A Traveling Winter Term, but So Much More

Hello from Krakow,

Earlier this evening (on the 27th of December to be exact), a group of forty-nine fading students and four faculty or administrator leaders, who might have been even more tired, gathered together for their first meal as a group after about 30+ hours of traveling from Newark’s Liberty Airport to the southern Polish town, whose Slavonic trading importance dates back to the 10th century. What has become an annual faculty-led study abroad program has continued to grow in size and scope and this year, along with receiving 7 credits for their studies, this peregrinate group will visit the Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, as well as the countries of Austria and Germany. Studying at the Polish School of Language and Culture, part of Jagiellonian University, students will be mentored and taught by internationally renown scholars in buildings that have stood since before the school’s founding in 1364. As the second oldest university in Central Europe, the university boasts such alumni as Nicolaus Copernicus and Karol Wojtyla, the former Archbishop of Krakow, who would become Pope John Paul II.

While most of the tired group is hopefully getting a good night of sleep after a somewhat grueling first day and a half, I have awakened after a few hours of sleep. As I have been tasked with chronicling the group’s month-long experiences in a form of a blog, I decided to be productive if I was to be awake. Therefore, welcome to entry number one. Listening to students as we ate our dinner this evening, many of the somewhat “typish” comments or interrogatives were made. Managing the schedule of such a group, particularly when we are in two dorms 20  minutes apart, is no easy task, but Dr. Mykola Polyuha, associate professor of Language and Cultures, has this down to a science. As we dined, logistical information was provided. Four students with previous experience on the trip have returned to act as group leaders, and within a day I can say this decision to include these Four Musketeers, if you will, was a brilliant idea. I can see where camaraderie and group building is already happening and it will keep the entire experience more cohesive, more engaged, and ultimately, more comfortable. Those initial comments and questions about things like exchanging money or even something as simple as directions are no longer simple when you have little experience and every sign you see is in a language you do not understand.

Even though we will have been in Krakow less than 24 hours, tomorrow will bring class orientation and getting ready for classes that begin this same day. Because of the compact schedule, some classes will be in session six days a week, but there are other requirements that include field trips and excursions to places like Schindler’s Factory, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, or before the end of the first week, the most notorious of the Nazi Death Camps, Auschwitz. Each day is a day that can profoundly change the view of those who learn about the complexity of Eastern/Central Europe as well take an actual historical walk through their first-hand cultural lessons each day. When I think about my previous trips, what astounds me most is now much more I learn each visit back. Walking the streets of a town that has existed since the Middle Ages, realizing that many of the things I’ve read happened where I am stepping, and seeing and listening to sights and sounds provides an opportunity for many who have never been out of the country.  What often happens is a beginning glimpse of just how connected we are even though we study or teach in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, the only town in the Commonwealth. One cannot help  but be struck by how most of the streets and building in this city of over 1,000,000 pre-exist any inkling of a United States.

This fall I was fortunate enough to find out that President Hanna, Bloomsburg’s new President, has intimate connections to Jagiellonian. His father has a rich history at this university. How fascinating it has been to have some of those conversations with him, but more importantly to share that common experience of a place far away. Perhaps the most important thing that might happen for a student is their eyes will be opened to some possibility or their mind will connect two points of learning that creates a new understanding of our increasingly complex world. Last year, just such an event occurred when, on one of our last days, I was fortunate enough to eat dinner with two of the Bloomsburg Bedouins. At dinner I asked what they believed to be their most important learning on the trip. One of the two responded (and I paraphrase), ” I realize there is so much to learn and there is so much more to the world than just our country. We are not as important as we would like to believe.” What a profound insight on the part of this thoughtful and reflective student-scholar. The first time I went to Europe, I was a sophomore in college. It changed my life. I understood in an acute manner that learning was so much more than memorizing and regurgitating. I wanted to be a sponge. That has never changed. For some of the 49 here now, that might just happen. In fact, I am sure it will. That first interim or Winter Class for me occurred in January of 1981. It still affects me. I do believe it is a foundational part of why I am a professor. For those who are doing the same thing this late December and early January some 37 years later, some will come face-to-face with the fact that this was so much more than a Winter Term faculty-led Study Abroad.

Until next time.

