Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Service to Humanity

One of my favorite topics to talk about is the Homo sapiens.   I come across this species almost every day: in the coffee shop, at work, under the boardwalk, even in my own home.  It’s sometimes scary to think that these simian creatures are just walking around, unattended, with nothing separating them from you but some sort of unspoken (and tenuous) agreement that harming one another is not in anyone’s best interest.  While I appreciate these biped mammals when I need some help or social interaction, I never forget that this is the same species that gave the world Hitler and Stalin.  You know what I mean?

Anyway, have you ever wondered why people smile at each other when they inadvertently make eye contact in passing?  I mean, why smile?  Who came up with this inane facial expression as a response?  Won’t this social custom only serve to perpetuate the myth of human kindness and empathy and cover up the fact that we’re just angry chimps wearing clothes and a deceptive smile?  Besides, how can anyone ever grow as a person if someone is never challenged but simply smiled at, as if everything’s hunky-dory?  See what I mean?   So I’ve decided that when I make eye contact with someone, I’m going to shake my head, not smile.  You see, my mammalian friend, when people see me shake my head they’ll be thrown off.  They’ll wonder what’s wrong.  They’ll look inside themselves, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll search for a way to turn someone’s shaking head of disapproval into an affirming nod.  The world will be a better place as a result. I won't shake my head merely to flout convention, but as a service to humanity, whatever that word means.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Six Years of My Life

I left 5 am this morning to make the five-hour drive to my military office in Milwaukee.  I’ll be conducting a change-of-command inventory with the new incoming commander, as my tenure as company commander is coming to an end this December.  Trust me, I’m glad to move on, but it will be a challenge to start anew, as an S1 staff officer, forging new relationships and learning the ropes in a different military unit.  Melancholies, I contend, thrive on change yet find it rather disconcerting. I’ve been a part of this current unit, an unspecified transportation battalion, since my redeployment from Afghanistan six years ago.  I started out as an NCO but went to officer candidate school in South Carolina and ended up serving as platoon leader in one company and commander in another.  Anyway, I’ll be embarking on a new chapter of my military career.  I have about 12 years to go.  Hopefully no new conflicts involving the U.S. erupt in the meantime, but I’m not holding my breath.  After all, this is Earth, and its tortured history is replete with wars and rumors of wars.  There are always territories to seize, terrorists and warlords to track down, and natural resources to secure.   What with seven gazillion homines sapientes traipsing around on this planet and a finite amount of space, it ain't looking good.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Blink of an Eye

Two of my daughters have their birthdays this weekend. Erika was born in Northern California, and Jessika was born four years later in Southern California.  They grew up in the Upper Midwest, however.  My oh my, how the years have flown by!  Erika has just turned the age when I got married.  That makes me feel kind of old……*sigh*….……(wait for it)……………..Shit.  Here’s a photo of them when we lived in Germany.  Things were so simple back then, you know?  I mean, I could put on a Disney movie and give them a Butterfinger; they were good to go.  Nowadays they’re more sophisticated in their interests and hobbies.  Erika is getting a business degree at the University of Wisconsin and working two jobs as an intern and waitress.  Jessi is on the varsity swim team at the U.S. Naval Academy.  Two cute girls become two beautiful, aspiring women in the blink of an eye, and I recede into the background, gratified and proud.  I love them.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thank You, Jesus!

A few months ago I joined a church called Covenant and Redemption, or CAR for short.  Pastor Matt is basically a reincarnation of Jesus Christ and his powerful message of inner reconciliation through focused meditation has gotten me through some tough times.  When you see him you'll duly note the uncanny resemblance to the Nazarene.  Anyway, thanks to my Savior’s teaching and loving guidance, I’ve been able to relinquish the deep-seated hatred I harbored these many years for my abusive stepfather.  No alcohol has touched my lips for nearly a month now.  During an altar call, Pastor Matt, or Jesus, reached out for me personally.  His loving eyes seemed to penetrate the shell around my hurting soul like a laser.  I could feel his divine presence within me, beside me, strengthening me.

I’m writing you about my experience of newfound bliss because I believe the world needs to hear Jesus’ new and timely message of redemption, a philosophy of life based in part on sacred Hebrew and Sanskrit texts and in part on new revelations from the mind of God, that is, Matt.  At first I didn’t understand why he had to sleep with my girlfriend and some of the other female members of the congregation until I had a kind of cosmic realization that he was purifying them with his immaculate body.  More important than His women's ministry, though, is His eschatological teaching.  Pastor Matt has been preaching about the apocalyptic end of the world.  Enemies of the faith lurk everywhere, both within the church and outside.  Fortunately our spiritual ruler has prepared a place of security for us, after drawing upon the connections and financial backing of wealthy followers.  Once the divorce is settled and I've given all my possessions to CAR Ministries (including my firstborn), I’ll be moving to a CAR settlement located about 30 miles northeast of Perth, Australia.  In this isolated compound with fellow believers I will find everything I need.  Thank you so much, Jesus, for the start of a long and wonderful life ahead!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Problem with Rudy

Rudy has worked as a shift manager at Pioneer Chicken in El Segundo for over five years.  While he’s relatively satisfied with his life, he nonetheless yearns for something more—an adventure or new challenge.  Like many of us, he’s discontent with his lot in life and desperately needs a larger purpose.  He wants to travel to exotic lands, experience other cultures, and meet interesting and influential people. Who knows?  Maybe Rudy could find his soul mate on such an adventure.  Problem is: Rudy is a serial killer.  Though it’s been over two years since his last kill, he’s bound to strike again, and living abroad or sipping a margarita in some sun-bleached resort can’t be good, you know what I mean?  People could get hurt.  He should set aside his dreams and aspirations, as far as I’m concerned.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Woman

