Being Thankful

Hello from my kitchen in the morning,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you as always for reading,

Michael (aka Dr. Martin)

Remembering an Incredible Professor

Hello on a Sunday evening,

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading as always,

Dr. Martin

My Conflicted Love-affair with Alcohol

Good morning from the Acre,

I am back in Pennsylvania more about a month before my initial plan, but I believe it was a decision that needed to be made. As a person who plans more than some might believe, I can be flexible, but lack of control of my life or my schedule is more stressful than often imagined. As noted in a couple of my last posts, the summer has been a learning experience, and while not always pleasant, probably important in the bigger long-term. The first few days back have been a time of introspection and trying to understand how things that have been so enjoyable for most of my life seemed to be disconcerting and difficult. I have been a wanderer, a vagabond of sorts,  but perhaps it is that I have called one town home for almost a decade. This time 10 years ago (almost to the day, I was arriving in Bloomsburg on the motorcycle and embarking on a new adventure, a new position, and a new place to call home. In that decade, so many things have happened to cause me to become the person I am now. Certainly the work done to make Bloomsburg a home and place I feel a sense of belonging in is significant. While much of this has to do with the university, I have also established relationships and friendships outside, which continue to develop, and I have been able to create a space that is my safe haven. This summer work on that, which is significant, was part of my stress. It was the taking care of things vital to structural integrity that created a stress for me that was unlike anything I have ever felt. Perhaps part of the struggle is a feeling of selfishness or attachment to “stuff,” which is not something that has been typical of me. That is not to say I do not appreciate what I have nor that I do not take care of things. In fact, I have been teased for the energy put into caring for things at times, but that is more because I do not want to replace it or pay to get it again. Perhaps what most surprised me was a felt like a home-body for the first time in a profound way.

The week of introspection has caused me to consider another aspect of my life. From the time I was barely twenty-one, I began to work in restaurants. My first server position was in a restaurant in Ames, Iowa called Aunt Maude’s. It was a fine dining restaurant that had flaming desserts and entrees, we carved rack of lamb table-side and used a gueridon, not anything I had experienced in my NW Iowa meat and potatoes background. I also learned about alcohol in a different way, and actually a healthier manner than what I had done in the Marine Corps. I have noted in the past that my first experience with alcohol was literally a case of they poured it down me. It was not a positive thing. However, I did not learn from that. During my early 20s I bartended and waited tables and my abuse of alcohol was the rule rather than the exception. The consequences were some of the normal things, but the more unintended consequence was that I did foolish things. Not only would I spend money buying for others, but I got involved in some risky behavior that culminated in a friend pulling a gun on me and I grabbed that gun, which was loaded, and it discharged and shot him. There were two entrance wounds and one exit wound. This meant surgery would remove that bullet from his upper thoracic area. That no one was more injured than that was a miracle. That did get my attention, and I made some changes. Yet, both at Dana and later at seminary, while the bouts of over indulgence were not frequent they still occurred. What was it that made me drink to the point of excess? That is still something I am unsure I can answer completely. I think most often it was a need to be accepted, to fit in. I was often about 5 to 10 years behind (older) than the people I was around. That began when I returned to Dana as a 24 year old freshman. Perhaps it was if I could drink with the best of them, I could fit in. Regardless the underlying reason, I did some really stupid things. Once I became a parish pastor and campus pastor, that changed. There was about a 5 to 6 year period I drank sparingly or not at all. Then one day I decided after loosing a position to go to the bar. Unexpectedly, but by my own volition, I got trashed. That began about a 5 or 6 year period where I drank way too much again and while there was a bit of a respite in there when I had gotten married again, after that marriage I returned to graduate school and there were too many times I was well beyond legally intoxicated. Again, some of behavior during those times is something that is nothing to be proud of nor would I condone in others. It embarrasses me to this day. It is something for which I have made apologies and still feel like those apologies are inadequate. Simply put, the fact I have not died of alcohol poisoning on more than one occasion is by the grace of God. There is no logical reason I should be alive.

What is so incredibly asinine about all of that is I did my pastoral care and counseling classes in treatment centers. I remember one of my most dear friends speaking to me as well as writing me a letter about my alcohol abuse at one point. I still have that letter. I grew up with alcoholics in my life and both my siblings had significant drug and alcohol issues, to the point of treatment in one case. So what changed . . .  what is it that allows me to have an rather astronomical amount of alcohol in my house and not drink it. Somehow, I am able to see it as a way to enhance a dining experience rather than control it. Somehow, perhaps it has been watching what it has done to so many others and realizing what could have happened to me. What happens for me how is so different than what happened before. Where I once seemed to practice a theory of being able to drink with the best of them made it all better, now being around intoxicated people makes me uncomfortable. Being around someone who reeks of alcohol makes me queasy. As I noted above, I have been in Bloomsburg for 10 years. I have been intoxicated three times in that 10 years (which can be argued is three times too many). That is not to say I have only drank three times, but I have learned to be much more responsible. Can I offer a reason for that change? Not with some sense of complete clarity. Not even with the idea of it was intentional. I think rather it was a sense of what I did, or am apt to do, when I drink too much is problematic on a whole multitude of levels. Perhaps it is because I realize so much more completely now that being a professor, as I have said many other times, is not what I do, it is who I am. During the past year, I have witnessed, again, first-hand what alcohol abuse can do and the consequences of someone’s actions on those around them. It is painful to watch. It is more painful to know there is nothing you can do to change it. What I have come to realize is how our American culture glorifies the use of alcohol or sees it much like owning a gun, somehow we are entitled to be able to drink whenever or however we wish. Damned the consequence. Ironically the summer I spend working in the winery I drank less than other times. I think I owe that to both Peter D’Souza as well as Marco for helping me see the natural aspect of wine making and how it works to help create an entirely different food and taste experience for a meal. Even now when it comes to beer or cocktails, I am able to think about the art of the beverage and what it can do to help enjoy something socially versus I need to drink to get trashed or even buzzed. I love what food and beverage can do together, and I simultaneously hate what we do societally with alcohol. American culture does not seem to be able to promote social drinking. Drinking it about getting trashed. We have to pre-game before we go to the bar. We have to mix crazy shit like Red Bull and Four Loco. The results have been deadly. For instance, did you know that in 2010 31% of fatal weekend car crashes involved alcohol? That is 8 years after the 0.08 for DUI went into affect nationwide. Again, in 2010, 17,000,000 people admitted to driving intoxicated. If they had their own state, they would be the 5 largest state in the country (I did research on these statistics for this blog). Again there is this sense of we can chance it. Again, in the spirit of transparency, I received a DUI when I was lived in Wisconsin. I had a medical issue, and attempted to drive home (less than 6 blocks total). I got pulled over 72 steps from my house. That night cost me over 5,000.00. One of the things I learned in my mandatory classes was that a person will drive intoxicated a couple of hundred times before they are pulled over and actually charged. If that is accurate, it is mind-boggling, and petrifying.

