Purely Simple and Incredibly Smart (on So Many Levels)

Hello from the porch of the Acre on a wonderful summer evening),

Early this morning I received a phone call from a former student, who is now married, has a pre-school, aged daughter, and is recently beginning to prepare for a second child. I only had her in class one semester, but she would speak with me after class regularly. When I once inquired as to why she did so, she replied without hesitation, “You remind me of my grandpa. I responded graciously as I knew that was a compliment, but it was the first time I found myself referred to as a second, generation parent. Furthermore, if I had never been a parent, somehow hopping straight to grandparent was disconcerting. Nevertheless, Grandpa, Dr. Martin (aka: Norman, another story) has continued to be blessed with her presence in my life.

Almost a week has gone by and I did not finish this post, but it has, nevertheless been on my mind. Along with this amazing student, there are other students who have made my life so much richer by their presence. Yet, as I am wont to do, I ponder the topic from most every possible angle and analyze the reasons it makes me ponder in a sort of meta-analytical manner. The thing that will most impress me about a student is not their brilliance, though that is appreciated. The thing that will cause me to note a student as different is not their physical attributes, though again all of that is certainly apparent (but generally as a point of information as it makes no real difference in their classroom performance). The thing that will actually impress me and make me take notice is their character, their integrity, and simply put, I will ask, are they a good person? Is it evident that the morals and values they have either been taught or somehow learned and employ demonstrate a sense of honesty and goodness that I can trust what they say and do? To be sure, this is not some cause cèlébre asking for them to cease being a normal college student. Without a doubt, chances will be taken and mistakes made, but going beyond a certain threshold will cause some unexpected consequence and being 18 or beyond lays on a new level of responsibility many are not ready to manage. Perhaps that was the gift military service offers that is unrealized. Most of what you do has an immediate consequence and accountability is generally closely following. I am still realizing what being a veteran does in terms of allowing a sense of ethos and respect.

In the time since I last added, I had the occasion to meet with the person who is the central impetus for this post. Meeting with her daughter and her (and the father when the schedule allows) brightens my day immeasurably because of her graciousness and her simple goodness. She works hard at what she does, regardless the task. She thinks and cares about others and that is evident by the way she acts and by what she says (or does not say). As a mother she is level, firm, and consistent. Already, and actually for some time, her little one demonstrates a keen sense of what is appropriate and the manners necessary when addressing other people. She is sweet, adorable, and knows already how to question boundaries. For those who are parents, I am sure you can read this and smile when you reflect on your own offspring. Yet, even as one who had no children of my own, it is not that difficult to see how the lessons taught at home filter out into daily practice. On the other hand, too often we want to blame others for our behavior. In the days since Dayton and El Paso, there has been a spate of arrests for people posting or orally noting they want to inflict harm upon others. Over the past 24 hours I listened to a mother cry as her 15 year old was handcuffed and arrested for implying he wanted to kill at least 7 people. The weeping mother notes he is still a baby and he would not do what those crazy people are doing (this is a paraphrase). It seems parents need to have a serious conversation with their children about violence and appropriate posting. I cannot imagine trying to be in law enforcement now, not that I ever wanted to do such a thing. Likewise, it appears that the President, in spite of claiming he is not afraid of the NRA, has crumbled again about standing up for stricter background checks. As a country, as people, we need to have serious discussions that do something about violence in general. How do we get from teaching our children to be respectful and use manners to if I am angry I am going to shoot you and ask questions later. How does that happen? That evolution itself needs to be discussed. The anger and vitriolic tenor of so many that I see the headlines that tell me a 14 year old can kill five members of his family or my university’s newspaper lead story is about a gunman arrested in the little town in which we are located as he tried to force his way into another person’s apartment. Nothing seems reasonable in any of that, but then again nothing seems that reasonable in most anything I read from day to day be it in the Amazon, in Russia, Hong Kong, China, North Korea, or certainly here in most any part or at any level of the country I call home. As I walk around I overhear students noting that someone needs to be F-ed up or lit up, or in someway assaulted. Really?? That fixes the problem? No, it creates new ones.

It is difficult to believe that it is almost a month ago I began the writing of this post, but I think I have been preoccupied with a variety of issues. I will be posting about some of that soon, but for the moment, I can suffice it to say that being in the second week of a new semester has been a bit overwhelming. Add to that becoming the exchange parent to a 16 year old Danish boy, and I have a new-found respect for single parents. I will be explaining more of that soon. This evening, he is at a football game, ironically in the town where I was once a parish pastor. I will be at a dinner helping celebrate someone’s birthday. Tomorrow, there is a mandatory meeting for Anton, the student and me in Harrisburg and that will take a significant part of our day. It is also a weekend that I need to be really intentional and get a boatload of work done on a number of levels. I think I might be back in my office for a while yet tonight while he is at the game. I would like to get back to what I originally began to write about and the former student who gives me such hope. She is the epitome of goodness and a willingness to share her faithful and insightful heart and love. She is a person who under-estimates her incredible influence and beauty and how much of a difference she makes in the lives of others. She is brilliant beyond her wildest imagination, but she is also unparalleled in the depth and level of common sense she exhibits on a daily basis. As I have watched her over these years all the positive things I have noted here just seems to grow more profound with each passing year. What I think is more astonishing is how regardless what someone else does, she responds with a sense of kindness and forgiveness. This is not to say she is perfect nor that there is never a time where she might demonstrate some consternation, she does not hold a grudge and almost always she will try to figure out a way to bridge that chasm. I have had the opportunity to speak at length more than once during the past couple months and a conversation with her always lifts my spirits. Why? Because she is genuine; because she is gentle; because she is honest and thoughtful.

Those are traits we were raised to value and traits we were told we needed to embody, but so few people actually do it. She does. It is a rare gift for those of us who are fortunate enough to be around or know her. More importantly, I know that both she and her husband work diligently to instill those characteristics and actions into their daughter, and the daughter is a bit of a mini-me of her mother, both in terms of physicality and in personality. It is rather endearing (actually very much so) to watch. I am certainly the grandpa to the little one, or I guess if she was accurate to begin with I am the great-grandparent. Holy Buckets! Making me feel more than ancient. As I look at the revisions of this blog, while so many things have happened and perhaps even my view of the world has changed yet again, my view on the person about who this blogs is focused has not changed, except to appreciate her even more. We chatted not long ago and even with all the other things she has going on, she focused on what she need to do yet to improve things even more, but those improvements are to benefit those around her. She is also one of the most selfless people I have ever met. She has a heart that focuses on the needs of the other. She has a spirit that is never settled if she can provide a thought, a prayer, a care of some sort for those around her. She makes me feel selfish beyond words. I know that might surprise some, but that gives some indication of how giving she is. There are many tings I want to do, but I need to get on with some things yet this evening, including getting over to someone’s house for dinner. I began this blog with a title in which I tried to offer some sense of this most amazing year person. She has done more in a quarter century to teach me about how to live one’s love simply and purely than anyone I have ever met. She is simple, but in the most profound way, in the most incredibly deep manner. She is intuitive and smart beyond the Dean’s List grades she achieved as a student. She is a person I am blessed, humbled, and overjoyed came into my morning class some time ago.

Here is part of what she reminds me of. I could have offered this old Cat Steven’s tune as a sort of warning, but she knew so much more than I ever realized. She is so much more profound. Enjoy the song and as always,

thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin

My Conflicted Love-affair with Alcohol

Good morning from the Acre,

I am back in Pennsylvania more about a month before my initial plan, but I believe it was a decision that needed to be made. As a person who plans more than some might believe, I can be flexible, but lack of control of my life or my schedule is more stressful than often imagined. As noted in a couple of my last posts, the summer has been a learning experience, and while not always pleasant, probably important in the bigger long-term. The first few days back have been a time of introspection and trying to understand how things that have been so enjoyable for most of my life seemed to be disconcerting and difficult. I have been a wanderer, a vagabond of sorts,  but perhaps it is that I have called one town home for almost a decade. This time 10 years ago (almost to the day, I was arriving in Bloomsburg on the motorcycle and embarking on a new adventure, a new position, and a new place to call home. In that decade, so many things have happened to cause me to become the person I am now. Certainly the work done to make Bloomsburg a home and place I feel a sense of belonging in is significant. While much of this has to do with the university, I have also established relationships and friendships outside, which continue to develop, and I have been able to create a space that is my safe haven. This summer work on that, which is significant, was part of my stress. It was the taking care of things vital to structural integrity that created a stress for me that was unlike anything I have ever felt. Perhaps part of the struggle is a feeling of selfishness or attachment to “stuff,” which is not something that has been typical of me. That is not to say I do not appreciate what I have nor that I do not take care of things. In fact, I have been teased for the energy put into caring for things at times, but that is more because I do not want to replace it or pay to get it again. Perhaps what most surprised me was a felt like a home-body for the first time in a profound way.

The week of introspection has caused me to consider another aspect of my life. From the time I was barely twenty-one, I began to work in restaurants. My first server position was in a restaurant in Ames, Iowa called Aunt Maude’s. It was a fine dining restaurant that had flaming desserts and entrees, we carved rack of lamb table-side and used a gueridon, not anything I had experienced in my NW Iowa meat and potatoes background. I also learned about alcohol in a different way, and actually a healthier manner than what I had done in the Marine Corps. I have noted in the past that my first experience with alcohol was literally a case of they poured it down me. It was not a positive thing. However, I did not learn from that. During my early 20s I bartended and waited tables and my abuse of alcohol was the rule rather than the exception. The consequences were some of the normal things, but the more unintended consequence was that I did foolish things. Not only would I spend money buying for others, but I got involved in some risky behavior that culminated in a friend pulling a gun on me and I grabbed that gun, which was loaded, and it discharged and shot him. There were two entrance wounds and one exit wound. This meant surgery would remove that bullet from his upper thoracic area. That no one was more injured than that was a miracle. That did get my attention, and I made some changes. Yet, both at Dana and later at seminary, while the bouts of over indulgence were not frequent they still occurred. What was it that made me drink to the point of excess? That is still something I am unsure I can answer completely. I think most often it was a need to be accepted, to fit in. I was often about 5 to 10 years behind (older) than the people I was around. That began when I returned to Dana as a 24 year old freshman. Perhaps it was if I could drink with the best of them, I could fit in. Regardless the underlying reason, I did some really stupid things. Once I became a parish pastor and campus pastor, that changed. There was about a 5 to 6 year period I drank sparingly or not at all. Then one day I decided after loosing a position to go to the bar. Unexpectedly, but by my own volition, I got trashed. That began about a 5 or 6 year period where I drank way too much again and while there was a bit of a respite in there when I had gotten married again, after that marriage I returned to graduate school and there were too many times I was well beyond legally intoxicated. Again, some of behavior during those times is something that is nothing to be proud of nor would I condone in others. It embarrasses me to this day. It is something for which I have made apologies and still feel like those apologies are inadequate. Simply put, the fact I have not died of alcohol poisoning on more than one occasion is by the grace of God. There is no logical reason I should be alive.

What is so incredibly asinine about all of that is I did my pastoral care and counseling classes in treatment centers. I remember one of my most dear friends speaking to me as well as writing me a letter about my alcohol abuse at one point. I still have that letter. I grew up with alcoholics in my life and both my siblings had significant drug and alcohol issues, to the point of treatment in one case. So what changed . . .  what is it that allows me to have an rather astronomical amount of alcohol in my house and not drink it. Somehow, I am able to see it as a way to enhance a dining experience rather than control it. Somehow, perhaps it has been watching what it has done to so many others and realizing what could have happened to me. What happens for me how is so different than what happened before. Where I once seemed to practice a theory of being able to drink with the best of them made it all better, now being around intoxicated people makes me uncomfortable. Being around someone who reeks of alcohol makes me queasy. As I noted above, I have been in Bloomsburg for 10 years. I have been intoxicated three times in that 10 years (which can be argued is three times too many). That is not to say I have only drank three times, but I have learned to be much more responsible. Can I offer a reason for that change? Not with some sense of complete clarity. Not even with the idea of it was intentional. I think rather it was a sense of what I did, or am apt to do, when I drink too much is problematic on a whole multitude of levels. Perhaps it is because I realize so much more completely now that being a professor, as I have said many other times, is not what I do, it is who I am. During the past year, I have witnessed, again, first-hand what alcohol abuse can do and the consequences of someone’s actions on those around them. It is painful to watch. It is more painful to know there is nothing you can do to change it. What I have come to realize is how our American culture glorifies the use of alcohol or sees it much like owning a gun, somehow we are entitled to be able to drink whenever or however we wish. Damned the consequence. Ironically the summer I spend working in the winery I drank less than other times. I think I owe that to both Peter D’Souza as well as Marco for helping me see the natural aspect of wine making and how it works to help create an entirely different food and taste experience for a meal. Even now when it comes to beer or cocktails, I am able to think about the art of the beverage and what it can do to help enjoy something socially versus I need to drink to get trashed or even buzzed. I love what food and beverage can do together, and I simultaneously hate what we do societally with alcohol. American culture does not seem to be able to promote social drinking. Drinking it about getting trashed. We have to pre-game before we go to the bar. We have to mix crazy shit like Red Bull and Four Loco. The results have been deadly. For instance, did you know that in 2010 31% of fatal weekend car crashes involved alcohol? That is 8 years after the 0.08 for DUI went into affect nationwide. Again, in 2010, 17,000,000 people admitted to driving intoxicated. If they had their own state, they would be the 5 largest state in the country (I did research on these statistics for this blog). Again there is this sense of we can chance it. Again, in the spirit of transparency, I received a DUI when I was lived in Wisconsin. I had a medical issue, and attempted to drive home (less than 6 blocks total). I got pulled over 72 steps from my house. That night cost me over 5,000.00. One of the things I learned in my mandatory classes was that a person will drive intoxicated a couple of hundred times before they are pulled over and actually charged. If that is accurate, it is mind-boggling, and petrifying.

So where does that leave me today? Yes, I have alcohol of various kinds in my house: beer, spirits, and wine and quite a quantity, but I can go days or weeks without drinking a drop of anything. I enjoy having a glass of wine with a meal. I enjoy a ice cold beer on a hot day, and I love experimenting with spirits to see what I can concoct that will taste refreshing and enjoyable. Yet it is an art a type of creativity that offers an opportunity to share socially in a responsible and enjoyable manner. I have somehow learned that one can be social, responsible and enjoyable all at the same time. In 2012, the alcohol industry made 162,000,000,000.00 (yes, billion) dollars (again, I looked this up through economic databases). I guess I do contribute to this amount. Where am I today as I write this? I understand why people might get intoxicated. I think most often it is to forget their own problems; it is because they have not dealt with some aspect of their past or because they do not like something about themselves. Perhaps it is an attempt to fit in. This morning I was speaking with a dear friend, who has a strong affinity for their ethnic heritage. They noted that that heritage is ensconced (somewhat of an oxymoron) with alcohol and that connection has resulted in their choosing to eliminate alcohol from their personal use. I have noted the propensity for the misuse of alcohol in my own family on many occasions in this blog. If I were to balance the misuse of alcohol on a scale to the appropriate use of alcohol in my experiences, either communally or individually, the misuse side of the scale would so far outweigh the appropriate use that you would wonder if there was any weight at all on the one side. So how do I understand this love affair? Indeed it is conflicted. Indeed it is frightening. It is such a delicate balance. How did I learn to balance? Embarrassment for my past actions is one of the greatest motivators, I believe. Realizing how much I have to lose should I lose that balance is another aspect. Somehow, for me the grace of God that has kept me alive or out of trouble or jail more times than I have fingers and toes, and even if I borrowed some of yours. I think being an example for others, and realizing the consequences and damage of some of my past, which still haunts me, has been a motivating factor. For so long, I struggled with my identity and feelings of inadequacy. I think I have managed much of that, or more importantly, I learned that alcohol does not fix that, it only complicates it. Using alcohol did not make me fit it more completely, it made me look more completely foolish. Using alcohol inappropriately enhanced inappropriate and embarrassing behavior and it damaged my relationships and my reputation. Some of that will never be repaired. To this day, I enjoy more than words can say how a great Mourvedre can enhance the spice and flavor of a good ribeye steak. I enjoy the amazing flavor of caraway seed and lime in an aquavit and tonic on a hot summer evening. Yet, it is the experience of the flavor and more than merely getting stupid.

Respect or healthy respect seems to be apt here. It is something lacking in so many areas of our societal fabric, and that, of course, is an entirely different topic. I think it is where I am, however. I have learned if you play with fire (and I have used things like Ol’ Gran Dad or 151 to flame desserts), you will get burnt. That adage is certainly true. I have been burned more than once, but it was not a burn that changed me, it was merely age and wisdom, and the observation of consequence, of both my own actions and the actions of others. I will always appreciate alcohol when used to enhance a meal or a social setting appropriately. As my former professor once said, I can appreciate alcohol, but he had no tolerance for drunken behavior. He is still an incredibly wise man, and he is entirely accurate. I have been prone to put a video at the end of my blogs that somehow connects to the topic, but almost all music videos about alcohol glorify it, so I decided on something that was about trying to make the appropriate choices and take the chance and make life better without being intoxicated. I love this video for the generational beauty in it.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin