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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Where have all the flowers gone?

There is not one blade of grass.
There is not one color in the world,
That is not intended to make us rejoice.

He did well, I thought. I'll admit I wasn't expecting much. We were in a tiny country church whose doorway the deceased, an 85-year-old woman with Alzheimer's, hadn't darkened for a decade at least. The preacher didn't know the woman really, nor did I. Still, truth be told, I'd give him an A-. Not reluctantly either. Okay, A maybe. 

Having read ten thousand essays makes me forever a critic. But then sermon evaluation is way of life for any full-blood Christian Reformed kid of my era. I grew up in a loving home where sermon critiques were Sunday fare; but the only roast on the table was baked with potatoes and onions. Preachers didn't get cooked at the Schaap house; my father was PK. But sermons were pulled apart, and if found overdone, declared so. What I'm saying is that I can't help myself. When I hear a sermon I evaluate. 

Yesterday, I thought the preacher was sound and personal and comforting, which is just about all that's required at a funeral. An old friend whose father was a preacher used to tell her that funerals were lovely things because all he had to do was read Psalm 90 and he'd have rapt attention. I suppose yesterday the bar was low.

I didn't know the woman who died, my wife's aunt. She lived a ways away, and the family wasn't all that close anymore. But it's hard not to notice a casket in front of the communion table. Still, had my heart been heavy with grief, like some were, I likely wouldn't have been so critical.

The woman's obit set out how she was the one in the family, the kids said, who made sure that they got to church, that they knew what they needed to for Sunday School and catechism, that kept their spiritual lives in line. Like most farm wives of her era, her kingdom was the home, which reportedly she kept, smilingly. What she loved more than anything, the kids had told the preacher, was flowers and birds.

So that's where he started. He admitted his thumb was anything but green. The only plant he had in his study, he said--he didn't know exactly what it was--was plainly dying. The sermon--it wasn't too long at all--took aim at life's fragility, how, like most of the wild flowers in our backyard, beauty was fleeting. See them there?--well, tomorrow they're gone. 

Nothing new there. But then I've read Psalm 90 a hundred times, but I still get knee-capped by "establish the work of our hands."

The sermon was not an unfamiliar tune. In ancient poetry it's called ubi sunt, I think, if I can remember my notes from English lit. "'Where have all the flowers gone?" some hippy trio used to sing. It's lament, and it's old and staid and serious; not frivolous, not silly. He didn't try to be cute. There's nothing cute about Psalm 90. 

"Our flowers are only flowers"--that's it really. That's a line Edgar Allen Poe, but it was, for the most part, the basis of his sincere and gracious homily, and, as I've already said, it was good and right and fitting.

But I've been toying around with Calvin lately (that's not meant as oxymoron), and I've become convinced that somehow my own Calvinist education cheated me out of respect for JC's marvelous sense of the eternal beauty of this world. Sometimes, I swear, I think Calvin was Lakota or Navajo because flowers aren't just flowers in Calvin. See those lines at the top of the page?--that's him sort of, maybe a bit of a Schaap turn, but just about pure Calvin. 

Those flowers, the heavens above, the farmland all around getting ready for harvest, the hills and mountains, lakes and plains--they're not just object lessons. They're not gods, as the Yankton Sioux who once lived here beneath my feet might regard them, but neither is this world a flannelgraph. Calvin thinks they're so much God that only in their presence, only in our natural world, do we come to know, for sure, that he is God and we, for sure, are not. In flowers we come to see just exactly how much we need him.

How about this? 
Nothing is so obscure or contemptible. 
even in the smallest corners of the earth, 
that it cannot display some of the marks and the wisdom of God. 

Might have been Sitting Bull, but that's Calvin. 

What that preacher said at the funeral wasn't unbiblical (my spellcheck doesn't know what to do with that word). Not at all. "Consider the lilly," "the birds of the field. . ." You know. "Dust to dust"--it's all there. I'm saying he didn't breathe a word of heresy.

But I couldn't help wonder whether that farm woman who tended flowers out there in the yard all her life long didn't see more, even in those early-bloomin' hollyhocks, than ubi sunt. I can't imagine she thought of them as symbols.  

A rose is a rose is a rose, I wanted to tell him.

Don't get me wrong. It was a very fine funeral, and all around the front of the sanctuary stood beautiful flowers. 

