Five Hundred Twenty-five Thousand, Six Hundred Minutes

Hello from my study on the Acre.

The first time I saw the movie version of the musical, Rent, I was almost speechless by the end of the show. Since then, I have watched it numerous times, but it still can bring me to tears. While it is well-known, there are certainly those who are probably unacquainted, but based on Puccini’s La Boheme, with a late 20th century upgrade on subject matter, it looks at a group of friends getting ready to face the last year of the millennium and what happens to them in that year. The song most are probably acquainted with is the title of this post. It is the number of minutes that compose a year. Last Christmas I was helping a newly minted seventeen year old try to feel somehow like Denmark was here on some small fashion, but Anton was experiencing his first Christmas in America, but as importantly, he first Christmas away from home. A few days before Christmas, we had a dinner with students and friends, and there was certainly a multicultural flair to it. Anton’s traditional Danish Christmas dessert, called Risalamande, or a Almond Rice Pudding with a Warm Cherry Sauce was quite the hit. In fact, people are still talking about it. And Anton made it himself. His mother would be proud of what he did. In addition to having a very nice Christmas together, we were invited to another home for a Christmas brunch, which was quite incredible and Anton spent a significant amount of time with his friends as they planned what his Spring Semester would be like. During all of this, there were some interesting stories about a virus that was occurring in China, but we did not pay much attention. It seems this was the case at a number of societal levels, and now, at least if what is reported is true, some should have been much more serious about this particular problem. As we all know now, that little virus has changed our world. In the 525, 600 minutes since Christmas a year ago, there is little that seems untouched by all of this.

Yet, there is so much that has continued in our normal daily lives that is simply what we do. We get up; we hopefully have a job to go to daily or regularly; we are able to live our lives with all the restrictions, but somehow life continues affected, but unabated. And yet, 2020 has changed who we are; it has altered our perception of education, of work, of socialization, and expectations (and that is across a wide spectrum of things) of what basic life will be like when we finally find ourselves on the other side of this, which, of course, is still open to interpretation both what it will be as much as when, or even if, there is an other side. This is something I have pondered. Much like what has happened to air travel post-9/11, airports have never gone back to where they were. I am pretty convinced, we are in the same situation now, but we are not sure what all of that means. I know that the consequences of acting like there is nothing to be concerned about has resulted in the infections of millions as well as the death of hundreds of thousands. I am not making a political statement, and I have some people I care for deeply who believe that they have the individual right to refuse a mask. I have others who are incredibly careful, and they are not elderly as I am. I have appreciation for all of them, and I certainly do not care less for them. What I am trying to note is this year has changed our lives in ways before unimaginable. As I try to understand what will happen, I find myself realizing two things. We must try to manage whatever it is, and at the same time, we must live our lives. Again, it returns me to Rent. I remember two scenes that are more poignant for me. The first is when the members, who are dying then of AIDs/HIV, are at a meeting and talking about if they will be remembered. The line “will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” The second is when the same members of the group note, “I am used to relying on intellect, but I try to open up to what I don’t know because reason says I should have died three years ago. There’s only us; there’s only this. Forget regret or life is yours to miss. No other road; no other way. No day, but today.” I have used that last phrase as a signature in one of my emails for some time.

Today is the 27th of December. Twenty-three years ago, Kris, my sister, called me to let me know she was taking our father to the hospital. He had been in hospice for a few weeks and he was losing his battle to liver, kidney, and pancreatic cancer. He would pass the next morning. It is, at times, difficult to live with the reality that all of my immediate family, the other four of us are all gone, but that is the life I have. This is not a lament, but rather a realization that for some reason, one that I still do not understand, is I am still here. This is no hyperbole when I have been told by some of my doctors that the reason they do not know what to do with me is that most people with all my issues do not live this long. I remember the first time I heard this. My response was a typical Michael response. I responded to my doctor with the simple statement, “So I am special.” The doctor’s response was as simple, “Yes, you are.” There is so much we can be grateful for, and none it has to do with the stuff we have. I am more amazed at how our bodies are such incredible mechanisms, miraculous in their ability to self-regulate if we allow them. It is not simply cliche to say that from the moment we are born we move toward the end of life, and this year is certainly made it apparent that there are things outside our control that can hasten that process, but we are not merely victims of morbidity. There is so much more in-between. As I have reflected and reminisced on my childhood for a variety of reasons during this past month, there are so many reasons to be thankful.

In the past year, I have remained working, albeit in a different style, and one that takes incredible work and energy, but as with every semester, I am blessed by such talented people in my classes, and their talent is not always represented by the grade they receive. My colleagues, the unparalleled staff who support us, and an administration who works tirelessly to figure out our ever-changing situation make my life much easier. While I have not been able to meet some people in person, Zoom calls, phone calls, and drop-offs of various goodies remind me of their profound presence in my life. Happy voices and wishes for time together mean more than any words can express. Love from the parents, who are both special to me in ways I cannot enumerate, remind me of the goodness this year bestowed in spite of the distance requirements. While March seems long ago, a birthday dinner for a dear friend and with another dear friend, before the reality of a changed world hit full-force, is a reminder that there is another side to all of this. Each minute we proceed through another revolution around the sun is too often taken for granted, taken as some kind of entitlement, but we are never enfranchised to anything. It is a simple and profound gift. It is only through the loss of that time we become acutely aware of time’s giftedness to each of us.

As I finish another year, I have been given the gift of a life that is beyond anything I might have imagined for the little NW Iowa boy. I made it far beyond what some told me I would do or beyond what I was deserving. I know this in such a profound way. I have been blessed beyond measure by so many. Some of those earlier blessings in my life have reappeared and like the beacon of the Epiphany star, I feel a glow and light I have not felt for many years. Thank you to each of you, the five remaining beautiful cousins who have been kind enough to embrace me after all this time. To Jeff, our other cousin, for reaching out. To my nephews and nieces, great-nieces and great-nephews, over the years you have made me feel loved and cared for. I am still grateful for your presence in my life. I realize that family is exactly what you make it. We are all fragile, flawed, and carefully faithful in our belief that we can love in spite of our foibles, but life has demonstrated it is possible, regardless the time that has passed. Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred multiplied since I last spoke to the beautiful Pilgrim daughters would be an astronomical number. It is over 20 million minutes. That is beyond thought. It is about half my life. So many opportunities lost, but I choose to consider the possibilities ahead. As I move in my own spiritual life from the pensive and reflective season of Advent, I find the carols continue to play on my devices. As I begin through this season of Christmas, it is my prayer that I can become a better family member, a better person, a more thoughtful person.

In my piety, and in my understanding of God, it is difficult to not be humbled by the chances we are given daily to make some small difference in the lives of others. I have been profoundly blessed in that most of my life I have been placed in situations where somehow I can make a difference in someone’s day. From waiting tables and serving as a bartender, from being a parish pastor to a college professor, there is always someone who is affected by what I do. I think perhaps it has been a vocational calling to simply make someone else’s life a tiny bit better. It is not about profound or expensive things, it is about simple goodness. As I complete this year, this segment of my life, I am well aware of the profound difficulties in our country and in the world. I am completely conscious of the uncertainty that confronts us as we try to move beyond what this global virus has done. There is little I can do on a big scale to change that situation, but I believe I can do what is necessary to make sure those I love and care for know they matter. That is my commitment as I move into this new year. I am not saddened to despair or overcome by a sense of powerlessness. I believe simple goodness and trying to meet the other where they are is a beginning. Will it always be simple. No, there is little simple in all of this, but I fail to believe all is lost. I will hold on to the love and goodness of this holy season and recommit to my own personal efforts to make the lives of those in my orbit a bit better. To all who have taken the time to read my blog this past year, and there are been more than I could imagine, thank you. May you have a blessed Christmas season. Those friends, who have an Orthodox faith, as you move toward Christmas, I wish you a continued blessed Advent. To all who have other faiths, may your new year, whenever that occurs also be blessed. I leave this version of “Seasons of Love” because of my own work with this incredible show this past year. To all who mourn the passing of one you love, be assured you will never mourn alone.

I wish you all a blessed and successful 2021.

Michael (Dr. Martin)

Deciding to be Solitary or Lonely

Hello from my study,

Today I followed through on a decision pondered for a while, but it is a decision that requires me to be more intentional, more thoughtful, and more disciplined about what I do. After multiple urgings as well as the life-style change COVID has brought, and some thoughts about my own long-term plans, which are certainly not cemented in some non-changeable manner, I sold my BWM 328xi back to the dealer from where I purchased it, and made the decision to function by “ten-toed express” for some time forward. How long, you ask? I am not sure. It will depend on inoculations, sabbatical plans, and other possibilities. However, I realized I was spending a great deal of money on insurance in spite of the very few miles I was putting on my car. Ironically, due to some weird Pennsylvania regulations, it is necessary for me to maintain some car insurance, even without a car. Otherwise, if I am without vehicle insurance for over a certain period of time, I would be put on high risk insurance. What a racket that is!! There were a couple of other considerations too. If I decide to get another vehicle or lease on because of some longer term plans, I will probably stay with the same brand as it was probably the most amazing car I have every owned. I enjoyed it a great deal and while it was a 300 series, it actually got great gas mileage. It is sort of an interesting feeling of freedom and the lack of all rolled into one. This change will also force to me to focus on some things I need to be working on and running an errand to just procrastinate yet again will be much tougher.

This morning, I spoke with another of my cousins on my mother’s side of the family, which created yet another Colorado connection. If I do some real counting, there must be a dozen people minimum who have moved to that state from all across the country. I could probably do a two-week road trip to Colorado and remain busy the entire time. The past weeks have compelled me to understand, or become reacquainted with the fact that someone can always have a profound influence. Often when you least expect it. It is an incredible thing to speak to someone who knew you in your childhood, and then simultaneously try to fill in the blanks for three decades. It was the wonderful work of connecting dots once again. Families are such dynamic, metamorphic, engaging, or even numinous entities. As I face a three decade lapse I must reasonably question how did that happen? There was no falling out, problem, or specific reason we lost touch. What I seem to comprehend was a lack of some mechanism in my immediate family that engaged us with the extended family once the previous generation moved beyond this life. I am not sure why that was, but I must believe it had something to do with my own immediate family in Riverside and some of the difficulties in that family. Perhaps it was because of some of the struggles our family perhaps, innately understood, but no one would ever mention. Perhaps it was because as I moved away from that struggle and particularly from my mother. As a consequence that side of the family was lost and I must take responsibility for my own decision to move away from all of it. What I am coming to terms with is how much I have lost in all of this. Again, perhaps, what I know now is merely that I am fortunate enough in finding it possible to reconnect. What these past three weeks have laid out for me so clearly, so profoundly, is that those decisions, either conscious or subconscious are exactly that: decisions made . . . and like any decision, there are reverberations. And yet, this was no conscious decision in terms of any termination or result. This outcome was a collateral one, and one mostly unrealized, one considered from time-to-time, but as with many such repercussions, how to manage it seemed difficult. So now I am working, as noted in the last blog to connect the dots and the decades.

What I discern more completely at this point might be something quite different. Being family, either by birth or adoption is not something over which we have a lot of choice. In fact, there are a plethora of memes, cards, or magnets that state just such a thing, but what does it imply? It means too often a sort of deterministic idea of “it just is” and deal with it. What I am realizing is family is much more . . . as noted above it is a complicated thing, but, at least for me, it was, and more importantly is, something I need if I am to understand who I am, from where I came, and why I might be the person I am. Certainly there is a lot that can be read into those things, but I am considering it on a more simple basis. As I have chatted with my cousins, they are kind enough to tell me things about what they remember and for me that validates much about my childhood. It is even more treasured and respected because they are speaking their own truths of that time in our lives. That is a precious thing to me particularly when I am the only person in my immediate family still here. I am not necessarily lamenting this, but rather being the solitary one has weighed on me in different ways. I realize I have a sort of tug-o-war existence with being on my own; I am simultaneously comfortable with the sort of control it gives me over my existence and confounded by what it has left me as someone alone at 65. There is a sort of never actually having all we want, which, of course, is incredibly selfish. I have noted that I feel more like my father’s elder brother-in-law at times than I could have ever imagined.

