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Happy Thanksgiving!


Photo on 12-24-15 at 12.10 PM #2a

What’s on my mind? Thanksgiving–what else? So here’s my list. I am thankful for:

1. My son. He is the reason I get up each morning. Having him was the single best thing I’ve done in my life.

2. My house, in which all vital things work. Not perfectly. I am not Pollyanna, but we are warm. We are dry. We have no visible holes in the floor or the ceiling. We can work. Vermin, if present, are keeping a low profile.

3. My work. I have work I love, and enough of it (at least until I get my Computer Situation resolved). And that’s moving along nicely. I’m thankful for that.

4. Friends who are true friends, and family who are true family. If my life has taught me anything, it’s the value of those relationships that support us through hard times–through years of depression, though family collapse, through the slow, painful process of learning to re-define what it means to be a friend, or a family, through mold, through the recession, through cancer, and I have every confidence through the Trump presidency. Friends and family (and you all know who you are), you are the people who have held me and mine up when we were faltering. Thank you. Know that we will do the same for you. That’s what it means to be friends and family.

5. Laughter and Grandpa. The hardest lesson my Grandpa taught me was how to laugh in the face of devastation. Laughter has been the saving of me, just as Grandpa was the saving of me for a long time. Just as he still is. It’s been years, Grandpa. I still think of you every day. I still miss you every day, and I am still learning from the things you taught me. I wish you hadn’t had to go so soon, but know that in a deep sense you are with me still. And I still miss you. Thank you for teaching me about uncritical, unconditional love. My son and his friends and my students say “thank you,” too.

6. Facebook. For all of you who are my “Facebook friends,” know that you are important to me. Some of us nod in passing. Some of us strike up conversations, and sit and chat awhile. We don’t fight, because I don’t fight on Facebook, and my Facebook friends don’t, either. Sometimes we have difficult conversations, but you’re teaching me how to do that without turning into a difficult person. You remind me every day that the world is full of people who may not be “picking up what I’m laying down,” as the saying goes. And that that’s just fine. We can care about each other, even if we don’t see things in the same way.

7. Whoever or whatever it is in the universe who looks out for us, and who can and will respond when we need it most. We might have different names for this presence. We might approach it in different ways. But I, for one, have no doubt that it exists. There have been too many times in my life when, in moments of deep need, the exact necessary thing arrived from a completely unexpected quarter.

8. Finally, I’m grateful to every one of you who does not wait for that universal presence to fix things, but instead reaches out to fix the things around you that you can see need fixing not because you can or should fix everything, but because we are all here, and the need is all here, and if none of us can do everything, it is equally true that all of us can do something. And many of you do. Thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Cooking on Saturday


iris

“Iris,” by Bodie Parkhurst. Poster available in a variety of styles and sizes.

Most Saturdays I don’t cook. Come to that, most Sundays through Fridays I don’t cook, either, which is both sad and strange, because as a Sweet Young Thing I loved cooking. But then I hit the Romantic Years, and spent them mostly trying to find my way to men’s hearts by way of their stomachs, a process my healthcare friends now assure me is not Medically Sound. By the time that particular process had run its natural course my love of cooking had taken a sharp left hook to the jaw and collapsed to the mat. And that’s pretty much where it has remained, except for the odd moments where it has drifted up into the a state approximating consciousness. This never happens at convenient or predicable times. Take, for example, that one Saturday.

There was little or no reason to try to cook. The Boy was off at a track meet far, far away. I had been putting off grocery shopping for a month, and supplies were at historic lows. I wasn’t hungry. I actually wanted to be writing on one of several book projects, or designing baby stuff for my CafePress store, or even just lying on the couch watching a horror flick. It was not the day for cooking. And so of course this was precisely the day that my Love of Cooking sat up, shook its head, gingerly massaged its swollen jaw, and asked brightly, “So, what’re we making today?”

So there I am, peering into empty cupboards and drawers, muttering to myself, checking expired “sell by” dates, and sniffing suspiciously. In the end, this is what I came up with.  And by golly, was it was good. It was so good, in fact, that my son, who is familiar with my cooking history, said, “There’s no way you made this from scratch, Mom. It tastes too good. It had to come out of a box.”

“I did, too, make it from scratch!” I shot back, insulted. “It’s not out of a box. It’s out of two boxes and a plastic tub!” Which it is. Here are the instructions:

