Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Brenda, upon being criticized for talking about trivial matters, said "The way I figure it, we've got all eternity...and if I want to spend a few minutes talking about hair, that's OK."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Live Long and Prosper

One-fourth of my high school graduating class has died. My sister gave me this sobering piece of information during a recent visit to see my 92-year-old mother. Certainly the 229 members of the Class of ’53 are well beyond the threescore and ten which some scripture says is the term of human life. But that was then. Today, seventy-somethings are doing what forty-somethings did a generation ago.

A fourth of 229 dead seems a high number, and it spurred my curiosity about long lives. According to the Minnesota State Retirement System calculator, the current life expectancy for the class of 1953 should be 85.9 years for men and 87.7 years for women.

The factors contributing to a long life (according to Minnesota, which I want to think is conservative in its perceptions) may surprise you. We all know about exercise and veggies. But did you know that living alone is as perilous as smoking? The Minnesota calculator adds five years for living with a friend or spouse, and subtracts a year for every year you have lived alone since the age of 25.

Did you know that a college degree adds a year to your life, and a graduate degree adds two? That sleeping more than 10 hours a night takes four years off your life expectancy? That if you are aggressive and easily angered, it is worth three years of your life?

Why fifty members of the Class of ’53 have died at least ten years before the national average might bear some investigation. Our high school was Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the home of the Manhattan project and the atomic bomb. We used to have occasional A-bomb drills at school. At one point, my friends and I began drinking lots of hot tea because we had been told that tannin could counteract radiation sickness. One boy built a Geiger counter in a metal lunchbox and brought it to school. It would click when he pointed it toward something radioactive like a watch dial.

One of the plants vented something into the air which combined with rain to make an acid which ate holes in the workers’ cars parked near the workplace. My father thought this was funny, and the plant paid to have the cars repainted. We joked rather fearfully about our fathers being radioactive and glowing in the dark.

Since those days, I know there has been an ongoing cleanup of the town which now sometimes calls itself Historic Oak Ridge. During hunting season, the story goes, quarry deer have been scanned with a Geiger counter, and if they were too radioactive, they would be confiscated and the hunter would get a permit to shoot another deer. Compensation has been paid to the families of some of those daddies who may or may not have glowed in the dark. Since I don’t live in Oak Ridge any more, I do not know what steps have been taken to solve the problems the unsuccessful storage of nuclear waste may have caused, only that it has been a concern which was addressed with lots of skill and money.

My father did not know that he was working on the Manhattan project. He thought he was involved in cancer research, which would have been a good thing since my little brother had died of leukemia. We learned about the atomic bomb when the newspapers announced the story of Hiroshima. A newsboy selling extras stood in Town Square and called “Read all about it: Japan Hit By Automatic Bomb”.

When a few years ago a nearby elementary school set about folding a thousand paper cranes to send to Hiroshima, I joined the project, folding origami cranes while I gave piano lessons.

The city of Hiroshima has sent a peace bell to Oak Ridge. I believe that bell is rung every August in somber remembrance of the bombs which fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Oak Ridge was a wonderful place to grow up. It was a small town, 30,000 or fewer, with a celebrated school system and a public recreation hall with a grand piano where we gave our piano recitals and watched foreign films. Oak Ridge had a local orchestra, a community theater and children’s theater, a daily newspaper which sponsored me for a college scholarship in journalism. There were lots of churches and a synagogue.

I just hope the surviving members of the Class of ’53 find somebody to love, finish that college degree, mellow out and don’t sleep too much. I would like to think they would live long and prosper.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


In 1962 a bearded dark-eyed sixty-six-year-old man came to San Francisco after traveling from the Ukraine to Shanghai, the Philippines, Paris and Belgium. Although in life he had done many remarkable things, after his death in 1966, so many circumstances described as miracles were associated with his influence that he became known as the Wonder Worker.

Nicodemos and I heard about a tour of this man’s various places in San Francisco and decided to take the tour. We saw the man’s work spaces, his office and his books in 15 languages, his paintings, the orphanage where he oversaw the upbringing of some 2000 children.

We sat in the chair where he always slept—only an hour or so a night, the tour guide told us, and never in a comfortable bed. The chair was yellow vinyl, missing several springs. Along with the 24 or 25 others on the tour, we were wrapped in his clerical robe and given a blessing. Singly, in pairs and in small groups, we knelt down and had the robe folded over us like a tent. It had a sweet, clean old grandfatherly smell.

The sensation was not unlike getting a hug, but many of the group were weeping as they returned to their places.

There were two infants and three young children in the group, all well-behaved, cheerful, and not at all intimidated by all this churchy activity. When one family group went up to be covered by the robe, we could see five pairs of shoes in all different sizes peeking out from the faded old vestment.

The man called Wonder Worker, now called Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, was born Mikhail Maximovitch. Our friend Nathalie had known Saint John in China and in the Philippines, and she told of how he would leave his residence fully clothed and return without shoes or coat, having given them to someone who needed them more than he.

Throughout the tour, the guide and others spoke of miracles which they had experienced or heard about. Driving home, I was thinking about miracles. I thought that they involved not so much extraordinary circumstances but rather something like a suspension of disbelief.

The tour guide showed us what he called self-healing ikons, paintings of saints which all by themselves grew cleaner and brighter. Clearly the tour guide was not only wonder-struck by what he described to us, but he was willing to suspend disbelief, whereas, I, harumph, was thinking about chemical reactions of egg tempera under glass. But would a chemical reaction have made a self-healing ikon any less miraculous? Chemistry is a miracle unto itself.

And what about saints, then? John Maximovich is a saint to Orthodox Christians; many others have never heard of him. Grace (Episcopal) Cathedral in San Francisco includes Albert Einstein (Jewish) and J.S. Bach (Lutheran) in its roster of saints. I saw church frescoes in Greece which included Plato and Socrates among the saints.

I once asked a wise old priest about saints. “Well, there are general saints, and then there are local saints,” he said, smiling, without explaining. I would consider this wise old priest a saint not because any miracles have been attributed to him, but because in his seventy years he so inspired so much love in so many people. He was a local saint.

Another saint I knew had no association with religion. He taught at a boys’ school and his aim in life seemed to be to make people happy. He was a walking party. He would bring all the students to your house to wake you up with a serenade for your birthday. He organized parties and receptions, song and dance. He once snatched a bouquet from my hands to give it to an unexpected guest. On his own birthday, he gave presents to other people. He was a saint of light-heartedness.

Nobody would argue about the saintliness of Mother Teresa, even though her writings showed that she had human doubts. She was a saint of service.

What do all these saints have in common? Not necessarily holiness or goodness. I think what they all have is a kind of devotion, to a cause, an art, a science, even a religion, which transcends ego. They spend most of their time in service to this devotion, whatever it may be. At times they are vectors or mirrors for us; they help us to see better and to grow bigger. And often what seems to be a miracle associated with these people arises at least partly from our improved perception.