The World is a Provocative Place

Hello from Richmond,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you as always for reading.

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

SGS – Short Once Again

Hello from the GI/Nutrional Center at Geisinger,

I am currently waiting for a recopying of paperwork that I managed to misplace before I even got out of the hospital today. I am not sure how I managed that, but I did. I have been diagnosed with something called Short Gut (or Bowel) Syndrome, which is a direct consequence of the surgeries I have endured because of Crohn’s. It is primarily an issue of malabsorption of the intestinal tract. In my case, it is the combination of the removal of the large intestine (or total colectomy, which began in 1986) and the eventual removal of a significant portion of the ileum or part of the small intestine (which occurred completely in 1997, after reconstructing it in 1991 and again in 1993). For me the malabsorption is really no absorption because those parts of the intestinal tract are no longer present. The present treatment as it appears will include shots, vitamin supplements (of or for a number of things), a change in fluid intake, and a different diet. At least for the time being, I will not need parenteral nutrition (which would be vein feeding). The significant point in all of this is pretty simple. Once again, I have some sense of what is happening and why. Now I merely have to make the changes necessary to manage all of it. Most of my life has been about managing a situation where it seems things might have come up a bit shorter, smaller, or earlier than imagined.

Throughout high school and even into, and for most of, the service, I was the younger one, the shorter one, the smaller one, and probably, though difficult to say, the more immature one. All of those things had consequences for me. Being shorter created what might some call in today’s world bullying, but I saw it as a sort of teasing, and, indeed sometimes it had negative consequences. On the other hand it taught me how to cope; i learned how to manage difficult situations with both decorum and a sense of humor. That was significant because if I had been inclined to fight over most of it, I would have spent most of my childhood getting my ass kicked. My Great-aunt Helen once told me that I had developed a pleasant and pleasing disposition early in life (like before I was 2). Being shorter meant I was always in the front row in those group elementary school pictures. Being shorter meant that I was not going to be a basketball player and the fact I did not weigh three digits until I was senior in high school meant football was probably not a healthy choice. Instead, running and such were much more suited for my shorter, lighter physique. Then there was the fact that I looked even younger. Where I went to school, we had a junior/senior high school. Seventh (7th) graders were initiated, sort of like college freshmen and beanies back in the day. Looking as young as I did, I was still be initiated when I was in 10th grade. I remember going to a youth event for my church and being embarrassingly mortified when one of the older members of my youth group made fun of my minimal body hair when I was in 9th or 10th grade. Maybe that is why to this day, I have only been clean shaven twice since I was perhaps 23. I never really thought about that or made that connection. Starting school at the age of 4 seemed like a good idea to my parents, and probably to me, when I began kindergarten, but it had consequences when I got older, but was still one of the younger ones. Amazing that for the first third of my life, I was always that person: younger, shorter, smaller, and yes, still the immature one. That continued through my time in the Marine Corps. When I tried to enter the Marines, I did not pass the physical because I was too light. When I got to boot camp, I was named Private Chicken Body because I was so small. I was told if I lost weight I would be dropped to PCP (not a drug, but Physical Conditioning Platoon). Even when I got out of the Marines, I did not look like your typical veteran.

When I got to Dana, for the first time I was not the younger one, but actually one of the older. I was 24 when I entered as a freshman at Dana. While I had been to college before that first foray into higher education was less than stellar. When I started Dana, I was more immature than most realized, or more accurately, I was more frightened. I was afraid of failing again, and I was determined to not make the same mistake I had made previously. While those four years did a lot to shape the person I am today, there was still so much to learn. There was the need to believe in myself. There was the necessity of believing that I was worth something, that I was capable, that I belonged. Those maladies affected me more than most will realize. The maturity aspect of this is what I believe has been more inopportune for me than the shortness, smallness, or being younger. It seems, particularly into my 40s, that I was behind my peers. In my 20s that gap seemed to be 4 or 5 years, even when I was chronologically older. When I got into my 30s, and especially when I was a parish pastor, there was the necessity to catch up. In some ways, I did, but emotionally, not so much. This created more adversity. I remember having to work with so many people and so many things. I was theologically and practically prepared, but the little person, who was still such a profound part of me and that few saw, felt totally unprepared and inept. It created more problems that I have probably admitted in my personal life also. While there were ways I was ready to be married (and by that time I had been married for 5 years or so), there were other ways I really was not as prepared as I believed. There is an irony in that because while I was certainly older and more prepared in some ways, I was probably not any more prepared than she was, but I was viewed as older and wiser. It was not always true.

What I am forced to admit is that my immaturity certainly did things to doom that marriage. I know some who know both of us will say that I am being a bit hard on myself, and perhaps that is true, but I am not shouldering all the blame. It seems I must merely try to be more honest about my part in that failing. The other day I was talking about that period in my life and I have known for some time that while I believed I was handling things well, again, not so much. What I know is taking a position at Suomi at that time, while it seemed to be a good fit was anything but. Living in the dorm as I went through that divorce was problematic and even being in my own apartment the second year was less than ideal. Those two years also set a course with a bishop, to whom I referred in an earlier blog, that would be terminal for my calling as a pastor, at least in terms of ordination. Then I moved onto graduate school again, and toward a second marriage. The year between leaving Suomi and getting accepted to Michigan Tech was a brutal one, working as “the most educated server in the Keweenaw” did little for my self esteem, and probably damaged my liver more than I knew. I have often said all food and beverage staffs are dysfunctional families. That along with returning to being involved with the fraternity I had pledged as an undergraduate was a blessing and a curse to me. While I somehow managed grades and such, I did not manage responsible behavior and simply put, I tried to catch up on all the things I somehow believed I had missed. In terms of a rhetorical strategy, it did little for my ethos. Certainly, some probably thought me mentally ill or schizophrenic, and quite possibly, rightly so. I made mistakes in that time that I still regret. To get back to the theme for this posting, I fell short of what was expected and I was certainly a smaller person for it. By now I was into my 40s and honestly, I there were times I acted like an undergrad socially. Somehow academically, I did substantially better. Not surprisingly, I was in counseling this entire time. One might think a second marriage might have created a better situation, and in some ways, it did, but when the marriage created more issues, life was still a problem.

As I moved into the 21st century, I was still trying to figure out where I fit and who I was. That is a bit ridiculous for a person in their mid 40s, but it was who I was at the time. While again, I was successful in my professional life at this point, my personal life was in a shambles. In fact, my counselor at this point and I had this specific discussion. There is, as I noted a second marriage during this time, but I will address that in another blog at some point. I will say that I have had contact with my second wife recently and apologized to her for my failures. I am glad I was able to do that because it is about taking accountability for those choices. There are always ways to justify our mistakes, and certainly as humans we are prone to do so, but I think I am beyond that point. Simply put, I am a person who had (and still has) good intentions. The difference from the earlier Michael and the Michael of today is I allowed my immaturity and my things that I missed out on as a younger person to cloud my judgment. I wanted to experience some of the things I missed out on. With the older Michael, I somehow had my maturity  catch up with my chronology. I think perhaps the place that finally happened was in Menomonie, not in the first couple of years, but when I suddenly found myself caring for a new sort of adopted parent. I realized that I needed to do things better than I had earlier in my life. I needed to make up for what I felt was the failure of not being there for my own father.

I think I have always had some insightfulness into the needs of others and could see things that would help them, while failing to see the same exact thing in my own life. Again, somehow, my caring for the “little tornado,” as I still fondly call her, changed those things for me. Simultaneously, being in a new place professionally, and feeling a need to begin over, offered opportunities for me to finally close the gap. Interestingly, reconnecting with some and seeing things from a different perspective was helpful. Even in that reconnecting and exploring possibilities, I learned more about myself and what I needed if I am to care for myself. That was a new experience also. Most of my life I have probably vacillated between completely one side of the other, which is never good. What I am forced to admit it being short on one side or the other creates a situation that is seldom manageable. During the past 8 years I have been in Pennsylvania, I have finally closed the gap and I am probably where I need to be for the first time in my life. What I realize is I owe many people apologies for the failings, the mistakes, the inadequacies that permeated much of my life. I am sure I will make mistakes in the future, but it is my hope the failings will not cause others discomfort and struggles.

For the time being, it seems that I have a structure for my life and a structure for my health. Both things are helpful, and they are important. As I have told people, currently I have more doctors than I have fingers on one of my hands, but they are in touch with each other; as such I have an amazing team caring for me. During the past month, the care of others from students and colleagues to friends near and far, I am been blessed. Having the insight of a health professional who is also a dear friend has been my unexpected gift in all of this. The ability to ask questions and receive caring insight and advice has been both comforting and created a sense of security I am not sure I would have were the help not available. Speaking of other health things, as noted in a previous blog, one of my colleagues has passed on and the other is certainly in the closing days of his fight. Together they created a footprint on the English and Philosophy Department at Stout that cannot be replicated. In both cases, the loss is profound and life-changing, not only for their families, but for the scores of people they have touched across the country, and even the world. This is not hyperbole; it is the simple truth. As Dan has signed off on each of this letters to those of us honored to walk this journey with him, I leave you with this. Hug the ones you love. What amazing advice and what an important thing to remember.

While I have shared this video before, it seems appropriate in this time as I think of my mentor and treasured friend, Dr. Daniel Riordan.



To everyone else, thank you for reading and again, thank you for your thoughts and comments. I am blessed by you all . . . if I have offended or caused you harm in my earlier life, please forgive me.

Michael (Dr. Martin)

In the midst of Wonder

boot camp

Good morning from my office,

It has been some time since I wrote and while I have another blog posting drafted and quite a bit done on it, there has been something come to the fore in the past couple of days and so I am going in that direction. As has been the case most summers, I have taught a Foundations of College Writing course for a group of students who are conditionally admitted to the university. Their ability to remain as a student in the fall and beyond is dependent on their summer performance and grades. While there has been some issues with the decisions made to allow the student to matriculate or leave, what is most evident to me as I have worked with many of them is how under-prepared they are when they get to Bloomsburg.

First of all, let me note some things about the university where I work. Bloomsburg is an open enrollment university, which means if you apply here and you have a high school diploma and a modicum of ability, you will probably be accepted. The other day I was speaking with a colleague and I think the percentage of persons accepted was above 85%. That does not mean that there are not good professors, or demanding professors, or professors who are strongly versed in their fields and expect students to step up and do their work. What it does mean, however, often in the areas of math and writing, many students might need some remedial work before they are ready for that first college level course. However, that being said, the students I have in the summer are enrolled in the first level college writing course. Second, I should note that some of the most industrious and brightest students I have had in my 6+ years here came out of those summer classes. During the summer program students are required to follow a seriously regimented schedule, which is probably necessary for them to manage cramming a 14 week schedule into 6, but during the fall, there is a significant difference. They are required to meet with a mentor on a regular basis, but some of those mentors are students (which can be a substantive problem if they need some serious academic guidance) and they are required to do a mere two hours of tutoring a week. From what I can tell, there are not any other really demanding hoops through which they must jump.

As we are now into the 12th week of the semester, there are significant problems for some of them. They believe that their lack of creating priorities and discipline to manage those priorities is catching up with them. The more important issue is that they do not know how to study. Even when they sit down to try to manage their work, they have little idea how to do it effectively or efficiently. Most of them have only  12 credits and many of them have a remedial class, but they cannot seem to manage the expectations and requirements of what I would call a relatively easy semester. Again, I am well aware that what I consider to be easy and what they believe to be easy can quite different. One student in particular spent so much time working a job early in the semester and then got a second job (not two at the same time), but is now scrambling to manage the end of the semester. Others take 3 hour naps a couple of times a day. Going to that early class and then going back to the room and sleeping until lunch is not a optimum schedule when it comes to managing your work. I told all of them they would need to plan to spend 40-50 hours a week in class or studying, but I am not sure they believed me. Consequently most of them are getting kicked. What I am realizing is this; in spite of great intentions, I am not sure we are offering the support they need to manage after their summer classes. They are not able to manage the requirements because they do not have the discipline and they certainly do not have the study skills. Most have good intentions, but they have little sense of what it takes to actually manage what they are being asked to do. This is the consequence of their public education.

What I am wondering is what is happening at in their middle school and high school classes. There is also an issue of determining what support they have at home for their studies. Even though I have noted things about my own public school education in earlier blogs, what I know now is my parents just expected me to do my work. There was little actually support for doing it and I think I had a more stable home than many of my students currently have. I once got a failing grade in chemistry when I was a junior in high school. That was the one time it really hit the fan with my father. He was not usually the disciplinarian in the house and he grounded me for nine weeks. When I tried to argue that punishment with him he actually grounded me to my room for nine weeks. It was probably a precursor to Marine Corps boot camp, which reminds me: today is the 240th anniversary of the Marine Corps. 1775 at Tun Tavern near Philadelphia was the founding of this branch of the service. It is also the 532nd birthday of Martin Lutheran and the 40th commemoration of the loss of the ore carrier the Edmund Fitzgerald. Each year for extra credit I give my students a chance at extra credit to come up with these three things that are related to me. I do not think a single student has every gotten all three.

What are the expectations of parents today when it comes to their children’s education? This is an long-reaching question. From before they enter kindergarten until they have made it through college, parents have a responsibility to help their sons and daughters manage their education. For me this does not mean they do it for them, but they support their success. It means when a student (a child) is not doing well, there is some intervention, and not blaming the school or the teacher, but trying to figure out what is needed as a team to raise the possibility of success. The farther the child goes into the system the more significant the consequences. Yet, if there is no strong foundation by the time the student gets into college, they are in remedial classes. Recently, I was speaking with a person who is back teaching after sometime away from the classroom. I will not reveal the location or the grade, but it is in early elementary school. I was told that they are required to give lessons to these young students on how to tie their shoes!! Are you kidding me? How the hell did that become the public school system’s job. Since when did it become the teachers job to teach how to dress or how to manage hygiene or how to behave with some sense of decorum (teach basis manners)? That is a parent’s role and responsibility. I know these statements are troublesome, but when I grew up, my parents would have paddled my butt for misbehaving at school when I was small. I would have gotten grounded as I grew older. I would have lost privileges eventually. I was grounded to my room as I noted earlier. My father did call my chemistry teacher, but not to chastise him for my grade. He called to get an honest picture because I was not as forthcoming as I needed to be. I did not want to take responsibility, accountability, for my lack of work.

For many of my summer students, navigating the pond of financial aid, scheduling, studying, and merely living away from home is more than most of them can handle. I have already noted the issues with studying and managing time (which is a phrase I hate), but the issue of learning to schedule and follow through with appointments and managing the finances of college costs is like speaking a foreign language to most of them. It is not that they do not ask the questions, it is they do not know what question to ask? That is a very different issue. I was a little older when I actually started college, so I had already learned to manage my life, at least to some extent. As I have noted at other times, I flunked out the first time I went. I was not a bad high school student (with the exception of the one quarter of chemistry). I was a typical high school student. I did enough to get by. I will say they did not hand out As or Bs as they do now. I got more Cs than I wish I might have. I graduated from high school with around a 2.8. Nothing amazing. Going to the service was a shock for a 17 year old little naïve and squirrely NW Iowa kid. It was a nothing short of a total frickin’ wake up call. I actually put my head under my pillow the first two nights in boot camp at MCRD in San Diego. There were times throughout the entire 80 days I was not sure I could make it. I was above average there, but barely. There was a lot more growing up yet to do. That is life. It is a continual growing process. It is a continual kick of accountability. I am now into that sexagenarian decade and it has not changed. The difference is I am no longer surprised when I get kicked. I am no longer ready to first blame someone else for my problems. I will admit that even at this age it is not enjoyable to be accountable, but that is the way the world works. It is always difficult to hear that. When I note for students that their investment of 100K and a piece of paper guarantees nothing, the look on their faces is one of shock, one of wonder. I remember a student a few years ago when I noted the reality of this asking why I wanted to depress him.

What are the answers to some of these questions? Are there answers or more appropriately, are there solutions? I believe the answer, as it usually is, is complicated. While I feel I am sounding old, it seems the loss of family support, or a nuclear family (an unfortunate term) creates a significant piece of this issue. When we are opening the doors of the university to students dramatically underprepared, we need to consider carefully how we best support them. I am not saying opportunities should not be offered, but throwing someone into a pool and forcing them to swim is brutal . . . and the failure rate can be tragic. So it is here with our students. I am sad for them because I believe we hurt them more than help them. There are so many considerations and it takes a lot more than merely a room, some food, and a list of classes if they are going to thrive in this foreign environment. There have been times this semester when I try to assist student that their hearts are certainly in the right place, but they look at me as if I am speaking a foreign language, and to them, and I am. Again, it is much like why we hire attorneys when we are considering needing to work in the legal system. We have neither the expertise nor the language to navigate this unfamiliar terrain. I was no different on one level, but I was 24 years old when I began my studies in earnest at Dana College. I had a GI Bill that was also helpful. It was also different to be among so many who were typical small liberal arts types. I had been around a lot more than them. Even though I questioned my academic ability at the time, I was able to navigate most of the rest of the requirements. I learned that I was capable, but I had an amazing support system at that small Nebraska college. I had outstanding professors who took a personal interest. I had a group of friends who cared about me and I cared about them. To this day, I am still learning how much Dana College did to prepare me for the life I now have.

As I have worked through helping almost 100 advisees or summer freshmen just this semester I am blessed, but a bit overwhelmed. I want students to success. I am in the midst of wondering how we got to this place. I am both blessed, but frightened as I work on this. Well, back to some other projects. To give you an idea of how small, young and naïve Pvt. Martin was, I have included my boot camp picture. Somehow it seems appropriate on this Veteran’s Day. Smiles, laughs, or snickers allowed and understood.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin