Just Couldn’t Do It

February 6th, 2023

I wanted to go to the meeting. I really did.

I didn’t go. I just couldn’t do it.

A committee at our church sponsored a listening session last night with a panel of speakers from the Racine Interfaith Coalition (RIC). Our parish, St. Rita, is part of that coalition, and the Human Concerns Commission invited three people to come and talk to members of the church about “Catholic Social Teaching: Call to Community and Participation”. That sort of thing is right down my alley. I used to be very involved as a volunteer with community projects (e.g., teaching a citizenship class). But that was B.C. (Before Covid) and B.A. (Before Asher).

One of the speakers is a friend of mine, Carl Fields, and he was one reason for me to go. He’s a wonderful person, and I truly admire him. Carl did prison time for shooting at a cop. When he got out, he started getting busy. He has done extensive work to aid fellow ex-prisoners. Carl runs (or ran) a meal program in Racine for homeless persons. The man has totally turned his life around, and he has helped numerous other people turn around their lives. I hadn’t seen Carl for quite a while, and I wanted to talk with him at the church meeting. Also, two people from church had asked me to be there. I didn’t want to let them down.

My wife, Karin, and I are legal guardians for our toddler grandson, Asher. We care for him 24/7/365. He has been our responsibility for two years. Asher is a blessing to us. He gives us purpose and joy. He also consumes all of our time and energy. We’re okay with that. We volunteered to watch over him, and it is what we are meant to do at this point in our lives. It might be our calling for the rest of our lives.

Attending the meeting with the speakers from RIC was always going to be an iffy proposition. Caring for Asher is often a two-person job. If I went to the meeting in the evening, Karin would have to get clean up the supper dishes and then Asher ready for bed. Asher wasn’t feeling that well yesterday. Karin was tired out. Asher had not slept well the night before yesterday, so my wife hadn’t either. I was feeling worn out too. I get up pre-dawn to get ready for the little boy.

About late-afternoon, Asher needed a diaper change. He had a diarrhea blowout. What should have been a simple diaper swap turned into a hazmat cleanup operation. It was nasty. I was frustrated and irritable, and I lost my temper. Karin told me,

“If you’re really tired, why don’t you just stay home?”

I agreed with her. As it turned out, both of us needed to be at home to watch over Asher. I was exhausted by 7:00 PM. Asher crashed at 8:30. Karin lied down with him.

The episode was a lesson for me. There may come a time when I can go back to being a social activist, but that time is not now. While Asher is in our care, I can’t plan on doing anything besides being with our little buddy. I just can’t. Other people will have to do work in the community. My work is in our home.

Transience

February 3rd, 2023

I don’t like to look at old photographs. Actually, I don’t like looking at new photographs either. Photographs remind me of people and places that no longer exist. A picture captures and freezes a split second in time, and that instant is gone. The person in the picture is no longer the same. The setting is no longer the same. It doesn’t matter if the picture is in a video or if it is a snapshot, that moment is forever lost, and there is a sadness in that.

I am generally not nostalgic. I have some pleasant memories, but many of them are scary or painful. I have been to funerals where a person will give me a weak smile and say something like, “Let’s just remember the good times.” That individual is apparently able to separate the wheat from the chaff in their mind. I don’t have that kind of filter in my memory. My recollections are all mixed up, good and bad, happy and sad. It is often easier for me to slam the door on the whole lot, rather than sift through them.

It is possible to learn from the past, but it just as easy to become captive to it. I, like many others, have on occasion gotten stuck in a memory. Either I wanted to relive that event, or I wanted desperately to erase it. Sometimes, I lingered in the past simply to nurse a grudge. It is often a waste of time to commune with ghosts.

The future has some of the same attractions as the past. There can be joy or sadness in contemplating things yet to be, just as there is in pondering things that have come and gone. In both cases, the activity is often sterile.

Last week I participated in a podcast (I still don’t know why), and the moderator asked me a question near the end of our discussion. He wanted to know what I see myself doing in a year or two. I told him: “childcare”, seeing as I am a legal guardian for my toddler grandson. I then elaborated to say that I have no idea what I will be doing in a year. Nobody knows what they will be doing in a year, and it is foolish for me even to guess.

