Sunday, August 30, 2009


Several decades ago, Gail Sheehy's book Passages came out. It was an interesting although light read. But, much of what she said stuck with me. She came up with some catchy phrases to identify stages that we pass through on our adult journeys--the trying 20s, the Catch 30s, the Forlorn 40s, the Refreshed 50s. I don't think she went into the Sizzling 60s (my term. at least I think it is).

Watching the coverage of the Ted Kennedy funeral this week, I thought--my life passages have been marked, to a limited extent, by Kennedy deaths.

It was a Friday. I was a sophomore in college, and a member of the debate team. We were getting ready to head off campus for an inter-collegiate debate. I think we were going to Fordham University in New York City. Suddenly, the news came through that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, while on a trip to Dallas, Texas.

A year before, my classmates and I, completely fresh freshmen, had listened anxiously through several days as the United States and the Soviet Union inched toward a seemingly inevitable nuclear confrontation. Under President Kennedy's hand, such a showdown was averted.

I was not initially a Kennedy supporter. I grew up in a solidly Republican environment. I vividly remember walking to a neighbor's house to watch the Kennedy-Nixon debates. I was living with my mother's sister, my aunt, for a year after my parents had returned to their mission work in Africa. Television was a rarity then, and my aunt and her family did not have one. But this neighbor did. So, in this solidly Republican area of Pennsylvania, we watched and cheered on Richard Nixon, convinced that he was the heir apparent to President Eisenhower's peaceful time as President. Of course, we all know Kennedy won the election. I was stunned--how could it be that a godless Democrat--and a Catholic at that--had won the presidency.

Now, three years later, we were grief stricken at the news of his having been shot. And then the news was compounded and deepened--President Kennedy had died. I suppose if I had to pick a single moment that marked my transition from childhood to adulthood, it would be that death.

Fast forward five years. I had finished my undergraduate years, and a year at graduate school. A newly minted master's student, I had returned to my alma mater to teach. I had just finished the school year. It was one of my first days home, and I was sleeping in. When I got up, I turned on the television, curious to know what if any news there was.

The calm of that early summer morning was destroyed by the unbelievable news--Robert Kennedy had been shot and killed. By now, my husband--of all of 6 months--and I were moving away from being Republicans. Bobby Kennedy had caught our imaginations. He was so fresh, so wonderful a change from Lyndon Johnson who was care-worn and seemingly incapable of ending the horrific war in Vietnam. Bobby Kennedy offered hope that we could recapture some of the idealistic enthusiasm that had made the 1960s such heady years. And now he was dead.

His death, so close on the heels of Martin Luther King's assassination, seemed to rob us of all hope that right could prevail.

Of course, there have been many milestones in my life in the years between Bobby's death and Teddy's death. 1968 to 2009. Much happens in 41 years. My husband and I, so disillusioned by Nixon's betrayal of the country in Watergate, switched to the Democratic party. Our children were born, and grew, and went to college and graduate school, graduating successfully. They have found their own life partners.

Several years ago, I retired (sort of) and have turned my attention to gratifying endeavors, such as teaching at my community college. There are many good things in life yet to come--including our daughter's wedding, and some day--we pray--grandchildren.

And now, the last of the Kennedy brothers has died. Teddy's death doesn't really mark a specific moment in my life. But there is a sunset aspect to many things these days. Next year, I will be qualified for Medicare--so I am in the senior status here. Perhaps that sunset glow has colored my view.

There is a bitter sweetness to contemplating Teddy Kennedy's life. As some commentators noted, he was granted the gift of time that his brothers were denied. As a result, he saw his children grown, and married. He saw his grandchildren born and growing. He found work that he relished, that enriched him as he enriched the world. He was able to grow beyond the painful mistakes of his youth and make a genuine contribution to improve the world.

It is a measure of a life that we all can envy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What is Man?

It is said that two literary forces shaped the English language of today--Shakespeare's plays, and the King James' version of the Bible.

Each of these works of literature has a marvelously eloquent passage considering the question that titles this post: what is man?

In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Hamlet is once again ruminating on the meaning of life. The character Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare's most thoughtful character--he has more lines of dialogue than any other Shakespearean character. He has 6 major soliloquies where he ponders his situation, and tries to sort out what to do. Of course, the most famous of these soliloquies is his "to be or not to be" one.

In Act II, Hamlet says:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?
(Act II, scene ii, lines 303-312)

These lines are so lovely, so lyrical that when the musical Hair was written, these lines were used as one of the solos. I can hear the music now, as I write.

The King James version of the Bible has a Psalm that seems to echo and reinforce Hamlet's query.

From Psalm 8, verses 3-8

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

what is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,
and hast crowned him with glory and honor.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet:

all sheep and oxen,
yea, and the beasts of the field;

the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea,
and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

There it is again--that question--what is man that thou art mindful of him?

In my teaching, I have encountered students who absolutely dispute the need to do anything about the environment because, they say, man is in charge. That God gave man the whole earth to use, to dominate, to bend to his will. And if destruction is the consequence, so be it--God allows it.

I cringe when I hear such a sentiment expressed. These students are reflecting a dominionist train of thought--"thou madest him to have dominion over all".

And, now we have this story that absolutely stopped me in my tracks--and made me want to retch with disgust. This
BBC report is hard to take, so only read it if you think you can handle it.

I don't have an answer, only a question.

What is man?

I trust you will pardon my gender specific language. I acquiesced to it because of the convention of language in the two pieces I used. I do not think men are more blame-worthy than women. So perhaps, the most inclusive question is...

What is humanity? Or even whither humanity?

As go our cousins in the animal kingdom, so go we.

Friday, August 21, 2009

It's Been a Wild Week

Sitting at my computer this evening, I glanced out the window to see a golden glow. This has happened from time to time, and it always draws me outside. I love to look at the warm glow of a late summer sky. This evening's sky did not disappoint. The only resentment I feel at all is that neighbors had the temerity to build to the west of our house, thus obstructing my view of the sunset. But I did my best--I climbed a small hill and took several photos.

This marvelous sky is the very least that Mother Nature can do after the weather that has been thrown at us the last week. I would have been perfectly happy to go the whole summer without a week of high humidity and scorching temperatures. But, by the third week of August, I guess I should not be surprised that the heat and humidity finally arrived.

Since Monday, the weather here has been unsettled. Temperatures inched over 90 degrees--in a summer that has not seen 90 degree levels. And then on Thursday, tornado warnings sprouted all over the central PA area. Understand, mostly we do not have tornadoes in this part of the country. I turned on the television around 3 p.m. to catch the weather forecast, only to find the various local stations had pre-empted their usual fare ( no loss) to broadcast tornado warnings non-stop. Then the skies lowered, and the rain came down. In buckets. And buckets. The weird thing is that the official record keeping location--at the airport--experienced no rain fall.

Today was almost a repeat of yesterday, minus the tornado warnings. However, the downpour of rain flooded Front St., along the river in our capital city. Quite a sight.

I always enjoy the opening that Garrison Keillor gives when he says "It's been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon, my home town."

Well, it's not been a quiet week here in Harrisburg, my home town.

But the lovely golden sky this evening portends fairer weather in the days to come. . .I hope.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

If A Tree Falls...

My blogging friend "Scribe" (his nom-de-plume shortened) recently wrote about a tree falling along a river bank. Scribe lives riverside "somewhere in Ohio" and the sound of the tree crashing to earth disturbed his peaceful evening.

That account set my memory racing as I recalled an earlier episode of tree falling next to our house. My husband and I do not live riverside, but we had a tree fall some years ago. When we moved into our house, the neighborhood was somewhat barren of trees. I remedied that by setting to planting trees everywhere one would fit.

We got bare root stock fir trees, that I foolishly planted about 6 feet apart. Tiny trees that are 18 inches high look pathetic when set at a proper distance to accommodate growth. What did I know? As it happens, every other tree was a Japanese pine tree--which tend to grow as wide as high. Eventually, we took down every other tree, to allow the remaining fir trees to grow--Douglas fir, blue spruce, some white pine, a couple of Norway spruce, and an Austrian pine.

Around the house, I planted hardwood trees. I picked places to plant trees by standing in the afternoon on the west side of the house. When the shadows fell, we planted a green ash, a crimson maple, and a Bradford pear (also called a Callery pear). I loved the glossy leaves of the Bradford pear. In the spring, it had pretty flowers, though stinky. And in the fall, the leaves lingered on the tree turning a lovely deep crimson red. What I didn't know was that these trees are not hardy.

We had gone to New York City over a long weekend in early November--Veteran's Day. As it happened, there was an early sloppy wet snow storm. We had just returned home, when we heard a loud CRACK outside. Since there was a storm outside, we thought it must be thunder. But, we looked out the window, and there was a tree branch leaning against it. The heavy wet snow had coated the leaves which were still on the tree, and all that excess weight caused the branch to snap.

We ran outside, to see our Bradford pear tree with one large branch broken, leaning perilously against the house.

Our neighbor from across the street came over, and began to help my husband pull the broken branch away from the house. The remaining portion of the tree now had two main branches. I wanted to be out of the way of the branch being removed from our house, so I stood on the far side of the ailing tree.

Suddenly, there was another loud CRACK and the other two main branches snapped off, falling my direction. If you picture a large Y, and if you place me at the crook of the Y, that's how the tree fell around me. I instinctively ducked when I heard the crack, and the snow-sodden leaves brushed harmlessly past my face. There I stood in the middle of the rest of the tree, now lying on the ground.

I was dumb-struck. A step to either side, and it would have been a branch whacking me on the head.

Well, in the next couple of days, the tree was completely taken down, the fallen branches chopped up and hauled off. And, where the tree once stood, we built a sun porch addition on the house.

If a tree falls...
The photo is one from the Internet--I do not have any photos of our fallen tree. What I have learned since this episode is that, lovely as this tree is, it is an invasive type of tree.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What's Essential

In the last post, I asked what you can't live without. Thanks for all the fascinating answers.

Last evening, I stepped outside to do something, and I noticed the lovely cloud formations. They were breathtakingly dramatic--seeming to portend change. We have had a series of stormy days, but these clouds brought no rain.

As I whirled around, camera in hand, trying to photograph them, I suddenly thought--here's something I can't live without.

I do not enjoy clear cloudless skies all that much. In fact, I avoid too much sun exposure. But I love clouds.

So, I'll share.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Things We Can't Live Without

Here in the eastern U.S., it promises to be a hot muggy day. The kind of day that really makes you think--it's summertime. And, I confess, the kind of day that makes me grateful for centralized air-conditioning.

You guessed it...that got me to thinking about things we can't live without. Now. At one time, of course, we lived without these things. With the advent of centralized air conditioning in almost every new home, many features that were once characteristic of house construction are gone. Gone are the wonderful wide sweeping porches that wrapped around the entire house. Gone too are porch swings. Gone are the deep set windows on all sides of a house. When we bought the house we now live in--nearly 30 years ago--one of the features I really liked was windows on all sides. Many of the houses in this neighborhood have windows only on the front and back of a house.

Other things we can't live without? Well, here I sit at a keyboard. The thought of beginning my day without checking email makes me blanch. Yet, if you think back to when you first began using email, you are not thinking too far back in time. Along with computers, we have the whole explosion of electronic communication.

Can any of you live without your cell phones for an extended time?

Things that were once luxuries are now virtual necessities. I remember fondly the first radio I owned--a pink plastic radio that looked very much like this. I would scrunch up near the headboard of my bed, where the radio sat, and listen at night to rock 'n' roll. That radio could not be carried anywhere, nor played without access to electricity. And it was an absolute luxury to possess one. Today's red I-Pod is now a necessity.

Not all the things we can't live without depend on electricity. I recognize this next item dates me--so what? I can recall working in an office where I had a boss who was always sniffing out the newest do-dads. One day, he came in with this little stack of paper. He proceeded to peel off the sheets, and slap them on documents. With 3-M's sticky notes, office practice was forever changed. I can't imagine working in any setting without having Post-its or some such item.

To be sure, I am simply reflecting the fact that the passage of time always brings new ways of doing things.

You probably have things you can't live without. Care to name them?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Language of Faith

Today was the memorial service for our beloved church sexton. At age 74, Jim was indeed the patriarch of a large loving spreading family. He is survived by wife, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, sisters, cousins, and many many friends. Many of this family, who are not regular members of our church, were understandably in attendance at the service.

While our church is blessed to have an ethnic mix that is not characteristics of many churches--Sunday morning service has been described as the most segregated hour in our nation--we are still a predominantly white church. We have African-American members, and we have Korean members, but still the bulk of our membership is white.

Of course, ethnic background and custom dictates a particular kind of language. The cadences of speech change depending on where you worship. You could walk into various houses of worship during customary worship times, and recognize with a fair degree of certainty where you are. We are Presbyterians--sometimes not kindly referred to as "God's frozen chosen." Ours is largely a liturgical worship style. It is rare--though not unheard of--for someone to say AMEN during a service. Or, should I say, for someone to say AMEN when it is not the end of a prayer.

So today, we heard quite a few AMENs.

What strikes me about this observation is that language to some extent shapes how we think about things. King James I of England knew this--so when he became King of England he commissioned a translation of the Bible. Contrary to popular opinion, the original transcription of Scriptures was not in King James English--but so much has the King James English insinuated itself into our English language consciousness that it is hard to think otherwise.

The story of this translation is fascinating, but not the subject here. You can read it in the wonderful book
God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. One of the outstanding features of the King James version is the glorification of kingship. As you read many passages, over and over again, the emphasis is on kingdom, kingship. (Pretty sneaky of KING James, eh?)

As our closing hymn today, we sang that lovely spiritual "Soon, and Very Soon, We are Going to Meet the King." Which, of course, got me to thinking--how interesting that in our country, a democracy without monarchy, we celebrate the concept of monarchy and enshrine in the text of hymns.

The language of faith has many other peculiar iterations than whether or not we honor kingship. I don't intend to explore all of those aspects now, but think about this, for example: The King James version presumes a three-tiered universe--heaven is above, earth in the middle, and hell below. Of course, we know the earth is round.

Oh the examples are too numerous. And I am still savoring the sweetness of a life remembered and celebrated. It is no stretch to believe that Jim, our sexton, has indeed gone to see the King.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Ten Leading Causes

Some years ago, I heard then Governor Lamm (of Colorado) give a speech about health policy. He was one of those people who said things that were seen as being outrageous--people would get very angry at what he said. For example, he said--old people have a duty to die. He was widely misunderstood for that statement. More on this statement later.

Among the things he said in the speech I heard was a statement that really struck me at the time, and that has stayed with me. He said--there will ALWAYS be 10 leading causes of death.

Health policy people (which I was at the time) love to look at statistical analyses and compute things such as life expectancy, leading causes of death, and so on. A cheery lot! Health policy people look at the epidemiology of health issues--what is happening, why is it happening, what are the causes. Knowing these things helps you design interventions.

When Governor Lamm said--there will always be 10 leading causes of death--a virtual light bulb went on over my head. Of course! Throughout all of history, people have died--and if you had the statistics, you could compute what caused those deaths.

Over time, the reasons, of course, have shifted. For example, in 1900 the leading causes of death (according the CDC) were:

1. pneumonia & influenza
2. tuberculosis
3. diabetes
4. diseases of the heart
5. intracranial lesions (stroke)
6. nephritis
7. accidents (excluding motor-vehicle)
8. cancer
9. senility
10. diphtheria
The average life expectancy was 49.2 years.

In the year 2006, the list shows evidence of medical advances, as communicable diseases such as diphtheria are largely controlled by immunizations, chronic diseases such as diabetes are understood, and antibiotics help with lethal effects of bacterial infections.

1. heart disease
2. cancer
3. stroke
4. chronic respiratory diseases
5. accidents
6. diabetes
7. Alzheimer's disease
8. influenza and pneumonia
9. nephritis
10. septicemia

And the average life expectancy has risen to 78.1 years.

It is striking that many of the same causes are there; the positions have switched around. The other big change is that the top diseases are those that usually take a life time to accumulate and end up causing death.

If we would go further down the list, you would find that suicide is the 11th leading cause, and homicide the 15th.

The placement of these two causes of death--entirely preventable--brings me to what it is that health policy people really want to focus on. Death, of course, is not preventable. I am reminded of the scriptural saying: it is appointed unto man once to die. Death is a condition of life.

What is preventable is UNTIMELY death. If you listen to health policy talk long enough, you might hear the term that sounds like "yipple." Don't go running to the dictionary--it is an acronym: YPLL=years of productive life lost. So it is not death that should be challenged, but untimely death. We should put our greatest effort in reducing those deaths that are preventable.

My--you must be thinking along about now--what is it with KGMom? Yes, the subject of death has been on my mind. The death of our church sexton reminds me of the unpredictability of death. But I can't think of a better way to die. Jim lived a long, productive joy-filled life. He spent the last days of his life with his family, enjoying a vacation. There was no painful lingering--he was here one moment, and then gone.

I promised a comment or two on Governor Lamm's outrageous statement that old people have a duty to die. He was not advocating involuntary euthanasia. He was simply arguing for the best use of scarce health resources. Since death is certain, he reasoned, public money should not be spent on ever more costly health resources to treat the diseases that are the eventual causes of death in people of extremely advanced years. I suspect, he might have thought it poor use of health resources to perform heart surgery on Dr. Michael DeBakey at age 97. DeBakey had turned down having surgery, but when he became "unresponsive" a surgical team performed surgery anyway. He took 8 months to recuperate, at a cost of $1 million. He was eventually "returned to good health" and lived two more years.

Why Dr. DeBakey? Well, he pioneered open heart surgery. No doubt his colleaguess felt they couldn't let him die of heart disease. But his case really raises difficult questions.

As we continue to debate health care coverage in the U.S., it is instructive to remember--people die. People have to die. It is a condition of life. We should place our emphasis on preventing untimely deaths, not place our emphasis on prolonging lives beyond a reasonable life span.