When Customer Service Isn’t

Hello on a Thursday afternoon,

It is a bit overcast and a little breezy, but still feels like we have finally put a winter season away. It was neither a cold nor a bitter winter, but it was nonetheless long and taxing. There were no significant snowstorms nor did we see any bone-chilling-hide-indoors sort of temperatures, but it seemed to be a season of interminable length. I am not sure if it was the incessant humidity that penetrates anyone or anything foolish enough to stay outside, or if was the uninterrupted cloudiness that would make SAD sufferer beg for a sun lamp and be required to do 100,000 units of Vitamin D a week. Regardless the consequences of the winter without end, the change has occurred both in the calendar and now in the air. As we heard into an Easter Weekend, I am reminded of the years I was a parish pastor and how by the end of Easter I was so tired I could barely think. I am back on my porch merely enjoying the breeze and the chance to let my brain decompress. It is that time of the semester where there is something to do in every waking moment and it is probably the time to not think about trying to get any extra sleep. It is like the sprint of the 800 meter race. Can you pace and push yourself to the limit the entire race? Part of the craziness is as students are getting ready for their own pushing through the race, graduation, the end of the semester or another option might (and usually does) cause come stress, but there is that sense of accomplishment. While there is always some degree of making it through another academic calendar, there is stuff to do immediately following the semester (grading), but there are other things that need to be managed the next week. I remember getting in trouble once for telling someone that a doctoral degree (and the same is for any terminal degree) it is not something you merely do with your degree, but it is who you are. It can consume you more than many realize. That is not a complaint, though some might believe it sounds like such, it is merely a continuing and deepening realization of how truthful that statement was. I remember when I was a parish pastor sending Susan home to South Dakota for a vacation around this time of year. It was easier for all involved because the number of services during that Holy Week were enough to take up almost all my fingers. I barely got more than a shower in and a lot of coffee at the time.

I remember at the end of 1991’s Lenten season I would be heading to Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, AZ for the second and third of what would be more abdominal surgeries. I would fly from Allentown to Phoenix to meet with a colo-rectal surgeon who was considered one of the best in the country. Dr. Robert Beart, now of the Colo-rectal Surgery Institute was my surgeon and considered one of the best surgeons for those needing surgery because of IBDs in the country. It was a frightening time for me, but I was existing on steroids and Azulfadine, which was the first level treatment for UC and Crohn’s in the past. It is a drug also used for treating Rheumatoid Arthritis. What I am realizing as I do more research because of some of my own issues, that both the steroids and the Azulfadine can have consequences for the liver. Seems that is my situation on both accounts. The liver is an amazing organ, and so much complex than I realized, but again that seems to be the case for most of what has occurred and how our body manages things. As I read things about my liver and the various things I have done to manage Crohn’s for 35 years, it is a bit frightening, but as I often note, I am still here and I have options that I can manage. I guess that makes me a pretty normal individual. I am actually excited to see what we might do to manage things and I am fortunate to work with some incredible people yet today, so bring it on.

