Dancing in the winds of change: a meditation on turning 85

October 31, 2016

old-man-writing-1On Halloween 2016, I turn 85, overwhelmed with gratitude. Virtually every step of the way I have been supported and surrounded by love and friendship. I enjoy good health, a place to lay my head, food every day, and work that is satisfying and useful. My beloved wife Billie, with whom I shared most of those years and who did much to fill them with good things, has been singing alto in the choir of angels for two years. Even so my life continues with a loving family and circles of friends across the country. Thanks be to God.

Some of the people I have known over the years have died and others suffer from diminishments of body, mind, and spirit. I too feel the years in creaking joints, lessened acuity of vision and hearing, and easily managed hypertension. What I find in my bicycling is a good example of what I experience in other ways: I ride as hard as I ever did, but with less to show for it. I can’t go as fast or as far.

My doctor has a simple explanation: “As you grow older your heart and other bodily systems slow down and there’s nothing you can do about it. Compare yourself with other people your age and not with yourself twenty years ago.” I am trying to live lightheartedly with the limitations that are settling into place and to adjust my activities accordingly. For a functioning mind and body and doctors to help me stay that way, Thanks be to God.

There’s good reason to believe that life will continue a little longer. Life expectancy tables indicate that there may be six more years; for a few 85-year-olds, 10 years. For any one of us, however, there is no telling how many hours or years of life remain. So the question is this: what guidelines should we use to shape the time that remains, whether short or long?

Earlier in the summer, a friend gave me a little book that proposes a model to consider: The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life. The author, William Martin, presents a new interpretation of eighty-one poetic verses written 2,500 years ago by Lao Tzu, Confucious’ contemporary and teacher. Although many of the verses leave me perplexed, the central theme as Martin adapts these ancient verses to life in our time is that in their later years people can become sages.

The challenge is stated in the heading for Verse 1, “Older or Wiser,” and is drawn out in the verse itself. “If you are becoming a sage you will grow in trust and contentment. You will discover the light of life’s deepest truths. If you are merely growing older, you will become trapped by fears and frustrations. You will see only the darkness of infirmity and death. The great task of the sage is learning to see in the darkness and not be afraid.

At this stage of life, we face a choice, which Martin presents in the final stanza of Verse 1. “There is one primary choice facing every aging person. Will we become sages, harvesting the spiritual essence of our lives and blessing all future generations? Or will we just grow older, withdrawing, circling the wagons, and waiting for the end?”

In Verse 2, Martin continues to describe the sage. “In the sage, youth and age are married. Wisdom and folly have been lived fully. Innocence and experience now support one another. Action and rest follow each other easily. Life and death have become inseparable.”

As my life continues, I intend to maintain the way of life that I have followed for many years: writing in the mornings, cycling and ordinary activities in the afternoons, enjoying coffee shop culture, participating in the full life of a well-ordered church, and living with and for my family and friends. The details will remain much the same, but  instead of doing these things with the shortening perspective of becoming an old man I hope to do them with the lengthening vision of a sage, “a calm and supple person, dancing in the winds of change” (Martin, Verse 68).


Learning to live in Indy

August 22, 2016
Downtown Indianapolis from Riley Tower

Downtown Indianapolis from Riley Tower

After living for thirteen years at Heritage Place Condominiums in Vancouver, Washington, just across the I-5 bridge from Portland, I am moving to Riley Towers in downtown Indianapolis. This morning I realized that there are two ways of understanding this move: (1) Moving back to Indianapolis, where Billie and I lived for thirty-three years; or (2) Moving forward to Indy, a city that is vastly different from any place I’ve previously lived.

Last night, my first night at Riley Towers in downtown Indianapolis, the character of this part of town was evident. Across Alabama Avenue from the Tower’s front door, a line two blocks long was waiting to get into the Old National Centre, a performing arts venue in the venerable Murat Temple. The featured artist was Lil Uzi Vert, and the people in line and swarming all over the neighborhood were teens, twenties, and a little older.

I walked down to Mass Ave, to Sub Zero Ice Cream and Yogurt, only to encounter another line of forty or fifty Millennials waiting for their scoops. Rather than waiting my turn, I settled for a cookie from the nearby Subway Sandwich shop.

Since my furniture had not yet arrived, I spent the rest of the evening in the library and community room at Riley Towers, with tables where people can work, six computers, and a top of the line HP printer. Two graduate students at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, studying at the Law School, were hard at work on the next day’s assignment.

