So Grateful Tonight…

Yesterday morning we loaded the Suburban, picked up Bren’s girlfriend Olivia are 7:45 a.m. Central time, and headed to Bismarck to fetch our eldest from University of Mary. Olivia rode shotgun (five bucks who can explain why I decided to call her “Coach”) to the campus, and we played the letter game, the license plate game, talked, sang along to the iPod, and ate Hardee’s for lunch in Jamestown, N.D.

We reached UMary and Gabe and Olivia retrieved Bren from his dorm. He came out with a box, a backpack, a duffle bag, a cased guitar, an uncased mandolin, and his heavy Carhartt jacket. We had room for the duffle bag and the guitar–but we stuffed it in, crossed the river into Mandan, and headed south by southwest to the Dennis Ranch in Red Owl, S.D., for supper. Bren and Olivia held the guitar at bay with the backs of their heads. At dusk the deer were moving along the roads; darkness fell quickly, and fog rolled in, so we lost time peering in the the gray-black, watching for movement.
We finally rolled up to Robert and Cindy’s new log house around 6:30 Mountain Time. The whole clan was there, waiting, including Fr. Tyler, who escaped his parishes for a Thanksgiving with his folks, his brothers Tate and Chance, and their families. Cindy, Hope, and Cass finished dinner, wrangled kids, and entertained Jodi, Emma, Trevor, and Olivia, while Bren, Gabe, and I help Robert and his sons move in a massive plank table edged in natural bark just in time for Thanksgiving. We enjoyed burgers and hotdogs, chips and salads, carrot cake, and Emma’s best oatmeal caramel chewies, and good beer (90 Shilling , picked up in Mandan). 
We visited and laughed together until around 9:30 or so, while Lily and little ones explored every corner of the  then rearranged the gear in the Suburban and loaded up for the Venjohns. Gabe needed night driving hours, so he took the wheel, with me navigating. The fog was thick, cutting our speed in half at times, but we rolled into Black Hawk and the house on Suzie Lane at 11:30  or so.  The adults were asleep, but cousins, greeted us. (Such is life: these days the adults turn in early, and the kids stay up to greet the latecomers.)
I woke this morning at 3:30, then again around 5 or so. Dozed until a little after 6, then showered and came went upstairs. Grandma Venjohn was next up, then one by one the rest of the family rose: everyone here but Jason and Carmen, who were hosting her family in Sioux Falls. Carmel rolls and coffee (and a little orange juice) for breakfast. Chris and Tally ran a Turkey Trot in Rapid City. Grandma, Matt and Brenda, and Brad and NaCole worked on snacks and dinner and watched the parade on TV, while Grandpa and our crew headed to 9 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Black Hills.
Their regular priest, from Poland, was sick; the old priest who celebrated Mass looked familiar, and his deep baritone and easy humor called to me from the past. Finally, halfway through the Mass, Jodi whispered, “I think that’s Fr. Bob from Wall,” meaning the priest who was at the Catholic church in Wall, S.D., when we first met and she first lured me back to Mass. I knew as she said it she was right.
He’s on oxygen now, and didn’t stand for his homily. He reminded us we are a thanks-giving people, and that Eucharist means Thanksgiving–then he told the story of a Thanksgiving day in the service, spent in the shadow of an armored personnel carrier in the Mojave Desert, eating MREs. The men were hot, the food (pork and beans) was crummy, and guys were already scarfing it down when their leader asked Father is he would bless their meal. So he did–and it struck him that we expect to feast on Thanksgiving, and to give thanks for all we have, but some people don’t have. He ended the petitions the deacon led with “For all those who only have pork and beans today, we pray to the Lord” and then, “For those who wish they had pork and beans today…”
During the sign of peace, I never more sincerely wished peace to those around me–and I’ve never felt more blessed to receive the Eucharist. We spoke to Father afterward. He didn’t remember us, of course, but knew we knew him, and (I hope) felt the love we have for him.
We got home just in time to watch the Lions-Vikings game. Gabe, Emma, and Trev were wearing Honolulu blue and were heckled by the bulk of Jodi’s family, who are diehard Vikes fans. It was a good game; Lions won a bit before dinner, and we prayed together over the food.
Not pork and beans, but turkey, ham, potatoes, stuffing, rolls, and squash. We ate, we played games, visited more, and some of us dozed. When the girls finally decided it was time for pie, we called Brendan upstairs to sing to him–he turns 19 today. Five different pies (apple, pecan, cherry, pumpkin, and pumpkin cheesecake) and real whipped cream. Brendan got a fleece blanket in UMary colors, three books, a capo and electronic metronome for his guitar, cards, and money. Some of us took a walk, others played Shut the Box and other games. At one point I went downstairs to find Bren, Olivia, and Gabe starting a rosary, so I joined in. Such peace–and such joy that they do this by choice.
We ate a little more a little while ago. Now most of the family is playing cards: Phase 10 in the dining room; Texas Hold’Em in the kitchen. I’m surrounded by voices and laughter and love. Such joy. So grateful tonight.
And we’re here ’til Sunday.
Friends and family, I love you and am grateful for you. God bless you tonight and always.


Blogger’s Note: Another past writing, from 2001. This is one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction I ever wrote, and came back to my mind following this recent post from Prairie Father. In case you are wondering, Fr. Tyler is, in fact, the Tyler mentioned below. Finally, I’m no cowboy. If my terminology is imprecise or inaccurate, forgive me. If it is offensive to cowboys, correct me in the comments!

The city girl behind the counter called it a marking. She wore Doc Marten sandals and just last week mistook a bird’s call for approaching cattle. Drugstore cowgirl, with her chopped blonde hair tucked beneath a curled straw hat, more Junior Brown than Tom Mix. She wants a stampede string to keep it in place should she need to chase cattle at the “marking,” and I’m smiling at the thought of her sprinting in her sandals through knee-high grass behind some rangy Angus cow, her hat tied tight beneath her chin.


We rose to cinnamon rolls and coffee—six a.m., and Bob’s pulling his tall, red-topped boots over his jeans; a bright silk scarf about his neck; white shirtsleeves shining softly in the morning sunlight. Bob drinks tea, not coffee; sweeps the crumbs from his long moustache, takes from the wall a straw hat with the same crease, crown and brim as his felts, and heads out, spurs jingling, to catch his pony.

The hands arrive in twos and threes, and their rigs line both sides of the driveway—crew-cab pick-ups and long stock trailers with cow-horses saddled and tied short alongside. The men gather around the plank table in the kitchen, exchanging greetings and jabs, sipping coffee and complimenting Cindy on the rolls. All wear boots and hats; many have chinks, and most wear spurs. They range in age from 15 to about 60. Chance, Bob’s youngest, wears his boots outside his pants, same as his dad; a rosy plaid western shirt, battered chinks and a black felt hat set back on his head. He’s rough and ready, a chaw in his cheek and blue eyes sparking, happily cussing the dogs.

Chance has two friends with him today—John’s dark haired and dark skinned, with baggy carpenter’s jeans and Docs on his feet. He’s clearly not cowboy, and his T-shirt reads the same as yesterday: “I’m just one big f—ing ray of sunshine, aren’t I?” (Hyphens mine, not his.) His sister, Rachel, watches Chance with dark eyes and prepares to ride—purple chinks with heart-shaped conchos; a long denim shirt opening on a white tanktop.

Straws are the hats of choice in summer; still, a few felts make an appearance. “Real cowboy hats can be any color, so long as it’s black or silverbelly,” Bob says. Rick Smiley wears a dark gray hat, for what that’s worth, and sky-blue plaid. Frank Timmons wears battered silverbelly, with a sweaty ring at the base of the crown. It sits low on his brow, so that the curled ends of his moustache are often all that escapes its shadow.

Where I come from is not far from the girl at the drugstore. I shake hands with the men around me, conspicuous in a green Filson cap that suggests I’d rather be fishing. I remember selling western boots in that same drugstore, when my own boots and the pearl-white snaps of my uniform shirt branded me a cowboy in the eyes of little boys from New Jersey—this day even my father, in his broad black hat and leather vest with antler buttons, may have dressed too plainly to be called “cowboy.”


A couple days later we’re eating chili around that same plank table. Bob took a call a few moments earlier from a Manhattan-based research firm conducting a survey on environmental policy and public opinion. He spends a good ten minutes on the phone with the caller, and by the time he hangs up, he has identified himself as a heterosexual white male, a conservative, a Catholic, and a staunch Republican.

“You realize,” I tell him, “that you are the enemy.”

He’s cutting cheddar with the same pocket knife he cut calves with two days ago. He’s got a saddle shop in his kitchen. He doesn’t care.


The riders mount and spread across a broad expanse of grass to round up the cows and calves. We’re watching from a windy hilltop overlooking the pasture, the pond, an old windmill and a few crooked trees, with the house, pens and buildings beyond.

