Invaluable. That’s the Real Answer, Mr. Commissioner; A Fusion of Smiles, Languages And Colors
No matter how you slice it, surgery is no fun. More to the point, it’s no fun no matter how they need to slice you.
Painful stuff. Recovery is no walk in the park, either. After nearly eight days in recovery at Sanford, I can say this with certainty.
I also can say the people who took care of me are diamonds, immigrants from across the United States and the world, each with a dazzling smile worth a million bucks.
Fusion, Part I
I’ve had daily pain from degeneration of my spine for about five years. Bulging discs, pinched spinal cord, constant pain in my hips and lightning bolts screaming down the backs of my legs. I tried everything, from physical therapy to chiropractic to steroid shots. It all helped a little for a little while but, ultimately, the pain and resulting limitations kept worsening.
The surgical team connected the vertebra above the key problem area to the one below with four screws, then inserted and expanded artificial material between them to relieve the pressure on my spinal cord. Ultimately, the vertebrae will fuse together.
Some issues extended my stay from the expected three to five days to more than a week. That’s a long stretch, but I had some great people helping me through.
I also had lots of time to think. Physical pain was on my mind, certainly, but another kind, too.
It’s the pain and embarrassment I feel as immigrants and refugees are targeted with accusations that they drain resources or burden communities.
One targeter is on the Fargo City Commission, others are in the North Dakota Legislature, and there are many more around the country. They call for an accounting of costs, suggesting “others” take services away from “real Americans.”
Funny thing, though. The targeters never seem very interested in balancing the scales with the value “they” bring to our communities and our country.
Immigrants and refugees work. Hard. They pay taxes. They start businesses. They diversify community identities. They share new customs, foods, music, art and clothing styles. They become citizens. Their children often go on to improve American society. They make us richer.
Oh, yeah. They improve and save lives, too. One day it could be yours.
My experience didn’t open my eyes but made me perceive the persecution of immigrants and refugees more keenly. I use the word persecution purposely; in my mind, the implication that immigrants and refugees cost too much is just that.
Cost and value are the wrong words, anyway.
Invaluable. Now there’s a word that makes the cut.
Fusion, Part II
My caretakers are from the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota. One is an authentic University of Arkansas Razorback, first one I’ve ever met. More than a third hail from around the world — eastern Europe, as well as Canada, Liberia, Nigeria and other countries.
They have melodious accents, a brilliant array of skin colors and command of many languages.
One aide came to the States in his teens, all by himself. He relocated from New Jersey because Fargo “seemed safer” and “isn’t so crazy.” He speaks five languages. I speak one. How about you?
Whether they came from the USA or the other side of the globe, they prepped me for surgery, helped me to the bathroom, refilled daily meds, monitored pain and progress, brought me food, emptied fluids from my surgical wound, made sure I could put my own socks on and walked me up and down the halls. They also got me through some really rough patches.
Their life experiences, expertise and compassion fused into one powerful, international force committed to making me better. They did so without any need for thanks or giving a rip about my skin color, religion or political beliefs.
I am not unique or special, even though the nurses, aides, doctors, therapists, technicians and everyone else at Sanford made me feel that way.
They’re simply professionals living their lives, doing their jobs and applying their talents where they’re most needed. I happened to be an Everyman who needed it most.
There was no me or they. There was only us, and we made it through those eight days together. Kind of how I’d like to see Us — yes, with a capital “U” — make it through the coming decades and centuries.
The pain I’ve had for years is gone. Turns out recovery really is a walk in the park, or at least up and down my block. Each day, I feel better and go a little farther.
This, thanks to everyone who literally helped get me back on my feet, including “they” and the “others” who are as American, and as invaluable, as I’ll ever be.
Oh, there have been times in my life when I’ve run, like when I was in high school and I was in track. I was a thrower — shot put and discus — but the coach wanted to fill out the full roster for team points, so I was forced to run the two-mile. And forced is the right word. I used to pray for rain, and even do rain dances, so that meets would be canceled and I wouldn’t have to run.
The thing is, when you are bad at something like the 100-meter dash, you can only lose by so much. Your humiliation is over quickly. But when you are bad at the two-mile, it can go on for what seems like an eternity. And I was bad — to the tune of being lapped a time or two in an eight-lap event.
So bad, in fact, that everyone on the field would be pulling for me. I often thought it was because they were all afraid I would die and it would gum up the rest of the meet. But those cheers mattered. They got me through the race.
I tried to take up running a few years ago, completed an abysmally slow 5K, and in the process tore my medial meniscus and needed surgery. I think God was telling me something. So now I don’t run.
Even though I don’t run, I nonetheless often use running metaphors when I talk about a life of faith. The Bible frequently uses the image of running the race as a comparison to a life of faith, including a call for people of faith to “run the race that is set before you.”
As a pastor, I tell people that they need to practice their faith for the same reason that people need to train for a marathon. You train for a marathon so that you are ready to go when the big day comes — you are prepared to face the challenge.
And by practicing your faith, you are ready when there are challenges in life. You are prepared.
But unlike training for a marathon, you don’t know when your challenges will come. You don’t know when you are going to have to rely on your faith to help you forge ahead in the face of struggle, heartache and pain.
Just as marathon runners train their muscles to deal with the pain, when you practice your faith through prayer, worship, service and devotion, you are ready to deal with whatever life throws you. Faith isn’t to get into heaven — that was accomplished by Jesus and his defeat of death and offer of forgiveness. Faith is to get you through life. To help you run the race that is set before you.
It isn’t easy to get through a marathon — or to get through life. But if you are prepared, you are better able to handle it.
That is why I watched with shock the YouTube video of Scott Cramer, the Minnesota State University-Moorhead student who ran a marathon without training for it. I know Scott tangentially. He is dating a young woman who is the daughter of one of my closest friends. I baptized Jaden, taught her in confirmation, and she was president of the Philanthropy group I advised when she was in high school. So I know that he has good taste and must be a quality guy.
But I also think he has a few rocks loose in his head. After watching the video he made while running the Fargo Marathon, I think he may agree. His plan was to train for the marathon when he registered for it last October, but he never got around to training for it. So he decided instead to run it without training and make a video of his effort.
Scott survived his ordeal. At first, he was confidant — running the first nine miles, but as time wore on, the reality set in, and he discovered what real pain was. However, he soldiered on, finishing the 26.2 miles in 6 hours and 16 minutes. Not exactly a top finisher, but a finisher nonetheless.
He credits his ability to complete the race to the encouragement he received, both from the people along the way, who cheered him on, as well as his core supporters, Jaden, as well as his sister, who walked about six miles with him, to keep him going when he was down on himself.
As I reflected on his journey and what I have often said about faith, I have decided that Scott is the exception who proves the rule. Scott did get through the race. But it was much harder than it would have been without training, he didn’t do as well as he could have, and he hurt far more than he needed to. The pain that was apparent in his video the next day revealed a man who could barely move. He was literally felled by the race he endured.
In life, that is also true. Can we get through the challenges of life without faith Well, sometimes you just have to. You just forge ahead. But if you aren’t practicing your faith, those challenges can take everything out of you and literally drive you to your knees, unable to move forward.
There is still pain when you are in shape — spiritually or physically. But the immediate and lasting effects of being ready allow you to cope better. You are better prepared for what comes your way, far better prepared than Scott was. And because of that, you are better able to face the journey and stronger in its aftermath, rather than being laid out flat on your back, unable to move.
But there was one other part of this story that struck me. It was the role that both Jaden and Scott’s sister played. Scott said he could not have made it had they not walked with him and encouraged him. They kept him going when he was down on himself and motivated him to finish the race.
In Hebrews 12:1, it says that “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
When you practice your faith, and stay in shape spiritually, it becomes your job to be a part of that “cloud of witnesses,” to be encouragers who support and urge on others in their race, whether they are in shape or not.
Because just as faith is not to get into heaven, but to get through life, it is also not just for ourselves. Living a life of faith means living a life that focuses on others.
Selfishness is the antithesis of a spiritual life. Jaden and Scott’s sister could have derided Scott and told him that he needed to do this himself. That kind of “rise from your own bootstraps” mentality, where they could have told him “You are responsible for this, so we aren’t going to help you.”
But that’s not what they did. Instead, they cheered him on, walked with him, and helped him finish the race. They literally went the extra mile — actually six miles — to accompany him as part of his cloud of witnesses.
Because that is what friends do, and that is what Christians are called to do. To help others when they are down on themselves, to see their needs and to accompany them on their journey.
Those who say people are not responsible for the needs of others, who don’t want to support them, or worse yet, tear them down, miss the point of faith entirely. It isn’t meant to just run your own race. It is a team event. Where we call out to each other and support each other on our journey.
The life of faith is about being a part of a community and being a community means supporting each other.
Back in the day, when I was a reluctant runner, earning “team points” as I circled the track, being lapped not because I was out of shape, but because I was just bad, it was those who cheered me on who got me through the race.
And Scott said the same thing — he wasn’t ready, but those around him were ready to cheer him on. And that made all the difference.
So I urge you today to keep in shape spiritually so you are ready for the race. Learn from Scott that not being in shape can make life hurt more than it needs to. And learn from Jaden that cheering others on can help them finish the race, even if they aren’t prepared.
In doing that, you live out what it means to run the race of life. Not just for yourself, but for others.
Grand Forks photographer Russ Hons is becoming quite well-known for his spectacular sports shots. But recently, he decided to take a ride into the countryside, since there were no action sports that night, so he could practice his action shooting.
