“Desiderata” is Latin for “things desired.” Often in difficult times, the thing we most desire is peace.
The prolific, inspirational writer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) of Terre Haute, Indiana, penned a prose poem that was published as “Desiderata” in 1948. It is the only one of his works to achieve enduring fame, and that only after his death.
For its tone and diction, and because it once appeared in a church publication with the legend, “Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692,” it is often assumed to be ancient, maybe even Scriptural in origin. “1692,” however, meant the date of the church’s founding, not of the poem’s writing.
“Desiderata” is neither Biblical nor liturgical nor even very old. But, like Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, it stakes a claim to an authenticity of its own. It swept the nation in 1971, when a voice artist named Les Crane released it as a spoken word recording. That was at the height of our nation’s internal turmoil over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. The serene, contemplative tone of the piece may have boosted its popularity.
Today we are again in a time of stress and conflict. Perhaps Mr. Ehrmann’s poem will be of some use to you. At least, it constitutes good advice.
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Never thought this blog would become a soapbox, but here goes—
For decades, we have decried “loss of civility” in our public discourse.
Confucius said we would be less confused if we called things by their right names. What we commonly call “loss of civility” we ought to call “viciousness.”
Recently, as an antidote to the throbbing toothache that social media has become, I posted on Facebook the following:
This brief message is my own. It is not a pre-manufactured meme that I picked up somewhere, or a quote from somebody else that I thought would be fun to appropriate for my own use. This is the actual view of Larry F. Sommers.
We are called to love one another. The most elementary way to practice this commandment is to be kind and forbearing.
What does “kind and forbearing” mean? It means we do not speak ill of others or wish ill to others, even those who are not present with us. Even if they are public figures such as politicians or movie stars whom we do not know. Even if they are unknown members of the general public whose views disagree with ours. Even if our speech is not really our own but is copied from somebody else, such as a professional manufacturer of nasty memes. Even if our speech is only on social media, and everybody else on social media is speaking the same way. Even if the targets of our invective spoke ill of us first.
Our society’s public discourse has become a cesspool of narcissistic, poisonous invective. Nobody will cure that unless we do. Let us be generous in our estimates of one another, and act and speak accordingly.
Blessings, and thank you for your attention to this matter.
I probably should have added, “Even if they are in a category of people we have decided to dislike.”
I hardly thought this manifesto would be controversial, nor was it meant as an experiment of any kind. But it turned out to be an experiment, and an illuminating one at that.
Many of my friends agreed in general with my remarks, but some added caveats. None spoke directly against kindness and forbearance. But they did seem to think there were larger issues at stake in our human conversations.
Their implication—or was it only my inference from their remarks?—is that sometimes, in the pursuit of justice or of holiness, we must employ vilification.
I disagree categorically. What could be a larger issue than our need of kindness and forbearance?
The only thing I said was that people ought not to speak ill of one another or wish ill upon one another. I did not suggest revoking the First Amendment.
Justice and Injustice
“. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—Micah 6:8.
I’ve always felt the prophet’s words “do justice” referred prima facie to one’s own acts, as in “deal justly with others.” But some folks would interpret those words as mandating that we police injustices commited by other people as well.
This interpretation proposes that when we see injustice in the doings of others, our perception is true and accurate. The absurdity of this assumption is just what Jesus was addressing when he said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
I will stipulate that if you can transform your neighbor’s acts through the use of sweet reason, you may be onto something. But the moment you resort to obloquy, it’s a sign your case is weak.
Apart from the aforementioned sweet reason, we have not even the ability, much less the authority, to compel others to do right. And calling names will not help. Nor will venting our anger with such colorful expressions as “Fuck you!” or “Fuck (So-and-so)”—phrases I see often in what passes for civic discourse on the Internet.
Even milder expressions may cross over from reason to invective. Horace Greeley (1811-1872), teetotaler and Republican, is reputed to have uttered: “I never said all Democrats were saloon-keepers; what I said was all saloon-keepers are Democrats.” This nice distinction matters little. Whether you’re a Democrat or a saloon-keeper, you know that Horace Greeley has consigned you to the deepest circle of Hell.
Besides the business about a log in one’s eye, Jesus also said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” No wonder the Book of Proverbs tells us to guard our mouths.
God has placed us in a very large world, a large world inside an even larger universe. In that universe, and in that world, a great many things take place—almost an infinite array of different objects, patterns, and events. There are more people, more cultures, more habits, more motives than you can shake a stick at.
You need not be a cultural relativist, or an amoralist, to see that in this vast carnival of life—in what Delmore Schwartz called “the scrimmage of appetite everywhere”—almost the only thing we may control is our own conduct. As a corollary, almost the only way to influence the conduct of others is by our own example.
Feel free also to look at this from the other end of the telescope. By absolutely relinquishing the cheap options of calumny and hostility, one is freed for the grander game: The slight chance to improve others’ ideas and attitudes through patient, persistent persuasion. (SPOILER ALERT: Such persuasion is a lifetime project and offers no guarantee of success.)
