Rorschach Test

December 29th, 2022

When a person looks at a painting or a photograph, what do they really see?

I have been pondering this question for a couple months now. I have a friend, Suzanne, who is a photographer. She is also a teacher at a local tech school. She is nearing her retirement as a teacher, and she is looking at photography as her second act. So, Suzanne is continuing to take classes to hone her skills. Suzanne has a natural talent for creating striking images with her camera. She sees things that others do not.

During this last semester, Suzanne took a course on portrait photography. One of her assignments was to make an “editorial portrait”, a photograph with a message. That is an interesting concept. Can a picture say something to the person viewing it? Suzanne asked me if she could take my picture to use in her class project. I agreed to that. She told me,

“Your face tells a story. It’s a good story.”

Back in October, Suzanne came to our house and set up her camera and tripod. She asked me to sit at the kitchen table near the patio doors. We talked for an hour. Suzanne asked me about my time in the Army. She asked me about my son, Hans, and his wartime experiences in Iraq. Every so often, she snapped a picture. I don’t know what prompted her to take a particular photo at a particular moment. I don’t know what she saw that was so special. Maybe my facial expression, maybe the lighting, maybe the background. Suzanne seemed to have an instinctive sense of what would look right.

Suzanne and I both belong to a Zen sangha. For years we have practiced Zen meditation. We sat on cushions in silence and tried to empty our minds. In Zen meditation a person tries to reach the mind exists before thinking. That’s hard to do because humans are thinking all the time. However, sometimes a person can get to the point where they are no longer overthinking. A person may be able to tap into their intuition. I think that Suzanne does that with her photography.

After a couple weeks, Suzanne sent me a digital black and white photo. It was my portrait. Generally, I don’t like to look at pictures of myself. Somehow, that bothers me. The photo she chose seemed odd to me. In the portrait I am looking up at the ceiling. What made her use that image?

I sent copies of the portrait to a number of friends to get their input on Suzanne’s work. I took their feedback and gave it to Suzanne. Here are some of their comments:

“Frank! fantastic photo! you look like an Old Testament prophet, or a hermit saint! exactly what you are… Suzanne knows what she is doing.” 

“Yes, mirrors can be strange as we age. I agree with your photographer friend: you do have a story in your face. I think I do too but the difference is that you look concerned, even worried about the ills and troubles in the world, whereas I look like I am ready and willing to add to them! I am getting to play music nearly every week someplace, and it feels right and good. The Longest Walk and Sacred Run events seem very long ago and very far away to me now”

 

“Sorry I didn’t respond sooner; I had to mull over the photo a bit. I really like it. To those not acquainted with you, I think the photo would show a man who is awake to the complexities of life, who looks for wisdom (maybe has found some), is accepting of life as it is. The knick-knacks on the top shelf suggest diverse interests. You look relaxed in your own skin. “

“To me, an acquaintance who knows something of who you are, the photo does justice to parts of you. I’m thinking of your relationships with the Jewish and the Buddhist communities, and your love of travel, new adventures; the Texas placard on the shelf reminds me of Hans. Of course, you are so much more: your life with Karin and now especially with Asher, your tutoring immigrants, your work on the loading dock with your co-workers, your Catholic faith, your standing up for non-violence, etc. Your story is so interesting, so complex, filled with graces that are sometimes embraced and other times not, characterized by authentic questioning and looking for the path. I love all that about you. It’s so much more than a single photo can capture.”

“This picture speaks to me of a man who has traveled the many miles of life’s pilgrim journey; perhaps there is some strange sort of truth to your photographer’s insistence on the storytelling power of a photograph.  Your hesitation around it notwithstanding, I think it’s a good picture nonetheless.”

 “I have read about Suzanne somewhere in your blog. When you have to tell a story in a glance, photography is a big task. I don’t like to look at pictures of myself either, but I have the advantage of not having a mirror. When I looked at your photo, the first image that came to my mind was Ram-dass. Hahaha!”

“As I was looking at the picture she took of you, I can see the face of good man. a man who is willing to be there for you no matter what. A man who is really loves God. I think not seeing yourself is a mistake. Looking in the mirror could always help you see the reflection of yourself, will help you see the good man.” 

 ” The first word that came to mind seeing your photo…, Tolstoy 😉 Sorry, I just happened to see a photo him not too long ago🙂But I can see what Suzanne is seeing.”

“I love it! It looks like you are thinking about a story you are about to tell. You are a great storyteller. 🙂 P.S. Your face shows suffering too- maybe you are looking at God saying “….really?”

“That is a great photo. But it looks less Zen than Orthodox Christian to me. No matter. Your friend Suzanne is right, a face tells a story and yours has much to say. Does she have a show or some way she plans to publish this picture? Hope so. Thank for sending it.”

Obviously, my friends know me and probably were not terribly objective. I suspect that the folks who did not like the portrait simply remained silent.

What struck me was the fact that each person saw something different. The portrait told a story to each observer, but each person got a story unlike the others. Did they actually see the photo, or did they look into a mirror? Did they see me, or did they see something from within themselves? Was it really a Rorschach test?

What do you see?

Immigration and Cognitive Dissonance

December 23rd, 2022

Currently, there is an enormous outcry concerning the “crisis” at the southern border of the United States. The impression given to us by the politicians and the media is that migrants are streaming into the U.S. unchecked. We are told repeatedly that the situation on the border, especially near El Paso, is out of control.

It probably is. But then this is nothing new. U.S. immigration policy has been out of control for decades.

Back in 2018, I took a 40-hour class on immigration law with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Immigration law is a Byzantine monstrosity, with more exceptions to the rules than there are rules. The course I took was by necessity only an overview of a complex and confusing set of statutes and regulations. I attended the class in order to better assist migrants who were trying to get green cards or American citizenship. Somehow, I passed the final exam with flying colors. However, by the end of the forty hours, I only learned two things: first, that I know next to nothing about immigration law, and second, that I dare not screw up when giving people guidance. When in doubt, I learned to tell people, “Get a lawyer.”

U.S. immigration law has not been overhauled since the 1950’s. Since then, adjustments have been made to the statutes until our national immigration policy has become a patchwork of rules and regulations that seem to have no overriding values or goals. It is a system that defies logic and understanding.

I found out how our immigration policy functions in real life. In October of 2019, I went to the southern border with a group of people from the Milwaukee area. We attended a five-day immersion program (Border Awareness Experience) offered by Annunciation House, a Catholic organization in El Paso that serves migrants, legal or otherwise. We visited with people on both sides of the wall. We had meetings with the U.S. Border Patrol and with representatives of the Mexican government. The program was emotionally intense.

I could see that the situation at the southern border was out of control back in 2019. Nearly everybody we met told us that the policy on the border was confusing and unjust. The chaos in El Paso did not start with Biden. This hot mess is very much bipartisan, and it has been going on for years.

So, why are things so screwed up, and why can’t we fix it?

I think it has to do with conflicting values and goals. It’s a sort of a cognitive dissonance. Americans have had a schizophrenic attitude toward migrants since this country was created. We proudly claim to be a nation of immigrants, and yet we despise the newcomers. Some of this has to do with economics. Some of this has to do with national security. Some of this has to do with xenophobia.

Economically, we have always needed immigrants to do our dirty work. We have always needed the immigrants to fill the jobs that our own citizens refuse to do. That is currently the situation in the United States. The job market is extremely tight. Jobs go begging, although several million working age American men sit at home. To fill the plethora of openings in the workplace, we need these people who are crossing our border. Our economy requires immigrant labor. It would be nice if we could organize a rational system to get them here.

During the recent election, there were many ads on TV concerning the flow of drugs crossing the border. The ads seemed to conflate the flow of migrants with the flow of fentanyl. There was a demand that we secure the border. When I was in El Paso, I asked members of the Border Patrol how much of the drug traffic they were stopping. They replied, “We don’t know.” They had no idea how effective their interdiction efforts were. That amazed me.

It is unlikely that any amount of money and manpower will ever make the southern border completely secure. The War on Drugs is an absolute failure. Why is that so? It’s all about supply and demand. The work of the international drug cartels is capitalism in its purest form. As long as there is a market for drugs in the U.S., there will be fentanyl and cocaine flowing into this country. Once again, this is about economics, as well as national security.

We, as Americans, have usually supported the idea of the free flow of goods, money, and information across our borders. We draw the line at the free flow of human beings. We don’t want the riffraff coming in. We don’t want migrants from those “shithole” countries. I suspect that most citizens of the United States have ancestors who fled from shithole countries. I know that mine did. People will keep coming across our borders from those places. If we can’t stop drugs, we can’t stop migrants.

Historically, we have wanted immigrants to come to our shores because we needed their labor. However, somehow, we have always wanted the newbies to be just like us. It has never worked out like that. The immigrants have always talked differently, dressed differently, prayed differently, and thought differently than the folks who were born in this country. We have always feared these “others”, and sometimes hated them. We have certainly done little to welcome them. We have often used them, and then discarded them.

Perhaps the most recent and egregious example of this strange attitude is the way we are treating Afghan refugees. I have spent over a year trying to befriend and help an Afghan family. The adults in the family worked closely with the Americans until the fall of Kabul. Then they fled, along with thousands of others, to Pakistan. This family never got into the United States. They eventually wound up in Portugal, which is a miracle of sorts. Most of their fellow refugees still languish in Pakistan. The U.S. government has made it nearly impossible for our Afghan allies to get admitted into our country. These are people who trusted us, who believed in America. We used these people who thought we were their friends, and now we ignore them.

We need a complete revision of our immigration laws. I am afraid that won’t happen until we take a hard look at who we are as Americans and what we really value.

A Calling

December 17th, 2022

Everyone has a calling, a purpose in life. The problem is to figure out what that purpose is. I have met people who seem to have known what they were meant to do from early on in life. Others of us fumble around trying to discern what we are supposed to be doing on this earth.

A “calling” has a religious connotation. A calling implies that there is somebody making the call to us, and that somebody is often referred to as God. If a person doesn’t like the notion of God, then perhaps the idea of karma makes more sense. In any case, there is some force in the universe guiding each of us. We ignore that force at our own risk.

How do we know what our true calling is? There are a lot of ways not to recognize it. Often, when we are young, we choose a path that was recommended to us by other people who seem older and wiser. My elders, who no doubt had my best interests at heart, convinced me to go to West Point. That was not necessarily a good choice. In retrospect, I can clearly see that I was never called to be a military officer, although I served in that capacity for several years anyway. It was a detour of sorts, but one that taught me a few lessons.

Sometimes, we choose a path because it gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling. That feeling may not be authentic. I had a friend who at one point in his life was seriously considering becoming a minister to preach God’s Word. He talked with a Black Baptist pastor about his desire to serve the Lord in that way. The preacher looked at him and said,

“If you think that you are called to become a minister, my advice to you is to run like hell. If God wants you, He’ll find you.”

That sounds about right.

God often calls a person to do something that they definitely do not want to do. The Bible is full of examples. Look at the prophets. Almost none of them wanted that job. Jonah tried to flee to Tarshish to avoid his calling. Moses tried to convince God that he had the wrong guy (“I am slow of speech”). Jeremiah told God flat out that he had been tricked into the role (“You duped me O Lord”). However, God nagged these individuals until they did his work.

You will find your calling, or it will find you. It just depends on how hard you want the process to be.

A calling does not have to mean that a person has to work in an official religious capacity. There are billions of callings, each tailored to a specific individual. Some callings are dangerous and heroic. Some are mundane and boring. All are essential.

At this point in life, my calling is to raise my grandson to adulthood. He lacks a father in his life, so I fill that vacuum. I did not ask to be Asher’s full-time caregiver. I never imagined that I would watching over a toddler during my retirement years. Yet God in his wisdom, and with His twisted sense of humor, has chosen me to do this work.

In a way, I feel like John the Baptist. I am preparing a path for someone greater than myself. For Asher to grow and thrive, “he must increase, and I must decrease”. My grandson has his whole life ahead of him. I am in my twilight years. My job is to spend my remaining time giving Asher the best possible shot for happy and productive future.

That is my calling. I know that, and I am okay with it.

Relentless

December 11th, 2022

My little grandson, Asher, is two years old. As such, he has that toddler’s ability to make his desires known and then relentlessly pursue them. Asher can be ruthless in that way. He will cry, yell, and kick until he gets what he wants, and then, oddly enough, when he achieves his goal, he forgets all about it and moves on to something else.

Most people as they age lose this almost superhuman capability. Somewhere along the line, they learn to wait their turn. They become aware that other people may have to get served first. However, this is not true of all people. Some apparently missed the session in kindergarten when the teacher explained simple social etiquette to them.

I have met people like that.

Years ago, I worked as a supervisor at a trucking company. I ran the inbound dock operation. That meant that I organized and managed the loading of dozens of trailers for early morning delivery of freight. I had to plan the routes of hundreds of shipments coming into the Milwaukee metro area, and make sure that the guys on the forklifts placed them onto the appropriate trailers for our drivers to deliver. It was a busy and complicated job, and I had very little slack time.

The job was especially stressful in winter. Winter in Wisconsin can be brutal. There are often days, or even weeks, when the outside temperatures are below zero. We did not have a heated dock. The dockworkers did their jobs of unloading and loading trailers in frigid conditions. Sometimes forklifts would not start. Sometimes trailer doors wouldn’t open. Both men and machines struggled to function in this environment.

I had a dockworker named Russ. He was an efficient employee, and I consider him to be a friend. However, Russ did not understand the idea of a queue. He had all the patience of a boiling tea kettle. If he had an issue to discuss with me, his problem came first. He was a plainspoken man, almost to the point of crudity.

It was a bitterly cold night. We did our work mostly in the pre-dawn hours. It was one of those nights where the sky was crystal clear, and the wind came howling from the northwest. The fluorescent lights on the dock gave reluctant light, and everyone waited for the dawn for at least the illusion of warmth. In short, it really sucked to be on the dock.

I was doing some paperwork in the warm office. Many dockworkers came to visit me. They all had questions, and they all came inside to thaw out for a bit. There was a line of people waiting to receive my guidance. I dealt with them one by one, as rapidly as I could.

Russ burst through the door, followed by a blast of Arctic air. He jostled the crowd of heavily dressed coworkers and muscled his way to the front of line. He shoved aside the man who was talking to me. That individual was understandably annoyed.

Russ said, “Hey, it will wait. I have something important for Frank to do.”

Russ hovered over my counter. His face was red from the cold, and his goatee was completely frosted over from his freezing breath. He told me,

“Hey, Little Buddy, can you make me some lists?”

At that time, in days of yore, we had to print out lists for specific shipments to be placed on each delivery route. It was a cumbersome way of doing business, but that was the best we had. Everything was paper in those days.

I replied, “Russ, I was talking with Jim.”

“Well, he can wait. This won’t take long.”

“Russ, just give me a minute to finish with Jim.”

“Well, I have to get these loads ready for Racine. One of them needs to be done soon.”

“Russ, just wait.”

“C’mon, Studmuffin, just take care of my lists and I will go away.”

I gave up. He wasn’t going to leave, and he was starting to defrost. The water from his “snotcicles” was starting to drip all over the paperwork on my counter. The guy he had pushed away gave me an ugly look.

I sighed and said, “Russ, what do you got?”

“Well, I need three lists: one for Sturtevant, one for north Racine, and one for the south end.”

“Sure, is that all?”

“Yeah”, he replied as dripped over my counter. It was a lot like the scene in the “The Wizard of Oz” where the wicked witch screams, “I’m melting! I’m melting!”

Then he asked, “Are you done yet?”

” NO, I’m not done yet”, as I pored over my computer.

“You’re a bit testy this morning, Francis. Didn’t you get any last night?”

“Russ, I work here at night.”

“Well, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t-“

“Russ, shut the fuck up!”

Russ chuckled, “Well, you are a cranky bitch this morning. “

I was done. “Here, here’s your fucking lists!”

Russ laughed. He said,

“Thanks, Francis. I’m glad you got it done so soon. I was starting to get toasty in your warm office.”

Russ left satisfied. I slumped over the counter for a moment. A new guy looked at me and asked,

“Does he always talk to you like that?”

I replied, “Yeah. What can I do for you?’

On My Own with Asher

December 8th, 2022

On Monday I took my little grandson, Asher, for his semi-annual checkup. The pediatrician determined that Asher was in good health, while stating the obvious,

“He’s a big boy!”

Indeed, he is. At the age of two years, Asher far outstrips most of his contemporaries with regard to height and weight. As a friend of mine once noted about the lad,

“A serious fellow and a force to be reckoned with.”

Oh yeah.

The doctor ordered blood tests for Asher. One was to check for anemia. I don’t remember what the other tests was for. I took Asher to the lab, and two ladies took a tiny sample of Asher’s blood. One of them told me,

“Okay, sit him on your lap. Yeah, like that. Hold this hand down. Good. Oh, and avert your head. Don’t have it directly behind him. Toddlers like to head butt when we take a sample.”

I’m familiar with that. A few days ago, I had Asher on my lap. For whatever reason, he slammed his head backward and nailed me in the middle of my face. I put him down quickly and grabbed a Kleenex to staunch the flow of blood from my nose. That hurt. I haven’t been hit in the nose that hard since I was in plebe boxing at West Point. I managed to stop the bleeding while teaching Asher a few more words that he probably shouldn’t know.

Asher has been teaching me things too, especially during the last couple weeks. My wife, Karin, is currently in Texas. She is there helping our daughter-in-law, who just gave birth to our newest grandson, Wyatt (You can get away with naming your kid “Wyatt” if you live in Texas. At least, the boy wasn’t named “Bubba”). In any case, Karin is down south, and I am up here in Wisconsin as the sole caregiver for little Asher.

I have a Buddhist friend who has told me that everything can be my teacher. I think that’s correct. I have found that small children are often excellent teachers. Asher certainly is. Usually, we have the notion that adults are supposed to teach the little folks. That is in fact true, but instruction is a two-way street. An adult can learn an awful lot if they are open to the lessons offered by children.

So, what does Asher teach me?

The number one lesson is patience. Asher is generally low maintenance for a two-year-old, but he’s still a toddler. Asher makes loud and persistent demands on me (e.g., feed me, change my diaper, bathe me, hold me when I am upset, etc.). Caring for Asher is the priority. Anything that I want or need to do takes second place. I have to be willing to postpone my desires until Asher has been satisfied. I have to be patient, and I’m not good at that.

The second lesson is to accept change. Asher is a work in progress. He changes and grows each and every day. Every morning Asher is somebody new. This week he learned how to play the harmonica by himself. He can climb up on chairs now. He can speak in sentences sometimes. The kid is growing and developing before my very eyes.

There are other things that Asher has taught me, but I haven’t found the time to put them into words. I’ve been busy. I guess I’ve learned to accept whatever happens during each minute while I am with him. There is no point in judging whether something is good or bad, and there is in fact no time to do so. I have to be totally in the moment with him. Asher requires constant vigilance. I don’t think much when I am caring for Asher. I just do.

Asher is asleep. Thank God. He is taking a well-deserved nap. The boy has a head cold, and he is not looking and feeling his best. Neither am I. It is one thing to care for a healthy child. Caring for a sick toddler is a whole other level.

I love Asher. I bitch about caring for him, but there is nothing else that I would rather do. In some ways, I am closer to him than I am to my own children.

Love Your Enemies

December 2nd, 2022

A few days ago, I wrote a post about a bag of antisemitic propaganda being thrown into my driveway. I was upset when I wrote the essay. I still am. My anger has cooled somewhat since that time, but I still feel unsettled by what happened.

Was what happened so bad? That depends on a person’s perspective. I mean it could have been much worse. The Jew-haters could have painted a swastika on my door. When these people cruised through my neighborhood tossing hate flyers into yards, it wasn’t like another Kristallnacht. However, it was still intensely disturbing to me.

It was scary.

I received a number of responses to my essay. One of them struck a nerve. A longtime friend of mine wrote this to me:

“Remember what Jesus said, to love your enemies. Don’t let their hatred infect you. Don’t stoop to their level, Frank. See them as spiritually sick, as they surely are.”

When I first read that message, I was irritated. I thought to myself,

“C’mon, really?”

Then I thought some more.  My friend is right. For my own spiritual and mental health, I need to love these people. But how?

Well, I can pray for them. They came to my house anonymously and in the dark of night, but I can try to imagine who they are, and why they have such twisted thoughts and feelings. The truth is that I already know people like the folks who dumped bigoted filth on my driveway. I have met people like this.

Many years ago, I was stationed in the U. S. Army in what was then West Germany. I lived on the economy. That is, I rented an apartment from a German landlord. I lived in a little town called Ravolzhausen. I spent a great deal of time interacting with the German locals, especially my landlord and his wife.

Once in a while, my landlord would invite me to his apartment to watch German TV and drink beer. I remember one time when he decided to show me some pictures of when he was a young man. He pulled out an old black and white photo. In the picture he was wearing a Nazi uniform (brown shirt) with a swastika armband. He was grinning in the photo. He was grinning when he showed it to me. It became obvious to me that my landlord had no regrets about who he had been back in the old days. That image of him sticks in my memory even though forty years have passed.

My father used rail against the Jews. He didn’t sugarcoat it. He called them “Kikes”. The antisemitic propaganda that was chucked into my yard a week ago was all familiar to me, because I had already heard versions of this stuff from my dad. I grew up with this sort of thing. Somehow, that made reading it so much more emotionally intense. It was almost like listening to my father’s voice.

Getting an unexpected gift of hate triggered some very unpleasant memories and feelings for me. They are hard to express, and harder to handle.

Can I love my enemies? I don’t know. I guess this is a test.

Nazis in the Neighborhood

November 28th, 2022

“These flyers have been distributed randomly to inform the public about the dangers of Jewish supremacy.”

“Sharing facts is not hate.”

“The truth fears no investigation.”

quotes from an anonymous bigot and Jew-hater

I am reluctantly looking at the flyers that an unknown person tossed into my driveway last night. They are small sheets of paper that came inside of a plastic sandwich bag. The copies are crude and amateurish. The written contents of the flyers are vile and disgusting. The writers would have made Josef Goebbels proud.

The sandwich bag also contains tiny pebbles to weigh it down. Apparently, the producer of these anti-Semitic diatribes is in the habit of driving slowly through residential neighborhoods at night and chucking bags of filth into the yards of unsuspecting homeowners. I am not the only person to receive this dubious gift.

The author of these flyers says that “sharing facts is not hate”. That is true if all the facts are shared in balanced way. Every effective lie contains some facts. The carefully selected facts make the lie believable. The person who wrote these flyers is promoting a lie, and it is a lie based on irrational hate. His or her “facts” are simply tools used to slander and threaten a whole group of people. Twisting the truth in this way is time-honored tradition among anti-Semitics. It has worked well for centuries.

I am not a Jew. I am a lifelong Catholic who also attends services at an Orthodox synagogue once or twice a month. One of my closest friends is a devout Jew. We meet together almost every week. I have learned much from my friend, and from the other members of the shul. My encounter with Judaism has changed my life, and possibly made me a better Catholic.

I found the bag in the driveway last night and I initially thought to throw it away. I didn’t. I read the contents of the plastic bag and became enraged. I also became frightened. I took the insults personally. The bigot who wrote this crap was going after my friends, and perhaps after me.

I spoke on the phone today with a woman from a local Jewish organization. Her group tracks this sort of hate activity and alerts relevant law enforcement. I told the woman about what happened. She sounded sympathetic and world weary. She already knew things about the people who distributed this material. What I told her was not really new. I find it incredibly sad that this incident is not something new. It’s just a variation on a sick and twisted theme. The lady was grateful that I reported the event, but it was not as alarming to her as it was to me.

I didn’t sleep much last night. My toddler grandson didn’t either. The little boy was restless. He was often nestled in my arms. I thought dark thoughts as I held him and listened to his quiet and regular breathing.

My grandson has a Jewish first name. His mother has his name tattooed on her arm in Hebrew. What if these Jew-haters get their way? What happens to my boy? What happens to his mama? These questions can be easily dismissed as the feverish imaginings of an upset old man. But are they? We know from history what has happened in the past when hate has won.

I despise the people who gave me their bag filled with hate. Mostly, I despise their cowardice. Are they Nazis? Who cares? Whoever they are, they work anonymously and hide in the shadows. Brave and honorable people don’t do that. The people who threw their anger and bitterness into my driveway are weak. They are gutless. I try not to hate them, but I can never respect them.

I am going to give the bag to a Jewish woman who will use it as evidence. I can’t stand to look at it, or even touch it.

It’s like handling dogshit.

Guardian Angel

November 26th, 2022

“Angel of God
My guardian dear
To Whom His love
Commits me here
Ever this day
Be at my side
To light and guard
To rule and guide. Amen” – Catholic prayer to guardian angel

I remember learning this prayer very early on in my life. It was a prayer for me to say just before I crawled into bed at night. It is a very Catholic notion to think that there is a powerful celestial being whose primary job it is to watch over a specific human child, or maybe a specific human adult. Perhaps other religious traditions have a similar idea. I don’t know. I do know that it is not a bad idea. As I enter my old age, I see the wisdom in believing that there is someone, somewhere, who is watching over me.

It’s 4:00 AM. My toddler grandson, Asher, sleeps in next room. He sleeps the sleep of the innocent. It has been many years since I slept that way. For some hours I laid next to him. I kept waking up, checking on him. I placed my index finger on his wrist to feel his tiny pulse. I could feel its rapid beat. I could hear the gentle rhythm of his breath. Whatever dreams Asher had; they were and are good dreams. May it always be so.

Many years ago, at least forty years ago, I was an Army officer stationed in West Germany. I was wild then. I used to party hard with a Finnish helicopter pilot. I woke up in his apartment one morning after a night of debauchery. The man’s wife gave me some breakfast. She was concerned about her husband, who was still sleeping. She looked at me and asked,

“I take care of Jukka (her husband). Who takes care of you?”

That was damn good question. I did not know the answer then. I am not sure that I know it now.

The guardian angel concept seems flawed. The implication is that this angel will keep a person from all harm. Clearly, this is not so. We all get hurt, and we all die. So, what does our angel actually do?

I think that the angel keeps us from doing what is worst in our nature, and the angel nudges us to do our best. I think of the German film, “Wings of Desire”. The angel urges us do what we have always been meant to do, from the beginning of all time. Each person has free will, so the angel cannot force our choice. However, the angel can hover over us, smile, caress our cheek, grasp our hand, and whisper in our ear.

What if humans could be angels?

When I look at Asher, I know that I cannot control his future. At my age, I may not even be a part of his future. However, for now, I can watch over him. I can hold him when he cries. I can gently correct him. Mostly, I can show him that he is loved, unconditionally loved.

We can all act as angels, if we choose to do so.

Our Shared Values

November 16th, 2022

Now that the elections are mercifully over (for the most part), we can turn our attention to other matters. Thanksgiving is almost here, and it is possibly the only national holiday that doesn’t inspire controversy. It’s kind of a nonsectarian, feel good, kumbaya sort of day. We get the chance to gather with friends and family. We get to sit back, overeat, and enjoy being Americans. Maybe we even take a moment to be thankful.

So, what does it mean to be an American? There are over 300 million different answers to that question, and all of them are probably right to a certain extent. I would like to think that we, as Americans, share some basic values. Honestly, I’m not sure what those are. I’m not sure that anyone knows.

For several years I helped to teach a citizenship class at Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee. I met once a week with green card holders who wanted to become Americans. As part of their citizenship test, they had to know the answers to one hundred questions about the United States. Many of these questions concerned the U.S. Constitution. I talked to the students quite a bit about the questions. They just needed to memorize some standard answers to successfully make it through the interview with the representative from USCIS. I wanted them to do more than that. I wanted them to have at least some understanding of how our government works.

Anybody who has been in the U.S. military has taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic. Of course, not many of us have actually read the Constitution in its entirety, and those who have waded through the document can’t agree on what it all means. The Constitution is our country’s secular Bible, our official operator’s manual, and like most sacred texts, it is a cause for endless argument and dispute.

I remember discussing with some students about how presidents are chosen. I asked one of them,

“Who elects the President?”

He gave the required response, “The American people elect the President.”

I asked, “What kind of government does the United States have?”

Approved answer: “The United States is a democracy.”

Then I decided to explain the Electoral College to the students. That was a hideous mistake. While describing how our elections work, I told them that it was possible for a person to lose the popular vote, but still win the presidency in the Electoral College. I looked at the students and saw blank stares and confused faces.

Uh oh.

I backtracked and said, “You’re right. The President is elected by the American people. Just go with that.”

We also talked about the Bill of Rights. They needed to know some of the basic rights of Americans. The students could tell me that Americans have freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. I asked them what these freedoms actually meant.

Dead silence.

I tried to explain freedom of religion to them. I said,

“Okay, a devout Jew is not supposed to work on Saturday, the Sabbath. What if the Jewish person’s boss insists that the man or woman comes into the office on a Saturday? Does that violate the Jewish person’s freedom of religion?”

Things got very complicated very quickly.

I tried another question, “What about a baker who won’t bake a cake for a gay wedding because they believe doing so goes against their religious beliefs? Can the baker refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple?

Once again, lots of controversy.

I asked these sorts of questions to make the students think. I wanted them to understand that Americans believe in freedom, but somehow, we can’t agree on what these freedoms are.

At the end of the classes, my students were well aware that the American way of life is riddled with contradictions. They knew that our system of government is confusing at times, and usually dysfunctional. They understood that some things in the United States are unjust. They came to the conclusion that politics in our country are at best messy.

They all decided to take the test anyway, and almost all of them are now citizens.

We can be thankful for that.

Just a Glimpse

November 11th, 2022

“Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” – “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

I get up dark and early. It is a habit that I can’t shake from all the years that I worked on third shift. I didn’t mind crawling out of bed at 4:30 AM on Tuesday. I was looking forward to seeing the total lunar eclipse. As I got dressed, I noticed that the moonbeam coming through the skylight was gradually getting dimmer. I walked out our front door and stood on the porch. I gazed at the western sky.

It was cloudy.

I thought to myself, “Really?”

The sky wasn’t completely overcast, but I couldn’t see the moon. I knew that the eclipse was happening, because the sky was so black., but I couldn’t see the darkened disk. There were a few small gaps in the cloud cover, but they weren’t nearly enough. I stood in the cold wind and waited for a break. I finally gave up and went back into the house.

Yesterday, Karin and I took our little grandson, Asher, to the Milwaukee County Zoo. We got there rather late, and we couldn’t see much before the zoo closed down for the day. We decided to take Asher to the primate house. He got to see the gorilla and the orangutan. He saw the spider monkeys and the macaques. Asher enjoyed our short visit. He was fascinated by the animals.

I was fascinated by the information concerning the future of these primate species. Almost all of them were listed as being “endangered” or “critically endangered”. There was a sign that stated that the orangutans would be extinct in the wild within ten years. That shocked and depressed me. Asher won’t even be a teenager when that happens. These animals might not exist a decade from now.

It hard for me to be optimistic about Asher’s future. What kind of world am I leaving for him? What will it be like for him when climate change really kicks in? What challenges will he face? Will he curse my generation for screwing it all up?

I wish I could know that Asher and his contemporaries will be okay, but I can’t. I may not even get a glimpse of his future. I just have to have faith that somehow things will work out for him. I can help him as best I can while I am here with him. That’s all I can do. That will have to be good enough.

Early on Tuesday morning I walked back outside one more time. It was still well before sunrise. I looked to the west. It was still overcast, but the clouds were getting brighter. The eclipse was nearly done. There was a momentary break in the clouds. I could only see part of the moon. For a second, I saw a ruddy slice on the lunar surface where our earth still blocked the sun’s rays from striking it. Then it was gone.

It was just a glimpse.