Congratulations, Graduates, and Back Up Your Hard Drive

When I graduated from high school my parents bought me a portable typewriter. It was a brand new Hermes 3000 manual with a gray-green plastic body. It was a beautiful machine, and I used it for everything I wrote for the next 20 years. In fact, even now, one or two or three times per year, when I want to write something I regard as really important—a letter to a lost and found friend, a letter to my daughter about something that really matters, a letter to the governor—I get out my Hermes 3000 and hack away at it. There is something joyful and sensual in lining up two fresh sheets of paper and advancing them carefully over the platen, seeing if the mechanical Tab button still works to indent the date, and then staring at that blank sheet of paper while thinking about how to start. No delete button, or cut and paste feature, on a typewriter.

It always makes me a little sad, afterwards, to slide the cover over the machine and place it back on its special shelf.

I got a portable typewriter for graduation; my classmate Curt Pavlicek got a Corvette. I say this without undue bitterness, though I have managed to find a way to say at several times per year for 42 years in a row. And nothing makes me grumpier than some well-meaning friend who says, "But think of how much more use you got out of your typewriter than he from a car."

Wrong. And beside the point.

This is the time of the year (or was) when gift and stationery stores ran out of dictionaries and Cross pens. Probably some older people still give them as gifts, but they have essentially gone the way of Brylcreem and Burma Shave signs. I gave my last Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary to a high school graduate about ten years ago. He looked at me like I had given him a copy of the 1852 World Almanac for Albania or a rebuilt butter churn. In the age of spellcheck, the freestanding dictionary is regarded as a gift of desperation purchased by a fuddy-duddy who should have just written a check.

We all know that a dictionary is much more than a spelling guide. Free online dictionaries are so rudimentary as to be almost worthless. In his fascinating book, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester offers the following wonderful sentence: "A dictionary is the history of a people from a certain point of view." Almost no day goes by when I do not consult the dictionary—Webster's Third New International whenever possible. After I have opened it to my word, I invariably smooth the sheets several times as if I were touching a fine piece of mahogany or ivory. At earlier points in my life, when I had more leisure, I made it a rule to check the three words before and the three words after the one I had just looked up.

Try defining the following words: truth, north, soul, beauty. She who can do this is a genius.

Over the course of time, I've been asked to deliver the graduation address at a dozen or so colleges and high schools. I always say yes if my schedule permits, because I love the excitement in the auditorium. The proud parents, the snippy and sarcastic siblings, the odd little family "demonstrations" and cheering sections for the kid they reckoned would never graduate from anything. The graduate—usually a boy—who performs some pre-rehearsed trick on the stage: a somersault, a pirouette, the thrusting open of the gown to reveal a Superman t-shirt, a flat-on-the-floor genuflection to the college president. You can usually discern the families of the ones who are the first in their line to graduate from college. I find that very moving. It is such an important moment in the history of that family. My father, a grateful veteran, said the GI Bill of Rights was one of the greatest pieces of social legislation in the history of the United States. He and my mother were both the first.

When I give the graduation address, I always start by saying, "I am well aware that the only thing that now stands between you and your college degree is the knucklehead at this podium, so I will try to be brief." And for once I usually am. And I always start with a comic line from Woody Allen's "My Speech to the Graduates": "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." But in recent years people have not laughed at this so heartily as before, and I am thinking of retiring it until the next American Era of Good Feelings.

Graduation addresses are paradoxical things. First, nobody is really listening. You are just a kind of necessary "fill." I don't remember what anyone said at my graduations, or who they were, but I'm pretty sure they said, "today is the first day of the rest of your life," or "this is not an end, but a beginning." Second, the kind of people colleges get to deliver graduation addresses are usually successful workaholics who have devoted every waking minute to achievement, but who now say, "Make sure you take time for your heart. Relax more. Just laze about sometimes. Buy a skateboard. Don't just stop and smell the roses. Grow some roses." But wait, Mr. Jobs, if you had done that, would we have the iPhone?

Third, assuming the graduation speaker actually has any insight about life (doubtful), that wisdom came from a long and winding journey through the maze of life, with triumphs and failures and periods of doubt and self-destruction, from sudden visitations of unearned misfortune, but also from unearned victories. You can't have wisdom sprinkled on your soul by someone who flew in first class yesterday evening for the reception. You have to earn it through the adventure and pain of an authentic life. You can tell an 18-year-old 100 times, "cherish your parents, for you will be them in thirty years," but it doesn't mean much until you figure it out for yourself. You're probably better off giving more useful advice. "Always back up your hard drive." "Get out of your way." "The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places."

Fourth, nobody's listening.

When I left the country to study abroad for a couple of years, I asked my father, a brainy and thoughtful man, for his advice. He paused. And then he said, "Never kill a cop." He went on to explain, "If you kill a cop, you will be known as a cop killer, and all the cops on the beat will be after you." Actually, that is really good advice, the only advice that I can honestly say I have hearkened to in life, and so far it has worked out pretty well.

When I graduated from college, my father sent me a fabulous gift that could be contained in a stamped envelope. I opened it on graduation day at the University of Minnesota. I quote it in its entirety. "Dear Son, Your college experience has now cost your mother and me $17,345.67. Congratulations. Best wishes to you in your future endeavors."

Your was underlined.

Photograph from the Library of Congress, 3 June 1914.

A Video Bull Sale in the Heart of Rural America

A week or two ago I left work a little early and drove out to a ranch north of Wing, North Dakota, to attend a bull sale. When I told a colleague about it the day after my return, she laughed out loud (possibly even snorted) at what she regarded as the absurdity of an urbanized bookworm like me going to an authentic agricultural event. I was a little hurt by that. I tried to tell her that I have hauled my share of bales in my lifetime, and disked and cultivated thousands of acres, but she couldn't listen because she was walking away chuckling to herself.

I stopped in Wing briefly in hope of getting coffee and pie at the celebrated restaurant the Chat and Chew. I love rural nomenclature: Klassy Kuts; Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow; Toes & Tan; Tan-Tiffic (owner named Tiffany). But the Chat and Chew was closed (winter hours). So on I went.

The Vollmer Ranch is located where the rolling plains just begin to meet prairie pothole country. The meadowlarks sounded like they owned the territory, and the yard was filled with 75 pickups and trailers, with license plates from five or six states, including one from Missouri. This was a scene where a Ford F-150 would be regarded as a starter pickup.

I slipped into the sale barn as meekly as I could, because I had "stranger nerd" written all over me. I was one of the few not wearing cowboy boots and a shirt that started its retail life at Runnings, and I was I think certainly the only person in that barn not wearing blue jeans.

How can I describe the scene? It was a large red barn (a Morton building), with tables in the back covered with nice plastic tablecloths. Closer to the front there were risers on both sides, like the kind you would see in a small gymnasium. On the wall a large American flag, and about twenty feet away a bright yellow "Welcome to Bison Nation" flag. Near the doorway a spotlessly clean commercial refrigerator chock full of beverages. A card table with a wide range of cookies, bars, carrot cake, and other desserts, plus an endless box of purchased doughnuts, which one pre-adolescent boy in boots and hat did his best to tuck away.

Up in the booth (called the Block) were Sara and Troy Vollmer, she recording, he taking calls and talking to the auctioneer. Below them three giant screen televisions in front of the 50 or so folding chairs that were set up on the barn floor. This was a video bull sale. No bull ever entered the barn. Professional videographers had come several weeks before the sale to take high-resolution video of each of the featured bulls--walking, standing, drooling, glowering, exhibiting those parts for which they will be purchased. It has some of the feel of a video of a runway fashion show. A graphic on the bottom of the screen tells you the bull's sale number, which you then check against a glossy 24-page sale catalogue, which provides photographs of some (not all) of the bulls, and for each bull a series of data points that make no sense to me, but which explain their genealogy, birth date, birth weight, weaning weight, adjusted rib eye area, intra muscular fat content, and some data about their private parts that seemed a little personal.

The catalogue also has a thoughtful and generous welcome letter from Troy, with one color photo of his parents in front of a Christmas tree and another of Sara and Troy and their three daughters at Disney World. The three daughters look so innocent, hard working, cheerful, cute, and respectful, but with a hint of mischief, that it feels as if they were ordered from a 4H catalogue. Who would not want such children?

The auctioneer was a man named Roger Jacobs from Billings, Montana, but he has roots in southwestern North Dakota. He was absolutely perfect: tall, rail thin, straight as an arrow, in a crisp white shirt and a nondescript tie, with a big tan cowboy hat on his head. There was not an ounce of intra muscular fat on him. He looked like he might have been young Ronald Reagan's cousin twice removed. He was essentially all business, selling a bull on average every 24 seconds, but offering up a bit of commentary now and then ("This, folks, just might be the best bull in the yard," "This bull is ready to go to work"), and teasing some of the cattlemen he knew in the audience, "Ralph, I just know you are going to go ahead and buy something before the day's over!" It was a masterful performance. Among the buyers you could observe every form of bidding gesture known to man: the wink, the one-finger forehead touch, the big nod, the slight nod, the wrist tap, the "I know I'm payin' too much, but I'm going to do it I guess" smile. I was taking photographs from the hip, afraid to raise my camera to my eye lest I go home with "Rockytop 4199" in the trunk of my Honda.