Modern American society has canonized the practice of giving free rein to one’s passions. But I am here to suggest that not every emotional impulse need be shared with others, especially if it be shared in the manner of a bludgeon. Society will work better when more of us cultivate a studied reticence, giving only blessing and encouragement to our friends—and making everybody, as much as possible, our friends.
High principles which require ad hominem salvos for their defense may not be such high principles after all. If they cannot be advanced by calm and logical argument, perhaps they should be exchanged for others that can be.
“O Inky Wretch,” you may ask, “do you always practice what you preach?”
Of course not; I am only human. But, with great persistence, I do try.
DEAR READER: This is a re-post of the first entry to this blog on 12 April 2019. You can judge for yourself whether subsequent posts have fulfilled the original intention. Of course, to do that, you would have to read them all, which is definitely encouraged.
“In my dotage, I am reduced to bloggery.”—King Lear, Act VII, line 4,926
Perhaps the best way to tell you about that, as Michael Hauge would say, is to tell you how I came to write this blog.
I was a happy, successful septuagenarian. But—from the time I wrote a detective story on a pencil tablet in third grade, when I was supposed to be doing something else—I had always meant to be a writer of fiction. What with one thing and another, I just had never gotten around to it.
So I quit my day job to write fiction. I had something to say. Just didn’t know what it was. Now, if you have an itch like that, nonfiction won’t scratch it. Something about fiction gives you an opportunity to tell the truth.
My approach to writing fiction is what the psychologists call a “projective technique”—akin to journaling, role-playing, or inkblot-guessing. I just thought, “I’ll start writing, and see what comes out.”
What could possibly go wrong? 🙂
Within a couple of years, I was lucky enough to get a few short pieces published: a dog essay in Fetch! magazine and three “Izzy Mahler” stories, about a young boy growing up in the 1950s, published electronically by the Saturday Evening Post.
Meanwhile, I started thinking about a historical novel based on Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, my great-great-grandparents, who came from Norway to Illinois before the Civil War.
Fast forward to Now, and I have a good first draft of that work, Freedom’s Purchase. All I need to do is make it a lot better, and then pitch it to agents and publishers.
The Writer’s Life
But—STOP THE PRESSES! It turns out that to be in the writing game in a serious way, you must become a Major Literary Figure before the ink is dry on your first paragraph. You can’t simply write something great, publish it, become rich and famous, and then go on to your next triumph. That’s not How the World Works.
You must let other talented writers see your work and critique it. This is a vitally necessary step, if you want to avoid writing unprintable dreck. But when others spend time and effort to read and critique your stuff, you must do the same for them. Reciprocity rules. That means that from the outset of your writing career, you’re sending drafts to fellow writers, receiving and responding to drafts of theirs.
For researching subject matter and for familiarization with the literary landscape, you find yourself reading more and more books—things you would not have read otherwise. You write and submit thumbnail book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.com. You subscribe to writers’ magazines and literary market websites.
You’d better attend a writers’ conference now and then. Two great ones are hosted every year in my home town by the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They cost money and time, but it’s necessary money and time. Writing can be a lonely business, and a solid bond with your “tribe” of fellow writers will help see you through.
And what of querying and pitching—researching agents and publishers, and learning the best ways to approach them? The material they receive is so voluminous that you need to find ways to make your submissions stand out.
“You and what army?”
And finally—or, perhaps, initially—you need an “author platform.” Platform is a code word for a large band of fanatical followers. (This could include you, Gentle Reader!)
Book publishers try not to take unnecessary risks. They do want to publish great writing. But, as between a Great Writer with an Army of Rabid Fans and a Great Writer who is just, well, a Great Writer—they’ll take the former. It all but ensures a certain number of sales. If you were a publisher, you’d feel the same way, n’est-ce pas?
There was once a golfer with a platform that just wouldn’t quit. His name was Arnold Palmer. His fans were known as “Arnie’s Army.” I could use an army.
“What’s it All About, Alfie?”
At some point, a writer starts thinking like this: Why am I doing this? Writers don’t make fortunes, unless their name is James Patterson. Writers are lucky just to get advantageous publication. Still: If one must write, one writes. And it would be good to have lots of people read what one writes.
So, hoping to zero in on why people might want to read what I write, I plumbed the depths of my psyche (both inches) and concluded that what I have to say to people is always rooted in a general awareness of our common past.
A noted poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
That sense of better-late-than-not-at-all recognition of the world is what I seek, in personal memories from my long life or in the delving into events that no one is still alive to remember.
To cultivate my author platform, therefore—so that people beyond my family may take an interest in my books when they are published—I hereby launch this website, larryfsommers.com, including this blog, titled “Reflections.”
If you come back from time to time you’ll encounter various kinds of content:
Ruminations on “the writer’s life.”
Narratives of past events, sometimes written as fictional vignettes.
Mentions of good books recently read.
News and chat from my widening circle of fellow writers.
Tales of success (or even of well-curated failure!) in the literary lists.
Pretty-much-brilliant observations and insights on the passing scene.
Occasional adumbrations of the Judeo-Christian faith that informs and animates all of these things in my life.
Be brave enough to stick around through several posts, and you’ll catch on. I’ll try to post something new every Tuesday. Hope to see you often.
His name was Franklin. Most folks around the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, called him Frankie.
He was the youngest of five children. At Knoxville High School he played football and basketball and ran track—as had his brothers Lloyd, Stanley, and Edward before him. He was a regular kid, good-looking, with a winning smile.
He graduated from high school in May 1941. Seven months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States went to war against the Axis Powers. Frankie enlisted as an Army Aviation Cadet on 3 April 1942.
In December, while he was in his year-long pilot’s training, his brother Stanley was killed flying a B-17 in the Southwest Pacfic. Frankie graduated from Advanced Flying School and was commissioned a second lieutenant 12 April 1943. After a week-long home furlough and a brief training assignment in Florida, he left for England.
They sent him to RAF Chipping Ongar, near London, home of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 559th Bomber Squadron, 387th Bomber Group, Medium. On 1 August, 1943, after 68.6 hours of training flights in the squadron’s twin-engined B-26 Marauders, he flew his first actual bombing mission. Through the end of August, he flew five training missions and five more combat missions, totaling 20.5 hours.
His seventh combat mission was on 2 September 1943. By this time he was the regular co-pilot on Aircraft 41-31629, Janet’s Dream, captained by First Lieutenant William F. Vosburgh.
Over Bergues, France, Janet’s Dream took flak—anti-aircraft artillery fire—in her right engine, and Frankie’s war ended. The Marauder broke up and crashed, killing Frankie, Vosburgh, and two others. Two back-end crewmen bailed out and became prisoners of war.
Frankie’s eldest brother Edward, a pilot for Pan American Airways, paid a visit to Frankie’s unit in England. He collected Frankie’s things, talked with his commander and fellow fliers. Frankie had been well-liked, a “regular guy” and was the “banker” of the outfit—always had a few bucks he could lend to a fellow aviator in need.
“Hap” Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, sent my grandparents a letter that read almost as if he knew young Franklin William Sommers personally.
“It has come to my attention that Lieutenant Sommers, a highly regarded graduate of the Advanced Flying School at La Junta, Colorado, was a brave and conscientious officer. He attained success in his effort to perform his duties in a superior manner and his commanding officers were pleased with his accomplishment of difficult tasks which they entrusted to him. Amiable and dependable, he made friends easily, and he is keenly missed in the activities of his group.”
Though doubtless they knew it was War Deparment boilerplate, this stately prose must have given them some comfort.
Frankie was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. His remains were buried in Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32 at the Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.
Frankie was 20 when he died, unmarried and childless.
I was born almost two years later, never having known my Uncle Franklin—who now lives on only in my middle name, and in a few yellowing letters and photos.
All of that was three-quarters of a century ago. What has it to do with today?
Through life my friends have generally known me as Larry Sommers; but when I launched my writing career at age 70, I did so as Larry F. Sommers. I thought it had implications for author branding. “Larry Sommers” was plain vanilla; but “Larry F. Sommers” was premium vanilla.
Besides that trivial consideration, I’m starting to understand that my name is more authentic with the “F” included. Authenticity can’t be manufactured; it can’t be designed, can’t be faked. Authenticity is that ineffable quality of actually being who you really are.
My middle name, Franklin, claims the patrimony of my uncle’s remembrance. It is not something to be shucked off lightly. This man I never met gave his life for me before I was even conceived. He gave his life for all of us—one of many who did so in a dark chapter of the world’s story.
Unlike those many others, Frankie, and his older brother Stanley, were mine. I am bound to them by two bloods— the blood of kinship and the blood of sacrifice.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Our being is entangled in those we remember and perpetuate—ancestors, forerunners, pioneers of our civilization.
Whatever authenticity we may possess is a mix of individual traits with old associations. We are the sum of our present selves, our past, our family’s past, and our people’s past.
I never knew Uncle Stanley or Uncle Franklin. There is no need or mandate for me to carry their baggage, the burden of young lives so casually cast on history’s ash heap. Yet, wearing their mantle on my shoulders makes me more the person I am, not less.
You can be an atom, bouncing along in a hostile universe; or, with God’s grace and your own awareness, you can purposely pitch your tent along the route of the grand parade. You can be one with your uncles, with your aunts, with Mister Lincoln, with Frederick Douglass, with the signers of the Magna Carta, with Leif Erikson and with Homer, who sang the tales of Odysseus the adventurer.
You can be part of all the glory of the human condition, but then you must be part of the pain also.
That, Gentle Reader, is what I mean by “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.”
Bereft of people to see and places to be, I turn to the dwindling wood-pile in the rack along my garage wall.
A couple of years ago our friend Kevin rebuilt our old miscellaneous junk depot, making it into a newly inviting sunroom. It’s an awkwardly long space with a lot of windows but no connection to the furnace that warms the rest of our house. So Kevin installed a cast-iron woodstove at the far end of the room.
