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Tue, Oct 21, 2014 01:21 PM
Issue of October 15, 2014
A hope note
A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

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Distracted driving, then and now

October 15, 2014 | 12:36 PM

In 1955, my parents bought our first-ever brand-new car. The choices in our little town were a Ford, a Chevrolet or a Plymouth. My dad bought a blue-and-white Chevy. We had no idea that it would become one of the most successful cars in history, highly sought in our day by collectors. I was one lucky teenager who learned to drive in a '55 Chevy.

Distraction for drivers — like sending a text message on a smartphone or dialing a number on a cell phone — didn't exist then. Our car didn't even have a radio, so there was no temptation even to reach and adjust the dial while driving. If we wanted to listen to the radio, we hung our new transistor radio (a 1954 invention, permanently set on the best music station) on the rear-view mirror and cruised along in high cotton.

When I got my driver's license in 1958, there was one major distraction. It was the bench seat. Bucket seats wouldn't come along for several more years. What boys discussed the day after a date was where the girl sat on the bench seat. Did she hug the passenger door, sit in the middle or cuddle up close? If she sat close, you were sorely tempted to put your arm around her, which meant that you only had one hand on the wheel. That was a definite distraction for a 16-year-old boy.

A second distraction related to the first. Our iconic Chevy had a manual transmission. Someone had to shift gears, from reverse to first to second to third. Chivalry demanded — your left hand tending the wheel — that you teach your date how to shift gears.

Distracted driving is nothing new. It was equally dangerous in days of yore and approximately double the fun.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Love story

October 08, 2014 | 12:42 PM

Zeus, chief of the gods, and Mercury, god of wayfarers and strangers, bored with eating ambrosia and sipping nectar all day on Mount Olympus, decided to descend to Earth to see first-hand how mortals were getting along.

They decided to go incognito, disguised as poor, homeless bums. They went door to door, to palatial estates and to the humblest of huts, seeking a little food and shelter, but no one welcomed them.

Then one day, when they knocked on the door of a hovel, the rickety door flew open and a little old couple, Baucis and Philemon, appeared. Smiling, they said, "Come on in. Make yourselves at home. Our house is your house." The couple proceeded to wash the two strangers' feet, bade them warm by the fire, fed them a simple but filling meal and offered to put them up for the night.

At that point, Zeus and Mercury revealed to the little old couple who they really were. "You had no way to know it, but today you hosted gods. Now, ask whatever you will, and it will be yours."

Dreading more than anything the day when one of them would depart the world and, thereby, abandon the other, Baucis and Philemon asked the gods if they might one day die together.

One distant day, feeble Baucis and Philemon beheld each other putting forth leaves. A girdle of bark grew around them. They kissed farewell and turned, at that moment, into trees, Baucis into a willow and Philemon into an oak. But they were still together for they shared a common trunk.

People came from many miles away to see the two trees with one trunk and hear the story of Baucis and Philemon.

Would that we all have such a companion and friend in old age.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Wedding tales

October 01, 2014 | 11:31 AM

Not all weddings are created equal. Some you remember when you're old and bald.

I attended one such wedding last weekend. It was outdoors on the most glorious day any September bride could have desired.

Suddenly, just as the sermon began, a low, growing rumble was heard and felt by all present. A deafening whistle sounded. A freight train, with no-one-knew-how-many cars, began grinding its way through the little hamlet, its umpteen cars 200 feet from 300 celebrants. We alternated grimacing and smiling while counting cars for what seemed like 10 minutes. The officiant hardly flinched as he, without microphone, amplified his voice and carried on. The train ruled the day, but we gave the poor preacher the benefit of the doubt that his inaudible words were surely a masterpiece.

Two weddings I have conducted rose to that level of immortality. In one, the 6-year-old ring bearer, when it came time to lead the march down the center aisle, panicked. Back then, we would have said he "freaked out." Today, we might say he "had a meltdown." He dropped the pillow holding the rings, threw his arms up in the air, let out a scream and exited left. He may, like Forrest Gump, still be running.

In another, when the bride entered on her father's arm, I could tell that we were in trouble. Her low-cut gown revealed spectacular polka dot reddish-purple splotches, hives or some other nervous rash. When it came time for her to say "I do," she was frozen, unable to part her lips. I had to ask for a head nod as her yes.

Sometimes, despite all our pomposity, formality and solemnity, humanity comes crashing through, giving us a good chuckle and a whale of a tale to tell.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Action speaks

September 24, 2014 | 10:41 AM

Debra Auerbach, authority on landing a job, says that employers usually spend less than two minutes reading a resumé. They are scanning for words and phrases they like or dislike. Clichés and buzz words like go-getter, go-to person, think outside the box, best of breed, results driven, team player, value added and synergy are turn-offs. General introductory wordings like "I helped," "I assisted with" or "I worked closely on" are turn-offs. Vague self-descriptions like "I am honest" (or hard-working or optimistic or persistent) are turn-offs. What makes employers light up is finding an action verb like "I achieved" (improved, trained, managed, created, resolved, mentored or volunteered), verbs that introduce specific accomplishments.

