Sheila Schafer

Godspeed Sheila Schafer

Sheila (shy-leh) Schafer died quietly in her sleep on Tuesday March 15, 2016, in Bismarck, North Dakota. She was 90 years old.

She was the most life-affirming person I ever met in the whole course of my life. I met her ten years ago when I moved back to North Dakota. We became friends, then good friends, then extremely close friends. But I was merely one of hundreds of Sheila's friends.

Sheila Schafer was always the youngest person in every room.
— Clay Jenkinson

She was the wife of North Dakota's first great millionaire, Harold Schafer, the founder of the Gold Seal Company (Mr. Bubble, Snowy Bleach, Glass Wax), and the philanthropist and visionary who turned the sleepy little town of Medora into North Dakota's premier tourist destination. She was the mother of eight children, five of Harold's, three of her own. One of those children, Ed Schafer, was the governor of North Dakota between 1992-2000 and later George W. Bush's Secretary of Agriculture.

She was the center of attention no matter where she went or what she did, and she delighted virtually everyone she ever met. She was a master raconteur, a natural comic, and her heart was as large as the American West. She was on a first name basis with Presidents, governors, ambassadors, rock stars, and thousands of people whose names she always remembered but you and I have never met. 

The famous Medora Musical, which was largely her creation, entertains more than 100,000 people per summer in a town of about 108 permanent citizens. To see the Musical with Sheila was to watch two shows: the Musical, and Sheila watching the Musical. Sheila's Musical was almost a contact sport: she whooped, hollered, cheered, teared up, clutched her heart during fireworks, shouted "Hi, Band!" when the musicians first took the stage, and then stayed afterwards to give words of encouragement to the cast and crew. Countless times sitting next to her in the fifth or sixth row, I have watched people come up to kneel before her--to say, "You probably don't remember me, but when my father was ill, you and Harold helped us out. . . . You may not remember me, but when I was working in Medora one summer, you brought me a ice cream bar on the hottest day of July, and said, good work, keep it up, and enjoy Medora!"

She pleased multitudes without ever seeming insincere. She laughed easily, often, and hard, and was able to laugh at herself without the slightest pride or reluctance.

The longer I knew her the more amazed I was: to be counted among her hundreds of friends; to witness her amazing anonymous acts of kindness and thoughtfulness; to observe her high intelligence and savvy analysis of situations near and far away; and to see what willful optimism can do to turn virtually any situation into joy and possibility.

Three times since I met her I have been told that she would die in the next 48 hours, and each time when Death came for her she sent him packing: not yet, not now. The last of these moments came more than five years ago! I had come to think of her as immortal, for her mighty and youthful spirit kept her alive long after her body had broken down. Finally, not even Sheila Schafer could prevail against the fragility of old age. She died with dignity. 

I will miss her more than I could ever say. She made the difference in my life these last ten years. My live would have been so much less without her. And though her legacy--adventures, stories, style, laughter, generosity of spirit--will live on in all who knew her, the simple fact is that my life will be so much less without her.

Recording Complete of the Audio Version of Becoming Jefferson’s People

A number of years ago I wrote a short book called Becoming Jefferson’s People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century. It is my attempt to describe what it is to be a Jeffersonian, and how a more Jeffersonian America would re-invigorate our national politics and culture.

A few weeks ago I recorded an audio edition of the book at Makoché Recording Studios in Bismarck, North Dakota. We are doing the last of the post-production of the book now. It will soon be available on

By “Jeffersonian,” I mean something like the following combination. A citizenry that reads books for pleasure and enlightenment; a more emphatic and committed public education system; a belief that “reason is our only oracle,” and that science should be permitted to shape (even dictate) public policy; a deep commitment to civility, generosity of spirit, epistolary correspondence, and harmony; growing some of one’s own food, if only a tomato and a patch of peas; a preference for temperance (wine) over intoxication; a deep and abiding curiosity; a commitment to international peace and non-violence; and an insistence that government should only do such things as it alone can do.

Read more here

The Signature Books of My Life

The most frequently asked question by people who come into my house is, “Have you read all these books?” And even though it is a natural and inevitable question, it is a question that so fundamentally misunderstands the life of the mind, the life of the reader, that I have a hard time not responding in sarcasm.

Review my list of primary texts here

Thomas Jefferson in Norfolk, VA, Next Week!

