Recap 2018

December 31, 2018

Everyone’s doing a 2018 recap, some with friends and/or family, some privately. Looking back to New Year’s Eve 2017 and moving forward to today, we add up the pluses and subtract the minuses and decide whether we like the result. Not that it matters—it’s over, we can’t change anything. Scratch that—we can adjust our criteria for what’s a plus or a minus. We can throw them out and pick new ones. Is that cheating? After all, it’s your year. Maybe a second try at a recap would produce a better outcome, maybe not. At my age, one immediate problem: how much do I remember?

The quick take: January, not much, except the weather: freezing. I did struggle through it to get to the Surface Navy trade show, enjoying the scramble for news, reliving my working days (plus).  February: 69th birthday, 71-mile Reverse Ring, followed by three days in Sentara Hospital (big minus). March: published long freelance article (plus). April: annual junket to Nashville to see friends and family (plus). May: 1,300-mile round trip to Georgia for Cruel Jewel trail run with visit to daughter/son-in-law/grandkids (plus). And so on.

Is this right? A list of stuff? Just doing that, I could go on: June: tragic death of friend (minus). July: bad medical news (minus). August: Walsh road trip, first week (plus).

As T.S. Eliot wrote, that is not what I meant at all. We’re always doing one thing or another, so we always can compile lists. I also worked in the yard a lot. Who cares?

Adjusting the criteria: Did I do anything actually worthwhile? Did I learn anything? Did I do anything that mattered to others?

Looking at the year that way, the recap gets more complicated. In May I wrote a letter to the new pastor on behalf of the food pantry volunteers, which they signed, questioning his decision to cut back drastically the food pantry hours. He backed off—slightly. It’s still in business.

img_20181230_1208430584204191841609546502.jpg  Then we marched into a hot, muggy summer. Sandy and I took a couple of neat overnight trips to Strasburg and ate at the Queen Street Diner, a great hash-and-eggs place. We walked the quiet streets afterward, admiring the old Victorian-style homes and churches.

I drove up to Philadelphia, where our son and daughter-in-law just bought an old home and helped him wire in new lighting (meaning I held the tools and ladder while he did the work). Sandy and I drove to the Outer Banks for a sad memorial service for a cousin’s husband who passed suddenly. The next day we visited with family I now only see at funerals—but promised for the future to do more.

The highlight for the year was Sandy’s 65th birthday. I hustled and wrote some freelance stuff for a trade pub, which paid me just in time throw a surprise bash for her. Without tipping her off I got all the kids to come in, her best friend flew up from Atlanta, a sister-in-law from Jersey, nieces, nephews, running buddies all showed up. The kids jumped in and cleaned the house, took charge of the rest. Even the weather cooperated.

Renewing contact became a theme. I picked up the phone and called friends and family I almost never see, got caught up with them, and promised, vaguely, to find a way to visit. We’ll do our best. The phone call always is free.

img_20181029_1336307363868600781791726539.jpg  My revised 2018 is looking different from the laundry list I started. It’s orienting more to people. I’m thinking now of two hardworking, selfless women, both originally from Guatemala, who made good lives for their families here, laid off in a financial “restructuring” at the parish. As you talk to more people, strangers, friends, or family, you learn about their contacts, their experiences. Sometimes you get good news, a nephew doing well at college, a friend’s daughter graduating, heading for a bright future. Sometimes exciting news: our younger grandson, now two, took his first steps in March—we all cheered. Congrats, all around!

Sometimes the news is mixed. Health, work, financial, relationship challenges—“challenges” sometimes meaning real personal crisis and tragedy—come to the surface. You say and do what you can, you offer a prayer and a good word.

Maybe my personal recap is easier than that of people 20 or 30 years younger. I’ve bumped into more situations. And they keep coming, which, if you’re honest with yourself, is what you hope for. I’ve reminded myself many times that the dead giveaway of a senior citizen is all those “I remember when …” anecdotes.

Old guys, me included, seem to just pump them out, like the geysers at Yellowstone. But that’s because they have those memories, which “recap” lifetimes, not single years, and teach the rest of us (or the rest of you) how to treasure life.

Christmas Every Year

December 24, 2018

Driving south on Interstate 95 from northern Virginia to Petersburg is a grind. Switching to I-85 brings some relief, the highway goes to two lanes, the traffic diminishes, and the woods close in, tall oaks casting shadows on the asphalt, even in the dead of winter. We fly through that to South Hill, pass Lake Gaston and cross into North Carolina, still a long way to Greer, South Carolina, where we’re heading for Christmas with our kids and grandsons.

We’ve made this drive a dozen times since Mike and Marie moved with their two boys to Greer from Alexandria, where they were 20 minutes from us. Now it’s around nine hours on a good day. This stretch of I-85 plods past scrub woods and small towns until Durham, where it joins I-40 for a while, then farther west, past Raleigh, then turns into more relentlessly commercial-suburban bleariness. It then tacks south before hitting Greensboro, in the center of the piedmont, then Charlotte in another 100 miles.  Sandy is driving all the way, since I can’t drive for another three weeks.

wp-15456215447488454348387759375065.jpgWe’re looking forward to Christmas, although not the cruise through near-empty Carolina countryside. Now, for me, it summons memories of our short-lived summer road trip, before we started thinking so much about doctors’ appointments. Starting off, in mid-August, we schlepped through the green mountain jungles of West Virginia, climbing and descending, rounding those scary turns, making slow time. We saw places like Romney, Burlington, Grafton, Clarksburg, none of which we’ll ever visit again, but can say at least that we saw them (does anyone care?). The adventure continued through Ohio’s rolling farmland and small towns, Indiana’s industrial kitsch, and Illinois’ flat miles of corn. Then Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, etc.

What a difference four months made. Now we’re veterans of a half-dozen doctor’s waiting rooms and operating and recovery rooms in two hospitals. The country is different, too, as national leadership has gone delusional, good people abandoning it, the guttersnipes ascendant. Even with the sun shining today in chilly late December, perseverating on the darkness of the moment has become almost reflexive.

Yet we’re persevering. We scrambled a bit to get ready for this Christmas—not in the delicious panic of years past when the kids were small, but—a bit. We got some shopping done, at a lower level, having pretty much given up trying to get what people really would like. The fun of it, I used to think, was being bold, giving gifts I thought the recipients SHOULD like. That never worked very well, and within weeks the gifts I gave were mostly exchanged, and I couldn’t remember any of them. I’ve given up on that approach. After all, thirty-something adults don’t really need anything. So the gift-giving  has become the trivial part of Christmas.

What matters now, as always, is Christmas as benchmark for renewal. The cards, Christmas Eve Mass, the bright lights, the travel planning, the food shopping—all that—makes us glad because it anticipates something else. Christmas reinforces our faith in its own truth, the birth of Christ, the wonder of children learning of the miracle conveyed by a church nativity scene. It draws us to the future. Seems that every Christmas we wonder what happened to the year since last Christmas—gone in a blur. So we promise ourselves that we’ll do great things in the coming year, and the promises are themselves worthwhile. To call them new year’s resolutions makes them banal. Christmas tells us who we are, or who we should be.

img_20181223_1707025094883467340590981247.jpgThe best part of this trip for me is the stretch south of Charlotte, when you know you’re out of the urban mid-Atlantic and into the South, although aside from the weather and the politics, there’s not much difference any more. The interstate through the Carolinas is lined with flat-roofed glass-enclosed factories, more of them, actually, than in Virginia. If you press on for another hundred or so miles, you approach the red clay of north Georgia then get swallowed in the traffic cyclone of Atlanta.

Beyond that you cross into Alabama, where the tragic legacy of this huge swath of the country resonates. You continue west on I-20 to Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, retracing our September route, or turn north at I-65 in Birmingham towards Tennessee, the southeastern corner where Sandy grew up, then to Nashville, where we lived for 12 years and where our three older kids were born. She and I remind ourselves that the move to the Northeast changed the trajectory of their lives, but they still have to acknowledge the Southern connection.

The point of all of this is that whatever you do, or wherever you go at Christmas, you confront possibilities, even obligations, for thinking about the past, including the regrets and mistakes that cannot be forgotten—but then also the promise of grace. You change scenery or stay home, you put up a tree and decorate it or not, you witness the grim battle between the retailers marketing from October to New Year’s and the imprecations from church billboards to worship with them.

But the truth of Christmas has the power to outlast all that, and the power to make whole the mistakes and regrets. We look back, we remember trying times, but also the incandescent love of those close to us. We look forward to coming weeks and months, maybe nervously. But Christmas comes to us and remains, year after year, offering memories and lessons, renewing hope that brings peace, and joy.

Lunch at Joe’s

December 17, 2018

I had to pick up copies of my first MRI report at an imaging facility—hard to keep track of all this paper.  It was raining hard and I didn’t have to do it today, but I just wanted to get it done. My chore became Sandy’s chore, as they all do these days, since I can’t drive for three more weeks. But I suggested getting lunch afterward at Joe’s American Diner, and she was good for that.

Joe’s is the kind of place you think “Joe’s Diner” would be, one of thousands across America. We ate at lots of them on our road trip, in Ohio, Missouri, Texas, and so on. But something was off today. We stood for about 20 minutes before getting seated. We waited some more and finally ordered some lunch. Then we waited. So did everyone else. Time drifted by, half an hour, then an hour. This was for a tuna salad sandwich and a chicken club. But we weren’t pressed for time and it was still pouring outside. So we sat.

img_20181216_215055566-18856871527368260807.jpgI finally asked about our order and learned the cook didn’t show up, so one of the wait staff was thrown in to cook. It’s no profound insight, but the real situation we were trapped in (we could have stomped out) collided with our idea of lunch at Joe’s, which was way different. Strangely, it made me think about truth, and Etienne Gilson.

Gilson is the French philosopher who explained the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian. Aquinas’ monumental work, Summa Theologica, which he never completed, is the lodestar of Catholic-Christian theology. But beyond that he created a revolution in philosophy by using the teaching of the Greek pagan Aristotle to explain the world we live in, to explain truth. And this Christmas, truth would be a nice gift to find under the tree.

To get to truth, we start by wrestling with the meaning of existence. The way isn’t to quote philosophers or televangelists. It is to use our senses—sight, touch, hearing—to perceive the physical world. We watched the servers frantically carrying trays to the tables at Joe’s. No need to argue that they exist, that they are elements of truth. We know they are real because we see them running around serving people.

Gilson, who died in 1978 at 95, explains that in Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s thinking, anything capable of being defined consists of the physical, which they call matter, and the definition itself, which they call form.  You know your friend Tom not by his height, weight, and coloring (matter), but by his personality and character (form).  He needs both matter and form to exist. But it’s the form that defines Tom, that tells us who he is—what Aquinas called “essence.” Physical things (matter) we know through sense experience go out of existence. Form always exists.

img_20181216_131026395-2404909293807284020.jpgSo the baseline for understanding existence, truth, reality, is what we perceive. We can’t see “justice” or “courage,” but we know they exist because we see people acting justly and courageously. Every idea, every concept, every noble thought, e.g., “truth,” must begin with the objective things or acts that we perceive.

Gilson points out that Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s teaching transformed the way philosophers thought about reality, or truth—but not for long. Within a few years after St. Thomas died in 1274, a so-called “Back to the Gospel” movement started, led by religious leaders who opposed what they considered an excessive preoccupation with philosophy. They attacked Aquinas’ focus on physical existence. They argued instead that truth is based solely on belief, as with the philosopher William of Ockham’s declaration, “I believe in God Almighty.” As an article of faith, the statement cannot be proved. Yet it leaked over into philosophy, evolving into the presumption that reality is defined by abstract ideas instead of things that actually exist.

That presumption, Gilson explains, reached its tragic culmination in the work of the French mathematician Rene Descartes, who in 1619 resolved to create a universal mathematics that defined existence in terms of mathematical concepts. For Descartes, the definition of the circle and the triangle become the circle and the triangle, rather than any physical representation of them. In Descartes’ mathematical universe, reality, existence, truth, are represented not by the physical world but by a system of abstract formulas. The consequences of Descartes’ attack on truth derived from sense perception is expressed by his devastating announcement, Cogito Ergo Sum—“I think, therefore I am,” declaring that my thinking, my ideas, define reality.

What Descartes did, Gilson says, is to “thingify concepts,” that is, to look at concepts—ideas—in the same way Aquinas and Aristotle looked on physical objects as the foundation of truth. And so it went on down to the 20th century, as philosophers and political leaders relied on rigid, complex systems of ideas to define truth, instead of evidence anchored in the physical world. In time, those systems calcified into fanatical political ideologies. In 1941, Gilson wrote that “millions of men are starving and bleeding because two or three of these pseudoscientific or pseudo-social deified abstractions are now are war.”

How does all this hot air circle around to the present moment, at Christmas? This way: the country today is running on a strain of pure ideology empty of philosophical content, an ideology that feeds political opportunism by trafficking in empty promises, bluster, and lies that no one—no one—takes seriously or bothers to defend. In our nation’s public life, truth—that is, the perception of the world as it exists, as Aristotle and Aquinas explained it, has shriveled into an artifact of old textbooks that hardly anyone reads.

Back to Joe’s. How did our plan for lunch go so wrong? We had an idea, an assumption based on no facts, that lunch at Joe’s would go smoothly—the cook would be working and we’d be served promptly and efficiently. We didn’t know about the reality, and when we learned of it, we ignored it.

Like 300 million other Americans, we’ll look under the tree anyway. But we probably won’t go back to Joe’s for a while.


At Christmas, Planning Ahead

December 10, 2018

The woman from the home health-care service commissioned by the hospital was direct: “Have you been depressed?

Me: “No.”

“Have you felt afraid to go home?”

Me: “No, Never.”

“Have you felt like hurting yourself?”

Me: “No!”

“Have you felt suicidal?”

Me: “Again, no!”

I was seriously grinding my teeth by now.  Can you be suicidal and NOT feel like hurting yourself?

I know medical people have to ask these things, and not only of the old gents they visit. For some folks, men, women, old or young, the answer to those questions is yes.

We ended up dropping the service, not because the woman asked these things, but because the service seemed superficial and unnecessary. She changed my bandage, took vital signs, asked about my height and weight. It was a service the hospital high-pressured me into signing up for, assuring me the insurance would get the bill. Groggy from anesthesia, I didn’t argue much, but wondered why bill insurance when I don’t want the service?

img_20180919_1614072751447794346774053187.jpgMy vital signs are strong. Apart from the pain of the cut, which I endured with Percocet. I feel OK; not great, but OK. In three days at home I was done with the drugs. The worst of it, apart from the uncertainty of future treatment, is the mushy institutional sympathy. Before I checked out of the hospital, two therapists confronted me, almost daring me not to be pathetic and helpless. I nodded but changed the subject.

I wore my Santa’s hat when the surgeon came in to talk about the operation.

So what matters to old guys with some health worries? It depends on the season. Right now, we’re getting close to Christmas: the magic night of the birth of the Savior. We’re in the third week of Advent. Yesterday an old friend from our local running group, the THuGs, drove me up to the finish point for a local trail run I had entered before my health problems, just so I could say hello to the runners as they finished. That’s a friend. Nice.

This Saturday we’ll attend the annual THuG Christmas Dinner/White Elephant Gift Exchange (with wives). Last year the dress was turtlenecks, this year, lederhosen.

Throughout the week, friends have stopped by to visit and bring us meals. Then in ten days we’re heading to South Carolina to visit our kids and grandkids. Of course Sandy will have to do all the driving. But—who’s not having fun?

Through all this weirdness, I work at changing the subject. I don’t want to talk about sickness, hospitals, doctors, treatments, drugs. I especially don’t want to exchange stories about sickness, hospitals, etc. Everybody’s got theirs. Outside of the need-to-knows (family) let’s talk about other things.

A friend still working at the parish food pantry where I worked the past three years says the place is disorganized, management is shaky. I miss that work. The English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program will kick in its second semester next month, I’ll stay on the substitute list. The need hasn’t gone away.

I still need to get registered for the Surface Navy National Symposium in Arlington in January. I go every year, picking up news for the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine. Great way to get caught up on what Navy leadership is saying about that 355-ship Navy they promised. So far, the Navy won’t be guarding the border. That’s what I hear—so far.