Bob’s oldest boy, Tyler, is leaning against Sorley, a stripped down Suzuki Samurai with a homemade plywood roof and four-wheel drive—the name comes from the little rig’s sorrel color. He’s only recently back from Winona, where he’s studying for the priesthood; he’s dressed in a plain t-shirt and sweats, untied duck boots and an old fedora. His little brother’s riding with the men below.

Tyler stands in front of the little 4×4, watching the cowboys work. He’s not like these others—he’s a big kid and prone to discussing philosophy, praying aloud in Latin or singing in Spanish—but he looks at home here and I snap a picture of him, God’s country in his eyes.


The cows are vaccinated, and the fire’s lit. Bob moves between groups of cowboys enjoying cookies and iced tea and assigns them to work as ropers, wrestlers, branders and cutters. Dad and John man the gate, shooing the bravest calves back into the pen. An odd pairing, to be sure—my father will lock up the brakes on the pickup at the sight of a middle finger, and this kid’s wearing as bad as that across his chest.

The ropers ride into a sea of bawling black and throw their loops. They drag the calves out by their hind feet, and the wrestlers topple them to their right sides and pounce on them, one on the head and topside foreleg, the other on the hind feet. The horses keep the rope tight, looking only slightly interested, and the riders watch. Two needles to the neck; blue smoke, the stink of burning hair and the sizzle of flesh. If it’s a bull calf, a few deft strokes with a pocket knife and a squirt of disinfectant. It’s brutal, quick and effective—strangely, the calves bawl loudest when first roped and dragged, and scarcely limp upon release.

Bob is cutting calves, and in just half an hour, his white sleeves are punctuated in red. He keeps his pocket knife in hand, wiping the blade occasionally on his chinks. It’s coarse surgery, without anesthesia or stitches, and I tell him so.

“You’re right,” he says, looking to the next calf. “It’s pretty rough, what we do to these critters.”

The smoke rolls.


The latest issue of The Atlantic ran an ad for the American Indian College Fund, with the tagline, “Have you ever seen a real Indian?” The picture is of a young woman of no obvious ethnicity, with long dark hair, standing near a wooden cabinet full of microscopes. “Carly Kipp, Blackfeet,” the ad reads. “Biology major, tutor, mom, pursuing a doctorate in veterinary medicine, specializing in large-animal surgery.”


The work’s nearly done, and Chance and Rachel are leaning against a gate, saying little. He dates her cousin, and he, Rachel and John spent last night beneath the stars on a hide-a-bed couch in the back of a pickup.

When the branding’s finished, it’s dinner—roast beef and beans; mashed potatoes and gravy; bread and salad and beer. Some of the men head home—the rest take up spots on the porch or the lawn. After a bit, two guitars come out, and Bob and Paul (a rancher out of Montana who owns the cattle we branded today) take turns picking—old country songs, rock older still—and discussing how music and cowboying has changed over the years.

“My wife tells me,” says Paul, “that if I want to get back to cowboying, the first thing I gotta do is get rid of about 1,500 head.”

I’m riding a sawhorse next to Chance. He takes his dad’s guitar and begins to play—bits and pieces of more recent rock songs. He finally settles into “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”—bending strings to coax all the heartbreak he can out of them, the lyrics audible only in fits and starts above his playing.

Three-year-old Brendan’s on the porch with Rachel—they’ve been splashing each other with water from a five-gallon pail, and Brendan is soaked. Rachel’s hair is dripping, and Brendan’s new “pet” clothespin is clipped to the back of his shirt—he’s been looking for it for the past twenty minutes. She’s swiped a beer from the ice-filled tub in the grass, and Brendan wants what she’s having. They play together for an hour or more, when nobody asked her to—she’ll make a mother someday. Or someone’s favorite aunt, at least.

Bob says her older sister’s a beautiful girl—could’ve been a model.

“She’s got just enough Indian—they’d take her to Elko, to the Artists’ Ride, and dress her in skins …”

Rachel’s a beauty in her own right—her mixed ancestry shows in her complexion, her dark curls and brown eyes. She’s been arguing with Bob about whether her Adidas visor qualifies as a hat.

It takes a special girl, I think, to make a visor and chinks look good.


I’m driving to work and NPR is talking to songwriter who’s latest recording is called Scar. The title cut, he said, is based loosely on his relationship with his wife—it’s about how our relationships and experiences, for better and worse, mark us for life.

Brutal, quick and effective.