I looked around at the hundred or so people who had gathered for the sale. Mostly men, most of them middle aged, strong, a little weathered and some a little gnarled up, men who have never been to a fitness club but who could lift and throw an elliptical training rig into the back of a pickup. Couples who have been together for a long time in isolated rural farms and ranches, sitting quietly side by side like the best sort of life partners. Some young men, bearded, studying the catalogue with a kind of wistfulness, trying to figure out what they can really afford just now. Half a dozen young women who look like they married a country boy before they quite thought it through and are still making the transition. Two or three young cowboys who have taken some trouble about how they look, with silk one-color neckerchiefs, and flattop cowboy hats, leaning back against the wall like characters out of a Marlboro ad, thumbs in their pockets. A big cattle buyer who exuded confidence in every possible way, whose slightest nod or grimace got the attention of the auctioneer. Weary older ranch women with one hand on their husband's shoulders.

There was such experience and character in their faces, such authenticity and integrity and self-reliance and rootedness that I choked up in the Vollmer sale barn and almost burst into tears. (I'm pretty sure that gets you booted out of the arena). Two weeks previously I had been sitting in the Church of the Gesu in Rome, the mothership of the worldwide Jesuit order, at the same hour of the afternoon, gazing at some of the most splendid Baroque artistry in the world. And now I was in the heart of the heart of America among no-nonsense agrarians who produce food for the rest of us, people who represent some of the very best of the American spirit.

That barn with those unself-conscious farmers and ranchers seemed profoundly removed from Syria and Afghanistan, from lower Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and pretty seriously removed even from Fargo and Bismarck and Grand Forks. I fell in love with North Dakota all over again.

And oh my the meal—brisket, a macaroni coleslaw salad, and a bean-bacon thing that just made you want to swear off health altogether.

When a Flying Drop Kick Still Won the Day for Truth and Virtue

Some days I feel like the luckiest man alive. Here, for example, is the kind of mother I have. We exchange notes a couple of times per week. Yesterday morning, after a week-long silence, I got the following text: "Verne Gagne has died." Nothing more. Almost Biblical in its simplicity. The minute I read those telegraphic words my mind drifted off into an adolescent reverie.

Four plus decades ago, every Saturday night for several years my friend Robert ("Brother") and I used to make a homemade pizza (All Star Pizza) at his house, and watch grown men in tights, in grainy and flickering black and white images, lumber and bellow around the Minneapolis Auditorium. The giants of the "squared circle" were Verne Gagne and Mad Dog Vachon (and his brother the Butcher), the flying Frenchman Rene Goulet, Pampero Firpo the Wild Bull of the Pampas, the very capable Kenny Jay, and Iron Man George Gadaski. And of course the evil genius of professional wrestling, Dr. X, who had deposited a $1000 certified check in a Minneapolis bank for anyone who could break the Figure Four Leg Lock (once properly applied).

That's a great mother.

Rest in peace, Verne Gagne. If there is an All Star Heaven, I feel certain you will break the Figure Four Leg Lock no matter how it is applied, and quite possibly unmask Dr. X for the first time. May the marvelous old announcer Roger Kent be on hand to say, "Oooh, I hate to see that hold," and "Ladies and Gentlemen, that hold is banned in many states." Or his signature line: "That's an arm bar with a twist—sounds like a drink to me!"

My grandmother was pretty certain professional wrestling was real, not fake. She was curious about Gagne's elixir Gera Speed, which she reckoned had made him a superman, but we never ordered it. Saturday nights on the farm in Minnesota, she and I would watch All Star Wrestling with the sound turned low, so as not to wake Grandpa who had to be up at four to milk the cows. But she would get so worked up by some ring infraction—the absolute worst thing you could ever do was gouge Gagne's eyes with a foreign object—that she would cry out in protest and slap her knee, and pretty soon Grandpa would appear in the doorway in his homemade pajamas either to rebuke us severely or to call us "damned fools" and make some grimacing gesture in imitation of Mad Dog Vachon.

Verne Gagne, dead at 89.

"Well, after all," said my mother on the phone later, "he was a very old man." Let's see: Gagne 89, Mother 83, admittedly a youthful 83. I resisted the impulse for a smart aleck response. She read me the account of his life and death from the Minneapolis Tribune, mispronouncing some of the names of his celebrated opponents. She was never a true initiate. She couldn't tell a half nelson from a side headlock if her life depended on it. But I do not judge her (Matthew 7:1).

Nostalgia is a strange thing. I suppose the author Doug Larson is right, "Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days." The years of All Star Wrestling were years of pain for me, which perhaps explains why I escaped every Saturday night to eat soggy, doughy peperoni pizza while watching grainy men in speedos bellow and gesticulate. It also explains why there were no dates.

My mother is one who is more likely to stride forward than look back, but she seems to be experiencing a wave of nostalgia these days. She reminded me on the phone last night that my father died 20 years ago this week, in the New Room of our house in Dickinson (still New in the family lexicon). I miss him every single day. Current events intrigued him. He could talk about whatever was passing in the world with insight and wit, and he always had his facts straight. You could not get him to watch All Star Wrestling with a cattle prod—apparently he had what are known as "human standards"—and since we had only one television, indeed one that required you to get up to change the channel, the voice of Roger Kent Ringside (as we called him) was never heard in our house.

When I was a child there was pro boxing on television on Saturday nights. My father would watch for a few minutes while reading the New Yorker in his favorite reading chair. For a few years there was also a Saturday night show called Have Gun Will Travel, starring Richard Boone as a gunslinger called Paladin. We had a special little funky family meal we invariably ate on Saturday nights. I'm sworn to secrecy about its contents, but I am permitted to divulge that it involved homemade hors-d'oeuvres, including, I'm sorry to say, Vienna Sausages.

After my call with my mother, I got out my first photo album to see how many All Star wrestlers I could identify. My parents gave me a 35mm camera for my 13th birthday—maybe the greatest gift of my life. They let me build a darkroom in a storage room just off the kitchen, and for the next four years I spent most of my free time knuckles deep in chemical (Dektol) and using what little cash I had to buy bulk 35mm film (Tri-X) and stiff yellow Kodak boxes of printing paper. My eccentric uncle Joe of Seattle gave me his darkroom equipment.

There was mystery in photography then, and craft, and ritual. Between the moment you snapped the photo (no auto focus, no auto aperture and shutter speed) and the time when you placed a dried print in front of another human being, there were several dozen discrete steps, involving total darkness, wire spools, a red darkroom light, chemical baths, paper cutters, framing wands, negative and print dryers. The process could break down at any point, and if your sister burst into the room to brush her teeth, the whole enterprise could be lost.

My little 5x7 homemade album contains some of the first hundred photos I took and printed. Talk about nostalgia. Pictures of our Schnauzer "Scamp" as a tiny puppy. Pictures of an unhappy family vacation in Winnipeg. My father reading in his chair. My mother in the 70s: big glasses and big hair. My confirmation: me, impossibly young and innocent, wearing pants I had grown out of, my sponsor Robert Burda looking sponsory. Photos of Robert (Brother) with his Dalmatians. A photo of the Ole Reb yodeling reveille at KFYR. My first ham radio kit.

A photo (one of hundreds taken) of our round television screen, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around the moon: July 20, 1969, affixed with yellowing Scotch tape to the page, with my youthful handwriting, all patriotism and techno-pride: "Man Walks on the Moon!!!"

And there he is, Verne Gagne, undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World standing near the turnbuckle in the Trinity High School gym in Dickinson, legs spread in triumph, looking handsome and virile and, well, pretty angry (through his smile), while on his knees before him is Mad Dog Vachon, arms stretched out in supplication, begging for his sorry life.

Godspeed Verne Gagne.

May your cape be newly dry-cleaned, and your entrance fees be paid.

The Death of Ivan Doig Leaves a Vacuum in Plains Writing

I was so sorry to learn that Ivan Doig has died—another great blow to Great Plains literature. First, back in November, Colorado's great Kent Haruf died, the author of Plainsong (1999), and now Doig, who was 75 and living in Seattle. Doug is the author of 16 books, mostly set in central or eastern Montana. People who love all of his work get into arguments about whether his best book is the novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987) or This House of Sky, his 1979 memoir.

In each case we will have the consolation of a posthumous book. Haruf's Our Souls at Night is due to be released in May. Doig's Last Bus to Wisdom is due out on August 18. I've pre-ordered them both. Doig and Haruf were two of the giants of Great Plains literature. My plan now is to read all of Doig's books that I have so far overlooked.

Doig had a beautiful, quiet, brooding prose style, understated, but more powerful because he was not straining to capture the Great Plains and Intermountain West in one magnificent paragraph of purple prose. He understood that the kind of people who pioneered the farm country of Montana were strong, rough, sexist, pragmatic; basic in their outlook but with a lot more going on in their souls than they had access to on most days. Drink was the way they coped, or coped when prayer and hard work weren't sufficient, and drink was the magic key that opened the door to all that was dark and unresolved in their lives. In reading Doig you get a sense of what it took to make Montana (or any Great Plains state), and you cannot help wonder if we, the great, great grandchildren of those "giants in the earth" have enough of the right stuff to take things to the next level.

