Imagining Parenthood

Hello from Kraków,

Forty-seven years ago today, I became an uncle. I wax 16 years old and working two summer jobs. I was staying at my grandmother’s house for the summer, and while I was trying to be responsible, I still had a lot to learn. During that hot July, my older brother and his wife of only 7 months, who were now living in Lawrence, Kansas, would become parents to a baby boy. It was not the life or the place probably either of them imagined residing, but this unexpected move toward parenting had changed their college plans and the world of being a family, of parenting, was now their reality. My brother was a member of an up-and-coming Chicago/BS&T band that had made quite a name for themselves throughout the Midwest and their booking company was located in Lawrence. My sister-in-law, who was exceptionally talented in her own right, had left her New Jersey (across the River from NYC) life to attend college in NW Iowa, I am pretty sure this was not what either she or her family expected as she pursued a music degree. While she and I have spoken, and I know her moving away to college was sort of in here DNA, I am still not sure how she ended up finding Morningside College.

That was a transforming summer for me. It taught me about frailty because during the trip my parents would take to visit their new grandchild, my father would suffer a heart attack. This was before the days of bypass or catheterization, and not realizing the extend of his cardiac episode, my father would drive himself home from Lawrence to Sioux City, a distance of exactly 300 miles. Not an exceedingly long drive, but it was if you had just had a heart attack. I was not home as noted because I was working two jobs and I had to be at the bakery before 6:00 a.m. and I was not yet really driving that much and I did not have a car. In addition, I worked a second job in the evening from 5:00 p.m. until midnight and I worked 6 days a week. Therefore, it was logistically easier to stay at my grandmother’s who owned the bakery, and she was kind enough to let me borrow a work car if needed. I did, however, that summer buy my first car. It was a 1964 Impala and I purchased it for a whoppin’ $175.00. My grandmother also put me on her company insurance, so that saved me a lot of money. I was aware that my parents had gone to Kansas to visit the new parents, but I was not aware of what occurred during their visit. I would not learn that my father returned to be placed in Intensive Care until my uncle, my father’s oldest brother-in-law, would call and tell my grandmother what had happened. Suffice it to say that was overwhelming to me beyond words.

During the next weeks and months, I would eventually move back home, though not until after my senior year had begun and for some time I was driving across town in order to attend the school in the area I was supposedly living. I would move back from my grandmother’s home to my own at the request of my father, more like to plea, to come home. It was a tense and difficult time, but I did as he asked and suffered the consequences and wrath of my mother, who unabashedly told me she did not give a damn where I was or where I would come or go. It was an uncomfortable time in the house in Riverside. That would contribute mightily to my deciding to join the Marines upon graduation. While I was in the Communications School at MCRD in San Diego that fall (1973), my niece would be born. I still remember getting a phone call that she had arrived. In spite of my brother passing away a few years later, after there was a third child, I have been fortunate enough to be in contact and involved in the lives of these three for almost 50 years now. That is incredible that all of this was happening almost a half century ago. What is more incredible to me (and perhaps more of a blessing than a curse) is that I never had my own children. Through the years, I have vacillated between being sad about that and wondering if God knew better than I. I have had people say to me that I would have been a good parent and I have certainly had a rather long line of what I call my surrogate sons and daughters, but when it all comes down to it, they have their own families. At the end of the day, I go home and I am there by myself. Again, the feelings about that are as varied as the events that can occur within a week, month or even year. Perhaps some of what overwhelmed me a week ago was this sense of missing out, but then feeling afraid that I would have been a failure at parenting. Certainly, I have learned more even in the surrogate-parenting than I ever imagined possible. I have learned that allowing a person to be their own person is not always an easy thing to do. To allow them to make mistakes and not impose your values or standards on them is another thing that is difficult.

I would imagine some of that is because I have not been with them from the beginning and as noted they have their own values, traditions, expectations, and things that were formed before they were around me. I sometimes imagine what I have done with some is sort of like begin a foster parent. In addition, I have learned, for better or worse, that I have incredibly high expectations, and perhaps ones that are not entirely realistic. I have learned that I am more set in my ways about how I like things and what I believe should happen than I sometimes realize. What has caused these emotions about the lack of being a parent to surface again? Certainly having my house full for the better part of the past academic year had the parenting thing happening to some extent., but these emotions have seemed to be exponentially closer to the surface since I have been here in Europe. The strange thing is that I have never really found little children that charming. I know that sounds terrible or rather callous, at best, but it seems that the individuals that have pulled at my proverbial heart strings of late are small children, like 3-6 years old. That is an entirely new occurrence for me. I have always had a sort of soft spot for middle school age, and I am not sure that has changed, but this recent appreciation for young post-toddler, but not yet 8-10 year olds has me a bit flummoxed. I have found myself asking parents if I may take a picture of their sons and daughters, and some of them I have posted. As I try to figure out this new aspect of appreciation, there are perhaps two things to which I can attribute its coming out of nowhere. I have a former student, whose wedding I was actually the officiant. She and her husband have a four year old that I have watched grow from infancy. She (the daughter) and I have this sort of grandfatherly relationship and whenever I am blessed to be around them, she loves to have me put her on my shoulders or she loves to sit by me in the restaurant, and her mother says when they go by the Starbucks we often meet at, the question of whether they will see me is immediately being asked. I think what this amazing little person and her mother have helped me do is to not be afraid that I had no way to appropriately relate to them. There is a second little one that is the daughter of a colleague and his wife. She is so smart that it is frightening. She remembers everything and she is like a sponge that soaks up everything that happens and can process it. It must be that mathematician DNA. The other reason I think there is a change is these little ones have a sort of grace and purity that gives me a sense of hope. They have not been spoiled by our stupidity yet. They are little human sponges, whose curiosity and hopefulness provides me that same sense. As I watch the love between that child and their parents, which goes both ways, I am reminded of the goodness that I believe all of us have.

It is that goodness that provides me a sense of wistfulness also. I wonder what I might have been like had I been able to be a parent and grow to see that person eventually grow, have their own children and move into that next stage. I remember the joy my father had when those nephews and nieces, who are at the outset of this post, would come to the house. He was so happy to see them and spend time with them. I have noted in other blog posts that my grandmother was accused by my adoptive mother of spoiling me, and that was not something that my adopted mother either appreciated or had a propensity for doing (as my recent post noted). I do not believe my grandmother spoiled me as I reconsider what she did. I think she wanted to make my life easier because of my mother, but she also believed in hard work and treating others with respect and decency. The worst thing she could have said to me was “I am disappointed in you.” I know that I disappointed her as I struggled to make sense of my world after returning from the service. She would not live much longer, but I had not idea that our time would be cut short so soon after my return. I think she wished she had been my sister’s and my parent for the remainder of her life when she and my grandfather first brought us to lived at 4547 as her sister always called it. I have noted in previous blogs, that was the house where I felt safe; it was the house in which I felt loved. It was the house in which I believed I mattered. It seems to me that is what parents do. They make their children feel safe and loved. They allow their children to learn both by success and failure, but love them just the same. They support their exploration of becoming individuals, but also provide a foundation upon which decisions (both good and bad) can be made. I think perhaps the hardest part of being a parent must be allowing a son or daughter to make a mistake, knowing it is going to happen. It seems that the one of the most difficult things must be allowing each person to be their own person. I think that is something my adopted father tried to do, allow me to figure it out. The picture above is of him in his uniform during the Second World War. The thing so typical of him in this picture is his smile.

There are some people I have watched parent and they epitomize what I believe being a good parent must be. The first couple was my first host family when I was on a Lutheran Youth Encounter team. They have two children who have taken entirely different paths in life, but they love them both and support them. They take the time to visit them, which is no small task when one of them lives in Europe. The second couple have blessed me by allowing me such entre into their lives. They lived next door to me when I taught in Wisconsin and they have three amazing sons and daughter, who again are very different, but an interesting combination of both parents, which I believe to be normal. I think what impresses me most about them is they have supported and allowed each of them to follow their own paths, which are quite diverse. They again support and demonstrate that support and love in so many ways. I have told them before, and I will note it here; they give me a sense of hope because they are such incredibly good and faithful people, to their family, their faith family, and their community. I am so blessed to be allowed into their lives, and they have taught be such amazing board games to play too. Quite the bonus. It is ironic that they also introduced me to Lydia and she became a surrogate parent to me or I became the child she never had. Over the past month or six weeks I have had to step back again, considering this life and it has been both cathartic and instructive. Being a parent is consuming; it makes you both stronger and incredibly frail, it seems, simultaneously. It is so hard to walk a line between giving support and instruction, and yet making sure to not control. Sometimes, I think I missed out on so much, and to some degree, to use the words of Martin Luther, “this is most certainly true.” Sometimes, I realize I am able to offer more as the surrogate and I might even be listened to in ways the biological parent will not. What is most apparent to me as I write this is parenting in any form is both inspirational and humbling. I am conflicted by the fact that I did not experience this and what I feel I might have missed, but at the same time, I am blessed that I have other opportunities to make some difference in the lives of many more. I think the most difficult part of me is finding a balance between the two worlds when it comes to my own emotions and reflections. I am reminded of the song by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. Father and Son is an amazing song and it is here for your listening and pondering that relationship of parent and offspring.

Thank you again to all of you who take the time to read what I write, be it once or regularly.



Twenty-Five Years or so in the Making

Good morning from Kraków,

Let me offer a bit of a spoiler alert on this post: while I am pretty open or transparent in what I post, this blog will probably push that limit of openness as it will reveal to a greater degree than perhaps ever with how I struggle just being human. While we all have frailties, insecurities, and baggage, we are taught too often to stuff it and keep the proverbial stiff upper lip, to suck it up and manage, or quit feeling sorry for ourselves. I know how to do this so well because I have spent most of life trying to prove to others and, most importantly, to myself that I am worthy or that I deserve to be loved and cared for. Certainly, I know from where those demons come and I have been pretty honest about that origin both in this blog and through the therapy I have been involved in through much of my adult life. Undoubtedly, I know logically that my adoption and growing up with an abusive parent was not my own fault, but I also know too completely how it has created a struggle in how I view, and how I wish I might view, others. I give others the benefit of the doubt and see the good in them because I grew up with a person who refused to see the good in me, and only pretended to do so when it served her own purpose, which was to make her look like a loving parent. I try, sometimes desperately or unrealistically, to see the positive in another, ignoring the truth that is staring me in the face. As a result there is a different kind of abuse I am subjected to, that of being used or taken advantage of. This is particularly the case with younger people, probably because I never had my own children. I still logically understand their need to make mistakes and grow, but do I make ridiculous excuses in my own mind about their failings, again allowing them to escape accountability for their misdeeds? I think there is more truth to this than I often avow to. Yet there is a more difficult admission in this reality. I often allow it because I am afraid I will be discarded if I speak out.

I was abandoned, on some level, by parents, who believed my sister and I were not worth taking care of. That would necessitate living with grandparents. I do not remember that time (with my parents) in my life, but I do remember living at my grandparents’ house. Death, alcoholism, and managing a business would require a move for Kris, my sister, and me again. I was on my third home before I turned 5. While that move was ultimately needed at the time, it resulted in a different circumstance, one that produced extended pain for both my grandmother (she did the best she could at that time) as well as my sister and me. I believe with every fiber of my being that the abuse my sister endured led to a life of struggle and a death that occurred much too early. For me, it has resulted in trying to please or accept others regardless their actions, often to my own detriment. Generally I am able to manage the hurt and the inherent loneliness this has generated in my life, but as of late that ability has seemed to recede, to dissipate, sometimes to completely fail me, and the pain of that coping mechanism has bubbled up like the former well in my yard which has once again found the light of day.

The more important question is what to do? Yesterday was excruciating for me. It was a day unlike anything I have experienced for over 20 years. It was a day that I questioned the reason I have lived this long. It was a day that being in Poland probably saved my life. The conflict of my most basic existence caused me to consider buying a ticket, leaving Poland, and flying home two days before my class; the overwhelming emotion of my being alone in Poland, and honestly in a place I usually love, caused more tears than I have cried since I was a small boy. Yet, from where did it all come? I do not have a good or complete answer for my own question, but I know it was the consequence of feeling incapable or stupid. I know it was the result of wishing for a different life while being conscious of the many blessings I have. So was or am I conflicted? Undoubtedly, I am. It was reflecting on all the things I have going on both professionally and personally and hearing a mother’s voice that I am undeserving and that I will never amount to anything, and logically disagreeing while emotionally accepting her edict of doom. It is coming to terms with these two little people inside of me that are connected to and simultaneously detest the other. Somehow the concept of doctor heal thyself rings in my ears. Too often I subscribe to this adage and even the very writing of this blog merely contributes to it. I was asked to consider that very issue in a conversation yesterday. Ultimately, through text and conversation I was able to smile and see beyond the incredible storm of the day.

