Cedar Valley Chronicles

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.

  • Tribute to an Old Friend

    • Posted on May 03, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    Here is this morning's Courier column on Lynn Nielsen, who died Monday, April 20.  He is widely and deeply missed.  I took this photo on Easter Sunday, fifteen days before he died.  


    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    My old lunch buddy, fellow bar musician, church organist, UNI colleague, Danish chef, spiritual seeker, neighborhood activist, world traveler, and creative spirit left us for good on April 20th. 

     Lynn Nielsen left a large and sad band of mourners who will grieve his absence while feeling grateful for all he gave.   

     Over the last decade or so, Lynn and I had become close friends. I loved his passion for improving his neighborhood, his deep engagement with UNI as a professor and mentor, his musicianship as a jazz pianist and church organist, his quest for travel, especially to Paris, where he arranged to play massive cathedral pipe organs, and his openness to discussing religion and spirituality no matter where it led.    

     During our many lunches, we toasted friendship and discussed the state of everything. I treasured our conversations.     

     Otherworldly matters came up over worldly lunches with wine—the French touch.  We explored spiritual issues after a column I wrote on “Promise Keepers,” a Christian men’s movement that I had pointedly criticized, and which he supported. 

     He wanted to discuss his commitment to the group.  I readily agreed to meet, since he was articulate and funny.  Humor goes a long ways toward dissolving differences. 

     Soon we enjoyed common ground.  Our mutual passions—music, books, and teaching—gave us plenty to hash over.  We also realized that we shared questions about not just our own beliefs, but all beliefs.  

     “We all want the same things,” he’d say, wondering why people sink into pointless and endless squabbles.   

     I had been a born-again Christian as a teenager, gave it up, and gradually discovered Buddhism through years of meditation and workshops.  Lynn had been a lifelong Lutheran who discovered it wasn’t the only religion that made sense.  He knew history, and how many religions were based on legend and myth, widely believed through sheer repetition.   

     He held his beliefs dear, and I respected him for that.   

     As we agreed, the opposite of faith is certainty, not doubt.  Humility is a central trait of all genuine spiritual seekers, and involves degrees of questioning and doubt.  

     Lynn never insisted that his was the one and only truth. Nor did I.  Along with music, that kept us friends.  He always, and I mean always, sent extended comments on my columns, and I learned from his observations and criticisms.  He humbled me more than once.  

     Lynn struggled with people who excluded and judged others based on their beliefs—that was not what Christ stood for.  

     He believed that Christianity should stand for compassion, generosity, and gratitude, as do all world religions at their core. 

     However, as Gandhi put it, “I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”  I used that quote as a bumper sticker, and he loved that.   

     Of course Gandhi didn’t mean all Christians, and certainly not Lynn Nielsen.  
    Lynn walked the walk, being more like Christ—without a trace of religiosity or pride—than many Christians I’ve known. 

     He was a Pope Francis Christian, not a Jerry Falwell Christian.    

     Though he never preached, he often mentored, and several men from a Bible study group he led testified at a friends gathering that his insights and challenges led them to deeper understandings of Christianity.  They expressed profound thanks for his guidance and leadership. 

     Besides, he threw great parties, or “lovefests,” as he called them.  He created tables full of Danish dishes, pastries, desserts, all accompanied by plenty of well-chosen wines. He loved diversity, and invited friends, neighbors, colleagues, students—anyone who would enjoy lovefesting.    
     
    And before dinner, we always sang  “Amazing Grace.”  
    How sweet was that sound.  

     We’re all bereft.   

     


     
    2 Comments
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  • That Removed Book about Indians

    • Posted on Apr 19, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    This morning's Courier column--Sunday, April 19.  It's beyond local interest, I think.  Also it's not  about censorship so much as freedom for teachers to use their best professional judgment without fear of one administrator's judgment.   That's what seems to have happened in the Waterloo Public Schools--against their own policy.    

    I took the time to read the "young adult" novel,  "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie, and found it unalterably appropriate for middle school students.  The administrator asserted it was "unalterably inappropriate," so we have a slight difference of opinion. 

    +++++++++++++++++++++++

    I’d like to recommend a book for young adults.  I mean a novel that’s written for young adults--teenagers in middle and high school, but I’d like to recommend it for grownups too. 

    It’s Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” published in 2007, and he’s relating his life as a young teenager on a Washington State reservation.  He has since become a best-selling author, poet and screenplay writer. 

    I enjoyed it immensely, far more than expected. More than that, I learned from it, and still ponder what it reveals about Native Americans, their hopelessness, their alcoholism, how much they hate themselves.  And how a lucky few leave despair and hopelessness behind.      

     His first Young Adult novel, “Diary” won the National Book Award, and made multiple bestseller lists.  The NY Times reviewer extolled its memorable prose and painful honesty, calling it Alexie’s best work. 

     So why did this old grownup seek out an 8-year old Young Adult novel?  Because it was “censored,” of course.   Banned books should be first on everyone’s “to read” list, since they’re sure to challenge and awaken readers. 
    Isn’t that what reading is for?   

     Last Sunday’s Courier editorial on “Diary” rightly criticized how one administrator’s decision that “Diary” was “inarguably inappropriate” for middle school students led to its being pulled from middle school classrooms.     
    Inarguably inappropriate?  

    On the contrary, teachers asserted, there was plenty to argue about, given the quality and power of the novel.  That’s why they have a policy that sets up a committee to read and discuss controversial books when parents or students object.  Put bluntly, the administration violated its own stated policy.  
    Apart from that, it’s a bonehead decision because these are exactly the kind of books that should be discussed in a class. 

     I read “Diary” carefully for what might offend parents or students, and found four
    potentially inappropriate features. Remember, the whole novel is written from a 14-year old Native American boy’s perspective as he discovers who he really is over the course of a school year.  “Arnold Spirit,” the character, experiences:  

    • Cursing, including the f-bomb, but sparingly, unlike in dozens of widely available movies. 

    • An ugly racist joke that causes the narrator to punch the jokester’s nose.

    • blasphemy in the form of one cartoon (the narrator creates dozens of cartoons to illustrate his dilemmas).  

    • sexuality, but only in the form of adolescent fantasies, which include masturbation. 

     Now, here’s what’s strange.  Those who advocate pulling it unanimously agree that “Diary” is entirely appropriate for high school students—just not for younger teenagers.  

     So during those three middle school years, younger teenagers are somehow supposed to learn about cursing, sexuality, blasphemy, and racist jokes so they can deal with them when they turn, say, 16? 

     How, I ask?  From older kids?  From hearing three more years of cursing and sex talk from their peers? 

     What’s the best way for younger teenagers to explore adult conflicts?  By reading and discussing them them with classmates and a teacher, in a middle school class. That’s how it’s supposed to work.   

     All of the potentially offensive aspects of Alexis’s novel arise from the narrator’s life and observations as he struggles with alcoholic parents, a crazy sister, bullying, and his tribe’s history as outcasts in their own land.   

    The narrator struggles with frustration, despair, and rage at times.  Everything he does and says that’s offensive makes sense, given his life and outlook as a deeply frustrated, dirt-poor reservation Native American.    

     So Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” deserves to be read, discussed, and celebrated by teenagers and teachers alike as a memorable reflection on growing up poor and outcast.   

     Shame on those who would interfere with that.  
    Go comment!
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