Becoming Norman . . . Pleased or Chagrined?

Hello on the weekend,

It has been an emotional couple weeks, and if you have been reading the blog, you have some sense of why that is, but I think there is more. There are times, and their frequency seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, that I feel like I am simply not as capable as I once was. While that might seem like a normal aging process ~ even if a reasonable explanation ~ I do not like it . . . and more so, I do not have to like it. While the GI tract stuff is a normal part of my life, some of the aches and pains logical, I have been often respected for how well I remember things, and that is where I am struggling. If I do not write it down and then follow it rather explicitly, it seems I am not as apt to remember it. Last week, and regardless the number of classes, committees, or other things, I found myself wandering around the parking lot looking for my car, for more than a half hour. In fact, in the spirit of total transparency, I wandered around two parking lots, and I could not find my car. I eventually remembered I had parked in a third possibility, but that scared me more than I have words.

The concern of some kind of memory loss concerns me more than most might realize. My father, while my adopted father, is a relative. He was a first cousin to my paternal grandmother, so that genetic tree is pretty strong. My father, each of his brothers and the daughter of a brother have all have significant difficulties with either dementia or Alzheimer’s. The number of times I have forgotten where I have placed my keys, my glasses, my phone is a number that would need an exponent. I wonder when it is time to question and if there is a reasonable way to ask about taking a benchmark level memory test. The fact that I have hydration issues, which seem to have negative outcomes for most of my body, might also exacerbate brain health. I remember going home once to check in on my father, after receiving a concerning phone call from my sister. My father was livid that I had come “to spy” on him as he angrily told me at lunch one day. Knowing what I know now because of his experience, as well as the progression of Lydia’s dementia, I have a much clearer understanding of some of the early symptoms, the markers, that might provide some earlier detection. While I certainly do not need another health battle, if I am going to battle something else, I want to take it on headfirst and with everything possible tool in my arsenal managing it the best way I can.

One of my favorite movies, certainly in my top 5, is the Academy Award winning On Golden Pond. It is an incredibly touching story of a retired professor (Henry Fonda) and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) who are spending the summer at their vacation home. They are visited by their daughter (Jane Fonda, who, of course, is the daughter of Henry). The struggle of grown adults managing their parents (as well as perhaps vice versa) and the portrayal of dementia before it was a common word as it is now is superbly done. Henry, as the cantankerous Norman Thayer Jr., is both heart-warming and frightening. I have often said to those who know me best here in Bloomsburg, that I want to be just like Norman when I get to that age. One of my former students actually refers to me as Norman because of this very movie. It is a term of endearment from her. There is hardly a time, and I have watched the movie multiple times, that I am not moved to tears as I watch it.

There are other ways I find myself becoming Norman. I seem to have less patience with absent-mindedness, or simple oblivion characterizing or plaguing some people. When something is forgotten once, I can generally find some graciousness. When it happens again and again, on a weekly (almost daily) basis, I find myself being less than charitable. That bothers me because I feel hypercritical and unfair. One of the things I have struggled with most of my life is boundaries. I know that does not make me unique, but I have a tendency to allow people the benefit of the doubt, and then I allow it again, and then again, and then  . . . you get the idea. Ultimately, I get frustrated. As I have pondered this characteristic, it seems that this time of the year is particularly when I find myself at my wit’s end. I do find some progress being made, even in my current dilemma. I made myself step back and ponder and do some analysis (and that meant working through six months of a checkbook, statements, and other items to make sure I was being fair). In addition, rather than merely hitting someone broadside, I have also stepped back and am working to manage the circumstance thoughtfully and in a way that demonstrates both appreciation for the progress made and help offered, but simultaneously to look at the reality of the situation. Of course, there are always things that seem to be tossed in to make the current state of affairs more contextually complex. Then again, I was once asked by a counselor if I ever did anything the easy way. I think my response, almost 30 years later, would be the same: probably not. There are undoubtedly times I still seem to learn slowly. What I do know is there is a genuinely caring and good heart involved in this situation (and that is on both sides). I also think there are also good intentions (again, on both sides). Part of this is merely seeing a larger picture, and when one has not really had to do that too often, knowing how to do that is not a simple or readily achievable outcome.