In addition to the extended conversation and video, others responded. A person, whom I have known for over 15 years, reached out yesterday and was incredibly accurate in their assessment of my current struggle. Their questions and concern were one of the things that made yesterday manageable. As noted a series of FB messages and an eventual Facebook video was also of profound and extreme importance. The simple messages from others, including those from one end of the states to the other, reminded me that I am not alone. To all of you, thank you. More importantly, what to do next? What are the changes or things I might do to better protect myself as well as to face my life-long nemesis, that of believing my mother?

First, I believe I must come to terms with the breadth and the extreme of the ramifications her proclamation has had. Thinking of that is quite frightening for me. I probably have a better understanding of some aspects of this than I care to admit. It is another way I find indescribable irony in my growing up Lutheran and how Luther’s dialectic of paradox so parallels my life. It is a comprehension of the phrase Simul Justus et Peccator that goes beyond what I wish possible. It is both loving and hating my feelings toward something(s) or someone(s) – which might be more accurately somebody – but suffice it to say it is grammatically what it is in this context. It is wanting to be around others and afraid of such, to the point it is easier to push them away. Sometimes I inadvertently do so without realizing or intending it.

My need to control my life out of my own fear of failure creates a disparity that I sometimes cannot manage and as a consequence I lose the very control I so try to maintain. Yesterday was such a day, and for the first time in decades it crushed me. For the first time in eons, I had no where to hide. The struggle with wanting a level of health, both physically and emotionally, was beyond what I could figure out and my ability to cope failed me. Tears flowed in ways I did not anticipate. I was not angry, like sometimes happens; I was forlorn, despondent, and perhaps even broken-hearted. The rejection or perceived rejection of a variety of individuals, which is one is my most extreme frailties, was in every direction, from relatives to seemingly ordinary individuals, from people from my early life to people even here in Poland (or those Polish). Again this rejection or perceived rejection can paralyze me. Why? It is because I believe it simply proves what my mother prophesied, and makes it true. It is me accepting blame for things that are probably not my fault (there is that word again). I know that I am certainly more fragile to some than others, but I wish I could get rid of this fear of rejection across the board. It occurs regardless of the age of the person, the position of the person and perhaps, most profoundly, the gender of the person. The latter of these being the most problematic. Maybe that is exacerbated by age at this point, but it is unfortunately once again the repercussions of my mother. I know my grandmother, as noted, bore the guilt of not being able to care for us to her dying day. I know the pain she felt because she believed her actions were to blame for our abuse. As I have noted on a blog posted almost 5 years ago, I do not blame my mother, nor am I angry, but I continue to struggle with the fallout of her actions. If I could overcome this how different my life night be.

Yet, I do not write out of a sense of needing pity. We all have our demons, and we struggle to improve our own life as well as the lives of those around us. To those I have pushed away, offended, or mistreated, it was probably done out of fear, and my own inability to do the best I could in the given situation. To those I have failed or hurt out of my own anger, forgive me for not doing better. I do not wish to mistreat nor do I wish to create a sense of disregard. I am flawed and frail at times, and while I might seem to seldom get upset or worried, it is a facade I have worked on since I was small. I am simply another fragile human trying to make my way. Thanks to my niece, whom I admire and appreciate beyond words, for the initial image in this blog posting.

Thank you for reading.


May Day . . . then and now

Hello on a Wednesday afternoon from my office,

When I was growing up as a child in Northwest Iowa, May 1st was a celebratory day. We had a May festival at school and we practiced dances and we had bleacher set up at my school yard and parents came to watch their sons and daughters perform. The May pole was a great thing and I remember hoping I might somehow get to dance with the prettiest girl in my class (which, somehow never happened; perhaps because I was smaller, had incredibly large ears, and was not the most coordinated kid in the class). As a festival of Celtic origin, there was an appropriateness for this small Northwest Iowa boy who can trace some of his ethnic heritage to County Cork, but as an elementary boy who was beyond shy around girls it was a chance to be able to speak with them without having to have a pretense. Certainly I was unaware of the symbolism of the May Pole and the interweaving of the dance and the ribbons. The flowers in May baskets was another part of that celebration. Perhaps that is where my appreciation for flowers, which is a significant part of my life today, began. It was the beginning of considering the summer and being away from school, of being able to play and ride my bike as we all did. We tore up the sidewalks and alleys with all our riding, which we could do for hours. As I look back now, I thought my life was complicated because of being an adopted child and some of the difficulties that went with that (much of it discussed in previous blog posts), but what I realize now it life was quite simple. Everything I actually realized as a need was supplied. There were other things that probably should have happened, but that is for another time.

Having two Russian (well, one technically Moldovan) students this year, I am aware of the May 1st holiday in the former Soviet Union as a celebration of International Workers’ Day. Certainly, it is still acknowledged in the Russian Federation and is a national holiday. It reminds me of a perchance conversation that occurred in a Georgian Restaurant in Poland. It was a conversation about growing up during the Cold War for two of us, and for the other two growing up in the Soviet era or in the current Russian Federation and how we understood or perceived the other. As a small child, I did not realize the difference in how those on the other side of the world celebrated May Day and how their practice on that day was so different from what I did at Riverview Elementary School. We were taught to fear the Soviets and hide under our desks in case of an air raid. The Soviet Union was the big bad boogie man, so to speak. My Polish traveling colleague, who was born during the time of the CCCP, speaks about weekly requirements they had to research and understand the United States and to present what they learned to their classmates. What a much more reasonable way to understand the other than what I did as an elementary school child. The one student (both are students of the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation – Финансовый университет при Правительстве Российской Федерации) takes all her classes in English in spite of the fact she is a Russian studying in Russia. That blows my mind. I am trying to imagine myself trying to take classes in German (which is the foreign language I know most proficiently of the several I have acquaintance with) as a student at an American University. Holy Buckets!!

Yesterday in my Rhetoric class I asked my students to define civility and then have a conversation about why and how it is we have become such an uncivilized people. Pondering the variety of comments and the way the conversation proceeded, it was interesting how one student noted that we have so much different from others, but I countered, perhaps we have more in common than we have different. Be that as it may, the fact that he noted the difference before the similarity speaks volumes. While this is a bit simplistic, I am quite sure that most parents work at an early age to teach their children manners, to be appropriate, to treat the other with respect. Those actions have a lot to basic civility and yet we seem to have lost those childhood lessons. I have noted previously that when I was about eight years old my grandmother said to me one day, “Michael, always be a gentleman.” She said it in a tone that was both caring and serious. She had little tolerance for disrespect or rudeness. At the amazing age of eight (or third grade for me) I thought she meant it was important to say please and thank you. Thinking back now, I think it might have been because I had gotten in trouble on the playground for retaliating when someone had hit or hurt me. I was smaller than most of my classmates and what I know now is I was bullied more than I realized. I called it negative teasing at one point, but now I realize my small stature and my fear of those bigger than I led to more difficulties in daily life than I knew. I learned to stay away from those who were mean and also learned to keep a smile on my face regardless the situation. There was more to managing my life at that point, but those lessons of being civil in what were sometime uncivil treatment perhaps prepared me for life as an adult. As I generally try to do, I must admit there are times I have failed to be a gentleman or to be civil, but generally I work hard to do both. It is that being human, and sometimes it vexes me more than I wish it did.