She didn’t appear in public much, and when she did, she hid her face in a scarf.  Can you blame her?  People can be so unforgiving, especially the morally smug people of this Midwestern town.  Some of them call her a harlot, not a few of them think she’s the Whore of Babylon.  She’s neither saint nor sinner, neither monstrous nor meretricious, though her angelic eyes exude sensuality.  The townsfolk scoff, ridicule, castigate.  If it were up to me, I’d have each one of them shot for having judged her so harshly, for having cast stones upon her without hesitation.  But she would have none of this violence.  The woman spends the days tending her flower garden and playing Chopin listlessly on her Steinway.  A steady diet of tonics and laudanum do not ease her loneliness.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

My Girlfriends

My girlfriends aren’t real, but they’re no less dear to me.  Well, define real, right?  I mean, they’re real to me, and anyone who sees my playful interaction with Jade and the others would have no doubt about the seriousness of the relationship.  I just know that some people object to the close bond I've formed with these fashion dolls.  Who’s to judge what is real and meaningful?  If these gals are meeting my emotional needs and if I’m satisfied sexually (more so the latter), then what does it matter that my girlfriends are made of plastic?  So I turn the question back on you: Who are you to judge?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bittersweet Autumn

Autumn is bittersweet for me.  As some of you might have gathered by now, it’s my favorite time of the year.  We’re just past peak season at the top of November, but not by much.  As I pen these words on a scratch piece of paper, I’m driving a long stretch of the Interstate from Point A to Point B, and the trees of the Upper Midwest through my window panorama look spectacular.  Yes, I love the fall: the leaves, the sky, the weather, Halloween, Thanksgiving, apple cider, pumpkins, childhood memories, and all the rest of it.  Yet it couldn’t come at a busier time.  Nothing’s changed; it’s always been this way: deadlines and pressures galore, especially in October.  I always have the hope that the next autumn won’t be so complicated and vexing.  Most of this complication is of my own making, I must concede, so I’ll try to maintain a broad perspective about life.  “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”  I must drive on.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Voices from the Cemetery

My mommy and daddy live in the cemetery.  They tell me that I need to behave.  They say I’m a very naughty child and they want to lock me away in a dungeon.  I tried to hide, I tried to run.  I like to draw lots of pictures with crayons and markers.  Mommy threw them all away.  No one must see them.  I love my mommy and daddy, and I hear them whisper to me though an iron gate.  Their voices tickle my ear, make me giggle.  Sometimes they cry and groan.  Daddy beat me when he was sad and touched me in a bad place when he was mad.  Mommy was quiet.  On nights such as this one I like to climb the large sycamore tree that hangs over the cemetery and talk to my mommy and daddy.  They must have thought me real naughty when I wielded that axe.  They live in the cemetery because they’re naughty too. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Succubus of Kettlewood Estates

Be on your guard if you stay overnight at Kettlewood Estates.  You won’t succumb only to the magnificent view of the Chesapeake.  Passions stir in dark places, at the nexus of lust and pure evil.  She’s not who or what you think she is, and it won’t matter if you’re youthful, virile, in the twilight of your years, or dry to the bone; if you’re a heterosexual male, you won’t escape her demonic wiles, the dark power of a sinister spirit.   Poe once wrote that there’s nothing more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman.  Well, there’s nothing more beautiful than this shrouded figure that glides through the air and lures foolish men to the flames of hell.  But she’s no corpse; she’s not among the “living dead.”  She's not one of the many ghosts from the Civil War that haunt this region—she’s much worse, a malevolent force in the guise of a stunningly beautiful and irresistibly sensual woman. Her face is pale as ash, with wanton eyes as black as coal, and dark streaks running down her eyes—are these tears or Satan’s branding?  Her long flaxen hair is almost as pale as her face.  Don’t follow her upstairs, lads.  Fight the urge to kiss those dark lips, for they’ll lead you straight to perdition where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Leave the state of Maryland if you have to, and never come back.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Puerto Rico and the Legacy of Las Casas

I’ve been in San Juan, Puerto Rico since Thursday afternoon, soaking up the sun and returning to my academic roots after a long hiatus.  A highlight today was ensconcing myself this morning at a restaurant table with a seaside view to enjoy breakfast.  Why am I in Puerto Rico?  I organized two conference panels on the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, a “Protector of the Indians,” for the annual Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, and contributed a paper on my use of Las Casas’s writings in a comparative genocide course I teach at the University of Minnesota.  Fittingly, Puerto Rico is the location of this year’s conference.  Las Casas spent over a decade in the Caribbean, including a brief stay in San Juan in 1521.  Years later when he penned his Brevísima Relación de la Destrución de las Indias he would not mince words about what happened on this island paradise.  The Spaniards committed atrocities against the hapless natives, laying them on “gridirons made of twigs and tree branches to roast them and setting loose savage dogs, and afterward oppressing and torturing and ill-treating them in the mines and other labors, until they had consumed and worn away all those poor innocents and slain them.”  The Dominican’s moral courage and dogged determination to protect the Amerindian population from the ravages of his fellow Spaniards have preoccupied me these past couple of days, as scholars have gathered here from different disciplines to discuss his legacy.

Above all, though Las Casas was a flawed human being, rather cantankerous and combative, and though for a time he supported the African slave trade only to repent from this hypocritical stance years later with a contrite heart, what amazes me was the ability of this individual to stand up against the imperial system, indeed the zeitgeist, and, like an Old Testament prophet, condemn crimes against humanity committed by his own people, even as he appeals to the conscience of his contemporaries, including no less than Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, who eventually supported new laws to curb abuses in the New World.  Las Casas was a voice crying in the wilderness, but he was not alone.  Little did parishioners realize when Dominican preacher Antonio Montesinos entered the pulpit one Sunday morning in Santo Domingo what was in store for them. “There is a sterility of conscience among you on this island [Hispaniola],” he boldly declared, “and a blindness in which you live.”  He went on with a series of questions that seems to echo in eternity, or at least into our present day: “Are these not men?  Do they not have rational souls?  Are you not obligated to love them as yourselves!  Don’t you understand this?  Don’t you see this?  How can you be in such a profound and lethargic sleep?”  Such sermons made an impression on Las Casas, who had a profound conversion experience, giving up his life as a slaveholder and entering the Dominican order, much as an English sailor named John Newton, two centuries later, would condemn the “evil institution” that he had benefited from and go on to become an ardent abolitionist and pen “Amazing Grace.”
 
I didn’t come here just to talk about Las Casas, however.  I’ve enjoyed this brief time in Puerto Rico, and, honestly, I’ve attended only the conference panels I organized so as to have plenty of time to roam the shoreline, walk the streets of downtown San Juan, and take photos of some historic sites.  I did show up at a reception in the lobby last night, however, so I could get three or four free glasses of wine.  (Not long thereafter I met some people from the conference when I sat down to play an abandoned grand piano, mildly tipsy, though I had no interest in networking with scholars this weekend.)  It’s a bit humid for my tastes here, but it’s spectacularly beautiful.  My participation in this conference isn’t merely an excuse to visit Puerto Rico; after all, it comes at a busy time of the year and it's difficult to set aside the weight of the world while I'm here.  I haven’t attended one of these conferences since 2004.  Many things have happened since then, including military service and overseas deployment.

This conference is an effort to reconnect with my 16th century roots, so to speak, after years and years of teaching other topics and abandoning research.  In a way, I’m an academic in my heart of heart; I can walk the walk and talk the talk, and for the most part I enjoy this life.  Yet I realize that I'll never be a normal academic, given other life experiences and, well, some self-confessed oddities.  Nonetheless, I’m somewhat in the game now, as scholars want to put something together next year and asked if I’d be interested in publishing papers in these panels and help make the Dominican’s life work more accessible to the public.  2014 marks the quincentenary of Las Casas's conversion, when he relinquished his land grant of slavesno better sign of an internal change of heart.  I’m not sure if I’ll be a part of this project, as I’m no Lascasista.  In fact, I’m quite outside my linguistic ken in taking on a subject such as this.  Two things I can affirm, though:  (1) Las Casas is a Mensch, even a hero of mine, well worth consideration and (2) this trip to San Jose, however short, has been a welcome respite from the rigors of this semester. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Lurking in the Darkness

Demons and ghosts lurk in the darkness. So they say—you know, people who believe in such things or at least want others to believe in them.  I’ve never seen them myself, but I believe it.  Why not?  Anyway, this phenomenon no longer frightens me as it once did when I was a child, for I too find my place in the dark.  These figures creeping in the wee hours of the night or in shadowy corners or in dim-lit upstairs hallways are not menacing.  They emerge from their Cimmerian gloom not to harm.  No, we have enough to worry about among the living.  I can identify with tortured entities sulking over paradise lost and apparitions desperate to unburden their souls.  Life has lost a bit of meaning for me, though to be sure I find solace in family and friends and creative outlets such as writing and music.  But I also find sanctuary in the darkness.  Wraithlike, I lurk in the shadows, on the fringe, out of sight.  Perhaps I’m cursed, perhaps it’s my choice.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Great Red Maple

Under her warm branches lovers and dreamers would gather to embrace and dream.  Lost souls would find solace.  Wide-eyed individuals with big ideas for a better tomorrow would sketch out their thoughts, collaborate with one another, and reify their visions.  They couldn’t resist the tree’s magnetic draw: leaves aflame with the richest, deepest hues of autumn, igniting passion and creativity.  The great red maple was larger than life, and getting larger still, for each time a poet finished a stanza, or an artist completed his canvas, or a philosopher discovered a new insight, another branch would grow, inviting more and more folk to assemble under its protection and forge a new path together.  Each moment a musician strummed a new chorus, or a speaker inspired his audience, or a politician placed the common good over ambition, the trunk thickened and the leaves expanded.  Small minds shackled by the past say you can’t change the future.  It's a waste of time trying to create a harmonious community, for the foibles of humanity will always subvert the efforts.  But those who venture into the woods of October just might forgo the past, form a broader perspective, find other possibilities.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Pumpkin Patch

The kids gathered around the pumpkin patch anticipating another fun event and eager to pick out and take home the biggest, brightest pumpkins, as the orchard staff had promised them. You couldn’t ask for a more wonderful fall day.  The sun, leaves, cornfields, and clouds conspired to give a magnificent golden glow across Harvest Valley.  Tucked inside this arboreal paradise is Jensen’s Apple Orchard, a favorite weekend site just three miles off the Interstate; once its doors open in September, families, school children, and lovers of autumn come to enjoy the delicious fruit and foliage of the season.  Fifth graders from Allenby Christ Lutheran Elementary School had enjoyed the last couple of hours running through the corn maze, moving cautiously through the Haunted Barn, taking a wagon tour of the apple orchard, eating honey crisp apples, and drinking Momma Jensen’s apple cider.  What these youngsters couldn’t know, of course, as they reached for their orange gourds, was that their teachers, a teacher’s aide, and the bus driver lie dead in the back of a shed.  After the proprietors of Jensen’s Apple Orchard had drugged them with free samples of pumpkin spice coffee, they strangled them to death, ever so careful not to shed any blood.  Now they were about to grab these hapless children and offer them as burnt sacrifices to appease their pagan ancestors, who, they fervently believed, had suffered for centuries at the rapacious hands of Christian marauders.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Haunted Trousers

Jerrold was convinced a ghost haunted his corduroy trousers.  Every time he put them on something strange would happen.  They would gyrate, pulsate, and sometimes even percolate.  A little investigation revealed that the specter either inhabited the pants only at the time Jerrold was wearing them or, for whatever reason, chose to lie dormant inside the said pants until the time came every morning for Jerrold to slip them on.  We haven’t yet addressed the grotesque sounds emanating from Jerrold’s pelvic area, leading to the suspicion that more than one ghost haunted the corduroys.  One day by happenstance our protagonist discovered that his denim jeans were likewise haunted, as were his khaki cargo pants and the nice polyester slacks he bought from Sears the other day.  Sometimes a residue or stain would be left behind, as if somehow the spiritual realm crossed over into the physical.  What these ghosts want is not clear, so Jerrold recently hired a paranormal specialist to launch a further investigation.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cornfield

I walked into a cornfield in late September.  The day was nearing dusk as clouds formed on the horizon, shafts of light bursting the white veil.  I parked at the side of the road and got out, not even bothering to shut the door.  It’s like I was heeding the call of autumn, or maybe I just succumbed to corn tassels whispering in the wind.  The smell of smoke from a distant barn wafted through the crisp air.  As I ventured through the threshold from the highway to quietude, my mind was still replete with the affairs of the day.  Traveling from town to town and balancing at least two careers and many roles can take its toll sometimes.  Life is complicated and full of moral ambiguities, I thought, like the cacophony created by a cluster of chromatic notes.   Dissonance resonates with me.  In that moment, though, I heard only the sound of discarded husks crunching under my feet.
 
I must have trudged about twenty yards into this amber forest when I found myself in a small clearing.  Strange.  Perhaps the rocky soil in this part of the field prevented growth.  Suddenly I felt like the scattered seed of a parable.  I thought to myself: If I could build a little shelter or pitch a tent, I could live here, provided that it remain September perpetually and Farmer Johnson never check on his crops.  Maybe I could drive my Ford Focus in here, cover up the tracks, and reside in my car in the middle of this cornfield.  I’d live off the corn, ants, and a flask of Gentleman Jack that somehow made it into my trunk. 

As I chuckled to myself, a silhouetted figure about twenty feet to my right caught my attention.  It was raised aloft with outstretched, handless arms, looking like one of the criminals on Golgotha.  Scarecrows fascinate me, especially since they always seem to come to life in the movies.  I desperately wanted it to move.  I wanted to see demons crawling out of its mouth or burst out of the black overcoat that Farmer Johnson hastily threw over it.  I wanted to see something.  I looked long and hard into its canvas-sack face.  It had no nose or mouth, just eyes made from cut-off corncobs.  Does he really scare the crows away?  I threw dirt clods at the dark thing hoping to piss it off and animate it.  Nothing.  No movement.  Without ghosts and goblins in the world, I ruminated, life is so meaningless and mundane.  Atheists tell me that you live only once.  That may be, but if I am to expire into nothingness at some future date, preferably later than sooner, my earthly existence in the meantime needs sorting out, disentangling.  I have no time to hide in this cornfield, much less to dream about a future Golden Cornfield in the sky.  I got back in my car and took the county road to the Interstate. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Misgiving

I've been teaching part-time for a private university since July to supplement my income. I have some misgivings about this consumer-driven highly-accelerated degree program, even though I had taught history and humanities for many years as an adjunct instructor at comparable institutions, usually for a business or nursing school. Notwithstanding what the dean and other administrators at this institution’s College of Business and Management say about ethical values and academic rigor, it's all about making money; students pay for serves rendered, fastening a bunch of “A”s to their belt with relatively minimal effort in order to obtain that precious piece of paper and further their career ambitions, or at least retain their job position. And we're talking quick service too: five 4-hour sessions to cover, in my case, Western civilization or a survey of humanities: centuries of literature, history, philosophy, music, and visual art.

Some of these “adult learners” come to class tired and whiny after working all day; rare is the instructor who keeps them beyond three hours.  So, de facto, we’re talking about three-hour sessions.  Moreover, students get to miss one class session and not have it impact their grade; not a few of them use this option.  Years ago I taught a 12-week program, only to have it downsized to 7 weeks (i.e., 7 class sessions) a few years later.  This institution also offered a 2-Saturday course as well, enabling students to get their three credits of general ed. in about 13-14 hours.  Now, with my present part-time employer, I’m supposed to shove all of this information into 20 hours?
 
Yes, my friend, it’s about the Almighty Dollar.  It’s about being competitive with other accelerated programs that continually reduce the required credit hours so that the consumer, McDonald's-like, can get their degree ASAP. The administration pays lip service to the problem of grade inflation, yet there's a lot of pressure to give students “A”s and “B+”s.  In an unguarded moment I revealed to a colleague at my day job that I was moonlighting.  He did not mince words about the greed and consumerism of private universities.  He’s right.  If the students don't get what they want, and when they want it, they'll take their money elsewhere, and deans and college presidents know this. The administration is all about recruiting as many students as possible; academic rigor can get in the way of that goal. Obviously there's a limit. Students must feel that they're getting a somewhat decent education, let alone the university having a modicum of credibility.  Nonetheless, I have my misgivings about the educational value of this program.  We’ll see what happens.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Apple Orchard

Bryan was a serial rapist and sadist in his heart of heart.  He sought transcendence and seemed to find it in the degradation of other souls, especially the souls (and bodies) of women—many women, including daughters, mothers…and beloved sisters.  I can appreciate Bryan, well, not the rape part, but the transcendence.  After all, we’re all seeking some kind of higher level or broader purpose to govern our lives and give meaning to our earthly existence.  Still, Bryan took the wrong path in life.  He followed his sadistic heart and never sought the help he so desperately needed.  I often describe myself to friends and especially my Republican colleagues as a bleeding-heart liberal.  I vehemently oppose the death penalty, yet I try not to push my politics on everyone.  I’m also a firm advocate of social justice.  That’s why I didn’t kill Bryan; I wanted to stick to my principles.  Instead, he took his own life.  After I spent some time alone with him, he evidently saw the wisdom of leaving this world.  Perhaps his spirit has found bliss in some other life, but his bones lie buried in my aunt’s apple orchard.  Jennifer would have wanted it that way.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Working on Normal

Having lived alone in a dark cave for twenty-three years, I've picked up bad habits that don’t translate well in urban society—in any society for that matter.  Rousseau was absolutely wrong: civilization doesn’t corrupt and nature isn’t blissful.  I’m finding it hard to adapt as I exit one world and enter another.  You see, my friend, I landed this great teaching job a couple of years ago and I desperately want to fit in.  Problem is, I’m still not ready for public consumption.  We all have hang-ups; we all have peccadillos.  (I once ran over a peccadillo on a Kentucky highway, yet I still have my flaws.)  But I’ve been disturbing my colleagues at the office because I talk to myself, sigh loudly, grumble, and grunt.  One of the administrators, a pleasant young woman with ostensibly good intentions, had the audacity to come over to my cubicle and bring these outbursts to my attention.  Listen, when you’ve lived in a cave for over two decades, you learn to entertain yourself.  I tell people that I don’t talk to myself per se; rather, I’m working through issues or testing how something might sound in the classroom or on the stage.   Such explanations don’t matter, however.  I’m just the guy who talks to himself.
 
I was raised by a she-wolf out in the wild long before my cave years.  I yelp and scratch my crotch ferociously when things don’t go my way.  This ogre-like behavior has cost me friends.  Faculty steer clear of me and I worry that my job is on the line.  The tattooed guys at the local coffee shop look at me askance.  Who wants to serve an ogre coffee?  When I suckled my mom’s teat, along with her pups, little did I know that I was imbibing lifelong rustic habits.  During committee meetings I mimic the sounds of flatulence with my armpits.  I  still mark my territory when I’m at home.  Guests usually head for the door when they see my trousers starting to foam.  Yes, I’m rather uncouth, but please be patient: I’m working on normal.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Weekend in Maryland

I just returned from Parents Weekend at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland to see my middle daughter.  Jessi had spent the last six weeks getting through the rigors of Plebe Summer.  My wife, younger daughter, and the dog arrived there Friday morning via car from Wisconsin, and I took a flight from Minnesota.  My sister Linda flew in from California and stayed at a hotel adjacent to ours.  After watching Jessi in a military parade on Saturday, we got a chance to check out the campus with her: the dining hall, the pool, the bookstore, Bancroft Hall, Tecumseh Court, and some of the historical sites such as John Paul Jone's tomb.  I arrived too late to see her dorm room.  Jessi had to be on her guard throughout our visit, as Detailers were out and about making sure the Plebes didn't violate the rules.  Seeing my daughter in a uniform and finding out that she's not just surviving Plebe Summer but enjoying it made me feel good.  I don't take pride in too many things, as my self-inflicted Calvinist background keeps me in check.  Nonetheless, I have tremendous pride in Jessi, Monika, and Erika.  They're much more ahead in life than I was at their ages. I had an opportunity on Sunday to see Washington D.C.  There were zillions of people walking around.  Lack of time and parking spaces reduced our visit  to a quick driveby.  I saw the White House, Capitol building, and the famous monuments from afar.  We did pay a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, though, as I've taught courses on genocide for years now and have wanted to see it.   Linda and I could have spent more time there, but we arrived near closing time and Jessi was getting tired.

Upon our return from the capital yesterday afternoon, Jessi, Linda and I watched a horror movie matinee at the local mall: The Conjuring.  We went to a lot of restaurants during these three days because Jessi didn't have this kind of freedom in the last six weeks.   We had fun eating ice cream at the marina.  Teri took lots of pictures.  Jessi got some good rest in the hotel room.  We said our goodbyes in the late afternoon, as Jessi had to report back by 6pm.   Linda and I goofed around at a historic preservation site near the airport before I dropped her off for her flight.  It was a good weekend.  I got to touch base with family, check out the naval academy, and see interesting historic sites.  Jessi will be there for four years, so I guess it won't be the last time I visit.  That's a good thing.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Venimus, Vidimus, Vicimus

The gods of recreation smiled on Sunday.  A light shower in the early morning kept the temperature relatively cool as “The Raptors” stepped into the muck and mire under an opal sky.  I formed a team with work colleagues to participate in Minnesota’s annual Tough Mudder, an eleven-mile military-like obstacle course carved out of hilly farmland just over the border in Wisconsin.  The event raises millions of dollars for the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity that supports injured members of the U.S. military.  This was my second go at it, as I had been part of a Tough Mudder team last September with soldiers from my Army unit.