J. Thorp
May 2001

Book Break: Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Today I finished another of my boss’s books, recommended to me by our research assistant, Ben, who was responsible for sorting the boss’s library as we moved from Morrill Hall to the Humphrey. I’d seen the book before, and it looked like a gimmicky, gifty book someone would use to decorate a shelf or display as light bathroom reading. It featured multiple styles of fonts, “handwriting,” and illustration, and bore the oddball title, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.

“I think you should take a look at this,” Ben said, when I raised a skeptical eyebrow upon seeing it again, in his hand. “It’s actually pretty good.”

I took it, exhaled, skimmed the opening poem by Rumi, glanced at the whimsically illustrated table of contents and a two-page spread that looked like a grade-school painting, and started to read. And read, and read, and read.

The author, Gordon MacKenzie, worked 30 years at Hallmark, and this book is his attempt to show adults how to recollect their creative genius; to flush (or even remove) their PC, company-line filters and begin to really innovate and invent again…like when they were kids. For 30 years, he worked for a great “hairball” of a corporation, and for much of that time, he managed to orbit the hairball, close enough for mutual benefit, far enough to never be sucked into the mess and stifled. The book is, at times, a little New Age-y, but it’s inspiring, nonetheless. Here’s a guy who tends to say the things we wish we said, who pushes the envelope of acceptable behavior, gives the wrong answers, writes his own rules…and time and again, shows that it pays, both in terms of profit and personal fulfillment.

I’ve been that guy only once that I recall — when I applied for my former job at a Minneapolis marketing firm. The job posting was quirky and creative (somewhat moreso than the job, as it turned out); I wrote a solid but straightforward cover letter to accompany my resume. I was trying to stretch my experience a bit to cover the position described, and a friend read my cover letter and said, “This isn’t going to do it.” She told me that, since I didn’t have the qualifications they were looking for, I should show that I could market myself in the same way they were selling themselves in their ad. I went home and thought, “What do I know about branding?” Immediately I thought about my rancher friend Jinglebob, and wrote a completely different letter, excerpted here:

You aren’t looking for me. The anthropology degree is all wrong—I studied people, not business. My work history skews journalistic, with infrequent forays into student recruitment and fundraising. Where I come from, branding involves a flame, a red-hot iron and singed hair. It’s difficult work, and it scars.

That said, it’s not so different from what [COMPANY] does. Your clients want what every rancher seeks—a brand that leaves an indelible mark that the world will recognize and associate with its owner. It’s hard work, sure, so you do what any good foreman would: hire the best hands and stoke the fire.

My friend read the new letter and grinned. “This. Is. It.” she said. “They may love it; they may hate it, but they will definitely remember it.”

I had abandoned the way you apply for a job and had done something new. It paid off — both the HR manager and the hiring manager called me, stumbling over each other to set up a flight and an interview. I had successfully re-written the rules, and “The Hairball” had given me the benefit of the doubt, and a shot. That never happened, before or since.

I’ve tried the revise that letter in applying for other jobs, but it doesn’t work. I’ve tried to build writing routines and exercises to spark consistent writing that moves me as much as, for example, last year’s Holiday Letter, but everything sounds forced and derivative. It’s frustrating…and then, as I neared the end of MacKenzie’s book, one of his main points struck me like a ball-peen to the forehead — rang my head like the ginormous bell that it is: Once creativity is routine, it is not creativity. You cannot do something completely different, over and over again.

The cover letter accomplished its intended purpose; I can ask no more of it. Should I need another, I must again give birth. Which is hard work. But worth it.

Blogger’s Note to His Bride: You’ve noticed I’ve been goofier lately. It’s the fumes from the rocket fuel, keeping me just clear of the Hairball.

Who Is the Public?

I have just finished another book I would not have read if not for my job, Barry Bozeman’s Public Values and Public Interest: Counterbalancing Economic Individualism. First, permit me to confess that, left to my own devices, I would read fiction, poetry, and an occasional history — so I am being forced to broaden my horizons and get educated, which is never a bad thing. Second, let me say that, as a wannabe writer, I have many, many thoughts about this book, mostly concerning its readability. I would not say that I enjoyed it, but it did provoke thought. The primary thought it provoked may be worth sharing. I say “may be” because I am not an economist, a philosopher, a political scientist, or a public interest or public management theorist, so it’s possible that I simply didn’t get it.

My primary thought about the book is that it spends a great deal of time on the topics of whether and how it is possible to identify public values and the public interest, and contrasting those with private or individual economic values and interests (which are often not the same), but it spends remarkably little time on the question of “Who is the Public?” The author is very conscious (almost too conscious) of the limits — the squishiness — of terms like “the public interest” and “public values,” but while his book tackles “interest” and “values” at length, it gives short shrift to “public.”

Especially in the U.S., a vast nation with remarkably diverse cultures, religions, lifestyles, and economies depending on where in the country you reside, it seems to me that the more immediate the “public,” the more practical and realistic it is to identify shared public values and pursue the public interest. At the state level, this becomes less realistic: every state in which I’ve ever lived has had marked, or even deep, social, economic, political, and cultural divisions (“Outstate” or greater Minnesota versus the Twin Cities metro. East River versus West River. Downstate versus the U.P.) and different lifestyles worth protecting. At the national level, then, it seems unlikely that we could identify public values and a cohesive public interest, aside from the broad priorities of securing the nation and preserving our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The difficulty of pursuing public values and the public interest is not identifying values and interests — these are abundant, diverse, and obvious — but identifying who shares them, which helps to decide at what level of society they should be implemented.

The critique of economic individualism (which, says Bozeman, is increasingly driving our public policy agenda) in the book insists that individuals in this model are concerned primarily with their own economic interests, and perhaps those of a few close others (immediate family and the like). That may be the proper definition of economic individualism, but I don’t know anyone who lives this way. As a friend in Western South Dakota has explained, in his part of the prairie, neighbors take care of each other — and if someone doesn’t contribute to the good of the community, over time they are made unwelcome. They simply don’t last. Those who remain recognize that it is in their personal interest to take public interest: to be engaged in the community and preserve their shared values and lifestyle.

I enjoy a similar experience in “The Bubble” — the devout, small-town Catholic communities in Albertville and St. Michael. My circle of public interest begins at home, with my family; then expands to encompass my parish and the people with whom I share a fundamental belief system and way of life; then to my town(s), which provide the education my children receive and the goods and services we need to live and thrive; then to my state and nation, which should be responsible for ensuring my towns, parish, and family have the opportunity and freedom to thrive. I invest what time, talent, and treasure that I am still free to spend as I wish in the circles closest to me — which makes sense, since the more distant circles I am already obligated by law to support.

It seems to me that Bozeman’s approach to identifying public values, public interest, and ultimately, instances of failure of public policy to deliver in the public interest, is useful in inverse proportion to the size and distance of the “public” considered. At the local level, the public interest is much easier to identify — because although our population is increasingly diverse, we tend to cluster together with likeminded folks who share similar values. But as long as the majority of public resources are allocated at the state and national level, we will struggle with coming up with one-size-fits-all solutions to generic political issues that approximate real-world challenges, but do not reflect the actual problems of real people living in genuine community with each other.

The Second Third

I turned 36 years old today. Last year on this date I joked that I was a third of the way through my life (not half, as some had suggested). 105 seemed like a reasonable age for which to aspire: far enough past the century mark so it doesn’t look like you were stretching for a milestone, yet not so far past that you appear to be going for the record. This year I thought about it again — 105 — and it seemed less like a joke.

Why not? I’ve got things to do. 105 then. That’s the plan.

First I informed Jodi, so if she wants to go first, or wants to try to outlast me, she can plan accordingly. Then I thought about this blog post. If 105 is the mark, at 36 I’ve officially entered the second third of my life — middle age — except lucky for me, middle age lasts until 70, at which point you may consider me an “older American.” I don’t intend to retire.

The second third. It’s appropriate, because throughout the past two years, I’ve had a handful of experiences that pushed me out of uncertainty and into a much clearer (if not yet crystalline) vision of who I am, and who I want to be (y’know, when I grow up). So maybe it’s time to move to the next stage…

I also noticed that so many things have sucked up my time in this past year that this is only the 30th blog post of the year (compared to about 158, year-to-date, in 2008, which was my peak year). Sad. So sad, in fact, that my good friend Jinglebob at the Dennis Ranch blog actually briefly cut me from his blog roll for several days prior to the election for insufficient presence. And since one of the things that has not changed as I enter the second third of my life is my desire to write, I figure I ought to remedy that right off the bat.


Beginning today, and continuing each Wednesday for the next year (at least), I will post a Second Third entry, about where I think I came from, and where I think I’m headed. Navel-gazing? Perhaps. But I’ll try to make it worth your while — and hopefully as I get into the swing of a weekly post, others will follow.

Oh, and Yield and Overcome? Sounds to squishy for my second third. Gonna have to remedy that, too.

Welcome to my Second Third. I’m genuinely glad to be here, and thankful you came, too.