Saturday, June 11, 2005

Ranchers, Rednecks, and Cowboys

I wrote the original piece on a beautiful winter day not too long ago, on a Saturday. Right now we’re a little more than a week away from summer here in Emporia. It’s also Saturday morning and it’s raining. Actually, it’s been raining for days on end now. Two and a half inches last night, a couple the day before, an inch or so the day before that, and yada yada yada. As I came downstairs this morning I was humming the first line to Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.” It just seemed appropriate.

In spite of the gloomy weather, though, this Saturday is in its own way as beautiful as that Saturday in the winter.

Nancy and I had breakfast at the Commercial Street Diner a while ago and the cast of characters was the same as it always seems to be – a gathering of ranchers, rednecks, and cowboys. With things still as hectic as they were yesterday and now compounded with a corneal ulcer that is playing havoc with my sight, I thought another rerun would be in order. The original follows:

Psalm 118:23-24 (King James Version)

“23This is the LORD's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.
24This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning here in Emporia, Kansas. Last night we had about an inch or two of snow and now the town has the look of Bedford Falls.

Nancy and I spent the early part of the morning reading the Kansas City Star and talking about the movie we saw last night. If you haven’t seen it, we highly recommend “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The language isn’t pristine, but the theme more than makes up for the gritty language. It’s the story of a relationship, about a man and woman who want to erase each other from their memories. Through the use of technology they almost succeed, but they find that while their minds can be purged their hearts can’t. They love each other and nothing can change that. It’s well worth seeing.

I also did a bit of reading. I’m slowly plowing my way through Mark Edmundson’s “Why Read.” This morning’s little snippet was very interesting:

“To disdain TV now is bad form; it signifies that you take yourself far too seriously. TV is a tranquilizing medium, a soporific, inducing in its devotees a light narcosis. It reduces anxiety, steadies and quiets the nerves. But it also deadens. Like every narcotic, it will, consumed in certain doses, produce something like a hangover, the habitual watcher’s irritable languor that persists after the TV is off. It’s been said that the illusion of knowing and control that heroin engenders isn’t entirely unlike the TV consumer’s habitual smug-torpor, and that seems about right.”

Having read that, it only seemed right that the Weather Channel was more than enough for one day. To make sure we wouldn’t fall into a torpor we turned off the TV and decided to take a walk downtown to have some breakfast at the Commercial Street Diner.

I was ready in about three minutes and spent the next ten after than waiting for Nancy. At one point she was almost ready, but then noticed that she still had her slippers on. Another five or so for her to find her boots, the “right” hat to go with the rest of her outfit and we were on our way.

As we walked hand in hand in the snow I thought some of the odd thoughts that often drift their way through my mind. I was struck by how amazing the human hand is. It’s incredibly functional. It can grasp a monkey wrench; it can pound out words on a computer keyboard. It can show us which way to go; it can sometimes show someone where we think they ought to go. It can do amazing feats of sleight of hand; it can squeeze the trigger of a gun. But there on Ninth Street, as I walked hand in hand with Nancy, I realized that more than anything else the human hand was made for holding another human hand. Beyond any other function this amazing instrument can perform, there is nothing quite like what happens when one human hand slips into another human hand. I believe it’s because it seems to link entire beings together. It doesn’t just twist nuts and bolts. It unites hearts.

It was about 8:00 when we arrived at the diner. The place was already crowded with an assortment of ranchers, rednecks, and rowdies, Emporia’s prevailing demographic. We got ourselves seated and started looking at our menus. I don’t know why I even looked at it at all since I already knew what I wanted, a ham and cheese omelet, wheat toast, and a glass of apple juice. But I pretended to browse through it. At the top right hand corner of the menu I saw the diner’s slogan – “Home cookin’ so good you’ll think we stole your mama.”

Only in Emporia! Garrison Keillor may have his Lake Woebegone where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average,” but we in Emporia have our distinctive. The Commercial Street Diner is filled with ranchers, rednecks, and rowdies, our counterpart to the good citizens of Lake Woebegone. Here in the center of it all the design chic is a pair of bib overalls, a feed lot baseball cap, and a pair of Nike’s. The men here are strong, I believe custom built to brand cattle or tear an engine down. The women are pleasant to the eye, and yet sturdy enough to brand the cows along with their men (that’s about as descriptive as I care to be without getting myself into trouble with the Emporia Chamber of Commerce.). The children, well I think they’re average, maybe high C’s. But they seem good enough.

Right after the food arrived Nancy asked one of those curious questions she seems to reserve for special breakfasts like today’s. “I don’t think we Christians really rejoice in the Lord anymore, do you?” Now time has taught me that these are important moments, so I reflected for a moment to give her my best response. My response was absolutely brilliant. “Maybe yes, maybe no…..Actually I’m not sure.”
Nancy clarified. “Well I mean it just seems that we Christians spend all of our time consuming or defending the faith. We just don’t seem very happy or well adjusted these days.”
My mind wandered as she clarified. “How should the “Prairie Apologist” respond?” How could I admit that there was a lot of truth in what she was saying and save face? There was no escape. I had to voice my mea culpa. “You’re right.”
“Do you remember what it was like before we got so sophisticated? We used to sing “This is the day that the Lord has made” and mean it. Do you remember?”
“I do.”

Then the conversation changed directions. I think it was based on what Nancy took from watching the movie last night. She asked, “What would you do if you knew you were going to die at the end of the day today?"
“I don’t think I’d want to know,” I responded, “It would be more than I’d want to deal with.”

