Let me start by saying that work has not been all that much fun lately. And that is a terrible thing for someone to post on the Internet for the whole planet to see … I say that fully knowing that no more than say 100 people will actually take the time to read at this, so I’m probably safe. That’s perfectly fine with me for the simple fact that at some point this week I decided I needed to start getting back to what is professionally important to me — having fun at work.
Thinking, talking, and sharing are all critical pieces of the puzzle and up until this week I had forgotten that I hadn’t done any of it in more than half a year. Writing is one of those things and I find that I use it as a way to balance my thinking with the insanity that is the daily grind. Doing that has been quite literally impossible for me for quite some time. I’ve written only two times since October … that has to stop. And just to track my own past half year or so I need to write some of this stuff down. So, read on if you want, but the rest is really for me.
You see, I work at Penn State and I’m not sure if you’ve read about the happenings at our great Institution over the last four months but if not, just type the words “Penn State Scandal” into your little google box and read up on it. It has been a horrible time to be a part of the Institution for so many — the news out of my adopted hometown has rocked this entire community to its core … and it isn’t over. I am an administrator here at Penn State and while that doesn’t make it any more painful for me to deal with the issues, it has certainly made the work I do much more complicated. The people I work with here are unbelievably strong and resilient, but biting the bullet and being that way for months at a time takes a toll on people at every single level of the Unviersity. Our students are still reeling, our staff are still searching, our faculty are still trying to come to terms, and our administration is still just trying — just trying to make sense of it all and what it means to us all going forward.
Did you notice I haven’t mentioned football? Well, since I just did let me say that we know this isn’t about football. In some ways it was, but the reality is something that can’t be boiled down to a game. While ESPN tries to tell us all what it is and isn’t about, the fact of the matter is that this tragedy is so big, so complex, and so painful for everyone connected to this great place that it sometimes makes things easier to just go with the simple answer. The problem in that thinking is that it may work for a headline, but it certainly does nothing to shed light on the way my students, colleagues, and all of those connected to PSU actually feel. I really hate to say this, but if you aren’t a member of this community the bullshit commentary and rhetoric of ESPN and the media at large mean absolutely nothing. Nothing. Sorry, that’s the truth. I’ve listened over and over again to people tell me what is really going on from the outsider perspective and I have had to learn to just sit quietly and listen. You see in a way, we feel like we’ve earned that spot of shame, not because a single one of us did a damn thing wrong, but because we have, since I have been here, all looked at ourselves as different — a place where we knew we were doing things the right way. The fact that we didn’t is the shame. The being a part of the community is the great part. But when those people talk, I don’t have anything to defend. How does one defend the inexcusable actions of the few? I can’t and I wouldn’t try.
Are things getting back to normal in Happy Valley? No. There is still so much lingering pain and confusion throughout all ranks. To be a little cliched, that day in November when the news broke was truly the day the music died. What we were prior to the breaking of that story is history, a thing of folklore. All of us are now focused on what we will become. We are actively trying to become something new, something better, and I can tell you from what I see, something much stronger. I’m not sure if you’ve seen that Chrysler commercial where Eminem is driving through the streets of Detroit and the voice over says something to the effect of, “from the hottest fire comes the strongest steel,” well that is us. We are crushed inside because the place we have and continue to care so deeply for has been wounded in a terrible way. But from the intensity of that pain is coming a new strength. A strength that cries out, “we are” with a new sense of purpose. A purpose that I firmly believe will guide us towards a new beginning. In that is where I begin to find a strength I never thought I had. Tomorrow my family and I will go to the Bryce Jordan Center to visit our students at THON and we will see that strength and in a very real way we will realize that we are growing stronger from this.
In September, my hometown of Bloomsburg, PA was nearly destroyed by record setting floods fueled by Tropical Storm Lee. An event that changed me forever. The day I got to may parents’ house that had nearly five feet of water in it, my Mom fell into my arms in a way that one never wants to feel. The intensity of the pain everywhere is depicted in the photos I took, but the real sense of loss and rage were emotions that I had never felt. In one weekend so much was taken from so many in a place that is my true home. It seems like forever ago now, but the days, weeks, and months that followed taught me so much about the human spirit and the power of community. If you’ve never seen much of your history be taken to a make shift dump in your hometown, you can’t understand the aggregate damage. On the tennis courts I learned to play on as a ten year old I got to see the possessions of hundreds of families, the pile representing decades of love, memories, and importance lost.
The flood reintroduced me to friends all over the US that I had forgotten decades earlier. Friends that have helped form the foundation of The Bloomsburg Daily and the Flood of Silence projects as well as raise thousands of dollars and donations for families all over town. The flood helped me to connect to colleagues here at Penn State who wanted to show how much they cared about what had happened. The flood made me listen to new music and decode messages that I had long forgotten how to do.
Each day during those early months I threw myself into both my on and above campus work. I don’t remember much from September and October — no sleep, no rest, and certainly very little joy. But I did it and I don’t think I destroyed anything or anyone along the way. I just sort of found a way to be, but again it wasn’t with joy that I did my work — and I mean the work of the Unviersity and the work of The Bloomsburg Daily. It was a grind that needed to happen on both fronts.
If I haven’t lost you by now, the last thing I need to document here is in reality the worst of the past few months. The health of my Dad took an incredibly unexpected turn in early January. While hitting a golf ball he heard a pop in the Humorous bone of his left arm. It turned out that he had a malignant tumor eating its way through the bone and the weakened arm finally gave way. Bone cancer. I hate that word — it has taken so many and so many close to me in the last few years.
I went to Florida and spent a full week with he and my Mother trying to help him get the kind of care he needed to stay alive and healthy. Here’s the rub, my Dad is my best friend. He means so much to me on so many levels. It hasn’t always been that way. When I was a kid there was a distance there that was probably caused mostly by me, but it was there. But sometime around 14 or so, things changed and he went from Dad, to hero, to best friend. We talk all the time about our beloved WVU Mountaineers — and honestly while he sat in his chair in FL with a severely fractured arm with a tumor in his body we watched an epic Mountaineer basketball game and laughed and cheered together. It was so emotionally draining that at the end of the game we both cried a bit. I was quietly praying it wouldn’t be the last one.
It won’t be. We went to one of the best cancer centers in the Country and at the moment we have a good prognosis. He had the tumor removed in tact and ended up with a full shoulder replacement, but he kept his arm and he is in amazing spirits. While we haven’t sat down to watch a game together I fully expect us to do just that next fall back in Bloomsburg is his rebuilt home. I bet we even give each other a high five on that rebuilt left arm. I need to just write the following words down so I can express how I feel right now and how much everyone who sent prayers, positive wishes, and energy to me means — thank you. And thank you doesn’t even do it, but it is what I have.
The shit of it is that I know my darkest days aren’t over. Hell, they’ve only just begun, but what I do know is that I can make it through them. I have an incredible family, incredible friends, and am a member of two amazing communities in both Bloomsburg and State College. So I will find time to read, reflect, talk, and share. I will find time to write and be a better member of the communities I feel connected to. I will be a better friend, husband, Father, Brother, and Son. I don’t have any choice. The past six months have changed me, but not in the ways that I would have predicted. I have no bitterness or anger. I have a new sense of resolve and strength. I finally get it. I am the luckiest man in the World.