Being Thankful

Hello from my kitchen in the morning,

Hard to believe it is already Wednesday of our break. Harder to believe it is almost the end of November; and perhaps hardest of all to come to terms with we are finishing the second decade of a new millennium. I was speaking with Al, the person in charge of technology for my department (and building) and reminiscing over our experiences of Y2K. This morning I am realizing that the great majority of my freshmen did not live in the 20th century. Yikes!

As I sit in my kitchen, breakfast pretty well prepared, I am waiting for a 17 year old to manage to get up. In spite of the fact, we agreed on a 9:30 breakfast, he does not like to get out of bed, so I am being productive and working on this blog. Thanksgiving, being the latest day of the calendar it can occur, seems to usher in both Advent and the holiday season this year. It also brings back all those memories of holidays gone by, and causes me to ponder how differently I might understand the holidays and their significance at this point in my life. As a child, it marked a school vacation and Black Friday shopping. My parents put money away every paycheck to help have money for the Christmas tradition of buying presents. They never owned a shopping credit card. My father had one gas credit card, and that was it. Thanksgiving was an incredible meal, especially if we make the trek “over the river” (there were no woods) and went to my grandmother’s, sister’s house. I have noted on many occasions how those two were the most fabulous cooks.

While I have often lamented some elements of my being raised as an adopted child, perhaps the occasion of this Thanksgiving is a time to consider the fortune of being raised in the Martin household. As I realize now (and that is not a first time realization), I think there were different hopes from the two people who had a adopted a first child and then a pair (being my sister and me). In the late 1950s, having children and being a family was part of being successful and living the American dream. As I look at my parents, I am not sure parenting was appreciated equally or was the desire to be a parent on the same plane. Regardless, knowing all the things I know, I believe I was overall fortunate. I was speaking with my sister-in-law recently and she noted that my older brother and she considering adopting us (as a second adoption) to get us away from some of the struggles we had endured. Though I am sure if that attempt had been made it would have been an undoubtedly tense and ugly situation.

In spite the myriad of issues, we still had some relative stability. I had the essential things I needed to be healthy and cared for on the basic levels of food, shelter, and opportunity. I had extra things provided like private music lessons, the chance to participate in a variety of events, and both a good school and church family. I understand and perceive things so differently now. Perhaps most important, I knew that even when I was lacking emotional support at home, I had surrogate parents who gave me a lot. I had a church youth group where I found acceptance. I know now there are things I lacked and it is interesting that I find myself trying to provide that for Anton, even though he is only in my care for a year. Tomorrow that year is already 1/4 complete. Amazing that three months have come and gone. What I know is I have been so blessed by people in my life. Growing up in Riverside, I think of the Sopoci family and their basement recreation room, where I spent many an hour. I think of Sheldon and Janet Reese, who always demonstrated care for me, listened to me and showed me I mattered. Of course, Marge and Jake Goede were like a second family to me. I realize now how much my church youth group did to keep me healthy emotionally. In addition, as I got older and worked at my grandmother’s bakery, I was fortunate to be around a person who loved me deeply and unconditionally. That was the most incredible blessing perhaps ever bestowed. She taught me how to give and to treat others with kindness. She was always willing to go above and beyond in her giving to others. I would like to believe I emulate her to some degree.

As I moved beyond high school, I had so much to learn about the world. To my parents’ credit, and perhaps at times to my detriment, I was not very prepared for the Marine Corps – though you might ask, is that possible – or even life beyond. I would come back trying to figure out who I was, and being blessed by yet another family outside my own. A new pastor had come to Riverside Lutheran. Little did I know how impactful they would be. The eldest was not around, but the next three would be central to my trying to acclimate back to being a civilian. I know now that is much harder than one realizes. Fred, the pastor, became a surrogate father and did more to help me mature than perhaps anyone could have. Ruth, had more of a hate/love relationship with me (and my ’71 Chevelle) than one would hope. She petrified me, and simultaneously caused me to think about who I wanted to or should be. David is still a friend I treasure and Barb found her way deep into my heart beyond anything I had known. She was that first love, and I had no idea how to manage that. Trial and error would be an understatement, but I am thankful to this day. Nancy, the youngest was smart, kind, and did not know what to do with her brother and me together. I will forever be indebted to the Peters family. Even to this day, I realize the integrity of Fred and how blessed I am by him.

I would eventually go from Ames back home and that was a difficult time due to the death of both my brother and my grandmother. Somehow, on a lark, I was blessed again; this time to be offered a chance to travel and work for an organization called Lutheran Youth Encounter. This was also the time I was spending significant time with a 2nd cousin. She was a very good influence on me and again I was blessed by her love and care. The year of travel caused me to do a lot of self-examination, as well as a time to grow, and I enrolled in college. This was a second time, but this time would be different. I wanted (needed) to prove to myself I could be successful. It was the begging of a process that has led me through seminary, to the parish, back to the academy, eventually a PhD, and from Wisconsin back to Pennsylvania.

These previous paragraphs are rather broad strokes, but what is consistent is there have been people every step of the way who cared for me, who cared about me. I did not get here on my own. It has been because of dozens of individuals. Some have moved in and out of my life and I have lost touch or one side of the relationship moved beyond. Some have remained and some have re-emerged. Our lives are an astounding number of threads woven together, sometimes tightly, sometimes with some sense of order, but loosely. Other times, the threads become tangled, snarled, or even frayed. Yet they all matter because they illustrate the complexity of who we are.

As you know by my last blog, a superb teacher, professor, and colleague has passed. I have pondered his passing from a variety of views. He was only four years older than I. To be honest, that disturbs me; it frightens me a bit. On the other hand, he left a profound example of what it means to be here for his students. I hope I can work to carry on some of that in my own teaching in a more successful manner. Last week as we honored him and students spoke about him, I tried to imagine what he might say. I think he might say, “Awe, shucks! Thank you for your words.” And he would leave it at that. Dr. Riley was (and is) another reason to give thanks, both for the time he was with us – also by what he has left us. Before we return to classes, we will have a memorial service. The weather, as can often be the case “when the gales of November come stealin'”, and move us into December, does appear to be an issue. And yet, we will gather to give thanks for a colleague who taught us to never be complacent, to never quit striving to learn and implement new things. As I finish this we are completing a Thanksgiving break. In spite of the craziness in so many places, and inside the Beltway perhaps being the craziest, I find myself wanting to focus on being thankful. There are so many people not mentioned here, but you each matter. Bless each of you for your kindness and the gifts you have shared to make this small, adopted, struggling, boy from Northwest Iowa be able to grow, flourish, and be allowed to live a blessed life.

Thank you as always for reading,

Michael (aka Dr. Martin)

Remembering an Incredible Professor

Hello on a Sunday evening,

I am fascinated by corresponding dates. My adoptive father and my second wife had the same birthday. Lydia’s birthday was the same day of the year my adoptive mother passed away. My great aunt passed on my sister’s birthday and was buried on my niece’s birthday. Yesterday was Anton’s birthday and it is the day my department lost an irreplaceable colleague. Certainly, at some point we will search for another faculty member, but that is a replacement of a department position. I had often said if and when Terry Riley retires, we would realize all the things he did behind the scenes. To the complete shock of our entire department, he passed away early Saturday morning after a brief illness.

In spite of the fact he was on sabbatical, his black Nissan Frontier pickup occupied a parking spot in the Bakeless parking lot as he arrived at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. each morning (and that included weekends) where he occupied his sanctuary at the far end of the hall on the first floor. He worked diligently at his desk on the latest QualTrac data, the most recent scholarship on something about teaching that fascinated and inspired him, or he was intent on figuring out some new pedagogical possibility as he had delved into the world of online or distance class delivery. As I often came into the building early we would meet in the hallway and one of us would initiate, our morning greeting. As I am prone to do, I would inquire, “How are you?” His response was always the same, “Doin’ fine.” And he would mosey on in whatever direction he was going. When I had a question about the long-term history or typical practice that puzzled me, I would go to Terry. I always found him at the computer desk engrossed in whatever his present task was. I would request permission to come in and he was always gracious and invited me to sit. When he was speaking with or listening to you, there was a focus and intensity. Not one that made you uncomfortable, but rather one that assured you that he gave you his undivided attention. And as he listened, you knew he was pondering and thinking. The ambiance of his office is something to behold and it felt like you had just been granted an audience with the Holy Father.

