November 07, 2003
It's minus a few degrees tonight. Perfectly still. Full moon. The snow reflects the moonlight and makes the night twilight bright. It would be a beautiful night to go out cross country skiing. Its been so many years, though, that I have forgotten where my skis are.
Last night, in much the same conditions, I got up from bed in the middle of the night to see a big buck eating the grass under a small oak fifty yards from my sliding window. What a placid scene, lit up with the ethereal moonlight.
I would say he was an eight-point buck. Then again, that is what I say every buck is. Eight points. Nobody will ever know if I am lying because I don't shoot them. Another advantage to not hunting. You can lie with impunity about the bucks you see. In any case, he's a grand animal, and I hope he survives to become a 10-point buck in my back yard a year from now on Hunting Eve.
The biggest advantage of them all to not hunting: Not having to crawl out of bed to a cruel Saturday morning alarm and stand stone still in the snow tomorrow morning--before down in the below zero temperatures--waiting for a deer to amble by. And hundreds, no, thousands, will be doing just that in a few hours.
The holiday binge, which has only just begun, continued tonight at Mom and Dad's with a ham dinner by Mom. Baked potatoes. Squash with marshmallows. And delicious apple pie. The local cousins gathered to visit with Uncle Rolly and Aunt Jean.
It was good to see Uncle Orville with a nearly full plate. It has been many months since radiation and chemo temporarily ended his his eating of solids--but the cure seems complete, and the recovery from the cure is slow but sure. He apologized for having to cough a little with the food. Swallowing is difficult with one's saliva glands shut down, and radiation wreaked havoc with his whole swallowing system. Cough away, Uncle Orv--we're just glad to have you around!
Cousin Ryan, with prompting, told some fascinating stories of his work in a hospital in Minneapolis. He works in an intensive care unit, and as a quiet, philosophical sort, he doesn't just work, but observes. Plenty to observe in that situation. We pelted him with questions, spurred on at least in part, no doubt, by our family's preoccupation with health issues, an interest that frequently crosses the line into out-and-out hypochondria. But not tonight. Ryan, a pharmacist who advises doctors, kept the level of conversation higher than our specific medications, choosing to dwell instead upon the broader questions of medical ethics raised by his every day experience. Fascinating stuff, especially when you have it explained by somebody able to reduce it to everyday language. I suspect Ryan was relieved to escape without us lining up with our pill bottles for free consultations.
November 06, 2003
China Buffet, and an Aunt Ede meal, all in one day...
For my non-hot-beef-sandwich meal in Fargo today, I picked the new China Buffet House on Main Avenue, just west of the freeway. Darn good. Dozens of dishes. Lots of people. Great flavorings. The Buffet House is in a former Embers. I am afraid that if you carefully examined Chinese food, as it is served in such places, that it would be loaded with saturated fats and all kinds of things that are very bad for you. It is made worse by my habit of eating only meat. Salmon. Pork. Four kinds of chicken. Shrimp. And roast beef. No room for veggies.
Then, after errands, I dashed back to Fertile because Aunt Ede was cooking supper. You do not
miss an Ede meal. The occasion? Uncle Rolly and Aunt Jean arrived from Indiana today, and they haven't been here for two or more years. Good reason for Ede to put on a feast! She baked fish that Uncle Orv speared on the lake last winter. He caught some big northern last winter. The name of the lake where he caught them is a closely guarded secret. I know, but can't say, or I might not get invited over there for supper again.
So there was deliciously seasoned fish, mashed potatoes, peas and white gravy, a fruit salad, a jello salad, refrigerator pickles, topped off by sour cream apple pie.
Afterwards, I spent an hour going through a photo album Ede has made up of pictures of my grandparents and their ancestors. Grandma as a girl. Grandma with her Model T. Grandpa and Grandma as a young couple. Their parents. My uncles and aunts as babies. All sorts of cousins, not always identified. I do love old pictures! The resemblances passed down through the generations are uncanny, even spooky. I have my great-grandfather's hook nose.
Most striking, however, were the humble houses--shacks, by today's standards--where they raised those huge families. I mean, if an old bachelor lived in a place like that today, the county would step in a move him into HUD housing or something. But they raised baby after baby in buildings which looked for all the world like they were too flimsy to hold grain.