That woodstove has become a great blessing to Your New Favorite Writer. It means I can write in the calm of our sunroom in warm weather, in the cooler times of spring and fall, and even in the deepest part of winter.
But the cost is: Procuring enough firewood and splitting the logs to stack for drying and burning.
Into the Trees
Old-timers say firewood warms you twice: First when you cut it, haul it, and stack it; and second when you burn it.
I like to get logs for free, rather than pay money. From time to time, someone in the neighborhood has a tree felled; usually this work is done by hired arborists. If the homeowner does not want the wood, the wood cutters must haul the logs to a dump for disposal—an added expense I can lighten for them by taking some logs off their hands. It never hurts to ask.
After hauling a few heavy, 4- to 6-foot logs home in the back of my SUV, I need to cut them to fireplace lengths. I use a small, seven-pound Stihl chainsaw with a 14-inch bar. Small beats large where chainsaws are concerned. Schlepping a 23-pound, 20-inch murder machine around a tangled logjam will knock the stuffing out of you in half an hour. Very few men or women who are not woodsmen by trade can put a large chainsaw to good use. And fatigue will make the urban lumberjack a danger to self and others.
The timber is sawn, ideally, into 16-inch segments; then the real fun begins. Logs need to be split (1) so they’ll dry more efficiently, for the bark holds moisture in; (2) so they’ll fit conveniently in the stove; (3) so they’ll burn more readily as flames lap at their exposed innards; and (4) so Your New Favorite Writer may enjoy the satisfaction of cleaving a pillar of wood with the bite of a sharp axe.
Good blocks of beech it was I split, As large around as the chopping block; And every piece I squarely hit Fell splinterless as a cloven rock. The blows that a life of self-control Spares to strike for the common good That day, giving a loose to my soul, I spent on the unimportant wood.
Scavenging for wood seldom brings me “good blocks of beech” that fall “splinterless as a cloven rock.” Quite often I’m using, by turns, my axe, a heavy splitting maul, or even wedges and a sledgehammer to demolish a twisty, knotted specimen of brutish maple or fruitwood with desperately cross-tangled fibers. It’s frustrating to try to smash such a godforsaken glob of sylvan perversity to flinders.
But, ah! when I do score a nice chunk of straight-grained hardwood—such a joy to plummet the steel down upon it and pick up the halves on either side, to set the halves again on the chopping block and knock them into clean, glistening quarters. If you have ever done this kind of elemental work, then you know the peace it bestows.
Splitting wood adds rest and harmony to the soul.
Some of my neighbors use hydraulic splitters that can shiver a timber to its component parts in seconds. I have no quarrel with this efficient practice. I just like my way better.
Pride of Axemanship
Frost mentions a pair of bystanders who watched him at his beech-splitting chore:
Men of the woods and lumberjacks, They judged me by their appropriate tool. Except as a fellow handled an ax, They had no way of knowing a fool.
So there’s that, too. Pride, you see, rears its ugly head. I am proud of the little wood lore I have gained over my 75 years on God’s green earth, starting as a Boy Scout and continuing to the present day. Whatever small skill of axemanship I possess has been earned through uncounted hours of practice on “the unimportant wood.”
Let us say, rather: The importance of wood may be more in its first warming than in the second.
Owing to my amateur status as an axeman, and also to the amateur status of some of the trees I scrounge, my woodpile is far from a thing of beauty. Unlike those geometric wonders of forest engineering you see gracing the pages of coffee table books, my woodrack has all sorts of bent and twisted knots and gnarls, wood of all descriptions protruding rudely to snag the sweater of a careless passer-by. It’s almost disgraceful.
But here’s the thing, Gentle Reader: I intend to burn up all the evidence.
The menace of this season’s global pandemic, with its mandated idleness, has simply led back to roots, and branches, that are dear to me for their own sake.
Here’s hoping you likewise may find blessed paths to pursue as we patiently await good tidings from our common future.
Does a writer spring full-bodied from the brow of Zeus, like Athena? Or does a writer rise from the sawdust of the arena floor, like Eric Hoffer? Are writers born, or made?
All I know is, writers write. Perhaps you are one of us. We who cannot not write.
Some of our tribe, like the fictional Jo March of Little Women and John-Boy of The Waltons, scribble in notebooks from childhood on and sell their first work as teenagers. Others may hold their fire like dormant volcanoes, then erupt in middle age. My friend Greg Renz waited till retirement to novelize the stories he had been processing over 28 years as a Milwaukee firefighter.
I’d be willing to bet that more than once during those 28 years, Greg told some of his stories to someone, informally. I doubt anybody suddenly becomes a writer without some kind of prelude. What warming-up exercises did Homer go through before composing 27,000 lines of dactyllic hexameter known as the Iliad and the Odyssey?
Dear Reader, I was an old man when I set out to burst upon the literary scene. I wanted to share my dearest concerns with others.
I did not know how to do it but was called to try. Impressions, thoughts, and feelings that had been marinating in cobwebbed bottles on the dusty shelves of my soul began to ooze forth as written words that the world might see.