Students adored him and he was a champion of and for them. His mind was always active and he continually looked at ways to prepare and support them both in the classroom and the life they would live beyond Bloomsburg. As a consummate teacher, he was unceasing in his desire to share his insight and wisdom with any and all who cared to listen. He was passionate, but never pushy; he was both grandfatherly, in the best way possible, but uncompromising with little patience for bullshit (and I use that word intentionally) because the few times I saw him angry, the piecing look through his rimless glasses was a look you did not wanted focused in your direction. Over the past decade I have worked with Terry as a committee member when he was the chair and also as the chair of a college committee where he came before that committee. He was always pleasant, but in a sort of perfunctory manner; he was goal oriented and again had little time for foolishness. He was completely and meticulously prepared and he anticipated most questions before one could ask them. I remember once at a university level committee meeting where another long-serving faculty person questioned the legitimacy of a proposal. That person was on the university committee and Terry was bring something forward. Dr. Riley carefully and successfully filleted at person without every easing his voice or sounding angry. He almost had a Bilbo Baggins quality that provided him the opportunity to annihilate you and you would thank him.

Terry’s indefatigable labor behind the scenes, from the union to assessment, from committee work to learning things to share with us, was something he did freely and quietly, but he supported the department and the college with every ounce of his being. As evidenced in what I have written, Terrance (his given name) was an extraordinary human being, but in my mind what made him most extraordinary was his humble and unflappable demeanor. He simply did his work. He was gracious, but tough in his own way. He was serious about what he did, but had a smile and wry sense of humor that could disarm the most cynical. He was a colleague’s colleague. The loss I feel is great, but I have colleagues that have worked with him much longer and those who have shared moments because of proximity, and their shock and loss is legions beyond mine. I am not sure he knows how much he was loved by those of us fortunate to share in his department. I once said to him, “Mark is the Assistant Chair and Tina is the Chair, but you are the Dean of the Department.” He smiled and responded in his knowing tone, ” I am glad you understand that.” When I first interviewed at Bloom he called me into his office and asked to chat. He told me that he was pleased I had a liberal arts background. He asked my colleague why they did not interview me sooner. That vote of confidence from him meant more to me than he ever knew. I am blessed that I have lived in the presence of a Renaissance person these past 10 years. I hope we will continue to shine for so many the way he did. I will miss our morning greeting, sir. In this week of Thanksgiving, I give thanks for you. I have used this video before, but in many ways Terry was a fatherly figure to all of us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hr64MxYpgk&feature=share

Thanks for reading as always,

Dr. Martin

Why Bullies are Problematic

Hello from my office as the semester steams toward the end,

I have had a busy week, but I am counting on this finals week being both busy and productive. It has been an emotional rollercoaster, both as our department has processed the loss of a dear pillar and colleague in the department, but also as I watch so many students struggle to manage this thing called college. The first semester is a rude, kick-you-in-the- pants sort of experience where most realize they were ill-prepared for what they will experience between the excitement and fear of beginning the semester and finals week, which is now upon them.

As is often the case, the cold glass of reality splashes them and you receive visits, emails, texts, or some communique asking what they can do to improve their grade. In spite of the fact that I have released grades throughout the semester, and they know where they stand, somehow the shock of “it’s here-the end-of-the-semester” always catches them off guard. Of course, we, on the other side, also find ourselves wondering where the last 15 weeks has gone. I remember the first time I assigned a failing grade to a student. My heart honestly hurt. I actually called my undergraduate advisor and spoke with him because I was so upset. I still take no pride in a student struggling or doing poorly in my class. What is different is I do not take each thing so personally, but I still abhor assigning grades to a person’s work. I realize the value and the problem in evaluation. The problem is simple: instead of seeing it as a reflection of the products turned in during the semester, students see a grade as some reflection of their self-worth. That can be devastatingly damaging to their understanding of who they are. I actually address this in class, but there is so much power given to those 5 letters. We need to work toward something different. The only time a GPA matters is when you are applying for that first job or if you are going to graduate school. After that, no one cares. That is sad, but it is reality. It is sad because we have throughout our educational process somehow made grades the be all, end all. In the last day and a half since I last wrote, I have had no office hours and no finals, but I have had students from my First Year Seminar (FYS) class in my office by the droves. They are overwhelmed and frightened, but they are working to manage all the end of the semester brings. It frustrates me that our public school system seems to fail on so many levels in preparing students for what college will bring or demand of them. This is not to say that all teachers are bad. That is not the case. I think the issue is a systemic one, and more significantly it is tortuous; more problematically, it is almost impenetrable. I could be political here, all the way to the DOE, but choose not to go there. The connection to my title is that students and even school systems seemed stymied by what is above them, and speaking out is not encouraged. To discourage dissent is to bully someone or someone(s).

