Tuesday, May 14, 2019


(I decided to post this excerpt after driving across Oklahoma, from Braman to Thackerville, for maybe the 400th time.)

We need to ask what we’ve learned about the world, and our rapidly changing place in it, by studying Oklahoma from noon on April 22, 1889, to 9:02 AM on April 19, 1995.
As a starter, in between those two dates, Oklahomans discovered the Oklahoma City field, installing derricks throughout residential areas and on the state capitol grounds, another powerful metaphorical description of our nation’s addictive dependence upon fossil fuels. These now lifeless steel frames enforce the symbolism, answering the question “who am I?” Legislators peer out their office windows at iconography, not having to ask what it means to be an Oklahoman. The state’s petroleum industry was a source of pride and identity that evolved quickly into a sense of entitlement followed just as quickly—in historical terms—by a sense of “what do we do now?” with the development of Middle Eastern, Venezuelan, and Alaskan oil fields.
Once I got old enough to engage in oil talk, I heard this question constantly from my father, even on rides to school in the 1950s. Interstate 35, linking Braman to Thackerville, is a window through which you can get a veiled peek at this century of history in a three or four hour period. Driving south across the state, only periodically do you see an active rig in the middle distance; sometimes vertical stacks of drill pipe signaling a bit change. These rigs are likely to be portables, regardless of size. Gone are the archetypical steel frame derricks with their “crow’s nests.” Pumping units are rusty; like herbivorous dinosaurs surrounded by barren dirt and a chain link fence, they nod, or sleep, waiting, perhaps, for the call to war that requires fossil fuel from heartland reserves. Collecting tanks are rustier still, looking like miniature versions of some high priority Superfund cleanup site.
Had I known enough to ask my father what the oil business would look like in the Third Millennium, he would have again linked “foreign crude” to the lonely pumpers north of Edmond. We’ve learned, from studying Oklahoma, that oil is where you find it, not where you want it to be, and that great nations rise and fall on their energy supplies, their energy policies, and their wisdom in the management of their natural resources. We’ve also learned, from studying the geographical expansion of Oklahoma City, that humans will build, and build, and build, like termites run amok, with nary a thought to the long term consequences. Within Angie Debo’s century, Oklahoma City grew from a founding population of about 4000 to a sprawling metroplex covering four or five counties with nearly 1.3 million people, but in this sense is little different from most of our nation’s 100 largest cities, including, if not especially, those in the arid west. As a model for our evolving nation, this expansion epitomizes the “growth is good” mentality; at some point, the lesson that exponential growth cannot be maintained over the long run, especially with resources that are fixed—read “oil” and “water”—will be learned, again, and all indications are that this time it will be a painful experience.

BERNICE AND JOHN is available as an e-book on all readers.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Comments on the upcoming mayoral election in Lincoln, NE

Words count, especially word’s issued by a person in power, or a person seeking political office. I am a registered Republican, which is probably why I receive Cyndi Lamm’s campaign mailings. The last two mailings I received use language taken directly from the Trump rhetoric, for example: "Make Lincoln Great Again" and "Drain the swamp at city hall."
In choosing to use this language, this candidate is also choosing to associate herself, and her desired role as mayor, with an individual who is demonstrably racist, misogynistic, and narcissistic, a person who mocks the disabled, lies constantly, has paid settlements in a fraud case, has defrauded contributors to a foundation (and thus cannot operate a foundation again in New York), is profoundly ignorant of geography, cannot write a coherent paragraph, and is a failed businessman with numerous bankruptcies, along with a reputation for stiffing employees and contractors. This choice of language, and the implied association with the practices, makes her unqualified for public office.
Lincoln does not need to be made “great again.” Like most cities hosting a major university, Lincoln is already great. We have ready access to a broad array of rich cultural experiences, major art and natural history museums, active and successful galleries, an active live music scene, a booming real estate market (and consequently low inventory), excellent schools, excellent (and heavily used) libraries, low crime, ready access to state government, and major sports events. The fact that state government is located in Lincoln means that our citizens have a privileged access to the legislature, thus educational opportunities to teach us how government actually works and freedom to comment on it.
City hall is not a swamp, and if a candidate plans to “drain the swamp” in the same manner as the individual using the above language, that means the candidate intends to staff the mayor’s office with known criminals and individuals who are likely to be indicted for a variety of offenses. Furthermore, if a candidate intends to “drain the swamp” in the same manner as the president, that means the candidate intends to practice nepotism and use the major’s office for personal gain.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not a “liberal extremist,” and we all know it. She is a very intelligent, articulate, and highly educated individual, exactly the kind of person this nation needs in leadership positions. She is young, and introduced legislation that functioned mainly to keep environmental issues under discussion at the national level. That performance does not make one a “liberal extremist,” nor does it mean she is pushing a socialist agenda. It simply means she is advocating the expenditure of resources in ways that benefit the most citizens.
Finally, my own analysis of government at all levels: it is not possible to limit spending and at the same time improve infrastructure and ensure the safety of all our citizens. Infrastructure maintenance and repair take substantial amounts of money, and if a candidate doesn’t know that, the individual has no business running for mayor. Police departments and fire and rescue services require substantial amounts of money, and a candidate who doesn’t know and recognize that face has no business running for mayor.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Why God made tapeworms

The Biblical story is relatively open to interpretation, too, especially with respect to time, and is even more open to interpretation when one considers life forms that we now know exist but are not specifically mentioned in Genesis. Thus there is a lot of wiggle room for people who want to use the Genesis story for various reasons and in various ways, and depending on how the story is interpreted, some fairly heavy theological issues surface. To illustrate some of the problems involved in understanding special creation, we might consider the group of parasites known as tapeworms. It takes very little knowledge of zoology to realize that any answer to the question of when God made tapeworms—that is, before or after their hosts—leads inevitably to an interesting theological discussion because quite different post-creation events must occur to explain these parasites’ continued existence, depending on when they were supposedly made. Genesis 1:20-25 deals with the world’s fauna, so we could infer that tapeworms were included in the categories listed (“every living creature that moves”), or were simply included with, and within, the larger animals mentioned, such as birds and cattle.
All tapeworms are obligate parasites; they do not survive outside of their hosts, except as eggs passed in host feces. Therefore, if God made tapeworms before He made their hosts such as the birds and cattle specifically mentioned, then those worms must have been either free-living or something we would not recognize as tapeworms. If they were unrecognizable as tapeworms, then that means they were changed into tapeworms by some mechanism not mentioned in the Bible, and because we’re discussing creation instead of evolution, that mechanism has to involve a decision by God to transform an existing, free-living, worm (we suppose it was a worm) into a new kind of worm, this one a parasitic, segmented, hermaphroditic, egg-producing machine dependent on its host’s defecation for survival as a species. In other words, if we do not allow evolution to create a tapeworm from a free-living ancestor, then we must allow God to accomplish exactly the same thing as evolution evidently accomplished, although for some mysterious supernatural reason. If God created tapeworms anew after He created their hosts, however, and furthermore, created them in their present form, then He purposefully made a parasitic, segmented, hermaphroditic, egg-producing machine dependent not only on its bird or cattle host’s defecation for survival, but also on the eating of tapeworm eggs (= eating of host feces) by various invertebrates such as beetles in which infective larvae could develop.
As if the timing of tapeworm origin were not enough of a theological problem, the reason why God made tapeworms compounds the difficulty of rationalizing their existence. It’s difficult to seriously discuss why God made tapeworms because such a discussion quickly becomes an exercise in creativity, carrying with it a strong dose of smart-aleck cynicism. What was God thinking when He made these parasites? What was His intent? What purpose did God have for such a creation? But let’s do the exercise because it’s a fairly instructive one in terms of what we might call “creationism theory,” although it involves an attempt to read the mind of God, an activity some religions consider blasphemous and probably most consider impossible. Nevertheless, let’s try to answer these questions, beginning with the idea of a tapeworm in the mind of God, remembering, of course, that we could do these exact same thought experiments with any of the 100,000 species of molluscs, the 400,000 species of beetles, the untold thousands of roundworm species, and just to include plants, poison ivy.
I’ll admit that reading God’s mind is about as easy as reading your next door neighbor’s mind. That is, it is virtually impossible. But, to explain the existence of tapeworms, we need to give it a try. Thus we might begin by asking the question: given everything we know about life on Earth, why should God have made a tapeworm? Before we can address this question seriously, however, we need to understand that God didn’t make just “a tapeworm;” no, God made hundreds if not thousands of species of tapeworms and put them into sharks, bony fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including humans. And He made these various tapeworms highly diverse, structurally speaking, with numbers of testes ranging from one or two to dozens if not hundreds and uteri that could be sacs, or networks of tubes, or even containers that grow in place of the first uterus. But God evidently had the most fun with tapeworm “heads,” producing made different kinds with suckers, crowns of hooks, tiny hooks on suckers, and glands. He also created tapeworms of a wide range of sizes, from tiny ones less than an inch long to veritable giants, many yards long. Some of the former He put into dogs and wolves, but the really big ones went into really big animals such as whales.
So what was God thinking when He made tapeworms? The first and most logical answer to this question is: God wanted some device for keeping some of his most intelligent, curious, insightful, and creative humans occupied for their entire lives. He knew, because He was God, that intelligent, curious, insightful, and creative humans come up with all kinds of blasphemous thoughts, and furthermore, are not always big fans of organized religion. So He needed a way to involve these minds in some activity that prevented their intelligence and creativity from being applied to other activities such as war, especially war conducted in His name. We have some historical precedence for assuming that God made things to fool humans into harmless behaviors, perhaps the best ones being fossils, which keep lots of people occupied, for example, paleontologists with science, or bloggers with arguing about evolution and creation instead of killing one another or running for public office so they can do public damage because of their willful ignorance. Tapeworms are better than fossils in this regard because they are alive; thus their complex life cycles and physiology compound the problems of understanding them and make them all the more attractive for really intelligent people who ought to not be using their brains to build weapons of mass destruction.
So, having figured out what God was thinking when He made tapeworms, or at least coming up with a candidate answer consistent with what we believe God’s mindset to be, we can extend His line of thought, in the process addressing His intent and purpose in a more general, theological, manner. It is probably a pretty good bet that God’s intent and purpose for making tapeworms was the same as His intent and purpose for making all the rest of nature that we currently know about, or whose existence we can easily infer from what we do know, namely, as a source of truly great mystery and wonder. Having designed humans, even though He’d still not actually built one, God realized what an enormously powerful device would be the brain He had all planned out, and He understood that such powerful information handling devices often took on lives of their own, or at least seemed to do so, thus producing an emergent property we now know as the mind. We can almost hear God saying to Himself: hmmm; if I build this thing like I’ve actually designed it, then it’s going to need something to keep it occupied, and I mean truly occupied, with grand, unsolvable mysteries such as why these brains exist at all.
Whereas tapeworms would work fine as divergence from war for a few highly intelligent and secular people, the average person would need much more personal challenges, for example, the problem of where people came from. Also, one usually needs a microscope to study tapeworms, but microscopes were not invented until long after the Garden of Eden was abandoned. So God, being God, recognized immediately that people were something that other people could easily observe without a microscope, and He also realized that this problem of where people came from could keep people occupied even when they had little or no idea what kind of evidence might be use to solve it. In other words, ignorance was no obstacle when people decided to get into an argument over where people came from.
What God didn’t realize, therefore, was that instead of simply keeping people occupied, this problem would let those same people rationalize war as one of the legitimate ways to address the very problem itself. Thus God came to observe that His creation was quite capable of behaving in unexpected ways, which some of these created beings called “free will,” and furthermore was capable of convincing itself that God Himself was inspiring such behavior. We can imagine God sitting by His Heavenly picture window, looking out over Heaven, and wondering whether He should have stopped His work with beasts and their tapeworms instead of letting His creativity run rampant to the point of designing some really smart apes.
The mystery gets deeper when we presume that God made tapeworms and put them inside those animals that are mentioned in Genesis, for example, cattle and birds (in the Revised Standard Version), and didn’t tell anyone, at least any of the people who ended up writing the Bible several thousand years later. So tapeworms inside birds and cattle could be interpreted as one more game of hide and seek, sort of like fossils. Our observations could then be consistent with some theological conclusions about God’s personality, namely, that He’s a creative, ingenious, and loving entity who likes to play hide and seek. Alternatively, we could consider Him a wrathful and jealous God trying to punish any creature on Earth stupid enough to not live a clean life by infecting that creature with a worm. We are not legitimately able, however, to consider tapeworms a plague thrown down by a wrathful God because tapeworms in general are not very dangerous and certainly not as capable of social disruption as say, locusts, which most people call grasshoppers.
So what people usually think about tapeworms, that is, that they are nasty and dangerous, is counter to what God knew about tapeworms, which was that in most cases they were pretty benign. In fact, tapeworms are generally so benign that in the vast and overwhelming majority of cases you can’t tell whether an animal has one unless you study that animal’s feces and find eggs, or kill the animal and cut it up to find the worm itself. In only a couple of instances can you otherwise determine that an animal might have a tapeworm, and with those infections you have to know where the animal has been and what it’s been eating, and you also have to look at some feces or, if the tapeworm is a larva, perhaps do a CT (= CAT scan = X-ray computed tomography) scan of the animal’s (human’s) brain.
So God could easily have made tapeworms simply for His own pleasure. After all, tapeworms are truly amazing and intriguing organisms that have kept some humans (made in God’s image) occupied for lifetimes. It’s probably too blasphemous, and too speculative, to claim that God didn’t really make cattle and birds and all the other “creeping things and beasts” anew, but simply copied them from another planet He’d created a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, not realizing that in the time since He’d created that other planet, those parasites had evolved from free-living worms that had previously evolved from primitive agglomerations of cells that had previously arisen from some rich soup of organic molecules.
In this scenario, the tapeworms would be an accident resulting from God’s laziness and ignorance, His plagiarism, so to speak, but because of our respect for God, we can’t consider Him to be lazy or ignorant or a copycat regardless of the fact that we really don’t know anything at all about Him. We may believe lots of stuff about God, but we really don’t know anything, including why He made tapeworms. Given the size of the universe, we also don’t know whether God might have made so many planets and populated them with all kinds of plants and animals that He simply lost track of what had happened on them as a result of free will and evolution and thus we now have tapeworms through no fault of anyone, especially God.
In this particular case, instead of laziness and ignorance, decidedly human traits, God might have been up to His eyebrows in administrative tasks and simply didn’t have time to check whether there were tapeworms in the beasts he was copying for Earth. This situation is so familiar to most humans, especially those who have ever held administrative positions, that we assume a Supreme Administrator could easily have found Himself in a similar circumstance, and with similar results. So this interpretation of the origin of tapeworms on Earth is consistent enough with the “made in God’s image” that it seems almost plausible, or at least not particularly blasphemous. Furthermore, this last explanation allows evolution to occur on other planets, ones we imagine but don’t actually know anything about, and such evolution is then outside the domain of American public school education, thus inconsequential, and not worthy of discussion.
