A Tough Year

This has been a tough year. At different times I have heard myself saying, “This has been the toughest year of my life.” And yet . . .

And yet here I am. Today I went for a hike and lost myself in the autumn colors and knew that life is good. Yes, it can be tough at times, but even when it is difficult, it is good.

It started out with all of us still in the throes of the pandemic. But like many others, that led to awakenings and reawakenings as I was able to spend more time with my partner in love and with myself. We shouldn’t need a pandemic for that, but it served its purpose.

In April I went to the hospital with severe abdominal pains and ended up staying for 34 days after they discovered I had colon cancer and the operation to remove part of my colon ended up with multiple complications. Still, I went for a hike today. I am a survivor and I am getting stronger every day.

Shortly after my hospitalization one of our pet birds died and shortly after getting released one of our pet cats passed away. Still, they lived good long lives under our care and we still have another bird and another cat, two dogs, and a gecko that we love, and we’re pretty sure they love us.

My car broke down just after I was able to start driving again, but I was able to get a loan from the credit union to get it repaired and can still drive where I need or want to go.

As part of the cancer operation I had an ileostomy put in and it has been in my body now for more than six months. But in just over two weeks I am scheduled for a reversal. There are many people who live with ostomies for their whole lives, but I am fortunate that mine gets to be reversed.

It has been a tough year, but it has also been a good year. I had poems accepted for publication, released two books, and am working on four more and a play. I was moved to a different position in my company, but was able to keep my job and slowly work my way back to full-time and just got a good review and a raise. I got in touch with myself and others in new ways and have had good quality time with those I love. I am still able to hike and connect with nature, which always centers me and brings me joy. Life is tough and good and I am happy to be alive.

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Talking about Talking Spirits

I stumbled across this presentation recently and wanted to share it. Quite a few years back, I was the writer/director of a living history cemetery tour called Talking Spirits. It was an annual event sponsored by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. I wrote and directed the first six years of the project, which in 1999 won an Award of Merit from the Wisconsin Historical Society and in 2003 won an award from the American Association of State and Local History. About five years into the project I was invited by the Wisconsin State Genealogical Society to speak to their organization and delivered this speech, which says as much about my theatrical and writing philosophy as it does about genealogy.

Good evening. Thank you for inviting me to speak to your group tonight. I’m an amateur genealogist myself and I have been looking forward to this for weeks. I’m here to talk about a special project called Talking Spirits. Some of you may already be familiar with it. Perhaps you’ve come to see it over the last several years. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it I would like to take a little time to talk about what the project is and then also talk some about how it developed, how it is put together, and its function.

While to me it is considerably more, Talking Spirits is, in its most elemental definition, an annual guided tour of Forest Hills Cemetery here in Madison, sponsored by the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum. Being genealogists I’m sure that there are many, many of you who have spent time wandering around cemeteries. As I mentioned, I’m an amateur genealogist myself and I have gone to a large number of cemeteries in search of the tombstones of ancestors. To those who don’t understand the need to do that kind of research or the appeal of old, historical burial places, people like you and I may seem just a little bit unsteady, a little off-balance. It doesn’t seem normal to most people to spend time in places like that. We live in a society that likes to think about death as little as possible. But if they only gave it a chance they would find that cemeteries are repositories not only of bones but of history and searches through them can reveal invaluable information for the historian, the genealogist, sociologists, and others. For those who have never taken a cemetery tour they are a little more formal than just walking around looking for relatives’ markers. On most cemetery tours a guide walks the participants through and talks a bit about the art and history of that cemetery and might also touch upon some of the people buried there.

Talking Spirits is different than most. It does more than most, and in a different way. On this cemetery tour the docents do a very thorough job of leading the walk. Before the tour they go through intensive training that covers topics both large and small. On the tour they talk about the cemetery history, some of the famous and infamous people buried there, the symbolism and the art of the tombstones, the social history, and that is all then combined with live portrayals of some of the more interesting persons buried there. The first Talking Spirits tour was just over four years ago in the fall of 1999 and we have done it five times now. Our tour combines the study of history with the entertainment and philosophy of theater, thus making it unique in programs of its kind.

Let me tell you how it started and developed into what it has become.

Several years ago, Bridgit Zielke, the Curator of Programs at the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum at the time, decided it would be a good idea for the museum to sponsor a cemetery tour in Madison. She had visited cemetery tours in other locations and had always learned a great deal from them and found them to be very interesting and enjoyable. The tours she had participated in had tour guides that led people through the cemeteries while they talked primarily about the tombstones and cemetery art. They would occasionally briefly discuss some of the individuals buried there, but the focus was on the art. They touched just a little bit on the history.

It occurred to Bridgit that such a tour might be more successful if it focused on both the art and history and if it not only mentioned the individuals buried there but showed them, actually brought them to life for the groups going through. She thought that the history was as important as the art and should be equally emphasized. Her feeling was that it would not only be educational, but much more fun and interesting to have actors portray some of the people by whose tombstones the tour groups passed. I believe the museum had successfully produced some other living history events, so it was a natural idea for them to pursue.

At about that time she and I first met. I was at the time directing a play called Bent at Madison’s Esquire Theater, for Mercury Players. The play was about the treatment of gays in German prison camps during the Holocaust and the producer and I had gone to the Veterans’ Museum for information about an upcoming exhibit on the Holocaust. It turned out that the exhibit was still a year away. We apparently had heard some very good pre-publicity. Disappointed that we would not be able to tie the play in with the exhibit we still chatted for a little bit with Bridgit. While she had a couple theater people there she thought she would ask if either of us happened to know anyone who was not only in theater but wrote plays. Not being very familiar with local theater I believe it was to her a shot in the dark, but Madison has a thriving playwrighting scene for its size. It may not be New York, but there are dozens of playwrights here. I have personally known five Madison playwrights who have had plays produced either on Broadway or in off-Broadway theaters. But that day Bridgit was just trying to see if there might be anyone who could help her with this kind of project. She explained the idea of creating a living history cemetery tour, where the audience would walk through the cemetery and get to see and hear actors portray the people buried there.

I was immediately excited. I was at the time just starting to think about pursuing a free-lance theatrical career a little harder than I had up to that point. I pulled out a batch of freshly printed business cards (that I had only printed the night before, I swear to God) and handed one to her. The card noted that I am a free-lance writer. I explained to her that I had acted in about 50 plays, that I had seven full-length and one one-act produced plays to my credit with another scheduled for later in the year, additional directing credits, and that I was a published poet and essayist. And just as important, and probably moreso, I was a fanatic about Wisconsin and its history. I told her that I couldn’t imagine how interesting it would be to combine two of my great loves, history and theater, in one project and that if she were serious to please give me a call to set up a meeting. I assured her that she couldn’t find anyone else with the same amount of passion and credentials to do the project she had in mind.

