“The American Dream”

Hello from my study,

I have been relegated to two things over the past 72 hours or so: grading and watering. Teaching technical writing in a four week block this summer has been a new experience, and I think the being remote before that, while it might seem to be good preparation, seemed to be counterproductive in some ways. Certainly, cramming 14 weeks into 4 is a tall order, but I am not sure either the students nor I were prepared for this. In other words, I do not believe this has been one of my best classes (and that is me evaluating me). I am grateful to the Baker’s Dozen who have hung in there over these three plus weeks. Watering has to do with my yard on one hand, but also my soul the other. I posted a number of pictures of the yard earlier this week and I have most everything done on the East and South sides of the house. There are some things I still want to do, but I am not sure if they will happen this year or not. The last few days have been a sort of Tale of Two Cities sort of world, but I am learning that is more the nature of what life offers than a mere sort of run-of-the-mill day, week, month, or year.

Certainly, regardless your political leanings, the world in which we all live and try to carry out our lives has been turned upside down: healthwise, economically, and now socially. I do not believe any of it is by accident and that is not a conspiracy theorist speaking, but rather we are too often unwilling to make the hard changes that we could (perhaps should) make if we are going to create a world that is equitable for all. Again, I know that is a loaded term, but step back for a moment, if you will. What do you hope for your children, your grandchildren, for those you love? What world do you want for them: environmentally (and I mean that inclusively – in terms of water, food, air, health,); what do you want for them in terms of economic opportunity (and again that is more than merely money; it includes education, employment, advancement, long-term viability as a reasonable life); and what do you hope for them in terms of social viability (which means a world where they are treated fairly, thoughtfully, and judged as Dr. MLK Jr. once said, but the content in their heart)? Over the past weeks, we (and that is an inclusive first person plural) are all confronted with who we are, individually as well as collectively. Confrontation of any kind is frightening. It bares the soul and can force us to be honest, if we will. More often than not, the fear evolves into anger and we shut down. I know I am guilty of this. It is hard for us to be accountable for our actions, even harder to be responsible for our attitudes. Attitudes are much more insidious things, as well as complicated.More importantly, what does it mean to understand our obligation, if I can refer to it as that, in terms of our societal responsibility to the world we live in? I turn to my seemingly- go-to person again, the Reverend Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When he struggled with the inaction of the church, or when a significant part of the church sold out to the Reich, Bonhoeffer was neither afraid nor silent at that point. I am compelled if you will to consider the obligation the disciples had when they chose to follow Jesus. I have gone back to reread and think about their calls. What does it mean to be called to do something? Being called, particularly when considered from a Biblical perspective does have an obligatory element because you cannot say no to the call. That is a frightening thing. I think about two things in Bonhoeffer’s theology that move us from the church to the world. Bonhoeffer lived in a time of hyper-nationalism as Germany had been crippled by the Treaty of Versailles, and in particular the Article 271, the article that placed the entire financial burden of WWI on them (btw, they finally paid it off in October of 2010, 92 years later). The decade that followed saw similarities to our America of the last decade. Those who had money in Germany had their own version of the Roaring 20s that characterized the United States. Yet the great majority of Germans suffered the extreme consequences of hyperinflation and struggles behind the scenes. Almost as a mirror image, America of the 20-teens saw the rich continue to move the stock market into on record high after another. In the meanwhile, while employment showed positive gains, the wages stagnated. Many more people than most realized were working multiple jobs to make it possible for their fading American dream find some degree of reality. Coming out of college with 10s of thousands of dollars in debt has made home ownership, mobility, or even marriage something to imagine later. Fareed Zakaria, an Indian immigrant and author of an incredible article on the reality of the American dream some years ago, laid out the disappearing reality of that classic understanding well.

The reasons for the impending extinction of the house with the picket fence, the garage, car, kids, and the pet, then-you-have-made-it are numerous, complex, but interrelated. As Zakaria noted, “For a picture of the global economy, look at America’s great corporations, which are thriving. IBM, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Intel and Caterpillar are all doing well. And they share a strategy that is becoming standard for success. First, technology has produced massive efficiencies over the past decade (which was the late 90s and into the 00s -parenthetical added). Jack Welch explained the process succinctly on CNBC last September. ‘Technology has changed the game in jobs,” he said. “We had technology bumping around for years in the ’80s and ’90s, and [we were] trying to make it work. And now it’s working … You couple the habits [of efficiency] from a deep recession [with] an exponential increase in technology, and you’re not going to see jobs for a long, long time.’ Welch gave as an example a company owned by the private-equity firm with which he is affiliated. In 2007 the business had 26,000 employees and generated $12 billion in revenue. It will return to those revenue numbers by 2013 but with only 14,000 employees. ‘Companies have learned to do more with less,’ Welch said”(Time 21OCT2010). This means that many high paying jobs have been swallowed up and what is left are jobs that do not pay as much. This is what we have experienced since the Great Recession. While job numbers are certainly up, the standard of living for the masses is not. “People who get paid a decent wage for skilled but routine work in manufacturing or services are getting squeezed by a pincer movement of technology and globalization” (Zakaria). Certainly, in the time since he wrote this article, we have tried to manage things by a more protectionist process and that is especially the case since MAGA has found its way into our vocabulary. But the consequence of this protectionism has been felt by every aspect of the workforce save the One-percenters, who have benefited from the tax overhaul of 2017. Zakaria (and others have noted the problem with that route. Again, he writes,  “It would be pointless and damaging to try to go down a protectionist route, though polls show a stunning drop of support for free trade, even among college-educated professionals, its usual cheerleaders. But technology is a much larger driver of the hollowing out than trade. You cannot shut down this new world. How would you stop people from sending one another e-mails, which is what a lot of offshoring comes down to these days? Nor can you help a modern economy by shielding industries from world-class competitors, which just encourages greater inefficiency” (Time 21OCT2010). The reason for me to base my argument on this article is because I believe as an immigrant and someone who understands our culture from both sides, he is uniquely positioned as well as brilliant and articulate in his critique. What was incredibly telling, which makes the present administration’s disdain for immigration and the closing of borders for all kinds of things, was the comment by Alcoa’s German-born Klaus Kleinfeld, previously the head of Siemens: “I know the things that America has that are unique. The openness, the diversity, the dynamism — you don’t have it anywhere else. If you keep all these things, build on them, I still believe in the American Dream” (quoted by Zakaria). Unfortunately, the administration, and by extension, the Congress have both been remiss, which is an understatement, in managing this openness, this diversity. Congress needs to take today’s ruling by the SCOTUS and come up with a reasonable immigration policy once and for all. However, I do not believe that will happen unless there is a change in November.

I have taken the time in my classes to ask my students about things like hope, their aspirations, their understanding of the American Dream, and their responses would frighten most of you. They, for the most part, seldom believe they will be better off than their parents. They regularly find the idea of hope unrealistic at best, and flat out bullshit at the worst. They often question what aspirations might be out there, and certainly the last four months have done little to assuage that concern. In fact, the level of exacerbation is beyond measurement. The number of 2020 graduates at any level who feel they have been screwed is exponential. So where does that leave us? Again, the parallels I see in the late 1920s-1930s Germany economically (and possibly politically) are beyond the pale. The creation of scapegoats to blame for our arrogance and greed is nothing new. The reality is simple, trickle-down economic theory is a fallacy. Those with the money are unwilling to share the money with those who create their wealth. As we move toward the technological overhaul Zakaria notes, there are fewer workers to argue for higher wages. If 14,000 can do the work of 26,000, the 14,000 are happy to still have a job. Step back and think for even a moment. What is happening between the pandemic, the economy, and now the reaction to the killing of yet another black person has created a perfect storm. Yesterday the Republican legislature in my state of Pennsylvania has drawn up Articles of Impeachment against our Democrat Governor, Tom Wolfe. Today, the federal government held Pennsylvania up as an example of how to manage Covid-19. And yet, the Republicans have referred to the Governor as a dictator. The dissonance between between the two positions would make Bartok and Schoenberg seem like they composed tonal rather than atonal music. Dr. Brandes would be so proud that I remember that.

So what might our call be in this profoundly confusing world? I noted earlier there is a call that cannot be ignored. I will only begin to lay it out here and you can see more in the next blog. I believe if we are to overcome the division, the argument, the disdain for the other that is rampant, we will need to understand that what lies ahead of us is a call for patriotism that understands the difference between true patriotism, which goes well beyond ourselves, and nationalism, which is selfish, inward looking, and incompatible with our global economy. Too often we see patriotism and nationalism as synonymous. They are not. That is the case, not only rhetorically or definitionally, but also in how we live amongst each other, be that in my little area of rural Pennsylvania, in the urban area of Philadelphia, Milwaukee, or within NATO or the EU. This is a global issue. And certainly Nationalism is not just an issue in the United States. Brexit is an example of it. Hungary and Poland have witnessed it as have other countries. The reason it does not work is you cannot put a global economy back into the box it was pulled out of. The technology that has transformed our world into a global information highway is also not going to go backwards. Any such thought is so far beyond naive, I have no term for it. What I am arguing is most of our most significant problems today are not national problems, they are global ones. Certainly, the EU provides some idea of how difficult it is to get even a small group to work together. We see the same among our own 50 states. The United Nations has, at times, demonstrated an incredible sense of common purpose, but they have no authority to enforce anything. I think we are at a crossroads on a number of things. If we are to have hope and believe in the possibility of a world where our children and grandchildren are to thrive, it seems we need to work together for a dream that is larger than merely an American one. Certainly those of us who grew up in the 1960s believed America was unparalleled in goodness and opportunity. This song provides some sense of sometimes how I feel as I look out around me. It is one of the bands that reminds me of a so many wonderful concert experiences.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

The Initial Date

Hello from the front porch,

It has been a beautiful beginning to June. It has been busy with school and a summer class as well as managing the yard, which is a daily chore, but one I enjoy. The acre still needs work; while much has been accomplished, and there are no major projects this summer, I wish the yard (and specifically the grass) was a bit more spacious than it is. That is my father coming out. He was meticulous about his yard. Once the utility company did some maintenance work and dig up his parking. They planted grass seed, which was certainly not to the level of grass he believed necessary. He fumed for days and I seldom heard him swear, but I heard it at that point. I got some of that same quality seed last summer through my own construction project, and I think it will take a couple years to recover in a few significant patches now. Yet, the yard is a living, breathing, and resilient ecosystem of its own. I am sure with some appropriate care it will recover.

The past two weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind, and an emotional rollercoaster, but I am proud of managing it all better than I often have. I am reminded of the difficult, albeit perhaps a sage admonishment of my counselor in graduate school, the director of the counseling center at MTU at that time, Donald Williams. He was a person who had me figured out better than probably anyone I have ever met. Of course, 6 years of meeting almost weekly might do that. I have been pushed to realize the reality of things that can occur when people struggle with a variety of issues-issues that are often vexing and have profound consequences for their life, as well as the lives of those who care for them. Sometimes I understand more than I wish I did. Recently a poem was shared with me that poignantly reveals some of those struggles. One line states “As a tear touches your cheek, you turn away.” It is exceedingly difficult to turn away from those who have found a place in your heart, especially when all you wish for them is health and happiness. I have been pushed to remember my sister’s struggle with so many significant issues. There was this substantial push/pull between us as I wanted to help, but could never seem to find the ability to do it adequately. When I pushed or questioned beyond a certain point, she simply disappeared, sometimes for months. This was before the social networking we now have, but it was the earlier version of blocking someone. As the incredible actor, Tom Skerritt, as the Presbyterian minister in Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It, said so eloquently, “Each one of us in our lives will look upon a loved one, who is in need and ask the same question. We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those who are closest to us. Either we do not know what part of ourselves to give, or more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. So it is those we live with an should know who elude us, but we can still love them. We can love completely, without complete understanding.” So often our love is imperfect because we are imperfect. I have been reminded of this shortcoming so deeply in the past few days that it hurts, but it also serves to remind me that it is not my job to fix things. So often I want to make it alright. Decades of struggle are not eliminated by a single person’s care or hope. I am reminded of how the actions of those around us have profound and unending consequence. Why is it some can get beyond and some cannot? I think it is particularly difficult when you see the goodness someone has, but that goodness is dimmed, torn, or paralyzed because of the other things that life has dealt them.

During this week, the consequence of decades, and centuries of injustice have blown open our country, and actually more accurately our world. The mistreatment, the discrimination, the marginalization of black people, brown people, LGBTQA people, old people, mentally ill people has pushed a response unlike any before witnessed. One of the things I realize considering my sister, Kris, is that she suffered as a member of more than one of these categories. I wish I had understood more acutely, more completely, how various experiences affected her and how those experiences created or contributed to the struggles that I believe caused a premature death. I wish I understood how such a brilliant and loving person struggled so mightily to merely manage her day. Those questions have bubbled to the surface as I tried to make sense of other things that have occurred over this past month. I think, perhaps at times, it is easier to remember someone for who they were than what they have become. The window, as someone noted recently, is often fragile and what we see can be burdensome, even frightening. Too often the reflection is more honest than we can manage. It would be easy to give up and simply move beyond, but that too has a consequence. What we see and how we are seen by the other can paint very different pictures.

And yet, in spite of the difficulties of the day, I am reminded that today is an important day also, albeit very different from what was expected when I picked up a tall, slender, and tired young man from Denmark on the final days of August last summer. June 16th, today, was the day that Anton was supposed to return from his year in Bloomsburg after his study abroad year. I wonder what might have happened had we not ended up with a pandemic. I wonder what might have happened as he took the CCHS tennis team by storm. I wonder who he might have ended up asking to prom as it was something we had discussed. I wonder how 10 additional weeks might have changed his impression of his year in North Central Pennsylvania. Fortunately, we have been able to stay in touch on a somewhat regular basis, and I can say he does not look that different from when I helped him get to his plane in Baltimore. I do believe he is still reflecting on what this year did for him on a number of levels. It did, naturally, help him improve his English, which was quite proficient when he arrived. It gave him a very different living experience than what he knew from his years in Humlebaek. I smile now when I think about our conversations about the difference in his daily routine at school or how the friends he made here were so different from his friendships back in his home country. It is he who noted this and not something I would have picked up on. What is also important is how much he taught me, not only about what it meant to be 16/17, but more importantly, what he taught me about myself. Someone asked me recently how I had become so confident? I did not have a good answer for them, but I think it, in some significant ways, because Anton taught me so much about how to communicate more effectively and appropriately. He taught be how to listen more carefully and work together more thoughtfully. What still amazes me about him, along with his intelligence, his common sense, and his ability to listen and think, was his honesty and integrity. Seldom, if ever, have I ever met anyone, and especially someone who is still a teenager, who does not lie about anything. He was, is, and probably will be for sometime, a person I will look up to as a sort of paragon of honesty. I know that is quite the accolade for someone so young, but he is completely deserving of that.

Dates have always held significance for me, and I remember them quite well. I am not really sure how that happened, but it is something that was always the case. Be it birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, dates of someone’s passing, I somehow keep those filed away like a roll-a-dex in my head somewhere. There are times I do not get to things as quickly as possible, but seldom to I forget a family or close friend’s important dates. I remember the birthdays of most of my first wife’s family even now. I remember my parent’s birthdays, grandmother’s and aunt’s as well as some of their other important days. I wish I had that memory for somethings today as it too often seems I remember something about an hour after I should have been there. Yikes!! Dates, people, places, all of them create memories. Memories, I believe are what make humans unique in the worldly order. We not only remember, but we can anticipate, imagine, and wonder about the future. Those two things are probably our biggest gift and our most profound weakness.

As I noted in my last blog, the consequence of expectation can be devastating. I think the product of memory and anticipation is expectation, and perhaps more profoundly, it can, and often does provide hope. And yet it seems our world is sorely lacking in that particular area. What gives someone hope? I have asked this question before, mostly in the sense of what happens when it is missing, but I would like to find hope in the midst of some of what is happening, be it globally, nationally, or even individually. I want to believe that somehow better angels can come among us and lift us up in ways that allow the care and love that is present in all people can be the foundation of what we do. I want to believe that the goodness in someone can still shine through when they struggle to merely manage their day because of their own personal demons. I was asked more than once in the most so distant past why I work so hard trying to make things logical? I was asked recently, as noted, how I became so confident? I am not sure that I am as confident as I seem to portray, but I do believe I am pretty content with where my life has led. Last night I was blessed by a phone call from three former colleagues. What a wonderful surprise. I actually called the initial caller back today to tell them how important that call was. Sometimes, when we least expect it, we learn that we matter. We are reminded that we made a difference. Yesterday was an important day. It was the day that Anton was originally supposed to return, and even though he left 10 weeks early, the difference he made for me will be with me the remainder of my days. Yesterday was a day that I made some choices, that while difficult, are for my well-being, and that is not always something I am attentive to. It was also a day that I was reminded of people who have made a profound difference in my life, from a mentor in graduate school to colleagues from Wisconsin. It was a day like many, a day of ups and downs, peaks, valleys, and some smooth places too. It was a day to spend dinner with two wonderful colleagues from here at Bloom that I am blessed to call both colleagues and friends. I guess in spite of it being an important date in the life of Anton and me, it was a day that ended up much differently. Yet, it was an important day because things that matter still happened. It was an important day because I stood up for my own healthy choices, albeit difficult. It was an important day and date because I am still here today. Here is the amazing scene from the end of A River Runs Through It.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Imagining 50 Years

Hello from my porch,

When I was 14, I had an opportunity to be a member of the Sioux City Children’s Community Theatre. We were part of a larger group of theatre folks that included adults, but we were also independent. Be that whatever it was, we were a rather motley, mismatched, but open minded collection of early teen and thespian hopefuls. In the above picture, I am the little one in the glasses, and the person I am restraining as the undersized policeman was my best friend growing up, Peter Goede. Peter was my best friend for the remainder of his life. Under the watchful eye of our patient director, Mary Hart and her able assistant, Donna Nyreen, we presented plays at the Sioux City Community Theater. There was generally a summer play and soon after, the Christmas Carol was added as a holiday offering each winter. What made us an unlikely group was we did not grow up in the same neighborhoods. More significantly, even then neighborhoods, or sections of our town somewhat stayed to themselves. Yet, the community theatre was in my part of town (by a large city park that had once been the home to quite an amusement park) I and many of us were from Riverside, which was considered a more blue-collar section of our town of 100,000 people. That is what made the location of the theatre somewhat surprising. Some were from the Northside, which I believed were much more affluent families than I was used to, and some were from Morningside, which was the largest section of our Northwest Iowa town. What I realize now is our mentors created something quite special. It was unique because we did not really think of ourselves as more our less than the other, regardless their address. We merely practiced together; we worked diligently together; and we became quite a group of friends. In some ways we were the drama version of Glee, generations before anyone would hear of Glee. As we worked together we created flats, built sets, painted, and learned lines, stage directions, blocking. In fact, we even worked with our own makeup to some extent.

Perhaps the most incredible thing that happened to this undersized, somewhat shy, but generally happy boy was the chance meeting of so many wonderfully talented others. However, as 14 year old petrified of girls, of course, I would also meet a girl, one who was not only in the theater group, but also in Sioux City Children’s Choir too. This was the other city-wide thing in which I was involved. She was younger than I, but also taller as well as the most beautiful and kind-hearted person I could hope to meet. She possessed beautiful eyes, a mesmerizing smile, beautiful, long, wavy hair, and an incredible tan. She was perfect in my 14 year old eyes, and more importantly, she actually spoke to me. I was head over heels with this girl. However, there was one difficulty I would come to find out. She was a Catholic girl, and my older brother, five years my senior, was told no dating Catholic girls. Therefore, I assumed the same would go for me. Yet, as I was only 14, and not supposed to have a girlfriend anyway I believed, and quite accurately I might add, that I could fly below my mother’s ever present radar. If I was in a group with her, my mother would know or expect nothing. Seemed like a good way to move forward. During that next year, I was fortunate to have the group of theater friends, and somehow we convinced my mother to take us to play dates to the northern end of Nebraska Street where there was a concentrated geographic group of these amazing thespian wannabees. Those play dates created an even larger group. Maintaining our group events, attending cast parties after final performances, and painting of our play blocks on the wall of the theater along the adult plays made us all feel quite important. Yet, as I grew more enamored with my fellow actress, the reality of life would come and hit us in the face. She and her brother, also part of the group (and someone my sister made a good friend of), informed us that their father was being transferred in his job and they would be moving. To say my life came crashing down would be a profound understatement. That summer there would be a couple of going away parties and during one, she and I sat in the yard talking. We knew we liked each other, but were each shy in our own ways. I think I finally found enough courage to even hold her hand. We chatted about how we would manage to stay in touch from the impending distance of almost 200 miles. One must remember long distance calls were expensive and I would have to figure out how to mail things (stamps and all) without my mother knowing. If I were to write a girl, I knew there would be questions; and if my mother figured out the Catholic element I’m sure I would be in trouble. And yet as we spoke, I knew unabashedly, I was willing to do anything necessary to maintain contact with this incredibly angelic person who had captured my heart. Then it happened! She gave me a kiss on my cheek. I remember my ears (which I was still growing into) getting flushed and, naturally, as soon as she kissed me she got up and left. Heaven had just landed in the yard where I was sitting. She has kissed me. Oh my goodness! Had I imagined it? No; it had really happened. I don’t think my feet touched the ground the rest of that night. How could I be so fortunate to have the most wonderfully kind girl, the girl I actually liked, kiss my cheek?

I was frightened of girls and the only other girl who ever kissed me was my cousin, Janet, and they had to hold me down for that to happen. I think I was probably 11. I think we got to spend one more time together, after the life-changing kiss event before they moved. And there were letters and phone calls after the move, but distance and life would make connections more distant. At one point, while serving as a manager for the JV and Varsity basketball team, a couple of us figured out (this is way back in the time when phone booths had the 25, 10, and 5 cent slots) how to make phone calls for pennies rather than the actual cost. Someone figured out if you put put a flattened, drinking-straw down the quarter slot and put pennies down the nickel slot the phone was tricked into registering that quarters were deposited into the phone. Wow!! I found a way to make long distance phone calls to my favorite girl for pennies on the dollar. Of course, we were not smart enough to realize that collecting a bunch of pennies out of a phone that did not use pennies would raise some suspicion. I am not really sure how long we scammed Ma Bell, but, of course, a number of calls to central Iowa and the same number was not hard to trace. Eventually I had to fess up and needless to say the number of phone calls decreased significantly. I do not remember having to pay for the calls, but I do know my parents were not impressed with my ingenuity. Letters did continue, but changes in both lives ended with our losing touch. There was one time shortly after graduation when I visited her brother and then there was a phone call about a decade ago. And yet the very hearing of the name, whether it was about her or just another person with the name, would bring back the memory of my first crush and how she made my heart so happy.

