Observing Responses to Greatness and Humility

Good Saturday evening,

I am back in my office needing to work on a multitude of things, but my mind cannot get the images of so many who attended the funeral of the Honorable Late Senator John S. McCain III and the resounding tribute about a human being who epitomized the serving of a cause greater than one’s self. During the past week, that refrain, that mantra was spoken again and again. What was impressive in what was noted about this hero, patriot, and generational statesperson was also the litany of words that noted his imperfections, his humanity, his integrity, and his unceasing character and energy to champion the country he loved so deeply. It is for those reasons (and others much deeper) that I take some time to write about him before I turn to the tasks that demand my time.

In February of 2000 I was married with three step-daughters, working for Gateway Computers, living in Oakland County, Michigan, as well as trying to finish my Ph.D. I had worked late and stopped at a McDonalds to grab something unhealthy to eat. Little did I know I would become the basis for an article in the conservative publication, The Christian Science Monitor, but as I sat alone, I was approached by a reporter who was covering the Michigan State Primary before the 2000 fall Presidential election. I was asked who I might vote for in the primaries as I remember, and though a registered Democrat, Michigan had open primaries. I was seriously considering voting for Senator McCain, who was still in a pretty close contest with the eventual nominee, George W. Bush and that is what I noted to my investigative reporter (here is the article URL for you: https://www.csmonitor.com/2000/0217/p1s2.html). Referred to as a “bespectacled computer salesman,” the writer noted that I supported McCain for his maverick qualities, but also his ability to reform. In addition, I noted that I respected what he had endured and that I believed he would make people “accountable” (McLaughlin). There was more personal to this accountability issue than my reporter/questioner realized. Yes, John McCain intrigued me and I will not tell you what I ultimately did in that primary, but I can tell you that our country needs many more Senator McCains. I can respect, beyond any words I might add, the many tributes for this incredible, fiery, compassionate, and competitive (and another person I believe could be called a Lion of the Senate) gentleman from Arizona, who served his country all of his adult life. He was 17 years old when he entered the Naval Academy. Now certainly having two Admirals in the family probably made his entrance into the academy, which is highly competitive, a somewhat foregone conclusion, but nevertheless, he believed he was destined to serve.

As I listened to the service this morning, held in the National Cathedral, our nation’s church, the first bars of the Navy Hymn brought tears to my eyes as that hymn seems to do whenever I hear it. Listening to the music of “Danny Boy” and watching his widow put her head on her son’s shoulders as she broke down had tears streaming down my face. I watched the entire service out of respect and awe for a likes of a person I (nor our nation) will probably never again be fortunate enough to have in our United States Congress in my lifetime. That is not something I am happy to say. Far from it. I believe that former Senator Liebermann said it best today when he said believed that the week’s events might have pushed us to rise above the partisan politics and rancor that seems to epitomize our nation’s Capitol, the men and women who serve in the Congress, and perhaps even us as common citizens. This is my paraphrase of the former Senator’s words, but I believe they embody the intent of what he said. One of the things noted by Cokie Roberts in her commentary this morning is how fewer ex-military are presently serving in the United States Congress, but it was noted that in the current election, the number of ex-military on the ballot is as high as it has been in more than a generation. What I realized listening to that is the veterans of World War II are mostly fallen, the veterans of Korea are still too often forgotten, but now in their upper 70s or 80s, and those of the Vietnam era, like myself are pondering retirement. There is something important to note about the veterans since then. They were not drafted or compelled to serve, they were and are volunteers. They chose and choose to serve today, epitomizing the cause of which Senator McCain speaks so eloquently, the cause of country and patriotism. What does it honestly mean to put the other first?

I believe there are to profoundly complex parts to this statement. First, who is the other? The other is any other human being. The other is that person we might find discomforting; we might find alarming; we might find so different that we do not know what to do. The other might be someone who looks differently, speaks differently, worships differently, believes differently, loves differently. In fact, most often, I would argue that is the case. As of late (and it is longer than since November 2016, and it more profound than Republican or Democrat) we have lost the ability to listen and see difference as opportunity for growth. As of late we have lost the ability to listen and respond to difference with civility and decorum. As of late, we have been reduced to the foolishness of allowing the 140 or 280 character trash talking to characterize our politics and our common discourse. It needs to stop, but only our of respect for the generations of people who have served and worked to make America something to aspire to, but before we truly lose what waning ability we have to make a difference in the world.

