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, June 30, 2017

Growing up*

Writers—like artists of other mediums—often say that no novel or short story is really ever finished until it’s read. As an old novelist friend of mine used to say, great fiction is always a C, never an O—that is, it leaves some open space for readers, space for us to bring our own lives and experience into the work and make it real or whole or alive.

I finished Peter De Vries’s Blood of the Lamb last night, for the second time. I read it initially sometime in the Sixties, four or five years after it was published, at a time in my life when I loved the irreverence he wields at his tribe—the Dutch Reformed people into which he and I were both born. De Vries mocked us but good, for our silliness and the sometime idiocy of our piety.

Peter De Vries was, in his time, among the most well read and beloved of American humorists, his novels—most of them at least—knee-slapping satires of American life. Google him sometime and read a few of his finest quotes; he can be absolutely hilarious.

There is humor in Blood of the Lamb too, Don Wanderhope and his father, aboard their garbage truck, slowly sinking like the Titanic into the primordial ooze of some Chicago-land refuse pit. Scared to death, they break out with--what else?--the doxology.

But far and away, Blood of the Lamb is not a funny novel--not at all, even though forty years ago, when I first read it, I thought it was a hoot. But then, I was a kid, a rebel chafing under the strictures of De Vries’s own ethnic and religious heritage, a heritage in process of cataclysmic change. It was the Sixties, after all, and little, if any of our lives were left untouched by the seismic cultural shifts of the era. At twenty, I read Peter De Vries’s Blood of the Lamb and laughed.

Forty years later, I almost cried.

I’m a different person today—not nearly so headstrong, far less sure of my opinions and will. Forty years later, I’ve got scars, even open wounds, from the fisticuffs me and the Lord have come to. Forty years later, I read an almost entirely different book. The novel didn’t change of course. Certainly, I did.

Peter De Vries died in 1993, but I wonder if he ever guessed that of all his books, Blood of the Lamb would be the one that just won't go away. My guess is, he did. He wrote it just a year after the death of his daughter, who died at age 11 of leukemia; and much of the book, that which gives it its immense emotional heft, is the near recitation of the prolonged agony that child faced before eventually, finally, succumbing.* This novel's great lines don't come from his wit, but from his soul.

Honestly, that whole story I had nearly forgotten because that theological fight simply didn’t hit me at twenty. I think it was William Hazlett who said something to the effect of no young man thinks he shall ever die; count me among 'em. But at sixty years old, Blood of the Lamb nearly took out the knees in my soul.

The story of Carol Wanderhope’s agonizing death is the big story of the novel. Through his daughter's suffering, Don Wanderhope goes to war with a fully sovereign God, the author of our faith and our only comfort, for putting her through the horrifying paces of such inhuman suffering.

The question to which De Vries demands an answer is the same question Elie Wiesel can’t help asking in Night and elsewhere, one of the most profound and difficult questions all believers can ever face: if God almighty loves us and his love is blankets the known world, then why on earth do people suffer such great horrors? Peter De Vries’s most memorable novel is not a book for the weak of heart—or soul.

But it was a blessing to me, at sixty. It will be, I’m sure, the best thing I will read this summer.

For a fascinating medical study of the Carol Wanderhope’s leukemia—and the story’s relationship to De Vries’s own daughter's medical story, see Dr. David Steensma’s article on the novel in the Journal of Oncology, available on-line at . Spoiler alert: if you're going to read the novel, read it first.

*First published June 29, 2009.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Hope and horror

H. Bosch, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness and Folly
The word lobotomy strikes terror in the heart of most of us today, despite the fact that the procedure was once the darling of mental health professionals--and the fact that Antonio Egas Minoz, inventor thereof, for his efforts won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1949. In this country 40,000 lobotomies were performed in the two decades when the procedure was considered a godsend. Today, however, even the word sounds medieval.

It looks worse. What Minoz designed, and dozens, even hundreds of practitioners copied, was gaining entrance to the brain and then simply messing things up, disconnecting connections between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain. Someone determined to call the procedure "ice-pick surgery" because those who performed it gained access to the brain via--gulp!--extra long nails. A couple of days ago, I saw such nails, behind glass, at St. Joseph's (MO) Glore Psychiatric Museum, in a display that included pictures and drawings I've unfortunately not forgotten. 

The whole operation, I'm told, took ten minutes, no more; and for twenty years it seemed a perfect blessing to mental health professionals. Right from the get-go, the procedure had its detractors, some registering criticism simply on the basis of the repulsive nature of procedure--poke something sharp through the eye and into the cranial cavity, then stir things up.

The truth is, success was, from the start, a mixed bag. Some patients' conditions didn't change a bit. Another third came out of the lobotomy changed--for the worse, often badly for the worse. The behavior of yet another third clearly improved. 

Lobotomy never became the miracle cure its proponents claimed it would. Worse, in a high profile cases like that of Rosemary Kennedy, sister of JFK, the failure was awful. Her father, Joseph, determined a lobotomy would cure his often petulant daughter of violent mood swings. It was November of 1941, and approximately 80 lobotomies had been performed in this country. Tragically, Rosemary Kennedy's operation was an appalling failure, leaving her in a state for which we have no words easy to use. 

Seen in context, the immense and immediate popularity of the lobodomy is somehow humanly understandable, despite the disasters. During the Depression, when money was tight, funding for mental hospitals was frequently the first government expenditure cut. Huge institutions found themselves with thousands of patients on budgets that became, with each passing year, more draconian. In the era of "insane asylums," as they were called, many Americans--and mental health professionals--advised patients' families to pack clothes proper for burial since it was simply assumed that signing family members into mental health facilities--many of those institutions cities in and of themselves--meant the patient would likely leave only in a casket. 

The lobotomy, an incredibly cheap and quick procedure, offered a miracle fix we all still search for in the face of our own intractable problems. We've come a long way in our treatment of mental health--or so museums like the Glore amply display; but as many of us sadly know, coping with significant mental and emotional distress is too often no easier today than it was before the lobotomy. Hope, the "thing with feathers," flits alluringly through all of our dreams, but it's ever fragile, easily broken.

Almost as if by chance, I've been in two mental health museums in the last few weeks, seen all kinds of hope demonstrated in a hundred historic procedures and therapies that, throughout the years, offered miracles. But even with pharmaceuticals, mental health remains a mystery. Those sprawling facilities we built long ago in places like Cherokee, Iowa, and St. Joseph, Missouri, those massive ornate structures (the distance around Cherokee's is more than a mile!) were once an alternative world where the rest of us could file away those we judged insane or lunatic, words today considered obscene.