It appears that some media types and supporters of President Trump, hereinafter referred to as 45, are having difficulty with how to describe those in government positions who are providing information that is classified to those who will publicize it.
The naysayers suggest those whom they term “leakers” should be sought out, identified and then fired or criminally prosecuted. In a perfect political world that might make sense … but this is not a perfect world from any standpoint.
A quick dictionary search defines a “leaker” as someone who lets people know secret information. I think the more appropriate term would be “whistle-blower.”
A “patriot” is someone who feels a strong support for their country. “Patriotism” is defined as an attachment to the homeland. It can be viewed in terms of differences relating to the homeland, including but not limited to ethnic, cultural, political or historical aspects.
(If you Google each of these terms, the definitions do vary widely. I’ve used the shortest versions here.)
Individuals within the White House, FBI, Homeland Security and other agencies of government have released information that causes us to focus on certain behaviors that truly endanger this country and everything it stands for. These whistle-blowers are supplying information because they place the future of their country before all else. Individually, they have nothing to gain and everything to lose by their actions.
Some will call them leakers. I call them whistle-blowing patriots. The information they have released so far and continue to reveal does not create harm to this country … but screams that we must protect (and in some cases restore) those values that set the United States of America apart from any other nation.
POTUS 45’s suggestion that those who work in government should pledge their loyalty to him personally is not American. It is Russian and echoes all other dictators throughout time. In our community, we are taught to report anything we deem suspicious. Our schools teach us to be good citizens and not tolerate nor accept crime and or other misbehavior … not blindly follow any man.
We are, in fact, taught right from wrong, even when it sometimes seems that distinction is fading. When we sense wrong, we should address it.
Maybe some would consider me a bad person because of my belief on this subject. But if I had taken an oath of secrecy and then learned of a plot to murder someone, do you think for one instant that I’d consider that all right? Each and every one of us was born with a brain. If it functions as it is supposed to, it helps us determine right from wrong … and wrong from sheer insanity.
One of the many problems facing elected officials is their fear to call “foul” when they see a wrong! They place party above country and loyalty to party above all else. They can’t get it through their muck-filled brains that their loyalty belongs to our country first, as well as the people they represent.
This is a time in which government, specifically the criminal justice system, demands nothing less than best and the brightest. Now, though, 45 is considering Joe Lieberman as a finalist for the directorship of the FBI. Yet he now works for the very same law firm that represents 45. He’s 75 years old. While he’s been in politics a long time, he has zero federal law enforcement experience. Prior appointees have been former federal prosecutors and judges. (I cannot conceive of a reason why a federal judge would leave a lifetime appointment to the bench to accept a not-so-safe appointment to a position 45 could terminate.)
My point is that, aside from working for a law firm that represents Trump, Lieberman is a good, honest man. But he’s simply not qualified for that position, so I hope common sense will be factored into the appointment.
Andrew McCabe, acting director of the FBI, has all the relevant credentials, is clearly his own man and would not be influenced in the slightest by 45 trying to direct his investigations. The FBI trusts him. In this era of 45 attacking all investigations of his administration by the FBI, his constant assaults on the media, and his childish name-calling — a well-trained and respected director is needed.
Whether one liked former Director Comey, his qualifications, sincerity and integrity were and still are above reproach.
Once all these House, Senate, FBI and Special Counsel investigations are complete, I predict the next step will be the courts. As I’ve already said, I expect them to potty-train 45 to understand the concept of three separate but co-equal branches of government. There will be criminal prosecutions resulting from the investigations.
My strong sense is that, given the difficulties the Constitution presents when dealing with 45, it may well result that a competency hearing. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that this president of the United States is unfit to hold office. The 25th Amendment may be the option that saves us.
* * *
Why is it that Sen. John Hoeven and Congressman Kevin Cramer cannot condemn even one of the inappropriate actions 45 has taken?
The president promised he would run the country like he runs his companies; that’s one promise he has kept. In business, he repeatedly ran up the bills and then didn’t pay the little guy for what he’d ordered. He promised health care for all — but forgot to mention the caveat, “if you can afford to pay for it.” His climate change denial and his poorly thought out executive orders clearly show that he has no concern at all for wages, jobs and the average citizen.
All this … and not one word of criticism from North Dakota’s Republican senator and congressman.
Minnesota is really well-represented. Its senators and representatives, even though from different parties, have not forgotten they work for the people, not vice versa. Then again, Minnesota has a two- or even three-party system. North Dakota does not.
* * *
Fargo attorney Leo Wilking has successfully dealt with health issues, as have I, at Sanford Health. The doctors, nurses, therapists, receptionists, those who clean rooms and even volunteer drivers like Roger Mjones make Sanford what it is — a first-class organization. I join Wilking in his recently published opinion: If Sanford wants to throw a party to celebrate its new Fargo facility, have at it! Your people have more than earned it.
I’m sure some of you are waiting for me to add something political at this point. Not gonna happen this time! Have a great week. Amen.
I’ve been to Kabul, Afghanistan, four times in my life. The first three times a suicide bomber blew up something and took innocent lives somewhere in the city.
The first time, in 2010, it happened on a road I had been on just two days earlier. But in none of those cases was the bombing anywhere near where I was. The last time I was there, last spring, there was no bombing. It had taken place the week before, killing 60 people.
Those bombings were not really close to where I was. I mean, they were in the same city, but not near where I was staying or working. I didn’t brush them off, but I realized them for what they were — targeted at a specific sector of the population, not random. I have developed an attitude toward bombings. I know I have never been involved directly in a bombing or lost anyone to one. And I realize people who have may have an entirely different attitude.
I have a group of eight college students here in London with me. We fly home Saturday. The bombing in Manchester caught our attention, the attention of the university administration and, of course, the parents of my students. Manchester is at least two hours from London by train, not really in our neighborhood. But somehow it seems close. So far, 22 people have died. This was also targeted — at young people attending a concert in a large auditorium. It was staged for maximum injury and maximum attention. It accomplished both.
So this morning, I sat down with my students. Troupers that they are, none of them appeared to be nervous about the bombing. I gave them a chance to talk it out. I urged them to call their parents if they felt a need to — I’m sure just about everyone did. One of them said her parents were putting some pressure on her to come home, but she didn’t want to, and I offered to drop an email to any of their parents they wanted me to. No one took me up on the offer.
I told them that 22 people had died. But that same day, 7 billion people did “not” die. The world sometimes seems like a dangerous place, but the truth is most of us are quite safe. And I said the same thing I say to everyone who asks about all these things: If we flee home in fear without finishing what we came here for, the terrorists win. We can’t let them win. Take precautions? Be vigilant? Absolutely. But as the British are quoted as saying, Keep Calm and Carry On.
With that said, we all stood up, walked out of the hotel to our appointment, and carried on.
They’ll bury Herb Meschke later this week. I don’t know if it will be in the North Dakota Bad Lands, where he was born and raised, or in Minot, where he spent most of his life. Wherever it is, his presence will enhance the stature of the cemetery.
Herb was a cowboy, a lawyer, a legislator, a judge and a family man. He took all of those jobs seriously. And he was pretty good at them.
He died at home Friday. There’ll be a Methodist funeral for him Wednesday. His death marks the end of a life at the center of some of North Dakota’s most interesting political stories. I’m going to tell a couple. First, some background. I like revisiting old political stories, and Herb’s death gives me the opportunity to do that. I think he’d approve.
Because most people who knew Herb in the past 65 or 70 years of his remarkable 89-year life never saw him wearing anything but a suit and tie or a judicial robe, they don’t know about his cowboy background. He was born on a ranch north of Medora, N.D., and according to those who knew him, was a strapping young cowboy when he went off to college in the late 1940s.
It was sometime during his college or law school years, friends tell me, he was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis. Most of us who knew him as an adult never saw him stand erect. He walked hunched over, having to turn his head slightly to look up when he was having a standing conversation. That’s how we all remember him, short, hunched over, walking with a cane. All his adult life. Gary Williamson, his seatmate in the 1965 Legislature, said Herb kept a bottle of aspirin on his desk and would just pop a handful into his mouth from time to time to ease the pain of the arthritis.
That 1965 session was the beginning of one of the political stories of his life. In the 1964 election, the Johnson landslide, the last time a Democrat presidential candidate carried North Dakota, Herb, Gary and three other Young Turk Democrats — Larry Erickson, Bob Schoenwald and Wayne Sanstead — rode that landslide into the Legislature, defeating all the Republican incumbents except the venerable (even then) Brynhild Haugland.
According to Williamson, they arrived in Bismarck as “Brynhild’s Boys.” She was in charge of the Minot delegation from Day 1, determined not to let Minot suffer because it was represented by five young freshmen (even though the Democrats were in the majority). She found them seats, got them committee assignments beneficial to Minot and probably directed to some extent how they voted on the floor.
That was one of only two legislative sessions Democrats were the majority party. It’s fun to look at the list of House members that session whose names you might remember, in addition to Sanstead, who held statewide office longer than almost anyone in our state’s history (Can you say Ben Meier?), and Meschke, a Supreme Court justice for almost 15 years. It included Richard Backes, Lee Christensen, Oscar Solberg, Buckshot Hoffner, Treadwell Haugen, Tom Stallman, Clarence “Chief” Poling and Art Link, who was speaker of the House that session. Most of them were just getting their start on distinguished political careers in North Dakota.
An interesting side note: The only two years Democrats held the majority of seats in the North Dakota House, in 1965 and 1983, five men served in both those sessions: Sanstead, Backes, Hoffner, Solberg and Olaf Opedahl. The House was tied in the 1977 session, and Solberg served as Speaker by consensus of both parties, showing the respect he had from Republicans. In the days when Republicans and Democrats actually got along. Sigh.
But back to Herb Meschke. Herb served just that one term in the House (House terms were just two years back then) and the next year, he ran for and was elected to the state Senate. Only four Democrats were elected to the Senate that year, and they joined holdover George Rait as the smallest Democratic-NPL caucus ever (although modern day Democrats are headed that way, to challenge them — there were just nine this year).
Williamson and Sanstead were re-elected to the House, and after serving in the majority in 1965, were among just 14 Democratic-NPL House members out of 99 representatives that session. Democrats eclipsed that record this past session with just 13 out of 94.
Herb’s other memorable role was in January 1985, the time when North Dakota had two governors. I wrote about that a few years ago, and you can go back and read it if you want to by clicking here. But let me summarize and point out that I’ve actually learned (actually, remembered) a little more about that incident in the last few years since I wrote that post.
Sinner was elected governor in the November 1984 election. In those days governors legally took office Jan. 1, but traditionally waited until the first day of the Legislature, which was the first Tuesday after the first Monday of January. In 1985, that was Jan. 8. After this crisis, the Legislature changed the date of the new term to Dec. 15.
Between the tine of the election and Jan. 1, two vacancies occurred on the North Dakota Supreme Court — a justice died and another announced he was about to resign, which meant the governor got to appoint two Supreme Court Justices, surely plum appointments for any governor. Per North Dakota law, a Judicial Nominating Committee advertised for applicants, and receiving them, announced it would recommend candidates for the governor to choose from, on Jan. 4—whomever the governor was that day.
So Allen Olson, who had decided to stick around until the Legislature convened Jan. 8, as tradition held, was going to make two appointments before he left office. Sinner decided not to let that happen. Since legally he was entitled to take office Jan. 1, according to an opinion issued by Olson a few years earlier when he was attorney general, he did just that.
Olson objected and hunkered down in his office and refused to leave, now claiming that he could, by tradition, remain in office until the Legislature came to town. Sinner set up shop in the governor’s residence — remember, Olson had decided not to live there, remaining in his own house high atop a hill in north Bismarck, something a lot of people viewed as arrogance, probably contributing some to his defeat by Sinner.
So we had two governors for a few days, until the new attorney general, Nick Spaeth, convinced the Supreme Court to take the case immediately and decide who the governor was, and in a matter of hours, the court decided Sinner was entitled to the office. Note that all of the sitting justices except the chief justice recused themselves, and Chief Justice Ralph Erickstad appointed four district court judges and told them to get their tails to Bismarck and hear the case. So it was those four men — Maurice Hunke of Dickinson, A.C. Bakken of Grand Forks, Norman Backes of Fargo and Benny Graf of Bismarck, who held the fate of the next two Supreme Court Justices in their hands.
Interestingly, Erickstad, a known Republican (he had served three sessions in the North Dakota Senate as a Republican before being elected to the court) appointed three pretty well-known Democrats — Bakken, Backes and Graf — to decide who the governor was, and who would make the next two Supreme Court appointments. And they chose Sinner, the Democrat. It really was a question of law, though, not politics, so there was nothing untoward in their decision, that I can tell.
I think Olson really didn’t want that confrontation, or to have his term in office end that way, but there must have been tremendous pressure on him from some in the Republican Party to claim those two Supreme Court seats. Rumors have floated around for years, but I’ve never been able to confirm them, so I won’t repeat them. I’m sure Mark Andrews would appreciate that.
There were known Republicans — Ward Kirby of Dickinson, Vern Neff of Williston and Rolf Sletten of Bismarck — on the Judicial Nominating Committee list submitted to Sinner, and some known Democrats — Herb Meschke and Jim Maxson of Minot and J. Philip Johnson of Fargo, and two suspected Democrats, Bill Neumann of Rugby and Beryl Levine of Fargo.
Sinner chose Meschke and Levine. He and most North Dakota Democrats, probably would have liked to appoint Meschke and Maxson, but he just couldn’t appoint two from the same town. And he just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to appoint the first woman ever to the North Dakota Supreme Court.
That he chose Meschke over Maxson probably had something to do with a little leaning from Meschke’s old colleagues in the 1965 Legislature, Richard Backes and Larry Erickson, both of whom were close to Sinner and had helped in the Minot area on his campaign, and the fact Sinner had served across the hall in the state Senate from Meschke, and his House colleagues that session, Erickson, Backes, Williamson, Schoenwald and Sanstead. Meschke and Sinner also served together as delegates to the ill-fated 1972 North Dakota Constitutional Convention.
Maxson went on to his own political career, being elected to the state Senate in 1986 and again in 1990. He holds the distinction of being the only Democrat to serve four sessions in the North Dakota Legislature and never serve in the minority. Democrats had a majority in the Senate in 1987, ’89, ’91 and ’93 in 1994 (Yes, North Dakota Democrats, there once was a time, and a place called Camelot). In 1994, Maxson went back to Minot to resume his law practice full time.
