How Old Are My Fluids?

October 5th, 2006  |   

On Sunday afternoon I passed a Valvoline service center—one of those quickie drive-in places where you take your car for an oil change and lubrication.

The place was closed but the sign outside caught my eye. It also tickled my funny bone. I laughed out loud when I read it.


My laughter didn’t have anything to do with my car. I’d had it serviced last week. It had to do with me—the driver of the car. I laughed, you see, because Sunday was my birthday and it seemed a rather appropriate question for me to ponder.

How old are my fluids? Better check, don’t you think?

Now I want you to know that I am not in what Bob Woodward calls, in his new book, a “state of denial.” That’s the Bush administration, and a host of politicians in Washington, not me. At age seventy-one, I am well aware that I ain’t what I used to be. The aging process, which, by the way, has been very kind to me, does have a way of taking its toll. Don’t ask me why. That just happens to be the game plan.

So I can’t run as fast as I used to run, nor can I read this computer screen without some cheap glasses I bought at Rite Aid. My hair isn’t as thick as it once was, and my memory doesn’t serve me as well as it did when I was younger. Heck, you know, I didn’t have so much to remember back when I was younger, did I? Maybe that explains it. Sure!

But how are my fluids? Is my enthusiasm still flowing, and my passion still bubbling? Is there any adrenaline under my hood? Does my blood still pump toward things that matter?  Is my piss and vinegar tank full? Do I have enough water in my system to cool me down when I overheat? Does the world as I find it ignite my spark plugs and energize me? Does the world, when I imagine what it could be, still challenge me?  

Sitting on the porch on Sunday evening, the children playing in the park adjacent to our home catch my attention. Do I still yearn for a birthday cake? Is the child still alive somewhere within? What about my thoughts about young people as I enter year 72?

Looking For More Than A Boy’s Baggy Jeans And A Girl’s Tight Pants

My parents dealt me a good hand of genetic cards. And my health has been sustained by the people who have surrounded me. They are grace incarnate. Since childhood, there have been people in my life who picked me up when I was down, sat me down when I was bigger than my britches, encouraged me when I needed courage, schooled me when I thought I knew it all, and offered me friendship when that’s what really mattered.

Children need people in their lives who give them these gifts, and I have gotten more than my share of material and spiritual packages. On top of that, I’ve spent 48 years with a most remarkable woman who, with some help from me, gave passage to four children who boarded our ship to make the journey even more exciting and rewarding.

Over the years, I’ve known people who said they had lived long enough and were ready to die. Their question for me was, “Why won’t God just take me?” Losing their health, family and friends, they’d had enough of life and just wanted to cash in their chips.

I’m not in that place, thank God. I want to stay at the table and play a few more hands. Cashing in my chips and phasing off into eternity doesn’t interest me one bit. I’d rather walk on this noisy, pot-holed earth than float on some flimsy cloud listening to harp music. And, to be perfectly honest, I want to hang around to see how things work out.

But, the truth of the matter is, I won’t hang around long enough to see how everything works out. I may not be the smartest man on earth, but I have enough gray matter in my head to know that the largest portion of the future is not mine to behold. That vision will belong to my children, grandchildren and a long line of children’s children.

Some friends have checked into residential situations where there are no children or young people. I don’t envy them. There are young people in my neighborhood. I see boy’s baggy jeans and girl’s tight pants. I see the wild tattoos and pierced bodies. I see their enormous back packs, cheerleader outfits and athletic uniforms, and the cell-phones they press to their ears. But there’s more to see than that. There are human beings beneath all those trappings. I don’t want to be one of those old fogies who romanticizes about how good things were in the past, and how kids today are going to hell in a hand basket. Since reciprocity is what relationship is all about, I want to know some of what they know, and I’d like to think that they might like to know just a smidgeon of what I know.

Someone sent me a copy of the baccalaureate address that Bill Moyers gave in May to the graduating class at Hamilton College. I’m not a big fan of baccalaureate addresses and don’t even remember the one delivered to me back in 1958. But for some reason I read Moyers’ address, and I am glad I did.

I like the way he began his address. “Frankly,” he said, “I’m not sure anyone from my generation should be saying anything to your generation except, ‘We’re sorry. We’re really sorry for the mess you’re inheriting. We are sorry for the war in Iraq. For the huge debts you will have to pay for without getting a new social infrastructure in return. We’re sorry for the polarized country. The corporate scandals. The corrupt politics. Our imperiled democracy. We’re sorry for the sprawl and our addiction to oil and for all those toxins in the environment. Sorry about all this, class of 2006. Good luck cleaning it up.”

Those words were reminiscent of a Biblical passage stuck in my head. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes; and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

He then went on to say that the future would offer them both peril and promise. And, since he won’t be around to see how things work out, he took the speaking opportunity to “say a thing or two.” That’s what I’d like to do. Say a thing or two.

Beware Of Those Who Carry A Big Stick—They Will Use It

On Sunday morning, Judy came down the stairs carrying a birthday bag full of clothes. (All complements go to Judy for my attire.) But not before I had a chance to read a front page newspaper article entitled, “In Many Public Schools, the Paddle Is No Relic.”

The article included a picture of a Texas school principal with a big wooden paddle in his hands. “I’m a big fan,” he says in the article, “I know it can be abused. But if used properly, along with other punishments, a few pops can help turn a school around.”

Sure—just a few pops. That seems to be the answer to problems these days. A few pops.

Don’t get me wrong, I have moments when I think a lick or two will solve problems with people who trouble me. Just hand me the paddle, and get out of the way! But it doesn’t work. One pop begets another pop, and pretty soon you wind up with a generation that thinks a guided missile and a bit of torture will produce good results.

People who think that violence—administered in small and large doses—is the answer to life’s problems are bullies. Beware of them. They often get praised for being decisive, forceful, determined, and strong. In fact they are really fearful, weak and unsure of themselves.

In my mind, the perfect example of what I am talking about is our president and the bully-boys who surround him. He’s like a mafia don with his bodyguards, and he is setting a terrible tone for the nation—a pathetic example for young and old alike.

I haven’t read Bob Woodward’s new book, “State of Denial.” But I have been listening to him being interviewed, and I am impressed by some observations offered by Michiko Kakutani in her review of the book.

She says that Woodward describes President Bush as “a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war.” Almost religious certainty? There’s no “almost” here—no hint of uncertainty. The Commander in Chief says he speaks to God—the Supreme Commander—and I mean the Supreme Commander.

Rumsfeld comes off as “a bully and control freak who is reluctant to assume responsibility for his department’s failures, and who has surrounded himself with yes men and created a system that bleached out ‘strong, forceful military advice.’” It’s “an administration in which no one will speak truth to power, an administration in which the traditional policy-making process involving methodical analysis and debate is routinely subverted.” To make matters worse, Henry Kissinger is on the scene again, like a parasitical bagworm, offering the same poisonous advice that resulted in Vietnam.

We’ve all been shocked by the three school shootings in which students have been killed. Granted, I had to crouch under a school desk during a drill anticipating a possible nuclear attack. But these kids today have to wonder if someone is going to enter their school with an automatic weapon and start shooting. School was a safe place in those days. No more.

When the latest shooting took place, Mr. Bush was in Colorado, raising money for Bob Beauprez, Republican candidate for governor. He was 38 miles from where a student had been killed by a gunman the week before. “Deeply troubled and saddened,” he said that something had to be done to stop the violence. What hypocrisy. The emperor Caligula, reincarnated in the White House to rescue us from violence? And lest I forget to tell you, Beauprez is the man who, last May, posed in a military flight suit for a photo-op next to an F-16 plane. Beauprez, who found a way to bypass Vietnam and military service. Sound familiar?

Please believe me, I’m not for going back to the 60s, but since Mr. Bush has brought Henry Kissinger out of moth balls, maybe young people would do well to surf out on the Internet a few of the lines from a sixties tune, “For What It’s Worth,” done exactly forty years ago by Buffalo Springfield. “There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear/There’s a man with a gun over there/Telling me I got to beware/I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound/Everybody look what’s going down.”

A man with a paddle to teach kids a lesson, or a gun—one the prez wants to put in our children’s hand to fight terror. It’s time to ask what’s going down, don’t you think?

Don’t Settle For A Sergeant Star, A Flat Daddy, Or A Virtual Life

Virtual reality has been defined as “technology which allows a user to interact with a computer-simulated environment.” Young people are a whiz at it. I learned that from my grandchildren watching them play an assortment of games on their computers. I also know that virtual reality exercises can help train people to do a host of job-related tasks and even life-saving training exercises. Yea, for virtual reality—up to a point, that is.

Since we are creeping up on Halloween, let me throw a little scare your way by introducing you to Sergeant Star and Flat Daddy.

The Army has a new way to recruit our kids using the Internet. On the Army webpage, a young person can meet Sergeant Star, a virtual recruiter.  Type in a question and Sgt. Star fires back a written and audible reply. The voice is macho, no Truman Capote.

