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. And as an addition, now his services will be on the birthday of my adoptive mother. 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.

Thanks for reading as always,

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

Pushing the Limits: Healthy Living is Difficult

Hello from Geisinger,

A 3:00 appointment has evolved into waiting for said appointment and then adding an MRI. So, three hours later I am still in the hospital and waiting for the MRI. That will be followed by another appointment with the orthopedic surgeon next week. I am not sure what all is on the horizon, but that has been how most of my life has gone. While I realize the amazingly miraculous life I have been able to live in spite of all of the complications, I must admit there are times I struggle to overcome whatever the latest complication tossed at me. A few weeks ago I was provided the incredible opportunity to speak to the medical students and faculty at the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine (GCSOM) as a presenter for their Grand Medical Rounds. As I prepared for my lecture/presentation, I will admit I was a bit nervous. These are the people who have observed, examined, operated on, rearranged as well as poked, prodded, and probed every imaginable part of my GI track, or are training and learning to do it to others. They are the people to whom we give enormous power in spite of the fact they are called practicing physicians. They are the people who understand us, at least in terms of the biology and physiology, but somehow might seem to forget that we are more than a specimen; that as a patient, we are a human. In my case, I am an ostomate who have endured 11 abdominal surgeries, struggled with complications because of their surgeries, which were my only option to live at the time, and now I am 64 and struggle with hydration, disconcerting biopsies, diabetes (as a Crohn’s consequence), liver damage (as a Crohn’s consequence), episodes of Gout (as a Crohn’s consequence) and kidney issues (also as a Crohn’s consequence). Are you seeing a pattern?

Each day I live I am pushing the limits because I have been told that the reason they do not know what do to with me is that most people who have experienced my complications do not live this long. Each day I live, I know that I have been given yet another gift of 24 hours and I need to manage those time blocks as well as I can. Each day I live, I wonder how it is that I have somehow managed all of this? In the month or so, the demands of a 4 Prep/5 Section semester has taken its toll on me also. In spite of eating quite healthy, I have somehow managed to put about 10 pounds back on. This is beyond frustrating for me. I think there are some rather radical options (and yet healthy) things on the horizon. The other thing is simply getting back to my walking. I did see something on MSN this morning about how a younger person lost 50 pounds in about 8 months, and it was a sensible process. For me this is not about merely losing weight, but it is about helping my liver, my joints, and other things that have been affected by the Crohn’s, the surgeries, and the regiment of steroids and such. When I was at the gastroenterologist recently (during the fall), his response to my history with IBDs and all of the complication was telling. He noted that my body is like an upside-down jigsaw puzzle, and while they can see the pieces, they are not sure how they all fit together. This analogy did not surprise me. The more interesting part is when he noted that they reason they do not know exactly what to do with me was because most people with all of my GI maladies do not live as long as I have. I guess that is both a blessing and a sort of worrisome statement all in one. As I have noted above, there are times I struggle with what a premature birth and the lack of knowledge of IBDs when I was a child have left me, but again there is something about all of those struggles as a child that prepared me for what would come.

As I have lived longer than any of my siblings (and 5 of 9 have left this world at a younger age), I am well aware that there are no promises of a tomorrow. What all of that as done is help me realize the giftedness that I have in each day. As I sit in Starbucks in the library, I cannot help but watch the variety of students, staff, and faculty that walk past the corner table where I sit up an office on a regular basis two mornings a week. I wonder what they will be like at my age. What will the world be like? What sort of things will they try to manage or what will college be like? I am quite sure it will not be like anything we see today. What I worry about more is the quality of life many will live. Much like a shrinking middle class, there are not a lot of what I call average people. It seems like they pay particular attention to their health or they are totally oblivious. The number of 20-somethings I see that are significantly seeming out of shape or overweight is stunning. As I watch the mount of sugar they put into things, I hear diabetes screaming from every cup of coffee or latte that is sold. One of the first blogs I wrote on a previous blogging site was titled “Freezing, Fashionable, or Flummoxed.” It was after standing outside this same Starbucks 10 years ago. A young lady had mittens on, a hooded, fur-lined, parka, short-shorts, and UGGs. I remember being stunned by all of it. Again, there are times I find myself feeling old . . . what I find to be appropriate dress in classrooms or on campus, and what I see many students wearing continues to push my understanding of professionalism or appropriateness. I have, in fact, add some requirements regarding attire to my syllabi.