Build it and they will come.  Oh, they came, in the hundreds, adventurous individuals wanting to test their stamina, mettle, athletic prowess, and whatever else they got.  Our team, the aforementioned Raptors, met the week prior to the event to train as a group.  Getting through the course would hinge on a collaborative effort.  We climbed over walls, waded through a vat of ice water, received mild electric shocks, crawled through tunnels, leaped mounds of mud, jumped bales of hay, carried logs, plummeted 15+ feet into blood-red water, sprinted up a greasy half-pipe known as “Everest,” and the list goes on.  Mud had saturated our very essence.  Yes, we became one with the sludge.  We could taste it.  We could feel it.  In fact, by the end, we could no longer tell where we began and the mud ended.  I can pleasantly report that this latest team of academics were in much better shape than the Army team from last year.  We did more than survive the gauntlet of 20-odd obstacles.  As we crossed the finish line, we felt like Julius Caesar, who upon victory in battle is alleged to have uttered (and I paraphrase): Venimus, Vidimus, Vicimus.  We came, we saw, we conquered. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Summer Running

I ran a 13-miler this morning in New Lisbon, Wisconsin.  It’s my fifth “half marathon” within the last three years.  I got my worst time ever, but that’s okay; I didn’t get a chance to run sufficiently this week and decided to register only a couple days prior.  The running event bears the name of the town’s annual July festival, Wa Du Shuda, which, I’m told, means “Watchya doin’, Shuda?” in Portuguese, Shuda being the patron saint of seafaring vessels.  (By the way, that is a lie.)  Anyway, I wanted to do something in preparation for the Minnesota Tough Mudder next week.  Five colleagues from my university job agreed to form a team with me for the challenging 12-mile obstacle course.   We’ve called ourselves the “Raptors,” after the school mascot, and we’ve all been training for it in our own way since the latter half of May.  I’ll probably write about the experience next week.  A small event, the half marathon in New Lisbon consisted of only thirty people.  I shamefacedly crossed the finish line in the twenty-fifth place.  Usually a competitive spirit gets the better of me in spite of what my body might be saying, but I told myself to take it easy and simply complete the run, nothing more.  The weather was pretty good, given the middle of July, and the runners were nice.  I didn’t stay around too long after the finish, though.  As they were reading off the race results on the loud speaker, I was already on the interstate heading north and thinking about the next challenge.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Srebrenica

So I was in line getting a cup of Joe at Starbucks early this morning, feeling somewhat self-conscious in my military uniform, when I glanced at the cover photo of the New York Times.  At first I thought I was seeing huge seed pods lined up, but on closer inspection it was a woman in a headscarf grieving in a row of green-colored coffins.  On this day, July 12, eighteen years ago, perpetrators of a horrific crime begin to separate males aged 12 to 77 from the throng of fear-stricken victims, ostensibly for the purpose of interrogation.  The genocide in Srebrenica was the worst case of mass murder in Europe since the Holocaust.  Bosnian Serb troops under the command of Ratko Mladić transported over 7,000 Muslim men and boys from a designated UN Safe Area to various killing sites throughout eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina while UN peacekeeping forces stood by.  Actually, the Bosnian Serbs took over a compound at Potočari, just outside Srebrenica, where a Dutch battalion was struggling to provide shelter and protection for thousands of Bosniak refugees. 
 
I begin teaching a summer course on genocide and political oppression next week.  I like to start the first day of class with a dramatic opener that gets the students’ attention and also shows the relevancy of the topic.  I decided to use this article as the starting point.  After all, I’m having the students read a selection from a Bosnian Muslim’s memoir at the end of the term, so I’d be giving them a heads-up.  The NYT article focuses on Radovan Karadžić, the civilian leader of the Bosnian Serbs, who orchestrated the killing with General Mladić.  The UN tribunal in The Hague have recently reinstated genocide charges against Karadžić.  Both men had been in hiding for years until the Serbs, under pressure, delivered them up to the authorities.  The world, especially the families of the victims, await justice.  1995 was the not Middle Ages.  It was not 1944.  We still live in a world of uncertainty, one in which humans have the potential to commit the worst crime known to our species and have the world community do nothing about it.  The words Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and 911 have become infamous symbols of evil in the modern world, but let us not forget Srebrenica.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pills

So here I am in my late forties and only now have been introduced to the world of medication!  I’m a late bloomer, I guess, but thanks to colleagues and friends I’m assured that meds can do the trick in coping with life’s slings and arrows.  How cool is that?  Back in the day I had to wrestle with my demons, confront my pangs of conscience, the sting of regret, the disappointment of failure, and other forms of mental torture.  Not anymore, my friends.  I just take pills.  Am I fighting sleep at night?  I just pop a couple Tylenol PMs into my mouth and await pharmaceutical magic.  Do I have a hangnail or did I stub my toe?  Ouch, right?  No!  I cram ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatory drugs at hand into my mouth and down them with some Jack.  I’ve gotten to the point that I eat them like candy (even keeping the pills in a yellow M&M bag just to make it feel like a treat)!  When consciousness rears its ugly ahead again, no worries.  I got some prescription drugs for that menace.  The doctor doesn’t waste time asking questions about what might be the source of my mental anguish, he just keeps them pills coming.  It’s more about experimentation as to what works best, and with the least side effects, rather than consideration of any life situation that could have caused my desperate need for medication in the first place.  That works for me.  At the first sign of pain or even mild discomfort, I’m tossing those bad boys down the pie hole.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Community Collaboratory

How do you encourage college students to get involved in the community?  How do you ignite their potential for collaboration and equip them for a life of civic engagement?  To address these questions, I’ve participated as one of eight instructors in a new experimental course we collectively designed and taught at the University of Minnesota Rochester this past academic year. We’ve called it the Community Collaboratory, or “Co-Lab” for short, as a way of suggesting the content at a glance.  With guidance from the team of instructors, students work in groups with influential members of Rochester organizations, whom we’ve called “community advisors,” to discuss areas of need and draw up at the end of the semester a proposal of practical ideas for collaboration.  Our main purpose is to create and facilitate a reciprocal relationship between the education goals of the university and the specific objectives of community institutions.  We’ve formed this partnership largely with medical organizations because UMR students are majoring in health science.  Co-Lab was an overall success this past semester and is now a required course in the university curriculum, replacing an earlier attempt to integrate service learning into the fourth semester of Spanish.  However, creating a course that could meet the high expectations of the faculty and staff involved, let alone offering the community advisors something worth their time and getting the chancellor's stamp of approval, was no small chore.
 
The team of volunteer instructors had assembled by the beginning of the fall semester and met in early October to bounce around ideas and think big thoughts.  Here was an opportunity to do something meaningful and different, and with the full backing of the university.  Consequently, we wanted to approach this project with great care, even if the timetable was pressing upon us to offer this course in the spring of 2013.  Fortunately, the faculty and staff who have been a part of Co-Lab are a rather congenial and easy-going bunch, so arriving at a common vision was less problematic than it otherwise could have been.  Our diversity in terms of academic discipline, teaching experience, and personality is both a strength and challenge.  It was a strength precisely because we wanted an interdisciplinary curriculum that considered community involvement from different angles.  The challenge involved finding a curriculum that satisfied academic requirements of the university and also integrated topics, concepts, and skills that we individually thought was important.  It wasn’t lost on us that the credibility of a course about collaboration hinges on the ability of the course designers to collaborate successfully!  In the end, the real challenge stemmed from our ambition to create an innovative interdisciplinary hybrid course that links the university to the wider community.
 
After the initial meeting, we gathered together on a bi-weekly basis throughout the fall semester to work out the details and put together a syllabus.  We formed breakoff groups to explore different aspects of the course, such as course texts and assignments.  Some of us took on the nuts-and-bolts task of forging a workable syllabus, while others brainstormed ways we could include community organizations.  We explored the theoretical roots of our endeavor by reading relevant scholarly articles on community engagement and related topics and discussing them in our meetings.  We knew that this course would be worth three credits and entail a letter grade, unlike other non-discipline offerings at UMR.  Since the spring schedule would only allow the course to meet for one 75-minute session per week, we needed to find a way to make up the missing credit hours.  We ended up creating a hybrid course: part of the course would occur in the classroom and part online.  The online component mostly consisted of a weekly discussion forum where students address questions from the course texts, post assignments, and sometimes follow up on discussion from class.  We divided the course into three modules, each of which require a major assignment, in addition to the online forum and class activities.  These assignments include participation in a community event with a follow-up report; a narrative on citizenship; a group recommendation for future collaboration; and a presentation. The instructors paired up to plan and teach each weekly session, which I’ll discuss below.  Critical to the course was a mandatory Community Collaboratory Conference about six weeks into the semester where students met in their assigned group with their respective community advisor in a structured discussion format.
 
We didn’t want this course to be merely about “service learning,” and in fact wanted to forge new terms to avoid these associations.  There’s nothing wrong with service learning, but we wanted to widen the angle and have students make larger connections.  This course was not about volunteering on a short-term basis.  We wanted them to understand the complicated so that they could come out of the course with a knowledge of complex social issues that can enhance or hinder community collaboration as well as a set of communicative, social and research skills to facilitate this work.  To use the well-worn cliché, we didn’t want to give them a fish but teach them how to fish.  Having the students work in groups and work through these larger issues was particularly important for this first offering of the course.  In subsequent semesters we will recalibrate the curriculum.  For the upcoming fall semester, for instance, students taking the course will not be starting from scratch but building upon the recommendations that last semester’s students presented...

We wanted to do something special for the first session of the semester in order to set the tone and make the course a different experience, so we had the students assemble at the civic theater instead of the classroom and invited both the theater director and the chancellor to speak about opportunities for collaboration in Rochester.  After giving a brief overview of the course and introducing the instructors, we explained the Social Change Wheel to the students (see image) and asked them where they would place themselves on it.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

We set aside a day each year to commemorate our nation’s birth and take unabashed pride in our heritage.  The American idea is a bold one, perhaps bolder than our white male Founding Fathers realized when they set quill to paper over two hundred years ago; through arms, placards, and ballots each generation has worked out the full implications of the U.S. Constitution.  We fought a horrific civil war a century and a half ago to end the evil institution of slavery.  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights and feminist movements paved the way for equal rights and greater opportunities for ethnic minorities and women.  Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of allowing same-sex married couples access to federal benefits and essentially supported gay marriage in California, the largest state in the Union.  The America of 2013 is different from the America of 1865 or 1920, but the same principle of liberty and equality has been at work.  As a young Theodor Roosevelt stated in a Fourth of July speech he delivered in North Dakota: “American citizens whether born here or elsewhere, whether of one creed or another, stand on the same footing; we welcome every honest immigrant, no matter from what country he comes, provided only that he leaves behind him his former nationality and...becomes an American, desirous of fulfilling in good faith the duties of American citizenship.”  Both the strength and challenge of America, I submit, has been the diversity of her citizenry: E pluribus unum.  We’re a nation of immigrants committed to an idea.  The American system, our representative democracy, can get rather messy and disputatious when it comes to implementing this idea in concrete terms, but thankfully we have an open forum to air differences, a freedom of expression embedded in our political culture, enshrined in our founding document, and protected by an all-volunteer military force.
 
My daughter Jessi started Plebe Summer at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis one week ago.  I think of her most when I think of Independence Day, and I can’t wait to spend time with her at the end of this grueling process during Parents Weekend in August.  She’s strong, smart, conscientious, and adventurous—everything you’d want in a future naval officer.  Serving in the U.S. military is no small commitment these days, as threats loom in various corners of the world.  North Korea is talking tough and threatening our allies in the region.  There’s the prospect of a future naval conflict in the Persian Gulf unless cooler heads prevail within the Islamic Republic of Iran.  (I was serving a tour in Afghanistan when the Iranians seized 15 members of the Royal Navy and held them for nearly two weeks in early spring of 2007).  Relations with the People’s Republic of China seem civil enough, but the Hainan Island incident of 2001 should remind us that minor confrontations always have the potential to escalate.  Pirates off the coast of Somalia and worldwide terrorist networks likewise could draw us into a regional conflict.  Jessi and her peers at the Naval Academy carry the star-spangled torch of freedom.  Is that overstating the case?  Well, remember that for all the ill-will we elicit in certain regions because of our military presence or economic interests, our political freedoms and peaceful transition of power from one political party to another are still the envy of much of the world.
 
So let us put aside partisan rancor on this day of celebration.  Let us gaze upon the firework display this night with wide-eyed wonder.  Let us appreciate the self-evident truths that Thomas Jefferson penned so eloquently.  And let us give way to patriotic fervor as we behold Old Glory.  I was watching a documentary about the Holocaust the other day.  In an interview, Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Jewish-Austrian “Nazi hunter” and a Holocaust survivor who died a few years ago, described in his thick accent how he felt when the Yanks entered the Mauthausen concentration camp:  “In the day of liberation I could not walk, but I wish to see the sun, I wish to see the American tank.  On all four I came out of the block and looked on the American flag.  I feel that every star…this is a star of justice, and this is a star of friendship, and this is a star of culture.  And the stripes…this is a road to freedom.”  With proper maintenance, occasional readjustment, and constant vigilance, the United States of America will remain the Land of Liberty.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Perspicadius and the Plagiarist

Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living.  For over two millennia this statement has provided thinkers a rationale for their queries.  These words have inspired those wanting to reflect upon their life and be deliberative in their actions.  What most people don’t realize is that the Athenian philosopher stole this line from the fifth-century orator, Perspicadius of Corinth, and pulled it out of context.  Historians of ancient Greece had only recently discovered the Corinthian’s original words buried in a Carolingian codex on the discarded shelf of a French monastery.  Posterity is more familiar with Perspicadius’s oft-cited line: “All Athenians are assholes.”  (Harsh for pious ears, a medieval scribe amended the phrase to “All Cretans are Liars” and attributed it to Epimenides of Knossos.)  Here are the words of Perspicadius: “The unexamined life is not worth living, but it is even more worthwhile to live your life without any thought at all.  Consider the beasts of the field.  Do they not live without introspection? Do they not care about their purpose or the meaning to life and yet they seem to be content?  Why should man be different?”  As it turns out, historians think the randy Socrates plagiarized the first statement in order to entice Athenian teens wanting to study philosophy under the master.  For the younger boys, Socrates used candy.  The historical damage has been done.  Socrates lives on in the memories of future generations, while the deeper truths of Perspicadius remain in obscurity.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Unmensch

Most people who meet me don’t like what they see.  Some think I’m the mother of all assholes, while others consider me no more than a loathsome spider they’d just as soon stamp out if they could.  What they have in common is that they’re repulsed, quite visibly so, and I can’t blame them.   I mean, I’m okay on paper, but once people interact with me face to face, they soon become bitterly disappointed.  One woman after meeting me, I’m told, contemplated suicide but somehow managed to pull herself out of this dark place enough to live at least a life of emotional pain and solitude in her basement.  Do you ever have moments when you wish you could have lived your life differently?  Do you ever reflect in the quietness of your heart that the road to happiness and enlightenment starts with little steps?  Do you ever come to a kind of cosmic realization that you could turn your life around?  That a person’s worth is not measured by others?  That there's always a way out of the darkness if you just look for the light?  Well, not me, but let me be absolutely clear on one point: If you see me from afar, you won’t think much of me, good or bad.  If you hazard a conversation or otherwise interact with me, however, you’ll walk away feeling convinced that there is no God and all that you hold as sacred in this life amounts to a pile of poo.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Book of Job

I haven’t been feeling well these past few days.  Bearing these ills with patience and longsuffering, wretch that I am, is no easy task.  I’m not looking for sympathy, just an ear.  Why has food become such an enemy?  I don’t deserve to be obese and have type 2 diabetes.  Anyway, I’ve run out of insulin and the pharmacy won’t be open until Monday.  My liquor cabinet has been empty for days and I don’t have money to restock it because I basically torpedoed my family's financial security at the casino last Thursday.  Worst of all, my meth lab exploded yesterday and ruined the entire basement.  Fortunately the wife and kids were out of town at the time, as I had sent them to my parents' house with explicit instructions on how to play on their guilt for some cash.  To add insult to injury, the strip club down the street closed down.  That was my only recreation in life.  Really?  Am I really reduced to looking up call girls in my little black book?  Yes, unfortunately.  It's not easy to endure this suffering with a quiet heart.  I cry out to you, O Lord, but you do not answer me.  Oh well.  At least I haven’t broken out in boils from head to foot.