I have noted at other times in my blog that I was bullied. I am not sure I saw it as bullying at the time, but I was most undoubtedly teased and literally pushed around because I was so small. I was not a fighter; I learned to get along with people as a pre-schooler because I would lose most physical confrontations. I learned that early. Often, until about 2nd grade,  my sister was my enforcer, if you will. I also learned that I did (and do) not like pain. I think even to this day, in spite of having a relatively high pain tolerance because of my medical issues, I would never participate in pugilistic endeavors. I refuse to watch MMA things and, in fact, I find them almost nauseating. I did not weigh 100 pounds until late in my junior year of high school and as such I wrestled some and ran track. I was not going to be involved in either football or basketball. I learned that I would have to rely on my brains and not my brawn (or lack thereof) and that became more the case when I decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. I remember the infamous Pugilstick training. My drill instructor told me if I got beat in the ring I would get beat when I got back outside the ring. I learned quickly to be smart and fast. I managed that quite well, but it would teach me something else: to not allow myself to be bullied or pushed around. There was both a blessing and a curse to that realization. I tried to act tougher than I was at times. I would teach me both thoroughly and expeditiously that there was always someone tougher. I remember once stepping in when a male was abusing a female. The female was able to escape the situation, at least for the moment. I got a serious ass-beating. Certainly there were more than a lion’s share of bullies in the Marine Corps. Much of our toxic masculinity is based on the idea of bullying if you will. Many do not want to call it that, but that is what it is. No matter how big, how fast, how bad you are, there is always someone bigger, faster, “badder” and that person wins. The idea that violence is acceptable in every aspect of service life is problematic, but it is irrefutably present. While there have been things implemented to minimize this, as I speak to those still in the service and some have been there for decades, that bravado has not disappeared. I might go as far as to say raising the issue can be seen as undermining the esprit de corps of the service itself. That is some indication of how thoroughly this is engrained. I think it is one of the reasons there is such a culture shock for many when they try to acclimate back to civilian life after being in the service. In the Marines, I was taught to be invincible. I attempted to teach others to be the same. It is that incredible vision of what Jack Nicholson says to Tom Cruise during the court scene in the movie, For a Few Good Men. The entire idea of training someone, of a Code-Red, while managed as a movie issue is not something that is unrealistic. The idea of a blanket party in boot camp, as happened in Full Metal Jacket, is reality. While I am sure there are directives to not do such things, taking things into their own hands, contrary to the argument between Cruise and Nicholson is common practice and I would be hard-pressed to believe it no longer happens. The questioning of this practice can be traced to the work of Raewyn Connell, the Australian scholar, who is internationally recognized for her work in this area. The fluidity of masculinity in a society that is questioning the dichotomous gender binary certainly creates a lot of things for consideration, but most males older than 35 (and that is my arbitrary number) buy into elements of toxic masculinity more subconsciously than they might realize.

What I believe is most problematic is how the idea of the “ol’ boys club” permeates most of what we do from our neighbors and the streets of our cities to the very halls of the United States Capitol. As I write this, articles of impeachment have been laid out against the President. While there are a number of policies the President supports I disagree with, that is not a new thing for me. There were other Presidents with whom I struggled because of their policies, but I still respected them. There are Presidents for whom I voted, but was disappointed in how they managed their presidency, but again I still respected them. My struggle with President Trump is his arrogance and his propensity for calling people names, both of which are below the office to which he has been elected. His use of Twitter is abhorrent. Not that he uses it, though I have some issues about his usage that are more theoretical and rhetorical, but rather the tone and rudeness that is the overarching style of whatever he does. He is a schoolyard bully, one who has bought his way into and bankrupted his way out of so many things. He is beyond reprehensible in the way he treats those who work around him, in the manner he addresses those with whom he might have a disagreement. He has little difference from a two year old throwing a full-out tantrum. He is embarrassing in the way he kisses up to dictators and then disparages our long-important and most supportive allies. I understand this is my personal opinion, but I believe he has damaged foreign policy in a way that it will take a decade or longer to repair his failures, if that is even possible. In addition, I believe he has bullied the Republican party into buying into his pomposity. The disdain he and the Republicans have for the Democrats and vice versa has thrown the entire idea of bi-partisanship and checks and balances into such disarray I am unsure if we will recover as a country. I am sad to say, but I am rather happy to be in my 60s. I should also note that Sen. Mitch McConnell is perhaps even a bigger problem than the over-grown Cheeto, which is what my colleague’s children call President Trump. BTW, that says something else entirely and is also problematic, but emblematic of what has happened to the country. I will never respect someone who has to bully their way into getting what they want. I lose significant respect for those who believe this is a reasonable way to conduct our national affairs. Perhaps it is because it is the Christmas season when we should be a bit more understanding. I am not happy about the prospect of impeaching the President. I am also not supportive of the things he has done to undermine the very fabric of our checks and balances. Impeachment is, however, a constitutional process. What good comes out of it? I think it calls into question his arrogance and self-stated hubris that Article Two of the Constitution gives him absolute power and immunity. I am pretty sure that is not what the founders of the country had in mind. Do I believe he will be convicted? I will be beyond stunned if that happened, but I know that every single person will have to stand up and be accountable for their vote in the Senate. They will have to somehow justify that reaching out to a foreign power with an incredible degree of self-importance that seems to characterize this President is not acceptable. To ask for favors for political access (e.g. an Oval Office visit) or to hold up Congressionally authorized aid is an issue. Is it impeachable? For some, the answer is unquestionably, yes, and those were constitutional scholars. For some, they will support his statement he could go into the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone, and they will support him. Stunning to me; beyond frightening to me; more astounding that it is true. What has happened to us? Where is our civility? Where is our belief in the ethics of government and the support of our United States Constitution? There is so much more I could write, but I think I will stop. Here is the scene from For a Few Good Men that I mentioned earlier.

Thanks for reading and good luck with the end of the semester.

Dr. Martin

Remembering a Wall that Went in the Right Direction

Hello from Fog and Flame,

It is Sunday and I need to have a productive day, in spite of grading a few hours or more for the last 5 days, sans yesterday, I need to put in significant time again today. As the end of the semester comes closer, moving rapidly toward a close, the number of house focused on this necessary evil will continue to occupy both my time and the temporal lobe of my students’ brains. Some of their struggle is based on a less than stellar usage of their frontal lobe thus far in the semester. Yet, as humans, it seems too often we fail to adequately use our frontal lobes. The consequences are legion and the complexity of that lack exponential.

This past week I must say that I have observed really outstanding work from a number of my students in a variety of classes. The realization of the conceptual walls they often face was some of my focus this week. On Wednesday, after the release of an offensive video from a student (and everyone in that video should be held accountable in my opinion) a week ago, hundreds of students on campus held a protest in the quad about our campus lack of diversity, lack of inclusion, and a seeming increase in fearing for safety. Let me note as an older faculty, I do not experience all they do; as a person who is male and white, I also experience things quite differently. Therefore, nothing in my statements above or meant to minimize their concerns or assertions. As I have been focusing some of my own reading, I have been examining the concept (and alarming reality) of white privilege. I would not be a person who believed how pervasive this is or the degree to which this affects us until recently. Again, I must give credit to my Dominican daughter as I refer to her for her popping that bubble almost 6 years ago.

The walls that many of my students confront, most in a sort of metaphorical, or non-physical, way are nonetheless real. When a student is noticed first for the color of their skin or their language than their ability, there is a wall they must manage. When a student does well and someone is surprised because of the color of their skin or their language, there is a wall they must manage. When a student comes from a particular location, a particular socio-economic class, or they are in a particular program and decision are made based on those attributes, there is a wall they must manage. The psychological, emotional barriers placed in front of students affect inclusion and their sense of safety. The issues of being first generation and unprepared or underprepared are walls, but these walls are much more difficult to scale. The falling to unprepared or underprepared is more than an intellectual thing; it is emotionally; it is about a level of maturity; and it is about what is expected of us as professors when we are already being stretched in so many other ways. As I write this I feel we are at points being asked to be their parent as well as their professor. I can already believe the response this will illicit, but we are being told both yes, do that and no, you shouldn’t. There is much more here I could write, but my initial intent was to write about a different wall.

In 1985, as a seminary student I was fortunate enough to study abroad. On that journey, I went to what was then the Demokratische Deutschland Republik (DDR) also known as East Germany and we went through Checkpoint Charley in Berlin. The Berlin Wall was formidable as a physical barrier, but it was as much so because of the emotional impact that area had on the residents of East Berlin. As we proceeded through the wall, the scrutiny of the East German military was intense. The examination our bus was subjected to was serious. A few days later, while in a flat in Kreuzburg, I had the opportunity to look into the area that was between the two walls on East and West (referred to as no-person’s land). It was a long 50 yard wide sandbox. Periodically and strategically placed were guard towers. As I stood on an outdoor balcony of the flat I looked through my camera at the guard tower. The guard in the tower was peer back at me with binoculars and he had an AK-47. I felt a bit outmatched with my 35mm camera. During that trip I met an East German seminary student who was married with children. Hans Jürgen and Maria where their names. I remember saying to him that I would write and hoped he would write back. He informed me it was not possible to write. The shock of that realization hit me like a right hook from Rocky. I was stunned and at a loss for words. He asked that I would write from time to time and that he would appreciate my words and prayers for his family. As commemorated this past weekend, it was three decades since the wall came down. Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell I received a letter from my German friend from a free Eastern city. In his letter he wrote about the profound change in his life and how the atmosphere of being walled in was now gone. Yet, there was something more profound in his letter. He wrote, “Someone will have to teach us or help us understand freedom.” I read and reread that sentence, and while I understood the words, comprehending the depth of his desire to learn about such a concept was beyond what I could wrap my head around. Freedom was not a concept for this white American citizen, it was my reality. It just was. For the first time, in such a personal way, I had an inkling of this incredible truth that was an untruth for him. For the first time I tried to comprehend that unparalleled element, that WASP privilege that wax how I had experienced life.

In the decades since, the concept of freedom has certainly been an ebb and flow thing in our world. I believe that the role of personal freedom is intrinsic in democracy, but I also believe that John Locke was correct in his Second Treatise on Civil Government when he asserted

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all [humanity], who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in [their] life, health, liberty or possessions . . . (and) when [their] own preservation comes not in competition, ought [they], as much as [they] can, to preserve the rest of [humanity], and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another (Locke)

He also noted in the social contract that when the government did not fulfill its duty to the people or become untrustworthy or a breach of obligation by the obfuscation of its moral duty or responsibility to its citizens, they forfeit their right as a government to rule. It seems to me more than I would have ever believed possible that we are at a place where we need to question what those who fail to hold someone accountable are doing? While I am not a supportive of the actions of Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky, and I am not supportive of his lying to Congress, he was impeached for both moral impropriety and lying. Certainly, in spite of the denial of our current President of the multiple accusations of sexual impropriety and what seems to be lying about payments are quite parallel to what impeached Clinton. Second, the entire Ukraine affair and what seems to be an incredible number of things (e.g. the Helsinki Statement, the accounting issues with his Foundation, the emoluments that seem to be many and often, and the list could continue) would seem to be more than enough if we use the Clinton yardstick to move him to impeachment. I have listened to about 98% of the testimony. Even in the last 24 hours he has castigated one of the aides to his Vice President because she disagreed with him.

Amazing how the Southern Wall has somewhat disappeared from view, but the walls that have been created within our government, between our political parties, and amongst the public, which not physical generally, are much more enduring and insidious. I am continually dismayed by the things I read on both sides of the political divide. I wonder where I stand at times, not because I do not know what I think, but because I believe we have lost our moral compass as a country. One of my academic mentors noted in his own Facebook post today how there seems to be a disconnect between the morals of what  conservative Christians profess and their support of this President. Let me note, I am not perfect, and I am certainly guilty of some bad choices earlier in my life, but the other day one of my students said to me that what makes me a great mentor is the things I profess I live. That was an incredible compliment. Again, I am not perfect by any means, but I do try to be consistent and what I say I do and vice versa. As I work on this, I think about some of the things that are happening and try to look at them from the academic rhetorical lens that is what I seem to put most things through. I am not as partisan as some think. I think I am more like my father than I might have thought. I believe the Democratic party stands for certain things, and socially, I probably follow in my father’s footsteps. In terms of fiscal policy, I am probably more in line with the Republican stance, but that would be the classic stance, not where I see many mainstream Republicans of today.

