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.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Saturday Morning Catch

The snow was 48 hours old, but still clean and pristine in the shafts of a luminescent sun this morning, the sky as clear as the snowfields.  I don't know about taking home any art, but I need to get out more often and look.  Really, beauty is not hard to find most Siouxland early mornings, but for me at least it is tough to catch.  But then, the hunt is all I really need. (From a couple of years ago. . .)

Friday, December 09, 2016


Someone's happy dalmatian showed up on TV last night, and I couldn't help think that maybe a dalmatian is what we need. Ever since we've moved into the country, I've thought about getting a dog. We've had cats ever since we've been married. When we celebrate our 50th, we really ought to put together a scrapbook of cats we've known and loved and owned, if it can be said anyone owns cats. 

But I'll take some credit for selflessness on this dog business because, truth be told, I'm thinking of the dog, not for my sake but his--the dog's. We've got an acre of prairie out back and beyond that open ground--and a river--about as far as you can see. We built a house where we did because of where it is--dog country, a world some big clumsy yaller dog would consider something close to the Elysian fields.

I stay out of pet stores, and I refuse to visit animal shelters. I know myself, my weaknesses, my sins; and should I ever walk through the door of some sad pound I'd be helpless to leave without some mangy tag-a-long. All I'd need is a leash. Look at that face. You think he doesn't know what's out back of our house? You got to heartless not to take him home. That's why I stay away.

Seriously, our sprawling, tenantless back yard makes a shot like this one obscene, even criminal, turns me into just another Iowa pig. 

But what would we do with them when we leave? And who's going to walk 'em when it's ten below, like it is right now? Are they house-trained? Can they find a peaceful place in a cat's world? 

Get serious, I tell myself. Besides, we got a cat. Well, he has us.

A dog doesn't really need much. Not like a giraffe. Did you know that King George IV owned a giraffe and paid three artists to do his portrait--the giraffe's, that is. When his pet died a year later, the King had him stuffed. 

An Englishman named Mr. Brooks had something of a menagerie, including, of all things, a white camel. But Brooks got bored--who didn't have a camel, after all?--so he painted black spots on the poor thing and tried to sell it as a "camelopard." 

Once upon a time, Anne Boleyn was given a monkey as a present, even though she hated animals. What the monkey thought of her is not recorded. 

Some Brit's Ethiopian zebra grew "exceedingly fond" of the ale she got from the canteen of the  Royal Menagerie, but then she probably didn't have a back yard like ours. Can you blame her?

Speaking of zebras, Lord Clive insisted that his pet mate with mule. His zebra demurred, wasn't moved in the least. So Clive painted his ass with stripes and the fusion was thereby accomplished. Proving what, I don't know.

In the late 18th century, King George III was presented with two kangaroos. What he wasn't told was that once there were five slated to be gifts, but when the ship's crew found themselves hungry, three exited the ship by way of decidedly different delivery. 

When a London pub got itself a rhino, customers could look upon the beast for a shilling or ride it for two. Pets suffer, after all. In 1661, Samuel Pepys, whose diaries tell us so much about England in the 17th century, got himself angry and beat his pet monkey to death in a rage.

All of these pleasantries are from Menagerie: The History of Exotic Animals in England 1100-1837 by Caroline Grigson, and available for Christmas giving, if you have a pet lover on your list. 

It's a book of course, and not a pet. Don't expect it to love you unconditionally or carry in your slippers. On the other hand, you can stay curled up on the couch on cold winter nights. And that's nice. By the way, our man Pepys in a fit of pique ended up giving away his pet eagle, the whole event glibly recorded in his famous diary, where he says "we were heartily glad to be rid of her, she fouling our house mightily."

There's the pet mess too. I think I'll just not look at pictures and stay the heck out of shelters. 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Sioux County history--The Gentlemen on the Prairie

William Brooks Close

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

Emma Lazarus's storied sentiment is etched on a plaque inside the pedestal of that grand lady who stands in the New York harbor and therefore clings to our perceptions of how this country was settled, a nation of homeless and tempest-tossed, Europe's wretched refuse yearning to be free.

It's not inaccurate. Only one of my Dutch immigrant ancestors, a pastor/professor, arrived as a man of means, and his means were not particularly abundant. My other forebearers can certainly be numbered among the huddled masses who'd come with great faith the new land offered vastly more opportunities than the land of their birth. 

Dutch-Americans of my tribe shouldn't forget that Dominie Scholte, the godfather of the huge Pella colony in Iowa, was hardly homeless, even if many of his 800 followers were from the Netherlands' huddled masses. 

A real anomaly were the English gentry, the Gentlemen of the Prairie (a book by Curtis Harnack), who were anything but homeless. The Close brothers, who'd come to America in 1876 for a centennial regatta in Philadelphia, were Oxford's most prestigious student athletes entered in a sport that clearly offered no home for the homeless. While their showing on the river in the City of Love was nothing to write home about--the whole team caught some kind of stomach ailment--one of the crew got a blister of sorts in a place that kept him out of training.

That brother, William B. Close, an English gentleman (think Downton Abbey) happened to meet a well-heeled American businessman named Daniel Paullin, from Quincy, Illinois, one Sunday afternoon while the rest of the Oxford crew was training. The two began to talk business, Paullin explaining to the young English gentleman that great fortunes could be made in real estate because valuable land out west was being bought and sold for peanuts (okay, he probably didn't say "peanuts"). Paullin, by all appearances, had done well, had become something of a gentleman himself.

Young Mr. Close decided on a road trip Paullin created for him, a sales trip to northwestern Iowa, to here, where I'm sitting, in fact, a place where Paullin claimed fertile land was both abundant and dirt cheap, ripe for harvest in every possible way. 

What resulted from that sales trip was a Siouxland English colony made up of country gentleman who only occasionally got their hands dirty. Close was among England's most storied athletes, so when he advertised possibilities for an English colony of gentlemen in the American frontier, his words got notice. Hundreds came.

"The achievement of these gentlemen during the past two years," the local press trumpeted, "in the way of improving and developing the country, stands without a parallel in the history western civilization." That's trumpeting. "The business of the two firms embraces the investment of English capital in lands, and the improvement of the same; that is transforming the broad prairies of the peerless northwest into improved farms."

The story of these gentlemen on the prairie--told first by Sioux County historian Jacob van der Zee (The British in Iowa, 1922) and later by Curtis Harnack (Gentlemen on the Prairie, 1985)--is not to be forgotten.

Years ago, Frederick Manfred told me he wanted to write a novel about the gentlemen, so he did a little looking around and turned up the last of the Close family, a fellow, he said, who probably spent too much time with his elbows up on a bar.  At least that's where Fred met him. He told me that he'd asked this last English gentleman on the prairie what he'd done, where he'd worked, what he'd done for a living.

"Oh, I wasn't born to work," the man told him, smiled, and returned happily to what was before him.

They're gone now, the English gentlemen. They were not homeless, not members of the huddled masses, but they are part of the story of the land beneath my feet. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Silliness?--or not so?

The guy's name is Jestin Coler. He voted for Hillary. But he and his buddies haul in some extra dough by a game they've created, a game called false news. Coler is a fiction writer. He and his friends created a story about a Texas family contacting Ebola (you can read it here), and hauled in the take from five million hits when that fiction went viral. Slap a few ads on the page, and there's money to be made.

A story Coler wrote about Hillary--remember, he voted for her--got a half-million reads in just one day, just three days before the election. It was a stinker of a story, but all kinds of people read it. Went like this--an FBI agent died mysteriously after investigating Hillary's emails. Never happened. Pure fiction. Pure bullshit, but Jestin Coler made about eight grand on that one. Just telling stories. (Some videomaker cranked out a You-Tube using the story--be sure to read the comments.)

I'm in the wrong racket. 

NBC found Jestin Coler. They were looking for someone like him because a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison drove up to D. C. last weekend, got himself heavily armed, and then Lone Ranger-ed into Comet Ping Pong, a family pizza place to "self-investigate," he told police. He'd read on line that the joint was center stage for a child porn and sex trafficking ring created by Hillary and her buddy John Podesta. Those emails Wikileaks were releasing before the election?--they proved it, or so Maddison claimed. 

He carried in a rifle, did a little shooting. Thankfully, no one was injured. He wanted to free the poor children.

He didn't find Hillary, nor Podesta, nor any child sex racket. It was and is all fake news. 

No matter. Some souls believe it. They badly want to.

Let me do the math. Jestin Coler, who's a nice guy--he's got a wife and kids and a Christmas tree--created and armed Edgar Maddison, another nice guy with a wife and kids. Jestin Coler, and others like him, bears responsibility for what happened last Sunday at Comet Ping Pong, to say nothing about shaping the election. Jestin Coler ought to go to jail, but right now technology's myriad opportunities are only beginning to be charted. We have no laws governing what he did. Besides, it's free speech, right? First Amendment.

Jestin Coler is picking up extra cash for his kids for Christmas. Buy 'em a drone maybe, something he couldn't have afforded otherwise. He's what we call an "entrepreneur," isn't he? He didn't break any laws. Look for yourself.

"It's addicting," he told NBC news, meaning creating fake news. He loves it. Hits come up his screen and he laughs all the way to the bank. 

"Don't sweat it, lady," the serpent told the woman. "You certainly will not die." 

False news has a long history. People want badly to believe.

And it's not over. Almost immediately another story went up. In this one, Hillary's people hired Edgar Maddison to get arrested. It was all a set up, a diversion. She and Podesta's people paid him richly to cover the evil racket that's still going on at Comet Ping Pong Pizza. 

No, don't go. Please don't go. Leave Comet Ping Pong alone. There's nothing there but pizza.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Morning Thanks--Count your blessings

Some psychologists want to drop the last initial in PTSD. They claim that to call PTSD a "disorder" makes the condition appear unusual. It isn't. They claim that if you've been to war, you have post-traumatic stress because war is trauma.

I can't help thinking such distinctions wouldn't have mattered to the woman in the casket yesterday. She had a husband who took Nazi fire at the Battle of the Bulge and came home with a purple heart from wounds that were visible--and some that were not. "He just wasn't the same when he came back from the war," one of his relatives said to me some time ago. Then the guy shook his head with a kind of inevitability.

Her husband died already 32 years ago, but he could have gone to his Maker at least twice before that, once in a cold winter battle in Europe, then again by a truck accident that did almost everything but kill him. She suffered through that also. It was cancer that took him finally. He was always a heavy smoker. She was there too.

She died last Thursday, her 96 years it's own kind of Life magazine. She'd seen a whole lot more than most of us ever will, a whole life of trauma, if you count the trials. 

She had a baby boy in 1945, when she received word that her GI husband had been wounded in Belgium. She had to have understood that all three of their lives wouldn't be exactly as she imagined. I don't know if she ever talked much about getting the news--where she was or how it came. What her family knows is that she got that telegram with a little boy, six months old, in her arms.

The obit says she was born in Estelline, South Dakota in 1920. She went to country school through eight grades, then "worked out," which is to say moved into farm homes whenever and wherever women needed help, generally after having babies. Thirteen, she may have been, maybe fourteen, doing every last thing farm wives did back then, and they did every last thing. 

The Dutch Reformed of Estelline in the 1920s were not affluent. Most had moved west and north to homestead cheap land, hoping to make a life on a landscape that wasn't particularly tamed. She was a child when the stockmarket crashed. I'm sure she remembered the Dust Bowl, when whole skies full of Oklahoma and Kansas dust drifted into every corner of a farm house. 

Chances are, when she got married, she wasn't thinking about her sweetheart going off to war. It was eight months before Pearl Harbor, and it would be two years before he was drafted. They were in Iowa then, right up close to the South Dakota border, hilly Sioux County country, not prime land, but greatly livable. Knowing her, I can't imagine she wasn't happy.

Then came the war. And then the man she loved returned, not exactly the man she'd married. Back then no one knew the initials PTSD, and she probably wasn't the only woman who nursed all kinds of wounds. Back then, they just didn't talk much about it.

She and her husband had another five boys, six in all. Six boys trying to make a go of it on a hardscrabble farm.

In 1965, that oldest son of hers was killed, a passenger in an accident the newspaper described this way:
Early morning fog covered Highway 18 as the local men attempted to pass a gasoline transport. As he pulled around the truck he was driving east a milk truck. . . was approaching from the east. The Rock Valley man attempted to slow down and pull back into the right hand lane but in doing so he collided with the rear of the transport which tossed the pick up broadside in the path of the oncoming truck.
 She was likely at home on their farm when she and her husband got that news. 

Fifty years later, she buried yet another son, my brother-in-law, after he'd been killed instantly in a construction zone on a Wisconsin interstate. He and my sister were on their way to Minnesota to visit their kids and grandchildren. He was killed instantly.

She was a resident in the old folks home. That time, her remaining four sons delivered the news.

By a country mile, her allotment in sadness and death exceeded what most of us will ever suffer. But yesterday, at her funeral, when the pastor spoke and her family reminisced, the sweet face that appeared right there in church was smiling because she always did. One after another, her grandkids claimed her giggle was perfectly infectious. And it was. I swear when they spoke, her smile lit up the sanctuary.

One of her sons told the audience that with six rough-and-tumble boys growing up on a hard scrabble farm, there were weeks and months, even years, when there was no end of trouble. Once, he said, when he was in it, when he was right there in the heart of horror, his mom offered him that smile and said just three words: "Count your blessings."

That testimony plays in a league all its own.

Funerals do good work when they concentrate attention. This one did. 

Once upon a time, in a moment that doesn't need to be detailed, she looked at her boy, one of six, and this woman who'd suffered so much sadness, so much trauma, gave him a line to live by, a line that to me, up until yesterday, when he repeated it, seemed little more than an empty cliche. 

"Count your blessings," she told him, smiling. 

Never in my life have those three words carried so much love.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Morning Thanks--Vets at Standing Rock

It was an unusual prayer request. Most all of the members of the little church up the road are steadily getting up there in age, so requests almost always have hospital settings. Most people know other people who are dying, often relatives. It's fair to say, that political consciousness isn't high, in part because life itself is the major concern.

So yesterday when the widow a pew over raised her hand and said what she did, her prayer request was unusual, but understandable too. It had to do with the veterans on their way to North Dakota, a couple thousand of them, she reminded us, to protect the protesters. "We should be praying for them," she said, robustly, holding a little lapful of attentive grandson who seemed greatly satisfied with his binkie.

The standoff at Standing Rock started months and months ago. There's nothing new about it. Yesterday, after church, the whole congregation could have got into cars and taken a gravel road three miles north to see the swath where the black snake has been already laid beneath precious Iowa topsoil thoughtfully returned to the corn and soybean fields the pipeline transgressed late summer. 

I'd wondered about the news story of the veterans. I'd wondered what locals might think about 2000 vets heading up to all those protesters thereby giving the whole movement a cutting edge it hadn't had as long as it was only a bunch of Indians. In our church, I didn't remember anyone asking for prayers for the Lakota people. After all, right here, a block from church, dozens of travel trailers belonging to the Dakota Access pipe crew inhabited downtown for months. The workers were honored guests.

What changed up north was the attention of "the veterans," a couple thousand of them, due to arrive yesterday in North Dakota. What charged that grandma's passion was safety for "the veterans." She didn't mention the protesters. She wanted the Lord to look out for the veterans. 

Just so happens that I know a veteran who's been there more than once in the last several months, one of the protesters, in fact. I rather doubt local law enforcement fears her much, nor did she go up to Standing Rock simply to protect peace-loving protesters. She's no strong arm, after all. She's 96 years old, a protester herself. 

She's Lakota, from the Cheyenne River Reservation, just south of Standing Rock. She's a highly decorated vet who served with Allied forces once a beachhead was established at Normandy, once it was safe enough for her and her unit of army nurses to put up a makeshift hospital on ground only recently freed from the Nazis. The French people rewarded her with a medal for her heroism a few years ago, flew her to Normandy to pin that medal on her.

That vet's been to Standing Rock before.

I think it's wonderful that the grandma with the toddler asked for the prayers she did. It wasn't all that much later yesterday when my phone lit up with news service headlines about the Corps of Engineers determining the time had come to search out alternative routes. Reportedly, great rejoicing erupted at the protesters' camp. 

Maybe it was that grandma's request that registered with the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Or else it may have been the rabbi from Oregon, who told the protesters yesterday that what was happening right there before their eyes was a "battle in a greater war. It’s a war for the hearts of humanity. And the only way to win that war is through prayer," she said. "You can’t win by fighting. They can take away your gun. But they can’t take away prayer."

Today, it's still Obama; tomorrow it'll be Trump. Who knows what'll happen? After all, you can bet Trump's got money in oil.

Just the same, what happened yesterday in North Dakota was an answer to prayer. I don't know if the Army nurse was out there yesterday in the cold--I don't think so. But I do know her well enough to know that today she's rejoicing. 

And so am I. This morning's thanks is simple: peace. 

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Miracles of Light

He wraps himself in light as with a garment; . . .” Psalm 104:2

I know when it came to me. I remember that morning well. I still have the photo that goes with the story, and while it holds no particular attraction to anyone else, to me it’s a reminder of what I learned that morning.

It was a Saturday, and I was somewhere north of here on the bluffs above the Big Sioux. 

Dawn was arriving and I was still in the car, trying desperately to find something, anything to shoot against. Some dawns are gorgeous all by themselves—the eastern sky a whole gorgeous palette. But others—mid-summer and mid-winter dawns especially—can be, well, boring, the sun rising from the horizon as if unattended in a sky that’s clear and undistinguished, buttery, at best.

Honestly, I don’t remember the sky that morning, but I remember my own frantic search for a setting because I ended up in the river hills, in someone’s driveway. Across the road was an open valley, some woods, and a little late fall color. The sun was just starting to bump above the horizon, so I jumped out of the car, took off running for a wood pile I’d spotted, hoping there were maybe some angles I could bring into composition. I was almost an hour from home, and I was starting to think I was going to get skunked. What I saw in my camera wasn’t much.

No matter how you cut it, it wasn’t a memorable dawn.

Then I turned back toward the east and saw the guy’s garage. A garage—that’s all. Not an old one, not something adorned with knotty, antique wood. Just a garage with plain, wide siding, neatly painted, off-white, and saplings he’d planted alongside just a year before, a half dozen at most.

When I looked through the lens, there was absolutely nothing for great composition—I swear it. I wasn’t going to make a million selling that picture, but I shot—six, seven, ten times because what I saw was somehow gorgeous: the light was extraordinary, wonderful. It spread parallel lines from the saplings over winter grasses frosted heavily enough to sparkle with life. The picture I took—and I love it—captures the soulful gorgeous essence of the side of some guy’s garage.
That morning, I learned something about landscape photography: it’s all about light. Standing just beyond the driveway, I felt as if I’d seen a vision. I had, and here it is: it’s all about light. While composition is important, capturing something breathtaking in a photograph is all a matter of light.

It took me nearly sixty years of living to realize how precious and priceless light really is—not just for photography, but for beauty itself. What is darkness but the absence of light? The night sky is memorable, not for its dense blackness, but for its pinprick sparkling jewelry, for its light. 

Every imaginative writer knows we draw a reader into a story we create with by way of the senses—all six. Want to make a character live? —don’t tell us, show us. The senses are the beginning of apprehension, in children too.

And where does our apprehension begin? Where did creation begin? In light. Let there be light, and there was. It’s all about light.

And this God, our God, takes this most gracious blessing, light itself, and wraps himself with it, as with a garment, verse two of Psalm 104 says. Want to see him? —check out his garment. When you want to see him, look at his light.

There he is now, honestly, just beside the garage.