This was all reminiscent of discussions we’ve had over breakfast before, much like the one we had in New Jersey years ago. I looked around the café at the assortment of rogues in bib overalls gathered for breakfast and then looked back at Nancy. She was deep in thought. “I think it wouldn’t bother me. It would be a real signal for me to make the most of the day. Am I getting through? You know…..being able to sing “this is the day that the Lord has made” in spite of knowing it was going to be my last day here on earth.”

I didn’t respond at first. I looked around the café one more time to gather my composure. I’m not sure but I think it took a few minutes for me to respond. “I guess most of us would be franticly looking for some way to stave it off, wouldn’t we?” was about as profound a response as I could muster.

We sat tinkering with the remnants of our breakfast for a few more minutes and then noticed that Curtis McCauley had joined the crowd of rogues for breakfast. We called him over to the table and spent a few minutes getting caught up with one another. Doc, as I know him, is an interesting fellow. I first met him on a trip to a men’s retreat close to five years ago now. As we wandered the back roads of Kansas on the way to the retreat I recall the conversation he was having with Clint Longacre, a professor at Emporia State. They were kidding with one another about credentials. As they conversation progressed Clint would mention a degree he had received. Curtis would respond to each that Clint mentioned in his gravelly country brogue, “I got one of them too.” Not knowing him I suspected this might be a bit of Flint Hills hyperbole. I’ve since found that it wasn’t. Curtis looks every bit like the rest of the ranchers, rednecks, and rowdies that gather at the Commercial Street Diner in the morning, but his mind is as refined as any professor’s at any Ivy League school on the east coast.

The conversation meandered and somehow we got on the subject of stubborn people. Curtis excluded himself from “such folks” and I just rolled my eyes. “We know for sure you’re not the least bit stubborn, Doc,” I said. “It’s the other “folks” we were talking about.” Doc laughed and said that his wife Ann certainly knew he wasn’t stubborn. As we left he made me “promise” not to bring the subject up with Ann. I chuckled as I “promised” not to tell. “My lips are sealed Doc.”

Of course Ann may be reading this post in the next day or so. Ann, if you are reading this, I wanted to let you know that we all know, as you do, that your husband is not the least bit stubborn.

As we left the café I was feeling the effects of our conversations. The snow, which was beautiful before, seemed even whiter now. As we walked down Commercial Street hand in hand I noticed that the Granada Theatre had taken even more of a glow than it had as we passed it on our way to breakfast.

We turned onto Ninth Street and as we got to Congress Street we noticed Robbie Ruehlen driving toward us. We stopped and spent a few minutes talking with her. Robbie has become a good friend. We met her when we decided to find someone to clean our house once a week. I’m not sure whether or not Nancy found her through an ad or by way of referral, but however it happened it was an arrangement made in heaven.

Robbie’s been coming to our house weekly for a couple of years now. The best way to describe her work is that it’s the work of a whirling dervish. On the appointed day everything is moved to the center and the cleaning ensues. I’ve learned that the best thing to do while she’s working is to stay out of her way. That keeps me from getting Endust or Pledge or Murphy’s Oil Soap all over me.

But there’s more to Robbie’s relationship with us than that. Robbie came to us at a time when she needed some real confidence boosting. In the course of time she shared with us that she would like to go to school to study nursing but was afraid to go any further than just liking the idea. She had never graduated from high school and had somehow convinced herself that she could never succeed at something as difficult as higher education. Nancy started encouraging her to take the risk and in time she did. I think now that Robbie wasn’t sure that she would succeed, but with Nancy’s prompting and encouragement she somehow sensed that even if she didn’t make the grade she would still have a friend in Nancy to encourage her and love her.

Well Robbie succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. She got her degree, grading out at or near the top in all of her classes. I’ll bet she tackled the classroom like she does our house once a week.

She still comes to our place once a week and is also looking for a job in nursing. There’s some frustration in that search. Nursing “experience,” which Robbie doesn’t have, now seems to be the hang-up. So if there are any medical professionals out there that need a top-notch L.P.N., Nancy and I highly recommend Robbie Ruehlen.

We stood and talked there on the corner for a while and found out that Robbie’s doing better now. She’s just gotten over the virus that seems to be plaguing lots of folks around here and her energy level is back to her normal whirling dervish mode.

The brief conversation with Robbie ended and we pressed on toward home. At the corner of Ninth and Neosho a neighbor who was shoveling snow greeted us. “How you doin?”
“Not bad at all,” I responded. “My brother up in Boston’s diggin’ out from about three feet of this stuff right now.” Nancy chimed in, “And they only have one lane going into and out of their house.”
The neighbor acknowledged by saying that he had relatives up in the Boston area too. As we turned the corner on to Neosho we wished each other “good days.”

These moments we spent on the way home had a joy about them, a quiet sense of joy. I’m home now and I hope as I write what I’m feeling that you are feeling it too. This is “the day that the Lord has made.” Knowing that seems to make the snow whiter, our friends more treasured, our neighbors more neighborly, and the quiet life more meaningful. We haven’t solved any great problems; we haven’t argued any great theological questions. We’ve just lived knowing that this is “the day that the Lord has made.”

That makes us, in our quiet way this Saturday, rejoice. I hope, dear reader, that in your quiet way that you too will “know and enjoy.”

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