So where does that leave me? Probably more in the realm of disillusioned, disheartened, and concerned. We need to step back and think about the importance of truth. Truth is not a partisan issue it is a moral and fundamentally human need. We need to step back and tear down the walls of mistrust and bigotry. When we build walls because of ignorance and fear, we miss out on amazing possibilities to learn and grow. When we see anyone different as “the other,” we fail to see them as gifted, as helpful, as equals. The walls keep us from progress and from the possibilities of new learning and growth. It is time to accept people in the glory of their humanity. I realize not everyone is good, but again, if we treat the other with respect, we are most often going to receive respect in return. I think that is just a better way to live. Here is a song addressing my thoughts today. Once upon a time, America was a beacon of hope; it seems we have lost that. Styx sang about that in the 1970s.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

The Comforts of Tradition

Hello from Fog and Flame,

It is a Tuesday evening and a couple of days before All Hallows’ Eve (more commonly known as Halloween here in America). This Thursday I am going to take Anton to another house so he can experience the tradition of little ones out for Trick or Treating. It is a very different holiday than it was for me as a child. Being a baby boomer, the number of children decked out as the latest hero, ghoul, goblin, or witch were legion. We did not worry about our treats being booby-trapped; we did not worry about whether or not something unpackaged was a threat to our health; and we knew the names of the people who lived in the houses whose lights and decorations beckoned us. I do not think I tricked or treated much beyond 7th or 8th grade, but I do not remember. The other night my sand box buddy and I spoke about specific houses and reminiscing about the amazing treats they handed out: popcorn balls at the Hulsts, a place that always gave out hot cider or hot chocolate. We would go trouping around with our neighborhood friends. Perhaps life was simpler then.

As we move toward the end of year holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years, the memories of both my grandmother and her elder sister, my Great-aunt Helen come rolling over as a sort of peacefulbreeze reminding me of how they made everything welcoming and pleasant. What I remember most is how their pulling out all the stops and the food they created was incredible and is incredible to this day. I remember the pies and there were so many: having a bakery in the family was a pretty good thing when it came to the holidays. The pies were lined up like Marines in formation: cherry, apple, pumpkin, pecan, mincemeat, coconut cream . . . and then then there were the breads and the rolls. More options than you could imagine. There was the normal fare, but what was amazing about the sisters’ ability to cook is they could take the most ordinary and make it anything but. Then there was the venue itself. In many ways, and I have noted this from time to time, I have tried to fashion the acre and my house much like my grandmothers. The welcoming atmosphere of her home was beyond compare. It is still my comfort place of my entire life. The three-plus acres of hills and fields was something I enjoyed and loved every time I arrived. There was a peace and safety in her house that has really never been replicated for me. Part of it was certainly the tradition and expectation of the unlimited love she had for us; part of it was that it had been my home as a small boy and it was a time that was dear to me; perhaps most importantly, it was a place that allowed me to be myself and not be afraid and the return was always welcoming.

Much of the same could be said for my Great-Aunt Helen’s home. They had 2,500 acres of land in South Dakota, owning two farms and having a garden that was probably an acre in and of itself. That garden gets credit to this day for my love of vegetables. If you could imagine it, the garden had it. And Helen could create a savory and tasteful vegetable dish that would make the most carnivorous person contemplate becoming vegetarian. Of course, they also had hogs, cattle, and chickens, so I learned as the billboard notes, “there is room for all of God’s creatures . . .  right next to the mashed potatoes.” What I know now is there are certainly some healthier ways to manage the holidays than I did once upon a time. I so appreciate the appreciation my grandmother and her sister gave me for food and that appreciation has grown to appreciate well-prepared food in general, but also to realize how amazing their cooking was. It was certainly home cooking at its finest. Thanksgiving was the beginning of what would become the favorite time of year for me. While I love the fall and the crisp mornings and warm afternoons, I love the season of Advent. I did not know the significance of that season of the liturgical year until much later in life, but I understand (and understood) the preparation for the Christmas holiday. Throughout my life I have loved the anticipation of the Christmas holiday. Why? you might ask. I think it is because people are a little kinder; people take the time to let others know they matter. People are willing to put in extra effort to somehow care for or about the other. I am always happy when I see someone reach out to the other and let them know their presence matters; that what they offer as one human to another can change the trajectory of the other person’s day.