The history of mental health treatment is full of false starts, misplaced enthusiasm, and remarkable failures. Still, walk through those old institutions sometime and it's hard not to be taken by an undercurrent of unyielding hope in people, professionals, who weren't themselves as evil as they might well seem, men and women who did their best with what they had, which wasn't much. 

The stories may well be garish, scary as ice-picks; but the hopes are as much ours as the nightmares. The stories are our stories too.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Anniversary Confessions

Image may contain: flower, plant and outdoor

It had been two years since I'd lived anywhere close, but Orange City was her hometown. That we would be married there was beyond question, and that was okay with me. A few of my old friends came around, along with a few old profs, and of course my family from afar. But that hot day in late June, First CRC, Orange City, Iowa, held hosts of her family, she being the oldest cousin in a hoard of Vissers, her mother's side.

We drew a crowd, all right, most all of them seeing, for the very first time, this soon-to-be husband, not a farmer, of their drop-dead gorgeous cousin. After all, we got married in a fever. Stem-to-stern, first date-to-alter oath took six months total. We spent our first Christmas together six months after we got married. How's that for heat?

The college chaplain married us, the Rev. John B. Hulst, who wasn't always sure I was driving down along the straight-and-narrow; but I found him trustworthy, and, more importantly, he'd been my soon-to-be-wife's childhood preacher.

Truth be told, I don't remember much about the wedding itself. It was hot--that I know, late June, rural, northwest Iowa, the reception in Northwestern College, Fern Smith Hall--that I won't forget, the first time I'd been at the college itself, not in the gym or baseball diamond.

What I do remember is that I wanted it over. Two reasons--first, the whole business was a bit over-the-top for someone who regarded himself as being, well, "counter-cultural," non-traditional. We fooled around a little with the oath, I remember, but already back then I had a firm enough grasp on my abilities--or lack thereof--to determine that I wasn't about to memorize what I'd written. I suppose that marriage vow is around somewhere, but I honestly wouldn't know where to look. That day I'd decided that weddings are really for women.

The other reason was another kind of heat: I was aching for the honeymoon. Oh, not the flamboyance extravagantly charted today--Cancun, Bermuda, Hawaii, France; that would have been far too "kitch-ish," far too "traditional." Less was always more to hippie types.

The truth is, I hadn't even reserved a motel room. 'Twasn't laziness either. It was principal. Fancy-schmancy honeymoons were Nixonian or some kind of evil. The world was marching into chaos--Vietnam, cities in shambles, etc., etc., etc. You can't dance in a bonfire. Power to the people. Whatever.

So I got what came to me, a cheap little dive in Worthington, Minnesota, a motel long ago torn down, a squalid place barely more behind a flimsy door than a bed and a toilet. That's where we spent our first night. The truth can be told now, all these years later: we should have gone to Vegas. It was not a night to remember.

And it got off to a horrible start because once the festivities were over, once the guests were beginning to go home, the two of us went out the car (I'd parked it at church like an idiot), got in after wiping out mounds of shaving cream, started the engine, put it in reverse, and went nowhere. We were up on blocks. Yes, there was a crowd who thought the whole mess richly funny. Me? I couldn't get away from that church fast enough, and when we left the church I couldn't get away.

I don't remember her wedding dress--she still has it--but I do remember that clingy "going away" outfit, maroon, I think. True. I do. There I was, cranked for the honeymoon, and our orange VW was going nowhere.

I was livid.

When fifteen--maybe twenty--minutes later, we finally got off the blocks, the shaving cream wiped up, when we finally got on the road, right then in our first moments alone as man and wife, 45 years ago just last night, my gorgeous bride heard language no man just married in a church should have uttered. And lots of it too.

So it's time I apologize for that unrighteous honeymoon outburst. I'm sorry, Barbara Van Gelder Schaap, for a tantrum far worse than any I ever threw in the next 45-year marriage; a
nd I'm oh, so thankful you didn't tell me to turn around and bring you home. I got us off to a shaky start, but you're the one, my dear. You're the only one.

Even if this morning, the morning after our anniversary, you're waking up as I write in a tiny little farmhouse in some obscure place in rural northwest Missouri, a couple dozen Angus neighbors right there in our backyard, three days of leadfoot museum trudging behind us.

Next year, Cancun :).

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jonah and the Visitor--a story (ii)

(continued from yesterday)

When finally that bat found a roost on a beam, he hung there, wings tucked, upside down, like a fat blot of tar. I was on the whale itself just then, Melville-like in my thoroughness, I might add. No matter--I could have just as well been out to sea. Once that bat stopped its swooping, every last eye was glued to the ceiling. Women pulled hankies over their heads, turned what was left of my sermon into something that resembled a funeral.

Every minute of what I’d written got lost. Jonah comes up out of the belly of that whale a changed man, but nobody in my church even heard the truth. Jonah takes the good news to the wicked people of Ninevah, and nobody heard a word.

When it was over and I was standing at the door shaking the hands, some of the people chuckled about that infernal bat; some of them, giggling, told me it was surely the Devil come in to wreak havoc.

Slim Murphy, perfectly poker-faced--excuse the expression--said to me, “Heckuva sermon, Pastor Angus.” That’s exactly what he said, “a heckuva sermon.” I could have held forth on the plague of toads, and Slim Murphy wouldn’t have stayed awake.

Some of them didn’t say a word, either, just skedaddled.

My righteous indignation stole away my better sense away when it was all over. I found my Jimmy’s old pellet gun in a corner of the basement, one of those air rifles you pump with your arm, and I marched back to church, slapped on just a few lights, even took a flashlight along to find that miserable thing--and when I did, I took aim.

Could well be I’ve lost some of the ability I once had to hit the mark with sermons the way I did when I was young and full of dreams, but I still have a steady trigger finger. So he came down in three shots--flop, like a dead bird. I picked him up in my handkerchief and deposited him just on the other side of the parking lot, where, if I’m lucky, some varmint will come along and help himself to a wicked lunch.

That’s what I did. I say you got to take the Devil down yourself if you’re going to beat him. You can’t wait for others if their out puffing on a LaPalina.

Burt the janitor said to me this afternoon, “Wonder where that bat went? I looked and looked and I couldn’t find him anywhere. Must have a secret place.”

I didn’t tell Burt I shot him. I just said, “I don’t want that bat ruining any more of my sermons, Mr. Blankenship. You find him, hear?”

So all afternoon Burt looked, neck stretched up like a goose. That’ll teach him not to skip out for a puff of his month-old cigar. That’ll fix my janitor. Dirty, cancerous things anyway, those cigars.

And a perfectly good sermon, too, just ruined. Maybe I'll just preach it again this week. Why not? 

Lord, have mercy.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Jonah and the Visitor--a story (i)

On old story from Reformed Worship, many moons ago, describing an event that lots and people remember in a lots and lots of churches. Just for fun.
I don’t care what anybody says, I’m mad. I’m not writing another sermon for church next week because nobody heard a word of the last one.

I’ve been holding forth for so many years I’ve lost track of time--80 or 90 or 150 years old is what it feels like. After last Sunday, maybe most all of Methuselah’s 900.

Sometimes it feels like a curse to be a preacher because you see every last sleepy eye from up front, in my years dozens more than my share. And this was a Jonah sermon, one of the great stories of the Bible, a real slacker gobbled up by the whale and spit out on shore like bad sausage.

The blame for what happened lies squarely on our frightful guest—I know that. If it wouldn’t have been for him, I would have had the people’s attention under lock and key. Last night we had one in the sanctuary--what I want to know now is how many more uncles and aunts and cousins will flit in uninvited and ruin sermons I’ve spent half my week planning. A bat--one of those black-winged, horror-story blood-suckers flew in Sunday night, uninvited, and destroyed everything.

Bats chirp, but mostly you don’t really hear them, but you see them just fine. They swoop in and turn on a dime as if they’re being dangled by one of Satan’s own evil puppeteers. I spotted him first during the hymn, saw him float around against the stained glass above the empty balcony before anyone else saw him, turning on a dime, coasting on unseen drafts. Everyone else was looking down in the hymnal at the words of a song I probably shouldn’t have picked because no one knew it. This time at least, it was half a blessing.

Burt the janitor wasn’t in his usual spot right then either. I looked for him, but he’s got a way of sneaking out once things get started. When the sanctuary temperature is just right and the speaker system’s operating the way it should, he sees things are moving and just like that he’s out for a puff on one of his fat black cigars he relites, Sundays only. He won’t admit it. If I ask him, he’ll tell me he was in the basement for a toilet running over.

So what could I do but hope that little devil with wings would find some nice warm spot to hang on and not make a run into the sanctuary.

Wishful thinking.

I read scripture, started in on the sermon, and everything looked fine. Through the story of the storm at sea, even the children were attentive. But when I came to the part where the affrighted sailors hoist Jonah overboard, I started to see those same kids looking straight up, a penguin chorus. That bat was somewhere in the peak of the ceiling, looking to perch.

Now First DeKalb is an old church, high ceilinged, with sanctuary lights suspended above the benches from long poles. This much I know about bats--like the little devils they are, they love the darkness. This one--he had wings a foot across--stayed up in the peak for most of my exposition, except for an occasional sortie towards parishoners’ heads, once right for beanpole-ish Durword Blankenship, whose bald pate always beckons lightning by pointing so way up high.

At that, the whole crowd sucked in a deep breath so deep that could have sucked the flame off votive candles, if we were Catholic. Mothers clenched their children, and little girls placed tented hymnals over their heads so the sanctuary looked like military camp. Reggie Gullikson, who’s been out of control since he was three, start flicking paper wads every time the bat made a dive.

But if you’d have seen their eyes, you’d have thought the whole assembly had lost their wits--everybody, young and old, all of them following that demonic bat’s every last dip and flip, tracing every corner he cut, every dive and swoop, a hundred whites of a hundred eyes, a chorus of rolling eyeballs.
Tomorrow: The visitor comes to roost.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Always there

He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber; 
indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Psalm 121

About couple of decades ago, when my family and I were being shown around the old central city of Leiden, Holland, we were taken up on some kind of ancient battlement that has stood there for centuries. 

Hundreds of people were about, as they say.  Our guide, a historian, was narrating the story of the ancient city from atop from the battlements, which, as I remember it, was a huge concrete angel food cake.  Dozens of people were strolling on it, enjoying the sun and the Sabbath. 

I couldn’t help thinking about the fall one might take if one lost his or her balance or was somehow nudged off the edge.  There were no fences, no wires, no plexi-glass, and no warning signs.  If you would fall, you’d simply splat on the ground beneath it, maybe eight or ten feet, as I remember.
“So I’m amazed,” I told our guide at Leiden, “that there’s no wall.  What happens if people fall?  I mean, someone could sue.”

He laughed. “The court would say, ‘You’re a fool for falling off the edge.’”

I found that answer really strange because it wouldn’t happen here, and certainly wouldn’t be said. In fact, it’s possible that someone might stage a fall just to reap the dividends. We are a litigious society.

I don’t need to go back farther than fifty years or so in my own ethnic tribe to locate theological arguments that questioned the righteousness of insurance.  I mean, what God appointed to happen, happens, or so the tenet runs. Insurance, theological purists argued, weakens dependency on God by pushing the insured to take comfort instead in an financial portfolio.

Today that argument is dead in the water.  It would be impossible to live without insurance these days, a high-wire act without safety nets.

But Psalm 121 minces no words.  In its eight short verses, it insists five times—count ‘em yourself—that God watches over us, and he does so without blinking.  He neither slumbers nor sleeps.  He’s always there.

Affluence is a buffer, keeping us from need.  From when comes my help? —from my 401Ks, my retirement fund, my nest egg.  It’s probably fair to say that in terms of heat, clothing, fuel, and food, in the west at least, we’re warmly taken care of.  That God watches over us is nice, but get real and keep your eyes on the Dow Jones.

All of which would be true, if it weren’t for the tortures of the soul, the pain that come from wounds within.  Far be it from me—a citizen of one of the richest countries in the world—to say that those hurts, sorrows of the heart, are more crippling than the sorrows of the flesh.  I’m in no position to judge.  We’ve got food in our new refrigerator.

But I know something about heartache, as does everyone who’s ever lived, including the only one of us who was sinless.

Fat or thin, rich or poor, what remains the greatest comfort is not a good lawyer or a bountiful insurance payoff. What Psalm 121 won’t allow us to forget is that our God is always there, vigilant, caring, protective.

The poet can’t say it often enough. He’s there, he’s there, he’s there—and he won’t fall asleep on the job.  You can’t buy that kind of insurance. Someone, the sinless one, already did.           

Friday, June 23, 2017

Morning Thanks--Baling Hay*

I've never been a late-sleeper, so I remember very well lying in bed and hearing the telephone ring. I knew what it was, and I knew that it would only be a minute or so before my mother would put down the receiver and call upstairs with news I could have forecast. The dew was going, the sun was shining, and soon enough we'd be bailing hay. The next fall I'd be in eighth grade, I think, maybe seventh.

Today, there would likely be child-labor laws to prevent my going, but what I understood from my mother's call was that in just a matter of minutes I'd hop on my Bridgestone and ride to some out-of-the-way farm somewhere, where I'd meet the family of the old man who'd hired me to buck bales. They'd already be there, checking the baler, poking the elevator up into some weird barn door that hadn't been opened since last May, some wooden squeaky thing festooned with cobwebs thick as yarn.

I hated baling hay. I would much rather not have gone. The guy we worked for was a God-fearing man, a fact I'm sure my mother relished. What she didn't realize was that baling hay also meant being packed into a mow with a gang of other sweaty adolescent boys, all of us boiling over with hormones we couldn't begin to negotiate. What I learned baling hay was a lot more than she ever bargained for when she called upstairs.

No matter. Today, a half-century later, when I look back, I know baling hay was a rite of passage I wouldn't--not in a month of Sundays--be without. Baling hay has made it into more than one story because the experience was rich with life, as rich as the smell of cut alfalfa on a lake shore field, a smell, oddly enough, I still love.

I was a town boy, no farm background whatsoever. I was not--nor have I ever been--blessed with any kind of mechanical aptitude. That I may have been a better student than at least some of the crew back then, was no matter. I was, on the farm, a klutz, an embarrassment. No matter. I worked, often until late into the night. Such was life back then.

The boss was one of those men who believed, wholeheartedly, in the sanctity, the redemptive power of work. He was tight as a fist, and, by my estimation, could care less for the kids he employed at a slave's wages. But he gave me more vivid life's experience than I could ever have learned in town on those sunny days, doing nothing at all.

This morning, our neighbors are putting on a roof, employing their two adolescent boys. Today, I must admit, I find that fact absolutely wonderful. Roofing, like baling, is hard work--hard, hard work. But when I look over there, beyond the alley out back, and I think it's a great thing to see those town boys up there scraping off shingles and nailing down new ones, wearing out their jeans. They're working. Bless 'em.

I wonder what my mother knew back then when she'd open the upstairs door and call up to tell me I had a half hour to get to Cedar Grove. She couldn't have known everything. What I learned were things I'm not sure she could imagine, even today.

But this morning, I'm thankful that, back then, she got me out of bed and on that little scooter, put my lunch in my hands so I could strap it to the seat, and sent me off--way too young to work as hard as we did, and far too lazy to know clearly enough how important, how life-bringing it was for me to have to get up in that almost hellish hay mow, to hear the infernal clanging of that orange elevator delivering those twine-d up beasts, to brush away the cobwebs and start packing bales six-high, seven-high.

This morning--the sound of hammers coming from just next door--I'm thankful my mother called. I really am. Not that I liked it then. Not that I'd like it today. Nope. But working for that praying skinflint gave me lessons for life that I remember far more poignantly than what went on that year in school. I'm thankful for an education that included scratched-up arms and worn-out gloves and jeans that come with the sweaty, dusty work of putting up bales.

Once upon a time I did a story on a man who invented the round baler. He told me his motivation was simply this, to keep his neighbor, a good farmer, on the land because, he said, that neighbor of his hated baling hay so much he threatened to quit. I understood fully. In actuality, I hold little nostalgia for the arduous work myself. But I'm glad, thankful, I'm a veteran.

So this morning's thanks, with the sound of those hammers coming into our house from next door, is for my mom's persistent voice coming up the stairwell of our little house, telling her boy what he already knew--that this morning there'd be hay to bale and I wouldn't be home until dark. Sixty cents an hour, I remember--that was my second year, when I got a ten-cent raise.

The truth is, on those mornings the boss would call, I was already awake; but that didn't mean that she didn't have to get me out of bed. Today, I'm glad she did.
*First published June 3, 2011.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Even if you're just passing through, you'll likely stumble on places in northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas where history is writ large in abandoned downtowns, some of them featuring four-story buildings in outright disrepair and remarkable therefore for ghostly impression of what once was. Oil made those place big and muscular, and oil, when it died, shut 'em down. Today, they're big cemeteries, people still make a life there, but not as many as once did. 

The difference between dying small towns in the upper Midwest and their counterparts in oil country is that up here people never were particularly wealthy. In Kansas and Oklahoma, where gushers bullied their way up from the earth, people were. Some at least. But no more. 

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann tells a story that out-perplexes most murder mysteries, a story so not-to-be-believed that most readers might think the book came off the fiction shelf. But it's not a novel; it's narrative non-fiction, and the tale it documents is not only spell-binding, it's devastating. 

I don't know about others, but once upon a time I thought all the Native people who ended up in Oklahoma were banished there. Many were. Most were, in fact. American history has more Trails-of-Tears than a Rand McNally. But some tribes went voluntarily to Indian Territory, took it upon themselves to take up residence there. Beaten by disease and loss of tribal lands and heritage, they took up residence in the Oklahoma Territory in order to survive. The Osage, for instance, once the dominant people on the central Plains, bought land from the Cherokee, land they chose because they assumed no white folks would ever want it enough to take it away. 

They were wrong. Then there was oil. Which is to say, money. Gobs and gobs of it, more money than anyone needs, more money than the Osage people knew what to do with, so much, in fact, that white people helped  them--by law. White folks decreed that in order for the Osage to get the money they earned simply by owning the land where oil was discovered, they had to employ white people to handle it. You read that right. 

Even though the story David Grann tells in Killers of the Flower Moon isn't something he uncovered, I dare say it is, to the vast majority of Americans, totally unknown. At least it was to me. I knew some things about the Osage, had been on their reservation. I knew of their 18th and early 19th century strength, about the diseases that devastated them, knew how they got kicked around the region by the Feds and the Rebels during the Civil War. I even knew they got rich when oil gurgled up one morning in the 1890s. 

What I didn't know is the ways white people designed to get that wealth; and then, more greedy, systematically murdered the Osage to get every last bit of what bubbled to the top of the ground no one else ever wanted. Murder, in a dozen different ways. Murder by husbands who killed their spouses, the mothers of their children. Murder, for nothing less than the love of money.

Local authorities were powerless to stanch the blood because local authorities were part of the conspiracy of death. There's another story in Killers of the Flower Moon, and that's the story of the development of the fledgling FBI, a story in which justice could be served only by way of federal intervention. That's right--only the feds could bring people to justice.

It's a devastating story, full of grief and pathos. Read it, and you may not pull on those red Trump caps quite as proudly. What you will hear is the awful truth about the roots of the love of money.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What can't be lost

I'm not sure where it came from, or even what relative gave it to my parents, but tucked away in a bank vault in Sioux Center, Iowa, in a strongbox under our name, is a cloth banner--just a small one, maybe eight inches square--adorned with an eagle, wings unfurled, above a small, black swastika. I'd show you, but it's locked up.

When I was a kid, I thought it was an armband, but if it were it would have to have belonged to a child. It's the size of the numbers marathoners pin to their shirts, no bigger.

I'm not sure why it's in a bank vault, but I know why it isn't down here among a thousand other artifacts--Dutch books, old Bibles, yellowing pictures, and even a samurai sword my dad took home from the South Pacific in 1945. That one Nazi artifact is not here, framed and up on a wall, because putting it up somewhere down here, seventy-some years after Auschwitz and Dachau, still seems obscene. 

Back in grade school--I couldn't have been older than ten or so--the teacher asked us to bring in things from the war. All of our fathers went, after all. By the time we'd lugged our stuff to school--I'm sure my samurai went--the back counter was full of swastikas, even a German flag as big the any Stars-and-Stripes the school owned. All of that Nazi stuff is, I'd guess, still tucked away in Oostburg attics sixty years later. Nobody'd toss it, but only very scary people would unfurl a Nazi flag across a wall as den decor.

So it's not surprising that Argentinian officials had to step through a hidden doorway and make passage down a secret hallway to find a stash of Nazi artifacts unlike any in size or character since 1945. According to yesterday's Washington Post,  the objects included "a bust relief of Hitler, magnifying glasses embossed with swastikas (as well as a photo of Hitler holding the same or a similar instrument), a large statue of an eagle above a swastika, silverware, binoculars, a trumpet and a massive swastika-studded hourglass"--75 items in all, and not just any grunt's war booty.

Some big names--Eichmann, Mengele--slithered away to Argentina in the final days of Third Reich, several of them taking up residence in the neighborhood where the collection was located. Included were photographs of Hitler holding some of items, as if to authenticate their value.

School kids who visit the Sioux County Museum can't help but notice backward swastikas on a wall-sized, horsehide Native American painting. They adorn a wigwam under siege during a battle between the U. S. Calvary and the Sioux, the Battle of Slim Buttes. Bloodied Natives and soldiers are all over, but inevitably some mystified kid will raise his hand and point at the swastika. That symbol remains powerful, even today, even with kids so young their great-grandparents were born after the war.

The only item from that incredible Argentinian collection I'd ever think about owning is the hourglass. Even though 75 years have passed since a little mustached man determined the world would be a better place if he ruled it and the Jews were all dead, someday--maybe a hundred years from now--maybe der Fuhrer will be forgotten. That would be a good thing. 

But I don't know that we should ever stop tipping that hourglass over, that we should ever forget what happened. Losing our fear of him may well be a blessing, but we do ourselves wrong by ever losing track of the darkness in each of us, the pride at the heart of our fallen humanity. 

When we forget our need of grace, we need to take that hour-glass and turn it over once again. We always will.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Solstice

Here's a pleasant thought: Islam is getting soft. 

I'm serious. It's happening, and it's happening today especially, the longest day of the year.

Just so happens that this year the month of Ramadan, Islam's high-holy days, just happens to coincide with the summer solstice, which is no big deal if you live anywhere near the equator, but more than a little troublesome if, as so many Muslims do today, you live farther north, say in Norway or Denmark.

Why troublesome? Because Ramadan requires fasting between sunrise and sunset, which means--you can see where this is going--that Muslims who live anywhere near, say, Ft. Yukon, Alaska, go into near starvation because, for them, the sun barely sets. You go hungry 23 hours, then pig out and start the whole horror over again the next day 

"Not fair," some believer from up north must have said. So the head Imam--or a committee thereof--determined that a good Muslim, no matter where he or she lives beneath the arc of the sun, can celebrate Ramadan by watching the hours of the day in Mecca, no matter when darkness falls, and fast only during those hours.

I know old men in my religion who'd call that argument what it is--a slippery slope. See what I mean?--today the mosque is run by liberals!

Today is the longest day of the year. I'm not Muslim, but I'm conscious of summer solstice, as are millions of others because today we are at a point distinguished by a dark reality--there's nowhere to go but down. Our lives edges slowly go south right now. Days go short, nights go long. Summer fades. What's green out back goes brown. Soon we use the fireplace. It's all very sad.

'T'would be really dismal if it weren't an annual thing, a heavenly ritual we celebrate only because the earth is slightly out of round in orbit, it's pilgrimage a bit oblong. Tomorrow the days get shorter--that's not news. Even your bones will tell you as much.

Once upon a time, not so very far from here, some band of Yanktons lived and moved and had their being, just a half mile north and east on a big bend of the river. That's something I like to think. Wherever they were in the neighborhood, I'm sure they paid closer attention to heavenly lights than we do, and with good reason--the only light they had was from up above. 

Here and there they put out rocks to see the sun's progress along the horizon, to determine when it was time to think about moving. This morning, were there ever Yanktons at the bend, some early riser could well have looked down the path of the rocks and said to himself, sadly, that it would soon be time to get out the woolen socks. 

In England, there's a happy crowd at Stonehenge right now because if the sky is not overcast the sun rises right through a central portal at solstice. Right now within those big fat stones a thousand cell phones are shooting the dawn, I'm sure. 

Gorgeous dawns are almost a rule-of-thumb this time of year. This morning's wasn't spectacular, but it was beautiful--a dawn of loose ends, slabs of flatline clouds in pancake layers against a bronze sky in the east. 

But the big story is the bitter sweet solstice, the longest day. Tomorrow won't be. 

The heavens declare the glory of God, the psalmist says. He was right, in so many ways.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Book Review--Fannie Lou Hamer's story

In 1964, I was a kid, a couple of years away from voting age, a son of my father, and like him, a Republican. I was no Bircher, but I remember my thrill when Barry Goldwater told the nation and the world that "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." I was old enough to know what that single sentence meant to hard-line right-wingers whose fear of commies and leftists pushed them to the "extremes" Goldwater legitimized--or tried to--with that widely anticipated and much beloved line. 

I remember watching the speech on our old black-and-white Zenith, maybe my first real interest in politics on a national scale. Like my dad, I thought Goldwater a prophet and Martin Luther King a communist, a man who stirred up all kinds of social discord--even violence--throughout the nation.

What did I know? Not much, but I was confident about defending American liberty.

I have no memories of the 1964 Democratic Convention, I'm guessing the Zenith wasn't on, not because my parents would have objected but because there simply wasn't any interest. I'm sure the speakers who rose to the dais would have been disappointing to them and to me.

So I have no memories whatsoever of a short speech given by a stocky African-American woman named Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman who was pleading the case of a delegation of Mississippians, most of them black, asking for voting credentials at that convention. Hamer had a sixth-grade education and no more because her hands were needed in the cottonfields, where her family tried to make a life from sharecropping. She'd started picking cotton when she was six years old.

When Fannie Lou Hamer sat and told the 1964 Democratic Convention what she'd suffered--a horrible beating while jailed in Winona, Mississippi on some ridiculous charge--delegates were stunned. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had occupied the office for less than a year at that point and who, down the road, distinguished himself boldly and wonderfully for the cause of civil rights in this country, was scared to death he'd lose the votes of the Dixiecrats to the Republicans if they heard Hamer's indictment of Southern racism. Johnson was so scared he called the networks to interrupt the Ms. Hamer's testimony, 

He told them he was having an important unscheduled news conference. The networks assumed that he was about to name his nomination for Vice-President, so, just like that, they turned out the lights on Fannie Lou Hamer and starting broadcasting from the Oval Office, where LBJ simply told the nation it was, at that moment, nine months since the death of President Kennedy. That's it. That was the whole story.

There was no news. What there was, was subterfuge. Johnson successfully kept Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony from gaining a national audience. That happened. That actually happened.

So much about that story is out-and-out incredible. First, Hamer herself--a woman who'd spent her life in cottonfields, trying to make a life for her children, a woman who wanted to vote and got beaten horribly for nothing more than wanting rights that were hers. Hers is an awful story. It turns your stomach, wrenches your heart. 

Then, the entire situation--Johnson, the civil rights advocate, worried about an election should white Southerners start going over to the other side and supporting Goldwater; Johnson, who did so much for African-Americans, shutting out the lights on Ms. Hamer's incredible story.

And then the press, who left the convention floor and flocked to the Oval Office to cover the President, like so many lemmings. But then again, however, the press, who smelled something liuke "fake news" a half-century ago and went back over the ground they'd just trod in an effort to locate the source of the smell they couldn't get out of their system. Eventually, a free press found it, discovered the whole blasted story. 

I never knew all of that until I read James H. Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a reprimand, an indictment against "Christian" America. Cone's book is a Jeremiad that's just plain wilting in every way possible--culturally, morally, spiritually--to the white folks at whom he aims, most specifically those who confess the name of Jesus. 

Cone makes you weep, makes you wonder where you were in 1964, where you were for a half-century or more of terrifying bloodletting when white folks, many of them church-going folks, pulled out ropes from their shed and hung black men--and some black women--for one purpose only: to keep n______s in their place.

If you're a white man or woman, The Cross and the Lynching Tree will teach you all kinds of things you didn't know, things you can't help but wonder how you missed. This summer or any other, it's not for the beach; but it will make you wonder where you've been. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--"My"

“My help comes from the LORD, 
the Maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121

When the ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura was Governor of Minnesota, the state of Iowa took a well-deserved rest from the endless mockery tossed our way by supposedly more sophisticated Minnesotans. After all, for a few interesting years, they had enough to laugh about up north.

Ventura was buff, built like a steel nail. I remember spotting a t-shirt, like the one above, in the Twin Cities Airport: “My governor can beat up your governor.”

Funny. But if I read this verse with an emphasis on my, it’s not hard to hear a similar kind of bravado. “My help from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. You can’t say that. My god can beat up your god.”

Because this is holy scripture, I’ll ease up on the writer: “Maker of heaven and earth” is a classic appositive, nothing more than an adjectival phrase, a one-line vitae; the poet wants only to make totally sure that everyone knows his sacred trust is not invested foolishly. That's the glorious intent.

Fine. A decade before Donald Trump was anything more than a real estate mogul, Rev. Jerry Falwell, who back then had more problems with hoof-and-mouth than all the feedlots in Nebraska, told a group of “his people” that a Hillary Clinton Presidential campaign would mobilize Christians to get out and vote like no one else. “If Lucifer ran,” he said, “he wouldn’t.”

Rev. Falwell meant well and prayed hard, but it’s almost impossible not to see that a similar sentiment (“I meant it tongue-in-cheek,” he told folks later) has created divisiveness in this culture, a political and social world of “us vs. them.” To many of “his people,” Lucifer was more qualified.

It seems impossible not to see that a species of fundamentalism ("what I believe!) is fomenting terrorist horrors throughout the world, including this week at a baseball diamond in Arlington, Virginia, where a Bernie Sanders zealot lugged a semi-automatic on to the infield and started picking off Republicans. When people believe they have sole ownership of the truth—of whatever kind--the opposition suddenly grows horns, a pointed tail, and cloven feet. Madmen load carbines or don suicide vests.

When praying people read a verse like this with a swelling emphasis on my, things can get dangerous fast. “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. Where do you get yours, loser?”

That the line can be misread doesn’t make the Bible any less “the Word of God.” Holy Writ is full of paradox and preposterous notions, marvelous tales, bloody battlefields, beautiful poetry, and eternal wisdom. It’s as powerful as it is dangerous.

Psalm 121 is pure praise, a jaw-dropping testimony to an ever-vigilant God who neither slumbers nor sleeps, whose eye is on every last sparrow and humanoid, who is his people’s shepherd.

I need to remember that divine assurance needs to be bound tightly in my heart, not in my fist.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The sky sermons of early summer

If, as the psalmist insists ("the heavens declare!) and the skies so bountifully attest, God the Clergyman's most awesome sermons, at least here in Siouxland, are delivered almost daily, all summer long. 

He doesn't take sabbaticals, but dawns aren't really created equal. Now's the time to look because the light outside my window, early summer, will almost always grab me and the camera, revelation and inspiration just a window away.

Bend an ear to these preachments (it's hard to call them homilies). My north wall is a door to his cathedral.

If all of these sermons were delivered just for me, I'd have reason to boast--or to fear. But they're on the broad northeast sky every morning for whoever is up. Think of them as a podcast, a visual podcast. Listen, I used to feel guilty for missing church. 

I'm sure meteorologists know exactly why summer sermons are most stunning. I'm guessing it likely has to do with phantom moisture. Right now, the mysteries of rainfall make farmer's foreheads wrinkle because in early summer, these skies rarely stay overcast and rain never stays around for long. Sweet and soft all-day showers are unheard of right now. Summer rains come in torrents, which means our neighbors get some and often enough we don't.

Summer storms are fickle, as whimsical as violent. Monday, I parked beneath a huge tree in Hospers just to avoid the hail. Back here, just down the road, the ground didn't even look dew-y. 

That kind of luck of the draw prompts good Christian people, me included, into silly speculation about who's been given God's favor and why: "You hear? Sioux Center got a couple inches last night and we didn't get squat." When traditional dogma includes the word providence, questions about who and why don't stay where they should. 

Long ago, old Ben Franklin flew a kite in lightning and taught the world that a thunderstorm was all about electricity and not God's wrath. But people of faith, like me, have trouble signing over all that power to electrons. Besides, we like to think that the sovereign God of heaven and earth is more than just a rubber-necker. 

Besides, Siouxland is a region greatly blessed, where it's not difficult to get twenty inches of rainfall annually, enough to grow corn and soybeans. We don't have to travel far west to come to places where that level of rainfall would be a God-sent (see how easy I use that word?), places where it doesn't happen all that often. When it does, people are greatly thrilled.

Just a couple more shots. I've got dozens. The truth is, the real thing is always ten times better. I own no camera lens to capture the all of what I see--and hear.

And they don't get cliched. 

There may well be other substantial reasons for the Schaaps to go off to church on the Sabbath, but with God holding forth like this most mornings right outside my door-- songbirds as choisters, Dickenson might say--I don't need a whole lot more from the pulpit, praise the Lord. 

But, truth be known, Lord, right now it is a little dry. We could use a little rain.


Thursday, June 15, 2017


I wasn't surprised to read what was there on the cemetery stone because I had known some time ago that Joseph Four Bears was a Christian. His granddaughter, who is 97 years old, had told me as much. Six weeks before, I'd asked her about Christianity, and she'd told me how her whole family would get in the wagon and go to church, twice a week too, in Promise, South Dakota, a place so small you can find it only on specialty maps, if it can claim to exist at all.

Her grandparents were believers "in that time," she'd explained, as if Christianity were but short story the collection that is her life, in the history of the Lakota people. When Joseph Four Bears put his thumbprint on the Ft. Laramie Treaty, she told me, he was thereby given title to the land where he'd been living for years. White people told him he owned it. "Isn't that crazy?" she said, shaking her head.

We were on our way to visit her great-grandparents' graves just outside of La Plant, South Dakota, where once there were eight churches, maybe nine--she couldn't remember exactly. On a good day, there might be 150 people in town, but only if you count volunteer workers. "They build houses for the people," she tells me, pointing at one painted in a peculiar style. "There's one right there." 

I don't know why exactly, but I'm a little surprised she commends those white people. La Plant, the census says, is one hundred percent Native.

A broad sign along the road proudly announces a community garden unlike anything I've seen anywhere on the reservation. Some church group or volunteer organization builds houses and plants community gardens.

Don't look for La Plant's six or eight white, frame churches to be featured in Christianity Today any time soon. In April, in heavy snow, I drove through, knowing nothing about the place, and I couldn't believe how many were scattered around--all of tattered, some abandoned.

Close to 70 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, but then the Cheyenne River Reservation, where the La Plant is located, is among the poorest regions of the country.

The Episcopal cemetery sits up the hill from town. That's where we'll find the grave of Joseph Four Bears. It's me, driving, Marcella beside me, and two of her great-granddaughters in the back seat, bright kids who wanted to learn some things about family history, about Joseph Four Bears. On the way up the hill we try to string together just how many "greats" need to precede his name--after all, the man whose thumb-print adorns the Ft. Laramie Treaty is their great-grandma's great-grandpa. 

Marcella doesn't know exactly where the Four Bears site sits. Despite her age, she gets out with the rest of us, and we all walk through the uneven grasses between stones festooned with adornments just after Memorial Day. 

A molting meadowlark--young and a little woeful--sits up high on a set of antlers tethered to a pole above an old stone, letting his mother know he's there. Behind him, behind us, as far as you can see in every direction reservation grassland runs invisibly into a sky so bright the sun seems dangerous. In a couple of hours, it'll be a scorching. 

One of girls yells and points when she finds the family plot. The graves have all been moved here, everything has, relocated from neighborhoods deep beneath the blue sea created when the Missouri River was dammed fifty years ago. That's another saga in the epic. 

The morning sun is so bright on all that open land that Joseph Four Bear's stone is just about unreadable. The granddaughters stoop to look closely at an inscription almost fully there: "For more than 36 years, a faithful Christian and loyal friend of. . ." and then what's etched is messed, "of the whites?" one of them says, guessing. Look for yourself.

"Grandma," one of them says, "our great-great grandpa was a Christian?" She's a Gates scholar on her way to the University of Hawaii to study botany. "Was Joseph Four Bears a Christian?" 

I hope I'm wrong, but disdain is as clear as death up there in the graveyard, as is her sadness and humiliation. It's like nothing I've heard in all my seventy years. "Seriously?"

Grandma tells her granddaughters that Christianity was part of the transition time, a single tale in the epic that's theirs.

I've heard disdain for faith before, but never come this close to somehow feeling it. In a cemetery just outside the Zuni pueblo, a long-ago relative of mine, an early missionary, a white man and his wife, are buried in a graveyard not a whole lot different than this one, up on a hill above town.

That disdain just plain hurts. It's not a time for Four Spiritual Laws or a quick recital of John 3:16. I say nothing.

Every since I've retired, I've loved the opportunity to learn things I wish I'd have understood long ago. Revelations can be such a joy.

Then again, some come as wounds. Some revelations carry the anguish in the song of that young meadowlark fifty feet away, perched on an antler strapped to a grave.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Morning Thanks--Nouwen on joy

A friend sent me this from Henri Nouwen.

The third discipline is the hardest one. It is the discipline to be surprised not by suffering but by joy. As we grow old, we will have to stretch out our arms, be guided and led to places we would rather not go. What was true for Peter will be true for us. There is suffering ahead of us.. . . But don't be surprised by pain. Be surprised by joy, be surprised by the little flower that shows its beauty in the midst of a barren desert, and be surprised by the immense healing power that keeps bursting forth like springs of fresh water from the depth of our pain. God becomes ours and goes out from us wherever we go and to whomever we meet.

This friend of mine thought I’d like it. She’s right, so this morning I’m thankful for the idea, for Nouwen, and for the friend.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Morning Thanks--Strawberry Day in Alton

My grandson, who ranks among the world's most picky eaters, loves 'em, and that's saying something. But then, who doesn't? I once heard tell of a preacher with such an aversion to seeds that his helpmeet wife would pick them off every berry he'd eat. If I were Dante, I'd create a separate place in Hades. 

It's a story I'd believe only if the church absolutely loved the preacher. Which they didn't. Weren't fond of his wife either. All of that makes sense. And maybe it was raspberries.

But we're talking about strawberries, the berry that isn't technically a berry. Sorry. "Technically, it is an aggregate accessory fruit," saith Wikipedia. Saying "aggregate accessory fruit" in public will crown you the nerd king, so repeat it at your own risk. "The fleshy part is derived not from the plant's ovaries but from the receptacle that holds the ovaries," in case you're wondering. "Each apparent "seed" (achene) on the outside of the fruit is actually one of the ovaries of the flower, with a seed inside it." 

Saying that makes what that dominie's wife did as sinful as it seems silly.

No big deal. "How shall I love thee?" saith the Bard; "Let me count the ways." 

Yesterday, Strawberry Day, started long before we started eating. It began with our annual pilgrimage to a wonderful pick-your-own place. We got there just as a parade of four-wheelers started carting the first shift of berry-pickers back to the fields, having rescued them earlier from tempests that we sat out in Hospers, where we hid out from hail beneath a towering maple; and then, ten minutes later, sat beneath an underpass outside of Sheldon where we stopped when we couldn't hear ourselves think.

So we got to the fields just after the storms and before what looked to be another a'coming. Now let me count the ways--here's where the tally begins. While we waited, one grandson nursed a strawberry malt while his brother and their grandparents had strawberry donuts. That's two ways. More coming.

The fields were wet and wild with strawberries, the paths between blessed with thick and soft cornfield mulch. Maybe two decades ago already, I lost the ability to bend over for very long, so I got down on my knees (one of which is getting x-rayed tomorrow), then skidded along on my butt. I told my grandson that once we'd picked our quota he'd better find a skid loader.

In the field, truth be known, we ate strawberries--not a ton, but some. A couple dozen. That's three ways, right?--a precious few right off the plant.

My row had been picked once already, but the bounty was still plentiful, even if the berries weren't super plump. No matter. In an hour or so we had a couple of flats full, the limit my wife had determined this year. Last year she'd suffered the after-effects of way, way, way too many. 

I successfully got to my feet, and the four of us left the field wet and dirty--well, I left wet and dirty. Grandma and grandsons managed to look less hog-pen-ish.  

After the plucking, we had muffins--that's four ways; after muffins, jelly--that's five. Somewhere in between, strawberry sundaes--that's six. It was a long day, and when we brought the boys back to their place, they were bearing gifts worthy of the Magi.  

Wait a minute! I forgot supper--strawberry souffle, and even His Picky-ness loved it. That's seven.

Garrison Keillor used to go on-and-on about sweet corn's first buttery bite making Minnesota all worth it. Iowa too. But the un-fruit, strawberries, rank right there with mid-July sweet corn. The morning after Strawberry Day here north of Alton, I forgive that dominie his persnickety-ness, and his wife's abject slavish devotion. It was, after all, all in the cause--the joy--of June strawberries.

This morning I'm thankful for 'em, and that certainly includes every last one of them still comfortable abiding in our fridge the morning after

My wife says today she's making strawberry soup. That's eight. 

And it ain't over yet. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Thoreau on his birthday

Truth be known, I've never been a good reader. My wife is a good reader: she can and does put her life on hold when a good book has a hold on her. When it comes to reading, I'm a technician. I'm am forever sentenced to being flighty because I constantly step back and say why?--why did she say that? My wife, blessedly, goes with the flow.

That may be why I can say determinedly that epochs of my life are marked by readings of Concord's most famous (and largely silent) dissident, Henry David Thoreau, a man who determined, when he was 28 years old, to build a little house in a nearby woods, stay there as often as he could, record what he saw and felt and thought, and thereby simply remove himself from the artful society around him, to see if he could learn some things from what he might have called "real life." At two huge moments in my life, Thoreau was there.

I was somewhere into my second year of college, when one morning, on my way to American Literature, I found myself so taken by the assignment that I told myself that if I'd be a teacher of literature, I could think about such things as "transcendentalism" for an entire lifetime. Right then and there--on a sidewalk that still exists at a spot I could still mark--I set my course a profession I stayed with until the day I retired.

I was in my first year of teaching high school kids from rural southwest Wisconsin--gorgeous rolling hills and woodlands as beautiful as anything in New England--when a class of juniors looked at me one morning as if I was plain nuts for loving the gangly eccentric who wrote all this crazy stuff about "quiet desperation."  

A kid raised his hand that day and said, "If we listen to him," he paused, pointed at the clock, "we're slaves to that clock, right?" I probably nodded. "Then we don't have to leave when the bell rings."

He wasn't brown-nosing. I was convinced, at the time at least, that the question arose from my sense that he had engaged Thoreau, even channeled him, just for a moment, and he wanted all verified. He'd never before thought of a clock as an enemy. 

If that kid remembers Henry David Thoreau's aversion to clocks at all, I'm guessing there were times in his life, times we all suffer, when he felt the horror of a clock's ticking even more fretfully. 

Just exactly what he learned that day will always be a mystery, but I know what I learned: that this profession of teaching, of teaching literature, was, in fact, something I could do. 

Henry David Thoreau has a notable birthday this year, his 200th. Walden was published in 1854. For almost a century, I suppose, school kids like the ones I faced that morning in rural Wisconsin, were forcefed Thoreau's weird views sometimes after the Puritans in a required course in American Literature. Is there such a thing today? I'm not sure.

William Howarth, a Thoreauvian with impeccable credentials, wonders about that himself in a wonderful retrospective essay in The American Scholar, where he laments the fact that most of his students today yawn through the first chapter of Walden, probably gaze out the windows or down at their cell phones. I believe him.

When I began college teaching, American Literature was a graduation requirement. Today, it's barely a requirement for the major. After all, where does a love of Walden go on a resume?  Of what possible value will "transcendentalism" be to someone with a business major? When education is quite simply the best and only means of getting a good job, who really cares about what can be learned from watching the ice go out from a farm pond? 

Howarth sounds like an old man in "Reading Thoreau at 200," like a man whose time has come and gone. As our President might say, Sad. 

What's more, I don't think I'd like to do a tally of just how many of my thousand or so students would even recognize the man's name today. One kid looks up a clock that first year, and I think I'm a teacher? Seriously? 

Thoreau was rather defiantly anti-business. The world is not. 

Still, to think of him being carried off the stage these days is enough to make me weep. But then, long ago already, when this country was less than a century-old, he got himself sick unto death of the rat race and found his one and only love in a woods. Most always considered a bigger-than-life eccentric, maybe he wouldn't even care that today we're leaving him alone. After all, what's a clock to him?