The World is a Provocative Place

Hello from Richmond,

I would like to take credit for the title, but it is something I heard someone say on NPR the other day, and it stuck with me. I think what causes me pause is to ask a question of whether one could always make such an argument or whether the degree to which we find it provocative has gotten more significant. What is provocative? What causes something or someone to be so? Generally, I believe that most of the time we have a tendency to use provocative in a sensual manner and there is a certain deliberative nature to the actions of a person. A second definition of provocative has to do with a specific irritation, a degree of exasperation, an annoyance, being incendiary, offensive or insulting. In our current national/international situation, it seems not only are these adjectives appropriate, but the initial definition of the deliberative nature of being such seems also apropos.

What causes all of this is about much more than a person, a position (generally of power), or a sort of posturing. In my opinion, it is much more about seeing beyond oneself and believing and practicing basic civility and manners. I am generally appalled by the increased lack of decorum of people in general. Let me offer some basic, and perhaps seeming mundane or minuscule examples of this. Seldom a day goes by that I do not open a door and someone is coming out the side opposite of what I was taught growing up to walk in or out of. The same can be said for walking down a sidewalk. A couple of summers ago, I was walking toward a group of five or six students. They were all on their phones and covered the width of the sidewalk. I moved as far to the right as I could and to move farther would have put me into bushes or scrubs and I merely stood there. The young man was about 6 inches from running into when he looked up. I merely looked at him and said nothing. As he stepped around me, he muttered, “Get the fuck out of the way.” At that point, I turned around an told him to stop. I will admit, my response was a bit sharp, but that had crossed a line I was not willing to accept. I would have never even considered speaking to an older individual in that manner, and even now, when I speak to my former professors, I address them still as Dr. Nielsen or Dr. Jorgensen. To do less would be disrespectful in my understanding of who they are and the honor they deserve. I remember as a child I was never allowed (and specifically taught not) to use the first name of an adult person. There were some individual adults in my church who specifically as our youth group members to call them by their first name, but I remember even with permission it felt inappropriate and I was never completely comfortable.

I certainly do not have an answer that can provide a reason for such a change, but I believe whatever the reason(s), it is (they are) complex and diverse. Much of it has to do with what we have be willing to accept or allow. In addition, I believe our ability to communicate in a plethora of ways and in a manner that seems to informal or person has erased the gap of public and personal in a way that feeds into this lack of professionalism that also eclipses our ability to use appropriate language, actions, or responses across the spectrum. I also believe it is caused by the examples so many young people see from the adults around them. When parents are charged with assault or worse at a little league game or a hockey game because they get angry, what do their sons and daughters see and what are they to think? When our legislators (at any level) use language, find themselves arrested, or engage in conduct that is considered generally outside the realm of decency, what are people to think about those who create our policies and laws? When multiple members of the cabinet, the West Wing, and the President himself can use names, language and behavior that many (and that is from both sides of the aisle or the political spectrum) consider below the office or position one holds, what are young people to think about what is acceptable. I am not willing to accept the adage that he is merely saying what we think. This past week at the morning breakfast where I meet with a number of other veterans, it is apparent that I am more liberal than most of them. I made a comment about Scandinavian countries that fired-up on of the others at the table. I could have got defensive and argued as passionately as he spoke out against what I said, but I decided it was probably better to step back and listen before I responded. While we did not and do not agree on most things, I still respect him and his opinion and will continue to do so. He is also a veteran and a Bloomsburg area native. I can understand why he holds some of the views he does. I can appreciate the passion with which he holds some of those views, but I can still disagree and get along with him.

Even when he asserted that college professors are a bunch of liberals ruining the country, I did respond and say that bunching all professors into one basket was a bit unfair and I spoke about some of the things I do in class. I did it in a respectful manner, but also in a way that argued that stereotyping or grouping all into a single basket was a dangerous and unfair thing to do. We did end up discussing, with a couple others chipping in, but they had to admit that such a position or statement was both unfair and not helpful. It reminded me once again that I live in an area that is both conservative and not that supportive of the place I work, which of course, is ironic because without the university there would be very little reason for the town of Bloomsburg to be what it is. Most of the manufacturing that was once part of the fabric of the town is no longer viable and without the university or Geisinger, there would be no real major employers. The reason I note this event at breakfast is it could have easily become a sort of heated debate or argument that would have accomplished little. The consequence would be that I have little to say to that person after that and there would be an estrangement and a difficulty that would create problems for some of the other people there. In another case, I was speaking with a former parishioner, someone I have know for 30 years. When they brought up their daughter, I noted that was not really speaking with them and the reason. I could have (and perhaps should have) not mentioned the reason for that lack of communication, but instead, I was both honest and yet kind about the situation. Long story short, later that day I got a text and an admonishment that I had embarrassed them and they no longer wanted to speak to me. I merely apologized and noted that I understood. I erased the text and will probably never speak to them again. I am okay with that. It is not my fault that a person did not do what they were supposed to do.

I have had to learn a number of lessons the hard way, but that seems to be more to norm than the exception for me. Those of you, who have known me for a significant period of time, are probably shaking your heads and nodding in the affirmative. On the other hand, I am learning, albeit slowly. There is something that needs to be acknowledged when my bank branch president makes me promise to not help other out anymore. Of course, that is a topic for another time. I am really quite blessed that is what I know and I have tried to be a blessing to others because that is what I was taught. That gets me back to where I started this post. What are we teaching? What happened to parents teaching manners, honesty, respect (ironic as I write this that Aretha Franklin passed away today) and also making sure that their offspring practice it? I knew this growing up: if I got in trouble at school or in town when I grew up, I was in trouble when I got home. That was the way it went. My parents were not going to call and ream someone else out for my misbehavior. If any call was made, it would have been to thank that person for letting them know. I was quite sure my mother had paid spies in the neighborhood, at church, and at school to work as informants. I also was quite sure she had eyes in the back of her head when I was little. So, back to my question: what makes things provocative or annoying, incendiary, and simply offensive? We have lost our manners. We have lost the ability to disagree, but remain civil. We have allowed our sons and daughters, our colleagues, and our government to treat each other with such disrespect and disdain that we have forgotten the things we are taught shortly after we learn to speak. Did you say please? Did you say thank you? While I am aware that it goes much further than that, it is as basic as that. Can you think before you speak? Can you use decency and thoughtfulness in whatever it is that you feel compelled to say? Can we be respectful of the other and lose some of our self-centered attitudes that seem to permeate every corner of our society? Why is it when there is a disaster or some horrendous event we find a way to come together and offer a sense of care and concern, but a great deal of the remainder of our lives we too often fail to give even a second thought to the consequences of what we say or do? It is only when we face a consequence for our actions, but then too often we want to blame rather than take accountability for our part of the problem. It seems that the discord and disrespect I find in the daily paper is now the norm rather than the exception. I believe we need to step back and reconsider. From Washington to my neighborhood, from my colleagues and friends to myself. We all have a duty to change this destructive path we seem to be on.

There is no democracy without respect; there is no civil society without honor and decency. It is time to be something besides provocative. And in respect to the Queen of Soul, I offer this.

Thank you as always for reading.

Michael (a single person, and yes a professor, but that makes me no better or worse than the other. Finally formerly a Lutheran pastor, but I never deserved a pedestal and wish I could have done even better than I did).

Nie koniec; Tylko początek

Dzień dobry z UJ i Krakowie.

Yesterday I took two parts of a final exam at the end of an intensive Polish course. We crammed about 15 weeks into 17 days and I will be honest, my head is swimming. This morning, after a significant nap yesterday and a pretty substantive night of sleep I can see patterns for adjectives and nouns that yesterday were no where to be found in my head. I have realized a couple of things about my learning pattern as a 60+ person that I am not sure I realized or struggled with as a 29 year old the last time I did an intensive language program. I also better know what I believe is necessary to learn such a different language now. While I understand the grammar quite well, at least in terms of requirements and patterns, understanding the philology of Polish or Slavic languages is another issue. Yet I would not trade this past month for all the złoty I could fit in my pocket. This last month was the first focused part of a plan to come and teach in Poland in two years. There will be more pieces to that learning puzzle and it will take more concentrated work during the in-between period of time. The next two summers will require my residence here in Kraków for 6 weeks, but it is my hope to be through level B2 by the time I would be here. I will here this phrase “krok po kroku” in the voice of Dominika for the rest of my living days. That voice with her infatigable excitement and genuine passion for teaching Polish is something that will draw you in and make you want to learn. When you are tired or your brain wants to stop, she will pick you back up. Beata goes about it differently. She is steady, calm, and pushes you when you might not realize she is pushing. I told them yesterday that together they were the ideal pair for beginning learners. Their strengths compliment each other well and a month later I am genuinely grateful to both of them for all I leaned. I know that it has not even begin to really sink in how much I learned. Their integration of listening in class, speaking to us 95% of the time in Polish, our field trips through the park where we had to ask questions, our scavenger hunt of sorts from the university to Kazimierz, their beginning questions and the intermediate two exams created an impressive learning environment, but more importantly, an effective one. As an older learner, there were advantages and disadvantages. I realized I needed the listening and pronunciation sessions more than I anticipated. That is where not living in the dorm took it’s toll. I did add a pronunciation tutoring session, but I should have done it from the beginning. There were three students in particular who were phenomenally impressive. The one, a linguistics student from Wisconsin, blew everyone away with a 99% average for the summer, and he walked in with no Polish. His roommate, who I was fortunate enough to do my oral section of my final with, and I believe has a Polish parent, was also outstanding. The third student, a graduate student at Harvard, and who has an extensive Yiddish background, really mastered things. Her note taking and study habits were impeccable. What is most impressive is we did not lose a single student in either beginner section. That is a testament to how well the course is managed in spite of the intensity. I also learned that some of the sounds in Cantonese are closer to Polish than in our English language, so often the students from Hong Kong had less problems with pronunciation than the American students.

As I am finishing my month in Kraków, the memories from this summer will last a life time. While I have found Kraków beautiful around the holidays with the Christmas market and the snow-covered trees and roofs, it does not hold a Christmas candle to the beauty of the river, the flowers, and the atmosphere of the summer. It does get warm, at times quite humid, and an umbrella is a must, but nonetheless walking among the tourists and the multitude of languages is a cultural experience in and of itself. While I certainly have gotten some walking in when I was here with students, the number of Kilometers or miles walked in the last month is probably more than I walk the rest of the year. Something I plan to change when I return to Bloomsburg tomorrow. There is also something about having to walk to the grocery store every couple days and all the meat must be used in 24-36 hours (except for kielbasa or bacon). The fruit and vegetable markets are wonderful. As I walked an average of 6-7 miles a day I took the time to notice things I would have never noticed on the tram. In thirty days, I took my first Uber out to a nearby town to have lunch with Kasia and the other evening I did take the tram back to the city center because it was raining and I had my final documents from the class. Fortunately, when I got to Teatr Bagatela the rain had stopped and I was able to walk home.

. . . It is now Thursday and I am down to less than 24 hours before I am on the on the plane in Kraków z Warszawa z JFK. I packed some things this morning trying to figure out if I am overweight, and it is possible. I might decide to leave somethings with Kate and then I will have to pack less, or I might go to the post office and purchase a small box and send some things. I have a few hours to decide. I have learned that like in the United States most servers are college students trying to make money during the summer. Today I met a new student who has a great command of English with almost no accent. She wants to become a translator. Her name is Kamila. I am always intrigued by people’s stories. I guess the concept of storytelling has been something that I have found helpful, regardless of which side I am on, listening or telling. Stories identify and help us create identity. The longer we live the more complex, and hopefully, interesting the story becomes. It really is a fundamental part of who we are. I have realized through the years that whether it was a sermon when I was a pastor or when I am trying to make a concept clear in classes today, I resort to telling a story I hope will explain what I am trying to teach more effectively. Not long ago (within the last 6 weeks), I participated in a former colleague’s podcast, telling my story of living with Crohn’s Disease. As I return to America, I have new stories and the experiences of the last month has certainly done something significant in my understanding yet again who I am (smiling as I write this because I am in the airport in Kraków and listening to the Eagles and “Hotel California.” Seems ironic on more than one level. As I listen to the announcements here, I can now understand them in two languages. That was not the case four weeks ago.

Reading the news today, I realize that President Trump was in my neighborhood last night. I am afraid that I am content I was not around to witness the hub-bub that accompanies such visits. Nor did I have to listen to him support a U.S. Representative who has failed to meet even once in a town hall style meeting during the entire time he has “served” as our Representative. It had been an interesting morning in that I have noted things in Polish, texted a former Dana classmate who is currently living in Norway, and spoken to my winemaker friend from California, who is with his family in Italy for the coming year. Astounding what we can do.

Seems I might have to leave my phone on as I am unable to save the work I have done on this blog because it noted an error while saving. Now it is in a loop. I have decided to plug in a bit until our flight departs, which is a bit longer than anticipated because of a short delay. Fortunately I do not have a quick turn around time in Warsaw. It is a beautiful day. I am still stunned by how early it is light here in the morning. It is before 5:00 a.m. and, in fact, when I first arrived it seemed closer to 4:00. Now it is certainly closer to 5:00, but that is so early compared to Pennsylvania. I was up before 5:00 this morning and had everything managed well before my 7:30 Uber time. Well it seems as I ready myself to board the plane, indeed, there might be a chapter closing, but I prefer to see it as the prelude to a much longer chapter just beginning. Thank you to Katarzyna (both of them) for meeting with me, as it was wonderful to see you again. To the second or newer one for being an impeccable host. I will see both of you in December. To Tomasz for being a wonderful flat-mate for a few days or David for 10 days. To Anna for taking time to have dinner with me and help me with my Polish and to spend an evening chatting. To the newest people I have been blessed to meet: Beata i Dominika, for your great instruction. To Andrzej, Nataly, Kamila, and Lublana (sp) all at Urban Garden. To Mariusz at Costa and Dr. Martyniuk and Dr. Prizel-Kania. I am grateful to you all for making the month something beyond my most hopeful imagination. What a wonderful reality it has been. It is time to fly. The picture is of two of the Urban Garden servers.

Thank you for reading.

Michał