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.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Some people I know--mostly male--remember a massive repertoire of jokes. Not me. The few I remember almost always have memorable contexts--for instance, "a guy stole into a theater with a goose hidden in his pants." That's the set up. The joke is a rip and a little graphic, but I remember it because my uncle, an old Calvinist preacher, told it and laughed uproariously. That was shocking.

But another I remember has no context whatsoever. I don't know who said it or when. It's very "male," and probably not funny at all, if you're a woman: Woman goes in the ditch somewhere, flags down a guy in a big truck, and asks the guy to pull her out. "Wow," he tells her, "third time this week I pulled a pregnant woman out."

"But I'm not pregnant," she says.

"You're not out of the ditch," he tells her. That's the punch line.

It's embarrassing to tell it now. But it's one of just a few jokes I can remember, and one of even fewer whose context--who told it and when?--has no documentation at all. 

It's a joke about rape. Maybe it doesn't have to be. Not all casual sex is unwelcome, after all. Throughout history, women have occasionally propositioned. But the humor in that guy-in-the-pickup joke has its roots in rape. She owes him, after all, and he's not asking for money.


It would be nice to think my memory holds on to that joke because my conscience won't let me forget it's evil. I remember it because I wish I didn't, if that makes sense. I remember it because I remember thinking--way back when I heard it--that it wasn't funny, but that, in the company of men, I laughed anyway. I wish I could exonerate myself by claiming that guilt makes me pure. 

It would be nice if I could say that, but I won't try. I remember it, in great part, I'm sure, because once upon a time I thought it was funny, probably edgy too, but, back then, funny--and, decidedly, because I'm male.

That old joke comes back to me now with good reason. Rumors have it that investigative reporters are on the track of countless other male legislators who've put their hands where they were unwanted. What even men, "good-old-boys," can't help recognize is that men are getting pretty much what they deserve these days. The mighty have fallen, and there'll be more, many more--hopefully, many more.

Last week, The New York Times Book Review featured the story of the editor of the Paris Review, Loren Stein, who resigned his position for his boorishness, for creating an office where sexual advances were not uncommon, a toxic environment. “The way I behaved was hurtful, degrading and infuriating to a degree that I have only begun to understand," he said.

That he was guilty is beyond doubt, but in Tablet this week, Wesley Yang, who claims he knew Stein, tries to apply some brakes to a rage that promises write even more headlines. He says that we all need to remind ourselves that "sex is an intractable conundrum rather than a solvable problem." It's a mystery, a coordination of spirits and persons that requires some intricate orchestration. While what's happening needed to happen, and while men like Stein needed to fall right smack on their faces, if we believe we'll ever escape the mysteries of human sexuality, we are underestimating our own messy humanity. 

Yang ends that essay quite boldly with a Jeremiad aimed at feminists but applicable anywhere. "Nobody is so dangerous, to themselves and others," he says, "as a person or collectivity that wields power without acknowledging it."

Nothing in that sentence means to exonerate the mighty who've already fallen. He doesn't mean to call off the dogs or rebuild reputations, only to insist that power corrupts, and absolute power. . .well, you know.

Just strikes me that what Mr. Yang says is pure Niebuhr and unadulterated Calvin, as well as, well, biblical. 

And it's not a joke.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The lay of the land

In November of 2008, when the nation had just elected President Barack Obama, the percentage of Americans who called themselves Democrats (53%) quite significantly bettered the percentage who called themselves Republican (37%). Because that was true back then, commentators began to talk about the death of the GOP. 

Just a year later, however, that difference narrowed dramatically--44% claimed to be Democrats, 41% Republicans. Today Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the presidency, not to mention a majority of state houses and governorships. Rumors of the death of Republicanism were embarrassingly premature.

For decades, Democrats outnumbered Republicans. Still do. But a higher percentage of Republicans go to the polls, in part because they are both older and wealthier. 

So it's a little premature for Democrats to crow over what's happened since President Trump came into office. Excess glee could come back to bite you, as it has in the past. 

But, for Democrats, there's reason for hope because the numbers nationwide are moving, once again, in the opposite direction. The number of people who claim to be Democratic is seven points higher than what it was when Trump took office. The Democratic party is growing. The Republican party is not. 

While, the percentage of Republicans who stand behind the President hasn't changed-- 82% still back the President--surveys indicate there are simply fewer Republicans. Republicans still love him. Democrats hate him, and Independents, more each week, don't like him. If trends don't change, other Republicans may begin to talk about running against him in 2020. 

Why? When, several days ago, Senator Kirsten Gillebrand called for the President to resign because of the volley of accusations from women, she triggered the President's ire, which notably doesn't take much. Yesterday's tweet storm included a line many--most--found especially repulsive, given the attention the nation is giving to sexual harassment. Trump trumpeted that Ms. Gillebrand “would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago” and then added, in parenthesis that she would “do anything for them.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders claims only those whose minds are "in the gutter" would read that as sexual innuendo, but many did. Thousands. Millions. Including the editorial staff of USA Today, who rarely engage in the fisticuffs going on around President Donald J. 

"With his latest tweet, clearly implying that a United States senator would trade sexual favors for campaign cash, President Trump has shown he is not fit for office," they said. And then, "Rock bottom is no impediment for a president who can always find room for a new low." And there's more:  "A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush."

USA Today is in the gutter, I guess. Fake news.

But there's more: "This isn't about the policy differences we have with all presidents or our disappointment in some of their decisions. Obama and Bush both failed in many ways. They broke promises and told untruths, but the basic decency of each man was never in doubt."

Yesterday, Mark Galli, in a Christianity Today essay titled "The Biggest Loser in the Alabama Election," surveyed the damage being done to the Christian faith: 
No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted US Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith. When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.
Those harsh words may explain another phenomenon. Just a few days ago, Pew released polls indicating that support among white folks has dropped from 49 to 41 percent, just as it has dropped among those 50 and older, from 47 to 38 per cent.

But here's another: the percentage of Trump supporters who call themselves "evangelical Protestants" has also dropped since he took office, from  78 percent to 61 percent. 

Just for the record, I'm over 50, white, and for most of my life considered myself "an evangelical Protestant."

Last night, Trump lost. He chose to campaign for Judge Ray Moore, chose to have one of his campaign spectacles in Pensacola, Fl, close enough to rile Alabama voters to cast their ballots for a man plainly neanderthal--Muslims should be denied public office, the nation would be better off without constitutional amendments allowing women and African-Americans to vote, practicing gays should be imprisoned--all in the name of Jesus. Oh, yes, this too: the American family was better off during slavery.

Last night, Moore lost. So did Steve Bannon, big time. So did Donald J. Trump. Forty per cent of the electorate turned out in Alabama.

This morning, that's the lay of the land.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Morning Thanks--All is Calm

If I heard him once, I heard him tell the story a dozen times of how the family's attitude changed.

The story went like this. One of his early novels included a racy scene or two the relatives, his own kith and kin, found distasteful. And there were such.

His first homecoming after publication was not heartwarming. It was a bit chilly, but the family waited until Sunday dinner to open the discussion. "There are things you write in that book, Feik, of which we don't approve." Some aunt, maybe even his step-mother, lugged her disapproval into dinner because one simply doesn't not mention such grave offense.

They were eating, he says. No one looked up. No one spoke. All sipped their soup determinedly. The reproof son Feike received just then from the relatives was immediate, rapt silence, its own kind of excommunication.

If he tried to explain himself or legitimize the scenes they had determined to be off-color--well, let's be frank, indecent, dirty, and downright wicked--the novelist never talked about it. Perhaps he let well enough alone. His set-up moment for this favorite story of his was the profound silence that followed a Jeremiad delivered, as if on cue, around the Sunday dinner table by a woman.

That wasn't the end of the story. Later that afternoon, when it was time to milk, Fred Manfred claimed he went out to the barn with the rest of the men (he was the oldest of the Feikema boys--six in all). Once they were they were milking, the novel came up once more. "You know, Feik, my favorite part was right there on page 105, you know, where the guy. . ."

Frederick Manfred loved that story, even used it as a foreward to a later novel, loved it not only because he lived it but because it legitimized his sometimes graphic descriptions. Women may have hated all of that, but men?--they liked it. Even read over the hot spots.

That story isn't as funny as it once was. Manfred wasn't wrong in telling it. It wasn't, at base, evil. Today, a century later, gender differences still exist. I didn't mind skipping the baby shower down in Oklahoma when my wife and daughter went.

But the plague of men behaving badly is not only embarrassing, it's unnerving if you're male. Once in a while some female teacher gets fired for dallying with her male students. It's men who perform the madness, men who are out of control, men who belittle, who strike fear, who abuse again and again and again. Men are the villians, the sick-os.

A couple weeks ago now, a choral group--all men--performed a piece of musical theater that was beautiful, not simply because of the virtuosity of their performance or the poignant story they told, but also because it offered me--and other men--a moving, blessed picture of men behaving well.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 was, for me at least, a bromide of gender therapy. What happened in the trenches at Christmas, Germans and the Brits celebrating Christmas together, featured more than its share of drinking and smoking and carrying on; but for a moment at least, it threw the spotlight on men putting war behind them, even if only for a day.

Instead of shooting, they sang carols. Instead of machine guns, they brought out the grog. Instead of killing, they helped each other bury their dead. Instead of death, they chose life.

All is Calm was, for this male, a Christmas gift for which I'm greatly thankful. If, when the curtain went down, those nine men had said they were going to do the whole show over again, I'd have sat back down in a heartbeat. It was great theater, awesome music, and, in a world of men behaving badly, a reminder that it doesn't have to be that way.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Morning Thanks--Christmas lights

In two churches in two weeks in two towns, we just happened to hear the same preacher, a sub. One of the churches is newly vacant, the other needed a fill-in, their own under-shepherds (as old folks used to call them) out of town. 

You can't blame the sub for double-dipping. I've done it myself often enough, and I'm quite sure we were the only ones in the congregation that second week who'd been in the other the week before. 

She took her text from John 1, and proceeded to hold forth on verse 5: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." It was, as all good and healthy sermons are, expositions on the same tune an angel choir sang in the night sky long, long ago: "Fear not." If the Bible says "the darkness did not overcome it," and it is "word made flesh," than why should we be weary with worry?

In the cold of winter, 1863, three or four persistent missionaries wouldn't forsake hundreds of Dakota people imprisoned at Ft. Snelling after "the Sioux Uprising." Hundreds of settlers had been brutally murdered in a killing spree quite unlike anything anyone had ever seen or experienced. Hatred grew into a flame in Minnesota, only recently become a state. White folks wanted all of its Indians dead or gone. 

Those missionaries ministered to suffering, innocent Santees and were filleted by the press for squandering the riches of the Christian faith on animals. I could quote. More than once, when they left the prison, they were beaten.

I doubt any schoolchild in the state of Minnesota heard that story this year. Emboldened by faith and the Word Made Flesh, those missionaries would not let the darkness overcome the light. 

But then, I could run through a list as long as my arm of stories that feature men and women who believed themselves to be children of the light, and, Lord knows, were not. 

Two weeks in a row I heard that same sermon, but left, sadly, unconvinced, not because she did a lousy job, but because that arm's length-list doesn't disappear beneath a sport coat's long sleeves. I know dozens of such stories. So do you.

An old fashioned light stands beside me in my window down here, something my wife's aged aunt left behind in her attic. Replacement bulbs may not be available anymore, but right now, dawn still two hours away, that phony plastic candelabra is pure beauty--a light in the darkness.

I put an old artificial monster out in the garden, a tree our kids gave up on. We've got no real trees in the backyard, and Lord knows we get wind, and will today again, forty-miles-an-hour plus. Already I hear it moan. 

I put up that tree a week or so ago, tied it down with twine the wind snapped as if it were wound from toilet paper. The morning after our first snow, that old tree was lying there dead in the snow, in pieces. I wrestled it back up, strung it with new lights, and wired it in place this time. It's doing well, tipped a bit southeast, but I would be too out there in our relentless northwest winds.

So this is what I see when I look outside right now. I'm not about to win a contest, but it's light in the darkness. The darkness has not overcome. 

I don't know that another soul on earth is blessed by what's here. From the road, you hardly notice. Lights of the cattle trucks on Hwy 60 go by at all hours, but from there, I'm sure, no trucker notices anything. 

There's no shortage of Christmas lights. Lots of folks in town go all out--dangling icicles, inflatable Santas, homespun creches, all of it lit for Christmas.

And there's this little gem. My wife buys a tiny tree every year, something small for down here.

Just one of the blessings of Christmas--and there are many--is lights in the darkness. Lord knows they can get garish, but the older I get, the younger I feel around them, enchanted really. 

The wind right now is howling all around. The lights are a blessing. That tree is taking a beating again; but listen! the darkness does not overcome. That's what she said. Twice I heard it, but then, even at Christmas, it bears repeating.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Jerusalem the Golden?

“Extol the LORD, O Jerusalem; praise your God, 
O Zion, for he strengthens the bars of your gates 
and blesses your people within you.”  Psalm 147:12

For as long as I can remember, no one seems to have listened to this command. The command to praise, the very heart of the psalmist’s cheer-leading, is here given to Jerusalem, to Zion, to the heart of the nation of Israelites, to a very real place, a city.

But for as long as I can remember, Jerusalem the city has been anything but Jerusalem the Golden. Its gates offer little safety, and its residents seem not particularly blessed, at least with peace. Jerusalem’s thousands are cordoned off from each other as if they were their own worst enemies, which they seem to be. Jerusalem is a hand grenade, no more holy than Vegas, maybe less so, President Trump's latest directive notwithstanding.

Some claim Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to be the site of the first and the second Jewish temple. When the Messiah returns, the third and final Jewish temple will be built there too, or so goes the tale. Jerusalem’s Temple Mount may well be considered the most holy site in Judaism. 

But it is also the site of two major Muslim shrines, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. To Islam, Temple Mount is the place some Muslim clerics and historians claim to be the third most holy site of their faith. 

The dirt on and around Temple Mount was the earth God chose to form Adam, man, in his very likeness, some say, and the place where Adam, in turn, made sacrifices to God.  It’s the place where David bought a threshing floor and built an altar. Temple Mount is rich with biblical history for Christians—as well as Jews and Muslims.

This paean, the pageant of praise that is Psalm 147, surveys nothing less than creation itself for the first ten verses, then marries a promise to the exhortation of the very first line of the poem: praise him, Jerusalem, because he keeps you safe and blesses you. The psalmist knows a different Jerusalem than I do.

Biblical language always spreads a wide tent. Maybe Jerusalem doesn’t mean the Israeli city at all. Maybe Jerusalem means, in a sort of general way, all believers, the church—or maybe, well, just me. Maybe it means the small town where I live; some of my neighbors think so. But then some believe the Jerusalem of verse 12 is the United States of America. One can wander far in the broad landscape cast by these words.

But then, maybe my pre-conceptions are wrong; perhaps peace isn’t the blessing that war is. Perhaps the ongoing warfare of the Middle East, in Jerusalem as anywhere, is really a kind of joy, keeping believers on their knees. Maybe peace is as much a curse as affluence, fear a blessing.

Maybe today, this verse means nothing at all. Maybe it meant something when the psalmist sang it because Jerusalem was soon to become address of God’s own house, the temple, the city of God. Maybe the line is an artifact from ancient Mesopotamian history.

Maybe Jerusalem has simply never taken the command to heart.  Maybe if it would, its defenses would be strengthened, its people blessed. 

But then maybe none of us have listened. Maybe none of us have extolled. Maybe none of us bring praise. I’m sounding like a Calvinist.

Still, he loves us.  Listen to this: “For God so loved the world.”  “Jesus loves me, this I know.”


Friday, December 08, 2017

Who Didn't Want an Indoor Toilet

The preponderance of a four-letter word makes this little meditation about change a shade on the scandalous side, but it's just too good. It's the work of my friend, Jim Heynen, a Siouxlander, who here catches the same theme that was pushing me around yesterday with the new keyboard. It's always been (blush!) a favorite of mine.

When times got good, everybody got indoor toilets. Most people kept the outdoor privy too for when the weather was nice or for when their feet were too muddy to cme in the house. You had to be a pretty bad farmer not to be able to afford an indoor toilet.

Except one rich farmer. He didn't want an indoor toilet

When other farmers asked him why he didn't have one, he told them things like this.

Houses are places where you go to have good times with your family. To eat. To sleep. To play with your children. To make children. Now you people with your indoor toilets, what have you done to your houses? You put a place for people to shit in them and call it improvement! Think of this--somebody says, I have to go to the toilet, and instead of going outside they just go into the next room. Now how are the rest of you supposed to feel when you know that person is right on the other side of that door--only a few feet away--shitting! At least people with chamber pots could hide them behind the bed. But your indoor toilet is always there. Pretty soon your kitchen smells like shit. And you call that modern! You call that civilized! A houses is almost a holy place. Now you tell me what kind of person would build a room for shitting in a place like that! Not even a dog shits in his own house.

Nobody could argue with him really. They just tried not to talk about toilets with him. Because when they did they couldn't help feeling a little bit foolish for what they had done too themselves and their homes.


"Who Didn't Want an Indoor Toilet" is from You know What Is Right (North Point Press, 1988). It's not printed with permission. I expect a law suit sometime next week.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The persistence of change

I loved the old one. That's why I bought another one just like it. I can't do a thing about the size of my hands. They're big, so I need one that spreads across half the desk, and that's what I had, for years. 

Worked fine, but like everything else below the heavens, it took on dirt. Gross, my wife said. Four years ago or so, I chipped out the keys and let 'em soak in a sink-full of hot water, then went after the miniature dust bunnies inhabiting what spaces they could find beneath the keys. Wasn't a hutch exactly, but the numbers were substantial.

You can stop reading if this is getting too graphic, but the fact is the keys had somehow, through the years, gained an infestation of foul detritus. I cleaned them each in a way the Dutch pride themselves, reset every last one (I'd taken a picture of the keyboard before I'd started, to remember what goes where--that's what the You-Tube said to do), and voila! my sweet keyboard worked perfectly. And, it was as clean as Orange City's Main Street. 

Six months ago, the infestation had returned. I went through the same process--a veteran now. But when it was over, the blasted space bar didn't function well from the right side, right thumb. I took it off again, reset it--still bad. Again, still bad. Again, still bad. Let me put it this way, the space bar worked, and then again it didn't, which is to say it didn't work. I couldn't trust it.

My-size keyboards aren't cheap, so I figured I'd stay with the old one, just learn to adjust. Maybe ten keys lost their ID through the years--pure wear. The bottom row's nakedness is almost embarrassing, but I don't look at the keys so I didn't miss the lettering, mostly. But I spent the last month or so editing a 330-page novel. I can feel where the M is if I'm using both hands, but if I'm hunting-and-pecking, finding the right blasted key requires a thought process that got old fast.

Christmas. Time, I figure, to get a new one. Got to be a sale somewhere. I hunted on-line. Cheapest Logitech jumbo was at Best Buy on Cyber Monday. 

The new one looks exactly like the old one, except the bottom jaw has all its teeth, so to speak. Nothing has changed in appearance and function. I didn't use half the keys before, nor will I now. Logitech's R and D didn't do a thing on this item in a decade. That's okay. Didn't have to as far as I'm concerned.

This new one is sparkling clean, and I'm more efficient because I'm not constantly going back to get the blasted spacing right. The space bar is wonder, a joy, a blessing.

But, the shape of the mouse changed. It's touchy, much more touchy, and my pointer finger--I'll admit it--is a shade less reliable, likely to move a bit even if I don't call on it to do such.

And it's driving me nuts because that new mouse registers heartbeats, I swear. Extra clicks are no fun. Confession? I've repeated some naughty words when that mouse clicked and wasn't supposed to--and it's happened too blasted regularly. 

I could go back to the old mouse. I think I could make it work. 

Besides, I'm telling myself that I'm not that old, doggone it. I'm not that old. I can still adjust. I can still change. I'm not stuck in my ways. I'm not that old, see? I'm not. I'm not.

Get used to it, I tell myself. You'll get used to it.

And for heaven's sake, don't be so owly.  That's what I tell myself. 

It's a beauty--this new keyboard. It is. It's a beauty.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Sioux County History--our first county commissioners

It was a government in absentia, but not at all unusual. Several new Iowa counties were run from afar back then, if run has any meaning, if dropping a log or two over a creek is really building a bridge, or if a log cabin is a county courthouse. 

Sioux County's first government declared such things to be their work and paid themselves royally for the labor, even if and when there was no labor. Government was a hoax, a racket, a fraud, a scam--but if you were part of it, the works turned over some significant cash.

Four guys, if history tells the story straight, voted themselves in to become our first County Commissioners. What they knew was that, sooner rather than later, hoards of easterners would descend on ground they thought theirs for the taking. Crowds were coming all right, just as they were coming to every other corner of the region.

In 1859, four entrepreneurs around a card table in some Sioux City dive got together and called themselves Sioux County Commissioners. They may have tracked up here along the Big Sioux River once or twice to have a look around; but they didn't really live here. They didn't have to, not to make money. All they had to do was build a sod hut or a lean-to, then claim to live here. Who'd 'a checked? 

The key to the enterprise were "warrants." As long as couple of gamblers could smell out a willing a judge--money speaks a universal language--to authorize the graft, our four original commissioners could create some pretty significant income for doing next to nothing.

They'd issue "warrants" and put them up on the market for land speculators and others, monied interests who were out there buying what they could to get rich on the upcoming and ongoing transformation of the whole region--from buffalo to Monsanto. Banks were buying, as were fat cats from all over the east who'd pay good money to turn the wholesome profit speculating on Iowa land could bring.

It may be a little shameful to think of Sioux County government being run out of a Sioux City tavern, but that's what it was, basically: a table of card sharks, a friendly judge, and a printer to turn out some documents that looked official. 

Such warrants could be peddled until the population of the county was sufficient to create taxation and thereby finance what all governments needed to do in frontier times--clear roads and build a bridge or two. Those were the jobs those poker buddies amply compensated themselves for doing, whether or not they ever got done. Who'd check anyway? The only human beings anywhere close were trappers and injuns, and most of them were on the run, given the fact that they really didn't care because the neighborhood was going to pot anyway. 

One of the men kept a diary, which is somewhat helpful in determining what went on in the earliest days of white Sioux County, but what he wrote can't always be believed any more than phony census rolls filled with names of people who never did live here, relatives known to abide in, say, Connecticut.

What those Sioux City gamblers knew was that good money was going to be made for a year or two or three--but no more, enough anyway, to keep the game going. They knew the enterprise was fly-by-night, but they had wings.

Sioux County's very first chapter ended on a cold winter night when an armed militia in wooden shoes took sleighs over the snow to Calliope, on the county's western edge, and strong-armed a safe full of documents, wrested that beast out of the maw of the crooks to take it home to Jerusalem so that, I'll have you know, today the county courthouse--and it's beautiful--is right here in Orange City. You can read that story elsewhere, but listen to it here.

Why on earth am I retelling this old tale? Because one of the first Sioux County Commissioners took his share of the loot and hiked back east to Des Moines, where he'd been when he'd determined a man could turn over some considerable dough out there on the frontier. 

The guy was a shrewd investor, created a huge Des Moines business, Equitable Life Insurance, then got into real money in the biggest boom industry of the time, railroads. Eventually, our governmental ancestor and his family bought and lived in Iowa's only showplace mansion, Terrance Hill, home of the governors. That man's name was Frederick Marion Hubbell.

Mr. Hubbell, who started started gaining his fortune in a sod house just outside of Hawarden (well, from a poker table in Sioux City), came a one heckuva long way from here to become one of Iowa's wealthiest financiers.

And as we speak, another Fred Hubbell, Frederick M's great-great grandson, Fred Hubbell is running for governor of the state of Iowa. 

Up here in Sioux County, I don't know that anyone remembers his long-gone ancestor's checkered past. But I do know there's no county in the state more solidly Republican than the one his illustrious great-grandpa once ran. 

So I'm thinking that if this Fred loses his shirt in Sioux County, which is likely, no one will blame it on his grandpa.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Grassley and the Gothic

No one will every know whether Grant Wood is spoofing. Did he mean that dour pair in American Gothic to somehow epitomize rural people, Iowans, wholesome farm folk? Did he intend to suggest by their owly-ness that farming relieves people of any sense of humor? Am I being mocked by the shape of that single silly window?

Is it a joke?--I'm not sure, and I don't think anyone is. And then there's that pitchfork. In an earlier sketch he used a rake, which means the pitchfork wasn't just something convenient; it's there because he wanted it there. Is he suggesting that the old sourpuss is a kind of Satan? 

Whatever Grant Wood was after, with this sadly joyless pair and the "pretentious" (his word) farm house behind them, he created an image we Iowans have had to live with since he introduced American Gothic in 1930. No single image so vividly characterizes the people of "the Tall Corn State" than American Gothic, Grant Wood's masterwork, one of the most recognizable images in the world, right up there with the Mona Lisa or Night Watch.

Sen. Charles Grassley, who has represented the state in the U.S. Senate since the end of the Blackhawk War, has a little too much hair, perhaps, but a face Grant Wood could have used if he hadn't used his dentist. For much of his career, Grassley was a thoughtful middle-of-the-road-er, a fiscal conservative who didn't care if the spendthrifts he spotted were Republican or Democrat. He was an equal-opportunity critic, and Iowa loved him for it.

Alas, in his dotage--and he's there, I think--he's pitched his tent with the political conservatives. Occasional glimpses of the old maverick emerge (he criticized Trump for something not long ago), but otherwise, sadly, he on board with the Tea Party.

If you don't believe me, you haven't been watching the news. Yesterday, the clip of his offhand remark to the Des Moines Register was on just about every news program, save Fox. What the Register asked him was why he voted for the repeal of the Estate Tax, an action which would alleviate the tax burdens on only the slightest percentage of folks across country--to be specific, about 65 landowners, among them the very, very rich, or so said the Register

Grassley began to answer by saying the decision was based on philosophy, and, from that point on, just dug himself a hole from which he hasn't yet escaped. He contrasted two kinds of people, both of whom make, he said, 100 thousand or so. One of them lives the high life, spends it all; the other invests in his business, tries to build something good for his heirs, etc. What he is suggesting is simple: why not tax the high life and let community betterment go? 

It would be nice if such distinctions were as clear as he wants us to believe them to be. They are not, not in my life or in anyone's. It might be good to remind Senator Charles Grassley that many who read the parable of the Prodigal Son believe the central character isn't the prodigal in the pig sty, but the hard-working kid who can't find it within his heart to bestow forgiveness--or love. He's the one Jesus wanted us to see. Then again, maybe that son should get the loot. After all, he's got little else in his heart.

Grassley went on to say something he wished he hadn't, I'm sure: "I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it's on booze or women or movies." 

Just for reference, read that again--"booze or women or movies." He said that. He really did.

And with that goofy line from the '30s, our senior senator comes off as H. L. Mencken's quintessential Puritan, the sorehead who angrily harbors the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere is having a good time. His silly comment makes Charles Grassley the bibbed sourpuss wielding the pitchfork in American Gothic.

And, alas, because Grassley is from Iowa, he took all of us Iowans in there with him. Woe and woe and woe--I'm still there too in that famous portrait by Grant Wood, who, right now, somewhere, has to be chuckling, just like everyone else.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Make it interesting

Some time in the 1980s, I think, a neighbor of mine, a river, the sleepy Floyd, gave up a hunk of something some farmer dug out and had analyzed. Experts in natural history determined it was the tooth of a mammoth. 

Not having ever seen the tooth of a mammoth before, I might have walked right by it, assuming it was granite. I've seen molars before, but not something the size of a shot put.  But there it was, in the middle of our local museum, along with other artifacts: an treasured old immigrant trunk, a dozen or more Dutch costumes, and some incredible hide paintings from Northern Plains tribes.

I'm no geologist. At the museum, I'll admit I was far more attracted to the Native American collection; but it's the mammoth tooth that I'm thinking about this morning, and an adventure long ago, when our kids were grade schoolers, a camping trip to the Black Hills. 

I don't remember thinking much about it back then, but one of the spots we decided to see was a place neither my wife nor I had ever visited, the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs. It's a sad place really, the spot where 61 Colombian mammoths, 26,000 years ago, got themselves trapped in a spring-fed pond that became, sadly, a burial vault. What researchers have uncovered seems a horrific mix of huge skeletons locked in a dance macabre. 

Yet today, there are some openings for next year's gang of paleontologists--you can go to the website and apply. No experience necessary. If you're chosen, you will spend your tour brushing dust from still-embedded skeletons, in an ongoing attempt to identify the specimens. When we visited, way back when, and then again a couple of years ago, men and women in white smocks carry on while bands of tourists are ushered by. It was, and still is, an amazing place.

My son, now approaching forty years old, was, back then, taken by the place and by the workers uncovering those treasures. Given a crash course, I think we could have left him there. He was ten, maybe a little young.

But me?--I couldn't help thinking the place was somehow reprobate. My elementary education was accomplished in a Christian school, mid '50s, when it was an article of faith that dinosaurs were phony baloney created by godless evolutionists determined to destroy the faith. I watched my son's imagination dance at what he was seeing, and I couldn't help contrast my education with his. There he was, greatly taken by mammoth bones some 20 thousand years older than the earth itself.

Just last week, on Facebook, a concerned mom put up a critique of a film her son or daughter had watched in the Christian school my own grandchildren attend. She wasn't happy. She felt the film denigrated science itself by its dogged adherence to what we've come to call a "creationist" perspective. She wasn't sure at all she wanted her kids to be taught the world is only 6000 years old, not when science took as an article of faith something otherwise.

Some things don't change. What's clear--in this highly politicized era of ours--is that believers, like those woolly mammoths, can also get themselves trapped in a dance macabre. If the school administration wants to raise cane, all they have to do is call a general meeting and then ask. "Okay, who here is for evolution?--raise your hands. Thank you--and now who here believes in the Bible?" 

Wouldn't that be fun.

December's National Geographic features a cover story titled, "The Real Jesus: What Archaeology Reveals About His Life." If my mother were to read the title, she'd be skeptical. To her, the face-off between science and faith was a constant threat. 

The article quotes Father  Eugenio Alliata, a professor of archaeology and the director of the Studium Biblicum Franciscan's Museum, in Jerusalem. Father Alliata is a priest who is also a scientist, a man of God, a man of faith, a man who would likely say that his "tradition" of faith is Franciscan, which is itself a traditional branch of Catholicism. 

Father Alliata "seems at peace with what archaeology can--and cannot--reveal about Christianity's central figure," Kristin Romey, who wrote the article, says. He is more than willing to admit that faith and science may well often be at odds, but he insists, she says, that "tradition gives more life to archaeology, and archaeology gives more life to tradition." In other words, the two don't need to fight when they already compliment each other. 

"Sometimes they go together well," Father Alliata says; but then added, "sometimes not," and this wonderful line: "which is more interesting."

That's wise.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Relief

“The LORD delights in those who fear him, 
who put their hope in his unfailing love.” Psalm 147:11

It was strange watching the video, eerie.  The fire looked fierce but ordinary, I suppose, an chunk of apartment complex going up in flames, smoke everywhere, the helicopter circling the blaze slowly, the camera coming in close. From east to west, the roof was mostly gone, the whole place a blazing honeycomb. 

The last shots of the almost two-minute video were taken quite low. The camera zeroed in on the colonnades of a second-story apartment porch, where flames were lapping away at the roof, and something—I couldn’t see what—was lying on the cement balcony, in flames.

Those final images, I believe, were taken of our son’s apartment. 

When he called, he started the conversation with a line whose relief was disarming: “I’m okay.” He’d lost most everything, he said. He had his book bag, his truck, the clothes on his back—and his bike. Everything else—his Mac, his cell phone, his TV and furniture—was gone. All of it. 

The Red Cross got him a room at a motel until Friday when the season’s pigskin finale would fill every spare room within 100 miles of the university. They gave him $100 to buy socks and underwear at Wal-Mart, then told him the university would find him a place to live for the rest of the semester. 

Meanwhile, others called to offer him a bed. Some woman asked about clothes sizes, and a fraternity was taking up an offering.  
He said his cell phone—he bought a new one while the smoke was still rising, and the dealer gave him a $50 credit—just kept ringing even though, he said, he never got all that many calls. It was his first semester at the university.

His parents did not get frantic.  He wasn’t a child anymore, and I trusted the largess of good people. They’re everywhere. They really are. I trusted that he wouldn’t be alone. He told us he’d been shocked himself at the many offers of help.  They kept coming. 

His parents were not frantic, but we were powerless. We would have jumped in the car the moment I put down the phone if he would have asked us to come.  But there really was nothing for us to do. Thanksgiving was coming. He would be flying home, as planned.

I wonder sometimes, why God doesn’t see to it that my stuff burns up more often.  Why doesn’t he stick me with a dose of suffering? Some of us experience suffering that won’t quit. I’m not one of them. 

I remember thinking that maybe that fire burned up more than our son’s earthly goods.  I remember thinking that maybe something new would rise from the flames. I remember thinking that maybe something new had risen already, his having to trust other people.

Right then, I felt closer to promise of this verse than I would have, had you asked the day before or the month after. That day, I understood it because I didn’t know where else to put my trust. All I could do was put it in Him.

The single verse from Psalm 147 asserts that God is delighted with my faith, which has grown, not because of anything I did but because I had nowhere else to go with my hope, my trust, my prayers--nowhere else but to him who delights in our hope because we know his unfailing love—from frat boys, the Red Cross, friends and strangers. I trust God’s love. 

About that, God is himself delighted.  And so am I.

Friday, December 01, 2017


I consider Richard Foster, whose Celebration of Discipline (1978) has sold more than a million copies, a friend, a good friend, in fact. We've prayed together, he in his Quaker style, sitting on the floor, hands out, and me in my own, sitting up, eyes closed, hands folded. 

Richard Foster's wonderful contribution to American Christianity is, I believe, his examination of the role of discipline in the lives of believers. He's all for prayer and fasting, for significant study and dedicated meditation, for doing it all in disciplined fashion. Frequently, when I've been with him and other Christian writers affiliated with a group called The Chrysostom Society, he simply disappears, because he believes in the discipline of solitude and quiet. He's a Quaker, he's part Ojibwe, and he's a Christian.

A couple of my friends, years ago, friends who didn't quite understand my Dutch Calvinist background, asked me, with some seriousness, if I was a member of a cult. They were good friends, but they'd never known someone who went to church as often as I did. 

But I think I'm far less disciplined today, less committed to the many of the rituals that make Richard Foster's spiritual life alive. We pray and meditate some, but don't go to church as often as we used to, and are far less bound to the goings-on at the fellowship where we consider ourselves members, far less "involved," an important word to real church people.

I said I'm a friend of Richard Foster, but not a disciple, although he's taught me a great deal and I believe what he says. That could be at least part of the reason Garrison Keillor's quote about giving thanks sits at the top of the title page of this blog. I believe what he says. I don't always practice it, but I believe he's right. 

No, I know he's right. Eleven years ago, I determined to take up the challenge: "We'd all be better off if we started the day by giving thanks for just one thing." I did just that--for a year. Did it make a difference? Yes. Was it easy? No. Did I sometimes have to push? Yes. Did it get a little crazy once in a while? Yes. Was my thanksgiving always heartfelt? No. Did it feel like an empty ritual occasionally? Sure. Was it good for you. Amen, it was.

I didn't do that on line, but I could show you the calendar year because I kept it as a journal--with pictures. I enjoyed it too, I really did; and I believe it was good for me. 

But also exhausting.

So, ten years and 3500 posts ago, when I started this blog, I put that line up top because I wanted to continue to commit myself to the discipline of thanksgiving. Hundreds of entries are my "morning thanks," but over the years the ardor of my commitment has definitely faded. I don't give morning thanks as regularly as I once did. Richard Foster would smile. He understands that a discipline is never easy or simple--or it wouldn't require discipline. 

And now Keillor, the man I'm quoting on every page of this blog, is accused of groping women. The man whose injunction to giving thanks became a discipline in my life, has been found morally wanting. 

It seems he's not Harvey Weinstein, nor Matt Lauer; he's not Judge Moore, nor Donald J. Trump. But he's been accused and convicted, his contracts in shreds, and I'm stuck with him up there, as my Trump-loving readers have indicated.

Yesterday another friend told me that Garrison Keillor wasn't the only wise man to say what he did about the importance of giving thanks. Henri Nouwen did too. I told him I'd look up the quote. 

It seems to me that all of us have some skepticism for the sexual fires a'blazing right now. If that weren't true, Donald Trump would be wherever Billy Bush is these days. It's hard for any of us to look on people--men--we've trusted, even loved, and imagine them dropping their trousers or pushing their tongues down women's throats.

The discipline Keillor suggests up there at the top of the page, is still, in my book, as valid as it was when I first read the interview in Christian Century more than a decade ago. What's more, I'm happy that I've found his suggestion to be true. He's not lying. Giving thanks, daily, is good for the soul. 

And I should do it more. I should. Richard Foster would nod his head right now, and smile. He's not a scold.

I'm guessing Garrison Keillor would say so too. Neither is he.

I'll leave the man's words up there. I'll look for the quote from Henri Nouwen, but I don't think I'll take Mr. Keillor's line down. Not yet anyway. It's no less true today than it was last week. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Story of Standing Bear (iv)

Very little of the great Missouri River looks as it did when Standing Bear and his Ponca band lived out there at the confluence of the “the Big Muddy” and the Niobrara. Four huge dams brought discipline to a madcap river once far too unruly. People say the segment most akin the Missouri Lewis and Clark navigated is right there—from the mouth of the Niobrara south to Yankton. 

From its broad shoulders on both sides, the view is breathtaking. If you cross Standing Bear Memorial Bridge into South Dakota, by all means pull over; there’s a rest stop. Get out of the car and have a look for yourself, but take a good long breath when you put your feet on the ground because it may be a while before you can breathe again.

Those giant sandstone cliffs, like a long succession of clenched fists, make the wide valley almost cavern-like. All around, the land rolls, rises and falls as if a millennium ago some Great Spirit shook out a blanket. 

Just don’t be fooled by the landscape’s stunning elegance. You're in a rugged place whose beauty belies its unforgiving seasons. A cadre of Mormons tried to winter right there in 1847, and had to leave their dead behind, a tally that would have grown had the Poncas not come to their aid and helped hustle them out, come spring. A monument stands there in remembrance. 

Winters are brutal, summers stifle, and buffeting winds threaten in every season to blow you away. But it’s a beautiful world right there at two rivers. If you get up high in Niobrara State Park, it’s easy to see why Standing Bear walked all the way from eastern Oklahoma to be here, to be home.

You can question folks in town, but there’s only one answer to the question you won’t be the first to ask: No, no one knows where Bear Shield was buried, once Standing Bear, an actual, legal person by court decree, came back to the neighborhood. You may ask, but I’ll tell you the answer to your next question, too: No, no one knows where to find the grave of Standing Bear either.

That’s okay. Leave town, drive west, don’t be afraid of getting off the highway. Get up on one of those hills and sit there for a while, because he’s still around dressed in that bear claw necklace. But his weariness is gone now. He's at home amid burgeoning hills delicately threaded by ribbons of rivers all around. You can look for a gravestone, but, if you’re quiet and if you wait, if you simply sit there, I swear you’ll see him in his world.

There is a graveyard. It’s not marked, but if you follow a winding road for a mile or so farther than you might think comfortable, you’ll come to a gravel intersection at the foot of a cemetery that runs up to the top of a steep hill. The stones in that graveyard sit in bands, not rows. One of Standing Bear’s headmen, Buffalo Chip is there, not far from where you’ll park. "Chief of the Ponca Indians," his stone says. Some graves memorialize men and women who claim to be grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Standing Bear. You’ll be as sure as I was that these are the graves of Standing Bear’s people.

Not all the stones and sites are old. People still want to be buried there, in a spot behind a sign that spells the tribal name with a K—PONKA CEMETERY.  A sign that stands over a rutted driveway where occasionally a burdened hearse must still come in to navigate that steep hill.

Some of the most recent graves are set up at the top, at the far end of property. It’s worth the long walk to get up there. Besides, far away on the other side, someone keeps buffalo. If you’re lucky—if you’re blessed—you’ll see them. They may well seem a vision. They’re very real, but visions lie all around. Think what you will.

Skeptical? Sure. Look, by white man’s standards, the place isn’t kept. Somebody ought to mow the grass. And all that clutter around the graves?—it should be out of there a week after Memorial Day. It’s a mess. And it's steep: if you want to ride to the top, you better have four-wheel drive.

Soon enough, there will be another delegation of Native folks here, laying to rest the remains and the funerary items of aboriginal people who were here at the time of the First Thanksgiving, and before. They’ll rest, in state, here, among Standing Bear’s Poncas.  And, thanks to him, they'll rest here as persons, not museum specimens. 

You'll find no grave up on the hill, but this you're in the place where Bear Shield, just a boy, 16 years old, told his father he wanted so badly to be buried. This is the home of Standing Bear.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Story of Standing Bear (iii)

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. 
An Omaha court scheduled a trial because Editor Tibbles and others determined that what needed to be tested in a court of law was those words, the 14th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, specifically the premise that Native Americans--our own first nations--were not citizens of the United States and therefore had no standing under the law, and that Washington could determine where they'd live. The 14th Amendment was one of three passed after the Civil War, to ensure African-Americans would be granted the rights and privileges of all Americans. 

But, what about Indians, what about the Ponca? No one had ever before asked. 

Simply stated, the government had always considered themselves to be parents and Indians to be children. Native Americans were afforded no rights. Under the reservations system, "Washington" determined where they would live, what they would eat, how they would live, where they could travel. Native Americans weren't citizens of this great land, never had been.

A team of Omaha lawyers determined to test that long-standing view using the habeus corpus argument, an order to demand the government bring the imprisoned out from lock and key. They wanted the government to prove that it had the right to order Standing Bear and his band back to "Warm Country."

The story swept up nation-wide attention. In Omaha, it was can't-miss, the courtroom crowds standing-room only. There was nothing sloppy or shoddy about the cases presented. Omaha's finest lawyers took the Ponca's side. When, in due time, they called Standing Bear himself to testify, the government's lawyer got to his feet. "Does the court think an Indian is a competent witness?" he asked.

Through an interpreter, Standing Bear answered questions, then rose and spoke to the whole room. "It seems as though I haven't a place in the world, no place to go, and no home to go to, but when I see your faces here, I think some of you are trying to help me, so that I can get a place sometime to live in, and when it comes my time to die, to die peacefully and happy."

What Standing Bear's lawyers argued is that in leaving the rest of the tribe, who'd stayed in Indian Country, his band had declared their independence. They were no longer part of that tribe, and that made their livelihood a matter of fundamental human liberty. In its summation, the government was patently clear: an Indian was neither a citizen nor a person; thus, Standing Bear could not file suit against anyone or anything, certainly not the government.

The judge had but one question to answer: was Standing Bear a person? That was the heart of the matter.

Before he left the chambers, he told the crowd someone had asked to address the court. Adorned in his bear necklace, a Thomas Jefferson medallion around his neck, moccasins on his feet, a blanket around him, Standing Bear walked to the front, accompanied by his daughter, Bright Eyes, who translated his address.  

He looked at his hand, held it out from his body for some time, then looked up. "That hand," he said, "is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both."

Then he told them a vision of his. He said he saw himself and his wife and his children at the bank of a river where the water is swift and rising. He attempts to get his family up and out of the way, but their narrow path is blocked by someone. "A man bars the passage," he said. "My wife and child and I must return and sink beneath the flood. We are weak and faint and sick. I cannot fight."

He faced the judge. "You are that man," he said. 

The courtroom was full of people, but no one spoke. Some say all that could be heard was the sound of muffled tears. People say the great Indian fighter, General Crook, sitting right up front, brought both hands up and covered his face.

Tomorrow--the end of the story.