This is not to say that other countries have no responsibility for our global situation. They do, and I will tell you from my travels that there are amazing and hard-working people, people who want something better for their country and their children just as we do. I can say with no hint of uncertainty that there are Irish, Polish, Hungarian, Austrian, British, Ukrainian, Russian, Nepali, Egyptian, Sudanese, Spanish, German, Finnish, Czech, Slovakian, Norwegian, Danes, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Columbians, Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese, who care deeply about the world and our mutual problems. We have no corner on morality or civility, but we have a responsibility to care about the other because of our rich heritage that comes from many of these actual places. I also believe they have a responsibility to care about us. In this statement, I am not saying I support everything either our government or the other governments do in the world in which we live. We live on a complex and globalized planet that is made of selfish and self-centered humans and governments. To think otherwise is to be naïve at best and delusional as something a bit worse. I can understand the nationalism that seems to plague the world in which we live (and I mean world), but selfishness never works. In the poignant and defiant words of his daughter today, perhaps the most important thing she noted was her father was defined by love. That emotion, that connection to other humans is what sets us apart from the rest of creation. As the writer of John’s Gospel says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (NIV). From the Hanoi Hilton to the countless trips and fights Senator McCain fought in the halls of our Capitol, he somehow never forgot that he was serving the other in humility and with a sense of calling and duty. What an amazing example he set for us.

That being said, I could not help but cringe as his self scripted week-long remembrances have unfolded. The rancor that characterized the relationship he had with our sitting President was seldom far below the surface, and today, there was no room for doubt as it bubbled out in words and tears. While I cannot be deemed to be an ardent supporter of President Trump, I do respect the office and the need for civility. It is understandable, but sad that it seems we need to lose such a statesman to refocus the country on the need for bipartisanship or something as fundamental as exhibiting a sense of couth for all we meet. Politics should be about policy and not personality. Debate and argument is about reaching consensus rather than pouting and shouting when we disagree. The time for name calling and using language as a razor to go for the jugular when you disagree needs to end. Republicans and Democrats and American citizens (and those hoping to become one) need to return to the axiom of the words in John’s Gospel. Greater love is something we all need to strive for. Forgiveness is something we need to offer freely and profoundly to the other. It is one of the greatest powers we have. When I read about the fights that Senator McCain could have in the arena we call Washington, but then call that same person his friend, we have a glimpse of what forgiveness and love truly does. As I turn my focus back on the work at hand, I am reminded of the words of the poet and theologian, John Donne.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod
be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Eternal Rest to you, Honorable Senator McCain. Thank you most revered good and honorable servant. We are a more blessed nation and world because you were with us.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

The World is a Provocative Place

Hello from Richmond,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you as always for reading.

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

Nie koniec; Tylko początek

Dzień dobry z UJ i Krakowie.

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading.


So Now You’re on Vacation

Hello from Kraków, Poland,

I am sure you are now convinced by my salutation that I must surely be on a vacation to the EU, eating more than my share of pierogis and drinking Polish vodka. Well, one of the three is correct. I am doing my level best to consume as many kinds of pierogis as possible, but when I am not doing that, I am taking an intensive Polish language class by the immersion method: four hours a day in class and five days a week including a four hour class this past Saturday. Therefore, with the exception of a couple of glasses of wine in the first two weeks, pije nie wódkę (and my instructor would be proud that I remembered to use the accusative case that changes for feminine nouns).

Why? you might ask would I choose to take an immersion class in Polish when I have no Polish heritage? Why would I choose to spend 4 weeks cramming in a language that is probably harder to pronounce than any language I have taken (and I have taken five not counting this one). I am not a language and cultures professor; I am an English professor, who directs a Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric program. While there is certainly a personal interest in all of this, it is a step in a long-term research project that I am intent on doing.