Dr. Martin
Asst. Professor of English
Director of the DRPW Program

Life Marches By

Hello from my office,

It is a bit after 9:00 p.m. and I have spent about 20 hours or more the last two days working on my Winter Term online Technical Writing course. It is amazing what we have available in terms of technology and how we can reach out, from either direction. It is so much more manageable now from when I first taught those online classes at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. While some things remain the same (and it is not the song), certainly technology has made bridging the gap that exists from the missing of regular lecture much more possible. I remember teaching classes from Sturgis and from California, and while I made them work, there was an intentionality demanded of everyone involved. Some of that exists still, but the ability to do things because of apps, software, bandwidth, and other options in a Course Delivery Tool, or Smartphones is exponentially ahead of where I was a decade ago. I remember when I was interviewing at Stout being asked if I had taught online. My answer then was “no,” and it became sort of basic fare there, when I arrived at Bloom, that was not the case. However, it is just now beginning to take off here like what I experienced in Menomonie. One of the things that does remain the same is the amount of upfront work that is necessary if you are going to do more than merely take a traditional class and throw some technology at it.

I had great intentions of finishing this in a day, but that did not quite happen. It is now Christmas Eve day. It has been an unpredictable week; between unexpected house guests to working on class, from shopping to organizing things for next week, it seems my days have been packed beyond anything I had planned for. A very different experience from either 20 years ago or three years ago. The idea that life passes us by, or certainly keeps marching on, whether we choose to be part of it or not, has become increasing apparent to me. I remember sitting in Lydia’s room three years ago keeping watch over her as the last days of her life were becoming more and more apparent. That Christmas Eve afternoon, as she lapsed in and out of some sort of consciousness, she began to point at the corner of her room and speak in Polish. I asked her if George was there and she shook her head yes. She understood my question; I followed up with another question, “Are you ready to go home?” She looked at me and quite emphatically shook her head no. She would live beyond the time I had to spend with her. In fact, I prayed on New Year’s Eve Day, while in Krakow, Poland, George’s homeland, that George might convince her it was okay to let go. She passed on New Year’s Day. Twenty years ago my father was quickly losing his battle to cancer. He would pass away on the 28th of December, which was barely more than a month after he had been diagnosed with cancer. I remember having three church services to officiate and preach that day. The prayers were brutal and while I had held it together during the morning service up that point, I could maintain no longer. My voice wavered as I began to tremble and I could not hold back my tears. I remember the congregation being so understanding and supportive that day.

As I am now on Christmas Day, I have come to my office to do some much needed work for both my Winter Term class and to get as squared away as possible. Last night was a long night again. I have managed to get a double ear infection and my left ear would not quit draining the entire night. It did it significant job on my stomach and I am struggling more than I certainly wish I was. In addition, the flu shot seems to have done more to my stomach than I have ever had before. I am wondering if it is a combination of the shot, the infection and 1750 mg a day of an antibiotic. I was invited to Christmas dinner, but had to decline. I did spend the morning at the Decker’s house. It is so fun to watch Caroline and Rosie; they were so excited to see things and to share their experience. I love watching Max and Mary, who are not only siblings, but good friends. They cooked the most amazing dinner for us last night. It was fabulous. What was more outstanding was their excitement in doing it. It again reminded me of what can happen when two people care about the other and are willing to cooperate and work. There seems to be so little of that in today’s world. Our selfish and self-indulgent behavior, which is modeled at all levels of our country and world, make even the most small, but kind gestures seem almost miraculous.

That is what brings me back to my favorite Christmas memories. It is simple. On Christmas morning, we loaded the car with the presents that needed to be taken to Grandma’s house and it was the beginning of a most wonderful day. My grandmother was a loving and giving person, more so than anyone I have ever met. She never seemed to give with an agenda. She gave and shared what she had out of the profound love that seemed to be instilled in every pore of her being. Walking into her simple and humble house on Christmas Day was like walking into a fairy tale. The aromas from the Christmas dinner, the smell of all the freshly baked breads, rolls, and pies (she owned a bakery) were what greeted your nose as you walked into her house. What greeted our eyes were her smile and opened arms happy that we were there for Christmas. As we carried in our gifts and our dinner offerings, there were hugs, kisses, and a feeling of warmth and joy I have seldom felt since. When we made it through the dining room that had a table and buffet that had more food than anyone could ever imagine, we would walk into the front room that was the width of the house. At the far end, always, there was the most wonderfully decorated tree and more presents and gifts than one could fathom. We would add our wrapped packages to the menagerie of presents and soon dinner would begin. We sat in our same seats generally and aunts, uncles, and cousins were there to complete the day. My grandmother and her elder sister, my (great) Aunt Helen used their South Dakota farm background to cook a meal that was unequalled to this day. There was everything you could imagine for Christmas dinner, and it was prepared to perfection. It was not flashy, it was just plain, but it set the standard for me and the rest of my days.

After dinner, my older brother, who played an amazing trombone, my younger sister, who was the vocalist, and me, a pretty decent trumpet/cornet player would do a short Christmas program where we handed out small Christmas song books and we would do a sing along where my brother and I created the music and everyone else sang. It was a sort of yearly Christmas gift back to those there for the day. The picture for this blog is that song book. As we aged and became more accomplished musicians, I think we actually felt really good about what we offered for the Christmas Day festivities. I think as I look back that we felt it was our gift to our family and beyond. I am glad to think about that. As I am typing this, I am listening to George Winston version of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” narrated by Meryl Streep. It is one of my favorite pieces; you might one to find it on YouTube. What does it mean to be real in today’s world? In the story, it is about being loved. I think that is really the message of not only Christmas, but of life. What does it mean to be real? What does it mean to be truly loved? What does it mean to be a little child? I think we need to hold on the that little child with all our might. Over these last days I have watched someone who has lost that childhood and so much more. Knowing them since they were a child, it has been difficult to watch and try to help. It has been incredibly painful to see the hurt in all of them.

It is amazing what seems so insignificant at the moment can have such profound effects on us. I have always realized that in my own background (and many of my previous blog posts address this) how some of those events still affect me and how I understand both the world and myself. What I have learned is that we always have an option. We can continued to be victimized by our past or we can learn from it. I have worked hard to do the latter. Yet, the question persists, do we ever get beyond those things? It is sort of like our ability to forgive. We are imperfect. I think our best example of forgiveness is when we no longer let the past events control our reactions to that person. That is not an easy thing to accomplish, but it is incredibly important. When we hold on to those past hurts, those difficult events, we are held back from living our lives in a healthy productive manner. I know this because of my own background. It took me literally decades to get beyond some of it. So much wasted time on hurt, sadness, and being bitter. In my last blog I noted some who have hurt me and how it is difficult to get beyond some of that, but I need to do so. To hold on is hurtful and it serves no good purpose, but to make me sad. In fact, I made myself send them a Christmas greeting because all the positive things they did more than outweigh the issue at hand. Grudges can decimate our spirit and our sense of hope. That is what I have witnessed first hand too many times during these past days. People I love deeply are hurting because of things in the past. We cannot change that, we can only move forward.

That is what Christmas and the spirit of the season is about for me. Much as my grandmother was willing to give beyond measure and then give more, she exemplified that it meant to love unconditionally. Lydia had much of the same heart, and while she did not show it as readily, it was there. She cared deeply for so many things and she was so intellectually astute about so many things. I think what saddens me the most is her fear of the unknown ( as well as things that had so influenced her understanding of the world) created a sort of reclusiveness she never overcame. As I sit in my office at a computer and listening to Christmas music, much like I did three Christmases ago, I still miss her. I miss her accent asking when I came around the corner or into the house, “Michael, is that you?” Lydia, indeed it is still me. It was such a different thing to see where you lie when I came back to Menomonie this past May. It was such a difference to see what was happening to your house. I am not sure you would approve, but I am sure that they are trying to bring the amazing house into the 21st century. They have a great dane, and I am trying to imagine you meeting him. I think his name is Sam or something like that. He weighs like 160 pounds. You could ride him. I can see the look on your face when I tell you that, but I think it is true.

I want to get this posted, but there is much more I could write. What I think I want to leave people with is the realization that life keeps moving and if we let it, it will most certainly pass us by. This is what I have tried to keep from happening. Tomorrow for the fourth year, I am headed back to Eastern and Central Europe and this time with even more students. I will be visiting two new countries: Slovakia and the Ukraine. I am excited about those possibilities. There is so much world to understand and there are even more things to learn. That is what my first trip to Europe as a sophomore in college taught me. There is so much to absorb and ponder. So much to realize that is beyond the borders of this country. So much culture and history. I am blessed to go back again to learn something new yet again. I will leave you with one of my favorite scenes from the movie On Golden Pond. Chelsea, the daughter has struggled with her father all of her life.

Thank you as always for reading and I wish each of you who celebrate this holiday a Merry Christmas. To my other faith friends, I hope you can feel the love I have for you on this day and all days.

Dr. Martin


Half my Life Ago

Hello on Friday Evening from my office,

I am finished with what I think my mind can manage for the evening, but I would still like to get a blog posting out before I go home. It has been a busy, but productive week, but things will now be slowing down anytime soon, probably in May . . . unfortunately that is the truth. Literally one half of my life ago, I was laying in a hospital room in Coon Rapids, MN after my first major abdominal surgery because of my Crohn’s. I was 31 years old and I had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis about two years prior to this event. I remember being so groggy and the room was dimly lit with one small light. I remember a friend had left a small stuffed animal that was hanging from the IV pole, but I could not make out what it was. I was not in pain yet, but that would soon change. It was also my mother’s birthday and she was still alive at that point. Little did I know that I had probably had Crohn’s for my entire life, or as early as when I was 7 or 8, according to those gastroenterologists who know me today. Little did I know that while that surgery seems pretty radical to me at the time, I would have so much more to come. Little did I know that my eventual surgeries would turn both my own self-image as well as what an ex-wife could manage on our heads. The picture above is me about that time a few weeks before I would have that first examination.

Today, that half my life ago seems so much more than merely a mile marker. It was the point that my life, as I have noted in a paper, “took turns I could have never imagined.” My own struggle with self image as a person afflicted with an IBD and the consequences for my digestive system still confounds me more than I can sometimes manage. It has caused me to be seemingly, endingly single. It has caused me to fear how others might be willing to accept my limitations. It has haunted me when I still can hear the voice of an ex-spouse telling me she could not feel comfortable sleeping in the same bed with me and later telling me she was tired of being married to a wimp. While I have made some important progress, I still have fears that shake me to my core. I wonder sometimes what my life would have been had this not have been my fate. I wonder at times if there might have been something earlier in life I might have done to understand what was coming. The drugs that are available today for so many were not invented when I had my initial diagnosis. There were not the options to keep me from the battery of surgeries I endured from 1996 to 2012 (11 of them to be exact). What I know is there was not a lot that prepared me for what would happen that January of 1984 when what seemed to be merely the passing of a little blood to only two months later I would land in the hospital for the better part of a month. That was not anything I expected or even really understood once it happened. Then again, I am not sure knowing at that point would have changed much.

I remember when after additional surgeries in Mayo-Scottsdale, Mayo-Rochester, I would realize that all the hope I had placed in specialized surgeries seemed dashed, I was back to the merely exist and try to imagine some other option. I remember in 1997 when I had a surgery that created permanency of an ileostomy my PCP in Houghton told me he was glad that I finally had taken that step because all the same day procedures and other issues we had tried to manage (which were unsuccessful) were never going to work. I remember when seven years later another surgery was undertaken to continue to manage all the sources of infection the earlier surgeries had probably created. My attempt at being a guinea pig had certainly been successful, but the results of the surgeries less so. As I ponder and remember all of the events that have taken up so much of this second half of my life, what I realize is somehow I have still managed to accomplish other things. I did finish two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. I did manage to get two tenure track positions and have been quite successful in the second of the two. I have continued to manage other parts of my life and accomplished quite a bit. That being said there are places I feel I have failed, continue to fail, and wish for something I am not sure will ever happen. Part of that imagining is because we are again headed into the holidays. Part of that is wondering the what ifs and those things can always be a bit overwhelming. Generally I am quite content with what I have, and in fact, I really have more things than I need. I do know that is more truthful that I might even want to admit.

However, it is generally around this time of year, I find a particular melancholy that haunts me sneaks up again. There is both a blessing and a curse to my singleness. Much of the time I am content because it has offered me an ability to come and go without too many difficulties. It has given me the option to travel and be involved in my job, spending many more hours than are perhaps even healthy, but it has kept me content with what I do. Earlier this year one of my former students from UW-Stout asked me point-blank why I really never date anyone. I gave her the laundry-list of things that I use to explain my solitary existence. Her response, not surprisingly, if you know her, was that I am a f-ing (she did not use it in this form) chicken. While I admitted that was part of it, I do not think I was completely honest with the degree to which that is true. Perhaps that is because at times, I am not sure I even know the degree of accuracy myself. Earlier this evening, I was out with to Summer PAs and we had an interesting conversation about this. It was, perhaps, even a bit helpful to hear their perspective. What is true for me now is I am not sure I have the desire or energy to put into such a thing that would create such a significant change in my life.

Sometime ago, actually already three years ago, in the time before I was seeing someone who is an amazing lady, and I have spoken about her before in this blog. She is attractive, smart, has amazing integrity, is a wonderful mother and grandmother, and was very kind and thoughtful. Yet, it seemed there was not an option to go beyond a certain point. It is also possible that I ran away to some degree, even though I believe I was the one willing to go all in first. It is hard to believe it has been that long. We actually spent time together for some years, but I think I wanted to have more things figured out than she was ready to have figured out. Perhaps, and this is certainly a possibility, I did not pay close enough attention. I am quite sure she would not have moved to Bloomsburg, and it did not seem she was ready for me to move there. I know that my buying a house here was probably my change into what I believed to be the best long-term plan for me and my position here in Bloomsburg. To this day, I know she is an outstanding and amazing lady. What made any possibility with her seem possible is she knew all my medical issues and, in fact, had lived some of that with me earlier in my life. There were a multitude of other path-crossing, some even more ironic than one could ever believe, but they all allowed me to be unafraid.

Fear is an amazing thing. I see what it does to some of my students. I see what it does to people on a daily basis. I think overcoming fear is much about what we are seeing happen with the avalanche of revelations each day it seems over the past month or two. I had the most interesting conversation with my freshman students earlier this week. I asked them to give me their understanding of the differences between sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault. I was a bit shocked at how recalcitrant they were to respond. Particularly when some of them have been so conversant at times about other issues we are facing as a society. What I believe to be true is there are few adult males who can honestly say they have not been involved in some behavior that makes them guilty of one of these three terms. I realize that what is considered acceptable now and decades before might be different. I believe we have culturally turned a corner, and the ironies of that change could be an entirely separate posting. What I hope has happened is that first we are becoming painfully, but need-fully, aware of the change that needs to occur in our society. I have referred to it in a couple places as “puritanical religiosity.” What we say we believe in public and what we do in private, or in some cases, not so private, need so be more consistent that it is. We play the Christian- conservative- holier-than-thou crap in what we say, but when no one is looking, watch out. That is part of the disconnect I see in the present issue with Roy Moore in Alabama or with a President who can be recorded on more than one tape about what he is able to do, as well as be accused of sexual impropriety my more than a dozen woman, but they same Christian conservatives voted for him. Perhaps we have reached a time when we are forced to be honest with our failings, with our misogyny, our patriarchal practices, and realize that women are humans with merely a different reproductive anatomy, but they are humans that should be treated with dignity and respect. Have I always managed to do so? Simply put: I have not. There are certainly times in my early adulthood I should have behaved differently. At this point, I am not sure any male wants to have his closet cleaned out.

What I know is I certainly have worked much more diligently in the last years to make better choices 100% of the time. I mean this literally. I have worked diligently to treat others, all others, with dignity and respect. While I have had students to my house, live in my house, and spent significant time with them (regardless of gender), I have worked tirelessly to treat them with the respect I would hope anyone would treat a son or daughter with. Amazing what I have learned this second half of my life, and there is so much yet to learn. I am still working on that part. As I finish this blog, I am grateful to all the people who have supported me with such love and care this second half of my life. I wonder at times what it would have been like to have all my insides, but that option changed on a cold Minnesota December night have my life ago. The good part is I am still here. The better part is I am blessed and have a wonderful life. Lonely at times, but perhaps I will do something about that. We’ll see. Finally, Happy Birthday, Mom. I hope you are doing well wherever it is you are. On a lighter note:

Thanks as always for reading.