That was in the early part of 1999. Several months passed with no word and then one day I got a call from Bridgit asking if I could come to the museum to meet about the cemetery tour project. I believe she was comfortable with me from the beginning and I can say that I was comfortable with both her and the museum. We took a little time to negotiate, but came to a quick agreement that was satisfactory to everyone and set the dates for the first-ever Forest Hills Cemetery Tour. At the time it didn’t have a name. Bridgit came up with title, Talking Spirits. She stayed with the project for the next few years, with assistance from a wonderful staff of professionals. She now lives in eastern Wisconsin, but still came back this year to see the tour, which is now under the very capable hands of Katherine Leedle, who heads the museum’s program development and is also a researcher.

Forest Hills was chosen for the tour because it is Madison’s oldest cemetery. As the oldest cemetery it would cover the gamut of tombstone art in the upper Midwest. The cemetery was started during the period when cemeteries were built like parks and citizens would go to them for picnics and strolls, so the setting was beautiful as well. Finally, as the main cemetery in Wisconsin’s capital city, there were countless individuals to be found whose lives had impacted not only the state but the nation, and sometimes the world. Among the evergreens and twisting roads of Forest Hills lie several Wisconsin governors, Congressmen, scientists, soldiers, and other citizens whose lives could easily be used for living history portrayals.

I have to admit I initially thought that sponsorship by the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum would limit our choices of material somewhat, as there had to be some kind of tie-in with at least one of the wars that called soldiers away from Wisconsin soil. The reality, however, was that at least one war had crossed the lives of almost every citizen who had ever called Wisconsin home. Except for the few whose lives were cut short in their youth most citizens buried at Forest Hill lived through at least one war in their time. There is even at least one Revolutionary War soldier buried there, though the museum’s charter precludes us from doing anything with any of the wars that occurred before Wisconsin became a state in 1848. We knew that if those buried there were too young to be a part of the Civil War they were old enough for the Spanish-American War. If they were too young for that, then there was World War I, World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, not to mention the more recent campaigns in Iraq, Kosovo, Grenada, and others.

The project started with the Civil War, the earliest one we could cover. It was far enough distant that there was a built-in historical perspective and there were many personalities from which to choose. From the beginning I have had little or nothing to do with the choices of whom to portray. The museum decides which war era we are going to focus on and a committee meets to select appropriate characters. They do their best to balance everything as well as they possibly can. They have to be careful of logistics so that we don’t have two actors portraying different scenes within earshot of each other, while leaving room for the other aspects of the tour between characters. Aside from that they try to represent a cross-section of the population as much as they can.

 There are problems with accomplishing that goal, though. Historically women were not allowed to be enlisted soldiers until World War II and even now are not supposed to be in battle, though we know that they are dying with their brother soldiers in Iraq. Also, historical records about women were never kept in as much detail as they were for the men. Oftentimes, as genealogists can attest, it can be difficult to even prove that a woman existed, even when you know the name and birth date. As a result there are less women with written records available from the older wars. They were not as involved in the war as the men and the records were simply not as good. I believe the Veterans’ Museum has done an admirable job of inclusion with the limitations there are.

The same problem is encountered with African Americans as with women. Where they were a part of history it wasn’t recorded as faithfully as the history of the white ruling class, so it is difficult to find characters about whom there is enough information to do a portrayal. This year we had two African American characters, as part of our look at the World War II era. My biggest disappointment in the first five years of the event was during the first year when we had an impossible time finding an African American actor to portray one of the characters. The character was young and black and there are young, black actors in Madison. But every time we thought we had someone to play the part something happened to cause them to back out. This happened repeatedly all the way up to the dress rehearsal when our last and final choice backed out two days before the performance and could not be replaced at that late date. Fortunately, in that first year we also portrayed the Jeffersons, descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemming, two brothers who were portrayed in that first tour. It took an additional four years before we had another African American portrayal. We have yet to have a Japanese-American, or other Asian, Hispanic, Arab American, or any other person of color represented.

Once the characters to be portrayed are selected the research begins. I have to admit that I don’t have much to do with that either, though I love doing historical research. I have put together a 100-page booklet on my great-great-grandfather and his brother by doing research on my own. It’s something I love to do, but the museum wanted me to focus on the writing and directing from the beginning. This doesn’t mean that the museum does all of it, but they do handle most of it. One of the actors who has been in a number of the tours is also an employee at the State Historical Society and will often find additional information for me if I am stuck or need something further before I can decide a direction to go. I also do a fair amount of my own research when necessary. Every year I do at least some additional research on my own.

For the most part, though, the Museum has an intern whose job it is to do such work at what I’m guessing is a relatively inexpensive wage. As they proceed with that work I am presented with packets of material on the characters. In some cases, it is several large bundles for one person and in other cases it is a few scraps in a small manila envelope. For some people there is a seemingly limitless amount of material available and for others we have been lucky to have much more than an obituary. My job is to take whatever information I am given, along with any additional information that I dig up on my own or with my friend, Scott’s, help, and to sift through that and create a monologue that is believable and captures the essence of the person behind the words. In some cases we have portrayed two people at once—a father and son, husbands and wives, brothers—but the bulk of the pieces has been monologues.

I have to admit I start every year with a prayer. Now, I’m not a very religious person, at least in the traditional sense of the word, though I do have a very spiritual side. But I do believe that what talent I may have is a gift and I do believe that I am not alone when I am creating, so I offer up a prayer to God or the muses or just the general energy of the universe before I ever start writing. I ask for guidance and that I am true to the people about whom I have been entrusted to write. To me it is a sacred duty. I offer the same prayer when I write fictional theater, but the answer is far more important when you are portraying actual people who lived and breathed on this earth.

To achieve an honest portrayal I have to take the known facts and extrapolate from them what kind of person is being portrayed. Facts by themselves cannot create a fully fleshed out character. Only a statistician could look at a list of dates, numbers and other dry facts and find an interesting person there. It helps to have letters, speeches, notes, and other documents that include words that the real person spoke or wrote. This year, because we focused on the World War II era, we had old audio tapes of some of the persons being portrayed.

In some cases it is not possible to have many words from the actual persons, so as a writer you have to understand who the person is without that assistance and create words that you believe would be the kinds of things that person would speak. For example if a person were a railroad conductor and had a collection of model trains and belonged to numerous rail societies you might have them say at one point, “I love trains,” even though there is no historical evidence of them ever uttering those words. The likelihood is that the characters’ sons and daughters would recognize the line as something true to their father. There are certain things that can be assumed, certain presumptions that can be made about a person from surrounding historical data.

Sometimes there are documents that include the person’s own words, but not enough from which to create a full piece. In those cases I have to combine my words with their words to create a monologue that moves from point A to point B seamlessly, as if all the words belonged together and belonged to the character. To do this one must study the way the person spoke or wrote, the things that were important to them, what other people said about them, and more, in order to find what works. If successful the audience should not be able to tell where the historical person’s words leave off and the author’s begin.

In yet other cases there are almost too many words from the historical person and you have to sift through to find which ones have the most meaning and can be used. This year we had an extreme case in which I was able to create an entire monologue, for the first time ever, by only using words from the character’s real life. That was for Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky, a well-respected Madisonian who arrived here after leaving war-ridden Germany and stayed the rest of his life. That is the piece we decided to present to you tonight. Here now is Al Hart reading that monologue.

 “When I think of the Berlin I knew, the city to which I came in 1925 as a student and the city in which I served as a Rabbi of the Jewish community until 1939, a host of associations is conjured up in my mind: places which became part of the spiritual geography of my being, events which decisively determined the course of my life, and people whose presence became inextricably woven into the fabric of my existence.

“No one, not even the greatest pessimist or prophet of doom, could have predicted that in the middle of the first half of the 20th century, the lights would go out over Europe, and darkness would fall over an entire continent on a bright noonday. German Jews, with few exceptions, felt it impossible to believe that the dark clouds of Fascism had gathered on the horizon of their native land, the land in which they felt as thoroughly at home as American Jews do in America. I, too, believed that the Nazi nightmare would pass like a bad dream. It did not.

“By 1938 German Jews had already lived under Hitler for six years. A government-sponsored boycott of Jewish businesses had already happened in 1933, with stormtroopers blocking the entrance to stores marked with the inscription “Jude.” These were the days when Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, said: “Treat the Jews like a rose, don’t harm them; just don’t water them.” Already there were the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which practically cancelled the civic emancipation of Jews, abolishing their citizenship and forbidding all cultural and social contact between Jews and non-Jews.

“It took the events of the first two November weeks of 1938 to convince even the most hopeful that all hope was lost. On Crystal Night, it all ended. Hitler told his henchman Goebbels to “let the Gestapo have a fling.” The Gestapo burned all the synagogues in Germany, about 500 of them. The burning of the Synagogues was just one more step in the gradual enactment of the plan for the “Final Solution.”

“I recall very vividly, at about 2:00 a.m. I was awakened by the ring of the telephone. I heard the voice of the custodian of my synagogue shouting: “Rabbi, our Temple is on fire.” When I arrived at the synagogue, I saw its inside an ocean of flames reaching up to the balcony and way into the high cupola. Firemen were pouring water on surrounding buildings to protect them from the fire and the heat. Police were standing idly by. Nazi stormtroopers were jeering and shouting anti-Jewish slogans. This 3,200-seat synagogue, dedicated in 1929, was the last Jewish House of Worship ever built on German soil.

“Standing in front of the burning Temple, which had been filled to capacity Shabbat after Shabbat and only a few weeks earlier, on Simchat Torah had resounded with the gaiety of children, it suddenly occurred to me that this Synagogue might not be the only one set on fire.

“Following the Crystal Night and the burning of the Synagogues, rumors circulated that now a mass arrest of Jewish men would take place. Members of the Gestapo came to my apartment and arrested me without any warrant, without giving any reason, simply because I was a Rabbi. I was arrested—they called it protective custody—and imprisoned in a concentration camp. The camp was near Berlin.There were some 14,000 prisoners in the camp. The majority were not Jews, but they were Christian—Germans. There were gypsies, there were Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were a few Catholic priests—a medley of all kinds. It was a concentration camp, not a gas chamber. Otherwise, I would not be here.

“You never can sleep. You are in little huts—muddy and snowy. Nothing to eat except some sort of lukewarm water soup and soft potato bread in the morning. They dressed you in pajamas. At 4:30 a.m. up. At 5:15 everybody on the big exercise field, standing at attention for an hour. Then they march you out and you have to work. We had to build munitions plants. Most of these guys were not even used to heavy labor. I was more used to it.

“Two people had to lift big stones. These young fellows with the gun—they kicked you and beat you for fun. If you dropped the stone, they beat you some more. This went on until 8 o’clock in the evening, with 10 minutes for lunch. Naturally the people died like flies.

“Twice I was called before the commander-in-chief there. You go to the office. You face the wall. He converses with you in sharp tones. The guy said to me that he would discharge me if I signed a number of statements. I didn’t know what the statements were. What I’m saying now sounds very heroic. I’m not a born hero. I said no. Why did I say no? I simply felt I had to say no because of the others. Had I accepted this offer, it would have definitely lowered the morale of the people.

“The guy kicked me out. Out I was. This went on. It got worse and worse during the winter. The cold—and I caught pneumonia. But the worst was my bleeding. My feet absolutely had no skin on. Then it happened a second time that I was called. I could be dismissed if I left the country immediately. I had no place to go. I had no relatives anywhere in the world. They all lived in Germany. So I thought to myself, “Boy, this is the last chance for breakfast.” I said yes. The guy gave me a lecture and said wherever you go, the hand of the Gestapo is strong enough to catch you and bring you back. And I believed it in those days. These were good olden days, you understand. This was 1939-40. The wholesale extermination and deportation started in ’42.

“Why did he attack Judaism? He once said, “The Jews are the ones who invented conscience.” I think that’s the only true thing he ever said. What Hitler did, if it was a shock to anyone, it was to me, for the simple reason that the German Jew was so thoroughly integrated into the life of Germany in every respect—culturally, socially, economically, politically, in every respect—that the German Jew naturally could not understand what actually was going on. My father was born in the same house where I was born. My grandfather was born in the same little house and my great-grandfather. For a long time I was absolutely full of hope. I was absolutely of the opinion that National Socialism in Germany would just be a passing phase. People used to say, “Well, give them another week,” “Give them another month,” “Give them another year.” And of course his reign was not established for a thousand years as he had hoped. It was short-lived indeed, but it was not short enough to actually preserve the lives of so many millions of people and indeed it was a shock.

 “It is unbelievable; it is incomprehensible. The human mind cannot comprehend, the human heart cannot feel, and human speech cannot express what is beyond the power of comprehension, feeling, and expression. We can agonize about the death of a single child. The death of one million children is an abstraction. Nothing in life becomes real until it becomes person

“Shall we forget and forgive? Forgetting is not a matter of will. Can I forgive? I wish I could. I believe in man’s capacity and moral responsibility to forgive. However, I can forgive only wrong done to me personally. I have no right to forgive what was done to others. But I can stretch out my hand and grasp the hand stretched out to me in reconciliation. I do believe in reconciliation in this as in other situations. Hatred should not be perpetuated. I do not want to have my children or future generations live by hatred. Hatred is no seed bed from which redemption grows.

“Truthfully, without getting melodramatic, I lived and worked for six years under Hitler. I was in a concentration camp, but I got out, fortunately. So the years in this country have been a very special bonus. I could have belonged to the six million just as well. I, too, could have been born one of the millions turned into ashes or made into soap. Because life was given to me for a second time, I have to make up for it. What the world needs is bridges, not walls.

“In God’s house are many mansions occupied by the most diverse people—all His children. It is a tragedy beyond words that we cannot live together in peace in the global village which is the earth. As long as the earth remains we shall always search for truth, yearn for justice and work for that better world in which man will live in harmony and peace with his brother man. To a Jew despairing is blasphemy. If we despaired, if we gave up hope, we would be guilty of collaborating with the enemy. Jews have never surrendered to hopelessness and permitted their lives to be poisoned by hatred. On the contrary, the alchemy of the Jewish spirit has always transmuted death into life, despair into hope. For this is the meaning of being Jewish—never to give up, never to yield to despair. It is our destiny to forever bear witness that man is not the enemy of man, but his friend and brother.