Johnson and Neuman, by the way, did end up on the Supreme Court later, but no such luck for the three Republicans.
Herb’s appointment to the court in January was the subject of some controversy. Some Republicans dragged out old newspaper stories from the 1960s First Western Bank scandal, in which most of the Democratic-NPL crew from that 1965 legislative session — Backes, Erickson, Williamson and Meschke — were indicted for some alleged banking and campaign practice crimes.
Wanting to keep up with the Republicans in the financial world, they had started their own bank in Minot and were accused by Nixon-era prosecutors of playing a little fast and loose with banking and campaign regulations. All, including Meschke, their lawyer, were either acquitted or had charges dropped, but it sullied Meschke’s entrance into the judiciary. First Western Bank, ironically, is now owned by North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven.
Herb was elected to a four-year term on the Court in 1986 and a full 10-year term in 1990, took early retirement in 1999, moved back to Minot and practiced law a little bit and did some writing. The last time I saw him was at Gov. Bill Guy’s funeral a few years ago. He was still this hunched-over little man, a brilliant mind trapped in broken body.
I loved that little man, mostly from afar, because of what he accomplished in spite of his physical handicap and the lifetime of pain he tolerated to be an active part of North Dakota history. And also partly because he was wise enough to marry a girl from my hometown, Shirley McNeil from Hettinger, N.D. Shirley survives him. She spent a lifetime taking care of Herb. God bless her. I wish her all the best in the rest of her years.
It’s one of life’s funny little ironies: Graduation season brings on a nearly irresistible urge to give advice … at the very moment when impending graduates are least likely to think they need to listen.
Exactly 50 years ago, I was in those bright young mortar-boarded and begowned whippersnappers’ shoes. Fresh from the hallowed halls of ivy in a tiny outer North Dakota town, I — along with the other 15 luminaries of the Class of 1967 — was convinced I was ready to take on the world.
Our tiny procession stepped into the superheated gymnasium with hearts full and hopes high. This was our moment! As the band played a ragged rendition of our school song — “cheer, cheer for old Streeter High” — a heavily perspiring crowd of parents, grandparents and antsy younger siblings rose to their feet and applauded us. We knew this, at last, must be the start of something big … a conviction symbolized by finally being permitted to walk across the gleaming basketball floor in street shoes.
That was the first — and last — time I was tapped to share my august thoughts with those on the verge of being launched into the world. My deep grasp of the human condition — honed by 17 years in ZIP codes of no renown whatsoever — was summed up by the fact that, within seconds of returning to a folding chair on the edge of the stage, neither I nor anyone else could recall a single word I’d uttered.
After that inauspicious debut as an inspirational speaker, it comes as no surprise that this spring marks the 49th consecutive year in which no one has asked me to headline their commencement ceremony. Such a shame! Not only do I still possess that yellowed Streeter (N.D.) High School diploma certifying that I knew absolutely everything my teachers could imbue … life has taught me a critical thing or two that Mr. Lund and Mrs. Nenow somehow missed back in the classroom.
Naturally, like pretty much every adult who sees seniors strolling across the stage, I feel an almost cosmic compulsion to give advice to the tender young sprouts of 2017 … even knowing full well they’re no more inclined to listen now than I was.
1. Your parents know a lot. Yes, really. Though you doubt it now, someday you’ll utter the most beautiful words in the English language: “Mom (or Dad), you were right.”
2. Your parents don’t know everything. Try not to rub it in too much. Try especially hard when you go home on break as a college freshman. This is traditionally the moment when offspring are at the absolute peak of obnoxiousness, drunk on a semester’s worth of higher education. If you can’t resist the urge to show off your new smarts out of respect and consideration of their feelings, do it for self-preservation. Research proves these are the moments when even patient parents are likeliest to contemplate sacrificing their young.
3. If high school social life has left you feeling dark and tattered, don’t give up! College is bound to offer many more opportunities for despair. (Oh, not really. It gets much better.)
4. Ninety percent of success, in college as in life, consists of showing up. In 26 years of working with college students, I’ve noticed something almost mystical: Attendance is an almost foolproof way of predicting grades.
5. Don’t just sit there. Speak up! Whether what you say is brilliant or confused, you’ll get more out of the experience if you actively engage. Don’t worry so much about whether your peers will think you’re showing off or cozying up to the professor. If you want the answer, ask the question.
6. Boredom is optional. It’s up to you. Dig a little deeper. You may be surprised.
7. Stop apologizing for your work. When you’re asked to share, don’t start out by declaring, “This isn’t very good ….” Chances are, you’ll be so persuasive that listeners will agree with you. Say it loud and proud, and hope for the best.