How do you put a half of century into perspective? That is a tall order, even if one’s life is your sort of basic “I-grew-up; went-to-college; got-a-job-and-got-married; had-a-family-and-worked-a-job.” Then there is the reality: I did not follow any of that. As I have written in some recent blogs, I really had no grand plan for my life. I am not sure I can even say I do now. What I know is I have been afforded opportunities, and many times, they have been unexpected. Many times I think they have simply been gifts waiting to be unwrapped. It is somewhat analogous to how I used to speak to parishioners about baptism. I remember comparing baptism to the same sort of incredible present that can only be understood when we are willing to unwrap it. It seems unwrapping, however, takes courage. It requires us to willingly take a chance, but most times that chance is frightening. Fear comes from our own life experiences and the cumulative effect of those times when we have failed or been hurt. There is the reality of how changes are more profound to us when we age. Perhaps the older we are, the more fragile we are. I am reminded of the song from the musical, Rent, when Mimi says to Roger, “I am looking for baggage that goes with mine.” I have noted in conversations with more than one person as of late, I feel like all the aspects of my life have finally caught up with each other. It is a nice feeling. It is also a bit strange, but it has been hard work getting here. Life is a journey of unexpected events. Too many times just when I think I have a plan, something occurs that makes the plan either no longer possible, obsolete, or altered in some significant way. There was the plan of the fall sabbatical in Poland; there was the expectation that I had a tenant for another year. Both have changed. There was an expectation that Anton would be leaving tomorrow; instead, he has been gone since April 1st. There was an expectation that I might be in Cape Charles around this time, but I do not expect that will happen anytime soon either. Changes happen regularly, although unanticipated, unforeseen. I think one of the things I have learned to do, not always willingly, is roll with whatever happens. Perhaps it was my father’s admonishment to never place expectations on things or people. That has been a difficult lesson more than once in my life and recently, it was revealed yet again.

My signature in some of my emails also is a line from Rent. It is the line that most resonates with me: “there is no day, but today.” I can only manage the 24 hour block I am in and sometimes not even that. I am so grateful for the fortuitous and wonderful conversations that have occurred, for the pictures from another time, for the questions and honesty. I cannot control anything, but I can trust in my soul that what I believe is worth believing. The other song from Rent that tears deep inside of me is the song “Will I?” While I have been gifted beyond anything I could have imagined, there are no guarantees. I know this well, and I have struggled with events over which I have no control. I am in charge of so little. Myself, and even that is not always within my capability. At this point, grading is finishing up; Polish needs to begin once again. Writing projects and trying to wrap my head around a new university process will keep me busy. And yet, my heart is happy. For that I can only say thank you. Imagine 50 years? Perhaps I will; perhaps something miraculous can happen. I believe in the hope and goodness of what honesty can do.

Thanks as always for reading.

Michael

Considering Life Together

Hello on a Saturday morning,


I need to take a break from grading, though I will be back to it for most of the day and tomorrow. This past week, in the midst of our national chaos, I have tried to understand why it is we are so incapably divided, so resistantly unopen, so readily confrontational. This is not merely through my watching the news. It is in response to what is both said and unsaid; it is through the consequence of that which is both acted out or by that done through lack of response. It is through my own reflection on what I have felt because of things experienced or my observation of others experiences. What does it mean to be a nation? That is the question I am left to ponder. What constitutes a national identity when the fabric is tattered, soiled, faded, and seeming irreparable? As importantly, where might I go for answers to these difficult, pressing, and monumental types of questions? Perhaps it would be easier to push them aside and merely go back to my work, which is pressing, and 5 days of feeling less than optimal has made more of a hurdle. Perhaps I too could throw up my hands or wring them in despair at where we find ourselves in this unprecedented time. Yet, that sort of inaction if you will allowed atrocities in the past, both here and in other placed to proceed unabated, unquestioned, at least to the extent that we have places like Auschwitz, Dachau, or events like Ruwanda or the שואה as part of our history. Again, I know those are some extreme examples, but nonetheless, they are reality, things we would want to believe we are incapable of allowing or participating in, but as a collective species, we did.

I believe we are at a carrefour, an exigence, perhaps even a crisis moment. If we are to speak out, calling up our most fundamental sense of decency for all people who are unjustly marginalized, with a sense of purpose that appeals to the ideals of the human spirit, we must turn to something larger than our own individual sense of right or wrong. This is not to say we have no individual input, or that anyone can merely step back and allow the others to manage this kairotic moment. However, what is the path? Where do we begin? A couple of blogs ago I noted a small book that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, when he was considering the clandestine seminary group of students at Finkenwalde. This text titled Life Together, focused on what it meant to create a community. Perhaps that is where we ourselves must start if we are to do anything beneficial or redemptory to our crumbling national temperament and sinking reputation both here and abroad. I have former students, classmates, as well as colleagues who are working or expatriates with whom I speak or communicate regularly. It is interesting to hear their views as well as difficult to answer their inquiries when they address things about the country where they were born, still hold citizenship, and yet have been able to watch with a more open view. They still love the country, but not being subjected to the 24/7 news, and looking at us (themselves included) from a distance is always a different thing. I know this from watching things here when I have been abroad at various points in my life. They ask questions from the insider viewpoint, but with an outsider experience. That is actually a pretty wise place to be at times. I am not always sure what even to answer. I find much of what is said and reported to be embarrassing at the very best and down right frightening at not even the worst. Therefore, back to the question at hand, at least the question for me: what might we do to begin to move toward something more hopeful? I think Bonhoeffer’s reflection on what it means to truly be a community is insightful.

Bonhoeffer looked at community from a truly spiritual viewpoint. There is much to say about that, but suffice it to say, a spiritual reality for Bonhoeffer required an individual to think and believe beyond themselves. To do that it seems we must dedicate ourselves to something beyond ourselves, beyond our community, and for me, yes beyond our humanity. When I was in seminary, one of my professors, Dr. Frederick Gaiser, a distinguished education in Old Testament, began each class with this prayer:

Almighty God, draw our hearts to you, guide our minds, fill our imaginations, control our wills that we may be wholly yours. Use us as you will always to your glory and the welfare of your people . . .

Lutheran Book of Worship (1978, page 47)

I have never forgotten this prayer or what it offered to me in a sense of comfort and hope. To be of use always to the welfare of others is a tall order, but it provides something that we cannot do on our own. It is the essence of community. However, it is not something simple, it requires our hearts, our minds, or imaginations, and our wills. It is amazing to me if I take time in the morning to think and mediate a bit before I let the days troubles or requirements overwhelm me. The Psalter, which is something Bonhoeffer memorized while in prison to help him endure his captivity notes, ‘My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee’ (Ps. 5.3). ‘In the morning shall my prayer prevent thee’ (Ps. 88.13). ‘My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise. Awake up, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp; I myself will awake early’ (Ps. 57.7, 8) (Bonhoeffer, D. Life Together . Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition.). Bonhoeffer goes on to note the unique position of the Psalter, describing it as both the “word of God and the prayers of [humanity].” Most importantly, it allows me to think beyond myself or to put it another way, it pushes me to consider the importance of the other before the importance of myself. Therein lies the foundation of community. More profoundly, Bonhoeffer called the Psalter the vicarious prayer of Jesus himself on behalf of the church, which I might argue is more inclusive and is on behalf of all people (and I mean all).

In addition, perhaps one of the most important parts of community is solitude. It is the ability to be alone and silent. For the introvert, this is, of course, invigorating; for the extrovert, the silence can indeed be deafening, distracting, and disconcerting. If we are to be helpful in our community, we need to know what our gifts are and what we can do to make an efficacious contribution. This is perhaps where Bonhoeffer is the most instructive. When we are unwilling to listen to the voice who speaks to us in the quiet, we are incapable of being a community from the outset. When we have no ability to listen before we speak, we miss the significant input of the community, that which is necessary for the mutual upbuilding of the other to begin with. Bonhoeffer stated it as follows: “Let [one] who cannot be alone beware of community. Let [one] who is not in community beware of being alone” (Life Together . Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition). Too often I am guilty of believing I have it figured out; too often I am willing to believe in my own piety, and as such fall into arrogance. Finally, if I believe I can figure it out on my own, there is no community and there is little chance of making any differences in a world that is crying out for change. It has been years since I had read Life Together, and as I reread, I realized it had been too long. Again, the brilliance of this young German theological mastermind is simultaneously profound and simple. He again notes, “Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech” (Life Together). There is an incredible balance. It is something sorely lacking in our lives and world because we have become reactionary (to everything and everyone). Again, I too am guilty of falling into this trap. The reasons for wanting us in the trap are another issue, but it is time to crawl out. If we are to move beyond reaction, be it individually or corporately, we need to find a place to retreat and think. We need a place to mediate and pray, whatever that means for each individual person, but it means self-care, not selfishly, but for precisely the opposite, for the good of the soul. Again, Bonhoeffer states is more eloquently, writing, “Real silence, real stillness, really holding one’s tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness” (Life Together). It is my hope you do not think this is merely a stringing of things together, it is my own trying to make sense of the senseless and hoping to find the space in which to do that.

I know this week has been a difficult one, for both obvious reasons, but also for less than in-your-face that seems to characterize our national discourse. There can be little silence in the midst of chaos and unrest, but much as a particular quarterback had to step back and reconsider, much as I been fortunate enough to communicate with two individual students (with whom I have told each about the other because of their similarities), one conversation was quite effective, the other more difficult and I am not sure my care and agreement, even with some disagreement, came through effectively. And that pains me more than they might think. I know there is work to do to bridge the struggle, but it is time for reflection and silence. It is time for me to work a bit harder to understand or appreciate their place, even with my own struggle. I do know that the responses I received this week after noting my own failings were humbling. I am so blessed by the amazing students I have been blessed to work with, both here as well as in Wisconsin and Michigan. I am glad that many times more than not, it seems that my manner demonstrates a willingness to accept rather than discount, even when there is a disagreement. Can we imagine the better? Can we work toward the better? Can we be willing to be used for things larger or more complex than we are in our individual selves?

If we are to do so, we will need to step back and believe in the goodness of the thousands who are protesting, but not covered in their peacefulness nearly enough. If we are to be collectively connected for the good of the whole, we will need to realize that all law enforcement is not the enemy, but differentiate between those who sully the badge they wear and those who believe service is their greatest calling. If we are to make the change desperately needed in terms of equity and justice, we need to admit our innate suspicions and self-serving practices at all levels. None of these things are new, they are core to who we are as a country. Our words, our constitution, and the ideals we claim to hold are little more than words when the reality of what we do is so profoundly opposite, but it is only through admitting that reality we can begin to change it. Again, I do not believe those on either the right or left are as hateful as it seems we have become. We are all trying to make sense of the senseless, but can we focus first on our humanity and our need to be a society of caring, hoping, and loving people rather than red or blue, Republican or Democrat, or any of the other binaries we try to fit into? When and only we pray the prayer above and live its words might we find that we can live together working mutually for justice, equality and dignity for each other.

I hope this post might offer a sense of hope, a sense of our mutual calling to make our world a better place. It is that sense of call to something better than provides a sense of hope to something larger than ourselves.

Dr. Martin

Admitting a Mistake

Hello from my upstairs sanctuary,

Each day I want to believe – seriously I do – that we cannot become more divided, more visceral, more unwilling to listen to the other, but each day it seems I can be proved wrong. The last 24 hours have my head reeling. To listen to the flash gernades in the background as I waited for the President to address us from the Rose Garden yesterday was such a juxtaposition that seems to typify everything in our country right. That was one thing. However, to find out on the hand that he (or his Attorney General, William Barr – and this is an addition) specifically had Lafayette Park cleared of a largely peaceful protest, using flash grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets to walk over to St. John’s Church carrying a Bible moved beyond even how low I imagined he could go. The response of the Episcopal Bishop this morning (and clergy who were gassed in the church) sums it up quite appropriately. And, then to top it off, he broke his own curfew, just imposed by Mr. Law & Order, to walk over there. Where in any of this can one find even an inkling of appropriateness?

As a person who has a background as a history major, a theological background as a former ordained Lutheran pastor, and two degrees in rhetoric, I find myself trying to make sense of the optics of last evening’s incredibly profound fiasco that began as a Presidential statement. Certainly, I agree that when protest disintegrates into violence and looting, that is beyond a serious problem (and some for whom I have great love and I have disagreed since my posting about this). However, there needs to be recognition of the reason the anger has become so visceral. I could list the names over the last 10 years; I could explain what I know my students of color face everyday in terms of being treated differently, viewed suspiciously, or spoken to disrespectfully by supposed law-abiding, often conservative-Christian, white people. Most of us, if we will stop and think, would be angry, fed up, and struggle also. Think about it on an individual scale. Anyone who has been married and divorced: generally (hopefully) you believed you could not love that person more on the day of your wedding. And yet something disintegrated. The hope, the trust, the foundational belief in the goodness of something changed. Did you ever holler, swear, throw something, punch something, do something out of anger you wish you had not done? Did you ever hate them so much you wished them dead? Sad, but most of us can probably answer yes. When you are so angry you wish them dead or out of your life, regardless, perhaps we come to some understanding of how the loss of hope, trust, and foundational belief in society for those marginalized for years might feel. I have watched as some have gotten angry merely over being told to wear a mask and have stormed the State Capitol waving guns (which btw, what did 2nd Amendment have to do with anything in that statement last night?). If the same people now demonstrating against discrimination, even without hollering or chanting, walked into the State Capitol carrying a gun, legally or not, what would happen? I would venture someone would be in a hospital recovering from bullet wounds, and charges would be filed. Do you not see the double standard in this? Can we not admit we have systemic racism in this country? Why is it we are afraid of mail in ballots? That is the way to manage a change appropriately should we as a county believe there is a change needed. I voted two weeks ago. I requested and got my ballot. It came to my mailbox as it should; I filled it out as I should; and I was notified that it was received and would be counted, as I should. Studies have shown the incidences of fraud are minimal (I could list them, but will not) and the states with Republican or Democrat governors is split almost 50/50. In addition, of 5 Western States, those who have gone to mail in balloting, three have a Republican Governor or chief election official (Collier, 29May2020). The governors and the chief election officials of any state, regardless their administration’s party have a swore duty to uphold laws. The seemingly prevelant argument that Blue States have no laws, nor enforce them, is asinine. The false narrative that all non-white people are trying to sway an election is fear mongering at the very least. More importantly, it is yet another example of disenfranchisement of a significant part of our electorate at its worst. It is discrimination at its most fundamental worst. Certainly the right to cast a ballot has been a struggle many in of our democratic country has experienced from the outset. There was a reason for the passage of voting laws to curb that. Yet, as typical of our states’ rights bent, if you were a woman, a black, an immigrant who gained citizenship, the ways states made it difficult to vote are legion. Too often the stories of KKK leaders, those who hid under their pointed hoods, were the very law enforcement people, the very lawyers, and the esteemed businessmen of their communities, too often the supposed Christians sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, but more accurately little more than bigots and liars with not enough balls to be honest.

The difficulty today is the only thing changed is their tactics, but their actions result in the same discriminatory and hate-filled rants that went along with their white-nationalistic, their white-supremacy-filled, hateful rhetoric and the crosses they burned in the night. Today they argue that the way of the white person is being overrun by immigrants, illegals, or academic liberal ideology that somehow questions their 21st century version of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. I know this is an incredibly inflammatory statement that will anger some people, but I believe this is where we are. The President’s statement yesterday is not that different from the arguments that an Austrian failed-artist once made to rile his base supporters in the 1930s. I am reminded of the statement of Martin Niemöller, the German theologian and pastor imprisoned for his opposition to what Hitler had done to the church. Hitler demanded that the church show allegiance. Hitler too was obsessed with loyalty. Niemöller wrote, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist . . . Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist . . . Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew . . . Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Being called socialist is something this President has done to those like Senator Sanders and Warren, and certainly many in the right fringes have picked that up. The role of unions has been battered by big business and certainly those who do not want to allow labor a decent wage. This has been an argument for some time. And yet, while the President has promised job things like the auto plant in Lordstown, OH would be back bigger than ever, he has taken more than one auto company CEO to task for not playing his game. An issue of loyalty again. As I have noted in recent blogs, the fact that we can go from 3.3% unemployment to 19% in less than three months (40,000,000 people unemployed) gives some indication of how strong the job market really was. And while there has been a significant uptick in discrimination and hate crimes against the Jewish people, what is happening continually against blacks, which has never really stopped, the Muslim people, particularly post-911, the Hispanic people, because current administration policies from the very first statements when President Trump declared his candidacy, and now Asians, because of Covid, referred to regularly in discriminatory terms by the President as the China Virus, are all exemplars of this administration’s bigotry. To what extreme has this happened? Check out the recent video news conference when he told an Asian reporter to ask China about the Corona virus. When she appropriately asked why he would say that to her, he acted like she was wrong. Incredible. Futher, more problematic is his overt and blatant racism is met too often by silence by many in the Republican Party, the very party the helped pass the 13th Amendment and was led by the Illinois Senator who stated unequivocally that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Lincoln, 1858). In questioning the role of slavery in the country, Lincoln understood that this was a national issue, not merely an issue of popular sovereignty as his opponent Stephen Douglas had argued. I believe we are, at minimum, at a crossroads once again. Yet as our President wants to claim law and order through his militaristic threats, he simultaneously argues the states need to do their work while he has ultimate authority. It is the divide and conquer strategy. When there is no clear path forward, chaos can reign and the individual gets lost in the morass. More significantly, the creator of the chaos claims it is not their fault.

In the last 24 hours, this President, who can argue that he can grab women by the genitals and they will let him, wants to now hold up a Bible and somehow make us believe in his faithfulness. As a former pastor, I will note I never believed I had the right to question the position of someone’s soul, but I do believe that the importance someone’s faith has in their life is demonstrated through their daily actions and words. I will let that statement speak for itself. And as such, the photo opportunity after clearing Lafayette Park is an anathema to faithful well-intended, struggling Christians or people of any faith for that matter. As people protested in Lafayette Park on Monday, members of the clergy were at the church, offering water and aid as things were peaceful. As noted in the New Yorker today, the scene that unfolded as the President strolled into the recently cleared park was beyond words. “When he reached the sanctuary, he did not go inside. Instead, he turned toward the camera, and members of his entourage assembled into a tableau so bizarre that it took a moment to understand what was unfolding. He held up a Bible and posed with it for the cameras, clasping it to his chest, bouncing it in his hand, turning it to and fro, like a product on QVC. He did not offer a prayer or read from scripture. On either side of him, his aides fidgeted awkwardly; there was the droopy, basset-hound visage of his enabling Attorney General, William Barr, his unrelenting cheerleader Mark Meadows, the chief of staff; his spokesperson, Kayleigh McEnany, who grinned madly. Apart from Ivanka Trump, none wore masks” (Osnos 2Jun2020). There was no contacting the Bishop or the clergy of the parish, there was no mention of God, it was simply an arrogant bully, a foul-mouthed, poor-excuse-for-a- President getting his picture taken with sacred scripture. This crawls into the depths of nothing I have read or researched since the Reich Church swore an allegiance to Hitler.

When are we willing to admit the mistake we made in the last election? Hopefully soon. While I was not an initial Biden supporter, wanting the process to play out, his statement yesterday is more presidential than any statement I have heard in three and a half years (this is an edit also). When are we willing to question the policies of an administration who make a mockery of checks and balances, and jeopardize the very democracy we want to believe we have? If you take the time to look at some of the speeches in Germany of the 1930s and the Presidential rhetoric of today, the parallels are obvious, but the enemy is a bit different. The enemy is not pointed at any one group, but rather at anyone who speaks out in disagreement. Certainly, the use of Hispanics, immigrants, Arabs, Muslims, and other groups of color are well encased in the President’s disdain, but it goes farther. When anyone disagrees, his inability to manage disagreement is well evidenced. I can appreciate that people were fed up with the normal politics because they too (and I believe there are good people on both sides of the aisle) seem to do little more than figure out how to stay in office and maintain their power; most often at expense of the masses. As I have argued, term limits would be an important remedy, but I would term limit both Congress and change the term length and change the length of a term for the President also. I would do the following as related to terms and their limits:

  • Six Years (three terms) for House Representatives
  • Eight Years (two terms and this changes the length) for Senators
  • Six Years (one term, which changes to a single term and the length of term) for the President

I know this would have some difficulties like, for instance, is a President automatically a lame-duck? Six years is a long time to do nothing, but I am thinking it would require people to work harder, more diligently, and more thoughtfully. I would also take away their life-long pensions (at least in Congress). It would limit the power any one person could have and in that is democracy. Can we admit that President Trump, who I can appreciate was elected both because of his business acumen and because Secretary Clinton had flaws as a candidate, has not been successful? If the economy was successful, would it have tanked as quickly? Would the stock market had wiped out things as quickly? Can we admit that we have a systemic racism issue in this country and while looting and rioting are a problem (as one of my colleagues regularly admonishes me ‘Michael, that is an F-ing understatement), the anger behind it is justified and must be worked with? It is a mistake not to do so. To admit failure or mistake is difficult, but it is also a chance for redemption, which is a biblical term, a theological term. It is a chance to change direction and make amends for our failings. It is a chance for forgiveness and for renewal. We need renewal desperately if we are to come together as a people. The words of the Reverend Doctor King need to ring out from every corner of this land if we are to create a society he dreamt of. I wish I would have been more courageous earlier in my life to speak against so much injustice, but like Niemöller, I have too often acted as if it did not affect me it was not my fight. I have to admit, I was wrong, but never again. I will not be silent in the face of tyranny and injustice, the injustice that too many people I care about face each day. I know this is a difficult blog for some to read, and I am more than willing to speak and listen to those who disagree with me. Come visit the acre and I will make the coffee or offer a beverage. I am not kidding. I am not saying you do not think; I am not saying you are bad if you openly disagree. I am saying I think I have too often been silent when I should have stood up and supported those who do have the same opportunity to speak up. That time is now.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

When Hope Devolves into Despair

Hello from my yard,

Completing my seminary education in St. Paul, and living in the Twin Cities for 5 years, and then only an hours commute for another 6, I feel I am pretty acquainted with the metropolitan area. Likewise growing up in NW Iowa in what was considered a pretty large town at the time, I am well aware of the “whiteness” as a general demographic of the upper Midwest. Watching the news and listening to the responses of both mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as Governor Walz, my heart aches for those affected as the consequences of what seems to be yet another case of an overzealous officer treating a black man as someone unworthy of humane treatment regardless the situation leading to an arrest. I know I was not there, but how many have taken the time to watch the video more than once, appalled by a technique that numerous law enforcement people have regarded as unnecessarily brutal? How many listened to the clerk who called the police to begin with? How many of us, who are not black, brown, or Asian, have really attempted to understand how they might feel, how often they fear for their lives as a general daily practice, or to what extreme we as white people really consider that we are too afraid to admit our colonialisms in our own country? What do I mean by that you might ask? It is simple to state, but incredibly hard to accept. As a white person I am afforded privilege simply because I am white. I am allowed access to things that people of color must work harder at if they are to have that same access. The concept of separate, but equal was deemed discriminatory by the SCOTUS in a landmark decision, but in practice it still exists at all levels of this nation. As a white male I too have struggled at times, arguing I am a victim of reverse discrimination, if you will, but when I think about it more critically, I realize the insignificant things I want to claim as unfair pale in comparison to what my fellow citizens (and I use that word intentionally) of color must overcome 24/7.

In her amazing book titled White Fragility, Robin Diangelo, a professor of multicultural education as well as a consultant and trainer of racial and social justice issues, addresses so many things that we do unconsciously that contribute to the idea of racial inequality. Consider this for a moment if you will: when you see a black, brown, mulatto, or person who is not white, do you recognize and first see them as whatever that color is? When you see another white person, do you first recognize them for their whiteness? As I noted above there were times I felt what I called reverse discrimination. More likely, I have heard about it or wondered about it, but have I ever felt it? Studies show that while “55% of white people” believe there is discrimination (and this sort of understanding is based on things like Affirmative Action), to a great percentage, when pushed a much smaller percentage say they have actually experienced this (Diangelo, 107-108). Much more often, when most white people are pushed we fall back on our stereotypic response. I have black friends ~ I work with black people ~ I try to support black/brown/other people. Everyone of these responses is racist. What Diangelo notes is white fragility is about recognizing and admitting white privilege. She, who is, btw, white herself, asserts being aware of our privilege, if we can even admit that is not enough. Too often we attempt to be more inclusive, but the very idea that we believe we need to reach out to be kinder, more accepting, or focused on equality, we actually further the white fragility and racial underpinnings that cause us too often to see someone who is not white as the other. When I was part of a faculty reading group who worked with this text this past semester, it was stunning to see how we struggled to figure out what we might do. There were non-white people in the group and it was beyond eye-opening to hear their perspective. I do not believe there was a bad person in the reading group, but I can say with some incredible certainty that we all walked out that group after 4 or 5 weeks with a very different perspective on what our whiteness signifies to others. Too often, we see racism as an individual act versus a systemic problem. Too often, we believe the things we see or hear we would never do, but each time we look out at the situation, we are missing the point. As a white person, I am privileged and our society is structured to maintain that privilege. I know what some are thinking and what some are saying. For some, it is I do not believe this. For some, it is what am I supposed to do? I know that is in part true because it was a question the reading group asked among ourselves.

When the killing of a black man in the streets of Minneapolis or of a black woman is killed in her bedroom in Louisville, many of us are aghast, but what does that change? I think many thought when we elected President Obama, racism was over. What a naïve thought. I think many of us one to believe that racism is a Southern thing or an inner-city thing. Racism is because we are afraid to admit our privilege. I know of black students, those attending Bloomsburg where I teach, who have a saying that it is not safe beyond the fountain. I know where then the monster truck show is in town at the fairgrounds, our students of color are warned to not go out by themselves. What does that say? Be honest with yourself for even a minute. While I am fortunate to live where I do, I can say that I am continually amazed by the number of Stars and Bars flags I see in this state, ironically when it was in this state (Gettysburg) that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was stopped and that turned the Civil War. I have a colleague whose parent was born in the Pittsburgh area, but has spent significant time in the South, and as such refers to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. All of this is really a precursor to what I believe we are facing as we move into the summer of 2020.

I do not remember such a simmering, smoldering, tinderbox in our cultural fabric since I was about 13 years old. That was the summer of 1968 and the April assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and an assassination of a second Kennedy brother had our country reeling. That along with the Têt Offensive, which did as much to push the United States into the realization that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were willing and able to fight a war of attrition was a turning point in how the American public viewed what was happening in Southeast Asia. The previous summer of 1967 saw rioting across the country and it was particularly deadly in Newark and Detroit. Paradoxically, Dr. King spoke to a large crowd of mostly white people on March 31st of 1968 at the Washington National Cathedral (there were more than 4,000 people in attendance). He noted, “I don’t like to predict violence . . . but if nothing is done between now and June to raise ghetto hope,” King continued, “I feel this summer will not only be as bad but worse than last year” (Wills, 01Apr2008). He would be assassinated four days later. The four days following his assassination would rock our country again, and the political fallout would be witnessed at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago later that summer. President Lyndon Johnson, who is argued to be the Civil Rights President, would choose to not run for office again, which would push Bobby Kennedy to seek the Democrat’s party nomination, only to be assassinated himself. It seems the parallels of the Covid situation and now of incredible unrest, which I believe the unrest is appropriate (I am not saying I agree with looting, firebombing, and other violence.) as the number of times a black male has been killed by police seems to continue unabated. One of my former students posted what they would do if their child was to be killed by police. They did not mince words, and I know how serious they are. This is not a time for vitriol or foolishness. It is a time to step back and be honest with what we are dealing with.

It is now Sunday morning and I graduated from high school 47 years ago today. It is still incredible that I have been blessed to see that much life beyond those public school years. It was a different time. Some of what I noted above was happening then. Vietnam was supposedly wrapping up, but I would end up there two years later as a 19 year old to help with our evacuation. Iowa Beef Processors had quite a strike my senior year in high school over union wages, workers, and what should happen. And while the violence is nothing like we see happening now, I remember the anger my father had of people crossing picket lines to work. As a journeyman electrician, I grew up believing that the union was one of the few things available to protect the blue-collar, tradesperson. I have never lost that understanding, though it has perhaps been tempered. In the spirit of transparency, I am a member of our professor and coaches union, and I am proud to be such. I was a whole 28 days away from leaving for MCRD San Diego at that point. I had little idea about the larger world I was going into, but I believed it to be a good place. I believed that what I would do would help set me on a path that would provide yet unseen opportunity. To put it simply: I had a hopeful attitude and inquisitive mind. I knew, at least tangentially, there were difficulties, but the service did more than help me grow (I grew three inches and gained 25 pounds in bootcamp alone). It taught me how, as our drill instructor put it, there was only one color in the Marine Corp. It was olive drab. While we certainly had clicks: there were the cowboys; there were the brothers as they referred to themselves; there were Hispanics; and yes, there were those of us who were just there, hoping to get somewhere afterwards. To this day, I learned more about humanity and myself at that point. It was a bit coarse and matter of fact. If you have never watched the beginning of Full Metal Jacket, while many will find the language a bit offensive, it was how we were treated and the dialog is spot on. I still remember the first time I saw it and the person I was sitting with questioned if it was the first time I saw the movie. Indeed, it was the first time for the movie, but I had lived it a few times.

What I know 47 years later is much of the idealist fervor I had as that 17 year old is gone, but I refuse to despair. Are there serious issues for us all? That is an understatement. It seems everywhere I look, there is more than a slight reason for concern. When I grew up, serving in the Congress, imagining becoming the President, or now again, after yesterday, an astronaut was something to aspire to. Of the three, I think the astronaut would be still there. What is happening in Washington on a daily basis, on either side of the aisle is abhorrent. The lack of decorum and civility, the comments and what seems, unfortunately, to be necessary about labeling someone’s writing as suspect creates all sorts of problems: yes, from protected speech to the power of the words and why it seems we need to be warned. That is a topic for an entirely separate blog in and of itself. It is that I am wiser and see the connections and the complexity of what is happening? I wish it were that easy. I do see the connections and I certainly realize the complexity, but it seems we are content to live with the inherent inequity that permeates our country unless it affects us personally. The problem is it does affect us, even when we do not see the immediate consequence. When there is no hope, the future is tenuous at best. Then there is despair because you cannot protect the people you love, anger soon follows. Fear and anger are all encompassing, particularly when it seems there is no way to change things. We are facing another summer of questions, but these questions are not new. After I wrote about my student last night, I called them and told them how sorry I was that they had to worry about this for their black son in the world we live. They noted how they would have to educate them to protect themselves in this world. What a profound statement. All of us try to teach our sons and daughters, our children who identify in whatever way they believe to be safe and protect themselves, but what does it mean that parents have to teach some to learn how to respond when they are mistreated, discriminated, or abused by the very society they live in? No wonder there is despair, anger, and struggle. It seems we need to be honest about the change we need to make; it is a profound and all encompassing change. It is an incredibly different change, but if we can do it, we can move toward hope once again. When I was ordained, I had this song sung at my ordination, It seems appropriate to remember the words of St. Francis once again.

Thanks as always for reading.

Michael

“Are We Still of Any Use?”

Hello from my kitchen bar counter on a Thursday afternoon, 

When I began writing this, we had just managed freezing weather, wind chills of the lower 20s in May, and then during a week of grading, yesterday felt like summer might actually be on the horizon (and even in my yard). It was a week of three constants (two of the three at least as of late). I worked on things for various aspects of my life as a professor. Contrary to what many think, we do not really have vacations. We have times where the focus on the immediate changes. For instance, I did not have classes this past week, although I start again tomorrow for summer already (and I know that is a choice I make). While it is only one class, it is in a condensed format, so I need to manage 15 weeks material in 4. This is a tall order, and when it is remotely, it is more work. Again, it is not a complaint because I love teaching college aged students (and some high school students as well as non-traditionals). My first 8 or so years at Bloomsburg, I focused on my teaching, service, and developing a professional writing program. For those who understand the academy and its demands, that means my scholarship suffered. I did not have the time to write and publish as I should. Therefore, over the last two years, I have changed focus, and I need to continue doing so.Therefore, for the coming summer, I have created a plan to work on classwork for the fall, work on strengthening my Polish, and working on my scholarship. While we might not be locked down as much as we have been, I will still be quite cautious about how I return into society and whatever it looks like. I am not anxious about that, but I do believe pretending that Covid has disappeared would probably result in my disappearing and I am not quite ready to do so. While it might appear I am everywhere, all of the meals I have prepared and only been dropped off and left for those who I deliver to. We have chatted at the door from a distance a couple of times, but otherwise, with the exception of the Covid (Corona )Cafe group, I have not been around a lot of people. As we move forward, I am sure the ways I can safely transition or cannot, will be figured out. As I write now, I am considering turning on the central air because it has reached 87 degrees in my upstairs. 

Contrary to what it might seem, I have never been a person who wanted to go into politics. I find them fascinating, but to be an actual elected politician is not something I wish to do. It is kind of like administration at the university. While I have chaired a college committee, served as a program director, and worked closely with some in administration, I have no desire to be a chair, a dean, or any such thing. I admire those who do those things, but it is not where I see my gifts. I think that is the point of what I have been thinking these past weeks, and perhaps even more so during the last two months. It was two months ago yesterday that we began a second week of Spring Break, which would lead to where we now find ourselves as a country. I had noted that we would lock down and some of my students believed I was bit alarmist. I am not really that sort of person. I am not a sound-byte-hear-and-repeat person. I am a thinker and a ponderer. I do not disrespect or dislike people who think differently than I. I am not a person who believes those who are content where they stand are bad people. What I do, however, have a problem with is people who are unwilling to think or question. As seems to be the exception rather than the rule, this latest national issue (which spans from the individual to the world) has created yet another we versus them. I am not sure where I fall in the continuum, but being confrontational and unwilling to consider all the consequences of this pandemic is ludicrous. I understand the economic issues and that there are incredible hardships both on a personal as well as a national or global stage. Do I understand all of it? No; in fact, it would be interesting to have Lydia to explain it. She was an international economist and she was brilliant about how it all worked. In our own country, the pandemic has exposed a number of fiscal and economic shortfalls in our current system. The fragile reality of many small businesses, the actuality of the job growth that has been touted by both Democrats and Republicans, and the continued argument that we had the best economy ever has been shown to be not much more that the famed fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Without the PPP, which has fallen short of hopes, many more small businesses would be gone already. What will happen at the summer’s end is still open and unsure. While 11 years of job growth has certainly been trending upward, many of those jobs do not pay as many union jobs did. I know of many people who work two or even three jobs to try to make enough to manage. And finally, while the stock market was in record territory, 50% of Americans do not own stock. Those who do average about 90,000.00 a year; those who do not average about 45,000.00 (Schrager, 09/05/2019).Those are three important considerations before we consider what has happened in the past 8-10 weeks. 

