February 28, 2005

Strive to avoid oversimplification

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler," Albert Einstein once quipped.

It's sage advice: Getting to the kernel of a concept is to understand its essence. To find a thing's inherent nature through scientific, mathematical or philosophical discourse - or an array of countless other investigations - is part of the human journey.

But to see only the kernel's outline serves no one, except maybe our personal egos.


As infants, we don't see so well. Newborns have 20/600 visual acuity, improving to only about 20/100 by six months.

The result: Babies can see lines on a piece of paper, or grasp contrasts. When it comes to noticing textures, however, they're not so good.

Research in face recognition indicates infants largely rely on outlines and basic features when identifying a person. Perhaps one of the appeals of cartoons later in life is that the simplified forms are easier to follow.

At about 24 months, most infants gain 20/20 eyesight. But by then, we're psychologically comfortable with looking for outlines. Does sensing the details require a new level of maturity?


There's no doubt simplification serves us well.

Back during elementary school, my younger brother and I used to do our homework at the kitchen table. Shortly after supper had been cleared, textbooks, worksheets, colored pencils, calculators and crumbs from the latest cake or brownie mix Mom had baked covered the table. If the weather was nice, getting all of that schoolwork done turned into a race against sunset.

"What's 3 times 9?" he asked me one of those May evenings. He always had trouble with his nines.

I decided to show off my superior, seventh-grade learning. "Twenty-five plus the square root of 4."

"No, really, what is it?"

"That's what it is - figure out the square root of 4 and add 25. It's an axiom."

"I don't care!" he said, practically snarling as he stomped a foot. "I simply want the answer!"


Language research indicates we rely on the edges of words to read. Even though a word may be misspelled, if the first and last letters are correct, we usually don't notice. At the very least, we can read the line without taking a second look.

Try it:

Alomst evrey wrod in tihs sentnece is miseplled.


This dependence on outlines apparently runs deep into our primate past.

Scientists have found they can get chimpanzees to relate letters to objects: press a "g" on the screen and get a "grape." Press "b" and get a "banana." Press "q" and get nothing.

Try to teach a chimp to spell, though. The brightest can do a few three-letter words. Ask them to press "g" then "r" then "a" then "p" and finally "e," and they get it all wrong. Wanting a grape, they screech and bounce off the walls.

However, have them press a button that says "grape" as a single word on it, and they do it with ease. Over and over, in fact.

Which is why phonics advocates are so maddening. We just don't learn how to read by dissecting a word into various parts. Prefixes and suffixes are the exception - but in those cases we're talking about the be-ginning or the end of a word, or its outline.

One thing phonics is good for is learning how to pronounce some words. But plenty of people can read at an advanced level without knowing how to pronounce a word. Simply put, being able to pronounce and spell a word doesn't mean you know its definition.

Thinking so, however, is akin to seeing only the kernel's crown, and believing it's all there is.


Simplification, when correctly applied, streamlines our lines. But all too often we get by with the outline, with the oversimplified version. It's often sufficient. After all, we don't need to know the names of all the streets we cross on our drive home, just when to turn.

All too often, however, such routes no longer serve us. A detour is needed. New paradigms must be constructed.

Henry A. Wallace was one man who devised a new paradigm. Recognizing that the way crops were grown with 1800s methods meant there would not be enough food to feed the world, he examined how corn might be genetically improved to offer larger yields and be resistant to insects. Learning a love of plants from George Washington Carver - an African-American scientist at the time of Jim Crow laws - Wallace developed hybrid corn, rewriting agriculture and the Iowa economy for the 20th century.

Herbert Hoover was another such man. In 1914, he accepted leadership of the Commission for the Relief of Belgium. Using business models that dumped profit for humanitarianism (Hoover even refused a salary for himself), he kept alive hundreds of thousands of children in that war-occupied country.

Curiously, Hoover fell from grace because of his inability to break old paradigms when a crisis called for doing so. Franklin Delano Roosevelt instead offered the New Deal and defeated Hoover in the 1932 election.


Today in America, we face many challenges to the old paradigms. As free-will beings, we face them every day.

Will we strive to make everything as simple as possible but not make the error of oversimplification?

History will tell.

(originally published February 29, 2004)

February 24, 2005

Blizzards tested our humanity

That the word "blizzard" was coined in Iowa should come as no surprise to this state's residents.

While those east of the Mississippi River certainly are not immune to dizzying snowstorms in which winds whip past 35 miles per hour and visibility is reduced to mere feet, something in the character of a prairie settler allowed him to find a special moniker for this fury. As blizzards tested our humanity, pioneers realized it was a storm in a category all of its own.