I am reminded of the young person who is left with Norman and Ethel for the summer. He is not sure what to do with them and they are not sure how they will manage him. Again, I see parallels. I often wonder what I would have done had I been a parent. I was petrified to do so, mostly because I am not sure I had good role models. I think some of that fear persists. I try to do what I think is best, but sometimes (often) it seems I either enable or I have no ability to allow for mistakes. I know there is a happy medium somewhere in the middle, but I struggle to find it. I think some of my concern about what I feel now is a predicament is because there is a history. There is also experience. Undeniably, that experience, be it over the years or the last months, demonstrates a consistency from both. Again, at the same time there is progress and I have to give credit for that. One of the things I am forced to come to terms with is that I created this dilemma because I allowed it. I cannot blame anyone else for that. Again, the rationale for allowing this goes back to where I usually find myself. Someone needs help and I offer said help. The problem is I do not know how to be consistent in pushing adherence to what I said needed to happen from the outset. The question is why am I willing to allow myself to step back time and time again from what I laid out. It is my inconsistency that creates the problem and I cannot blame the other for my mistake. The anger comes, I imagine, from my realizing that I again engendered the present dilemma. I also enkindled the complications. In the movie, there are ups and downs, and at the end, there is a mutual respect produced. I am praying for something similar. I am not sure it will happen immediately. In fact, if it happens immediately, I will once again find myself believing in miracles. One of the things that most frustrates me are things I find myself doing, particularly when I fall short. Over the last months, I have worked hard to be on time. When I was growing up, I had a father who believed if you were not 15 minutes early, you were late. I am not sure that I am there, but I do try to be a few minutes early whenever possible. That is not always easy when you are dealing with other people’s needs and their schedules, but again, discipline and planning will help. The second thing I am trying to be more intentional about is remembering that I do not live in a vacuum. What I do affects other people. Therefore, my choices do also. That is probably my biggest frustration at this point, be it students or in the house. If you say you are going to be somewhere at a certain time, then just do what you say. If your schedule changes, please let someone know. That is where I have been particularly pained by the actions of others as of late.

I have a ton to get done yet tonight, but it has been a pretty productive weekend. I am always amazed by what can happen when I am frustrated. The energy in that can be channeled into some very positive outcomes. My house is pretty spotless and I got some things cleaned and organized that have been on the back burner for a while. I think there is always a fine line between helping and enabling a person. Being the co-dependent person, and one who was much more so earlier, I still struggle to find that balance between helping and hindering. It is always complicated when there is a history. Again, it reminds me of the movie. In the movie, Jane Fonda, as Chelsea, struggles with the relationship she currently has with her aging father. What I found interesting in my research about the movie is that as real father and daughter they were estranged. This movie brought them together. She, in fact, produced the movie to allow for her father to act in it. As I research things, it is interesting to see how our history and the events that cloud that history affect so much more than we are aware of.

One of the other things I have been forced to consider is how people come into and move out of our lives. In the past, I worried when people moved out of my life. I think now I see the reason for that. I do believe we lose something in their moving on, but at the same time it allows for a refocus of sorts. Perhaps the most important thing for me is learning to let go. That has never been a strength, and what I have done in the past when doing so is to walk away and say little or nothing. That is also a problem because it is more like running away. Again, On Golden Pond comes to mind. In one particular poignant scene (and again a scene where some say this is where the two Fonda family members made amends) the dialog goes something like this:

Chelsea: I don’t want anything; it just seems you and I have been mad at each other for so long.

Norman: I didn’t think we were mad; I just thought we didn’t like each other.

Chelsea: (with tears in her eyes) I want to be your friend.

Norman: This mean you would come around more often? It’d mean a lot to your mother (and you can tell he is struggling as he covers his own eyes)

Chelsea: I’ll come around more often.

Norman: Well . . .