One of my research areas, which began in graduate school and continued when I taught in Wisconsin, is to understand how technology affects the writing process. I am indebted to Dr. Cindy Selfe and later to Dr. Daniel Riordan for sparking this interest for me. The past four years I have traveled with a number of students in a Study Abroad program to Jagiellonian University, where I have been fortunate to meet a number of scholars here. The Director of the School of Polish Language and Culture has graciously invited me to teach here for a semester, or possibly even a year. While I would teach my classes in English, being competent enough to speak with my students in Polish as well as make my way around the city in daily situations using the native language would certainly be appropriate.

What would I research and what might I teach? First, my research question is related to technology and the differences one finds between the United States and most other countries, but in this case, specifically Poland. Second, experience in my travels here have demonstrated there are differences in how technology is used in the classroom. It has raised questions: are the differences determined infra-structurally? If not, are there pedagogical choices or reasons, and again if so what are the consequences? Another question concerns how we prepare students who might be traveling either direction? These are questions that will require time and commitment in my Bloomsburg classrooms as well as preparation for my eventual residency in Kraków. The classes being proposed are things I also teach in Bloomsburg: Writing for the Internet and Writing for Multiple Media.

As noted, my classes will be taught in English. Yet I am not in front of students all day and I need to make my way through a daily life while living here. In addition, it would certainly behoove me to be able to converse with my students in their own language. Those are two reasons for beginning my Polish studies, studies that will need to be incorporated into my life on a regular basis for the next two years. This means I will hope to improve those skills even after returning in August and continue to increase my fluency before a second and perhaps third immersion class, all before I would begin. While I am here I see small evidence of progress daily, and yet I can say today was a kind of “hit-the-wall” day. By the end of today’s four hour class, I felt like my head was going to explode. Amazing what an afternoon nap did. I am going to spend a couple hours on Rosetta Stone this evening to help my struggling pronunciation. Tomorrow will me a day-long study session and Sunday will be a small break to visit a friend, who lives here outside Kraków. Then in the afternoon I will be back at it. I want to be completely prepared for Monday’s exam. Yes, I have to do exactly what I tell my students. I need to work at it regularly, intentionally, and seriously. So am I on vacation? I guess it depends on your definition of vacation. I am busy studying; I am thoroughly engaged in learning this new language. Yes, I am in an incredibly historical and beautiful city on the Wistula River. Walking two miles each way to and from class each day is an experience in and of itself. Today I heard five languages spoken in less than 50 meters. So I am vacationing. More importantly, I am involved in preparing for my classes, engaging in my scholarship, and expanding the reach of what we do as professors teaching at a PASSHE university. I am proud of what we do. I am proud to represent my department, my college, my university and our system.


Dr. Michael Martin

Pages and Chapters . . . How do we Measure?

Hello from the corner chair,

I have a lovely chair in the corner of my room. I think I should probably spend more time here than I do. It is a comfortable place and it has wonderful lighting, especially in the morning when the sun comes streaming into the bedroom windows. It is a chair I can sit and rest and ponder in. My room, while the largest of the three upstairs rooms is not in anywhere really huge, but it is a decent size to not feel confined or cluttered. The walls are a sort of medium dark sage color and the color makes the space quite welcoming. The chair is a padded somewhat high back chair with just enough space to sort of lean back. There are times I believe a small footstool might make things more comfortable, but I am not sure if I want to add anymore pieces to the room. Perhaps you ask why I might focus such energy on a simple corner chair in my room, but it is about realizing what makes us feel comfortable or safe.

One of the things I have spent a lot of time trying to do with my spaces is make them comfortable, inviting, or safe. I think there are many reasons for that, but most of all it was because I struggled for a sense of safety as I grew up. I have spoken (or more accurately written) about that in various posts, but even in my office at school students, colleagues, and others have commented that walking into my office is like walking into someone’s living room. As I look at some of the various artifacts, coffee cups from various countries, books from various times in my life, art pieces from places I have lived or collected, each thing tells a story. From travels to places lived, every item has meaning and significance. Each time I look at a particular item adorning my office space or my home I am taken back to that page. Sometimes the memory is about a brief moment or merely a day. Other times it is about a year or more, a significant time of growth and change in who I was and would become.

