Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Morning Thanks--off script

You better be imperturbable if you get behind the pulpit in the Home. You better learn to keep chugging along even though half the audience is sawing wood. You can't expect undying attention, you'll never get it. When the audience verbalizes, you better have the sea legs of a stand-up comic, because there's no telling what you'll hear.

Yesterday's Thanksgiving speaker, a local pastor, is a veteran up front, and he's good. He knows better than to lecture, he keeps them singing, and he tries--don't we all?--to engage the residents with questions. His enthusiasm soars because he believes what he tells him is getting in--and he may well be right.

The Home we visit is a sunset place, where residents leave only on gurneys. A memory unit locks up on one side of the building. It's a wonderful place, a Home to be proud of. Nonetheless, every visitor knows--as do some of the residents--that it is, most certainly, the end of the line. 

Yesterday, for Thanksgiving, the nurses emptied the rooms, so the chapel was overflowing. The residents were just about all there.

If you preach to that kind of congregation, what you deliver is something like a children's sermon: you ask only those questions you know they can answer--"Who came from heaven to earth?" Good questions have answers that come in a chorus of voices. 

That's what the pastor was doing yesterday, but senility is a tougher nut to crack. When a dozen Alzheimer's patients compose a goodly chunk of the audience. . .good luck.

I'd never seen the woman whose wheelchair was front and center before. She didn't look particularly happy, and it soon became clear that her throttle wasn't performing to specs--she talked quite a bit, undirected commentary, you might say, not mumbling either. She seemed to be making commands. There were times I thought she was telling the pastor what he needed to know in language neither he or anyone else could exactly translate.

He was preaching about pilgrims. Thanksgiving was a truly American holiday, he said, born and reared in the U.S. A. He kept the screen up front full of pictures. 

Right behind us, someone growled every thirty seconds or so. Not softly either. I don't know how else to describe the sound. Could have been a man or a woman. I don't know. 

"Faith" is the word the preacher was fishing for, what he wanted to hear from the residents, the word he figured they could pull from their memories. "Faith" is what he wanted them to say, the lesson he wanted to teach. 

"The pilgrims intended to get to Virginia," he told them, "but they got off course. When they came to land, it wasn't Virginia at all, but Cape Cod." Energetic, even athletic speaker--one of the best. "When they came off the Mayflower, they put down in a strange land." And then came the question. "And in that strange land, what did these good Christian people really need?"

The woman in front, the commander-in-chief, sounded out the only understandable thing she said during the service. "Indians," she said.

I giggled. I couldn't help it. 

"Indians," she said, loud and clear.

There are, this Thanksgiving morning, a world of things for which we're thankful, so many that it gets awkward to create a list. This morning I'm still smiling, remembering that sober-faced woman's answer, and thankful for a world that surprises now and then, life that doesn't always stay on script.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving Thanksgiving*

Some people may be accustomed to scarfing down such huge platefuls of turkey and stuffing in the middle of the day, but I'm not one of them. Thanksgiving dinner--for which we all give thanks--is just so thick and starchy (heavy-laden with gravy that honors our departed Grandma, whose recipe it is) that by two or so in the afternoon, it's a wonder the whole adult family hasn't passed out.

That's why I like to hike on Thanksgiving afternoon, even though there's not all that much daylight by late in the day. We drive out to Oak Grove, a wooded park along the Big Sioux, and work off some of the excess after the Thanksgiving extravaganza. But this year it was too blame cold, a sharp northwest wind icy enough to take a bite out of your face, the windows still thick with Jack Frost.

The bowling alley's long gone, so I asked my daughter if there were any movies playing downtown, something appropriate for her kids, which is to say our grand kids. Yeah, she said, so three blocks was the best I could do for a hike--straight west to the theater, where we donned special glasses and watched Tangled, Disney's version of the Repunzel story in a 3-D version so real my grandson and I kept reaching for butterflies when they came floating past.

In David Brooks' last column in the NY Times, he quotes that odd Christian curmudgeon Tolstoy like this: “The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” I sat there beside my tow-head, second-grade grandson, watched him lose himself in the story, and told myself that there's so much I just haven't learned about stories, like what they're all about, after all. He was teaching me. I was learning new stuff from him because between the two of us, we were dead lost, him loving the story, me in him loving it. And him.

I watched him turn away disgustedly as little boys do when finally Repunzel and her sweetheart thug-turned-saint finally, delightedly, kiss. He just couldn't watch. When the two of them faced sure death by drowning, when it looked like the end was near, he flipped off those glasses and looked up at the ceiling, sure, I guess, the whole story was going to come crashing down on him like a third-rate garage door. I watched Tangled through my grandson's eyes, and when he snuggled up against me during all that high Disney tension, I felt the tremors in his heart and soul.

I came out of that theater telling myself that it's no dang wonder I haven't figured out how to finish that novel of mine because I hadn't been thinking of what it's all about, hadn't seen the wonder in my grandson's bespectacled eyes or thought at all of trying to making sure that novel offers people what Tolstoy says it must--the sheer joy of loving life.

Disney snatched a few tears out of me on the holiday--I'll admit it. Maybe one or two because all things worked together for good in that zany, hairy movie, but also because my grandson lent me, for two hours, his child's heart, an act that gave that movie even more wonder than anything you could see through those plastic glasses.

This morning--three days later--I'm still on a high, and for all of that I give thanks. Thanksgiving thanksgiving.

Oh yeah, the meal was terrific and the pie was to die for. That too.
*First published November 28, 2010. The tow-head is now a sophomore.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A shocking reversal

Even if you don't count dedicated Trump haters, the number of people who love this picture has to be abysmally low, don't you think? The boys are so money-bloated they can, on their father's dime, fly anywhere in the world and put their wheels down for no good reason other than death. They can hire the most experienced guides, equip themselves with the finest firepower, and know, going into the bush, that they'll come out, not just with an animal, but a trophy. 

So let's just start here: this photo generates hate created, for some, from envy. These boys--they're not "boys," but it's easier to call them that--are living the American Dream. They made it--or their father did, or his father before him. They've got planes and yachts and thirteen homes in America's posh-est neighborhoods. They're the super-rich.

Goes without saying that the animal lovers hate it. The mere idea of rich kids reveling in having killed an animal as beautiful as this leopard is not just disgusting but despicable. Thousands, I'm sure, would much rather see the cat alive than the boys. In America today, far more people hate the NRA than love it. Some would, without a doubt, call this picture horrifying, obscene. 

Then there's those who forward the pro-life argument. The excitement written all over the boys' faces results from one hideous fact: death. They came to Africa with the express purpose to kill. That's all. If that's not true, then why didn't they simply pack a Nikon with some super-expensive lens and shoot photographs? It's not the hunt they loved; don't give me that. It's the kill, the rush of power that moves from the trigger-finger directly into the heart.

It's not difficult to hate this picture. In all likelihood, it would have been better for the boys if the American public hadn't seen it. It may well be good for the vaunted "Trump brand," but millions, world-wide, are sickened.

And millions found the boys' daddy's ruling, last week, just as awful, the ruling allowing elephant and lion trophies to be imported from Africa again, a ruling that ended Obama-era policies prohibiting the importation of endangered animals. Trump, it seems, won't be truly happy until he gets his picture taken with a dead Obama, which will never happen. 

For a couple of days, it was impossible not to separate that ruling from this picture. Daddy acted because the boys want to go back to Africa. They need trophy elephants for their man-caves. Daddy thought it would be a good idea to get them out of the way for a while; after all, Junior's in trouble with special counsel Mueller. Send them both out to the veldt. 

But then something happened that defies our year-long understanding of the new President. He reversed the order. Just like that, the man who doubles down more naturally than he breaths, did an about face, claiming the issue needs to be studied. Amazing.

Last night, our granddaughter left out place and just about hit a deer in the gravel road to the highway. It saddens me, even sickens me, to see the number of deer killed every week on highways right around here, dozens of them; but there are more white-tailed deer in Iowa today than there when the Sauk and Fox and the Iowas were the only real Hawkeyes. They're everywhere.

I'd much rather have hunters harvest the extras than see those dozens of broken bodies in the ditches all around. I'm not anti-hunting. If reputable game managers determine that herds of elephants and leopards throughout southern Africa will be more healthy if there are fewer animals, then send in the hunters. I don't trust Trump's environmentalists, if it can be said that he has them. But I'll give them the opportunity to make their case.

I don't know how it happened, how President Trump turned around and halted what he'd just a few days earlier proclaimed. It's just not the Trump brand.

But I like it. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Justice for Slick Willy

That I never called the guy "Slick Willy" doesn't mean I trusted him. I didn't. Not even before Monica. I voted for him once, but not twice. An old friend of mine used to say Bill Clinton is the kind of guy who'll shake your hand and pee down your leg at the very same time. That old friend is a bona fide liberal.

I opposed impeaching him. The whole intern business was eighth-rate sleaze, but--and I'll admit it--until the blue dress, I was skeptical of the others, "the bimbos," as some called them, "trailer trash." Once Bill Clinton said "I did not have sex with that woman," once he flashed that crooked pointer, it was hard not to believe any accusation.

Still, thumbing him out of office seemed a stretch. Kennedy would have been long gone, and Eisenhower, and who knows how many others? What he put the country through with Ms. Lewinsky--and the bald-faced lie he told--was, to me, unforgiveable but not impeachable. "The Big Dog" seemed an apt nickname. Or "Commander in Briefs." Or out of them.

But another nickname was probably most fitting: "The Bill we'll be paying for years." Clinton is haunting us now, even though his wife is already largely disgraced. He's not dead, but he hovers over everything like some Halloween monstrosity. When he got on Loretta Lynch's airplane down in Phoenix and claimed the two of them talked about whatever but not whoever, who could believe "Willie the Weasel"? Hillary's ill-fated Presidential bid went down for a dozen reasons, but that stupid venture onto a Phoenix tarmac had to be up there with the other flashing headlines.

Divine justice, right now, is front and center. The articles of impeachment got tossed twenty years ago, but Clinton's foul behavior didn't. When Donald J. Trump brought the Clinton accusers along to the second debate and set them in the front row, he did something he didn't need to because they were there anyway.

"Access Hollywood" you say? Big deal. Locker room stuff. You want indecency?--have a gander at the Clinton girls. That's Trump scuz, but Clinton's reprehensible behavior made it work.

Right now, the list of abusers in this country is as long as your arm--I won't bother with names. But Bill Clinton's reputation--which was never sterling--has fallen off the table because it's painfully obvious that very little separates him from Bill Cosby. Unlike the holy Judge Moore, Clinton never trolled malls looking for high school cheerleaders; but the President of the United States lied, flat-out, to an entire nation he'd been given authority to lead. He told people he was feeling their pain while stabbing them in the back.

"He who sups with the Devil had best use a long spoon" is a proverb that isn't, but could be, biblical. With Bill Clinton, I'm glad to say the old wisdom works twenty years later. I don't think Ken Starr was right. I don't think Clinton's lying about Monica Lewinsky was an impeachable offense. But the Big Dog left us knee-deep in dirt we didn't clean up, and thereby created a place for Donald J. Trump to leave his. 

Right now, that Clinton is despised again, even by his own, is only right. The impeachment failed. He stayed in office but fell from grace--if he was ever there. 

I'm not happy he's down, but you can't help but enjoy a reckoning, seeing just rewards in operation. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--"the legs of a man"

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, 
nor his delight in the legs of a man;. . .” Psalm 147:10

The athlete in me is well into the fourth quarter; and even though the clock is ticking down, the game has slowed. Rarely, do we miss a day at the gym. Once the last tomatoes are out, we get our exercise inside, sadly—or else walk outside somewhere, if the wind isn’t brutal, which, these days, it often is.

Inside, I get on a couple machines and work up a sweat, the blessed livery of a gym rat at any age. I lift a few weights, even though “buff” is a pipe dream. Basically, that’s all that's left for an aging four-sport jock, once Oostburg High School’s “Athlete of the Year.”  Sad to say, years ago I lost the gold cuff-links that came with that great honor. 

Not so very long ago, I met a nice, young kid, a senior in high school, who expressed an interest in majoring in English when he got to college. He was thinking about enrolling at the college where I taught, and my job was to sweet talk.  As it turned out, his passion was basketball—that’s what he told me. English was okay for a major, but history or math would do the job too. What he really wanted was to coach.

Could have been me a half century ago. 

Great kid, sweet kid—great kid to have here, even though he didn't major in English and didn't play ball. No matter. Back then, his passion was basketball, he told me, eyes ablaze.

He wanted to play ball in college, but he knew making the team would be no cakewalk.  He told me a hot shot from his small, Indiana high school came here a few years ago and didn’t even make the team—so he said he was prepared. He was and he didn't.
That day, I told him I’d seen guys emotionally hamstrung when suddenly they didn’t have to turn up for practice every afternoon of their lives. I knew ex-jocks who felt bright lights go out once the rhythm of after-school practices ended. I went through that myself—delirium tantrums for gym rats. Once you don't make the team some identity just plain dies.

He said he knew all of that.  He said he was prepared.

But my word, did he want to play. Basketball, he told me a half dozen times, was his passion.

Verse ten of Psalm 147 is a gift for jocks, a reminder to a million wannabee all-stars that there’s more to life than being MVP. I tried to tell him as much, but some lessons get learned only by experience.

Not long ago, I spotted a lanky grade-school kid shooting free throws. When he went after the ball, his long legs arched a bit like a pair of fine parenthesis, the sure sign of speed and wholesale athletic gifts. Good for him.

But God doesn’t care. The psalmist says He takes no delight in the legs of man, whether or not they’re sharply defined as a thoroughbred’s.

And that’s good to hear, especially when my knees occasionally require cortisone. Neither the size of our engines nor the thrust of our calves means anything at all. We’re loved, even when we don't make the team. 

Once upon a time, I met a kid who told me a half dozen times that basketball was his passion. That was more than ten years ago. I'm guessing this little verse will bring him comfort, as it does me, an old man who long ago lost his prized cuff links.

It’s good to be reminded—at 18 or 68—that God doesn’t much care what's in a trophy case.  Some people might, but he doesn’t. 

Bless his holy name.  

Friday, November 17, 2017

Leo Dangel, "Pa"

Listen. This sounds like Jim Heynen, one of Sioux County's finest writers. The  two of them had to be friends, and they were, two boys Old McDonald farms, an era of cows and pigs and chickens, eggs that had to be gathered and barns that had to be scooped. 

Listen to this guy, Leo Dangel*. Here's a poem of his, just "Pa."

When we got home, there was our old man
hanging by his hands from the windmill vane,
forty feet off the ground, his pants down,
inside out, caught on his shoes--he never wore
underwear in summer--shirt tail flapping,
hair flying. 

Don't ask what makes it poetry, just listen. Leo Dangel is spinning a yarn made sad by the old man's horror--there he is, buck naked, upside down, hanging from the windmill. Don't laugh. Yet.

My brother grabbed a board.
We lugged it up the windmill and ran it out
like a diving board under the old man's feet
and wedged our end below a cross bar. 

Once upon a time farming, by necessity, created thousands of homepun engineers. How many kids today could jerry-rig a way to get the old man down? 

              "I just climbed up to oil a squeak,
reached out to push the vane around, slipped, damn
puff of wind. I swung right out."

If you haven't yet, it's now safe to chuckle.

We felt strange helping him down.
In our whole lives, we never really held him before,
and now with his pants tangled around his feet 
and him talking faster, getting hoarser
all the way down, explaining, explaining.

Human of the old man to fill up the air with explanations.  And the boys felt strange?--good night, what about him, born along like a sack of grain, the whole pink package of privates out there midday.

On solid ground, he quivered, pulling up his pants.
I said, "Good thing we came when we did."

The kid had to say something, right? Look, there's no damage here if you don't count ego. But you can't quite laugh either, the boys couldn't, I mean. At this point, even the reader has got to sort of grin-and-bear it, too. What happened to Pa isn't pretty. 

His eyes burned from way back. His hands
were like little black claws. He spit Copenhagen
and words almost together.

Poor guy. Poor, poor guy.

                                       "Could have hung on
a long time  yet. Anyway, you should have been home
half an hour ago."

If you ask me, up until that last line, it's all story. But when the old man lights into the boys the way he does, while still zipping his trow, this wonderful little tale pivots into poetry. All of a sudden it's ours because with that flung-out scolding, Pa isn't just pa--he's every last farmer, trying his everlovin' best to create order out of the chaos, make sense of the lunacy.

And he's even more, don't you think? "Anyway, you should have been home/half an hour ago" he says, a perfect delight of a line. His bibs still coming up, Pa, as all of us would, is doing what he can to snatch back some scrap of dignity.

I didn't grow up on a farm, never climbed a windmill, never lost my trousers; but that doesn't mean I've never been Pa.
*Leo Dangel was born and reared around Freeman, SD. For years, he taught literature and writing at Southwest State University, Marshall, MN. "Pa" is from his collection titled Home from the Field.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Report--Sherman Alexie's memoir

I think it was a therapist who gave me the line, a family therapist who was, she said, quoting someone else. When a mom or dad loses a child, she said, the rest of us simply need to look the other way for five years, minimum. We need to forgive anything and everything. Such is the ferocity of the loss of a child.

Not long ago, Sherman Alexie, certainly among the most prominent Native writers in America, lost his mother. He'd lost his father years before, but his father--quiet, unassuming, often not around-- was not so forceful an influence in his life. His mother's presence, on the other hand, filled every last room of the home, crowded out everything else even after he'd moved away.

Alexie's new memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, is a scorching indictment of her abuse--for that's what it was. I can't begin to count the times I wanted to look away from what Mr. Alexie earnestly determined to show me. The raw emotion on just about every page made me think Alexie should have waited five years to say what he does throughout. It hurts to read this book.

That his mother and her husband didn't know how to love their children is achingly obvious. For three long years, Alexie and his mother, a all-night quilter with a vicious tongue, didn't speak a word to each other. Today, he claims he doesn't remember why, nor does he remember how the silence finally broke. What he claims not to be able to forget is sitting beside her in a car in perfect silence--time and time and time again, saying absolutely nothing.

While he was on tour with this book, Alexie kept seeing ghosts of his mother's presence, so many and so vivid that he fell into a black hole of depression that forced him to cancel numerous appearances. I'm not surprised. To hear him read his work--he reads the Audible version--is almost as painful as what he's left the reader to stumble through on the page. Alexie hates his mother; it's that hate he puts under the microscope to examine and confess by way of 78 sketches and 78 poems, in commemoration, I guess, of his mother's 78 years. 

There were times--plural--when I thought I'd quit reading. I'd had enough. There are moments in abundance when I would have preferred him simply to have gone outside into a woods or open field somewhere and just howled. 

I can't help but think of Dutch Calvinists as being slaves to guilt. After all, I am one. Garrison Keillor claims Norwegians and other flavors of dark-visaged Minnesota Lutherans do it better than anyone else. But Jews claim when it comes to dark introspection, they'll take second-place to no one. In You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie becomes the Superman of guilt.

But he has reasons. As a child, he was sick, subject to seizures, a runt in a warrior culture. His father was hardly there, never had a job, drank for a living. His mother, among the last Native speakers in the Spokane community, was, to others, as great a hero as a horror. By any measure, she was not a good mother.

Halfway through high school, Alexie seemed to realize that the rez school he'd been attending would basically rob him blind. On his own, he opted out and walked away from what for him should have been and still is, home. He went to town, to the white people's school, where he became something he never was and would never have been on the rez, a hero and athlete. He went to a school where he was the only Indian.

He has good reasons for guilt. 

He's a man gifted with words, who has performed beautifully and thoughtfully for a largely white readership. To paraphrase the Bible, Sherman Alexie is not so much in his world as he is of it; and that uneasy positioning creates a tightrope that makes life treacherous. The sub-title here is telling: "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian." What's inside the man is soft, but he wishes it wasn't, so he rages--at everything, at his mother, at the rez that raised him, at the holy hell he came from, and the white world he lives in as "an urban Indian." 

All that having been said, at the end of this year I'm sure I'll find it difficult to name a single title that affected me as deeply and taught me as much as You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. I wish I could say I liked it. It was, throughout, painful. I wanted to read the book to know something of what it is like to grow up the way Alexie did, and that's exactly what I learned, in sadness and awe.

But then, a man or a woman--any reader--can learn a great deal from a sorrowful howl in the night. I certainly did.