8. Your teachers have already heard every excuse in the book. Moreover, they probably tried the same bogus tales themselves — and told them better. In particular, be cautious about ginning up a grandparent’s funeral again to explain missing a due date. Some of us keep count.
9. When you fall asleep in class, everyone else can still see you … even if you slide way down in your seat. There’s no better way to make an impression.
10. And your teachers have a pretty good idea what you’re doing with that iPhone. When a student stares intently at their crotch and smiles, it’s the better explanation.
Today marks another milestone on the path with my German Metabolic Balance® journey: Day 500! And it’s still working — “when I am ‘on plan.'”
It’s been challenging the past four months for a variety of reasons, all of which would come under the heading of “life and death events.”
It started with an incredible trip to Cuba in late January to early February, followed by the affects on my arthritic knees of walking those cobblestones and uneven streets for nine days. It’s boring to talk about aches and pain, so I’ll just say it kept me from exercising for a couple of months.
Everyone knows how to lose weight: eat less and exercise more. So suffice it to say that only in the past few weeks have I been able to get back on the treadmill or walk five days a week. I have really enjoyed getting back to the Y and going to the arthritic pool class.
Another challenge was the sudden death of my sister, Sharon Henneman, in late February. Along with my sister, June, my sisters have known me the longest and best. Nothing prepares you for an unexpected loss like that.
Then there were the distractions — albeit great, fun and welcomed activities — sorting through more than 5,000 photos that I took while in Cuba to choose 45 to 50 photos for each of two exhibits. “Hola, Cuba!” at the Kaddatz Galleries in Fergus Falls, Minn., had a good run and closed May 16. “Our Cuban Family” at The Westminster Gallery downtown Minneapolis at Westminster Presbyterian Church (WPC) runs through June 18.
Another project I completed Monday is my 17th self-published photo book titled “Our Cuban Family” after the WPC photo exhibit.
My next two projects, which I’ll start in a few days, are creating a small photo book of my MB® journey and working with my daughter, Andrea La Valleur-Purvis, who is visiting from Barcelona, Spain. She’s a graphic and web designer. I’m excited that she will be creating a photo website for me.
What I’ve learned in the past 500 days on the MB® plan, above all, is to “take one day at a time.”
Being a competitive person, I like to set goals that stretch me. My initial goal was to lose 88 pounds — similar to Sharon’s weight loss — in 12 months. I want to be at the same weight I was when I left for Europe 22 years ago. That is still my goal. But I set an unrealistic time-frame. I thought I’d reach it in the space of a year. That didn’t happen.
It is not easy losing weight when you’re 71 and obese. Dang it! At least now, I’m in the “overweight” category and no longer obese. And I’ve rescheduled my goal date to Dec. 31, 2017 — just in time to pop the cork of a bottle of Korbel sparkly and ring in the New Year!
For sure, the biggest challenge has been to limit my favorite wine intake — Chardonnay — to once a week vs. the previous 40 years of enjoying more than one glass of wine in the evening.
Considering my dear husband continues his nightly Merlot imbibing, I’m doing quite well! It’s my body, and I’m the only one who can make it happen. Trust me, if I can do it, anyone can.
Results: Down 60 pounds in 500 days on Metabolic Balance® with 28 to go.
Tip: Take one day at a time!
Lunch at a friends. She fixed an albacore tuna salad on a bead of mixed greens and a glass of water, totally on plan! A few sesame sticks add crunch.
My traditional breakfast: full-fat plain Greek yogurt sprinkled with cinnamon, a honeycrisp apple, ½ piece of 100 percent sourdough rye bread, coffee, water and morning pills.
Supper: Two grilled venison patties looking rather dark but quite tasty along with a fresh mixed green salad with flail and balsamic vinegar with water.
As I’ve written here before, I think my collaboration with therapist Patrick O’Malley on his new book is as important as any work I’ve done in a 40-year career. It is our belief and fervent hope that the book, “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss,” will bring comfort to untold numbers of bereaved people, those whose pain is too often compounded by unreasonable expectations of society and — often unwitting — insensitivity. Patrick learned of this through his own tragic experience.
Here is the introduction to “Getting Grief Right.”
WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?
When Mary first sat down in my office, six months after losing her daughter to sudden infant death syndrome, she had already hired and fired two other therapists. The bereaved mother was clearly trying to get her grief right.
A successful businesswoman in her 30s, she was unaccustomed to the weight of sorrow; she was an “up” person who could cheerfully handle almost anything that came her way. Mary was proud of that persona and worked hard to maintain it, even in the face of such a wrenching tragedy. Within a few days of her daughter’s death, Mary was back at work, seeming to function largely as before. She was gracious when co-workers offered condolences but quickly insisted on turning conversations back to the task at hand. She said she was “doing fine.” Indeed, she seemed to have “moved on,” so convincing was the mask that she put on for the world each day.
The truth was another matter, as became increasingly undeniable to her and those around her. The effort to maintain the positive veneer sapped more and more of her energy. She started making uncharacteristic mistakes at work and found herself being short and overly critical with her employees.
“I really need to get back to my old self,” she told me the day in the late 1990s when we met. “You would think I would be at least a little closer to that by now. I’m totally exhausted. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. I hope you can help me.”
Mary was by then fully acquainted with the five stages of grief — that famous gospel of mourning based on psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.” Like the typical grieving person (then and now), Mary expected that the pain of loss would proceed through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. The gospel also implied that an emotionally healthy person should grieve only so deeply and for only so long. For Mary, six months seemed like a reasonable amount of time.
But what if a person’s mourning doesn’t conform? When her sorrow lingered beyond the accepted norms, Mary felt that she had broken the rules somehow. That was why she and so many other clients had sought me out as a therapist — not only because of their heartbreak, but also because they felt they could not get their grief right.
In our first visit, Mary insisted that she was “stuck” in depression, which, in her mind, was keeping her from achieving acceptance and closure. Her questions were straight out of the Kübler-Ross theory: “Am I in denial? Am I angry enough?” A few years earlier, I would have wondered those things myself and reviewed the stages, as Mary clearly had, looking for the stage where her “grief work” remained incomplete. I also would have zeroed in on her suspected depression. Was there a family history? Had she been depressed before? Were the antidepressants helping? Did she suffer from a chronic mental illness, or was her depression temporary and situational?
But by the time we met, I had begun to approach grief in a much different way. I was a grieving person myself, and understood too well what Mary was going through. In the previous decade, I had traveled a dark road similar to hers: I had mourned the tragic loss of my own baby son. I had been a young therapist who had tried desperately to get my grief “right.” I had felt stuck in my mourning and had asked myself many of the same questions that Mary asked herself. I could relate to the confusion and the nagging sense of inadequacy when my suffering did not conform to the orthodoxy. I knew the exhaustion of pretending. I knew the loneliness and isolation when the support of others began to fade while my pain did not.
It was in the course of that excruciating journey, and thanks largely to the unique privilege of spending thousands of hours with bereaved clients like Mary, that I came upon a new understanding of grief and grievers and learned the life-changing lessons that are the heart of this book.
I began to understand why grief defied categorization, and I saw the fallacy of thinking that grief occurs in a predictable, linear way, one stage after another, until resolution is achieved. I was steadily drawn to another way of understanding and even embracing the experience of mourning — through the narrative of grief. It might sound simplistic, but I discovered that our stories were indeed the pathway to living with loss.
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,” author Isak Dinesen once said. This book is an invitation for you to do just that. In the pages to come, I will help you both create and more deeply explore your story of grief. To help guide and inspire you, I will share my story and the stories I’ve heard from clients over the years. In fact, as you read, try imagining yourself in Mary’s place, sitting across from me in my office.
In that safe and nonjudgmental space, you will be free not only to tell the story of the one you lost but also to feel whatever previously stifled emotions might arise. You will unearth memories and feelings that you might not have come across otherwise. You will stop analyzing your grief and begin to honor your story of loss and to live it.
Indeed, I want to make clear at the outset that this book offers no promise that grief will end. I understand as well as anyone why we would wish that to be true. Mourning is painful. But it’s unreasonable to think that parents who have lost a child or a person who has lost a loved one to suicide or a spouse who has lost a partner of fifty years won’t grieve, to one extent or another, for the rest of their lives.
The writer Anne Lamott said it beautifully: “If you haven’t already, you will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and you never completely get over the loss of a deeply beloved person. But this is also good news. The person lives forever, in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through, and you learn to dance with the banged-up heart.”
This book and your own narrative of grief will help you learn to dance — that is, to move beyond the cruel but pervasive misconceptions into a larger truth. In the process of remembering, embracing, and sharing your own story, you will be liberated from the expectations of society and your own self-diagnosis and self-criticism about whether you are grieving correctly.
This book will not help you “get over” your grief, but it will help you experience your sorrow in its purest form. Your narrative of grief will help you more deeply understand your relationship to the one you lost and will, in turn, help you understand the pain you feel now. Your narrative of grief might actually allow you to deepen your connection to the deceased.
This courageous exercise of feeling and remembering will help you become a more authentic, wise, and compassionate human being who will be better able to support others who mourn. “Getting Grief Right” is written not only for those who grieve but also for those who seek to better support bereaved people in their lives but who do not yet have the knowledge to do so. To that end, I offer specific guidance that will allow you to go beyond the painful awkwardness and empty clichés and to be with a grieving person in ways that truly make a difference.
Few things could be more important than learning how to live with our sorrow and to support others who are bereaved. One thing is certain: Grief is inevitable and inescapable. If we love, we will also grieve.
Preorder Getting “Grief Right” from Amazon here, and save more than $6 on the paperback.