 “It has always been a source of comfort to me that, in spite of all experiences to the contrary, there is more goodness than evil in the world. That faith, hope, and love must never be allowed to die in the human heart—in spite of everything—is the legacy of the dead to the living. It is the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust.

Now that you have heard that speech I will tell you that the monologue you just heard is a lie. And I mean that in the best sense. The rabbi never gave that speech even though those were all his own words. However, I believe that monologue is true to the character even if it is not entirely true to history.

In order to understand what I mean by that, what we do with the tour, and what I as the author and director do in particular, it is necessary to examine the nature of theater in relation to a project like this. Let me start by saying this. In the academic world of history a fact is only accepted as fact as long as there is evidence to support it and no other evidence comes along to contradict it. I’m sure that makes sense. The same is true in science. A theory is generally accepted as true as long as there is nothing newer that disproves it. It is the same in all the various scientific areas of study. Art, on the other hand, deals with philosophy and emotion. Theater, especially, along with fiction, doesn’t even pretend to be fact. It only pretends. Theater is, by its very nature, illusion. It is a lie. It is an elaborate façade constructed to convince the audience that it is watching something real, and it generally creates this lie as part of a search for something far more real than simple fact, and that is philosophical or emotional truth. I mention this because I believe that to understand Talking Spirits one has to understand that it is as much theater as it is history, perhaps moreso. I was hired as a playwright, not as an historian, and I believe that was a choice that helped make this project work as well as it does.

This is not meant to say that Talking Spirits does a disservice to history, that it lies about facts. It does not. It never has and I can guarantee it never will. As I have mentioned it is carefully researched and painstakingly put together to be as true to history as it can possibly be. But it must be recognized that at its best, when it is its best, the event is theatrical in nature and is therefore not fully factual even when it strikes the essence of truth.

Let me break down some of the lies in the piece you just heard. The first one is so obvious that it may be missed by most everyone. The person you just heard is an actor, not Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky. It’s obvious, but the rabbi is deceased and we are portraying him as if he were still amongst the living. The actor portraying him is Gentile and not Jewish, American and not German, considerably younger than the age range we are suggesting, and has never survived a concentration camp, among other things. The art of acting is to make people believe that you are the person you are portraying. I believe that Al does this exceptionally well and that audiences buy into the premise that he is who he says he is. You go along for the ride as it were. One of the conventions of theater is that the audience gives up some doubt, that they suspend disbelief for the duration of the play and accept that what they are seeing is real. Without this convention theater cannot work.

The second major lie in the piece is that it seems that the rabbi has given a speech and you accept that they are his words. As I mentioned this is the only character in the history of Talking Spirits who had enough words in the research that I was able to use only his own words in creating the piece. But those words are culled from a variety of sources. In some cases part of a sentence might be a quote from a newspaper article and another part of the same sentence part of a speech that he gave in real life. The lie is in taking those words out of context and rearranging them to say something that combines the two. It is in editing the words to create a natural-sounding flow.

So as a writer and director I have lied to you. But have I been dishonest? I don’t think so. The reason I don’t think so is that I feel that I was true to the essence of the character, I was true to his spiritual core. The words are not edited and arranged to make the character say something he would not say. They are arranged to come closer to something that he would say if he were able to be here today. It is impossible for the portrayal to be completely honest and to be complete in its history. If we were to take every word that the rabbi had uttered and written and put them into a monologue in the order and the context in which they were spoken or written, you would have to give us days of your time to hear them all and they would still have to be uttered by someone other than the person who made them up. And it would no longer be theater. It would be a recitation, and likely a boring one at that.

Part of the act of writing a play, a significant part of the act of writing a play, is editing. A writer has to edit material in order to give it a rhythm and flow or the audience will be either lost or bored or both. The important thing is to be true to the source without having to strictly adhere to it.

You do not see biographies that try to include every fact ever known about the subject. The author has to distill the important moments into a cohesive form. They are not going to quote every letter the subject ever wrote. They are going to quote parts of letters that give the readers a better understanding. With our project I not only do not have the luxury of a book-length biography, I have to distill that person’s life into a five to ten minute piece that gets at the core of who they were and touches upon the important milestones of their existence. I can tell you that to condense all that information into a five-to-ten-minute piece is not an easy task. In fact, it can be incredibly difficult. What I must do is study all the available material and find the outstanding themes, the things that together can be woven into a cohesive through-line and make that character come alive and seem real without sounding like we’re trying to teach history and without using only sound bites. We also cannot change historical facts, though sometimes I must admit that we ignore them.

For example, I received some audio-taped interviews of one of the characters we portrayed this year. In listening to them I came across several homophobic references scattered throughout the interviews. My own political leanings would have had me include those lines to show how insipid that kind of bias can be and if I had been creating a fictional drama I may very well have done so. In other parts of the audio tapes the person talked about his politically left leanings in his youth. My own political leanings would have had me include those words to prove my own political point of view. But the important themes that had come through in all of the material I had studied had nothing to do with my own political leanings. The themes were about art and its meaning to the character. His homophobia, while it was irritating to me personally, was not a huge component of that person and did not warrant inclusion in the piece. His political leanings, while a larger part of who he was, also did not fit the themes that had come through. To force them into the piece would have been dishonest to the character and myself and would have rang hollow.

With that said I must admit that when a character’s theme does fit my political philosophies, such as William Evjue’s anti-war rhetoric in last year’s tour, I find it more of a joy to write the piece. I am able to connect better with the character. Either way, though, the author (as well as the actor) has to be morally neutral about any character. One of the biggest dangers in acting and writing is to impose one’s own moral, political, or social standards upon one’s characters. This is especially dangerous when writing about real persons. You simply cannot do it. One of the other characters this past year was to me somewhat blindly patriotic and jingoistic, but I realized I could not fault him for being who he was and I had to find why he was that way. Everyone has their justifications for who they are, whether you agree with them or not. I simply had to let that character be and let the audience judge for themselves what his life and his opinions might mean to them. I find that oftentimes characters who have a different point of view from me teach me in ways that I would never be taught otherwise. They teach me tolerance and understanding, so while they are more difficult to write, they are ultimately more rewarding to me as a person.

This past year I got evidence that I achieve this neutrality with my characters when two of the monologues were attacked by audience members from opposite ends of the political spectrum. One, the patriot I mentioned above, infuriated a political leftie when he recited the Pledge of Allegiance and asked the audience to recite it with him. Another was attacked by a religious conservative for promoting an alternative lifestyle, even though the character simply talked briefly about her special woman friend and never actually said anything remotely political. These two people made me realize that I was successfully letting the characters speak for themselves.

As a writer and artist I believe I do have a philosophical point of view that comes across in the tours, but never at the expense of the characters’ own truths. What usually happens is that I find the humanity in the characters, the universal things that cause us to recognize that something is true. It is this truth that has always been my primary goal as a writer. One year I had a woman tell me that she was shocked to discover that the tour was written by a man because the anguish of the Blue Star mother being portrayed was so real. Another year I had someone tell me that they were surprised I was not a veteran because the words that one of the soldier characters uttered were so true to his own experiences. Another year a son of one of the characters told the actor that he reminded the man of his own father, because the words were just the kinds of things his father would say. These things tell me that my prayers to the universe about being true to the characters have been answered over the years.

I believe that I have been blessed by this project. I believe that I have been blessed not so much with talent as a writer but with an understanding of the commonalities of our human existence, an understanding that comes from experience of the suffering that can come in life, an understanding and acceptance of the inevitability of death, and an understanding of the joy of life, the little things that make it special despite its difficulties. I believe that I am that mother, that soldier, and that father, as well as all the others, even though I have been none of those, because there are experiences and universal themes that we share as human beings, not as white men or black women, or soldiers or civilians, but as humans. It is these universal feelings and emotions that I look for when I look at the research that is handed over to me and that I try to keep in mind when I set my pen to paper.

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Whispering willow

Wind whips through the whispering willow

overlooking the crying, drying, dying

stream. She bows down in prayer,

gently sweeping over the banks,

giving thanks for her years of life

and the water that sustained her.

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The Zen of Ostomy

I believe, among other things, that this is a lesson in humility.

When the doctor first mentioned the possibility of an ostomy as part of an upcoming procedure my first reaction was one of embarrassment and shame. It sounded gross. What if it smelled? What would other people say? Why couldn’t it be anything else? The final decision has yet been made on whether an ostomy will even be necessary, or if it will be temporary or permanent, and yet my ego immediately projected all sorts of horrors even on the possibility. So, I had to question my reaction.

And then, gradually, it occurred to me that it could be something else and my thoughts drifted to this: “Where is my gratitude?”

“Why am I not thankful that with amazing medical procedures the doctors are saving my colon and possibly my life by doing this? Why am I not amazed that they can repair a badly damaged part of my body and bypass its usual functioning so that I can continue to live and breathe in this world?” I should be thankful if this allows me to continue this incredible journey. The first lesson was in gratitude. I am thankful.

If a colostomy bag becomes necessary, then I need to wear it like a badge, a reminder that certain things like human waste and death itself are equalizers. It doesn’t matter how many possessions or what positions of power one has in a world where those things are distributed unequally and unfairly. Like the children’s book reminds us, “everyone poops.” Everyone poops. Everyone dies. Everyone has the opportunity for growth in the best and worst of circumstances. Instead of choosing to wallow in self-pity or shame, it is a far better path to choose growth and understanding.

I am humbled by the potential daily reminder that we humans are a grimy, dirty species, both figuratively and literally, that so many things in our lives are waste–not only the food that we cannot process, but the opportunities we fail to take, the relationships we fail to develop out of fear or other strong emotions, the full potential we have in the short time we are here. If this reminds me to do better, then I will make every effort to do better. If the ostomy becomes necessary, then I will accept it and learn from it. If not, then I hope that I have still learned some lessons that I will not forget.

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On the Guilty Verdicts

The fact that a police officer murdering a man in broad daylight was found guilty tells us not that justice is served in this country, but that justice has been absent all along. The guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin is newsworthy and historic because it is an exception, not because it is an example of how well the American justice system works. The litany of African-Americans killed by police and others who have historically escaped justice is so long that no one could recount all of them.

Time and again the killer (s) have gone free. It is a reflection of the systemic racism built into the country that it is assumed when a cop kills a black person the cop will go free while the families and loved ones of the victim are left to wonder where the justice promised to all of us has gone and why it doesn’t apply to them. This also isn’t just about murder; it’s about all the ways that people of color are discriminated against in this country with a blind eye turned toward all of it by the white ruling class.

We have so much work to do. Derek Chauvin’s conviction does not negate the escape from justice of those who killed other loved ones like Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, Daunte Wright, Elijah McClain, and countless others we never hear about because charges are never brought when the killings are investigated by other heads of the same hydra and then are ruled as justified.

There is so much work to do. The Chauvin case cannot be the exception. It must be the rare example (so far) of a justice system that works and that ultimately leads to justice in all similar cases. It must lead to a society so deconstructed from systemic racism that the era of similar cases is ended once and for all. Police and others must recognize that they can no longer get away with murder and that the thin blue line of loyalty no longer extends to those who kill or who target any race or class of people.

This is a moment where we can not only look at reforming our justice system, but begin to overhaul an entire society where structural racism has kept us from living up to our promise.as a nation. We have not ended police killings of vulnerable citizens, hate groups, or discrimination, but we now have the opportunity to begin to look inward and create long-needed reform in all areas of our society. This is day one. Every day going forward must be day one on the long journey to true and consistent justice for all.

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Thank God for the Insurance I Hate

Resting in a hospital bed in the middle of the night gives one a chance to ponder many things. Due to multiple heart conditions over the years, I have had time to do the standard processing that may come with unexpected illness and the threat of death–the questions like, “What am I doing with my life?” This time, I was presented with the possibility of colon cancer, which has fortunately been all but ruled out, having to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of my life, which is still one of the possibilities, or having to have a surgery that will take care of my issue and let me move on with my life. Whichever it turns out to be, I will be helped by an incredible staff and the amazing developments of modern medicine.

I came in to the emergency room on Friday night due to intense abdominal pain and am still here Monday night. It will be at least until Thursday before I get to go home again. And I can’t even imagine how much this would be costing me if I didn’t have insurance through my workplace. It will cost me some, but most of it will be taken care of for me. I keep thinking about how in earlier times they wouldn’t be able to do the miracle surgeries that keep us alive these days and how fortunate we are to live in a society with such advanced medicine.

But I also think of what a horrible system we have in the United States, where having health insurance can be the difference between life and death or the difference between a procedure that can make life easier or not having that procedure at all. Because, like everything else in this country, it comes down to money–who has it, who doesn’t, who has the cost covered in another way and who does not. Even with insurance through work this is going to cost me money that I can’t really afford to spend.

If I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have insurance, I may not have had the luxury of sitting in this hospital room with nurses, doctors, surgeons, cleaning people and others assisting me with my every need. Imagine being homeless in this country, or working three part-time jobs where you don’t qualify for insurance, and then imagine a sudden catastrophic health issue. Some hospitals might turn you away. Others might take you because they have to, but then you would not get the top-quality care that those with money and insurance qualify to receive, and you would owe the hospital for years. There are also those who have minimum coverage who actually end up paying far more out of their own pockets than those insurance plans can cover.

We need to completely redo the system. Insurance companies are gamblers who make money or lose money depending on how much they have to pay or how little they can get away with paying. They create plans that protect them from big losses while paying out as little as possible. They are not there to assist us with our bills. They are there, like everything else in this society, to make money for their shareholders.

The United States is really the only major industrialized country that does not provide universal health care as a basic right. As long as the insurance and medical lobby continues to buy politicians with campaign gifts they are protected from what the majority of Americans really want–public health care for all, without regard for financial standing. Health care should be a right. It is not right to determine who gets good health care and who does not based on how much money they do or do not have.

I will come out of this most recent medical experience a little poorer, but with my health intact. But if I lost my job and could not afford to replace my insurance, I would end up coming out of a similar situation poorer both financially and in health. This happens to people every day in this nation. It is not acceptable that any citizen in this country should face that.

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Emotional Distancing

Apparently I did not know how much fear, stress, and anxiety had built up within me over the last year, but apparently it was there all along. Not only was I socially distancing, but I was also emotionally distancing.

While happy to see people I know and care for getting vaccines over the last several weeks, I still found myself getting envious despite intellectually understanding the process the state has used to determine eligibility. Despite that comprehension of the reality of the situation, though, the emotional side of me didn’t understand why so many people came before me. I was jealous. After all, when we first heard about Covid, all the reporting talked about how older people and those with pre-existing conditions were at the greatest risk for getting Covid and from possibly dying from it. And here I was, in my sixties, a survivor with multiple heart conditions, and I had to wait. And wait. And wait. Despite my attempts to suppress it, the envy raised its ugly head, followed by Catholic guilt for thinking that way. There was even a bit of outright anger for those who seemed to be cheating the system by lying about their occupations to get through sooner. I did not want to jump the line, but I didn’t want to be pushed back by others who were doing just that.

Finally, though, the state announced that those with certain health conditions would qualify at the end of March. However, the list included so many conditions, including high body mass index (BMI), that two million more residents of Wisconsin would qualify all at once. That’s more than a third of the state’s population, all of whom would quality at the same time, and most of whom would be trying to schedule appointments at the same time. Within a week after that announcement, the qualifying date was moved up a week to Monday, March 22.

So many emotions. Next came frustration. On Monday, every provider I tried had nothing available. Every pharmacy and health care site I checked gave me the same answer–no vaccine appointments available at this time. On one pharmacy website I checked–the one that I had seen everyone say worked for them–I got the message “Appointments unavailable.” I checked back a littler later and the header said, “Appointments available,”, so I clicked the schedule button, answered their few questions about qualifying, pressed submit, only to come to a page that said, “No appointments available within 25 miles in the next five days.” This happened seven times throughout the day, not to mention the several dozen other times that I got the message up front that no appointments were available.

I submitted quite a few wait list applications that day and at the end of the day felt utterly defeated. I had been naive enough to think that once I qualified it would be a snap to get an appointment and get in and get the vaccine. I got advice from others on different things to try. I got the number for scheduling appointments for my own health care provider, but when I called, despite now being qualified, they said they were still working on group 1b and they were not scheduling those with health conditions yet until they finished with 1b and they could not say when that would be. I started to think it would be impossible to get the vaccine.

Today, after waiting almost twenty minutes on hold, I talked to a human being–Connie–who was nice and encouraging and was there to help me schedule an appointment. I felt love for her in that moment and I felt empathy for how difficult her job must be right now as I knew after waiting on hold like I did that she must be taking one call after another all day long, every day, without much of a break. But she said she was happy to be able to do it and help people like me. She found an appointment at their east side clinic on April 21 and when she told me I started crying. After a year of social distancing, fear of catching a potentially deadly disease, uncertainty about the future, and all of the other feelings that I may have been suppressing it all came out and tears welled up in my eyes. Relief. A great sense of relief and the lifting of many heavy thoughts and emotions came upon me and I could not hold it back any longer.

The appointment is almost a month from now, but knowing there is an appointment allowed a lot of the anxiety to wash away. I still have my name on a number of waiting lists and many friends have suggested other ways of getting earlier appointments, so if I can do that I will, but I can sense the end is in sight. There are millions of people yet who are not even close to being able to schedule an appointment and I feel for them because I know what it feels like to be in that uncertain state of waiting. We have all been there. We have all been through this ordeal together and it will bind us in some strange way for years to come. I look forward to the day when everyone who wants to and can be vaccinated has done it and we can see each other face to face, touch, and hug without fearing that we may get or give a dangerous virus to each other.

Despite the tangle of emotions of this past year I believe it has also been a valuable lesson for those who take lessons from the way the world moves. I think countless people have reevaluated what is real and what is important in this life and I believe that those of us who survive this pandemic will be better human beings and more loving because of it, despite the fear and anxiety that it may have caused. May we all love each other better as we move forward.

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Self-care

My body in the water;

miniature geysers erupting

as my body slides deeper,

enveloped in the warmth

that feels like a return to the womb.

Elemental heat,

light flickering,

swaying to the beat of my breath.

On the walls around me

suns and moons,

life’s eternal circles.

I pause, breathe deeply, and exhale,

joining the circle.

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Dear Ron

1/8/21

Dear Ron Johnson,

I read your pathetic excuse of a press release, the one in which you try to make yourself appear morally upstanding about reversing your position on accepting the results of the electoral college, and I must admit I was not impressed. Changing your vote at the last minute after the Capitol was stormed, while defending what you really wanted to do and say is hypocrisy (and a weak attempt at self-preservation) at its best. You have been an apologist for Donald Trump for four years. You stood up for him, defended him for his entire term, and supported him in his lies and false claims about election fraud. You don’t get to suddenly try to stand apart and try to act sorrowful about the attack on the Capitol when you are one of the ones responsible for it happening. You have blood on your hands and a stain on your soul.

I have some nitpicking to do about your press release.

You started it with this: “I refuse to dismiss the legitimate concerns of tens of millions of Americans who have lost faith in our institutions and the fairness of our electoral process.” I ask you–what about the tens of millions who have lost faith in the Republican party and who do have faith in our electoral system? You are so partisan you only see one side of the issue, and based on the responses (and lack of responses) Wisconsin citizens have gotten (or not) from you from phone calls and e-mails, it seems you are perfectly fine with dismissing the legitimate concerns of your constituents, the people you were elected to represent, while kowtowing to conspiracy theorists, QAnon adherents, and miscellaneous other far-right-wing fanatics. You don’t care about any of us unless we stand with you politically, though you were elected to represent all of Wisconsin.

I also take issue with your characterization of the F. B. I. as corrupt simply because they conducted a legitimate investigation into Russian election interference. If you were truly concerned about election integrity you would have backed this investigation.

Your comment about the “grossly biased media that has chosen sides and uses its power to interfere in our politics” is both laughable and shockingly naïve. You realize media is plural, right? There are hundreds upon hundreds of media sources in this country. Which powerful media are you referring to here? Fox News? Breitbart? Daily Caller? Drudge Report? Newsmax? OANN? Washington Times? National Review? All of the Sinclair Broadcasting group? All of Rupert Murdoch’s holdings? Or are you only concerned about CNN, the New York Times, Washington Post, and other media that don’t broadcast only right-wing ideology? Do you know your history? Do you know that politicians and their supporters have historically founded newspapers and other media? Why do you think that papers were given names like the Republican Journal, the Democrat, the Independent? The idea of an independent, objective journalism has never been real. All media personnel bring their own personal opinions into what they do. We have always been able to determine whether a newspaper, magazine, radio/TV station is right or left politically and that slant is going to impact their coverage. The best of them strive to be objective, but it is an impossible goal. The bulk of them push their viewpoints and citizens gravitate to the ones that best reflect their own beliefs. So don’t give us your sanctimonious crap about the liberal media when the right-wing media has dominated much of the last several decades and helped to lead us into the divided country we have become.

It would be a waste of time to try to refute all of your ridiculous assertions about election fraud when they are simply a rehashing of the many accusations that have been leveled by Trump and proven false by reporters, researchers, judges, and election officials. To assume that there are scads of dead people voting based on a few who have tried to vote as people who were dead (two in Georgia and one Trump voter in another state that I can recall offhand) is an absurd stretch. To say that people who have moved from a state voted illegally in the state they left is misleading at best. That was brought up in Nevada and it was determined that most of those were military personnel stationed elsewhere who had the right to vote in their home state of Nevada. In Georgia, election officials determined that there were many people who had moved out of state and moved back, but it was not simply to vote. Some of them had been back for years. You talk about “large Democrat-controlled counties waiting until after Republican counties have reported and then dumping their vote totals in the wee hours of the morning” as if this isn’t normal in an election. Because they are large counties, it takes longer to count the votes and larger urban areas tend to be more Democratic-leaning just as smaller more rural areas tend to be more Republican. They are not waiting for the Republican votes and then dumping theirs. And don’t try to pretend you don’t know this. You may be stupid, but you’re not that stupid.

To presume there was widespread election fraud in this past election, or any election, is to presume that there is a larger conspiracy network than any debunked conspiracy theory ever invented. You would have to have poll workers and election officials in every county, politicians in every state, judges in every court, citizens across the country, and more actively participating in the scheme to make it work. For you to believe this, you would have to believe that the majority of the people in your state are not trustworthy and if you don’t trust your own constituents any more than that, it is no wonder that we do not trust you. It is no wonder that we want you to stick to your promise of not running for another term as Senator. We can’t trust you to have our best interests at heart. The equivocation of your press release proves that far more than anything you have presented proves election fraud. Your proof is nothing more than parroting of the right-wing echo chamber and your chosen leader because you can’t think for yourself. You and that echo chamber led directly to the attack on our Capitol. Do us a favor and don’t wait to decide about the next election. Resign now and spare us the next two years.

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On Ron Johnson

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson has joined several other Republican Senators (currently 11) in announcing that he will vote against the electors from “disputed states” in the 2020 Presidential election. Those disputed states include Johnson’s home state where voters elected Joe Biden by more than 20,000 votes. The difference was confirmed in a partial recount requested by the Trump campaign–of only the two most heavily Democratic and diverse counties in the state, Dane and Milwaukee. State and federal courts have thrown out several lawsuits intended to disenfranchise Wisconsin voters, both for lack of evidence and lack of standing. Johnson is joining these Senators despite stating in the past that he was elected not to advance his own causes but to represent the people of Wisconsin.

Johnson has rarely represented the wishes and desires of the people of his state. He originally ran as a Tea Party candidate in the one year that those right-wingers gained ground in elections. He was elected during the Tea Party wave in 2010 when barely over 50% of voters went to the polls in Wisconsin. In the campaign he was very vocal in his opposition to Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

He ran for the United States Senate portraying himself as a successful businessman, after marrying into a wealthy family and starting a plastics business with his brother-in-law. The business did grow to become a successful company and Johnson is a very wealthy Senator, unlikely to understand or care about the needs and opinions of the majority of the Badger state. He was recently reported to be worth $39 million, one of the nation’s wealthiest Senators.

A quick search of Johnson online brings up link after link in which the Senator’s positions on various issues show him out of touch with his constituents and with facts. He has long been opposed to same-sex marriage, is rabidly anti-abortion and is one of the most vocal climate change deniers in Congress.

Here are a few other things found in a short search online. There are likely to be dozens of similar stories that would have come up if it had been a lengthier search.

Prior to running for office, Johnson testified to the Wisconsin legislature at the encouragement of a deacon of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay against the Child Victims Act, a bill that would remove the statute of limitations for civil suits of victims of child sex abuse. Currently victims must sue before the age of 35. Most sexual assault agencies understand that it sometimes take decades for child sex abuse victims to come to terms with what happened to them as children.

The opposition to the Child Victims Act was noted in an August, 2020 article in the Daily Kos, which also noted the following nuggets from Johnson: “labeling Social Security ‘a Ponzi scheme‘, saying that the 97% of climate change scientists who say the phenomenon is man-made were ‘crazy’, the real cause of climate change was sunspots, and that Greenland is covered in snow and ice because we’re actually witnessing ‘global cooling‘. In 2013 that Ron Johnson answered criticism from the League of Conservation Voters that he denied climate change by accusing them of waging ‘environmental jihad’ and has compared politicians and activists trying to prevent climate change to Joseph Stalin, Hugo Chavez, and Fidel Castro.”

During a radio interview in the summer of 2015 he used the phrase “idiot inner city kids” in a discussion of school choice. He later said he regretted the use of the word and that he was actually describing how liberals feel about inner city youth. He adamantly supports school choice, which is basically transferring funds from public schools to private charter schools.

In 2016 Johnson made news by stating that teachers could be replaced by Ken Burns’ videos.

In April of 2017 Johnson agreed to a question and answer session with Madison East High School students, probably assuming they would not ask any tough questions. They did pepper him with intelligent and insightful questions, and one of the students recorded the entire session and posted it online. They hammered him on his support of charter schools, his positions on LGBTQ rights, and more. In an October visit to New Berlin High School in October, he told students that healthcare was a privilege–like food and shelter–not a right.

In the summer of 2019, Johnson continued to support Donald Trump and as chair of the Homeland Security Committee did nothing to prevent, stop, or even investigate the migrant detention camps on the southern border.

Through much of 2020, Johnson’s Homeland Security Committee held hearings investigating the Hunter Biden and Burisma conspiracy theories that Trump supporters were trying to use to damage Joe Biden’s campaign for the presidency. In August, he more or less admitted that his hearings would be beneficial to the Trump campaign, essentially acknowledging that he was using his power as chair of the committee to advance the campaign of his party’s candidate. He was referred to at the time as a “useful idiot” for accepting and echoing the same stories as the Russian disinformation campaign.

Like his hero, Donald Trump, Johnson has consistently downplayed the seriousness of Covid-19, noting in the spring of 2020 that shutting down the economy due to the virus would be like shutting down the economy due to traffic deaths. He said that the disease was not a death sentence, except for maybe up to 3.4% of the population. With a population of 328 million, 3.4% would translate to well over 11 million deaths, which would be a devastating number.

In August of 2020, he accused Google of gearing their get out the vote promotions to liberals and Democrats, without any evidence to back up the claim.

When Trump’s Attorney General William Barr announced that the Department of Justice had no evidence of widespread election issues, Johnson said that there was no proof that there was no fraud, the opposite of how evidence works. Republicans need to prove there was fraud rather than Democrats having to prove there was no fraud.

In December, he presided over a sham Congressional hearing in which he invited guests to present evidence of voter fraud, including lawyers whose cases were dismissed for lack of evidence. Because dozens of courts had dismissed cases, it appeared he wanted to present the case for massive voter fraud to the public. No evidence had convinced any court and his ridiculous hearing did nothing to provide any convincing evidence either.

Most recently, Johnson insisted that due to budget and debt concerns he could not support $2,000 checks for American citizens suffering from Covid and its effects on the economy. Earlier in the year, he was the one who blocked $1,200 checks in the Covid relief bill (twice). Yet, this is the same man who voted for Republican tax cuts for the wealthy and who was one of the Senators who oversaw the nation’s debt balloon by more than 35% to more than $29 trillion during the four years of the Trump administration. This quote from Mehdi Hasan sums it up: ““I guess Ron Johnson wasn’t so concerned about our children’s future when he voted to spend around $2 trillion on the Trump tax cuts, which by the way increased his own $39 million fortune.”

Ron Johnson does not represent his constituents. He represents Donald Trump. wealthy men and women across the country, big business, and other conservative, right-wing radicals. His politics and personal beliefs are not in line with regular Wisconsin folks. Unfortunately, he is not up for re-election for a couple more years and even though he promised not to become a life-long Senator he is now considering whether to run again in two years. If he does, Wisconsin needs to show him the door. He can go back to selling plastics instead of a right-wing bill of goods.

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New Year’s Prayer

It seemed like virtually everyone in America was eagerly anticipating bringing in the New Year last night. The bulk of the year was taken up with the worst plague in modern history, More than 1.8 million people died worldwide from it and nearly 350,000 in the U.S. alone.

But it wasn’t just coronavirus that made 2020 such a bad year. There were the killings of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, and others that set off protests and counter-protests across the country. There was the continued rise of fascism and overt racism. There was a dysfunctional government led by a narcissistic man whose only interest has ever been himself. There were the continued false accusations of election fraud that worked to undermine our faith in our own institutions. There was a crashed economy that left thousands upon thousands of people unemployed, more homeless and hungry or on the edge of it, and the poor even poorer in the long march of economic disparity. And there was the inability of any individual or the government to do anything about any of it.

So because we tend to believe in hope, we set our sights on the turning of a new year (and in a couple of weeks the turning over of power). Friends and neighbors eagerly longed to say goodbye to the dumpster fire that was 2020, hanging our hopes on the idea that 2021 would turn it all around.

The problem is today is no different than yesterday. While we have a vaccine now, nothing changed overnight. Nothing will change after the inauguration. The virus will still keep killing people worldwide and there are now new strains to worry about. Bad cops will still kill innocent people. The legacy of the Donald Trump presidency will wreak havoc for years to come. There is no magic potion to stop the spread of coronavirus, fascists, conspiracy theorists, greed, and hate.

But we have to start somewhere, and today is as good a day as any. We can hope. We can pray that we have learned some lessons. Perhaps once we are safe from the virus we can avoid returning to a normal that really wasn’t normal. Maybe we can avoid rushing headlong back into our harried and overly busy lives and enjoy the time with our closest loved ones that we were forced to spend time with during quarantine. Perhaps we can continue to stay close with nature with hikes and quiet reflection, and that will help us understand the need to fix our planet. We can take in the reality that Black Lives Matter and work together to make that a meaningful reality. We can begin to fix the brokenness of our lives, our government, and our culture because 2020 gave us the gift of understanding what was broken.

This is a fervent wish and a prayer–that we come out from the horrors of the last year to a new understanding of what is wrong in this world and a new commitment to being better world citizens and neighbors, that we will work toward economic and racial equity simply because it is the right thing to do, and that we will do our best to ensure that we are all front-line heroes in the constant struggle for a better and more just world.

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Still Beating

A year ago this afternoon, I was at my desk in the office where I work. I had just taken a sip of a soda and started to feel a bit off. When I stood up I felt a bit dizzy and faint. I asked a co-worker if she could drive me to the emergency room as I wasn’t feeling well (if there’s ever a next time I’ll call an ambulance, but at least I didn’t try driving myself). When I got there, the staff was pretty nonchalant about it until I mentioned I had suffered a heart attack back in 2008. I had also been diagnosed with ischemic cardiomyopathy in late 2018 or early 2019 (which has been gotten under control over the last year due to a drug regimen). After explaining my history, they took me in to check my blood pressure and pulse. When the nurse listened to my heart I could tell by her look that something was definitely wrong.

It turned out that my heart was racing at 240 beats a minute, which is incredibly high (normal resting heart rate is considered to be 60-100 beats per minute; my usual resting heart rate is generally somewhere between 60-70). The fast heart beats had already lasted about 15 minutes by that time. What was happening is called ventricular tachycardia, which is essentially an electrical misfiring in the ventricles. If it continues for more than a few seconds, it can be fatal, so I was already lucky to still be alive at that point. I hadn’t overexerted myself (hard to do in an office setting) or had any recent stress, but tachycardia can be a result of previous heart damage. My heart was functioning on about 60% of its capacity due to damage from the heart attack a decade before.

Once the nurse discovered my heart rate, they immediately moved me up to the front of the line to get in to see a doctor. As I was stepping out of the nurse’s office my partner, Brian, showed up, so he was able to go in with me. They put me on an electrocardiogram immediately and within a short time had decided to give me medication to bring the beating back to normal. It didn’t work. They gave me a higher dose, but it had a minimal effect. They then set me up and shocked my heart after putting me under sedation so I wouldn’t feel it.

Later in the day they decided to do a heart catheterization and determined from that to replace one of my four stents and put in two new ones. It was a weird and long day, but they weren’t done yet.

Three days later, after many more tests and discussions, an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) was put into my chest. It is a combination pacemaker and defibrillator. The pacemaker makes sure the heart doesn’t beat too slowly and the defibrillator gives a shock if the fast heart beats from tachycardia start up again. Fortunately, that part of the device has not had to engage in the last year. The pacemaker has worked a small percentage of the time, as it is designed to do. I have had no further issues in the last year.

What amazes me is what doctors can do for heart diseases and other diseases that years ago would have been untreatable. Heart disease runs in my family. My father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 41, but I believe he may have survived with the technology we have now. I have outlived him now by more than twenty years. I am incredibly thankful for the doctors, nurses, designers of the ICD, and other professionals who put in countless hours to help ensure that people they don’t know or may never meet will live longer and fuller lives. I am thankful for the support and love of family and friends who have stood by me through several heart issues. And I am thankful every day that I have been given more time to enjoy this amazing thing called life. to laugh and love more, and to wonder in awe about the miracles in the lives we lead.

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