Clay's Weekly Columns
Clay Jenkinson's weekly column for The Bismarck Tribune
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North Dakota Will Be an Energy Sacrifice Zone
by Clay Jenkinson
March 9, 2014
A few weeks ago I wrote here that I regarded the Special Places initiative as perhaps the most important moment of North Dakota history in my lifetime. This last week the ND Industrial Commission voted unanimously to "approve" Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's proposal—but so stripped of its original intent as to be essentially pointless and meaningless. The original proposal (December 2103) would have designated a number of Special Places in western North Dakota and required oil companies to tiptoe around them as they extracted carbon from under both public and private land in their immediate vicinity. In its second generation (February 2014) the Initiative went from a proposed rule to a proposed process, thus seriously reducing its capacity to really protect anything. And now it has been stripped, at the Governor's insistence, of any application to private land and private minerals.
I am by nature an optimist. But for the moment I am really deeply saddened to see the Industrial Commission throw its immense weight (as usual) behind the dynamics of wholesale development—drill, baby, drill—rather than take measured risks on behalf of the commonwealth values of North Dakota. The Industrial Commission has a constitutionally-mandated responsibility to create broad policy protocols for economic activity in North Dakota. In other words, the state government of North Dakota has the right and responsibility to set the terms of industrial engagement as we strip our countryside of its immense oil shale reserves. If Governor Dalrymple and Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring had voted to adopt Attorney General Stenehjem's proposal as he originally presented it, the oil industry and "landowner groups" would have howled, but they would have soon found a way to work with the new protocols, which would have affected only a tiny fraction of the oil properties in North Dakota. Even in its original form, the Initiative would not have prevented a single barrel of oil from being extracted from beneath our soil.
So what's left after last week's vote? A list of special places—still a very good thing, in my opinion, because the State of North Dakota has now gone on record as believing that there really are some extraordinary places worthy of special care. James Madison resisted the Bill of Rights at first (1787) because he thought it would be a mere "parchment guarantee." He was wrong. The Bill of Rights has become a fundamental baseline American text around which we the people can rally when our natural rights are jeopardized. Think of the power of "invoking the fifth," or demanding respect for "my first amendment rights" (or second). The Special Places List of 2014 gives the people who love the landscape of western North Dakota official permission to rally around more than a dozen extraordinarily beautiful and fragile places that need and deserve advocates.
The effective collapse of the Special Places initiative points to a deep problem of North Dakota life. If the Special Places were Mount Rushmore, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone Falls, Monument Valley, Devils Tower, Half Dome, Mount Rainier, or Lake Tahoe, I believe even a pro-development Industrial Commission would find ways to protect their sanctity by setting special conditions for industrial activity on adjacent private properties. If our Special Places were as obviously spectacular as the ones listed above, the people of North Dakota (and throughout the United States) would be their champions and clamor for their protection. The simple truth is that most North Dakotans have never seen the Killdeer Mountains or Pretty Butte or even Little Missouri State Park. Most North Dakotans live well east of Bismarck (the 100th Meridian), and the closer you get to the Red River Valley, where the bulk of our population lives, the more North Dakotans lean into Minnesota. They look east not west. Their idea of a special place is Detroit Lakes.
North Dakota's Special Places are not sublime in the Grand Teton sense of the term. Probably only a few dozen North Dakotans have been to all 18 of them. Most North Dakotans will acknowledge that the badlands are pretty, but when they say "badlands," most North Dakotans are referencing what you see from the Painted Canyon overlook off Interstate 94, what you see from the Burning Hills Amphitheater, or (a couple of times in a lifetime) along the loop road in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Most North Dakotans have never been to Bullion Butte and only a few thousand have ever climbed it. White Butte, the highest point in North Dakota, at 3,506 feet, is hard to pinpoint as you hurtle along US 85 between Belfield and Bowman. It's not even as impressive as its more traditional cousin Black Butte (on the other side of the highway), and it generally gets talked about by way of a flatlander's smirk.
We North Dakotans undervalue the beauty of our landscapes, including our public lands. We compare our landscapes unfavorably with those of Colorado, Utah, and Montana, or the woods and lake country of Minnesota. For most of North Dakota's policy makers, by which I mean the Industrial Commissioners, the state's regulatory bureaucrats, and most members of the state legislature, the lands in question are something of an abstraction. The attitude of most North Dakotans is that there is not much special here, that the country west of the Missouri River is a vast and largely bleak empty quarter that should be damned grateful that it now finally has found a way to attract economic development. Matthew 6:1: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
I sincerely wonder how many of the Special Places our three Industrial Commissioners have visited. I don't mean by flying over them in a plane or helicopter or driving past them en route to somewhere else in suit and tie. I mean get out of the car and spend some time in hiking boots. I know that Wayne Stenehjem ventured quietly to Bullion Butte when it became an issue before the Industrial Commission a year or so ago. That seems to me to be exemplary leadership. I wish the three commissioners would take a weeklong Special Places vacation, with no media and no neckties, camp out on the ground (no RVs) at Pretty Butte north of Marmarth, and climb White Butte on a hot July afternoon, to watch the thunderheads gather and rumble in from the west. I'd want them to have a picnic of baguettes and cheese within the perimeter of Theodore Roosevelt's cabin site at the Elkhorn Ranch. Month after month the Industrial Commission sits in judgment of the future of North Dakota and yet they have been making profound decisions about places they know mostly from maps.
I hope everyone who is reading these words will go visit the Special Places between Easter and first snowfall. If you contact me (see below) I will give you tips about how to sequence your visit, and which ones you can legally climb. We need to build a broad protective constituency for the subtle magnificence of western North Dakota. Until you have been to the Elkhorn Ranch (no climbing required), you cannot, in my opinion, quite realize how much is at stake as we frack North Dakota.
The Light Returns, Can Spring Be Far Behind?
by Clay Jenkinson
March 2, 2014
As far as I'm concerned, winter's over. I'll bet we have had the same experience sometime in the last ten days or so.
Last weekend I was in Florida, and I arrived home late last Sunday night. After puttering around the house for a while I slipped into bed (clean sheets!) with a book about the English explorer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. There is nothing quite so enjoyable as cheating sleep for an extra hour because the book you are reading is that good. It happens seldom and it is always a thrill. My eyes were drooping with road weariness and fatigue, and literally trying to close, but I was so engrossed in an account of Raleigh's 13-year imprisonment in the Tower of London (1603-1616) that I was unwilling to give in to the mere carnality of sleep. One of Raleigh's themes—because he was the epitome of the Renaissance man—is that the soul is divine and immortal, or at least in search of the divine, while the body is a base vessel, and therefore it is our duty in life to give our best energy to the work of the soul. So I read until well after 1 a.m., just to the point where you get that little sick feeling that you have cut a big hole into the next day's alertness and productivity.
These days when I go to sleep I silently summarize what I have learned today, silently out loud, if that makes any sense, not only because it is a way of retaining at least a little of several hundred pages of information from several books on several subjects, but because it invariably puts me to sleep faster than Sominex. My internal monologue had reached, "Queen Elizabeth had four principal favorites in the course of her 45-year reign: the Earl of Leicester, Christopher Hatton, the Earl of Essex, and Walter Raleigh," when at last I fell asleep.
Well, now you know why I live all alone!
The next thing I knew I was sitting up in my bed blinking off sleep and stretching, startled by all the bright daylight streaming into my bedroom. My immediate assumption was that I had slept late—another victim of the Tower of London—and that my whole day was going to be scrambly. You know how when the day starts out in a "time hole" things usually never quite calm down. But when I glanced over at the clock it was only 7:30 a.m. And then I said out loud, "The light has returned, the light has returned."
We may get some brutal weather between now and mid-April, but as far as I'm concerned, winter is essentially over the day you realize that the light has returned to the northern plains. That moment just happens, suddenly, when you least expect it, like the morning you wake up and feel the sudden urgent need to get a haircut. In the instant when you realize that the Light has triumphed over the Darkness once again (Genesis 1:3)—a primordial human experience that goes back to the inarticulate dawn of humanity, to henge structures or beaver totems—you actually find yourself lifting your head from the ground and looking around at the great plains with a renewed sense of life, and wonder. We spend the winter cast down.
The relativity of time is one of the great mysteries of life. A watched pot really doesn't boil. If you agree to have one more drink in a bar at 10:30 p.m. the next thing you remember is the bartender telling you and the other dregs to clear out. If you have an important project due at the end of the week the time hurtles by to punish you, but if you are waiting for your daughter to arrive home for the Christmas holidays the time creeps along, as Shakespeare puts it, like a "whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school." You think you don't have time for a daily walk or a run, but if you carve out that hour the day expands mystically with the free gift of time. And of course you live longer, too. I read once, in a book on yoga, "He who stands on his head three hours a day will conquer time." At some cost to your romantic life, I'd say. If you are sitting in a coffee shop writing to deadline, complete strangers will sidle up to chat, and your closest friends will sit down to tell you about the Bobcat skid-steer they received as a Christmas present. Thus torturing you twice. It's the iron law of deadlines.
Last night I began to gather my garden seeds, and to make plans to bring in an astounding crop of tomatoes. The snow is receding from my yard, a little more each sunny day, evaporating rather than melting, and the black earth in one quarter of my garden has been exposed. It won't be long before I will be able to see where I abandoned my hoses when the snow blew in for the first time last fall.
In my neighborhood, most folks have stopped shoveling their driveways. "The heck with it, may as well just wait it out now," seems to be the weary refrain. It won't be long before my near neighbor fires up his lawnmower "just for fun" in his driveway. The day is coming, sometime in the next month, when it's 57 degrees and the streets are running like cricks, and every sap in the subdivision is out washing his car by hand, wearing shorts that should be banned even where men are tanned.
Back to Walter Raleigh (1552-1618). He named Virginia after Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. But he never set foot in Virginia, or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for that matter, where his lost colony at Roanoke was planted. Between his epic voyages in search of El Dorado (on the east coast of South America), Raleigh was a prisoner in the Tower of London. But he cannot be said to have wasted his time. In the Tower Raleigh wrote The History of the World, more than a million words in approximately 1,400 folio pages. That book has been called "the greatest work of art ever produced in a prison cell." It is one of the supreme achievements of the Renaissance, written in the same exquisite English prose as the King James Bible. It was James who threw Raleigh in prison on trumped up treason charges. The History of the World is one of the greatest no-longer-read books in the English language.
Last year I held a folio copy of the first edition of The History of the World (1614) in my hands in a museum in the Outer Banks. I caressed it in silence with the lightest possible touch, like a sacred relic. For me, that moment was as satisfying as fondling a gold ingot or plunging my hands into a barrel of Bakken crude.
I mean to read the History through, between now and the coming of the first fall snowstorm. Out on my deck in the cool of the evening. Soon.
Let's Put Our Hand on the Lever Rather Than Our Head in the Sand
by Clay Jenkinson
February 23, 2014
Just to be clear.
For what little it is worth, I am solidly in favor of the Bakken Oil Boom. I'm just one citizen of 700,000, of course, and I don't regard myself as having any special insight. But I love North Dakota with all my heart and I want this our shared homeland to thrive in every sense of the term. I see prosperity and economic development as great things, but certainly not the only blessings of North Dakota life. Sometimes I think we are so benumbed by gratitude that this great economic miracle has come to us that we forget that we have the opportunity and responsibility to set the rules of engagement, and take special care of values in North Dakota life that are hard to quantify but essential to our long term happiness.
The Bakken Oil Boom is potentially one of the greatest things ever to happen to North Dakota, if we manage it right, and invest the windfall to create the best possible future for our children and grandchildren. If I could snap my fingers and make it go away, I wouldn't do so. If I could snap my fingers and make it slow down a little, I probably would, but not if that would in any way jeopardize the continuation of serious economic development in North Dakota. Actually, at this point, I don't see how it could be slowed down without violating the property rights of private mineral owners who have signed leases with oil companies, and I am certainly not in favor of that.
According to the experts I trust, the most hectic phase of the oil rush is now coming to an end and a more orderly and less frenetic phase is beginning. As the infrastructure starts to catch up with the volume of human and industrial traffic, the level of chaos and congestion should start to come down. As our law enforcement systems (town, county, state, and national) get the personnel, resources, and training they need to master varieties of anti-social behavior previously rare or unknown on the North Dakota prairie, criminal activity should begin to come down to less alarming levels.
I believe that I am like most North Dakotans in that I now spend a lot of time trying to make sense of what is happening to our beloved homeland, and I'm more often filled with ambivalence than pure joy. Some of what I see delights me. Some of what I see troubles me. Some of what I see horrifies me. Frankly, I'd rather not spend my time thinking about the oil boom. I prefer to think and write about the dance of cottonwood trees after the first freeze, the savagery of a great July thunderstorm, the chaffy smell of the wheat harvest, the way pronghorn antelope turn on their afterburners when they really decide to run. Or the fabulous campy joy of waiting for the Burning Hills Singers to rev up at the Medora Musical. You know: North Dakota.
But rather suddenly an Industrial Revolution has come to the northern Great Plains and like it or not we are in the thick of it. It is now impossible to ignore. The sheer oomph of it (the volume, the speed, the seeming recklessness, the glut of men and vehicles and camp followers) forces everyone who loves North Dakota to wrestle with certain questions—what this means for our character and identity as a people, how this boom will change our towns and cities, how it will transform our favorite landscapes, how this thing will affect outdoor recreation and the state's cherished wildlife, how we should spend the vast private and public revenues, how this will affect our spirit of place. You don't have go out of your way to seek these questions. They hurtle into your consciousness, like it or not, sometimes when you least expect it. We would not be good citizens of North Dakota unless we rise to the challenge of trying to manage our future rather than be steamrolled by it.
Most Bakken benefits should bring delight to every North Dakotan Full employment. Amazing budget surpluses. Tax relief. Full funding for our educational systems. Even more important: Rural renewal. An end to a very long era of depopulation, outmigration, rural strain, and rural decline. A new confidence in the step of virtually every North Dakotan. A belief that the Bakken may propel us into a much better future than we could have dreamed of without its gigantic infusion of energy and capital into North Dakota life. These are benefits of such value, and they solve deep systemic and historic problems of North Dakota life so convincingly, that it's hard to see how any rational person could wish the boom to go away.
Troubling things: Train derailments. Accidental oil spills and water spills. Barroom brawls. Respiratory issues among livestock herds. Surface owners disrupted by oil development from which they get few or no benefits. Loss of wildlife habitat. Industrial encroachment on some of the most beautiful landscapes of North Dakota. Rushed and sometimes shoddy development in oil boomtowns. Skyrocketing rents for people on modest or fixed incomes. The loss of a sense of serenity and security among non-oil residents of our communities.
Horrifying things: Deliberate saline water spills. The spike in murder rates in North Dakota. Drug gangs and actual drug wars in the Bakken zone. Sexual assault, prostitution rings, sex trafficking (i.e., the abduction and rape of young women in Asia, Eastern Europe, and America's Indian reservations, and their delivery into the oil fields). The number of traffic fatalities in which longtime North Dakota residents are killed while simply attempting to go about their lives in the suddenly industrialized landscape.
I do firmly believe that the benefits of the Bakken Oil Boom greatly outweigh the costs. But that doesn't mean we should shrug our shoulders and accept the dark side of the boom as inevitable or "the cost of doing business." The answer is not to decry the oil boom or to live in denial of the "costs," but to address these problems with unblinking firmness, with the gumption and good sense that are the hallmarks of North Dakota life, and with a genuine sense of urgency.
We need to give the oil counties and cities absolutely everything they need to keep on top of this thing, no questions asked, no haggling or penny-pinching. We need to have zero tolerance for industrial negligence and stick it to individuals and rogue companies that violate our landscape, our farm fields, and (potentially) our water supplies. We need to bring in however many cops and federal agents it will take to crush the sex trafficking and the drug gangs. We need absolute transparency in our state agencies, no lies, omissions, or sugar coatings. We need more regulators to enforce North Dakota's excellent regulatory laws. We need to do everything we can to diminish the impact on Theodore Roosevelt National Park and a dozen other very special places in our magnificent countryside.
And we need our state leaders to assure us (out loud) that they regard these problems as something deeper than "growing pains."
Welcome to the New North Dakota
Enjoy Our "Growing Pains"
by Clay Jenkinson
February 16, 2014
Ah, yes, the new North Dakota.
A minor oil spill here and a "minor" oil spill there, a barroom brawl tonight and a domestic homicide tomorrow, a wellhead natural gas explosion in Tioga and an oil train derailment and fire in Casselton. Traffic fatalities now so frequent in northwestern North Dakota as to have ceased to be news. A man living in a dumpster and bodies dumped in dumpsters. Prostitution now punctuates the landscape as densely as oil flares, and prostitution-related violence is filling our emergency rooms. Drugs, drug gangs, drug wars. In fact, nearly pandemic drug use among potential workers, according to the oil industry exports themselves, represents the "biggest roadblock" to a more robust development in the Bakken Oil fields.
How do I know these things? I read it all in the Bismarck Tribune. On the night before I wrote these words I went to the Tribune website to look up something entirely unrelated. But the harmless little thing I was looking for was buried under a slurry of horrifying stories about what North Dakota has become in the last decade. Take a look yourself. It's like seeing your nephew for the first time in a couple of years. His parents look on him as the same old Ralphie, but you instantly notice that he is six inches taller than when you last saw him, he has some chin hairs, he wears outsized jeans jammed well down on his hips, his voice cracks when he talks about the Super Bowl, and he catches himself about halfway into the f-word. Compare copies of the Bismarck Tribune (or Dickinson Press, or Williston Herald, or Minot Daily News) from February 16, 2005, and February 16, 2014, and, as Shakespeare puts it, "hark what discord follows." You can say goodbye to the sleepy old family farm homeland we once were.
When I was growing up, if there were three murders in North Dakota a year we regarded it as the coming of Sodom and Gomorrah. We may have been boring, and we all fretted about depopulation and rural decline, but we were an astonishingly peaceful and neighborly place with a very high quality of life that somehow made up for the dearth of social amenities. Back then, if someone in our acquaintance locked his car doors at night we regarded him as a nervous Nellie.
In the past eight years, the quality of life in North Dakota has soared and plummeted at the same time and from the same cause. We are rich (on the whole, though unevenly), but anyone who tells you we have not lost anything worth keeping has apparently drunk the crude.
Here's what I learned in 30 minutes at the Tribune website Tuesday night.
North Dakota highway 23 west of New Town was closed for seven hours last Saturday after a Louisiana oil field worker by the name of Huan Son of New Iberia, Louisiana, collided with two semi-trucks and a pickup. He was attempting to pass a semi on the crest of a hill. He wound up getting himself killed, causing an oil spill, harrowing the lives of the three other drivers (none, apparently, injured) and damaging their property, and tying up traffic on one of the Bakken's key oil arteries for seven full hours. People don't usually pass on hills unless they are filled with reckless testosterone, drunk, or so frustrated by the antlike pace of traffic that they take what at first seems like a calculated risk. None of the four drivers involved in the wreck have been identified as North Dakotans.
Ten years ago this would have merited banner headlines in the state's newspapers and it would have dominated the coffee klatch salons in North Dakota Cenex stations for days. By now it is just a nub in the news. It has gotten to the point that I don't even read through such stories anymore. We just shake our heads and move on.
Meanwhile, a "routine" trailer court homicide investigation in southeast Mandan has proved to be the tip of a criminal underworld iceberg. It all began when a man named Alex Landson was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds on January 27. As the web of felonious activity widened, investigating officers found methamphetamines, psilocybin, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a 9mm handgun, $5,400 in cash, and four cellphones. Hmmm, what cottage industry must this represent? One of the murder suspects and two others were also charged with terrorizing and felonious restraint. They had apparently lured an unnamed woman to one of the defendant's homes, assaulted her, held her against her will, and threatened to kill her and her children. The principal suspect apparently called a friend in search of rolls of plastic with which to wrap her body once they killed her, and bleach and gloves so that they could scrub away the evidence. They actually boarded up a door on the house to prevent the woman from leaving. She says they assaulted her with a stun gun. In spite of all this, she was able to escape the next day.
When you get to the "we'll kill you and dispose of your body with Saran wrap" stage of drug trafficking, you are no longer merely supplementing your income as a night clerk.
In related news, a 67-year-old Missouri man by the name of Marvin Lord has been charged with facilitating prostitution at a north Bismarck motel. Hotel employees called the police after observing Lord meeting strange men in the motel lobby, escorting them to his room, and then waiting in the lobby for them to return. A 41-year-old Chinese woman in his company has been charged with prostitution. As is usual in such cases, she pled not guilty. Lord claims they are married. He told the judge they have been in North Dakota "a little over a week." The Chinese woman has a valid travel visa. She has not been named because it is possible that she is the victim of sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking. In North Dakota. In North Dakota! In NORTH DAKOTA.
Last Sunday, Minot police arrested five men alleged to be operating a prostitution ring in the "Magic City." It need hardly be said that these crimes—brought to light by deliberate sting operations—are merely the tip of the prostitution iceberg. That such activity is one of the "growing pains" of the oil boom goes without saying.
Is all this your idea of North Dakota?
Stories indicating that the state of North Dakota is losing $1 million a month in natural gas (flaring) taxes, that Amtrak trains can hardly pierce through the glut of oil train traffic on our beleaguered railways, that a "Watford City man" has been charged with eight felony counts for gun possession (related to murders and mayhem in Spokane, Idaho), that state game wardens can hardly keep up with the poaching epidemic, or that it is going to take a couple of years to clean up the September 2013 Tioga oil pipeline spill, are now considered too "minor" to hold our collective attention.
Words matter. To call these things "growing pains" is a form of economic and linguistic obscenity.
Intimations of Mortality on my Birthday
by Clay Jenkinson
February 9, 2014
I rattled through another birthday this last week. Thanks to Facebook, which celebrated its tenth birthday on my 59th, I received greetings from several hundred people scattered hither and yon across the planet. Facebook is many things—mostly good—but for me the best of it is the birthday list, one of the great inventions of the electronic revolution. In the old days I knew fewer than ten birthdays, and managed to miss even some of them. Now, if I only check the FB list in the morning, I can reach out to all of my friends on their birthdays. And even though we all know that it is Big Brother Zuckerberg rather than our innate thoughtfulness that makes this happen, the simple fact is that nobody is sorry to be remembered on her or his birthday. If you stripped Facebook of cat photos (cat seeming to play a piano, cat seeming to watch Kardashians) and extremest political "memes," and preachy New Age maxims ("Reach for the Sky, Not the Pie"), there would be very little left. I like to think of Facebook as a Birthday App for approximately a seventh of the world population.
My birthday was a little somber. One of my closest friends died a week ago in Reno, Nevada, and I could not (can not) get her out of my mind. She was just 67 years old. Then came the news that one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, died of a drug overdose in New York City at the age of 46. To top it off, I had to go see my doctor in Bismarck on my birthday.
A week ago in Dickinson, as I was about to get into my car, parked on a hill, while carrying a heavy bag, and talking on the phone, I slipped on some ice. My feet did that cartoon thing at 650 rpms, but I could not regain my footing (hill, heavy bag). As I went down I reached out to steady myself on the trunk of my car with my right arm (mistake). Then I felt that horrible sickening moment when the whole weight of your body forces your skeleton and musculature to bend in a direction they were not designed to bend, and you realize that not even the instant intense pain is a sufficient measure of how badly you have dinged your body. It would have been better just to have fallen. In retrospect, I'm surprised that my arm didn't just wrench right off like a turkey wishbone. It was ten below.
For the next few days I actually had to use my left arm to position my right arm—on the steering wheel, at the j-k-l-; position on the keyboard, on the shower spigot. My right arm was essentially inert, as if a very large bent summer sausage were attached to my right shoulder by a piece of baling wire, but with workable fingers at the end of it. If I kept the arm tucked right into my ribcage the pain subsided mostly, but when I screwed up my courage to move the arm, some structural things in my shoulder snapped and tripped and at a certain angle the pain went straight through the roof. It was not very easy to sleep. If I rolled wrong in the night, the pain was such that I actually shot out of the bed like a middle aged rocket. At one point I contemplated learning to write with my left hand. It could not have hurt more if I had gnawed it off like a beaver in a trap.
I'm not much of a doctor sort of guy. I've only spent two nights in the hospital in my life, long ago in my childhood. But at some point in the last week I decided I am going to need my shoulder and right arm, so I got an appointment to see my doctor, a really wonderful man whose care I would hate to lose (are you listening Obama?!) By the iron law of automobile breakdowns and health problems, my shoulder was doing pretty well when he poked and prodded, and he concluded that I didn't need an x-ray and certainly not an MRI. He's one of those knuckleheads who believes in human health more than industrial medicine. I told him it was my birthday and I what I really wanted was a doctor like Michael Jackson's or Rush Limbaugh's, who would prescribe a range of miracle pharmaceuticals (up, down, sleep, ecstasy, mellow, alert, numb, lobotomic), particularly that thing they give you at the colonoscopy where you are not even sure that it occurred afterward. He suggested asprin. He wouldn't even give me a prescription for sleeping pills. Like my friends at Fox, I'm just going to blame Obamacare for everything.
I went to the drug store to get the one thing he prescribed for me. It would be about half an hour, they said. So I decided to spend a part of my birthday working every aisle of the store. I have the following report.
One. Never go to a drug store on your birthday. You cannot work the aisles without a very lively sense of your mortality. The shelves are chock full of things that remind you of how much can go wrong with your body: bandages, trusses, knee braces, adult diapers, pain creams, rubber sheets, heating pads, cooling pads, enema bags, collapsible canes, black eye patches, hemorrhoid donuts, toilet seat extenders, and ten thousand potions that either retain or eliminate your bodily wastes, at any rate of disposal you can imagine.
Two. For the first hour I watched an octogenarian try to find the right replacement battery for his hearing aid. It seems cruel that the labeling on these batteries is in the tiniest possible typeface, and that the invisible etching makes it virtually impossible to tell the difference between identical battery X and identical battery Y even when you are young and eagle-eyed. Nobody helped the elderly man, of course, and if they had tried—well, he wouldn't be able to hear them until he installed a new battery in his hearing aid.
Three. I believe the word "relief" is the commonest word in the store. Pain relief. Bowel relief. Pressure relief. Anxiety relief.
Four. Let me now praise capitalism. How many types of painkiller do we really need? Two bursting aisles? How many varieties of vitamins—a version for every orifice? How many types of shampoo, hand cream, hair dye, lipstick, deodorant, or hair spray does a free society want or need? There are, I discovered in hour two, several dozen varieties of condom—comfort, size, fit, color, aroma, ribbing, duration. How would one ever be able to choose?
Five. I'm happy to report that you can still buy a Vegematic in America, and a device to make boiled eggs without those pesky shells, and an electric mold for the perfect Taco salad shell.
My co-pay was so high that I could have ditched the medicine and bought each of the 234,000 Valentine cards in the store, and every bag of stale pistachios.
Ah, birthday memories. I blame you know who.
Bread and Circuses, a Mythical State of the Union
by Clay Jenkinson
February 2, 2014
I watched the opening bars of the State of the Union Message on Tuesday night, but I couldn't bear to watch the whole thing. Once I saw the guy from Duck Dynasty up there in the gallery, I lost heart. When's the last time you heard a good State of the Union Message? They tend to be endless lists of small policy initiatives, coupled with patently erroneous claims that the state of the nation is better than everyone knows it to be. At one point the President said we have cut the deficit by half—did anyone really believe that? At another point he said we've had truly impressive national job growth. While urging Congress to extend unemployment benefits (again) to 1.3 million good Americans who cannot find jobs.
I hope I live long enough to hear a President who just levels with us. If I were Obama I'd admit that the rollout of the Affordable Care Act was pathetic. I'd admit that we did not protect our diplomats in Benghazi well enough, and that the administration's immediate public relations response to the attack was a shameful act of deliberate deception. I'd admit that the deficit is out of control. Candor—a fundamental honesty about America's real situation—would, I believe, build bipartisan respect and perhaps even support. We know from the latest Wall Street Review poll that 63% of Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction. That's worth noting if you really want to talk about the "State of the Union." Not great.
It seems to me the Thomas Jefferson had it right. He chose not to go up in person to Congress to deliver his Annual Messages. He broke with the habit of his two predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, whose annual appearances before Congress Jefferson saw both as a waste of time and quasi-monarchical. Jefferson didn't want America to be about pageantry. He wanted it to be about limited government, "a few plain duties performed by a few honest men." To fulfill his constitutional role, Jefferson wrote (no ghostwriters) an Annual Message and sent it by courier up to the Capitol.
It wasn't until Woodrow Wilson that Presidents returned to Congress for these annual processionals, in which all three branches of our national government face each other in the same chamber—and the black-robed Supreme Court, apparently, just sits there solemnly in the front row, unmoved by the political circus. It amazes me that Theodore Roosevelt wasn't the one to break Jefferson's precedent of silence. It must have nearly killed him when his dreaded rival Wilson read his Annual Message out loud in person before Congress on December 2, 1913. Surely out of one side of TR's mouth came, "The self-serving scoundrel!" and out of the other, "Why didn't I think of that, Edith?"
What we really need is a constitutional revolution. Presidents have recently been ruling more and more by executive order. That's not even slightly the spirit of the Constitution written in 1787. It's the legislative branch that is supposed to pass laws and set policy, the executive to enforce them. If the President can raise the minimum wage by presidential fiat, then we are no longer a republic in any meaningful sense of the term. This President is threatening to use executive orders to work around the Republicans in Congress, but the Founders wanted the people's work to be done exclusively by the people's representatives, and they were unambiguously committed to checks and balances in the national government. I find this trend towards government by executive order alarming, particularly since there is no grant of such authority in the Constitution itself.
We also need to address the question of war powers.
I went to see Lone Survivor the other night. If I had known how gory it would be I might not have gone. The film is about a special forces raid in Afghanistan that goes terribly wrong; only one individual of a cluster of Navy Seals survives the broken mission. The film is based on a true story. Lone Survivor was so harrowing that there were times when I had to cover my eyes, and afterwards I actually felt the need for a glass of wine. For me, two reactions were unavoidable. First, that we owe our men and women in uniform an unlimited quantity of respect. It's hard to believe that there are Americans who are willing to take such risks, to give (as Lincoln put it), "the last full measure of devotion" to the freedom and security of the United States. But they do.
Second, what the heck are we doing in Afghanistan? We all know that Afghanistan has been invaded by a range of empires in its long sad tribal history, and that the Afghanis always "win," because the occupiers eventually lose heart and go home. Our military troops have performed admirably under difficult conditions there, but we cannot even keep the US-backed puppet government under Hamid Karzai from openly decrying American actions and repeatedly betraying American interests. Who exactly are we fighting for, and to what end? Political stability? Easier to land an astronaut on Mars.
When we finally leave—after what the President called "the longest war in American history"—and the Afghani tribesmen settle into another chapter of their endless civil war, reprisal followed by raid followed by atrocity followed by temporary dictator followed by assassination, does anyone really believe it will have been worth the loss of 2,287 American soldiers (so far)? Who will be the last American to die in Afghanistan? And for what?
Over the past week I have been rereading Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, one of America's greatest books. He, like Jefferson, believed that it was too late in the world's history to settle our international disputes by way of war. It was Franklin, in the Autobiography, who concluded his section on the success of the American Revolution with, "There never was a good war, or a bad peace." The Founding Fathers wanted to make sure war wasn't one of our routine ways of dealing with the rest of the world. So they insisted that wars must be declared by the House of Representatives, the branch of government closest to the people themselves. They insisted that War Department appropriations must be re-authorized every two years, so that we did not fall into the habit of permanent and independent militarism. They believed that wars should be paid for with ready tax money, so that the people would realize how expensive they were and, in most cases, think twice before opening their checkbooks and committing the nation to a species of organized barbarism in which, as Jonathan Swift put it, "A soldier is a Yahoo (man) hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can."
Modern Presidents have far too much independent authority to wage war, and of course we don't actually pay for those wars, except in the lives of the dedicated Americans who go fight them on our behalf.
The highlight of the State of the Union Message was President Obama's beautiful tribute to Army Ranger Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg, who was grievously wounded in Afghanistan and who has endured a long series of operations merely to get about 50% of his body functions back. We owe him and tens of thousands like him way more than a standing ovation and solid veteran's benefits. We owe him a better U.S. government and a more authentic national purpose.
Praise for Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's Special Places Initiative
by Clay Jenkinson
January 24, 2014
We have now reached the defining moment of North Dakota life in the 21st century.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has quietly put together a very modest proposal to designate a small number of acreages of western North Dakota as special or extraordinary places, and to require oil companies to treat those few parcels with special care when they extract the oil. The Attorney General has proposed that the North Dakota Industrial Commission, of which he is one of three members, adopt a set of special rules (or processes) for the management of those few acres.
It's that simple. And here's the most important point. If the Industrial Commission votes to accept Stenehjem's proposal, not a single barrel of oil will be put off limits.
The short list of parcels Stenehjem has in mind includes such things as the near perimeter of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park; North Dakota's most magnificent landform Bullion Butte (south of Medora); the inner channel of the Little Missouri River; historically important sections of the Killdeer Mountains; the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers; the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea; Pretty Butte north of Marmarth. And a few others.
If you ask 100 people to name the most beautiful, fragile, pristine, or sensitive parcels of western North Dakota, almost everyone's list is going to be the same for the first dozen or so places. Everyone understands that the best of the badlands are more valuable to the Idea and Identity of North Dakota than a lovely coulee near Parshall or Crosby. Public lands are inevitably easier to identify with, recreate on, and protect than strictly private properties, however beautiful those may be or special to their private owners. We take our collective identity from those things and places we especially prize (a flag, a veteran's cemetery, a church, a landscape vista), and it is in the interest of a civilized people to make reasonable discriminations about such things as they develop and clarify public policy.
When Stenehjem began to think about this initiative he said, emphatically, that any list he made would need to be shorter rather than longer (a very few very special places, not a unrestrained conservation "wish list"), and that no list would preclude oil development in those parcels. He was adamant that the state of North Dakota has no right to violate the sanctity of contract between private parties or to intrude itself between a willing mineral owner and a willing oil company.
The shortness of Stenehjem's list and his repeated vocal insistence on the sanctity of private property rights has frustrated some members of the environmental or conservationist community in North Dakota. But Stenehjem did not undertake this initiative to please this or that constituency. He has taken the lead because he loves North Dakota, greatly appreciates the landscapes that happen to overlay the Bakken oil shales, and because he understands that reasonable regulatory protocols are as important in the oil fields as they are in all businesses that impact public health and welfare. As a member of the state Industrial Commission, he has a unique public responsibility—to uphold our laws, to promote economic development, to serve the interests of all North Dakotans, and to balance competing interests for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible.
I think Wayne Stenehjem deserves great credit for his leadership in the most critical issue in North Dakota life, the most critical moment (I believe) in my lifetime as a North Dakota citizen. My respect for him was always high, but it has deepened dramatically as this initiative has begun to unfold. The easiest thing would have been to just leave it alone, to stamp the oil permits and get out of the way. To show leadership at a time like this is to invite criticism and backlash from both ends of the spectrum, and to have one's integrity maligned by those (on the one hand) who think that any restraint on the oil industry is tantamount to confiscation and communism, and those (on the other) who believe that the special places initiative is nothing more than a public relations smokescreen behind which the "rape" of North Dakota will continue unabated.
The Attorney General is no wild-eyed liberal. He is not a "radical environmentalist," as some in the oil industry like to characterize those who do not rubber stamp all of their extraction plans. He is not trying to lock up North Dakota to oil development, or even a tiny number of parcels. Above all, he knows and respects the U.S. Constitution, the North Dakota Constitution, and the common law. He knows and condemns what would constitute a Fifth Amendment "taking" of landowners' or mineral owners' property rights, or an unfair burden on private property. He's a brilliant man. He's a Republican. He's a cheerful and serious advocate of the oil boom. He's a man of unimpeachable integrity.
The fate of the Attorney General's initiative is going to tell us who we are and what we value and where we draw the line as the first half of the 21st century unfolds in North Dakota. If his leadership prevails, it will not only help to mitigate the industrial impact on those parcels he has designated (and yet still permit oil development), but it will also reassure the people of North Dakota that the government of the state is directing this great economic boom rather than being passively directed by it, that we are sovereign, that we are in control of our own destiny. His list may seem conservative and modest, but it will make a huge difference to the spirit of North Dakota. We are awash in oil.
If Stenehjem's initiative fails, if neither Governor Dalrymple nor Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring chooses to support the Special Places protocols, it will be an unmistakable sign that nothing is sacred in North Dakota anymore, that everything is for sale, with the least resistance, to the highest bidder. It will be a license to the oil companies that they may have their way with us, because we are insufficiently committed to our own sacred landscape to make reasonable requests about how it should be stripped of its oil reserves.
Oil industry pressure on Governor Dalrymple is going to be gigantic, almost unbearable. Already a "landowners' group" has sprung up, located interestingly enough in Tulsa, Oklahoma, denouncing the Attorney General's initiative, urgently warning mineral owners that, "Nearly a million acres of private land across the Peace Garden State may soon be restricted or even condemned." This is so erroneous that it would appear to be a naked lie, both with respect to the number of acres in question, and the suggestion that lands may be condemned, which is no part of Stenehjem's proposal whatsoever. Furthermore, that "landowners' group" warns that, "Out-of-state interests are pushing their anti-development agenda in Bismarck." This would be hilarious if it were not patently untrue and unfair. The Special Places initiative was wholly the brainchild of Wayne Stenehjem (decidedly in-state!) and nobody else, and his "agenda" is in no way whatsoever "anti-development."
I find such tactics simply appalling. An initiative of this importance deserves a serious public debate. That debate will be passionate, possibly even acrimonious at times. But it ought to be a debate by North Dakotans about the future of North Dakota, and it ought to be conducted with a commitment to honesty and fair play.
In my 58 years, I have never felt more strongly about anything than I feel about this.
When Did We Get Too Sophisticated to honor Lawrence Welk?
by Clay Jenkinson
January 17, 2014
Three cheers for the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND) for voting to buy the Lawrence Welk homestead at Strasburg, ND. The vote of the SHSND advisory board on January 10 was ah-six-a to ah-five. Lawrence Welk is as much a part of our heritage as Sitting Bull or Custer or Lewis and Clark, none of whom knew they were North Dakotans. Welk never forgot for a moment. If Bobby and Cissy had danced on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Meriwether Lewis would have cheered up and written his book after all.
I'm saddened to hear the naysayers on the editorial pages, blogs, and radio talk shows sneer at Lawrence Welk's greatness, or say that era of our history is "past and good riddance," or that Lawrence Welk is a cornpone source of cultural embarrassment to North Dakota, or that "we cannot afford to be spending our hard-earned tax dollars on something of so little importance." Hard earned?
Remember, the North Dakota tourism theme is "Legendary." The Lawrence Welk Show ran on national commercial television (ABC) for 27.5 years, 1,065 episodes, some of them in living Technicolor. Add to that syndication and three decades of public television reruns, and you have one of the handful of most popular and most important programs in the history of television. Creator and host? A rural North Dakotan who followed his dream and ventured off of a hardscrabble farm into national prominence--and yet never forgot where he came from.
I know the Welk homestead is "lightly visited," to put it mildly. The place where the Champagne Music Master was born and where he first played the accordion is visited by only a few hundred folks per year. Hard to think there will be much of a turnaround even under the superb management and better interpretation of the State Historical Society. But that's not the point. I know the Welk farm is out of the way, that you don't just happen upon it on your trip to Minneapolis or Denver or Big Sky. You have to want to go there, and when you get there, out there in the middle of nowhere, there is not very much to see. Maybe that IS the point. Welk should be a hero to every dreamy North Dakota kid who wants to start a band in his garage, every fifth grade doodler who dreams of being Michelangelo, every shy farm girl who dreams of being a Rockette or performing with the Berlin Philharmonic.
At a time when North Dakota is undergoing a massive industrial, social, and economic transformation, letting its rich ethnic heritages blink out without so much as a fare thee well, it is in our interest as a people to remember who we are, where we came from, and how hard our forefathers worked to prove up this state.
Lawrence Welk was born on March 11, 1903. North Dakota had been a state for just thirteen years. He was the sixth of eight children born to Ludwig and Christiana Welk, who had immigrated to America in 1892 from north of Odessa in today's Ukraine. During their first winter on the Great Plains the Welks lived under an upturned wagon covered with blocks of sod. Think of that! By this standard the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder were aristocrats. No running water. No electricity. A primitive outhouse. Not a tree in thirty miles. Buffalo chips for fuel. No radio, no telephone, no link of any sort to the world beyond the wind-blasted prairie.
Welk's rags-to-riches story has a mythical, almost Biblical quality to it. When he was scarcely more than a boy, he somehow convinced his father Ludwig to allow him to order a mail-order accordion for $400. That's a lot of money today. It was a small fortune in 1910 or 1915 dollars. He promised his father he would toil on the farm until he was 21 to pay him back for the accordion, and that any money he earned off the farm laboring for neighbors would be contributed to the family's needs. He fulfilled his commitment.
After touring the home counties and then the Dakotas with bands directed by others, Welk plucked together a couple of starter bands—the Hotsy Totsy Boys and later the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra—and for several decades traveled all across America performing in bandstands, gymnasiums, municipal auditoriums, and ballrooms. In 1951 he settled in Los Angeles and, well, you know the rest.
Full disclosure. I'm not particularly a Lawrence Welk fan. I don't plan my Sunday evenings around Lawrence Welk Show (LWS) rebroadcasts on Prairie Public Television. But I am in love with the heritage of North Dakota, and a huge fan of what Welk represents in the history and culture of this state. There was a time when Welk was our greatest national figure (perhaps our only national figure), when every North Dakotan—whether you liked his music or not—felt pride that someone from this windswept and isolated prairie state had risen to such national prominence. We also recognized that Lawrence Welk had not (like Angie Dickinson, for example) done everything in his power to abandon and repudiate his North Dakota roots. We knew that he was proud of his Germans-from-Russia heritage, proud to be a North Dakotan, unwilling to take voice lessons to homogenize his accent into American Midwestern bland.
He came back to North Dakota frequently. He performed at the Medora Musical. In many ways, he inspired the Medora Musical, and for a time there was a considerable revolving door between the talent his friend Harold Schafer was featuring at the Burning Hills Amphitheater and the cast of the LWS. Harold and Sheila Schafer discovered Tom Netherton. Sheila remembers the moment on the Apple Creek Country Club (at that time the "Pebble Beach" of North Dakota) when she forced Welk to pause long enough on the tee box of the fifth hole to listen to Netherton audition. Welk signed Netherton on the spot. Legendary.
At one time, tens of thousands of North Dakotans played the accordion. Invented in the 1820s-40s in Germany and Russia, it's versatile, capable of producing beautiful music, but (more to the point) portable and powered without electricity. That makes it a perfect instrument for the American frontier. Imagine how dreary the history of the Great Plains would have been without the accordion. It is to German and German-Russian culture what the fiddle was to Virginia and Kentucky in the age of Jefferson. Not long ago I asked the great troubadour Chuck Suchy how many people now play the accordion in North Dakota. "A couple of hundred, just maybe a few thousand still," he said, "but not for much longer."
Some people have been suggesting that the Welk home be moved to Buckstop Junction at Bismarck or Bonanzaville at West Fargo, as a cost-effectiveness gesture, so that more people will have the opportunity to see the home where he grew up. But that defeats the purpose altogether. At Bonanzaville the Welk house is just a modest clapboard house ripped from its context. Out there on the godforsaken prairie in the Sauerkraut Triangle, it's a lonely but important shrine. It is worth a long day's pilgrimage.
I hope the Historical Society will stabilize it, conserve it as it is, and not put up a modern interpretive center. I hope they erect some thoughtful out-of-the-way interpretive signage, but mostly just maintain the Welk homestead as a symbol of what we once were, and all the great possibilities that grew from all those humble beginnings.
Are There No "Higher Laws" in North Dakota Life?
by Clay Jenkinson
January 12, 2014
For the past five days I have been holed up at a fabulous Spartan resort just inside Idaho west of Missoula, Montana, with a dozen folks from all over America. We gathered in the mountain snow at Lochsa Lodge for the sole purpose of discussing one of the world's great books, Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods.
Walden has many themes. It is much more than a book about one solitary man's love of nature. It is a surprisingly muscular and argumentative book that wrestles with some of the main issues in American life, then and now. It was published in 1854 at a time of rapid industrialization in the United States, when the railroad boom was transforming the landscape and the social structure of America in an unprecedented manner.
One of our participants was an ideological libertarian. He believes that government exists solely for the purpose of protecting property rights, and that anything else government might do is an intrusion into our liberties. He believes that absolutely everything can be "monetized," and that the free market is the best tool humans have to sort everything out, from the price of a loaf of bread to the delivery of health care.
So, to take an easy example, it's the year 1900 and the timber companies are cutting down every redwood tree they can get their hands on because there is a lucrative market for redwood lumber. Theodore Roosevelt (a big believer in free enterprise) decides that unless government steps in to manage the resource and conserve it for future generations, the short-sighted profiteers of the timber industry will cut down the last redwood to squeeze the last dollar out of the species. Moreover, Roosevelt believes that there is an inherent majesty in a redwood forest and that is in the interests of American civilization to release a few extraordinary things from the tyranny of the market. TR therefore determines that the national government will supervise the timber industry on public lands to insure the sustainability of our forests.
According to our Lochsa libertarian, that was the wrong thing to do: sloppy, sentimental, misguided, unfair, possibly un-American. "If you really think a redwood tree is as valuable standing in the air as it is turned into lumber for redwood decks, then you need to outbid the lumber companies tree by tree or forest by forest. The market works." You don't want a power co-op to put up wind towers just offshore at Martha's Vineyard, outbid them for the resource.
Thoreau was something of a libertarian too. He trumped Jefferson's "that government is best which governs least," to declare, "that government is best which governs not at all." Thoreau was committed to the individual, not the state. But Thoreau believed that individual had a duty to evolve from the brutishness and savagery of his base character into a more enlightened being, that America cannot be a great civilization unless we learn to hearken not just to economic laws but also to what he calls "higher laws." An individual who learns to hear "higher laws" does not believe that the value of everything can be measured in dollars. I think Roosevelt would regard Thoreau as hopelessly naïve. While you wait for the slaughterhouse owners to evolve, you are going to eat a fair quantum of rats, excrement, and tainted pork in your breakfast sausage.
On the third day of the Lochsa retreat I took a long walk through the woods in the hopes that I would encounter a wolf or a mountain lion. As I crunched through the pure white snowpack along the magnificent Lochsa River, I wondered what are the higher laws of North Dakota life in the era of the Bakken Oil Boom.
An oil shale deposit is different from more traditional pool oil because once you perfect the technology, in a fracturing boom you "strike oil" nearly 100% of the time. There is so much shale oil and natural gas in western North Dakota that you can more or less arbitrarily pick your spacing protocols, lay down a drilling grid of 40-60,000 wells, and then systematically work the field over time, until you have created the maximum extraction efficiency. Most of the land in North Dakota is privately owned. Even most of the public lands are open to development. As long as there is money to be made—and the money to be made dwarfs anything North Dakota has ever seen or dreamed about—oil companies are going to come get it. The drilling of any one individual well is a highly-efficient, nearly miraculous example of human technological ingenuity, and the environmental "footprint" of any given well is comparatively light, especially once the fracking process is over. But add all those drilling events together—systematic oil extraction in every direction—and then add in the pipelines, the storage tanks, the transfer facilities, the natural gas processing plants, the new roads and railroad spurs, the bypasses, the giant parking lots for idle trucks and pipe, and the industrial "hospitality" infrastructure, and—voila--you have transformed western North Dakota from a quiet rural countryside into an overwhelming hive of pell-mell industrial activity.
All on the principle of the market. Although the overwhelming majority of the oil wealth of North Dakota leaves the state never to return (such is the history of North Dakota), the amount of money being left behind in the hands of mineral owners, service providers (from water haulers to car dealers and hotdog stands), and in the coffers of the state treasury is so vast that it makes a mockery of my libertarian friend's economic equations. A day care provider in Watford City can barely pay her bills and put tennis shoes on her children's feet (traditional economy). An elderly couple in Dickinson, living on a modest pension and Social Security, is told that their rent will triple on March 1st (traditional economy). The rancher who would rather not see oil development in that special pasture near the river is told by a company representative or his lawyer that he will be getting checks for tens of thousands of dollars per month if he signs in triplicate, here, here, and here (the oil economy). Who can resist?
It's as if there are two types of currency in North Dakota today—the currency of our state's 125-year history, in which we toiled and scrimped and wound up moderately prosperous because of the quality of our character and our work ethic, and the new currency of unbelievable stacks of carbon money, funny money, that staggers the imagination and overwhelms any discussion of "higher laws."
I believe that North Dakotans value many things that cannot be monetized. If there were a precise enough way of polling the people of North Dakota, I believe that the majority would say they do not want western North Dakota to be overwhelmed by industrialization, however grateful we are for the surpluses and the full employment and rural renewal in our beloved state. Our traditional commitment to higher laws—family, neighborliness, community, volunteerism, faith, stewardship, civility, lawfulness, decency--is what has made us such a special people in such a special, improbable place. But this thing that has come upon us is so gigantic and the payoff is so huge that it is eroding things in our heritage and our character of incalculable value, in both senses of the term.
There is a value in a rolling prairie and windswept ridge, but who will be left to measure it?
Let's Prepare for our Big Birthday by Taking Charge of Our Destiny
by Clay Jenkinson
January 5, 2014
Welcome to 2014. It's going to be quite a year for North Dakota.
On November 2, North Dakota will celebrate its 125th birthday. Back in the desperation era of the 1980s—when our story was economic marginality, rural decline, consolidation, drought, and outmigration—reasonable people wondered if North Dakota had a future. At the time of our centennial "celebration" on November 2, 1989, some wondered if there would even be a bicentennial in 2089—or whether North Dakota would just crumble and blow away like Grassy Butte, Ambrose, Bowbells, or Tuttle. We heard about the "emptied prairie" syndrome until we were sick to death of it. The experts reckoned that some rump of folks would perhaps always remain on the northern Great Plains, because they were born here and somebody had to keep the lights on, but that the great majority of our young people would seek their destiny elsewhere where there were less wind, shorter winters, more and better amenities, and a livelier connection to what is happening in the great world. One of my closest friends—a serious philosopher—wondered out loud whether North Dakota would lose population until it reverted to something like territorial status.
Now, 25 years later, we are a state bursting with money and opportunity. The people of North Dakota now openly express optimism and pride, and a sense that the future is going to be exciting. More people live in North Dakota than ever before—the population tipped over 700,000 at the end of 2013. Who could have predicted that twenty years ago, or even ten? We are likely to top out at well over a million before this boom era ends. We have more money in our state coffers than we know what to do with. Our public institutions are more generously funded than ever before in our history. After many decades of barely getting by, North Dakota suddenly has enough money to fund a wide range of desirable initiatives, with money to spare. A modest amount of the windfall has been set aside by the ND legislature for broadly construed "conservation" purposes, and a monumental amount is being sequestered as a permanent Legacy Fund. That fund already amounts to 1.4 billion dollars. It is likely to reach far beyond $3 billion by 2017, the first year that the legislature is permitted to spend a small percentage of the fund per biennium.
We should take our cues not from Alaska, which likes to divvy up its oil windfall by way of cash payments to Alaska residents, but rather Texas, had the foresight in 1876 to establish an oil-drip Permanent University Fund (now topping $14 billion) to support higher education. Wise use of its immense carbon revenues has enabled Texas to create one of the world's greatest universities, the UT at Austin. And to fund globally significant museums, galleries, event centers, and libraries. To some it may sound elitist (or just crazy) but it is undeniably true: create great universities and great things are going to happen to your state.
I know many North Dakotans are skeptical of higher education at the moment—thanks to years of turbulence, scandals, and out-of-control administrators—but we'd be making a terrible mistake if we pulled away from our historically high commitment to higher education. This is the time to redouble our efforts to create the best-educated citizens of America--in faraway North Dakota, seemingly so distant from MIT, Yale, and Cal Tech. We should do this here in North Dakota because for the first time we can really afford it, and because every study indicates that the twenty-first century is going to belong to the societies that invest deeply in education at every level.
If we invest the windfall wisely, we could become one of the most attractive places to live in America by 2050, and we could overcome the 20th century "problem of North Dakota," that there is not enough within our borders to convince our children to make their lives here, not enough to lure new families who had the misfortune to be born elsewhere.
We are so rich now that we could, if we have vision enough, provide free or virtually free tuition to every young North Dakotan to attend colleges and universities within our boundaries. California did this at one stage of its amazing history, and the result was social and economic miracles that have changed the world. At a time of unprecedented prosperity, there is no justification for letting the high cost of higher education dissuade our young people from attending North Dakota colleges and universities, particularly when the oil fields are luring our young men away from a permanent investment in their futures (higher education) to the carnival of sudden, temporary, often enough anarchic, pocket cash.
As we roll up to November 2, our 125th birthday, we North Dakotans should take some time to step back to assess our history and our heritage, to engage in something like a statewide conversation about what brought us here, who we are, what we value, what we wish to preserve at a time of gigantic change, where we are heading, and where we would like to wind up down the road. The best way to celebrate our birthday would be to create a new North Dakota social contract, a twenty-first century mission statement, so that we can direct the economic miracle that has come to North Dakota rather than be, in the end, merely overwhelmed and damaged by it.
The epicenter of the state birthday celebration will be the amazing new North Dakota Heritage Center. You can see it taking shape on the capitol grounds: bold new galleries, new auditoriums, new exhibits, new storage space for the treasures of North Dakota, carefully conserved old artifacts and breathtaking new electronic bells and whistles. The existing Heritage Center has been the home of the collective memory of the people of North Dakota—a gem on the Northern Plains—but the new Heritage Center (with 39,000 square feet of galleries) is going to be one of the best in America, an expression of a new dance in the North Dakota spirit. It will look forward as well as back. It will be a perfect 125th birthday gift to the people of North Dakota. And if you think this could have been accomplished without the new prosperity of the Bakken Oil Boom, think again.
