Thursday, May 06, 2021

Collecting a Sample: Cranky Old Man Chronicle

 Next week I turn 70. I can now fully live into the grumpy, cranky old man persona I've been cultivating the past few years. 

One of the joys of aging, as someone with diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic heart failure, and who knows what else, is regular testing of my blood, urine, and ... um... bowel movements.


The latter is what resulted in this cranky old man chronicle.

Now I've been having such tests for years. No big deal. But this year my health insurance company suggested a specific brand named test. It advertises on television a lot, with a happy little talking box as it's spokesperson. My primary care physician agreed so I said fine. 

The happy little box, which isn't at all discrete or that small arrived by UPS the other day. Now I don't mind talking about a lot of things, but one thing I don't usually talk about is my bowel health. And I don't need the UPS guy knowing about it. 

I spied the box on my way out to do some chores and brought it inside and set it on the screen porch table. I forgot it was there. Then the great-grandkids and their mother and grandmother showed up. "Pawpaw got present?" inquired one. "Something wrong?" asked my daughter. 

Sigh, again. "Nope, just regular test." I took the box into my bedroom for later use. 

The next day I opened the box. As I said, I've been have similar tests for years. This package had instructional booklet after instruction booklet about everything from shipping the "sample" back to how to do the test. The latter booklet had helpful illustrations about how to "collect" the "sample."

Now I've been collecting samples in a container of various sorts (potty chair, toilet, outhouse, etc) for about 67 years. I think I've got that part down. 

The instruction book had lots of other illustrations related to my bodily functions that I didn't need.

Then the aggravation really started. First came phone calls from the testing company. I rarely answer calls from numbers I don't recognize or for which there is no caller ID. So they went to voice mail. A cheery voice told me things like how I'd be receiving a test, how to find instructions for the test, and so on. They came once or twice a day. Then I got an email ... or twenty (it seemed like). Then a letter in the mail. 


Most of those came after I had "collected" my "sample" and boxed it according to directions and took it to the UPS store for return to the lab. It made my day to have another UPS guy know my business. 

I expect more phone calls, emails, letters even after the results are anal(pun intended)lyzed and sent to the doctor. I feel like I'm the lab's new best friend. Not really a friend I need.

Well, now that I've vented, I feel moved to go take care of some business. So I'll leave you with, not a sample, but this poem by John Updike:

"The Beautiful Bowel Movement" 
Though most of them aren’t much to write about—
mere squibs and nubs, like half-smoked pale cigars,
the tint and stink recalling Tuesday’s meal,
the texture loose and soon dissolved—this one,
struck off in solitude one afternoon
(that prairie stretch before the late light fails)
with no distinct sensation, sweet or pained,
of special inspiration or release,
was yet a masterpiece: a flawless coil,
unbroken, in the bowl, as if a potter
who worked in this most frail, least grateful clay
had set himself to shape a topaz vase.
O spiral perfection, not seashell nor
stardust, how can I keep you? With this poem.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

“This Is My Song (January 7, 2021)”

“This Is My Song (January 7, 2021)”

This is my song, O God of my dear nation,
a song of peace for this loved land of mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in this land are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

May truth and freedom come unto this nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a land united, righting every wrong;
a people united in love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

O hear my song, thou God of this dear nation,
a song of peace for all lands and for mine.

Adapted by me from “This Is My Song”
by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness
Tune: “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelus

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Extracts from a Letter to Senator Mike Braun of Indiana

Dear Senator Braun --

When I read your recent tweets about objecting to the Electoral College Vote awarding Mr. Biden the presidency and the Indianapolis Star's report that "Indiana Republican U.S. Senator Mike Braun on Saturday said he will object to President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory when Congress meets to certify the election results on Wednesday. ... Braun, in a joint statement with 10 other sitting and incoming Senate Republicans, said the 2020 presidential election
"featured unprecedented allegations of voter fraud" and called for an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in states in which President Trump had challenged results" I was more than disappointed. I was, and am, outraged.

When I wrote to you earlier about my concerns regarding these ridiculous allegations of massive fraud, you (or some staff member) wrote back telling me that the media did not get to decide who was to become President but rather that the Electoral College did and that Congress would abide by that vote when it meets on January 6, 2021.

I guess you lied to me. Your actions show that. You disregard that we are a nation of laws -- and multiple courts across our land, including the Supreme Court of the United States, have dismissed these cases alleging fraud as without merit. You disrespect our Constitution. You are violating your oath of office, swearing that you would "I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter" and rather are suborning our democracy. 