March 22 & 24

I cannot wait to return to Norfolk, Virginia, where I have performed Jefferson and other historical characters for the past decade or more. I love our east-coast flagship station WHRV/WHRO, and the people there who do so much for public radio and the humanities. I have close friends in the lower Chesapeake. The Roper Theater has been the venue of some of my favorite public performances. I hope you can attend one of two performances coming up in March 22 & 24.

For details, visit WHRO.

Volunteerism in the House that Harold Schafer Built

Last weekend my daughter and I drove out to see the Medora Musical for the first time this summer. It's always pure joy to sit in row G with the incomparable Sheila Schafer, now 90 years old (but going on 60!). When we were there she had already seen the Musical eight times this summer, but you would have thought she had just dropped in from Mars and was experiencing the show, the Burning Hills Amphitheater, and the badlands for the very first time. She laughed at every joke or gag as if she had not heard them repeatedly over the last three weeks. She jumped and clutched her throat when Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders shot their way up San Juan Hill. She cried over a sad country western song and when the patriotism climbed up towards tilt. If anyone could ever genuinely enjoy the Medora Musical more than Sheila Schafer does—and 30-40 times per summer—I have not met that person. 

Meanwhile, she performed her usual a whoopin' and a hollarin' routine from the stands, beginning with her ear-splitting salute, "Hi band!" when the Coal Diggers first appear on stage. People in our vicinity turn their heads to see who is making all the ruckus, but when they recognize that this is the famous Sheila Schafer, widow of the man who transformed the sleepy village of Medora into North Dakota's premier tourist attraction, they relax and smile knowingly. Sheila is almost as good a show as the Musical. Throughout the evening, people meander up the stairs nervously and kneel before her to tell her how she and Harold changed their lives some time long, long ago. "You won't remember me," says a woman in her sixties, but Harold put me through NDSU back in 1972, when my parents got a divorce." "You won't remember me, but you sent a gift to me in the hospital when I had that emergency surgery. And yet we had never even met."

She does remember.

Sheila is a living embodiment of the concept of grace. If grace is the love and benefit that come unearned, unexpected, and undeserved in life, when we least expect it, Sheila appears to exist to perform that role in the world. I have seen her write a note of appreciation to someone she has never met or heard of, but who was mentioned in the newspaper for having represented the Hettinger speech team at the national finals. "Congratulations! You've made all of North Dakota proud." Think of the effect of such an unlooked-for act of generosity--particularly in the heart of a young person just starting out in life.

The Harold and Sheila philosophy of life seems to inspire everyone who visits or works in Medora. Perhaps Harold put something in the water supply. He did, after all, build Medora's basic infrastructure in the 1960s. The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation (the heir to the Gold Seal Company) hosts an astonishing volunteer program, which this year will bring more than 600 people from all over the United States to spend 5-14 days in Medora—at their own expense. More than 1000 people from 23 states vied for the chance to come to Medora this summer to plant flowers, bus tables, sweep sidewalks, greet foursomes at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, work at one of the food stations at the Pitchfork Fondue, or hand out programs and point people to their seats at the Musical.

Why do they do volunteer? Because they love Medora and the badlands. Because they love what I call "the House that Harold built." Because they like the mix of innocence, family friendly entertainment, faith, patriotism, and optimism that Medora represents. Because they want to spend time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Because they are the kind of Americans who live to volunteer. Because they love Harold and Sheila Schafer, and all that they stand for. 

Someone close to me had a close encounter with the American medical system recently and was treated like a leper: rudeness, arrogance, dismissiveness, unnecessary pain, how do you intend to pay? But in Harold Schafer's Medora you never hear a rude remark and, if you do, that person will not be working there long. There is something at times a bit retro and corny about the Medora Musical, but that turns out to be one of its greatest charms. In an era of breathtaking change, including here in North Dakota, there is something very comforting in driving off the northern Great Plains into the badlands, into a kind of magic western frontier village where the old values and verities still have traction. When I see the TRMF's extraordinarily successful CEO Randy Hatzehbuhler running up and down the amphitheater steps selling popcorn, I just feel better about myself, my state, and my country, however silly that may sound.

The performers on that stage—the Burning Hills Singers, the Coal Diggers (band), Sheriff Bear, cowboy Lyle Glass, the Medora Trail Riders, and hosts Emily Walter and Bill Sorensen—dance and sing and play their hearts out night after night all summer long, in good weather and bad. And whatever the harshest critic may say of this dance or that joke, the performers are clearly having the time of their life, and the audience quickly leaves all their troubles aside and surrenders to the spirit of the place. Innocence still matters. When the North Dakotans in the cast are introduced, they get a roar of pride and affection. When Emily Walter (an Air Force veteran) asks all the veterans in the audience to stand, I choke up every time. Nor can I hear the North Dakota songs without covering my face and feeling a wave of joy, pride, nostalgia, and loss wash through me. Several of the key players on that stage have significant health issues, but you would never know it from the unrestrained exuberance and joyfulness of their performances. 

Meanwhile, back at the Rough Riders Hotel, my young Argentine friends Fecundo and Lucia (and all of their mates from 28 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states), work cheerfully through long shifts as if it were a privilege to spend their summers in Medora rather than a job. We have all experienced the sullenness of service employees in some of our national parks and in commercial stores and restaurants around the United States, and indeed here in North Dakota. But you never see that in Medora.

Why? The best answer I have is that the spirit of the founder, Harold Schafer, lives on. Randy Hatzenbuhler has done a marvelous job of keeping Harold's spirit at the center of every aspect of the Medora Foundation's mission. Another CEO might not have been able to do that, or even wished to. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the indomitable Sheila Schafer is now spending her 50th consecutive summer in Medora, on this, the 50th anniversary ofthe Medora Musical. If you ask her, she will tell you all about "my five terminal diseases," with joyful detachment, while she bakes 200 rolls for a family gathering or rolls out a pair of rhubarb pies, plays a couple of rounds of miniature golf, greets a parade of strangers on her front porch, or gets ready to whoop her way through another Musical performance under the moon and stars. 

Happy Golden Anniversary, Medora Musical. What would a North Dakota summer be without you?

Immigration Reform: Let's Start by Rewarding Those Who Play by the Rules

This is a parable about the promise and the paralysis of America. I was dining at the Rough Riders Hotel in Medora last week with Sheila Schafer. Her favorite waiter was serving us, a handsome and exceptionally friendly and well-spoken young man from Argentina. I'll call him Frank. He is here on a work visa, but he will soon have to return to Argentina to remain in compliance with American immigration law. His fiancé—I'll call her Lucy—is an energetic and graceful young Argentinian woman with a perfect spirit of hospitality. She, too, works in the hotel restaurant. They are a photogenic and charming couple just starting their life together.

They love America. They are ideal candidates for the American Dream. They would like to stay here permanently. "Lucy" and "Frank" would be ideal American citizens—hard working, self-reliant, law abiding, well informed, and more enamored with American ideals than many of us.

They will almost certainly not get to spend their lives in the United States, and it is extremely unlikely that they will become American citizens. The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation employs young people from several dozen countries. Most of them spend a couple of seasons here and then return to their native lands with stories to tell about the American West, and money in their pockets. A few wish to stay and cast their lot with us. It is almost impossible. The legal wranglings that would be necessary to try to help them achieve their American dream would cost tens of thousands of dollars, and there is no guarantee of success.

It took me about twenty minutes to write the three paragraphs you have just read. If it is true that approximately 10,000 illegal immigrants enter the United States every day, then 139 individuals have sneaked across our borders while I tapped out these words, and more than 500 entered the U.S. illegally while Mrs. Schafer and I dined on lobster bisque and lamb chops.

This is not good, not right, and decidedly not just.

Every nation has a natural right to set its own conditions of citizenship. This is fundamental to the idea of national sovereignty. Each nation develops a social contract: you are a citizen of X-Land under the following conditions; these are your rights as a citizen, and these are your responsibilities. Nobody requires you to show up on our shores, but if you do, you have to meet the conditions we have agreed upon or, with all due respect, you are not welcome here. And, by the way, you have to stand in line, for there are hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people around the world who want to live and work in the United States, and become naturalized citizens, and they are up ahead of you. Why should foreigners who respect the law and play by the rules wait—some for ten years or more, some forever—while those who begin their American journey by violating the law and cheating the system are rewarded?

I know it's a little more complicated than that. Extreme poverty makes people do desperate, sometimes heroic things. People flee oppression when they see no alternative. Certain American businesses—particularly labor-intensive agribusiness, the building trades, landscape services, and the hospitality industry—benefit from our porous southern border and are not eager for tighter immigration control. The staggering differential in prosperity and material blessings between the United States and its southern neighbors makes illegal immigration inevitable and irresistible. There are jobs that most homegrown Americans prefer not to do. It's a cruel paradox: the law of supply and demand lures illegals here—to the advantage of the American economy—and then we get to blame and exploit the most vulnerable human beings in our midst.

