Monday, October 28, 2013

"Over the Hill" and Liking It! How's Your Hike Going?

Over the Hill (American idiom) 1.A reference to a journey over a hill; to reach the top and begin your journey down; past the midpoint

I’ve got another birthday coming up soon, year 53, which I’ll mark in early November.  It would be easy to comfort myself in the reassurance that I’m now just “middle aged” but I’ve never been a fan of that ambiguous, squishy phrase which claims that the “middle” of  life is between 40 and 60.  To me “middle” means just that middle: mid-point, half-way, the exact time between that which was and that which will be.

So if I really were “middle aged” that means I’ll be on this earth ‘til I’m 106!  Who knows? That might happen. None of us knows when life will end.  I do have a 99 year old grandfather who is still going strong, lives on his own, watches “Jeopardy” on TV every night and even knows most of the answers.  I hope I have his genes. 

But “middle” aged? Not so much.  That train’s left the station. If I go by the average life expectancy of an American male, as reported by the Social Security Administration, statistically speaking I’ve got 29 and a half years left, after having lived 52 years, 51 weeks and one day of life as of today. I’m 64 percent done, 36 percent to go.  If were a baseball player I’d be batting in the top of the sixth inning with one out. A golfer I’d be strolling up to 12th hole. A day on the calendar, I’m August 23rd, warm days still hanging on, but nights now cooling down with autumn just around the corner.

The real truth? At 53 I’m now “over the hill”: the point at which I’ve scaled the summit and am now in the final third of my life story. The journey is still so beautiful, the hike is still pretty challenging but the majority of life is behind me and so the question is: how do I deal with this reality?  Accept or not accept just where I find myself on the hill called human life?

Human age and aging is a funny thing. When young our days seem to unfold so slowly.  Then it takes so darn long to get to the next birthday, or to Christmas morning, to be big enough, old enough to take off the training wheels, to stay up or out late, to drive a car, to drink, to finally be on our own.  Then we look up at that big hill and wonder if we’ll ever make it to the top. Remember?

And then we do reach the summit and before we know it, the journey downward commences and then life kind of flies by.  I look in the mirror now and see a beard that’s now gone all white—when did Santa Claus show up in my bathroom?  The music on the radio is no longer familiar, the “hip” jeans no longer fit, not by a long shot, and the years seem to pile up so quickly. Wasn’t I just 30? 40?  That kid I dropped off at college? I can still feel their tiny hand in mine on the day I walked them into their pre-school classroom for the first time.  Remember?

This tension of aging always comes to us in one God given truth. We are created by God with infinite spirits yet finite bodies. Spirits which soar anchored within containers which have an absolute expiration date. Souls inside of us which never seem to change but shells outside which weather and wrinkle and wear down.  “Over the hill”….

Last week I reunited with a group of longtime clergy friends. Each year for the past twenty years, three times every year, we reunite for twenty four hour retreats.  In two decades we’ve climbed some very big hills together. Three marriages, one divorce, one adoption, ten births, and eighteen job changes. Caring for aging parents. Saying goodbye to Mom or Dad one last time.  Health scares. Churches: dying or growing or both, often very fast. We’ve morphed from young firebrands seeking radical change to seasoned veterans sometimes fearing change. 

Would I go back and change that climb up the hill? Not one bit. I’m where I’m at, now over the hill, and I’m liking it, some days actually loving it. 

How about you? Where are you at on the hill called human life? A quarter of the way along on the trail, boots laced up tight, sailing upwards? Half way up, taking a short rest perhaps?  On the peak and taking in an amazing vista? Or starting down on the other side, over that hill?

The hill is non-negotiable.  But how we hike it—that’s up to each of us.  As the songwriter James Taylor wrote, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. Any fool can do it. There ain't nothing to it. Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill. But since we're on our way down we might as well enjoy the ride.”

See you on the trail.


Monday, October 21, 2013

SURPRISE! Life Is Unpredictable and That Is Great!

Surprise (verb) strike with a sudden feeling of wonder or astonishment, as through unexpectedness; to come upon or discover suddenly and unexpectedly                                   --Random House Dictionary


It's been a very surprising two weeks in this part of the world if, like me, you are a Red Sox fan.  The Sox, who this week will start play in the 2013 World Series, are not supposed to be there, playing for a world championship.  Not after just one year ago finishing with their worst record in 47 years, dead last. Not after firing their manager after one truly terrible, awful season. Last March when spring training began, the Sox were 35-1 odds to make it to the October classic and now here they are, after winning more games this year than almost every other team in baseball.  Did I also mention that the team hit not one but two game tying or winning grand slam home runs in just eight days last week?  What are the odds on that? Ask bleary eyed fans around New England who stayed up past midnight to watch those blasts and they'll tell you it's off the charts, unbelievable. 

But that's sports. That's life. SURPRISE!

Because for all we humans think we know about what is coming next in life, about what lies just around the corner, about the next thing, the truth is that surprise is life. That at anytime we can prep and prepare and presume and predict but then there is a surprise, and we are caught totally off guard.

Things do not always turn out according to "the plan".  Randomness, not regularity, marks daily life. So those grand slamming Sox batters could have swung and whiffed and we'd be left to roll out the winter tarps at Fenway Park.  As "Freakonomics" author Stephen J. Dubner writes, "Random is as random does. Which is why predicting the future is such a fool’s errand." Or as Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia concluded, "We’re going to the World Series and nobody saw this coming.”


Yes, surprises can be disheartening.  I think that's why so many of us really don't like surprises. It is only human to remember most vividly the times we have been floored by life zigging when we expected it to zag. Getting tough health news from a doc when we thought it was a routine check up.  Being unceremoniously dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend without warning or getting fired from a job. The moment your kid handed you a report card filled with "D's" and "F's" and all that time you thought they were doing just great. 

SURPRISE!  Then surprises are like a punch in the gut. They rock our world, cause us to reel, even rethink our place in the universe which has just shifted in a second.  Surprises can shock. 

But surprises can be so sweet too, graceful unexpected gifts given to us by the Universe. Like wondering why your birthday has been so quiet then walking into a house full of folks, all of them there for you, all that love assembled in one place. SURPRISE! Or worrying, "Will I ever get pregnant!?" and then one day the test strip turns blue. A new life--wow! Hoping, praying for the best and then actually having that dream come true.    

In the midst of the Sox oh so surprising playoff run, I went to a karaoke party thrown by a local choir I sing in. Normal Friday night. Friends. Beers. Laughs. Nothing out of the ordinary. My friend Jeff got up to sing a song and invited his longtime love Charlene to do a duet. Predictable. And then Jeff nervously retrieved a box with a ring in it out of his pocket, got down on one knee, and said, "Will you marry me?"

SURPRISE! (And yes, she said "Yes!") 

A good life lesson there: to accept, even expect surprise as an amazing part of what it means to be human.  Surprise reminds us that life is finally uncontrollable. So the question is: will we see this truth as a God-given opportunity to embrace the adventure of existence?  Life is an unfolding story.  We never, ever know what's next, not really and that's what makes it so great, so precious, so surprising.

SURPRISE!  Gotta love it. Go Sox!


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Fan Asks: Is Football Finally Just Too Violent?

"After all, is football a game or a religion?"               --Howard Cosell

Come Sunday in America in 2013, there's always God.  But for a truly secular autumnal nationwide Sabbath, there's nothing like football and the National Football League (NFL). The NFL is America's game, America's true national past time. Sorry baseball.

The NFL is the most popular TV sport in the United States. Super Bowls are the top  twenty one most watched TV shows of all time: 167 million people saw the New England Patriots play in Super Bowl XLVI. The NFL is a cash machine, generating $8 billion dollars in yearly profits. Millions "play" in fantasy football leagues, turn to the sports page first thing, talk football around the water cooler. We fill up secular cathedrals on Sunday, from the last hot days of summer to the bone chilling days of February.

So what's not to love about the NFL and football?

I've absolutely loved football since I was a kid.  Attended my first Patriots game when I was ten, went to the Pats-Saints game last Sunday, cheered until I was hoarse. Played for five years too, relished the crunch of a hard hit, the elegance of a caught ball.  Even got my head hit so hard once, my "bell rung", that I saw the world in shades of lime green for a few minutes!  May have been a concussion, who knows?  Coach told me to just shake it off and go right back in and I did.

So how could there be anything wrong with football: as sport, entertainment, youth activity, national obsession?  Start with the most vulnerable part of the human body, the brain. When we watch a game, the most exciting moment, the one so many love, is when players run full speed into each another, often head first, violence writ large. SMACK.  CRASH.  BOOM.

How hard is that hit?  Researchers report these collisions generate force equivalent to crashing a car into a stonewall at 35 miles per hour.  The average NFL player experiences this jolt up to 1,500 times per season. Scientists are now discovering that such long term repeated head trauma takes its toll on the brain, for pros, college players and even for youth. "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), is a progressive degenerative disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma...[and can lead to]memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia." (The Sports Legacy Institute).

The players know this truth. Sunday at the Pats game wide receiver Danny Amendola took a vicious hit to the head, lay face down and motionless on the turf for thirty seconds and when he finally got up you could see in his foggy eyes and wobbly legs just how hard he'd been smacked.  Take Junior Seau, the Pats all pro linebacker. Soon after retiring, Seau's life spiraled out of control into a morass of crazy behavior. Seau eventually committed suicide. When his brain was examined it was found to contain CTE.  A group of brain researchers at Boston University (a program funded by the NFL) found CTE in the brains of 45 out of 46 retired NFL players after their deaths too.  Last August the NFL settled a class action concussion related lawsuit with retired players for $765 million.

And now as a fan I know this truth too--the potential danger of football to its players.  Not always. Not every time or every hit. But CTE seems to be true for too many gridiron players.  Where's that leave football in America, the big deal and big business that is the "beloved" NFL?  The secular religion which is football in the United States.   

One of the gifts of faith is that it forces me to remember that life has consequences, good, bad, but always definite.  Faith asks, "Are the consequences worth the enjoyment I receive from any given past time or activity?"

When comes to football and my fandom: is the fun I get out of watching the NFL worth the consequences? Can I be a fan knowing that the men who entertain me, potentially, put their lives on the line, and then just for a sport? A game. An event that outside the lines means little or nothing in the largest sense. A three hour Sunday afternoon diversion, as I munch on my hot wings and cheer away.

And what about the 70,000 college players, the 1 million high school youth who play football, the 285,000 kids ages 5 to 15 who play in Pop Warner leagues?

Is football, as it is played today, worth it?  As the most sports obsessed culture in the world, are the risks that players take for us too much to ask to satisfy the appetite we have for a really, really great hit?

As a lifelong NFL fan, a former youth player and one who still loves the game, that's what I'm asking.  How about you?

(Writer's note: much of the information for this article appeared in the PBS TV Frontline documentary "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis", which aired last week.)          

Monday, October 7, 2013

Can You Imagine Life Without Health Insurance?

"Compassion is...the...capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin..the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too."          --Frederick Buechner

It's the most valuable identification card I carry in my wallet, worth its weight in gold and then so much more. With it securely tucked away in my pocket, I sleep very, very well at night.  I move through my life, most of the time, in fact, oblivious to what might happen to me if I did not possess this little 3 inch by 2 inch laminated plastic card.  And no, it's not my driver's license or a credit card.

It's my health insurance card. The one I've taken out at the doctor's office so many times, the one I've handed to a nurse in the Emergency Room when I needed help and had no where else to turn, the one card in my wallet that really is a matter of life and death.

I cannot imagine living a good life, any kind of secure life, without that id card.  Can you imagine that, life without health insurance?  

It's not the best life, not by a long shot.  Putting off getting a pain checked out because you just can't afford it so you grin and bear it and pray for the best. Working a low wage job at Wal-Mart or Target, barely making enough to feed your kids or keep them in day care. Who can pay for a check up? Getting so sick you go to the Emergency Room and there you are treated but in the most expensive way of all, acute care.  Last year such ER visits cost the American health care system $49 billion. Worst, you get very ill and treated but then the bills come and you are wiped out economically, one of 2 million Americans who each year file for bankruptcy because of medical expenses.  

All because you lack just one thing: health care coverage and the precious little card that goes along with it.  Imagine that.  Can you?

But still, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which seeks to give heath care security to 47 million of our neighbors and friends...well let's just say the ACA is a bit controversial.  So seemingly unpopular that 30 or so members of Congress are willing to hold the entire federal budget hostage, in the hope that they can de-fund the program. Zero it out. Kill it before it is born.  Put it too death. 

Their vitriol against the ACA is certainly strong medicine. As Representative John Fleming of Louisiana recently said, "Obamacare is the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed in Congress. It is the most existential threat to our economy ... since the Great Depression.”  

While I don't quite get such hysterical hyperbole against health care for all, I do understand why the ACA is not winning the public relations wars.  A slim majority of Americans are opposed to the ACA.  The law is very complicated.  It is the most comprehensive overhaul of America's health care since Medicare and Medicaid were passed a generation ago, a huge step into the unknown.  Its roll out has not been without mistakes, starts and stops, struggles. 

Yet for me, I want the ACA to succeed for one simple reason.  I cannot imagine lacking health insurance and therefore I cannot imagine denying the same security to so many of my fellow Americans.  I've got it. They should too. 

So what may be finally lacking in this national debate is not the money, not the political will, and not the government competence to make the ACA work.  What is missing, perhaps, is one simple human virtue: compassion.  That's the ability of a human being to enter into the life experience of another, walk in their shoes, and then envision what life is like for them.  Call it imagination of the heart. Mercy. 

We see another person in trouble or hurting or threatened or down and out and then switch places with them, ask: "What if that were me?"  What if my kid were sick and I could not pay for their care? What if my cancer treatment had caused me to lose not just my health but my house too?  What if the next time I visited the doctor's office the question I dreaded the most was just one seemingly innocuous inquiry: do you have insurance?

Health care for all.  Health security for all.  Health and hope for every last child of God and American citizen. With just a little compassion maybe, finally, we will one day imagine that. 

I can.  Can you?