The Congress has passed two bills  that have pumped almost three trillion dollars into propping up the economy. Jerome Powell, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, has, in just the last week and a half, noted there will be a need for more. It does not matter where your political leanings are at this point. The first three trillion dollars is an example of social democracy. It is the government stabilizing the economy for the entire country. That is a form of socialism, that dreaded word. In the meanwhile, and there has been some rebound, but there is little doubt that all the gains in our portfolios over the past three and a half years were wiped out in less than 6 weeks. How stable are we? How amazing is the economy? Not that much. Again, we have rebounded, but the volatility in our market (and the global markets) is real. Before this had hit, Germany, the economy that under-girds the EU had retracted for two consecutive quarters. The economic retraction for the second quarter here in the US was 37%. That is unheard of. More significantly, we have no idea what the third quarter will be nor do we have sense of what the next year will bring. What does all that mean? It means a great majority of us are at the mercy of the few. Again, I say that, but still have a job, so please know that I am both aware and blessed at how fortunate I am. I know the difficulty for most is wanting to play a blame game, and I, myself, have been guilty of succumbing to that process, but I think the more important question is the question that Bonhoeffer’s co-conspirators posed to him after 10 years of Hitler begin the chancellor of Germany. They wanted some sort of absolution, some forgiveness, for their plan and the action they believed necessary to save their country. Yet, Bonhoeffer was not willing to offer such an easy way out. He instead asked the question that all must ask themselves at difficult times. Are we still of any use?

When we have so little power, particularly when the economic processes that drive the country, and the world for that matter, are so much bigger than any one individual (save perhaps a Jerome Powell or the President). I can only do what I know is possible in my limited situation. What is that? Go to work, do the best I can, and hope that my job stays secure. So far, it seems to be the case. And yet, I have wondered what might happen should that change. What would I do? I can certainly sell what I have and downsize. I could certainly consider other options in terms of what I do or where I live, but all of that is pretty daunting at the very least. What use am I in this given situation? I can try to make others’ lives more hopeful, more reasonably comfortable, if even for a day. I think to use Bonhoeffer’s words in this address, which come from a sermon or mediation, if you will called “After Ten Years.” ” . . . We have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the art of equivocation and pretense. Experience has made us suspicious of others, and kept us from being truthful and open. Are we still of any use?” It seems that almost every day we are battered by arguments from both sides of our political divide about what is happening to our democracy. As a storm of sorts, they do not stop. On both sides, we have learned to speak out and receive the ire of those who disagree with us, or we learn to merely be quiet and let whatever happens happen. Is there a happy medium somewhere? Is pretense all we have in this present political/economic/medical turmoil? What is honest pretense? It means that it is impossible to merely stand idly by. “Justice for Bonhoeffer required a sense of mitleiden. One could only be involved if one was willing to suffer with those who suffer. It was the costly solidarity of participation” (Rasmussen, Bethge 70). Bonhoeffer, by choosing to return to Germany and plot against Hitler, rejected equivocation or even evasion believing that speaking out (through action more than word) was necessary even at the cost of his own soul. The struggle to find the good in the other now seems to be much like what I see and hear daily in our news. As such, too often we are suspicious of someone who thinks differently. We are afraid to question what is truth be it the newspaper, the news media either in our sets or on our computers? And yet, if we are willing to ask tough questions, and yet ask respectfully, the consequence is we have even less power than the minute amount we already have. 

Our real power is still in our ballot and casting a ballot as an informed and thoughtful citizen. Too often I hear people say, well I do not know enough, so I do not vote. That is a terrible excuse with a dreadful consequence. Too often, we are only willing to listen to the things that make us comfortable or solidify our limited viewpoints. I too can be guilty of this at times. Someone incredibly close to me reminded me that people who think differently than I do, do think. It was important for me to hear that from them. So are we of use? Yes, one voice, one vote, one decision at a time. I struggle in this time as much as the next in terms of wondering where it will lead and what sort of a world we will have. We have a changed world. The other day someone noted their struggle with the term “the new normal.” It was an eye-opening comment for me. It is new . . .  as they noted, but there is nothing normal about it. As I walked around with my mask on, which I do whenever I am off my property or not in a place where I know the others and their habits, I questioned what small children must know or think. I wondered what they imagine as they see so many adults walking around with masks. One of my colleagues has been questioning the rhetorical consequence of mask-wearing. What will the university be like in the fall? What will we do? What will a classroom look like? What will events look like? From concerts to professional sports, from large lectures to churches? Will it be safe once there is a vaccine? Will it be safe if there are enough people with antibodies? What will happen to travel: cruises, planes, trains, subways? Whatever new will be, there is little to no normal? Perhaps it is good this happened in an election year? Why? I am not even sure, but somehow I think so. 

Whatever we have on the other side of this nationalism will not fix it; globalism will not fix it; and certainly no one vaccine or company, no single political ideology or small groups of companies, and no one religious or ethnic position can manage this virus. Are we still of any use? Yes, I believe we are when we become one collectively, hopefully, and openly. Yes, when we chose life and care over individual self-aggrandizement. When we believe we are all of value and each person is important, I believe we are of use. I am continually humbled by things I learn both from others and my return to my dissertation topic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We are of use when we seek justice for our world and we are willing to stand for that justice, even at the expense of our own lives. Bonhoeffer pushed the limits of what sort of things could be questioned. That is nothing new in our country, and one of the people I most admire in terms of what they have done is Alan Alda from M*A*S*H. What he offers here is interesting to me. 

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

 

Questioning, Pondering, Disagreeing, and Respecting

Good late Saturday morning from my study,

I have another blog I have been working on for about a week, but have decided to shelve it for the moment and take a different direction. I has some issues with sleeping last night, if I am going to be as transparent as I believe I should. I reposted (shared) the words of a Catholic priest who offered his thoughts as a clergy person about the appropriateness of our President threatening to reopen our national churches as essential businesses. The difficulties with that from both a political and medical standpoint can have people debating for weeks, years, and perhaps decades, but that is not where I want to go with my blog. It would be low-hanging-fruit, to use the phrase to do so. And while sometimes I do post things to create discussion and have people question others, last night was not one of those times. Nonetheless, it caused a number of people to state their views on that post.

One post in particular did more than cause me to pause, it created a somewhat sleepless night. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. The person who posted is a former student from my UW-Stout time and someone for whom I have both appreciation and respect. She was a talented and diligent student and cares deeply for her family, her faith, and the people for whom she cares. I have always known her as a strongly faithful Catholic and she now has a sizable family. I believe she is probably the most incredible mother and also someone who can create something or whip something up, and in spite of the fact she was simple in what she used, you would believe you were visiting a Michelin restaurant. She noted in his response that in spite of holding her tongue on a number of occasions, this time she had to let me know that she disagreed with me . . . and to her credit, let me know, she did. While I am still prone to disagree with her on a number of points she raised, I think it took courage for her to disagree with a former professor of hers and I respect that she did so. She spoke from her heart and from a deep-seated and abiding faith she holds as a Roman Catholic. While it was interesting to me that she did not note she was disagreeing with the words of a Catholic clergy person, she did note the personal consequences being unable to be involved in congregational worship created and the pain she was feeling. Again, I think her intentions were pure and she felt a compelling need to question the position I had laid out by reposting the words of the priest. 

I think the difficulty for her (and ultimately for me) is the responses her post created, as is often the case in our present polarized atmosphere, is our struggle to honestly listen, ponder their words carefully, and then respond. I know there is one person from my hometown, a person older than me, and one I still respect as a fellow-Riversider, yet, his sound-byte comments and lack of proofreading push me to my limit. I am not trying to be mean, and I have noted I would like to engage him in conversation, but I am not always sure what is being written. Again, an entirely different issue and fodder for another post, but I do not want to digress too far. The largest difficulty in our particular circumstance is we are afraid and we are angry. The two emotions are intrinsically related, and most often in a split second. What exacerbates this current struggle with trying to balance health and the economy (which will be my next blog – the blog mostly written) is that we have no sense of civility or decorum in our present national cooperative persona. What does that mean? It simply means we have disintegrated to the point that disagreement means there is nothing we can do with that other opinion than lash out. It is modeled for us daily from almost all of our nationally- elected leaders. This sort of pull-the-trigger-and-ask-questions-later that permeates our national, state, local, or interpersonal dialogs can only lead to more division, more dissension, and ultimately to chaos. Democracy is founded on argument, but the role of argument is not to win, the terminal consequence of argument is to come to consensus – to find a place where the majority of people believe they were heard and their opinions mattered. That requires patience and perseverance. It demands that people use some common sense and think about the audience(s) to whom they are speaking and see the purpose as achieving something bigger than themselves. That is difficult in general, but it seems we find it nigh impossible in this current time of fear and uncertainty. 

Before I post and even when I write this blog, which generally is used as a way to get me to clear out my jumbled head or heart, I step back and think, sometimes for days. I imagine the other side and what sort of questions will be launched from them. If you follow my Facebook page or you have read this blog, you know that sometimes, there are some rather vociferous arguments. With the exception of one, I have been able to find some area of agreement. The one, and yet I respect that person, seems to do things to merely yank my chain, and I must admit, he has won from time to time. I detest disrespect and as I tell my students if you want to fire me up that is a pretty sure way to do so. Questioning is a necessary aspect of our human nature. If we do not have the desire or the option to question, be are little more than a pawn in a very large chessboard. Certainly pawns have value, but they are the first to be sacrificed for the larger goal of winning the game. I should also note that people with whom I disagree are also thinkers. Please do not assume that I believe my way of thinking is the only way. I come to the position I am from a varied background, and, for instance, when I was in college one of my best friends on my floor was head of Young Republicans and I was the co-chair of Young Democrats with the most amazing person. I understand why some of my friends are Republicans and why they believe the path forward is different than the path I see as more appropriate. I know that there are times I might even overthink things and that can be detrimental. I grew up in a union household with a father whose family was pulled out of the throes of the depression by Roosevelt’s New Deal, and while my father was a rather liberal Democrat, he also believed in hard work and that one must earn their way. He was more socially liberal than in terms of a safety net for people, but then again, he only owned one credit card in his life and the was a gasoline credit card. He believed you paid cash for things, I am not sure he ever had a loan rather than a house mortgage. I am not sure what he would think of our present situation, though I am quite sure we would agree on what I believe is a rather detrimental atmosphere in our current state of affairs. 

I think the way beyond fear, which I believe plagues most of us (pun intended) presently is to honestly question, to systematically ponder, and then respectfully disagree when necessary. Each of those couplets seem reasonable, but employing them is so much more difficult that first appears. Each two-word phrase is ideographic in nature. When you say honestly question, so much comes along with it. The same for sytematically ponder or respectfully disagree. Honestly for me means be willing to question your own presuppositions, but also ask from where those presuppositions come? How much of my father remains in me simply because he was my father? It is often times difficult to move beyond our foundational beliefs and concepts because we might feel disloyal. It is more often the case it moves us beyond our comfort zone, and when everything else seems to be disintegrating before us, we will hold on to what we know ever more so tightly. To systematically ponder something is to follow a logical pattern and work through a progression, and for me, it means asking the tough questions I might wish not to ask or, again, more so, I do not want to hear the answer because it will make me uncomfortable. I have a colleague that I have taught both in Wisconsin and here in Bloomsburg with. He is perhaps the most insightful person I have ever met. He can drill down to the main point of an issue more quickly than anyone I know. He sees through the extraneous stuff with what often seems a mere blink-of-an eye. Systematic thought requires a certain detachment, not a lack of emotion, but rather a distance from the emotion that allows one to see the interconnectivity of many issues as well as the sort of domino effect that happens when a decision is made. It is that synthesis that has made the biggest difference for me as I have grown older. We are too willing to box anything and everything, thereby failing to see how there is no decision made in some vacuum. We are social creatures and our decisions affect the social fabric of our country. Again, I do not believe I had a concept of synthesis before I went to Dana and took the humanities sequence. After that, It was impossible for me to not see the congruence of things, to ponder the innate association between things, events, or people. But that is also what taught me a fundamental respect for both where we are as who we are. 

When we lose sight of that respect, I believe we lose our bearing as a society or culture. I believe that is what is happening how on multiple levels from our interpersonal conversations to our state and national conversations. The loss of those bearings are being demonstrated, again in my opinion, as our President chooses to unilaterally leave climate change accords, nuclear arms treaties, the WHO funding, or now the Open Skies Treaty, trade agreements, and other things that have been in place, some as long as the time of President Reagan. Again, I am not saying there are not reasons to question position, but there is a certain way that we and others (particularly our allies) have negotiated and worked in accordance. Bear with me, but unilateral decisions by Tweet does not seem respectful or wise, and even when he has been advised differently, he seems to go about things on his own terms. That is a difficult thing for the citizenry of the country to understand when those choices seem to often come from his own head (comments like I go with my gut; I am the smartest person you will know; I know more than my advisors -paraphrases, but relatively accurate). I would love to help someone help me see how respect works in those situations. How for either his own country or the good of the globe can such incredibly earth changing choices be announced in 240 characters, and often not well written? I wish that was the most difficult part, but that is only the beginning. When someone disagrees with him, or someone asks a question for clarification, his response is seldom respectful, what seems to be considered, or thoughtful. I am sure he does think, but merely dismissing someone or calling them names is something we are taught as inappropriate before we even are old enough to go to kindergarten. What did I look like in kindergarten? The initial picture is my kindergarten picture. 

I want to respect him . . . seriously I do because the Office of the Presidency deserves that. I want to respect him because of the innate power the Office affords him. I want to respect him as a veteran because I believe in a chain of command. But to equate the idea of trust that one of my former college classmates note in yet another Facebook discussion recently, to respect someone requires they act respectfully. To trust, respect and believe in the integrity of someone occurs when they demonstrate trustworthy behavior, they treat others with respect, and they do not seem to lie about ridiculous things. I one thought about a person I know who sometimes struggles to be truthful. When people lie about important issues it is because they are afraid of their failures and they cannot own up. When people like about things that do not matter, they have no respect of the idea of truth to begin with. That is much more egregious, I would argue. Lying habitually flies in the face of what Charles Fried, a professor from Harvard and Solicitor General under Ronald Reagan, notes when he says, “A good man does not lie. It is this intuition which brings lying so naturally within the domain of things categorically wrong” (Right and Wrong, 54). Sisela Bok, the Swedish ethicist and Philosophy Professor at Harvard notes the following about lying, “What . . . would it be like to live in a world in which truth-telling was not the common practice? In such a world, you could never trust anything you were told or anything you read. You would have to find out everything for yourself, first-hand. You would have to invest enormous amounts of your time to find out the simplest matters” (The Principle of Veracity). I had to read two of her books for my doctoral comprehensive exams. If we have little regard for the truth, we have as little regard for respect. If we have little respect, disagreement becomes a fight and discussion or consensus is not a goal. It seems to me this describes more of our world than I wish it did. It also gives me great pause for where we are going. As I write this on a Memorial Day weekend, I am reminded of all those veterans who either lost their lives in action or particularly those WWII, Korean War, and now even Vietnam veterans who are leaving us daily. I hope we might consider their sacrifices and their belief in a country where respect, dignity, and freedom means more than the ability to argue, fight amongst ourselves, and at the detriment of a world that needs a shining light now as much as ever before. Can we ask the hard questions, ponder the hard decisions, and do so in a way worthy of their sacrifice? I hope we can. I am reminded of a song by the German group the Scorpions. There was a hope we could come together globally. Perhaps . . . 

Thanks as always for reading. 

Dr. Martin

 

What is in a Decade? (and I have not forgotten about hope)

Hello from my study. 

Somehow I thought I wrote an entire paragraph or two before I went to a meeting, but I guess I have lost it. I think it was because I had not saved and then closed some windows. That is not the first technological snafu I have accomplished or preformed today, so I guess I will error on the side of consistency. Earlier while speaking with colleagues on another Zoom chat, someone was speaking about their recent birthday and an age. Age is both a real and a symbolic thing. There are all of the clichés about age and there is the reality of how you feel. There are the actual experiences you have put into whatever length of life you have achieved and then there is the number and how people look at you as a consequence. When I applied for the tenure track position that I currently hold, I knew because of age, should I be hired, it would be my last academic position, or at least that is what logic told me. And that has been in reality what has happened. I did add some things this last year to that, and while they are in place, Covid has managed to put all of that on hold. Regardless, I am still working away and managing whatever it is I am asked to do, and I generally believe I am doing admirable work. I am never really satisfied or thing I am there. There is not a concept of coasting if you will. I have been blessed to land in a wonderful place, a place with great colleagues, generally thoughtful and good students, and presently a wonderful administration. All of those things matter, and I know that first-hand. 

When the decision was made (at least my part of the decision) to pursue other options, even though I knew it was necessary there was nothing simple about it. At that point, Lydia was beginning a steeper decline into the world of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Moving away from the Circle was not an easy choice; and yet, it was a necessary change. Running afoul of a Dean was not something I could overcome, and if I did not try to make a change, I would have certainly been on the one year clock. When you have no choices, you are much more likely to make a bad one. Fortunately, things occurred that ended with my chance to be offered the position at Bloomsburg. Much like others, this year for me has been, and will be, a momentous one. It began with Anton still here and I was about four months into being a temporary, but full-time father to a 17 year old. That was a phenomenal experience for a multitude of reasons, but suffice it to say, speaking with him this morning on FB video was a wonderful day to begin the day. He changed my life is so many, and positive, ways. Only a few weeks into this pandemic, when we were still quite naïve about where we would end up, Anton was called home. While it was a difficult time, I am glad he is home and now I merely need to get a whole boatload of things to him when we are allowed to be in the post office again. Of course, the second dramatic change was the lockdown of all sorts of things and moving toward remote teaching for all classes, which will remain for the summer, and for me, beyond. A third thing that has created a more prolonged and drastic change is the postponement of my sabbatical. That change was necessary because I was scheduled to teach in Poland. It appears most travel from the university, the country, and probably the world will be rethought as we move forward. While the postponement is not a difficult thing, it too has more long-term consequences. Because I am required to do an additional in-residence year upon my return, that means I will be working a year longer. That is not necessarily a change from what I planned, but it is working closer to 70. A fourth thing, because of my own health issues, it has been deemed prudent and necessary that I will continue to teach remotely through December. That is a somewhat RD condensed version of my 2020. If it sounds like I am complaining, I really am not. I am blessed to be here, to have a job, to do what I love to do, and to have incredible people who are willing to work with me. 

During this past semester I had to assemble and submit my 5 year review packet, which is required of all tenure track professors. Yes, we are still evaluated (and rightly so). That review, of course, signaled that I have been here at Bloomsburg for a decade. What is a decade? When we are 10, it is our entire life. When we hit 20 it signals we are no longer a teenager, which means a lot to some people. The age of 30 is traumatic for some, and that can be the case for either gender. Then there is that 40. We create black balloons, napkins and wonderful sayings like “Over the Hill.” There is the half century mark and then beyond. I think I have noted this before, but the birthday that was not a celebration or hard for me, though I did not know it that day (which is another story), was when I turned 25. No birthday has been quite as difficult. But the idea of decade hit me again, much like the proverbial ton of bricks because it prompted me to look at the last 10 years. I think it has been the decade where I have finally become comfortable and content, for the most part, both with what life has handed me, and there has been a lot, as well as who I am or have become. As I am writing this, I am on a couple of different threads about the importance of respect. One of my college classmates has asserted one of the common clichés about respect being earned. I do believe there is a modicum of truth in that, but there is an element of respect given from the outset when a person has expertise, office, or standing. I agree they must do the appropriate things to maintain (or if you want -earn) it beyond the initial giving. He has gone on to say respect is not necessary. At that point, I believe I must disagree. This actually gets me back to where I was about the person I am. As a rhetorician, both as an academic and as a human being, I believe in the fundamental truth that all communication is based on a thoughtful understanding of audience and then have some sense of purpose. 

When I tell my students I want them to question things, I want them to disagree with me; or when I say you need to use your brains to do more than hold your ears apart, I always follow it up with just do it respectfully. The rhetoric of respect is complicated. Respect at any level of our political system seems about as likely as finding a snow ball in the Mohave Desert. There has always been an adversarial relationship between the Presidency and the press. In fact, an article in the Harvard Law and Policy Review journal contains an article that considers the oppositional relationship. The authors note this is nothing new, but assert that the current administration has taken it to an entirely different level. In their words, “Although the adversarial relationship between the press and the White House is nothing new, there is little doubt that the current rhetoric is re-markable in its harshness and vitriol” (Brown, MacLaren 2018, p. 90). I think what is important here is the basic ideal of mutuality. We need a President, but we also need the press. When there is no press, we lose one of the most important checks and balances that the American public has. While I am not completely bailing out the Fourth Estate here (and Lord knows the 24/7 news cycle has thrown objectivity out the window), what we need to do is understand the reality of the press. First, all news is biased. Someone is paying for it. As a public we need to read (something that has fallen into desuetude), but more importantly, they need to read things that make them uncomfortable, things that make them question. Make yourself listen to opinions the cause you to cringe and question why? We are so fragile or frightened that we might find we are misguided or inaccurate. The struggle between the President and the press is not wrong, what is wrong is the tone. What is wrong is the consequence of the rhetorical strategy taken (at times by either side). Again, turning to Brown and MacLaren, they write, “‘Despite this adversarial tradition, this president’s tone is deeply distressing because of its outright dismissal of a historically core tenet of American democracy: that an “informed public opinion is the most potent of all restraints upon misgovernment.’ President Trump’s construction of the press as an enemy therefore looks less like a continuation of a familiar conflict, thrust into the fore by the internet and social media, and more like an attempt to remove a check on presidential power” (90). I would note that a simple search in the library database for articles concerning respect and the press are plentiful. Some of noted that President Trump seems to be more bashed by the press than previous presidents. While on the surface that might seem true, I am not willing to agree with that until I do some more research. I know the press was pretty brutal to President Clinton during impeachment, and I believe his moral intrepitude created his bashing. His own statement to the press about what he had or had not done would come back to  haunt him, or in fact, impeach him. President George W. Bush certainly got beaten up by the press when his “Mission Accomplished” banner on an aircraft carrier was not quite as accurate as he had hoped. The entire WMD fiasco caused him a gargantuan amount of disdain in the press. President Obama was beat on throughout his terms for a variety of things. What I would note is not of them claimed the press to be the enemy of the people. Fake News is a term, while not coined by President Trump, is most certainly high in his lexicon of single syllable responses. 