Assuming the Trump stock market crash and recession don’t wreck us financially, we want to get out on the road again, I mean, literally. We’re looking to finish what we started in August: get to Ennis, Mont., which says its population is “900 people, 12 million trout”; where we’ve stayed a few times; then Sturgis, S.D., for next summer’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Also Seattle, to see family; back to Austin, to see Scott and Barb and maybe visit Lukenbach, and Harper, Sandy’s favorite Texas Hill Country place.

Right now I’m looking at getting back to the gym to lose the weight I’ll be gaining with all the good food people are giving me. By spring I want to be running again. When I was working out I didn’t worry about raiding the fridge. Since I’ve been sitting on my butt maybe I should start.












For the Rough Patches

 December 3, 2018

“Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned.”

                                                                  —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Bk. 4)

Somedays, we all wonder, how do we put up with things? We all hit rough patches occasionally. And it’s a sure thing that someone else has it worse than I do, or you do.  Remember those Christians in the Coliseum. But when we’re in a bad fix, do we make our own rules, or look for those offered by others? This past weekend brought the news of the passing of President George H. W. Bush, a man who gave his country a life of service, who knew what rules should govern his life. Then this week sweeps me into the operating room at Virginia Hospital Center, where I’ll get a “thymic carcinoma” scooped from my chest. That’s where I’ll be when the country is honoring President Bush.

I haven’t measured up to his example. But when we get in a fix we consult the experts. Our faith can get me through these medical things. It sustains us, in mysterious ways, by teaching that those tough stretches are, in a way, a gift: they make our lives richer for confronting them, whatever the outcome.  We get nearly the same lesson from the Greek and later the Roman Stoics, most closely identified with Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations.  That’s doesn’t mean equivalence between the Christian message and human wisdom. One draws us to eternity. Marcus was no Christian. But his Meditations help us focus.

img_20181202_1925231219101040686533617406.jpgLike his Roman contemporaries, Marcus was educated in the thought of the Greek philosophers, among them Heraclitus (c. 500 BC) and a century later, Socrates, both considered, among others, the original Stoics. Socrates left nothing written. The legend of his acceptance of death has come to represent the purest expression of Stoicism.

Marcus led Roman armies in intermittent wars, putting down rebellions until he died in 180 A.D. at 58. He wrote his meditations for himself; he never intended them for publication. It’s uncertain what happened to his notes after he died, but a 4th century history hints that they were in circulation at that time. Then they were lost in the West for nearly a thousand years, as the Empire declined. Sometime in the 10th century copies appeared in the East. Scholars believe that after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, academics fled to the West, bringing hand-copied fragments, garbled and incomplete.

What’s left are the Meditations, in 12 books, that now represent the philosophy of Stoicism (from the word “stoa,” referring to a porch in Athens where the early Stoics taught). Today, we understand the term as the willingness to bear up to hardship. But the Meditations teach more eloquent lessons: that the world is an orderly place, controlled by logic (logos), which governs the entire universe, yet also allowed room for free will. The Stoic world is fundamentally rational. From there it’s not a long leap to see the shadow, although only the shadow, of Christianity, by inserting “God” in place of “logos.”

So we get this in Meditations. Marcus, intent not on teaching others but on understanding his own life, offers a way of thinking that shores up faith. In Book 7 he writes: “Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated.” This thinking is a departure—not the cold logic of the early Greeks.

Book 1 is highly biographical: “1. My grandfather: character, self-control. 2. My father: integrity and manliness. 5. My first teacher: to put up with discomfort and not make demands. 9. Sextus: kindness. An example of fatherly authority in the home. What it means to live as nature requires.”

Book 2: “I have seen the beauty of the good and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own … and possessing a share of the divine.”

And on into Book 3: “To welcome with affection what is sent by fate. Not to stain or disturb the spirit within him with false beliefs. Instead, to preserve it faithfully, by obeying God, saying nothing untrue, doing nothing unjust. And if others don’t acknowledge it, this life lived with simplicity, humility, cheerfulness—he doesn’t resent them for it, and isn’t deterred from following the road where it leads to the end of life. An end to be approached in purity, in serenity, in acceptance, in peaceful unity with what must be.”

And repeat, for emphasis: “to live as nature requires.”

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, who for 19 years held near-absolute power over nations, had a more muscular take on life than the 12 guys at the Sea of Galilee 150 years earlier. But here and there, their minds and souls meet. When they wheel you into the OR, both work.