What are the reasons for our lack of civility? I think that is a question we must individually ask ourselves and then follow up with pondering the consequence of the propensity of our present world to act with little to no tolerance. The consequence is what I noted in my last blog. I know that I was taught to act differently. I was taught to have respect and address elders respectfully. It was more than a teaching, it was an expectation, and to do less than would result in a reprimand that caused me to rethink forgetting to ask appropriately in the future. I remember failing a quarter of chemistry when I was a junior in high school. That evening when I had no reasonable answer for my failure, my father called my chemistry teacher. He would get to the bottom of things. After speaking with my chemistry teacher, he did not blame the teacher for my failure nor did he question why the teacher did not do more to help me pass. He simply informed me that I was grounded for 9 weeks, and when I smarted off – not a wise move on my part – I was grounded to my room for 9 weeks. There was no discussion; there was no bargaining. The punishment was imposed and it stood. I could have tried to argue, but that would have created only a deeper hole, and I was already deeply embedded and any more protestation would result in added sinking on my part. I needed to understand the consequences of my failure and when my father was the person to impose said consequence, I knew I had overstepped the boundary. There was no blaming the other. It was mine and I had to own it.

As we move into the last couple days of classes and toward finals, students are coming to terms with what they have or have not done during the past 14 weeks. I am always a bit stunned when I hear students lament how difficult college is. I do not say this to sound uncaring because I am keenly aware of the myriad of difficulties that face students from increasing costs to food insecurity, from family issues that distract to being a first generation college student, but in terms of what is required here, things are generally laid out quite well. If one considers the process for a moment, here is what first year students have: a place to live; utilities paid for them; food cooked for them; a schedule created for them telling them where to go and when to go there; and in a syllabus they have what they must do and when for each class. I wish people would help me in so many ways on a daily basis, and yet, we hear regularly that it is so difficult. How does that happen? I am feeling a bit curmudgeonly at the moment, but how is it that so many 18-19 year olds find that so arduous? It is not merely entitlement. We seem to want to blame everything on that, but I think it is more complex. Undoubtedly it is about learning to manage what is on one’s plate, but perhaps it is something as simple as discipline. Unquestionably, it is learning accountability for what one does, but how do we teach accountability? When should we teach it? Whose job is it? The other day in my rhetoric class, we considered the issue of food insecurity on campuses. What is that you might ask? It means that students do not have either have the monetary resources, the physical access or sustainable possibilities to maintain a healthy and nutritious diet. The result is more than merely being hungry. What I asked after helping them realize what this is, I asked whose responsibility it was to manage this? I got a variety of answers. Not surprisingly, some argued it was the university’s responsibility. Undeniably, I believe the university needs to have resources to help students, but I think the university has the responsibility at the admissions level to help students and parents understand all the costs. When they are in the dorm that is one thing, but when they are in apartments, either on or off campus, the way that is managed is something quite different.

I did not know until the last year that the only thing our brain uses is carbohydrates. I think I noted that recently, and about 1,300 grams of carbs a day is what your brain needs to function optimally. If you want to know about eating on a budget and with some modicum of nutrition, this is what my students have been working on in my technical writing courses the last couple of years. If you look at the following:, you will find some options. It is continually updated at the end of the semesters. One of the things I am most proud of is my students came up with the idea to put this on line and to get alumni to donate through the Foundation. This is a great example of students looking beyond themselves. Certainly not a sense of entitlement on their part. This is part of the complexity that is being a student today. It is an element of all the ways students work to understand this complex world they are moving toward “adulting” in. One of the most amazing things about being a professor today (and probably so when I was a student) was how one becomes an academic mentor, but also the professor. I am reminded of Dr. John W. Nielsen, one of my two advisors, noting that being a professor is exactly that: it is professing by both word and action. That is not that difficult, but it takes thought; it requires me to stop and think and ponder, but that has been part of who I am since I was small.

I was never content knowing the why; I wanted to know the why about the why, and perhaps even more about a third why. I am now old enough that I do not sleep through the night and I am often awake at 2:15 a.m. If you have read my blog with any regularity, you know that sometimes that is when these missives begin. It is also the time I try to make sense of this crazy (and growing more so) world that we find around us. Each day this week I have been stunned by the events in a country that was built on such profound democratic principles. Certainly, democracy was at work this week, but there are a variety of understanding on how that should work. The very discord we have is democracy at work, but it is also important to consider what is under the discord and how that affects our checks and balances. It is an unbelievable time to be in the country (or in the world for that matter). I wonder if it was similar in the 1850s and 1860s. It seems to me, and I was a history major and took a class specifically on the Civil War one interim, that the struggle over slavery had the same potential to destroy our country much like some of the chaos today. Each day seems to create a new craziness. Life was so much simpler when I only had a May Day Dance to worry about. Certainly those days were much more about living each day and having fun, and by doing whatever the day required. Requirements were decided by parents, other adults, and our teachers. It was not complicated. There are times I wish it were that simple again. The picture above is of a May Day in Russia. You can see the Kremlin in the background. I will get to see these amazing buildings soon. We all have a voice of our history that calls on us to remember the lessons of our past and realize that we can learn from those times. It is a voice of years and seasons and a voice that can provide comfort and hope for the future.

Thank you as always for reading. I wish you a beautiful and hopeful May and beyond.

Dr. Martin

What Happened to Critical Thunking?

Hello on a Spring Break,

I find myself more and more dismayed by the lack of critical thinking skills that seem to characterize the world in which we live, and before you think I am referring to only 18-25 year olds, please think again. In addition, before you think I do not fail in this area from time to time, once more, think again. From those who we have elected to those who teach, from those who teach, at any level, to students, there seems to be a serious collective drain on taking to the to step back and ponder and question thoughtfully before launching into some undoubtedly, and profoundly, shallow (how is that for a mixed metaphor) diatribe as they vociferously try to defend a point they obviously know nothing about (and by the way, hence my “misspelling” in the title).

One of the things that most frightens me is how this sort of braggadocio has come to characterize so many more of our elected officials than only one should be comfortable with, much less tolerate. While there are certainly those on both sides of the political spectrum that astound me the person I find the most outrageous is the spokesperson for the President, Sarah Sanders. I vacillate between wondering if she is caught between a rock and hard spot and it is that she is so loyal that she will say anything to protect the President. There are moments that I find myself infuriated by her attitude of seeming righteous indignation and then so stunned by her attempt to make us believe the garbage she spews that I can do nothing other than throw my hands up in utter amazement. I am sure standing in front of the White House Press Corps is stressful and even more so when you are tasked with making sense out of that which makes no sense whatsoever. Yet, this White House from the days of Spicy’s claim about the inauguration has left the infamous barn door so wide open there is no gate left to close. From the argument of alternative facts to the continual attack on the veracity of the press, the consequence for our democracy had been, in my opinion, harmed beyond what we even know at this point.

As I listen to the news, it seems the degree to which we seem to slip toward the absurd and beyond is both frightening and fascinating at the same time. The frightening part is because of the consequences of the mounting mistrust of anyone and anything. The fascinating part is to do the very thing I question from the outset: to critically think about our current national consciousness and then thoughtfully analyze how we managed to get here. There are already tell-all books on some of this, and there is enough rhetorical fodder from the daily shit-storm of finger pointing to keep academics busy for an entire generation and beyond. Yet,therein lies some of the problem. If only academics (and there are conservative academics also) are studying the issue that would mean that about 97% are merely existing (I know some will argue this and I am merely trying to make a basic point). I would also note the 1-percenters do not want us to critically think or thoughtfully analyze because it would jeopardize their privileged position. I am continually flummoxed by how easily we succumb to herd mentality and are willing to accept most anything if we are told it will benefit us (the tax cut, our indiscriminate use of technology, the latest diet fad, some get-rich-quick scheme). How much money is spent on state and national lottery tickets, for instance? In 2017, we spent over 73 billion dollars on lotteries (that is with a B), and the great majority do not play, but imagine what we could collectively do with that sort of money. First, if you saved 100,000.00 a year, which is more than I make, it would take 730,000 years to save that amount of money. That gives a bit of perspective on how much money that is. You could give every person in Canada over $2,000.00 and we spent that on lottery tickets in a year. Does that make sense? Simply: hell no!

My issue is we are not willing to ask the difficult questions. During the Super Bowl, of which I watched nothing, I am aware that the Washington Post ran the following ad: The voice of Tom Hanks, an incredible actor who can make us appreciate a soccer ball, struggle to come to terms with our discrimination towards LGBTQA individuals and rights, and cause us to rethink our own understanding of the 1960s and Vietnam, provides the following verbiage, which should cause us to step back in fear at what is happening as we hear the defender of the free world claim that a free press is the “enemy of the people,” “Knowing empowers us, knowing helps us decide, knowing keeps us free.” Most assuredly, the advent of the world wide web (which is 30 years old) and 24/7 news forever changed the way we receive and digest the news, but the importance of a free press has never been more critical than it is now. As Preet Bharara, writer for the New York Times, states both succinctly and aptly, the use of the term “fake news” is juvenile, but powerful because it is “thoughtless and memorable” (11Mar2019). This is the basic rhetorical strategy of our President, or so it seems, and it is sucked up like the last drops of moisture by thirsting puppies, who are trusting and naïve. If you can appeal to the mindless sound byte generation whose reading seldom goes beyond Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever platform-du-jour tickles their fancy. Again, lest you think I am only referring to 25 somethings, please think again. The next (or more accurately, previous) generation who has just enough technological prowess to get in trouble is probably even more guilty of limiting their research to what they find on the web. If it out there and posted, it has to be true!!

What I am arguing if you will is this: if we have no free press or if we have a shackled press, we have no critical voice to speak out on our behalf. Now before you think I am arguing for or against any particular press, I am not. All press coverage is biased to some extent. They are beholden to someone or something, but I would like to believe that all of them have a basic responsibility to our democracy. I know some of you will shout that I am being naïve, but we are the country we are, in part, because of the ability of the press to question and challenge. Note this also: I am not a journalism, Mass Communication or Communication Studies professor. I am first and foremost an American citizen. I am also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. I am a blue-collar kid from a basic family from NW Iowa, something I have found to be more embarrassing that I ever thought possible at times as of late, but I am a pondering person, a questioning person, and a person who asks why? And the why about the why? Again, before you brand me as a left-leaning liberal who has nary a conservative bone in his body, stop. I am more conservative than my father was, and he would be 104 this year were he alive. I read Fox News regularly . . .  because I want to? No, but because I need to. I need to understand the opinions I struggle to understand. I need to realize and accept there are people who will disagree with me. They do not need to be my enemy because we have a difference of opinion. In fact, I would much rather sit down with them and have a glass of wine and listen to what they have to say. I would only ask they do the same. I am reminded of a meeting I had with the editor of the local paper about three years ago. His perception of and appreciation for (my language)  the university that employs me and my perception and appreciation of the same do not quite line up. He has a soapbox, if you will, from which to state that perception and appreciation (or misperception and lack of), but I questioned that and asked to meet. TO his credit, he accepted my invitation to coffee and was even a bit cheeky in his initial introduction, which was quite humorous. While a number of people told me I was a bit wacky for agreeing to speak with him, I still believe it is one of the better moves on my part since coming to Bloomsburg. I would say there were areas where we would be obliged to agree to disagree, but I walked away with a much better understanding of who is was (and is) as a person and a much greater appreciation for that person. It took a willingness to step outside my comfort zone as I reached out to him. He is a mover and shaker in the town of sorts, I am merely one professor of many at the local university. However, the result of that meeting was an openness and appreciation for the person behind the name on the Masthead of the paper.

Too often my students, and many of us in general, want to ask the question in this way. What do you want me to do? What that is asking for is a recipe. Merely tell me what to do and I will follow directions, but even then we too often cannot even do that. If life is merely following directions, there is no thought. If life is merely jumping through hoops, there is no long term consequence. You pass or you fail. There is physical effort to a point, much like getting over hurdles in that 100 meter race, but then it is done. Just tell me what you want is used from our simple tasks to our relationships, but what happens to us as individuals. What happens to our basic humanity in such a process? I believe it disappears as we abdicate any power or possibilities we might have. My struggle with our current national conversation is we have retreated into our corners and like rock-’em, sock-’em robots, we come out to fight hoping we can get the first punch in and intimidate the other. We do not even come out to shake hands first. It is merely we have come to fight. There is little thought in the pugilistic encounter that we are presently engaged in. You can beat the other into submission, but that does not create respect. Thinking is not about fighting, but rather understanding. Thinking critically is attempting to create solutions for the problems and the complexities that vex us. In the last couple days, someone dear to me found it difficult that I could not be mean or uncaring about someone who had caused them profound hurt. I certainly understand this sort of call to loyalty, but one can still be caring to the one who matters and not wish the other ill. This is what I told them. That is what we have seemingly been reduced to in our national and global conversation. If we disagree, there is no opportunity for conversation. If we have been hurt, we want to hurt back. That is what two year olds do. It is time to reconsider who and what we have become. It is time to think. It is time to put both our best thoughts and our best and most caring hearts forward. It is time to leave the world better than the way we found it. Our humanity depends on it.

As I thought about the rock-’em, sock-’em, the following video came to mind from Imagine Dragons. It is such an unforgettable video with astounding symbolism. Enjoy!

As always, thank you for reading.

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)

More than a Dirt Nap

Hello from my office on a Friday afternoon,

Between meetings and a couple of other things (including grading), I am considering some things in light of my Bible as Literature course and wanted to write. This past week, my Bible as Literature student have asked interesting and thoughtful questions about life (and beyond), and while it is not a religion class, when you are using the Bible as one of the central texts of the class, it is not surprising they might ponder and ask things that demonstrate they are trying to figure out questions of context, authority, and authorship and how those concerns might push them to consider what they have heard (either within their church background or without a specific church background), be taught, or as part of their own maturing and growing process. I think I have been pondering a bunch of things in response to their inquiries.

Certainly, an element of that is understanding one’s mortality. If my adoptive mother were alive, she would be 98 years old tomorrow (she lived to the age of 68). In terms of my own life, it is 32 years tomorrow that I had my first major abdominal surgery, while I was an intern pastor in Big Lake, MN, at the hospital in Coon Rapids, MN. I still remember how terrible the prep was for all of that and how I learned quite positively that I was allergic to erythromycin. Most assuredly, other things have happened since then to remind me of my own mortality, and that is more a case of reality that I would have ever imagined. Today as I searched another situation, I found that another person for whom I have an unparalleled appreciation and to whom I owe so much for their care was my cousin, Joanne Wiggs. I found out that she has passed away and joined her husband Jim, who had passed only 9 months before. They were both so good to me. I am sad more than some know that so much had changed in a situation that I was not involved in either service. They were one of the last few people I visited before leaving the Midwest to come back to Pennsylvania. They had grace and charm (both of them) in ways few people ever have, and I imagine ever will. It gets back to some of what I addressed in my last blog about civility and decorum. I remember my father thinking that Joanne was the most consummate hostess ever, and he was correct. I am sorry they are both gone. The picture at the beginning of the post is my picture of them about 9 1/2 years ago.

That was a slight digression, but an important one. It is sad to lose people. This morning what I woke up thinking about was the idea of religion and dying. It was not a morbid idea for me, but rather one of systematics. I do have students in my BAL course who claim to not believe in God, are unsure there is a higher power, and imagine nothing occurring when one passes except we bury them and continue on with our life. Hence my rather stark title. What actually happens when we die? Do we end up in some sort of purgatorial, soul-keeping holding cell until a second coming? Do we die and immediately we are away that there is something beyond, be it heaven (or some kind of eternal bliss) or hell (for me, the condition where there is an absence of anything good)? Certainly the fact that a number of students take a Bible as Literature course can be traced to a number of reasons (and some of it is getting credits to graduate), but I think for many it is their first foray into making whatever faith they come to college with their own versus it being merely what their parents tell them to believe or model for them. I think what I realized this morning in my early morning puzzling was a sort of if there is no real God and there is nothing beyond our demise, then it really is a dirt name, and nothing else need be considered. One of the students working on their paper stopped by yesterday and asked me how teaching the Bible as Literature affected my own personal faith. This is another thing I have deliberated upon a number of times. However, I think for me that is one of the amazing things about faith. From where does it come (which I, of course, have some specific thoughts ~the power of baptism), but assuredly, there are those who argue that it comes from our own human frailty. It was interesting to listen to one of my students from another class address some of that very thing this past week. Because I no longer wear a clergy shirt, and formerly being a pastor is not something I generally address, when students find out that is part of my background, I get a wide variety of questions.

Yet as I have noted, teaching the Bible as Literature class might be the thing that most affects my own piety as well as the practice of that. Faith is best described for me in Hebrews 11:1. I said this when I was in seminary; I stated it as a pastor, and now as the professor, it has not changed. I think back to when I was  a Sophomore in college and one of the freshmen students told me they could prove that God exists. They thought they would have an ally in this bit older pre-seminary student. They were not sure what to respond when I told them they were full of S____T and that I did not believe them, promptly followed by challenging them to do so. There is little one can say, calculate or demonstrate that proves God with any finality. It simply does not work. However, that sort of logic also works the other way, there is little that can be calculated or reasoned that proves there cannot or is not a God. In addition, I will go as far to say that much of the damage done to faithful people or their faithful attempts to be faithful are done by well-meaning (and sometimes less than well-meaning) Christians. I call them evangelical bulldozers. They think they can rollover or flatten any dissension about one questioning how God works. Their arrogance frustrates me (my rhetorically correct response to them). Posolutely, throughout Christian history, the role of the church by its arrogance, its abuse of power, and its dissemination of doctrine that instills fear more than most anything else, has created more questions than it has perhaps answered.

This semester I focused on the issue of contextuality in terms of the Bible being written by specific people at a particular point in history, noting that all writing is affected by the culture in which it is created. I tried to help my students see some of the things they merely accept without question because it is in the Bible and why that can be problematic for them. I think the response of a student this semester to the temptation story in Genesis 3 will be a life-long memory. Suffice it to say when I asked how it was Eve spoke “snake” or the snake spoke “human,” my student was a bit perplexed. She placed her head into her hands and shook her head overwhelmed by the indubitably unexpected consideration my question created for her. My comment to all my students is the same, but in this BAL course, the statement is a bit more profound. I tell them regularly that God gave them a brain to do more than hold their ears apart, and furthermore, they should use it. I wonder in my own piety which God would I like to meet? What I mean by such a statement is that I know the Bible demonstrates (or figuratively illustrates) both a powerful and complex God. What are those specific moments when we would hope to have our Moses-type encounter with God? Where is God at those moments? Who is the God we would hope to meet? I think for the most part, I would like to meet God and speak with him at those times when most of what I see does not make sense. I think I would like to meet (and yes, arrogantly ask) God when I am those times where things seem the most unfair. Those are the times when I question God’s power or ability to intervene. Those are the times that the consequence of our supposed sinfulness most vexes me. I wish our selfish arrogance did not have so many consequences.

There is much more to say about all of this, but as we head this Sunday into the liturgical season of Advent, the paraments (the colored cloth in the chancel area) will be blue. Blue is a color of both comfort and hope. It is a season where the haunting music that foretells the Christmas story reminds us of what is coming. While I am not a proponent of Christmas in the stores at Halloween or before, after Thanksgiving the Advent season is actually one of my favorite times. I think that was something that started earlier in my life, but it was something that really was instilled in me when I traveled around Germany during the advent season in 1985. There is something about organ music and chorale music that will always life my spirit in ways few things can. Awake, Awake for Night is Flying, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People are some of the things that come to mind. I think there is something haunting, and yet the melancholy of the season also has an undertone of hope. That returns me to my cousin, Joanne and her husband, Jim. The two of them created an amazing marriage and the love they had for each other was something all of us can only hope to find. They were married for 62 years and only apart for 9 months after his passing. The unquestionable affection and love they had was never someone could not see or feel. The way in which they made you welcome in their home was encompassing. Their home on Summit Street was more of a home to me through the years than my own. They were also people of immense and prodigious faith. They attended mass every morning and I learned much about my own faith watching them practice theirs. . . . this little exercise had me searching cemeteries back in Iowa. I remember going to Graceland Park and Floyd cemeteries before every Memorial Day growing up to clean and do yard work on the graves of the family, my father’s in Graceland and my mothers in Floyd, which for those not from my hometown is named after the only person to die on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and he is buried above the Missouri River a bit south of my hometown. So indeed, they are all in the dirt, some in caskets and vaults and some cremated. Is there a purgatory type of thing happening there on the Morningside portion of Sioux City and what was called the South Bottoms where Floyd Cemetery is? Is there something more? Is it merely a dirt resting place and there is nothing more? There are times I struggle yet to understand how it all works and what it all means, but as I enter the season of Advent and I remember the birthday of a mother tomorrow and an older brother on Tuesday, I find that for my own piety, I believe there must be something more. It is more than ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Indeed, as I once intoned, “Almighty God, source of all mercy and giver of comfort: Deal graciously, we pray , with those who mourn, that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may know the consolation of your love . . . ” (Occasional Services Book). With that I offer the following in this season of Advent. I hope you might find peace and comfort in its music.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Martin

What Does It Take?

Hello from about 35,000 feet and above the Colorado/Utah border, perhaps a little west.

It has been some time since I’ve made a cross-country trek, either by air or land; in fact, it is the closest I’ve been to Placerville since shortly following Lydia’s passing. I believe that is the longest stretch of time away from the vineyard since I was first there in 2006. Such a realization prompts me to think about the trips made, but also the time that has lapsed or how many things have changed from the simple and individual/personal, and the more significant and globally, if you will. While I have flown to the west a number of times, I think it is the first time I have been on a trans-continental flight from coast to coast with no intermediate plane-change. It is a 5 hour 23 minute flight and it has been for the most part smooth, though we are hitting a bit of turbulence as I am writing this (I should note that I have proofread and edited this because doing it on my phone was a bit more laborious that thought, and by what I see, not as successful).

Ironically, I found my way to Placerville-and even Tahoe eventually-because I had come to a conference about 12 years ago right now. The conference was in San Francisco and I drove up to Placerville, and the vineyard called Miraflores, to visit a sort of distant relative and her husband and their daughter. It was the most amazing day trip and I met some of the most wonderful people. Two of those people have become important friends. Marco is truly a Renaissance person, and is now married to an equally wonderful woman, named Belinda. Together they have created the most wonderful family with two of the most stunningly beautiful children that I believe I have ever met. The second person is Fernando. He is hard working, gracious, and brilliant in both what he has learned and how he understands. Since then, I have also learned a lot more about wine and how amazing it is not only as a beverage, but as the management of a simple (or maybe not so simple) fruit. I remember during the time immediately following that visit, I was fortunate to take Peter D’Souza’s “Wine and Spirits” course. I actually sat in and donated wine the second time I took that same class. Wine is a completely natural product and if you choose to minimize residual sugars and ferment methode ancienne, you have gotten back to basics about as close as perhaps possible. Wine offers the possibility of making dining an experience versus merely a meal. I remember the first time I compared how the wine tasted unadulterated, or with a clean palate and then what you received from the wine when paired with food. I was stunned that you might use a bold and hearty red wine with a grouper, for instance. Of course, I need to add that the grouper was blackened and served with a raspberry buerre rouge sauce. It was heavenly and it began an culinary affair between that gulf coast fish and me that continues to this day. Understanding or pondering our relationship with food and beverage is a complex, and generally misunderstood science/consideration/hobby/need. The reasons for our poor, or often unhealthy, interactions are a combination of simple lack of knowledge, more significantly our being too lazy to find out, and finally a lifestyle that screams more is better and faster is okay. So we gorge ourselves on processed sugars, even when the brand says “Nature’s Promise” and a label check illustrates 25+ grams of sugar per serving. Those of you who know me, know I love to eat, but not just for the sake of eating. I am all about eating for the experience.

As I have traveled to Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Austria, Slovakia, Ireland or most anywhere not in the States, going out to eat is something you do for an evening. It is an event. My students are often ready to dine and dash, not in the criminal way, but in a behavior that demonstrates a lack of etiquette or a lack of manière formelle appropriée. The difference in both portion and pace allows for such a much more appetizing experience as well as a more enjoyable interaction with everything and everyone. Think for even a moment. How often are you looking at your watch, flagging down your server or demonstrating visible frustration when you food does not arrive on your schedule? We want to “relax” by going out to eat and having our meal prepared, but we simultaneously stress out because we want to control their kitchen. It makes no sense. I think the sort of “eating as a habit or requirement” is an additional difficulty for us. Growing up we had specific times you were to be at the table to eat. Breakfast was the only one with flexibility, lunch and supper (dinner) were 12:00 and 5:00 period. If you were late, too bad. Even Sunday’s noon meal time was sacrosanct. Two of the biggest arguments my mother and I ever had were because of that time commandment. What was interesting in retrospect was my father could have been out an hour before and eaten, but it was 5:00 p.m. so you ate again. There was nothing about being hungry, or so it seemed; you ate because it was time to eat. It was a chore, an obligation or a habit, and for me, realizing that I was struggling with IBDs long before I knew what they were, eating was anything but pleasant. Learning that dining could be and memorable experience, a healthy and enjoyable opportunity is something that I am still learning.