I find this part of the movie particularly difficult because my mother and I never accomplished this sort of absolution in our relationship. I often tell students now when they say they are struggling with their parents, or note they are not speaking, that it is best to try to manage that separation. I have two or three of those situations to which I must attend even now. The question can often be what does one risk in reaching out. I think the more important point is to know how to let things go so that the separation is a reasonable one rather than merely running away. Sometimes those separations happen because people change. Sometimes they happen because locations change. I think one of the things I have been more likely to do is remain in touch. Perhaps that is why I am teased that I know everyone from everywhere. There is both a blessing and a curse to that, as it the case with most things in our lives.

By the end of the movie, the summer has passed and the Thayer’s get ready to leave Golden Pond. Sometimes we fail to comprehend how our lives are interwoven into the fabric of others. Sometimes, the fabric becomes tattered and worn, but that does not make it less valuable or important. Sometimes, we need to hold on to the things that remind us of who were are and from where we come. Other times it is reasonable to look for something new. As most things in life, there is no recipe, and much of what we do is by trial and error. Sometimes I am more like Norman that I perhaps expected to be. Sometimes, I wish I was even more like him. Here is some music from the movie. If you have not had an opportunity to see this amazing show, do yourself a favor. It is worth the time.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin


Letting Them “Succeed” on Their Terms


Hello from OSCLG,

I am walking out of one of the more poignant and touching presentations I have ever attended. While it was not an auto ethnography, it was a narrative and an amazing story about the relationship forged between and advisor and a doctoral student. It allowed me to consider the role we have in students’ lives in a different way. It also came back as I discussed the presentation of the text messages that were the basis of the presentation at the conference.

I should note it is the next morning, and early at that. I am already though security and sitting at my gate and the time is 4:45 a.m., one more reason that it is probably good that I ended up presenting on my own. I went to bed last night around 8:00 p.m., realizing that it would be an early alarm. I had actually almost fallen asleep when I heard a text message from a former Stout student, now living in San Francisco. She inquired to see if I was actually in town. When I responded affirmatively, she was a bit upset that I did not let her know in advance that I was going to be in town. She was one of my favorite students at Stout, a bit non-traditional, but an extremely hard worker and one of the most affable students I have ever had in class. It ended up that we spoke on the phone and when she found out that I had been in the ER at UCSF, she was even more bummed because she said she could look out her window at the hospital I had visited only 30 hours before. The irony in her reaching out and what I was presenting, as well as considering how to move forward, was more than I could imagine. In our conversation, both by phone and text, she noted she still “valued the opinion of Dr.Martin.” She asked about the skills sets that I believed were important and asked about returning to pursue another degree. What occurred in that conversation was the realization that what advice was given (in this case 7 or 8 years ago) resonated in such a way that it made a difference, but it also helped her realize that I had her long-term success at heart. When she was a student we met in Eau Claire once for breakfast and I once visited where she worked during her evening shift. We were known to have coffee together from time to time. The boundaries of mentor and friend perhaps blurred at moments. Now I am a friend and still a mentor rather than a mentor and perhaps a friend.

What I learned listening to the presentation yesterday was that it is more typical than I have thought, or more significantly been taught to believe (a former dean comes to mind). What are the things and who are the persons we advise? Last night before finally going to sleep, I ordered four books that I will be trying to read during the coming break. Titles like:The Compass of Friendship: Narratives, Identities, and Dialogues, Friendship Matters: Communication, Dialectics, and the Life Course (Communication and Social Order), and two additional books on family. I am actually looking toward the reading and working on my scholarly agenda. I am also realizing that I need to probably jettison some more things currently on my plate. I will focus on three things: my teaching and classes, the program and developing it, and my scholarship. Personally, I need to simply manage the issues at hand. Again, some things are evolving and a trip back to Wisconsin will help me take care of that. Helping two or three students with graduate school applications and statements are a priority as they have deadlines. I should note as I look out the window, cruising along at about 35,000 feet, I am always amazed by the beauty and the stark harshness of the Rocky Mountains. I cannot help but think of the scores of people who traversed this expanse on their way West. I am reminded of a movie I saw with the Deckers when I visited them in Utah.

