Monthly Archives: May 2011

Aging gracefully

Recently while looking into the mirror it occurred to me that the glistening locks of hair were not the results of the new conditioner I was using but the silver tint of gray hair! Me? Gray hair? It seemed preposterous. I shared this revelation with my wife who marveled that I was just noticing it—apparently I’ve had gray hair for a while.


I studied the new coloration for a moment with some amusement, staring at my own seasoned visage—not just the shiny new strands but some creases and scars, some spots and a receding hair line; crow’s feet around the eyes, extra “bits” here and there.  Was it at this point in life that I’m supposed to freak out?

While locked in a stare at the image in the mirror I suddenly remembered looking at the same face thirty years previous on a particular day in June. I was fifteen.  My face told a much different story: not of getting old but of not getting old. Greasy strands of hair stood so sparse on my head I could see my scalp like a mountain in wintertime when the missing foliage reveals the ridge line. My lips and mouth were cut and crusty red with hundreds of sores– a bizarre side effect of a chemotherapy drug. It was excruciating to drink water let alone eat food. So there  I was in the hospital with an IV in my arm and isolated due to a lowered immunity. The trip to the bathroom required some maneuvering of the IV pole and an immodest hospital gown. And there in the mirror I caught a terrifying glimpse of someone: a freak. I had hit bottom. The youthful ambitions of being popular, rich and a rock star were a empty pursuit for others to entertain.  Would I be handed a billion dollars and my own TV show at that moment my net worth would still have been zero. I had almost forgotten that image…that boy in the mirror… long long ago………

But now, today, amazingly, I stand in the mirror with gray hair, male pattern baldness and all the honorable badges of middle age.

So what’s the problem?

Tradition of Trust

Late last year I visited Italy with my wife, two daughters, brother and mother. While my brother went gallivanting around Rome the first few days,  the rest of us hung out in Lucca—a medieval city surrounded by a thick wall, so thick that cyclist and pedestrians can circumnavigate the city from atop this fortifying bulwark.

Even though she had not been on a bicycle for years, my mother wanted to ride rather than walk the 3.5 mile circuit.  So we hunted down one of a handful of rental shops inside the city and found one cropping out of a wall on one side of the flagstone street.

The old proprietor knew no English so in a concoction of hand gestures and phrase-book Italian, I was able to convey that we wanted cinque biciclette. The gentleman outfitted the family with five simple bicycles—nothing spectacular but adequate for a pleasant day of riding.

And for these rentals I did not:

  • Pay in advance
  • Secure a deposit
  • Leave a credit card, driver’s license or passport as collateral
  • Sign a disclaimer
  • Document existing medical conditions
  • Present proof of medical insurance
  • Insist that I be made aware of my rights
  • Circumcise all household males

I simply gave a verbal estimate how long I thought we would need the rentals (tre ore?) which was totally inaccurate anyhow. Then off we went.

So we rode around the city and then rode around again and finally decided we had enough. But all the while I kept thinking that I was going to be taken to the cleaners when I returned the bicycles. What’s the catch? You know these Italians…

When we returned to the shop the Italian proprietor parked the bicycles. Then we were charged a pro-rated amount for the time we indicated we used them and nothing more.  And that was that.

It turns out the “catch” was something I had forgotten about—undocumented trust…between people…that had never met ..and will never meet again.

How radical.


Traditional vows

I did not plan on watching the Royal Wedding between commoner Kate Middleton and British Crown Prince William but I am very glad to have caught the principal part of the ceremony as I got ready for work that Friday morning. Later that day, I was presented with the usual “Who cares?” from co-workers to which I replied that, even though the union has no political significance in the United States or in the United Kingdom for that matter, it was very worth witnessing on artistic, historic, musical as well as traditional merits.

Wedding aside, I would have loved to have been present in that ancient cathedral if only to hear the Westminster Abbey choir power out notes far more potent than the boom-box urban hits blasting at my car at any given traffic stop in the Washington D.C. area.  To see heraldry and the royal banners flapping on the Rolls Royce pacing through the streets of London was a detail that did not go unnoticed. To hear the Archbishop of Canterbury put forward the tenets of the Christian faith in an uncompromising manner and to hear the name of God spoken reverently in a rich English accent moved me considerably. And I was riveted when the bride’s brother recited a passage from Paul’s epistle to the Roman church. It was beautiful, spiritual and traditional all at the same time.

There was one thing I took issue with, a detail I would have overlooked given the huge distraction that the HD version of the pageantry afforded–a detail pointed out repeatedly by Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters as the live coverage was playing out all over the world to an audience of two billion people.  The news duo was very, very careful to point out that the bride selectively omitted the instruction to “obey” or to “submit to” (i.e., her husband) in her vows which, according to tradition and the biblical text from Ephesians from which it is drawn, would be part of that recited by the bride on her day of marriage.

In deference to modern thinking, I understand why this would be so important to point out—but I also know that the context by which such obedience is commanded was also omitted. Allow me to put it another way: how would Sawyer and Walters respond if the groom omitted from his vow the exhortation to love his wife as Paul also admonishes in the letter to the church at Ephesus?  Would that be a problem?

Immediately after Paul commands couples to submit to one another in the model that we are to submit to Christ and his commands, we read this equally onerous exhortation to the groom:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself…

The manner in which Christ gave himself up was unto death as a suffering servant. Likewise a husband is commissioned to love and cherish his wife at the expense of his own well being (which includes not just his physical life but his thought life, occupational life and ambitions). Is such a man not worthy of her respect, submission and trust? If not, why is she marrying him?

The stark vision of a woman being subservient to a domineering husband is pathological—but that is not the model Paul is portraying. Far from it, Paul was actually describing something quite progressive for his time. In addition, our modern idea of a marital relationship being 50-50 is just as much a formula for disaster as modern statistics can attest. That sort of ratio is fine for commercial dealings or a legal contract. But marriage is to be a covenant and, consequently, not 50%-50%, but 100%-100%, something Paul referred to as a profound mystery:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.

Yes one plus one equals one.  That is the transcendent calculus of God, the calculus described at several moments in the Royal Wedding ceremony but lost on 99% of the audience including Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters whose track record in relationships and marriages are not anything to brag about or even suggest that the bride’s omission of the vow “to obey” will serve the couple well. It won’t, no more than the omission of the groom’s vow “to love” would have.



The Shock Value of Honesty

You are dining at a restaurant and the waitress brings you the bill which shows a charge for an item that you did not order or receive. What did you do? Perhaps you pointed it out, maybe complained and ultimately had the bill adjusted.

Same scenario but this time the waitress brings you the bill and it does not show an item that you ordered and received. What did you do in this case?

Once upon a time for the latter scenario, I would have said nothing. I would have pocketed the gain and then rationalized it telling myself all’s fair; stick it to the man; they’d do it to me; pennies from heaven or <fill in the blank>.  That was before a sermon I heard put this sort of thing in perspective: is the price of your integrity worth the price of a cup of coffee or slice of pie for which you were not charged at a restaurant?  It was convicting.

Psalm 15 makes the point timelessly:

LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbor, and casts no slur on others; who despises a vile person but honors those who fear the LORD; who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind; who lends money to the poor without interest; who does not accept a bribe against the innocent. Whoever does these things will never be shaken.

Well, since then I have changed my ways on this and now to a point where I actually relish the shock value of being honest in marketplace dealings. Imagine going all the way back to the store, pulling out a receipt or item and telling the store manager you were not charged appropriately, that is, you were not charged more than you should have been. Now it must happen a dozen times a day that a customer returns to complain that they’ve been overcharged —but how often does he hear from a customer who was undercharged? The reactions can vary from “Ah, honesty!” to “What sort of fool are you?”. Yes, expect to pay the price—all of it. Sometimes the mistake is actually theirs or they don’t care, but usually it does matter and books need to be balanced or a cashier needs to zero out at the end of the night. In any case, you are acting with integrity, honesty and nobility— a feeling more valuable than the one I had in my earlier days.

I perceive that at one point in our society, this sort of honest conduct was the norm—it was expected, it was taught and the alternative was unthinkable. The people we would have gypped were not some corporate behemoths or government bureaucracies but were part of our community, had a face, a name, a family, a reputation, and real needs.  We might have known that the person serving our dinner was a single mom supporting a special needs kid or a man trying to keep his family together. Our hearts would have been moved, not to skim the bill, but to inflate it magnanimously.

I was able to receive this sort of shock value recently on a business trip–twice. I ordered an Ayinger Dopplebock at a restaurant and was undercharged. I called the waitress over who showed exasperation at what she thought was an imminent episode of “overcharged customer” outrage. Surprise! I ended up paying the lower price anyway since, these days, whatever the computer says trumps whatever is printed in a menu and she didn’t want to deal with it. Same thing happened on the next night when I ordered the same thing again—this time the barkeeper who thought he knew his menu and was a bit incredulous. I guess he did not know that this was my episode of Groundhog Day. Maybe I should have betted him…