And yet, as I write these words, North Dakota is burning. A BNSF train hauling crude oil out of North Dakota derailed at Casselton on December 30, igniting a fireball that lit up the New Year to remind us of the immense cost of our sudden, unprepared-for economic success. It can, it has, and it will happen here. The innocent folks of Casselton were urged to evacuate. But the accident at Casselton, while dramatic, is hardly unique. Out west, many hundreds of oil wells are flaring their natural gas instead of capturing it, a profligacy that is literally burning up $100 million of carbon per month in a state that was once a sanctuary for family farmers. That's more than a billion dollars per year.
There was a time in the history of North Dakota when that was all the money in the world.
Casselton is the home of five North Dakota governors. We are going to need some very creative leadership before and after our 125th birthday.
Failed Lefse and Perfect Fruitcakes on Christmas Eve
by Clay Jenkinson
December 29, 2013
I'm writing this on the day after Christmas. My hands are dry and chapped from washing dishes and shoveling snow. Like you I am exhausted in that wonderful post-Christmas way, bleary, a little in awe of how much strain of activity goes into the buildup to Christmas morning, and how quickly all that frenzy is transformed into neat little stacks of gifts and a giant plastic bag of torn wrapping paper.
Without any spirit of exaggeration, I think I can report that I have loaded and unloaded the dishwasher 17 times in five days, done seven loads of laundry, shoveled four times, and run a dozen "last second" errands. My favorite was to the grocery store on Christmas Eve, where there were actual cart traffic jams as approximately 500 of my fellow Dakotans, some home for the holidays and therefore clueless about where to find the marshmallow crème, shoveled multiple cases of soda into their carts, some carts ranging the aisles in tandem at the hands of perky, demonic sisters-in-law. At one point I was reduced to telling a complete stranger: "Hey! No texting in the aisles. I'll run you down like a prairie dog on the highway." Fortunately, she smiled back rather than whap me with the 14-pound pork loin she was chucking into her cart. I had leisure to read Time Magazine's complete "Person of the Year" profile of Pope Francis in the checkout line. His attempts to preside over Catholic Christendom in a Christ-like way are raising some eyebrows.
My daughter requested a "live" Christmas tree this year, not the three-unit plastic tree that I usually manage to drag out from an obscure corner in the garage. We went Christmas tree shopping on the coldest day of the year: minus 23 and don't forget the windchill factor. Here are just a few highlights of a daylong saga: I install new battery in the Jeep; Jeep slips on ice and runs into curb; left front tire blows; we pony Jeep to nearby Best Buy parking lot; toy jack in Jeep (never before used) missing key part; father, wearing only a sports jacket, walks to Lowes to buy tools while daughter huddles in stricken Jeep reading magazine; father also buys mittens and a hat (idiot); first attempt to change tire fails owing to toy manufacturer's jack; good friend of father's walks across parking lot to smirk and commiserate and asks several dozen pointless and inaudible questions, before admitting that she has never changed a tire; father tells good friend to go jump in a lake (somewhat "softened" version of actual advice).
Once the tire was changed, we drove to Mandan to buy the world's greatest Christmas tree, which we tied to the roof of said Jeep and somehow managed to shove into the house, not without some frame damage. We spent the evening in a tangle of Christmas lights, which balled up more completely once we put our sap-encrusted hands on them. We made the Christmas tree star ourselves from foam board and the 24,300 bottles of tempera glitter paint in my daughter's craft drawers.
So far we have baked six fruitcakes, twelve batches of my mother's famous toffee; two batches of sugar cookies and one of chocolate meltaways; and two pies. On my repeated trips to the grocery store I have thrown embarrassing amounts of butter into my cart, again and again. On Christmas Eve we made perhaps the lamest batch of lefse (our first) in the history of Nordic culture. We will try again tonight.
The only calm in all this chaos was on Christmas Eve when my daughter offered to read the nativity story from the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke. We sat in the three best chairs in the living room with candles lit in every direction. She was wearing the new pink pajamas she had just opened—one of my mother's annual ritual gifts. I fetched up one of my Bibles, the New King James Version, and mother and I sat quietly as my only child read one of the most familiar of all stories in a voice that is two parts woman and yet still three parts a child. She did not stumble over "Zacharias."
Do you ever have one of those moments when you become aware that you are witnessing something you don't want to take for granted, don't ever want to forget, something you want to let get in deep, and so you try to become present, truly present, in a heightened way? "Some day I will look back on this moment and realize how magical it was, and how fleeting, and I will wish I could remember every detail—the quality of light, the sound of the music, the size of the Christmas tree, the color of the upholstery and the wrapping paper, the timbre of my child's voice…."
As I sat there I thought: for many years, my mother has been parked in a kind of timeless zone in which she is old without being elderly. She is healthy, autonomous, funny. She requires no special logistical arrangements. She drives herself to Bismarck and we do not fear for her (or others!) when she is on the road. At 82 she is still giving not needing. But the day is coming in the next decade when she will slip over some invisible line and become elderly. I won't mind making special arrangements when that moment comes, but it gives me the deepest pain to think that one of the most vigorous persons I have ever known cannot persist in this phase of her life indefinitely.
And I thought: my beloved daughter, heart of my heart, soul of my soul, now 19, is here tonight because this is where she wants to be, in that brief zone when she is making the transition from child to full adult. But the day is coming—and not far off—when she will announce to her parents that she is not coming home to the Great Plains for the holidays because she has a chance to study Orangutans in Malaysia between semesters, or that "Biff" has asked her to join him in Montreal this Christmas to meet his parents, or—alas—she is bringing "Biff" here and thinks perhaps we ought to discuss the sleeping arrangements in advance. Nooooooo.
Linger, my favorite women, please linger.
To my mother, whenever she does anything that smacks of "winding down," I say sternly, "Don't you grow old!" At which point she looks at me in a quizzical way, a little impressed perhaps that I am rooting for her so strenuously, but also as if to say, "You moron, do you think I want to grow old or that it makes much of a difference if I don't?" And to my daughter, whose life is going to be so much more bigger than mine, and who brings an earnestness to existence that I have never known, I want to quote Thoreau: "As long as possible live free and uncommitted."
As you can see, in my attempt to be fully present, I had slipped into this reverie instead. Such is the fallenness of man. And then I heard my daughter's voice again: "When they saw the Starre, they rejoyced with exceeding great joy" (Matthew 2:10).
A favorite verse, two celestial women in the candlelight, a cozy house with new tree smell, hot tea, and Santa on his way. Perfection.
See you in the new year.
You Must Never Wait for your Child at Baggage Claim
by Clay Jenkinson
December 22, 2013
When I wrote these words, Wednesday morning, the big full moon was just going down in the west. A silvery dawn moon is so beautiful, especially in the winter. It was precisely a week before Christmas, and all through the house not a creature was stirring, and boy am I a louse, because there is so much to do to get ready for my child, and on the kitchen table tall stacks are piled, of books and files and scattered notes, and tape and wrap and bookstore totes. The laundry heaps are strewn around, while I write words across the town….
My daughter is coming for Christmas. I have seen her less this year than ever before, because she is now a sophisticated college student in a faraway place. On the phone for the past couple of weeks, she has sounded more eager for Christmas than I can ever remember. Out here in the heartland, I am just ready to burst with anticipation. I had a hard time sleeping last night.
My favorite secular Christmas song is "I'll be home for Christmas." When it gets to "if only in my dreams," I invariably choke up, no matter where I am—in the car, in an airport terminal, or in the grocery store soda aisle. In 58 years I have spent fifteen Christmasses with my grandparents (long deceased), and 50, at least, with my parents. On the eight or so occasions when I was elsewhere, I missed my family so fiercely that I could not really enjoy myself. I don't especially care where I am at Easter or the Fourth of July, or even at Thanksgiving (so long as there are cranberries and a big turkey), but Christmas is not Christmas unless I am with my closest kin.
My daughter just texted. She is on the plane at LaGuardia! Godspeed my child. She will text next from Minneapolis International. I'll be the one at the airport this afternoon pretending to read a book in the half hour before she lands, pacing, checking the arrival screen every few minutes, trying to find the perfect spot on which to stand when she comes through that security door—not too close, not too casual, not too embarrassing. Our plan is to go straight from the airport to Mandan to buy a live Christmas tree, and to spend the evening decorating my house, making meatballs and my mother's celebrated (secret recipe) toffee, and of course catching up. She will have mighty tales to tell, of books and performances and tests and good and bad professors, of new friendships across cultural lines, and intellectual discoveries that have made her question all that she has assumed, and the creepy guy across the aisle on the plane. She is enjoying one of the steepest learning and adventure curves of her life, and I will listen to the story of her odyssey with undivided attention.
Finally, a little embarrassed, she will say, "And how are you, dad?"
We will do all of her Christmas shopping, start to finish, in the next 48 hours. My annual trip to the mall.
There is a great deal of silly talk these days in conservative circles about "the war on Christmas." But in my opinion that war is not being waged by the ACLU or the "liberal courts" or "politically correct school boards." The war is being waged by consumer capitalism, which has buried the true meanings of Christmas under mountains of merchandise, under a bombardment of vulgar, often sexualized, advertising, under an appalling economic mania, in which good and decent people feel pressured to buy things they cannot afford for others who feel pressured….
The meaning of Christmas, as I define it, is family sitting around the kitchen table drinking tea, catching up after long continental separations, waiting for the last of the stragglers to find the way home, checking phones incessantly for messages from the icy highways a state or two away. Making homemade eggnog not because it is better but because it's a family tradition, and then licking the beaters not because that is quite so enjoyable anymore, but in memory of the days when that was a rare treat. Going to the candlelight service, where even the righteous "church ladies" suspend their "we haven't seen you here for a while, we have begun to wonder if everything was ok?" shtick, and just smile to see families and friends reunited.
Christmas is making a new star for the tree under the creative direction of a determined youngster, out of cardboard and glitter paint and discarded bling, trying to remember where you left the glue gun last, and then everyone praising the finished star far beyond its merit. Christmas is playing the same lame board games because it gives you an excuse to sit together and chat about the little things of little consequence that keep us intimate. Christmas is waiting for your child to open that really special gift that you scrimped for, the gift you hope will please beyond all others, the gift that will mark this as "the Christmas I got my first 35mm camera," or "the Christmas I got the puppy." Christmas is a solemn 12-year-old reading the first chapters of the book of Luke to the family, stumbling over "Zacharias" and "covenant."
The best gifts I have ever received—or given--have not been expensive. It's not the thought that counts, but the thoughtfulness that counts. It's Matthew 6:21—"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal… For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Most of my "treasures" are now buried in the garage.
Call me a nostalgist, but I believe strongly that Christmas meant a great deal more when we were all less prosperous. Every year at this time I read aloud the great Christmas chapter in Little House on the Prairie, where Mr. Edwards swims the swollen creek to bring Laura and Mary Santa's gifts—new tin cups, a bright new penny each, a candy cane, and a small square of cake made from white flour (a frontier luxury). Laura and Mary are purely overwhelmed with the extravagance of the gifts, abashed, astonished, a little embarrassed, and they savor the candy canes (well, Mary does) because they don't know when they will ever lick another. A tin cup means more than a laptop.
My grandmother Rhoda made most of her gifts--for many years because she was poor, and later because she was frugal. She made my sister and me new pajamas every year out of flannel—girly stuff for my sister, trucks and boats and drum fabrics for me. I can see her at her console sewing machine fussing with the bobbin, her glasses glinting in the sewing machine lamp or her gold tipped tooth, the almost unbelievable competence in her fingers. Give me the most exquisite and expensive pair of pajamas that Macy's or Nordstrom can scrounge up, made from handfed silk worms, and I'd trade it in an instant for just one more pair of Rhoda Straus homemade PJs.
Catherine just texted: she is on the next plane in Minneapolis. The other day she asked me what I want for Christmas. I could hear her rolling her eyes on the other end of America when I gave my answer. It will take her twenty years or more to understand that the gift we most want in the world is currently settling into seat 28b.
Starting the Car on the Coldest Day of 2013
by Clay Jenkinson
December 15, 2013
Finally, more than forty below the morning I wrote this. Twenty-three below in absolute terms, wind chill minus forty. According to the U.S. Weather Bureau, it's the coldest it has ever been on December 11th in Bismarck. I love days like this. This is when you truly feel like a North Dakotan! The snow has a perfect blue cast. The air is absolutely clear, crystalline, electric, almost crackly. You feel that if you fired a pistol into the air on a morning like this, the whole sky (the Bible's empyrean) and everything under it would shatter into a trillion miniature ice crystals and just collapse around you in a prolonged tinkling. I watched the sunrise from my kitchen window well after eight a.m., but it seemed as if the real sun was vacationing in Australia and we were assigned a sub from the minor leagues. Plenty of light but no heat. The sun looked like a giant fried egg yoke congealing on the eastern horizon.
When you walk out of the house on mornings like this, the utter windlessness makes things a little eerie. We all know how to handle the usual North Dakota ground blizzard, the day's first bite of raw wind that feels as if it might rip your outer skin right off. But when you walk out the door expecting wind and discover that the great world is unnaturally silent, when you sense how incredibly cold it is rather than immediately feel it, that's a wonderful North Dakota moment. Suddenly you are a character in one of Jack London's Klondike stories—some survival instinct deep in your DNA below the tripwire of consciousness realizes that you are now in a potentially dangerous situation, that there is no room for error on a morning like this, that if you ran out of gas near Glen Ullin (as I did in August), you could die in short order no matter what you're wearing. For Jack London characters up on the Yukon in mid-December, it is always a life-or-death struggle to strike the last match successfully with numb clumsy fingers. For us the question is: will the car start?
My old used Honda has a remote starter. That's the sort of over-civilized gadget I like to sneer at, like heated car seats or hand warmers. I tried it twice from the kitchen window this morning, but my car just wheezed and coughed. So I ventured out to the crisp air, a mere 54 degrees below the freezing point. Silence. The only sound, the faraway crunch-thud of my feet on the snowpack, seemed as if it were miles away, or that it was coming from someone else's feet. It was so cold that when I pulled open the car door it felt as if it might just sheer off from low temperature metal fatigue. I sat down on the seat. It was frozen solid. It didn't give a millimeter. So it was that cold. The seat was as hard and uncomfortable as metal bleachers on New Year's Eve in International Falls, MN.
Normally, when you start a car you just do it without a moment's thought, because it is a habit so deeply engrained that it somehow just happens: key finds its way to ignition switch without aiming, key turns clockwise the instant it is fully inserted, car starts the minute it has the chance. But when it is this cold, particularly if you are out in the badlands or away from a ready back-up plan, you have to have a premeditated internal combustion strategy. I paused for maybe ten seconds before I turned the key. In the course of a long North Dakota life, I have been involved in half a dozen big winter car dramas. About average, I think. There is nothing quite so dispiriting as hearing the battery grind down and finally poop out on those few occasions when it really matters. At best it means you are in for a long day of cracked skin and foot stomping and probably bloody knuckles, and we all know how seldom an extreme-cold jumper cable transfusion works. When the engine does that eh-heh, heh . . . heh ……. heh . . . oh heh! thing and then you hear the click, click, click of system collapse, your heart just falls onto the floorboards and cracks into a thousand shards. "Here we go."
In those ten seconds, as I sat high up on (not in) the frozen solid front seat and watched my breath frost up the windshield on the inside, I reproached myself, for not having a better car, for not having plugged in the head bolt heater, for not living in Bermuda, and of course for having left the hoses out for another bruising winter because I reckoned the mild weather would never end this year. I knew I had to make some choices and get things right the first time. Just turn the key and hope for the best? Feather the gas pedal while turning the key? Press the gas pedal down to the floor once, quickly, and then turn the key? Go back to bed and forget the whole thing? Like an Apollo 13 astronaut, I began by turning off every potential battery drain: the radio, the heater, the dome light.
My trusty Honda started up on the second attempt, with at least half a minute of battery life remaining. When it is this cold, the just-started engine races for the first few minutes as if it's running on espresso not gasoline. The whole car shakes and snorts and rattles as if it is about to lift off or break up. But at least the car was running. Suddenly I felt a little smug and I smirked in praise of Japanese engineering. I turned on the radio and dialed it to KFYR—half-hoping to hear the Ole Reb yodel up the weather report. It was so cold that the speakers in my car buzzed and blared as if the cardboard membranes had cracked during the night.
The last remaining problem was the windshield, which was entirely covered with a thin, quite beautiful, but hard-as-steel frost curtain. This was not one of those occasions when I could just shoot an abundance of wiper fluid over the ice and cheat the frost away. My windshield scraper was buried somewhere in the back seat under many layers of holiday season strata. Rather than excavate it this morning, which would probably have involved getting out of the car and opening the back door, I decided to try to tough it out. I could almost make out the road through the gray crystal screen, if I squinted just right, and I reckoned it would melt before I killed anyone. I was running the defroster at full brassy throttle, thus pointlessly blasting 20-below air at the windshield (and my face) from within. If I bent over until my eyes were just above the level of the dash—a strenuous yogic posture made more difficult by the high frozen seat—I could occasionally find a narrow slit through which I could peer out at the roadway. It was like driving to work wearing a welder's helmet.
I'm happy to report that I seem to have collided with nothing as I drove—at least I heard no big thuds—and now that I have completed this report, I've started to get some feeling back in my fingers.
Welcome to another North Dakota winter.
Mad Dog Vachon's Death Eclipses the Gaiety of Nations
by Clay Jenkinson
December 8, 2013
The recent death of the professional wrestler Mad Dog Vachon (1929-2013) hit me like a metal folding chair or a flying drop kick. Vachon died quietly in his sleep in Omaha on November 21 at the age of 84. He is survived by six children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. I hope they all suited up in trunks and high-top boots for the funeral, like a professional circus family, and I hope the obsequies were held not in a church but in the "squared circle" of a dank wrestling arena out near the stockyards. Rumors that the two officiating priests actually tagged off during the service have not been substantiated.
Mad Dog's death set off a chain of bittersweet memories for me. Such names as Wahoo McDaniel, The Flying Frenchman Rene Goulet, The Crusher, The Bruiser, The Crippler, Nick Bockwinkel, The Very Capable Kenny Jay, Bobby Red Cloud, and Cowboy Bill Watts came flocking in on me for the first time in many years. If I close my eyes I can actually see Dr. X strutting around the interview area in his celebrated mask, hands outstretched like a cat, bawling and bragging and growling and threatening to break Vern Gagne's legs one by one and throw him unceremoniously into the Mississippi River, while mild-mannered host and promoter Wally Karbo tries to talk him back to civility.
I can see Mad Dog and his brother The Butcher breaking the rules and double-teaming Dusty Rhodes and against an exposed turnbuckle, while the 123-pound referee, with an outsized expression of sorrow and disbelief, threatens them with immediate disqualification. Let's face it. Now that he is dead we can for the first time safely declare that Mad Dog Vachon was a thug and a cheater in the ring. (I do not impugn his private life. I'm sure he was a model citizen outside the ring and a doting father who did not—as rumor had it—put his children in a Greco-Roman knuckle lock when they would not go to bed). But once he crawled into the squared circle he was a fleshy desperado with missing teeth, a bald head, and a goatee that made him look a little like Vladimir Lenin on steroids.
He bit. He scratched. He stomped. He choked. All that before the opening bell. And he had a penchant for raking a foreign object across the eyes of his opponents and then hiding the F.O. in his one-shouldered tunic in a way that everyone on the planet could see except the referee, who for some reason was momentarily distracted. Ah, the injustice of the world. `
It is sometimes said that if we got back every hour that we have spent watching TV, we could walk around the planet. Forget that. If I just had every hour back that I spent watching the old All Star Wrestling show that emanated from Minneapolis, Minnesota, I could walk the planet several times.
Almost every Saturday night between seventh and tenth grade, my friend Robert B. and I made homemade pizzas in his kitchen two blocks from my home near downtown Dickinson. We called it All Star Pizza. Clever boys. One of us would knead and spread the dough while the other cut peperoni slices and sprinkled the powdered Parmesan over the canned tomato sauce. We had pretty good timing for a couple of knuckleheads, so the piping hot homemade pizza came out of the oven just about the time the AWA announcer Roger Kent introduced the show. It was broadcast in black and white, of course, and the camera work was primitive. He invariably began by saying, "Good evening everyone, this is Roger Kent ringside coming to you from the Minneapolis Auditorium…" He made it sound as if he had three names, Roger Kent Ringside, so that's what we called him.
Actually, Roger Kent Ringside was a great sports announcer with a mock-heroic style perfectly suited to the … er, ambiguities of the sport. He expressed grave indignation when Pampero Firpo (The Wild Bull of the Pampas) raked another wrestler's eyes against the long zipper on his tunic. At least once per show he'd say, "Ooooh, I hate to see that hold. Ladies and gentlemen, that hold is barred in many states." When Iron Man George Gadaski made his characteristic move, Roger Kent would say, "That's an Arm Bar with a Twist–sounds like a drink to me!" And we laughed every time. When Dr. X entered the ring, masked and menacing, stomping around and making mock runs at the shrieking folks in the first row, Kent would invariably explain: "As perhaps you know, Dr. X has deposited a $1000 certified check in a Minneapolis bank for anyone who can break the Figure Four Leg Lock once it has been properly applied." Oh, we knew! Even then, uneducated as we were, Robert and I knew that Dr. X had left himself an infinite amount of legal wiggle room in those words: "once properly applied."
I'm guessing that Mad Dog was not Vachon's given name. If you name your son Mad Dog, you can kiss the Senate goodbye. Or the Papacy or the ballet. Names matter. You name your son Mad Dog and you should not be surprised when he comes home from Head Start with a trio of pit bulls, or gouges the eyes of his third grade teacher with a number two pencil. Who names her son Mad Dog? Name your son Mad Dog and he's almost certainly going to become a professional wrestler or perhaps night security at an auto wrecking yard.
But I am being facetious. Actually, the man who would later be crowned (well, actually, belted) one half of the Tag Team Champions of the World was christened Maurice Vachon in Montreal. That sounds more like an art historian or wine connoisseur to me, and it would not do for a sport in which the phrases "back breaker," "the atomic drop," and "pile driver" are mere routine. Vachon was actually a serious amateur wrestler before he crossed over to the dark side. He competed at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, and he won a gold medal at the 1950 British Empire Games.
After a long, brilliant, and criminal career, Mad Dog finally hung up his tunic in 1986 when he was pretty long in his remaining tooth. As MacArthur said, old wrestlers never die, they just slip under the ring. One year after his retirement, Mad Dog was struck by a hit and run driver in Omaha. His leg had to be amputated. I completely discount the persistent rumors that the driver was wearing a mask and that his vanity plates said FGR4LGLK.
I saw Mad Dog fight twice, once in Fargo in 1968 and a year or two later in the auditorium at Trinity High School in Dickinson. Robert's father drove us to a match in Fargo for his eighth grade graduation present. We were thrilled to sit close enough to be spit on by several 300-pound nearly naked middle-aged men. I frowned at Mad Dog after a particularly egregious chokehold, and he smirked back in a sweetly menacing way. I felt we bonded.
How I feel about the death of Mad Dog was best expressed by the British literary dictator Samuel Johnson when the great actor David Garrick died on January 20, 1779. "His death," Johnson wrote, "eclipsed the gaiety of nations."
And I fervently hope when he entered the gates of heaven, Mad Dog and St. Peter enjoyed an Arm Bar with a Twist. A double.
Thanks to Valerie Naylor for award-winning National Park Stewardship
by Clay Jenkinson
December 1, 2013
As my mother and our guest and I sat around my dining room table on Thursday evening, we explained some of what we are thankful for this year. Our lists are long—health, friendship, family, freedom, longevity, and the abundance of American life. But this year I feel especially thankful that Valerie Naylor is the Superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
A few weeks ago, Valerie received the National Parks Conservation Association's prestigious Stephen T. Mather conservation award. She accepted the award at the 36th annual Ranger Rendezvous in St. Louis. It's an amazing achievement, all the more impressive because Valerie did not seek it and, in her characteristically modest and matter of fact manner, she neither expected it nor, for that matter, ever even thought about it. She just did her job with exceptional skill and thoughtfulness, and those who study the future of North Dakota from elsewhere in the nation realized how important her superintendency has become. She won the 2013 Mather Award for her outstanding vigilance in protecting Theodore Roosevelt National Park from the impact of the Bakken Oil Boom, and for her previous management of the complicated and controversial elk reduction project that reduced the elk herd at TRNP from 1200 to about 200 critters.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of America's 58 National Parks. The great documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has called the National Park System "America's best idea." TRNP is North Dakota's only National Park. It is one of North Dakota's best assets and finest treasures, without which we would be a far less interesting place. It is a relatively small national park, at 70,446 acres, and it is subdivided into three units: the North Unit near Watford City, the South Unit just north of Medora, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit (218) acres, midway between.
The three units embrace and protect some of the most beautiful and distinctive terrain on the Great Plains. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) had a significant presence in all three units of what became the National Park, especially the Elkhorn, where he established one of his two Dakota Territory ranches between 1883 and 1887. All three units are bisected by the magnificent Little Missouri River. Because the three units are separated and fairly widely dispersed, they present a serious management challenge. They have lots of perimeter, and no single unit is sufficiently large for a visitor to escape entirely the nagging claims of the outside world.
Now that the Bakken Oil Boom has overwhelmed the landscapes, the social structure, the economy, and the politics of North Dakota, the National Park is beginning to resemble a beleaguered trio of wild and endangered islands surrounded in every direction by a noisy industrial revolution. The three units of TRNP are more important to North Dakota and the world every day, because they are becoming the last precious remnants of what was once an endless untrammeled wilderness, what Roosevelt described as "a land of vast silent spaces, of lonely rivers, and of plains where the wild game stared at the passing horseman." If that Rooseveltian sentence does not make you ache for our losses, nothing will.
A No Frills Quiet Thanksgiving on New Dishes
by Clay Jenkinson
November 24, 2013
Never in my life have I looked forward to Thanksgiving more. I have been so busy this year that I just feel bewildered, numb, vague, and disembodied. I look on the holiday as an enforced and very welcome day of rest. My daughter is spending the break with her mama in northwest Kansas, so there will be no more than three for the Thanksgiving feast at my house, and perhaps a few ringers for pie and brandy. I do most of the cooking and my mother, who drives in from Dickinson, does the … er supervising. She raises her eyebrows with some frequency, tells me she can never find the spices in my cupboards, says, "Don't you think it is a little early to peel the potatoes?," asks me such questions as, "Are you going to use a measuring cup on that?," and eventually offers, with cheerful exasperation, "Do you want me just to organize your kitchen and at least throw the time-sensitive perishables away?"
The answer to these questions is no.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, by magnitudes. It is one of America's greatest inventions. And it almost alone props up the sweet potato industry. It has, until recently, resisted the commercialization that has buried Christmas in materialism, merchandize, secularity, and economic stress—all things that Jesus would have deplored. Thanksgiving is one of two moments in the year when the vast majority of Americans are doing the same thing at the same time, and like its distant cousin the Fourth of July, on that day we all tend to eat the same things at the same time. It's when we as a national family break bread together. Earlier in my life I knew some perverse iconoclasts who, for no good reason, refused to make turkey, dressing, cranberries, gravy, green beans, mashed potatoes, gooey marshmallow sweet potato thingy, and pumpkin pies. They'd do a crab-stuffed pork loin instead, or shish kabobs on the grill, and they'd substitute a syllabub with a mango reduction for good old pumpkin pie.
My answer to that is "why?" spoken in the loudest permissible indoor volume. Twice a year I bake a turkey. Twice a year I make cranberry sauce. That's about the right frequency, and I see no rational reason to mess with so delicious, so blessed, and so traditional a holiday meal.
My mother and I are having our annual squabble about the size of the turkey. She advocates about a 15-pound game hen, and I want a solid 24-28 pounder. "What are you going to do with all those leftovers?" she asked the other day, right on schedule, in precisely the tone and words she has used for the last ten years. "What difference does it make?" I snapped back in a case closed sort of way. "It's Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is about abundance." This debate is one of our Thanksgiving traditions. She knew how this was going to come out before she opened her mouth, and I knew she was going to make her annual lame suggestion. Then, just to be insulting, she said, as she has for the past six years, "You're not thinking of trying a deep fried turkey again, are you?"
Had to bring it up! Ha'ad to bring it up.
Once a few years ago with my friend Tom I deep-fried a turkey in my front yard. It was one of those raw Thanksgiving days with leaden skies, a whipping intermittent wind, a windchill of about five below, and some ground drifting. In short, a perfect North Dakota Thanksgiving Day. After pouring about forty gallons of oil into the new fryer and igniting a propane flame under the aluminum tub that had the sound and fury of a fracking flare, we spent a full hour heating that oil to the boiling point. We stood around the contraption beating our hands on our thighs to stay warm, exchanging views on whether we would be able to put out the fire before we burned the house down, and chanting from Macbeth: "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble," (emphasis on trouble), "fire burn and cauldron bubble." My mother had protested this whole operation as dumb and "iffy" from a Thanksgiving point of view. When the $20 of oil finally came to a boil (for the first half hour, it was a dead heat between my modest propane burner and North Dakota winter), Tom and I lifted the cover with a tree branch and with my usual optimism I lowered a beautiful, plump, Dickensian turkey into that seething vat.
Instantaneously there was one profound four-second hissing sound, like a single burst of a train whistle. Then a little mushroom cloud rose up over the fryer to about 35,000 feet. The pot began shaking like the first stage of a Saturn V rocket at takeoff. We looked at each other in an uneasy, queasy sort of way and glanced through the big window at my mother, who was frowning at us from inside. It would not have surprised me if she had been shaking her fist. Numbskulls!
"We're toast," I said. And Tom said, "Actually, the turkey appears to be melba toast."
When we lifted that once-glorious bird out, fifteen minutes later, it had shrunk to the size of a stunted grocery store kiosk chicken. It had a dark brown leathery look (and smell) like a football that had been lowered into a deep fat fryer. The skin was mottled and there appeared to be caverns in several places along the sides of the breast, as if part of the white meat had literally been vaporized. "These turkeys are said to be succulent inside," I said without much conviction. "The idea is that the sudden immersion in hot oil seals the moisture inside the carcass. There may have been some shrinkage, I'll grant you that, but I'm betting it is dee-licious." Tom said, "Sounds good to me. Think your mother will buy it?"
So that one did not become a family tradition, but mother brings it up every year at this time. It's not clear whether she is just trying to shame me for the fun of it, or whether she actually thinks that without her pro-active rebuke I'd be tempted to transform another fabulous turkey into a fist-sized slab of dry jerky again, just to confirm the results of the first experiment.
This year we will light table candles and toast my daughter, her granddaughter, with a glass of white wine, listen to Nora Jones at a low volume, and say a few of the many, many things we are thankful for: "Well, at least you didn't try to fry the turkey!"
The glory this Thanksgiving will be eating our favorite meal of the year on my new dishes, made by the exquisite North Dakota potter and ceramicist Tama Smith of Beach. I helped a little with the design, though the artistry is all Tama. The plates and serving bowls are brown and buff and rust and charcoal—to look like the badlands and the butte country south of Medora—and through the middle of each dish runs a heartbreaking blue trace of the sacred Little Missouri River. When mother and I picked them up the other day in Beach, Tama and I both burst into tears as we gazed at their magnificence. They are far too beautiful to eat on, but we will.
They represent what North Dakota means, and may still mean, if we manage this thing right.
That would be worth thanksgiving.
The Fallout of the Obamacare Rollout Will Plague the US for Decades
by Clay Jenkinson
November 17, 2013
The bungled rollout of the Affordable Care Act is one of the worst political disasters of my lifetime. It may mean that Obamacare is doomed. Under a parliamentary system, it might mean that the administration of President Obama would fall in a "no confidence" vote. Before this mess ends, you can expect to hear relatively serious calls for President Obama's impeachment. The colossal failure of Obamacare so far is a setback for the national government that will leave a toxic trail of political fallout on the United States for decades to come, long after Barack Obama has slipped away into his post-presidential career.
The debacle jeopardizes one of the progressive movement's most cherished goals—universal, affordable health care for every American citizen—a dream that goes back at least as far as Republican Theodore Roosevelt. It also jeopardizes the progressive movement more generally, at a time when America is falling behind in the world arena precisely because it has failed to address a range of serious challenges with all the tools that a modern society needs to thrive.
Just when we thought the national crisis of political hatred and unalloyed partisanship could not possibly get worse, the Obama administration has thrown kerosene on the anti-government fire, and given the fading Tea Party movement a new lease on life. It has permitted everyone who predicted that Obama would be a failed President to say (prematurely), "I told you so."
In the month since Obamacare began to come into effect, two fundamental problems have emerged, and more are sure to come. The problems are (1) the immediate and continuing failure of the $300 million website Healthcare.gov, and (2) the fact that the workings of the new system have made Obama's endlessly repeated pledge—"if you like your current health care plan you can keep it"—seem like a filthy lie to the American people. The news that three San Francisco-based knuckleheads with no ties to the U.S. government were able to create a brilliant and efficient Obamacare support site (Help Sherpa) virtually overnight takes us into the arena of pure absurdity.
If the Affordable Care Act was ever going to win widespread affection and convince the skeptical American people that the time has come for a national health care system in the United States, it had to work. It had to exceed expectations from the moment it came out of the gate. It had to be a model of government efficiency. It had to look like something a twenty-first century internet savvy President would do. It had to create a national buzz of renewed optimism: the federal government is back after 30 years on the political robes. Instead, it has been a greater disaster than even its most vicious detractors could have dreamed. Listen to Rush and Sean: how they do crow in pure joy about the failure of an initiative designed by well-meaning people to address one of the principal problems of American life: the failure of the existing health care system to provide portability, absorb people with pre-existing conditions, and provide minimal positive health care to the 30-50 million people who have, until now, been subjected to our heartless "emergency room health care option."
The Affordable Care Act was to be Obama's signature accomplishment as President and it was to be the basis of his historical legacy. That and killing Osama bin Laden. Every American has a right to ask: if this is your signature achievement, and you had years to develop this website at virtually infinite public expense, why would you release it when virtually any serious beta testing would have shown you that it doesn't work? If Obama cannot fix this thing ASAP, and apologize in a completely unguarded way to the American people, he is headed into the gulag of Jimmy Carter, whose administration will forever be symbolized by the failed raid (Operation Eagle Claw!) on Tehran on April 24, 1980.
Now everyone who has hated Obama since before he was even inaugurated (I know scores of such people in my little circle alone), everyone who hates rule by Democrats, everyone who hates Obama's style, his perspective on world affairs, his outsized political confidence, everyone who hates "the liberal agenda," will feel vindicated and empowered. Such folks will be even more strident and obnoxious in the future, and "the failure of Obamacare" will be their rallying cry, like the Alamo or the Boston Tea Party or the sinking of the battleship Maine.
Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the central mantra of political conservatism has been "government always screws things up." In his first inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1981, President Reagan famously said, "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Think of the paradox of this! The new President of the United States, the elected head of the American government, begins his eight-year tenure by denouncing government. Every President since Reagan has had to operate under the shadow of Reagan's cynicism—the paradoxical view that government is a disaster except when it is funding and operating the largest military behemoth the world has ever seen. At one of the lowest ebbs of his presidency, Bill Clinton was heard to say—a little pathetically—"government still matters."
I remember hearing former Speak of the House Newt Gingrich, at the height of his intellectual and political power, deliver a lecture at an Inns of Court event. His theme was the inefficiency of government. Why, he asked, is it a hassle to mail a parcel in a U.S. Post Office, and so easy to send a package by Fedex or UPS? Why should a visit to a state's Department of Transportation to renew a driver's license or register a new car be a daylong nightmare? Why does private enterprise provide quick, efficient, reliable, and friendly service to its customers, while public services are typically slow and inefficient, and your transaction is usually handled by a rude, unsmiling, and bored functionary whose salary you are paying.
There is an answer to the Gingrich thesis, but in the last month I have wondered many times why Obama didn't just ask Amazon.com to administer the health care program. After all you can buy books and refrigerators at Amazon.com, DVDs and snow tires. Indeed Google, Oracle, and other internet masters have offered to help fix the broken Healthcare.gov system. I say, turn them loose.
In the end, I predict, the problems with the Affordable Care Act will be fixed, and that some future version of it (Post-Obamacare 3.0) will come to be seen as a central and cherished benefit of American life, like Social Security and Medicare. In the meantime, I believe that Kathleen Sebelius should resign (on the principal of parliamentary accountability), that President Obama should shake up his administration at every level, that he should reach out in an unprecedented way to the Republicans to devise some kind of health care compromise that fulfills his promise that "if you like your health care plan you can keep it," and he should deliver a nationally-televised address to the American people in which he acknowledges this catastrophe and never utters one defensive statement.
Even so, for decades to come, whenever a new government initiative, bureau, or program is announced, we can expect to hear—in the blogosphere and talk radio land—"Oh, yeah, remember the rollout of Obamacare?"
This is not just a setback for Obama and the Democrats. It is a setback for America.
A Crescent Moon with Eyewitnesses to American History
by Clay Jenkinson
November 10, 2013
Last Tuesday, I got to spend the entire day with Dr. Harrison Schmitt, the last man ever to step down onto the Moon, and the second to last man ever to leave the surface of the Moon. He was speaking at the JFK symposium at Bismarck State, and I volunteered to shepherd him to his appearances in Bismarck.
Schmitt lives in Albuquerque. He's now 78 years old. Of the twelve men (all men) who have walked on the Moon, he's the only true scientist. He was put on the last mission (December 7-19, 1972) because NASA had pledged that it would send scientists to the Moon once it worked out the safety and logistical kinks, and suddenly it was determined by an imaginative-starved Congress that Apollo 17 would be the last mission of the series. So it was now or never. Schmitt turned out to be a perfect choice for the last mission. Because of his geological training (Harvard Ph.D., 1964), he discovered what other scientists have called "the single most significant lunar sample" ever collected.
For me, spending time with an Apollo lunar astronaut is as big a deal as spending a day with Paul McCartney or Michael Jordan or Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi. This was the first time in the history of the world when humans left their home planet, and found a way to live safely (for a short time) on another object in the solar system. Dr. Schmitt says the Apollo moment (1966-1972) represents an evolutionary leap for mankind; for the first time we found a niche for ourselves outside the protective biosphere of the good earth. For those who might argue that the Moon landings were not such a big deal, think again. The fact that Moon flights did not become routine, that we have never been back to the Moon since 1972, and we have no plans to go back, that we now don't even have a rocket that could get us there, tells you what a big deal it was. President Kennedy said it just right in September 1962 at Rice University in Houston: "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."
The Saturn V rocket, designed by the German genius Wernher von Braun, spent the overwhelming majority of its 7.5 million pounds of thrust (the gigantic first stage contained 203,400 gallons of kerosene, and 318,000 gallons of liquid oxygen) just getting the spaceship the first 42 miles into the sky. Such is the appalling tug of gravity, and such is the amount of force required to lift an object the size of school bus beyond "the surly bonds of earth." The rest, on a lunar journey of 240,000 miles one way, was comparatively easy.
As Norman Mailer put it in his superb study of Apollo 11, Of a Fire on the Moon, igniting a Saturn V rocket is essentially setting off a controlled explosion and hoping for the best. In the evening hours of December 6, 1972, Dr. Schmitt let himself be strapped on the top of that controlled explosion on a rocket 366 feet tall (half again as high as the North Dakota state capitol), and then somebody pushed the "launch" button and the Saturn V shook, rattled, and rolled until three men and tons of equipment were hurled all the way to the Moon. Would you take that chance?
I would in a nanosecond, even knowing the odds. And if someone offered me the chance to fly to Mars, and land on the surface not of our near-neighbor Moon, but on another planet 140 million miles away, I'd sign on immediately, even if there were absolutely no way to return to the Earth. I'd rather die on Mars than in a hospital bed, invaded by tubes, no matter at what age.
I believe we made it to the Moon in the 1960s because of the death of President Kennedy. That's a horrible irony, but I think it is true. Like his stalled Civil Rights bill, his stalled national education funding bill, his stalled Medicare bill, all of which he could not have passed in his first, and probably not even in his second term, Kennedy's signature Apollo Moon program achieved success in large part because his successor Lyndon Johnson insisted that the United States fulfill the New Frontier agenda to honor his martyred predecessor. LBJ, one of the greatest legislative strategists in American history, used Kennedy's death and his own colossal powers of persuasion to accomplish what had eluded his much more glamorous and popular predecessor.
I feel like the luckiest man alive. On the same night last week I got to have dinner with Clint Hill, the secret service agent who jumped forward onto the limousine on the day John F. Kennedy was killed, and who probably saved Mrs. Kennedy's life, and then go to the airport to pick up Harrison Schmitt.
A good friend of mine asked the other day if the Kennedy 50th anniversary hoopla is not just a kind of swan song for the Baby Boomers, who are "once again engaging in national nostalgia for their lost youth." I was startled by the question, and I had one of those inrushes of queasiness that come when someone gets through your complacent defenses and asks a question that really rattles your soul. But I think he was wrong
Clint Hill and Harrison Schmitt. Talk about eyewitnesses to history. November 22, 1963, was arguably one of the four or five most pivotal moments of the twentieth century, and the Apollo Moon program was quite possibly the greatest single moment in the history of technology. Triumph and tragedy. In some respects Schmitt and Hill (space and assassination), summarize the entire Kennedy era. John Glenn and John Connally, Walter Schirra and Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Daniel Ellsberg, Alan Shepard and Allen Dulles. It was an unforgettable decade.
Kennedy captured the spirit of the age in his famous inaugural address, widely considered one of the greatest in American history. After explaining the many challenges he was about to face, the youngest elected president of American history said, "I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation." Precisely. Would you change places with the folks of Jefferson's era, or Shakespeare's, or even Woodrow Wilson's? Not I. And if I were a woman, or an African-American, or a gay man or woman, absolutely positively not.
After dinner with Dr. Schmitt the other night I drove over to BSC to hear Clint Hill tell the appalling story of the last two days of John F. Kennedy's life. As I drove west towards BSC I looked out the side window of my car. There was a perfect silvery crescent in the southwestern sky. It was the new Moon and it was astonishingly beautiful. I slowed down to a crawl to gaze out into the night.
I ached with a sense of loss and pride, sorrow, nostalgia, an acute sense of human possibility and of lost possibility, and I nearly burst into tears. "We went there," I said to myself.
"Thanks to John F. Kennedy, we went there."
So What Happens When the Military Industrial Complex Gets Mad?
by Clay Jenkinson
November 3, 2013
After months, even years, of planning the big John F. Kennedy 50th anniversary symposium is fast upon us. It starts Tuesday evening at BSC National Energy Center of Excellence with a keynote address by North Dakota native Clint Hill, the secret service agent who crawled up on the presidential limousine when Jacqueline Kennedy climbed up and out of the back seat on 12:30 p.m. on November 22, 1963.
In the handful of truly searing moments in my lifetime, that's the searingest. School was dismissed (second grade, Lincoln Elementary). I went to Cub Scouts, where I made my mother a Christmas corsage, which she still wears. I think about that day every time I drive by that duplex on Third Avenue in Dickinson. Every time for fifty years.
Think of Clint Hill's burden.
For many months I have been reading Kennedy books—biographies, analyses of his presidency, explorations of particular themes (Berlin 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam), books about key people around him (particularly his brother Robert), and of course books about the assassination. My tired little brain is full to bursting with Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy. He's far from my favorite president, but he is growing on me with all of this reading. I love what I get to do (read for a living), but at some point the brain just goes tilt like an old pinball machine. I've purchased 30-40 books to get ready and read most of them. For the past few days I have been hand-drawing a JFK presidential crisis flow chart on a big sheet of white paper on my kitchen counter. I know this can be done better electronically, but I'm too dense to learn the program in time. The Cuban Missile Crisis (14-28 October 1962) is without question the most significant crisis of Kennedy's presidency (towering on my silly chart), and arguably the most critical moment in the world since the splitting of the atom in 1938.
In my opinion, two men saved the world in October 1962: John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. If two others had been in charge at that time, it seems likely that we would have tripped over the nuclear precipice, and somewhere between 30 and 300 million people would have been killed. JFK's deepest concern was that once the nuclear exchange began it would be almost impossible to stop it because each outrage is so appalling—we take out Moscow, they take out Washington, D.C., so we take out Leningrad, after which they… The generals on both sides were salivating to launch nuclear missiles and drop warheads from airplanes. Kennedy's generals, principally Admiral George Anderson of the Navy and Curtis LeMay of the Air Force browbeat the young president throughout the crisis—teasing and testing the Constitutional line that insists that the American military be under civilian authority. Even afterwards, when JFK called in the Joint Chiefs to thank them for their hard work during the crisis, Anderson said America's response (a naval quarantine that forced the Soviets to back down and agree to remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba) was worse than Munich (where the Brits gave Hitler the green light to gobble Czechoslovakia and prime minister Neville Chamberlain called it "peace in our time"). And LeMay called the peaceful resolution of the crisis "the greatest defeat in our history." Flatterers!
So here's the youngest elected president in American history, a former senator with no previous administrative experience, a frightened young man with an admittedly thin (if heroic) military record, being systematically hectored and belittled by the most confident and overbearing career military men in the United States, who assure him that he is endangering the country as well as the Free World, not to mention betraying his Constitutional responsibility. Khrushchev was getting it in equal or greater measure from the other side, in a nation with much weaker constitutional restraints. But when the critical moment came, both men (Kennedy 45, Khrushchev 68) declined to push the nuclear button. They were both under unbearable pressure to ratchet the crisis up to the apocalypse, these two flawed men, both of whom were prone to wild Cold War rhetoric, both of whom felt the need to prove their masculinity in a range of often reckless ways. It would have been so much easier just to surrender to the military. It took courage, indeed something more than courage, to choose the path of peace in that crucible—in which one false step might bring western civilization to collapse.
Think about it. We get to talk about such matters this week in Bismarck, with some of the greatest experts in the world. Our focus is not lone gunman and magic bullet, though we'll do a little of that, too. Our focus is one of the most interesting periods of American history, the gravest years of the Cold War, when humans were deciding, in crisis after crisis, whether to normalize nuclear weapons in what Kennedy called the "long twilight struggle" between two world empires and two fundamentally incompatible political and economic systems.
Here's one reason I find that so fascinating. If we agree that Kennedy and Khrushchev saved the world in October 1962 by standing up, each of them independently, to the military industrial complex, it might be interesting to see what came of each of these beleaguered leaders in the aftermath of the crisis. Less than two years later, Khrushchev was deposed by the Soviet establishment, led by his deputy Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet presidium accepted Khrushchev's "voluntary retirement" on October 14, 1964, after a year of behind the scenes skullduggery. He lived out the rest of his life in bare-bones obscurity.
We know what happened to John F. Kennedy—don't we? He was assassinated in Texas thirteen months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in a mysterious episode that was captured on 8mm film by a Dallas merchant. Although the tidy narrative that the assassination of JFK was the work of an unstable drifter was circulating worldwide by the end of that terrible Friday, well before a serious investigation could get started, the American people have never really cottoned to it, in spite of the massive weight of the Warren Commission's 26-volume report (September 24, 1964). The fact that the lone gunman was struck down two days later, by a shady night club owner with known mob connections and a strangely cozy relationship with Dallas cops, while surrounded by 70 law enforcement officers in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters, does not exactly deter the conspiracy theorists.
Honestly, I have no settled opinion about who killed Kennedy. My mind is like a yoyo. When I read David Talbot's superb Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, I lean towards the Grassy Knoll and Oswald's insistence that he was a "patsy." When I read Vincent Bugliosi's Parkland (originally Four Days in November), I see Jack Ruby as a traumatized super-patriot who killed Oswald to spare Jacqueline Kennedy from having to come back to Dallas to testify in the murder trial. When I read William Manchester's magisterial Death of a President, lone gunman, but when I read Larry Sabato's new The Kennedy Half-Century, I want to know why the CIA and FBI both indisputably covered up what they knew about Oswald and the assassination.
This much is certain. Kennedy believed that a coup d'état was possible in the United States. I do too. And both Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy never bought the lone gunman narrative, even though each of them endorsed it for a range of reasons.
Your Chance to Meet the Second to Last Man to Walk on the Moon
by Clay Jenkinson
October 27, 2013
In just over two weeks we get the chance to meet Harrison Schmitt, the second to last man to walk on the moon. He's coming to the great JFK public humanities symposium at BSC (November 5-7) to talk about John F. Kennedy and the space program. At 3:45 on Wednesday, November 6, Schmitt will speak about the extraordinary chain of events that followed Kennedy's May 25, 1961, call to action, before a joint session of Congress, "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
If you want to meet someone who stood on the surface of the moon, this is your best chance, because the Apollo astronauts, like the Beatles, are blinking out, and it is clear that the United States is not going back to the moon in the lifetime of anyone who is reading these words. That, I believe, is both a matter of national shame and a monument to President Kennedy, who argued, at Rice University on September 12, 1962 that, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."
If JFK had not said spoken these words, and—perhaps more importantly—if he had not been cut down by an assassin's bullet on November 22, 1963, we probably would not have landed men on the moon as soon as we did, and perhaps not at all, particularly after the Apollo 1 fire on January 27,1967, in which three astronauts were killed while conducting a liftoff simulation at the Florida launch pad, at the very beginning of the lunar phase of the U.S. space program. NASA overcame that terrible setback, in part to honor the legacy of the fallen President. Leadership matters. If Thomas Jefferson had not been captivated, all of his life, by the idea of exploring the deep interior of the North American continent, Lewis and Clark would never have ventured up the Missouri River in search of a "passage to India" between 1804-06. In that case, the remarkable Sacagawea (ca. 1787-1812) would have lived out her life in complete historical obscurity. We need Presidents who are dreamers and visionaries, not mere caretakers.
Schmitt, the only true scientist to walk on the moon, holds a B.S. in geology from Cal Tech (1957) and a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard (1963). Just before midnight (EST) on December 13, 1972, at the end of the Apollo XVII's third and final moonwalk, Schmitt lumbered up the ladder into the Lunar Module. A few minutes later the mission commander Gene Cernan made the climb, one small step for a man, and the end of an era for mankind. Cernan's last words on the lunar surface were prosaic. "As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come--but we believe not too long into the future--I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow." That was almost 41 years ago.
In the history of the world, only twelve individuals (all men) have walked on the moon: Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Apollo XI, July 21, 1969); Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (Apollo XII, 1969); Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell (Apollo XIV, 1971); David Scott and James Irwin (Apollo XV, 1971); John Young and Charles Duke (Apollo XVI, 1972); and Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo XVII, December 11-14, 1972). Four of those men are already dead: James Irwin (1991); Alan Shepard (1998); Pete Conrad (1999); and the first human ever to set foot on another world, Neal Armstrong, on August 25, 2012.
Cernan and Schmitt had three separate moonwalks in December 1972 for a total of 22 hours, three minutes, and 57 seconds. Altogether they collected 243.7 pounds of moon rocks in several geologically distinct formations. They were one of three moon crews (Apollo XV, XVI, XVII) to employ a Lunar Rover (a moon convertible that looked like an Erector Set project), which at one point took them a full 4.7 miles from their lunar base camp. When Cernan accidentally broke one of the rover's fenders with his hammer, the pair of astronauts repaired it with—you guessed it—duct tape. Cernan later wrote, "I was going to have to get that damned fender fixed, and there wasn't a repair shop within 250,000 miles."
Schmitt was a somewhat controversial figure in lunar exploration. Because he was a civilian, not one of the military breed of astronaut for whom Tom Wolfe popularized the phrase "the Right Stuff," he was at first regarded as an aloof and "all business" interloper by some NASA space veterans. But once he plopped down onto the surface of the moon, on December 11, 1972, he surprised everyone. His lunar geological work was first rate, but he also took time to enjoy the rapture of the experience. He took a few spectacular falls in his clumsy space suit. After one such tumble the ground crew called him "twinkeltoes," and after another spinning fall the Cap-Com on earth, Bob Parker, informed him that the Houston Ballet was enquiring about his availability for a sublunary performance. Schmitt sang two songs on the moon: "Oh, bury me not, on the lone prairie; where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free," and—later, "I was strolling on the Moon one day, in the merry merry month of December, er May."
Years later, asked to describe what he felt in bounding around on the lunar surface, with the perfect blue sphere of Earth reduced to the size of a marble in the black, black sky, Schmitt said, "It's like trying to describe what you feel when you're standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or remembering your first love or the birth of your child. You have to be there to really know what it's like."
Schmitt served one term as a United States Senator from New Mexico (1976-82), where he was assigned, naturally enough, to the Science, Technology, and Space Subcommittee. His political challenger in 1982, NM Attorney General Jeff Bingaman, campaigned with the clever but unfair slogan, "What on Earth has he done for you lately?" Bingaman won, and Schmitt became a consultant and college professor.
For many years Schmitt has been one of America's leading advocates of returning to the Moon; and using that achievement as the foundation for a manned journey to Mars. He has a book on the subject called Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space (2006). Schmitt is also an outspoken Global Climate Change skeptic. He has publicly argued that special interest groups and government are using the idea of Global Warming as a means of exerting greater control over the lives and incomes of the American people.
As a lifelong space junkie, I cannot wait to shake the hand of Jack Schmitt on the fourth floor of BSC's National Energy Center of Excellence, and listen to his insights. Meanwhile, if you want to get into the mood, go see the movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The plot is sentimental and the dialogue lame, but it is nevertheless, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made.
On the Death of Mother's Dog Boz
by Clay Jenkinson
October 20, 2013
My mother's faithful Schnauzer Boz died this week at the age of thirteen. We all knew this sad day was coming, but it came on suddenly and we were as shocked as if Boz had been hit by a bread truck.
Mother called last Sunday to say that Boz was starting to have seizures and what did I think she should do. I drove out to Dickinson as soon as I could. There on the old couch in the den sat mother looking drawn and sad and tired. She was holding Boz against her chest and petting her head. Mother is 82 and the dog about 94 if we put them on the same biological track. But mother is 82 going on 60 and Boz was 94 going on 118. It was time. Boz is a miniature salt and pepper Schnauzer with a cropped stub tail and reworked ears that pointed up in a posture of comic alertness.
For the last year or so Boz was blind (cataracts), deaf, and apparently deprived also of her sense of smell. She had lost about half of her teeth. Several that remained protruded down over her little black gums in a droll snaggletooth manner. She was cheerful and loving as ever but she frequently walked smack into walls and furniture. When this happened, she pulled patiently away with a snort of self-disappointment and then threaded her way along the baseboards of the house as if she literally had mapped and memorized her territory like blind Audrey Hepburn in "Wait Until Dark" (1967). Mother carried her all over her little canine universe. I told her that Boz needed a seeing eye human and apparently had found one.
Lets just be clear. My mother loved that dog. No, that doesn't do it justice. My mother loved that dog as well as a living creature can be loved. When we finally went to the vet Monday morning to put Boz to sleep I overheard mother saying she would rather put me to sleep. When I heard the vet agree, I went out and sat in the car with the doors locked. My mother is just about the most self-sufficient person I have ever known, but she gave her heart to Boz the minute she met her as a puppy--the reckless love of total helpless surrender. Boz returned that love in full measure. Her favorite thing in the world for more than a decade was to sit in mother's lap and demand to be petted. If mother ceased to caress Boz for even a few seconds the dog would look up at her like a character in Picasso's painting "Guernica" and extend her long gray-white paw tenderly until it was hooked under mother's hand. That, or she'd nudge mother back into action with her black wet nose.
I used to roll my eyes at this. When mother left the room I sometimes told Boz off--"You're not the favorite, you miserable cur! She's not even your real mother. I bought you off the back of a truck in Chico, California, and I could call INS (immigration) and have you back in Stuttgart by this time tomorrow! You and I both know your nose is not naturally wet, that you go get a drink from your bowl (which, by the way, I bought with my allowance) before you do that nauseating wet nose routine." Then I'd do that gesture where you point two fingers at your own eyes and then turn them menacingly towards your sworn enemy--I'm watching you, Boz. She'd gaze back at me with a withering "what a loser" look and begin planning some new "totally adorable" gimmick to impress mother. I hope I do not seem petty.
Mother walked Boz twice a day all around Rocky Butte Park in north Dickinson, sometimes more than one lap. They formed some sort of band of brothers with other dog walkers and even exchanged Christmas gifts and birthday cards. And we wonder why bin Laden hated us. Mother and Boz kept each other fit and young. I doubt that mother ever loved anyone or anything more than she loved that dog. I can tell you this, she never sat around evenings petting my father's head, smoothing his beard, or adjusting his collar, and it has been more than 55 years since she wiped up after me when I wet the carpet.
Boz started out as my daughter's puppy. My late father had always advised choosing the "most alert looking pup of the litter," and that is precisely what I did. At the time i had no idea what a little nuclear reactor I had selected. Back then she could jump up onto a tall kitchen counter from a standing position. When Boz and I roughhoused she would tear around the entire house like a blurry Tasmanian Devil in gigantic figure eight patterns through multiple rooms, fraying the carpets like a backhoe and jumping up onto the ridge line of couches and bolting over the top onto nearby chairs, twenty or thirty times in a row as if she had received an injection of adrenalin. She invariably made me call the truce first. I'd roll over on my back exhausted and nap for the rest of the afternoon, while she trotted off to find other adventures.
She proved to be too manic for my six-year-old daughter so I asked mama if she would take her for a time and teach her some proper manners. Mother's previous Schnauzer had recently died and my father had died a few years before that--apparently for lack of petting (see above). Mother had that frenetic pup eating out of her hand (as it were) within weeks and neither of them ever turned back.
The more you think about this the more marvelous it becomes. Just how dogs decided in their evolutionary struggle that their best bet was to attach themselves to Homo Sapiens as "man's best friend" is one of the great mysteries, but cats have never done it (they just use take our food and shelter in return for their contempt), and cows and chickens bring very little to the equation. If you have read Jack London or watched a cruel dog owner you know that the fact that dogs forgive us our sins and weaknesses (every time) is little short of a miracle. That they seem genuinely to love us, to greet us effusively every time (our best friends and lovers don't do that), to cheer us when we are down, to cut the loneliness of a lonely life, to help heal us when we are sick, and to intuit and snarl at our enemies long before we recognize them, is literally astonishing. Boz was all of that and more.
On Monday morning at the first opportunity we had Boz put to sleep.
Mother held Boz close through the five-minute procedure, and Boz looked up at her friend and master and life companion in complete trust and adoration (and truly some expression of relief). Then for the first time ever I saw mother weep uncontrollably.
Afterwards, I drove mother up to Rocky Butte Park. I would not have missed last weekend for the world. It deepened something between mother and me (I would not have thought that possible), and it began to prepare us both for other losses that are coming as surely as a far-off thunderstorm. I loved that dog, too, though I wouldn't want the little beast to know that.
The Welfare State, Tax Farming, and the Flat Tax
by Clay Jenkinson
October 13, 2013
My friend the barista at my favorite coffee house asked me the other day to write "about how we can convince all Americans to take full responsibility for their lives and so far as possible meet their own needs." This is something I think about a lot. My two favorite presidents—Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt—both believed that sturdy self-reliance was the true meaning of America. I'm not sure they would have quoted 2 Thessalonians 3:10--"The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat"—but they both believed that American should be an empowerment rather than an entitlement society, that nobody owes us anything, and that there is no excuse for laziness.
I'm not with Mitt Romney that 47% of the American people "will never take responsibility" for their lives, that they are a cheerfully permanent dependency class that votes Democratic so that they can continue to live off the hard work of the beleaguered 53% who carry American into the future. In Romney's cruel formulation (admittedly, an off hand toss of red meat to the base), just under half the country is locked into a co-dependent relationship with the Democratic Party: the bums (by his math, 169 million Americans) need the Democrats to keep their food stamps and welfare checks coming, and the Dems need the bums to stay in power. I find this argument so cynical, heartless, and fundamentally offensive that I hate even to put it into words.
Still, we all know that some percentage of the American people (in other words, millions of people) are gaming the system when they are able bodied enough to take care of, or help take care of, themselves. Roosevelt would want to thump them into good sense. My view is that that percentage (the "sponges") is in fact relatively small, and that it is pretty heartless to blame people who would work if they could for not being able to find work in a lackluster and sputtering service economy just emerging from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.
Nobody can look at the welfare statistics and not be saddened. Currently, 23,116,928 American households receive food stamps. That's a total of 46,700,000 people on food stamps (13%). Almost 13 million people are on welfare (4.1%). Over one million children receive their first formal education in the federal Head Start program. In 2012 alone, the federal school nutrition programs delivered more than five billion lunches to more than 31 million students nationwide. The federal WIC program (Women, Infants, and Children) provides primary or supplemental basic health care programs to millions of Americans. Currently there are 75 million Americans receiving Medicaid. And on and on. That IS a lot of dependency. And someone has to pay for them.
I'm in favor of all of these programs—proof that we really are a great and compassionate society rather than a ruthless one. And—from the Mitt Romney 47% worldview--it is certainly true that these social programs have all been Democratic Party initiatives, most of which were denounced at their inception by the Republic right as socialist, nannystate, mollycoddling, welfare queen, intrusions into the free flow of a capitalist economy that should just be permitted to do its magic. It is also true, as Romney says, that welfare recipients vote overwhelming Democrat. Still, is there anyone who thinks it is healthy that the United States of America has this much need, this much dependency, this much welfare? We talk about means tests (I'm all for them), but we should probably also find some way to conduct "true needs tests." Let the true bums work or starve.
When I was growing up, most Americans regarded welfare and food stamps as last resort stopgaps to be regarded with some sense of shame. My kin (and probably yours) used to swear that nothing in the world could induce them to accept food stamps or welfare, and they were even a little disparaging of unemployment insurance and workman's comp. That attitude has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. I'm certainly not for stigmatizing poverty, but nor do we want to nurture or perpetuate a culture of entitlement.
In my opinion, it's not the poor that are dragging the country to ruin, though I agree that the existence of a semi-permanent welfare class would violate the fundamental ideal of American life: that in a bountiful land of freedom and opportunity, each individual, each family, takes care of itself by way of hard work, thrift, sacrifice, and resourcefulness. That may sound quaint in 2013, but without that spirit North Dakota could never have been settled. My grandparents represented everything that is right with America. They worked hard every day of their lives. They never had much. But their lives were amazingly abundant. They knew grinding poverty for long periods of time, and yet they never would have dreamed of accepting assistance from beyond the boundaries of their farm. Hurray for them. But we must not assume everyone has such tools and gumption.
Of course we should find ways to reform the "welfare state," but before we do that I suggest that we eliminate corporate welfare (countless billions), upper class welfare (a range of tax dodges, deductions, evasions, amortizations that amount to nothing more than the fleecing of the American dream), and middle class welfare. I have prosperous friends in Kansas who "farm the farm program" in ways that are perhaps legal but in my opinion unethical, wealthy and middle class friends in North Dakota who "farm the Medicaid program" by letting you and me pay for their parents' and grandparents' care in high-end nursing homes. I say, abolish all tax deductions of any sort and see who squawks loudest. It won't be the poor and minorities.
If I were in charge of the universe (which, thank goodness…) I'd scrap the current Byzantine federal tax system, and institute a simple flat tax of 10% of income, no deductions. I'd exempt anyone earning less than $25,000 per year. Well, not quite. I'd insist that everyone who files a tax return in the Exempt Category be required to write a check to the IRS for $500 per year. That would be the Minimum Federal Tax and no working adult would be allowed to escape it. I do believe we all need to have "skin in the game," as they say, to pay something to the national government for the many services it provides us. I think at least once a year every working American should have to write an actual check to the IRS so that we remind ourselves—positively, not indirectly—of two things: that government costs money, and that it is no fun writing that check, however large or small.
Under this system, the person earning $54,000 per year would pay a flat tax of $5,400. The person earning $13.7 million would pay a flat tax of $1.37 million. No deductions for mortgages, children, second homes, medical expenses, farm equipment, charitable giving, etc. I'm not wedded to 10%, because I don't know that it would meet our treasury's needs, but it has the Jeffersonian advantage of being a decimal system that anybody can easily compute. It took me several years to teach my daughter how to compute a 15% tip at restaurants, but 10% she could do from the age of eight.
Here's the basic hypocrisy, I think. When we decry the "entitlement society," we usually think of the "have nots." We'd be better off looking in the mirror.
Holding America Hostage at the Cost of Constitutional Government
by Clay Jenkinson
October 6, 2013
Like almost everyone else, I’m so disgusted with Congress that I wish we the people could force a national vote of no confidence for the whole lot of them, and start over. I believe if we chose 435 people at random from the 340 million Americans, we would do much better. And I feel certain that no group of 435 average Americans chosen by lottery would stoop so low or be so short-sighted as to shut down the government of the United States.
We are a very great nation. Great nations don’t let their governments collapse or for that matter just lapse. They pay their debts. They honor the sanctity of contract. They attend to the hard work of public legislation like adults. They pass budgets. They move forward by way of intelligent compromise. They get things done, even when it is no fun.
The pathetic carnival we have all been witnessing would be hard enough to watch from Bismarck, North Dakota, but this week I am leading a group of 30 cultural tourists on a journey through Jefferson’s Virginia and Washington, D.C. We spend all day every day talking in reverent and earnest tones about the Founding Fathers and Thomas Jefferson, about the Enlightenment and the Idea of America, and then as we wind down for the night we turn on the television sets in our hotel rooms and watch the latest political pornography in the national capital of the United States 237 years after Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and 225 years after the crafting of the Constitution. It makes you want to weep—or throw up—or just throw all the rascals out.
What happened to America?
If our schedule had been reversed, and we had gone to tour the Library of Congress one day later, on Tuesday, October 1, we would have found the doors locked, and a note on the door explaining that Congress had shut down the U.S. government for no rational reason.
The American people deserve better. We deserve so much better.
For what little it is worth, I believe that while there is plenty of blame to go around, among Democrats and Republicans alike and a Congressionally inept President, in this instance the principal blame belongs to the right wing of the Republican Party. If, as they say, the core issue is the Affordable Health Care Act—Obamacare—and the government of the most powerful country on earth is being shut down by those who just cannot bear to see it take effect, then those sour grapes absolutists bear a very heavy responsibility and I hope they will be held accountable by the American people.
Obstructionism is not ok. It would not be ok if America were a relatively minor nation. But we are not a minor nation, though we are now on a rapid downward spiral that is likely to damage our position in the world, reduce our international credit rating, and make other nations turn elsewhere for world leadership.
The Tea Party zealots appear to be willing to damage the lives of tens of millions of Americans to make their point, to stand by cheerfully while more than 850,000 federal workers are sent home without pay, to precipitate a breach in a wide range of public services from the National Parks to air traffic control, some of which are vital to our national life, and some of which involve the basic security of America.
Not only does the action of a grim and fanatical minority violate the core principle of American political life—majority rule—but it actually threatens the future of majority rule as a concept of civil society. We now begin to reach the point where serious political thinkers, at home and abroad, will ask: is the United States governable? The fact is that the United States is in the midst of a new civil war—being waged between those who like to pretend that they are the modern Samuel Adams and John Hancock heroically opposing taxation and big government, and those who realize that this is now the 21st century and America, with a third of a billion people, necessarily requires a large and complex national government.
Perhaps the obstructionists (the new political nihilists) have forgotten the mechanics of legislation established by our Constitution. Irrespective of the merits of Obamacare as national health care policy, the fact is that the law was enacted by both houses of the United States Congress (March 2010). Then that two-house Congressional legislation was signed into law by the President of the United States. That’s how our system works. Anyone who has taken a basic civics course understands this. You don’t have to agree with this or that law, but we can only function as a civil society if we play by the rules we have all agreed to honor.
After it was enacted into law, Obamacare was legitimately challenged in the federal courts. It went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. On June 28, 2012, the court issued its landmark decision affirming that the Affordable Care Act was indeed constitutional. At this point all three branches of the national government of the United States had endorsed Obamacare. That would seem to have settled the issue. It’s not about whether you or I like the health care law. It is about how laws are passed in a democratic society.
But of course that wasn’t the end of the story. In the 2012 Presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney declared—unmistakably—that the first act of his presidency would be to repeal Obamacare. No one who followed the election could doubt that this was his highest priority. In other words, Romney defined the national presidential election as a referendum on Obamacare. Romney lost that election—not marginally but decisively. So if the election was a referendum on Obamacare, the American people appear to have affirmed the law in spite of whatever misgivings they had about some of its provisions.
The Republicans of the House of Representatives have now voted more than 40 times to repeal or defund Obamacare. None of these bills has been seconded by the duly elected Senate of the United States. If, somehow, a repeal law passed both houses of Congress, President Obama would certainly veto it. Unless a 2/3 majority of both houses voted to override that veto, the health care reform law would stand. That’s civics 101.
I know some, perhaps many, of my readers think Obamacare is a disaster that will raise costs, reduce services, and make an already Byzantine health care system more cumbersome. They may or may not be right. Only time will tell. But that is not the point. No single faction should be permitted to hijack our national political system because it disagrees with duly enacted legislation. The intransigence of the Tea Party position is so great that there isn’t a chance in the world that President Obama can yield to their extreme demands. To do so would be to abdicate his role as President of the United States. It would be giving in to political terrorists. In other words, and ironically, the right-wing Republicans have ensured the survival of Obamacare by forcing everyone who believes in the American system to support it, irrespective of its merits.
My tour group is now on the bus for the hour-long drive from Richmond,VA, to Monticello. I reckon that the serene and rational Jefferson would oppose any national health care legislation whatsoever, but I am absolutely certain that he would defend the sanctity of our democratic process with his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor.
Let's Cut Off Their True Food Supply:
In Other Words, Let's Ignore Them Now
by Clay Jenkinson
September 29, 2013
So the white supremacists have come to the soil of North Dakota. Our job is to make sure it is not fertile soil.
Now that the initial flurry of angst is over, and the street confrontation of September 22, 2103, has peacefully come and peacefully gone, the best thing we can do, I believe, is to leave them alone to their first winter in Leith. They are in for a considerable surprise. As you and I know, but they might not yet or not quite, winters are very long and not altogether balmy in rural North Dakota, on the northern Great Plains. After six or seven months of high winds, ground blizzards, below-zero temperatures and rawhide wind chill, plus the cabin fever of living almost entirely indoors in a town that doesn't even have a quick shop or a bar, they may choose to pick up stakes and winter hereafter in Scottsdale or Hemet. Or perhaps they'll tuck away their Nazi flags and hateful rhetoric, form an Optimist Club, and start writing rural redevelopment grants for poor little Leith and Grant County. Maybe we should flood them with hotdishes and fleischkuechle—kill them with kindness as my mother-in-law would say—in the hopes that they clog up their arteries, settle into their recliners, and start purchasing the premium NFL Sunday Ticket Package. Once they start watching Real Housewives of Orange County, our troubles are over.
I do not take their presence in our homeland lightly, but I believe that this unwelcome visitation is a test of our character and the robustness of our rural democracy. We would be equally foolish to under or to overreact.
We need to remain vigilant, because such types occasionally do (rather than say) appalling things, but as long as they are just verbal extremists wearing anti-social body art, the best thing we can do now is completely ignore them. They feed on us, on our outrage, on the righteous attention we give them. The way to hurt them is not to call them names or try to cut off their access to rural water and sewer, but to ignore them and assume that as long as they don't commit illegal acts they are free to mimeograph Aryan newsletters and spy a Jew behind every American success story. I don't blame the media for giving them the attention they have received so far—it is big news, national news, when a group of self-proclaimed extremists invades a wee pastoral village of 15-26 people in one of the most unsensational states in the union. But now that we have noted their presence, expressed our displeasure with their silly but dangerous doctrines, and put them on notice that we are watching their every move, we should turn away in quiet disgust.
I'm with Voltaire (1694-1778) and the Enlightenment: "Madam, I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it." But the minute they burn a cross on someone's front yard we'll unleash the full fury of the Civil Rights Division the U.S. Justice Department on them.
I had never been to Leith before last Sunday. I have driven past it many times, but nothing had ever compelled me to turn off the highway and drive three miles over gravel roads to see the hapless little village. Now that I have been there I really like it and, like almost everyone else, I wish the supremacists would take their British Israelist flags, their Jewish conspiracy theories, and their dark hearts elsewhere. I defend their right to exist and to spew, but I don't like it that they have chosen us to be their petri dish, and frankly I wonder why. They did not choose Massachusetts or San Francisco. One of my friends said they made a fundamental strategic mistake. Instead of Leith, they should have located in nearby Heil, population 15. They could have painted over the town sign to Seig Heil. In addition to that, New Leipzig is close at hand, and up at the other end of the state is Walhalla, if they are really planning a Wagnerian Götterdämmerung.
Meanwhile, I'm a little suspicious of some of the calls on the state's radio talk shows, stoutly defending the newcomers' first amendment and property rights. I agree in theory, but I wonder what the talk show chatter would be if instead of white supremacists Leith had been invaded by a cell of Radical Environmentalists, or PETA activists, or Marxist-Leninists, or Anti-Frackers, or Shoshone Indians, or—God forbid—Sharia Muslims. We'd be more likely to hear "lock and load" than "live and let live."
It would be interesting to know how many white supremacists are scattered across the North Dakota landscape. I don't just mean tattooed and swastika white supremacists (extremely rare), but also "maybe after three drinks at the bar with like-minded friends" white supremacists, and "well, I really don't like to talk about it much, but I do sometimes think we white folks have lost control of our own country" white supremacists, and "I'm not prejudice (the d usually omitted), but I'm noticing an awful lot of Ne-groes in the oil patch" white supremacists, and "why am I supposed to feel sympathy for Indians when they spend their time cashing their welfare checks and huffing--why can't they get their @#X#X together?" white supremacists. I don't know how many full-bore white supremacists there are in North Dakota, but the number is more than zero, and if you add in the percentage of people who would never display a Nazi symbol or fly a Confederate flag, but who are not altogether unsympathetic with at least some parts of the doctrine of chief supremacist Craig Cobb and his friends, you begin to feel a little uneasy
Anti-Semetic incidents are rare in North Dakota, but they do occur. Contempt for the lifestyles and values of American Indians is so routine that we hardly notice ourselves. And to be openly anti-Muslim—well, that's just American patriotism since 9-11.
I listened carefully for a while last Sunday as Craig Cobb explained his views to members of the North Dakota media, who let him hold forth without interruption and made no attempt to argue with him. Much of it didn't make sense to me, but I did hear him say that the Civil Rights bills of the 1960s and 1970s were a social disaster that unleashed a black reign of crime terror in our cities; that Jews control the world, particularly Hollywood and banking; that our lax immigration protocols are producing the mongrelization of the American dream; and that the Founding Fathers intended a White Christian Nation and they knew whereof they spoke. Heck, that's just Rush Limbaugh on a bad day, except perhaps for the anti-Semitism.
The best thing about the protest rally in Leith was the presence of about 50 Lakota Indians and their friends. In their marvelous dignity and their prayerful seriousness of purpose, they made us all realize that the presence of these Aryan skinheads among us is a very grave and disheartening thing, a sad day in the long, hard, uneven arc of social justice that is the unfinished history of North Dakota. A setback, but potentially also a breakthrough.
And I fell in love with the Lakota woman who spoke forth at the height of the tension: "Come set up shop on the Rez—see how that works out for you." The lovely assembly of 300 anti-supremacists laughed.
A long healing laugh.
Recreating Robert Kennedy's Fifty Mile Hike Fifty Years After
by Clay Jenkinson
September 22, 2013
A few of my fascinations coalesced last weekend and left me with foot blisters. In a few weeks (November 5-7), the Dakota Institute and Bismarck State College will co-host a public humanities symposium on John F. Kennedy. November 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. To get ready I've been reading as many books as I can about the life and achievement of JFK.
A couple of months ago, I cannot remember quite how, I learned that in the course of his reading President Kennedy discovered a 1908 executive order by Theodore Roosevelt instructing officers of the U.S. Marine Corps to undertake a fifty-mile hike. TR was worried that our military officers were becoming soft and (to use his term) "effeminate," so he challenged them to hike fifty miles within twenty hours in no more than three days. To quell the public outcry (that he was a tyrant and a bully), the somewhat portly Rough Rider proceeded to ride his horse more than 100 miles in a single day. Kennedy was concerned about the fitness of the American people in the wake of several lackluster Olympics and of course Sputnik, so he wrote to his Marine Corps commandant David Shoup urging him to make his officers undertake the Roosevelt hike.
Before that could happen, JFK's younger brother, Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States, decided on whim one Friday afternoon to walk fifty miles the following morning, Saturday, February 9, 1963. RFK was 37 years old. Their route would take them along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Georgetown to Harper's Ferry. The towpath along the canal was covered in places with ice and slush. Kennedy had done no training for the hike and he made no effort to obtain appropriate footwear. He walked the entire distance in his street shoes, and yet he completed the hike in just seventeen hours and fifty minutes. Life magazine followed him along with chase vehicles and a helicopter. When the last of his three companions gave up the hike at mile 36, RFK said, with his characteristic rueful wit, "You're lucky your brother is not the President of the United States!"
So it is now the fiftieth anniversary of the fifty-mile hike of one of my heroes Robert F. Kennedy. I belong to a little men's group that dines together from time to time and occasionally undertakes a mild adventure. Although the other three are among the busiest professionals I know, and infinitely more powerful and important in their communities, we all agreed, more or less at the last moment, to undertake at least part of the hike on Friday the 13th (hmmm) and Saturday the 14th of September. Our route would take us from Dan's Super Value in south Mandan out to Fort Rice on the Rough Rider Trail. We'd camp overnight there, and then stroll back to Mandan. That's 27.5 miles out, 27.5 miles back, or—to adopt a heartbreaking metaphor--two walking marathons on successive days. We positioned cars at staging points along the way so that we wouldn't have to carry much and we could deliver injured bodies to walk-in clinics or carcasses to next of kin.
We set off at 7:30 a.m. Friday looking like four guys who took advantage of the RFK hike to buy new gear. One of our group—I'll call him Larry—bought his first sleeping bag in thirty years. With his antique walking stick and his green felt hat, he looked like a middle-aged member of a Bavarian hiking club. The others—I'll call them Niles and Vern—had daypacks full of power bars and moleskin, and as always they breathed good will and determination. I was sporting a brand new orange Camelbak, a giant Leatherman tool I stole from a Lewis & Clark companion last month, and a Cloverdale Tangy Summer Sausage, even though my friend and adviser Melanie Carvell (the famous triathlete), has the absurd notion that those who wish to be fit should not be eating anything that delicious and self-indulgent on the trail. We all agreed to despise her advice, though she is the fittest and most physically accomplished person we have ever met, and though we feared that she would swoop down on us at mile nine to confiscate the contraband salami.
Things went pretty well for the first mile.
Here are some scattered comments I picked up on the trail, mostly from the Bavarian. "Fort Rice is a really long way from Mandan, wasn't Fort Lincoln more historically important?" "Guys, the Rough Rider trail was established for ATVs. Isn't that the right way to do it?" "Forget Carvell, hand over that @#@XX# summer sausage." "I just remembered my root canal was scheduled for this morning, I'm sooo sorry, gentlemen." "Ask not what you can do for those rotten Kennedys, ask what you can do for yourself." "Hey you—suggester of this hike--does that Leatherman have a gutting device, by any chance?"
Not without some strain to our hips, calves, feet, and the human spirit, we waltzed into the campground at Fort Rice around six p.m. We had staged our camp car there at dawn, at a perfect campsite, assuming that we would be the only campers that night. But while we earned our way to Fort Rice in a manner to win the respect of Thoreau, a couple of loutish fifth wheelers with North Dakota plates simply appropriated our site, and actually dragged a picnic table to their common area with a chain and a pickup. The Bavarian and I were approximately 26 miles behind Vern and Niles in reaching camp. When they asked the desperadoes why they stole our site, we were told, "you have to get here early if you want to hold your place." We overcame our urge to engage in a rumble with the rapscallions, and humbly set up camp as far from their RV generators and television sets as we could.
On Saturday there was a rain-induced diaspora. Two of our group went back to town straight away. Niles and I hiked the first 8.5 miles, but when we could hear slushy sounds in our shoes in the downpour, we drove home. At this point, we were no longer a group, but just four weary and disappointed individuals. I took a very long bath. But my conscience was eating at me. I was not alone.
Here's the amazing end of the story. Without any mutual consultation three of us actually finished up the hike in our scattered neighborhoods. Vern did a full 22.5, and Niles and I each did 14 to get to fifty, all within President Roosevelt's timeline. The fourth member of our group had a genuine work crisis that prevented him from completing the hike at this time, but he did say two things as we all parted company: first, that he fully intends to walk at least 27.5 miles in the course of the remainder of his life; and that Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was right when he said that he who loves law or tangy summer sausage should never watch the making of either.