Well, it was a different world. How different? It is fifteen degrees out tonight. Can you imagine having to get up tonight in the middle of the night and go out to the outhouse? No thanks.
Apologies to the fine folks at Barnes and Noble...
I take back everything I said below about doing business with Barnes and Noble. Last book, they gave me the impression that if they bought any directly from me without first sending them to the distributor in Tennessee, they would be hauled to headquarters and dipped head first in a cauldron of boiling oil. Today I brought my new book into the Fargo store and the manager said, well, we need them right now, bring in twenty and we'll get you a check. She was a bit taken aback by my big hug, but I don't care. It was very exciting. She paid a higher price than headquarters would have, too.
What fun to find people who cut through red tape and simplify things. Its nice to sell the books, but its even nicer to find people who know how to get things done. It made my day.
We have a little charade we go through at the nursery when somebody wants to take a trip to Fargo. The trip cannot be for pleasure, it must have a business justification. The flimsier the excuse the better. Today, I am going to run down and get my oil changed. I could do it myself in the shop, or I could do it locally, but no, I am going to Fargo to the big dealership. Hardly worth a 140 mile round trip. But we also have run short of potato chips. And I am out of milk.
Of course, the real reason to go to Fargo is to get away.
To see civilization. To hang out at Barnes and Noble. To scavenge at Wal-mart. To wander the mall and watch people you don't know. To east something in a restaurant besides a hot beef sandwich. Behind the flimsy business justifications hides a simple need for a change in scenery. After seeing the bustle of the mall, and the nightmare of the Wal-mart parking lot, and after enduring the long waits at the stoplights--the empty roads around home look better than they did that very morning.
November 05, 2003
Eat, sleep. Such are the instincts when the weather gets cold. Immoderate coffee intake does little to keep me alert. Yawns take over. Adding ten pounds of padding is par for the course this time of year. The holiday feasting schedule contributes to the process. Yawn.
People are grumbling about the onset of winter weather. If we had a day like today in February, twenty-some degrees, a little melting, we would be happy. In November, the same sort of weather is an insult.
If the weather is decent outside, and one has the liberty
of going outside, then it is possible to sit inside and read without getting restless. But when it is foul out and one feels trapped, its tough to settle down enough to get distracted by the usual diversions.
This is one time of year when it would be nice to live a little closer to civilization, namely, near a Barnes and Noble bookstore where one could while away the evening and, most importantly, get out of the house, hear some bustle, and gather up a sense that it would be nice to get home and go to bed.
I have satellite television, mainly for the Twins. Since their season is over, I had just as well cancel it, but I don't--just in case some major world event happens which might lead me to watch CNN for a day or two. Every now and then, I try to get into a basketball game, or a show--but, tonight, after scanning about 100 channels, I settled on the Fall Praisathon at Trinity Broadcasting Network, drawn, I suspect, by the same circus-seeking impulse which causes me to pull tabloids off the rack in the checkout line.
Rosie O'Donnell is being sued for $100 million dollars. This was one of five top stories that one channel informed me "you will be talking about tomorrow." Man, I hope not. The 1999 Heisman Trophy awards ceremony was on ESPN Classic. The controversy over whether Tiger Woods should be Player of the Year was dominating the proceedings at ESPN1. Where do you stand? Go online and tale our poll. On CNN, Paul Zahn asked an expert on serial killers: why somebody would want to kill 48 women? What were these women thinking? Doesn't this turn your stomach? Why doesn't this guy get the death penalty?
Time to shut the TV off. Picked up Neitzsche; read a chapter entitled "What is Religious," where Nietzsche brilliantly argues that industrial capitalism robs religion of its vitality by creating a mindset completely unamenable to contemplation. (What might he have said about satellite television?) Most people know of Nietzsche for his proclamation that "God is dead." Nobody seems to remember that he added, immediately after, "...and we have killed him." Nietzsche regarded this as a tragedy, and predicted a violent 20th century as a result.
Nietzsche set himself up to be misunderstood by writing vividly, metaphorically, provacatively, and sometimes violently. He made no attempt to be consistent. All he seemed to care was that each individual paragraph of his be internally consistent. If the point of the next paragraph contradicted the point of the previous paragraph, he didn't mind--as long as each paragraph made its point vividly. His prose, even in translation, sparkles.