A number of years ago, Doig described his muted but poetic prose style: "My eight or nine published poems," he wrote, "showed me that I lacked a poet's final skill; the one Yeats called closing a poem with the click of a well-made box. But still wanting to work at stretching the craft of writing toward the areas where it mysteriously starts to be art, I began working on what Norman Maclean has called the poetry under the prose—a lyrical language, with what I call a poetry of the vernacular in how my characters speak on the page."

The poetry under the prose. You can hear it in this short passage from Doig: "It came to me more as a whisper of suggestion than the fundamental adage that it is - if this is not biblical, I shall always believe it should be - that all of us need someone who loves us enough to forgive us despite the history." You can feel the melancholy in that, and some resignation. Doig understood that if we concentrated too much on "the history," we'd have to walk away from almost everyone we know, and vice versa.

I remember reading This House of Sky twenty years ago with the shock of recognition that comes when you discover that a major artist is writing about your world. I was living on a farm in Kansas at the time, in a village so tiny that the vast plains just ate you up. When you drove the section line roads or even the asphalt farm to market roads through that country, you almost had an out of body experience, almost could see your pickup from high above, as from a blimp, as it threaded its way on the long straight roads trailing dust through the endless undifferentiated countryside. There was so much sky in every direction, with thunderheads beginning to gather up out on the western horizon, so much flat or gently rolling land, dotted here and there with abandoned farmsteads, and every few miles a broad new ranch style farm house with fifteen cars. That was a perfect setting for reading This House of Sky. Doig's prose is the kind that makes you ache—for all that you have lost, for all that is inevitably lost, for the ways in which humans, no matter how intimate, work at cross purposes and damage each other's lives. You ache too to be in the presence of someone who gets what you get about the strange improbable landscapes of the Great Plains. Someone who loves this place enough to grace it with the incredible discipline (and gift) of a book.

Landscape is always effectively one of the characters in a Doig novel. Montana has that effect. For Colorado's Haruf the sweep of the high plains of eastern Colorado is just the backdrop of special futility in which the dark lives of his characters blunder their way through struggles and bewilderment. Once he has given you Holt, Colorado, (based largely on Yuma, out on the eastern plains), and you have absorbed how little it promises to anyone who grows or turns or washes up there, Haruf concentrates on the sad and bewildered story he needs to tell.

You cannot think about those great writers without feeling sad about the state of North Dakota literature. We have no Doig or Haruf. Our greatest living writer, in my opinion, is Larry Woiwode, but he hasn't written a book for a very long time that attempted to wrestle Dakota life to the ground. His magnum opus, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, was devoured when it first appeared in 1975, not only because we all realized that it was a serious book written about us, but that it was also a true work of literature and something more than a just a good regional novel. That has both helped and hurt Beyond the Bedroom Wall. My sense is that it is not read nearly as much as it deserves these days. I like all of Woiwode's more recent work, particularly Acts: A Writer's Reflection on the Church, Writing, and His Own Life (1993), but what I naturally want from so enormous a talent is another run at the Great North Dakota Novel.

Louise Erdrich is our other greatest writer, in my view. I love her work and envy her amazing talent. I think her work carries with it a great moral imperative, that we (she) give voice to the lives and loves and struggles and stories of Native Americans, that what for most North Dakotans remains essentially an "invisible culture" receive the artistic and public attention it deserves. My slight quarrel with Louise Erdrich is that she chooses not to live among us; we need her, to inspire young writers, to testify before the legislature, to speak out on public questions, to block—thanks to her grace and dignity and modesty—cultural setbacks in white-Indian affairs that happen when homogenous cultures forget to look around to see all the other people in the room.

But where are our Ivan Doigs, our Kent Harufs, our Willa Cathers, our Mari Sandozes, our William Kittredges, our James Welches, our Linda Hasselstroms, our Dan O'Briens, our Larry Watsons? I know a number of North Dakota writers and poets, and admire them, but what we need now is our first next major work of North Dakota literature.

Someone who will have the creative horsepower and Great Plains life experience to write a sentence like this, Doig's, "The nature of love is that it catches you off guard, subjects you to rules you have never faced, some of them contradictory."

Bestriding the Mighty Mississippi at 33 Degrees Fahrenheit

Last weekend, I had some time off during a work visit to Bemidji, so I drove down to Itasca State Park to see the source of the Mississippi River. I suppose I have been there half a dozen times in my life, but never during the off season. It was a lovely windy spring day in northern Minnesota: temperature 40, winds gusting up to 25 mph. When I arrived at the visitors' center, there were only four cars parked in a lot worthy of a theme park or stadium. The other folks were there to walk their dogs.

The source of the Mississippi was established in 1832 by a geographer and ethnographer named Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1846). He had first ventured into the maze of interlocking lakes and streams of the upper Mississippi basin in 1820-1821, under the leadership of Lewis Cass, on an expedition designed (among other things) to determine the boundary between the United States and Canada. That expedition had decided that the source of the Mississippi was Upper Red Cedar Lake, which it dutifully if unimaginatively renamed Cass Lake.

Henry Schoolcraft was a serious student of Indian cultures. He would go on to write a massive six-volume collection called Indian Tribes of the United States. That study, published 1851-1857, is still one of the most important ethnographic works in American history. During his wanderings in the Cass Lake area, Schoolcraft was informed by an Ojibwe leader named Ozawindib that it was possible to find waters flowing into the Mississippi upstream from Lake Cass. With the help of Ozawindib and his family and followers, Schoolcraft pressed on in light craft over shallow winding waters, with great difficulty and much portaging, until he arrived at the place where today's Lake Itasca (then known as Elk Lake) spills over a little lip into a modest streambed.


Schoolcraft had found the true source of the mighty Mississippi River, 2,321 miles from its mouth below New Orleans, inscribing a watershed of 1,151,000 square miles. If you include the Missouri, the Missouri-Mississippi River ranks as the fourth longest river in the world; taken alone, it ranks about 15th.

Thank goodness Schoolcraft kept his ego in check and did not decide to name the source after himself. In other words, he had more class than Cass. Aware of the monumentality of the moment—he had solved one of the world's short list of geographic mysteries—he decided to call this spot the True Source, but in Latin, the language of learning. So he wrote out the Latin words Veritas (true) and Caput (head or source). (This may have been the suggestion of his traveling companion, the Reverend W. T. Boutwell.) Later in his life, Schoolcraft decided that Veritas Caput was too prosaic, too Linnaean, for a site of such romance and geographic significance, so he "Indianized" his Latin nomenclature. He saw that it was possible to clip the Latin phrase at both ends to form a more exotic place name: ver-Itasca-put. Itasca. The name has stuck.

Caught up in the flow of his own copious imagination, Schoolcraft later even wrote a poem, in the manner of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, about an Ojibwe woman named Itasca! You may think I'm making all of this up, but this is one of those moments in the history of exploration wherein truth is stranger than fiction. I knew some of this before last weekend, but I learned a great deal by wandering slowly through the excellent interpretive center at Itasca State Park. Already, I have ordered several books by and about Schoolcraft.

The quest for the sources of the world's principal rivers was one of the obsessions of the Second Great Age of Discovery (1768–1858). At precisely the same time Scottish explorer Mungo Park was searching for the source of the Niger in west Africa in 1805-06, Zebulon Pike was half-heartedly searching for the source of the Mississippi (Leech or Cass Lake, thought he), and America's greatest explorer Meriwether Lewis was searching for the source of what he called the "mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River." Pike died in the War of 1812. Mungo Park was killed by natives in Africa. Lewis committed suicide three years after his return from his fabulous transcontinental journey. Maybe this source-hunting thing is not such a good idea.

You can get a sense of the mythological grandeur the Enlightenment attached to source-hunting by studying Meriwether Lewis's journal entry for August 12, 1805. "At the distance of 4 miles further the road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights. thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years, two miles below McNeal had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri."

I believe this was the proudest moment of Lewis's life. My view is that Lewis's deepest passion was to bestride the previously unknown source of the Missouri River, and that the rest of the expedition's journey to the shore of the Pacific was less interesting to him, and much less satisfying. Indeed, Lewis had to travel hundreds of miles off what Jefferson called "the most direct and practicable" route to the Pacific to get to the source of the Missouri, and once he got there, he had to endure almost endless difficulties in getting back to a place (Missoula) where a trail would take his exploration team through the Rocky Mountains (the Bitterroots).

But here's the rub. Nobody any longer believes that Lewis's Trail Creek just this side of Lemhi Pass in Montana is the source of the Missouri River. Officially, the source is listed as Three Forks, where feeder tributaries the Gallatin, the Madison, and the Jefferson flow together northwest of Bozeman, Montana, to form the "Missouri proper." But if you want to get picky about it, the Veritas Caput is now said to be at Upper Red Rocks Lake southeast of Dillon, Montana, on the Wyoming, Montana border. I have been there with a high-ranking official of the North Dakota higher education system. I realized that he shared my sense of the solemnity and majesty of the site, some 3,902 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, when he said: "Yep. This would be a marvelous place if there were no mosquitoes."