I think perhaps the most interesting think I now realize is I am not sure I have ever had a sense of who I would become. It has more often been about who I am in the moment, and how might I become something more, something better, someone more helpful, more able to make a difference. I am trying to imagine what the past four or five years have accomplished. I know I have seemed to finally catch up with what I imagine life is for someone my age and where I have imagined (for whatever that is worth) should be. The where here is not about location as much as it is about a sort of proverbial having my ducks-in-a-row. One may ask, and rightly so I might add, why it took me so long. I tease on one level that I am a slow learner. I have also noted, and my good friends, Lee and Judy, can attest to this, that I am not one to go about things in the generally regular manner. Those two things have made my life interesting to say the least. In addition, there are two other things that created a somewhat different trajectory for my getting from point A to B. I think having no children of my own certainly keep me from needing to assume that mindset or responsibility that someone else’s life took priority over mine. There are both the evident and not so evident consequences of that for me. The second is managing the health concerns that seem now to have been part of my entire life. I certainly had symptoms as a child, but did not know that my seemingly ever present canker sores in elementary school or before were the harbinger of something much more serious. Along with being profoundly premature, underweight, I imagine bordering on being a probable victim of malnutrition my first two years of life all played a significant part in my underdeveloped immune system and being a poster child for developing an IBD, or in my case Crohn’s.

While I have attempted in the past to measure my life and experience by decade, I think there is a different way, a sort of episodic division. Yet, that requires a sort of recollection that tries to make sense of a life that often seems nonsensical. Yet, here is my attempt. The nonsensical part of my life begins at birth. How and why am I still here? Weighing a mere 17 ounces at birth is extraordinary even now in a world of NICs and of advanced medicine. When I was born there were incubators. There was little understanding of things like prenatal vitamins, fetal alcohol syndrome, or the consequence of smoking during pregnancy. In fact, I was born when thalidomide was used for morning sickness, so I am fortunate to have avoided that possibility. A mother who was 15 at conception had little understanding of what she was in for, and probably little understanding of the consequence of multiple pregnancies before she was 19. This was following by cross-country treks and an eventual removal from the birth home for my sister and me before I was 2. The next three years included the death of my paternal grandfather, who served as my surrogate father, shortly before I was three and the alcoholism of my grandmother who now had two small children, a business, and facing all of it as a widow in her mid 40s. That would lead to another home before I was 5, albeit to a distant relative, and that new home would have even more consequence for the person I would become.

I believe my life with the Martin household has had more profound denouement and import than I am capable of understanding even today. While that might sound a bit ominous, and there are certainly elements of that ominicity, not all the results of growing up in the two houses in Riverside were negative. In fact, let me begin with the positive. I know that Harry and Bernice, the Martins wanted my sister and I to feel safe. They wanted us to have an expectation, some guarantee, of a place that would be there daily, monthly, yearly. This was important because up to that point we did not have that experience, and whether we could articulate such a need as a four and three year old, I am sure there was more apparent in our actions and responses than we realized. As noted in other blogs, receiving private music lessons, singing in various choirs and other options like attending summer and winter children’s theatre workshops offered me both socialization, but an appreciation for the arts that continues to this day. While some of my struggles with my upbringing have been written about at length, I would like to focus on the positive things that have come out of my being adopted. While I also do want to disparage my younger half siblings, I know my adoption offered me opportunities they did not have, from everyday schooling to going beyond. Certainly my parents did not understand what it meant to prepare me for going to college, at least they understood and encouraged its relevance for a contributing to a better or more opportunity-filled life. I am quite sure I have not always pictured my growing years in this way.