This morning, my morning thanks is for having been there, at a funeral with more family than friends at a little country church in a world, by the way, radiant and gold with harvest.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Still the one

Look, the only Republican politician to come out of the last night's heavyweight match in worse shape than the Orange Julius was Ted Cruz. You know, "Lyin'  Ted," whose father, "some people say," could well have been complicit in the assassination of JFK, and whose wife is--well, you've seen her. Lyin' Ted caved last week and said he'd vote for his favorite narcissist liar (Ted's words) because the Donald added Sen. Mike Lee to his top ten Supreme Court nominees. Oh, yeah, there may have been other reasons, like his own political hide. 

But I bet Ted Cruz is kicking himself this morning. He got on a bandwagon all right. Last night, the Donald snarfed and whoofed and sucked water, he bilged and blathered and looked at everybody else on stage as if they were bunny dung. He really proved himself trustworthy, didn't he?--really proved himself the wise statesman the world could depend on. 

He came apart at the seams. 

He was a disaster. He scored on Hillary in the early moments, when Kellyanne's leash was still visible; but once things got rolling, once the real Donald started belly-aching, it wasn't pretty, even if you dislike him. He didn't so much leave the tracks as outright crashed and burned.

Gov. Romney beat up Pres. Obama in the first of the debates last time around. For reasons I don't think anyone really knows, Obama stood up there and got carpet-bombed for 90 long minutes. He got outthought, outshoved, out-ed as an idiot, made Romney look invincible. But he came back in rounds 2 and 3 to fight again. And win. Debates and election.

Maybe Donald's got it in him too. I don't know. But last night, after a half hour, he could just as well have gone off to one of his lush retreats to twitter in his responses. He'd have done better. 

By the end he was a sorry, snotty mess, out of control, full of billowing bluster, never more than when he insisted with characteristic arrogance than what made him the best candidate was his character: "I have much better judgment than she does. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know?"

Hillary didn't need to say a thing right then, and didn't. 

Trump was a big orange bottle rocket. He couldn't have done worse. 

I don't know that it will make any difference. Something close to half of this country thinks Hillary is the dragon and Donald is St. John of the Cross. Nothing's going to change. 

Nationally, each of them can only hope that the tens of millions of independents who now pledge allegiance to the Jill Stein or Gary Johnson tell themselves that neither of those candidates will be inaugurated in January. If they want to have a vote in who does, they'll have to go with one of the two most hated candidates for President in the history of the United States of America.

How did we get ourselves into this anyway? Seriously. 

What happened last night was not a match in any sense of the word. One candidate blew himself out of the water.

But to many, I'm sure, Donald Trump is still the Savior. Make that savior.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Corn Corners

It was, at the time, just another feature of northwest Iowa culture, I thought, like prices for open gilts, endless grain market reports, and a newsy list of the livestock coming up on the floor at the sale barn. "Corn corners" were a feature of rural life I had to get used to, a phenomenon I'd never heard of, something that felt a little paranoid, like my father forever arranging paper over toilet seats his little boy had to use on long trips. 

My mother-in-law gave them frequent reference in not-so-subtle warnings. She didn't like corn corners, quite often snarled about farmers who didn't give a hoot for their neighbors and planted crops as far up to the corner as they could. 

On the other hand, if you left a goodly space at the very edge, sort of like this--

you were a good man; and in a region as thoroughly Calvinist is this, being a good neighbor was not only sweet but biblical. 

I heard my mother-in-law say it several times before the whole story came out, how once upon a time years ago at the corner just east of the house, two cars, midday, had come roaring into a gravel road intersection. Neither suspected the other was coming. Neither slowed. Neither had any sense that pieces of both of those cars would never be put together again.

I knew the name of one of the drivers because his father was a neighbor. But little more than that. 

Here's what the paper said. "A 22-year old soldier, Gerald L. Bajema, of Orange City, is in critical condition at the Grossmann Hospital this morning (10:30 Wednesday) as a result of a collision northeast of Orange City Tuesday afternoon." The parenthesis are ominous, suggesting things could change, as they did. 

If you're wondering, I'm quoting the Alton Democrat of June 3, 1955, and the article says the two other boys, the ones in the other car, "are listed as fair." 

That awful crash occurred at a nameless intersection of gravel roads in the heart of Sioux County farmland, not far from the farm place my wife once called home. 

The Democrat describes what happened with almost childlike innocence: "The accident occurred 3 miles north, and 2 miles east of Orange City, at a wide open intersection; the result of two cars arriving at one spot at one time." It's a phenomenon country people here know bloody well.  

No paper today would say what the Alton Democrat reported in June of 1955. "Bajema's skull is fractured," it says, and then colors in the scene with details that make the horror more visible. "Bajema was driving a 1950 Studebaker convertible," the Democrat says and reports that he was home on furlough. By the time the paper published all of this, most all of the community knew all of that anyway, I'm sure. 

"Ironically, he was less than a half mile from home at the ill- fated intersection." More irony, more sadness: the boys in the other car "had also almost reached their destination at that point." 

My father-in-law tells me he saw it happen. He's 97 years old today, and says he remembers being out on the yard, not all that far from the "ill-fated" intersection, remembers seeing both cars coming, oblivious. 

My wife, who was seven years old, remembers the sound, as I'm sure her mother did. She died a decade ago now, but it was her mother who talked about "corn corners" in a refrain I thought risked obsession. In fact, she'd remind her daughter when her daughter and I would come back to Iowa from Arizona. She's say, "You tell Jim to mind the corn corners." She knew I wasn't a native. She knew I hadn't heard the sound of that deadly accident. "You remind him," she'd say because I was a foreigner.

The boy of Bajema, a soldier on leave, died sometime after 10:30 on Wednesday, but the sound of that crash is something that stayed very much alive in the minds of my in-laws. 

We live close now and sometimes return home through an intersection a mile east of the spot where Gerald Leroy Bajema died in that Studebaker convertible one sunny June afternoon on a corn corner. Honestly, I can't help but resent the farmer whose crops are out there so close to the scene of all that horror and thoughtlessly close to the road. He left a corn corner right there a mile from where the Bajema soldier was killed, planted his damned crop all the way to the edge of the intersection, leaving me and my kids blind to what's coming.

I went there yesterday with a camera because I wanted to document the guy's lust for Iowa gold. I wanted to write something about how quickly we forget, about how an extra hundred bucks, at most, seemed wicked. 

But the guy had cut his corn back, scalped things right where they should be. I'm not kidding. I should have taken a picture.

I don't know why he did it--it's not yet time to harvest. I don't know if he knows a story that happened just a mile west 61 years ago and left a mark on families all around. He's young. I'm sure he didn't hear the crash, but then maybe his mother told him that he shouldn't let those rows of corn obscure the vision of the neighbors coming up the road. 

I'd like to think she might remember early June of 1955, that someone else has. And if his mother's too young, maybe his grandma didn't forget. I'd like to think that. I'd like someone to remember because I know some who certainly didn't. 

In this corner of Iowa, the good news is, all that corn right there is gone. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Wrath

“Who knows the power of your anger?
For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.”
Psalm 90:11

I’m going to go to make a generalization I’ve no right to. Here it is. One of the good things about aging is that, through the years, we simply grow less angry—Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Grumpy Old Men notwithstanding. Old bucks like me have less testosterone, less dignity to protect, less turf to maintain, and therefore fewer reasons to boil over.

Hairlines aren’t the only thing to recede, so does quarrelsomeness. Aging means fewer people notice us. There’s just plain fewer risks. That reality doesn’t make you mad, just bad-tempered. Being peevish isn’t necessarily being wrathful.

Maybe I’m wrong about that.

Last night I was mad. Last night, I used language I shouldn’t have, even to my daughter, who didn’t have it coming, who had nothing to do with why I was boiling over. Last night—memorably, I might add—this old guy was spitting fire.

This morning I could still throw flames; in fact, I just sent out an e-mail I probably shouldn’t have. But I’ve calmed down a bit now, a bit; and thinking about that rare chunk of rage at arm’s length this morning is helpful when reading this strange verse from Psalm 90: “Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.”

It’s helpful because normally it’s easy for me to be embarrassed by the OT’s occasionally draconian Jehovah. I find it hard to know that hellfire God, maybe in part because at my age I don’t know all that much anymore about rage myself. Wrath may be one of the seven deadlies, but it’s not one I spent all much time repenting. I’m too old.
Not last night. The provocation, basically, was injured pride—I was convinced that certain people didn’t respect me. That explanation is half truth. What blew my cork was that I didn’t get my way. We’d worked our duffs off, but the whole project shipwrecked because someone in authority thought maybe someone else might be hurt. Honestly, the whole story is not worth a story.*

But my wrath is worth a story when I think about this line from the venerable 90th Psalm. Here’s what I’m thinking: maybe the OT God isn’t a far cry from who I am. If I read the whole Exodus narrative, it seems that what God wants more than anything is not to be an also-ran. In the panoply of gods running kingdoms in the Fertile Crescent, he doesn’t want to be just another graven image.
“Who should I say this God is?” Moses—the writer here—asks of this God.
“I am the always,” he says.

End of story.

And when people create golden calves of whatever size and extremity—this God, Jehovah, spits and fumes and, sad to say, often enough people die. He’s like me that way. Sort of. But nobody died last night, I’m happy to say.
Oddly enough, I wonder if I don’t think of God as human enough. If I were him and people didn’t really give me the dignity I’d deserved, I’d be mad—like I was last night. Maybe all that anger—it’s behind me now—maybe even all that blasted wrath is helpful. You think you got dissed?—just think of Him. And it happens on a daily basis, too. Shoot, hourly.
That’s more than a little scary. And that’s only half of it, this verse says. That’s not even the whole story. Your wrath is everything we can imagine, Lord—that’s what Moses says.

And then some.

And a great deal more.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Voter fraud

If Donald Trump is right, and his disciples stand guard at the polls to make sure nobody votes twice or three times or thirty, and if Rep. John Lewis is right in asking President Obama to send out thousands of federal election observers to make sure things go well, think of the size of the gathering outside the voting booth. Could be dozens out there watching.

Trump thinks the thing is rigged, although he hasn't been saying that lately, at least not as often or as loud. "Folks, the whole system is rigged," he'd say in the olden days. You remember.

That's why he told his people to hang around the polls and make sure none of those frauds sneak in a half-dozen times. If good people don't take the law into their own hands these days, you know what'll happen. 

Yes, we do.

You heard him say it. "The whole thing is rigged." His trainer has him on a leash now, looking more presidential. But if you ask, he'll still say it: "Get out there and supervise, you second-amendment people." You know Trump.

Now Rep. John Lewis, who marched in Selma a lifetime ago, is asking Obama to send election observers out because he doesn't trust the polls either, for opposite reasons. He's sure there'll be intimidation, sure some potential voters will be sent away without having filled out a ballot, as is their right. He may well be afraid of Donald's disciples. 

Now we got a situation. Of course 

There Are Nearly 300 Cases of Voter Fraud in America

or so said the headline in a right-wing website last year. 300. That's right. Think of it this way: if I gave you a bowl of Skittles, and 300 of them were bad, would you still count the Skittles? You know.

Amazing, isn't it? Amazingly silly. Real-live studies show voter and voting fraud is almost non-existent

No matter. Donald says the whole thing is rigged, even though conservatives have been rewriting suffrage laws to make sure those 300(!!) cases don't surface again.  The purpose of all that legislation is to counter all that voter fraud. 

No matter, I guess. Still rigged, Donald says.

Last week I watched forty-some brand new citizens swear allegiance to the United States of America. Never before had I witnessed a real naturalization event. The American Legion marched in the colors, opening remarks were given, four politicians sent staff to read their congratulations. 

Then a silver-haired woman sang a medley of patriotic hymns--"America the Beautiful," "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," a chorus or two of some old faves like "Yankee Doodle Dandy." She had a great voice, walked among those brand new citizens as if wooing them.  National anthem too.

Finally, the presiding judge, in his robe, delivered a bit of a homily and had all forty stand, raise their right hands and solemnly swear allegiance to the United States of America, which they did. Many had family standing and watching.

I couldn't help noticing that only one of the new citizens was white--from Eastern Europe. The rest--all of them--were people of color: African, Mexican, Central and South American. 

When it was over, the judge sent them all to a voter registration table set up just outside the room, where they formed a line. 

I doubt President Obama will do anything with Rep. John Lewis's request, but when I think about what I watched just last week, I can't help thinking, like Mr. Lewis, that maybe, come November, we'll need more people at the polls. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The plague of the biting midge

By nature and conviction, I swear I'm not paranoid, and certainly not subject to insane conspiracy theories. I tend to believe in experts and expert opinion, but on this one nobody freaking knows. Go ahead--do the research. Look for yourself. 

Right now the real terrorists in the neighborhood aren't religious or fanatic. They're a mite-sized bug so small you don't have a clue they're on you until you feel a needle of pain. Then you look and see nothing. The pain gets worse, and then there's another on your ankle, and you're wondering what kind of Twilight Zone you've stepped into. You stop what you're doing and look close, and then--and only then--do you see this itsy-bitsy beast, and only when you look really, really close. They're awful, and they're everywhere. They slip into the house as if a screen is a joke. They're on this page, for pity sake.

Two days ago, after two weeks away, I was looking forward to working outside, ripping out twisted tomato plants that still haven't worn out even though we have. There was a jungle out there, but it was a perfectly sweet late summer afternoon and would've been a great day if I hadn't spent more time whacking an invasion of irritation than I did deconstructing plants. I went inside, put on a bigger shirt--that helped, but I would have had to don something from a Hazmat locker to escape 'em.  

Yesterday, same thing, same time, same station. I lasted twenty minutes before I threw in the towel.

Yesterday my wife went to town and claimed she heard all kinds of people cuss about those tiny little insects.  "They're awful. What are they anyway?" I'd begun to regard them as the kind of curse arranged for country people only. Nope. They're townies, too. The whole region's besieged. 

Truth be known, I'm starting to think no one knows what they are, and the reason is simple. My armchair research says that they're some nameless branch of the fly family, from the Order Diptera in the family Ceratopogonidae, a definition which does nothing to quell my outrage. Here's the real bottom line--there are at least 4000 species of these terrifying tikes, which means that your guess is as good as mine or Dr. Insector Inspector down at the state u. I swear I'd nail it all down, but I can barely see the dumb things. 

Call 'em what you want. Everybody else does. "Biting midge," one website says, is a common name, but here in North America (they're everywhere, they're everywhere) people frequently call them “no-see-ums,” which isn't bad but feels sort of gracious to me, given that they chased me indoors for two afternoons straight. People in the northeast call them “punkies." They aren't. They're the real darn thing. 

My friends in the southwest call them "pinyon gnats," which suggests that they terrorize people out gathering nuts, which is sad. Down south, they're “five-O’s" because they don't start their assault until late afternoon (Reb insects are lazier than Yankees), and Canadians call them “moose flies." Canadians are a hoot, aren't they? Talk about oxymoronic.

Tell you what, I'll just call 'em a plague and hope their shelf life is two or three days because I'd like to get back outside without dressing as if I'm from the bomb squad. 

Seriously, they're everywhere. Yesterday I had a meeting, sort of, downtown. We arrived a little early, had to stand outside until the chair arrived. Guess what? In no time at all we were slapping at invisible enemies. There they were AT CITY HALL.

Pharaoh must have been insanely stubborn. This plague we're in is something awful. I'd have let those people go.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

From the Homestead (10)--Mystery and Miracle

The story goes that a man named John H. MacColl suffered mountain fever after coming west to Nebraska for his health, of all things. Wasn't just a set back either; inside of a day or two he was unable to move from the waist down, fully paralyzed. Somehow, he made  it to Fort McPherson, forty miles away, to see the post surgeon, who, after those visits, simply told Mr. MacColl that there was nothing he could do. 

Here's where the story gets going, the incredible complication of the old story. A traditional medicine man just happened along, or so the story goes, and somehow--the two of them not sharing a language--managed to explain to the bed-ridden MacColl that, if MacColl truly believed him, the old medicine man could heal him up good. 

Keep in mind that John H. MacColl had absolutely no choice at this point. Out there in the middle of nowhere, his life's prospects weren't exactly soaring, so he signed in for the treatment. 

The next day the medicine man brought along an interpreter to make clear what he'd  try to say the day before--that he could heal MacColl if MacColl would submit to the treatment he was offering. Once more, MacColl agreed. 

What's to come here isn't pretty, but then, I imagine, neither was MacColl's paralysis. 

The medic took a saw-tooth knife out of his pocket and began making a whole series of open cuts into MacColl's buck naked body, a hundred of them, or so the story goes. What it was, MacColl never really knew, but the medic took some kind of herb or something from a pouch and started to chew it as if it were tobacco. 

That munching accomplished, he spit something of whatever he was chewing into his fingers and proceeded to rub it into each of those hundred cuts.

That was the promised treatment. That was all of it. Trust me, I'm not swearing by any of this.

In three days, Laura MacColl says--John's sister--her brother could actually stand alone. A week later, he could walk.

Lots of talk about miracles as of late, the Vatican having substantially proven two of them attributed to Mother Teresa, the requirement for Roman Catholic sainthood. In a recent New York Times op ed, Jacalyn Duffin recounts a story for which she was subpoenaed to testify, the case of a woman so far gone with cancer that there was no question she'd begun the inevitable march to her demise. 

Not so. Months later--years later--the patient was still alive. Jacalyn Duffin was asked to testify, even though the hearing was ecclesiastical and Duffin an atheist. She was asked because the church wanted to know whether what happened was or was not a miracle from the likes of her, a physician of repute who's actually a certified atheist. Duffin says she made very clear that there was no scientific reason for the patient's still being alive. Here's Ms. Duffin's final paragraph.
Respect for our religious patients demands understanding and tolerance; their beliefs are as true for them as the “facts” may be for physicians. Now almost 40 years later, that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle. Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because that is how they are lived in our world.
So don't ask me about John H. MacConn. The whole story could be a fib or a myth or sheer happenstance. Maybe John H. simply had a bad case of gas and it passed--I don't know, and no one ever will.

As Ms. Duffin the unbeliever says, "Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump" the MacConn story? 

I'll just shake my head and let it be.