Like Greg, Jo, John-Boy, and Homer, I did not come to this calling completely cold.
I wrote a detective story when I was eight. Around that time, I also drew a few comic strips starring myself and a fantasy sidekick as cowboys, fighting bad guys. In junior high I got a $25 savings bond for writing an essay about traffic safety. I wrote for the high school paper. I was a radio guy in college. After a series of abortive career launches in young manhood, I at last burrowed safely into the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, the agency that oversees the National Guard and Emergency Management. My role there included both writing and photographic skills. After 23 years with the agency, I retired. Immediately I was called to edit a well-regarded and historic religious quarterly, The Congregationalist—a part-time job I did for six and a half years.
I had done no “creative” writing since grade school. But I had the itch to “be a writer.” Having reached the age of 70, I knew that if I wanted to be a writer, I’d better get started.
For by that time I was feeling definitely Homeric. Odyssean, in fact. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses,” has his old Ulysses (Odysseus) say—
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As tho’ to breathe were life! . . . . . . but every hour is saved From that eternal silence, something more, A bringer of new things . . . .
New things. Yes. I was ready for new things. So in 2016, I quit the best job I ever had and declared myself a writer. Not in some doomed quest for fame, fortune, or any other phantasm. But merely to share myself with you and others in a new way. Have you ever had that kind of an urge?
A New Chapter
There were things to get off my chest; this I knew. I just didn’t know exactly what they were. That was what Mr. Donald Rumsfeld would call “a known unknown”: I knew that I did not know it. But faith told me that if I only started to write it down, it would come out through my fingers and splat itself upon the virtual page of my laptop screen. It would become visible, and then I could fix it up.
The real itch inside me, the thing I wanted to share with the world, was precisely what T.S. Eliot mentioned in his poem, “Little Gidding”:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
Yes, I thought, that’s really what I’m all about. I want to unearth the long-ago and show it in new writing, so that I, and my readers, can see that past with new eyes.
I wrote short stories about life in the 1950s, starring a little boy named Izzy Mahler, based on my own small-town boyhood. Three of them—“Nickle and Dime,” “The Liberation of Irma Ruger,” and “The Lion’s Den”—achieved online publication, with minor paychecks, by The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, Virginia, there still is a Saturday Evening Post.
“Those Old Siberian Blues,” a whimsical essay about our then 12-year-old Siberian husky, Montana, was published in Fetch!, “Wisconsin’s #1 Free Dog Publication,” in December 2016.
But soon, bigger game was afoot: A sweeping historical novel, an immigrant saga.
A Novel Obsession
My wife, Joelle, had researched and archived our family’s roots, both on her side and on mine. She did such sound research that she won an award.
Since I was now a self-admitted full-time writer, she badgered me to write a brief prose essay on one of my ancestors. This was necessary to claim a cultural skills badge in genealogy from the Sons of Norway. Both of us have Norwegian lines, but I was the “official” member of the organization. Besides, she said, “You are the writer, I’m just the researcher. Write something about one of your ancestors.”
So I looked into the research that she had painstakingly compiled and learned that my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, came from Norway in 1853 and settled in Menard County, Illinois.
Gentle Reader, please take note of this: I knew nothing about Anders Gunstensen. We had no diaries, letters, artifacts, heirlooms, or even word-of-mouth stories about Anders, his wife Johanne-Marie Nybro, or Norway. None of this had come down through my family.
I am thus a Norwegian without any discernible Norwegiosity. I snakker ikke norsk (speak no Norwegian); Grandma didn’t bake fattigmands bakkelser (“Poor man’s cookies”) at Christmas; I don’t even own a Norwegian sweater. Uff-da!
We had only dry statistics: Anders’ dates of birth, emigration, marriage, and death; names of his parents and more remote progenitors; what ship he traveled on; the woman he married; the places where he lived; the children he fathered; and the simple fact that he wore Union blue as a soldier in the Civil War.
To make even a brief article from these bare bones took some interpretation—dare I say, interpolation—from hard facts to reasonable inferences.
Anders embarked for America February 8, 1853, the very day after his passport was issued. Hmm. Seems he was in a big hurry to get out of Norway.
He sailed from Arendal, Norway, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Not New York, not Quebec. New Orleans. Picture a 23-year-old farm boy leaving Norway in early February and arriving in New Orleans eight weeks later. The heat alone must have prostrated him—not to mention the spectacle: Hordes of people, all races, all colors, all modes of dress, all speaking a polyglot of American, European, and African tongues. And some of them buying and selling others in open-air slave markets.
What a novel this would make.
The trickle of Norwegian immigrants in the 1830s and ’40s had become a stream by the 1850s. That stream flowed from New York or Quebec to Northern Illinois, then to Wisconsin, then to Minnesota and on west. Anders traveled north from New Orleans, undoubtedly by steamboat, and stopped when he got to Central, not Northern, Illinois—in a place with only a handful of other Norwegians. He had to learn English and local customs fast.
Then, two years after settling in this non-Scandinavian part of North America, he married a Norwegian girl, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, who had come to Menard County from guess where? Oiestad, Anders’ own home village. Is that a spooky coincidence? How did that happen?
Can you see, Fair Reader, how a person might start to become a novelist? If you were in my place, wanting answers to questions that had no answers, you might do the same thing I did: Make the answers up!
You should go. I mean now. Drop what you’re doing and buy a ticket.
Grandpa donated my surname, which is German. But Grandma Sommers was a Gunsten, with two Norwegian grandparents, Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came over in the 1850s.
Since Grandma was half Norwegian, that means Dad was one-quarter Norwegian, so my sister and I are one-eighth Norwegian. Being even one-eighth Norwegian is pretty cool, because Norway is a gorgeous country, full of delicious food and improbable—dare I say quixotic?—heroes.
But it’s off the beaten track, on a boreal peninsula. And its population of five million is a fraction of Germany’s or France’s. Norway, to get any press at all, has had to specialize. Her great achievements are mostly explorations, and mostly nautical.
Around AD 1,000, Leif Erikson and friends sailed Viking longships across the North Atlantic and discovered America.
In the 1890s, Fridtjof Nansen built Fram, an uncommonly sturdy three-masted schooner, which he deliberately stuck in the arctic ice pack to study circumpolar drift. By 8 January 1895 the ice had carried the ship farther north than any ship had ever gone. On 14 March, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen set out in dogsleds for the North Pole. They had to turn back short of their goal, but they did reach 86°13’6″ N, almost three degrees beyond the previous record.
On 14 December 1911, Roald Amundsen led the first expedition that reached the South Pole. Fifteen years later, Amundsen crossed the North Pole in a dirigible airship, leading what may have been the first expedition ever to reach 90°N by any means. (Three prior claims—by Frederick Cook in 1908, Robert Peary in 1909, and Richard E. Byrd in 1926—have been disputed.)
Thus it was with great expectations that my daughter, Katie, and I drove to Stoughton, Wisconsin, to see Kon-Tiki, a two-hour film dramatization of Thor Heyerdahl’s epic 1947 voyage across the Pacific on a balsa wood raft. It was shown at Livsreise, the amazing new Norwegian heritage center in Stoughton, Wisconsin. (A visit to Livsreise, by the way, is the next best thing to visiting Norway. Think of it as preliminary research for your upcoming trip.)
Across the Pacific by Raft
In 1950, Heyerdahl, who by the way was a great storyteller, published the bookKon-Tiki, recounting his epic voyage, and it became a best-seller. Heyerdahl was a zoologist, botanist, and anthropologist. His long stay on the little island of Fatu Hiva in the 1930s, and especially a conversation with a tribal elder, persuaded him that the Polynesian islands had been first settled not by Asians traveling eastward—then the prevalent theory—but by South Americans traveling westward. He peddled his theory, in the form of a long research paper, to academics from Norway to New York; but nobody was buying. The killer objection was that South Americans of 1,000 to 1,500 years ago did not have boats that could cross four thousand miles of ocean.
“But they did!” Heyerdahl protested. “They had balsa rafts in which they cruised the coast.” He was laughed out of the lecture halls. So Heyerdahl set out to prove that balsa rafts, built with strictly ancient methods, could cross the Pacific. He recruited five fellow lunatics—five Norwegians and a Swede—and they set sail from the port of Callao near Lima, Peru. I will not bore you with details, except for this BIG SPOILER: They made it. And by doing so, they proved that it could have been done, but not that it was done. His theory on the peopling of Polynesia never has become widely accepted.
Nevertheless, the Kon-Tiki story is a typical—did I say quixotic?—Norwegian exploration saga. Well worth your time. Read the book or see the movie. You’ll enjoy it.
On the way home after seeing the movie, I resolved to re-read the book. It was fifty years since I had read it, and I wanted to see how much the book had been “Hollywooded” for the film. The answer is—a little bit, but not too badly. For the most part, it sticks to the facts, and certainly to the swashbuckling spirit of the Heyerdahl quest.
Another thing that struck me is that Kon-Tiki has a curious fictional doppelgänger in the silly and profound 1990 romantic comedy film Joe Versus the Volcano, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. If you haven’t seen it, the film is, in my opinion, brilliant—though plenty of people disagree with me.
In Joe Versus the Volcano, an average guy named Joe Banks crosses the Pacific on a quest of his own. His motives differ from Heyerdahl’s. Beyond that, however, the two men and their quests are surprisingly similar:
who reach their destinations by raft,
celebrate with island natives,
and accomplish unexpected results.
Thor Heyerdahl and Joe Banks: Each, in his own way, a romantic. Each reaches for a goal he does not fully understand. Each comes up short, but finds a new path anyway.
The only disappointment about Joe Banks is, he’s not Norwegian.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost.
Something there is, in us, that prefers to deny boundaries.
I don’t know whether this is only American or universal. But when faced with limitations, hemmed in by rules and customs of society, or bound by mere laws of physics—our minds skip sideways, embracing whatever solution is beyond reach and all the more attractive for that.