Nowadays, with our more sophisticated sense of how watersheds work, we know that there is almost never a single "source" for any river, just as there is seldom a single "mouth." At both ends of their sinuous adventures, rivers tend to divide into tributaries, steams, creeks, and rivulets—into a grand maze of capillary feeders, no one of which can accurately be called the source of the river. At the Gulf end, the Missouri-Mississippi fragments into a wild capillary no man's land; and way up at the Rocky Mountain "source," it fragments into hundreds of rivulets, any one of which one might bestride to thank her or his God.

At Itasca, after I made sure that nobody was looking, I took off my shoes and socks and strode (actually it was more like winced and whined) across the Mississippi River. Twice. And I thanked God that I have a career that enables me to do really unwise things. Blue feet in a blue river under blue skies.

Easter in the Rain at St. Peter's Square


My various work projects had been so demanding that Easter 2015 had hardly even entered my mind before I boarded flights for Rome last Friday. I had no way of knowing that this would be the most intense Easter of my life.

Shortly after landing at Rome's Fiumicino airport on Easter eve, I found myself watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) with a dozen deeply devoted Catholic college students. I had never seen The Passion before, and I can affirm that I will never watch it again. In its own way the film's depiction of the last twelve hours of Jesus' life is gripping, but it is so unrelentingly and graphically violent that I had to cover my face a number of times just to get through it. It seemed to me that no body could ever endure so much grotesque physical abuse, that if Jesus had actually been subjected to the kind of torture depicted in the film, he would never have lived long enough to be crucified.

There are paradoxes here. We know that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities after being whipped and scourged and beaten. The Romans were ruthless about such things. So the depiction in The Passion of Christ is probably more realistic and historically accurate than we like to think. And—I get it—the point of Mel Gibson's film is to make us just as uncomfortable as possible without driving us out of the theater. How can we understand God's decision to make himself suffer the ultimate human degradation unless we have something like a real understanding of what that must have involved by way of physical and mental suffering?

As I watched The Passion in horror, I realized that my idea of the crucifixion has always been pretty vague and mythological. Whenever I have stood before Michelangelo's stunning Pieta in St. Peter's—one of the world's supreme works of sculpture—I have never once stopped to recognize that by the time Mary held her dead son in her arms, Jesus' body was torn in every way, pierced by a spear, whipped and scourged right down to the ribs, bloody, bruised, swollen, and profoundly disfigured. The perfection and artistic serenity of Michelangelo's treatment removes the bloodlust from the story, and lets us concentrate instead on the pity of the crucifixion, and even the divine dignity of it, rather than its sickening violence. I give Gibson credit for that—he made the torture and execution of Jesus real for me for the first time.

Too real. The film's obsession with graphic violence felt gratuitous to me. It turned my stomach rather than deepened my understanding of the sacrifice. I could not sleep for many hours, but during that time I was not praying to God or Jesus in praise or sorrow, I was just sick at heart at man's ingenuity in meting out pain to his fellow man.

One more note about the film. Just as Jesus began to climb the steep hill of Golgatha, carrying a cross that even a healthy man would have had trouble hoisting up the trail, a real thunderstorm broke over Rome. We all jumped from the unexpected flash of lightning, and exchanged nervous glances. The last forty minutes of The Passion were, for us, accompanied by a kind of angry orchestral thunderstorm.

On Easter Sunday we got up at first light to hasten by city bus to St. Peter's Square. An audience of more than a million pilgrims was expected. If we had any expectation of getting seats close to the platform on which Pope Francis would celebrate the mass, or for that matter to get any seats at all, we had to get to St. Peter's three full hours ahead of time, and then jostle our way to preferred seating once the security team began to let people pass through the magnetometers. At times it felt more like a badly organized Super Bowl than a Papal mass at the Vatican, but the students I was with were savvy and ready to forge their way (politely but unhesitatingly) to excellent seats. I do not exaggerate when I say that there were elderly nuns in the crowd who locked arms and surged forward like a Greek phalanx. People come from all over the world for this sacred occasion.

When we took our seats, about ten rows back from the protective fence, it had begun to drizzle. Just three hours to go! Then it began to rain. Then it began to rain hard. Then it began to rain cats and dogs. I had brought a couple of books in my backpack to occupy the long wait before the mass began, but they would have been ruined in minutes if I had pulled them out. By eight a.m. the crowd entirely filled the vastness of St. Peter's Square and spilled over blocks deep in every direction. Just two and a quarter hours to go! As far as I could tell there was roughly one umbrella for each hundred people at the Vatican. If ever there was a moment that called for a loaves and fishes miracle, this was it. The number of umbrellas did actually seem to increase over time, but it rained well more than an inch Easter morning, perhaps two, and no matter how many umbrellas interlocked to create a kind of ad hoc pilgrim's awning, that water had to go somewhere. The net effect was not to keep us any dryer than we would have been bareheaded, but to concentrate the flood into icy rivulets that suddenly ran off the umbrella ahead of you (or behind you) and down your back.

By the time the mass began at 10:15 a.m. we were as wet and cold as it was possible to be, sitting in cheap plastic chairs that had become shallow pools of rain water, trying to get a glimpse of the Pope, or anything at all for that matter, through the sea of brightly colored umbrellas. We were about as close to Pope Francis as it was possible to get, and yet we could neither see him nor even see the giant Jumbotron that televised the event. Most of the students had begun to shiver, sodden with rain, chilled by wind, with the temperature at about 40 degrees.

Nevertheless, almost everyone who had come to St. Peter's Square stayed—because it was Easter, because individuals had ventured, at great expense, from all over the planet to experience this moment, because (we all had to feel) what's a little discomfort in the face of Jesus' agonies? We stayed, too, because we were in the presence of Pope Francis, who has in his remarkable ministry struck an unusually strong chord with the peoples of the world. My group stayed also because Tom Schulzetenberg, the director of UMary's Rome program, had been given the high honor of reading a short text to almost a million pilgrims.

Hours later, once we had gotten out of our soggy clothes and showered for a very long time, we broke bread together back at the Rome campus. I had smuggled in jelly beans and chocolate eggs and Jello from Dakota. Jello, it turns out, doesn't perform very well outside of its home court. Here in Rome it was just a dark red slurry on our plates.

This was the Easter I will never forget.

St. Peter's and the Vatican, Rome. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. 1750. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

So Now We Wait for the First Thunderstorm

Sometimes in North Dakota when we get through winter, there is a puny little mini-spring that lasts a few days or a week, and suddenlyseemingly overnightit is summer. As we all know, summer doesn’t mean quite the same thing here that it means in other places. There are very few hot or even lovely Memorial Days in North Dakota, and it can be windy, chilly, and grey right up to the end of June. This year we are getting a genuine spring with variable weather and lots of blowsy wind. That makes me happy.

I’ve been recording my observations.

Thursday, March 12First shirtsleeve day of the year. In mid-March! I walked six miles at 5 p.m. and did not take even a jacket with me. That’s an act of trust this time of year but it worked out. Precisely one week ago, same time, same walk, it was below zero. The low on March 5th was minus 8. The high today plus 72. That’s an 80-degree difference in one week. When I walked the same trail a week ago I wore a parka, mittens, a stocking cap, and a scarf, and seriously thought of turning back after the first mile. My legs were numb.

Friday, March 13I walked my long walk reading a book. I do this because I love to read and walk, walk and read, but there are vehicles that go by that seem to regard this as either a physical impossibility or a parlor trick. A car bursting with teenage testosterone (six young men celebrating spring) flashed by and a boy shouted “@#XX% freak!” I waved in good humor. But at some point, no matter how absorbing the book, I close it firmly so that I can walk twenty minutes and just drink in the magnificence of the plains. Endless blue skies in every direction.

Monday, March 23My first meadowlark of the year. I’ve been waiting impatiently. It was five miles south of Bismarck, east of the Missouri River. Ten days ago someone posted on Facebook a meadowlark siting (hearing) in southwestern North Dakota. That evening, I broke an engagement to take my walk in hopes of hearing my first of the year. But no. Normally one sits on the power lines across the road from the trail singing the pure liquid song of the meadowlark--to celebrate life or seek a mate or protect territory, I’m not quite sure. But lustily. I was really disappointed that evening to come home empty-handed. The great meadowlark Chanticleer that used to live in my back yard, and return each year, has decided my neighborhood is a little too domesticated now (I think so too), and sought leaner pastures. I loved that yellow bird, and called back to it with a variety of meadowlark imitations, hoping to start a dialogue. I’ve been able in my life to talk with coyotes, in more or less their language, but never with a meadowlark.

Meadowlark numbers are down throughout the Great Plains. I know it sounds odd, maybe stupid, but my life would be seriously diminished without meadowlarks in it. They bring a kind of grace to our lives. They are a signature species of the Great Plains. They remind us that no matter how civilized we get, how mediated by screens and devices and in-doorsness, we share the planet with a range of wild creatures who are indifferent to our little sad dramas, and live their lives with as little contact with us as possible. There is hope in that.