This is an embarrassment to our state and nation and an affront to Hoosier values of respect and belief in our rule of law.

Please reconsider,

John Brent Bill
Mooresville, IN

Monday, November 23, 2020

A Bounteous Harvest: A Midwest Musing

This is the time of year I love living in the Midwest, more than summer, spring or winter, which each have their own charm. But fall has a particular beauty. The landscape is alive with wonderful color, and I don’t just mean the trees in places like hilly, forested Brown County, Indiana. I mean the fields and woods that adorn the countryside.

The sunlight is softer, this time of year. And this softer light is golden, transforming the ordinary into extraordinary, helping me see the richness of life around me.

That’s why I love taking Nancy for rides around Indiana at this time of year. We get in our pick-up and drive and watch the light play across the countryside – field stubble casting shadows along the dirt, bare black tree limbs silhouetted against a royal blue sky, clouds puffy and white floating serenely along. .

I feel a sense of connectedness with the land and that sense grows stronger every year. I was born and raised in the city and I often proclaim the wonders of that existence compared to that of my country cousins. But the fact is I loved visiting the farms of our rural families. And my father was a tramper of fields and forests. We often were out and about.

That’s one reason I am happy about where I live. Seventeen years ago, the home site was a tangle of briars, thorn trees, and poison ivy all tangled in old fences. My dad, my sons-in-law, and I began clearing all that Thanksgiving weekend, getting ready for building. We worked in the rain and mud and cold and snow. We cut, we sawed, we pulled bushes out with the tractor. All through that work, I smelled the scents of farm and field – clumps of mud clinging to boots, wood smoke from burning limbs.

Then, as the house was being built, I’d hike back and work, watching the seasons move through – budding spring, humid summer. Now we’re sixteen years in the house, and watching fall ebb, knowing winter is coming.

I love it. And more than that, this move and this time of year helps me remember that I am connected to God’s good earth all the time – from witnessing it’s visual beauty to partaking of its sustenance with every mouthful of food I eat.

God’s faithfulness, to me, is evident in the changing seasons. Crops are planted, grown, and harvested. The soil rests over winter. Though the face of the earth changes, God does not. God watches over it all, and has for eons, and is faithful.

I question that at times. Sometimes when life is good, I imagine that it is good solely from the sweat of my brow or my own efforts. After all, I cut those trees and mowed the field for the view – not God – forgetting that all I have comes by the grace of God in the first place.

Sometimes I question it, out of my troubles, like Job. Like in this time of COVID. I wonder if it is true and try to understand the mind of God. Then I read God’s questions to Job – “Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone -- while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”

“Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges?… Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.”

God asked Job these questions because it was important for Job to remember that God was not his enemy. This encounter with the Lord was not to say why Job was suffering, but to learn, by faith, that God was his Creator, Sustainer, and Friend.

This is something I forget, but the Psalmist continually reminds me that the earth does not. “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;” the psalmist sings, “let them say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns!’ Let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them! Then the trees of the forest will sing, they will sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

Singing trees, jubilant fields – these things we take as poetic language. Things that don’t really happen. Or do they? Could it be that the golden light that transforms field trash into something of beauty is a way the fields are being jubilant, reflecting God’s light back to him? Could the graceful, waving naked limbs of trees be hands uplifted in praise to God? Maybe that’s all bit a mystical, yet I can always use a bit more of the mystery in my lives, for my truest encounters with God are more than slightly mysterious.

Of course, what makes the countryside beautiful and rich are the memories it evokes. And inevitably entwined in those memories are people. The people in whose woods I walked. The families whose haylofts I played in – and fell out of. The folks, past and present, who molded my life. I remember Mom and Dad, Grandpa and Grandma Bill, Uncle Johnny, Uncle Burt, Aunt Orie, cousin Ernie, and on and on. A parade of Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, and pastors also march past. As do people from the present. Not a farmer myself, the seasons of my life have been blessed by a rich bounty of people, not crops. And I am richer for them all. They have been the jubilant fields and singing trees, singing “for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” They planted the seeds of faith in my life and watered them and watched them grow. Some of them – too many of them, for me -- have sung the song of harvest home. Some I get to see daily. Regardless, they all continue to bless me. They speak to me in the deepest parts of my soul.

For me, God’s land and God’s people are intricately interwoven. Even those of us who rarely venture outside the city limits are tied to the earth by strong bonds and a bounty of people. And this season is about giving thanks for that bounty to the gracious God who loves us more than we can imagine.

I came across a thanksgiving poem the other day that expresses that thought better than I am able. It’s by Max Coots and says:
Let us give thanks for a bounty of people.

For children who are our second planting, and, though they grow like weeds and wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are.
Let us give thanks; For generous friends ... with hearts ... and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the others, as plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbage, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you throughout the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts, and witherings;

And, finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.

 May I give thanks, this holiday time, for golden light, good friends, and God’s graciousness. May I open our eyes to jubilant fields and singing trees. Soaring clouds, be they white or gray with rain. Winds warm or chilled by the north. People who are made in God’s own image. Let me give thanks and “sing for joy before the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Baseless: A Brief Book Review

 Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act by Nicholson Baker

Right off I have to confess that Nicholson Baker is one of my favorite writers, both of fiction and non-fiction. I first encountered his writing when I read the astonishing Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization. The research that went into the making of that book and how he constructed it amazed me and drew me in. I've given numerous copies of it to friends. Traveling Sprinkler is my favorite novel of his (so far). 

So when I heard Baseless was going to be released, I pre-ordered a copy. And I looked forward to its arrival. I wasn't disappointed. 

Like Human Smoke, the research here is mind-blowing -- Baker's dedication to getting to the heart of the matter and keeping it all in an order that makes an eminently readable book. That is no easy task -- to take pages upon pages after request after request via the Freedom of Information Act, many of those pages heavily redacted, but still filled with clues or hints that needed to followed, and written in government intelligence and military jargon and distill them into clear, clean, precise prose. Further, Baker makes it both compelling and interesting.

One way he keeps it interesting is by interweaving bits of his daily life into the narrative. Organized chronologically beginning March 9 through May 18, 2019, he presents a daily chronicle of his life as he writes this book (I was disappointed that there was no entry for my May birth date, though). That personalizes this material in a way that makes the information he presents from his research both less and more horrible at the same time. 

The title for this work comes from "Project Baseless," a project begun in the early 50s by the Pentagon to develop and achieve deliverability by the US Air Force chemical and biological weapons. As Baker's research reveals, this was not just an idea, but a project where millions of dollars were spent on such weapons and how to deliver them on targets such as Korea, China, the USSR, and more (including in Central America!). Of course, the cost was more than just financial -- there was also a huge animal and human costs. Thousands, if not millions, of mice, rats, cats, dogs, monkeys and more were sacrificed in testing the viability of these weapons. Some humans may have been, too, as wind drift and poor delivery systems scattered spores and the like places they weren't supposed to go. Other humans, notably the scientists and other workers on this project, suffered all sorts of issues -- physical, emotional, and mental. More than a handful committed suicide. 

The horror is staggering. Made all the more so by my reading it during the current pandemic. The power of a virus is an amazing, terrifying thing. And to think that my government (supposedly for the people and by the people) secretly developed and deployed such weapons is amazing and terrifying. 

And the silliness of the people involved, too, is amazing and terrifying. The list of participants is a who's who of US Cold War warriors. And they play this, at times, as if it's a game. The code names and acronyms remind of my early 60s childhood games with the guys in my neighborhood -- or a Monty Python skit gone terribly wrong.  REDSOX and AEROSOL are relatively benign, if silly, but then there's BGFIEND, KMWAAHOOLAND, DYCLAVIER, PLAYDON, and on and on. It would be funny if the destruction of whole countries crops and other food sources, resulting in mass civilian starvation, wasn't the goal. 

I usually read Nicholson Baker books fairly quickly. By the end of the week they arrive, I've finished them. Not so with Baseless. The writing was beautiful and eloquent, but the material was not to be rushed through. I needed time to absorb the horror of what I was learning before moving on to even more horror. And I admit, the more read, the more ashamed I was that our country participated in this projects, with support from presidents of both parties. It makes me wonder what else I don't know that my country has done in my name ... and with my money, even. 

Father, forgive me. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020


by Stephen Dunn

After the paintings
of David Ahlsted

We have lived in this town,
have disappeared
on this prairie. The church

always was smaller
than the grain elevator,
though we pretended otherwise.
The houses were similar

because few of us wanted
to be different
or estranged. And the sky

would never forgive us,
no matter how many times
we guessed upwards
in the dark.

The sky was the prairie's
double, immense,
kaleidoscopic, cold.

The town was where
and how we huddled
against such forces,
and the old abandoned

pickup on the edge
of town was how we knew
we had gone too far,
or had returned.

People? Now we can see them,
invisible in their houses
or in their stores.