Think about this when you’re in line at the Kwik-Trip waiting for someone ahead of you to buy a Powerball ticket. Don’t imagine he or she is longing to get four dollars or seven dollars back on a two-dollar bet. It’s the big jackpot that draws wagering interest—the forty-gazillion-dollar, once-in-many-lifetimes win. Never mind that it’s all but impossible.
For the same reason, fifty thousand spec scripts are registered each year with the Writers Guild of America. The chance of success is slender, but fifty thousand people see themselves on stage at the Academy Awards. They see that so clearly and convincingly that they write 120 pages of screenplay—a hard thing to do—in case it may come true.
This urge to shoot for the moon is, not coincidentally, the theme of many Hollywood films, which often feature, again not coincidentally, flim-flam artists.
A pair of examples:
In Back to the Future, Marty McFly is a lad stuck in a doomed cycle of frustration at home and humiliation at school. It’s a cycle from which he has no chance of escape—except that his friend, Doc Brown, has invented a Time Machine. Now, Dear Reader, the beauty thing about a Time Machine, for a screenwriter, is the many strange plot twists you can set up and pay off—as Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale realized when they wrote the script. But the beauty thing about a Time Machine for the character Marty McFly is that you can escape the bounds imposed on you by the Space-Time Continuum. All you need is a Flux Capacitor and a DeLorean. How cool is that? You might think Doc Brown, inventor of the Time Machine, is some kind of a flim-flam artist. But you would be wrong, due to Exception 7a of the Screenwriters’ Rules of Plot Etiquette: “If an eccentric inventor somehow finds his way around the Laws of Physics . . . Well, that’s okay, then—because he’s a Scientist!”
But my main point is, we love the story because Marty cheats the normal rules of reality and (SPOILER ALERT) hits a home run.
On the other hand, the wonderful Wizard of Oz, in the MGM film of that name, clearly is a con artist. He is nothing but a carnival trickster, transported to a fairyland where he bamboozles the locals into thinking he’s something special. When Toto the dog gets too curious, Oz desperately pleads, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” But it’s too late. The jig is up. He is exposed as a fraud. But, wait—He solves the besetting problems of the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man. Three up, three down, just like that. Then, he takes Dorothy Gale back home to Kansas—which is all she’s ever wanted, anyway. So maybe he’s not a fraud, after all. That would fall under Exception 7b: “If an inveterate charlatan somehow solves real problems by the Power of Suggestion . . . Well, that’s okay, then—because he’s a Psychologist!” (Or maybe a Meteorologist; cf. Burt Lancaster as The Rainmaker.)
Again, the point is: We love the story because Dorothy solves her problems not within the dull, inelastic boundaries of her life, but by escaping to a magical world where she gets a magical fix. Case closed.
How can all this fail to bring to mind the late Hermann R. Muelder? Muelder was a distinguished professor of History at Knox College, but he was also well-known for his campaign to eliminate the outside-the-park home run from the game of baseball. “The home run takes less skill than a well placed hit that a fielder can’t get to,” Muelder said. “You don’t have to know anything about baseball to hit a home run. You just have to be strong.
“Nothing happens when a homer goes out of the park. All the fielders stand there, helpless. There`s nothing they can do. There`s no finesse in a home run. I want to see finesse returned to the game.
“The bunt is more interesting than a home run.”
Another of Muelder’s arguments: “Baseball is the only game in which it is the person—and not the ball—that does the scoring. And that is essentially the game. The home run violates that principle.”
Dr. Muelder’s argument was logical to a fault. Its essence was that the game consists in how well the players make use of the ball within the field of play. The beauty of the thing lay in its exquisite timing—the duel between pitcher and batter and the race between fielder and base runner to determine the score. Removing from the field of play the object of all this dueling and racing extinguished the whole point of baseball. To cure this outrage, Muelder proposed that if you should happen to belt one over the outfield fence, it would simply be a long foul ball. On the other hand, if you hit the ball so cunningly, and ran so fast, as to score an inside-the-park home run, well—THAT was real baseball. Exempting the ball from any possibility of defense was the only thing Muelder wanted to outlaw.
Despite the obvious logic of these arguments, baseball has not yet criminalized the outside-the-park homer.
I think that’s for the same reason we admire Marty McFly and plucky Dorothy Gale: We refuse to tolerate a situation in which our limits are absolute.
There’s got to be a way to beat the system. Anything else would be un-American.
My wife’s father, Joe Nelson, and his older brother Morris, as boys in North Dakota, spent a couple of years in an orphanage. They were not orphans.
Their father, an itinerant small-town newspaperman, struggled to make a living. The eldest son, Bob, could work and augment the family income. The youngest, Lou, was too young to be away from his mother. So Morris and Joe, in the 7-to-10 age range, were placed in a Catholic orphanage. The family was Protestant, but beggars can’t be choosers. You could “go to the Sisters” or live in the county poorhouse.
Many of our families have stories like this, often just a generation or two back. Times were tough. People did what they needed to. Many children in orphanages were not orphans. Sometimes, they were collateral victims of family troubles or fiscal hardship, perhaps temporary.