As we begin a Christmas week, memories of childhood naturally come to the fore and I appreciate how the family dinner and the gathering of people are so essential to our feeling of how we matter. For me, and as the theme of being an individual has permeated much of this blog throughout the years, I think it is important to perceive the difference between being solitary and being lonely. Too often we do not imagine or comprehend the important difference in them. One can be solitary, while being content, happy, or even fulfilled, but this is not about things as much as it is about people. It is our interaction with people that creates a sense of community; keeping us from being lonely. I think much of my earlier life I chose to be lonely, though seldom recognized it. Lonely was not something new to me, it was how I often felt growing up. I remember being in Sioux City’s Children’s Community Theatre and each Christmas we would perform Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Eventually I was Ebenezer Scrooge. I remember Scrooge’s lines when approached about the person collecting for the poor. Having been asked if he wished to remain anonymous in his giving he retorted,

wish to be left alone. Since you ask me what I wish, sir, that is my answer. I
don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make lazy people
merry. I help support the establishments I have mentioned…they cost
enough…and those who are poorly off must go there.”

A Christmas Carol

What is interesting to me is I have some of the wishing to be left alone part of Scrooge in me, and yet on the other hand, I love the Christmas holidays and giving to other people. Somehow I got some of both. I think the Christmas spirit, as noted many times, comes from my Grandmother Louise. I believe in the magic of this season, and for me, it requires really little effort to make other people’s lives a bit nicer. Simple politeness, a mannerly help with the door, making allowances while driving, or even thinking of the other’s needs before your own is not difficult. I think it merely takes some time to be willing to consider the other before one’s self. And simply, it is putting into practice what we learned as children: share, be polite, use your manners, and be kind. There is nothing too arduous about it, but it seems that such traits are in short supply in our current national attitudes. What I have begun to grasp as I have reflected this month and reached out to my cousins is they had those traits in their immediate household. Don and Virginia were gracious and welcoming, and in spite of the elapsed time, certainly the conversations with various members of the family seem to demonstrate they have carried on that practice with great proficiency. It is really a gift to be included in their conversations and thoughts again. What I am witnessing in my own life is how my choice to be solitary at times created more loneliness than I expected. There is a thread in my life that has that solitary trek of a person searching with no real sense of purpose, but searching nonetheless. I am not generally aware of it, but I remember many times being on my own. Just today, a Jagiellonian University student I was blessed to meet in the Main Square Costa Coffee shop in Kraków, and someone I speak quite regularly on FB messenger, chatted by messenger yet again. Today she reached out asking if I was alone for Christmas and worrying about me. It was incredibly sweet of her, but again it reminded me of my time in A Christmas Carol. When Scrooge is required to see his past he is reminded of his choice to not go home for Christmas and he ends up alone.

Brother, dear brother! (She kisses Child Scrooge.) Dear, dear Fan, Scrooge
answers. She responds, I’ve come to bring you home, home for good and
ever. Come with me, come now. (She takes his hand and they start to run
off, but the spirit stops them and signals for the light on them to fade. They
look at the spirit, aware of their role in the spirit’s “education” of Scrooge.)

A Christmas Carol

If you are aware of the story, in two different cases, Scrooge ends up alone and sad. The melancholy that is such a part of Scrooge was not because of his being solitary it was because he chose to be alone. Choosing loneliness is one of those things that does something very different that choosing solitude. Solitude is about peacefulness, ironically one of the themes of the Advent Season. Solitude is about reflection and assessment. One of the things I have often considered doing is returning to the Upper Peninsula and doing a spiritual retreat with the Byzantine monks at the Jam Pot. I think it would be a really good thing for me to do. What this month of reconnecting, recollecting, and reminiscing has accomplished is it has pulled me out of a shell that I created, albeit unknowingly. With the exception of a sandbox buddy, there are few people who remember me when I was that smaller-than-normal, spectacled, butched-hair cut, large-eared person who kept a smile on his face regardless what was happening in his life. The picture above is my first graduation from kindergarten. What registers so clearly now is that there was no solitude in my home growing up because there was fear as a prevailing theme too often. I was more often lonely because I was afraid. As I have gone through my life, either married or single, what appeared to be and the reality of the world I saw were very different. Even in my marriages I found it difficult to be unguarded. This is an incredibly difficult admission to make. Likewise, it caused problems because it was not something I ascertained, and certainly did not comprehend at those times. As I reach out now, I do it knowingly, and yet desirous of something that moves me toward a more healthy style of solitude.

In someways it seems my cousins in their kindness and beauty, their honesty and graciousness are like the three spirits who visited Scrooge that Christmas Eve night into the wee morning hours of Christmas Day. While I have never been Scrooge-like in my Christmas spirit, there are certainly times I have found myself wishing to be left alone during other times of the year. As I often say in my Bible as Literature class, God often works in spite of us. And then in my sort of caustic manner I add . . . and sometimes to spite us. I am not sure that there is anything spiteful in the events this past month, but God has again knocked on a door and it is up to us to open it. This season is often a time when people stress because of family obligations. This season of Advent has been a season of joy and peace, of hope and love like none I have experienced in my life. I wish for all of you a blessed week of this Nativity. To Kim, Paula, Julie, Mary, and Martha, and Randy, by extension, but now also to Jeff: Tusen takk fra hjertet for at du tok imot meg tilbake etter alle disse årene, og jeg ønsker hver og en av dere en velsignet jul. I leave this as a call out to our Scandinavian heritage.

I wish each of you a blessed holiday as we finish this unprecedented year of realizing we are never solitary; we need each other.

Blessings,

Michael

Imagining Decades and Connecting the Dots

Hello from my upstairs study,

It is Sunday evening and even though it is barely 8:00 p.m., it seems so much later when it gets dark so early. Over the last couple of days, I was so aware of that rapidly setting sun and when it is cloudy, it is even more apparent. I do not remember this sort of darkness as a child. In fact, I think the first time I remember it was when I was in seminary and would be walking from campus back to the Burntvedt Apartments. It was always dark on the way home shortly after 4:00 p.m. during the winter. Of course, then there was living in Hancock/Houghton and even Laurium in the Upper Peninsula. While the summer was glorious for the incredibly long days, the converse was the case in the winter. I remember driving up the hill past Quincy Mine and you could see the sun setting in the rearview mirror, but by the time I got eleven miles north, it would be dark as if it were midnight. I think this is the first time since then I felt it got dark so quickly. Perhaps it is just the cumulative effect of what 2020 has done to all of us. It is hard to believe that we are 3/4 of a year into this new world.

As I write this, it is less than two weeks until Christmas, but that too will be different. I know there are a lot of people who are trying to figure out how to manage all of this. This weekend, Pennsylvania just reimposed some restrictions on public places and public gatherings. I know there are people all over the board on these things, but I choose to keep myself pretty locked down and do what is necessary to keep myself as safe as possible. . . . As is often the case, I got some things started the other day, but I am behind. It is Wednesday and as predicted a significant snowstorm is baring down on Central Pennsylvania. It has been snowing for about 5 hours and as I sit in my study again, within the last 24 hours I did significant work outside to get things ready for what was coming. I also got all my Christmas decorations out, both inside and outside, made sure the snowblower will work, and finally turned the heat on upstairs during last night. I work up and it was about 63 degrees, so I figured it was probably time. So at this point, I am pretty hunkered down and ready to ride this 18-22 inches of snow out and see what happens about 24 hours from now. I remember when I was small, living in NW Iowa and we got incredible snowstorms. We would build tunnels throughout the yard and with our snowsuits, boots, mittens, hats, and scarves, we could play for hours. We would come in long enough to warm up and our clothes would be thrown in the dryer. After the clothes dried and were warm, we would be at it again. We were heartier people then or what? I cannot imagine that now. Of course, then there was living in the Upper Peninsula, and that is where I really learned about snowfall. I remember someone asking when I moved there if I liked snow. I said, “Yes, it’s nice.” They responded, “No; do you LIKE snow? Because we get a lot of it.” They were not kidding. My first year at Michigan Tech, and I had been in the U.P. for three years then, we received about 346 inches of snow. I lived in Laurium, about 11 miles north of Houghton, and I did not own a snowblower. It was incredible. I remember having a front-end loader in the yard to push snow back because I could not scoop it any higher. And yet, the snow was generally light, fluffy, lake-effect, but it snowed almost every day. Then, as noted above, it got dark very early. There were times I shoveled more than 4-5 hours a day. It was a pretty strenuous workout.

It has already been over 20 years ago that happened. As I have reached out to my cousins these past weeks, I have been keenly aware of the time and the length of time that has passed since we were last in touch in any manner. It is stunning to me how months turned to years, turned to decades. We were kids or young adults and somewhere we missed the entire middle portions of our lives. We are now in 50s and 60s, older than our parents were when we would see each other regularly. That is a shocking reality, but more importantly, we are here to do it, though on both sides of the family there is an entire two generations gone and now even some of our generation. There is the line from On Golden Pond, which again comes hearkening back: “Don’t you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret? It doesn’t have to ruin your life!” And so it is . . . Do I have regrets? Of course, but when I take the time to connect the dots, I am compelled to remember that I hav been so profoundly blessed throughout my life. I did not take the normal childhood route. Being on my third family before the age of five, struggling too find my place as someone who felt unwanted or frightened more than I allowed people to know, and trying to manage both my professional and personal baggage throughout my life was not an easy task, but I refuse to focus on that. In this season where we hear words like hope, peace, and joy, it is hard to overlook those people who have been there throughout my life. I think of people like Frank and Margaret Sopoci, of Bud and Janet Reese, or Jacob and Marge Goede. These three couples were, along with my grandmother and the cousins that were central in my last blog, were the people who helped me see beyond the things I heard too often. They provided the sense of hope that is essential for human existence. Following high school and the service, I again struggled to find my place. I had returned home, but it was not a place that was ready for me, nor was I ready to be back in it. It was then my pastor and his family that would have such an essential influence on my life. Between having a close friend, being enamored beyond words with his sister, and then having their parents be as much of parent to me as anyone, I had less than an inkling of how important they were. Father Fred, as David and I called him, made me accountable. It is an accountability that has lasted four over decades to some degree, but it might be one of the most important lessons in my life. It is astounding how hurt from someone can create the consequence in a completely different circumstance. I think that is the lesson that has finally become clear to me. What I am aware of in these past couple weeks is how individuals, families, our own family, and those who come into our lives by chance can be influences far beyond what we realize. We absorb their lessons and our mutual experiences into the fabric of who we are, seldom realizing the influence the significance they have become in our own journey. This past couple of weeks in reconnecting with my cousins has been a most unexpected and profound gift. From texts to messages, from Zoom calls to phone calls, the catching up on decades of our lives has been an incomparable joy. It causes me pause and compels me to ask what was it about these cousins? Was it their beauty and comprehensive personalities that were so different among the six of them? Yes, that was part of it. Was it the enjoyable times we shared as children whenever we were together? Yes, again, that is part of that picture. Yet is that enough to connect the dots after decades of losing touch? Perhaps, but I think there is more. It is what has come through in our conversations during these past weeks. They accepted and loved me. They accepted their undersized, rather nerdy cousin with his butch haircut, glasses, and over-sized ears who would not become comfortable with his image until he was in his thirties. That is where the gorgeous might come in. They were so beautiful, but they were also kind, accepting, and gracious. That was what it was. Now, decades later, they are still beautiful. The twins look decades younger than what they are. Kim, the current eldest, is as beautiful and kind as I remember, and conversations with her are such a joy. I have gotten a bit of an idea about Martha and Josh and Mary is stunningly beautiful, but seems to be an observer more than a talker. That is part of what makes all of them so incredible, both individually, but also collectively.

As I sit in my study, listening to Christmas instrumentals, looking out at the snow as the sun sets, my heart is full and my life seems to be blessed beyond measure. It is a very different Christmas than a year ago with Anton, and I miss him, but I know he received his package today. That makes me very happy. I have another one, but it will go out after the first of the year. The other package to Russia should be available tomorrow. I miss Anastasiia also; I remember taking her to JFK about this time to go home for the holidays. It was a time when having people around for the holidays helped make the acre more homey. I love decorating the house, both inside and out. The people here in Bloom tell me they wait to see what I will do. I do not feel that profoundly different in what I do, but I know that I do believe in the magic of the season that seems to bring out people’s better angels. We desperately need all of those angels. In spite of the unparalleled sorrow this year has brought, there is hope. There is an opportunity for peace, and if we search our hearts there is room for joy. That is what the Advent season is for. It is to prepare our hearts. I am reminded of Bonhoeffer’s words when he wrote to his co-conspirators during that December of 1942. In the midst of a regime that disregarded the Jewish people or anyone who did not fit their Aryan profile, engaged in a propaganda campaign that convinced people that the Reich was doing what was best for the German people, and co-opted a good part of the church, Bonhoeffer noted that their actions would need to be judged by history. Instead of absolution he wrote, “Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call” (After Ten Years). Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to remain in America, but returned to Germany believing he had little right to be there after the struggle, a different battle than Hitler had written about, if he did not go through the trial with them. In a letter to Bishop Bell in London, Bonhoeffer would lament honestly and bleakly. He wrote, that “freedom is not something that occurs just within the church, but it attacks the very roots of National Socialism. The point is freedom. . . .” He was one of the few in his church to demand protection for the persecuted as a necessary political step the church must take. Confronting the consequences of that alliance would put Bonhoeffer at odds with his church and it was a struggle of conscience. Bonhoeffer would question the role of the church and its relationship to the Jews. This was not a rejection of Judaism as much as it was about the unfinished questioning of the Christian Church itself. The tragedy of the plot to rid Germany and the world of Hitler was not just that they failed in their execution, but that their failure revealed the extent to which they were incomplete in a much larger sense.

In spite of the recalcitrance of many to accept this election outcome, I believe there is much more at stake as we watch those on both sides of the political divide, be it here in our country or in other countries. Freedom and disagreement, even passionate disagreement, are part of our democratic process. My understanding of the Christian message, and by extension the Advent message is simple. We have a Creator that meets us where we are in our brokenness and bids us to come. As I say in my Bible as Literature course, do you do what you do so God will love you or because God loves you?” I choose to be the person I am now with all the dots beginning to demonstrate a pattern, with the decades of loss in contact being erased. Indeed because of so many people I am blessed beyond message. The message in the midst of difficulty for Bonhoeffer was a message of honesty and hope. The message of all Advent is about preparing for each day of our lives with a sense of purpose, a sense of hope, and with that a sense of peace. To my cousins, Kim, Julie, Paula, Mary, and Martha: thank you for the hope and joy you have brought back into my life. I wish you each a sense of peace in this time as we mourn the loss of such an incredible elder sister. To Randy: you remain in my thoughts and prayers and it was wonderful to speak with you too. I wish you all a sense of comfort in knowing how special you were to each other. To our parents and our families from the generations. I hope you are proud of the work you did and the amazing people you created. I leave this song with reminds me of how blessed I am and how I wish I might have shared that better earlier in my life.

To all; as always thank you for reading and I wish you all a blessed conclusion of this most extraordinary Advent season.

Michael

Memories: A Hurting and Yet Joyful Heart

My gorgeous and amazing cousin, Suzanne

Hello on a chilly December morning,

It was a bit of a lazy morning to begin with, but as usual, I seem to wake up some during the night and then fall asleep again somewhere around 4:00 a.m. to sleep for a few hours. So this morning it was after 8:00 before my feet hit the floor. It has been a bit of a pulling the loose ends together and then focus for the remainder of the day. I have managed a few emails, reached out to a couple of birthday people, and texted with one of my cousins again. Holidays are such poignant times, emotionally intense for a variety of reasons, and yet a time if we allow that our better angels might take flight and make a small difference for those we come in contact with through our various subjectivities we all manage, often without realizing it.

In my texts with my now eldest sister of my amazing cousins, she noted the pain and how the absence of her elder sister is such a significant part of her holiday psyche this year . . . and rightly so. I am feeling that pain also, but mine, along with a sense of loss is the years lost where we were really not in contact as well as there is not an option for the eldest of my wonderful, beautiful, talented, and profoundly amazing cousins. It has been a week of reminicsing in my own way about them. I have been able to reflect on why their visits to South Sioux City and their grandparent’s house was so important. There are a few pertinent things that continually surface as I think of them. First, the love amongst them was evident. They squabbled to be sure, but each had their own personality (even the twins), and they were allowed to be themselves. What I know now is I think I desired to be their elder brother as much as they longed to have a brother. And yet, most probably, I would have been overwhelmed by them. They were as talented and enjoyable as they were beautiful. Suzanne, to this day, might be the most soft-spoken person I have ever met, but do not let her shy and quiet demeanor or her simple profound beauty lull you into thinking she was not fierce or brilliant. I am sure each of her sisters can tell of a time when she let them know she was the eldest. What I remember most is her sort of ethereal presence in any situation, an almost omnipotent ability to see what was up and what needed to be done. Yet, from my perspective, she was also profoundly private about her life. She was a see-it-all and say-little sort of a person. I think that was part of her beauty and elegance, but on a deeper level it was the way she chose to treat others with a respect and decency that was so typical of her parents.

Kim, the next eldest, had a different beauty to her; she was the one who could dazzle you with her elegance and the next minute take you down in a rough and tumble sort of way that illustrated a total person. She was intelligent, gentle and aware of things that were well beyond the ordinary scope of daily thought. I refer to her as the earth muffin of the family. I think my affinity for her was because she was incredibly honest and kind, a sort of wholesome goodness we could only hope to emulate. Over this past week, my conversations, both through phone and text have brought be a sense of joy and comfort that are too profound for words. I remember one night while visiting their home in Decorah, she and I sat up until the wee hours of the morning listening to Rick Wakeman and the album Journey to the Centre of the Earth. We marveled not only at the music, but at the long-flowing, almost white-blonde hair of this incredible keyboardist who had played with Yes, as he stood in the middle of numerous keyboards surrounding him in the midst of a full orchestra with long flowing white robe with a rather supernatural aura about him. We were mesmerized as we watched and I remember feeling so comfortable and appreciated in their home. If I remember correctly, I might have even hitchhiked up there to spend some time with them. Somewhere I recall that in the recesses of my ancient memories. I remember another time when they were visiting me in Sioux City and we attended a high school basketball game together. People asked me later who my beautiful date to the basketball game was and I simply said, “Not a date, just my cousin.” But boy was I proud to be seen with her.

Then there was Julie and Paula, an immeasurable amount of energy. As identical twins, they were a force with which to be reckoned. They were boundless in their willingness to engage my older brother and me, begging for horsey-back rides until I could have worn holes in the knees of my jeans. Their parents would try to save our backs with breaks, but in no time, they were ready to go again. And yet they were grateful and kind, enjoyable and always ready for a new adventure. They too were beautiful, but this time you had a double-dose. Incredible in probably the only word I could use to describe the sort of third personality the two of them created. It was impossible to not be caught up in their joy for life. I remember as small children they had their own communicative language only they understood. It was fascinating to me listening to and observing the love they had for each other. Years later, as I had just graduated from Dana and was in my first intensive summer Greek program, I was honored to sing in Julie’s wedding. It was one of the most special times singing in my life. In the past week, as we have reconnected, Julie graciously blessed me with a short snippet of my song in their wedding. As I first listened, not sure what she had sent, I heard my voice and wondered, “who was that?” It was a profound thing to hear my own voice from that time. It was even more emotional to remember those connections. To be with Julie and Paula was the only time in my life I have been around twins, but it brings me such joy to think of the two of them. As I have looked at pictures of them this past 10 days, their beautiful personalities still radiate from their pictures and they look two decades younger than the age they are.

Then there is Mary and Martha, they were young enough that I was well out of high school and trying to figure out the life of graduate school and being newly married that I lost track of them and all the family for that matter. While many things could be offered to make excuses for that path, what I now know is I missed out on so much. Martha has reached out my Facebook messenger and what I know is she is living in the vicinity of where her parents retired after Don left his position as the head of the math department at Luther College. I know she has been in places I want to learn so much more about, so I am hoping to catch up more intentionally. I have not heard from Mary yet, but my searching seems to indicate we might have lived in a similar area at one time. There is so much more I could write about each of them, but suffice it to say that there are new stories to create in some distant manner. Our lives have taken their divergent paths, and families have grown older and members of them are no longer here, so tragically and recently, some longer ago, but nonetheless important. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, brothers, sisters: none of us are the same people we were.

In the cases of my cousins (and it seems all of them) they have established families and shown the amazing resilience they must have had to manage six girls in one household in their non-ostantaious house just below the college in Decorah. I remember just simple hospitality and welcoming every time I entered their home. Virginia and Don were beyond gracious and kind. They accepted you where you were without judgment and they were willing to share whatever they had to anyone who came to their door. What I realize as I reflect, they were much like my own grandmother, who I have often referred to as my hero. Even more importantly, I see some of those qualities of graciousness, positivity and acceptance in my cousins, which is not really surprising. What I realize more importantly is how much we have missed out on over the years. The discovery that my eldest beautiful cousin lost her life so tragically is still hard for me to fathom, but more importantly, the failure to reconnect with the rest of this amazing group of cousins would be unconscionable to me at this point. It is not just for me, but for generations of Olsons, Pilgrims, Martins, and beyond. I am quite sure that Don and Virginia did much for my sister Kris, as she would have allowed when she was a freshmen at Luther College. I know they invited her for dinner and probably did what they could to help her that year. For Kris, unfortunately, I think there was little that could have comforted her at this time in her life.

It is always a double-edged sword when a family member leaves this world. I remember watching it again and again when I was a parish pastor. The difficulty of changing dynamics and all of the humanity of families comes to the fore, but at the same time we are pushed to remember our humanity and frailty. That is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one. If we allow we can find the goodness in each of us and recall the things that have been the most profound influence in our lives, most often an influence we took for granted, never realizing the goodness and grace we were in the presence of. For me that is all of the Pilgrim daughters, but certainly Suzanne was the model of that for her sisters. In the words of one of her sisters, she was a passionate warrior about justice (and particularly social justice). This is no surprise to me and perhaps why I see such an incredible goodness in her memory. She was kind and gracious, but she was also profoundly tough and resilient. She was also brilliant and fun. She epitomized goodness to me. It is painful and simultaneously joy-filling to remember these things about her. It is also convicting to know that I did not do my part to stay in touch over these years. Again, there are countless excuses for those choices, but the choice to lose touch is a mistake, a mistake that I hope to remedy moving forward. It is not possible to bring anyone or anytime back; I know this all too well, but I can make a different choice moving forward. God is never-ending in his grace and willingness to provide us a second, third chance when it comes to making a change. The words, voices, texts, and pictures from some of my beautiful cousins brings me comfort and hope beyond words. Again, in this season of Advent, the season of the church year I where I find the most meaning, as the candles of hope and peace are lit at this point, I am reminded of those in our families who have left and cling to the belief in a resurrection that this season points toward. Suzanne, forgive me for losing touch with you; forgive me for not making a better choice to stay in touch with all of you. Kim, Julie, Paula, Mary and Martha, thank you for reaching out these past days and reminding me of your incredible love, goodness, and beauty. There is much to share and catch up on. Kris and Bob, we were blessed with so many visits from these amazing ladies. I hope you see from wherever you are that I choose to rekindle that fond memories of Christmas visits, summer visits, Easter visits and move forward with a sense of purpose. Suzanne, I hope you see us all too. I hope you forgive me for losing track of all of you. In the spirit of some music that Kim and I shared, this is from the appropriately named album Fragile by the group Yes, and their induction into the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame. Rick Wakeman, as usual does his keyboard magic. Indeed we are all fragile, but we are resilient and we will hopefully find a joy in each other that provides a sense of memory, of hope and of peace.

I wish you all a sense of hope, comfort, and peace in this blessed season. To my remaining cousins, Kim, Paula, Julie, Mary, and Martha, I love you.

To everyone else, thank you for reading.

Michael

When there are no Words

Hello from my study at home.

As we are almost midway through the month of December, the reality of winter and its inevitable arrival is in the air here in North Central Pennsylvania this evening. There has been a couple of nights in the mid-20s and a dusting of snow; yet it is not terribly cold. However, the reality of those falling temperatures are always a stinging slap in the face. And then for me, there is the difference in the cold here versus the cold I grew up in or spent time in (particularly in Houghton, the Twin Cities, or Menomonie). While the temperature will most likely never reach the frigidity of the Upper Midwest, the cold here in Columbia County Pennsylvania is more malicious than the temperatures back there in the years of my growing up, 20s or 30s. The cold here is a more penetrating cold; it is more humid and all the clothes in the world will not protect you. For that reason, and perhaps it is because I am aging, I find it more unbearable. The thoughts of staying inside where there is a fire and better heat or sitting in my sauna for many minutes longer than recommended seems like a much better plan than going outside. Perhaps I have outgrown my appreciation for that idea of some outdoor invigoration from the nip on my nose and all that sort of wonderful holiday music that so romanticized me freezing my toes off.

And yet this Winter we are being told it might be in our best interest to be outside and learn to manage the outside because being inside around more than our little pod could be problematic for our health. The simple fact is there is very little that is normal at this point in terms of what we must do to manage our health, our individual lives, our country or the world at this point. The fight against the virus is a Tale of Two Cities at the moment. Certainly the news from both Pfizer and Moderna in terms of a vaccine and possible options to fight Covid-19 sound promising. Certainly the continued determination of the incredible heath care professionals across the country, those who put their lives on the line every single day for their neighbors and others are examples of walking saints among us. Those people who work diligently to protect others through their own acts of thoughtful management of trying to not spread this virus are to be commended for their continued attempts to stop the spread of a virulent virus we are still figuring out. These are some, but not all, of the positive things occurring. Of course, there is the other side, the words, actions, or denial of the reality of 275,000 people who have died and counting. I have read this morning, we added a million more cases in 5 days. I understand the number of deaths in that million are lower because of therapeutics, but it appears more and more are having long-term consequences from contracting this virus. I cannot understand why protecting each other from getting it at all seems so unreasonable. There is an administration who continues to deny the reality of an election where they have lost by 7 million votes and the same electoral margin as the last election, and therefore argue they do not have to offer briefings, support for, and critical information about where they are. The consequence of their tantrum is the likelihood of many unnecessary additional deaths from this global pandemic. The lack of a national strategy from the outset has, in my opinion, put us where we are. The President’s prophecy that come November 4th the virus would disappear has seemed to be a false prophetic utterance. This is not the first failure for him viewing into his crystal ball and proclaiming like the savior he purports to be that “Y’all are saved! It’s a miracle!” At this point I know people in every part of the country and from the age of 4 to 80+ who have tested positive. Just on our campus alone, we have had almost 400 cases this semester. It is time to come to grips with the reality of what is happening. It is time for health professionals, State Officials, Governors, and yes, both the President and the President-elect to work toward the same end. It is time to be honest with the what the virus is capable of doing and combat it in a thoughtful, careful, and forceful manner so that both the population and the economy can survive and become a world where we might find some modicum of normalcy on the other side.

Shutting down everything again for weeks into months will probably destroy us, both economically and mentally, but minimizing the chance for transmission until we have a vaccine that is being delivered, administered, and results in measurable positive results seems like a thoughtful way forward. I understand the inconvenience and the “uncomfortableness” of mask wearing. I understand the struggle of consequences when it changes how we act or communicate, both organizationally and interpersonally. I wish it could just go away, but that is not how the virus works. It is not going to “just disappear,” no matter how much I wish or even try to pray it away, and as a former pastor, I do believe in the power of prayer. I know that our local hospitals are at capacity. I know if I were to contract it, there might not be a reasonable expectation I could even be admitted. Step back for a moment and ponder that reality. This is not the American I grew up in. It is not the world I expected to find myself living in at the end of 2019. The last 9 months have profoundly, and unreturnably (if I can create this word), changed who we are as a country, and as a world. That is not an easy admission. It is frightening. It would be easy to give up hope in the midst of a public that seems pitted against one another in some dichotomous manner, most seeming to argue foul from one side and a sort of Kuum-bye-yah from the other. I realize that sounds dichotomous on it’s own, but that is my point. There is no easy way forward. I have people I care for deeply who will go in unmasked just to prove they can and somehow believe that is normal behavior, on the other hand a family that is dear to be beyond words is locked down in ways that go beyond most, but I understand their rationale. I know that change has been difficult to implement and it has been painful. What is a reasonable response?

As the people in Debate and Forensics know, first you have to define the terms and agree on their meaning and implications. Let me begin with the easier or the two: response. I believe response in its simplest form is the reaction to some kind of input or stimulus. Much like Wartenberg’s first dimension of power. If a cue ball hits another ball on the billiard table, the ball which is hit moves, and we understand why. Responding to the other is not some autonomous deterministic reaction. There is always something behind it. There is an impetus, a reason, but we seem, even more often in today’s world, to response in some of sort of knee-jerk, sound-byte (lack of) logic manner, honestly believing we have responded in a proportional manner to whatever prompted our response from the outset. While there is so much in our current national and global situation that begs our thoughtful, critical, and analytical attention, we seem destined to live drinking our conspiracy-laced, kool-aid, believing that if someone disagrees with us, they are deluded, inebriated by whatever flavor the news of the day offers like some sort of cotton-candy or snowcone. To further Wartenberg’s power theory, the second dimension of power is when we do things because we deem them (oops, there is that other word) reasonable. They are part of what we have accepted as an utilitarian option for societal sake or benefit. An example is when I walk into a classroom, and within a week, even though I do not require a seating chart, students will normally sit in almost the identical seat daily (at least that was the case when we were in the classroom). Likewise, generally when I begin to speak, other voices will stop (that is not always the case, but generally). That is what Wartenberg refers to as the second dimension of power. Now certainly, some people will rail against that on general principle. Some will color outside the lines to prove that can. And undoubtedly, there are times doing so might be necessary, even preferable. On the other hand, living your life to confront the status quo, simply because you can, has consequences. Often the problem for the outlier, particularly when they are hit with those consequences, is to scream about the unfairness of their plight. This is where reasonable might come in. Certainly we all have our own set of parameters in which reasonable works or functions. Reasonable, and rightfully so, begins with the idea of reason. The sort of reflexive or self-correcting that demonstrates we are able to consider options, learn from experience, and move forward with a purpose that shows we understand ourselves to be something more than an individual, unresponsive, uncaring, and unfeeling about the other.

Often, I have been the consternation of some of my friends because I seem to be intrinsically logic-bound. One of my former students, the first of many to live on the acre, regularly pushed me to explain my propensity for needing to make sense of everything, and yes, that is a problem, but there are times (and Lord knows, we are living them now) when the course of action seems to have no logic, no reason, and certainly no positive possible result. I am trying to understand anti-vaxers right now, and honestly working to be as open minded as possible. I am trying to understand the consequences of the President, yes, one who detests losing with every molecule of his being, but cannot concede an election, in spite of almost four dozen lawsuits filed on his behalf, only to be told by his own appointees at the Federal Appeals Court level that he has nothing to argue because there is no widespread proof. I am trying to understand how one individual has been able to cow an entire Republican establishment in Washington, DC, save a remnant few who believe country matters more than party. As I began to write this, it was the 79th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. That did not go unnoticed to me. The sort of devotion the Japanese Kamikaze pilots had to the emperor are not that much different from those cruising around in their trucks with their red flags flying like wings not all that different from the rising sun on the wings of the zeros. Blind devotion to a business person, pretending to be a politician, propped up by the power of his office, is exactly that: blind. What President Trump is doing through his inability to admit defeat goes much beyond his simple, but dangerous narcissism. It brings out into plain view the very things the framers of the Constitution worked so hard to curb, a despot who believes himself to be the best thing to happen to a country he has pushed exponentially further down a dangerous rabbit-hole. The Republican party promotes conservative principles in the context of culture and a civilization that was built on a particular moral code of individual freedom. I know much can be argued here, but this is my working definition. Certainly Edmund Burke, who railed against the French Revolution for its excess, but supported the American Revolution only 13 years before. He believed in limiting the power of the monarchy and making sure there was an informed parliament. He spoke out forcefully against those put in place by mere appointment by the crown. The conservative movement of today has little in common with Burke or by extension even Ronald Reagan. There is much to be said about the current struggle between the Democrats and the Republicans, or when looking at the more extreme edges, the progressives and the populists. However, that was not the point of this blog. It is about what I noted in the title: when there are no words. There are no words for what President Trump is doing because it is unprecedented in more ways than I have fingers. It takes most of our national heritage, our traditional democratic ideals, and the role of our country on the world stage and sets them all on their ear. What is a reasonable response? I am not sure; and as such, I am concerned. I do believe we have taken the first step and that was a national election that saw a turn out not matched in a century. Even after today, next week on the 14th and even should we get to January 20th, the role of consequence of President Trump will forever change this country. It is a profound price to pay for believing a self-serving, egomaniac could somehow help us as President. He has been more successful than most of us realize. He will not go away and should we believe he will, we are fooling ourselves. And for that reason, I am back to where this started: there are no words, but I do hope reason might come back as a rule and a response. As I have reached out to my incredible cousins, it seems appropriate I offer something from Luther College where their father, Dr. Donald Pilgrim was a professor. In this Advent Season, I hope we might indeed find ourselves awakened to a more compassionate and peaceful world.

Thank you for reading.

Michael

Imagining a Century

Hello from my office at school,

It has been a “manage-the-details” day. I am the chair of our department sabbatical committee, director of departmental internships, and an advisor to a couple of student groups. Each area needed attention today. I think I have about 95% of all the issues answered, but there is always something more to manage. In addition, I want to come up with a pretty locked-down schedule of how I will manage the time between now and February to get all the things accomplished I believe need to be done to walk into next semester as prepared as possible. While the pandemic has created a number of differences in my daily life, some of them are really pretty helpful. I remember saying that last spring in a department meeting and some of my colleagues were flabbergasted. What I have found is I am focused and more structured and intentional. In part, the focus is being able to isolate and just work on what needs to be accomplished. It has been a good thing because I feel fewer things have gotten lost in the cracks, which is something I often have to confess to. I think there are always ways to be more effective, but it seems I have been able to take this isolationism and make something positive, much more than expected. It is always amazing to me how we can, if we choose, find the positive in any situation. Some will argue with me in the midst of our unprecedented world being turned upside down, but I do believe there are still many positive things.

My adopted mother, Bernice (actually Alene Bernice) Martin was born 100 years ago today. I wonder what the world was like in Sioux City, Ia, when she was born the youngest of 10 children to a very poor family in an area of Sioux City called the South Bottoms. It was a section of town that was inhabited by mostly first generation immigrants (including Bohemian, Irish, Scandinavian, and Mexican families). [They] made their homes in the area along with Native Americans and African Americans. Most did not have transportation and lived close to the factories and packing plants where they worked. Both sides of my adopted family worked in the packing plants and the stockyards industry at some point. The stockyards, which was the third largest in the world in size, often was the largest in terms of yearly receipts. I was small, living in a different area of town in the latter 1950s and into 1960. My grandmother’s bakery was actually a block north of the South Bottoms area, but only a few blocks away from where my adopted mother would have grown up. By 1962 or 1963, that area of town, the area my mother would have called her neighborhood, was no longer there because of the creation of Interstate 29 as well as the rechanneling of the Floyd River. I wish I might have taken time to know some things earlier. What I do know is having an alcoholic, abusive father and ten children did not work well. What I do know is there were times the older brothers were as much more a father to my mother than perhaps her own father was. And I know that the way she witnessed the death of her father at the age of seven had to be life altering. There would be other devastating incidences in her life and it was a time before anyone would have considered counseling. Family problems stayed at home. Being the youngest of 10 could not have been easy either. Then there is the basic time in which all of this happened. While women’s suffrage occurred at the time of her birth, the role of women outside the home would not occur for some time yet to come. She married at the beginning of the Second World War, probably only a few months out of high school, and her husband would leave for the service shortly thereafter.

What I have figured out as I have aged is the experiences in my mother’s life were difficult and overwhelmed her. They left her insecure and frightened. And not surprisingly, they made her angry. They were unfair, and certainly nothing she deserved, but more importantly she felt she had no one to assist her or help her with them. Over the years, it would be her older brother, Elwood, who was a reclusive bachelor his entire life, and her eldest sister, Charlotte who was probably a mother to her as much as anyone. She was incredibly close to her next eldest sister, June, but she lived in Seattle, and that was not driving distance from Northwest Iowa. I think the things she went through physically and emotionally all by the age of 25 had profound consequences on every aspect of her health for the remainder of her life. In addition, I do not think she really ever desired to have children, but she lived and reached adulthood at the beginning of the baby-boomer years. As I look back, I can say with some degree of certainty, it was probably my father who wanted a family. Adoption became their only option and they adopted a son in early 1951 and I am not sure if that was pre- or post-Washington residency. I think the decision to move to Washington at some point must have had some significant push from her because it would put her close to her sister June. Perhaps the return to Iowa had to do with elderly parents. There are a lot of fuzzy pieces in terms of chronology, but certainly not having something stable for the decade of the 40s and what happened to her during that time was undoubtedly overwhelming.

Not probably wanting children and then having three, albeit adopted children, did not really every work well. When my sister, Kris and I would be added in May of 1960, I am pretty sure her general feeling of being required to do something perhaps she was not inclined to do willingly, especially when my father would work out of town as an electrician, was insult to injury. It is not the desire to have children, but I can imagine for appearances sake, particularly as the boomer life was in full swing, she had to “fulfill her motherly duties.” Attitudes about that would probably be a 180 from then, but that did not help her. It is amazing to me, at least in terms of degree, how our past can dictate our future, but I believe too often we believe it to be almost deterministic. That is not how it has to be, rather that is what we allow. This morning, I was blessed to speak with one of my cousins (technically second), but she was the sister with whom I had the most affinity growing up. She was kind, energetic, thoughtful, intelligent and the list could go one. Of course, it did not hurt that she was incredibly gorgeous, but we would stay up at times and listen to music until the early hours of the morning. It has been literally decades since I spoke with her, but it felt as comfortable as it did all those years ago. The reason to catch up after all this time was because I stumbled across information earlier this week that was tragic. However, it prompted me to do some searching and what has come out of it is this reconnection. There is so much that we can lament and fail to do, or we can decide to do something about it. Those of you would know me know I am not inclined to play victim to circumstances. Rather I would prefer to be honest with the circumstance and my responsibilities and then move forward.

As I continue to write, it is now Friday the 4th. It is another remembrance of yet another birthday. My older brother, Bob, would be 70 today. That age seemed so old once upon a time, but he did not even live until the age of 30. In fact, I am the oldest living of any of my siblings, half, siblings, and as noted recently, I have lived longer than my grandmother did. It really is quite astounding to me to consider mortality, but it is a central part of our lives. We live; we love and influence others; we grow, make mistakes and learn; and yes, eventually life continues without us. That is not to be morbid, but it is a simple timeline of our existence. What is much more incredible to me is the reality that the world changes profoundly regardless of our part in it. The world of our parents and grandparents is hard to even remember at times. I remember when I got my first computer (1987). I remember having my first cell phone (1999). I remember my first smartphone (2004, which was much earlier than many). I can imagine my father trying to manage that, and it does not appear to be a show with a happy ending. The same would go for my mother. It would be interesting to imagine what my brother might do. He was mathematical and scientific in his approach to things. He might have done alright.

The point is, our world has changed drastically, not merely in the century since my mother was born, but even within my life time, or more significantly even since I graduated with my undergraduate degree. That was 10 years after high school, but I see 1984 as the sort of opening of the floodgate of technology. That Macintosh Super Bowl commercial pretty well covers what has happened since. And the consequence of it was not what the average person expected, or did they? That would be an entirely different posting, but certainly the dystopian novelists, some of the conspiracy theorists, and most certainly some who have written about the sort of big brother or pandemic-ridden societies that might occur seem less like science fiction and more like doomsday prophets. My mother was not uneducated, and she was not foolish, but she did see things in a very dialectic manner. It was either this or that, and yet she was prone to some conspiracy-grabbing, it you will. My father, on the other hand, was a realist as well as pragmatic and a roll-with-the-flow person. That is not to say he had no opinions; he certainly did, but he was able to realize what he had power over and what he did not. I am sure they would have some interesting things to say about our current world. I would like to believe that I have some of both of them in me (and I know I do), but I think the way I work with others and how I view the world is probably more influenced by my father. I think my mother subscribed, more than she perhaps thought or even wanted to, that the man was the head of the household. I never had any discussions with them, but I could see her voting at some point more as a Republican than my father ever would have. And yet, until actually thinking about it now, I would have said they voted the same ticket always.

As the week has progressed, it is amazing that I have ended up where I have. Thinking about and reconnecting with even more of my family has been an expected and important gift to me. More importantly, one I need to embrace and nourish. There is so much about my life that has been disconnected, and there are reasons, some realized and some circumstantial, but it is not often such profound opportunities come to pass. That is how I feel at the end of this week. I note all these people who hold on to family and many times, I have struggled to do so. Now it seems important to me to see what I should do, how I might become part of something that was lost over time. It is even more important because it is from my mother’s side and there was been little to manage that or even attempt at any management. I am grateful to my cousin, Kim for responding to my call. She noted that she has spoken with some of the rest and hopefully more reconnecting is to come. I am blessed in this season of hope, this first week of Advent. The light can shine out of our darkness if we allow. As I think of my mother and a century since her birth, I am grateful to her and I am glad to be able to say that. As I think of a brother, who left this world all too soon, I am still in awe of your music and your brain. Thank you to both of you for what you have left me. This was my father’s favorite Christmas song, and in the Glee spirit of this past semester, I offer this version.

Thank you all for reading and joy and hope in this season.

Michael

Letting Go: Sometimes in Ways Expected – Sometimes Not

Hello from my study in the house,

I have completed my grading, and the last gasps of a semester, one taxing for both students and faculty, is now upon the faculty. Last weekend, the university held a socially distanced graduation, one thoughtful, safe, and meaningful to students, families, and yes for people here at Bloomsburg. I was invited by both undergraduates and graduate students to be part of their small allowed entourages as they received their diplomas and were allowed to walk the stage in their regalia. I did not wear mine, but it was an incredibly meaningful thing to see them reach this milestone in their lives. One of the most interesting things about graduation is the reality of students you have created relationships with over four years (or more) are leaving this community, this family of local Huskies as we call them, launching their howls or barks in new places. This is a mixed bag of emotions. They are doing exactly what we prepared them to do. Much like a parent, if you do your job well, you work your way out of a job. There is some parallelism in being a professor. I am always amazed how much students change in their self-awareness, in their understanding of the world, and in their realization of what it means to become an adult during their time as undergraduate students. Some, undoubtedly, take longer than others, but for the most part it still happens.

This semester has been difficult, as I noted. Teaching three sections of freshmen in an asynchronously remote fashion was going to be a stretch. The reasons for that are legion, but first, it requires discipline and being a self-starter. Noa a typical freshmen trait, and the reasons for that are many also. Second, it requires an incredible amount of reading. Put most simply, students, do not like to read or simply do not read. That sets up a difficult scenario. Their admitted reason for not liking to read: it takes too long or I only want to read things I am interested in. There is much that can be said about that, but I will let it percolate in your minds if you are reading this (ironically). This semester, 43% of my freshmen either dropped the class or have a D or F in their freshman writing class. That is an incredibly troubling figure. That is probably 10 times what I might have in a normal semester. That pains me beyond words and I am trying to figure out what I should have done differently. I do know a couple of things, but 14 of the 54 remaining in the class did not turn in their final major essay (and this was the biggest assignment of the semester). I worked to include things I thought they might be interested in, and the great majority of the class noted they enjoyed the novels and corresponding video work more than any class they have ever had. That is a great thing to hear, but there was a lot more I needed to manage it seems to get them ready for what was coming during the semester. I seldom have that many people drop a course in two or three years combined, let alone a single semester and one class.

As we address issues of retention, that is certainly not a way to help retain students, but it brings me to a different question: what makes a person ready for college, and more precisely, who should come to college, especially as a newly graduated senior out of high school? That is a much more difficult question for many reasons, but there are so many students who come to college because they are supposed to . . . I disagree with that rationale, and yet, there are still some for whom that process works. How do we know who can make it and who cannot? I wish the Magic Eight Ball would tell me what to do. I have already been reflecting on a number of things I will need to reconsider if I am going to better help students next fall (should I be in PA rather than Poland). Regardless, as I have noted many times this past 8 months, the remote genie is not going to be rebottled, so there is work to do before teaching the class again. There are two specific issues: first, simply managing the basic requirements needed to move from the 5-paragraph essay to college writing, which is a major task; and second, and this one is on me, teaching them more effectively to use sources and cite because it is evident that is not happening in high school. As I am headed into another asynchronous remote semester, there is a lot of work I want to do, but most of that work will occur in January because in November I have some of my own scholarly writing to get wrapped up before some January deadlines. I think the more I stayed locked down as this Covid situation continues to deteriorate, the better off I will be.

This moves me to my title and the real intention of this posting. As I noted there are always times you realize people are going to move in and out of your life, and certainly graduation is one of those times. It is an occupational reality of being a professor, even if you are in the graduate area. And yet, as an English professor, it is often the case that I will not see some students after having them in class as freshmen. Still there are others who continue to be part of my life because of the reality of what happens in freshman writing courses. Yet, they still move on. I have watched this with two particular students who are juniors this year. They were in different sections of my Foundations course, but in the same semester. They are both in another college, but one has a minor in my area and one does not. They are both strong students, but in different ways. This semester they have been sort of the Tale of Two Cities in how they would reach out. Both, in spite of not having me as their professor, reached out regularly for help in professional documentation as well as some other things, and that is always a mixed bag. I am grateful they value my opinion, and as such I want to offer the best assistance I can, but there are times when it seems they want (and simultaneously resist) my advice. This is always a struggle. When I say it might be good to work a bit more diligently or it might be worth taking the time to speak more about this (with my hope that I can be more efficacious in what I give them) they seem to want things to magically happen. This is one of those things where I struggle to let it go. I think it is, in part, because I want them to do well, but I cannot make them do well. It is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, but then not quite completing it (perhaps for both of us). Why would someone go that far and then not finish it, not do the best they can? What I need to realize is what I think is the best and what they are content with are not necessarily the same thing. That is something I still struggle to accept. Of course, then they surprise you with a thank you card, for instance, and change your entire perception of something. It reminds me of the way my father looked at things when it came to this three children. He noted, when they are out of the house, he had no control. He could only pray that things turned out in the best possible way and that he would be there if needed. He was such a wise person. He never tried to control things. That is a lesson I am still learning, or, perhaps more accurately, failing to remember all too often. It is important to know when to let a student go and let them figure things out for themselves. Again, if we have done our jobs, they will be okay. Perfect? No, but they do not have to be.

As I complete yet another semester, it has been a learning time for me too. It is always that way, but it seems to be even a more profound experience this semester. I know the semester has been a grind. I have explained it as an expected marathon, as a semester of consequences and accountability. I have tried to help students understand that the idea of claiming an education is something they do, and it is what is necessary to take response-ability for their college education. And yet there are some who figure it out. It is the figuring out the is what is hoped, but it can be a sort of bitter sweet thing. By the time they are junior and certainly as seniors, it means is they can stand on their own two feet and move forward without our focused assistance. Some do the more rapidly than others. Ironically, they are not always sure when it happens, but they will unconsciously move into that place where they will only ask for assistance when they really need it. What is important for us is pretty straight forward: they have done it! That is not always an easy thing to do. I think that is particularly the case for writing professors. Generally the first time we become acquainted is when they are freshmen, and the class is smaller. Freshmen are in a profoundly fragile space, but they do not always understand what that means or how to manage it. Therefore, much in writing is self-expression and helping them determine their identity. Then they get to be about juniors and they begin to think of life beyond college, which is exactly what they should do. I have some insight there because of my area of professional and technical writing, courses precisely about preparing them to write beyond college (and often create documents that are about getting them there). It is always interesting how they manage that transition. Some are perhaps like baby birds trying to take that first flight. Some make it, and they seldom look back. Some will come back again and again, needing assurance or help, trying to be both independent while simultaneously ask for help, but at some point they will not return. Letting them go is necessary, but it can be painful. It is always a bit shocking how fragile we can be as mentors. And yet when we let our fragility get in the way, we actually get in the way of their progress. That is something I learned the hard way earlier in my career. It still occurs, but not nearly as often, and more importantly, I have learned how to let go so much easier than I once did.

I think another unexpected consequence of this pandemic and the subsequent social distancing will be how we build relationships with students. Can we build relationships with the incoming freshmen, helping them realize that we are there for them and not their adversary? One of the things I learned this semester is it is not easy. It will take intentional work and thoughtful dialogue. It will take careful, honest, critical, and kind responses on our part. I think how we manage our assignments and tailor them to the students will also be important. That is why I will take time tomorrow to reflect on each assignment and see where grades are and try to figure out how to help them manage their work more effectively. It is why I plan to revise two upcoming courses extensively before next semester. If we are going to create those meaningful relationships with students serving as mentors and advisors, much of what I have done in personal contact before will need to be reconsidered. If I do not figure that out, I am afraid the relational aspect of college that is so important will be forever changed. As the storyteller I am, I will need to think about what I will do moving forward because certainly this last semester saw some very significant students leave the nest. They have found their own voice and what is what we want. The Voice – a song by Celtic Woman is one of my favorite tunes. Here is one of my favorite videos of it. This is a dieted (dubbed dusted) version of it, so it is different from the original Lisa Kelly version. It amazes me, much like my students, there are always incredible individuals to take the place of those who go before.

Thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin

Thankfulness in a Solitary Manner

Hello from the study on the Acre,

It is about 1:30 or so on a Thanksgiving afternoon here in Pennsylvania. It is not like other Thanksgivings I have experienced, at least for the most part. Then again, it is not the first time I have spent one alone. That is simply how life works when you are single, did not have children, and have no family close by. However, before you think I am feeling sorry for myself or that I want you to be feeling sorry for me, that is not the intention. I think the virus makes the idea of solitary something very different for most this year, and that is not just in our American psyche of I-can-do-what-I-want, when-I-want, but even globally, there is a difference as we move into the traditional holidays (more globally being Advent and Christmas into Epiphany). As we are prone to do, we remember those gatherings of days gone by and reminisce about how those were simpler times, believing them to be easier times, understanding them as more wonderful times, but how accurate are we? I remember the infamous trips to my Great-aunt Helen’s or my Grandmother Louise’s homes, and there is not a single sad memory of either place. In fact, as I have noted often in my past blogs, they were fabulous cooks, incredible bakers, and there was nothing we could imagine having that was not somewhere on their holiday tables. Certainly gathering to share their scrumptious offerings was an unparalleled treat for a multitude of reasons. However, it is only the food I miss from then?

Certainly, the food is part of it because it was so tasty, but sitting around those tables in a way that made everyone important was as relevant. Then there was the really competitive games of Hearts or the spending time on that enormous Southeastern South Dakota farm or the acreage at the edge of our Northwest Iowa hometown. My grandmother’s dining room was a place of family and sharing. When I think about giving thanks, being the nephew and grandson to two such amazing women is and will be forever one of the things that makes me most blessed. What I remember now is, from 1958 until the end of her life, some 18 1/2 years later, my grandmother was single. She lived a busy life among people, but at the end of her long day in the bakery, after checking three grocery stores on the way home, she would be by herself. I understand in a much profounder manner what that meant. I am certainly not aware of her feeling left out, of ever seeing her depressed about becoming a widow at the age of 45. I have noted before she struggled with that for some years initially. In fact, it through her into a tailspin for a while. Now I find myself asking what makes being solitary a reasonable, maybe even better than the other, particularly when we live in a world that pushes being with another? I am not sure I have a simple answer, but then again, as the adage goes, not one size fits all people.

Recently, I spoke with my former counselor, a person I met almost weekly for six years while in graduate school. He is an incredible man, one I credit with keeping me alive at one point in my life. In our recent phone call, I told him there were two things he told me that I remember most succinctly (that is not to say I that I do not remember other things). The first was one morning after being accused of doing some rather batshit crazy thing with a phone bill (which when calling the phone company they said that had not happened), he told me the reason I got so frustrated when trying to settle arguments with a spouse was that I argued in a logical manner and that was not how my partner chose to interact. He then went on to tell me I was perhaps one of the smartest people he had ever met, but that I was I was so incredibly stupid when it came to females. For what it is worth, he was a bit more blunt than that. When I relayed that, he told me he remember telling me that. The second thing he said was even more disconcerting. He said, “Michael, if you are interested in someone, I would suggest you turn and run the other way as fast as you can.” I told him that it was because of him I was still single 20 years later. His response, and typically so, was, “So you listened to me.” I guess I did, whether I realized it or not. There is always a rather mixed bag when we consider any aspect of our human existence. Honestly – as I have aged, I have become more protective of my solitude. I no longer see it as something to avoid. Simultaneously, there are times when I feel lonely; there are moments when I wish there was another person. Yet, even when there has been someone, I am not sure I knew what to do with that. Twenty years of being accountable to mostly myself, makes sharing that process a very significant lifestyle change. I know that in the couple of times there have been others even as close friends, I have failed at being as open and transparent as one needs to be if there is a relationship, regardless of where that relationship is or isn’t headed. That is something I am still coming to terms with. I think I understand that more now than I did even a short time ago.

As I sit at home this holiday, more than one person has reached out to share with me in a thoughtful and caring manner. This afternoon, I zoomed with family in NJ, MN, WI, and IA and had a wonderful conversation and chance to see nephews, nieces, great-nephews, and great-nieces, and others. I am always blessed to hear about their lives and see how amazing they are. Their father would be so proud of his children and his grandchildren. It is amazing to me that those nephews and nieces are in their later 40s and some in their early 40s or on the brink. So much has happened over that time. I spoke with an incredible friend and restauranteur today. We are close in age, but he is a talent beyond most anyone I have ever met. We had a great conversation about life and people, as we always seem to do. We both want people to succeed and he gave so many young people an opportunity to learn and grow in his restaurant. I still miss, some eleven years later, the opportunity to stop in there at the end of a long day and he would let me go back and make my own cocktail (it is where I learned Akvavit and tonic could be so refreshing) and we would sit and chat about possibilities and the world. He often accused me of being a Republican masquerading as a Democrat. That might surprise some of you. To spend 20 minutes speaking with him today was a treat and certainly an event to be thankful for. I know that traditions are being changed, but that is what can begin a new tradition. Zooming with relatives today was a wonderful new thing, but something I hope will happen more often.

So I have spent a good part of the day alone in my place reaching out or being reached out to, so there is little solitary, but as I sit here and type, Google music is in the next room and I am blessed to be here and remembered as well as remember so many things for which I am grateful. To my family, who though most are far away, they remember and love me. Distance and a lack of being in their presence this day, does not make them any less important or less loved, in fact, for me it does the opposite. To my colleagues and friends here in Bloomsburg who have reached out today in a variety of ways to remind me that I matter to them, again, thank you. Their willingness to share in their day when I am not family is no small thing to me and it humbles me. To those who I have spoken with by phone or text, hearing from you on this different sort of a Thanksgiving again makes it all that more important. It is difficult to ponder thankfulness if we focus on the world around us at the moment. From the pandemic to a country who seems to see individual rights as something more important than what is best for our society, from the political upheaval because some are convinced their candidate had an election stolen, to a world that is reeling with natural disasters, fires, hurricanes, and other climate related issues it could be easy to lose hope, but I refuse to do so.

One of the many amazing doctors I have been blessed to have lives much of his year in a completely different part of the world. He is not only an outstanding doctor, but he is even more so an incredible person. He is a poet, an artist, a gentle and thoughtful soul, and a person who blesses me each time I read something he posts. He has offered a series of things, things some might consider mundane or even trite, to be thankful for . . . and he is spot on. Big things, overwhelming things, once in a lifetime things get all our attention because they are extraordinary, but they fade and their luster can mesmerize us, but it is momentary. It is the constants in our life that need to be noticed, that deserve our gratitude or thankfulness. Why? Because of their very consistency in our lives. Sometimes it is a person; sometimes it is what we see each and everyday, and the thing that reminds us who we are and what really matters. Sometimes it is the thing that goes unnoticed and we are only aware of it when we grab for it and have need of it. It is the thing or the things we are most apt to take for granted. I am always reminded as I watch others to try to reflect on myself. Not as a comparison, but to reflect on how blessed I am.

I did not get here by myself, but rather I am the product of a number of people who have reached out in ways always offering something to make my life easier, better, more successful. Sometimes I realized that need, but many times I did not. As I finish this Thanksgiving holiday, I choose to focus on the multitude of ways I have been blessed beyond measure from those who have loved me throughout my life to the opportunities that have been offered and some I have worked really hard to achieve. I am blessed and thankful for family and friends, for things that have taught be to take nothing for granted. I am grateful to so many health care professionals who have been there for me in the past and in this time, I am even more grateful for those who now put their lives on the line daily for their patients. They are walking, living angels in a hurting world. I am grateful to complete another semester and meet incredible young people in my classes who care deeply about the world in which we live. The list could go on, but I think you get the idea. Thanksgiving is about exactly what it says: to give thanks for so many things great and small. I wish each of you a blessed weekend in spite of the difficult time in terms of our requirements to remain distant. Distance can be eclipsed by simple acts of kindness and helping others to know they matter. Kindness makes people thankful and thankfulness makes people kinder. It is an easy concept, and one our world desperately needs.

Thank you and blessed Thanksgiving to each of you. Thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin

Missing a Surrogate Son

Hello from my office,

As we move into, and through, the fall, it is difficult for me to not remember where things were a year ago and how both my house and my life was changed, and transformed, by a somewhat unexpected and yet somewhat planned, young Dane, who took his own chance to spend a year away from his Copenhagen suburb. I still remember looking at paperwork about a youthful Danish person, scrambling to get my own paperwork completed, and ordering items to make Anton more at home. When I picked him up at the airport, he was both excited and exhausted from a flight that took him from Copenhagen to Frankfurt, then to Chicago and back to Philadelphia. He had been up for probably 36 hours and he was in a new place. We got his suitcase and as it was late, the trip back to Bloom was not that interesting to him because it was dark. I can imagine he felt like the ride was insufferably long, but when we got him to this room, he seemed pleased and was asleep in no time. The next morning, I let him sleep until he chose to get up and then I took him to Cracker Barrel for his first American breakfast. I would learn he loves breakfast (including scrapple). During the first weekend, he accompanied me to some significant social events and he was very social and enjoyable and he conversed with people easily. I learned almost immediately how capable and thoughtful he was. At the end of that Labor Day weekend, he would begin school and he was a bit concerned about whether or not people would like him. Suffice it to say when he came home with band magnets, female phone numbers, and notes from people the first day, I knew he would do fine.

While he had no formal musical training, he was a drummer and as such decided to participate in marching band. It was the first important decision I think he made because it provided access to an entire social group and during the fall as I attended my first high school football games in decades, it was evident that he fit in quite well. He had quite the little group of people interested in him (mostly female it seemed; amazing what an accent and personality will do!). Mr. Haile, the band director at Central Columbia, was incredibly understanding and even went so far as to offer Anton lessons to read notes. I can say without reservation that band was one of the most important things that happened to Anton, but he was also a strong student in general. He did struggle with a Trig class, but all in all, he did quite well in all of his classes. During the fall, he found our Halloween traditions fascinating and was more than willing to experience as much as he could. I will not post any pictures here, but he did make quite the amazing nun as he marched in the Catawissa Halloween parade. As I write this, it is almost a year since his birthday. His parents were so good at sending things to help him hold on to Denmark, while simultaneously working to Americanize himself to some degree. This birthday he becomes an adult. That is no small thing, but he is, perhaps, the most incredibly mature and profoundly honest young man I have ever been blessed to meet. He questioned things regularly, but he was never afraid to be honest about something, even when it did not go as planned, or when he had a concern. He never lied to me once. That is beyond what I could have hoped for a person his age. He was simply and purely honest. He made it easy to care about him and love him. As I write at this point I am wiping tears away. I can still walk into his room and I miss seeing him there, though it is a bit less messy than when he was around. I remember once saying to him as I walked into the room, “It looks like a frickin’ bomb went off here.” He smiled, and said, “Impressive, huh?” I could only walk away.

Probably most unexpected was the fact that we had similar senses of humor. I think it was both helpful and a curse at time because he could throw things back at me faster than I could get them out at times. It made for some interesting moments. I still smile when I asked him about how going to dinner with six girls at homecoming went and he said, “Loud.” and nothing else. I almost laugh out loud when I think about the time I asked him to try not to charm anyone at musical practice that day, and without missing a beat, he turned and responded, “Fuck off, Michael.” I could only smile as he walked away. He shut me down and his retort was not disrespectful, but merely flipping right back on me what I had tried to flip on him. Regardless of what he did or said, it was almost impossible to be angry at him. This is not to say it never happened. I think there were, however, only two or three times that entire year we were really frustrated with the other. He taught me so much. I doubt, at least to the degree, he realizes the profound impact he had on my life. I am still realizing it myself. What Anton taught me was to be more thoughtful, more patient, more open to possibilities, and perhaps, most importantly, to not be afraid to give of myself to another. That might sound a bit surprising for someone who gives quite a lot, but it was different. When I give in other situations, I can control the boundary; I can determine what I will or will not do. That does not happen so easily when the other person has a mutually dependent relationship. You might think I understood that, but just maybe that is why my marriages did not go as well as they might. I was afraid to give so unconditionally. Somehow, Anton made that sort of giving easy. Perhaps it is because he willingly gave back. Again, Anton is thoughtful, considerate, cautious to a degree, but able and willing to share of himself. He thinks before he speaks, before he does, and yet, he can be as spontaneous as anyone else. He has a playfulness that gives you insight into the little person still inside his 6’0′ frame, with long slender legs, and a bottomless-pit-of-a-stomach. He put up with my giving him spice after spice, and he was open to trying new and different things than the Danish cuisine that was so much of who he was. And he loved Taco Bell!

I think about the changes in me as a result of being a surrogate parent; they are even more profound because it took me until my 60s to accomplish this, but I am not sure it would have happened, or certainly not as profoundly if it had, without Anton coming to live on the Acre. What is more impressive about this single individual was the profound effect he had on others, and not just his schoolmates, but on my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Seldom does a week go by that someone does not ask me if I have heard from him or spoken with him. As I have been over to people’s houses, which, of course, is not as often as before the pandemic, if he was part of that experience a year ago, people are asking about him. I guess the other thing that has held true is what I anticipated about his family. He has a mother, father, and one sister. They too are incredible people. They have been so gracious and I was not just blessed by a young man, but by the entire family. Whenever we have an opportunity to FB video or other options, it is such a joy to speak to all of them.

The pandemic has changed plans twice already, and there is no telling how long that will be the case, but in the meanwhile, we will continue to meet in a socially distanced manner (3,905 miles or 6,264 km). That is some serious social distancing. Fortunately, the internet works on both sides of the pond and we are able to get together. I remember telling Anton early on that I was pretty sure if something happened to him, his parents would be furious, but believed Carla would come to America and kill me. His response was a simple statement. “You are very wise,” He said. It is wonderful and evident to see how much they love each other and while this might seem a bit simple, it makes my heart happy. We need people so committed to the other in this present world.

I am sure some of you will ask if we ever bumped heads or if we got put out by the other. Of course, it did happen, but I have to give Anton a huge shout out for how respectful and thoughtful he is. He is a questioning person. He will challenge most anything, but not merely for the sake of challenging, but to better understand. He is thoughtful and analytical, but he is also still a young adult. One morning I came into the kitchen and he had left it a pit (and Anton, if you walked into the kitchen this morning, you would be a bit shocked, but it is a bit of a pit). I was not happy, and to make a long story short, I texted him and provided pictures of my morning discovery as I went to work on my office (this was a Saturday). I told him I was not happy and he was grounded for three days. Then he was not happy. He called me at the office, but I told him we would speak in person and not by phone. He called me 5 times that morning and after each phone call, I remained at the office a half hour longer. Therefore, when I finally got home, after running some errands, he was rather perturbed with me. The long and short of the conversation, which looking back was a bit humorous, was I took two days off the grounding and we came to an understanding. There was another time when he struggled to make his friends accountable and their choices put him in a difficult situation. I was angry that time, but we made it work. What I learned, as did he (I believe), was this: talking it out reasonably took care of the great majority of any issue. Neither he nor I hold grudges and I do get angry, but I have learned (and it has been a process over years) to not get overly heated. I know some will question that, but is it interesting to me that I dealt with situations and Anton as I never had. It is another thing we were able to do together. I am so grateful to him.

The year was a year of learning and memories from travels to Cape Charles, both earlier in the year as well as the place from which he would return to Denmark, much too early to dinners, road trips, and other experiences. And yet, there was so much we had still planned to do. The picture here is of Anton on the next to last day he was in America. He had gained some weight, might have even grown a few more centimeters, and he was a different person in terms of world perspective after living on the Acre of a bit longer than 7 months. A trip to the Upper Peninsula in January created another experience with weather and driving that he probably remembers. First, Houghton, as my UP colleagues know has a lot of snow, and last year was a particularly snowy winter. And, of course, Anton picked up some Michigan Tech swag, so the memories continue. On the way back, barely across the Mackinac Bridge, after spending the night on the UP side because of wind, we got caught in snow through most of the upper half of the Lower Peninsula. Both he and my student considering graduate school had fallen asleep and they were a bit shocked as I drove down I-75 at about 30 mph over a snow-packed interstate. It was not the first time he told me I was a good driver. That meant a lot, but it also reminded me of the fact his family did not drive, own a car, or even have licenses at that time. That was beyond strange for me. There were so many things I still wanted to do with him, but the world would have different ideas. Covid-19 would change a number of plans, including the suspension of his making the Varsity Tennis Team. Fortunately, the musical, which he did finally agree to participate in, had concluded and he was able to experience one of the many things Central Columbia does so well. I think, of the many things that still impress me about Anton, was his ability to do whatever he did well. It did not matter if it was his academics, which he was very accomplished at, being in the band or the play, which gave him new opportunities, or simply meeting people, regardless their age, he impressed people with both his skill and his kindness. The other thing Anton did well was understand most people better than they understood themselves. We would chat and he would share his observations. I can say unequivocally, he is more amazing as a soon to be 18 year old than I was in my mid-twenties. When we found out he had to leave early we both cried. When he made it to the Baltimore Airport at 3:40 a.m., there was no time for tears. However, when I got back to the acre a few days later, I opened the door to his room and it was the cleanest he had ever kept it. His flag hung from the top drawer just as it had when he arrived. I sat in the room and I cried for 10 minutes or more. As I write this in my office, I am so glad there are so few people in the building because once again tears are streaming down my face.

I was blessed beyond words to have Anton as my exchange son. I still am. I miss him terribly and I am humbled by all he taught me. I had hoped to get there at Christmas, but the world continues to fight against that travel. It will happen. In the meanwhile, I will keep him and his family in my heart. I am blessed in so many ways by the renewed Danish connection in my life. It was January of 1981 when I was in Copenhagen. I will get there again with so much joy. Jeg savner dig, Anton, og jeg ønsker dig den mest vidunderlige 18-årsdag. Du har begavet mig med din tilstedeværelse i mit liv og med din kærlighed. Der er ingen ord, der kan udtrykke, hvor vigtig du er for mig. Mange tak for at være den fantastiske person, du er. Dette er den sang, jeg delte med dig, da vi fandt ud af, at du bliver nødt til at rejse tidligt. Det er stadig den sang, jeg giver dig nu.

Thank you as always for reading.

Michael

When We Seem More Broken than Not

Hello from my office,

It is not by accident that I am writing this on the day following the 245th Anniversary of the foundation of the United States Marine Corps and on Veterans’ Day at a few minutes from the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month. I am hurting. I am disillusioned; and I am stunned by where we are as a country. As a Marine, I joined the service as a 17 year old, yes, wet-behind-the-ears, barely 115 pound, naive NW Iowa boy. Did I join because I had this overwhelming desire to be patriotic? Simply put: NO. Vietnam was drawing to an end. My mother and I were at odds over everything, and I mean everything, and I had no idea why or how I would attend college. It seemed out of my league, both academically and financially. So on a lark one day, as I have noted before, I skipped school and with a senior classmate found myself at the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in downtown Sioux City, Iowa. He was considering going into the Marine Corps, so I tagged along. Amazing what that day created. Within about three months I went from having no direction to finding myself standing on the yellow footprints of MCRD-San Diego. Yes, for those here, East of the Mississippi, I was a Hollywood Marine.

My time in the Marine Corps would change the trajectory of my life. It could have done so even more had I been a bit more thoughtful. Suffice it to say, I would have gone to college on the government’s dime, come out as a Second Lieutenant, and retired at 37 had I thought carefully about what was offered, twice. I was pretty stupid, but it has turned out okay in the long run. Bootcamp was a shock and so were many of the other things that would happen to me, but it changed me in two important ways. The first is a sense of patriotism and love of country, but simultaneously an understanding of the complexity of our federal government. I will say more about that below. The second was an understanding of the importance of discipline and the necessity of it. Both of these realizations, of these lessons, are paramount in the uncertainty of what is occurring in light of this contested election (I will give some deference to those supporting President Trump at this time). Our government, all the way to the White House, was reeling when I was in the Marine Corps. We had both a Vice President and a President resign while I was in the service. That was unprecedented in our nation’s history. There is a lot more than merely tax evasion on the part of Vice President Agnew, but rather a dishonesty that began when he was in Baltimore. You can look it up, but what is probably more amazing is the scheme followed him to the Office of the Vice President because he was still receiving kickbacks for his actions from years prior. Second, there might be an irony that it was Agnew that would place then Candidate Richard Nixon’s name into nomination at the Republican National Convention. What is most interesting, particularly for me, is that as the investigation by the U.S. Attorney into Vice President Agnew gained steam in Maryland, both President Nixon and H. R. Halderman (the White House Chief of Staff) worked to assist the then Vice President to shut the investigation down (if it sounds familiar to present day, it should because the parallels are striking). That was our Executive Branch in the mid-1970s. Of course, eventually both Agnew and Nixon would resign. It was a dark time in our nation’s history and it would usher in the Presidency of James Earl Carter, who is certainly not one of the most effective Presidents, and one of only four (if the election holds) to be voted out after one term. However, Carter has become a statesman perhaps like no other since holding office (and that is supported across the political spectrum).

Let me return to the idea of patriotism and its complexity. I have what I would call an aversion to any sort of blind, unthinking, unquestioning patriotism or analysis of our government. Much like I noted in my last blog about our national psyche, most have no sense of the complexity of what it means to be patriotic. Complicating that is a national ethic which has moved toward situational versus some “more set of principled” ethic. This sort of struggle moved me to have a conversation with the Philosophy Department chair here at Bloomsburg. He helped me see there is a utilitarian aspect to this or more simply, something pure Machiavellianism. The issue is how is it we have become so Machiavellian? That might turn is back to the example of Agnew and Nixon, and certainly President Trump’s assertion of absolute power as President and a protective cocoon from prosecution would support that position. The reality of the President’s position is not anything probably anyone, maybe even he himself, has a complete handle on, but there is little doubt that there are a number of concerns about his legal issues and his financial status. In addition, depending on these two issues, I believe there is reason to believe he will consider running for re-election in 2024, or at the very least playing a significant role in that election. Patriotism is believing in and supporting your government, but it is also being honest about abuse of power and calling it out when it occurs, and that is not a partisan thing; it is the how democracy works. Bad behavior, unethical behavior, unlawful behavior should be called out regardless a person’s political bias. However, there is another aspect of patriotism that is a selfless action, something that comes from deep inside, it is that willingness to sacrifice for the whole, up to and including the giving of one’s life. This is what I came to realize by serving in the Marine Corps. It is more than an ideal; it is more than a concept; it is the reality of every single grave anywhere in the world, be it in France, in Arlington National Cemetery, Ft. Snelling, or even in Graceland Park Cemetery in Sioux City, Iowa, where three people, whose flags from their coffins are presently in my living room: my uncle, my father, and my sister. While the three of them were not killed in action, a person I knew was. That is a sobering, humbling, and profoundly eye-opening reality. Losing your life at 19 because you answered the call to serve is not something we can quite fathom, even when you see it happen.

Much of what is happening in our country, post-election, regardless political position, is being argued by both sides as an issue of democracy and fingers being pointed about honesty, transparency, and ultimately about our ethics as a nation. I am reminded of what Kellyanne Conway referred to as alternative facts when reporters inquired about Sean Spicer’s comments about the numbers at the inauguration of President Trump almost four years ago. Remember, the questions were raised because of photos and not merely because of what someone had written. Numbers and alternative facts have been a hallmark of President Trump’s tenure as President. Again, I could layout a laundry list, but that is not the point. I think it is important to understand that alternative facts, cherry-picked facts, any fact do and does. Facts are suspect. Not in some post-modern way, some Nietzschean argument that nothing has actual substance, as it might seem I am asserting, but rather political facts are not scientific facts and vice versa. The very word fact itself is loaded (and not as in the continued explosion of cannabis laws passed and in this cycle, it was Montana, Arizona, Mississippi, and South Dakota, not liberal bastions, btw). What constitutes a fact? Terms like disinformation, misinformation, hoax, fake news, and a host of other terms or phrases all do the same thing. They sow mistrust, suspicion at the very least, and on the other end, they can create division, vitriol, and some of the very things we see occurring now. Please know, I am not saying this only happens on one side of the political aisle, but I do believe we are in a place unlike anything in my lifetime. That is really the rationale for my title. Certainly in both the 2016 and the 2020 elections, the polls have left a bit to be desired. However, within 24 hours of the election Sec. Clinton stated, “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.” There were claims of fraud in 2016, mostly by the President-elect at the time, which is a bit ironic. Of all the investigated claims, only four were found to be accurate (Bump, Washington Post. 1Dec2016). Of course, there has been the continual claim that there were 6 million fraudulent votes, but Sec. Clinton only won by 3,000,000, so there are some possible issues. As we continue to count, in both Republican and Democratic states, the trend, turing red to blue because of mail-in votes, continues. Part of our struggle is what we expect from our politicians. Do we expect honesty, transparency, fairness? Perhaps in our ideal little corners we do, but more likely, we understand that there is some issue with our politicians, but we would like to fall into a camp where we believe the majority of them are reasonable, logical, principled. And yet, those are the mainstream. I believe what we are seeing now is more and more who fall out of the mainstream. That is certainly indicative of President Trump. Time and time again, he has been held up as the people’s politician, the person to whom the average person can more easily relate. The person who has their back. Why? In part, building off my last post, because people find his message rhetorically accessible. They perceive his passion as something they can appreciate or as someone who cares about them. What studies show is his language level, his rhetorical level, is about fourth grade. This is not a dissing of the President, but rather explaining why he has been so effective.

Certainly, the argument rages as to whether or not he is a Republican, a nationalist, a populist or none of the above. Arguments can be, and have been, made for each of these. If the President is a populist, which is one of the more (maybe not the most) likely options in my opinion, that is an important point. All politicians bend facts at some point. They reorder them; they take them out of context; and they know the necessity of spinning them. That is reality, but most often the mainstream do it is a manner that is difficult to argue or claim them as lying (at least without digging down). Studies show that populists, on the other hand, are not afraid of lying or even being exposed in that lie (Morrissey, Griffith University). However, if you might believe they are not calculating in what they say, again, studies will show something much different, and the rationale for that falsehood has a different purpose. Again, Morrissey argues there are two important considerations. First, the lies are not meant to be accepted by the general public, but rather to appeal to a particular element of the electorate, and without doubt, there is an incredible effectiveness to this strategy. Second, the lies and their acceptance have a profound consequence on political discourse. There is still an underlying belief that political discourse is at its core true. It would be easy again to ask the simple question: why would you lie about something so ridiculous? but that assumes the wrong question. The more important question is why tell that particular lie at that particular time? Let me note a dystopian novel many of us read at some point (Orwell’s 1984) and the story might be instructive. Orwell used phrases like “war is peace, freedom is slavery, or ignorance is strength” and the totalitarian government used propaganda to rewrite history at will. The use of the phrase “alternative facts” by Conway caused an unexpected renaissance for the novel as sales soared more than 9,500% (Amazon). Lies always have a reason, and a lie’s chief end is deception (Bok). What is more complex when considering this is not all deception is necessarily wrong or evil. Much could be said here, but allow one example. Parents might be very angry at each other, but will often mask that anger when in front of their children, particularly if the child is small. That is deception, but is it wrong? Probably not, for a number of obvious reasons.

This brings me to the crux of this particular posting. Populism is here, and the election of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris is not going to make that disappear. We may return to what many will believe a more traditional style, a more understood style of governing. Yet, it was that traditional style that people were disillusioned by. It was that more understood style that carried President Trump to an electoral college victory in 2016. And it is the Trump Administration’s use of what could be argue as populist rhetorical style that netted them north of 70 million votes in this election, so to assume that populism has no foothold in America (and the globe, for that matter) is beyond naive. I will argue populism rather than reaching out to our better angels, something I referred to in my previous blog, does precisely the opposite. It stokes of flames of discontent and fear. It pushes us toward the selfish tendencies we all have, but makes those tendencies seem reasonable, appropriate, and somehow efficacious. I will go so far as to argue that populism is foundationally narcissistic. Regardless of what some will argue about this election, the fact that Secretaries of State and Governors, regardless the party, have a sworn duty to manage elections is something we have depended on throughout our history, and it has carried us through much darker times than this. The elections of 1860 and 1864, as well as 1932 or even 1960 or 1972 are some of those moments. The election/SCOTUS project of 2000 is yet another one, and even though Al Gore would lose by only 537 votes, he would concede graciously noting that it was necessary to focus on the “unity of the people and the strength of our democracy” (History). As I write this, a dozen court cases have already been rather summarily dismissed for lack of evidence across the country. The separation of popular votes is over 5 million and the percentage of 50.8 as of this morning is the highest percentage since 1964, with the exception of two elections (ironically both elections where Biden was the Vice President on the ticket). It is also higher than any Republican win since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and actually higher than then Candidate Reagan’s blowout of President Carter in 1980 (50.7%) (Kilgore, Vision2020, 11Nov2020). As the populist President Trump is, or purports to be, it is easy to understand his disillusionment, and having watched his response to anything unfavorable to him over the last four years, his response is certainly not totally unexpected. But there is something more important here.

The Constitutional language of “We the people” is instructive. That is the nature of elections. As I have noted, I too believe it the right of legal challenge, but even as DOJ Attorney General Barr noted (and this is an entirely different concern), “Substantial allegations should be pursued.” What constitutes substantial? That is a concern also, particularly if we return to the idea of alternative facts. Yet, so be it. In the meantime, the fact that we are averaging 121,000 cases of COVID-19 a day for the last two weeks would deem the President’s contention that it would disappear after election day false. The fact that the Vice President has done nothing (it appears) to work with the task force is unconscionable. All of my Midwest relatives and friends are in the 5 states where the percentages are the worst, the very places I grew up. Regardless the outcome of the election, the Administration has a duty to the American people. Do your job. Much like the argument they used for the appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice, they have a duty to do whatever their job requires up to the last day. To only do what one wants, besides playing another round of golf, certainly supports the populist argument posited above. Concession is not required, but allowing the incoming administration access to transitional process is. It is a law. To block it, particularly in light of such statistics, is again contrary to the history of our democracy. The likelihood, and this has been argued by politicians on both sides of the aisle, of there being any sort of fraud or impropriety that could overturn more than a few hundred votes is miniscule. It is time to understand the consequence of populism and realize it is not going away. It is time to realize the clock has run out on President Trump and his election chances in 2020. Might he return in 2024? Well, it is certainly a possibility. That is for then. It is time for us to discount and repudiate the lies of this moment and move toward creating a country, which while divided might realize the importance of the bigger picture and believe we have an obligation to all people and yes, to the entire world to be the beacon of democracy we have been. It is a tarnished and struggling beacon, and not just because of this election, but it is a beacon just the same. It is “we the people” that can make it shine again, but I believe we need to point it outward and see where it goes. When we look into it, we are blinded, and perhaps that is what we have done. I have used this video before, but as we struggle as a people, I believe it captures my hurt and my hope.

Thank you for reading as always.

Dr. Martin