sunrise and a sunset; but these days, with the angle of things, we're looking away sadly. Every day the sun appears to drop south another an inch or so and will, now until December, rolling out longer shadows across open land.

Saturday I spent some time at a place where Sioux Quartzite outcroppings quite shockingly shape ordinary prairie into what seems a mountain gorge. I wanted to test a new lens, but I also wanted to explore a bit, wander around on an inviting fall afternoon that's all the more beautiful because it's barely a breath away from winter. I wanted to see what I could see.

I'd been to the place before several times, but always with others, even with a whole bus full of people. I'd never been there alone, and an untested lens gave me a good cause to explore on my own. 

Palisades State Park was maybe two weeks past peak color. The wind was up, and the whole time I was there I wore a jacket and cap, just to stay warm. Still, the sun was ever over my shoulder it seemed, making mostly denuded woods along Split Rock Creek mottled in a way that creates art just about everywhere you look. 

It took this slow learner some years to discover that photography is all about light. Where it hits, what it hits, and how it hits what it chooses to is the story behind whatever composition you're capturing. Imagine that shot at the top of the page on a cloudy day: no color + no icing on the creek + no black overhanging limb = no picture. It's all about light really.

Look for yourself. The lens works well, but what's here isn't so much about the lens as it is about the light. 

Oh, the composition would be there if the sky was slate gray, but these shots wouldn't be what they are without light.

Yesterday, Sunday, was a gorgeous day, even more beautiful. But my eyes were still doing what they'd been up to the day before, hunting for the interplay of light in the darkness all around because it's the contrast that's telling, right? Where it is and where it isn't tells a story. 

Still, my guess is that when worship began I may well have been the only soul in the sanctuary who couldn't help seeing what sunlight through the east windows of the church made telling or beautiful. I couldn't help it.

And I don't know why old churches like the one we attended yesterday put three huge oak chairs up behind the pulpit. I'm sure that once upon a time there was a reason, three being such a bountifully biblical number; but it seems to me a little pushy to believe we're hosting the Trinity. I mean, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all there, I'm sure; but I don't think anyone honestly believes we give such divine parishioners their own separate thrones. Or am the heathen?

But what I saw yesterday right after we sat down just about took my breath away. The huge thrown in the northwest corner of the choir loft, was lit up, filled with light, just like that leaf on the otherwise empty branch above. Through the southeast window, the morning sun cast that pulpit chair in a shine that made it seem, for a moment at least, wholly occupied.

I wish I had a picture, but I didn't take a camera into church. You'll just have to trust me. As worship began, it was as if someone or some thing spectral and regal had decided to abide with us in the sanctuary. That old lit chair seemed it's own kind of worship.

I've got alternatives here--I mean, that big chair was lit up because the angle of the sun yesterday was perfectly in line with a church window on the east wall. It's not hard to explain because it was nothing more or less than physics. Scientifically, no one was in that chair. The light cast it into something cute, not divine. 

Maybe I'm getting old and silly, but just for a moment as church began, the haunting idea that the old oak chair had become a seat for the angelic was just too sweet to dismiss. 

Maybe all it held was sunlight.

Then again, maybe not. 

Maybe what was there just for a time on Sunday morning was all we'd ever hoped to find. 

Both of us know what lots of true believers would see. And who knows?--maybe they're right.

Anyway, all of that happened when the worship began.  

No matter what it was, this morning I'm thankful for what I saw--out there on Split Rock Creek and right there in church.

It's all about light. And you certainly may consider that line a parable. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Awesome deeds

“. . .the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas, 
who formed the mountains by your power, 
having armed yourself with strength, 
who stilled the roaring of the seas, 
the roaring of their waves, 
and the turmoil of the nations. . .”
Psalm 65:5-7

I don’t fault people who live in huge, bustling cities. I envy their endless opportunities, cultural and interpersonal. I can’t imagine being able to choose from hundreds of cuisines every night, a gala gallery of tablecloths. Los Angeles, I’m told, is like the planet in miniature—hundreds of languages, music as varied as its aromas.

Picking up the weekly paper in the town where I live, paging through it in five minutes, then tossing half of it since the entire second section is high school sports, can be downright depressing. Around here anyway, the old anonymous waves from passing cars quit decades ago, but a certain schmaltzy saccharine smile one still obligingly receives on the street reminds me too much of the political pressures raging in junior high hallways. 

I’m not a curmudgeon, at least I try not to be; but sometimes I get downright scared of those who believe that God almighty intended human beings to live in small towns. And there are many in the neighborhood.    

The literary fortunes of Sinclair Lewis have plummeted since he won the Nobel in 1930.  Minnesota’s literary culture has to rival New York’s, but even his native state rarely praises his genius. Does anyone really read him, except as artifact? Every year we pass through Sauk Center, Minnesota, his home town, where a handsome Interpretive Center stands just south of town, never more than a half dozen cars in the parking lot, staff probably. Who would want to read someone that owly? And yet, at some moments in places like the Sioux Center where I lived, I used to think I’d like to unleash him on the upstanding citizenry if I knew they would pick up his sarcasm.

I much prefer Willa Cather, who may have disliked cultural leveling small towns create as much as Sinclair Lewis did. When her super-heroines migrate into towns like the ones Cather grew up in, they’re in trouble. Out on the wild prairie, on the other hand, their virtues reappear and blossom as gloriously as wild flowers.

I don’t fault people who live in cities, but I wouldn’t trade life there for the default behavior of my Saturday mornings, when I get up before dawn and head out of town in most any direction, head out to an openness where there is far more cattle than human beings, but little else to obstruct a vision that runs for miles in every direction.

What David celebrates in these verses—God’s awesome deeds, scrapbook #1 (there’s more to follow), is his God’s “creatorliness,” if I can say it that way, his transcendent nature, the sheer unimaginable power of his hand. And all of that, I think, is displayed, today, most vividly in a landscape. I was born on Lake Michigan, and when I go home I can stand on the beach and feel at least an inkling of the rush of divine imperative that first day must have created, as I’m sure others can. 

Here, in the neighborhood, a place I’ve chosen to live, the Creator God is made manifest in the broad silent spaces Willa Cather loved, where, if you watch closely and listen carefully, sometimes I think a bit of cosmic echo reverberates from that truly awesome first day of creation; and I am, at least for a moment some days, blessedly closer to God.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Nuts and bolts

For the record, there are just four bolts in the headboard, four little bolts, four nuts, and eight washers. That's it. If you're going to move the bed, you take them off and move the thing in pieces--mattress, box spring, metal frame, and headboard. I suppose we could have picked up the bed and moved it from his old room to the new one, but we took it apart, got out the socket wrench, made it official. 

We'd been through this before, not long ago in fact; but this new room had a better view than the one we'd put him in. That last clause is crucial: "where we'd put him." He'd have denied it if you'd asked him, but that was part of his wanting a new room--we'd put him in the old new one. The new, new room was his choice--his will. When you're 96 years old, you don't get that much opportunity to exercise your will.

He's a retired farmer with a college professor for his only son-in-law. It didn't take him long to figure out, years ago, that when it came to fixing things, his only son-in-law was a clutz. When we moved the bed a month ago, I was a little miffed that he had to supervise my handling of those nuts and bolts and washers. He's not mobile, needs a walker to get around. I think he could use a wheelchair, but a wheelchair is pretty much anathema since he fixed old ones for years after his retirement, repairing 'em for people who need them, of which he isn't one. So there.

But last time we moved his bed he went hand over hand along the mattress and box spring in order to get to the far wall where I was monkeying with four dang nuts and bolts and eight washers. Seriously, it took him five minutes to get there, but he made it, even got down on his knees--what knees?--to be able to see what I was doing.

Yesterday, an instant replay--instant is a misnomer, of course. Yesterday he got himself fully prone on the floor, as if that single bed, a dorm bed (interesting idea--when we get old we all get a dorm room), was a '36 Chev with a bad belt or fouled plugs. He got all the way down so he was actually lying on the floor. I should have got him a dolly.

"You okay, Dad?" I said when he was down there. He was breathing hard.

"Don't know exactly how I'm going to get back up," he said, chuckling.

Trust me, he didn't need to be there. It was a job even his clutz son-in-law could do; but there he was, lying on the floor. He didn't even have a ratchet or a pliars. He just had to see.

He just had to see because I can't tell you how much he wished he could do the job himself.

I thought about it--I really did. What happens if his heart gives out right then and there? What happens if he can't get back up, and the grim reaper drops by? 

The truth? I think he'd have died happy. It wasn't a tank or a half-track or a jeep like the ones he serviced during the war, it was plain old nuts-and-bolts stuff, and he couldn't--he just couldn't--miss it. His vision is going, his hearing long ago departed; if that moment would have been it, I think he would have been just fine with it.

Our neighbor in the old place lost her husband and continued to live in the old house longer than she should have. She had kids in California, but toward the end she stayed here in the Iowa cold all winter long. Some mornings I'd see her out shoveling a frosting of snow off the sidewalk around the back door. She didn't need to really, and I could have done it for her. She was in her 90s.

But weak and creaky as she was, she wouldn't have thought of not sweeping snow. Had I gone over there and done it for her, I don't know that she would have been pleased. Pushing that snow was something she still could do, something she wanted to do because keeping your back step swept is what human beings do, and, aged as she was, she still wanted to be human.

Yesterday my father-in-law got down fully prone on his bedroom floor because there were nuts and bolts and washers, and they needed to be assembled with tools he never, ever uses anymore, tools he'd always loved to hold in his hands. It may be a stretch to say this, but I think it's true: yesterday, an old man risked death to be in on the action, to be part of it, to be human, even if there was nothing more there than nuts and bolts and washers. 

I helped him get back on his feet--we did. He was tired. It was a long day at the home. But he was in the room that he chose, the one he wanted.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Dickinson's "courteous yet harrowing Grace"

We're already a month into fall so what's around it is a mess of death. I haven't pulled the dried-up stalks because an occasional bee or butterfly still stops by at what shrunken blossoms yet remain. 

Yesterday I wanted to try a different lens out back and found this tiny blue late-comer in a host of angry brambles, a star in an uninviting sky. I told myself there were poems about these things--if not this species something else surprisingly "late season." I don't know if it's a picture of what was or a prophet of what's to come, and maybe it's just summer's orphan. I don't even know the name of the poor thing. It came in a mix of wildflower seeds from WalMart. But as we speak it's having its day, even though the beauty out back is long gone.

This morning's offering from Writers Almanac is Emily Dickinson, who thoroughly confounded me the first time I read through. What little I knew was that she was talking about something akin to what's in this photograph and what's out back of our place, an homage to the sadness of summer's passing, a poem that's not funeral-ish however, even if right now out back it's easy to create a dirge. 

As Imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy.

Grief is an emotion, a noun and not an action verb. Ms. Emily didn't see one of these little blue flowers--or, if she did, she simply loved it for its beauty. Summer's end is almost timeless, she says, an event we don't notice until it's over, more imperceptible than rejection, than something awful or immoral. Seasonal sequences happen so deftly that we barely note them until they're gone.

A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon - 

There are no flowers, just feelings, an emptiness that makes her wonder how it was we never felt the emptying, like a "twilight long begun" or 

The Dusk drew earlier in -
The Morning foreign shone -

Almost imperceptible. She wakes to note that summer's gone.

A courteous, yet harrowing Grace.

Courteous, maybe, because summer leaves behind an occasional blue star, but harrowing because it is a harbinger of winter to come. "Courteous, yet harrowing grace" is a wonderful line because it cuts to the flesh. This little blue flower, amid all the destruction, is both courteous, a blessing, and harrowing, fearful.

Then follows what seems three images drawn from the human experience of leaving:

As guest, that would be gone -
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel

Somehow--I'm not sure how--there's a guest departing, slipping away unnoticed, a bird gone but not noticeably flying, a ship directionless departing--all of it "imperceptible as grief." Things happen in our lives, not always suddenly. Change happens as if beyond us.

And then, finally, a summary.

Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful. 

Past tense--it's gone in case you're wondering. It's over. But it was ours, not just hers. She's talking about you and me and my backyard.

Helen Vendler, who probably knew more about Emily Dickinson than anyone, says in Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, that the final line here is Ms. Emily's platonic dreaming, something she liked to do. She assigns "our" summer to a nirvana-like space where "things beautiful" simply exist, a heaven for our most glorious joys.

Here's another backyard blossom, just for the record.

Just showed up, end of season, a couple of brightly colored sad cheers, a reminder of what has now departed as imperceptibly as grief, "a courteous, yet harrowing Grace."

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Morning Thanks--Digital photography

Lake Michigan shore line at dawn. J. C. Schaap*
"It’s really weird … Photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.” That's how award-winning Mexican photographer Antonio Olmos somewhat hesitatingly notes the seeming strangulation of professional photography at the hands of amateurs with digitals. 

Today gadzillions of people carry cameras every waking hour, cameras whose quality few could have afforded a decade ago. There may well be more pictures taken every hour at this moment than there were in the entire 19th century. Once upon a time a photographer had to lug a huge wooden box on a gangling tripod, cover his viewfinder with some kind of oil cloth, then create exposures on glass that had to be "developed" with a pungent mix of exotic chemicals. 
Princess Angeline. Edward Curtis**

I'm not making this up.

When Edward S. Curtis did his monumental study of Native people, The North American Indian, the task required mules and mule-like staff. The photographs Curtis recorded remain astounding, but, any high school kid with an iphone packs vastly better technology. 

Digital photography has created millions of photographers, me among 'em.

What to make of it? Good question. 

If you were, pre-digital age, a pro, almost inevitably you're suffering. There are as many jobs around as there ever were--every business needs ads, of course--but ridiculously good cameras these days are incredibly cheap. Ordinary people have them. Ordinary people can shoot ads. As well? No. But a penny saved is a penny-earned.

And there ain't no film!--nothing to process and often nothing to print. Most pictures taken today never never see paper. So if a million monkeys wielding a million iphones take shots 24/7, one of those images is going to look a heckuva lot like an Ansel Adams.

So, "What do you think? Do amateur photographers pose a threat to the future success of professional photography?" asks Hannah Frazier in Vantage. It seems to me the answer is as simple as it is complex. 

Without a doubt amateur photographers pose a threat to pros. Today there are millions of film makers too, since every last iphone can also shoot movies. Today there are millions of writers since publishing a book, the technology, is incredibly cheap. Technology has created more photographers, filmmakers, writers, and musicians than the world has seen through all of its history. In some rare cases it's made them professionals; after Fifty Shades of Gray, a woman named E. L. James will never have to work again--and that racy novel started when she tossed the thing up on-line, free to readers. 

Every year I get two or three questions from people who think they have an story that will make a book. Look, I tell them, publication is almost impossible these days because it's so incredibly easy. Between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published every year in this country, well over 200 per day. Lock a score of bibliophiles in a library and even they'd have trouble keeping up. Publication is cheap, and we're rich. That's the bottom line.

Pros feel the pressure, I'm sure. Meanwhile, millions of people are writing, composing music, making movies, and taking pictures--and loving it. In the last 15 years I've taken thousands of pictures and made a couple of bucks now and then. That's it. The internet is full of blogs, more every minute.

I didn't start taking pictures or creating a blog thinking someday I'd be professional. I started shooting pics because it was fun, a joy, and photography has been teaching me how to see, what to look at, where to find beauty that makes music in the soul. 

Hannah Frazier's question has a simple answer. Yes, without a doubt digital photography threatens the pros. 

But is photography dying? Heavens no. To those of us not threatened, the new world has been a joy, a blessing.
*It's not the first landscape I took with a digital camera, but it's the first one I could find in the storage vault, a gorgeous morning I remember well, a blessing to be out at dawn--December 26, 2002, just east of Oostburg, Wisconsin. 

**The first image Curtis created in the series that turned into his life's work.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Morning Thanks--the new billboard

Twenty years ago or so, I stood in a grocery-store line in with a gallon of milk maybe, probably some peanut butter and maybe a pound of old fashioned baked ham. The young lady at the check out, annoyed and impatient, waited on two Hispanic men who were fumbling through the process while locals like me stood there biding their time. Eventually, she just reached into one of their wallets herself to dig out the bucks required for the measly sale, then made change and sent them on their way. 

Once her Spanish-speaking customers were just beyond the reach of her voice, she rolled her eyes and vented. "You're in America, all right? Learn the language." I'm quite sure she expected us, the real Sioux Centerites, equally exasperated, to shake our heads and cheer her red-blooded patriotism.

I should have (but didn't) remind her that in all likelihood a century ago her own great-grandparents, strangers at the gates, might have stumbled similarly at the town's General Store. No not might have, would have--that checkout girl was not Yankton Sioux.

Well, wait a minute. Maybe they wouldn't have had language problems, but then, a century ago on the streets of town, Dutch was the language of the street. Wouldn't that have been nice for all those Dutch immigrants?

I walked out of the store and determined I'd speak up by writing a letter to the editor of the paper. So I did. I'd have to read microfilm to find that letter back, but it's clear to me that times have changed.

Demographically, the Spanish-language billboard on the south end makes all kinds of sense. In the last 20 years, the town's Hispanic population has grown far, far beyond the number anyone who lived in what was once a little fortress of Dutch Americans could have imagined. is speaking (in Spanish) to a significant chunk of the population today.

Culturally, however, that billboard is shocking. This is the land of Congressman Steve King--of "calves like melons" fame. In no area of the Kingdom was last November's vote so totally his. It would be presumptuous of me to say he would have seconded that checkout girl's annoyance, but his rhetoric on immigration certainly suggests he would. Our King is in Trump's camp or Trump's in his. 

It just doesn't seem long ago that forces on the right were braying about making English the state's official language, a dog whistle for racism. They may well have won that one--I don't even know. Obviously--look at the billboard--few care. What I know is that seeing this Spanish billboard on the outskirts of town yesterday was a jaw-dropper. 

Twenty years ago, who in their right minds could have prophesied that by 2014 Sioux County, Iowa, would be ten percent Hispanic? 

No one. But it happened. 

Twenty years later, who in their right mind could have prophesied that the town of Sioux Center would hammer up a billboard advertising a great community resource in the Spanish language? Twenty years ago, Rep. King's legions would have spit and fumed just like that grocery store checkout. 

Me? I think that startling billboard you see at the top of the page is a blessing, something, this Monday morning, for which to give thanks.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Awesome

“You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, 
O God our Savior. . .”  Psalm 65:5

Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but familiarity has, it seems, taken the awe out of awesome.  The thesaurus built into my software offers these synonyms:  overwhelming, grand, breath-taking, splendid, tremendous, remarkable, splendid, awe-inspiring, most of which seem superlatives.  We don’t normally put an adjective with any of them—as in “more splendid.”  Like unique, most of those words are intended to reach as far as we can go into the realm where there are no words.

What’s worse, contemporarily at least, awesome is a word that has been rather fashionably hijacked by idiomatic usage, by Valley-girl slang, its intent bushwhacked by simple overuse. If a monster dunk is awesome, can we still use the word to describe the creation of the world? 

I once heard an interview with Rich Mullins, the songwriter who penned “Our God is an Awesome God,” one of the original praise-and-worship winners.  It was memorable, really. But the song itself—perhaps simply by repetition—has eviscerated what it was meant to vivify. “When He rolls up His sleeves/He ain't just putting on the ritz”—the opening line—may be commendable in its efforts to be relevant; but an argument could be made that the line does more to bring God to our level than it does to bring us into a sense of divine eternity.

The King James has “terrible” where the NIV has “awesome,” and I’m at a loss to determine which one I prefer. It seems utterly out of the question for any good evangelical soul to use “terrible” as an adjective describing God or his wonders; but “awesome,” at least to me, has lost its awe. Awesome sounds like bubble-gum.  “By terrible things in righteousness wilt thou answer us” is the way the KJV reads. And I suppose I sound like Jonathan Edwards if I say I prefer it. 

I don’t believe my preferences have to do with wanting to worship a God of wrath. They have more to do with believing that awesome is just plain worn out. 

But then, who knows what word David used, and whether his arsenal of synonyms could possibly have been big enough either.  Our language is severely limited by our imaginations; and our imaginations, despite what we might believe of them, remain solidly “of this world.”  God’s acts—like Jesus’s own mixed-blood character—remain, sadly enough, beyond our ken, beyond our words, beyond us.

But then that’s why we worship him.  That’s why he likes us on our knees.

Our words can’t reach him.  Only Jesus, the God/child, does and can.  And, okay, I give up—that’s awesome

Friday, October 16, 2015

Robinson and Obama: the President as Journalist

The decision, reached after what White House officials called an “extensive, lengthy review,” ensures that Mr. Obama will leave office in 15 months without making good on a seminal promise of his presidency: to responsibly end the military involvements started by his predecessor, George W. Bush, and withdraw all American troops from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
That was the news yesterday, according to the NY Times. What was once a "seminal promise," that he would forthwith bring the troops home, a promise he made to insure his election to the Presidency, was reversed. Obama was wrong on Afghanistan. We're not going to be out during his eight years in office. It's going to take longer than he thought. John McCain was right: announcing our plans virtually aids-and-abets the Taliban. 

Some will say he lied, but everyone has to admit he was wrong.

I wish that weren't true, but it is. John McCain has good reason to crow.

There was more news yesterday, by the way. In case you missed it, you really should read Obama's interview with Marilynne Robinson in the newest New York Review of Books. It's dangerous to make generalizations, taste being as mysterious as it is, but among aficionados of novels in what we now call "the genre of literature," Ms. Robinson may well be the living master. She's written a series of three novels that began with Gilead, the story of a preacher from rural Iowa in the 1950s, and include Home and Lila. They are, trust me, profoundly Christian; yet, they've been published in Persian in Iran.

You read that right. Gilead is profoundly Christian but acceptable even to fundamentalist Muslims because her fiction doesn't preach--it sings.

Ms. Robinson is the nation's most read Calvinist, even if she's only a writer of stories. But she's also an essayist who almost single-handed retrieved John Calvin from the landfill by praising his wisdom in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, which, as you might imagine, is not a page-turner--but then neither is Calvin.

What's amazing about this NY Review of Books interview is that President Barack Obama is the interviewer. He's the one asking questions. It soon becomes clear that their back-and-forth in this part of a longer interview isn't the first time they've chatted. Like a couple of old chess players, they seem to know each other's moves; and Obama is the optimist. Robinson the Calvinist sometimes can't help maintaining that the cup is half-empty when it comes to the human race. 

I think it would be interesting to ask Doris Kearns and Michael Beschloss, Presidential historians, whether any other American President has ever conducted an interview like the one Obama does in the NY Review of Books. Interviews of the President happen daily, but this is news, or so it seems to me: Obama is the journalist, the one asking questions.

Try to imagine Donald Trump caring about what Marilynne Robinson thinks. 

Yesterday's Obama news is soul food for Rush. John McCain was right about Afghanistan. It was dead wrong for the President to believe we could withdraw our forces out and not tip out hat to our enemies. We're staying in Afghanistan.

But what the NY Review of Books interview makes obvious is that Obama not only isn't a muslim, he's a believer. He is not Franklin Graham, but grant him this at least--he's a seeker like no other President before him. 

And a reader, a blessedly thoughtful man.

In 2008 the newly elected President of the United States asked to speak to the school children of America. Some Christian schools--including the one we've supported for many years--chose not to listen and everyone knew why. Had the school tuned in, the principal would have faced a firestorm, and still would today. Millions of pious Christians in this country--and a majority of Republicans--believe Obama is an out-and-out liar when it comes to faith.

It's somehow understandable. After all, back then, my own grandchild, 
a kindergartnersat on my lap and told me in no uncertain terms that Obama kills babies. 

President Barack Obama was wrong about Afghanistan. But what his interview of Marilynne Robinson shows is that clearly he is not a Muslim. It show him being human, wondering about things, about the biggest things--about faith and those who practice it. 

It's amazing. It really is. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Preachers Hands

There was a guy down the alley on the other side of the street--I didn't know him--who put a new roof on his garage. He was up there for days in these last glorious warm fall afternoons.

The first day he was up there, he was lifting the old asphalt with a pitchfork, jimmying up those old snarly things and the nails that kept them there with a screeching and squawking that reminded me all too well of my few roofing adventures. Twice I did my own house--not by myself, of course, but under the direction of people who knew what they were doing. Twice I stood on my own deadly inclines, armed with a pitchfork, and ripped up asphalt and wood and dust and roofing nails--it's an awful job that most carpenters would much rather simply forego. If you want to start some kind of building business, you start with roofs because nobody else will do them, I'm told.

Once upon a time, I helped with a neighbor's house, an old couple who lived right next door. His roof was as steeply pitched as a barn roof, but I was young enough, acrobatic enough to stay up there without pinwheeling off the angle myself. What made the job memorable, however, was the pot-bellied farmer, my age, son of that neighbor, who came to help too.

I lived in a college town back then, and I'm was a prof. That made me, by rep, a lightweight, a dork, an egghead, a guy who doesn't get his hands dirty. I'm not sure why--who on earth would choose to stand up in front of tons of kids who'd rather be texting than taking notes?--but in a town like the one where I used to live, ordinary working men think profs an alien wuss species. They may be goons, but we're just plain goofy. I know.

Anyway, up there on the roof this paunchy farm guy made it very clear that he wanted it known far and wide that his testosterone ran deeper and richer than this prof guy, so we had ourselves an unspoken competition, as men will do. So as long as he worked, I did--I wasn't going to let him call me soft. As hard as he worked, I did--and, thanks to his rubber tire, I think I beat him.

At a cost. But, who cares? I beat his butt--is all I cared about back then. I went home proud and smug, then closed the door behind me and fell over in pain. At least he didn't beat me.

For years I've been haunted by a old story about Jesse James, who used to pull train heists, stroll onto passenger cars with his .45, examine men's hands, and then take wallets only from those men who had no callouses. Good night, I'd have lost everything.

But this week I didn't hazard a step toward that neighbor down the block, didn't lift a hand because the last time I was up on our roof I told myself, while forking old wood shingles, that it was going to be the last time. My balance, like other attributes, wasn't what it was and certainly isn't today, umpteen years later. I knew that back then, but wouldn't have admitted it to anyone.

So I watched that neighbor up on his garage, smiling all the while because age has some privileges. Nobody would have expected me to lend a hand--that old bald guy across the block.

Back then, as long as I avoided passenger trains, I figured I was safe. Jesse James was long gone.

Still, these fingers on the keys and the hands they belong to, are, I must admit, resemble preacher's hands.

But yesterday I built a garden box. So there.

Besides, I'm no more a prof. I'm retired. Just don't ask me to go up on a roof.

October Earth Tones

October Earth Tones

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hot news cooled

Lord knows there are bigger stories this morning. After all, the Cubs, the Chicago Cubs, are moving up in the playoffs. I'm not making this up. 

Seriously, there's always ISIS and global warming and the odd tangle the Middle East has created--Americans and Russians eyeing each other like feral cats on a some kind of leash. I didn't watch, but all the ink seems to spell out a series of Hillary knockouts last night that left the Las Vegas stage bloodied.

There's this too, if you're a disciple: one of the husbands of one of Kardashians passed out in a Nevada brothel.

But the really big news yesterday was Playboy, the mag--that's right, the famous one--has now determined (their circulation down from 5.6 million in 1975 to about 800,000 today) that there will be no more naked women. You heard that right. It's not altogether different than the city of Chicago dumping the Cubs, General Mills dropping Wheaties, or Nike walking away from the shoe market.

No naked women, you say? What's this world coming to?

In case you missed it, the market's saturated. If you want to oogle, you can do it all day long on the screen you're in front of right now and not part with a dime. Religion and sex, some researchers once determined, are the two biggest surfing attractions. Talk about odd bedfellows.

Playboy's not throwing in the towel, it's throwing on the towel. The girls will still be a centerpiece (nothing was said about centerfolds), they just won't be naked. Can you believe it? That's news.

Before Calvinists begin to celebrate the Fourth or Fifth Great Awakening, they need only to remember that today nudity is ubiquitous--think NYC body painters. You might even argue that Playboy is dressing up its girls because the magazine won--we've become a nation of Hugh Hefners. Its bunny logo is a world-wide phenomenon. In China, where nudity is banned except, I suppose, in dark corners, Playboy sweeps up forty percent of its loot with nary a nip slip. 

Besides, they're not going into this dress up blind. Not long ago, I guess (not having visited myself), Playboy's website dropped its own proud flesh and watched as its readership dropped in average age--get this!--from 47 to 30. It's the Millennial bucks everyone's after, and the 30-year-olds started showing up once the girls got dressed. Its web traffic increased in unique users by 12 million clicks a month without skin.

There's nothing moral about it. Nudity had become a loss leader that corporate just couldn't afford. The magazine was tanking at a rate of three million a year. 'Twas a straight-up business decision.

Don't be fooled. Sex still sells and likely always will--or at least into the foreseeable future. Still, if there was ever man bites dog story, this is it: Playboy covers up.

Once upon a time, my parents had dinner at a Playboy club. They're both gone now, so the story can be told. My father worked in sales for a light equipment industry, and one of the jobs he loved best was representing the company at hardware shows around the nation. Who knows how it happened? My parents would not have stumbled into a Playboy Club on their own nor willfully sought one out. It had to do with business. It was a trial, Young Goodman Brown having to venture deep into the forest.

My mother told me the story, trying to restrain herself. To her, it was a hoot. There they sat around a table, at dinner, when one a waitress walked up, busting out all over in little more than a bunny tail. You know. Go ahead and imagine--won't hurt you. 

Anyway, my mom couldn't stop giggling. "You should have seen your dad," she told me. "He was all business." And then she went into this act, as if holding a menu right there in her hands. "I think tonight I'll have the filet,' she mimicked, deepening her voice, acting something akin to the Rock of Gibraltar, as if the tray of breasts the waitress was delivering in his face was no big deal or deals.

Dad blushed when she told the story. Mom roared.

I was raised a Calvinist. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Sioux County History--"the first great tragedy"

When the men got to the banks of the Rock River, what they found rose before their eyes like a nightmare. The oxen Gerrit Keuvers and Dirk Jan Wesselink had driven down to the river stood there grazing in a kind of reverent silence, the two of them still yoked to the front wheels of the wagon. 

But there were no back wheels and no men. It was early in the 1870s, and a couple hundred Sioux County pioneers lived in sod huts or dugouts cut from and in an immense field of grass slowly being opened for business and settlement. No great love songs were ever written about dugouts, no memorable poetry honored the memory of a sod house. People got out of them as quickly as they could because all kinds of creepy, crawling things found them far more homey than the humans who tried to live there.

All that thick sod kept temperatures from extremes, but the dirt floor turned to mud with every rain.  Snakes turned moms and kids "zero at the bone," as Emily Dickinson wrote, with entirely too much frequency. 

What's more, a homesteader had to improve the land he claimed. There was every reason to build a house, every reason to traipse down to the Rock River for wood and, with it, put up some decent domicile. That's what Keuvers and Wesselink were doing. They'd left the neighborhood that would one day become Sioux Center to get wood from the Rock River, and then they'd not returned.

One can only imagine the concern. A search party was commissioned, the men who found the oxen still hitched to the front wheels. A man named Bellesfield ran a tavern, an inn, you might say, on the rutted path along rivers between Sioux City and Sioux Falls. Bellesfield had a row boat. With the boat, they found the bodies.

The Rock was a force to be reckoned with back then. The men speculated that Keuvers and Wesselink drove the wagon in and the oxen panicked in deep water. The rig somehow smashed and snapped in half and the two men were thrown in the deep water that claimed them.

A couple of days had passed. One can only imagine that those bodies weren't pretty. So the men took them to Bellesfield's tavern, cleaned them up well, then dressed them in new overalls and shirts before delivering them and the news to their families. Time, it seemed, was only a secondary concern. The brutality of death itself was lessened by that act of kindness. 

Charles Dyke tells that story in The History of Sioux County. Many of the stories he tells in that book are sagas he remembers, but not this one. He could only have heard this one, and how he tells it is both interesting and wonderfully human. The deaths of Keuvers and Wesselink, he says, in an opening line, was "the first great tragedy of the settlement," the first breath-stopping horror no one saw coming. Two men die unexpectedly, leaving their families in dugouts cut into and out of the dirt.

People must have been shocked, stunned. The funeral was in Orange City, hardly a town yet, but a church at least in and at the heart of the brand new Dutch settlement. Kleuvers left a wife and three daughters "almost grown." Wesselink and his wife had eight kids. "His widow bravely carried on and raised her brood in decency," Dyke says. 

But he doesn't know how to end the story really. Charles Dyke can be a little arrogant as a writer. He knew how to spin a story. My mother-in-law, who remembered him, claimed he shouldn't always be believed. But in the face of this first tragedy, a story he must have heard a dozen times, he has some trouble--as we all might--knowing what to say.

Mrs. Wesselink eventually married a second husband, a widower named Harmen Jan Wissink, who already had 12 children. You do the math.  Neither of their "shanties," Dyke says, was big enough for this wholesome brood, so they simply nailed them together. 

And then, as if he doesn't know exactly what to say, Dyke just goes on with images that never left his memory. Because eventually, he says, "all was well." 

"The ceiling in one shanty was so low that a man had to put his pants on sitting down," he writes. Then more random facts. "They baked every day and in the morning they had pancakes." That's not all. "The table and stove were partly supported by bricks, and they burned hay and corn stalks," which, of course, would not have been all that unusual. 

Still not over. Later, when the first Sioux Center church was built, Wissink stood up in assembly and moved they pay for it in cash, and the motion was carried," just in case you were wondering. 

And file this away too. "Wissink was a kind and genial man who always wore wooden shoes, even to church. For the latter purpose they were scrubbed and polished until they fairly shone."

And that, oddly enough, is where the story of "the first great tragedy" ends. All of which is to say, once more, I suppose, that "all was well."

All of that doesn't sound like Charley Dyke, but the stories each of us know, and maybe the ones we can't or won't forget, are simply not easy to tell.