The next episode is probably a relatively short one in the picture of a three score plus soon to be three years, but it was a time of gut-wrenching reality checks. It was the period that includes my time in the service and my floundering around afterwards until I ended up on a Lutheran Youth Encounter team and then enrolled as a student at Dana College. During that time I was a poster boy for impressive success and astounding failure. There was little in between. I listened to very few and ignored the wise counsel of most. I drank too much; I smoked an unbelievable amount of pot; and I ignored people who had been my foundation for all my life, most importantly my grandmother. I went to and dropped out (got kicked out) of college. I should have or could have ended up dead more than once, and most importantly, I was forced to face the loss of people I loved, and for which I was totally unprepared. I did well in the military, but came to understand that military life was too regimented, not because of the routine, but because I saw too many Staff NCOs who could not seem to think for themselves. I wanted to use my brain more than what I deemed possible as an enlisted Marine. Do not get me wrong; I do not regret being in the service and it still serves me well to this day. Yet, I needed more. Yet out of the service, I had no structure and seemed to discard most of the discipline I had learned. I must give credit to a few people for seeing me through that time. First, it was my sister-in-law, Carolyn, who had her own struggles of trying to parent three small children as a 25 year old widow. To this day I am grateful to her. Second is a family, and each of them played a significant role in my survival, though they did not realize it at the time. The Peters family had come to Riverside from Germany, though there were NW Iowa roots. Fred was called to be the pastor of my home congregation. He ended up being called upon in more ways than one to be my surrogate father, and he did that task marvelously. Ruth, his wife, was a force to be reckoned within her own right, and she probably did me more good than I ever realized. She had more of my respect than perhaps anyone I ever met. David become an important friend and even though I was older, his ability and intelligence inspired me. His friendship sustained me then and his presence remains in my life until this day. Barb is the one I was the closest to in terms of personality and demeanor. I am not sure I always realized that. She was smart, funny, talented, and simply gorgeous. She was the first person I ever loved, but I had no idea how to be a boyfriend. Much happened, though not as much as some might have believed, but I know that to this very day she will always be that first-love person. I have been richly blessed that we are Facebook friends after all of these years. The third person is actually a second cousin, Diane, who had a profound effect on my making a choice to clean up my life. They were in Sioux City and a Sunday meal which turned into an amazing friendship and spending time with all of the Wiggs that would change my life in many ways. If it were not for Carolyn and the Peters family and Diane, only God knows what might have happened.

A year of travel and the meeting of four others and the staying with amazing host families still influences me today (the mention of Lee and Judy above).

I think the next episode would have to be my formal post-secondary education that has gone beyond what I ever expected, but it has both changed and become my life. I think I will save that. As I write this I am in Kraków, Poland taking an intensive four-week Polish course and I need to study for the remainder of the day. So I will sign off and pick up again soon. There is so much it seems as I reflect on even the significant things.

As always, thank you for reading.


Sent from my iPad

Drive-ins, a 70 Gran Torino and My Schwinn String Ray Apple Crate

Hello on a Father’s Day morning,

Yesterday I was out on the Harley riding to a college graduation party of one of my traveling students. She was on the Poland trip 2 1/2 years ago. I took the scenic route, or what the GPS on the Harley calls the twisty route.

Somehow the last 24 hours have been a walk down memory lane of sorts. As I followed a spotless white 70 Gran Torino, with chrome dual-exhaust, glass packs, and raised-white-letter tires, my on ride yesterday I also passed a functioning drive-in. What a throwback in time. My thoughts moved both to Clint Eastwood’s classic movie from a decade ago and memories of my 71 Chevelle that my father once lamented that we was not sure what was worse, the mufflers or the music. My memories of the drive in included those Friday or Saturday nights as a small child where we went to the screenings with our jammies on so when we fell asleep before leaving, my parents could tuck us in with much less hassle. I remember my going to the drive in when I could drive myself and having a much different experience than when I was a child. Somehow, I did not want to be in the front row or by the snack bar, contrary to the sketch by Cheech and Chong (how many of your remember that piece?).

It is often noted that life was simpler then? Was it? What constitutes a simpler life? That is a phrase I hear often: things were simpler then. I am not so sure there is truth in a comprehensive sort of way, but I do think we might have imagined a simpler possibility because we were more focused on our own personal, parochial, localized vision of our world. Going to the drive-in was great entertainment and it did not cost you that much. You could bring your own snacks and pay no more than the price of an entrance fee, which was determined by car and not the number of people, at least, I think that is how it was. The price of a gallon of gas in 1970 was .36 cents a gallon (before you flip, if you adjust for inflation, it is about 2.19 per gallon, so it was not that much cheaper and mileage of less than l0/gallon might get you to rethink that. I am always a bit shocked by the incessant need of many people to return to their youth, or even their younger days, and I do believe those are separate wishes. I would not want to be 13 or 14 for any amount of money offered. Those who knew me then know I was one of the smallest, if not thee smallest, for my age. That certainly had some drawbacks. What I would say is I was probably bullied, but I did not really feel that way at the time. I certainly received my share of teasing and being sort of physically tossed around because of my size. People did not really hurt me, though I ended up in more than one embarrassing situation from time to time. The second option noted would merely allow me to experience some of the nostalgic things, but not be that difficult age. That is why I have included the list that is the title of this post.

Cars were a significant part of most 16 year old’s world, certainly that was the case in Northwest Iowa in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It amazes me how different the attitude toward getting a license or owning a car is today. I was stunned when a few years ago three of my graduating seniors (from college, mind you) did not have their drivers licenses. They spoke to me about job internships and how to manage transportation. I encouraged them to get a license as soon as possible. My first car was a 1964 Impala. While it was not a super sport, it did have a 327 c.i. engine and would move right along. Well enough that I receiving two speeding tickets in less than two hours. My mother was not pleased. My second car, out of the service, was a 1971 Chevelle SS with a 454 c.i. engine that could pass anything but a gas station. My pastor’s wife once asked, why I found it necessary to noise pollute the neighborhood? I do not think she liked the Chevelle that much, and she was even less pleased that I took a serious interest in her 16 year old daughter. I think it is most assuredly true that she might hold at least some small remnant of a grudge even today 40+ years later. I think what made things seemingly less convoluted is we had two ways to communicate: phone or interpersonal communication of the face-2-face variety. I think it made things much less likely to be overlapping or misinterpreted. The last on my list above was the Schwinn Stingray Apple Crate. That bike was my pride and joy. I rode it everywhere, around most of the town of 100,000. It had a back sissy bar that was higher than my head. With reflectors and other trappings, I felt pretty rachett (yes, I actually used that term). The point of most of this is simple, pun intended. To paraphrase a movie that considered this same time for me, though I would have been an elementary student, “Simple is as simple does.” It is us who choose to make our lives complicated. We take on more than we should. We create dilemmas because we find it impossible to say “no.” We clutter our existence with stuff, literally and figuratively. In each case, rather than simplifying, we confound even our best attempts at relaxation or leisure.

So are things really more difficult? We have more options to communicate and stay in touch with people who matter, but we seem more isolated and lonely than ever before. We have access to more knowledge than any generation in history, but we seem to have no idea what we know or need to know. We have, at least in the States, managed to so fragment our society that difference is believed to be wrong, and the different is observed with suspicion and disdain. Disagreement create enemies rather than debate and an increase in understanding. It is no wonder things seem more difficult. We cannot or will not attempt the most rudimentary of human attributes: to listen, to think, and to care.

For those reasons, maybe going back to when I was a senior in high school, 45 years ago might need renewed consideration. Here is a video to ask something about other things we might ponder. It seems this is becoming a very apropos song in these times.


Thanks for reading as always,

Dr. Martin

The Truth and Tragedy about Racism

Hello from back in PA,

As I spent the evening trying to catch up on the unending stream of craziness that seems to dominate the world, but what we call news, the irony of the day was as Starbucks closed its doors for a corporate training on what they euphemistically called implicit bias training while one of the top rated shows this season, the reboot of Rosanne was summarily canceled for a rather explicit bias and seemingly-untrainable tweet about Valerie Jarrett by Rosanne Barr herself. Earlier this evening I read a really thought provoking and painfully truth piece by Joy-Ann Reid, a political analyst, who today wrote, “Being black means constantly rendering yourself unthreatening to white people. [and she also states,] “To be white in America is to assume ownership of public spaces. To be black is to live under constant threat of removal” (NBC Think 29May18). Both of these statements will offend some; they will resonate with others; but regardless of how you respond, it is probably most important to search in your heart for the truth contained in them. As a 60-something while Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, there have been times where I wanted to argue the infamous reverse-discrimination card, but about four years ago, I wrote a blog about being confronted by a student and significant person about my privileged status. I remember feeling offended because I had worked hard to achieve what I had. I argued that no one gave me anything. Yes, while I had received help along the way, working as a GTI, managing a restaurant, and being a full-time doctoral student was no picnic and so I was not willing to be labeled as privileged. Certainly, I have received more help than some, but at least through school, I merely worked.