Buy the Little Ones a Dolly
Rose Bingham’s memoir starts at Thanksgiving—“a very special Thanksgiving” in 2013. Rose’s large extended family has come to her house in the woods near Wisconsin Dells. Plates are full; cups runneth over. They give thanks. Thanks for the strength and grace that have kept their bond strong through decades of pain caused by a dark mystery.
In 1952, when Rose was a teenager, her loving, luminous mother disappeared, vanished without a trace. The family was devastated. Through the years that followed, emotional and economic turmoil plagued them. As Rose’s father, a talented sign painter, struggled to keep things together, she and her six siblings were placed in St. Michael’s Orphanage, miles from home—a strange, unfamiliar place run by nuns.
The woes that brought the family to this point; Rose’s lifelong battle, as the eldest, to keep her family together; and unexpected light shed only in recent years on the decades-long mystery of her mother’s disappearance, form a riveting and inspiring story.
It is a story told in the authentic, down-to-earth voice of a wise and humane survivor. I highly recommend Buy the Little Ones a Dolly. You’ll get a lot out of reading it.
’Tis the Season
And now, for something completely different: A series of Christmas stories from veteran Wisconsin writer/guru Jerry Peterson. Peterson is the creator of James Early and many other memorable Americans—some stalwart, some eccentric—whose doings and undoings are guaranteed to please you and sometimes tickle your funny-bone.
’Tis the Season, hot off the press, collects eleven of his best Christmas stories, written over the past 26 years. Some are excerpts from longer works. Others were originally written as short stories. This book puts them in one place for the first time.
If you’re a member of “Jerry’s Army,” you may have read some of these, but others may be completely new to you.
If you are NOT familiar with Jerry Peterson’s work, you have been missing out on something special.
Only just now have I received my copy of this handsome volume. I will plunge into these stories in the very near future. But as a member of Jerry’s bi-monthly Tuesday night writers’ group, I have previously read some of this work in early draft. I have also read lots of Jerry’s other stories. Therefore it is with confidence I say, get this book. You’re in for a treat.
“[A]mongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
—Edward Winslow, December 12, 1621
This well-known event was not “Thanksgiving,” even though we remember it that way.
We know it was not Thanksgiving because if it had been a special time of Thanksgiving, the Scrooby Separatists would have treated it like a designated time of Repentance: with fasting, prayer, and humiliation. Not with feasting, fun, and games.
Humiliation? What’s that got to do with thanksiving?
A friend of mine, who happened also to be my boss, boggled when he read a presidential proclamation by John Adams that called for fasting, humiliation, and prayer.
“Humiliation? Why would the president of the United States call for our country to be humiliated?”
My friend/boss was a soldier and a patriot, proud of our nation’s achievements. He was also a classic narcissist, the star of his own show—a show in which all the rest of us were bit players. Humiliation was a concept that did not appeal to him.
His question was not rhetorical. He was sincere; he wanted an answer. Sadly, other matters more pressing at the time pre-empted the long talk it would have taken to justify the role of humiliation in the psyche of our infant nation.
Of all the presidents who have called us to prayer and thanksgiving, only one embraced the “h” word—John Adams, a staunch old Puritan. His proclamations of 1798 and 1799 urged national, as well as individual, humiliation. That need was seen by the Calvinistic Adams, and perhaps by most New Englanders of that era, as an absolute prerequisite if there was to be any hope for a people mired in original sin.
My boss scorned old John’s advice, I surmise, because he equated humiliation with defeat. After all, the Packers routinely humiliated the Bears. Victorious allies humiliated Germany at Versailles. Saddam Hussein suffered abject humiliation by Norman Schwarzkopf.
The Upside of Humiliation
“Humiliation” also signifies a path to remembering our creaturehood. Humans are inclined to hubris, yet our proper attitude—the realistic attitude in the full context of God’s world—is humility. That does not come easily to us; thus we require humiliation. Such humiliation could be seen as a victory, not a defeat. I think that is what John Adams meant.
If we ourselves are the center of the universe, we thereby occupy the whole. Where is there space for gratitude? What is there to be thankful for? Who is there to thank?
It has been a very long time since anyone of Great Importance in our general life ventured the faintest suggestion that humility might be a good thing; or, even better, modeled humility as a public virtue.
Rather, those who dominate our headlines and our consciousness reliably turn out to be monsters of pride and arrogance. Their toxic self-absorption trickles down to the public at large. Or, could it be that it seeps upward to them, from us?
On the day we call Thanksgiving, we gather around the groaning board. We honor a tradition begun in 1621 with a feast and various entertainments, including football (our most military game).
Because the name of the day is Thanksgiving, we try to remember, amidst all revelries, to give thanks. Our thanksgiving may take the simple form of each person around the table, in turn, stating what he or she is thankful for. That’s not a bad thing to do.
Humility, if nothing else, might suggest it is also important to mention Whom we are thankful to.
A little humiliation could be a good thing. Happy Thanksgiving.