So to return to my decade in Bloomsburg, I have created a wonderful life here. I am blessed in spite of continued health related issues. I have a job I love going to daily (and it is pretty much that). I have been afforded the opportunity to travel and meet new people as well as create meaningful international relationships. I have a property that I love coming home to and working on. My home has been the home to a variety of people, everything from a respite when needed to a summer place, from a place of safety to becoming a parent to an international student. I have taken what I learned from Lydia and applied it to my yard and my property. I have been blessed by new friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. There have been some difficult lessons too, but through it all I have learned to step back and think, ponder, and realize what is important. September will be one of the profound birthdays. I will turn 65. At this point, I have lived longer than any of my siblings or half-siblings (I would note that 5 out of 9 have passed away already).Getting back to what I noted earlier, I am not sure what 65 is supposed to feel like, but I feel pretty darn good. As I noted in a Facebook post, I am lighter than I have been in six years, and almost 37 pounds down from my highest weight. I still have a bit to go, but I will make it. Yes, I am halfway through another decade, but I am happy to be here. I am fortunate beyond measure. I know there is a lot of things that are clogging the airwaves about how dire our situation is. Is it serious? I believe it is. Do I think we have a good strategy or cohesive one? Unfortunately, I do not. Does that scare me? Yes, and no. I can only do what I believe is best for me and the people I meet. I will do what I am supposed to do. I will mask, wash, manage my being safe-in-place to the best of my ability, but I refuse to live in fear. I believe we will see this decade as a decade of global responsibility to the other. I hope that is what we do. We are on the earth together, be it across the street, the country, or the half way around the world. If my travels have taught me anything, it is this: we are all human and we hope for a world that will be better than what we were given. I am not sure our actions demonstrate that hope as well as we should. I hope this time will push us to be respectful of the other and of the world (the natural world) and planet we inhabit. Perhaps we all need to think before we get all riled up. 

Thanks as always for reading. 

Michael

 

Moving Toward a Rhetoric of Hope

Good Saturday Morning,

It has been a bit of a crazy week. At this point last weekend, my HP tablet, the university computer, decided (for the second time) to pop the plastic clips that hold one side of the case closed. I believe it is the case of an overheated battery again, causing the case to warp or bow. The long and short of it, I have a computer which    is not functioning. While I did have enough foresight to put iCloud capabilities on my HP to be able to push things back and forth to my Mac Book Pro, I had not taken the time to put the last couple weeks work into iCloud, thereby making my planning irrelevant. Foolish boy!! There were things I needed on the HP to help me finish my semester. Thanks to a tech person at the university I was able to get my Mac Book to work as if it was my university computer and I am able to access the files, but that did not happen until Wednesday. My HP is in getting fixed. I also have a somewhat ancient Surface III, which I have not used for a while. In fact, when I fired it back up, the calendar said August 28, 2018. It is not a big computer/tablet and I had less than a GB of storage left, and it needed some serious updating. All in all, to get both the Mac Book and the Surface working optimally took about 24 hours of updating and revising (cleaning up space, making sure what I was deleting was still somewhere). So I am back up and running. While I am pretty  technologically savvy for a 60+ person, there is still the need to manage all of it and to make sure you are doing the appropriate updating. More importantly, it is yet another reminder of the complicated necessity of being able to use our technology thoughtfully and effectively. One of the things the past two months has demonstrated all too clearly is the reality of the digital divide we have in our country. For me, it is one more example of the inequity that is present at some many levels of our society, our country, and even in our world. The important part of this realization for me as we have been required to move to remote learning is that students are not able to access things with the same degree of accessibility. This fundamentally changes what we (either them or me) can do to participate in a class. Again, often this disparity is because a student lives in a rural area, a student lives in a household where there are limits on the volume of data they can use, or a student simply does not have the technological know-how to do what is necessary to participate adequately. The consequence (and many times this is a first-generation student) is a feeling of hopelessness, a feeling of fear, and a belief that they have failed. None of these emotions will give that struggling student any sense of hope for their future. 

What is hope? That is something to ponder. How are we convinced that hope is possible? A number of years ago, I was a dinner with my sister-in-law, who was remarried (to a Lutheran pastor) and at the beginning of the meal, my eldest nephew, who was maybe barely pre-teen, was asked to say grace. He was not particularly willing to comply, and when asked why his response was quite amazing. I do not remember his exact words, but the basic idea was “I do not believe praying is very helpful because our world is not going to get better.” That was a profound statement from a 12 year old, perhaps even more than he realized. However, as I remember, it surely caught us off guard. That was in the mid 1980s. I think I was in my first year in seminary. Part of my education at the time was learning how to provide a sense of hope when despair seems to be the only thing possible. It brings us to an important idea: what is hope. What does it mean to be hopeful, to believe there is something better to believe in, to consider possibilities that provide a sense of well-being and positive thoughts toward something that has not yet occurred? Is it grammatically what subjunctive mood is? Perhaps that is the case. Studies show that one of the most important times to be hopeful is during adolescence. An article in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers studied a group of 4H students. If you have any experience with 4H, you are aware of the positive attributes they develop in their participants. Through this profound developmental time in our human growth, those conducting the study consider the group of 5 traits they believe are essential for youth to achieve what they call Positive Youth Development (PYD), which they then connect to the idea of hope. The five traits are competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring (Schmid, Phelps, et al 2011, p.49). These traits are essential if a youth person is to live a life that bends toward a successful and beneficial future. 

Competence often gets a bad rap as someone characterized as merely adequate. It is much more than that, however. It is not only knowing how to do something, but how to do it well; one the other hand is also understanding why one does it. To do both requires critical thinking and careful analysis. Something I regularly tell my students is necessary if they want to be educated. Therefore, competency is much more than merely jumping through a hoop or teaching to a test. It is more than a recipe card or rubric. Indeed, competence is more than academics or vocational ability; it is also cognitive and social (Schmid, et al). If you think about this, it covers all aspects of our being. Being confident is also something we all have a sense of,  but too often we do not understand the depth of it or the intricacies of how confidence is modeled. Confidence is connected to competency, but moves us beyond our individual self-reflection to seeing how we fit among others. How we become a successful social creature. Are we positive in our own feelings about how others might see us? Are we willing to reflect or analyze how we fit into a much larger picture of the world in which we live and function? We use words like self-esteem, self-worth, and others, but confidence comes from something outside ourselves. It is being supported by others regardless our failings. I think for me that was embodied in the person of my grandmother. She was the person who provided me a sense of happiness, a sense of value, no matter my circumstance. She was the person who loved me regardless my failings and through those gifts, she also helped me develop that illusive quality of hope.

The third attribute is being able to feel connected. I believe the ultimate loneliness is being lonely in a crowd. Connection is an unbelievably important element for us to have a positive outlook. It is the thing we are most struggling to maintain during this time of lock down, be it stay-at-home or safe-at-home. Healthy connection to another is about mutuality. It is when the relationship is honestly two-way, and the consequence is positive for all involved. Certainly, this gets more difficult the more individuals involved. It is also the thing we have struggled to maintain over the past decade or more. There is an irony that we are more connected now than ever before, but, even before the pandemic, we are more disconnected. Perhaps the bane of social networking has been a bit remediated in the past two months. I know that connecting with many of my high school friends, and even those older than me, has been an unexpected blessing. It is the mutual or shared experience, which allows the time or distance to be mediated. It is what allows a connection. It is also amazing how five years seems so large when you are in your teens, but in your 60s it is nothing. The next trait is the most intimate, the most telling. I believe character might be the most important of the five, at least for me. I believe I have finally gotten to a point in my life where I am proud of what I have accomplished and who I am. It took me a lot longer than I wish it had. Character is about morals and values, about those things you are taught as a small person. What I realize now is honesty and trust are the things I value most. There were times earlier in my life when I failed at this. Honesty can only happen, however, when one is not afraid. Honesty happens when you have a sense of surety, that in spite of your failings, you will not be rejected or thrown away. I realize now that much of my life I was afraid of that rejection, of being discarded. There were times that the feel I had caused me to create or cause the very thing I feared. This is also integral to being able to trust. Trust can only happen when you know you are valued or loved. Character is also modeled. We learn from what we observe, what we experience. 

I think, as often the case, my life is rather oxymoronic. I had examples of incredible love from a grandmother, but a lack on the other hand from a mother, who told me I would never amount to anything. I had a grandmother, who might have been generous to a fault (perhaps trying to make up for the other side) and a mother who did nothing for free. While I have been able to get beyond much of those dueling examples, I struggle with the fallout from both. My generosity has gotten me used and hurt when I trusted (I will not tell you how much money that has cost me), and yet I would still rather error on that side than the other. Suffice it to say my former bank branch president made me promise to not lend out any more money. I promise I made and have kept. I will always reach out to a person and try to care; I will try to provide some sort of care, making their lives better. Again, sometimes that also gets me in trouble. What happens when the help is not wanted? Or the person you want to help is not ready to accept what is needed? I think rejection is still the thing that cuts me deeper than any other consequence. That is really the last of the attributes above. It is about caring. Caring is what has been stressed at all levels during this past  two-three months. It is about sympathy and empathy. Can you feel the distress of the other person? This is something we need to learn to do as an adolescent if we are to carry it into our future lives. And yet, what if our cultural surroundings at that time of our life does not lend itself to cultivating these qualities? Are we out of luck . . . too bad, so sad? I do not think that has to be the case. Can we persuade the other, the one seemingly bent on despair, to turn toward a possibility of hope? I believe hope requires us to think outside the box, to believe that there is possibility outside the status quo. And yet that will scare people because it requires us to overcome a more sinister problem. To think outside the box as the saying goes means getting beyond and then we must be willing to try it in spite of our fear of the unknown. I believe to adopt a hopeful attitude, it will require a radical transformation from where we are. If we hope to sustain life, society, or a planet that can move forward with a sense of hope, we will need to rethink what it means to be sustainable. Reactionary behavior, much of what I believe we have done since the beginning of the year, will not work. If we are to be a world of hope, we will need to use the various traits we need to learn as adolescents, but we will need to act a bit more thoughtfully than the hormone driven adolescent we would have been. Critical understanding of hope is complex. It is a combination of both thought and action. Pablo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, looked very critically at the idea of hope from the perspective of the oppressed. He also questioned the idea of banking an education, which means putting away what you learned for a sort of rainy day. I believe this is too often what we do. One of the things I continually impress upon my students is to claim their education, not bank it. To take charge of it, to question, to think, to analyze. Freire would write a sort of sequel to his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In 1994 he wrote Pedagogy of Hope. Might need to order that. So what does it mean to hope? Stay tuned – that will be the next blog. I want to give a call out to all the seniors who would have walked in graduation today. Congratulations! I know this is not what you expected, but it will still happen. Believe and have hope! Often our dreams are about our hopes. Here is one of my favorite Heart songs titled “These Dreams.” I love the sort of surrealism in a sort of Salvador Dali manner. 

To those who have added me from my home neighborhood. Thanks! To all, as always, thank you for reading.

Michael