Realizing the “real” of Reality

Good early morning,

Today was the first day of a new semester, the first day of a new academic year, a day of anticipation, excitement and beginnings. Yet, for others, it was a day of being frightened, of being overwhelmed, of wondering how they might merely survive (e.g. Living in parts of Texas or Houston at the moment having lost everything to the aftermath of Harvey; living in this country as someone impoverished to the point they know not where their next meal will be; or waking up in a country that for many seems to have lost its bearings when your skin or language or faith, or orientation does not fit what the outspoken supporters of someone elected.  or the elected himself, deems “what makes America great”). Yes, I realize that is a rather convoluted sentence, but it seems appropriate because to say that our present national persona is similar is a profound understatement.

If you return to my earlier blogs, there is certainly a sense of trepidation concerning how the presidency of Mr. (and now President) Trump would unfold. Yet, as I told my students about 10 months ago, I spent time in the Marines to make sure the peaceful transition of power from one to the next president would continue. In fact, contrary to what many might think, unless something that is abhorently egregious is proven regarding President Trump’s past actions, and profoundly illegal, I do not believe impeaching him will be in the country’s best interest. I believe such an event would only further exacerbate the tear in the fabric of our nation, which seems more tattered than many of the over-priced, thread-bare, jeans I see on so many students. What stuns me is how polarized we have become as a people, how uncivil we have become in our discourse not only in the national media or in our reporting, but more importantly among ourselves. But more significant than being stunned, I am saddened beyond words.

What is our national reality at the moment? Who are we as a nation? More importantly who is it we aspire to be?  I am not sure that is clear at present. When one wakes up each day to one group of the media encouraging what seems to be division and contempt for “the other,” and another group hellbent on proving every element of our current administration is clueless, the line from Apollo 13, which is certainly apropos for Houston today comes to mind. Please do not take my last statement to be some sort of blanket approval of what seems to be a daily “truth-is-stranger-than-fiction” actions of President Trump because it surely is not. However, those who see me daily, know I have little use for many things he has said or the manner in which he has said them. In fact, the emotion, which I find myself most being willing to admit, is embarrassment, and I do not embarrass easily.  The reality for me is simply this. We have made a profound mistake, and I am not speaking about the fact we have elected someone who seems inclined to throw tantrums, strike back an anything or anyone who disagrees with him, or acts in a manner that a attuned to nothing more than a schoolyard bully; I am referring more importantly to the underlying reality of who we might actually be as country.

This is a conversation that I have had with both my Republican and Demoncratic friends or acquaintances, and yes, it is possible to have both. It is, again, a conversation I have had with my conservative and liberal friends and acquaintances, my Latino/a, my black, my gay or lesbian friends and acquaintances, my immigrant or foreign friends – I think you get the picture. In fact, the other day someone asked me, somewhat pointedly, why am I so comfortable or seem to like people who are not American (and by extension, it seemed) or white? The question did not catch me completely off guard, nor did it seem inappropriate. The tone was, perhaps, a bit more accusatory than I might have liked, but the question is certainly understandable, and for a variety of reasons. I cannot explain them all in a single blog posting, and, therefore, I won’t even try, but suffice it to say that part of it is because an immigrant changed my life. It is, in part, because I have been fortunate to travel, both with students and on my own. It is because I have been blessed to be taught by professors who profoundly influenced my thoughts and ideas about history, culture, and faith. It is because the first person I remember calling a parent, who was my grandmother, loved unconditionally and was a living example of goodness. Again, it is because a former student, technically not even in my class, but one who is more like family pushed me, often beyond my comfort zone to understand my privilege as the older white professional person I am. I pushed back against her categorization at the time, arguing I had earned it, but such a statement is not completely true. Indeed, I have worked hard and accomplished some important things, but I have also been given abundant and underserved help along the way. My reality has been cushioned, insulated, and softened from what it would have been.

The consequences are quite evident in some ways. Yet, it is what I feel compelled to do for others that is, for me, most significant. This past Friday, unexpectedly, I had a conversation with a faculty colleague, one whom I have know tangentially, but because of a former mutual student, more completely than I might have. A chance conversation about something that has weighed on my heart deeply concerning that student became an unexpected focus. The words of my colleague were enlightening. Their ability to help me see somethings I knew more clearly as well as things I had not yet considered has provided me a sense of peace that was lacking. The reality in all of this, which now seems more apparent, is simple. If I give, hoping to receive in return, I am not really giving. There are two lessons here. First, it is not wise to give if you cannot afford to do so; and second, be more selective or thoughtful in one’s giving. Certainly, those to whom I have given felt comfortable enough to ask, and they certainly needed it when they asked. Reality again is I made the choice to do it. That is what I did, not what they did. I alone am accountable for that choice. What they have done since is their choice and their reality. How they have moved forward and how they understand that choice and their response to me now is also theirs. I need to let it go, regardless.

Another reality that has become profoundly real from all of this is we are flawed. As humans we are exceedingly selfish and self-centered. I remember a book I once used for a Major  Religions class. It was called The Compassionate Beast. The claim of the book was, as humans, we are incapable of being altruistic. We might claim our compassionate tendencies, but we are more likely the beast. It seems that is the reality of our nation at the moment. No longer do we light a torch for the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as was done for our own ancestors be it a generation or five before. It seems we are much more willing to push the tired, the poor, and those who are huddled somewhere else. Before you believe I have no appreciation for immigration laws, that is not the case, but as with many other things the laws we enforce and the reality of the world in which we live seem to be from two different continuums or time warps. There is so much more to this question than merely a wall or a border crossing. There is so much more than simply a person who has tried to offer an opportunity for thblogs, Worde family. I think what boggles my mind, beyond anything I have every known, is that it seems our President has no compassion for anyone. If you can help him you will get some sense of importance, but that too is only there as long as you seem to be able to give him something. He has little sense of loyalty. If you anger him, he will publicly tweet you into exile, or you wish you were. While he speaks regularly about how important people are, it seems that the way in which he dismisses people or changes course demonstrates something very different. There are all sort of things being said; there are daily polls, prognostications, and pundits. They do not matter. What matters is something I spoke of in a recent blog and it is the power of language. What someone says matters and when that person has enormous power, what they say matters even more. When they have enormous power, how they say something also matters. I speak to my students all the time about the significance of words and audience. The more complex the audience, the more carefully things need to be measured. There seems to be a lack in this for our President. That is more than embarrassing or frustrating. It is not really something that is positive when the average person says well “see, I can relate to him or he relates to me.” Speech is power and to speak poorly is to give up power. I know some will argue this and so be it. I am not sure our President relates to the everyday person, in spite of anything he says. That is the reality that I am afraid is going to hit people much harder than they will ever see coming.

We are about one week into classes and I have not gotten this posted, but plan to do it before I leave my office. My new students are beginning their own blogs and with any writing comes some fear, especially when it is public. One of the best things the blog has done for me is force me to see beyond myself. The last three and a half years of blogging regularly has prepared me to be a better person, a better professor, and a better and more thoughtful citizen. I am grateful to all of you who are following me. The picture above is what I looked like when I first began teaching at the college level. A bit larger and grayer now, but I think also a much better professor. Thanks as always for reading and I hope you can, as my former colleague reminded us so often . . . hug the ones you love.

Dr. Martin

From where does it all come?

Hello from a quiet office and empty building early in the morning,

I have been in my office working on some needed things since about 2:30 and it is almost 6:00 a.m. Amazing what I can get done when no one is around. I remember when I used to go to my study when I lived in Laurium, MI and work on things for my graduate classes. I often spent a good part of the night studying and working. I miss that study room actually. I got a lot of work done there and perhaps some of the most productive times in my academic life were in that house on Woodland Avenue. It seems that life was a lifetime ago, but some of the important lessons I learned there have remained. Hard work is essential if you are to be successful. The things my father offered as handy facts have shown themselves to be more profound than I could have ever realized.

So . . . a different day and a different location, a bit south of Pennsylvania. For the fourth time, I am back in the Dominican Republic. I have been here once a year for the last four years. It’s time I’ve learned more things about the amazing people call Dominicans and their island. What I have found this time is somewhat disheartening. I suspected this to be the case, but now I have some actual numbers. All the smiley people, who work so very hard to make a dream vacation in reality, work both virtually and almost literally for nothing. This is not for the people they do it for, but rather how much they are paid for  working often 12 hours a day. This time I’m not as awed by everything as I was my first time here. Please,  don’t give me wrong; for the person looking for the ultimate vacation, I do not think you can beat it. Even when minor things pop up,  and they always will because there is no such thing as perfection, but every single person I’ve asked for help has bent over backwards to accommodate me. Or little dose of reality on this trip, seems to be a door to our sweet that hates key cards. I know to leave them away from the phone, but I’ve gone through five of them in two days. Now they just shake their head and I just look like an old white guy.

As I work on this blog is Saturday, but I only know that because I booked the calendar. In someways every day here is the same. I get up, eat breakfast, take a walk along the beach, go to the Tower, where Wi-Fi is the best, manage my other life, and figure out what I must actually do, which isn’t that much, and go through my day. The things I hear the most are: Buenos días, ¿como está? which in Dominican Spanish has no “s” gracia mi amigo y excelente.  ¿Si no dices muy bien a su ¿como está? Puedo garantizarle que quieren arreglarlo. It really is living in a dream for a week, or a long weekend. What is evident because they continue to build and add options. It seems my retirement will  be working with a travel company. I really do want to create options for people who think they could never do such a thing, to make dreams come true, and memories that will be a highlight.

What amazes me is why am down here both enjoying and working, for checking the news the craziness that is an administration, seems like a never ending merry-go-round and I’m not sure job security is an oxymoron. A number of people,  for whom I have great respect, voted differently than I did, many claiming that the fact he was not a politician was a good thing. From my perspective, it seems our President wants to run the White House like a reality TV show, or as his company where he is the boss. It seems, thus far, that hasn’t worked so well.  And I don’t care if it is the alt right or the alt left, something carriedto the extreme generally doesn’t work too well. But when extreme is usually created as an response to the other. One of the many things that has surprised me about living in Pennsylvania is the number of confederate flags, a more above the radar actual appearances of people wearing KKK regalia, and an over racism I never saw growing up in Iowa. Of course, Iowa now has Steve King as a representative, which is beyond gauling to me. Even though I was long gone from there long before he ever came to office, I find it embarrassing. The amount of hatred, intolerance, and prejudice is beyond anything I have ever witnessed in my life. As noted by others, hate is learned; it is not inherent. Why are we so afraid of “the other?” More often than not what I have one from the other is to learn more about myself. When I learn more about myself, I realize more oh and thoughtfully about my strengths and weaknesses. To me this is always positive. Sometimes painful, but if that’s the case, it. probably things to happen. All in all this latest trip to the Dominican Republic has helped me realize the many privileges I have, but also the responsibility I have for the other.

Being an American does mean something to me. It also means that I have a responsibility to care for those who are less fortunate than I am . . . it is both a faith thing and a patriotic thing for me. With that in mind, I share a song from the group who still amazes me by the complexity of their music, albeit 40 years ago (in spite of the note it is 35 year ago, this video is 5 years old . . . indeed I am not a math major, but . . . )

Thanks for reading,

Michael

The Power of Words

Hello on the last day of my Summer Session,

My students are packing, considering their last six weeks and what they have learned, wondering what the fall holds for them. Some did their work well and some where capable of more, but didn’t manage as they could, some worked incredibly hard with a deficit from the outset, but there is always the entire gamut. What is most amazing to me is that within a few weeks of graduating from high school, these young people, many  of them still 17 are required to act in a manner that is beyond anything they have done, but with more significant consequences than they can even fathom. Then there is the entirely other issue that they are required to manage two classes, which are 15 week semester courses in the matter of 6 weeks. That is a tall order for most students, let alone a summer student who has been often been the recipient of what I call the  “merely-turn-it-in, be-a polite-student, fix-the-errors, and come-to-class” high school experience. When they see the syllabus and hear what is required, most think I am ridiculous in my expectations. Yet, it is amazing when they push themselves what they can actually do. The second lesson is realizing I will not give them a heads up every day telling them what to do nor will I accept late things without a penalty, if at all. It was a sort of six week academic boot camp, and unfortunately for some of theme having an ex-Marine as their professor made it that much more real.

During the past year, the conversation in many of my classes has focused on the power of language. That should not be surprising to anyone who has read my blog or to anyone who knows about my academic interests. I am fascinated by words, all of them, any of them, but also how they work in terms of how they affect audience(s) or how they work when it comes to creating ethos or identity. I once wrote, we use and study language to make sense of both ourselves and our world. It is both profoundly simple and amazingly complex. How do the words we use help us make sense of the world in which we live, and more importantly what is necessary for someone’s words to have a particular puissance. Sometimes it is merely the eloquence of their prose; sometimes it is the context in which the utterance occurs; and sometimes it is the consequence of their station or appointment. I often note that there are places I will not frequent in the town in which I live because nothing positive would come from my going in that establishment (e.g. a student bar or hangout, either of the two local strip clubs . . . and I can probably come up with others). My rationale is not only that nothing positive would happen, but it is because it matters not whether I am in my office at school or in town, I am still the professor. If I were ever to be arrested, the local Press Enterprise headline would not read “Bloomsburg Man Arrested,” it would say “Bloomsburg Man Arrested.” And it would run like some bawdy celebrity rag doing its best to make sure I looked as badly as possible. The point is simple; being a professor is not what I do, it is who I am. It never goes away . . . much to the chagrin of many of my students (and friends). There are parts of us who are basic to who we are. It might be called personality, propensities, consequence of experiences, or . . .  you fill in the blank, but we are certainly complex. I often tell my students I was both a pastor and a Marine and they can decide which part of me they would prefer. This morning I was having coffee with a colleague, and as he often does, he merely rolled his eyes and says, “Dr. Martin . . .” I respond as I often do . . .  I can only be who I am. Certainly my summer students know this all to well, as do some of my former students. As I often tell them when I attempt to describe my own self. I have reduced it to three words, or two specific characteristics. I am genuine and I work hard. I certainly am not perfect, and, in fact, I am a rather flawed human being. I am much more shy than many believe. I am much more fragile than I often reveal. I feel less capable that is often apparent, but, indeed, each of the three previous statements are more accurate of this aging curmudgeon than 90% of those who believe they know me would realize. However, I digress.

The power of words seems to continually raise its head. While I will not blame everything on the current administration, I do believe his (perhaps) off-the-cuff remarks or tweets are much more significant than some one to believe. One of the difficulties of being in a position of power, be it the professor or the president, depending on the person’s previous experience can be more of a sequela than one might expect. I know that I forget this at times, and that can be damaging to a student in my class. Unfortunately, at least from my perspective, I am not sure our President knows there is such a possibility and perhaps more egregiously does not seem to care. Concomitantly, we have the current escalation of a rhetoric of violence, be it concerning North Korea and Charlottesville. What do we say to a first semester student who did not live through selective service and has no idea of what would happen, as do any of us, should North Korea actually first something that has a nuclear warhead. China this week said if North Korea starts something they would be neutral . . . there is no neutrality in a nuclear war. One the other hand, they said if the United States starts something, they would defend the North Koreans. Fire and fury . . . which seems to be another plagiarism from Harry Truman, or any of the ramped-up comments of this past week have consequence, and more than merely a sort of tit for tat between a dictator and the surprisingly-elected most powerful person in the world. This is more than playing “my father can beat up your father.”  sort of school yard game. The consequence (seems there are a lot of consequences here) of hateful speech, regardless of who says it, or discriminatory doctrine, which does seem to characterize the current administration, is coming to roost in many and various ways. How does a 20 year old find it even humanly possible to believe running down people with a car has any sense of appropriateness? What do his parents think? What was he taught or how was life modeled for him? These are the questions that come to mind for me. I know people who live or lived in Charlottesville. I can guarantee, this is not what they want to be known for.

I remember being in Richmond last year and driving down Monument Road . . . I am not sure if that is the actual name of the road or it is just called that. The statues or monuments are amazing. Again, this morning in that same conversation previously mentioned, we spoke specifically about the commission that is in place there to consider what to do with all of that statuary. Richmond was the capitol of the Confederacy. The Civil War and all it stands for is part of our history. Words like slavery, mistreatment, racism, bigotry, hate, underground railroad, Stars and Bars, emancipation, or abolition are all part of that history. Each of these words mean something different, depending on one’s experience and perspective. We cannot sweep them away . . . we cannot pretend that what the founders of this country did when they themselves owned slaves did not have consequence. Where is the line between historiography and hate? I am not sure I always know. I do know that history like language is fluid. History is generally recorded by the victors. Words have power, but like anything that transverses generations, the understanding of that event or word is certainly affected by context. I noted for someone yesterday that while I was taught in early elementary school that using that certain N-word was never appropriate, I can say with more certainly than I wish that the father who adopted me, and for whom I have amazing respect, was much more bigoted than I would care to admit. On the other hand, he was much more left leaning in some things than I am . . . seems like an oxymoron, and that is not the only place we would demonstrate that complexity than some might realize. While I think he might argue I am a Republican because of some of my conservative leanings or practices, I am more liberal than he was on many social issues.

While I am all for being lawful and appropriate, I am also all about being thoughtful and attempting to understand the complexity of a situation. Those who know me well know I am a pondering person; I am a questioner. My Dean, who is so understanding and willing to listen sometimes just shakes his head at me. I am sure I give him more gray hair at times. I am the person who thinks outside the box and wonders. While I certainly do not deserve to be compared to this person, I am reminded of one of the most amazing rhetorical pieces of all times (this is the short clip; YouTube the complete address if you want, it is worth the 10 minutes it will take to listen to it). If I can come anywhere close to this in my own little corner of the world, I will know I have accomplished something. As I close my ramblings of the day, I have a simple request. Can we please listen before responding? Can we try to imagine the other’s situation before we discount their ideas, concerns, or hopes? Can we respect “the other” first, regardless of what they have done, rather than see them as the enemy? These are some of my thoughts as I am waiting for BOLT, our course delivery tool to come back on line. Thanks as always for reading.

 

I wish you all a thoughtful and blessed day.

Dr. Martin