Except for one man
lounging on his porch,
they are part of the buildings,

they have determined
every stubborn shape, the size
of each room. The trailer home
with the broken window

is somebody's life.
One thing always is
more important than another,

this empty street, this vanishing
point. The good eye knows
no democracy. Shadows follow

sunlight as they should,
as none of us can prevent.
Everything is conspicuous
and is not.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Of Cats, Presidential Language, and Discouragement: A Midwest Musing

The day is breaking grey and chilly. Some leaves are still clinging to the trees. They rustle back and forth in the light wind. Persimmons are ripening on the branches out by the prairie. Hopefully, we’ll get some of them before the deer eat them all. Squirrels are busy stashing walnuts and hazelnuts and acorns. 

I walked out onto the back deck to feed the Ebony, Bamboo, and Gracie (the farm cats) and they greeted me with great meowings and fell to their food as if they hadn’t had been fed in days. As if I didn’t know they’d been out mousing or chipmunking or birding in the prairie and had probably feasted well. Still, they mad me feel welcome in their catlike way – which is to say, like a politician who just found out he had my vote and then turned away in search of another. 

Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, as I climbed out of the shower and was drying off, I saw Gracie heading out to the prairie to resume the hunt.

Despite all this goodness around me, I’m feeling a little discouraged this morning. Last night I did something I guess I knew I probably shouldn’t have done while doing it – I posted the following on Facebook:

President Trump in Arizona today called a news network, “You dumb bastards." Regardless of your political leanings, is this appropriate language for the President of the United States to be using in public?

Ah, the furor it provoked -- a political rugby scrum, including justifications for such language.  Sorry, but I don't find any such justification for such language at a public rally -- regardless of party. 

I remember the first time I said "bastard" in public and the reaction it got. I was in fifth or sixth grade, sitting on the floor of our dining room on Eureka Avenue in Columbus, Ohio watching tv. Back then our television set, a mammoth, humming thing, was in the dining room. Mom didn't like to have a tv in the living room and the family room hadn't been added onto the back of the house yet. 

As I said, I was sitting on the floor watching tv. A dinosaur movie was on. Dad was sitting in his place at the dining room table reading the sports pages. He looked at me and sighed. I'm certain he wanted to watch the sports news. He'd even prefer Jimmy Crum, of whom he was less than fond, than a dinosaur movie. At any rate, at one point in the flick, one dino grabbed another by the neck and wash thrashing him and I, excited by the fight, yelled out "Kill the bastard."

Bad move. 

I knew my dad was fast. I'd seen him play shortstop, second base, basketball, and football for years. But I didn't he was that fast. I found myself scooped up and this red faced old guy (he would have been around 33) holding me by my shirt collar and demanding, "What did you say??" and telling my sisters to go find mom. "Kill the bastard," I whispered, wondering why he was so upset. "Where did you learn that word?" he asked. "What word?" "Bastard!" 

I honestly couldn't remember. It probably was on the playground of John Burroughs Elementary School three blocks away. I had no idea what it mean -- it just sounded like a cool word. Reminded me of "dastardly," which I had heard in other movies, television shows, and overheard adult conversations. So I thought I'd try it out.

Dad then gave me a very brief and direct lesson of the etymology of that word. And that if he heard me ever say it again, I faced dire consequences. 

I never wanted to face Dad's dire consequences, believe you me.

Now, to be fully transparent, I have said that word since. And some other bad words, too. There may be members of my family or certain friends who have a tape or memory of me blurting something out -- but never whilst giving a public speech, teaching a class, preaching a sermon, or...  Even when I rolled the John Deere tractor down a hill, I refrained lest the cows in the field across the road might hear me -- or because I was too scared to say anything. 

When I awoke this morning and read the vitriol in response to the post, I decided to delete it. And I renewed my promise to myself to not post anything about that man on social media. No matter how hard it is when he is so outrageous and crude and mean. It discourages me to see the support his behavior gets.  

So, today, to help battle my discouragement, I'm going to try to stay centered on the things mentioned in the first few paragraphs. Things that represent goodness and life that continues, even in the midst of this horrid pandemic and political season. And then, when it warms up a bit, I’m going to go up to the garage attic. My plan will be to organize my stash of Brent Bill for sale books, straighten things up so I have a place to put my golf clubs and the deck furniture for the winter, and the like. I don’t know how much I’ll get done as I know I’ll come across stuff that Dad put up there. I'll look at it and remember that good man. I'll probably uncover other things that bring to mind good people who have passed. 

And while I will mourn them, I will also find joy in remembering their love and basic integrity and decency.