He has been misused, misinterpreted, villified, and finally, ignored. I made it through college without reading a single paragraph of his writing, and I suspect 99% of college graduates do the same. However, he more than anybody I know of tackles the modern human dilemma. He was a psychologist more than a philosopher--and the best psychologist who ever lived, according to Sigmund Freud. I don't claim to have figured him out, but I don't think the scholars have him nailed, either. In fact, I think they miss the point entirely.
Time to put some nice ash logs on the fire before bedtime. With ash, you know there will be a beautiful bed of coals in the morning!
Nothing more fun than selling books. Have had orders for 110 in the past three days' mail. Packaging them up and sending them out is a festive process.
This morning, I attempted to register the new book with Ingram Books, the supplier which sells to Barnes and Noble, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. Ingram takes 60% off the cover price. No profit at that rate, but you have to be in those stores.
About three years ago, Ingram, an enormous megacompany, gobbled up The Bookman, Inc., a funky little book distribution company out of Minneapolis which specialized in small publishers. The Star Tribune
wrote an ominous article at the time of the buyout which implied that small presses were going to be tossed aside by Ingram, but I have found them to be easy to deal with.
It's sort of infuriating, though: You can have a box of books in your pickup at Barnes and Noble in Fargo, and the manager might want to purchase 50 books, but you cannot bring them in the door. No, you have to ship the books to Tennessee to Ingram, and they have to ship them back to Fargo. And you have to pay the shipping to TN, after
you absorb the 60% discount.
So, I don't care if Barnes and Noble sells any books or not. I would rather sell them myself, or through local businesses. The best place for selling books is at the front counter of a Ben Franklin. If you can get the manager to put your book near the till before Christmas, you'll sell 100s. The worst place for selling books, according the experts, is in a book store, and I agree. Low volume, low profit margin.
In line at the referendum
A referendum to pass a levy on property taxes for the Fertile-Beltrami school was held yesterday. Voting took place at the school. When I arrived, there was a long line to vote. Lots of jokes about getting flu shots, since the line looked a little bit like we would all get pricked at the front. After the snow of the past few days, I think it was a nice break for people to get out of the house and have an excuse to stand in line with people you seldom have a chance to talk to. I know it was for me. Talked to dozens of people. Lots of laughs.
A line is not a bad thing. It equals people out. There is a camaraderie of a shared mission. I think a lot of people make new friends while standing in line. Of course, in the small town you know everybody in the line already. But knowing them doesn't mean you ever talk to them. So, a line can be a place to shoot the bull. From the couple in front of me I heard a couple of stories about my grandfather. From the two guys behind me, I learned something about hunting rifles.
The mood was jovial. Hey, let's throw in a few extra bucks for the kids. You could tell the ones who were opposed. Their faces were a little tight. But their faces are always a little bit tight.
November 04, 2003
Planted a tree down at Wild Rice Church yesterday. It is several miles southeast of Twin Valley, a mile off the main road running to Waubun, right along the Wild Rice river. It was cold and windy. The spade crunched through a little ice on the way through the sod, but the digging was easy. Sandy soil. Good for trees.
Fifty yards away, between the church and where the land slopes down to the river stands a cluster of giant spruce. The wind through the needles made a low roar. That's a sound you can't buy. The higher the tree, the less breeze it takes to make them roar. I felt like something was watching as I dug a hole just between the church and the spruce. No cars went by. Once I thought I heard some music from the church. Had to have been in my head. Wished it wasn't.
I was expecting somebody to stop in and ask what I was doing. I had my answer ready. I am burying my dog, is that a problem?
So, I hope Wild Rice church survives. It looks alive. It is well-kempt. They still hold services. My column this week (see below) argues for the preservation of such churches even after services stop. I will have the older women on my side, I know that. As for the men, the old guy who sings at all the funerals will want to save the building, and maybe the bachelor who's on every committee and would join the altar guild if they let him. But off to the side, grumbling, sullen and restless, will be the seed-capped men with the dozers, waiting for the preservationist ninnies to look the other way for a couple of hours.