The pushing of limits seems to be the norm in our daily culture than the exception. This occurs in fashion, in our speech and communication, and in what we seem to allow either ethically or otherwise. During the past week plus, I have listened to the Impeachment Inquiry Hearings. I feel a bit badly for anyone being called before the committee at this point. Many of them have reiterated they are not there to predict or push for an outcome, but rather to answer the questions and the way they are pushed and pulled by both parties are incredible and disappointing. The limitations of our ability to understand how our government works is an important consideration. We have little idea of how the upper echelons of the various agencies and the classified nature of much of what happens goes way beyond the common citizen’s purview. I think all of this is related to my initial thought or purpose of this post in that I believe what we have become, and what is currently happening in Washington, D.C., pushes limits in a variety of ways that cause our country’s fabric to continue to be more frayed and tattered. I remember as a child believing that the President or serving in the United States Congress was something to aspire to becoming or doing. The other day in my three freshmen classes I asked how many of them believed such a profession was admirable or something they would hope to do and not a single student raised their  hand. In my opinion, I do believe that many of my students are wondering about all of events in the Capitol, but they are not sure what to do with it. As I listen to all of it, even as a sexagenarian, and yes, as a person who has a political preference, I am not sure how it all will transpire. What are the limits of our willingness to accept what I believe is a questionable phone call and the withholding of aid? I think the issue of former Mayor Giuliani and his involvement in an international political process is problematic. I think what will happen is both rather predictable and important. As I listen to the inquiry, it is stunning to me how each party can couch their questions that ignore the former mayor on one hand.

If indeed, the President held up Congressionally approved monies to a foreign country for investigating a company, the 2016 elections, and by extension Vice President Biden (as noted by Ambassador Volker today as an adjusted understanding), I do believe the President will be impeached by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. Furthermore, I do not believe the Republican-controlled Senate would convict President Trump, particularly when the benchmark for conviction is 2/3 majority. I do believe as legal commentary noted today, while there is extreme partisanship, there is still democracy. Our Constitution allows for inquiry, which is fact finding, the impeachment hearing, which I believe is a legal proceeding, and then the move to the United States Senate for a trial, which is under the administration of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It is amazing what I learned way back in my 8th grade U.S. Government class. I must give credit to Mr. Flom, that amazing RHS and WHS history teacher who I believe I had for at least one class every year (and often both semesters).

As I move toward the end of another day, to be honest, I am tired. I find that the hours I used to be able to manage and the hours I can manage now are very different. Certainly, the limits have lessened. My endurance has lessened. At the beginning of this blog, I was being examined for possible hip surgery. Again, a consequence of my Crohn’s. This week I have attended four doctor’s appointments from podiatrists to neurologists. Again, my understanding of my limits, while frustrating is becoming more clear, at least in its cumulative effects. There is so much more even today to ponder. The neurologist came up with a couple of possible pathways forward, and decisions are made to try a certain regiment for the next couple of months. If that is not sufficient, there is a back-up plan. I guess the important thing for me is there have always been options. I do not always like some of them, but at least I have them. Throughout this blog I have considered the limits of the various elements of our lives. What is the best way to approach the limit or boundary? Those who know me would probably agree that I push them. I need to understand them; I need to engage with them. That is how I determine what to do with them. Limits and boundaries offer security, but they also allow an opportunity for growth. If we are unwilling to engage and see how they work, what sort of things might we have missed out upon? In my case, I think it would have been an incredible loss. My life would have missed so many experiences: from college to travel, from jobs to hobbies. I grew up hearing how I was not so many things. I grew up smaller, and at times bullied. I did not realize until lately how that would have (and has had) consequences. That will be a topic of a blog probably soon, for a variety of reasons. If I had not pushed the limits of this unique body, I am not sure I would have experienced much of what I have. With that in mind, it is time to get back to work and imagine the limits of some of my students’ writing. Here is my musical interlude that is about this season of thankfulness.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Trying to Make Sense of Our Illogical World

Hello after a quick trip to Cape Charles and “Life on the Half Shell” and now weeks beyond,

It is the end of the Bloomburg Fair week and Anton has had the week off of school. He has become a fair aficionado, but I guess that is something he can always take back to Denmark. It is quite amazing to me that we have finished 5 weeks of classes already and in a day or so, Anton has been here a month. The reality and accuracy of my father’s words are once again ringing in my ears. If you think time is going faster, you have no idea of what it will be when you are my age . . . and he was about the age I currently am. He is accurate that it surely seems to go by more quickly, and what I thought being he was so old when he offered those pearls of wisdom, as he was so apt to do, does not seem so old. Anton has learned an important lesson about the conservative nature of rural Pennsylvania this past week (albeit a bit surprising in terms of the degree of cluelessness of the pettifoggers he was subjected to). While walking around the fair, some of his CC classmates decided to inquire if he were Democrat or Republican. He wisely, and accurately responded, “I am Danish.” Unfazed by such an answer, they inquired a second time, “Yes, but are you Democrat or Republican?” He again tried to help them understand,  “I am Danish, and we do not have the same political system as you have here in the states.” This mystified our budding conservative politicians, and so they once again asked, “But are you a Republican?” He noted, as he recounted the episode, that he realized as a visitor to the states he did not want to argue or create a problem so he simply tried to explain Danish politics. When he noted that Denmark is a country of Democratic Socialism, our young Central Pennsylvania Republicans decided attacking him as a socialist was the thing to do. He recounted that for the next hour they decided it was their job to convert our Danish visitor to the incredibly wonderful ideals of our current Republican party. Again, Anton noted, he did not want to create difficulties, so he listened and listened, and listened . . . and got a painful lesson in the current state of American politics. To be fair to his classmates, I am not surprised they did not understand him, I am not sure that many adults would. More importantly, I learned how astute and thoughtful, how polite and intelligent my Danish, surrogate-son-for-a-year is. Anton notes regularly that he realizes that Denmark is a small country and most people do not really understand where he is from. Part of the reason I chose Denmark as a possibility was because I have been to Denmark, because I attended Dana College, and because I have a Scandinavian heritage (Norwegian, but still Scandinavian).

Since I last blogged, which was a blog that took more than a month to complete, about half that time has passed, but it seems that my life has been consumed by school and a 16 year old. Having Anton there to keep me in line has been a busy and rewarding time. He forces me to consider something besides work, and that is not a bad thing. Another difference is that I have been required, in a way mandated, to be more efficient and effective. I know this next week will push me to see how well I have started to integrate those differences as I have a ton of grading and commenting to do, an office to move again (because of a moisture and mold issue) and simply managing all the other things that are life. My alarm now goes off at 5:45 a.m. and breakfast is on the table at 6:15 a.m. One of the unexpected side effects is that I am also eating a healthy breakfast in the morning and it seems to keep my day on track and my mornings more positive. Managing things around the house, I find myself more focused and much more organized. Some things need to happen yet this weekend, but all in all, there is a sort of two thumbs-up atmosphere around the acre. Undoubtedly, I am relearning the need to prioritize and as I write this I am finding I can do this. During the first weeks that Anton has graced my home and me with his presence, I have learned so much. Anton demonstrates an incredible intelligence and insight, but he does it with a sense of inquisitiveness and grace. His smile is affable and his willingness to help is always present. One of the things I find most enjoyable is Anton’s ability to wonder about things. He understands the world and business in ways that belie his age (of almost 17). Then there is other part of being that age and male, or so it seems in my conversations with others. I can ask things and he is so cooperative, but then he seems to completely forget there was any conversation pertaining to said issue. As I have spoken with colleagues and even the parents of his friends, I am finding he is completely normal.

I am trying to remember if I was like that. If so . . . to my parents, I am so sorry. No wonder you might have been exasperated at times. I believe it probably more true of my time than I would like to admit. I know if my grandmother wanted it I was pretty attentive, but otherwise, I was a bit remiss in my work ethic. The other night we had a conversation and I heard again the interrogative, why are you so logical about things? I do not know that I was always that way, but the more I think of it, perhaps it has always been the case. I remember as a small child trying to make sense of what it meant to be adopted and wondering why I was told some of the things I was. I remember asking more than simply why about something. I have this insatiable need to understand. I am not sure how that developed or from where it came, but it has continued even until today. I am always asking why something is not possible. I know for some of my supervisors or for some in the administration, I create some consternation from time to time. Yet, that is not my intention; rather I am trying to see how we can get things accomplished more effectively or efficiently. I am trying to understand why so many are content to not really understand the why or the possibilities. During the fall, my students have made Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities real-life for me. They are the best and the worst of times, or so it seems. I think what amazes me most is how they react to the need to put in more effort, to think more critically, or merely even to do their work and follow directions. Yesterday it was something as simple as please cut up your paper in paragraphs and put it into an envelop and bring it to class. There was a method to putting it in an envelop and not having their peers see the paper in advance, but I ended up getting 9 additional envelops for one of my sections. From time to time this semester, be it at school or in the daily news, I find myself struggling to make sense of the things that seem to happen on a regular basis. Have we become so insensitive, so narcissistic, so selfish that we cannot begin to imagine the needs or perspective of the other?

Over the last couple weeks I have been a bit obsessed with either grading or reading (and making breakfast and dinner for a 16 year old). I have four books all looking at the rhetoric of racism  . . .  or the history and the rhetoric we use to further the racial tendencies that most of us refuse to acknowledge. When I raised the possibility of white privilege the other day, the response or look from some made it hard to ignore that some believe we are in a time of what some might call reverse discrimination. What I find interesting is they are not mutually exclusive, at least in my mind. I believe there is truth to the issues of age, gender, or religious discrimination. I believe there is also white privilege at the same time. I can both benefit and be harmed by the reality of what happens in our country. What I have found as I have aged is I am much more attuned to the hardships that others face through no fault of their own. When I see a black or brown student being viewed as suspect merely because of their color in a store it hurts me. When I see a person struggle because they are an American citizen, but they are bilingual because of their background and, in spite of their hard work still struggle with their language skills, I am embarrassed that we do so little to support them in their working to achieve their own American dream. I remember my great-aunt saying her prayers in Norwegian when I was small. I remember listening to other languages from my predecessor generational relatives because they were bilingual. Perhaps I did not know they struggled, but it seemed we were much more gracious then. I know there was discrimination, but I was taught to be tolerant. And contrary to your thoughts that I might have been the product of an academic/liberal upbringing, I was a blue collar kid from NW Iowa. I grew up in one of the poorer sections of town, at least economically more depressed than some because I did not live north of 18th Street; I did not live in Morningside, the Northside, or Indian Hills as it was called. I did not live in the Country Club area, but what I know is I had stability and amazing friends. I grew up with a family where my father worked 7/12s and often 8 hours away and I saw him perhaps 36 hours very six weeks or so for three or four years. Nevertheless, I grew up working part-time jobs when I turned 16 and I was not given everything I wanted.

Perhaps what I realize again is my father was also a logical person. You did what was necessary to make it work and you treated others as you wanted to be treated. My father believed in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. He told me more than once there are no free lunches in the world and he worked hard. I think I have acquired those traits from him. As I listen to the people who occupy the inner sanctum of Washington, those inside the beltway, I find myself more and more appalled by their behavior and the rancor and vitriol that seems to be the rule rather than the exception. I believe they perhaps epitomize the selfishness and narcissism I referred to earlier. There is nothing logical about the way they behave. What is logical would be our decision to throw them out with the implementation of term-limits. This is not the first time I have argued this, and it will probably not be the last. Well, I could go on, but I have worked on this post for far too long without its completion, so I will leave you with this as we are headed into Halloween, which is also the anniversary of the reformation and Luther’s posting of the 95 thesis on the castle door at Wittenburg. What if we could come together like this video? Is it logical, perhaps not, but it should be.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin

 

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