As mentioned above, tapeworms are only one group of organisms that present us with a philosophical problem, namely, why they exist. We could have chosen any of hundreds of thousands of known species, or even the estimated several million species yet to be discovered, from bacteria to tiny primates hiding away in the Amazonian jungles. If the only creation we were worried about was that of shelled amebas in the ocean, for example, few if any human beings would care anything at all about their source, or their history. But the only people likely to argue about creation of shelled amebas are strikingly similar to those who might argue about the origin of tapeworms, namely, a bunch of scholarly nerds, probably tenured university professors, with access to laboratories, microscopes, molecular sequencing machines, and computers. So the general rule is that creationism works best as a political weapon when applied only, or at least mainly, to humans, because most humans really don’t care very much about the vast majority of other species on Earth, and if you’re dubious about that claim, start asking some proverbial people on the street their feelings about the origin of mice and mosquitoes.
Creationism also works best as a political weapon when it’s kept simple, and focused on God, people, and human behavior, instead of discussed seriously as a philosophical or theological matter in its fullest implications. As you probably suspect, I tried to do the latter when I asked why God made tapeworms, although I just as easily have chosen ticks, fleas, and cockleburs. These creations are nothing special compared to the other millions of non-human species that share the planet with us; they are, however, pretty good examples of species that humans might easily consider useless, or explainable only by resorting to the old saw that “God’s ways are so mysterious that we shouldn’t try to explain why He made something, only admit that He did for some reason we can’t fathom.” Nevertheless, if we are to discuss Creation—with a capital “C”—seriously, then we must ask why God made tapeworms, ticks, fleas, cockleburs, and poison ivy. In other words, we must engage in this rather blasphemous thought experiment, namely, trying to interpret God’s intentions, or reading the mind of God, relative to worms and other seemingly useless and irritating species.

Friday, February 22, 2019


I visited a class this morning at Nebraska Wesleyan, and a student asked me what my favorite book was, among those I had written. I answered THE GINKGO: AN INTELLECTUAL AND VISIONARY COMING-OF-AGE. That book PIECES OF THE PLAINS has a story from THE GINKGO, but it's introduced by an explanation, entitled The Horse. Here is that explanation:

In 1989, Ted Turner created the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award for a “fiction work offering creative and positive solutions to global problems.” The winner was to be offered a $500,000 advance and publishing contract. I immediately began work on my entry, entitled The Ginkgo, with the full intent of winning that competition. To make a long story short, I didn’t win, or even finish my book, before Daniel Quinn claimed the prize with Ishmael, a novel he’d been working on for at least ten years. But I eventually finished, then rewrote several times, The Ginkgo, a story about a college student from a ranch in western Nebraska who comes to the university and ends up writing four essays about a single ginkgo tree.
This student had to be a female, in fact a very intelligent and rather secular one, for a whole variety of purely narrative reasons. In my mind, this book is a visionary coming-of-age story about the burden of traditions, the powerful lifetime influence of a liberal education, and the human condition. I envisioned it being the next Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, at least commercially and in terms of becoming a cult piece. My literary agent, however, called it “an evocative book about ideas, exactly the kind of thing the American book-buying public is becoming increasingly impatient with” and promptly declined to handle it. Similar opinions were evidently held by the next forty-two publishers who rejected it. All that backstory aside, The Ginkgo, subtitled An Intellectual and Visionary Coming-of-Age, remains my best work, ever, and in my highly biased opinion, the most important; it’s also now available on Amazon.com and Kindle.com.
In The Ginkgo, this coed comes to the university, is asked to write four papers about a single plant, a typical activity for my large freshman classes, indeed an exercise that we have done for years, although the specific assignments differ from year to year. As a result of her performance, she is selected by her prof as penance for all his past sins, namely, all those cases in which he’s allowed, or even helped, a truly brilliant young person become a physician or other health care professional with a real job, instead of becoming a poet or philosopher who could, and would, be the intellectual leader our nation so severely needs. You can see immediately where the “creative and positive solutions to global problems” part comes in; if there is anything this nation needs in the Third Millennium, it is ideas, especially good ones.
To quote from the prologue to The Ginkgo, which I re-wrote after my agent declined it: “What happens to nations that get increasingly impatient with evocative books about ideas? Why can’t I get that phrase out of my mind? I walk down town. The sidewalks are filled with normal, everyday, people—lawyers, housewives, businessmen and businesswomen, panhandlers, college kids, and nondescripts. Are they all impatient with evocative books about ideas? What are they not impatient with? Murder, narcotics, war? Or are they not impatient with money, politics, agriculture, health, the military, sex, sports, or religion, the very subjects she was not allowed to write about throughout the year she went exploring a tree, a museum, a sculpture garden, an art gallery? Is it indeed possible that this society has degenerated into one so impatient with ideas that it will neither read nor buy an evocative book about them? I don’t believe this is the case. I believe my fellow citizens are vitally interested in ideas. Why else would they flock, in droves, to churches? Why else would they gravitate to certain politicians? Why else would they be so quick to categorize then dehumanize their fellow humans? Believe me, we are very interested in ideas; they are the hands that guide our acts, all of them, both good and evil.”
In many ways, The Ginkgo is symbolic of my teaching experience at UNL, and especially the emotional impact of spending all those years at the Cedar Point Biological Station in Keith County. Karen and I watched our children grow up out there; we came to be in awe of the subtle beauty, especially the early morning and late afternoon landscape colors, the sounds and smells, and the generous landowners whose property my students used regularly; and, we eventually developed an idyllic view of the Sandhills. This view developed, of course, because we were intellectual visitors, not residents who had to make a living from the arid high plains. The romance of western Nebraska is thus a luxury; all of our friends out there work extremely hard, and most of the time this work is outright physical labor, always with the chance of injury or devastating weather, and rarely with any escape except for that hour in church on Sunday mornings.
Much of The Ginkgo takes place in the Sandhills, on a couple of ranches, but the book really is about teaching, mentoring in its most challenging, yet rewarding, way. Naturally, because the Cedar Point instructional program has offered a lifetime’s challenge and reward, the western Nebraska landscape and culture had to be essential elements of this story. Just as naturally, by hanging around writers and artists, often because of Karen’s job, it never seemed unusual for a scientist to try his hand at fiction. Artists express themselves, in the process making their statements about the world whether they intend to do so or not, using whatever media seems appropriate. When a scientist believes he has something to say, something important, about the business of education, then he or she should also feel free to use any media to make such a statement. With a little luck, the product is an evocative book about ideas.
In the excerpt that follows, the prof has gone to western Nebraska in search of ideas, but in this case, the ideas are ones specifically designed to frame the assignments this student will be asked to pursue. Thus a teacher goes exploring into a student’s cultural background in order to come up with the perfect teaching devices. We profs do, or at least should do, this kind of exploration every day. What we don’t do regularly is drive a thousand miles for the sole purpose of spending time in the landscape and society where our students grow up simply so we can come up with the right test questions; such thousand-mile trips happen only in fiction.
Other characters mentioned in “The Horse” are members of the Johannes and Spindler clans. Carl Johannes owns a massive amount of land; he and his wife have produced a number of beautiful and intelligent daughters, but no sons. Dalton Spindler owns a much smaller ranch, but he and his wife have four sons, ranging from the hard-working and responsible Terry to the neer-do-well Gerry. Carl Johannes has his eyes not only on Spindler property, but also on the ranch where The Ginkgo coed grew up before she came to the university. You can see immediately where this story is heading. The Johannes girls are all barrel racers with magnificent horses from their father’s ranch; at least two of them have already captured their Spindler boys.
It will help in understanding one sentence in “The Horse” if you know that in the previous chapter the student—the main character in this book—has intercepted the prof on his way into a large lecture section of General Biology and demanded that he lecture about reproduction instead of the scheduled topic because another student in her dorm has tried to commit suicide by cutting her wrists as a result of an unwanted pregnancy. The Ginkgo deals, obviously, at least in part, with some of our nation’s truly divisive hot-button issues. Now join me in a Sandhills pasture for a conversation with a horse.