Autumn in North Dakota is often the most temperate time of the year. You can still hike fifty miles over two or three days. In doing so you would be serving your health and discipline in a lovely way, and paying respect to the man who may have been the greatest Attorney General in American history.
Humans must love carbon if they will frack the earth to get it
by Clay Jenkinson
September 15, 2013
Neutral observers from Jupiter would have to conclude that earth humans must really crave carbon, they are willing to go to such lengths to get their hands on it. For the love of oil, they are willing to put up with Saudi Arabia's state sponsorship of anti-western schools (madrasha), and for that matter Saudi princes' sponsorship of anti-American terrorist groups. (I write this on the 12th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and yet the United States subsequently invaded Iraq, which had nothing to do with the attacks. Hmmm.)
They are willing to tear the living daylights out of east central Alberta to get at tar sands that can be made—at vast expense—to release a not very clean elixir of oil.
We are willing to fight an endless series of resource wars in the Middle East to insure that the oil comes out of the ground and flows towards America. This is formally known as the Carter Doctrine. In his State of the Union Address on January 23, 1980, following the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter said, "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." It would be impossible to make sense of the unending Gulf Wars without factoring in the existence of the world's single richest concentration of oil in the region. In other words, if there were no more oil under Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia than there is under Minnesota, imagine for a moment what our foreign policy might look like.
We are willing literally to slice the top off of the mountains of West Virginia to get at the coal that lies underneath.
And now, of course, we appear to be willing to transform western North Dakota beyond recognition to get at the shale oil and natural gas that lie 10,000 feet or more beneath the surface of the most beautiful (and formerly quiet) landscapes of the state. The technology is breathtaking, nearly miraculous. First a series of stiff pipes penetrate vertically to a depth of almost two miles. To get a sense of how much energy this involves, try digging a 10-foot hole this afternoon with a fence post digger. Then the stiff pipes are made to turn a corner at a full 90 degrees (try that with steel fence posts!), and snake out another mile into the heart of a narrow oil-permeated shale formation. Then a sand-bearing slurry is forced down and out all that pipe to a series of perforations (little trap doors) in the laterals, where, under almost unbelievable amounts of hydraulic pressure, it fractures the shale and then keeps the fractures open by depositing countless little sand or plastic wedges in the cracks.
At that point, with the help of additional hydraulic manipulation, oil finally begins to pool from a gazillion fractures. By employing more energy to turn a pump jack at the surface, that oil can be made to slurpy up along a pipe that may be three miles long. At which point, using more energy, it can be made to travel to a refinery, either through a steel pipeline, or on giant trucks or rail cars. At the refinery, thanks to yet another large expenditure of energy, the crude can be forced to separate into some of its ingenious carbon expressions: diesel, heating oil, kerosene, liquid petroleum gas, and of course gasoline. Which is then trucked, at considerable expense, to your neighborhood gas station. Where, for $3.85 per gallon . . . .
Think we want this stuff?
It costs somewhere between $10 and $20 million to develop a single frack well in North Dakota. At the moment, North Dakota is producing over 825,000 barrels of oil per day, which makes us the nation's second largest producer of crude oil. Current American oil consumption (not counting oil-based byproducts) is 18.83 million barrels per day. In other words, North Dakota is now producing about 4 percent of America's daily consumption of oil. If America depended solely on North Dakota for oil, we could at the moment supply the insatiable maw with oil for just 17 days per year. What is happening in Killdeer, Watford City, Williston, Dickinson, Parshall, Stanley, Crosby, and the badlands, is happening in a lot of other places on our watery little planet.
If the only known copy of the works of Shakespeare were trapped in shale two miles below the surface of the earth, do you think we'd take the trouble to go fetch it? Would we fracture the earth to recover 3-5 percent of the musical output of Beethoven or Mahler? Would we organize two thousand truck events to recover the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David?
My point is that we are hopelessly, helplessly, appallingly addicted to carbon. We literally cannot live without it now, and we have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to go get it. If that means an annual US Defense Department budget of $600 billion, we're willing to pay that price. If it means giving the Saudis a pass (not even a slap on the wrist) after 15 Saudi nationals (and the Saudi mastermind Osama bin Laden) perpetrated the gravest attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor, we appear to be willing to "let it be" to make sure that Saudi oil continues to flow our way. If it means turning western North Dakota into an industrial park, we have to be willing to marshal the cement trucks and lay the pipe, because the existing pattern of American energy consumption requires no less.
We could, of course, revolutionize the way we live rather than the communities and badlands of North Dakota, but addiction is addiction, and my Honda hybrid and your Birkenstocks are not going to break it. We could, of course, throw the same amount of money at developing serious alternatives to crude carbon as we now use to extract crude carbon, but the virtually infinite pools of oil and gas newly available thanks to the magic of first-world technology are more likely to deepen our addictions than tip us into greener alternatives. Alas.
When I ran out of gas near Glen Ullin 10 days ago, at 10:38 p.m. on a dark and stormy night, while musing about questions of this sort—about the future of the soul of North Dakota—I had barely stopped cursing myself for blithering idiocy when I was able to smirk at my hypocrisies. Before that little drama ended, I had hiked 4.4 miles out and 4.4 miles back to fetch a single gallon of gasoline, for which I paid $3.79 (not counting soft tissue damage and the various psychological repercussions). By 3 a.m. I would have paid $37.90 for that gallon of gasoline and by 5 a.m. $379.00.
To supply our insatiable carbon needs, there have been a lot of Bakkens elsewhere in the world, and we have been able to ignore them because they have not disturbed our lovely back yard. But now the chickens have come home to roost, and we have a moral duty—no matter what we do about the North Dakota oil rush—to gaze honestly in that mirror.
When We Start to Lock Our Doors, Are We Still North Dakota?
by Clay Jenkinson
September 8, 2013
Last Friday I had meetings in Dickinson and Medora. I lingered over dinner with one of my friends at the Rough Riders Hotel, and then turned my Honda towards Bismarck and put it on autopilot. It was a lovely evening. The countryside, somehow, was still green in the last days of August. My mind was pre-occupied with the topic that now never goes away: How does the spirit of North Dakota survive the massive carbon boom that has rolled like a great tidal wave over our land and people? My friend had shown me a map of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, now essentially encircled by industrial activity. With much more to come, and no end in sight for the rest of our lives.
What will western North Dakota look like in 2015, 2025, 2035, 2050? Nobody knows for sure, but it is hard to believe that it will ever again look like the North Dakota I love so much: mostly empty and windswept, long stretches of ribbony blue highway with little or no traffic in either direction, fierce little towns hanging on against the forces that are depopulating the rural districts of America and the world. Grass landscapes rolling endlessly in every direction, punctuated by ridges and box buttes, with not much more human "improvement" than fences, cattle, a few scattered ranches, and farm to market scoria roads. The sense that the Great Plains just go on forever swallowing up human possibility and serving as a platform for the galloping escapades of pronghorn antelope. And of course the sacred river, the Little Missouri, meandering through the best of all that country in no hurry at all, carrying its six inches of silted water through one of the most beautiful and unusual landscapes in the world.
I love that North Dakota.
That North Dakota is now gone, except in diminishing and endangered patches. I know we have no right to cling to that North Dakota, given what it had come to represent: decline, outmigration, loss of a sense of the future, economic marginality. But that doesn't mean I don't miss it and feel that its rapid evaporation is tragic.
As I drove home with a perfect dusk in my rear view window, I mused about these things, and wondered what the right response to these developments is. Most North Dakotans seem unambiguously joyful about the oil boom, which has brought so much prosperity and renewal to the state. The sense of the state—taken as a whole—seems to be something close to "Drill, baby, drill," or as one of my friends in the industry puts it, "The best is yet to come." Most North Dakotans seem only vaguely—lip-service--concerned about the impact of the boom on such places as Killdeer and Watford City, and as for Williston—well, most North Dakotans seem to agree that Williston has never been the aesthetic capital of the state, or wished to be.
I disagree with most of that, but I am just one puny little voice, and I confess that my ambivalence eats up my anxiety every time. I do not wish the oil boom would go away. That seems irresponsible to me, given the sad history of rural decline in North Dakota, particularly western North Dakota. But I do wish three things, pretty strongly. One: that the boom would slow down, and move forward at a more orderly, sustainable, conservative, and community-friendly pace. Two: that we could hammer out a broad North Dakota consensus about some few parcels we'd like to spare—the Little Missouri River Valley, the concentric perimeter of the three units of the national park, the Killdeer Mountains and Bullion Butte, the remaining roadless areas of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Native American sacred sites, historic battlefields. Three: that we would have a serious, open-minded, and frank statewide conversation about the oil rush and the future of North Dakota.
These do not seem to me to be radical suggestions, but sane and essential suggestions. The fact that such ideas are now routinely branded as "radical" or "anti-development" or "elitist," tells you how far the energy politics of North Dakota have rocketed to the right. We are now in many respects a one-party state (never a good thing, no matter which party), and we are in danger of becoming a company-state, like Montana in the age of Anaconda Copper. I believe we can be grateful for the oil boom without becoming servile, and we can maintain the sturdy independence of the North Dakota character without jeopardizing the enormous benefits of Bakken shale to the state.
Meanwhile, if I were the state legislature, I'd try to give the communities in the impact zone everything they need to survive this thing. It would not be a blank check, of course, but it would be something quite close to a blank check. These communities are in a free fall, and some of North Dakota's best local leaders are working 80 hours a week under almost unbearably stressful circumstances merely to keep their communities from collapse—water and sewer, streets, daycare, crime, drugs, gangs, basic zoning, DUIs, schools, waste facilities, dust mitigation, traffic, not to mention the sex trade and human trafficking. Why would we as outsiders want to doubt Stanley's or Watford City's assessment of what they need to get through this with something like their quality of life intact? If we doubt the perspective of the people who actually live in those towns, who do we think knows better what they need?
A month or so ago I was part of a conversation with several residents of Williston and Watford City, plus some serious oil boom executives. A lifelong resident of Watford City said, "I've lived in Watford all of my life. It has never been easy, but my wife and children and I have made a very good life for ourselves here. In all of that time, even when we have been on vacation, we have never locked our doors, and we have always just left the keys in the car wherever we stopped. This year, for the first time in more than fifty years, we have started to lock our doors." To which one of the executives replied, "Welcome to the modern world, Bob."
Because I was just listening to the conversation, I said nothing, but I wanted to shout: No No No No No No No! That's NOT an adequate response. It's not that we live in North Dakota because we don't have to lock our doors here, but the fact that until a couple of years ago you could live your entire life in North Dakota and not have to lock your doors is one of the very best things about this place. It's not the end of the world when you start locking up and looking over your shoulder in the parking lot, but it is the end of something so valuable in North Dakota life that its loss is (to me) profoundly disturbing. Along with the steady disappearance of pronghorn antelopes, mule deer, meadowlarks, eagles, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions.
At 10:38 p.m., as I pondered these things I ran out of gas for the first time in 43 years, a few miles out of Glen Ullin. Before that "long day's journey into night" ended, I was aware of the urgent necessity of oil in a whole new way.
Returning Home to a Perfectly Tidy House
by Clay Jenkinson
September 1, 2013
This morning I woke up in my own bed, but I wasn't sure of that fact when I woke, later than usual. I've been on the road for a full three weeks, all of it in Montana and Idaho. Last evening I barreled home across eastern Montana from Billings. Motto for the day: No more ambling, just keep moving. That drive, along the Yellowstone River, is one of the greatest in America. The Yellowstone is a beautiful, at times unbelievably beautiful, river--the very essence of what a Great Plains river should be. But if you can force your eyes to look beyond the river itself, the plains that envelope the Yellowstone, from Livingston almost to Glendive, have a romance about them that makes you think Custer is about to dash over the horizon, or a couple of mountain men be torn and maimed by a grizzly, or a herd of 20,000 buffalo ford the river in search of new grass. I wanted and needed to get home, but I hated to say goodbye to Mon Tana.
When you live alone, you always wonder what sort of home you are returning to when you have been gone for an extended period. I rounded the last corner with some apprehension. When Lewis and Clark returned to the mouth of the Knife River in mid-August 1806, they discovered that Fort Mandan had burned down during their absence. I would probably have learned of something that dramatic, but I always run through a grim mental checklist as I approach home. Did I leave the oven on? Has that fussy guest room toilet been running all this time? Did the water line to the refrigerator icemaker break and flood the entire basement (I have friends who came home to that)? Did a giant hailstorm take out all the windows on the west side? Etc.
The house was intact. But it was not a very welcoming scene. The mailbox was full to bursting, with three "tried to deliver" notices, including a somewhat threatening "Last Notice" version that had the feel of being composed by someone cutting and pasting letters from a magazine. Rain, sleet, hail, dark of night. Two dozen copies of the Bismarck Tribune were strewn over my front porch in varying stages of yellowing. When I stooped to pick one up, a cricket popped out and threw himself against the front of the house. The flowers in the six planter urns on my front porch were 78% dead. I stopped to water them even before I entered the house. They were so dry that the potting soil was a rooty solid that floated up to the rim of the urns before it began to absorb the water. Three packages were propped against the door, two of them of considerable value.
In short, my house gave off the unmistakable message: Rob Me! He's Gone!
Inside, things were worse. It was at least 92 degrees throughout the house, and it had that stale, uncirculated air smell that says summer vacation. In my haste to leave three weeks ago, I appear to have left dirty dishes in the sink, the water of which now looked like that primordial chemical soup from which the first life forms emerged 6017 years ago (October 23, 4004 BC), according to Irish Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656). (Yes, I visited the Creationist dinosaur museum in Glendive). In my haste, I had also left a load of clothes in the washer, cycle complete. They had a lovely sourdough aroma. My bed was of course unmade. And all the toilets had a protein stain at the water line.
There's no place like home.
Lines delivered by Elizabeth Taylor at the beginning of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf popped into my head: "What a dump!" I reclaimed the house in the following order. First, I opened the windows in my bedroom and turned the ceiling fan on high. Second, I rewashed the sourdough clothes. Third, I opened as many windows in the house as I thought might help to circulate air. Fourth, I hauled in the first of twelve loads from the car, opened the suitcases one by one in my entry, and started to haul dirty clothes downstairs to the laundry room. Some of them were dirty enough to burn, but I decided to give them two cycles through the washer. This included my "new" tennis shoes that suffered grievously on the Wendover Death March on the Lolo Trail in Idaho. They were black as soot. Fifth, I did the dishes and sent a vial of the old dishwater to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Sixth, I made dinner for myself, even though I was dog tired, because I have not had a home-cooked meal for almost a month. It was lasagna, for which I had a hankering, but I confess to having used faux noodles, the kind that are "oven ready" without boiling. The shame of it! Seventh, I did not pour myself a glass of wine because I was afraid I would pass out right into a plate of lasagna noodles.
By the time things wound down, the house looked . . . well, less of a dump. The temperature had dropped to 85 in the living areas, but my bedroom was still stuck at about 90. Five new books had appeared at my doorstep magically during my absence, not to mention the dozen I had purchased hither and yon on the trail. I showered ("rinsed" we say in the evening) to remove the first layers of road grit, changed the sheets, and prepared to read myself instantly to sleep. If I were rich, I'd have clean sheets every day. The thing I dislike most about hotel (and motel) life is the pillows. Actually, the pillows and the coverlets. The pillows, the coverlet, and the carpets. Well, the pillows, the coverlet, the carpets, and the black hair left in the sink by the housekeeping staff…. But the waffle machine at breakfast is kind of fun. And the pulsing orange juice dispenser.
Just as I was nodding off my daughter called from New York, where she is beginning her sophomore year of college. The call came on Face Time, which meant that I thought it best to get out of bed and to look reasonably presentable. She was exhausted from a long day of orientation activities in Gotham, I from driving 587 miles, and shoveling out the house, so we mostly just gazed at each other across 1,720 miles of America. Mutually homesick smiles.
When I told her of the beauty of the Yellowstone River as the first waxy yellow leaves begin to grace the cottonwoods and the whiff of fall hovers in the morning air, her face slowly resolved into an understated look of understanding and longing and loss. If you ever let the Great Plains into your soul, you can never quite be fully happy without them. I could see she wanted to be in that car, with her bare feet up on the dash, red licorice and a soda near at hand, a couple of unopened trashy grocery store magazines, and a good book. And I could hear her say, when we were 75 miles from the nearest village, backward or forward, "Dad, I'm hungry. Can we drive through?"
As usual, as always, she was the perfect homecoming.
When I left the house this morning, the flowers on the porch had all perked up.
Lost in Idaho on a Wandering Bus Searching for Lewis & Clark
by Clay Jenkinson
August 25, 2013
SOMEWHERE IN IDAHO—I am writing these words on a bus, as we flee the big forest fires in the Bitterroot Mountains. The epic annual Lewis and Clark cultural tour I have been leading for the past ten days has survived the Missouri River, a series of strenuous hikes, including the fabled Wendover Death March (nine miles straight up), some heat prostration and a few trail "incidents," only to be turned back near the Idaho-Montana border by the Travelers Rest fire that has shut US highway 12.
We stayed again last night at my favorite inn in the American West, Lochsa Lodge, and had our farewell dinner outside on the deck under a magnificent nearly full moon. The electric power was entirely off at the lodge, thanks to the fires, so we groped around in the dark with flashlights. A few took cold showers and the rest of us just waded into the Lochsa River fully clothed to cool off and clean up. A dozen of us sat around the fire pit until after midnight. The lodge folks wouldn't let us start a fire, of course, but we put a bunch of electric candles in a wheel and spoke pattern, and the effect was romantic if not very warm once the night chill came off the river.
Everyone missed their flights today. At the moment we are moving towards Lewiston, ID, where some will pick up commuter flights for a late return home tomorrow, and others will rent cars and drive all the way to Seattle. So far no panic, but you could see two days ago that most folks had reached the spiritual end of the journey and wanted to resume the comfortable routines of their home lives: showers, the Wall Street Journal, meals that did not involve a slab of meat and a glop of fried potatoes, flush toilets.
Like all crises, this one will soon pass. My guess is that everyone will live, everyone will get home, nobody will lose a job over this, and this little last minute travel blip will become a favorite part of the narrative each participant tells about the big Lewis & Clark adventure of 2013. If the 1804-1806 journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark is about anything, it represents resourcefulness and perseverance. The Bitterroot Mountains gave them fits, too, though not by way of fire. They had a rough, cold, wet, hungry, bewildered, and even dreadful transit through the northern Rockies in September 1805. At one point Clark wrote, "I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life, indeed I was at one time fearfull my feet would freeze in the thin Mockirsons which I wore" (September 16, 1805).
On the return journey, the expedition reached the western base of the Bitterroots way too soon. Their friends the Nez Perce told them that they could not possibly punch through what Lewis called "those tremendous mountains" for another month, not really until mid-July, that the snow was still far too deep, that it would be impossible to stay on the trail or find fodder for their horses. The always impatient, high-strung Lewis ignored the advice of the locals and tried to press the expedition through the dense labyrinth of the Bitterroots—and then retreated when he realized that the Nez Perce knew more about their home country than he did.
I'm doing pretty well considering. I have a moderately serious blister on my left foot. I'm gimpy and stiff, sunburned to the point of peeling, and I'd rather burn my camp clothes than wash them. I'd rather shave than bathe. I'd rather keep exploring the West than walk into my pent up home in Bismarck. After ten days in some of the best country in America, my soul is refreshed and rejuvenated, and some things I thought were devastatingly important back in civilization turn out—in the face of the raw transactions of life in the wild—to be, well, less devastating.
The Wendover Death March was as good a midlife wake-up call as you could ever ask. I hiked up the mountain for the eighth time in ten years—we all made it, and I very much enjoyed my gin and tonic at Lewis & Clark's Snow Camp at the end of the ordeal, er hike. But I cramped up in the quadriceps of both legs at mile seven or so, and on the really steep grades (appalling, really) I had to double over and gasp and hack and blow, hands on knees, sometimes every fifty yards. Ever since the death march I have been coughing up the stuff that sits in the lower crevices of our lungs during the sedentary months: hairballs, toothpaste caps, old coins, paper clips. You know, the stuff you find under the couch cushions.
I finished the hike with the first group in about four hours, but I have been ashamed of myself ever since. My athletic friend and mentor Melanie Carvell (the famous triathlete!) always tells me that you have to limit the variables. The higher altitude (7000 feet) is just one issue, and there's no preparing for that in North Dakota. The cardiovascular system is a second; lung strength a third; the status of your leg and back muscles a fourth; etc. If I had done five fifteen-mile hikes in the last month things would have gone substantially better. Six days after the DM, I'm still coughing up old buttons.
Face it: at 58, I've reached the point in life where I will either grow old and become a creature of the Barcalounger, or I am going to have to suck it up and move my body more, and stretch, and lay off the fleischkuekle. Given modern medicine, it is now possible for most folks to live well into their eighties, and even beyond, but given this longevity we bear a new responsibility to keep ourselves as young and healthy and physically vibrant as possible. The great Melanie assures us that anybody can be fit, anybody can make the most of what their DNA and body type and family history deal to them, but apparently you cannot do this sitting down.
There was a time when I could have skipped up Wendover Ridge, and there will be a time when my body simply won't be able to take the strain anymore. But there is about a twenty-year interval now in which it's all up to me, and this year's DM was a clarion call for greater commitment to health and exercise. Life is mostly about choice. That's what makes freedom so burdensome.
Each of us has a number of selves, and each of us has a most authentic self. The philosopher William James spoke of "hot spots in the soul." I know that my time sleeping under the stars in the American West, sitting on the banks of rivers (or in them), talking in low tones around a log fire, and waiting for the miracle of meteorites or Northern Lights, is where my soul is most alive, and where I feel that all is right with the world.
Next year I am going to stride up Wendover Ridge. That will require as much dedication as reading through Shakespeare or learning to play the ukulele. But the alternative is not even a slightly pretty picture.
Seeking Renewal on the Wendover Death March in the Footsteps
of Lewis and Clark
by Clay Jenkinson
August 18, 2013
FORT BENTON, MT. – I'm sitting out on the patio of the Grand Union Hotel looking at the Missouri River. This is the halfway point of my annual Lewis and Clark canoeing and hiking trip. We have spent the last three days paddling through the magnificent White Cliffs stretch of the Missouri. Tonight we regroup in a historic hotel (which mostly means showers). Tomorrow we head up to Lochsa Lodge on the Lolo Trail just inside Idaho (west of Missoula), and prepare for four days of hiking along the most pristine stretch of the entire Lewis & Clark trail from Charlottesville, VA, to Astoria, OR.
This year I'm joined by 35 adventurers from all over the United States—and one winsome young geologist from Australia. With my tour partner Becky, that makes our little corps of discovery about the same in size as the permanent party of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1805). The main difference is that we cannot establish military discipline. Last night one of the enlisted men engaged in an unauthorized incursion into our limited supply of liquor. After a wonderful midnight thunderstorm that woke and enchanted our urban guests, he went wandering through our camp like King Lear on the heath, tripping over guy lines, chanting patches of patriotic song, and invading tents of perfect strangers in search of his longsuffering wife. This produced a little chaos. We wanted to flog him at dawn, but he looked pretty self- or spouse-flogged, so we merely pardoned him to nurse his hangover. The mesh cowboy hat that he has been wearing all week looked as if it had gone through a tree shredder. I predict a long run of temperance in his future.
These are minor concerns. Each year for five years my canoe partner Becky has attempted to drown me in the Missouri River. She's a natural water nymph with a heart the size of Montana, but she has two exceedingly bad habits. She stands up from time to time in the canoe, and she turns around to take pictures, adjust her life vest, reach for something in her kit bag, ask me a question, or just tempt the river gods. No amount of caution or rebuke can prevent her from taking appalling risks, and every summer I lose not only my new camera—an expensive sacrifice to what Meriwether Lewis called the "mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River"—but books, notes, GPS devices, journals (both my own and the expedition's). I went to my favorite camera store a few days before this trip to buy my fifth annual digital camera. The clerk said, "Ah, it's your annual Montana trip, is it?"
I can now report a miracle. My camera survived the canoe portion of the trip. We'll see how it fares on the Wendover Death March.
I don't know if I can explain why this annual trip means so much to me, but I am going to try. When you are out on the river drifting through some of the most enchanting scenery in America, or placing one foot in front of the other on a serious and strenuous hike directly in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, you get out of yourself. You all know that persona you drag around almost every day of the year, full of fears and frets and frustrations and figments and frauds and foolhardiness. It's almost pure pleasure to check that tinny thing at the embarkation point, and become a more basic and authentic self for a few days. The camping trip tasks are very basic: paddle, hike, perform rudimentary acts of hygiene in rudimentary structures, sleep, eat, warm your hands in the fire in the chill of the evening, and get up in the middle of the night to pee in the dewy grass just outside your tent, and then linger in your shorts in the night chill to watch for a shooting star. The idea is to let the past slip away, put the future on hold at the other end of the journey, and just try to BE for a change. Feel the tinge of sunburn on your face and legs, the affirming strain in muscles you don't much use in what Huck Finn calls "sivilization," and let the long stretches of pure silence redeem your life.
There is also the "same time next year" phenomenon.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said "you can never enter the same river twice." That is true of the Missouri. This year it was down by three or four feet from last year. Last year's gravel-bottomed swimming hole was a mud bog this year. The air was easily ten degrees cooler this summer, and the afternoon swimming was therefore less imperative. Etc. But I also know I bring a different me to the river every year. My left shoulder was not a factor this time. I was more serious, less playful in the evening talks. I know why, though I'm not willing to explain it. People from all over the country insisted on my talking about the Bakken oil boom, even though I came out here in part to escape the oppressive never-endingness of that subject in my life. I threw myself into this year's adventure with none of my usual detachment—in part because there is so much I wish to escape from this year, and I am counting on the journey to provide spiritual renewal.
When we undertake the Wendover Death March Friday morning (nine miles more or less straight up) I will be listening to my body take that severe strain. Every summer I wonder when the year will finally come when I cannot make the hike—or, worse, choose not to make the hike. In a strange sort of way, this summer journey is my way of testing who I am, who I still am, and who I might be able to become, because the one constant is that a full year has passed since the last seemingly-identical journey.
The jury is still out about this year's Death March, which is led by my glorious young friend Chad, now just under 40, who prances and gambols and jibes his way up Wendover Ridge as if he were jogging to the corner post office, while the rest of us bend over and cough up a lung every ten minutes and curse the day Chad was born. The trip would not be worth making without Chad—who knows everything about the Bitterroot Mountains except the trees, which is a bit ironic if you think about it—and it certainly would not be worth making without Becky. They are the north stars of my summer.
Mostly I thank God I live in virtually the only country on earth where this is possible—where the population density is light in the heartland, where there is still plenty of public domain to play and wander in, where the qualities of wilderness and frontier still have some potency in our national soul, and where the words "the West" touch off a long reverie of romance, awe, redemption, mystery, and renewal.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," said Thoreau. That indeed is my quest.
The Etiquette of Texting in the Age of Electronic Loneliness
by Clay Jenkinson
August 11, 2013
Yesterday I was being driven in a taxi from one part of Seattle to another. The taxi driver was a Muslim man who spent the entire twenty-six minutes talking in frenetic Arabic to someone on his cell phone. I don't know if they were making dinner plans or plotting revenge. All I know is that they were talking with great animation, and I didn't understand a single word my driver said. He was driving so fast that I was a little uneasy. Nor did it make my ride very pleasant to have to listen to what seemed like high-energy chatter, but I'm sure being able to multi-task in this way makes his work life less tedious and perhaps more productive. We drove through the fashionable Capitol Hill district of Seattle. On our right we passed a young man on a bicycle riding "no hands" and texting as he glided through traffic. That was the most creative (and dangerous) instance of texting I have seen so far. I suppose the ultimate would be to text while riding a bull in a rodeo. People must really want to text to take such risks.
What did we do before we could text? Homo sapiens have been around for 250,000 years, and somehow we got by without texting until ten years ago. Now, approximately six billion texts are sent per day in the United States alone. Young Americans (18-29) send or receive on average 88 texts per day. The other night I sat at a long bar in a Seattle hotel and all eleven people sitting there were texting alone, concentrating even more on their cell phones than on their drinks. Not a single conversation of any sort was occurring between those eleven bodies. The bartender was texting, too. I was not texting, but I was reading a book on my iPad.
The Internet gave us the capacity to send emails at some point between 1995 and the millennium. The electronic letter phased out the paper-and-postage-stamp letter with breathtaking ruthlessness. I still send traditional letters to my daughter, and occasionally to others. She regards such letters as quaint relics of a forgotten age. She senses that a letter in the mailbox is somehow more significant than an email, but I can tell that she thinks it is a bit silly to deploy the resources of the US Postal System for six or seven days to deliver to her essentially the same words that I could have sent her instantaneously from anywhere on earth. The postal service is a reasonably efficient document delivery system now being displaced by a stunningly more efficient delivery system. I imagine when she receives a letter from me, it feels to her like that birthday card you used to get from your grandmother with a $5 check in it. You shake your head a little, even though you do appreciate the gesture.
I spend a lot of time in airports. Computers, cell phones, and texting have taken a lot of the tedium out of waiting for the next flight. It certainly beats that earlier phase of electronic culture when people carried little game devices around and played them in seat 23b with all their bells and dings and whistles blaring, as if they had a full grown pinball machine in front of them. What bothers me most now are the people who stop dead in their tracks in airport walking lanes, without warning, and when you lurch and scramble to avoid running them down, you discover they merely stopped to tap out a text. "Hey Brad, 'sup?" This happens to me every time I fly now.
Texting is so addictive that once you are in there is no turning back. My mother is a great case in point. Sometime around 1998 I forced her to buy her first home computer. She resisted that rite of passage as if I were trying to put her in a rural nursing home. "I'm too old, what would I do with it, I'd never be able to figure it out, I've lived my whole life without a computer, why would I need one now?" But of course the minute she had her first massive Gateway computer she recognized it as an essential tool of life. We went through the same nonsense about her first cell phone, her first laptop, and her first Nook. She relented in the end in the Battle of the Cell Phone by admitting that it might possibly save her life if she ran off the road in a blizzard. And for several years she used it only when she traveled. More recently we had a daylong argument about getting her a cell phone on which she could write texts. "My fingers would be too clumsy on such a small keyboard, why cannot I just pick up the phone and call if I have something to say, I'm eighty years old for the gosh sakes," etc. This summer my amazingly persuasive daughter convinced my mother to buy her first iPhone, even though she had sworn earlier in the week that nothing could ever convince her to abandon a true keyboard for a touch pad. Now she nonchalantly exchanges texts with her granddaughter and with her significant other in Minneapolis, and a few days ago she somehow managed to send me a photograph from Cody, Wyoming. She has a fancy stylus for her phone. I'll look over at her and ask what she's doing? "Oh, just texting Russ (the S.O.) to see if he thinks Tiger or Phil will win the tournament." Oh my. As Hamlet put it, "Is man no more than this?"
One of the positive benefits of texting is that it makes us get to the point. It's the modern telegraph system. Nobody likes to tap out a 500-word note. I think it also invites us to be witty. A perfect text is worth a thousand words. It is certainly easier to text in one's regrets for not coming to a dinner party than making that call, which might end in the host persuading you to come, after all, or might leave you feeling like a lout. You can text what you dare not or would rather not say, and you can text at any time of day or night without necessarily disturbing the recipient.
Texting allows us to reach out to someone in a small way, without the duration and heavier implications of a phone conversation. "Hey, thinking about you." "Just wanted to make sure you are ok?" "Don't forget to make the car payment." "Have I said I love you yet today?" Texting is ideal for some types of communication. Think of how long that car payment phone call might have lasted and what Pandora's boxes it might have opened. The telegraph works better.
I have even heard of instances of people breaking up with their lovers by text—the rare "Dear John text." Hard to believe anyone could ever be so barbarous and insensitive, but such things are a fair indicator of where we are and where we are headed as a culture.
C U next wk.
The Healing Power of Laughter: Oh Larry and Mo Where Art Thou?
by Clay Jenkinson
August 4, 2013
One of my favorite people has been in town, and it couldn't have come at a better time. His name is David Nicandri. He's one of the best Lewis and Clark scholars in the country. His book, River of Promise: Lewis & Clark on the Columbia (published by our own Dakota Institute Press) has won rave reviews. One eminent historian has called it the "best book on Lewis and Clark in a generation."
All that is great, but it is not why I cherish David Nicandri so much. There's an even better reason: He has one of the greatest laughs of anyone I have ever known. When he finds something funny—and he does so several times per conversation—he throws his head back and releases an unguarded, unmistakable open-mouthed laugh. His laugh is always lusty and it is often wonderfully noisy. His laughter is no mere "hee hee," or a muted "uh, huh, huh, ha, huh." He's all in, as they say. If you were from Jupiter and hadn't figured out the human necessity for laughter, you might think he had just been stabbed with a spear. He laughs because he cannot help it. And then I laugh because I cannot help it. In a world of insincerity and disingenuous people (they are legion), I love the visceral authenticity of laughter.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, the literary dictator of 18th century London, and the author of the first great dictionary of the English language (1755) defined laughter as "convulsive merriment." That's absolutely perfect. I'm not much of a laugher myself, but when I am in front of an audience and I manage to make people laugh—laugh until they double over, and turn and smile at each other—I am for that moment the happiest man alive.
Just why people laugh is something of a mystery. We know that apes laugh, by way of a form of gruff panting, and other animals, including non-primates, produce odd vocalizations during play. First laughter in human infants tends to occur between 3.5 and 4 months after birth, long before our children learn to speak. Most experts believe that laughter has more to do with social bonding than with humor per se. People seldom laugh alone. When I do, I'm always a little embarrassed. We know that laughter is highly contagious.
That's one reason I am so fond of David Nicandri. His laughter over the past few days has had two enormously healing effects on me. First, we tend to find the same things funny, often rather abstract things that only occur in the minds of people who have spent too much time reading about the same episodes in history. His laughter affirms my understanding of the quirks, tensions, and absurdities of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Second, his laughter is so wonderful that I find myself joining in (spontaneously) because I want to get on that bandwagon of joy and affirmation. In other words, his unforced, unconscious laughter triggers mine, because he is my dear friend, because I believe in his life and work, because (below the radar of consciousness) he gives me "permission" to laugh out loud, hard. And when we laugh out loud, hard, we cheer up. Perhaps we even heal.
My mentor Ev Albers used to laugh more than any serious person I have ever known. His laugh was a kind of heroic chuckle, but what made it so infectious is that it would last so long that eventually tears would be streaming down his cheeks, and he'd have to take his glasses off twice or thrice to dry them off. And he had the very unusual habit of not just inviting you to laugh with him but essentially forcing you to join in. He'd literally bring his massive face within a couple of inches of yours—invading your personal space, looking you straight in the eye from extremely close range—and in the end you'd be unable to resist joining in, if only for self-protection. Ev would close his laugh episode by saying, "Oh my!" in a sad emphatic sighing way, as if to say, "Life is so unbearably painful in so many ways, that the only response to it that is not destructive, is to laugh."
We've all heard the following dialogue. "I'm surprised you could laugh at such an awful thing that happened to you." And the response: "Well, it's either laugh or cry." I know plenty of people who have laughed until they cried or cried until finally they actually began to laugh. These convulsions are related somehow, and it is not always easy to tell the difference. They are both involuntary. They both bring about a release of pent up energy and emotion. They both have the capacity to bring catharsis and relief. How many times have you heard someone say, "Afterwards I went home and had a good cry"?
Both Albers and Nicandri are men who know how to laugh at themselves. In fact, particularly to laugh at themselves. This may be the single most important source of sanity we have. And it makes them immensely likeable.
Back when I was married, I sometimes laughed in moments of crisis or alarm—the death of a relative in an improbable feedlot accident, a child's tumble down a flight of stairs, a sudden divorce filing after 48 years of seemingly happy marriage. She thought my laughter was inappropriate, even obscene, at such a moment. Perhaps it was. But it was something more, I think—an involuntary convulsion in watching the universe pull the rug out from under our complacent sense that we are immortal and that life is what it seems on any given Tuesday.
When they say "laughter is the best medicine," the experts really mean it. The late Norman Cousins actually wrote a book about the power of laughter in the healing process. When he faced a seemingly terminal illness, he literally taught himself to laugh many times per day. "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep," he later wrote. He watched episodes of The Three Stooges. "When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval."
No matter how unhappy I am, if I watch The Three Stooges or any of the Leslie Nielson Naked Gun movies, I cheer up. In his darkest or weariest hours, I would walk in on Ev Albers and find him wiping his eyes along that laughter-crying axis as he watched Mo poke Curly's eyes with a pitchfork.
One of Freud's most brilliant books is called Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). It's a really insightful study of what makes us laugh, and why. His view, essentially, was that humor occurs when the conscious mind permits the expression of something that society usually suppresses or forbids—aggression, sexual candor, or disruptive candor of any sort. Thus the old Henny Youngman joke, "Take my wife-please," plays on the ambiguity of citing one's wife as an example (as in "take the budget surplus, for example") and expressing a barely suppressed desire to get rid of her ("take her off my hands"). It's not a particularly funny joke, but its structure gets at the essence of what a joke does.
Mark Twain famously said, "Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." We are going to need a lot more laughter if we are going to punch through the paralysis of our time.
Here Comes August: Time to Turn Things Up a Notch
by Clay Jenkinson
July 28, 2013
So we've reached carpe diem time in a North Dakota summer. Seize the day. Before you know it, you'll begin to be bombarded by "back to school" advertising. I hate the moment in mid-summer when you walk into one of the box stores and bump up against massive back to school displays. It actually bothers me more than seeing Christmas decorations on the shelves before Thanksgiving, or that odd moment, the day after Valentine's Day, when all the Valentine's cards are brusquely pulled from the shelves at the grocery store and unsentimentally replaced by Easter Cards. That always seems so heartless to me, opportunistic in the worst sense.
There is only a narrow window left when the summer of 2013 will feel carefree and unending. How can it be almost August 1? The minute you sense autumn lurking out beyond the northern horizon, the rest of your summer activities will feel a little like a forced march. The joy then may be more intense (because we know all too well what's coming), but the essence of summer is that early July feeling that you are off the clock, that time is expansive or perhaps endless, that you are almost as carefree as you were growing up in a North Dakota town, when you burst out the banging screen door right after breakfast and came back in at the other end of the day, then only when your mother's voice got threatening. Bikes, bats, dirtballs, sprinklers, swings, forts, rafts, popsicles, the dank smell of the swimming pool locker room where you took the shortest rinse that could be regarded as compliance with pool rules.
The minute I hear the words "NFL pre-season opener" on television, I experience a wave of pure melancholy and loss. Too soon, too soon.
As far as I am concerned it has been a spectacular North Dakota summer. I have spent at least 20 evenings out on my deck with a breeze and a series of good books, reading a few pages, then sipping a glass of white wine, then drinking in the western sky and keeping on the lookout for Venus just above the horizon. And reading some more. In the past few weeks there have been just enough mosquitos to drive me inside at dusk, not enough to induce me to buy a Citronella candle.
In countless houses around North Dakota the following conversations are taking place today. If we're going to get out to the Medora Musical this summer, we'd better do it soon. If we're still going camping this summer, we'd better pick a weekend. If we're going to invite the Ricardos for a pontoon ride on the river, we'd better call them right away. If we are serious about driving out to the old farm to pick buffalo berries, we'd better figure out when.
I did get to do a picnic on a butte. My friend Joey was in town from Texas. He's a scion of the King Ranch family. With a group of anarchic merry makers from Beach, we made the ascent of Camels Hump Butte (3,273 feet). We established a base camp in a lovely grass bowl on the northeast side, and spread out a perfect evening picnic on erratic lichen-topped sandstones. Over dinner, the rancher who owns the thing (wouldn't you love to be able to say you owned one of North Dakota's principal buttes?) serenaded us with his ukulele. But he redeemed himself with his grass-fed beef carpaccio, the best I have ever tasted. Thus refreshed (at least physically), we scrambled up to the summit, and sat in glorious silence to take in the improbable majesty of the broken country of the Great Plains.
It won't be a complete summer until I have spent an afternoon lying on a gravel bar in the Little Missouri River, with a bottle of water, a wedge of Cloverdale tangy summer sausage and a Triscuit, a cube of quality unsweetened chocolate, and a good book, preferably Walden. You read. You doze. You gaze around listlessly at the starkness of the badlands. You read a bit more and meditate on Thoreau's magical perceptions of the killer contradictions of American life. You doze. The parts of your body in the river are almost cold. The parts in the sun are almost toasted. Lonely hot badlands breezes waft over your bare shoulders to remind you of the strangeness and emptiness of the place. You make a Triscuit-summer sausage sandwich with a Swiss army knife reserved for these occasions. You lie down completely on the polished scoria and sandstone gravel, with some chips of smooth lignite mixed in, feet pointing downriver towards the Gulf of Mexico, arms outstretched first in the Da Vinci position and then close to your side, your head pointing directly upstream, parting the current of the river.
The sun slips behind one of the few clouds in the sky and the world goes gray and you involuntarily release a cool shiver. You pull yourself up on your elbows to inspect—a passing cloud? A thunderstorm? Is it evening already? Does this day ever have to end?
These moments are literally the happiest of my life, although in every superlative I ever utter there is a trump card, now 18 years old and beginning to think about heading back to college. She and I walked across the Little Missouri River a few weeks ago just outside of Medora. This river—alone among all the rivers of the world—has marked her short life. She was baptized in the Little Missouri when she was just a few months old, her father gripping the diaper, her mother having a nervous breakdown. I have carried her over to the other bank and back again on my shoulders a dozen times over the years. This was the first time she walked across on her own feet. We held hands hard, partly because that improves everybody's balance, partly because it was one of those perfect dad-daughter moments, and partly because she does not yet know how to read the river sufficiently to anticipate the moment when the firm bottom gives way to the gloppy shore mud that can suck you in to the knees, or worse, before you know what's happened.
As a frequent flyer I know I miss some lovely opportunities, but so far I have not had the joy of a massive and punishing thunderstorm this summer. I was, however, awakened last Saturday by one of the best experiences of ND life, a dawn thunderstorm followed by a sweet sustained rain shower. There is nothing quite like awakening at 4 a.m. to a crack of thunder, and then engaging in that foggy dawn internal debate about whether to hide under the covers and try to sleep through it, or get up and experience its full satisfaction.
Nor have I taken a thousand mile drive (coming); or canoed the White Cliffs of the Missouri (coming); or heard the croon of a coyote from inside a sleeping bag (coming); or counted meteorites on my back; or gotten lost on a two trail track in the badlands until the dust choked my nostrils and I looked nervously at the gas gauge. Life would be so much less without that.
With the arrival of August, I can hear the clock ticking, and as the evening begins to cool, I have found myself muttering lines from Shakespeare's Richard II: "I wasted time and now doth time waste me."
And "Our Flag Was Still There"—a National Park on the Moon?
by Clay Jenkinson
July 21, 2013
Just when you think the national government could not be more idiotic, wasteful, or paralytic, they do something absolutely inspired. The proposal to create a National Historic Park on the Moon is one of the best ideas I have ever heard.
The congressional sponsors of the Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act (H.R. 2617), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), and Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), are mostly concerned about protecting NASA Apollo artifacts left behind on the moon. They rightly worry that the space ambitions of China and the European Space Agency, and the dawning era of commercial space flights, endanger artifacts that enshrine the single greatest event of our time, and one of the pivotal moments in the history of humankind. It is only a matter of time before somebody else--or an ethically challenged robot--visits Tranquility Base and loots the site for commercial advantage. That's certainly how I would spend my time if I could "slip the surly bonds of earth" and visit the nearest celestial body!
The National Park Service would be instructed to protect these precious industrial artifacts, to preserve whatever is left of the first human footprints on the lunar surface, and any other detritus (including gum wrappers) that astronauts left behind. Just how is not fully specified in the legislation.
There is actually a great deal of human stuff scattered about the Moon. Some, but not all of it, was left behind by the Apollo astronauts. The descent module of the Eagle (Apollo 11) is in permanent repose on the Sea of Tranquility. The ascent and descent vehicles from all six lunar landing missions are strewn across the pockmarked surface of the Moon. Three Lunar Rovers are still parked up there, keys thoughtfully tucked into the visors. I assume that by now at least two of them are up on blocks, and the carburetor has been removed from the third.
The three golf balls that Alan Shepard wacked away it on Apollo 14 are still out there somewhere, waiting to be chipped into the Frau Mauro Crater. Once he had time to study his lunar lie on February 6, 1971, Shepard chose a Wilson six iron to mark the trivialization of the human exploration tradition. He actually brought the modified six iron back to Earth and donated it to the United States Golf Association museum in New Jersey. Presumably it will be returned to the Tranquility Base Visitors Center once the National Park is up and running.
The famous plaque on the Apollo 11 Lunar Module would certainly raise a fortune on eBay. It reads, "Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon The Moon July 1969, A.D. We Came In Peace For All Mankind." Of course you'd have to carry a lunar crowbar up there to get it.
Six American flags once festooned our six landing sits. Buzz Aldrin (alas, forever condemned to be remembered as "the second man on the moon") reported that the flag from Apollo 11 blew down when the Lunar Module took off on July 21, 1969. Most heroic gestures end thus. But at least three of the flags from the other five missions have been spotted by high-resolution surveillance cameras (Apollo 12, 16, and 17). The flags themselves cannot be seen, but the shadows they cast are still clearly visible in the photographs.
It was forty-four years ago yesterday (Saturday) that Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon. I remember that moment as if it actually were yesterday. I don't think I have ever been prouder to belong to Civilization. Think of what it means to shoot a capsule from one spinning and speeding celestial body to another speeding sphere a quarter of a million miles away—and then land it within a few meters of your pre-arranged target? If you want to remind yourself of what kind of challenge gravity represents, carry a gallon of paint up the stairs of the North Dakota State Capitol. Or try to launch an aluminum garbage can over the Missouri River into Mandan (or Bismarck). This requires a permit.
Here is the entire list of moonwalkers. All Americans. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin; Pete Conrad and Alan Bean; Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell; David Scott and James Irwin; John W. Young and Charles Duke; Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.
Of the 12 men who walked the moon, eight are still alive and four are dead: James Irwin (Apollo 15) was the first to die—on August 8, 1991, at the age of 61. Then went Allen Shepard (among other things, America's first man in space) on July 21, 1998, age 74. Then Pete Conrad of Apollo 12, July 8, 1999, at the age of 69. Neil Armstrong died last year (August 25, 2012) at the age of 82. The clock is ticking. At some point the last of them will expire, just as, soon enough, Ringo Star and Sir Paul McCartney will drop the curtain on one of history's most amazing epochs.
One of the eight living moonwalkers, Harrison ("Jack") Schmitt, is coming to Bismarck State College on November 6, 2013, to speak at the John F. Kennedy symposium co-sponsored by BSC and the Dakota Institute. Schmitt was the second to last man to stand on the surface of the moon. Gene Cernan was the last. Schmitt was the first bonafide scientist (a geologist) to visit the Moon's surface. He also has the distinction of having taken the magnificent "Blue Marble" photograph of the earth, showing most of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the gorgeous island of Madagascar, and even the South Polar icecap. It is one of the most beautiful photographs ever taken, almost enough to make you want to protect our watery, wispy, stunningly beautiful planet.
If the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites National Historical Park is created, it will present some challenges to folks (and there are many) whose goal it is to visit every National Park and have their "passports" stamped. One article inspired by the Congressional proposal a couple of weeks ago quipped, "Fire Up the Minivan!"
Getting there will not only be difficult but expensive. Assuming that gas prices remain at $3.69 per gallon, and your car (because you are a National Park type) gets 24 mpg, it would take 9,954 gallons of unleaded to get to the moon, which is 238,900 miles away. That's $36,730.26. Not bad really, but that doesn't leave any money to drive around once you get there. And several thousands of dollars for red licorice and beef jerky.
Thanks to exceedingly poor leadership and a lack of national foresight, the United States now has no capacity to send anyone to the moon, or even into space! Not for the foreseeable future. A nation that responded to John F. Kennedy's heroic challenge at Rice University of May 21, 1961, (to send a man to the moon and bring him safely back within the 1960s), would now be helpless to protect those lunar artifacts if Darth Vader or Yang Liwei (the first Chinese man in space) attempted to abscond with them. How pathetic is that?
I do hope Congress creates the Lunar National Park. If we no longer have the heart to be heroic, we should at least show proper honor to those who did.
Someone I know well has some influence in the National Park System. If this great thing happens, I desperately want to be a voluntary ranger, complete with that fetching hat I have long coveted. I've been drinking Tang. If I cannot be an astronaut, surely I can be a lunatic.
Of Tawny Grass and the Medora Musical and a Perfect Summer Night
by Clay Jenkinson
July 14, 2013
The solstice has come and gone. That always trips a little anxiety deep below the surface of my summer joy. We have reached peak light and now we are heading back into the darkness at the rate of three minutes per day. I spent that evening outside. It would be a crime against the light to be inside on 21 June. I don't know what your top five things about North Dakota are, but for me the lingering summer dusk is one of them. Sunset plus two hours of speechless serenity. Yellow followed by gold followed by pink followed by Bloody Mary red followed by charcoal and gray. Each color phase longer and subtler than the last. The pink sometimes wraps itself all the way around the horizon. Now station a thundercloud way, way off on the far western horizon intermittently pulsing with firefly light and you have paradise on earth.
When you sit out on a night like that, it is like a moment out of the "Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam" by the English poet Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883):
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
To which I reply, Oh let the summer linger and the light.
On the Fourth of July I went to Medora with my daughter and my mother. My daughter is home in western Kansas for the summer. She is involved in 4-H for the last time as a competitor and she already feels the loss. Ask what is the most Jeffersonian thing in America and you will get a range of answers--from the exquisite Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress to the perfect cubic dining room at his retreat home Poplar Forest in Bedford County, VA. As far as I'm concerned, 4-H may be the epitome of Jefferson's vision of life: rural kids learning principles of stewardship, humane care of livestock, household economics, craft, nutrition, rural teamwork, and responsible record-keeping, at the hands of enlightened community volunteers.
We sat through the Medora Fourth of July parade in mid-afternoon smirking, had supper in the hotel, and then went to the Medora Musical with Sheila Schafer, now enjoying her 49th consecutive summer in the badlands. Her health issues keep creeping up towards the tipping point, and she just keeps swatting them away with her perpetual youthfulness and lust for life. Her refrain seems to be, "I'll let you know when I'm ready!" I just want my daughter to be in the presence of such a woman, the most life-affirming person I have ever met. So there I was in the Burning Hills Amphitheater on a fabulous early July evening, with my three favorite women in the world: my 18-year-old daughter, my 81-year-old mother, and the ageless Queen.
There were about 1,800 people in the crowd. The singing and the dancing are especially splendid this year. The prestidigitator Bill Sorensen (co-hosting) tells jokes so lame that we guffawed in spite of ourselves. My daughter laughed until she had tears in her eyes. And the principal co-host Emily Walter has such beauty, talent, and stage presence that in my opinion she deserves a much fuller portfolio, in Medora and beyond. Off in the distance Bullion Butte, and the sinuous thread of the sacred Little Missouri River.
The show was moving towards its close. The Burning Hills Singers had danced themselves out. The two North Dakota songs—"Come Home to North Dakota," and "Always North Dakota"-- choked me up, as always, and sent a surge of raw North Dakota pride right into my heart. The finale this year is a beautifully understated patriotic medley. As it began, the most wonderful thing happened. Spontaneously, without cue cards or a barker or an MC, the large crowd just stood up to honor America, born 237 years ago in the pen of our most gifted dreamer Thomas Jefferson. It was everything you could want on the Fourth of July—just retro enough to clear out all the noise of modern life and make you believe again.
Afterwards, Sheila handed out hundreds of ice cream bars out behind her cabin tucked under the bluff at the edge of town, while one of the best fireworks displays I have ever seen cascaded down just over our outstretched heads. God Bless America.
On the way home the next day, near Almont, I noticed that the prairie grasses have begun to turn. After a late wet spring, the northern plains are beginning to take on their proper tan and russet look. The moment when the grass turns, mostly green and partly tawny, mostly tawny but still partly green, is my favorite moment of the summer in North Dakota. It's the paling and the graying of the green. That's when I think: Ah, I live on the Great Plains of America.
This last Tuesday night I found myself at home alone with no pressing deadline. There had been a quick soaking thunderstorm about four p.m. so I could not work in my much-neglected garden without becoming a human mud ball. I made myself a little dinner of little leftovers and ate it in silence as I read the famous steeplechase scene in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. All my electronics were "in the off position," as they say on commercial aircraft. The house was perfectly quiet. I took my book and a glass of cold white wine out onto the deck.
The temperature was perfect, precisely what I would have dialed up if I had a hotline to the great god of meteorology. It was not hot. It was warm and, depending on how the breeze stirred, sometimes a little cool and sometimes a little toasty, but toasty in just the right way. No wind, just a gentle breeze that came and went without any drama, like the steady even breathing of the continent. If it had been ten degrees hotter or the breeze three miles per hour stronger, it would have been just one of those North Dakota summer evenings with a summer wind. That would be just fine, but I would not have lingered outside. But this was an evening so perfect in every way that it made me forget that there is winter on the northern plains. About an hour into my reverie, I remember thinking, "If I died at dusk tonight (rather than go in to fetch a jacket), I'd be wholly content." The Oglala warrior Crazy Horse used to ride off to battle saying, "Le anpetu kin mat'e kin waste ktelo," it is a good day to die. That's how I felt Tuesday night, though I am quite happy to be alive and (reverie or no reverie) there are, fortunately, dozens of projects that must be completed before I let myself croak. Still, that feeling that "this is what human happiness is, there is nothing that is missing," was exquisite. I miss my daughter sorely, but if she had been with me we'd be chattering and laughing, not drinking in the gentle breeze in a silence so powerful that you hear it, if that makes any sense.
I just lay there just taking in the evening like a human zucchini, letting thoughts drift in and out of my mind the way you see those motes in your eye drift around slowly and disappear. Somewhere in the distance a mother called out lovingly for her children to "come in now" for the night.
Happiness at its core is such a simple thing.
Old Ruts and New Beginnings at the 40th High School Reunion
by Clay Jenkinson
July 7, 2013
Last weekend my high school class gathered for our 40th class reunion. Bleck. The class of 1973 at Dickinson High School once numbered just under 200. According to the count of our informal class historian, ten of us have died so far. (The clock has started to matter). But only about 45 of us turned up for the reunion. The usual suspects. Where the other 150 graduates were I have no idea. Perhaps they thought it would be impossible to find rooms in the new Dickinson of the Bakken era.
We followed the time worn pattern. Reception Friday night with homemade hors d'oeuvres, made by the same cluster of women who have done all the work at every function since we were in first grade. The Rough Riders Roundup parade on Saturday morning. And then a "banquet" in the appropriately named Sodbusters Room at the Elks Club on Saturday night. Plenty of drinking. Lots of catch-up talk. "Really? You joined the Peace Corps? Why didn't I know that? How did you like Upper Volta?" "So this is your fourth wife? Well, she's really very lovely." "So prison's not so bad, huh?" Or my favorite: "You've lived in Dickinson all this time? I've never run into you in 40 years!"
The most amazing thing about a high school class reunion is that everything is different and yet everything is also frozen in time. Some of the kids from the "wrong side of the tracks" have prospered in amazing ways, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and done remarkable and important things in the world. It's thrilling to hear their stories. It makes you believe in the American dream again. And yet the moment they enter that room, they walk through a portal back in time to 1972, when George McGovern made his quixotic run for the presidency against Richard Milhous Nixon, and the Watergate break-in touched off one of the most fascinating political crises in American history. Suddenly we are all thrust back into a small town class system that is surprisingly tenacious (and vicious). Social cliques that have been unfed for forty full years suddenly reassert themselves, and everyone is immediately made aware that the popular elite continue to regard themselves as a breed apart and above. For the most part everyone accepts their allotted place on the great chain of being. We're like dairy cattle suddenly let into the barn: we all waddle right back to our old assigned stanchions.
Ancient grudges catch fire like an ember long buried in a heap of ash that suddenly gets a whiff of oxygen. Ancient unrequited romantic longings play themselves out as if someone pushed the eight-track tape back into the slot right where it left off at that famous spin the bottle party in 1969. People stand around gossiping about who has a crush on whom, and who "won't accept that Brent doesn't fancy her and never will." The "incident" at the state basketball tournament is hotly debated as if it occurred a week ago Thursday rather than 42 long years ago, at the other end of our lives. It's as if we are all helpless to emancipate ourselves from our primal roles. Actually, I think we secretly like the old stew of adolescent angst.
We could not have been more pathetic in the big Saturday morning parade. Almost everyone turned up late, as if to a float-decorating session on the weekend before homecoming. Some of us had to be hoisted up onto the flatbed with a crane. Most folks brought deck chairs, and the usual women brought extra chairs for the ones who forgot to bring them, just as they forgot to bring a pencil to math, or a note from their parents before the bus trip to Williston. We were Float 139 or something, so far back that the lead vehicles virtually lapped us before we moved at all. If there had been a "lamest" entry in the parade we would have won hands down. The parade, in fact, was essentially an elongated trade fair for the Bakken Oil Boom featuring gigantic rigs of mysterious purpose that lumbered through the streets of west Dickinson like a stray herd of Triceratops. We (of '73) just sat there on those deck chairs, all spread out to appear to be numerous. It felt more like the outdoor deck of a nursing home after supper than a class of young men and women that once looked upon the world as their oyster. Nobody cheered us. I studied the crowds along the street. They were looking at us with the same disbelief we once reserved for the Class of 1947: "To this fate I will never come. I will never be that old." And this is just the 40th. Ten years from now we'll need an array of oxygen valves.
We all gathered more or less on time for the big banquet at the Elks. It was just like old times: my date stood me up, even though she had invited me to the event more than a year ago. I gave the after dinner talk, because RB, our class president, didn't show up again. He has been specially invited to each of our four reunions. On several of those occasions he has agreed to come—and speak—and each time he has failed to turn up. At which point the organizers have tended to turn (in dismay) to me, the junior runner up.
I told two stories, one about adolescent love and one about mature love. The first story was about a girl named Linda Kokko with whom I was helplessly in love in eighth grade. It took me eleven movies at the one-screen downtown movie theater to work up the courage to hold her hand (about the time the credits began to roll), and then—on a perfect winter night at the skating rink over by the college—I somehow stumbled over the threshold and had my first kiss. She moved to Billings shortly thereafter (so far as I know, unrelated). As a farewell gift I bought her a birthstone ring at Britton Jewelers for $2.45. When my father—a decidedly hands off father—found out about it he came in my room one evening and closed the door. (Trouble ahead!). He asked me to confirm the story that Miss Kokko was leaving the territory and that I had spent all of my available capital on a birthstone ring. Through crimson blushing I confirmed the "word on the street." At which point he gave me virtually the only advice he ever offered: "Son, never buy oats for a dead horse.'
Well, I have been buying oats for dead horses all of my life, no letup in sight.
But then I told the story of my mother, now 81, who attended her 50th college reunion in Moorhead ten years ago. My father had been dead for eight years at that point and mother had sworn off any possibility of second romance. She ran into a boy she had dated a couple of times in college. Back then—the cad--he had sent her a Dear John letter, which—in her sweet Germanic way--she still has, and has thrown in his face from time to time. They rekindled their romance at their 50th class reunion. They are still an item, very much in love, and mother is, I believe, happier than she has ever been.
I've adjusted to this amazing occurrence with my usual evenness of temper. My shrink says I should stop wetting the bed sometime late next year.
The Bakken Oil Boom from the Back of an Open Airplane
by Clay Jenkinson
June 30, 2013
Last week I wrote about a whimsical airplane journey I took a couple of weeks ago with a North Dakotan who is a key player in the Bakken Oil Boom. We flew in a small funky yellow two-seat plane from Bismarck to Bullion Butte, then down the Little Missouri River to Watford City, and then "overland" back to Bismarck by way of Zap and Golden Valley. It was a nine-hour adventure with someone of infinite good humor, who boomed and busted in the oil boom the last time around, in the 1980s, then stuck it out through all the lean years when all the "summer soldiers and sunshine patriots" sought their windfalls elsewhere. I have the deepest respect for what he represents—a homegrown North Dakotan with persistence and superb instincts that have now finally paid off in a big, big way.
Last week I wrote about our adventure. Today I want to try to make sense of what I saw as we flew over the green grassy plains of North Dakota in a wet June.
In every crisis of life, no matter how big or small, it is essential to try to step back and view things from a broader perspective. It really is true that we cannot see the forest for the trees. That's a cliché, but if you try to look at a big phenomenon from too close to the ground (or ground zero), you see only what is immediately before you, not the larger pattern of things. If, for example, you are a Wall Street Journal reporter or someone from the BBC, and you fly out from New York or London to Denver and then on a tiny plane to Williston, ND, "to make sense of the oil boom," you are going to see a city bursting with energy, enterprise, dust, chaos, congestion, noise, construction, and growing pains that make it not a very attractive destination. But Williston is not the oil boom and the oil boom is not Williston. Williston is one of the choke points of the oil boom.
The oil boom is many things that cannot be seen from the air. Full employment. The promise of energy independence for America. A whopping state budget surplus and what is tending towards full funding for a wide range of institutions and enterprises that have been living on thin gruel for most of North Dakota history. Jobs aplenty. New life in small towns. One of my closest friends is a faux-curmudgeonly former newspaper editor from Crosby. We had a long conversation in the heart of the badlands a few weeks ago and he said this. "I have lived in Crosby, ND, all of my life. What you have to understand is that for almost all of my life we have been managing decline and depopulation, economic marginality, and loss. Do you know what that is like for a town to go through? We have had hundreds of meetings over the years about how to find a way to save and regenerate our little hometown. Nothing really worked. Suddenly, thanks to the Bakken, we are viable again, and growing. There are shops on mainstreet and every house in town is full of families or workers. Heck, we even have a housing boom in Crosby. We wish the growth were a little less and a little slower, a little more organic, of course, but do you think we can really wish this hadn't happened?"
Towns like Williston, Watford City, Killdeer are just scrambling to survive this tsunami, and keep life livable for both long-term residents and newcomers. They are currently fracked communities as well as fracking communities. But other towns as far away as Bottineau, Harvey, Bowman, Spearfish, Kenmare, (etc.) are experiencing indirect regeneration from the Bakken phenomenon. They may be the biggest winners. A moderate amount of new life and economic activity makes all the difference in a rural community like that. Faraway Grand Forks is reaping benefits thanks to extremely intelligent strategic planning, and Bismarck is a becoming a new place. Just walk around downtown for a couple of hours and remember what that experience was like even as few as six years ago. Last week I told a visiting capitalist from Chicago that Bismarck is going to be the Tulsa of the Bakken Oil Boom. He laughed hard and said "dream higher." Which means that he doesn't understand the history of the Great Plains at all.
Here's what you see if you spend ample time flying over the western half of North Dakota merely trying to drink in what you can observe from a couple of thousand feet. First, there is an awful lot of North Dakota. Even now, in the midst of this industrial juggernaut that is plunking down oil wells at the rate of approximately 2000 per year, there are, as a famous writer put it, more places where nothing is than something is. North Dakota (and the larger Great Plains of which it is a small rectangle) is still a vast and open landscape that is, after 150 years of white settlement and economic activity, largely empty in every direction.
Second, the development is only initially gross and transgressive. But once the pump jacks are installed and the pipelines are buried and the water and fracking trucks move on, the landscape gets pretty calm again. From the air it is not ugly. To my mind the boom does violate one of the things I most love about western North Dakota—its essential primordialness—but from a couple of thousand feet the footprint is not nearly as overpowering as it seems from the junction of US 85 and US 2. Or from a bench in the city park in Alexander, the home of one of my heroes Arthur A. Link, the man who reminded us that there are values in the North Dakota character greater than money-making. The choke points are really choked.
Third, the badlands are indeed punctuated in every direction with oil activity. I find that disheartening, as does my oil-soaked pilot-friend, but the badlands are still the badlands and they are astonishingly beautiful and largely untouched, even with a buff-colored tank array here and a drilling rig there. If we adopt some special protocols and restraints for badlands development, especially on federal and state lands, we can probably make the oil boom respect this sacred corridor carved by wind and the Little Missouri River, and at least minimize (ok, moderate) the impact somewhat. I do worry what will happen when all those 10-year development leases start to come due, but there is still time to save a few of the finest parcels. In fact, there is still time to create the modest Prairie Legacy Wilderness of about 65,000 acres, to set aside a wee little sliver of the few remaining pristine acreages. We should save these parcels for seed.
No matter what happens, there is still going to be a vast amount of North Dakota that wears, and will always wear, an exceedingly light industrial footprint. We are going to have to discover parts and places of North Dakota outside of the prime recreation zone. We are going to have to take our spirit recreations in landscapes we have hitherto largely ignored. We are going to have to come to terms with loss.
And we the people are going to have to fight to chasten this thing in some important ways. Because our leadership is so far not doing much chastening.
The Badlands and the Bakken from the Air
by Clay Jenkinson
June 23, 2013
A few days ago I had the opportunity to fly over western North Dakota with one of the most remarkable men I know, a significant player in the oil boom with strong roots in the badlands. We love many of the same places and many of the same people out there, and we're both concerned about what the boom means for the beauty and solemnity of the badlands. For manyh months he's offered to take me flying over the butte country and the sacred Little Missouri River. Things finally lined up for us both and I jumped at the chance.
We flew west of Bismarck along the Heart River to the Rainy Buttes, White Butte, Black Butte, and then to the Logging Camp Ranch northwest of Amidon. There we landed to drink in the beauty of the Teepee Buttes and the mother of all North Dakota buttes: Bullion. It was a perfect June day in Dakota, temperature about 72, a light breeze (on the ground) and a scattering of pillowy cumulous clouds in an otherwise pure blue sky. After that we flew all the way down the valley of the Little Missouri River to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and paused for two hours at Watford City. Finally we flew back to Bismarck in the corridor between Zap and Beulah, and landed at dusk. Give me more such days.
At some point in our journey, as we were chattering through headsets about the beauty and history of western North Dakota, my host—a gracious, funny, intelligent, spontaneous, passionate man, and someone I greatly admire—started whining about the 11.5% oil extraction tax in North Dakota. "Off the top!" he said four times, several times at the top of his lungs. "If they tried to tax those ranches we are flying over at that rate, there would be riots at the state capitol. Eleven point five off the top!" I was afraid he was going to put me through some hair-raising loops and dives just to make sure I understood the gravity of the despotic confiscations being visited upon the industry by the state legislature. Never argue with a rogue pilot. I did the best I could with my thimbleful of perspective—reminding him that the great bulk of that tax money is going right back into the impact counties, to provide a triage of basic services that will help the communities of western North Dakota to survive this thing, and to improve the transportation and shipping infrastructure so that the industry can extract even more shale oil from under our soil. In other words, I suggested that the state government of North Dakota should more properly be seen as a development partner than as an adversary to the oil boom. He laughed his great happy boyish laugh and conceded that my point could not be entirely dismissed. But after a short pause he ended the debate with the apparently definitive rebuttal: "Off the top!"
At that point I said: "If we are going to do much of this, we have to make a pact that I can tease you and you can tease me, and we get to ask each other any questions we choose, no matter how irreverent." To this he gladly assented with a dip of the right wing.
Eventually we landed in Watford City to regroup, put on a bit of fuel, get an ice cream cone, and look around a little. We fired up a company car in a prime spot at the airport and drove into town. It was hopping. The only adequate term to describe the traffic in Watford City is "horrendous." Wreckers and highway patrol cars with lights flashing were attending to a crippled big rig just west of the choke point intersection, and that made things temporarily intolerable. If time is money, vast sums of it are being left along North Dakota's beleaguered highways, along with big plastic Mountain Dew bottles full of… well, not Mountain Dew. We got the ice cream without incident, and some sodas, and then he drove me southeast of town to see the famous indoor RV park.
I don't know quite what I expected, but as we bounced along the pitted gravel road I guess I was anticipating a big open Metrodome with neat rows of RVs parked along bight green Astroturf yards, with a tennis court and a mini-mall clubhouse in the town square. Oh my. What we actually came to looked like an oversized self-storage facility, with an endless line of identical bays, each with one of those buff colored corrugated metal garage doors that can be opened all the way to the top. Outside a few of them were the inevitable gas grill units, and most of them had satellite dishes to pipe in 500 channels of entertainment. You know you are working in a brutal climate when it can be regarded as preferable to spend the winter like a Russian nesting doll inside your RV, inside a narrow storage bay, inside an elongated metal Quonset, at the end of a pitted gravel road, and—on special occasions—the man of the house ventures out into the sub-arctic moonscape to throw a few shrimp or chuck steaks on the barby. It's like being human Spam.
Then we went to gaze at some rigs in which my friend had some financial interests. At some point I realized that his daily cash flow is greater than my lifetime income, that an average North Dakotan like me cannot fathom how big this thing is, how much money is changing hands, how much is at stake in the Bakken, and what it really means in the global oil narrative. In the face of this sheer magnitude of industrial, capitalist, and carbon activity, a phenomenon literally beyond the scale of a regular citizen's imagination, a guy like me who has to decide whether he can afford a pound of pistachio nuts at the grocery store is effectively a nonentity. A non-player.
I took several thousand photographs of western North Dakota. We followed the sinuous trace of the Little Missouri River from the mouth of Little Cannonball Creek north of Marmarth, where Theodore Roosevelt killed his first buffalo in September 1883, to the mouth of Cherry Creek southeast of Watford City, where Roosevelt made a citizen's arrest of three boat thieves in April 1886, and then slogged them overland through the Killdeer Mountains and a sea of spring gumbo to the sheriff in Dickinson. In fact, we flew all the way to the mouth of the Little Missouri River near Twin Buttes. Whenever I wanted more photos, my friend flew circles around the landscape on my behalf. To benefit my photographic agenda, he opened the right door of the plane so that I was literally dangling over the Little Missouri River with nothing between me an ignominious death but the shoulder harness. In the rear seat, unprotected by the windshield, I was buffeted and pummeled within an inch of my life by winds and crosswinds, and quite possibly the jet stream. My eyes were dry as melba toast. I loved every minute of it.
Next week, I'll try to say more about how the Bakken and the badlands look from the air in the summer of 2013. It's an eye-opening enterprise, and I'm compelled to say the news is almost entirely good.
From Setback to Success:
The Next Phase of Higher Education in North Dakota
by Clay Jenkinson
June 16, 2013
The sudden buyout of the Chancellor of Higher Education's contract is a really unfortunate development in North Dakota life. I only met Ham Shirvani once and I found him really impressive. From what little I have seen at first hand, and from what I have heard from trusted insiders, I get that his bedside manner left a little to be desired. Given all that has passed, all that has been alleged, it is perhaps best at this point for us all to conclude generously that the relationship between Dr. Shirvani and the educational and political leaders of North Dakota was just not a good fit. My sense is that the Chancellor was just as bewildered by us as we have been by him. I hate to see a man of his achievement and gifts depart under a cloud.
It was a very expensive mistake for North Dakota. I'm a taxpayer who does not begrudge any of the money taken from my pocket for education--pre-school, Head Start, K-12, school lunch programs, international exchange programs, technology innovations. There is nothing more important in a civil society than educating our children, each according to his or her best learning style, each up to her or his capacity. I'm very happy to pay my share. But I do begrudge the idea of spending the best part of a million dollars to get rid of a servant of the state. Tossing that kind of money around should be unthinkable, and, for most of North Dakota history, it would simply have been impossible. It is a sign of the ways in which the carbon lottery has corrupted our sense of value that we can write that gargantuan check with a shrug. I believe Dr. Shirvani is entitled to whatever exit compensation his contract specifies, of course, but if I were in a marriage I could only get out of by giving my spouse a million dollars of walking around money, I'd learn to appreciate her tuna hotdish and her dumb cousin Fred.
Just let me be chancellor for six weeks. I'm sure to screw things up much more quickly and obviously, and I'll gladly take my banishment for just $650,000!
Shirvani's departure not just an expensive, but a costly setback to higher education in North Dakota. Because of the turmoil during the tenure of recent chancellorships here—Robert Potts, Bill Goetz, Ham Shirvani—the 63rd North Dakota legislature voted to let the people of North Dakota decide in November 2014 whether they want to abolish the State Board of Higher Education altogether, and replace it with a three member commission appointed by the Governor. In my opinion, that would be a terrible mistake. We should fix the problems of the Board of Higher Education, not dissolve it. The Board was created in the mid twentieth century to protect higher education from the meddling hands of governors and legislators. We need a Board that is quasi-independent of the political process, just as we need a quasi-independent Federal Reserve Board to protect our money supply from naked political manipulation.
Even if Shirvani had been a sweet-tempered and understated chancellor, he would have had an extremely difficult time of it, because he was brought in to bring a new kind of order to higher education to North Dakota, to control—rather than be controlled by—strong university presidents like former NDSU president Joe Chapman, and to figure out how to bring eleven independent and self-serving colleges and universities into an orderly and efficient planetary system. That's a very tall order, a minefield to negotiate under the best of circumstances, like dragging the petty fiefdoms and principalities of central Europe into something called the nation of Germany. Chancellor Shirvani never developed the trust and credibility he would have needed to whip the system into shape. It would be a great mistake to decide it was all his fault.
So now what? The urgent imperative is to name an interim chancellor who enjoys widespread trust, a true North Dakotan (born and educated) who is dynamic without being narcissistic, a superb listener who retains a strong independence of thought, a leader who is forceful without being overbearing, someone who knows how to get along with the leaders of North Dakota, including the more colorful and strong-minded members of the legislature. We need a man or woman who has his ear to the future of higher education in America and the world, a pragmatic innovator who is not afraid to think outside of the box, but who understands the pressures and constraints that make sudden or wild changes impossible. We need someone who will work in open cooperation with the members of the State Board, but stand up to them with genial firmness when necessary, someone who is more interested in education than in empire building or personal advancement, someone who genuinely respects the presidents of our colleges and universities and does not regard them as his subordinates, but as dedicated co-professionals. We need someone who will bring a new level of transparency to higher education, and work closely with the legislature to address the issue of spiraling cost in higher ed. We need someone who knows how to laugh at himself.
This is a time of revolution in higher education. Thomas Friedman's flat world means that any pro-active person can get access to the best educational opportunities around the globe without getting out of her or his pajamas. The Information Revolution means that everyone has access to oceans of knowledge 24 hours a day, free—literally in the palm of one's hand. Higher education is not going to remain a process of knowledge dumping much longer—the timeworn system in which the Professor who has knowledge places it into the hands of the Student, who seeks knowledge. That made sense in the Middle Ages when books were literally chained to the library wall. It makes little sense in the Age of Infinite Access and Information. Professors are going to have to become knowledge coaches rather than knowledge providers, and even someone "graduating" from Bismarck State College or Mayville State is routinely going to take courses from MIT, the Sorbonne, Stanford, Oxford, or Arkansas State, and listen to lectures by the best scholars in the world in a breathtaking range of new delivery systems. Traditional degree-seeking may in some respects give way to a much broader system of learning modules and skill certification. The local university (Minot State, for example) is only going to survive if it embraces the brave new world of educational possibilities. Any institution that merely hopes that a bunch of students will just show up in the fall is going to be as much a fossil as the Triceratops. We need a chancellor who understands where things are headed, and wants to make the best of it for our institutions.
The new chancellor (and can we stop calling this person a chancellor—geez, no wonder the job goes to their heads!) should begin by scheduling town hall meetings at every college town in the state, and then ten non-college towns, to listen, listen, listen.
And fight with all of his might to persuade the voters of North Dakota to retain the Board of Higher Education come November 2014.
Four Hundred Columns and So Very Little Wisdom
by Clay Jenkinson
June 9, 2013
Well, folks, this is my 400th column if my calculations are correct. Not that I have a neat stack of printed columns in carefully marked file folders that I could count. If Donald Trump called to say he would give me $500,000 if by midnight tonight I could make an accurate list of every column I have written since 2005 and its title, I'd have to forfeit the prize. It would be a day of considerable shoveling. Fortunately, one of the best internet tools is a site called timeanddate.com. It enables you to enter two dates and then it instantly calculates how many years, months, weeks, hours, and seconds have passed. Watch. I was born on February 4, 1955. That comes to 58 years, four months, and one day. It merely feels like 93! I call that the "lifechill" effect.
I have now been on earth for 511,344 hours. Only 78% of them wasted! 1,840,838,400 seconds. Etc. The site has a range of other fascinating tools—calendars, solar and lunar eclipses, countdown clocks, solstices and equinoxes, distance calculators.
If Thomas Jefferson had had access to timeanddate.com he would have regarded himself as the happiest man who ever lived. He had a genuine mania for this sort of information. It made him feel that life on earth could be negotiated rationally. (This is surely the triumph of hope over human experience). More to the point, it made him believe that he could control life rather than be controlled by its vast subterranean forces, the percolating chaos just below the surface of consciousness.
So 400 columns. Here's another way to look at it. I won't tell you what I'm paid, because I love writing this column more than anything else I have ever done and money is not the issue, but I believe "lightly compensated" would be the correct technical phrase. In 400 columns I have written approximately 484,000 words. By my reckoning, that comes to about 4.2 cents per word. So it really is true that talk is cheap. Given the nature of my professional career, I'm in the paradoxical position of being better paid for the words that come out of my mouth than the ones that come out of my pen.
But I don't mind a bit.
I'm a little perplexed by life right now, uncertain of how to negotiate the future. I came back to North Dakota because it is the place I love most of all the places in the world. It is the place I have never been able to get out of my system. No matter where I have traveled or where I have lived I have thought of myself as a child of the Great Plains, and it has never once been an embarrassment to me. But I would not change my birthright to be a Kansan or a Nebraskan for all the world. Sometimes people I meet blanch when I say I'm from North Dakota, as if I were revealing a thing that would have to be overcome. But that which I value in me, that which I value in life, comes alive when I see East and West Rainy Butte south of Dickinson or Sentinel Butte west of Medora. My deepest joys in life have been hiking in improbable places that are ignored by those who need Aspen or Glacier National Park to feel the sublime. I'd rather watch a cluster of pronghorn antelope race over the ridge than have perfect seats for Hamlet in London or spend an evening listening to Yo Yo Ma with half a dozen of my closest friends, and believe me I would rather do those things than almost anything I can imagine. For me the sublime is in the caress of the wind in the cottonwoods as dusk approaches, and I would run all the rivers of the world into a concrete cistern before I would fall out of love with the Little Missouri River. If God said, "Tonight is the last night of your life, spend it where your heart lives," I would lie out under a patch of rangy cottonwoods north of Marmarth next to the sacred river trying to fathom the stars; and later in the evening God would deliver up the best thunderstorm of my life for my curtain call."
I was not one of those young North Dakotans who couldn't wait to leave. When I have lived elsewhere I have felt uprooted and lost. One of my favorite Greek myths is about Antaeus, the half-giant who was invincible as long as he had his feet firmly planted on the ground. Hercules was able to defeat him only when he figured out how to lift Antaeus off of his feet. I find it impossible to contemplate the idea of "home" anywhere but in North Dakota.
There are plenty of places with better restaurants than North Dakota, with more cultural amenities, better bookstores, museums, galleries, boutiques. There are plenty of places with more diversity, a wider spectrum of political and social engagement and possibility, more lifestyle opportunities for young people, more tolerance for that which is eccentric. There are plenty of places with more distinguished architecture—with fountains, statues, memorials, parks, historic sites. All those things matter greatly to me, but they are not enough to balance the joy of driving on a gravel road into a place where the prairie grasses carpet the earth and the sky is so vast that you feel like an ant or a Lilliputian swallowed up by the boundless face of the earth—and far off in the distance is a muted blue box butte beckoning you to return to the romance of life. It is here, Roosevelt said, "that the romance of my life began."
And now that North Dakota that I love with everything that I have in me—the Endless Empty left alone by the main traffic lanes of life—is shattered. I know there is no compelling reason to say no to the economic miracle that has been visited upon us like a spaceship from a far galaxy, and even if we wanted to say no it is no longer clear that we have the capacity to stop it. So I find myself asking, what is the meaning of my life?
Every time I express even muted anxiety in the face of the tsunami of change that is redefining what I thought was North Dakota—undisciplined growth, social strain, the industrialization of our sacred landscape, the monetization of an agrarian civilization--the blowback is overwhelming. Yet if God said, "You have to vote yes or no on the carbon boom, there can be no middle ground," I would swallow hard and vote yes. But my heart has been breaking in a kind of silent slow motion for several years.
And I do think there is a middle ground.
I want to thank you for reading my words. You have no idea how much that matters to me. If I am given the honor and privilege of writing 400 more columns, I am going to tell the truth as my limited capacities and perspective allow me to see it, as carefully and respectfully and playfully as I can. But I'd rather write about rhubarb and Rhame than waste water management.
Now I'm up to 511,347 hours.
To book Clay Jenkinson for a personal appearance contact:
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Thanks for your questions and comments, and thank you for listening.