I have practiced Zen for a number of years. It’s not really a religion since it doesn’t have a theology. It’s mostly something a person does, as opposed to something that somebody believes. There are a few basic assumptions involved with Zen. I have taken some of those to heart.

One assumption is that all things must pass. Everything is transient. That is really kind of obvious, but a person tends to cling to anything that appears to be permanent. I know that I do that. The lesson is to let things go. That is difficult at times.

Another assumption is that the only thing that matters is now, because that is the only thing that exists. The past gone and unchangeable. The future is only a dream. This moment is literally all that there is in the universe, and as I write, this moment has already passed away.

It is actually easy for me to stay in the moment because I am usually so fucking busy caring for our grandson. Nothing keeps me in the here and now like little Asher. He is growing, learning, and changing every day, so he is a living example of the transient nature of things. Each morning I meet a new boy, and his name is always Asher.

Be here now.

Magic

January 18th, 2023

One week ago, our little grandson, Asher, was baptized at our parish church during Mass. Typically, in the Catholic Church, children are baptized as infants, often held in their mother’s arms. Asher got a late start at this. He is a toddler, just over two years old. His mama held him to get doused with holy water, but otherwise, the boy was standing on his own two feet during the rite.

What is baptism? Well, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

“Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word’.”

Okay, so what is a sacrament? The Catechism says this:

“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”

What does “efficacious” mean?

Definition – “(of something inanimate or abstract) successful in producing a desired or intended result; effective”

One more thing: what is “grace”?

“Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life. Grace is a participation in the life of God.”

Enough theology for now. We’ll get back to all this later.

I read once a statement that went like this:

“Catholics, by definition, believe in magic.”

Yes, I think that is spot on. However, “magic” is probably not the best word to use. It is kind of pejorative. Rather, Catholics believe in “miracles”. We don’t expect God to do card tricks, but we assume that we live in a miraculous world, one where amazing things happen all the time. To the outside observer our participation in the sacraments smacks of magic. So be it. These actions are an integral part of our faith, and they keep us going when all seems lost.

Let’s go back to Asher’s baptism, or rather, let’s skip ahead to the opening of his many gifts. Somebody gave him a book about baptism. That’s an odd present to give a child who cannot yet read, but the intention was good. The book is titled: “Washed Clean”. It has sturdy pages and simple pictures. The writing is all poetry (a little cheesy, but theologically sound). Asher is unlikely to understand the contents of the book until he is too old to want to read it. Whatever. I have looked at it, and parts of it make me uneasy.

Baptism is in part based on the concept of Original Sin. The idea is that when our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, ate from the Tree of Good and Evil, they screwed it up for the rest of us. The consequences of their original sin have been passed down through countless generations. The point is that every human being enters the world damaged, and prone to evil. We all suck. Happy thoughts.

One of the lines from the book’s poetry says that through baptism, “you are freed from your sins”. I spend most of my waking hours caring for Asher. He is a wonderful little boy, and blessing to all that know him. What sins could this kid possibly have? What sins can a new baby have? It seems perverse to assume that an infant or a toddler is already corrupt and depraved. However, there are Christians who believe that we are all pond scum, at least until we get baptized, and then we are saved pond scum. The basic assumption is that because of Adam’s Fall, we are all lost souls. The root of this view goes all the way back to the Apostle Paul:

1 Corinthians 15:21 “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.”

St. Augustine built on this theme, and then Luther and Calvin took it further. The Puritans and Cotton Mather brought this incredibly negative belief to the New World. The notion that all people are innately sinful has caused endless trouble in our world.

The little book also has this line in it: “You receive grace and a mark on your soul”. That statement may well be true, but unprovable in any tangible way. Grace is like a spiritual neutrino. It exists, but we usually cannot detect it. It is efficacious. We can perceive it by its effects in the physical world. Likewise, the mark on the soul of the baptized is like an invisible tattoo. It’s there, but nobody but God can see it right now.