At some point the Congress of the United States is going to pass immigration reform. We've gotten close a couple of times, but the die-hards in the House of Representative are so insistent on the moral dimension (see above) that they forget that this is also an urgent practical issue that must be resolved. The McCain-Kennedy bill of 2005 was defeated by furious blow-back from those who are determined to destroy any plan that would permit the 11-20 million illegals in the country to be given legal status as permanent guest workers or de facto American citizens, even if they paid a $1500 fine (try enforcing that). Plans to round up and deport illegal immigrants may sound appealing to those who cannot transcend their sense of moral outrage, but that would be ruinously expensive, would almost certainly fail to achieve its ends, and would turn the United States into a police state. It also violates the basic humanity both of those who would be deported, and of those who would deport them.

I think we all know, deep below the rhetoric of outrage, that at some point we are indeed going to have to grandfather the millions of illegal immigrants in, whether we like it or not, while at the same time attempting to create a clean slate of better, more enforceable immigration protocols.

If a wall along our southern border is the only practical way to prevent people from Central America from infiltrating the United States illegally, I say build it, though the idea makes me feel a little icky for two reasons. First, it doesn't seem like a very attractive symbol of America. To my mind, it feels like something that belongs in the category of Guantanamo and the appalling Fourth Amendment violations of the NSA. It makes the whole country a gated community. Second, it feels like an act of desperation and moral feebleness, like Hadrian's Wall in northern England, up at the far extreme of the Roman Empire; or the fascistic-feeling walls that now slither through the no man's land between Israeli settlements and what's left of the Palestinian Homeland.

So the world's greatest "nation of immigrants" slams shut the door.

We would probably need to add a few new words to Emma Lazarus' magnificent sonnet, "The New Colossus" (1883), that graces the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor: "DON'T give me your tired, your poor, DON'T SEND
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, YOU TAKE CARE OF the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. DON'T send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: 
I lift AND GLEEFULLY EXTINGUISH my lamp beside the golden door."

Still, if a majority of Americans insist upon a wall along the Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona borders, if that is the deal-breaking condition for our finding it in our hearts to let most of the current illegals remain in the land they sought out to fulfill their dreams, then I say let's break ground.

But here is what I would like to insist upon when comprehensive immigration reform comes. We need to find a way to fast track an equal number (in other words millions) of people like Frank and Lucy, who have been standing in line for a very long time, who yearn to breathe our free, fabulous air, who yearn to contribute their talents to the economy and the culture and civility and creativity of America. Those who have played by the rules need to be celebrated and embraced, not punished, with a national apology for the years we have kept them waiting while we engage in pointless demagoguery about issues that in many respects are beyond human control.

We should give special honors to those who play by the rules.

Will It Ruin Your Day If I Use the Word "Snow Blower?"

July is almost gone. Any day now the box stores will carve out large spaces for school supplies. We all know what's coming—what every North Dakotan knows must come—and it makes us want to linger outdoors in the evening, makes us want to schedule more picnics, more hikes, more days at the lake, more time on the river, more afternoons in the badlands than we would think appropriate if this were southern California and summer lasted forever. We cannot afford to pace ourselves here. North Dakotans have to squeeze in an awful lot of recreation between July 1 and Labor Day. It's use it or lose it on the northern plains.

My daughter and I were in Medora last week to see the Medora Musical with the great Sheila Schafer, now enjoying her fiftieth summer in the badlands.

Sheila's husband Harold Schafer (1912-2001) started with nothing in life, worked like a demon, made what was then a vast fortune by marketing Glass Wax, Snowy Bleach, and Mr. Bubble, and then gave it all away—to worthy young people who needed money to go to college, to fledgling organizations and institutions across North Dakota, to perfect strangers for whom he felt instantaneous bursts of sympathy. But above all to the broken down little cattle town Medora, which he began to restore in the 1960s.

After he had rebuilt the Joe Ferris Store and the Rough Riders Hotel, Harold more or less inherited the Burning Hills Amphitheater when the NDSU outdoor melodrama Old Four Eyes broke down. At the time, the amphitheater was just plank boards and a rudimentary stage perched on a steep badlands slope. No seat backs. When it rained, the hillside oozed down onto the stage, and Harold and Sheila could be seen, along with Gold Seal's Rod Tjaden and whoever else was handy, shoveling mud and bentonite off the stage to clear the way for the show.

Harold decided that what Medora needed was a music and dance extravaganza—songs with a western feel, a little dollop of "Teddy" Roosevelt, a little gospel, a little humor, some serious patriotism, and a celebration of virtue and the work ethic. Harold brought reliable family entertainment to the badlands, derivative, during those first years, of the Lawrence Welk Show. In the middle of each show he wanted a visiting "act:" acrobats, clowns, comics, or—if the gods were smiling—a dog act, like one of Harold's perennial favorites, "Victor Julian and His Pets." Nothing like a dozen poodles in pink tutus.

In the early years, a crowd of 300 was seen as a "stunning success," but even to achieve that, Harold sometimes had to round up nurses or bank tellers in Bismarck, bus them at his own expense out to Medora, feed them along the way, and give them free passes to the show. If you think about it, it's an inherently insane idea: to try to get a thousand people per night to venture west to a village with a permanent population of around 100, for the purpose of seeing an outdoor song and dance show during North Dakota's brief temperate season. Only Harold Schafer could have cooked up such an improbable notion, and only Harold Schafer could have persevered to make it work. In 1992, the current version of the Burning Hills Amphitheater was built, with its wide stage, sets and backdrops worthy of Hollywood or Disneyland, a state-of-the-art sound system, and comfortable seats. All it needs to achieve perfection is a second escalator. Average summer attendance is now slightly more than 100,000.

The Musical is always good and sometimes great. But I doubt 1000 people per night would venture into the Bismarck Civic Center to see it. The magic of the Medora Musical is that in order to see it you have to sit in the open air on a summer night in the badlands. You begin the evening under blue skies and end it under the twinkling stars of the northern hemisphere. Before the show, I like to linger up on the Tjaden Terrace, where you can look to the south and see North Dakota's greatest butte, Bullion Butte, off on the horizon, and nothing but broken badlands in between.

As I sat there Tuesday night, next to two of my favorite people in the world, in shirtsleeves, with happy, relaxed, and happy people seated all around us, I had that sudden realization that we North Dakotans get, "Hey, I'm sitting outside at nine p.m. It's still light. There are no mosquitos. The temperature is absolutely perfect. I'm in my shirtsleeves." But gurgling through the lower reaches of my brain was the grim knowledge that there are really only about fifty such shirtsleeve days per year in North Dakota, about one in seven. There are at least four months per year (November-February) during which no amount of protective gear would be enough to keep you in am amphitheater seat for two hours, four more (October and March-May) when you'd be in a pathetic group huddle under parkas, stocking caps, mittens, and blankets, and the Burning Hills Singers would be blue, stiff, lurching stick figures, blown off the stage from time to time, slogging not clogging to the sound of music. Actually, I have experienced such an evening at the Musical, two years ago, and it was in late June!

September is arguably the most beautiful month in North Dakota. In an ideal world, the Musical would start on June 20 and continue to October 12. That's 114 temperate days, outdoor amphitheater days. If we lived by "Summer Savings Time" rather than Daylight Savings Time, and the North Dakota school system would agree to cooperate, we wouldn't have to roll up summer (boats, cabins, picnic and camping gear) on Labor Day, and effectively shut down our outdoor life a month early. We North Dakotans need to savor every temperate day we get. It's a shame to move life indoors prematurely, when there is still so much joy to be banked in anticipation of the first ground blizzard.

In the course of my life, I have seen the Musical at least 50 times, most of them with Sheila Schafer whooping next to me, shouting out "hi, band!," laughing, wiping away tears, dancing in her seat, and single-clapping, as if she were sitting in the amphitheater for the very first time. All I can say is it's quite a show—and so is the Musical. When she is in the house, all the performers bring their best game to the stage. It's impossible, I realize, not to be carried away by Sheila's youthfulness (at 89) and generosity of spirit, but I do honestly think this is the best Medora Musical ever. The talent of the Burning Hills Singers is more uniformly high than ever before. Chet Wollan just gets better every year, and he somehow fills that whole wide stage when he steps forward to sing. Candice Lively has a perfect Medora Musical voice. When she sings about North Dakota, I just well up in state pride every time. Host Emily Walter is so major a talent that it is amazing she is willing to spend it out here on the frontier. And Bill Sorensen's buffoonery never fails to make the audience groan with appreciation—what could be better than that?

It got dark a little sooner last night. By my calculation, we have just 36 days until Labor Day. That's when we fire up the snow blower, just to make sure.

Of Tawny Grass and the Medora Musical and a Perfect Summer Night

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.