The same evening I heard my first meadowlark I watched two vees of geese circle over a fallow field east of the Missouri. They were honking to beat the band. The two separate migration teams seemed to be barking at each other in anger. I don’t know if they were competing for the field (it was near dusk), or just somehow Trojan geese versus Greek geese, but it was hard to believe they could need to compete for airspace in one of the planet’s most open skies. Geese seldom fly in perfect vee formation. There are always stragglers madly flapping to catch up to the group, honking a kind of “wait up!” plea. I suppose there are whiners and malingerers among animals just as there are among humans (bipedal animals). I wonder if, once they land for the night, the alpha goose seeks out the losers and pecks them into compliance.

Thursday, March 26I drove from Bismarck to Bemidji, Minn. Very little snow in central and eastern North Dakota. Unless there are freak soaking rains, the Red River won’t flood this year. I always try to remember to observe the Continental Divide sign between Jamestown and Valley City (1,490 feet), but I usually miss it in my daydreaming. I’ve bestridden many spectacular continental divides in the United States, but for some reason this one really delights me, because it is so improbable. It’s near mile marker 275. On the west side, the James, Missouri, Gulf of Mexico basin2 feet to the east, the Sheyenne, Red, Hudson’s Bay basin. Sometimes I stop to take a photograph of it, I’m not sure why, because it is always the same photographgreen sign, fence, long green shoulder grass undulating in the wind.

You descend into the Red River Valley (the bed of ancient Lake Agassiz) without thinking about it, and then at some point you marvel at how perfectly flat the terrain has become. If you know what you are looking for you can see a series of beach edge remnants on the west side. But when you push through into Minnesota, the coming out of the Red River Valley is more dramatic than the coming in. Somewhere near Hawley, the land climbs up into wonderful roller coaster undulations. Minnesota’s rolling hill country between Detroit Lakes, Minn., and Fergus Falls, Minn., is among the most picturesque farm country in America. Barns with traditional silos in every direction. Here is true prairiethe meadow lands “between the trees.” And suddenly, somewhere near Park Rapids, birch trees begin to dominate the landscape. It’s all astonishingly beautiful. It’s amazing that the Red River divides two such dramatically different landscapes in such tight proximity. I love North Dakota with all of my heart, but there is no doubt why Minnesotans look down on us as occupants of a treeless, empty, and windswept landscape. Which is what I love most about it.

“Plains” is such an inadequate word. It has hurt our image in the national consciousness. For most people the word evokes emptiness and comparative flatness and a kind of homogeneous dreariness. Even “desert” has better associations in the national consciousness than Great Plains. But, as we say, there ain’t nothing to do about it.

So here comes April. Lewis and Clark experienced their first mosquito of the year on April 9, 1805, just west of Fort Mandan. I haven’t seen a crocus (pasqueflower) yet this year. It’s always a tight window of opportunity to kneel down in the grasslands to revere the most delicate, and I think most beautiful, of Great Plains flowers. If I miss seeing them I always feel that I have lost control of my life, and the glory of the North Dakota year is diminished.

But what I am waiting for most is the first thunderstorm of the year. That magnificent moment is what tells us that summer is not far off.

With Lewis and Clark at the Cross Ranch as Spring Returns

March 15, 2015

The weather last weekend was so lovely—sixty degrees and light wind in early March—that I forced myself away from several projects and went in search of the open air. I've been walking the city trail in my neighborhood, but that seemed too wimpy for a day of such perfect spring weather. So I grabbed a camera and a bar of chocolate and drove up ND 1804 on the west side of the Missouri River. 

I like the west river road (1804) better than the eastern version (1806) because it is mostly unpaved, it goes through rougher terrain, and someone it feels more like western North Dakota. The great John Steinbeck, crossing the Missouri River on October 12, 1960, said, "Here is the boundary between east and west. On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side it is pure west, with brown grass and water scorings and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart." That's precisely how ND 1804 feels after you pass through the last of the settlements north of Mandan.

I climbed a butte in hopes of watching the orange full moon rise over the Missouri River, but I soon thought better of it for a range of reasons, and drove up instead to Cross Ranch State Park. The grand old stand of cottonwood trees there is magnificent even in the winter. The walking trails are excellent. I like to gaze at the Art Link cabin in silent reverence to one of the great men of North Dakota history. The mighty Missouri eases right in to the edge of the giant cottonwoods.
If I couldn't have these experiences, wandering aimlessly through North Dakota, drinking in the beauty and the subtlety of the great emptiness and the great silence, I wouldn't want to live here anymore. When I was growing up in western North Dakota you could wander just about anywhere with impunity. The sense back then was that if you were dumb enough to venture off the grid, you were probably a harmless pilgrim who knew enough not to leave gates open or light a fire in the grass or spook the cattle. In some interesting ways the state was a kind of "commons." That kind of innocent hospitality has been slipping slowly away for many years, but the sudden industrialization of our landscape has greatly accelerated it. There is a landowner uptightness now that is as sad as it is surely justified. 

Last Sunday was one of those gray spring days at the end of the winter just before the lifeforce begins to poke new life through the dead leaves, and to extrude fragile pale green feeder leaves through the seemingly dead twigs of the massive cottonwoods. The ground cover was drab and brittle—on the color spectrum from charcoal to an anemic looking yellow. The sky was mostly gray-black. A front was moving through from west to southeast—low menacing lenticular clouds that appeared to be only a few feet above the canopy of the trees. I could see the western edge of the front as if it had been cut with a breadknife, and the sky beyond it was blue with the purity of a Biblical painting. The river was wide, sullen, silent, making a big sweep past Cross Ranch. 

I wondered for a few minutes whether it would be possible to walk across the river. It was still covered with ice. I could not see any open water. Lewis and Clark's men used to walk across the river routinely during their five-month stay with the Mandan. Fort Mandan was on the eastern side of the river. The principal Mandan village Mitutanka was just over on the west side of the river, less than four miles away. Occasionally the captains and with great frequency the enlisted men ventured over to Mitutanka for off-duty entertainment. It's common to assume that what the men wanted was sex with native women—and surely some of that occurred—but my sense from the journals is as often as not they just wanted some social variety, a meal other than the now-standard roast buffalo of their military diet, a glimpse of domesticity in an earthlodge, a few hours in a community that was rooted here for the duration, not merely passing through on a heroic mission. I think many of the men were lonely for back home in Ken-tuck and Pennsylvania and they sought comfort in the stable family life of their Mandan hosts. 

I did not walk across the river. Glug glug.

By this time in 1805 (mid-March), Lewis was all hepped up to get back on the road. He was a naturally impulsive, impatient, self-punishing man with a deep fixation on mission. The expedition was supposed to have reached the Rock Mountains in the first year of travel. The Corps of Discovery stopped for the winter in North Dakota for one simple reason. The Missouri River froze up. Their highway was closed. That Lewis and Clark wintered with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians was more or less a wonderful coincidence. The Missouri froze shut a few days after they started building their winter quarters in early November and the ice broke up on the river on March 25, 1806, just two weeks before they pushed on into the great unknown. In other words, they traveled in 1804 as long as the road conditions let them, and resumed their journey more or less the minute the road re-opened the following spring. In the journals I can feel Lewis's impatience and urgency.

As I stood on the edge of the river looking as far in both directions as I could, I realized that if you plopped Captain Lewis back down next to me in the spring of 2015 he would recognize the landscape as essentially unchanged. That's one of the greatest things about North Dakota. Far off to the north I could just see the water tower of Washburn and a few yard lights. To the south, nothing but primeval Missouri River country all the way to the vanishing point. Across the river, a few sad looking wooden buildings not much larger than shacks. 

Had Lewis been there with me, he would have wondered where all the 4,500 Mandan and Hidatsa folks had gone (and might presume the worst, given the evidences of smallpox he saw in 1804-06). He would have noticed that the river is wider, clearer, and more channelized than when he slipped through. But the honking of the geese would have brought back waves of memories of his long winter at the Great Bend of the Missouri. The marvelous muted shades of tan and drab and ice blue and sky blue would have been just what he remembered. And the great silence of the north.

He'd be fretting that he had promised President Jefferson a significant report—and such scattered notes as he had in his possession were not going to make that possible.

Let's Not Paint Islam with a Broad Dark Brush

The appalling and barbaric activities of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL), coupled with the recent murders in France and increased terrorist threats worldwide, have unleashed a very widespread Islamophobia, particularly in the United States. President Obama has been severely criticized for refusing to identify this wave of barbaric activity as "Islamic." Turn on any television talk show and you can now hear commentators saying that there is something dark and demonic at the very heart of Islam and the Koran that seeks to torture and destroy the "Infidel" indiscriminately; that Islam seeks worldwide dominion (a renewed Caliphate); that Muslims are natural terrorists and the sooner we all realize this the more likely we are to keep our heads.

This is paranoia. And dangerous nonsense.