Legend says Spencer's Lephe Wells Coates read a story about a violent-tempered Mr. Blizzard in her Free Baptist paper. During a nasty snowstorm in 1866 she remarked "My, this is a regular old man Blizzard of a storm." A state newspaper later repeated the term.

But there's more to Iowa's snowstorms than a cute story.

• • •

In 1870, when men got around by horse rather than car and roads were not plowed because they were only mud paths broken through the brush, blizzards could not be easily escaped. With no satellites to track weather patterns, storms surprised settlers like lions ambushing prey in the bush.

March 13 of that year was one such disaster. That morning, the men of rural Hillsdale took advantage of the warm weather and went into town. By noon, the sky had clouded, and a bitter chill had descended. Though just reaching their destination, they decided to turn around.

"Big flakes had split up into a million little pieces and were coming at us stinging and slantways," one man in the party later wrote. "Every second it was growing blacker and thicker and colder."

Most of the men made their way back home as a group. But two left a mere 15 minutes later. Three days passed, after the storm had dropped temperatures to 35 below zero, and search parties were dispatched.

Both men - brothers - were found frozen to death in snow drifts.

• • •

Today, blizzards are at worst an annoyance. On occasion, ice storms leave some without electricity, but most of us warm up some hot chocolate, flip a switch to light the fireplace and from the vantage of an easy chair watch the snow swirl outside.

Indeed, the New York Times editorialized last week that the snowstorm hitting the East Coast "brought a sense of peace that momentarily overshadowed thoughts of war and terrorism."

With our modern building materials and massive power grids, we rejoice in the slowing of life that blizzards bring. We've conquered nature. Humanity's violent tendencies remain, however.

• • •

Near the end of the Civil War, brothers Joe and Kiren Mulroney and friend Henry Archer volunteered to deliver food and supplies to Union troops stationed in Estherville. A blizzard came upon them New Year's Day 1864, but they marched onward, knowing the soldiers would starve if the cargo did not reach them.

"The mercury was frozen solid and the thermometers was down to half a hundred below," one pioneer wrote, "and the howling, cracking, biting, whirling snow was so dense in the air that they could not see the length of a sleigh and team."

When the three men happened upon a cabin in the middle of the storm, the family let them in. They cut off Kiren's shoes, stockings and trousers. Both legs were frozen from the kneecaps to the toes.

After resting, the three men continued on their mission. Together, they got the food to the troops.

• • •

My father once told me a story about the blizzard of 1956, when he was only a child and helped rescue a cow half-buried by snow. I shiver whenever thinking of that tale, not so much from the story itself which is frightening enough, but from the way my father, always so strong and silent, told it with passion and precision, as if it were the one event that shaped his life.

The week had been mild enough, so the cattle were left to graze in the pasture. Unexpectedly one October night, like a stampede of white devil horses, the storm swept onto the Great Plains, instantly deluging the land in harsh winds and several feet of snow. Through the darkness and blasting winds, my grandfather and two of his sons, one of them my father, herded them back into the farmyard.

But as daylight broke, a lone bellow resounded across the cornfield, growing weaker with each cry. They waded through three-foot drifts toward the cow, until reaching the struggling brown mass. Caked with ice, its breath felt cold and it smelled dry like parched dung, but grandfather was insistent; no cow would die from his lack of trying to save it.

So they dug out the animal and then a path across the pasture, harassed at every shovelful by straying snow, and pushed the cow until it reached the barn. A companion, grateful to see its friend returned, licked the ice clean off. The cow survived.

• • •

My grandfather didn't need to save that beast. She wasn't worth that much money.

He just didn't want to see it suffer, just as Joe and Kiren Mulroney and friend Henry Archer didn't want to see their nation's troops suffer. They were willing to sacrifice because they couldn't live with themselves if they didn't.

Those prairie blizzards challenged their humanity. Such a test, where the stakes are our very souls, indeed deserves a word all of its own.

(originally published Feb. 24, 2003)

February 22, 2005

The dangerous possibilities of daydreaming

Thursday's warm weather left me longing for summer, which is why I kept hoping some meteorologists would predict snow for the weekend.

The streams of snow melt and tossed gloves were just a tease, I knew - winter is far from over - and the sooner it passed the better. There was work to be done, and spending the day looking out the window like a dreamy schoolboy in May was no way to spend company time.

During my drive home, thoughts of summer days as a young child weaved in and out of the tasks that I had yet to do: pay the cable bill - walking along a dirt road past towering corn stalks - stop at dry cleaner - listening to the bugs' concerto in early evening - attend library board meeting - finding shapes in the clouds - mail nephew's birthday present.

That jarred me back into focus. It was his birthday, and somehow the ever-re-sponsible uncle had forgotten to mail his present. I'd have to explain it in a phone call.


Being 5, he didn't seem to mind that his present hadn't arrived on the appointed day. He was just excited to hear that one was coming.

But then there was a moment of silence, and he got to what really was im-portant: "When are you going to visit so we can go for a walk together?"

His voice reminded me of my brother's at that age.


During school vacations, my brother and I spent most of our time ambling through the fields, indulging in discovery and play.

A typical summer's day began with awakening to the ascending whiteness of a new dawn; our internal clocks always seemed to sense the birth of a new morning, as if we were missing out now that darkness had fled the earth.

Sleep is sweet, that much I always will admit, but even to this day I rise with the first break of light to witness a world that others slumber through like hibernating bears: the gradation of colors from gray-blue to vermilion then to orange as the sun climbs the sky, the tuneful dialogue of songbirds gathering for their shared meals, the layers of warmth that fall over the bedroom with each passing moment.

Then, just as we heard the first languorous footsteps downstairs and the aromatic brew of coffee, my mother would call for us to awake.

We'd change quickly and hurry to the barn. It was not the work, however, that churned our eagerness but the creatures we'd meet on the way.

There was Jerry, the old tomcat who always sat by me as I mixed the calves' bottles of powdered milk and water, waiting for his dish when I was done.

Then there was Farley, our cow-herding dog who'd accompany us on the walks to and from the calf pens. And finally the calves themselves, an ever-rotating lot whom I could trace from birth to shed to pasture to barn, friends that we followed through life.

After washing the calf-slobber from our hands, we'd join our parents for breakfast, always a hearty affair of eggs and bacon, pancakes or waffles slathered in butter and maple syrup, cereal and toast, milk and juice; then coffee, always coffee, but only for the adults.

As my father drank his cup - he liked it hot and black - he'd outline his day, which often consisted of fieldwork or some task revolving around the cattle. Once he left, the day was ours to do with as we pleased.


And what days they were!

We'd trail along the dirt road leading past the corn through a wilderness of green that rose daily, discovering deer prints left the night before in the soft soil, or the butterflies whose patterned wings rival in beauty any painting to come from an artist's palette.

Sometimes we'd stretch out in the field father left unseeded that year and watch the panorama of clouds reshape themselves across the brilliant blue sky.

All seemed far away: the thumbnail farmhouse, a distant tractor's drone, the tufts of clouds suspended on the horizon. Out there it was a whole new world, and if you fell into the prickle of extremely tall grass, a truly unique one as well: one in which the insects grew in size as they flicked past you, the buzz of their wings a high-pitched whine; in which the scent of loam, of plants decayed and of plants growing from such death, surrounded you; in which the minute taste of salt swathed across the inside of your mouth actually could be sensed now that you were not bombarded by a million other distractions competing with your own body, with your very being, for attention.


Our father never approved of such ramblings. For him, they were fraught with dangerous possibilities; he often asked us what would happen if we were lying in the grass and run over by a tractor because the driver - meaning him - could not see us? The way his pupils sharpened in fear showed us this was a serious concern.

We never answered his almost certainly rhetorical question.

We honestly were too flattered to think of one.


Must some of us be responsible so others can dream?

If talking of children, the answer is obvious. But what of adults? Is there any space for daydreaming in our harried lives?

Hanging up the phone, the weather reporter noted that more above-average temperatures were on the way.

It appears we don't have a choice in the matter.

(originally published Feb. 22, 2004)

February 15, 2005

'The Song of Iowa': Fairest tune of all the West?

"Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought." - E.Y. Harburg

Harburg would know. He coauthored some of the 20th century's most significant songs, including "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" and "April in Paris."

Unfortunately, lost to history is what Harburg might have thought of "The Song of Iowa," our state anthem. Written in 1897 by Civil War veteran S.H.M. Byers, "Song of Iowa" is not the most creative piece - it's sung to the tune of "Der Tannenbaum."

Yes, you read right, our state song is based on a Christmas carol.


Dentist Tim Hartsook wants to change that. Hailing from Independence (appropriately enough), Hartsook has called for the creation of a committee to garner nominees for a new state song.

He dislikes the state song so much that last year he even offered to donate $1,000 to get the contest going. "I just want it to be something Iowans can be proud of," he told The Associated Press.

His problem with "The Song of Iowa"? It doesn't rouse sentiment and love for the state when played at sporting events, like say Wisconsin's state song "On Wisconsin!" - which, curiously enough, some Iowa high school bands play at basketball games.

Didn't somebody tell them we haven't been part of the Wisconsin Territory for more than 150 years now?


Blame Maryland for our state song.

During the Civil War, the Confederates captured Byers, and he spent several months in a Richmond, Va., prison. Each morning, a Rebel marching band passed his window. One of the songs they played was "My Maryland" - written to the tune of "Der Tannenbaum."

Fast forward to 1897. The night after Byers wrote "The Song of Iowa," he asked a French concert singer at the Foster Opera House in Des Moines to sing it. The performer did and got a standing ovation.

So he kept singing it. And he got more standing ovations.

A year later, E.Y. Harburg was born on the East Coast.

Finally, on June 30, 1949, "The Song of Iowa" officially was adopted as our state anthem.


Many think "The Iowa Corn Song" is the state song.

Thank God they're wrong. Would you want our state song to start off "Let's sing of grand old I-O-Way, Yo-Ho, yo-ho, yo-ho"? And for all of you from Illinois, no, it's not sung to the tune of "Yo-ho, yo-ho, yo-ho, the pirate's life's for me."

Hartsook says it's a corny tune. And on that count, he's absolutely right.

One need only look at how "The Iowa Corn Song" came about: A delegation of Za-Ga-Zig Shriners (yes, those guys with the funny fez hats) went to Los Angeles in 1912 for a Shrine convention. While there, they decided - much like Hartsook today - that Iowa needed a rousing song of honor. And, of course, it somehow should advertise our state's chief product: corn.

Worse, it since has become Iowa State's fight song.

Which is not to say that "The Iowa Corn Song" isn't fun to belt out. Who doesn't enjoy reaching one's hands as high into the air as they can go and roaring "That's where the tall corn grows!"?

Besides, acting like drunk Shriners is a healthy release.


So what about "The Song of Iowa"?

It says we're the "fairest State of all the West." But not the East? Of course not. Maryland is, so the song speaks to Iowan humility.

It does have a few "yonders" in it. That's a little jarring to modern ears, but "sunset's purpling line" is moderately evocative.

It mentions corn. That's always good.

It boasts of "maids ... (with) laughing eyes." Sure, why not?

It concludes that "Thou'lt not forget thy patriot sons" even when all other people and governments have. That's noble.

OK, OK, so Hartsook is right: It's a pretty uninspiring song.

Did I hear someone in the back shout, "Lousy, too!"?


Maybe it is lousy. But it is our song.

No doubt, it appealed to Iowan lawmakers because "Der Tannenbaum" was a common folk tune among the state's many German immigrants. Even if you didn't know or understand the words, you at least could hum along.

But a good song - a really good one - should make you not just hum but feel a thought.

Here's some words to make you think: Would you rather have a state song inspired by a prisoner of war yearning for home or by Shriners on vacation in Los Angeles?

(originally published Feb. 15, 2004)

February 14, 2005

Lessons of romance via books

A post-Valentine's Day confession: Whenever dating girls in my premarriage days, I always snooped among their bookshelves.

Their reading selection - or lack of it - was a good indication if I should call for another date.

But I didn't look at titles, though a bevy of literary classics certainly scored more points than paperback romances and vampire short story collections. No, I was examining her relationship with books.

• • •

Shortly before entering grade school, I came down with an illness that left me hospitalized for two weeks and forced me to take penicillin daily for the next three years. To keep healthy, outside play during winter was forbidden.

So after school lunch each day, I'd trudge back to the classroom and stare out the window at my friends building snowmen, playing games of tag as they skidded along the ice, laughing as they stuck out their tongues and caught falling snow.

One day as glancing at the clock to see how much time was left of this torture, my eyes caught the great array of books lining the back wall. They'd always been there - for some reason, I'd just never noticed the possibilities they offered.

To get my mind off the kids outside, I walked to the back of the classroom and browsed the titles. There were books about dino-saurs, about being an astronaut, about winning the Indy 500, about how my favorite football team won the first Super Bowl. I pulled a volume from the shelf.

That day I discovered you are never truly alone when you have a book in your hands.

• • •

The best thing about dating a reader is you always have something to talk about. There never are any awkward quiet moments; you simply open conversations by saying "So, what are you reading these days?"

That, however, is when it gets tricky.

In my freshman year of college, during a first date with a girl named Shelly, she told me about her latest read, Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations." With each passing word, her face and gestures grew increasingly animated, and her angelic voice took me away like a sweet lullaby.

"Have you ever read Dickens?" she said suddenly.

I thought of the excerpts a doddering old professor had forced on my class that semester before and nodded.

"What did you think of him?"

"Well, he was a little long-winded," I said. "His descriptions seemed awfully verbose and not to lead anywhere."

Shelly's eyes widened. She crumpled her napkin, tossed it on her plate and harrumphed.

That night I discovered criticizing a book someone loves is a lot like spitting on her baby.

• • •

A true lover of books knows there is much more to the enjoyment of reading than a good author.

No, there also is atmosphere.

Little else rivals the comfort of reading a book while nestled in a cozy chair on a rainy evening. A little Col-trane plays softly on the stereo while a cup of coffee lets off steam on the end table.

Then there is that beautiful sound of pages turning, like water lapping against a shore as you and your be-loved walk hand-in-hand in-to the sunset.

• • •

I remember parking out on a lover's lane with Lauren. Silver moonlight bathed the cornfield in the valley below with silver. Our hearts beat fast as we snuggled. Earlier that school year she'd broken up with her long-time boyfriend who'd been cheating on her. But she was still lovesick for him.

Then Lauren pulled away, said we couldn't see each other anymore. She was going back to him.

Getting over her wasn't too difficult. Lauren didn't have much time for books.

• • •

Some who possess books are not readers. This pretension reminds me of the wealthy who collect tomes to appear well-educated.

So when scanning my date's bookshelves, I'd always quickly note which were half-pulled out from recent use. Others were too long and stuck over the shelf's edge; how she arranged them and how bookends were utilized - as decoration or for their actual purpose of keeping books standing in a straight row - told me how she organized other aspects of her life.

Melissa alphabetized her books by subject and then by the author's last name. Her Day Runner was just as meticulous. Beth's tomes lay scattered around the living room, most of them half-opened. She usually withdrew from a couple of classes every semester.

But no matter how the volumes were kept, there always was a great affection in my heart for the girl who chose an apartment in part because of the space available for her bookshelves.

• • •

For those who love to read, books are old traveling companions. If my date bothered to use a bookplate, what was written on it told scores; it was as if that girl's best friend had whispered to me some secret about her.

Always of special interest were which pages she'd dog-eared or left small white tatterings to mark special passages that had given her pause. It told me something of what she was thinking.

One day about 11 years ago, I peeked a look at such a passage marked with a shred of paper as she finished fixing her hair. Turning to the page, I found these words underlined: "Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue."

As her footfalls left the bathroom, I quickly shut the book and slipped it back on the shelf. But I knew that girl was a keeper.

This August, we'll have been married 13 years.

(originally published Feb. 17, 2003)

February 10, 2005

Look to the stars, post-Columbia

The loss of the space shuttle Columbia hit me particularly hard, but I think what hurt more were the calls in the aftermath for an end to manned space flight.

That's because if all would have gone as expected, I wouldn't be writing this column.

Instead, I'd be piloting a craft far superior to the space shuttle between the planets right now.

• • •

As a boy, I grew up in the dawning of the space age. At three, with millions across the globe, I saw the first pictures of space broadcast from an orbiting craft. At four, I followed Apollo as it circled the moon. At five, I watched a man step for the first time onto that distant world.

And each time during the next two years that humanity set foot on the lunar surface, this farm boy looked above the stalks in our cornfield at the moon, just to see if he might glimpse our astronauts up there. Maybe I'd catch a glint of sun off the lander or their ship as it quietly orbited in the lunar sky.

Talk was we soon would have an orbiting space station. Development of a spaceship that could fly like a plane was proposed; this "shuttle" would ferry men and construction materials to the Skylab station and then a base on the moon. These would be launching pads for a manned mission to Mars, probably by the early 1980s.

Most astronauts were fighter pilots, I'd read. After a few years learning to fly in the Air Force, I could enter the astronaut program in the early 1990s. I studied maps and travel books to locate Cocoa Beach, Fla., which was where my future home would be. All the astronauts lived in Cocoa Beach.

I wouldn't be spending much time there, however. By the mid 1990s, we'd be building that permanent base on Mars and traveling to Venus and Jupiter. Those were long flights, and I was going to be on them.

• • •

It was not to be.

Two disasters prevented me from ever becoming an astronaut.

In fifth grade, school eye tests discovered I needed glasses. Back then, fighter pilots and astronauts didn't have four eyes.

The other calamity was far more insidious. It was the American people's loss of interest in the space program.

Some blame it on NASA getting dull. Some say because the Russians gave up on going to the moon, we felt no urgent need to keep going.

I say it was a lack of imagination.

• • •

A professor in college once told me the best way to learn about a person is to look at his checkbook. He was right - hobbies and vices have a way of creeping into our wallets.

The Seventies were tough times economically. Twice there was oil rationing, and inflation burned up a dollar's value as if it were dry grass caught in a prairie fire. Priorities had to change.

Unfortunately, America's priorities weren't particularly forward-looking.

There were many then, as there are today, who didn't share the excitement of exploring. They didn't understand the words of Thomas Jefferson when he sent Lewis and Clark west on the Corps of Discovery: "Those who come after us will ... fill up the canvas we begin."

Some said that space travel brought no return on the dollar for the investment, even though the Apollo missions advanced computer technology, the food and textile industries and even resulted in smoke detectors now mandatory in most buildings.

Others said the money ought to be spent on helping the poor, on curing diseases, on feeding the hungry.

I have no problem with abandoning all space travel if the money would be allocated for that. But the simple fact is it's not.

• • •

If anything, much money is spent on personal weaknesses that often result, if indirectly, in child poverty, illness and malnutrition.

A case in point: Gambling.

For the most part, it is harmless entertainment. But a few years ago while in Wisconsin, I calculated gambling's cost in a newspaper column. Enough money was spent on reservation casinos, racetracks and the state-run lottery annually in Wisconsin that 36 new high schools, with swimming pools and auditoriums, could be constructed each year to house 1,200 students.

Since not all school districts were that large, and since elementary schools and junior high buildings typically did not need to be so lavish, each school structure in that state could be replaced once every 12 years. Wisconsinites - like Americans everywhere, in-cluding Iowa - made their choice. They selected gambling over education. They chose it over child poverty, medical research and feeding the masses as well.

There's more. Each American consumer in 1997 spent an average of $292 annually on alcohol and $251 on tobacco, according to the Monthly Labor Review. That sends yearly spending on two products - of which one typically is among the leading causes of many mortal ailments - into the billions.

Don't tell me we don't have the money.

• • •

Americans are a courageous people who possess a special generosity and friendliness known the world over. But we Americans have selfish streaks as well. At our worst, we forget about the plight of others so it will not interfere with personal pleasures.

But in our hearts, most of us wish to do the best.

The loss of Columbia and her crew struck hard because all of us lost a symbol of hope, a hope that lives inside us, even when we push it far to the back. Improving the lot of others is the highest calling of any human being, and we must always believe that someone is there to help or we risk losing the very will to live.

The Columbia seven's lives were sacrificed in the quest to improve our quality of life. They represented the best part in each of us, and when they died, so our faith in humanity also was challenged.

Perhaps, though, if we gaze above the corn stalks at the stars once more, we will see lights that inspire us to those greater heights.

(originally published Feb. 10, 2003)

February 08, 2005

One small way of getting back to nature

For the past few days I've had to scrape ice and snow off my car - and have been gleeful about it.

Such a chore may seem like an odd thing to make one happy. No one wants to stand in the cold, building up a sweat as chips and flakes fly back into the face. And often if snow is piled upon the windshield, it's piled around the fenders and tires, meaning you're going to step into a drift and get wet feet.

I don't concern myself with such unpleasantries, even look forward to them. Some of my colleagues tell me it's a subconscious desire to return north to my childhood home of Wisconsin, where winter starts and ends about a week earlier and any given day can be 10 degrees colder than Iowa City. But having lived for a couple of years in southern New Mexico, where T-shirt and shorts can be worn from Valentine's Day to Halloween, I safely can assert that all Midwest-ern winters pretty much are the same north of Interstate 80.


In all truth, having to scrape ice and snow off the car makes me feel better about myself. Through the workday, I sit upon a cushy chair either in an air-conditioned or suitably heated office. At night, I've got more cable stations that can be surfed through in a half-hour, a lengthy sofa with extra padding and a fully stocked refrigerator. If I get bored, there are more than 3 billion Web sites to surf.

It's a comfortable life - a life that most of us lead.

And there's not really a reason for me to even park my car outside; I've got a garage.

So why fight prairie winds as gingerly straddling a drift to clear a stubborn layer of frost off a windshield?

As a Valentine's Day gift this week, should my wife set an appointment for me to see a psychologist?


To truly appreciate the challenge of scraping snow off a windshield, people need to watch how their vehicles' glass changes with the seasons.

There's a pattern to it. In spring as the weather begins to warm, the windshield usually remains clear, offering an uninhibited view of dawn as the sun first reddens the horizon. By midsummer, though, as humidity soars, we have to wipe a layer of dew off the screen, sometimes even turn on the de-frost to evaporate it. The dry days of autumn leaves it clean again, but then slowly the dew returns and freezes, ebbing with Indian summer, but with each week growing thicker, until it becomes winter's full-fledged ice.

There's a rhythm to this, and a suggestion that despite our high tech thin-plate windows that keep us snugly warm when inside, we are not so far removed from the natural world on the outside.

And returning to that plane of existence, if only for a few minutes each day, isn't so bad.


It's not so bad primarily because it offers challenge. And challenge is what drives humanity.

Anthropologists say Mother Nature nearly wiped out Homo sapiens some 70,000 years ago. As the great ice sheets covered Eur-ope, the Sahara expanded, reducing game and plants for our ancestors while isolating family groups. There may have only been about 10,000 or so humans left. That's about as many students as attend the University of Iowa during summer.

One day, a band of humans hemmed against the Red Sea decided to take matters in their own hands. With water levels low, they island hopped to greener lands on the Arabian Peninsula. From there, humanity spread along the coasts of the Indian Ocean and then inland along river channels, ultimately claiming Europe and North America as the glaciers retreated.

With each step taken, we challenged all Mother Nature threw at us: drought, monsoons, wild animals, floods, disease, poor soil. Today, at least in the modern West, we're barely bothered by the natural world.

But in all of that time, imprinted deep upon our genes, was a desire to face and overcome challenges, if only so we could be comfortable.


This perhaps is why we still hold competitive sports. Why we turn presidential campaigns into horse races. Why some call for us to settle the moon and Mars, though space is the most in-hospitable and challenging of environments.

It's why a baby's first step is a milestone. Why the first word and graduation from high school is so meaningful, though both have been done millions of times.

The struggle itself is the thing. Should we fail to overcome hurdles because of a character flaw, it's tragic. Should some demonstrate foolish ways of mastering obstacles, it's comedy.


Sometimes when I chisel ice off my windshield, one leg standing in snow up to the knee, somebody in his or her perfectly clean and warm SUV barrels out of a nearby garage and snickers while driving by.

But I don't complain about the ice or the snow or the cold. It's unseemly to do so, not Midwestern. After all, hearing someone from Atlanta whine about a half-inch of snow from a freak storm makes all of us think, "You ought to try living here, buddy!"

But we shouldn't boast about the weather, either. That would take the edge of our minor victory.

(originally published Feb. 8, 2004)

February 03, 2005

‘The day the music died...’

Today is the anniversary of "the day the music died."

It was on Feb. 3, 1959, that a small plane carrying rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed near Mason City. After playing the north Iowa gig in their Winter Dance Party tour, the trio was en route to Fargo.

The events of that night always have caused me to pause. And after they were immortalized in Don McLean's heartfelt "American Pie," who wouldn't they touch?

This year, however, those deaths ring a little more deeply with me. My wife and I just moved to Iowa and somehow being in the same state as where the crash occurred makes it all that more poignant.

I know the story of Buddy Holly's death almost by heart: How the Beechcraft Bonanza they flew on allegedly was named "American Pie," of how nobody knew the plane had crashed until the next morning when it didn't show up in Fargo, of how it was found on the Albert Juul farm, of how the plane dug a furrow through a cornfield's stubble before piling up against a fence.

I know these details because my mother told them to me every time she heard a Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens or Big Bopper song on the radio while I was growing up. She had watched them perform only a few days before when the Winter Dance Party played in Eau Claire, Wis.

A long, long time ago

By 1959, rock and roll was on the decline. Elvis was in the army. Record companies had domesticated the genre and were releasing music whose downbeat boasted Pat Boone.

Buddy Holly was trying to stay afloat in this musical quagmire. He'd just released "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," and that January began the Winter Dance Party Tour in Milwaukee with his cohorts.

On Jan. 26, the trio, along with Dion and the Belmonts, played the Fournier Ball-room in Eau Claire.

My mother was just a high school freshman that year, but when Buddy Holly came to town, there was no way she wasn't going to be anywhere but at that show. Even more challenging than her age was that the show was on a Monday - a school night.

Worse, it lasted until 10:30 p.m., which was curfew. Like Cinderella trying to beat the midnight chimes, how was she going to get home without missing part of the show?

Fortunately for her, her best friend had an older sister who had a boyfriend who had a car. The older sister struck a deal: Pay for my boyfriend and me to get in, and you've got a ride.

My mother said it was the best $1.25 she ever spent.

By today's standards, Buddy Holly looks cool because he's retro. But back then in his black horn-rim-med glasses, he was considered a geek.

What made him cool was the passion he put into his playing.

"Now do you believe in rock'n'roll?" McClean wrote a decade after the crash. "Can music save your mortal soul? And can you teach me how to dance real slow?"

Holly and Valens and Dion spoke to my mother, her friend, and all of the other teens at Fournier's that night. I can see them kicking off their shoes and digging those rhthym'n'blues.

Bad news on the door step

A couple of days after Eau Claire, the Winter Dance Party saw what a real Midwest winter is like. They were stranded in Appleton, Wis., on Feb. 1 when their bus broke down. With no heat, they burned newspapers in the aisle to keep warm. One of the band members suffered frostbite.

They made it to Green Bay that night, however, and played. Then they flew to Iowa and performed at the Surf Ballroom at Clear Lake on Feb. 2.

That evening - a Monday - Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper decided to fly ahead for a little rest and to get the musicians' costumes dry cleaned. The rest of the party would take the bus, which meant a long, cold ride across the wind-swept prairie.

Richie Valens won a coin toss to get a seat on the plane.

Shortly after 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, the plane took off from Mason City Municipal Airport. Just a few miles later, it quickly lost altitude. The plane slammed into the ground at 170 miles per hour.

My mother didn't find out about Holly's death until she got home from school that night and turned on her radio. The local station was playing "That'll Be The Day," "La Bamba" and "Chantilly Lace" - her favorite songs - over and over. Her exuberance ended when the disc jockey told the unhappy news.

"The lovers cried and the poets dreamed. But not a word was spoken - the church bells all were broken."

Miss American Pie

I've never been to the cornfield where Buddy Holly lost his life. Maybe some day I will go. Each year a Winter Dance Party festival is held in Mason City, and mourners gather at the crash site to pay their respects.

And every year the newspapers and television stations in those towns where Holly performed that winter retell the story of what happened and show blurry black and white photographs of their sock hop. Whenever I see pictures from Eau Claire, I look for my mother in them.

I've never seen her, though she has a clipping from some years back that she says shows her friend's older sister. A smile brighter than a summer's dawn covers the girl's face as her hair whirls with her hips in beat to the song Holly belted out only a few feet away.

And each time I think of that face, I remember those immortal lines: "Do you recall what was revealed, the day the music died?"

(originally published Feb. 3, 2003)

February 01, 2005

Lowest common denominator sank the captain

One of my childhood friends died recently. If it's any consolation, most of America is sharing in the grief.

Captain Kangaroo - Bob Keeshan in real life - died Jan. 23. Weekday mornings from 1955 to 1991 on CBS, then public television, most preschool children started their day with the captain and his cast - Mr. Green Jeans whose contraptions always fell apart, glasses-wear-ing Bunny Rabbit who always tried to trick the captain out of carrots, Mr. Moose whose knock-knock jokes always ended with the captain being showered in dozens of Ping-Pong balls.

Two generations grew up with Captain Kangaroo, and as they changed, so did elements of his show. There was the black and white version that Baby Boomers watched; back then, a younger Keeshan wore a big sea captain's coat with oversized pockets and broadcast from the "Treasure House." Then came the color version for Generation Xers - the one I watched - where a more mature Keeshan wore a red blazer and broadcast from the "Captain's Place."

At the core, though (gathering from my talks with "older" colleagues), Captain Kangaroo was the same walrus-mustachioed, slightly rotund, doddering old friend with the Dutch-boy haircut who read stories and entertained children no matter what the year.

And he always was quite real. Why, his house and Mr. Green Jeans' barn could be just down the road, beyond the next cornfield.


No educational instruction occurs in a moral vacuum. In history class, the covering of specific wars, personalities and political events implies they carry greater importance than the ones left out. Stories in reading and English courses each offer a lesson, even if simplistic. Science and health classes carry curricular limitations because of political storms stirred by belief-sensitive winds.

Television is little different. Broadcasts seethe with our cultural values.

A question raised by Keeshan - and later Fred Rogers and Jim Henson - was whether we should allow television to appeal to the lowest common denominator and hence reinforce in children the worst of our society's values, such as violence as a means of solving a problem.

Their conclusion was that children appreciated having their intelligence challenged and that adults need not talk down to youth.

It's why Captain Kangaroo always started the show by saying, "Good morning." He wanted it to seem as if he were talking only to you.


From a marketer's perspective, Captain Kangaroo just didn't cut it. He couldn't draw the viewers and was slashed to a half-hour then reduced to a once-a-week appearance each Saturday during his last days on CBS. Maybe if he would have had laser beams and foul-mouthed fourth-graders, the show could have survived.

Instead, public television picked him up for a few final years. But with cable's ever-expanding buffet of children's shows, even PBS had to move on. Perhaps if Keeshan had added explosions, Ninja-style kicks and a puppet that could be sold as an action figure, the show could have gone on.

But the program didn't encourage anyone to violence. It didn't persuade kids to attempt dangerous stunts. It didn't sell any sugary breakfast cereals.

It did increase the telling of knock-knock jokes among preschoolers, though.


Everyone has a favorite memory of Captain Kangaroo. Some enjoyed the stories he read. Others recall how they learned to tie shoes from a skit involving Bunny Rabbit. I myself liked repeating "Abracadabra, please and thank you!"

These days, I find that too few people say "please" and "thank you" in public discourse.


Ironically, Captain Kangaroo's undoing was his very strength: He wasn't edgy.

Keeshan moved through his show at a leisurely pace. For many of my generation, it was a pleasant relief for sleepy heads too often suffering through family turmoil.

Keeshan found teaching some very basic life lessons was most important. Play fair. Share. Tell the truth. Say "please" and "thank you." Be kind to your parents. Follow the Golden Rule. And along the way, have some fun.

They're good lessons to learn. Looking at the news in a recent paper, there are a number of people who probably should have watched Captain Kangaroo.

But alas, the lowest common denominator won. The Ping-Pong balls just kept falling and falling and falling. He went off the air.

Rest in peace, old friend.

(originally published Feb. 1, 2004)