We tend to judge others more on their actions than their talk. John Locke wrote: "The actions of people are the best interpreters of their thoughts." I love the way American conservationist and activist Terry Tempest Williams said it: "This is my living faith, an active faith, a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, learn, dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, argue, speak, write, read, draw, provoke, emote, scream, sin, repent, cry, kneel, pray, bow, rise, stand, look, laugh, cajole, create, confront, confound, walk back, walk forward, circle, hide and seek."

Politicians and preachers famously demonstrate how much easier it is to talk the talk than walk the walk.

On judgment day, the big question, according to Jesus, won't be what we thought, where we stood on an issue, what theology we believed or which church we claimed. The question rather will be: "What did you do? Did you take care of the hungry and thirsty? Did you welcome little children and strangers? Did you visit the sick and prisoners?"

"Action," Shakespeare said, "is eloquence."

Dr. Wayne Willis

Power and humility

September 17, 2014 | 01:49 PM

An elderly man in the Washington, D.C., airport boarded one of those trains that connects you to another flight on the other side of the airport. There was standing room only. Holding onto a strap overhead, he spotted a very attractive young woman seated nearby. When their eyes met, she smiled at him. He averted his eyes; he had been taught as a child that it's not nice to stare. He thought to himself, "That beautiful creature likes me. She finds me attractive. I've still got what it takes!" He straightened his tie, waited a few seconds and then glanced at her again. Their eyes met again. He smiled. She smiled back. He felt his heart pounding. Then she spoke these deflating words: "Excuse me, sir. I'd be glad to stand. Would you like to have my seat?"

One verse from the King James Bible I memorized as a child was I Corinthians 10: 12: "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." In modern language, the meaning is something like this: Whenever you're feeling like Leonardo DiCaprio standing on the bow of the Titanic shouting "I'm the king of the world," remember what happened to the Titanic. Or, as J.B. Phillips translated the verse: "Let the man who feels sure of his standing today be careful that he does not fall tomorrow."

It's good to have a healthy ego and be successful and love ourselves. But with great power and success also comes great temptation. Feeling high and mighty, impressed with our self-importance, we can easily begin to think that rules are made for lesser people and don't apply to us, so we throw caution to the wind.

How sweet and rare it is when great power and great humility dwell in the same person.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Grandparenting with a 'fresh child heart'

September 10, 2014 | 10:11 AM

Most of us probably learn to grandparent the way we learned to parent: trial and error, imitation or some of both.

I aspire to imitate a wonderful grandfather I had. I also admire Carl Sandburg's grandparenting ways.

Paula Steichen, Sandburg's granddaughter, wrote a book about growing up at Connemara, the famous poet's North Carolina farm where she lived with her single mother and older brother and maternal grandparents.

She begins her book with a poem Sandburg composed for her when she was only 3: "I love thy face with a love given / to fresh flower blooms. / I love thy spoken words as the shimmer / of sun slants and the drift of rain. / If I should believe in angels and meet one / she would be somewhat like you. / Until I come to know one angel / worth cherishing I shall go on / in my cherishing of thy face and / spoken words."

Steichen cherishes one sentence Sandburg addressed to her often: "I love you not for what you are, nor for what you have been, nor for what you are going to be, but for all three."

Sandburg's voice in his "Rootabaga Stories" is expressed through the Potato Face Blind Man: "He seems to love things that are cheap, such as stars, the wind, pleasant words, and time to be lazy. He knows that young people are young no matter how many years they live; that there are children born old and brought up to be full of fear; that men and women old in years sometimes keep a fresh child heart and, to the last, salute the dawn and the morning with reverence and laughter."

Good grandparents, according to Sandburg, "keep a fresh child heart" and aim "pleasant words" at the wee ones.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Good vs. Bad

September 03, 2014 | 10:42 AM

Do you live in a "Star Trek" or a "Star Wars" universe?

Gene Roddenberry, creator of "Star Trek," was a consummate optimist. He said: "I believe in humanity. We're growing up; we're moving into adolescence now. When we grow up, man, we're going to be something!" His science-fiction series depicted an improving, increasingly peaceful future.

This was an ultra-positive view of humanity commonly held at the close of the 19th century. Alfred Russel Wallace, in 1898, wrote a book titled "The Wonderful Century." Looking back over the tremendous technological, scientific and medical advances of the 18th century, Wallace felt confident that a human utopia was coming soon.

At the end of the 20th century, no one wrote a book calling it "wonderful." Two world wars, the Holocaust, Stalin's Gulags and the Cambodian killing fields documented the depths of depravity into which otherwise intelligent humans can descend.

In the "Star Wars" trilogy, George Lucas sees the entire cosmic drama as a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, between The Force and "the dark side." Lucas wrote the script for the original film during the depths of the Vietnam War. He said in a news conference that the question it poses is, "How does a good person turn into a bad person? Most bad people think they are good people, that they are doing things for the right reasons."

I believe that instead of sorting all creatures into two camps — saints or sinners, us or them — Lucas is saying a constant battle goes on inside each individual to behave compassionately, indifferently or cruelly.

My wishing and hoping want to believe that this is a "Star Trek" universe; my knowledge and experience inform me that it's really more like "Star Wars."

Dr. Wayne Willis

School lessons

August 27, 2014 | 09:13 AM

Earlier this month, two of our grandchildren climbed aboard the big yellow school bus for the first time. One of those rites of passage, it's often harder for parents to watch than for children to board. It's a powerful symbol of individuation, of the child letting go of parents in order to go forward in life.

One of the first scenes in the movie "Forrest Gump" is of Forrest, both legs in clunky, ugly braces, boarding the bus on the first day of school only to hear kids greet him with "This seat's taken" or "You can't sit here." The very last scene in the movie is of Forrest watching his own son get on the bus and Dorothy Harris, the same bus driver Forrest had on his first day of school a generation earlier, haul Forrest Jr. off. The circle of life goes on.

Seventy years ago this month, Anne Frank was arrested in Amsterdam along with her family and several others. The place they had been hiding from the Nazis for two years was a space of about 500 square feet concealed behind a movable bookcase. Everyone had to keep quiet all day, not even flushing a toilet or opening a window for fear of being discovered.

In her diary, Anne wrote about what everyone in hiding missed most. Two wished above all else to have a hot bath "filled to the brim." One wanted most a cake, another to go downtown again. Anne's mother wanted most a cup of real coffee. Anne wrote that what she herself wanted most was "to go back to school!"

At age 16, Anne died of typhus in a concentration camp.

Teach the children that there are some things in life worse than having to get up and go to school.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Infection-fighting pioneers

August 20, 2014 | 10:02 AM

Next time you count your blessings, you might want to acknowledge the debt we owe to Joseph Lister and Alexander Fleming.

Before Lister, physicians were unaware that infections were caused by microorganisms. Surgeons did not wash their hands before surgery, nor did they sterilize their instruments.

Medical researcher Helen Clapesattle writes: "Men operated in whatever coat or shirt they happened to be wearing, covering it perhaps with a linen duster or an apron stiff with the stains of previous operations. They stropped their knives on the soles of their shoes before they began, and, while using one knife, held another ready between their teeth, its blade nestling among their whiskers. They washed their hands after, not before, the operation."

Patients often had a "successful" surgery, only to die soon afterward from the mysterious "ward fever."

Surgeries were often performed in the patient's house. The operating table was the kitchen table or parlor sofa or a door taken from its hinges and laid across two sawhorses.

In the 1860s, British surgeon Lister, having learned from Louis Pasteur about invisible-to-the-naked-eye bacteria, began using carbolic acid to cover wounds and sterilize instruments. He advocated washing hands with carbolic acid and spraying the operating room with carbolic acid before performing surgery. Deaths from post-operation infections plummeted.

When I was born, the word "antibiotic" had not been coined. Several years earlier, Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming entered his lab one morning to discover that a culture in one of his uncovered petri dishes was contaminated by a blue-green mold and bacteria around the mold were no longer growing. He identified the mold as Penicillium notatum. The development of antibiotics to fight infections followed in the mid-1940s.

But for the pioneering work of Lister and Fleming, many of us would not be here.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Grounded in discovery

August 13, 2014 | 09:32 AM

Three of the greatest discoveries of our time were right under our feet all the time.

In 1947, a shepherd boy searching in the Judean desert for a stray goat accidentally discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. When he threw a rock, as boys are wont to do, into a dark cave, he heard something break. That something was a jar holding ancient scrolls. Thus began the unearthing of a vast 2,000-year-old library that included the oldest manuscripts of Jewish sacred scriptures and many other previously unknown writings by the Essenes, a small religious sect.

In 1974, peasants digging a well in a drought-parched province in northwest China unearthed fragments of a clay figure. Near the unexcavated tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, who had proclaimed himself China's first emperor 2,200 years ago, that one clay figure led to the discovery of 600 underground vaults across a 22-square-mile area. The vaults contained an entire army of about 7,000 life-size terra-cotta soldiers, horses and birds. Some are calling that underground army the eighth wonder of the world, right up there with the Great Wall of China.

In 1998, when he was 20 years old, Bucky Derflinger, a rancher and rodeo cowboy in South Dakota, spotted a foot-long bone punching out of the ground. He and his father would soon learn that it was the toe bone of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, the sixth most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered.

The dinosaur's skeleton, named Bucky after its finder, and the Chinese terra-cotta warriors are now on display at The Children's Museum in Indianapolis.

Environmentalist Wendell Berry wrote: "What I stand for is what I stand on." It sometimes makes a huge difference when we pay closer attention to and show greater affection for the ground beneath us.

Dr. Wayne Willis
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