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.

Three Cities

January 1st, 2023

“I know I loved you then
I think I love you still
But this prophecy of ours
Has come back dressed to kill
Three stones on a mountain
Three small holes in a field
You’ve given me the big dream
But you can’t make it real

O, wicked world
Just think what could have been
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin
All I do is lose, but baby
All I want’s to win
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” – from the band, Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend is a relatively new band. Their music embraces a number of different styles. Many of their songs feature both a male and female vocalist, who play off each other rather well. The lyrics is their compositions are Dylanesque. The words are often obscure, and they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Each listener hears something different and finds a particular meaning from within his or her own soul.

I have been intrigued by one song from the group: “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”. It’s not the most melodic of their efforts, but I keep trying to figure out what the significance is of them naming those three locations. I guess part of my curiosity comes from the fact that I have been to all three of those places, and each of those cities has left an indelible mark on my memory.

What do these three cities have in common? All of them have colorful histories. That is not necessarily a good thing, but it’s a fact. Jerusalem has been involved in wars since the time of King David, and probably before that. New York has had a turbulent history, often filled with savagery (see the 2002 film by Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York). 9/11 was the latest example of wanton violence in that city. Berlin suffered almost total destruction at the end of WWII, comparable to the leveling of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the later devastation inflicted by the Romans.

Each of them was or is a focal point in the world. Medieval maps showed Jerusalem as the axis mundi, the center of the world. Jerusalem (Al-Quds القدس in Arabic) has for centuries been a fundamental element in each of the Abrahamic religions. Even today, much of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians concerns the status of Jerusalem. Jerusalem may not be the center of the physical world, but it is still often the center of the world’s imagination.

New York is a financial powerhouse, the home of Wall Street. It is also a center for visual art, for fashion, for music, for literature, and for politics. It is a place where a lifetime isn’t long enough to fully understand it. It is microcosm of the entire world, containing immigrants from nearly every nation. I have a friend who lived in Chicago, which is a little brother to New York. My friend told me that she felt the “oppressive weight of humanity” where she lived. How much more so in New York, where myriad cultures are packed tight next to each other. These various peoples live in tiny enclaves with unofficial but very real boundaries. Another friend of mine grew up in the Bronx. He told me that he could tell when he was in the wrong neighborhood just by the smell of the food cooking.

Berlin was for a brief period of time the focus of all the world’s attention. It was a source of terror. From 1933 to 1945 the city shown with an evil radiance. The energy that Berlin exuded caused endless destruction and misery. The rulers of Berlin murdered millions of people before the rest of the world united to crush them. In April of 1945 the ruins of Berlin burned in hellish fire that eventually turned to ashes.

From my limited experience, I would say that all three cities have (or had) a restlessness and a tension that is omnipresent. I was in Berlin in June of 1983, during the height of the Cold War. I saw the Wall, and I passed through Checkpoint Charlie. I looked at the bullet holes that still decorated the walls of the Reichstag. I saw the libertine chaos of West Berlin, and I wandered through the drab grey paranoia of the East. Both halves of the city had this edginess that was infectious. I never felt at ease.

I was in Jerusalem for a few days in December of 1983. Jerusalem wasn’t quite as scary as Berlin, but it was a close second. The Israeli military was everywhere, and even though I was in the Army then, I wasn’t comfortable with seeing soldiers with Uzis on nearly every street. Jerusalem felt like the capital of a garrison state, a place where violence could occur at any moment. There was always a wariness and a need for constant vigilance.

I visited New York back in the late 1970’s when I was a student at West Point (think about the movie Taxi Driver, once again from Scorsese). I visited the city again a few years ago. New York is fine if a person has an extremely high tolerance for chaos. People and objects are continuously in rapid motion. The action never stops. It is like a city on meth. I found it exhausting after only a couple days there.

A final link between all three cities is Judaism. The religion plays a role in all of them. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the goal of every observant Jew. I have a friend from the synagogue who grew up in Brooklyn. His youthful experiences in New York and his Jewishness are closely interwoven. He told me stories about the Rebbe and about the Chabad. He talked to me about the Crown Heights neighborhood. And Berlin…it is connected with Judaism in a horrible, apocalyptic way.

One more story…

I have another friend at the synagogue. Leonid is an old man, a refugee from Kyiv who came here when Soviet Union collapsed. Leonid’s father was an officer in the Soviet Army during WWII. His father was in Berlin in April of 1945 with the victorious Russian forces. Leonid’s dad stood near the devastated wreckage of the Reichstag. While he was there, he picked up a piece of coal and drew a Star of David on the side of the building.

Jerusalem, New York, Berlin

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.