  1. Take one Krusteaz Crumb Cake mix and mix the batter according to the instructions.
  2. Look in your “wierd stuff” drawer and discover a box of butterscotch pudding mix from 2008 hiding at the back. (I really don’t know if the expired status of the pudding mix makes a difference. I’m including it, just in case.) Pull it out, realize there is no milk, and pour it into the Krusteaz mix batter instead. Discover that now the batter is approximately the texture of clay.
  3. Consider adding sour cream. Check the refrigerator and discover the sour cream is all gone except for one tablespoon in the bottom of the container, which has sprouted a rich and verdant crop of mold. Shudder, close the container, and shove it to the back of the refrigerator. (This is called Dealing With It Later, or Cleaning the Refrigerator in our house.)
  4. Look at the cake batter again, pour far too much oil into a cake pan, and half-heartedly spread half of the batter (which now has many of the tensile qualities of asphalt) into the oil.
  5. Realize that this just isn’t going to work, and run some more water into the batter remaining in the bowl. How much water is anybody’s guess. Just stick the bowl under the faucet and turn the water on and keep stirring until it looks more like cake batter.
  6. Consider scraping the too-thick batter in the pan back into the now-thinner batter. Decide it’s just not worth the trouble.
  7. Go back to the refrigerator and stand with the door open while you consider your options. Shove the sour cream container a little further out of sight behind the expired bottle of pickle juice.
  8. Discover a small tub of caramel apple dip from last Halloween lurking in the crisper drawer under a petrified orange.
  9. Take a spoon and add dollops of caramel dip to the top of the batter in the pan. You’ll have to scrape it off with your finger, so there’s the added benefit of getting to lick the caramel off your finger between globs.
  10. Take the crumb topping from the Krusteaz mix and sprinkle half of it over the thick batter and the caramel globs.
  11. Realize you’ve really got a mess here.
  12. Drop the remaining batter on top of the thick batter, the caramel globs, and the crumb topping.
  13. Drop on more caramel globs, since it’s hopeless anyway.
  14. Sprinkle on the rest of the crumb topping from the Krusteaz mix. Your crumb cake should now look like a cross between a garden badly rototilled too soon after a rainstorm and a gravel road.
  15. Put the mess into the oven and bake it for fifteen minutes more than the Krusteaz box recommends. (It’ll still feel raw, but probably it’s all that caramel).
  16. Take it out and eat it hot and slathered with butter, if you don’t care about your arteries, hips, waist, or heart.
  17. Listen in surprise as the House Leroy raves, and your son refuses to believe that you actually made this, from scratch, or scratch-ish.
  18. Know in your heart that the secret to this recipe is that there is no such thing as too much caramel.

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kidsincages

I first wrote about 9/11 and the lessons we were learning right after the World Trade Center fell. At the time, I found myself worrying that in our fear, our grief, and our rage we Americans would do what no external force could ever have done: we would destroy ourselves from within.

Nearly two decades have passed since that terrible day, and I’ve seen that post proven true over and over again. On a national scale I’ve seen the the divisions in our society grow wider and wider as everyone struggles to get his or her “fair share”–something that always seems to involve seizing the right to physical, moral, or financial superiority over someone else. Conservative fundamentalists assert their religious superiority, while their men assert their right to total control over our reproductive rights as a species.

Light-skinned people assert their rights over darker-skinned people. English-speakers assert their rights over non-English-speakers. The educated assert their rights over the uneducated–and the uneducated assert their moral superiority over the education. And the list goes on and on. We have become like too many rats in too small a cage, tearing each other apart in what we have come to believe in a fight for survival.

Even at a time when we are assured that the U.S. economy is doing very, very well, millions of us experience daily need, and millions more of us experience daily want. Somewhere, a giant drain has opened in our financial system, siphoning off the prosperity for far too few, and the expense of far too many. We are not a nation of lazy, greedy sluggards–we have been robbed. And we know who has done it–a quick look at income shares since 1980 shows us exactly where all that money has gone. While the percentage of American children living in poverty fell to record lows in the last year of the Obama administration, experts warn that Trump policies threaten to reverse that trend. And this in a time when the U.S. ranked near the top of the list of OECD countries in 2015

And now we have the racism and xenophobia being publicly enacted against babies, children, and families seeking asylum and jobs in our name. Meanwhile, crops are rotting in the fields, while the people who have harvested them for generations sit in improvised jails.

Yesterday a newsman spoke of the children in the camps creating art, presumably as an example of how the children are being given a creative outlet, and therefore being treated well. I found myself thinking of  the art created by children in Theresienstadt. Just because children are drawing doesn’t mean that they aren’t being treated monstrously.

When I first wrote the post below about 9/11 I wrote and posted it because I was seeing a nation that, in its efforts to restore a fantastical version of America, where everyone was white and Protestant and living in neat little houses with white picket fences had managed instead to create a monstrous system that was becoming increasingly dangerous not just to itself, but to the world.

That’s us on a national scale. We have become what we have always claimed to abhor.

On a personal level, though, I find reason for hope. As a college instructor I meet a lot of students, many of them from conservative Christian homes. And I find them overwhelmingly thoughtful, considerate, and far less quick to condemn. I live in a small town in a “flyover” part of a largely rural state, and while my fellow townsfolk and I tend to vote very differently, we manage to treat each other reasonably well. Yes, we have divisions among us, and they trouble me, but while don’t all agree, to manage to resolve our differences short of bloodletting most of the time.

I have to believe that while we, in our microcosm, contribute to that terrible overall picture of the U.S. as a nation, it has not yet become an accurate picture of many of us as individuals.

So the question is, how can those of us who are increasingly finding what our government is doing in Washington D.C. and often in our State Houses appalling find a lever to move us as a nation? How can we end the increasingly regressive and abusive practices that we, as a collective, are committing?

Opinions on this vary, but here are mine:

  1. Reform our voting system. Ensure that voting places are equally accessible to all, and that all campaigns receive a part of a single fund. Disallow disproportionate donations from individuals, and disallow corporate donations altogether.
  2. Enact stricter banking regulations that protect our national economy and smaller-income entities.
  3. Enact a single-payer healthcare system. Healthcare should not be a profit center; it should be a right.
  4. Prioritize the future. Enact laws that foster child health and early childhood education, college education, move us away from fossil fuels, and restore and preserve the environment.
  5. Reform the tax code and minimum wage scale to ensure that the poorest can be assured of a basic income, and that the richest no longer receive a disproportionate level of tax returns.
  6. Foster cultural diversity. We learn from each other. The more diverse we are, the more we learn. Rather than enacting “one-language” rules, why not promote multi-lingualism? Back in the day of William the Bastard, England found itself in a similar situation–a new, small ruling minority, who spoke Norman French, found itself being unable to speak to the vast majority of the people who they were relying upon for financial support, who spoke Old English. What happened?The Anglo-Saxon mothers immediately began encouraging their children to learn to speak Norman French. And the noblemen, who in many cases had been married to Anglo-Saxon heiresses as a way of promoting peace, first relied on their wives to translate–and then learned Old English. That’s not quite right, because what really happened was that the two populations, who both understood that safety and success lay in understanding each other, ended up creating a new language: Middle English, which became the English we speak today. By the time English again became to lingua franca in England it had added many thousands of Norman French words. It has continued that tradition ever since, and that’s why English is such a rich, complex, amazing language. As we accepted immigrants, we added the pieces of their languages, and in so doing, we added pieces of their culture. We are not a nation with a monolithic history.Instead declaring that everyone who comes to America must accept all aspects of our culture, including our language, why not continue what has made us so very successful in the past–adopting cultural and linguistic elements that we find useful?

We learned lessons from 9/11, but the years are increasingly proving that we learned the wrong lessons, and we have forgotten the single most important lesson history has taught us: Our safety and success lie not in dividing ourselves into ever-increasing splinter groups, but in opening our minds and hearts to each other, and seeing our diversity as an opportunity learn new skills, languages, and customs. It’s time to set those lessons we learned in fear and anger aside, and learn some new ones–or relearn the old ones, the ones that made us great. The world is a dangerous place, but we do not make it less dangerous by locking ourselves away and destroying ourselves from within. Paradoxically, I believe our best chance for a future lies not in closing ourselves off from the world, but in opening our minds and our hearts to each other.

Old post: September 11, 2001

The television footage says it all—and nothing. Over and over, I see the World Trade Center in New York, the top of the foreground tower swathed in pillows of dark gray smoke. And then another jet shoots behind it, and a fireball erupts from the background tower’s heart. The scene switches; soot and ash blanket the street, the blasted cars, the twisted girders, the piles of rubble. That’s all that’s left—rubble—of what used to be one of the tallest buildings in the world.

I am amazed at how bloodless the scene is. There are no bodies. From time to time EMS crews push a gurney to an ambulance. On the gurney are sealed bags. Is this all?  Just bits and pieces?  Perhaps. There are few people even visibly wounded. Perhaps that is most horrifying of all. The mayor of New York, the news commentators, keep talking about the thousands slain, the horrific loss, the body parts in the streets, emergency vehicles driving over bodies because they are buried in the ash and soot.

There is the crash in Pennsylvania—the news crews say that there’s nothing left bigger than a telephone book. When there is a crash, one expects there to be wreckage. And yet, there is nothing to look at, to say, “This is the cost, this is horror, these are the dead.” There is simply nothing.

There are stories of people jumping from the towers, rushing to meet their deaths, rather than waiting to be devoured by flames, or crushed in the collapse of steel, of concrete, of glass. This morning, there is a single shot of a man lying on the wind, his business suit correct, his tie whipping upward. As I watch him fall, he is already dead.

I feel nothing. Where is the pain, the grief, the anger, the anguish? I called my son’s grandmother and aunts in New York. They are working far away in Queens, near the airport, at the other end of Manhattan. A few streets can be a world. They are fine.

I feel nothing, but I am exhausted. I hold my son, and sleep. Then I wake, and try to work. I cannot concentrate. There is a pall over the day, a cloud of soot and ashes. Everything is gray, dim. I call my mother. She believes this is the beginning of Apocalypse, the birth of Armageddon. I hang up, wondering if she’s right.

Voices speak of thousands dead, but there are no visible bodies. They speak of terrorists, but there is no visible enemy. How can I comprehend a disaster so overwhelming that there is simply nothing left?

Normally news helicopters would circle the scenes like vultures, shooting endless vistas of disaster. I could see them, and understand. But the air is off limits. Ground crews shoot footage. It is bleak, gray, dead. This morning, I hear the roar of a jet. It fills the air, rumbling the house. I am across the country, in Oregon, and I know that, apart from our harbor, there is very little reason for terrorists to find us an attractive target—we are small-time, small-town. I have always believed that very smallness protects us.

But when I hear the jet, I realize that there is no safety in anonymity. The thousands of New Yorkers, the plane passengers, the Pentagon workers, were anonymous. They were simply going about their lives. There was nothing dramatic or attack-worthy about them. I begin to shake. I want to run outside, and scan the horizon for a column of black smoke. To the east, far away, near my mother’s house, lies Ordinance, an old army base. My son and I pass it when we go to visit her. Pronghorn antelope range the fields around the bunkers.

I try not to look at those bunkers. I know that they are used to store biological weapons. Today, when the plane roars overhead, part of me wants to look east, toward Ordinance, but I don’t. If Ordinance has been hit, it’s already too late. So I hide, and trust in the failed normalcy of the world, and in the failed smallness of my life. Probably Ordinance is fine. Probably. Later I turn on the television. The news is still all about the devastation in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. I am safe.

At least for now. I listen to the President’s remarks, and I find myself wondering how one can respond to such an attack without making it worse. To do nothing is to send a clear message to terrorists that there are no consequences for such an act. To respond militarily is to risk the world. How should such an act be answered?  I don’t know.

While no one seems to be sure exactly how this will change the world, everyone agrees that it has. Americans have traditionally been willing to risk their lives for freedom. We have been a nation of risk takers. Perhaps now we are willing to sacrifice freedom to preserve our lives. We are growing older. Perhaps we are going wiser; perhaps not. Perhaps we are only growing tired, cynical, fearful, and lazy.

I watch the news coverage, and I find myself thinking of shear bolts. My parents ran a custom harvesting service. Each summer, we faced shear bolts. Forage choppers work by pulling things into a box and chopping them up. A pair of toothed rollers spin behind a row of knives, pulling the forage into the box as it is mown. In the box is a revolving set of knives. While the system is powerful enough to kill a sheep, a deer, a man, it is also fragile. If the machine picks up a rock, or a sheep, or a person—anything over a certain size—the rollers push apart. They still spin, but if sufficient pressure is placed on them a shear bolt on the end of the roller snaps, and the rollers stop.

Fields being what they are, shear bolts snap often. As the truck driver, it was my job to replace the broken shear bolt each time it snapped. One horrible day it seemed that I was replacing them every five minutes. My head throbbed. My nose ran. My neck ached. The wind blew and it was August, and the chopped forage and dust flew everywhere. I choked, and the dust stuck to my skin, and I itched. And the damned shear bolts kept snapping. By the end of the day I was ready to rip that machine apart with my bare hands, take a hammer to the windows, and a knife to the tires.

That night I asked my father if we couldn’t just weld the parts together or something—anything to keep the chopper running. He said, “No, we can’t. The shear bolts protect the system. They’re designed to be the weak point. By snapping they stop the rollers before something can be pulled into the knives that might break them, or destroy the gears.” It was the first time I had heard of a weakness being engineered into a system for the protection of the whole.

The next morning we stopped at the Hesston dealer and got some new shear bolts—apparently the box we had hadn’t been tempered enough or something. And then we went back to work, and the bolts still snapped, but not quite as often.

We are faced with a monumental broken shear bolt. And we have to fix it. Changes are necessary. The situation must be addressed. But perhaps we should think carefully before we start welding things together. I find myself hoping that in fixing this tragedy, we don’t fix it so well we destroy ourselves completely.

I watch the news. It’s still bewildering. I still don’t understand. We have been struck a terrible blow. But the death blow is in our own hands, to strike, or to avert. We can only be destroyed from within.

I don’t have answers. I don’t even know all the questions. I haven’t even begun to comprehend what is happening. But one thing I know: there is much that is good and precious in my life, and much of that is because of our system, flawed as it is. I don’t have the answers, but I hope that we can keep from picking up hammers and knives—that we can search for the properly tempered solution, and that we can hold onto our patience and courage, and in the end, save ourselves.

Then: September 8, 2010

I wrote those words in the days following September 11, 2001. We don’t often talk politics over here, but I look around at the irrationality that has come to pervade our national discourse. I listen to hate-filled talk go unrebuked–and indeed, being treated as comments worth addressing. I hear about good Christians who publicly plan to burn copies of the Koran.

I watch as my fellow Americans busily undermine what remain of our civil liberties in the wake of the Bush era, and I am afraid, not that we will be destroyed by Muslim Americans wishing to build a youth center in downtown New York or by ravening hordes of Mexicans yearning to pick apricots, or by some evil plot hatched by the President and Democratic leadership, but by the pettiness, prejudice, racism, bigotry, and self-serving small-mindedness that have grown so prevalent our national government is literally choking on them. Our government has become an obscenity.

The thing I feared even more than fiery destruction is coming to pass around me–there are those among us who have taken that dark day as an excuse to give in to their own darkest impulses, to retreat into the simple, false world of “Us” against “Them,” of “Saved” or “Lost,” of “Christian” or Muslim, Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Progressive, Good or Evil.

Rational discourse is dying. If we can’t find a way to talk to each other, work with each other, and respect each other we will, in the words of my long-ago blog post, have “fixed ourselves too well,” and brought about our own destruction.

Our true enemy is not a group radicals half a world away–or even just across our southern border–but our own bigotry, isolationism, and selfishness. We are being manipulated coldly and cynically. Our fear and anger is making us co-conspirators in our own destruction. And it’s all being done with words.