I am looking through the program from the conference once again and the importance of communication and gender in the health area is still something that intrigues me. I am reminded of my conference paper last year and how the Wisconsin Department of Health requires no training in communication to work with cognitively impaired (primarily Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients) people. The significance as well as the dilemma of communicating with the elderly is something that will create even more tremendous difficulties if we fail to address such problems now. The increasing percentage of elderly with some kind of dementia or impairment is not going to recede anytime soon. This really moves me toward the title for today’s blog. As I continue to work with students, I am often asked how they are different from that first fall (1992) i taught college. It is true they are different, but in spite of the implication of the question, which usually seems to be somewhere in the realm of “are they less prepared?” or “are they poorer writers because they text?” or . . . You can fill in the seemingly negative spin on some question. I do not believe students are generally poorer or less intelligent than their generational predecessors. They are actually more rhetorically astute than many; they are actually more comfortable writing than many; and they area actually much more aware of their world and its issues than their parents or grandparents. They also have a tolerance and inclusivity that is merely part of their attitude about their surroundings. So in many ways, they are perhaps more prepared than I was. What I think is missing for many is the ability to think critically or to integrate their learning. Many seem incapable of seeing how, for instance their lack of preparation, might have larger consequences. A couple years ago I had an advise who dropped a class almost every semester, or did poorly (a D or F) in one class every quarter. They came to me with their transcript to make sure that an audit would make sure they could graduate (I should note that I just broke another pair of reading glasses and the elderly man next to me loaned me his). When I looked at her transcript, I noted the two characteristics and she was shocked that this was a potential problem. First there was the fact that she was probably at least a semester and a half behind because of dropped or failed courses (about 11 or 12 grand). There was the issue that her GPA languished at a level of about 2.5 (which is not good enough in today’s world), and there was what I thought when I saw her transcript, which was simply, I will not hire you (that is a whole lot more money invested, but not wisely). Yet, I am not sure that she understood her dilemma; she was graduating so she had succeeded. But had she? She had succeeded on her terms, so she was content, at least that is what I am led to believe. Yet, in spite of what a president might say, and I respect him deeply, or a provost might say (and I have great appreciation for who she is), merely allowing every 18 year old in college because of potential seems frightening destined to failure and scores with unmanageable indebtedness. If you have been reading my blog, my assistance in helping a student get into a different school than Bloomsburg was doing the very thing I seem to be arguing against. So, is it that each case needs more critical scrutiny?

I am forced (not all that unwillingly, I might add) to agree with Sr. Galán that our public education system is in trouble. I do not think Common Core will fix it. I do not think it is up to teachers and administrators. I think more often it goes back to the parents, to the family. Making education a priority in the household means taking an active role in someone’s education. Working with that son or daughter and knowing that their attitude as well as yours will make a big difference in that child’s learning. I know in college they are chronologically adults, but most are not. Most freshmen are overwhelmed with their newfound freedom and academics get what is left over,. Sophomores often have bad attitudes and my analysis of transcripts generally show that second semester freshman or sophomore year GPAs plummet if that is going to happen. Juniors are beginning to think a bit more clearly, but what they often realize is their past academic transgressions are killing them in many and various ways. Finally, seniors are usually able to see the handwriting on the wall and understand the significance of getting more then a piece of paper. At the moment, I am only aware of one person who has actually learned his or her lesson early enough to turn things around to the point of being on their way to graduating with honors. That is no small achievement. It is quite phenomenal.

You might notice that I have put the word succeed in quotation marks in my title. That is because success is a quantifiable term, but not a term that is easily defined. It is because we want to quantify it that it is so problematic. What I deem success is based on life experience and my own failures or learning moments. What I always want is for my students, or anyone I care for, to succeed , and that is actually in all areas of their lives. However, I cannot force them, push them to succeed, and sometimes it might go as far as that I cannot even demonstrate that their success matters. That is certainly difficult for me, but I am learning. Mentoring is an art, but not a perfect one; caring is an art too, but one that can certainly cause pain. On the other hand, it creates moments of immense joy and love. What I have realized once again is that I have been blessed with an amazing life, a wonderful position, great colleagues, generally hopeful and good students, and friends that make my life pretty wonderful. I can only live my life the best way I know. I am grateful for those who have taught me so much this past year. Well, it is almost 2,500 miles later and Philadelphia is close. The picture is of my front porch railing. Amazing what fences, real or imagined can do . . .

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin