Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Growing Up Too Fast

People often say to me, "kids grow up too fast these days."

This concept doesn't bear up under scrutiny. First, because the world has always been overpopulated by kids that grew up too fast. There are 6 year-olds making bricks in India and "oriental" rugs in Pakistan. Eleven year-old girls are still being married off in India, Bangladesh and assorted other places. Families are chicken-scratching the dirt around their huts in various villages, trying to get enough food to sustain themselves.

Twenty years ago, I frequented a taqueria in my neighborhood. Most of the time, the cash register was managed by a girl so small and young, she had to stand on a step stool in order to reach the keys and cash drawer. At perhaps age 8 or 9, she was quite adept at handling money accurately.

I was babysitting my sisters while my parents went out by the time I was 12. By 14, I was babysitting neighborhood kids and at 15 I had a "real job" working on a farm after school and weekends.

So, what actually prompts the observation that "kids grow up too fast,
these days"?  The behavior that elicits this comment appears to actually be detachment from family. It's not that the kids are more mature, or more responsible, or have gained in understanding of the world around them. It's that they've retreated into solipsistic worlds dominated by rapid self-gratification and conscious rejection of family ties.

We think of being "grown up" as being self-sufficient; and the kid engrossed in rapid fire texting has that superficial appearance of such. After all, she's mastered a fairly complex tool and wields it with real skill. But, too often, that kid cannot come to grips with the basics of taking out the garbage, emptying the dishwasher or putting her clean laundry away. And she can't come to grips with the basics of interpersonal responsibility, either. By which I mean, being respectful to and of other people.

Family is the core interpersonal structure for children. Good or bad. The most mature children I see are not the ones who are left to make their own decisions as much as possible. They're the ones who have been given the most structure and guidance in learning how to make good decisions; which would seem to me to be the only way for them to learn to tell the difference between good and bad.

But it's a lot of work. You keep telling yourself that you are doing this for the long term results; but sometimes, some short-term positive feedback would be -- well, nice. You have to keep on the lookout for the small things. Like, when one of the girls calls me "dad" and forgets to self-correct; or puts me in her contact list as "Meister." Or buys me a Christmas present that she knows I'll like. Or surprises me in my office with breakfast.

When she was five years old, Reyna could cook us toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast, by herself. That's not being grown up; that's acquiring a skill or better, a set of skills. Being grown up is a complex interaction of skills which we use to manage our time, our relations to other people and a whole interlocking set of economic, spiritual and social behaviors; manage them in such a way that we feel good, the others around us feel good, and the world is a better place for having us in it.

In that light, I'm not all that grown up, myself. I guess it's not a point of arrival, but an aspiration. You don't get up one day and look in the mirror at a "grownup." You lose your temper, or one sock in the laundry, and realize you're not there yet. Buckle down and have at it. It's not too late.


And first of the occasion and indusments ther unto; the which that I may truly unfould, I must begine at the very roote & rise of the same.  The which I shall endevor to manefest in a plaine stile, with singuler regard unto the simple trueth in all things, at least as near as my slender judgmente can attaine the same. 
-- William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation

I've long had a fondness for that quote. How better to start a book, or even a day? "I must begine at the very roote & rise..." Humility and determination are a powerful combination.

We -- the family -- are lighting out on a family adventure, a quick trip down to Daytona Beach, FL for a couple days on the beach, maybe even some sun. DB being in the northern part of Florida, it's not overly warm there this time of year; 65-70 is the forecast. Which will put the thermometer about 40-50 degrees warmer than it is here!  I'm for it.

The little gals wanted to take along friends. I said no. It's not unusual for us to take their friends along -- last summer we took one of Laura's friends and two of Reyna's friends with us for our annual week-long camping trip in the Adirondacks. We take them with us to museums and other assorted short trips (Great Wolf Lodge last year for 3 days of Spring break). But, I just want a family trip, this time. Just the four of us, with all the potential for getting on one another's last nerve entailed by an 18-hour drive and a few days at the Courtyard Marriott. Alas, my observation has been that there's more misbehavior by the girls when their friends are along, rather than less. Mama's theory is that the girls will have "more to do" with their friends
along, but it doesn't seem to work out that way. Instead, we often find ourselves contending with a "let me show my friends how saucy I can be" display.  (Of course, the corollary is that without their friends, we get the "this is so boring" pouting sessions.  Game on!)

First day, we will spend in St Augustine, which identifies itself as the "oldest city in America." We'll take the kids to the Old Town and through the fort. Then, we'll go down to DB and hang out. I'm looking forward to going down to the boardwalk (anything going on there, this time of year?) and the beach.   According to the information I googled up about fishing in DB, we'll be able to fish off the pier and catch some sheep's heads. These are a kind of fierce-looking fish but common as dirt. And they can grow quite large.  The detail is that they are quite adept at stealing bait, so you have to fish them with a small hook; therefore, once you've hooked them, you have the additional challenge of reeling them all that way up to the pier.

The Main Street Pier is described as "the longest pier on the east coast," extending 1000 feet out into the ocean.  Like pretty much everything else in FL, it's a commercial enterprise; you have to pay money just to walk out to the end.  We will.

Reyna is supposed to hook up with her school friend Ebony, whose family moved to the DB area last year.  I believe the plan is to give her over to Ebony's family for a day, and they'll take her along with them for a visit to Jacksonville.

If all goes according to plan, we will arrive back in CT on Sunday afternoon, tired but refreshed and ready to "bring it" to the New Year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

TSA Rules and LAWKI

When I studied astronomy at university, back in the day (way back), discussions of life in the universe included the term LAWKI, which  stands for Life As We Know It. In universal terms, LAWKI refers to the fact that we "carbon-based life forms" have limited ability to conceive of life on any basis other than our own. A frequent theme of Star Trek and related fantasies, is just such other forms of life: intelligent clouds of gas in space, silicon-based intelligent crystals, talking lizards and so forth.

One might look with such difficulty at the current discussions of new TSA rules, and with about as much success, for intelligent life. Certainly, LAWKI does not inhabit the alternative universe from which most of the discussion seems to come.  The TSA has a page prominently linked on their web site:  Guidance for Passengers. It does not require a university education to go to the TSA web site, click through and read the actual implementation of new rules. Why then, does all the discussion I've seen rely on made-up "facts"?

The summary from the fact-based universe is that the TSA has implemented a set of security measures, the exact details of which are not released to the public. (For reasons that should be obvious.)  The measures are not being deployed across the board, but rather in a rolling manner, randomly or pseudo-randomly, so that at any given airport or on any given flight, no travellers will know exactly what to expect.

Doesn't this make sense? It makes sense to me!

Additionally, based on the behavior of the passenger who tried to bomb the plane on Christmas day, inbound international flights will have additional restrictions. Among these are restrictions on movement and handling of personal items toward the end of the flight. These restrictions apply only on international flights.

Now, I might say that these restrictions make little sense in the long run, but in the short term, they may make sense in this regard: nut jobs run in packs. The copycat nutter who sees someone try a stunt like this, and whose dim bulb brightens at the prospect of a "good idea," is a dangerous and known phenomenon. The purpose of the restrictions on international flights is (or may be) simply to prevent the unhinged from following up with additional, and possibly more effective, attempts at the same trick.

For five years, from 2002 to 2007, I spent about three weeks of each month travelling around the United States. I was so sick of being gone from home; my wife said she felt like a single mother. I would rather drive 6 hours to Baltimore than take the 45-minute flight from Bradley. So, I have plenty of firsthand experience with TSA and airport security. Many of the rules, I regard as stupid and annnoying. But, they exist and you will be required to follow them.  For the sake of sanity, stop bitching and figure out how to make the process as quick as possible.

  • Use your passport for identification.
  • Have it ready before you get to the inspection point.
  • Know where your stuff is. Don't block up the line trying to find it.
  • Understand the rules about liquids such as shampoo and make sure your carryon items will pass inspection.
  • Don't argue.
  • Don't lollygag. Move like you have a purpose when getting out your laptop, taking off your shoes, &c.
  • If you have to wear metal jewelry, don't wait until you get to the checkpoint to take it off!
  • Think.

Much of the rulemaking for air travel is premissed on the fact that Americans expect the government to take all responsibility for travel safety. All the complainers who are now affronted by the TSA rules, would be equally affronted if a copycat bomber followed up this guy with another attempt because the new restrictions were not in place. I would argue that there's inherent risk in getting on a plane and travellers ought to bear some reasonable level of that risk.

The argument is over what constitutes "reasonable" in this event. For most Americans, evidently, any risk at all is "unreasonable."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Sense of Sin

I dreamed I saw St Augustine
Alive with fiery breath.
I dreamed I was among the ones
That put him out to death.
Oh, I awoke in anger, so alone and terrified.
I put my fingers against the glass,
And bowed my head and cried.
-- Bob Dylan, I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine

It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I am frequently overcome in church when singing hymns (and sometimes, when not in church). I'll choke up and tears come. I'm trying to maintain my composure in the midst of the crowd. I'm especially susceptible to Amazing Grace and What Child Is This.

Today was the traditional post-Christmas Hymn Sing-a-long, during which members of the congregation call out a Christmas hymn and we all sing the first verse. I was hammered by Silent Night today.

I've been known to blub during the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony; and the floodwaters roll during the Ode to Joy in the 9th. Music has that effect on me. It drills like a dentist into my spiritual root.

Church service is the one place where I can feel, for a short while, that I might beat the rap with this "sin thing." It's almost too much to hope for.


Samuel Johnson is reported by Boswell to have remarked, "If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair."

How true.

I am forced to admit that I have not made friends easily in my life.  I have many irritating habits, I'm afraid; and not much insight into controlling them. As a boy, I was what is sometimes called "painfully shy," and would become tongue-tied and inarticulate even when spoken to by schoolbus friends. I acquired a reputation for being "stuck up" because I couldn't respond to the simplest "hello" in the school hallway.

One acquires friends mostly by being thrown together happenstance. At university, at work, at the YMCA. There would seem to be levels of friendship, at the bottom of which is mere acquaintance and at the top of which is lifelong commitment. I've acquired friendships at work that lasted beyond, as one or the other of us has moved on; sometimes years or months. But it seems more usual that once the bond of proximity is broken, the two particles fly apart, to lock into different orbits, different friends.

I have a handful of friends, with whom I have become intimately acquainted and for whom I have the highest regard. A couple of these friendships have endured through forty years of my social blundering.  It beggars the imagination.

Now, there's more history behind me than prospect before. I look back over a path lighted by the beacons of friendships. Having friends is a strange, wonderful experience.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Invocation of Jesus' Name

I often feel that the invocation of Jesus' name is a kind of swearing.

The Biblical injunction against swearing, codified in the commandment, "Do not take the Lord's name in vain," may have risen out of the context of the times: swearing oaths by the gods (or God) was a common practice, one committed without reverence.

Just so, it seems to me that the purpose or meaning of living a Christian life is precisely in the living, not in the proclamation of faith. James writes, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." (James 2:14-17). I take that
message to heart. "...I by my works will show you my faith." (ibid, 18b).

Of course, many criticisms can be laid against me in the expression of my faith. Do I do enough? No. But will I ever shirk my duty in the living of my faith? No. Because my duty (our duty) is to make our lives expressions of our faith. That is not and is not intended to be easy. It is not about going to church. It is about action.

Protestations of faith, particularly of the "I love Jesus" variety, are not faith. I'm not even sure what relation, exactly, they have to faith itself. It seems to be a form of bragging. It's a point at which one would do well to remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14)

I am the tax collector. If anyone ever was in need of mercy and grace, I am that one.

One Sunday, I was at church prior to service, helping to set up the hospitality tables for the fellowship gathering that takes place after
service. The phone in the fellowship hall rang. My friend Tim answered it. The caller was an elderly woman, living in a motel, and disabled. She was calling the church on a Sunday morning because there were no social services available on the weekend and she had no food. Someone had given her the number of the church. Tim took the call, got her name and location and phone number. He then set about collecting food for her from our pantry. At first, he was just going to get her a few items and take them over to her after service. By the time he finally headed out the door, he had three boxes of food, gathered with the help of numerous members.

There are many ways that could have played out. He could have taken the call, referred it back to the pastor; referred it to our minister of visitation; called the soup kitchen/pantry in downtown Waterbury; even told her to call back on Monday when the office was open. He didn't. For Tim, the natural action was to gather up what she needed and take it to her. His plans for that afternoon were superseded by the needs of a helpless old woman that he didn't know.

That's living, dynamic faith.

In his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, John Bunyan describes a period in his imprisonment during which he was so overwhelmed by his sense of his own sinfulness that he experienced it literally, physically, as pinpricks all over his body. Bunyan was imprisoned for 12 years for refusing to abandon his Puritan beliefs and attend Anglican services. "If you release me today, I will preach tomorrow," he said. Although he may have believed himself as one of the "elect," chosen by God, he never saw that election as justification; but rather, saw his justification before God as the living of his faith.

We should all go there.

The Meister of Spanken

A few years ago, now, I happened to enter the living room while the girls were watching cartoons on TV, and I noticed that one of the cartoon characters was referring to "Grandma Spankenheimer."  This made me laugh but I realized that the inside joke was missed by the girls.  I immediately adopted for myself the sobriquet "The Spankenheimer," which was sometimes elongated to "The Spankenheimer Meister" -- The Master of Spanken.

The Spankenheimer was typically called up at bedtime, when a certain recalcitrant girl would be resisting the imperative to get into bed.  The call would go out, "Spankenheimer!  Laura won't get into bed."  And then the Spankenheimer would begin his terrifying chant:

"Fee! Fie! Foe! Fum!
I want to spank some little girl's bum!
Be she in or out of bed,
I'll spank her bum until her face is red!"

And then would issue from the bedroom squeals of delighted terror.  Sometimes followed by protestations that it was Mama's fault, "she should get a spankin'!" 

Time has gone by, but I'm still the Spankenheimer, and still glad to be so.  And I notice that on Laura's cell phone, my contact entry is named "Meister."

Thus are family traditions born.