I am just one person. I live in a small town in a Red part of a Blue state. I worry about how I will buy milk a lot more than I worry about the migrant laborers who come to our town to pick the fruit. I don’t have power or influence. I don’t have the money to buy them–hell, I don’t have the money to get a physical right now.

But I have my words. And today I choose to use them not to rail against imagined outrages perpetrated in the name of making things a little better for all of us, but to protest against the criminal abuse of our wonderful, rich, nuanced language. I choose to use my words to ask–no, to demand–that we give our Mother Tongue a little respect. That we not manufacture horrors to scare the populace into a position that will benefit us, and harm them. That we learn to edit our national discourse, to remove the extraneous and distracting so that we can focus on the words that matter. And that we demand of ourselves the same integrity we demand in our national discourse.



I’m in my classroom, going over the final prompt for my 122 students. This time, it involves a music video, Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.”

(The link’s above. Go listen. I’ll wait.)

OK? Now with that song in mind, imagine yourself in a dark computer lab on the last Friday afternoon before Dead Week. You are a bit burned out, and you’ve just put this video on (probably a bit too loud– the bass vibrates your desk) and had the student by the door—his name is Ivy, not that it matters—kill the lights.

You sit, and the desk vibrates, and on the screen images of Coney Island and its grubby, battered people stream, and the Joan’s soaring voice swirls around you on a wave of guitars and bass. On screen a roller coaster creeps to the top of a mountain and sweeps down, down, down, and halfway down the row of computer carrels a kid hesitantly raises one hand and starts swaying. I look and smile, thinking he might be joking. A roller coaster’s on screen, after all. He raises his other hand and keeps swaying, alone in the dark. After a few minutes he slows, stops, and starts to pull his hands down. And then something magical happens.  The kid across from him raises his hands, and sways. The first kid’s hands go back up and they sway together, in the dark and the music.

Somebody at the far end of the lab turns on the light app on her phone, raises it, and sways. And then the room is full of lights, swaying with the music, as Joan speculates about what it might be like if God really was one of us—or if we could learn to see the bit of Him, or Her, or It, that dwells in each of us, all the more precious for our imperfections that are really not imperfections at all, but the very things that make us uniquely perfect.

I think of my old drawing professor, who insisted that we look, really look, at our subjects, and draw not what we “knew was there,” but what we saw—scrapes, scratches, dents, wrinkles, cracks, bare spots, and patches—all the “imperfections” that somehow, in the alchemy of eyes, brains, pencils, and souls, became more than perfect. They became things to wake the soul.

Back in my classroom, the laughter has faded–we’re all caught up in the moment. Lights cut glowing arcs through the darkness and the music, meeting, intersecting, and passing only to meet again. And then, as suddenly as it began, it’s over. The hands drop. The phones go out. The video ends. Ivy turns on the light. We take a breath. And we go on talking about the final.

But what I’m going to remember is that wonderful moment, when one kid had the courage to put up his hands and found a kindred spirit, and together they filled a room with lights.

creationofadam


donaldhasnoclothessmall

“I don’t see any new clothes,” the small child said in the piercing tones only a small child who is long on sugar and short on sleep can achieve. “I see the Emperor’s butt! And his—“ the voice cut off abruptly, then finished “—really little!”

The Emperor stopped dead in the street.

Silence fell, followed by furious whispers.

“Well, I don’t!” said the child defiantly.

The Emperor drew himself up to his full height, thrust out his chin, pursed his loose, rubbery lips and narrowed his eyes to furious slits. The slits swept slowly over the crowd, all of  whom suddenly found their shoes, the contents of their bags, and imaginary lapel lint of pressing importance.

All, that is, except for a small, defiant, grubby-faced child. He stared at the Emperor for a moment, and then quavered, “You are, too, naked! I can see your pee and everything! You don’t supposed to let other people see your pee!”

The Emperor glared down. “Fake news!” he thundered. “You’re spreading fake news. My new robes are the finest in the land!”

“You’re naked,” the child insisted mulishly. “I can see your pee!”

Suddenly the crowd came to life. “You’re just too much of a loser to be able to see such fine robes,” they shouted.

“Am not,” said the child. “I can see his pee.”

The Emperor’s face deepened from bright orange to deep crimson. “You are what is wrong with the kingdom,” he blasted. “You’re a hater, and you’re lying to all these people. You are their enemy. SAD.”

I would like to tell you that the crowd saw the king bullying the child for stating no more than what they could see was the naked truth. I would like to say that they turned to each other and said, “The child is right; our Emperor is naked. Let’s get him some help, and find somebody a little more grounded in reality to control the nuclear codes.”

But that’s not what happened. The Prime Minister stepped forward and said, “I see the Emperor’s robes and they’re lovely,” even as he gazed upon the Emperor’s sagging bottom.

The Minister of War stepped forward and said, “The Emperor is the perfect person to have charge of our national security, and by the way, those robes are perfect,” even as he gazed on the Emperor’s vast white belly.

The princes stepped forward and said, “Dad’s the best—great robes, big guy,” even as they averted their eyes politely.