On the other hand, growing up and working in my grandmother’s bakery, the things that were made at the holidays were a signal that the season was upon us. From Christmas breads to different pies and pastries. From lefse to krumkake I remember being excited beyond words to be able to eat these Norwegian foods. Yes, pickled herring and even lutefisk was a mainstay for my Scandinavian relatives. This year, I have to deviate a bit as the Danes have taken over my household, but there is overlap. The most important element of the Scandinavian Christmas, however, is the food, and my relatives epitomized this focus. While there was, again, traditional fare, the underlying Viking in us all was never far away. When I was fortunate enough to travel to Germany during the Advent Season in 1985, I was astonished by the Christmas Markets and the way they allowed Advent to be celebrated as a season of preparation and the understanding that the 12 days of Christmas followed the Christmas Day celebration. I have learned more about that since I have traveled to Poland over the last 5 years. In fact, this will be the first New Years I have not been in Krakow (and Poland) for some time. What is it about tradition that attracts us? What is it about tradition that comforts us? What is it about tradition and memory that provide a foundation to our identity? Those are the things that run through my mind as I write this post.

This morning at a meeting I noted the importance of understanding someone’s history and what they value before coming in and making wholesale changes. I think certainly our history is fundamental to our lives. Throughout this semester most everything my students have done in their Foundations of College Writing class has asked them to consider who they are as well as why they are. Part of that is necessary if they are going to be successful. Part of that is necessary if they are to understand why they do what they do and make the decisions they do when confronted by any situation. What I believe is most important about tradition is its ability to inform. It helps us understand both our past as well as provide a glimpse into our futures. The difficult occurs when there is a lack of tradition or nowhere towards a point one can create some sense of bearing. I think that is often what happens for my first semester freshmen. It is also something Anton is experiencing, particularly when he gets concerned or worried about a situation. I have learned he is more dependent on structure than I would have imagined. This is not a correct or incorrect thing. It is not a strength or weakness, but it merely is. It is something that all of us use foundationally. What I have learned is the foundations we create (and they occur throughout out lives) are fundamental to how we understand both ourselves as well as those around us. What I am trying to understand how is when does tradition enhance our lives and when does it hold us back? I am sure there is no simple answer and furthermore, I believe there is no one-size-fits-all possibility. We would probably like that, but after all the time with my students, I can explain they most often to not think about some of these things. Most often tradition is followed because it is  . . . . we are used to doing it and we can predict. If we can predict, we are generally happy, but then again too easily get bored.

As I prepare for another holiday season, I am trying to do some things to set up my own traditions. Once upon a time I had begun some traditions, collecting Dickens houses and going out to get my own tree. Some of those things have started again. I love the holiday season for its promise of something larger than ourselves. It is a belief and hope that the better elements of our human nature might actually come out to make a difference in our fractured and broken nation and world. This morning I asked people to think about the members of our campus and the families of the four (yes, four) students who have passed away since the first of the year. I asked them to consider and focus on the fragility of life that has hit so close to home for the campus.

Christmas can be stressful and difficult when the previous has been tormented by pain or loss. The promise of the holiday and its lights can be lost when the pain of our own existence overshadows the promise of the season. All the more reason to hold on to our tradition and see the promise of those memories that help us see the goodness of others. Again, I am not so naive to believe there is no pain or suffering, but I am just idealistic enough to believe there is a place in our hearts that can comfort that pain. I am just desiring enough to wish for something better. I am just faithful enough to pray for goodness and believe it possible.

As we enter this season of lights, this festival of trees and a season of hope out of darkness, I wish for all a world of peace, a place and hope of happiness, and a promise of comfort in our crazy and yet incredible world.

Thanks for reading as always,

Michael