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 20, 2017

Morning Thanks--a growing lawn once more

The old one started good, cut cleanly, purred like pet. When I bought it, years ago, it was the bottom of the line at the Coop, but the Coop doesn't sell junk. It was doing well, but it was tiny, and once we moved, we had a huge lawn.

At the old place I had a rider too, especially for the leaves that swamped the place every October, knee-high if I didn't pick them up three or four times a fall. That rider was model A, an ancient Toro I bought, used, twenty years before, when I had to find some way dang way to deal with those massive lindens and their frying pan leaves. I sold that old buggy before we left.

The old walk-behind is gone too. It was just too small. The new one is huge, a Timemaster no less. We planted a goodly chunk of our acre with native wild flowers, and, first year, cut it just as often as the lawn, so the new lawn mower had to take a big bite. I figured, retired, I needed the exercise. It's not a rider. 

Wasn't cheap, but it starts quick, cuts cleanly, purrs like a pet, and takes out a swath of lawn a yard across. Okay, that's stretching it.

Last year I used that tank of a mower all the time. Enjoyed it too. Told myself for once I'd made a good decision. This year I stopped mowing the prairie, let all those wildflowers grow. Otherwise, nothing's changed except the weather, which didn't seem anywhere near a drought; but for some reason the grass never grew a whole lot, didn't brown either just took the summer off. 

So that tank mower spent most the summer in the garage, which is  fine. It's not a Lamborghini or some big, bad Harley. I'm not dying to get it out on the road.

But there's just enough cool and just enough rain these September days to make all that emerald around the house shine again, almost like spring. With the big spindly sunflowers and the blossoming asters, a few flashy greenhouse annuals, and those clattering aspens, there's green out back and all around, summer's last show. It's time to get out the big mower. 

Retirement is real joy in just little things. I've always enjoyed cutting lawn, but never got up smiling, knowing that new Toro would start on the very first pull. Today, I won't change the world, I'll only mow the lawn. And that's just fine with me.

This morning, I'm thankful for a September lawn that's lush and green and the opportunity to take the time to love it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Morning Thanks--the clean-up crew

I'm about to say something that should make generations of students, my students, irate. It's a confession, and confession is good for the soul, or so I've been told. Trust me, it's not easy admitting this. I'm five years on the other side of a classroom career, far enough away to believe I'm free to say what I need to, although I may have to lawyer-up.

I taught English for forty years and read thousands and thousands of student essays, even enjoyed it. Not everyone can do that and not everyone can say that, but I can. I'm not lying.

But I am sidestepping. I promised a soul-scorching confession, and now I'm just dancing. (Deep breath). Okay, here goes. I'm a ridiculously bad proofreader. Proofreading is a job I can't do, a skill I don't have, an art I can't practice. I know people who are good. I know people who are terrific. I'm not.  

I've graded countless papers, marked them up in war paint, dressed them up--and down, cajoled, upbraided, stroked, sweet-talked, massaged, sent kids to their doom and brought them close to classroom glory, tens of thousands of 'em; and for all that time, red pen in hand, I was a outright fraud.

I've officially given up on a novel I've had around for years, finally determined that at 70 years old I'll never see it in print if I don't publish it myself. I'm too old to get some whipper-snapping agent to take me on. It's not like I've got a dozen novels in me anymore--I don't. 

Besides, publishing is a whole new world these days. Everybody's self-publishing--well, just about everybody. If you're a celebrity, publishers will beat your door down for whatever ink you can muster. But if you're a schmo, good luck. Still, a couple hundred publishers will be glad to take your money.

That means I've got to do the hard work--proofreading--and I can't. An old friend of mine says that in order to proof well you got to go through the manuscript backwards. Sure. I can't.

That doesn't mean I don't try. I read a sentence, any sentence, and tell myself I can do better; so I delete half of what's there or add a dependent clause or two. I combine sentences, check the thesaurus, manipulate character, throw a little more salt into plot. In other words, I read twenty pages and what's behind me is a bloody battlefield that's got to be proofed again because I can't change things wholesale and expect spotlessness. I've got to do it again--fourth time, fifth time. 

And when I do, I slip right back into editing, changing sentences, cutting out the fat, making things better. I can't help it. 

Really good proofreading creates sinless copy. Really good editing makes it saintly. But saints can't be sinners. Dumb thing's got to be clean. I'm a decent editor, but a hopeless proofreader.

So I enlist my wife, who's much better. 

Anyway, here's hoping. Today, I'll type in her final corrections. That's it. No more. Just what she marked. 

Fat chance.

When finally this novel comes out, I'll have nightmares starring old friends who will shake their heads and whisper to each other that Schaap is losing it. I can see it already.

This morning, this woebegone writer is thankful there are those who have, throughout my life, accomplished a job at which I am worthless. Proofreaders are good men and women adept at cleaning up after those of us who can't. They're the saints, my wife among 'em.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Morning Thanks--Monarchs among the asters

I won't try to be something I'm not. The fact is, I didn't "walk beans" often in my life, but I did do enough acres to know farming wasn't for me. My father-in-law was very specific when it came to identifying the enemy, and one of the villains was milkweed because, he said, that stuff has a lateral root--you chop it off here and it just comes up again over there, a beast of the bean field. Then he'd give me my machete, and we'd start walking.

Lo and behold, that very hated milkweed is fundamental foodstuff to monarchs. Dad didn't know that, and neither did I. Keep milkweed out of the soybeans and you make it tough for monarchs to find apartments when they need to because that pernicious milkweed is the only domicile they'll take. Monarch caterpillars are insanely picky eaters. 

So I was thrilled, really, when the little acre behind our house birthed a half colony of milkweed this year. Last year maybe three plants came up--that's it. This year there must be a dozen. 

Now you don't have to be a horticulturist to see that these monarchs, yesterday, were nowhere near the milkweed. They were thrilled by an aster bush. 

No matter. I was happy enough to see them, and in volume. Once in a great while, a few individualist monarchs flitted through the backyard, but yesterday, for reasons all their own, six or eight chose to dine at once on the asters, playing peek-a-boo with me and the camera. 

Nah, that's not true. They were busy and pretty much oblivious to me. 

The sun was behind the clouds, or else these pics would be stunning. But the monarchs were anyway, and I felt grateful to host 'em. Monarchs in their unabashed beauty are ridiculously fragile for royalty. If they were really kings, there'd be no war. 

Monarchs among the Asters sounds like a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It's about time for them to pack up for Mexico. Yesterday, that end-of-summer cool rode in the air like a blessing. Here and there, whole cornfields are already gone for silage, and where the beans aren't yellowed, they're clearly on their way. Another growing season is behind us, sadly enough, which may have made this whole drama even more comely. Soon enough they'll be gone, the monarchs and the asters. 

So, gather ye rosebuds while ye can, as the poet saith. 

The asters aren't bad either, but this morning I'm thankful the fanciest nomads on the plains, royalty to be sure, just happened to stop by. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Frauds and grace

The LORD builds up Jerusalem; 
he gathers the exiles of Israel.” Psalm 147:2

At least Arthur Dimmesdale wasn’t married.  At least there wasn’t a a wife and kids around to suffer the dismal fallout of their husband and father’s tryst with Hester Prynne.  At least Dimmesdale was a bachelor when he dirtied the sheets.

Not so the latest evangelical pastor to bite the dust—he had a wife and children, not to mention a church of some 15,000 souls in the heart of the suburbs.  Not only that, but the whole sordid truth came gurgling forth, like hot tar, right before a national election in which, as his congregation would have it, the forces of evil were so obviously pitted against the forces of God—or their side.  And now there’s a fox in the hen house, or, to put it more boldly, a real rooster. So much for family values.

The whole truth wasn’t as ordered as the army of the faithful assumed it was. The general got himself tripped on his own lance, so to speak, and he’s limping today, groveling as well he should. After all, it’s one thing for him to have done what he did, quite another for him to have acted for so long as if he were blameless. 

Dante relegated hypocrites to the lowest circles of hell because he thought of fraud, a peculiarly human sin, especially displeasing to God. Sexual vices are only sins of the flesh, not the spirit; you can do much worse than love someone when you should not. But when humans deliberately mislead people who are in their trust, especially when it's done with false piety, Dante considered that kind of hypocrisy particularly evil and put its practitioners way down there on circle eight of the Inferno, with Cain and Judas, where the heat is really bad. 

The fallen pastor wrote out a confession of his sin, and when that confession was read to his congregation, many of the parishioners explained quickly that they were ready to forgive. Wonderful. We no longer live in Puritan New England. The question is, will they perhaps rethink some of the ardor of their political judgments? Will be they at least a bit less quick to judge others? 

Probably not. What characterizes contemporary American evangelicalism these days is its forever carping tone, its commitment to drawing lines in the sand. Changing that is not easy, even when their preacher confesses to the sin they most despise.

The glory of this verse of Psalm 147, the truth of the scripture itself, is that God will gather his own as he sees fit. He will use his own interpretation of his revelation, not ours. He won’t really care who we vote for or whether folks are murderers or sleaze-balls, gangsters or self-righteous snobs. He’ll reach down into the lowest circles of our conceptions of hell and pull out overheated hypocrites. He’ll offer grace hither and yon, broadcast his love throughout the cosmos. Count on this: He’s much bigger than we are. 

The shocking truth of the scripture is that, even if God almighty creates our theological coloring books, he never stays within the lines himself.  And that’s good news. Not only does God have a place in his grace for those who the preacher and his people despise, he’s even got room for the preacher.

He’s always bigger, always greater than we are, always cleaning up after us, always gathering the sheep who wander, as all of us do.

"He gathers the exiles of Israel." That’s us, and that’s the gospel truth.                

Friday, September 15, 2017

Tales of the soddie

The word is that we're sort of unique in Iowa, the only corner where people cut sod to create their first dwellings. What passed for housing for quite some time after Euro-Americans moved in were lean-tos and sod houses, domiciles whose thick walls created a level of insulation against ridiculous seasonal extremes that Siouxland dwellings haven't experienced since, I'm sure.

But soddies were nobody's dream homes. Why not? The neighbors, for one, creatures God meant to be outside the walls of human habitation, not in. The fact it, lean-to families never knew what kind of critter might emerge from the dirt ceiling and make himself at home, here and there a gopher or ground squirrel maybe, all manner of vermin, even an occasional garter snake. Creepy things, not house guests.

And rain. Anything significant and mud floors were the pits, literally. Sod houses were dark and wet and clammy and impossible to clean. When it didn't rain, the dust could stifle you. It's a marvel those immigrant Dutch women didn't suffer more breakdowns, living in dirt the way they did. If I'd look out my back window over a couple miles of rich prairie, it would likely take some work to see the neighbors, not because of distance, but because those lean-tos and sod houses blended in so well. The prairie school of Frank Lloyd Wright?--who cares. Sod houses were from the earth, in the earth, and of the earth. 

I've never done a search, but I don't believe I've ever heard a prairie hymn brimming with nostalgia for good old days in a soddie. I don't know that I've ever seen a sod house in a movie or a TV show. They were meant to function, to make do. They were dirt-filled starter houses any family could build. But I don't think anyone ever liked them. 

Minnesota's Laura Ingalls Wilder museum will send you on a road trip to see a hole in the ground on the bank of creek, the place where little Miss Laura lived before there was a little house on the prairie. That show ran for years and never put her in sod. Yucch.

Sod houses were how you got by until you got wood. They were what people lived in when they tried their best to put down roots in a land only the Yanktons had ever lived in with any joy. They had to be built, but didn't have to be loved. No one's first real home was ever so joyfully left behind.

No matter. There are a thousand good reasons to remember the place sod houses hold down in the epic drama of the Great Plains, even if there aren't a thousand stories people love to tell. 

But here's one. It was time for huis bezoek, an old Dutch Calvinist ritual for which there is no English translation. The preacher was coming to visit, along with an elder, to speak and pray and to determine thereby, formally and formidably, evidence of righteousness. 

There simply weren't chairs enough in the sod house that day, so Pa hauled in a couple of pumpkins. That late afternoon, for huis bezoek, Dominie Vander Snipe and his sidekick elder sat on pumpkins and quizzed the family on the Heidelburger.

It pains me to say it, but you have to be really old to like that story. Today, it won't be worth mentioning. Today, I'll be stationed right at the sod house at Sioux Center's Heritage Village when 900 school kids come through, look around, amazed, in the darkness, and, if they dare, touch the walls. It's a good job--trust me. I've done it before. Those kids can't believe people actually lived in such places. 

But they did, and today it's my job to let all those kids know where they come from.  Ought to be fun. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

September mists*

A fine mist seemed to flow, hither and yon, across the land west of town. You'd drive in an out in a minute, really, but when the sun came up--there were some clouds out east--that fine mist made the world something special, running like water through low spots. For the life of me I couldn't figure out why it would be in just beyond some hilltops and not beyond others.

It'll take a better photographer than I am to get that stuff into the camera. The camera itself doesn't know quite what to do with it. A ton of exposures simply weren't there, as if that electrical brain inside went nuts trying to determine what the idiot snapping the shutter wanted to get.

Ran into some pretty nasty looking spiders who create these elaborate webs in the grass. Just amazing. With just a bit of dew, those intricate webs hang like ropes. Those spiders are unbelievable weavers.

It was good to get back out again, and the morning was beautiful, even if I didn't get it all through the lens and into the files. Siouxland is yellowing deeply, the soybeans ripening, and the corn starting to get to that place where the crackling makes it noisy, even in a breeze. June's astounding emerald is almost overwhelming, but right now the variegated sloping hills west toward the river are a quilt of many colors. And that's good too.


How chunks of Siouxland looked on September 26, 2009.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Life among the white Protestants

Last week, Jennifer Rubin, a conservative Washington Post columnist but a confirmed "no-Trumper," used the findings of the Public Religion Research Institute to explain what some of us--me included--might well call Trump's super glue, whatever it is that bonds him and his loyalists. "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," he said right here at Dordt College. Amid falsehoods all around (Obama's wire-taps, size of inauguration crowds, three million illegal New Hampshires, etc., etc., etc.), that line was honest-to-goodness truth. 
White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations. …
Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants.
Those are depressing stats for someone like me, white and Protestant. That me and my ilk are a rapidly becoming a minority is not news; discovering that the feeling isn't some personalized species of religious paranoia, however, makes me even more weary.

When I was a child, no institution was more formidable than the church. What it held--the keys to identifying sin and redemption--was vastly more important than politics. That it had so much authority wasn't necessarily a blessing. After all, a lot of horror and injustice was created by an institution with that much unchecked power. Regardless, that era is long gone--and with the church's power itself. My people and my institutions seem running out of steam.
No religious group is more closely tied to the Republican Party than white evangelical Protestants. Nearly half (49%) of white evangelical Protestants identify as Republican, about one-third (31%) are independent, and just 14% are Democratic. Mormons also lean heavily Republican, with more than four in ten (44%) identifying with the GOP, compared to 12% who are Democrats. White mainline Protestants (34% Republican, 26% Democrat) and white Catholics (34% Republican, 26% Democrat) also lean more toward the Republican Party.
Every other year, Sioux County gives Rep. Steve King ("calves like cantaloupes") another term. When people talk about statesmen in the House of Representatives, don't look for his name in the among 'em--except here. His positions on immigration place him well to the right of mean, even though here, a robust economy would fall flat on its face without a labor force heavily populated with immigrants. 

I've always assumed Sioux County religious folk vote for King and voted for Trump for a few reasons: 1) they want an end to abortion--that's a religious reason; 2) they are Republican--that's a political and familial reason. But could there be a third?  3) they are losing power to outsiders--and is that a racial reason? 

The new findings of the Public Religion Research Institute suggest, Rubin says, that the fawning adulation of President Trump (and Representative Steve King) by white Protestants may well be rooted just as deeply in race as it is in religion. 
White working-class voters who say they often feel like a stranger in their own land and who believe the U.S. needs protecting against foreign influence were 3.5 times more likely to favor Trump than those who did not share these concerns.
White working-class voters who favored deporting immigrants living in the country illegally were 3.3 times more likely to express a preference for Trump than those who did not.
As white Protestants watch their power diminish all around, even in Wal-Mart, is it a stretch to believe their voting patterns, here and elsewhere, have racial roots too?