A friend of ours wrote to us concerning Asher’s baptism. She said,

“It may not show visibly, but he has been transformed.”

That I truly believe. The outward signs of the baptism indicated that something happened to Asher. The pouring of the water on his head, the anointing of his forehead with Holy Chrism (Asher’s hair still smells of aromatic balsam), the prayers spoken by the priest…all these things pointed toward something occurring that was unseen but miraculous. Asher wore a white garment symbolizing purity (it was a tuxedo in his case). That too implied there was a moment of grace. Asher came through the sacrament changed. How exactly, I don’t know. I do know that God was present in all of us.

We had a number of guests at the baptism who were not Catholic. Some were not even Christian. A young Muslim friend of ours attended the baptism. My good friend from the Orthodox synagogue was there. Several Buddhists watched Asher receive the sacrament. What did they get out of it all? I don’t know. I know that their presence brought a feeling of unity to every person in the church, regardless of their faith tradition. The baptism was a time of joy and healing for some of us. It was a time of reconciliation.

It was love.

Christendom

January 17th, 2023

Definition of Christendom: “the part of the world in which Christianity prevails.”

Our deacon gave a homily (the Catholic word for sermon) at Mass a couple weeks ago. He talked about the need for evangelization. Evangelization is an essential part of Christianity. The deacon mentioned the “Great Commission” of Jesus to his followers from Matthew’s Gospel:

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19/20

The mission seems pretty clear cut. However, over the last two millennia, there has been a variety of opinions about how to make disciples. Sometimes, coercion has been used to evangelize non-Christians (e.g., the forced conversion and expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492). Often, preaching and persuasive arguments were used to convert others. Once in a while, Christians simply evangelized by setting a good example. St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said, “Preach the Gospel always. Use words if necessary.”

During his homily, the deacon mentioned that “Christendom no longer exists”. That seemed like an odd statement to me. It also seemed like he was pointing out the obvious. Christendom is a medieval word, and it sounds archaic to people of our times. He meant “Christendom” in the sense of a culture or society based on Christian values that are universally held. Europe before the Reformation might have qualified as Christendom, but that was a long time ago. Certainly now, in the United States, there is no such thing. Some people here still argue that America is a Christian nation, but the evidence points to the contrary.

The deacon spoke about Christendom in order to differentiate between two styles of evangelism: Christendom evangelism and apostolic evangelism. Christendom evangelism is what has traditionally been used to proselytize to the members of a society that is at least superficially Christian. Apostolic evangelism is the method used to convert members of a society that is pagan or secular. St. Paul is the classic example of an apostolic evangelist. He preached in ancient Rome, and he would feel right at home in 21st Century America.

Okay, so the deacon wants to attract more people to the Catholic Church. The pews are rather empty. He especially wants to young people to be part of the community. Most of the folks in church are old. That does not bode well for the future.

How to attract new people to Christianity, or bring back folks who have left the Church?

One method of evangelizing used by many Protestants, in particular the Evangelicals, is to depend on the Bible to attract and persuade nonbelievers. That technique works just swell in a Christendom environment where everyone has at least a passing knowledge of Holy Scripture. We don’t live in that world. Large numbers of people in America are biblically illiterate, and they have no appreciation for the Bible. They don’t think that the Bible is sacred, and they don’t even think it is relevant in modern society. To them the Bible is just another book, and not necessarily a very well-written one. The only people that will be persuaded by the contents of the Bible are those who already believe in the Bible.

Being Americans, we would probably use the methods of the corporate world to push Christianity. Maybe start a slick marketing campaign or make the liturgy more up to date. We would sell Jesus like we were selling an iPhone or a refrigerator. After all, religion in our country, especially with the advent of the Internet, is part of the free market. There are a lot of different spiritual traditions to choose from. Christianity is just another brand name.

“See how these Christians love one another”. – Tertullian, 2nd Century Roman

Tertullian, a Christian apologist in ancient Rome, struck upon the real reason that Christianity was attractive in his culture. It all boiled down to love. The pagans saw that Christians loved and cared for each other, and they longed to have that kind of community too. The early Christians did not need to sell Jesus to others. They embodied Jesus and his message. Love came first, theology second.

How does Christianity look in our culture? Do outsiders see how we love one another?

No.

As a Catholic, I sometimes don’t see or feel the love. During my lifetime, I have often experienced more compassion and concern from Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists than I have from my fellow coreligionists. I have never seen any qualitative difference between the morality of Christians and that of non-believers. Love is the litmus test. If Christians are just like everyone else, then why would anybody want to convert?

Evangelism is not about talking about Jesus. It is about showing Jesus to others, being Jesus to others.

That is what matters.


Story Time

January 25th, 2023

Story time at the library doesn’t seem much different than it was thirty years ago when our kids were little. Granted, the technology is updated. The storyteller now uses a laptop computer to put images and words on a screen. However, the toddlers are the same as they were in the previous generation. Some of them sit and listen to the stories, while some of them have nervous energy that keeps them constantly in motion. Some of kids sing along with Miss Amanda. Some cling to their mothers for dear life. Our little grandson, Asher, mostly observes the scene from a distance. He stands quietly with his hands behind his back, taking it all in.

I can remember when our children were in the Waldorf School kindergarten. Their teacher, Mrs. Rose, had a story time for the kids each day. Things were different with Mrs. Rose. She had a way of soothing the children and getting them to settle down. She had a ritual for that. She would softly sing a song to them, and she would light a candle. By the time she was ready to tell her story, the little ones were silent and still with anticipation. It was a wonder to behold.

The Waldorf School was built on stories. Everything in the curriculum (reading, writing, art, playacting, math) was somehow based on a story. Every grade had a theme to it. For instance, third grade was all about stories from the Old Testament. The biblical narratives were not taught at a form of catechesis, but rather as myths that matched closely to the development of the child.

Let me make a comment about myths. One definition of a myth is: “Something that never happened but is true nonetheless.” A myth may or may not have a basis in historical fact. That is not really of any importance. A myth is a story that touches the deepest part of the human experience. The famous scholar, Joseph Campbell, researched myths for almost his entire life. He found that there were certain fundamental stories that were told in every culture throughout history. These stories are universal and timeless. They are part of the collective human DNA.

Campbell distinguished the difference between fairy tales and myths. He said,

“A fairy tale is the child’s myth. There are proper myths for proper times of life. As you grow older, you need a sturdier mythology.”

Campbell was convinced that people need myths to make sense of an apparently irrational world. The myths help each of us to find his or her path through life.

When our youngest son, Stefan, was in fourth grade, his class studied the Norse myths. As part of their education, they performed a play based on the story of “The Fettering of Fenris”. In Norse mythology Fenris (or Fenrir) was a fierce wolf who was always hungry. The more Fenris ate, the more he grew and the hungrier he became. Eventually, he threatened to devour the entire world. The gods needed to stop him before he destroyed all things. The gods tried twice to restrain the beast. The rest if the story goes like this:

“Being a wolf of remarkable size and strength that he was, both attempts to restrain Fenrir/Fenris were unsuccessful. Despite the high-quality materials that they were made of, the two chains (called Leyding and Dormi, respectively) proved to be good for nothing when it came to holding back Fenris. Each time he broke the chains far more easily than the gods had imagined him to.

Gods ordered dwarves to forge a chain that would be able to keep Fenrir captive. The dwarves’ work was a bit unexpected; a thin and soft ribbon named Gleipnir. However, it was not an ordinary ribbon but a magical one made out of various ingredients.  

Gleipnir is believed to be enchanted as it consisted of six unusual elements. These were:

  • the roots of a mountain
  • the beard of a woman
  • the sinews of a bear
  • the breath of fish
  • the sound of a cat’s footsteps
  • the spittle of a bird

When the chain was brought in front of Fenrir, he grew suspicious and refused to be tethered with it unless one of the gods or goddesses would stick their hand in his mouth as a gesture of good faith. 

Since the higher entities knew that they would get their hand ripped off by complying with Fenrir’s condition, they were hesitant to agree. None of the gods were brave enough to do that, except Tyr, the god of war, the only one that had to courage to feed the giant wolf when he was caged.

Fenrir tried to break free from Gleipnir but the magical ribbon was very strong, and the giant wolf could not manage to escape. As his revenge Fenrir bit and ripped off Tyr’s arm. 

Gods chained Fenrir to a rock named Gioll one mile beneath the surface of the earth.” – excerpt taken from the website: mythologian.net.

The members of Stefan’s class performed the story of Fenris on stage. Stefan played the role of Fenris. He was the perfect choice for that. Stefan was surprisingly ferocious and spoke his lines with a wicked grin on his face. It was a bit unnerving to watch him. The other child actors were also quite good. They all got into their roles.

What was the point of performing this play? The Norse tale is a myth in that it is relevant to our own time. Fenris is a symbol of insatiable greed. Think of the unbridled consumerism in our culture. Think about how we humans are devouring the goods of the earth without giving a thought to the future. Fenris roams among us, and howls for more of everything. Tyr is a model for courage and self-sacrifice. In the story his is willing to give up his arm in order to save others. The story contains themes that have been important, and they always will be.

Our children need a story time. We all do.

Mercenaries

January 20th, 2023

Definition of a mercenary: “professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army”.

I have been reading articles about the Wagner Group, the semi-private army that fights for Putin in Ukraine. The news media make the members of this organization sound rather brutal and money hungry. I suppose they are. Apparently, the Wagner Group is searching for prospective mercenaries in the Russian prisons. That indicates that this organization isn’t very fussy about who it gets. I guess a felony rap doesn’t disqualify a new recruit. It might even be a requirement to join up.

I was in the U.S. Army, as was my eldest son. We were soldiers, but not mercenaries. We both had economic reasons for joining, but those were not the only reasons why we entered the military service. I never met anyone who joined the military to get rich. I’ve met people who enlisted to escape poverty, but nobody signs up expecting to make a bunch of money.

All this has made me think about a friend of mine who worked with me years ago at a trucking company. I was a supervisor there. Scott was a senior over-the-road driver. Scott was a Marine and proud it. We had several Marines working as drivers at our facility, and they had this unique camaraderie. Scott was of Vietnam vintage, but I don’t know if he ever fought over there. When I knew him, he was heavy set and going grey. He had a home and a family. As a senior driver, he was making really good money.

After George W. Bush invaded Iraq, Scott decided to quit his job and work for Haliburton. Everybody at work was surprised by that move. He indicated that he was going to go to Iraq for a year and make a ton of money. Apparently, his pay was going to be in six figures for a year’s work. Scott was going to drive fuel tankers. To me, that sounded just insane. It still sounds insane. I am sure that Scott had armed escorts, but still…driving a tanker is like driving a Molotov cocktail on wheels. Is any amount of money worth that kind of risk?

I used to write snail mail letters to Scott once he deployed. I still have his APO address scribbled on a scrap of paper. He came back safely from Iraq, but I don’t think he never returned to work at our place. I lost contact with him, and I have no idea what he is doing now.

I remember talking with one of Scott’s Marine buddies when Scott was over in Iraq. We discussed his reasons for going there. Scott’s fellow Marine suggested that maybe Scott was fulfilling a mission he never got to do while he was on active duty. We both agreed that it wasn’t all about the money. Scott was very patriotic, and he wanted to serve his country. Maybe he wanted to experience the excitement again. Maybe he wanted to feel young. I don’t know why he deployed. Maybe Scott didn’t really know either. He just did it.

Was Scott a mercenary? No, I don’t think so. Money was involved with his decision to work for Haliburton, but it was more complicated than that. Those kinds of decisions are always complicated, and often illogical.

If I ever see Scott again, I will have to ask him for an explanation. Somehow, I think that there really isn’t one.

Winners and Losers

January 18th, 2023

American culture is based on certain unquestioned assumptions. Some of these beliefs are so deeply imbedded in our national psyche that we don’t even notice their existence. They are like the air we breathe, invisible and always there.

America is the home of a virulent strain of individualism. We don’t often think our ourselves as members of a larger community, and if we do, we see our fellowship in that group as in contrast to outsiders (“I’m not like those people.”). To quote the title of a Beatles song, we think in terms of “I, Me, Mine”. This is obvious in our politics. Was there any thought or mention of the common good during the recent House Speakership debacle? Or was it all about ego? Think about the fact that both anti-vaxxers and abortions rights advocates use the rallying cry of “my body, my choice!”. We are taught from very early age to look out for Number One.

Another almost universal assumption is that life is a ruthless competition with clearly defined winners and losers. Competition may be a common human characteristic, but Americans take it to an extreme. Our economic system is based on competition. It drives everything in corporate America. It is a zero-sum game, and my gain is somebody else’s loss. Capitalism has made our country rich, but it has also made us judgmental and callous. We often despise the poor. We subscribe to the myth that everyone can “win” if only they are smart enough and hardworking enough. The corollary to that idea is that if a person is a “loser”, struggling economically, it is their own damn fault. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not.

The relentless competition between individual Americans bleeds over into other parts of our lives. The culture in the U.S. military is based, by necessity, on ruthless competition. It is life-or-death. I remember memorizing this quote from Douglas MacArthur when I was a cadet at West Point:

“On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”

The phrase “friendly strife” strikes me as odd. Anybody who has watched a cadet boxing match, or a rugby game, would hesitate to call those competitions “friendly”.

Everything at West Point was about competition. Everything. It is true that teamwork was encouraged, but only as it served to produce more effective competition. I made good friends at West Point, and some of those friendships have lasted for more than four decades. However, the stone-cold truth is that we were always competing with each other. At the end of our time in school, the only thing that mattered was our class rank. That, and only that, determined the trajectory of our future in the Army.

I have even noticed an oversized individualism in religion in the United States. For years, my wife and I participated in a Bible study with Evangelicals. I was often struck by the language they used. It was not uncommon for one of them to talk at length about Jesus being their “personal savior”. The person would then use phrases like “my relationship with the Lord” or “I am saved”. It was all about me and my God. There seemed to be little concern with the salvation of anyone else.

This sort of thing is by no means limited to Evangelicals. For several years I taught RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) for people wanting to become Catholic (yes, there actually are folks that want to be Catholic). I was teaching the class with a friend of mine, Joe. We were discussing the hypothetical possibility that God saves everyone, that in fact hell is empty. This was not just a whim on our part. The Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, wrote an entire book on the subject, “Dare We Hope?”

There was a woman in the class who took great offense to our comments. She finally burst out, saying, “If everybody goes to heaven, if everyone gets saved, what’s the point of being good!?”

There was an awkward silence in the room. Joe, who was seldom perturbed, calmly looked at the woman over the top of his spectacles and asked her,

“Do you love your husband?”

She seemed confused by that question, and stammered, “Of course, I do!”

Joe asked her, “Do you do good things for him?”

The woman didn’t understand the point of this query, and she said, “Well, yeah, of course.”

Joe continued, “And why do you do these things?”

She thought that was a remarkably stupid question, and said, “Because I love him!”

Joe stood up, smiled, and said, “Aha! And that is why we do good things for God! We are good because we love Him!”

I couldn’t read the woman’s mind, but I suspect that part of her upset was due to the notion that even in the spiritual world, there have to be winners and losers. What’s the point of going to heaven if all the losers go there too?

There are dissenters to the prevalent viewpoints in our country. For years now I have been spending time with a group of Zen Buddhists. Their beliefs are completely countercultural.

A practitioner of Zen meditation will often focus on a koan or a mantra while sitting on the cushion. It is a common practice to concentrate on breathing. The person meditating will sometimes on the inbreath silently ask,

“What am I?”

On the outbreath the person says, “Don’t know.”

There is a significance to that answer. The person does not say, “I don’t know.” They simply say, “Don’t know”, because there is no I that is not knowing. Students of Zen assume that there is no unique individual meditating. For me, there would be no “Frank” involved in the process, because my identity as Frank is only a mental construct.

So, what am I? Certainly, in a physical sense, I am a creature who is constantly changing, as transient as a wave lapping on the beach or a flickering candle flame. I am not the same person that I was ten years ago, or even five minutes ago. In a few short years, I won’t exist in this world at all. I will be at best a dim memory for those who survive me.

I cling to the idea that I have an immortal soul. Honestly, I don’t know what that even means. What remains of me after death? However, if there is no I, then there is no competition. There are no winners or losers.

Maybe that’s not so bad.

Sketchy

January 13th, 2023

My youngest son, Stefan, is a journeyman in the Ironworkers Union. It is likely that he will become a certified welding instructor in the spring. In the meantime, he works at various jobsites, erecting the steel frames for buildings. Sometimes, he welds. Sometimes, he does grunt work. Sometimes, the work is tedious, and sometimes it more interesting than it needs to be. 

Stefan occasionally visits our house after his shift is done. He usually looks dead tired. If he’s had an exciting day, he’ll say something like, 

“Yeah, we did some fucking sketchy shit today.”

I always ask him to elaborate on that because I can tell he is just aching to tell his story. 

He generally has a good story. “Sketchy” is a euphemism for “dangerous”. In his line of work, it is common for him to be doing things that are dangerous. Ironworkers often get hurt. He has a friend who was injured in a welding accident and wound up with third degree burns. So far, Stefan has been lucky. Stefan is careful and safety conscious, but he is required to do work that most rational people would avoid. He walks on steel beams fifty feet in the air. He stands in a swaying lift and tries to weld metal to metal. He catches sections of steel that some crane operator is flying toward him. He is often in harm’s way, and he seems to prefer it like that. 

On rare occasions, Stefan provides me with photographic evidence of his sketchy activities. Recently, he was working at a jobsite in downtown Milwaukee, when it was brutally cold outside. He was welding on some steel pillars that were part of a framework for a new skyscraper. Here are the pictures:

What he was doing on the jobsite was clearly nuts. On the other hand, when I was his age, I was an Army aviator flying Back Hawks for a living. His work seems to be age appropriate.

I admire Stefan’s courage. He is a brave man. I have heard people say that he is “fearless”. That is incorrect. He has plenty of fear. Only a fool would not be afraid, and Stefan is not a fool. A courageous person is afraid, but he or she does what needs to be done despite that fear. They keep going.  

Anybody with military experience knows what it is like to do sketchy shit. We all did things that were objectively crazy, but still needed to be done. There are plenty of people in professions that require sketchy work: police, firefighters, nurses, mine workers, the social workers in CPS, the folks who repair power lines. Not everyone works in a cubicle. Thank God for that. 

I admire courage. Courage comes in a variety of forms. Not everybody needs to risk life and limb. I know a young woman who is battling an addiction. She is the bravest person I have ever met. I know a couple who are caring an elderly parent whose health is failing. What they are doing is nothing short of heroic. I have a brother who just turned sixty. He and his wife recently adopted a four-year-old boy. That’s a bold move.  

A brave person is not a braggart. He or she simply finds the strength within themselves to do the right thing. 

Even when it’s sketchy shit. 

I Miss War

January 9th, 2023

My son, Hans, went to war in July of 2011. His unit was deployed to Iraq and was stationed near Baghdad. Hans got hurt while he was in Iraq, and he hurt a number of other people during his stay. Hans is a combat vet. For Hans the war sometimes seems like it was a lifetime ago. Sometimes it seems like it was yesterday. 

A couple days ago, Hans shot me some texts. Apparently, Iraq seemed very close when he sent them to me.

He wrote, 

“I don’t know why I watch war documentaries. They always make me cry out of anger, just because we put ourselves in the shit and no one’s actually cared since WWII.”

My reply: “I hear you.”

Hans responded, “I miss war. If I wasn’t married and had kids, I would probably be in the Ukraine right now fighting for what I believe is right.”

He continued, “Me and my buddies believed we were helping the middle (east) maybe just a little and then they pulled us out and see everything we did disappear WTF.”

“We just left them to rot in the fucked-up situation. We designed (started?) but never finalized and it’s just war again.”

“At least let the mission get finished. Fuck politicians, fuck media, fuck people’s opinions. We should have stayed there until we finished it.”

I told Hans, “Your family is your mission now.”

He answered, “I know.”

Then he went on, “A lot of Vietnam veterans I talk to feel the same.”

“It was just another political war over money.”

I didn’t know what else to say to Hans. I was in the Army, but I was never in a war. 

Why does my son miss war? I’m not sure. Maybe he misses the camaraderie. Maybe he misses the adrenalin rush. Maybe he misses the sense of purpose. Hans is immensely proud of his military service, but he has that nagging feeling that he has been manipulated and used. In any case, he can’t go back there to that time and place. That part of his life is over. 

Raising a family is not the same as fighting a war (usually). However, Hans’ overriding purpose in life is to care for his wife and three small children. That can be a great challenge. Caring for a family is a struggle that requires courage and determination, the same attributes Hans needed in combat. Being a father and a husband is not easy, but it not all work and worry. There are moments of pure joy too. 

Do other vets feel the way Hans does? I am sure of it. Other soldiers in other armies in other times felt like my son does. The German soldiers who fought for their Kaiser in the trenches during WWI felt like Hans does. I know an old man at the synagogue whose son fought with the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the early 1980’s. His son is the sole survivor of an IED explosion. The old man always tells me about what a brave soldier his son was. His boy (now my age) still struggles with his wartime experiences. He drinks endlessly to deal with his PTSD. 

Will Hans’ kids go to war? Will they tell Hans the things that Hans tells me?

Why don’t we ever learn?   

Separation

January 2nd, 2023

There have been recent rumblings about the possibility of our grandson, Asher, being taken from our home. This is exceedingly unlikely to happen, seeing as my wife and I are his legal guardians, and there is nobody else remotely capable of caring for him at this time. However, it is still a scary thought, one that for me conjures up half-forgotten memories.

My paternal grandfather passed away when I was thirteen. Up until that time, my parents had good, or at least civil, relationships with both sides of the family. That all ended after my grandfather died. Somehow, the family dynamics shifted abruptly, and long simmering resentments boiled up to the surface. There were bitter fights between my father and damn near everyone else. I don’t know what caused the feuding, and I never will. Almost all of the participants are dead now.

The end result of this fighting was the nearly completely isolation of our nuclear family from everyone else. My parents severed ties with all the relatives, except one of my father’s uncles. Suddenly, my brothers and I no longer had access to our grandparents or anybody else in our extended family. This situation went on for years. I come from a tribe that likes to hold a grudge.

Why did my dad turn his back on all of his kin? I don’t know. That’s just the kind of man he was. In the Bible, Ishmael, the son of Abraham is prophesized thus: “And he shall be a wild ass of a man: his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren.”

That was my dad.

As I said, this separation from our relations lasted for years. Eventually, there was kind of a half-ass reconciliation, but the damage was done. Whatever relationship I had with my remaining grandparents was gone. My maternal grandfather was crippled from Parkinson’s disease. My maternal grandmother cared for him, but she was slowly losing her memory. My paternal grandmother’s mind was sharp as a freshly honed razor, but she was blind and going deaf, and often bedridden. They never saw me, or my brothers grow up. They missed out on most of our childhoods.

I remember my paternal grandmother telling how she would talk on the phone with my other grandma during the time when they had no contact with us. The two grandmothers would ask each other for tidbits of information on how their grandchildren were doing. They usually had nothing to share.

I never really understood how they felt until now. Our grandson, Asher, is two years old. He has been in our care almost all of his life. My wife and I have been watching over the boy 24/7/365. Our connection with Asher is deep, probably deeper than that of most grandparents. I cannot imagine life without Asher in our home. I have sometimes wondered how it would feel, and I have always recoiled from that. It is like staring into a void.

I know that eventually we will be separated from Asher. He will go to school and make friends. He may move away someday. Karin and I will die sooner or later. It is a certainty that we will not always have the close relationship with Asher that we enjoy today.

So, we need to be totally with him today.