4 wheel drive weather...Tucson beckons
Okay, its not that
bad. I wouldn't have had to click it into 4-wheel drive to get over to the nursery this morning, but it was nice to have the stability provided when the front wheels pitch in. The roads aren't plowed, so the pickup billowed through the fluff. Fresh snow changes the sound of things, makes everything muffled. When I walked out of the Morton building after parking my pickup there, I got buzzed by a flock of low-flying geese, honking away, skimming underneath the low overcast, completely unruffled by the snow.
Arizona! Land of windows down in January. Once you've been there in winter, it pulls you back. Mom and Dad weren't going to go down this year, but as the temperatures plummeted this week, I sensed some changes in their tune.
As for me, I'll never forget getting off the train in Tucson for the first time in January. I had never escaped a winter in my 30 years, not even for a week in Florida. I never imagined that anyplace could be summertime warm when it was so cold up north. The weather map made no impact on me--even if it showed 70 degrees in the Southwest, I assumed that they had some other misery to compensate. Rain. Wind. Dust. A faltering economy. Clouds of locusts. Something.
But they don't. Tucson in winter is paradise. The fires in CA have clouded the skies in Tucson for the past week, but they are soon under control. Part of me wants to take the long road to Tucson--through Seattle, then down the coast highway, visiting friends and relatives all the way. And part of me wants to high-tail it straight to the high desert. Why dawdle?
As a kid, I read the Reader's Digest
cover to cover. I remember seeing classified ads in the back pages for Tucson, aimed at retirees, no doubt. There was a big sun shining down on the letters in the city's logo. I think I instinctively knew the value of sunshine and warmth to my morale even then. Tucson became sort of a mystic destination, like the Tibetan Himalayas.
Sometimes in life one is lucky enough to have a mystic destination which doesn't disappoint when you finally arrive there. Fenway Park in Boston did not disappoint. New Zealand, another childhood dream, exceeded my every unrealistic expectation. And when I arrived in Tucson, twenty some years after it was first planted in my imagination, it came through.
In fact, my imagination failed me. I imagined swimming pools, lawn chairs, palm trees and fading turquoise Howard Johnson motels. That would have been good enough for me.
I didn't imagine the adobe, the mountains, the food, the mequite smoke in the evenings, the centuries of history, the hobos, the scruffy downtown, the lively green desert vegetation, the mourning doves by the million, or the cool fall-like evenings.
If you like the smell of a place, I think you get hooked on it deep in the brain. There is a tree in Tucson which emits a smell similar to that of a thirty-year old paperback book. There are many good used bookstores in Tucson, but as you walk the streets, you catch whiffs of used bookstore everywhere. Aromatherapy without the overpriced little bottles!
Its been huffing and puffing out all night. Snow pelting the window. Gusts of wind that seem to shift the house. The house cracks in the falling temperatures.
This morning, opened my eyes to an unnatural light in the house which means the ground is covered with white. The wind is from the north, so puffs of snow fall off the roof on the south side as if thrown down by an assistant on a set of a bad movie. Too much! Make it look more natural!
The woodpile downstairs has been sitting there all summer, so I am burning it down to nothing to make sure there are no dead mice under there. All small stuff. Burns fast. Can't wait to get a new load of ash stacked up down there. A possible job for today.
I have three heat sources in the house: The electric furnace, which gives off a competely unsatisfying heat that doesn't make me warm at all; the gas fireplace, which makes the living room toasty but nothing else, and the little woodstove downstairs, which burns furiously, and makes the floor upstairs foot-friendly, but can't keep up when its cold and windy. All three hearths were busy last night. The woodstove carries most of the load as long as I feed it, but as the night wears on, and the wood burns down, the gas fireplace and the electric furnace bat the ball back and forth.
My house is pretty porous. In a snowstorm, you can feel little drafts as you walk around. I don't mind. The air changes itself frequently, and I think that is good. It isn't healthy to live inside a plastic bag.
Well, I had hoped this snowstorm would miss us. It was supposed to veer south. That according to me, not the weather guy. I was certain it would veer south. I almost left the garage door open last night just to exhibit confidence in my prognosis--but I pulled it down before bed. Oh me of little faith. Look what I done. Made a little dent in the county snow plowing budget, I did.
November 03, 2003
Science, Uncertainty and Serenity
I don't worship science, but I sure enjoy it. Anything which sheds light on how little
we know automatically has my ear. For every major discovery made by scientists, it seems that a whole new world of the unknown is opened up.
For instance, twenty years ago, after years of assuming that no life could exist in temperatures over the boiling point, scientists discovered deep on the ocean floor, in superheated water of over 500F, a bacteria that dies if the temperature goes down
to the boiling point. Under the microscope, they saw that the structure of the bacteria was the same as that of any other--it simply was built to thrive at five hundred degrees.
For all of the advances in telescopes, astronomers still know virtually nothing about planets which may be orbiting stars other than the sun. They have, by deducing the planet's existence from the wobble of the star they orbit, determined that about 100 such planets are attached to the stars nearest us, but as yet they have not actually viewed a planet outside of our solar system. Their telescopes are not strong enough.
When you consider that there are 150 billion stars in our own galaxy, and at least 150 billion galaxies outside of our own, trillions of stars, each possibly holding a dozen planets in its orbit, the extent of our ignorance of the universe becomes plain.
Isaac Newton, whose work more than doubled our scientific knowledge, said at the end of his life that, for all he had accomplished, he had but examined a couple of grains of sand on the edge of a great ocean.
With knowledge of what we do not know comes wonder. I sieze upon evidences of what we don't know, perhaps because I have a nostalgia for the wonder of childhood, when new discoveries were so frequent and exciting. Stripped of wonder, we become world-weary. Preserving and nurturing wonder, dwelling upon the mysteries of the unknown rather than simply rearranging our certainties, is beneficial. Not only that, it is realistic. We really don't know much. Thinking we do know is to invite disease, a word which, when broken down, means lack of ease, or anxiety.
There is great comfort in not knowing, and admitting it to one's self. The search for certainty is a desperate and unrewarding quest. Those who think they have found certainty, by their defensiveness, reveal that they are merely clinging to a fragile hope. If they were truly certain, they wouldn't need others to come on board to validate their certainties.
That said, there is much that we do know, and it behooves us to look it in the face and attempt to absorb it, study it, think about the implications. The vast unknown is not an excuse to despair and hide. It is an invitation to explore and wander out ever further into the forest.
November 02, 2003
Saving churches (this week's newspaper column)
A couple of years after closing its doors, a local country church held an auction recently to get rid of the tables, chairs, pews, fixtures, anything movable of value, in preparation for the destruction of the building.
Country churches have been closing at a fast pace for the past twenty years. It usually is only a couple of years after services stop before the building falls.
Sometimes the congregation saves the steeple and puts it up in the cemetery. Sometimes the church is moved to a local Pioneer Village, where it looks sort of out of place but at least is preserved. One area church put up a scale model of the old building in the cemetery as a monument.
The logic is always the same. They tried to sell the building, even give it away, and a lot of people expressed interest, but nobody came through. So, rather than watch the building fall apart, the committee, with regrets, voted to tear it down.
This is sad. The old churches are beautiful. They are landmarks. We have so very few graceful buildings out here on the prairie. Churches and barns are about it, and they’re going down fast. The only buildings going up are ugly tin sheds.
Most of the old churches were put up by the pioneers, or their children. Times were tough, money was tight, yet they put up buildings which were not only functional, but elegant. Often, they built the church themselves.
I have been told that the style of steeples on the old churches is an indicator of the origin of the immigrant pioneers. Fifty miles east of here the steeples become squatty. Perhaps the immigrants who settled that area came from a different region of the Old Country.
Few people attend services in Europe any more, but somehow they find the money to preserve their old church buildings. In England, a taxpayer-funded organization called the National Trust preserves old buildings, a tremendous expense in a country with a two-thousand year history.
But it’s almost impossible to raise even a fraction of that amount of money to preserve old things in the New World. In the absence of a National Trust of our own, the tiny remaining membership of the old churches is faced with the expense of preserving an old building they don’t use.
But the old churches have value, even for those who never attended services there.
To preserve the buildings, somebody with money, or some outside organization, is going to have to step in and set up a trust fund to keep the buildings in decent shape. Ideally, the building will remain on the original site as a reminder of the pioneers who broke up the land around the church and cooked egg coffee in its basement.
Perhaps somebody who grew up in the congregation but moved away to the city to seek their fortune will have a soft spot for the old place and throw in some cash. Perhaps one of those big foundations can be prevailed upon for a grant.
But for any one church to be preserved, it will require somebody local with a determination to find donors, scare up the grants, and fight off the inevitable opposition of people without sentiment whose idea of a good time is pushing over something old with a big machine.
Far be it from me to harangue the beleaguered church committees who have to decide these matters, or who have decided them already. But let it be said that anybody who tries their best against all odds to preserve an old church is attempting something noble, whether they succeed or fail.
Gassing up in Twin Valley
Most gas stations around here have cleaned up their act to the point they are antiseptic. Spotless uniforms, clean floors, bright lights, every last bit of wall space covered with "product." It's fun to see well-run businesses, but it is also fun to find a place where the past lives on, like the BP (formerly Amoco) station on the north end of Twin Valley.
Overflowing ash trays. Chairs strewn about. A couple of tables covered with newspapers and cups of cold coffee. A TV blaring. Homey, if off color, sayings posted on the wall--basic message: If you don't like it, go to hell. Through the door by the till, a dark garage. That's where things get fixed. The Man in the greasy canvas jacket who does the oil changes in the dark garage is the same Man who fills your tank.
That's right, he fills your tank. Although the pump is self-serve, the Man doesn't let you fill it yourself. Locals know this, but travelers don't. When you first see the big burly guy with a beard down to his belly amble out the door towards the pump, you wonder what you've done wrong.
The Man owns the station. He wasn't there last night, and I didn't see anybody else around, so I put the nozzle in the tank and started pushing the buttons on the pump--only to have a kid who looked about sixteen race out the door, around my pickup, and reach in front of me to push the "start" button on the pump. "How much you want?" he said, and I said fill 'er up. He took over from there.
We both went inside. The kid had enough of the features of the Man to make me think he was his son. I wanted to pay by check, so I asked if they took a check from Fertile. The kid snorted, which I took to mean don't be ridiculous, of course we do. I asked if I could get $20 cash, and he waved his hand in disgust, which I didn't know how to interpret. "Do you know if the Gophers won?" he asked, as if to get us off the filthy topic of money.
After a few drags from his cigarette, the kid went out to top the tank off and came back in with a total of $46. I assumed that this included the cash. He pulled out a crumpled new peach-colored twenty from the till. I hadn't heard if the Gophers won, so I asked if he knew who they were playing. "Indiana," he said, "who they should beat but probably won't." I gave him the check, took the cash, and was off.
The Man, when he's in, doesn't mess around with small talk about the Gophers. A friend who stopped there once said the Man asked him gruffly, "where you from?" My friend said Moorhead. The Man said, "what do you do there?" Professor of religion, my friend said, worried he had wandered a little far into redneck-ville. "So," said the Man, after a pause, "what's the meaning of life?"
I think the Man at the station has a definite philosophy of life: He doesn't take guff from the higher ups at BP who might pressure him to clean up his station. But he helps and he trusts, something the higher ups don't seem to care about--and don't act surprised when he does. Helping and trusting should
be normal behavior, is the message I get from his gruffness, which he obviously passed on to his son. If you don't like it, you can go to hell.
The annual Pumpkin Patch celebration in Twin Valley, a meatball dinner benefit and variety show for the Nursing Home auxillary, was held in the Twin Valley high school gym last night. At least a couple of hundred people were in attendance.
Brother Joe and I took turns at the piano in the gym between the meal and the show. It is always interesting what having an audience, even a most forgiving one, does to piano pieces you thought you knew! A Joplin ragtime piece which usually goes fine for me sort of fell apart last night. However, when you are playing background music for a big crowd, the best thing is to just plow onwards and nobody will notice but your own relatives, who have heard the thing 100s of times before.
Joe played some improvised blues, Chopin waltzes, and a waltz he wrote himself. During the show, he played guitar and we sang together "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Unclouded Day." We learned the first song in the past two days, so I was pretty dependent upon the lyrics sheet.
Ours was one of many lighthearted local acts, both theatrical and musical. The highlight of the evening, however, as always, was the meatball dinner. Small town dinners! Keep 'em comin. Those ladies feed you like you've just come in from threshing. Without asking, I was handed a plate with overflowing with three big meatballs, three big dollops of mashed potatoes, gravy, pickles, as well as corn and a cold broccoli salad. When the lady came with the coffee pot and said, "coffee for the Norskies?" I couldn't resist a little shot to go with the delicious desert. It kept me alert well into the night.