. . . It is Sunday about 5:23 a.m. and I am sitting on the plane waiting to depart Reno and fly the first leg to Denver. I was blessed to work with a really brilliant colleague, who understands theory as if she were reading a children’s literature book. Our presentation went well and I am looking forward to the next step of writing the chapter for the book that is hopefully following. The OSCLG Conference is always a good group of people and the presentations thought provoking in a manner that compels one to look at the significance of communication in our polarized climate. I also got to see two of my mentors from graduate school, Drs. Patricia (Patty) Sotirin and Victoria (Vickie) Bergvall. They are both outstanding scholars, but more amazing people. For them to say that our presentation was important and shows promise was quite a positive reinforcement.

I am again flying, but in an aisle seat, so it is not quite so stifling or uncomfortable. In light of my post’s focus, I am unfortunately admitting that the food at the conference was not that amazing. While the food at the SF conference four years ago was superb, this food did not quite match up. Yesterday, however, I did take a bit of a respite from the conferencing and found my way down to Miraflores. What a nice thing to be back in the vineyard again. They were in the middle of crush and harvest was about two weeks from being complete. Victor happened to be there and it was nice to see him. Fernando is now in charge with Marco in Italy and there was a little barrel tasting and the Cabernet was stunning. Smooth, great black cherry fruit and a delightfully smooth finish. It will be stunning. The best thing is they have started to work with a shipping company so I can get the wine at the door. I will need to follow up with Cantiga. I think some of my best food memories have been in Placerville. The summer I spent there was stunning and I learned so much about the oenology, the viticulture of the Sierra Nevada area, and all the complexities of getting a block of grapes from vine to bottle. I need to check on Ted sometime and see if he is still bottling, making some kick-butt hot sauces and other things. I am still grateful for how he taught me to make quesadillas. Sometimes a simple twist moves a food from the category of blasé to something close to exquisite. It was his combination of cumin, coriander, and cardamom (a somewhat surprising spice usually used Scandinavian cuisine), that shocked a relatively simple Mexican stable into my nightly go-to, and better yet, it was quite healthy.

As I wing my way back East, I am reminded of the profound changes the past 12 years have sort of bestowed upon me. I was living in Wisconsin and had finished what had been perhaps my most successful year at UW-Stout. I felt like maybe the dark cloud that had enveloped my first couple years had dissipated. I had move into the little carriage house and between work and Lydia, my life was busy, but good. I had endured another surgery a year or two before and felt like I was healthier than I had been for some time, maybe since my initial diagnosis with UC, which was now properly diagnosed as Crohn’s (Preparing to land in Denver and we are bouncing as we approach on final descent). My neighbors on the other side, both Stout faculty and a couple who epitomize good parents and incredibly faithful souls sort of adopted me also. Yet, within a couple of years, there would be significant changes and I would find that being on the market for a new position would be necessary. A move to Pennsylvania after a year of playing both sides of a coin would ensue and a new life close to an old place would follow. Health things, as I have learned since my late 20s would create more needs and different concerns, but somehow I have been blessed and through a variety of doctors and other avenues, I think I am probably as healthy as I have been for a long time. As important, and in someways more so, I have been pretty successful professionally. I guess that is most apparent to me in that I am beginning my 10th year in the same location (the longest I have remained stationary geographically since childhood). So much has happened in that there are no longer relatives in Riverside or the Northside of Sioux City. I certainly have important and people dear to me in Menomonie, but Lydia has been gone almost 4 years. I have renewed some friendships in PA and lost some. I have been blessed by new people, and I have been fortunate enough to travel in ways I could not have imagined. I have met people from across Europe and learned anew that while our place in the world is certainly important, we are not as significant as we have been led to believe, and we are probably not as influential as we once were.

This morning, as I drove from Tahoe back to Reno, I listened to an hour program from the BBC, examining the global economic crash of 2008. I wondered what Lydia would have thought of how it all shook out. Her memory was waning and the dementia was ramping up during that time. What enthralled me was the comprehensive and expansive consequence of the collapse on a global scale and I learned more completely about the difference between Keynesian economic stimulus theory versus austerity. I would have loved to listen to Lydia address that practice and why it is or is not the thing to do. The program is a three part series and something I think I need to get a hold of an something to give a listen. While it might seem I have strayed from my initial point, and in addition my title of “[w]hat does it take? Perhaps the picture of the balancing dancer will clue you in that my seemingly wandering post has not gone totally awry.

Something I am still working on, and trying to master more than as simply a concept is balance. Somehow, in theory, it does not seem difficult. Imagine the extremes and try to find the place in the middle. One can eat in a healthy manner and still eat in a way that offers the experience about which I wrote in the initial part of my blog. One can find a place between being incredibly OCD and not managing anything in a organized manner. One of the things I believe has happened at Miraflores was finding the space between spending exorbitant amounts of capital on making the best wines in the Northern California region and focusing those resources in a more systematic way that did not compromise quality. That seems to have happened. Marco spoke about the winery being taken to the next level. I need to speak to Victor about a project. Listening this morning to the BBC I learned about the balance of spending and tightening when there is an economic crisis. I think I should chat with Nakul about a possible article on that. The initiating and practicing of balance is a balancing act in and of itself, and too often, our human nature gets in the way of common sense that would allow for balance to be a more incorporated life philosophy. What does it take to practice balance, it takes some of the things I spoke of in my previous post. It takes patience and a willingness to step back and think. It requires us as individuals to consider the needs of the other and how our needs affect more than ourselves. It obliges us to realize the difference between needs and wants. Too often we mistake our wants for needs. What I realize now, as some quite a bit older than I was, as a high-schooler, is that I always had what I needed growing up, but I did not always have, or immediately get, what I wanted. I did not comprehend the value of those lessons until much later in life. It was yet another example of balance. I was also afforded some special opportunities: private music lessons, involved in a special audition-only children’s choir (as an update-I have board the plane for AVP, and while we pushed back from the gate on time, 27 minutes later we are still waiting to take off). I am starting to fade from being up at 3:00 a.m two of the last three days. Again, that is the age showing me the difference yet again.

I think the simple idea, but difficult to employ, practice of a balanced life is something that was probably apparent more than I knew and certainly necessary more than I realized. Oh, if I had only understood and practiced it sooner. Maybe age and experience are what it takes.

Thank you again for reading,

Dr. Martin