So where does that leave me today? Yes, I have alcohol of various kinds in my house: beer, spirits, and wine and quite a quantity, but I can go days or weeks without drinking a drop of anything. I enjoy having a glass of wine with a meal. I enjoy a ice cold beer on a hot day, and I love experimenting with spirits to see what I can concoct that will taste refreshing and enjoyable. Yet it is an art a type of creativity that offers an opportunity to share socially in a responsible and enjoyable manner. I have somehow learned that one can be social, responsible and enjoyable all at the same time. In 2012, the alcohol industry made 162,000,000,000.00 (yes, billion) dollars (again, I looked this up through economic databases). I guess I do contribute to this amount. Where am I today as I write this? I understand why people might get intoxicated. I think most often it is to forget their own problems; it is because they have not dealt with some aspect of their past or because they do not like something about themselves. Perhaps it is an attempt to fit in. This morning I was speaking with a dear friend, who has a strong affinity for their ethnic heritage. They noted that that heritage is ensconced (somewhat of an oxymoron) with alcohol and that connection has resulted in their choosing to eliminate alcohol from their personal use. I have noted the propensity for the misuse of alcohol in my own family on many occasions in this blog. If I were to balance the misuse of alcohol on a scale to the appropriate use of alcohol in my experiences, either communally or individually, the misuse side of the scale would so far outweigh the appropriate use that you would wonder if there was any weight at all on the one side. So how do I understand this love affair? Indeed it is conflicted. Indeed it is frightening. It is such a delicate balance. How did I learn to balance? Embarrassment for my past actions is one of the greatest motivators, I believe. Realizing how much I have to lose should I lose that balance is another aspect. Somehow, for me the grace of God that has kept me alive or out of trouble or jail more times than I have fingers and toes, and even if I borrowed some of yours. I think being an example for others, and realizing the consequences and damage of some of my past, which still haunts me, has been a motivating factor. For so long, I struggled with my identity and feelings of inadequacy. I think I have managed much of that, or more importantly, I learned that alcohol does not fix that, it only complicates it. Using alcohol did not make me fit it more completely, it made me look more completely foolish. Using alcohol inappropriately enhanced inappropriate and embarrassing behavior and it damaged my relationships and my reputation. Some of that will never be repaired. To this day, I enjoy more than words can say how a great Mourvedre can enhance the spice and flavor of a good ribeye steak. I enjoy the amazing flavor of caraway seed and lime in an aquavit and tonic on a hot summer evening. Yet, it is the experience of the flavor and more than merely getting stupid.

Respect or healthy respect seems to be apt here. It is something lacking in so many areas of our societal fabric, and that, of course, is an entirely different topic. I think it is where I am, however. I have learned if you play with fire (and I have used things like Ol’ Gran Dad or 151 to flame desserts), you will get burnt. That adage is certainly true. I have been burned more than once, but it was not a burn that changed me, it was merely age and wisdom, and the observation of consequence, of both my own actions and the actions of others. I will always appreciate alcohol when used to enhance a meal or a social setting appropriately. As my former professor once said, I can appreciate alcohol, but he had no tolerance for drunken behavior. He is still an incredibly wise man, and he is entirely accurate. I have been prone to put a video at the end of my blogs that somehow connects to the topic, but almost all music videos about alcohol glorify it, so I decided on something that was about trying to make the appropriate choices and take the chance and make life better without being intoxicated. I love this video for the generational beauty in it.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Fascinated or Consternated? Yes? No? Simply Regrouping

Dzień dobry z Krakowa w poniedziałek rano,

To był produktywny tydzień i czuję, że poczyniłem pewne ważne postępy w moim początkowym nabywaniu języka polskiego, ale nigdy nie jestem zadowolona, że to wystarczy (It was a productive week, and I feel I made some important progress in my beginning acquisition of Polish, but I am never really content that it is enough.). Those who know me are probably not that surprised. What I have been forced to realizing is that learning a language as an older human is so much more difficult than it was for me at a point earlier in my life (e.g. late 20s, when I crammed two years of Greek into a summer). There are the three components of language as I often noted for others. Much like a three- legged stool: vocabulary, patterns, and grammar. The first two are about memorization and the grammar is more about comprehension. When I learned German or worked to teach myself Spanish, this sort of pattern worked, though more effectively for German than in Spanish. It certainly worked for Greek and, maybe to a perhaps lesser extent for Latin. Hebrew was in a world of its own and while last summer this seemed to work generally for Polish, this summer has been a much different story. It has pushed my comfort level off the cliff and caused me fear and tears (and I mean that literally). So what is the difference in a year, particularly when last summer, while hard work, was so enjoyable?

These questions have consumed me this last week and a half and caused me to ponder the learning process in ways I never fathomed. There are a couple things that I believe have happened in the last 12 months to create this dilemma of feeling like a failure. First, I think both my ears and my eyesight have changed (and not degrees is improvement). Second, the grammar is more complex and while it is comprehendible, it takes more time to master and there is little time to manage that complexity. In other words, I am not as quick as I once was. Third, my own failure to review and reconnect with the previous work before arriving caused a lack of foundation, or more accurately the losing of the foundation I had. Each of these elements have created a perfect storm that has resulted in my failing to manage what I believed possible. What I have realized as the way I have learned in past is no longer effective. I am reminded of what Mr. Galán would note when I attempted Spanish. He said regularly, “You just need to speak and use it. You need to listen and try to understand.” He was (and is) correct. The problem becomes a much more complex and more of a struggle because I am afraid of making mistakes. My overwhelming desire to be perfect at it paralyzes me. So then the question becomes is there somewhere between using my grammatical life jacket and just jumping in the water and not being afraid when I cannot see the bottom. I use this metaphor because I know the actual fear of not knowing where the bottom is and how that paralyzes me also.

I do think I have come up with a plan. The first thing is to step back and review at my own pace the work I did last summer and to move forward with the additional work done over the last two plus weeks, which was significant. If I can create a firm foundation there, I believe I can move forward in a manner that I can feel positive and proud of. I do want to work from a couple different vantage points or entrances of sorts. I honestly believe there has been more deterioration of senses (which has affected acquisition more profoundly than expected) in the past year than I had any inkling had happened. It not only affected my classroom options, but also my studying. The most consequential seems to be the length of time I can continue to work at all of it, and that limitation frustrates me beyond words. Therefore, to compensate I must figure out something more efficient and effective. Then, and the director of the summer program, Dr. Prizel-Kania, probably can shed light on this for me, knowing what my ultimate goal to be, what is the best way forward. What I do know is that any lack in proficiency is no one’s particular fault. It is not about blaming, but rather accepting the reality of the situation. What I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is the instructors I am blessed with did everything in their power to help me. My three instructors, Mikołaj, Dominika, and Sylwię are incredible at what they do. Likewise, the program works for the great majority of those enrolled, most who are in their 20s. I do know that learning a language is a special skill and I know being older offers different challenges. I am wondering if I recognize those challenges as I reflect on myself or if I am missing something. That has occupied my thoughts more than one might think since last Thursday (it is now Tuesday morning – about 4:00 am. for those of you on the East Coast). What I believe I need for my own sense of sanity is to get to a level of hearing and speaking that is comfortable, and I think there are some ways (outside of complete immersion in Krakow) that might offer such an opportunity. I think my own sense of inadequacy had more to do with most of my struggle this summer than anything else.

In addition, what I have come to realize is that learning a language you plan to speak (and maybe it is because I learned German so long ago and when I was dumped into an immersion situation with it, I was in my 20s) versus a language you read is something very different. The needs are different, but likewise the learning process is much more comprehensive. If I return to my stool imagery, I am not sure a three-legged stool will work, it is much more like a four-legged chair or perhaps table. The extra leg is needed because hearing and listening become important on a different level. Second, the idea of a table is that the area covered is much more extensive and it needs order and structure (perhaps more accurately, I need order and structure). That is another component of immersion that is, perhaps, contradictory to how learn most effectively. I need structure and order, which means I need time to think and assimilate. That is in part because I need to make sense of things, but also because I think it takes me longer and I am more frightened by feeling as if I have no control. This trip has been different from my previous trips for a couple of reasons. While I know my way around Krakow better than ever before, I have feel more isolated than I ever have. While I found a level of being comfortable in Moscow after a few days, I was not comfortable to travel on to St. Petersburg by myself. I felt vulnerable in a manner that I had not in many years. While some of that certainly disappeared here in Poland, something has happened to make me less content or calm than I have in the past. I am not sure from where that comes or how it occurred, but I do know that I do not like it. Earlier this summer I was sharing lunch with three former colleagues and the first of the three and I were waiting and I did what I always seem to do when I go into my colleague, Dr. Decker’s office. I align things and make things orderly (fortunately he humors me and merely tells me it will get messed up again). She noted my actions and asked me if I were an OCD person. I had never really thought about it (seriously, I had not), but I responded, perhaps I am. As the summer has continued, I have noted to the degree that is true. Holy Crap!!! So then I began to reflect and wondered from where that propensity had come, and how long had I been such.

I am sure my psychology colleagues would have a heyday with this, but what I realize is we were required to keep our rooms very orderly growing up. I did not struggle to do so. We dusted the house every morning (every day, but Sunday) and on Saturday we dusted, vacuumed and stripped our beds to be washed. I was not allowed to leave my room in the morning before the bed was made. It is still one of the first things I do in the morning. We were not allowed to leave clothes out on a chair unless they were folded and neat. I thought all of that was normal and that every house did things like that. I have long since learned that is not true, but those of you who know me, know I cannot even function if my space is not orderly and well kept. While there are moments I fall short of that, for the most part it is who I am. I do know that I go through streaks from time to time also. I am forced (yes, a strong word), but it is something I do to myself, to try to understand this need for structure and order. During my time here in Poland sharing the Air BnB with another person, who was there prior to my arrival and who will be there after my departure, I have been required to rethink how what I do affects the other in a different way. There are been some compromise (and most of that has to do with his smoking (and the managing of that habit), but one of the things I realized early was I was the intruder if you will. He had a pattern and my requests would change his pattern. My reason for asking for some leeway on the smoking is more of a health issue than control, but I struggled to even ask for that. What all of this tells me is that I will avoid conflict at all costs, even at my own detriment. The reciprocal nature of that is when I finally have had enough, my response is not proportionate to the issue at hand. Of course, as usual there are so many issues that are part of that puzzle. I know most of them, but managing them is something quite different. . . .

It is about two weeks after I wrote this initially and I am back in the States and have been for a week. It has been a week of decompressing and reflection. It has been a week to ponder and regroup. It has been a weekend of trying to wrap my head around the inability of our country to deal with violence and make some meaningful moves toward curbing the violence, the gun-usage, and the hate and bigotry that seems to be engrained in every region, section, state, municipality, and neighborhood of this land. How we got here is certainly a complex issue. How we move toward something different is perhaps more complex, but doing nothing accomplishes one thing: more shootings with assault style weapons and more people dying needlessly. Certainly it is a mental health issue; it is an anger management issue, but there are things we can and should do. I have written at length about all of this, so I am not going to iterate it, but damn!! 30 seconds and 9 lives lost because there was a drum magazine in a semi-automatic assault weapon. What more needs to be said if you think with any logic at all. That is undoubtedly exasperating, consternating, and simply pathetic. States have authority to make changes; so does the federal government. This senseless violence is a social epidemic and it needs to be managed and approached as such. It is a health concern in so many ways. I have nothing more to say, but the response to the Ohio governor by people in Dayton seems to cover it: DO SOMETHING!

In terms of my Polish I am doing something and working on making changes as I move forward to work on it systematically and regularly. I think that will work much better with my learning style. It will result in a foundation that is stronger and more effective. It was a tough and, at times, overwhelming summer, but I will prevail and manage this. Thanks to all who have reached out to me in the past weeks to check on me. I am grateful. As I write and finish this blog, it is the day that Lydia would have turned 95. I still love and miss her.

Dlaczego niektóre rzeczy sprawiają, że zastanawiam się

Dzień Dobry, i wiłam z Poleski,

I am not sure there is a reasonable translation for what I wanted the title of this blog to be in Polish, but what I am trying to get across is  there are things that cause me to turn my head and wonder, did that just happen? What this says, sort of, is “things that give me pause,” or things that seem so counter intuitive to common sense that I can only wonder something along the text acronym world, a sort of inappropriate and nonetheless necessary, WTF? This startling exclamation has become a rather daily mantra as I walk the streets of Poland 🇵🇱, but, but simultaneously, try to understand the brokenness that seems to characterize the country from where or which I come, a country that has been a beacon of hope (and in spite of all, somehow remains so), a country whose government of checks-and-balances has been the hallmark of regulating ourselves when common sense seems to disappear. Each day as I am here in Europe, I take the time to check the news and see what is happening at home, but I am at the point that it so frightens me, I am not sure I want to know. The daily, seemingly-never-ending, shit-show we call our national Capitol becomes more embarrassing by the day. The latest fight between “the Squad” and the President continuing to stoop lower than I imagined possible only furthers my concern. As I am six hours ahead of you, therefore, I am finishing a day, but not see that the President wants to assert, arguing that he was not supportive of the chants at his North Carolina rally. Agreed, he did not join in, but the smug and appreciative smile on his face says more than enough. What did he expect to hear as a response to what he said about the Representative from Minnesota? Does no one see the irony in what is happening here? He argues that the Squad, and please know I do not agree with everything they say or do either,  should go back to where they came from. Three of the four of them were born in the United States, so where does that say they should go? His comment about their ethnic background puts him into a discriminatory situation, plain and simple. The point is: when they say something that he believes problematic, he says they need to go back from where they came (and all the problems with that statement are a post in an of itself). So if they say something from their place in Congress or wherever, it is inappropriate, but as he wraps himself in the flag (which he has literally done) and tries to argue patriotism, he said because he is being patriotic and supporting the country he cannot be racist, regardless what he says. Bull . . .  I say. That is his basic argument. Most certainly, I do not think he has used that specific logic or stated it, but I am not sure he is the most logical President we have had in the Oval Office. In fact, I might go as far as to argue he is on the other end of that spectrum. Now he argues because he tried to speak, he was cutting off the chant. If he spoke, that would have stopped it. Period.  His rallies from the previous election cycle are certainly demonstrative of his using incendiary language and even supporting some of the violence at his event (e.g. get him out of here. Knock the hell out of him). Now he wants to feign that he would not do such things. Incredible.

What needs to happen is the Congress (and please note I did not denote a specific party) needs to do the work they have been elected to do and serve the American people. Then let the chips fall where they may . . . or will.  As we are into debates already . . . those running for the Democratic Party nomination need to explain what they will do to better serve the American people and the world should they be elected president. Lay out a strategy that demonstrates that you care about all of America . . . that the policies will do something to support the wealthy, but also give care to those who were not able to get a million dollar loan from their father. When and if you get the nomination, do not play his game of insult and detract. If you get in the mud puddle with the pig, you are going to get dirty and pigs love the mud. They are used to it. That is my thoughts about dealing with the hush-money paying, genital grabbing, bully with a 4th grade rhetorical level, the one, whom we somehow elected in 2016. He is arguing the economy is humming and certainly the stock market has been hitting records, but about 50 percent of people, who have the money to invest in the market do not (2016 Gallup Poll). That does not count the people who do not have the disposable income to begin with. Therefore, for whom is the economy humming? If it is only for those connected to the Dow and S&P, which is what is being touted by the White House, there is an issue. Then there is an example of our illustrious legislatures at the national level, who are there to serve the people. My second example of just how low they stoop or out of touch they seem to be is with former doctor (M.D.) and Senator. In a typical example of supposed fiscal responsibility, Senator Rand Paul objected to a unanimous consensus vote to support the 9/11 Fund, something that Senator McConnell noted to the recently deceased NYPD detective he would make sure a vote was accomplished. My issue with the Kentucky Senator is an issue of ethics and reality. He noted that the 10+ million dollars this would cost should be offset by other spending. Okay, but wait! This is the same Senator who voted for the Tax Reform Bill that has added a trillion dollars to our national deficit. I am not an economist, and math is not my strong suit (and it also seems that Polish is not over the last few days), but give me about a 99% break . . . because 10,000,000.00 is one percent of 1,000,000,000.00. I think more than your ribs must have been broken by your neighbor, Senator Paul. You are also reprehensible for this stoppage. This brings me to the other side of things for a moment. I think Speaker Pelosi has so much more on the ball than many think. While I am supportive of much of what AOC and other freshman Representatives are questioning, I do believe there is a way to manage both sides. I think the Madam Speaker is an astute and worthy balance to the Senator Majority leader, who I will address before this blog is complete.

My rhetorical background comes into play. While the President speaks of a 4th grade rhetorical level, his rhetorical strategy is more acute and calculating than many believe. This is where some of you might find what I write difficult, but there are two things to remember before you judge my words as they come from some careful thought and significant struggle. First, I was a history major in college (and I have loved history since middle school) and second I wrote my dissertation about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was the German Lutheran pastor involved in the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. After watching what Hitler had done in Germany from 1933 when he became chancellor, the group of well-placed individuals involved in the plot to remove him turned to their pastor and co-conspirator as they struggled with the reality of their actions. Hoping he might provide some absolution for their deeds on the Christmas holidays of 1942-43, they asked him to reflect on their situation. Absolution is not quite what they received; he wrote to them: “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; . . .” While I do not believe the American public has been silent either before or since the President was elected, the silence of the Republican party on so many actions or words used, which are below the Office of the President, is shocking. The disregard for the judicial system, the intelligence community, the DOJ, pre-Attorney General Barr, or the granting of security clearances in a nepotistic manner (against the advice of those who had the right to advise) provides my reason for pause. Yet, the list could go on and the incredible disdain for our democracy is, once again, beyond words. I know some will ask the question if I am insinuating (or jump to the conclusion) that our President is evil? For me, that is an honestly difficult question. Is bullying evil? I believe it can be to those being bullied. Is arrogance evil? When the consequence of that arrogance is to create discord, mistrust, and fear, which I do believe is a fundamental strategy of Mr. Trump, one can argue for some sense of evil in that. Certainly, I believe the Republican Party and those who have fallen somewhat lock-step (and the similarity  or image of that term with a military is not unnoticed) with him can certainly have their actions be regarded as equivocation. Particularly when those who have not supported him are called out, ostracized, and labeled more vile things that the deplorable term (remember the election) ever indicated. The President’s response this past week for former Speaker Ryan is a good case in point. I think Ryan’s rather pathetic argument for what he tried to do to “manage” the President is another example of equivocation and pretense, and all under the guise of patriotism or democracy at work.

Bonhoeffer would go on to write: ” . . . experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.” To  say we have become suspicious of others in a profound understatement in our present national climate. We have come to the point where disagreement with someone makes them the enemy. There is no democracy in that. There is no freedom in that. Those are profound statements, but important ones. We unfriend people; we no longer speak with them; we have become afraid to question or stand up for what we believe because it is termed unpatriotic, socialist, and something worse. Sending someone home or arguing they should go back to their shithole country is how our President finds it reasonable to speak about or to those with whom he disagrees or when they disagree with him.  He tweets his disdain on Sunday mornings almost liturgy. He name calls and again, uses his bully pulpit as the incredible bully he is. He argues for a strict interpretation of the constitution when it serves him (or more accurately his base or those who might support him) and yet he cares little about constitutional rights. His attack on checks and balances is a basic affront to the constitution. Recently, he worked to figure out a way to side-step the SCOTUS  on the census(though at the last minute someone must have gotten through to him). He argues the Bill of Rights and freedom of speech when it serves his purposes, and yet in his own actions he will block people on Twitter with whom he disagrees again (which the Federal Appeals Court just told him that is not okay). Certainly I do believe we are worn down from going on three years of continual fighting and bad-mouthing. This is not one-sided – it is the one thing about which we are truly bipartisan. Most of the public has thrown up their hands; it a national issue and it is a serious one. Certainly there is a cynicism that has become part of who we are. It is my hope, again as noted above, that someone, or some-ones, will step up and demonstrate they can argue for policy and country and not get into the garbage slinging, something the President seems incapable of doing. He calls it the “art of the deal.” I call it the epitome of being an ass. Can we return to substantive talk about the country and the things that matter versus becoming a continual us against them? That is where the cynicism is most apparent. I am not sure anyone believes we can.

This past weekend, I ended up in more back and forth that I am usually comfortable doing. The topics: immigration, health care, and a few other things that are central to our public debate. What astounds me is how so many really good people, and those who call themselves Christians, can support this person who has equivocated himself arguing for the sanctity of life, but then disrespects almost everything that is fundamental to our humanity and everyone, particularly women. Behind this Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate has flooded our judiciary with judges who will rule against woman, immigrants, those who identify as LGBTQA, or anyone who does not seem to believe as they do. I am smiling as I think of those whom Jesus chose as disciples. I am not sure any of them would fall into our category of who’s who in terms of wanting them as friends or role models. As I have noted in many of my previous blogs, I did not grow up in a particularly diverse area, but I did learn about respect for the other. Certainly my entry into the Marine Corps taught me things about people and the world that NW Iowa could not. Certainly my work beyond as a pastor and eventually as a professor has reminded me of how fortunate we are to have the diversity of opinion that I find in my classes (and is something I try to foster).  Contrary to what some accused me of this past weekend (not personally, but as they argued against the left-wing, liberal conspiracy of the academy) of indoctrinating my students. As I tell my students every semester when they ask me what I want, my response is always the same: I want to you think; I want to you to analyze; I want you to be able to make the connections, to be able to synthesize the things you learn with the world in which you live. As that former pastor, I am just enough of a smart ass to say, “I believe God gave you a brain to do more than hold your ears apart.” So the question becomes as Bonhoeffer noted so importantly: “Are we still of any use?” As I have noted in other blogs, I know what this discrimination does to people; I know what it did to my sister. There is significant time until November 2020, but there is a lot of national soul searching that needs to happen. We need to as a people stand up against all forms of discrimination and speak out when our government does things that are not true to the morals and principles that promote respect and dignity. Discourse is important; disagreement and the ability to do so in a civil manner is as important now as ever. When people are bullied into silence; when people are rounded up and treated as subhuman; when we separate families and cage children (I have been to Buchenwald, Dachau, and Auschwitz); when those we elect cannot conduct themselves in a manner befitting the office to which they are elected, we have a problem and a serious one. Are we of any use? Yes, and further more, hell, yes. It is time to read; it is time to listen and research the issues; it is time to consider who we are and how we want to conduct ourselves as individuals and as a nation. It is time to use our power at the ballot box. If we believe we want a country that finds racism and bullying in the White House as acceptable, we will re-elect this monster. If that is who we have become, I fear where we are headed. The image at the outset of this blog is of Flossenburg, the camp in which Bonhoeffer was hanged and cremated shortly before its liberation. He was hanged in April 1945. It is not again unrealized to me that I am only kilometers away from Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious of the death camps in the Second World War.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

When 2+2 = Something other than 4

Hello on a Sunday evening/Monday morning,

It is late and I need to grade; I also need to sleep, but my mind seems to foggy to do the former and is yet too awake to accomplish the latter. So I will begin by reflecting on the last few days. Moving into 5th week, the first real batch of hard core grading is upon me. The busy pace of the semester has caught up and the reality of what happens to most students when pushed outside their comfort zone became evident to me in some shape or form in each of my classes today. This was the beginning of the blog, but it got sidetracked.

. . . I cannot believe almost a month has gone by and I have not had a moment to get back to this blog, but then again, if I consider the time it is now (about 1:45 a.m.) and this is when I am writing, I guess that pretty well explains the semester. While I do not have as many students as I might generally have, I have more work than ever, or so it seems. I think I laid awake for a while, finally deciding to make some use of the time because my brain is trying to make sense of all the things happening at the moment (and for the last month). It was about four weeks ago I had to make sense of why a inanimate object could cause me such emotional struggle. I sold my 2014 Malibu this past fall, and perhaps it is because I sold it to someone I know (and thus still saw it regularly) that it is such a struggle, but it was totaled in an accident. Fortunately, no one was injured. Even more importantly, the circumstances surrounding the accident, which are a bit crazy to say the least, ended up with some tickets and a check for the value of the car (which was thousands more than he paid). The consequence of all of it could have been much worse.

What is difficult for me is how the loss of something that was no longer mine was so much more emotional than I expected. Yet that sort of non-logical response caught me by surprise. Sometimes I seem pretty cognizant and not a lot catches me off guard, then there are those moments where things come flying out of the proverbial left field. I think the reason I am seldom caught off guard is because students have a way of hitting you with the unexpected. In fact, it is such a common thing that the unexpected is the norm. That has been the case much more often than I would wish as of late. Four of my present or past students have lost someone important to them in the last three weeks. In some cases a bit more expected and in a couple cases completely the opposite. Death is such an incredible equalizer. I have noted in the past that at one point earlier in life I found the concept of my demise to be frightening. Now, that is not really the case. Certainly some of that is because of my life-long battle with Crohn’s and my frequent encounters with some serious challenges related to it. Perhaps some of it is because I was a parish pastor. I am not sure. Today was another one of the unexpected days. From my morning cluelessness to an evening conversation, I was required to see things from another perspective. What I realize is how much I have conditioned myself, albeit unwittingly, to merely take things as they happen. I have noted at times if I have no control of a situation, or believe I have no control, I respond by not spending time fretting about it. This was something a self inventory at a picnic table in Paducah, KY was well as a 1,000 mile-move, forced me to encounter. I still remember the day I left on my motorcycle as Erica and Lydia stood at the top of the driveway in tears. That was a difficult day for me. It is also a rather logical, and perhaps easy way out of facing things that are neither easy nor logical. As I often have counseled others, emotions are not rational; neither are they convenient, but they are real.

What I am obliged to consider yet again is how I might have to face them on more than one front. It is interesting to me how we can work so intentionally to manage things and yet whatever plan we have (and I was reminded today that I am not a planner) can be swept aside in the second proverbial reference and cliché, that blink-of-an-eye. The range of emotions a single event can illicit from various individuals is quite astounding. I reacted with some profound joy for two people today, knowing that the same news would be astonishingly difficult for another person, who is a surrogate child for me. As two of my former students are growing accustomed to being new mothers, another has said goodbye to her grandfather. Yet, the logical side of me believes it is simply the days doing what they do. It is our living of life and trying to make sense of the equation.

I think it is that sort of face-whatever-comes-my-way that has made me not a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, but more spontaneous and willing to see what is around the next corner than most (way too many hyphens in that sentence). Perhaps it is because since I was in my 20s and my battle with Crohn’s and at times praying to die that I learned to take nothing for granted. Perhaps it was being told I would never amount to much that caused me to not believe in the future much past what I could actually see. The result, it seems has been to take the day for the day. In a scriptural manner, it has been living that passage out of sixth chapter of Matthew at notes “we should let the day’s troubles be sufficient for the day (6:34). I would reverse it a bit and say let the blessings of being alive for the day be enough for the day. I remember how exasperated Lydia would be when my response to her inquiry about my state would be “I have no complaints.” And yet it was true . . . I was simply content to be alive and healthy to whatever degree my unique body would allow.

That is the latest of the reality checks this 60-something has to manage. After more than one experience of trying to figure out what was happening, in spite of inquiries of my PCP, today I got a call on a Sunday afternoon from the same often MIA doctor. After blood tests and an ultrasound late last week, my doctor believed it necessary to call me on a Sunday to tell me I need more tests on my liver. This is not the first time my liver has been a point of concern (and she mentioned my kidneys, which have also been an issue in the past). It seems there will be more tests in the near future on the liver. The kidneys will require a bit of a medications change. Certainly, livers are of importance and both the blood work and the ultrasound seemed to indicate some significant issue. I have been referred to a gastroenterologist or hepatologost. Seems we are on a new adventure.

Certainly gastroenterologists are nothing new. In fact, I have been in touch with them for a variety of reasons over the years, and recently met with two incredibly talented doctors, who are at the front of treating IBDs. Through an unexpected contact from a wonderfully caring person from the Geisinger Foundation, I had a meeting with the head of gastroenterology of the entire system as well as the head of gastroenterology Danville, which is their flagship location. To make the long-story shorter, a wonderful exchange has led to a new opportunity for me to able use my experience of suffering with Crohn’s in a way that might hopefully make a difference for others. Geisinger’s School of Medicine has offered me an appointment as an Adjunct Professor of Medicine in Gastroenterology. This is both stunning and humbling to me. It is one of those unplanned, but unparalleled, opportunities to make some small difference. It is yet another path opened for the unassuming Iowa boy, who has never really anticipated anything much beyond what he could see. In fact, if I can think out loud for a moment. It seems the times I have tried to plan things more intentionally, they seldom happen.

I planned on going to law school and ended up in seminary instead. I planned on being a parish pastor and ended up in the academy instead. I planned on staying in Wisconsin, but ended up back in Pennsylvania, which I had left once never believing I would return. I planned on having a family (the traditional being married and having children and such), but I only have surrogate kids. I planned on a sabbatical at one point and it was not selected. I applied for a Fulbright and was not selected. Now there are new plans regarding both, but no guarantees as well as a different attitude by me regarding them. I think that is what I have been strong-armed to face again and again. Regardless, at least for me, planning with too great an expectation of it coming to fruition is a bad plan. It leads to disappointment and a sense of failure, something that frightens me beyond words. I have lived a much more successful and fulfilling life than I was ever allowed to believe possible. In spite of all the logic I can muster, I have been blessed beyond any measure I could have imagined. Sometimes just when it seems I have it figured out or planned something comes along to remind me that I have less control over the bigger picture than I want to admit. So the plans for now are to prepare for the week, the month, and even the next year or two in a manner that matters and hopefully makes my life even more blessed than it has been. That means travel to Europe yet again and some new adventures and new countries. I have never been owed anything and that is still the case. I am merely one simple and unassuming person. One who has been able to make 2 + 2 add up to something other than 4. It has never been boring, why should that change? Dreams and a sort of persistence of time (Dali) are things that have been part of my life. This video imagines both.

Thanks for reading as always.

Dr. Martin

Remembering Two Brilliant Siblings and Fifty Years

Good morning from the Acre,

It has been a productive and eventful week, though not always in the way I had planned or expected. We have finished the third week of classes and things are not (nor expected to) slow(ing) down. Students are beginning to settle down and focus a bit better than their initial week’s attentiveness also. This is all par for the course. On the personal front, there is some more work being done on the house and that has been planned for a while, but both managing the pieces and deciding how to proceed always take more time than I ever expect. That is a good lesson for me, however; a reminder that we seldom have control over external factors, and it is best to roll with the proverbial punches. That is the second part of the personal story for the week. This past Tuesday I went to the upper yard to take care of an issue that was a consequence of winter (at the moment, we have no snow). Coming down through the yard to the far end of the wrap-around porch, I found out a bit too late that things were both more slippery and much muddier than I suspected. By the time I realized what was there my feet were above my head and I body slammed myself into the soggy, muddy, cold, but nonetheless, still hard ground. After the obligatory lying in the mud that covered half of me, while I did a mental inventory of what hurt, I determined that except for some embarrassment and what would become aches and pains, I got up and trudged into the house. Fortunately a couple of people were here and I walked straight to the washing machine and threw everything in. A shower and nightshirt later, I was back at it. A bit sore, but doing okay. The remainder of the day was uneventful, but about 5 hours later I realized I was dealing with the bathroom much more frequently than usual (sorry if that creates images you would prefer not to have.). My modified digestive system, which, of course, allows more space in my abdomen than I often remember, seems to have shifted from the fall. Much like a kinked garden hose, it seems my intestine twisted created a blockage. I can assure you, such things are unpleasant. Suffice it to say, it was an intensely painful and excruciatingly uncomfortable next 8 or so hours. I was wiped out enough that I actually took a sick day and stayed in bed all day Wednesday. I slept, got up and drank more fluids, continued by restroom trips and slept more. I did get some soft poached eggs in Wednesday night and Thursday was pretty soft food also. It is now about five days later, and I am still gimping around with a pretty sensitive stomach. All in all, however, we avoided a worse fate, and I am back at the normal daily routine.

Today I awoke thinking about the two siblings with whom I grew up. I note them this way because there are more half-siblings out there, but that is an entirely different storyline, complicated, painful, and rather overwhelming if I really think about it. So most of the time, I choose not to. My older brother, who was about 5 years older than I was an unbelievably talented person. When I was small, I wanted to be just like him. He was mechanical, precise, methodical, patient when you would least expect it, and driven to succeed in ways I could only dream of. He was good at math and science, a phenomenal musician, and would excel at anything he put his mind to doing. I remember as the younger brother admiring most everything he was capable of doing. He was the most amazing model car builder I have ever met. He would analyze every piece, considering how to paint them in advance, how to sand the pieces of any excess plastic so they fit perfectly, and how we had the patience to wait after getting one task done and letting it set before beginning another. He would often build two or three at a time so he could be working on another model as the other was in process and needed to set up. I remember when he worked on waxing our toboggan before we would take it out for the winter. He used Johnson’s Paste Wax and a cloth before he would use the electric drill with a buffer pad on the disc. That toboggan glistened and it was faster than anything on the hill. No matter what he did, he would do it above and beyond what anyone could imagine. The more amazing thing was the rather matter-of-fact demeanor he had as he went about all of these things. He did not seem to believe anything was that extraordinary. As a small boy, I watched with captive interest when he spend time in our basement playing with his Lionel and American Flyer trains. He had a gargantuan train board that was a village with trestles, roads, building, mountains and most anything you could imagine and he would have the trains running in both directions. I could sit and watch him for hours, always hoping he would let me run the controls for even a few minutes. Sometimes, he allowed his pesty little brother to play and I would be the perpetual over the moon for that evening.

The one thing we did do together from time to time was our music. He was a much more famous trombone player than I would ever be as a trumpet/cornet player, eventually inducted with the other members of his band into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet, by the time I was in sixth grade, I was the first trumpet, first chair in a city-wide orchestra in a town of 100,000. I was inspired by my high school brother to try to be as amazing as he was and he both encouraged and supported my hard work. As we spent time in high school band together, it was the one time I began to feel I could make him proud of that little brother. In the time after he left for college, got married, became a father, and eventually an electrician, there were many twists and turns, but he was a profoundly passionate person about anything he did. He would eventually follow our father’s footsteps and work toward becoming an electrician. Then one January afternoon, shortly after lunch, he fell off a ladder at work and would suffer a traumatic brain injury from a fall that did not seem so incredibly terrible. Unfortunately, he hit his head on a sharp corner of something. He would live for an additional five weeks and never come out of the coma. He passed only a few months after his 26th birthday. It was 42 years ago on the day I began this blog. As I consider him how, he graduated from high school 50 years ago this coming June. He was a brilliant student in math and sciences and an astonishing musician, something that gave him great joy. Yet, he was also a father of three young children and the husband to a woman who was as talented as he was. I am blessed to still have his children and his wife in my life as I write this. So much has happened in all of our lives since then, but something remain . . . for me that constant is the admiration I have for the incredibly talented and passionate older brother.

I have noted my sister at other times (and she was, contrary to him, a biological sister). She was fourteen months younger than I, but probably closer to my brother than to me (and I believe the same could be said for him.). I think she too, as noted in an earlier blog, was intelligent beyond words or measure, but she struggled mightily with how to manage that ability. She too was musical. She had a very lovely voice, an alto, and she was a talented piano player. She could sit down and with a bit of practice play most anything her teacher gave her to play. As I think back, I am not sure what she really enjoyed about school in terms of academic interest. She could do most anything, but she needed to be convinced by herself that it was worth her effort, and that was regardless the subject. When we were in elementary school she was in hot water at least one or twice a year when grades would arrive because there was something she had not done. This was both to her consternation and to the exponentially higher level of my parents. In fact, twice rather than to deal with our mother’s wrath for poor grades, she ran away. That raised a different issue about the two of us, who were siblings. She always had an deep-seated need to find our biological parents, something I really never experienced. That issue would affect her for the remainder of her life in various ways. The other thing that I believe vexed my sister was her sexuality. She came out to her immediate family by the end of the 1970s, which was long before this was considered a typical process in anywhere. As a person who had twice been awarded the Outstanding Soldier of her base, being a lesbian in the service was not something acceptable. Her way of managing that dilemma was to leave active service. The consequence of that decision had more far-reaching effect that I believe she had ever anticipated. It was not something we understood either.

What I know now was my sister was bipolar (I also understood this while she was alive) and this would eventually cause her to be placed on SSD. I helped her at that point. However, I believe both the issue of sexuality and mental health were something she had faced even in her middle school and high school years, but at that point our society was neither prepared or willing to be able to help anyone facing such dilemmas. Those issues kept her from reaching her potential because she was consumed fighting battles to merely exist and try to be herself. She was a phenomenal artist as well as a creative spirit that went beyond what most could comprehend. In spite of her struggles at 39 she made the decision to become a mother. While I did not know this was part of her thinking or conversations, I remember the phone call and conversation when she called me that April morning in 1995, telling me I was to become an uncle. Kris had an incredibly loving heart that merely wanted to love and be loved. Most of her life she battled this need because of her choice in whom she was attracted to, but I think more profoundly, if affected her ability to feel loved, particularly by her own family. This is not a unique things for those who identify as LGBTQA, but identifying as outside the heterosexual norm as early as the 1970s was even more significant. What I know as she continued her life, her becoming a mother was the thing she was most proud of. I think she wanted for her daughter the possibilities she never was given the change to experience: things as simple as love, acceptance, the ability to become whomever you felt compelled to be, and a child who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that her mother loved her. All things she had lacked growing up.

The thing that also made Kris’s life more difficult was she seldom took the easy path to accomplish anything. I have noted from time to time that she did not do the different drummer path, but created her own band path. I think she would actually be proud of that characterization. Her rebellion against any force that tried to corral her would characterize the rest of her life. Unfortunately, one of those habits, the addiction to nicotine, would become her undoing. When she passed away at the age of 51, she had smoked two-packs plus of cigarettes for years. An autopsy revealed she had already suffered a previous heart attack. In addition, she had chronic COPD and severe artherial sclerosis. All of those factors would lead to her being found dead on an early April morning. She was a beautiful woman who had a perceptive ability to empathize beyond any level most could understand. She was intelligent, reflective and capable also beyond measure. She was artistic and a strong writer. I wish she could have realized all her gifts and how she had so many more gifts that most ever knew.

In the case of both the siblings I was fortunate enough to call my brother and sister, they were lost before their time. There are times I try to understand why I am the one still here. There are times I feel guilty for the way I have been blessed to be able to live my life and have opportunities beyond anything I have ever earned. I have often said, and believe with most every fiber of my being, they were the more talented of the three of us. I was merely fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Before you think I am fishing for something, I am not. I do not believe I am incapable. I do not believe that I have not worked hard. What I do believe is I wish they had an opportunity to live longer than they did. I wonder what they would think. I wonder what it would be like for us to be in our 60s and reminisce about a life that had made it through six decades? I wonder what we would like about our lives and how we would relate to each other at this point. Would I be the sort of outsider of the three? I think I was always the sort of anomaly, but how would that all work out? What I know on this week of a passing anniversary is that I miss them both. It is a bit lonely at times. I know that the relationships I still have with the children of my siblings (some closer than others) is an important part of my life even though I am still away and alone. It remembers me that there is something more to my life and that I did have two wonderfully talented and brilliant siblings.

After all I wonder how it all works from time to time and I realize I have no answers. As I worked on this blog posting I listened to the music of the phenomenal and troubled artist, Whitney Houston. She was such a talented vocalist. She reminded me of both Bob and Kris, and I leave this video of hers for you to ponder. It is not the most known of her incredible repertoire, but it seems appropriate as a sort of inclusio.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Martin (the other sibling)