The Empress, who was riding behind the Emperor in a closed golden carriage, said nothing at all.

And so it was that the Emperor spent the rest of the parade—and the rest of his reign, wearing his fabulously expensive, nonexistent, robes, and while a substantial number of his subjects spent their time deriding anyone who, like the small child, pointed out the obvious as haters, losers, and FAKE NEWS, the surrounding nations looked on and wondered who was crazier—the Emperor, who had been duped into exposing himself, or his people, who could see he was naked, but refused to admit it.

Happy Canyon, 2002 – 2016


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Tonight, I went to Happy Canyon. This is hardly news; I’ve been going to Happy Canyon far too often since my third birthday, when I first attended. This year is special, though, not because it’s Happy Canyon’s 100th birthday (it is), and not because it’s my 55th birthday (which it also is) but because this year My Son the Tubist is playing in the band. We all have certain benchmarks in our lives; for me, this is one. I’ll be writing more about it later, but for now, let me share one of my very favorite Happy Canyon memories–my son’s very first visit to a place where I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time–or I would have, if I was capable of being embarrassed over going to see the same show, over and over again, as often as I can. For years this was so I could shout at an Old Family Friend, who for years got his legs cut off four times a year. It was also because I am something of a connoiseur of Falling Off Horses, and Happy Canyon being what it is, it is the rare show that doesn’t include somebody biting the dirt. But I digress.

This story is included in Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal, but it says something I love about my life–and have loved about it for a very long time. It also serves as an excellent scene-setter. When I get around to writing about this year, you’ll have a good idea of what’s going on. This will allow me to focus on the Really Important Stuff–the tuba brumming away out of sight, a deep gold river of sound connecting my son, out of sight in the orchestra pit, and me, high in the darkened stands. Grab a cushie for your tushie (it’s necessary on those Hard Happy Canyon Benches), fill a flask with hot chocoloate or coffee laced with the alcoholic beverage of your choice, if you’re so inclined, grab a Pendleton shirt, sit back, and enjoy the show.

Painted snowcaps turn gold, then pink, as the first stars twinkle in the evening sky. Dust and summer night lie heavy on my skin. The narrow wooden bench bites into my thighs. I shift. The lady pressed far too tightly against my left side heaves a martyred sigh and looks pointedly at my too-generous hips.

“I can’t get comfortable, Mommy,” whines five-year-old Alex.

“I know,” I say quietly. “Stand up ’til it starts.”

He huffs, squirms, and stares around the crowded grandstand. “Why are the mountains pink?”

“Because the man up there is shining a pink light on them.” I point to the light guy, high overhead in his little nest in the steel girders.

“Why?”

“So it will look like it’s getting dark.”

“But it is getting dark.” Alex’s chubby finger stabs at the stars glimmering above the painted skyline.

“I know.”

“Where’s the man?”

“Up there.” I point again to the light guy’s airy perch in the rafters overhead.

“So why does the man have to shine that pink light on the mountains? Why can’t he just let them turn pink by themselves?”

“Hush!” hisses the lady beside me.

“Forget the mountains,” I say hastily. “Look, it’s starting.” I point down into the sawdust-covered arena, where a tall man in a cavalry uniform is escorting an elderly Native American man to center stage. I recognize Chief Clarence Burke’s heavily beaded buckskins and feathered war bonnet. The cavalry officer looks more like a warden than an escort. I think they might have chosen more tactfully. But this is Happy Canyon. It doesn’t pay to be too critical.

The packed grandstand falls silent. Chief Burke raises his arms and closes his eyes. His cracked, cadenced voice drifts on the night air, faint and rough as pine smoke.

“What’s he saying, Mommy?” Alex asks, tugging on my arm.

“Shhh,” I whisper. “Listen. He’s welcoming us.”

The sounds float over us, as they must have floated over the trappers, the explorers, and the missionaries. Chief Burke falls silent. His arms drop. The cavalry officer steps up to the microphone. “Chief Clarence Burke of the Umatilla Indians welcomes you to Happy Canyon.” They turn and pace out of the arena. Music swells, lights go up on a line of tipis, and we are in Happy Canyon.

I settle back—at least as much as one can settle back on a narrow, unpadded wooden bench.  Alex stares open-mouthed at two Native American men carrying a deer down a switchback trail to the village. A deep, unmistakably Native American voice informs us that one of the young men has shot his first deer and is now eligible to marry. It’s been nearly ten years since I last visited the canyon, but I remember this part and cringe in anticipation.

This is how it has always gone: The happy couple stands on the second level of the four-level stage. Somebody backstage plays a scratched recording of “The Indian Love Call.” Then the newlyweds walk down the path to the first level, perform a wedding dance with their friends and family, and go into a tipi at the edge of the village, presumably to make sweet, sweet love.

Happy Canyon may have been an annual visit for me for nearly twenty years, but it’s Alex’s first time, and I’m not sure that his manners extend to enduring a crackly recording of a song that sets even my teeth on edge.

I lean down and whisper, “There’s going to be an awful song now, honey, but I need you to just not say anything, okay?”

“Okay,” he whispers absently. “What are they doing with that deer?” His eyes never leave the arena, where the village has awakened and people in richly beaded buckskins go about cooking, fishing—there’s a pool down there—visiting, trading, celebrating the young man’s first kill, and preparing for his wedding. I dig in my purse for backup. “Here, have some chocolate milk,” I whisper, thinking that the bottle will muffle any cries of pain or outrage the scratched record may provoke—and in the meantime help him forget about what seems to be happening to the deer.

He sips, still gazing at the village. A woman’s voice, still unmistakably Native American, informs us that the wedding is being celebrated. Sure enough, the couple, their friends, and family are dancing the wedding dance to the beat of drums. There has been no “Indian Love Call,” and I’ve never heard a woman narrate the pageant. Well, well, well. The times, they are a-changing in the canyon.

The dancing ends and the happy couple heads for the end tipi. Village life goes on. Trappers, explorers, and missionaries arrive. A lone wagon creaks in. The woman’s voice, deep, cadenced, and filled with old sorrow, tells of a clash of worlds. Fighting breaks out. A white girl is dragged into the village, screaming. A few minutes later men on horseback pound in, firing blanks into the air. Chaos erupts. The girl leaps onto a running horse and escapes. The villagers scatter.

More wagons roll in. Pioneers climb wearily out and gather around the campfire cooking, singing, and dancing. We in the stadium sing with them: “Skip to my Lou,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” and “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain When She Comes.” Feathered war bonnets appear among the bushes, and more fighting breaks out. The cavalry arrives. A man in a frock coat rides in and the tribal leaders negotiate. The woman tells us how the tribal elders signed away their birthright without knowing it because it had never occurred to them that one might presume to own the earth.

At last the end comes. The tipis are struck and loaded onto horses. The village dies. The woman tells about life on a reservation created from wasteland, about the struggle to maintain a cultural identity in a world changed beyond recognition, about working with one’s enemy for the common good, about salvaging life from destruction.

“When are they coming back?” Alex asks.

“Never,” I say, and I am sad.

The lights go down. “Wham wham wham wham-wham smack!” echoes in the darkness. The lights go up on a frontier town. Dance hall girls walk the streets. The town drunk staggers across the sawdust arena and tumbles into the pool where the Indians fished, pops out, and hotfoots it back to the saloon. The Pony Express rider flashes in, switches horses, and flashes out.

The stagecoach rolls in. A redheaded couple emerges. They supervise the removal of their steamer trunk from the rear of the coach, open it, and pull out eight children, all attired in bib overalls and red yarn wigs. A group of pigtailed Chinese men trot over, hands tucked in sleeves, bowing. The blatant ethnic stereotyping appalls me. I am amazed it has survived. The laundrymen don’t seem to find it troubling; they hustle the family into the laundry. A few minutes later the family emerges clean and pressed. Boys in flesh-colored tights plunge into the pool to emerge dripping and screaming.

“What’s going on?” Alex asks.

He might well ask. Happy Canyon has no plot. Rather, it’s a whole group of subplots, which, because the performance is live, using live animals, antique props, and amateur performers, may or may not happen the same from night to night, or from year to year.
“Just watch,” I say. A mismatched couple drives in, the wife tall and muscular, the husband delicate and natty. He grabs a dance hall girl and bends her over his arm like Rudolph Valentino. His wife spots him and, together with the other god-fearing women of town, attacks him with a broom. The Chinese laundrymen rush out, pull him to his feet, and drag him into the laundry. Moments later he emerges clean and pressed. His wife tosses him onto the buggy seat and they drive off.

“When are the Indians coming back?” Alex asks.

“They’re not,” I whisper back.

The dance hall girls do a lively can-can to a rollicking tune that has us all clapping and stamping. The pageant is nearly over. A Native American man mounted on a pinto pony races across the arena. An American flag flutters over his head. Man and pony zigzag up the trails high into the scenery, and come to a halt on a painted mountaintop. The flag flutters in the golden spotlight. The orchestra strikes up the national anthem. We stand.
Ten years ago, the response was half-hearted. Some stood, hands over their hearts. Some stood laughing and talking. Some slouched in their seats. But this is September 12, 2002, a year and a day after the World Trade Center fell. Today there are two spotlights on the stage. One is trained on the Native American man, his pinto pony, and his flag. The other rests on three uniformed men standing on another painted mountaintop across the stage. The men are three tanned local boys with sunburned, muscular necks, hair like ripe wheat, heavy shoulders. I suspect they spent their summer driving trucks and combines and going into town on Saturday nights to drag race on Main Street and drink beers with their girls in the parking lot up by the old Carnegie library. I wonder where they will be a year from now.

But next year is next year. This year everyone stands, and everyone sings. We sing about rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air, and how we saw through the night that the grand old flag was still there. We sing about spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains, abundant harvests, and about how this land was made for you and me, and I feel again the tug of this land where I was born, and I know again that while some people can leave their birthplace and remake themselves in strange lands, I am not one of them.
I tried. I left as soon as I could, and I only came back under duress. Walking the familiar roads and fields is as much pain as homecoming. Every step holds memories I have worked hard to erase, as well as memories I cherish. And yet as I stand here in this darkened stadium, singing along with a thousand people, staring down at the lit representation of a past that never was, breathing in the heady fumes of beer and popcorn, I am again a little girl, a teenager, a fledgling woman, and the night again holds the magic of endless possibilities.

A whiff of charbroiled hamburger from the Charburger Drive-In across the street tickles my nose, and for a moment I am jammed into one of its battered booths with my sisters and as many of their friends as my Grandpa could shoehorn into his car. Each of us has a charburger, a shake, and fries and dipping sauce on  the table in front of us. And as the crowd we are talks, laughs, and teases, Grandpa looks at us all and smiles. When his gaze falls on me he leans over the table and flicks my french fry box with one gnarled brown finger. “You eat these, doncha, Bodie?” he asks. And I smile and nod and eat a fry to please him, even though the Charburger’s fries aren’t all that great unless you eat them really, really fast, before they cool.

Back in the stands, Alex leans against me and lays his head on my shoulder. I lift him and settle him on my lap, falling into the slow, easy sway that is the mark of mothers in my world. I lean my cheek on Alex’s curly hair and sing softly about Betsy from Pike. But I am not really thinking about the songs anymore.

The falling of the towers has reminded us all that America’s freedoms, privileges, and resources are not givens. We are not sure how to best preserve them, and the debate is growing increasingly bitter, but we are all agreed that we have taken our gifts for granted for far too long.

“Look, Mommy, they came back,” Alex says happily, lifting his head from my shoulder. He’s right. The Indians have come back. Along with the rest of the cast, they fill the painted mountains and forests, surround the man on the pinto pony, the flag, and the sunburned local boys. They spill over into the sawdust, buckskins mingling with calico mingling with cavalry blue with sequined velvet and feathers. Alex heaves a happy sigh, lays his head back on my shoulder, and is instantly asleep.

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I drive back to my mother’s house through streets full of what we scornfully called “drugstore cowboys”—all hat and no saddle was how we described them. There is dancing on Main Street. The carnival is in town, as it is every year, and as I ease my car through the crowds on Main Street the lights of the Ferris wheel circle overhead. The warm fragrance of corn dogs and cotton candy fills the car. I speed up as I head out of town then slow down again and creep carefully up the steep, rutted track that leads to my mother’s house high on a hill overlooking the Umatilla River Valley.

As I round the last corner I see that she has left the porch lights on for me. For just a moment my stomach twists in the old, familiar cocktail of fear, love, pain, and aching sweetness that I felt each year at the end of summer. And at last I understand what it is. It is the pull of the land. I was born less than sixty miles from this spot. I grew up here. I ate foods grown in this soil. I gave the land my sweat and my labor. In turn, the land gave me what I needed to survive—food for my body, and food for my soul.

It gave me cool mornings scented with wet grass and alfalfa. It gave me ripened wheat fields under scalding sun. It gave me desert hills split by long, straight roads shimmering in the summer sun. It gave me cornfields rustling in the night. It gave me the howls of coyotes, the clatter of balers, the whistle of the wind, and the cries of killdeer, meadowlarks, and mourning doves. It aged me. It renewed me. And sometimes in the evening when the sky turned to pearl, silver, and cobalt and the chill wind cut through my T-shirt and bib overalls, I hardly knew where I ended and the world began. This land was my land.

And I walked away—ran away, actually, driven by demons I didn’t understand and couldn’t have faced if I had. I ran away, but now I’m back, and as I pull into my mother’s driveway I understand the truth—I might have belonged here once, but I left, and the world from which I fled went on without me. Tonight has been a taste, just a taste, of one of the best parts of the life I left. And now I must walk into the house, and face down the fears that drove me away in the first place. I carry Alex inside, slip him into his pajamas while he sleeps, and pull on my nightgown. The fresh smell of soap and sunshine surrounds me, and I realize my mother has been busy while I have been gone. I lie down beside Alex and pull the fresh sheets over us.

I close my eyes and think about Happy Canyon. I remember the drums, the chants, the measured, dignified dances, the wagon train’s fiddle music and square dances, the can-can girls, and I realize that in spite of past injustices and wrongs, in spite of culture clashes, we who belong to this land—even those of us who have left, and are just beginning to find our way back—have something in common. We have our songs. There are the songs that divide us—and sometimes set our teeth on edge—and the songs we sing together. We would be the poorer for losing either.

I think again about all of us in the stands, singing together. I marvel that so many of us can remember the words, and I wonder. In twenty years, will Alex bring his children to Happy Canyon? Will the stands be full of people who remember to stand, and who still know the words of the songs that bound us tonight, as well as the songs that divided us? Will Alex know our songs? Will I remember them? Will I have made this land Alex’s land? Will I have earned my right to again call it my own?

The next morning Alex and I start the long trip back to our apartment in Gresham. On the way out of town I stop at the music store and buy a song book.

 A note about the illustrations: These are based on some art I developed for a traveling exhibit of the Applegate Trail a number of years ago. The Southern Oregon Historical graciously agreed that I might use them, provided I mention their name. So I did. Thanks, Southern Oregon Historical Society–I wish I lived close enough to still do stuff for you. I think of you often and kindly.

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