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)

From where does it all come?

Hello from a quiet office and empty building early in the morning,

I have been in my office working on some needed things since about 2:30 and it is almost 6:00 a.m. Amazing what I can get done when no one is around. I remember when I used to go to my study when I lived in Laurium, MI and work on things for my graduate classes. I often spent a good part of the night studying and working. I miss that study room actually. I got a lot of work done there and perhaps some of the most productive times in my academic life were in that house on Woodland Avenue. It seems that life was a lifetime ago, but some of the important lessons I learned there have remained. Hard work is essential if you are to be successful. The things my father offered as handy facts have shown themselves to be more profound than I could have ever realized.

So . . . a different day and a different location, a bit south of Pennsylvania. For the fourth time, I am back in the Dominican Republic. I have been here once a year for the last four years. It’s time I’ve learned more things about the amazing people call Dominicans and their island. What I have found this time is somewhat disheartening. I suspected this to be the case, but now I have some actual numbers. All the smiley people, who work so very hard to make a dream vacation in reality, work both virtually and almost literally for nothing. This is not for the people they do it for, but rather how much they are paid for  working often 12 hours a day. This time I’m not as awed by everything as I was my first time here. Please,  don’t give me wrong; for the person looking for the ultimate vacation, I do not think you can beat it. Even when minor things pop up,  and they always will because there is no such thing as perfection, but every single person I’ve asked for help has bent over backwards to accommodate me. Or little dose of reality on this trip, seems to be a door to our sweet that hates key cards. I know to leave them away from the phone, but I’ve gone through five of them in two days. Now they just shake their head and I just look like an old white guy.

As I work on this blog is Saturday, but I only know that because I booked the calendar. In someways every day here is the same. I get up, eat breakfast, take a walk along the beach, go to the Tower, where Wi-Fi is the best, manage my other life, and figure out what I must actually do, which isn’t that much, and go through my day. The things I hear the most are: Buenos días, ¿como está? which in Dominican Spanish has no “s” gracia mi amigo y excelente.  ¿Si no dices muy bien a su ¿como está? Puedo garantizarle que quieren arreglarlo. It really is living in a dream for a week, or a long weekend. What is evident because they continue to build and add options. It seems my retirement will  be working with a travel company. I really do want to create options for people who think they could never do such a thing, to make dreams come true, and memories that will be a highlight.

What amazes me is why am down here both enjoying and working, for checking the news the craziness that is an administration, seems like a never ending merry-go-round and I’m not sure job security is an oxymoron. A number of people,  for whom I have great respect, voted differently than I did, many claiming that the fact he was not a politician was a good thing. From my perspective, it seems our President wants to run the White House like a reality TV show, or as his company where he is the boss. It seems, thus far, that hasn’t worked so well.  And I don’t care if it is the alt right or the alt left, something carriedto the extreme generally doesn’t work too well. But when extreme is usually created as an response to the other. One of the many things that has surprised me about living in Pennsylvania is the number of confederate flags, a more above the radar actual appearances of people wearing KKK regalia, and an over racism I never saw growing up in Iowa. Of course, Iowa now has Steve King as a representative, which is beyond gauling to me. Even though I was long gone from there long before he ever came to office, I find it embarrassing. The amount of hatred, intolerance, and prejudice is beyond anything I have ever witnessed in my life. As noted by others, hate is learned; it is not inherent. Why are we so afraid of “the other?” More often than not what I have one from the other is to learn more about myself. When I learn more about myself, I realize more oh and thoughtfully about my strengths and weaknesses. To me this is always positive. Sometimes painful, but if that’s the case, it. probably things to happen. All in all this latest trip to the Dominican Republic has helped me realize the many privileges I have, but also the responsibility I have for the other.

Being an American does mean something to me. It also means that I have a responsibility to care for those who are less fortunate than I am . . . it is both a faith thing and a patriotic thing for me. With that in mind, I share a song from the group who still amazes me by the complexity of their music, albeit 40 years ago (in spite of the note it is 35 year ago, this video is 5 years old . . . indeed I am not a math major, but . . . )

Thanks for reading,

Michael

Things that make me go . . .

Good morning from the balcony,

As I have begun my last three days, I am up and on the balcony just relaxing, yet pondering, and writing. I am thinking that this practice of writing first thing in the morning should become a habit. I am reminded of my comprehensive exams chair, Dale Sullivan. That was (and probably still is) his practice. I am hoping a number of things I have learned, or more accurately, observed might become something that is a normal part of my routine.

Last night before falling asleep I thought about what we say and what we do. I wonder how it is that sometimes they are so misaligned. It is what we say is what we aspire to? What we want or who we hope we might become? I understand shortcomings and I understand good intentions. I am reminded of the Greek word for sin. The word is hamartia. In literal terms it means “to miss the mark”. I am reminded of the image I was given in the summer Greek class in 1983. It was to shoot an arrow and fall short of the target. What I like about that image is three-fold.

First, it illustrates that we have responsibility for the action taken. We are doing something. We are in charge of our lives and not merely something deterministic, something imposed upon. Second, much like someone with a quiver of arrows, we have another chance, a way in which to make amends, if you will, and attempt to improve or change what happened. Third, it means that what has happened should be clear to us, or at least, it has the ability to become clear to us. The image of falling short is simple, but, of course, failure most often creates fear and fear paralyzes us. I also realize this is pretty simplified and there is much more one could argue, but hang in there for a bit. What is not so simple in this is to understand if the incongruence between what we do and what we say is apparent? Is it intentional (having to do with motive) or is it something of which we are actually unaware? Sometimes I think out personalities and our circumstances create this dilemma. Sometimes I think it is what we have learned or molded into our daily routines that cause the circumstance. Yet in either case, we are still accountable for our actions. Sometimes it is our frailties and the sum total of what is occurring, but that is when forgiveness is most needed.

I am reminded of a circumstance earlier this summer (and one that continues) when someone love for another is clouded by their struggles. The struggle is being able to see beyond the present and to imagine the future. The struggle is believing that the love professed is stronger than the human frailties of either party. It is a struggle with age, culture, and vision. It forces me to return to my own mother. How I would do things so differently if it were possible for a “do-over”. An earlier blog addresses some of that. How I would do two minutes over the other night if I could – that is the real consequence; once it is done, it cannot be undone. It is not possible to undo the damage, but it is possible to make amends. It is unfortunate that we do not seem to do that as well as we should. Forgiveness is the most powerful thing we have as humans. Yet, all too often, we fail to provide or give it to the person in need. The simple phrase “I’m sorry”, when spoken truthfully is a plea for forgiveness. Luther called it the”office of the keys”. If, and when, we provide forgiveness we provide freedom. Freedom from guilt or shame.

Yet there is a second part to this: we have to accept forgiveness and believe it is truly given. That is often my struggle, I have to believe I am worthy of being forgiven. I have to believe that the gift given is truly given. It is something I am working on at this very moment. When I return will I continue to believe that the unparalleled experience of being surrounded with care continues? That is a difficult one for me. It is my own struggle to believe that I am worth having around. I heard completely what each person said to me. “This changes nothing, the relationship is the same. Don’t worry” -amazing words in the circumstance. “We forgive you; we are not going to throw you away.” – again words with long-term consequences, and words of comfort.

While I have lost things and even people and perhaps more honestly discarded people, I am realizing the importance of family in a way I could have never imagined. While I appreciate my family and I love them the distance and inconsistency of being in contact with the exception of a couple, has left me feeling alone. I am also accountable for my part of that separation. What I feel now is a desire to be part of something – that is new to me. It is frightening to me. It is a gift to me, and one I am still trying to wrap my head around.

In spite of my failings, I hope that I illustrate how blessed I am in being offered this gift. I hope it is apparent how grateful I am. I hope what I say and what I do demonstrates a consistency that is unmistakably humbled and in awe of these gallant people. I might have to blog twice today.

Thanks for reading.

Michael (DM)