I asked a couple of questions and found the answers not at all like what life is like in the military. A flat screen know-it-all sergeant is no substitute for crawling through the woods, wearing a flack jacket or firing a rifle at someone.

So, speaking of firing a weapon at someone, I asked Sgt. Star a basic question a kid might want to ask before tripping off to basic training. “Is it wrong to kill people?” Sgt. Star, like a drill instructor I once had in the Marine Corps, fired back: “Ok private, watch your language or I’ll have to shut you down.”

News item: The Maine National Guard is doing something special for families of men who have been sent off to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The project is called “Flat Daddies,” and it seems to be catching on in other states as well.

The Guard is giving pictures of men deployed overseas—life-size from-the-waist-up and mounted on cardboard—to their families. Family members bring their Flat Daddy to parties, set a place at the table for Flat Daddy, carry him to support groups, and take him to pre-kindergarten graduation. One mother says her Flat Daddy “is a real person in their house,” one that her 13 month old child kisses.

I don’t want to come down hard on Flat Daddy. Overseas in the Marines, away from Judy and our newborn son, I cherished pictures she sent me, and showed the eight millimeter films of her and our son over and over in my room. I’m a guy who loves pictures of our grandchildren on the refrigerator. But Flat Daddy is virtual daddy sent to a war that never should have been started. It’s time to evict Flat Daddy and bring real daddy home. It’s time to end this virtual reality game that’s being played in Mr. Bush’s head.

And as far as kids playing the recruiting game called “America’s Army,” or talking online to Sgt. Star, I only want to say, “Don’t play. In fact, don’t play any games for a while, unless there’s a real human being sitting across from you. Virtual living can be fun. I’m not kidding.

Take A Lesson From A Tiny Man, A Family In A Buggy & A Jewish Woman 

The New York Times Magazine features a story about Thomas Quasthoff, a 4 feet tall man with stumpy legs, no knee joints, only eight fingers and arms that shoot out from his shoulders like flippers. A German thalidomide baby, he is now one of the world’s greatest singers.

His story is heartbreakingly redemptive. Isolation, failure at school, forced to prove to others that he had a musical spirit and talent within his dwarfed body; he had to fight his way into existence. Now he sings his way into people’s hearts. “Maybe it’s a good life example, to have this kind of fate and make the best of it, not to look at the gloomy side of life.”

The gloomy side of life is on display in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where young Amish children were gunned down by a demon-possessed man who hated God for the hand he was dealt in life. The families of these dead children seem like fossils dug from the earth. With their bonnets, horse-drawn buggies, long dresses, suspenders, and beards, they seem like a puzzling anachronism to us modern folks.

Young people, pay attention. They have something to teach a world where revenge is sanctified as justice, and violence is a substitute for forgiveness. They have found a way to forgive the man who killed their children. They are as unsophisticated as Jesus, and as wise as a person who understand that closure means closing the door on hatred.

Now, meet the Jewish woman—Wendy Mogel, child psychologist and author. She teaches parents that children must be taught to venture out, risk and even learn new things by being exposed to discomfort. I love what she says about children and so I will end these Notes with her words. As Montaigne once said, “I quote others only to better express myself.”

“Jewish wisdom holds that our children don’t belong to us. They are both a loan and a gift from God, and the gift has strings attached. Our job is to raise our children to leave us. The children’s job is to find their own path in life. If they stay carefully protected in the nest of the family, children will become weak and fearful or too comfortable to leave.”

That’s a message my parents gave to me. That’s the message I’ve carried to parents bringing their child to be baptized. It’s a message I have tried to live out in my own parenting. It’s a life saving message: We do not own you. You are a gift from God. Find your path amidst the mess of a world we have left you. Take risks. Cross boundaries. And keep your eyes open for tiny people, a family in a buggy and wise Jewish women who may cross your path. They have something to teach all of us.


Entry Filed under: Fig Tree Notes Archives

1 Comment

  • 1. Rhett Winters  |  November 27th, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    Thank you for addressing the complexity of the divisions that separate us politically, spiritually, and socially. I would like to commend a book our adult class at St. Bart’s is studying that addresses these differences in a respectful and enlightning way. It is Marcus J. Borg, “The Heart of Christianity”. It recognizes the difficulty many today have with the literal interpretation of the Bible and attempts to borth clarify the traditional approach to the Bible and a contemporary approach which clarifies both approaches and points the way to finding common ground between the traditionalist and the modern approach.

    Thanks again for your stimulating notes on our contemporay challenges.
    Rhett Winters

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