Now four years later, in a country where division and disrespect seems to be the rule rather than the exception, we have elected a President who seems to show little respect for anyone, anything, at anytime, and his election seems to be a direct consequence of the fact we had a black President preceding him. I also believe, in part, it was because the Democratic candidate was both female and named Hillary Clinton. I also believe those are all separate issues. President Trump’s remarks at Arlington National Cemetery were both discouraging and disgraceful. As I ponder the place we seem to stand as a society, as the melting pot created from the Grand Experiment, I am not sure I can give the founders of this country much credit for establishing a society where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness included all people. Without a doubt, Abraham Lincoln stood tall, literally and figuratively, in an attempt to create a more equitable country with both the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, but until the quest of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Legislation of the 1960s, there was not concerted effort to really accept the true racism of separate, but equal doctrine that was a fundamental element of our mid-20th Century America. I believe I was as naive as the next who somehow believed the election of Barack Obama signaled we have turned a corner for real. Finally, as a country, I thought we realized the racial inequality that held our country in our own collective stocks and put our democracy up for sale to the highest bidder. When President Obama used his office to ask us to thoughtfully reflect on the killing of Trayvon Martin in February of 2012, I again hoped his being a Black President might help us see the difficulty of what young black, Hispanic, Asian, or other non-white males endure daily. Unfortunately , after some initial reflection, it seems it accomplished little, or I might even go as far as to say it was probably counter-productive. I would add this was little fault of the President, but rather because we have such an untruthful and chicken-shit racist underbelly to our country that few are willing to honestly and thoughtfully call to task.

I have stated this before, but I think I write it with more emotion than I have in the past. If you see someone who looks, acts, speaks, worships, or loves differently than you and that is how you first view them, or you consider that to be the most distinguishable quality about them, you are mostly likely acting in a discriminatory manner. The person who can honestly say in their heart they do not notice or even consider the difference is a rare individual. For the great majority of us, we are more likely to be that implicit racially biased person, and that is if we are lucky. The present atmosphere in the country, where disagreement makes the other the enemy, means most of us have probably moved beyond the implicit to the explicit. When we hear about daily incidences of rancor, disrespect, and downright hatefulness from the White House to the neighbor, can there be any surprise that corporations are requiring an entire workforce to receive training about their innate (but actually taught) prejudices or a company that is part of the Magic Kingdom of Disney cancels one of its two most popular shows. What does it say when one of the most popular sit-com people of a generation can refer to the senior advisor of a President as the cross between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Planet of the Apes? Not only has what she tweeted reprehensible, the fact that such stereotypes are still promulgated is tragic beyond compare. It is those very stereotypes, the jokes, the whispered humor (which is anything but) that we allow to go unchallenged that keeps such bigotry alive. It is the stares seared into the psyche of our minority students in the small Pennsylvania town or warnings given when the monster truck show comes to the fairgrounds admonishing our black or biracial students to not be alone on the street that illustrates how pathetic our thoughts, words, or actions can be. It is when a avowed Nazi can run for Congress unopposed in Illinois, ironically both the Land of Lincoln and Obama, that should cause us pause as ask, what the hell are we thinking? . . .

It is now 24 hours since I was writing here and pretty well every news source has pontificated on the situation. SHS, who boggles me beyond compare, went on her own rant of why other forms of racism have not been called out to the same degree. I guess the positive is they did not support the egregious comments, but, as usual, deflected to argue something else was as terrible. I am continually stunned by the rhetorical strategy of the White House. Some will argue there is no strategy, but I will disagree. It is like being consistently inconsistent. The President calls our values, morals, and standards into question daily through his seemingly off-the-cuff tweets. Make no mistake, his questioning of all standards, standards which generally support a status quo as well as offering support for some sense of equality and justice, allows some of those who have been supposedly marginalized by this same status quo to believe a President listens to them and speaks their language. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The scripture of notes even the dogs get the scraps from the master’s table comes to mind. . . . Another day and another version of America or the global community doing a collective smh. If you do not know this acronym, which I did not until perhaps a year ago, it means shaking my head. The unprofessional or completely void of decorum comments about an ally or Prime Minister of our closest ally as well as showing up late (twice) as well as leaving early from something that affects every citizen in our country. Issues of trade, cooperation, national security, and most everything that requires international give-and-take seems to have been ignored by our President. Where is the line between “America First,” the established Trump Doctrine, and America as a global leader? Between withdrawing from international agreements and the suggesting the re-inclusion of Russia in the G-7+1, what has the President actually done? The global order is changing, and the move to globalization itself has created an interesting backlash. This is also an interesting sort of discrimination. The global identity has often been those who have (the United States, Canada, the EU, and, yes, Russia) and those who do not (third world countries-most of Africa or Latin America, still developing countries from the former Central or Eastern Europe, and other geopolitical places left behind for whatever reason), but that might not be the most significant malevolent consequence of globalization, nor the most complex.

What about a disappearing middle class in the haves and a much less likely possibility for those in the countries of the have nots? I believe many citizens in a number of countries of the EU or in parts of the United States have joined the bandwagon of the rising nationalism because they believe nationalistic philosophy somehow gives them voice. While there might be some truth to this, I do not believe in the long run, nationalism serves any one country. Furthermore, when nationalism becomes the rule rather than the exception, those who have power will have more power and the ideal of democracy becomes more difficult to maintain. While Hitler was elected as chancellor in 1933, his consolidation of power and what he did from 1933 until the outbreak of WWII upon his invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 is well documented. Perhaps it is time many read. When power is consolidated, those on the outside become powerless. When countries are so busy working to protect themselves, everyone else becomes the other. Certainly what has been demonstrated lately is being the other is not a good place or position to hold. It still stuns me that the number of Latinos/as, blacks, LGBTQA, Muslim, dis/abled individuals, (and there are people in each of these groups) still believe that the policies put in place recently will not hurt them, from trade, to tariffs, to taxes.

Issues like the #MeToo movement,the #BlackLivesMatter , the #OscarsSoWhite, #RapeCulture, or #NationalAnthem all  demonstrate that we are on a verge of a very substantial paradigm shift, but to where are we shifting? What is positive in the conversation and what is not? This is part of the struggle. There is so much more that we need to ponder and understand. From where did some of the actions, the attitudes, and the practices we now find so abhorrent originate. I listen to a number of veterans most mornings. They are a good group of people, but I am quite sure that I am the only person who did not vote for our current President in that table of 10 or 15 people. Some of the things said will shock me from time to time, but what I realize more and more is that I am pretty liberal in a very conservative area. I am not liberal in my own practices, but more so in my attitudes. What I know is while I might not agree with them, I still respect them and their opinions. I can see beyond some of the differences, and I can still sit and even disagree at times. Most of my disagreements are posed and what about another possibility. I believe we have lost the ability to speak about the other whether it has to do with race, politics, religion, socio-economic class, education, ethnicity or any other thing that might create a difference. Rather than seeing difference as an opportunity for growth, our nationalistic, xenophobic, homophobic, sexist, or any other ism that elevates difference, we see the other as the enemy, something to discount, disavow, disrespect, discharge, and, somehow hope they will disappear. The resulting fragmentation of who we are as people is certainly not what I believe our heritage has been most held up to be. The words on the statue of Lady Liberty seem to have been ignored. The problem is very basic in understanding what it is, but incredibly complex when it comes to changing it. Most of us are afraid to admit, or too ignorant to realize just how racist most of us are. Until that changes, we are relegated to hashtags and outrage.

With that in mind, I offer this video and thank you all for reading.

Michael (the summer person who is not teaching for once)