Don't get me wrong. I know there are thousands, even hundreds of thousands of radical Muslims worldwide, perhaps even a few millions, who are determined to attack non-Muslims (Jews, especially Zionists; Israel; Christians in "Islamic" lands; the secularists of western Europe; and the Great Satan itself, the United States). Some of these radicals operate inside the United States. More are trying to come. Some are embedded in our military. They are perpetrating their sadistic crimes in the name of a certain strain of Islam, and they are finding justification for their thuggery in they way they interpret some verses in the Koran.

Even though the American people are suffering from severe Middle East fatigue, and we are heartily sick of the nightmare of that portion of the globe (a nightmare we have helped to create and exacerbate), I believe we are going to have to find the resolve to join a coalition of other civilized nations, including Jordan and Iran, to crush ISIS and its cousins with whatever force is necessary to make them disappear. If we do not, we are likely to pay a severe price at home and abroad.

But we should not regard ISIS as Islam any more than we should regard the Irish Republican Army as Ireland.

You would think it would need hardly be said that the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide, something approaching 99.99%, are perfectly peaceful people going about their lives in ways startlingly similar to the way we go about our lives. They live in houses. They cook meals. They visit shops to buy what they need. They love their children and want the best for them. They attend religious services. They engage in sport. They are as appalled by ISIS as we are, and nearly as bewildered.

It would be a tragic mistake for us to paint all Muslims with a broad, bigoted, intolerant, and reductionist brush. When Timothy McVeigh brought down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, we did not brand all people of the rural heartland as anarchists and kooks, even though thousands of peaceful and law-abiding people shared some of McVeigh's critique of the government of the United States. Just because some thousands of Mormons (or rather, people of Mormon heritage) practice polygamy, and thousands of monogamous Mormons feel sympathy with that practice, we don't brand Mormonism as a polygamous religion. Al Capone was a gangster. He was not Chicago. He was not capitalism. He was not America. Just because the Reverend Pat Robertson said that the 9-ll attacks were God's retribution for abortion, homosexuality, and separation of church and state, we don't dismiss all evangelical preachers as out of touch with basic reality. ISIS is not Islam. It is a tiny virulent strain of "Islam." It must not be allowed to discredit or tarnish Islam. All responsible Muslim clerics have a duty, in my opinion, to repudiate the rhetoric and barbarism of ISIS with unambiguous condemnation.

I have good Muslim friends in Chicago. They are Palestinian Americans. They both have good professional jobs. She's an educator. He works in media. They have one child, a boy, another on the way. They drive SUVs, own a nice house, go to movies, watch over their aging parents, get traffic tickets, worship in moderation, shop at malls, spend time when they can with their large extended family. They believe in the American Dream.

Hmmm. Just like us.

They are not particularly fond of Israel ("the Zionist State"). They decry many of America's foreign policies, particularly with respect to Israel and the Middle East. But they are sickened by what radical Islamic groups are doing all over the world. More than that, the see that this recent wave of barbarism might lead to a backlash against the more than one billion Muslims worldwide who are perfectly peaceful and law-abiding. Nothing could convince my friends to commit an act of violence against non-Muslims—or against anyone else. Like the rest of us they were appalled by 9-11. Unlike the rest of us, they spent many subsequent months frightened for their safety in the United States. They were, and are, subject to violent denunciations by perfect strangers. They understood why some Muslims in the rest of the world cheered as the World Trade Center's towers came down, but they did not condone such "celebrations."

Even the Muslims of the most volatile regions of the Middle East tend to differentiate Americans from official American policy. One of the most fascinating moments in John Hockenberry's 1996 memoir Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheel Chairs, and Declarations of Independence, is when he attends the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini (June 11, 1989) in a wheel chair. More than a million people were in the streets of Tehran shouting "Death to America, Death to the Great Satan." As Hockenberry struggled to move forward through a sea of angry Muslims, those around him invariably stopped their shouting to offer friendly greetings and help move his wheelchair along through the mass. Then they resumed their anti-American slogans.

They don't "hate us because we are free." Most Muslims don't hate us at all. Those who do hate us tend to point to specific foreign policy concerns: economic colonialism, the military-petroleum-Hollywood complex, and principally our seemingly uncritical support for Israel. Hate has many expressions. Violence is very seldom one of them. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are perfectly peaceful. Just like you.

Islam is one of the world's great religions. It is monotheistic. It has in its 1400-year history generated great architecture, great city planning, beautiful and at times profound literature, a large body of pure science, philosophy, and theology, and a deep respect for the stability of family. When Europe was lost in a morass of ignorance and illiteracy, Islamic scholars and clerics kept alive the work of Aristotle and countless other ancient writers. True, there are pockets of darkness in today's Islam, and to a certain extent the great world religion "seems" to have been hijacked by small numbers of vicious extremists and nihilists to justify their rage against the West (not to mention Islamists of a different stamp). But there are pockets of darkness in Christianity, too. And in Judaism. And in Hinduism. And in Rotary and Chambers of Commerce, for that matter.

The worst thing we could do is lump all Muslims into one grim box. It's not accurate. It's not fair. It's not in keeping with our Bill of Rights. It's not in keeping with the deepest ideals of the American tradition. Above all, it's counterproductive to the goal—which is to enjoy peace and security no matter where we happen to live or travel.

We all know these things. We have to practice them with good sense and moral courage.

The Whole Man Theory and Human Foibles

I've been checking in with my friends scattered around the country lately, reflecting on what each of them has taught me or brought me in friendship. I consider friendship the highest form of human relationship: the steadiest, the most reliable, the most harmonious. My daughter and I have reached the point, now that she is a young adult, where we are close friends in addition to everything else. That gives me a joy I never expected from life.

My old friend Bill Chrystal lives now in Virginia, but when I knew him best he was a Congregational preacher in Reno, Nevada. One of his parishioners was involved in a sad public scandal of the domestic sort. Bill wrote a sermon to help the community make sense of the lurid thing that was getting plenty of press. About two thirds of his way through the sermon, Bill uttered some of the most insightful words I have ever heard. "Which of us," he asked, "would wish to be judged by his worst day?"

Every human being (at least every one I have known) has done stupid things that have endangered all that they have dreamed of achieving in life. Everyone has weaknesses, vulnerabilities, susceptibilities, and temporary lapses that accompany periods of stress, fatigue, or depression. There are perhaps a few people who are immune to the human condition, but those who speak most righteously along these lines are usually not telling the full truth. A character in Shakespeare's play Henry VIII says it perfectly: "We are all men in our own natures frail, and capable of frailty."

It's easy and even fun to fixate on the most sensational stories of self-destruction that flash through a community, especially when prominent people do really dumb things. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "No one gossips about other people's secret virtues." When otherwise good people get themselves into trouble, I always feel immediate waves of sympathy, partly because I recognize that nobody likes to endure the leer of public humiliation, partly because I always feel, "There but for the grace of God, go I." If there were a celestial TSA, with magnetometers stationed at every public doorway in Bismarck, that displayed the secrets and the discreditable information about everyone who walked through them, it would be quite a spectacle. Ask yourself this: what incident of your life, what dark spot in your soul, would you least like to see reported on the front page of the New York Times? Which of us would want to be judged by our worst day?

Sometimes in the evening I walk around a new subdivision up near my neighborhood with a book in hand, reading and taking in the fresh air. The houses are all attractive and unblemished, with gleaming new SUVs in the driveways, fronted by well-groomed yards, sometimes perfectly groomed yards. There are costly basketball hoops in about a quarter of the driveways. You never see an oil stain on the concrete or an old battered up Toyota or Impala. Everything is fastidious. The overall look is one of complacent prosperity. I find myself wondering, sometimes, as I wander aimlessly from block to block, what really goes on behind those splendid facades. What hidden dramas unfold behind closed doors? I know what we see, but I sometimes wonder what we don't see.

Maybe this is a precinct of harmony and domestic bliss, but I'm guessing that the usual struggles of human existence, the chaotic trials of close human relationships, the agony of parenthood, and the sheer angst of adolescence, unfold here as frequently as anywhere else. The seven deadly sins hover about our neighborhoods looking for a warm moist place to set up shop. The first two families that lived in a new house across the street from mine suddenly scattered in divorce. Until that time I had envied them as I observed their seemingly harmonious domestic rhythms.

When Thomas Jefferson's daughter Martha expressed severe embarrassment and a sense of horror after her cousin Nancy Randolph became involved in a tragic sex scandal (possibly involving infanticide), Jefferson wrote one of his most beautiful letters in response. Never distance yourself from a dear friend in her hour of greatest need, he said, no matter how terrible the offense and profound your sense of embarrassment. That's precisely the moment when our friends need us most. We lose nothing of our own standing in the community in being seen visibly offering our support. "I shall be made very happy," he wrote, "if you are the instrument not only of supporting the spirits of your afflicted friend under the weight bearing on them, but of preserving her in the peace and love of her friends." That quality in Jefferson—an exquisite gracefulness and generosity of spirit—is what makes him the most civilized of the Founding Fathers.

My rule as a humanities scholar is that "all bets are off below the belt." In other words, whatever we might think we know about others, or for that matter ourselves, breaks down over the issue of human sexual urges and expression. If some terrorist put truth serum in our water supply and everybody began to blather out the secret history of their libidos, we'd probably have a collective nervous breakdown. Some things are better left in the dark. Our romantic lives are sometimes messy. The world below the belt, indeed the world of the heart, is extremely intense, private, impossible to explain to others, and nobody's business but our own. George Washington, the wisest of our presidents, and a man of great personal restraint, understood this. In a letter to his high-spirited niece Nelly Custis, the grave president wrote, "The passions of your sex are easier raised than allayed. In the composition of the human frame there is a good deal of inflammable matter, however dormant it may life for a time."

In the face of another scandal, Jefferson wrote, "Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for. For not one of us, no, not one, is perfect. And were we to love none who had imperfection, this world would be a desert for our love." When I think about history or about the people around me, I always try to apply the "whole man theory." We all have vanities, and foibles, and sins that trip us up and seem gigantic at the moment of their exposure, but when you step back and look at the complete life—the accumulated achievement, the whole set of principles and values, the whole character, the larger purpose of another person's existence—then what do you include? Martin Luther King was a shameless womanizer, but any fair examination of his whole life and achievement must conclude that he was a benefactor of the human project, one of the greatest human rights advocates in our history. Jefferson had slaves, and apparently had sexual congress with one of them, but on the whole we are all fortunate that such a man lived at so critical a moment in America's history.

We owe it to each other to be charitable. And understanding. And sympathetic. And forgiving. And humble in the face of our own weaknesses. And to mind our own business. When the scribes and the Pharisees thrust an adulteress in front of Jesus and reminded him that according to the Law she must be stoned to death, Jesus put it perfectly, in a timeless warning to the judgmental and the righteous. "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone."

Winter for Wimps With Praise for Mrs. Howard's Grit

Last night two ants walked across my kitchen table while I was reading. I've heard about the January thaw all of my life, but this is ridiculous. The record temperatures seem to have thrown off the internal clocks of the ants and propelled them out along my kitchen floor in search of crumbs. I didn't have the heart to crush the life out of the two advance men, the Lewis and Clark of the kitchen recon. They will die of natural causes soon enough, I think.

I was in Medora over the weekend for an educational retreat, and each afternoon walked west on the asphalt trail that parallels old highway 10 and the railroad out to where the Marquis de Mores' goons shot Riley Luffsey in cold blood on June 26, 1883. On the first day the wind was blowing like a son of a gun, as we Dakotans say, so although the temperature was 38 or so, the wind chill felt like ten below. On the second day, I walked with my jacket unbuttoned, no mittens, no hat, and only twice in two hours did I think it might be smart to button up the jacket. On the third day, shirtsleeves were entirely adequate.

Before I left for Medora, I would have shoveled my sidewalks and driveway if there had been time, because they were covered with a fair amount of crusted snow where the winds have packed it up in the past few weeks. There just wasn't time to shovel. When I returned three days later every square inch of my corner sidewalk and big driveway was bone dry. The garden had emerged in the back yard from under the snowpack.

It's the mildest January I can ever remember. I know some severe weather is still to come, and winter is at least ten weeks from being over. This is not a state to get complacent in. I love North Dakota in all of its moods and seasons. In fact, I love a brutal winter. There is nothing like that early morning encounter with what Jack London calls "The North" when you step out of doors at 43 below, that somewhat anxious realization that we are living high up near the edge of the last latitudes of human habitation. On mornings like that you involuntarily scan the horizon.

I love not knowing for sure that the car will start. I love the dull sound of my boots on the 30-below snow. I love the camaraderie of the grocery store and the coffee shop when people stomp in and clap each other on the shoulders and do the standard North Dakota riff raff chorus. I love that moment in a calm night when the wind whips up suddenly into a frenzy and you can hear the grit grinding the surface of the siding on the northwest side of the house.

I can remember from my childhood on grimly cold mornings turning on KDIX on our battery powered portable radio to hear the litany of event cancellations. Mother would perch the radio on the bathroom sink or the kitchen table and tell us to "get dressed just in case." And then Stan Deck's KDIX baritone: "The Busy Bunnies 4-H banquet is canceled tonight at the Eagles Club and will be rescheduled at a later time." "The Knights of Columbus style show has been indefinitely postponed." "And now here's a little tune from the Monkeys to cheer you up." Once we learned—to our deep chagrin—that school had not in fact been canceled, though it might be let out early, we switched back to the Ole Reb on KFYR, where we belonged. School was hardly ever canceled in those days, but during my high school years the rural buses didn't always come in when it was blizzardy.

There is a paradox of inverse proportions in our time. Back in the 60s and 70s the cars didn't start very well when it got brutally cold. Parkas, hoods, gloves, and boots were much less sophisticated. But we all soldiered on through the bitterest weeks of winter with a kind of resigned stoic calm. I remember walking to and from high school, well more than a mile each way, on the worst days of the year and not thinking anything was amiss. Today we have infinitely better gear. Fuel injection means that most cars start every time. The doors and seals on vehicles are much tighter now than they were in my youth. I have three or four pair of winter boots, one of which is guaranteed to keep your feet warm to 100 below. The mittens and gloves are outstanding, if you spend enough, and for the wimps of the world there are chemical hand and foot warmers. The winter undergarments now wick the sweat away from the body almost instantly. And yet now our institutions seem to have a hair-trigger for cancellation. Sometimes it feels as if we North Dakotans have become pathetically squeamish—every superintendent now seems to fear "an incident on my watch" more than lost education.

Through the first half of my life they never really closed the Interstates, no matter what. No travel was advised, sometimes sternly, but if you were dumb enough to venture out, you could usually piece your way through to the other end of the state. Such lurching, low or no visibility, white-knuckle, "oh please, Lord, oh please" road trips are part of the joy of living in North Dakota, at least in retrospect. I remember once when my friend Philip Howard's mother drove to Williston to see her older son play basketball in blizzard conditions that were universally regarded as suicidal. She was driving a low-slung Chevy four-door with rear wheel drive. We reckoned we would never see her again. About midnight she calmly walked back into her house in Dickinson. "Yeah, roads were pretty bad," she said, and brewed a cup of tea. Nothing more. Today the big gates go down on the highways whenever serious storms blow through the state. 

If this winter remains mild (unlikely), it will be good news for stockmen, for oil workers, for every town's snow removal budget, for everyone's fuel bills, especially the American Indians who live on extremely tight budgets at out of the way places on the reservations, and for the state's wildlife. We need a few mild winters to rebuild the populations of deer, pronghorn antelope, and other wild creatures. A few mild winters would enable us to measure more precisely how much of the wildlife drawdown has natural causes and how much is the result of the intense industrialization of western North Dakota.

Even if this winter takes a harsh turn, we have broken the back of it already, and we'll will march forward with joy rather than grim determination. The light is returning. We are already 42 days past the longest night of the year. Already we get at least 9 hours, 27 minutes of light every day, up from 8 hours, 32 minutes on December 21. "Official" calendar Spring is now only 47 days away, and "Actual North Dakota Spring" is now no more than three months away. In other words, we're home free.

I'm starting to gather up my garden seeds. I'm going to walk five miles on the bare trails during the Super Bowl halftime, and see if I cannot stir up my own costume malfunction.

Farewell to One of the Plains Great Writers, Kent Haruf

While I was out of the country one of the great writers of the Great Plains died. His name was Kent Haruf, born February 24, 1943, in Pueblo, Colorado, the author of the celebrated novel Plainsong (2004). It won several awards, but not all that it deserved. Haruf died in his home in Salida, Colorado, at the age of 71.

I was in Rome when I heard the news—from a journalist friend in Telluride, Colorado, a woman from the Great Plains now "imprisoned" in the mountains of western Colorado, if anyone who lives in Telluride could ever have cause to complain. Our friendship is based on the Great Plains, and we discovered right away that we both love Haruf's work. We had actually been making tentative plans to visit him together, to interview him, converging on Salida from Dakota and from Pueblo, Colorado, her true home. I felt helpless to learn of his death in Rome, a place so profoundly opposite to his fictional plains town Holt, Colorado, that they really don't belong in the same sentence. Holt is all dust and Dairy King, a declining backwater where high school sports are the principal town passion, aside from drinking, adultery, and prunish church ladies.

If I had been in North Dakota when I heard the news, I would have thrown a few things in my car and driven in no hurry the back roads to Belle Fourche or Broadus or Lusk, with his books in the back seat, and I would have checked into a shag carpet motel where they still issue you a diamond-shaped green key with your room number on it. I would have ordered a chicken basket at the drive in (oops, "See U in the Sumr") and had a shot in the "Rustler's Bar." That's how Haruf would have wanted to be honored, by a loopy auto pilgrimage through the empty quarter where his characters struggled to pay their bills, pull calves, find mates, make peace with small town bigotries, and wrestle with a God who dwelt partly out of the Old Testament and partly out among the bluffs and coulees and lone cottonwood trees. I'm still going to do this before we settle into spring.

The plot of Plainsong is less interesting than the feel of its portrait of Great Plains life in those towns that continue to exist now only because they once did, towns that somehow hang on beyond the laws of probability even though the quality of life has long since been dimmed and the mating pool is no bigger than a large punchbowl. Plainsong is about a young woman (a girl) named Victoria, whose single mother throws her out when she gets pregnant. Victoria winds up living with two old bachelor farmers, so unbearably single and set in their basic rhythms that they regard Victoria like a fawn they have rescued from the hay rake or a porcelain doll that might break if you look at it cross-eyed. In the end everyone is damaged precisely as they (and we) knew all along they would be, and life goes on in Holt because it's never going to be otherwise on the high plains "where the rain don't come." 

I met Kent Haruf four or five years ago when I was giving a lecture in Salida. There was a reception after my talk, a picnic, and I was being introduced to one eccentric after the next. Then my host, a glorious redhead in a top hat, said, "This is Kent Haruf. He's a writer." When she said Haruf, I nearly sagged to my knees. I had recently read Plainsong and loved it. In fact, when I finally put it down I wondered if it would be possible to locate the author and strike up a correspondence. Haruf's novels are set in a fictional town in eastern Colorado, but they may as well be the actual towns of Limon, La Junta, Trinidad, or Lamar. I lived just on the other side of the Kansas border from all that wild open dry high plains country when I was first married. Haruf absolutely nailed its windswept dilapidation, the sense that every time folks aspire to climb out of the lowest rung of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, trouble and bleary confusion are sure to follow. Haruf is my kind Great Plains writer. We had an hour of conversation together in Salida, and he offered to read my work and help me in any way he could.

Last June I gave the keynote talk at the annual Willa Cather festival at Red Cloud, Nebraska. Turns out I was a sub. The keynote was supposed to be Kent Haruf, but he was not feeling well enough to make the journey. At the conference I met the photographer Peter Brown, who collaborated with Haruf on a magnificent Great Plains coffee table book called West of Last Chance. It contains some of the best Great Plains photographs I have ever seen. They are not all landscapes and they are not all pretty. Brown has an eye for the townscapes that Haruf writes about—real plains Americans standing in front of barber shops and gas stations, junked vehicles next to deteriorating farm to market asphalt roads, home brew restaurant signs, hail bales painted as the American flag, farmers standing gothically next to grain elevators, a man crouching below a giant mural that imperfectly depicts John Wayne. If you are still looking for a great Christmas book for those who love the Great Plains, you can find discounted copies at West of Last Chance is the Great Plains not as state tourism divisions like to depict us, but the Great Plains as they actually are.

The photos are superb, but it is Kent Haruf's short prose commentaries that I really prize. Here's a bit of one: "We were in Shattuck's Café middle of the morning… it's one of those places where they bring you biscuits and gravy with every breakfast order unless you tell them you don't want any…. I was paying more attention to what the three men at the next table were saying. They had on orange vests, worked for the highway department … and at one point—I can't recall now what had prompted it—one of them said to the other two: 'We may not be the smartest sons of bitches in the world, but we sure can kill weeds.' And I thought to myself: Bud, say no more."

Haruf's long passage on church suppers is one of the greatest short pieces I have ever read. If you email me I will send it to you. I've read it a dozen times now, always out loud, and I burst into tears at a different place every time. I've been in that church basement in five or six locations on the plains, because they are all the same out there everywhere. "And there were a good many church women in the kitchen getting things ready, making coffee and stirring up pitchers of iced tea, and uncovering dishes that people had brought in, and heating things up, and cooling things down, and sticking in serving spoons, and hustling back and forth carrying loaded dishes and platters out to the serving tables… and don't you know when she made something it always tasted as good as it looked."

Haruf's last book Our Souls at Night will be posthumously published in 2015. Meanwhile, I'm re-reading the five previous novels.

Learning from My Students in the Inexhaustible City of Rome


Week three. This is my seventh or eighth trip to Rome, and my longest. I'm trying to stay one or two steps ahead of the students I am teaching here. They are seasoned cultural travelers by now, and they have learned a tremendous amount. There are days when I'm not sure what I have to teach them. Whenever they are otherwise occupied, I hop the bus (the dreaded 870) into the heart of Rome and wander about with maps, a guidebook, and my notebook and camera.

Tom Schulzetenberg, the U-Mary Rome program director, has mastered the city in his three years here. He's an invaluable guide. He's gone out of his way to make it possible for me to take the students to a number of places that are off the beaten track: the ancient port called Ostia Antica (Rome's Pompeii); the Non-Catholic Cemetery, where the English poets Keats and Shelley are buried; the emperor Hadrian's fabulous villa at Tivoli. Today, at our final lecture, I taught them the meaning of a number of Latin phrases that have made their way into English, including in loco parentis, "in the place of one's parents." Tom and his wife JoAnn have served in that capacity with real grace. As you know, U-Mary makes much of its capacity to create "servant leaders." I find it easier to recognize that quality than to describe it. Tom and JoAnn are the epitome of servant leaders—warm, generous, humble, thoughtful, careful, and firm--and they have sacrificed a great deal to live abroad on behalf of the liberal arts at UMary. If you think living in Rome is easy, just try it.

When I get home I'm going to burn my travel clothes, and rethink many of the rhythms of my life. The cars here are miniscule. If all the Ford F250s of Bismarck alone were loosed in the center of Rome, the traffic jam would paralyze the city for weeks. People here can park a Smart Car in a space we wouldn't attempt with a bicycle. I've walked between six and ten miles a day without even thinking about it, and while I walk the city I keep puzzling over why the Romans are so much fitter, leaner, and healthier than we are. Hmmm.

I wish we lived in a society that chose to send all college students for a semester or a year abroad. Many of the fundamental problems of American life would be solved if we had a universal Fulbright program. Foreign travel to a nation that doesn't speak English is the first important step towards global wisdom. We may be America—always the elephant in the room, and sometimes still the class act—but there are scores of countries that don't live as we do, do things in our way, consume at our Rabalaisian pace and volume, and yet they are perfectly civilized. Many of them, in fact, score higher on the happiness index than we do. To travel abroad is to realize that our way of doing things is not the only way, and not invariably the best way.

When we travel to other countries—as I keep telling my students—we are guests in another culture, and it is important that we pull back a little from our full "display" of our American brand of style, confidence, and expressiveness. We should never for a minute be ashamed of who we are and where we come from, but we should remember, too, that being an American (as opposed, say, to being Canadian or Norwegian) comes with a burden and a special responsibility. We are the richest, most powerful nation on earth (ever!), what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "the indispensable country," and that automatically rubs others the wrong way at times.

Whenever I travel abroad, I am ashamed that I am essentially monolingual. Once, long ago, when I was married, my wife and I spent a week with one her college classmates, an extremely talented woman named Silka from Munich in Germany. She spoke four or five languages, including French, Russian, and flawless Oxford English, the Queen's English. Her husband had eight languages. We went out to dinner one night with her brother and sister-in-law. The sister-in-law, some kind of European slacker, spoke only German and English. So the dinner was conducted in English, as a favor to the "Americans." I asked for permission to pay and to settle the bill in my weak German. As I recall, I bungled my few sentences so badly that I wound up in a Turkish prison!

Traveling holds a mirror up to us. We are invited to gaze into that mirror, or at least glance at it when we observe how other humans go about their business, and how they respond to us in their midst. Whenever I travel I make resolutions that make New Year's look like a routine Thursday. Theodore Roosevelt, in addition to being one of the most active men who ever lived, and a career politician, once shocked a White House guest, from Poland, by giving her a sustained analysis of the history of Polish literature. In 1910 he lectured about German literature at German universities—in German. Like Jefferson, he was a true citizen of the world. I had a professor friend at UND who learned Russian merely for the pleasure of reading Tolstoy in the original. At this point in my life, I would settle for reading French, Swedish, German, Russian, and Italian literature in translation, but where's the discipline going to come from, and who will grant me the 27-hour day? 

A few days ago we went to St. Peter's Square to hear Pope Francis deliver a homily to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Right on time, he appeared at the appointed window. I watched him deliver his remarks through my binoculars, while the mass of people watched him on the Papal Jumbotron. He seemed joyful and genial and completely unself-important as he delivered his remarks and waved to the assembled multitude.

After Pope Francis had withdrawn and the crowd began to disperse, one of the students walked with me to the city center. Along the way, he suggested that we duck into one of the scores of nearly identical looking Baroque churches in Rome, the kind you might well just pass by on your way to lunch. He explained to me that this was the Church of the Gesu, the first Jesuit church to be built in Rome, dedicated in 1584. Inside he gave me a brief but really impressive commentary on the various features of the church, and the ways in which it epitomized the Counter-Reformation. Here was my student, a young citizen of the world (since September!) teaching his professor in a graceful and helpful way. A few days earlier, a new young friend, the son of one of my closest friends back home, told me that during Lent he and his fellow seminarians walk to a different church every day for 40 days for early morning Mass. I'd give anything to join those pilgrims.

Rome is truly inexhaustible; me, not so much. I'm now eager to get home, to sit with my mother in her spare Congregational church in Dickinson, to decorate a genuine Christmas tree, and to set up my new heroic spring reading schedule. This has been a bellissimo viaggio, which, so far, is the sum total of my Italian.

Veduta interna della Basilica di S. Pietro in Vaticano. 1748. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.