The last few days I have gotten some walking in, and while I am supposed to be doing that, I have received some unexpected assistance in my daily regimen. Last Tuesday, after being told my regular auto maintenance people could not work on my car, I was required to take it to a BMW in the Wilkes Barre Area. I have an extended warranty, which I purchased when I got the car, but trying to get them to cover any of the repairs was more vexing than one might have expected (or should have expected). They did not want to cover anything because I was at an auto-repair place less than 40 miles from where I purchased the car (38 to be exact). Somehow it did not seem to matter that my dealer sent me there or that I was not told that I could only take it to the dealer where I purchased the car. That was the first snafu. The repairs needed were expensive, and after doing some checking, along with the BMW service people telling me they were not allowed to work on it, they told me what my bumper-to-bumper warranty did not cover (a strange understanding of bumper-to bumper). On Wednesday and Thursday morning I spent a significant amount of time on the phone between Scott Township and Wilkes getting things squared away. I was told  by my BMW dealer that the car should be done on Thursday late, but certainly by Friday afternoon. So I planned Friday. I have called the dealership more than 10 times (and the times I actually spoke to the service person was less than half that number). On Friday afternoon, I was informed that the car would not be finished until Monday and there was no communication from my local dealer to the Wilkes service people. Thus, they we telling me I would have to pay for the entire repair (which is to be almost $2,500.00). Suffice it to say I was not impressed. I knew the car had been released to the BMW for warranty work. I knew there had been communication about this (at least with me). When I noted this with the service person at the BMW dealer, he told me he had no idea, and gave me no particularly thoughtful rationale as to why my car would not be done until Monday. So I was back on the phone and I know the service and warranty people here have left a message for them in Wilkes. So . . .  the saga continues. My frustration goes back to basic organizational communication (hmmmmmm . . . . one of my doctoral areas). I see scholarly article coming out of this. On a second front, I took my snow blower into the place I purchased it because it had a significant issue after the last major snowstorm. It was taken in the 2nd week of March. I received a call asking for my permission to purchase a part (around 150.00, which is still significantly cheaper than the 700.00 the snow blower cost new). I returned their call and gave them permission. I received a second call and so I went to the facility and again provided permission. Last Thursday as I was in the throes of my wonderful car experience from the snow blower facility asking for my permission. I noted that I had provided permission twice, including in person. The response was I need to speak to a specific person. Really? I message from co-workers does not count? I even told him the cost of the part, which he noted was correct. Then as if I needed a cherry on the top of this sundae, he let me know he would be leaving the next day for 6 weeks paternity leave so he would have to send it out. Oh my . . . I am trying to figure out the rationale for such lamentable customer service. So . . . hard to say what I will hear next.

It is now Monday morning. There are 11 days of classes left. The sprint is in full stride. I got to my office about 6:30 this morning and there are a couple pressing things to manage and a number of things I need to just get them completed. Nothing difficult, but time consuming. It is amazing what I can get done before 8:00 a.m. when no one is in the building. I love those times when I can merely dive in and work. There is so much more I would like to say about so many things, but because time is fleeting and there is little I can do, just keep the head down and manage my breathing. My time of running distance in the service is coming back to me. Yesterday, which is 420 has more significance to me than what has become the tradition understanding of Munchie Day. It was my parents anniversary and they would have been married 79 years yesterday. Those who have a marriage that lasts that long because of longevity and unfailing love are splendid people to me. It is an unparalleled thing to realize that the other is so important that you will compromise and keep doing it to maintain that bond that initially caused you to believe the other was worth spending the remainder of your life with them. I have people still ask me (which I find a bit stunning because I failed to maintain two marriages) what I believe it is that keeps people together. I think my answer has been fundamentally the same, but I think my response is a bit more articulate at this point. I think it is the underlying capability to remember you love someone beyond compare on the days you do not like them at all. That is the foundation of being able to compromise.

Today it is three years since Prince Rogers Nelson passed away. I remember first hearing his music. He was quite the notable artist for a number of reasons, but his popularity (at least while alive) was probably at its height when I was in seminary in the mid-eighties. The fact that I was in St. Paul and he was from the Twin Cities area made it possible to run into him in spite of his sort of exclusivity (in a reclusive manner). I remember being in downtown Minneapolis one day having lunch and he was coming out of the restaurant as I was going in. His white Rolls Royce with the purple top was there waiting for him. I remember being shocked by how slight his stature was, especially when his music persona was so incredibly large.  It is with that memory in mind that I offer the following video. Somehow that too leisurely part of the song fits my idea of customer service. To all who are managing the end of the semester, I wish you the best as you finish up. To both colleagues and students, hang in there and keep working at it.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Prayers Answered

Hello from Costa on ulica Karmelicka,

It is always interesting to return to somewhere you have been before. The change in perception that occurs from familiarity is a difficult thing to quantify, and if the return is more than once, understanding the changes that occur go beyond mere perception to emotion. I think of how Riverside, the blue collar suburb of sorts where I grew up in Sioux City was my home for the great majority of my childhood. Yet, in a sort of reverse of what I am alluding to, it has been so long since I spent time there that some of the memories of places that no longer physically exist (like my grade school). How much of our emotional, spiritual attachment is based on the physical experience? How is it that memory is evoked by movement, sight, repetition? These are things I lay awake sometimes and ponder. I am sitting in a coffee shop I came to my first time in Kraków. However, a barista from my summer work here who worked at a Costa I had immigrated to is now at my original Costa hang out. Each Costa carries memories with it. I was unaware that Mariusz had transferred, but he saw my Facebook post and let me know. It was nice to connect a familiar face from my extended summer to the Costa of the past 5 years.

More importantly is how my geographic awareness of Kraków is so much more acute than in my previous visits. It is interesting to me how summer for me leaves more lasting impressions for me. Is it because of language? Is it because I walked so extensively and spent so much more time taking in things. I also think the light of the summer and the longer days also affect my ability to assimilate things. I think part of it is that I am happier and more energetic.

However, as I walked to Dom Profesorski this morning, the memories of students from each year I have been here came teeming back. To see some of my own students on this year’s trip as well as long-time colleagues here for the first time was quite a boost to my morning. I am only here for not quite a week, but even the few days of refacing my summer steps in the winter season has come something to assimilate this Krakówian (a sad attempt to connect Polish with an English adjectival ending) experience even more. As I sit in Costa and work on my last blog of 2018, I realize things still do not slow down.

Yet, I cannot remove the poignant memories of my first visit to Kraków and Poland. I had left Wisconsin and said an incredibly emotional final goodbye to an amazing woman who had become my mother and so much more. I was coming to the ancestral country of her husband, a person I had not met. I remember Lydia’s Christmas Eve Polish conversation with the spirits in them corner of her room. I had asked her if George (Zdzislaw) was there. She nodded in the affirmative. I then asked her if she was ready to go home. She shook her head decidedly and sternly in the negative. She knew what she wanted to the very end.

Four years ago I was wandering across center city Kraków for the first time being shown around by Robert, Maria’s father. Ironic, how a student connection created what had become an integral part of my life. It was a day much like today, a bit grey an while chilly and damp, not anywhere really cold. We went into the church where Saint Pope John Paul II had served as the Archbishop of Kraków. I lit a votive candle and prayed. I actually took the time to reach out to George specifically in the prayer. I asked him to convince her it was time to come home. It was the first time in my life I wanted to let someone I do loved go. It was the first time in my life I remember reaching out to someone I believed to be beyond the bonds of this life to request their intervention into the world I knew. In spite of my theological foundation, I wondered the how, but believed more in the reality of its possibility. As I raised my petition, i remember my eyes filling with tears, but also feeling a sense of calm, believing it was time to let her go. Again, for the first time in a very long time, I prayed for what was best for the other. I remember telling Robert what I had done as we left the confines of this holy space. The remainder of my day was preparing for a New Year’s Eve that would be spent with the Paras.

What happened in the next 24 hours or so still amazes me. I would go to sleep on the first of January, ready to imagine a new year. I had not been long when my cell rang. It was Nathan telling me that Lydia had passed away. It was still January 1st in Wisconsin. To this day, and particularly on this same day of the year, four years later, I am as convinced as ever that my being in Poland, George’s ancestral county an in the parish of the former Archbishop had consequences for the simple, yet fervent, prayer of a dutiful, surrogate son. This fall my Bible as Literature students asked me how I understood the workings of faith. When I am asked such things in that class, my default is to remind them it is not a religion class, but rather a literature class. Yet much like my confessions professor in seminary as we pushed him on his opinion about something about the Lord’s Prayer, I allowed for an answer. I said both simply and humbly that faith for me is best understood through the single verse out of Hebrews. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). This has been my foundational verse for most of my life, and even more so as a seminary student, pastor, and beyond. To pray requires faith. To pray requires both a sense of assurance and of hope. To pray to that unseen requires a strong conviction (or maybe even a simple one) that your words actually are heard and make a difference. Then there is a belief that what happened in the next 24 hours were a consequence of the said prayer. The very fact that I am recounting it four years later illustrates that somehow I have the assurance of this thing hoped for.

Today as I sit in Costa, I cannot help but remember the various student groups who have been here in this amazing city on the last week of December into January. My first year, there were three students in particular. Joe had been a student in my Foundations class and would go on to graduate school, not just anywhere, but in Israel. I am quite sure that what he learned from Dr. Annamaria Orla-Bukowska had a profound influence on what we would study. The next sure I was fortunate to come along in a different way, as part of the faculty-led program. Again, some of the most amazing students were on the trip. I think of a veteran military student who would come back in Krakow the following summer to study Polish and work on his dual citizenship. I think of another student with aspirations to go to work in the Peace Corps and was accepted until his health created a difficulty. I think of a young woman who was both an outstanding student and absorbed every cultural event or exhibition we visited like a insatiable sponge. There were students the next year who are now here for the third time leading others, that is how much Krakow has influenced them. Last year, we were blessed to have the president of the Alumni Association for the university come and accompany us on part of the trip. During those years, I was fortunate enough to visit places like Budapest, Lviv, and Prague. Twice I have gone to Austria, and Lydia’s beloved city of Wein, but I need to go back on my own and spend some time. As I returned for this trip, I have met the group at their accommodations on ulica Garbarska, but I am not traveling with them. In fact, I am traveling on my own  with a most dear person and on Thursday will be flying to Italy to visit my great friends, Marco and Belinda and their two amazing children. It will be the first time I have been in Italy since 1981. After a week there, I will be going to Spain and visiting my friend, Elena, a former student at MTU, and one who visited me on my second trip here to Krakow. This visit is a promise kept. I think the important part of all of this is how the amazing connections and people I have met have changed my life and made is such a blessed one.

As I finish this blog, I am reminded of that first journey. It is now still the first of January in the States, but it is early on the morning of the 2nd here in Krakow. I walk up this morning about 2:00 a.m. It was exactly the time Lydia passed on four years ago. I did not realize it at the time, but the time corresponded to my answered prayer. It is interesting how I believe those spirits and powers outside out lives work both in ways too subtle for us to realize and sometimes in ways to obvious to miss. I know that the people who I met from Comforts of Home, Lydia’s abode for the final almost four years of her life, still influence me. Carissa, the administrator who treated Lydia as her own grandparent if you will, Angie, Breanne, Leah, Leighann, Marissa, Mindy or Stacey, and others whose names escape me at 6:00 a.m., will always be dear to me for the care you provided her. It is now the beginning of yet another year. I wonder what prayers are being offered even today as those individuals in the twilight of their lives are struggling with the most simple of tasks. I wonder about those amazing caregivers who give more of themselves than even they realize and for so little monetary compensation. I wonder about even my own existence when there are sometimes more maladies than I could have ever imagined to manage for an aging, but still small-child at heart, traveling professor who seldom grows old of learning something new. What are the prayers I will offer as I finish this blog. I think my prayer is simple and yet profoundly difficult.

As I read the news in America from here in Central Europe, I pray that our elected leaders can learn to listen to those who have elected them (and I realize the cacophony of voices is difficult and painful to hear for all the disharmonious sound) and act for the mutual benefit of the country that has elected them. I pray that a President who was duly (and embarrassingly at times) elected might realize that the tweeting that he does has consequence, whether it be some random thought or his real intention, and when he puts things in public, it is done as the President. I pray that we can see a global and civilization that needs care and mutual respect for all people, that the desire to have freedom and the ability to thrive is a human desire not a gift that belongs to only certain people on the winning side of a wall. As I travel and see students from Bloomsburg once again, I hope they will see the profound goodness of the places they visit and remember the profound evil that we as humans can unleash given the right circumstance (their visit to Auschwitz this weekend). It is all here in this beautiful country called Poland. I pray for all my friends and even those outside that realm that they might be blessed with health, with a sense of happiness or contentment, and that the things they do will be a blessing to those around them.

Welcome to a new year and bless you all. Thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin

Seasons Continued (pun intended)

IMG_0872

Hello at 12 :50 a.m.,

I am awake probably because I went to bed at 8:40 last evening. I read blogs and commented for a while, but I hit a wall and decided to sleep. I have set the alarm for 5:00, but today looks like a bit of a blur, and my brain is racing, so I will write for a while and see if I can fall back to sleep. One of thing I have noticed since my last trip to the ER after a coughing sleep week before last is my eyes are struggling to focus and see as clearly as they were before that episode. Frustrating and perhaps it is time to get to an optometrist. I guess I will have to make time for some more appointments. Next week it is time for my 3 month check up also. Always something to manage. ” It is the life.” In the words of Sr. Galán.

In my last blog began to speak about seasons and how seasons might be used as a metaphor for my life. If you read that blog you know I spoke most about spring and then finished up with some words about summer. I have pondered the summer idea since then and I still believe that the happiest time of my life was when I was three or four years old. What made it so? I think it was that time in my life when I knew I was truly loved. My grandmother, of whom I have spoken before, was my mother at that point in time. My sister and I were no longer living with our parents for variety of reasons, primarily neglect. And while I have never really remembered that time in my life, I remember vividly living at my grandparents house. What I know now is that, in spite of my grandmother’s issues she loved me with her whole heart. She loved me unconditionally and she loved me for the remainder of her days on this earth. Unfortunately, I think it was a love that I took for granted all too often. Part of that was immaturity; part of that was selfishness; perhaps, most accurately, it was youthful stupidity She passed away shortly after my 22nd birthday. I think I have noted before that there were mannerisms that were replicated by Lydia. Maybe that’s why she found her way into my heart in a way that few ever have. Maybe the first two years I was living next-door to Lydia might be the other summer in my life. Things at Stout were going seemingly well, and I so loved the little house in which I lived. Living between the Lacksonens and Lydia was an ideal situation. Indeed, it was a time that I was more than content, I was happy. I enjoyed my job; I felt valued at that point. I actually loved cooking breakfast for Lydia every morning and sitting down to a glass of sherry in the evening before I would go back to my house to sleep. The little house was a wonderful habitat.The other thing that I’ve realized about myself is this. While I give my love to others quite freely, there are very few people in my life that I have loved deeply and completely. The first is my grandmother. The second was probably Theresa, my second wife. The third would be Lydia. While there is a fourth possibility, the jury is still out on that situation.

So how would I understand the fall of my life? First, I must admit that autumn is perhaps my favorite season. The majestic tapestry of colors makes it hard to doubt the existence of a creator. The crisp invigorating mornings followed by the warm hazy afternoons, for me, provide the best of both worlds. Perhaps my love affair with the fall is also related to the return of a new school year with new academic possibilities. I guess what I’m realizing is that I connect the fall and the spring because of their common connection to a time of learning. Some of my favorite falls include the first fall I was in college at Iowa State University. I was excited by the town, by the classes and I remember walking from the towers to campus. 30,000 students in town made for endless possibilities. I remember a girl that I met her name was Barb. She was smart and beautiful. Ironically, I would reacquaint with her six years later at the University of Iowa. She is still a person whom I appreciate and admire. Another fall that I remember was probably my first year at Luther seminary the fall of 1983. Perhaps it was an important fall because it was the last time I was well. Or at least perceived that I was well. It would be that coming winter when I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I had spent the entire previous summer crashing Greek, cramming two years of classes into 12 weeks. I was living in the dorm, a place we referred to finally as Bock-person Hall. I was the head resident of that dorm. A much different job than being such a person in an undergraduate dorm. Those persons with whom I had done summer Greek became my closest friends. Such an amazing group of people, good and brilliant. I loved the St. Anthony Park area where the seminary was located, the old houses, the huge old trees, and the crisp and clean Minnesota air. In the six years I have been back in Pennsylvania, I think there has been the potential for such falls, but I’m not sure that I’ve had such a memorable autumn experience yet. Ironically I might have the most ideal setting ever. I work on an amazing campus that looks out of the mountains and that majestic tapestry of which I wrote has never been more apparent. The same goes for where I live. Sitting either on the patio or on my front porch, I can look out and I’m always amazed at the wonder of the world in which I live. Perhaps it is because I live alone. Perhaps it’s because I feel I have no one with whom to share this. However before you think I’m sounding desperate, just don’t because I’m not.

Perhaps the fall metaphor, is the most appropriate for me at this point. The majestic tapestry of which I’ve spoken reminds us through its colors the plants in this creation have reached their peak and provide for us unparalleled beauty. Indeed the combination of sun rain and carbon dioxide create something that we as humans are incapable of doing. And yet the peak season of color is fleeting. As I’ve driven across interstate 80 through the valleys in the mountains of this upper Susquehanna area, I’m continually astonished at how quickly, sometimes within 24 hours, things change. Yet, that seems to be how my life has gone, particularly this past year. If there’s ever been a year that epitomized the Tale of Two Cities, 2014 was that year. It was the year to expect the unexpected. It was the year that I could not have predicted no matter how good my crystal ball might’ve been. Some of the successes were significant. Some of the changes profound. If you have read my blog with any consistency, you’re well aware that some of the most precious things that I had are gone, or changed. Much like the colors of the fall the year reminded me that there is nothing permanent, everything is fleeting. Such a statement might sound cynical, but I do not mean it to be such.

So where am I? If I am correct, and seasons are not chronological, where do I honestly believe I am? In which season do I reside at the present? If I look outside my window there is little doubt that I am in the winter. I have spent three of the last four mornings with the snow blower; there can be little doubt that it is January and I live somewhere where snow is at least a semi-common occurrence. I do not mind the snow and, in fact, I rather enjoy it. I enjoy it for its beauty and serenity, and I enjoy it for its solitude. I enjoy it for the starkness, perhaps for even the harsh reality it brings to our existence. It is with a certain sense of gratitude that I ponder is pureness and its simple beauty. Take the time some late night or early morning to look out at the freshly fallen snow in the moonlight. I learned to do this in the Upper Peninsula when I was in graduate school. An average of 270 inches of snow each winter made it a little difficult to not come face-to-face with the stark reality of winter. I remember when I first moved there and someone asked me if I liked snow. I responded in the affirmative. And they repeated, “No, do you LIKE snow?” What I realized was if you didn’t like it or learn to like it you would not survive. The pristine beauty of the Keweenaw Peninsula in winter is unparalleled. And Lake Superior provides two things: a boat-load (a really large boat) of snow and actually moderate temperatures. However, for most of us, winter reminds us of the death of anything’s plants, buildings, and, yes, even people. If the metaphor is to continue does winter mean death in my understanding of the seasons? To say so seems rather cliché, and I don’t particularly like clichés. Perhaps rather than death, it might be reasonable to see winter from his actual dates 21 December for the 21st or 22nd of March. Winter moves us from one calendar year to the next, from an ending to a beginning. In my previous life is a pastor I’m reminded of the words that occur in the committal service spoken over an open grave. “This is the gate to eternal life”. It is only in our ending, that we have any hope for a new beginning. I’ve experienced those new beginnings throughout my life because of changes, moves, and new opportunities. Those times were winters, if you will. But somehow this time winter seems different, it seems more permanent. But I’m okay with that. Perhaps I am in the winter. I refuse to fear it; instead I will embrace it. I will embrace it for its beauty or the preparation it allows me. There’s no need for angst or desperation. I’m reminded of the words of Paul. And yet in the fullness of time, it came to me the least of all. I have things yet to do and I will embrace those opportunities as I always have. I will work to make sure that I complete the things to which I am obligated, to keep my word to those people to whom I’ve made promises. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to experience the four seasons both literally and virtually. Indeed I have been blessed.

As always thank you for reading. It’s now 2:30 in the morning. I believe I can go to sleep. I should note it is the next day and when I wrote this (actually spoke it), I found there were many more issues with it than I could have anticipated. I think I have edited out most of the issues. Thanks for bearing with me.

Dr. Martin