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)

Trying to Comprehend

Hello from Starbucks in the Library,

While I hope that the propensity for being thought provoking, and by extension somewhat political, in this fractured world has not merely offended, it seems increasingly more difficult to stand on the sidelines while at least two branches of our government seem intent on destroying the other. For me the jury is still out on the third, but the 5-4 split, regardless the balance, is quite indicative of the country that faces us each morning as I try to wipe the sleep from my eyes and stumble to the shower, fearful of what the latest 280 character (did Twitter really need to double that ability to spew idiocy) tiradic-tantrum might be. In the two weeks since a 19 year old young man with a difficult background found it somehow reasonable to use another AR15 style weapon to massacre numerous students, killing 17 of them, our government, at the continuing behest of the NRA’s leadership, refuses to consider that the style of weapons available all too easily had nothing to do with the outcome at Parkland. Mental illness is certainly an issue; failure of a system is still an issue: so I am not disagreeing with that. How can they not admit that having such a weapon easily available is also a contributing factor to or in the final horrific outcome? How many NRA members would be willing to admit that limiting semi-automatic weapons, bump-stocks, and eliminating high capacity clips are common sense? Few people would be inconvenienced by such limitations. Fewer yet would have to alter their gun practices. You will have more than a difficult time convincing me that our founders anticipated how some would highjack the Constitution with the 2nd Amendment as their foundational protection clause, forget the 14th Amendment. Wayne LaPierre, with his salary of over 5,000,000.00 a year from his various gun-toting positions, can espouse his ridiculous vitriol from the plush surroundings of wherever with such a salary. Heaven forbid he think critically. I am sorry, but common sense will not negate the 2nd Amendment. If I were to somehow join the NRA, or was a member, I would find his comments and his logic more embarrassing than I already do. Throughout my travels to other countries, it is not uncommon to be asked about two issues: the President and our love affair with guns. In either case, my answer is the same: I am embarrassed. That is not an easy answer for this Marine Corps veteran.

The past couple of weeks I have spent intentional time in assigning papers and speaking in my classes about the need for a person to be able to think critically. I have spoken about the importance of that critical thinking as well as the following need to analyze a situation, followed by doing careful research. I have often pondered how it is that we find ourselves in the place where if you disagree with someone they are now an enemy?  How have we lost almost all sense of civility or decorum? How is it that if we disagree with someone, rather than talking it out it is easier to pull a gun and shoot them? I would argue that we seem to be back in the early days of Christianity when if you disagreed you were a heretic and merely burned at the stake. Well our burning might be metaphorical now and the stake might be a tweet, but it seems we are back there once again. It still amazes me that some fundamentalists or conservative Christians can back what is happening in either the government or in our gun-loving society. As I write this, the Reverend Billy Graham is one his way to the Capitol to lie in honor, only one of four citizens to be given that distinction in our history. I remember his nightly television crusades growing up. My mother would sit in her recliner night after night to listen to him. I remember one of my close what we now call middle school friends who was Baptist inviting me to altar calls. I was afraid as the little Lutheran boy. I did not know what to do. What I still appreciate is that Reverend Graham consciously stayed apolitical. While his Christian message was rather conservative, he was not offensive, and yet challenged through his preaching of the gospel. He merely asked people to consider. I do not remember him leaving an overall message of do as I do or you are evil or wrong. While I had probably never considered the word “rhetoric” then, he was a brilliant rhetorician. He could reach across the aisle, pun intended, in ways most never could. I think he was the sort of quintessential person at being able to connect both the mind and the heart. He did not ask people to follow blindly. Following something blindly is to follow something without thought. As I tell my students regularly. God gave you a brain to do more than hold your ears apart. I think the Reverend Graham wanted people to read, to think, to ponder, to come to an understanding. I am often asked what my favorite Bible verse is. For me it is simple. It is Hebrews 11:1. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It seems to me that helps us accept that which is not only incomprehensible, but also to have a willingness to search and believe is that which seems impossible. Without hope, we are doomed. Without hope, we have little desire to move forward. Without hope, we give up or refuse to imagine the possibilities.

That is how it is when I think about the gun issue. I do believe for the first time (and certainly in some time) people are actually standing up to their politicians or the gun lobby. The impetus is not our Congressional leaders. It certainly is not the President, though he as gone further than I imagined possible. It is the classmates of the 17 who have found and used their voices. It is some corporations like Delta, who is now threatened by the Georgia GOP to lose their tax breaks. This morning, I have heard that Dick’s Sports will stop selling semi-automatic weapons. I am stunned, but exceedingly pleased. At least some elements of our society are standing up against the NRA, and putting a stopper in their barrels.  Wayne LaPierre claims that he wants school safety and legal gun ownership. Certainly, I believe he does, but arming teachers and adding the possibility of more guns does not create more safety. Legal gun ownership has certainly demonstrated that the laws we do have are not effective. The issue of mental health is an issue, certainly, but it is access to guns period. Access (under the guise of the 2nd Amendment) to any gun regardless its ability is not in the spirit of protection. It is not in the spirit of good or reasonable sportsmanship. Semi-automatic weapons are meant to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Why does the average person need to do this? These are not hard questions. These are not questions that the NRA seems willing or capable of answering. Their other spokesperson, Dana Loesch, the conservative talk show host, argued vehemently at CPAC. “It is not our job to follow up on red flags. It is not our job to make sure that states are reporting to the background check system. It is not our job.” While I will agree with her on one level, you should think they would want to support better enforcement and use their 5 million members to push legislatures to be more intentional in all of this. It would certainly keep the heat off the NRA. To say it is not their job is to separate themselves from the very society in which they live and then provide them even more reason to hold on their own form of idolatry: love of their guns above all else. Again, amazing how they will abhor abortion as killing and hold on to weapons that can kill even more.

This week at school, for the second year in a row, we had a group from a Private Catholic Boys Preparatory High School on campus to protest a social issue. Last year they were demonstrating against LBGTQA rights; this year it was abortion. The school, St. Louis de Montfort Academy, is a school that was founded in 1995. There is actually something positive to be said about speaking out about your convictions and certainly these young men are doing so, but their rather pompous air that seems to be more judging than converting is a bit problematic, especially on a college campus. That is not because I see college as a sort of social moralism, but rather because it requires a person to think about audience and purpose and think about the complexity of their world a bit more inclusively. Their sort of “my-way-or-the-highway” moralism will not do well as they stand in formation and bring attention to themselves. There seems to be a struggle to demonstrate a sense of humility, which was certainly part of the Blessed Annunciation and the woman being visited. A principle trait of Mary, the mother of Jesus (one of the grounding people or tenants of this particular school) was her humility. Again, the irony or lack of consistent rhetorical strategy is a bit surprising, or maybe not. Those who claim the high moral ground often fall the farthest. As I often told my parishioners  when I was the parish pastor, it did not say pastor anywhere on my birth certificate. I am certainly not a perfect person. I was not then and I am not now. There are times I probably do or say things merely to prove I can. I know that surprises all of you who know me best. Yet, I am pretty fragile, and, in fact, much more so than most expect. I think that fragility continues to manifest itself in ways I struggle to comprehend. Nonetheless, it is there. I think that is why I am both settled in a place, but certainly not sedentary. There is always something to ponder, somewhere to explore, and some place to travel and attempt to understand. I think that is the problem to way too many people; they are content to accept something without chewing on it a bit. Too willing to swallow anything fed to them without taking the time to intentionally smell it, carefully taste it, slowly savor it. It returns me to the significance of critical thinking, of being involved in some kind of thoughtful analysis. I am struggling daily as I read the headlines and listen to so many people and all there seems to be is distrust, disrespect, dispute, discrimination, dismissal, disregard, dissidence: I guess that is enough dissing for the moment. The picture above is of the Canadian Parliament. It is quite evident to me that our Northern neighbor seems to practice much of what we believe ourselves to be. I think we could learn from them.

How did we become such a country? Again, I love what this country was founded on the basic idea that we are a government of the people, by the people. I love that we are a nation of immigrants, a nation that has been a beacon of light for a number of other places. I know that sounds idealistic. I know it sounds like there was this easy formation. I know better. The issues of class, gender, race, faith have been struggles in this country like many others. What we have been able to do is appropriately transfer power from one administration to the other. There has been a basic respect for the balance of powers and a belief that our government at least tries to do the right thing. We are a country of law and precedent, but it feels like so much of that is in a precarious position now. It seems like so much of this is what we were rather than what we are. I am trying to comprehend this. How did we become a nation of finger pointers, a nation of blamers, a nation of selfish navel gazers? I do believe we are still more than that. I see it every day among the students and others I work with. There are some incredibly giving and wonderful people who see a bigger picture and desire to do the best they can. I want to believe we can pull through this, but it will be hard work. It will take critical thinking and even more critical doing. Doing what is best for the other rather than merely what one individual wants. It will require us to be honest with ourselves and with the other. It will require the opposite of the list I noted above. We will need to be more trusting, more respectful, more willing to listen, more accepting, more accommodating. We will need to be willing to reach out to the other and believe that disagreement can lead to something other than a negative outcome. It will take thinking and being able to comprehend that which is beyond us. It will take believing in the other and comprehending difference or diversity as opportunity. I merely want to have hope that so much more can come from this current struggle, but I will turn to the scripture I believe guides me. In a different way, I offer this prayer from one of my favorite artists. This song was sung at my ordination, and it was something I wish I had done a better job of earlier in my life. How it is something I still try to do.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin