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Tue, Sep 02, 2014 12:16 AM
Issue of August 27, 2014
A hope note
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A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

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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

That 'green-eyed monster'

August 06, 2014 | 10:31 AM

There was a man who was constantly asking God for favors. One day, God said: "OK, I'm going to grant you whatever you want, but with one condition: whatever you get, your neighbors get double."

"No problem, let's get started!" the man said. First he asked for a brand new Learjet. He got it, but his neighbors on both sides got two. Next day, he prayed, "I'd like a mansion." He got it, but his neighbors got one twice as large. Then he asked for a beautiful girlfriend. His neighbors got one on each arm. Whenever he looked out his mansion's windows, all he could see was how much better off his neighbors were than he. Becoming very depressed and burning with envy, one day he prayed: "God, give me blindness in one eye." The next day he prayed, "God, give me one big ditch alongside my house." With his neighbors blind and falling in their ditches, he began to feel better.

Shakespeare called jealousy "the green-eyed monster." Asked what to do about feeling green with envy, Erma Bombeck said to pray. Her prayer was: "Lord, if you can't make me look thinner, at least make my neighbors look fatter."

Usually, the object of our envy is not some Hollywood celebrity or world ruler partying on a yacht. More likely it's the person who got the job we wanted or the acquaintance who had a baby when we're having trouble getting pregnant.

Why is the color green associated with envy? Green is the color of bile and nausea and phlegm and sickness. Unchecked, envy can become a sickness unto death.

Psychotherapist Albert Ellis advised: "Aim to do your best, not the best." We have one garden to tend. Our big question is not "How does your neighbor's garden grow?"

Dr. Wayne Willis

The Great Disconnect

July 30, 2014 | 10:27 AM

A car salesman the other day told me that in five years cars will no longer be built with CD players because we'll be getting all our music and audio books through our smartphones.

It's hard to exaggerate how digital media has taken over our lives. Michael Wolff, writer and media critic, claims that adults now spend 11 hours a day on digital media and 23 hours a week texting. He writes: "We are only at the dawn of the age of immersive and total connectivity, living in a world that is once-removed. It is surely one of those historic moments, as from the farm to the city, from hand-tooled to industrial production, from horse to auto, now from reality to para-reality."

Fourteen years ago, in his groundbreaking book "Bowling Alone," Robert Putnam showed how disconnected from family, friends and neighbors we were becoming. Drawing on half a million interviews, he showed how we were signing fewer petitions, belonging to fewer organizations that meet and knowing neighbors less. More people were bowling but not bowling in leagues; they were going bowling alone.

In "Affluenza," the authors point out that in the 1950s families sat with neighbors laughing at Red Skelton. As late as the 1980s, we still watched "Family Ties" as a family. But somewhere in the mid-1990s, each family member watched his or her own TV; isolation and passivity had become the new lifestyle.

A Randy Glasbergen cartoon features a man sitting at his computer, his wife looking on. He writes: "Dear Andy. It's your father again. How have you been? Your mother and I are fine. We miss you. Please sign off your computer and come downstairs for something to eat. Love, Dad."

Are we evolving or devolving? Are we happier now? Are we a better people?

Dr. Wayne Willis

Taking stock

July 23, 2014 | 10:37 AM

Sequoyah, the great Cherokee leader, inventor of an alphabet for his people, never became a chief because he was born with a club foot. Only the unblemished, according to Cherokee standards, could ever become a chief. Disqualified from serving his people as their chief, lame Sequoyah became a medicine man, a great role model and a healer for his people.

Nazi Germans believed that blemished individuals like Sequoyah were worthless and a terrible drain on their economy. They thought of the poor, sick, old and disabled as "useless eaters" who needed to be exterminated.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, written by Essenes who had withdrawn from society and lived in the desert to keep themselves pure, were quite clear on who would and who would not be welcome at the impending Great Messianic Banquet: "All the wise men of the congregation, the learned and the intelligent, men whose way is perfect and men of ability, the men of renown" would be invited, but "no man smitten in his flesh, paralyzed in his feet or hands, or lame, or blind, or deaf, or dumb, or with a visible blemish, none of these shall come." Imperfects like Sequoyah, useless eaters and women would have no seat at the table.

How interesting that Jesus, a contemporary of the Essenes, taught his followers the very opposite: "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed." (Luke 14).

Emma Lazarus put these words in the mouth of Lady Liberty greeting the newly-arrived to our shores: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ... Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me."

Gandhi wrote: "The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members."

How is our civilization measuring up?

Dr. Wayne Willis

Selfies

July 16, 2014 | 11:34 AM

"The self-made man."

Was it Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Horatio Alger or Andrew Carnegie who first claimed to be self-made?

The critically-acclaimed television show "Shark Tank" introduces its panel members as "self-made multi-millionaires and billionaires."

Henry Clay may have introduced the term in 1832 when he spoke of "enterprising self-made men who acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor."

Whatever its origin, it has come to stand for Americans who achieve great things without much help from family name or inherited wealth. Andrew Jackson is often cited as the first self-made American president, the first one not "well-born."

Can everyone with a work ethic and a positive attitude make it to the top? I know several individuals who, trying to get ahead, work long hours at several jobs but still live modestly and barely make ends meets.

Some, like Mike Myatt, believe that the concept of the self-made man is largely bogus. Myatt, regarded by many as America's top CEO coach, tells executives: "Other than in a Rambo movie, there is no such thing as an army of one."

Young Columbian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez writes in "The Sound of Things Falling": "No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people's wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions. Struggling against their effects is all I can do: repair the damages, take best advantage of the benefits."

Moses said to the Israelites on the verge of entering the Promised Land: "Beware lest your silver and gold increase and you say to yourself when you have become successful, 'I'm rich, and I've earned it all myself' " (Deuteronomy 8).

If you have "made it," do you give any credit to anyone else?

Dr. Wayne Willis

Overcoming our odysseys

July 09, 2014 | 12:14 PM

"No quest is worth pursuing that does not require you to pass many tests and take numerous risks. The hardest tests of all show how determined you are to live your dream and how strong your heart really is." —Robert D. Ballard

Ballard speaks from personal experience. He is history's most successful underwater archaeologist. He led expeditions that finally found the Titanic, the Bismarck and John Kennedy's PT-109.

History's most famous story of a hero overcoming obstacles is Homer's Odyssey. After fighting the Trojan War, it took Odysseus 10 difficult years to make his way back home.

One of his daunting challenges was getting past the island of the Sirens. The Sirens were beautiful singers who were so seductive, so beguiling, that no man could resist them. Odysseus devised a plan. He ordered all his crew to plug their ears with beeswax (so they could not hear the Sirens' irresistible songs) and to tie him securely to the mast and ignore any pleas he might make to untie him until the ship had passed the island.

When the ship got within earshot of the Sirens, Odysseus (who didn't plug his ears because he wanted to hear the Sirens sing) became a man possessed, totally captivated. He ordered his crew to untie him immediately or be executed, but they couldn't hear him because their ears were full of beeswax. As he struggled to free himself from the ropes, strong men lashed him even tighter and re-knotted the ropes' ends.

The captain and crew sailed safely beyond the island.

Why has this story endured 2,500 years? Its message is clear: When we face a huge trial on our individual odysseys, we should draw up a strong plan and enlist the aid of our crew in staying the course.

Independence, indeed

July 02, 2014 | 10:31 AM

Three memories come to me when I think about Independence Day. The first two you would expect from an old history buff.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence seemed foolish, if not crazy, to most of the world. How dare 13 upstart governments declare that they are no longer subjects of the invincible British Empire! But Jefferson's statement that "all men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" became the moral standard for freedom-loving people throughout the world, but only after the colonies won a Revolutionary War.

The 1863 battle at Gettysburg, "four score and seven years" later, tested "whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." More than 40,000 men were killed or wounded at Gettysburg. On July 3, the failure of Pickett's charge up Cemetery Ridge secured the survival of the one-nation dream.

I'm grateful that teachers made me memorize Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the first few sentences of the Declaration of Independence.

My third Independence Day memory goes back to 1962, when I was working my way through college by selling books door-to-door in West Texas. I sold more books and made more money on July 4 than on any day that summer. Farm families were at home cooking out and feeling good, good enough to fork out cash for a new dictionary or Bible to this Tennessee boy who convinced them he had a book they should not be without. I collected more than $500 cash that day, enough for my college tuition that fall. They may have bought because they felt sorry for me, having to work on a holiday, but I smiled all the way back to my little rented room.

Is this a great country or what?

Dr. Wayne Willis

Life happens

June 25, 2014 | 10:19 AM

Robert graduated from high school at the top of his class and won a scholarship to Dartmouth. Bored, disappointed and missing Elinor White, his fiancé and high school co-valedictorian who had enrolled in another college, he dropped out of Dartmouth after one semester. Returning home, he tried to convince Elinor to marry him immediately. She insisted that she would have to finish college first and that he would first have to have some success at writing poetry.

Robert began to hear reports that she was dating other men. One letter from her convinced him that their relationship, already very tense, was over. Depressed out of his mind, at age 20, he took a train and then a steamboat to the most depressing place he had ever heard of, the Dismal Swamp on the border of Virginia and North Carolina.

It was dark when he arrived, but he started wading into the Dismal Swamp, full of vines and logs and water moccasins, not caring whether he lived or died. Ten miles into the swamp, he came upon a boat of duck hunters who transported him back to civilization.

Surviving that suicidal period, Robert Frost became one of America's greatest poets. After she finished college, Elinor married Robert. Their personal lives were full of grief and loss. Four of their six children died young.

Robert Frost died full of years, at 88. Inscribed on his tombstone are these words: "I Had a Lover's Quarrel with the World."

When we were young, most of us had some "wish to die" days. Possibly all the grownups reading this are glad that they did not act on those feelings.

Beware of any behavior that is permanent and irreversible. 'Tis far better to carry on a lover's quarrel with the world.

Dr. Wayne Willis
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