I spent the night in a guest suite, but at sunrise went up to my apartment. Windows across one wall face east, and the strong red glow of sunrise was harbinger of a wonderful late summer day and the promise of an exciting new chapter for my life.

At the Mass Ave Starbucks, where I went for morning coffee and breakfast, there was a steady stream of people in a wide range of casual and business attire on their way to work. Even the two downtown tower branches of my bank have lobby hours beginning at 7:30 am. It will take me a little time to get up to speed in this vibrant new Indy where I will be living for a while.

Until now, I’ve thought of this transition as moving back to Indianapolis primarily for the purpose of getting set for the transition into old age. My family is concentrated here and I am already familiar with the layout of the city. Colleagues and friends from Billie’s and my former life are still here, although they and I have changed during the twenty-one years that I’ve been away.

Some of these people from our earlier life in Indianapolis now live at Robin Run Village, a retirement community out on the edge of town that Billie helped to establish many years ago. It’s a place I have thought about making my home. A community of people would surround me every day. I wouldn’t have to do my own cooking. There are things to do right on the campus. And the people are my age. Since Billie’s death two years ago, these amenities seem increasing attractive. In a year or two, I will probably move back to the old Indianapolis I used to know.

For now, however, I’m moving forward to the new Indy that surrounds me in the vibrant neighborhood where I’ve pitched my tent. I may even try to find out who Lil Uzi Vert is and why he/she/it is so interesting to young adults.


Learning to live with death and dying

July 11, 2016

In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying, by Eve Joseph (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2014)

Joseph“I was a girl when my brother was killed,” Eve Joseph writes at the close of this multi-textured book. “In the silence that followed his death, grief took up residence in our house. His death led me to the dying, and death led me back to him” (p. 199).

During her adult years, Joseph worked as a hospice counselor, living in close contact with people as life ebbed away, observing with a poet’s sensitivity the physical, emotional, and inter-personal aspects of the experience that comes to all.

Joseph also read a wide range of literature about dying and death—clinical studies, personal narratives, religious and philosophical reflections, myth, poetry, and legend. She was also attentive to her own family systems, Judaism and the Salish First People of Vancouver Island.

In the Slender Margin is the culmination of this forty-year process of living with death. Joseph writes as a poet, “in short meditative chapters leavened wit insight, warmth, and occasional humor” that are connected with emotional rather than discursive logic.

Joseph describes what people believe, imagine, experience, and ritualize about living and dying, about the intertwining of the living and the dead, of animals and bees and the people who are dying or in death’s way. She neither discounts nor affirms; rather she accepts all of them as signs of the dynamic reality of human experience—experience in which dying and living are always present.

Many people in the western world are inclined to discount much of what Joseph describes, thinking of it as superstition or unscientific. The impact of Joseph’s sensitive description, however, is to soften this resistance so that fact-oriented westerners can be embraced by a wisdom that has long existed among the peoples of the world.

My academic approach to life and death was quickly overwhelmed by this narrative, and my personal grief two years after my wife’s death took control. I remember only a few of the facts and explanations Joseph recites, but find my grief softened and my spirit enlivened.

With her, I am ready to affirm that “The slender margin between the real and the unreal is the margin between factual truth and narrative truth. . .The factual truth is objective. The narrative truth opens the door to the mysterious” (p. 199).

With considerable firmness Joseph states that her purpose in writing this book was not the hope that it would be therapeutic, bringing her closer to her brother, although this it seems to have done. “I wrote as Joan Didion says, to find out what I was thinking. Along the way, I was surprised.”

She describes the book as a work of art that “lies somewhere between the corporeal and the spiritual: the sacred and the profane. I am closest to my mother and brother and innumerable others when I write about them.”

I, too, am a writer. Rather than poetry, my work has been academic prose. During the next two or three years, however, I want to write two monographs, one focusing on personal and family aspects of my life and the other on my work as theologian and religious historian.

Joseph’s distinction between factual truth and narrative truth will be an important guide as I choose memories that are important and then weave them into a narrative that hovers between the corporeal and the spiritual. I will write in order to understand what I think, and in the process, like Didion and Joseph, I hope to be surprised.


A Key to Good Health

June 23, 2016

Snowball in a Blizzard: A Physician’s Notes on Uncertainty in Medicine, by Steven Hatch (New York: Basic Books, 2016)

HatchWhen he started this book, Steven Hatch intended to write about issues with which he was struggling in his professional life as assistant professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The focus would have been on “methodological aspects of human-subjects research, mainly the difficulties of study design and the subtleties of statistical interpretation” (p. 241).

Tepid responses from literary agents led him to realize that “more was to be gained by telling stories about the consequences of these issues, and that I could occasionally sprinkle the text with brief explanations of the more essential methodological points.” How should women decide when to have mammograms and how much confidence should they have in the results of these tests? How reliable are PSA scores in making decisions about possible prostate cancer? Why are guidelines for blood pressure levels changing, especially for older adults?

The first half of the book consists of Hatch’s narratives about the above illnesses and others, including infectious diseases, his own field of specialization. The mix of case study narration and description of how scientists and physicians conduct studies and reach conclusions provides a strong story line so that general readers can stay with his analysis and understand his interpretations.

Halfway through (p. 153), Hatch summarizes the book to this point. Studies discussed in previous chapters leave questions dealing with uncertainty about the values of a drug: “First, what will be the yardstick by which we will measure a drug’s value? … Second, how big will any potential observed benefit need to be before we consider it a success? . . . Third, what are the potential harms of the treatment?” After listing and briefly explaining these questions, Hatch states what could be considered the thesis of the book.

“Because the answers to these questions differ for each treatment, and the fact that the answers tend to fall onto a continuum rather than cozy themselves into a tidy binary yes and no category, both doctors and patients alike need to carefully consider the data before ‘knowing’ that a drug is right for them” (p. 153).

Hatch then begins a fuller discussion of the processes by which physicians and researchers reach their conclusions. The chapter title and epigram suggest the tone of what follows: “The Correlation/Causation Problem, or Why Dark Chocolate May Not Lower Your Risk of Heart Failure: The science was accurate, but it was extrapolated beyond imagination.”

He also gives a concise description of the kind of study that has been described and affirmed throughout the book and makes this assertion: “Nevertheless, the power of the double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial lies in its ability to ask [the above questions] in an organized and systematic way. We can say this drug saves this many lives (great!) but comes at the cost of these side effects, of which these particular effects are truly dangerous (not great). They do not settle questions, but they give us a framework by which we can ponder uncertainty and allow us to decide where we can place a drug’s value on the spectrum (154).”

The ideas presented in this book lead to a specific kind of relationship between medical providers and patients and families. Instead of issuing decisions about treatment, doctors exercise humility, explaining the basis for their proposals for treatment and acknowledging the limitations of their knowledge and certainty. Patients and families need to be active participants in the discussion, asking questions and responding to the guidelines that physicians present.

This relationship is illustrated in a pattern of consultation that is developing in intensive care units. Families are encouraged to be present at the bedside when the medical team makes its daily rounds to evaluate the patient and the care that is being given. In this way, the conversational, collaborative nature of the doctor-patient relationship is manifested.
Hatch frequently describes the role of the media in describing medical matters and developing public opinion. Much of his commentary is negative and he supports the importance of good coverage that reports carefully on studies, recommendations, and guidelines.

Despite Hatch’s emphasis upon uncertainty, humility, and collaboration, he does make one unqualified assertion at several points throughout the book: “Exercise more. Eat less. Don’t smoke. Everything else is commentary (p. 225). Hatch also writes that there is one aspect of medicine where the benefits are so great and the risks so minimal that it is on the far left of the “spectrum of certainty.” That procedure is vaccination, which has to be considered “the single greatest triumph of modern medicine” (222).

My wife died of metastatic breast cancer, and I deal with prostate and blood pressure issues. During the past decade, we had many conversations with a wide range of doctors and consultants. Our experience has been increasingly along lines that are consistent with Hatch’s recommendations. We would have been helped if we had been able to read a book like Snowball in a Blizzard.

This book is a key to good health!

 


Dare we believe in America’s future?

November 21, 2015

A Review of The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth, by Stephen Singular and Joyce Singular (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2015)

Singular 1The title and sub-title of this book accurately denote the two narratives that are intertwined throughout its 290 pages. The Aurora theater shooting on July 12, 2012, and the slowly unwinding legal proceedings that followed is the attention getter, but the careful exploration of why so many young white males are committing these atrocities is, to my mind, the more important narrative.

The authors are investigative journalists who have spent two decades writing books about American violence. To write The Spiral Notebook, they spent time in places that are important to the Aurora event and the life of shooter James Holmes and conducted interviews over a two-year period with psychologists and psychiatrists, first responders, private investigators, and teachers throughout the nation. They also interviewed “many, many young people throughout the nation” and include quotations from these conversations at the beginnings of many of the short chapters in this book.

Perhaps the most important leads during their investigation came from their son who “like many teenagers…hadn’t shared much with us,” but after his first year in college “was slowly opening up, speaking about his classes and which professors had influenced him the most” (pp. 2–3). He helped them understand what they were seeing and hearing and gradually opened up new areas for investigation.

The central theme of the book is the shooter, James Holmes, and how and why he committed this act. The account begins with his apprehension in a parking lot immediately after the shootings, and follows him as he slowly winds his way through an increasingly frustrating, unproductive, costly, and inconclusive legal process. There are illuminating descriptions of his keen mind and academic achievements that contributed to his psychological imbalance and led him to become a mass shooter.

Read more. . . The Spiral Notebook


Reforming Islam

January 13, 2015

Noteworthy Speeches of 2015 

As the new year begins, I intend to comment from time to time on speeches that focus attention on topics that attract attention. The first in this series was delivered by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, president of Egypt, to Muslim clerics at a meeting held to honor the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.  I have not yet found a link to the speech itself and am depending upon a report by Sarah el Deeb and Lee Keath, distributed by the Associated press and published January 9 in the Vancouver, Washington, newspaper The Columbian. 

Because of the terrorist events in Paris during the early days of 2015, it is easy to overlook the speech on January 1 by Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The reporters write that this speech was President el-Sissi’s “boldest effort yet to position himself as a modernizer of Islam.” He hopes “to purge the religion of extremist ideas of intolerance and violence that fuel groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State,” and inspire events like those in Paris.

According to Mohie Eddin Affifi, a religious leader in Egypt, the president’s intention is to promote “a contemporary reading of religious texts to deal with our contemporary reality.” The sacred texts themselves would remain unchanged. Instead, the focus of attention would be the textbooks used in the large network of grade schools and universities” operated across Egypt by al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old center of Sunni Muslim thought and teaching. “Texts on slavery and refusing to greet Christians and Jews” are examples cited in the Associated Press report.

This speech is one more example of el-Sissi’s effort to present himself “as a pious proponent of a moderate, mainstream Islam.”

An important criticism of el-Sissi’s approach to reform is that he “is clearly seeking to impose change through the state, using government religious institutions like al-Azhar.” Although this organization “has always claimed to be the bastion of ‘moderate’ Islam,…it has moved to silence progressive and liberal re-interpretations just as often as radical ones.”

A contrasting approach to the challenge facing Islam was featured in “The Saturday Profile” published by the New York Times on January 10. Written by Alison Smale, it features Mouhanad Khorchide, a Palestinian scholar now professor of Islamic pedagogy at the University of Münster. He is described as being “part of Germany’s effort to offer an alternative both to those who criticize and fear Islam and to Muslims seeking to practice their religion without extremes.”

His work is important because it is helping to “groom some of the thousands of teachers needed as Germany’s 16 states gradually shift to teaching Islam in primary and secondary schools, putting it on par with the Christian and Jewish faiths.”

The reporters offer only one example of Khorchide’s interpretation of Islam, and it is drawn from his book entitled God Is Mercy, which is available in English only as an e-book. Since the ninth century, he teaches, “the spirit of the Muslim world has been restrictive”—and that “the relationship between God and the individual is a loving one.” This idea comes as a shock to Muslims “raised only to fear God.”

Khorchide’s method of teaching differs sharply from the approach advocated by el-Sissi in his New Year’s Day speech. While the dominant method in Islamic countries is for students to learn to repeat back opinions and ideas that their teachers have delivered, Khorchide wants students to ask questions and develop answers. He hopes that they will experience what he refers to as an “aha!” moment while practicing their faith.

Commenting on the recent shootings in Paris, Khorchide told the reporters that “Such events force us to discuss openly about theological positions. . .It is too simple to say, ‘No, no, that has nothing to do with Islam.’ These people [referring to jihadists] are referring to the Quran, and we must confront these passages in the Quran.”

Some of the people who justify their violent actions carry this sacred book in their backpacks and have said “With the Quran, I am strong.” Yet when asked if they have read it or know what it says they answer “No.” Khorchide then said that he calls this “a hollow religiosity,” like “the thin and fragile peel of a fruit.”

Smale says very little about Khorchide’s approach to interpreting the Quran, nor does she indicate whether he discusses his principles of interpretation in his book. My preliminary online search did not bring up a listing for his e-book, but it gave links to reviews of the book and interviews with the author, one of which was reported in Euro-Islam.com with the title “God Is Not a Dictator.”

He also is listed as one of three editors of a book that has been published in English with the title Religious Plurality and the Public Space: Joint Christian-Muslim Theological Reflections.

 

 


Rust Belt Resistance

January 9, 2014

Bush, Perry. Rust Belt Resistance: How a Small Community Took on Big Oil and Won. Kent State University Press, 2012

BushThe small community referred to in the book’s sub-title is Lima, Ohio, which the author describes as “a weathered industrial city of about forty thousand, set against the flat and prosperous farmlands of northwest Ohio.” The antagonist is British Petroleum (BP) “one of the most powerful and wealthy corporations in the world.”

The struggle revolved around a refinery on the edge of town that was for the city a source of identity and an essential factor in its economic base. For BP executives in London, however, the refinery was little more than a pin on a map of the world, despite the fact that it had been transformed by local initiative and become a highly profitable facility. The economics of global capitalism determined that the refinery should be shut down, but the economics of community well being demanded that it continue as a vital element in the city’s industrial life.

The most important actor in this story was David Berger who came to Lima in 1977 while preparing to be a Catholic priest. Before completing his studies, he established his residence in Lima and in 1989 was elected mayor. A second actor was James Schaefer, “commercial manager for British Petroleum’s Midwest operations” who came to the Lima refinery in 1991 when the aging facility was in decline and the workforce demoralized.

A new spirit of innovation emerged within the workforce, based on traditional blue-color pride in one’s work and diligence in pursuing goals. The refinery was transformed and became a model for BP’s installations around the world.  Schaefer was pulled by two loyalties—to the corporation for which he worked and whose decisions he had to obey and the workers whose labors had transformed the plant on which their well-being depended.

The BP executive who most fully embodied the power of global capitalism and possessed the power of decision concerning the Lima refinery was the company’s chief executive, John Browne, whom Bush describes as “an ambitious and sometimes ruthless  workaholic” much like other oil company executives. Unlike other executives, however, he often stressed in his speeches “the kinds of social responsibilities that BP owed the world,” even to the point of participating in the struggle against global warming.

After introducing Browne, Bush summarizes the book’s deeper story. “In the Lima metropolitan region in the mid-1990s, local people presented Browne with a perfect opportunity to put such fine words into practice. The ensuing confrontation between an aging and economically battered industrial city on the one hand and a powerful global corporation on the other would reveal a lot: about the real extend of the corporate social conscience, about the core issue of corporate personhood, and even the extent of real agency left to industrial communities” (10).

The conclusion to the Lima—BP struggle is that the small town won. By its constant and highly skilled resistance, led by the mayor and his associates but empowered by the deeply established values of the people of the community, Lima forced British Petroleum to find a way to preserve the refinery and save the city from impending disaster. As a morality story, the Lima-BP drama concludes with the mayor continuing in office, his work honored by the people whom he had served so skillfully.

In contrast, British Petroleum’s chief executive suffers disgrace. A succession of disasters from 2001 onward caused terrible environmental damage and cost BP hundred’s of millions of dollars in fines. “A growing chorus of critics pinned much of the blame for the oil leaks and explosions on Browne’s ruthless cost-cutting, which had led to neglect of routine maintenance” (245). In addition to these criticisms of his leadership of the company, Browne also faced charges of illegal conduct related to his private life. The “proud and cultured oilman watched his glittering career come to a sudden end in scandal and public disgrace.”

The major narrative of this book includes three sub-plots. The first is indicated by the sub-title of the book: the struggle between communities and larger political entities and vast economic powers. In Bush’s narrative, Cleveland and Ohio were similarly challenged by British Petroleum’s brand of global capitalism. It is important that political entities both great and small understand the nature of the battle.

The second sub-plot describes how global capitalism actually works, with the amoral maximization of profit as the essential purpose of corporations. The third sub-plot, and perhaps the most important, is the metamorphosis of the American democratic system in ways that citizens of every political persuasion should heed.

Perry Bush, who teaches at Bluffton University, sixteen miles from Lima, has written an interesting, perceptive, and prophetic book that deserves a wide reading.