Longevity

OldAgeNE-Post

The leaders of Naples, Florida have embarked on a program designed to help its citizens live longer, happier healthier lives. To that end they studied five places around the globe where the average life span is above those of other cities and countries. Their research has revealed that there are indeed some things that we can do that appear to help individuals find better ways of living longer. Since embarking on this program the money spent on medical care has gone done and the life span of the populations has dramatically increased in Naples. So what are the simple ideas that seem to be doing wonders there?

Everyone is encouraged to eat healthier by particularly including more plant based menus in diets. Stores feature products and options that are known to produce longevity, and restaurants are vying to offer entrees that use healthy ingredients. The populace is responding positively by choosing healthier foods and exercising more. In fact, many employers are providing time during the work day for physical activity and offering attractive incentives and bonuses for those who participate. People are walking, biking and making exercise part of their daily routines. Schools are even opening early each morning so that children will have time to play outdoors or in gyms before settling down to academic routines.

The studies all demonstrated that having one glass of red wine each day also does wonders for the health and well being of adults. It’s becoming commonplace for the locals to pause for a glass of wine and fellowship each afternoon or evening. Whether it’s the wine or the time spent with others that is making the biggest impact isn’t certain but results are happening.

Those who have some type of religious beliefs or philosophies also appear to live happier and longer lives. Religion seems to lessen stress and provide people with a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Those who have a purpose in life also do better, and so many religious activities encourage service to the community where everyone wins.

City planners are deliberately changing the environment of the city so that the locals almost naturally begin to adopt lifestyles that lead to better mental and physical health. There is an emphasis on being outdoors, gathering together, and eliminating stress when possible. Even the landscaping and building of roads is designed in the hopes of slowing down and enjoying the moment. Pleasant walkways have been added all over town and old roads have been reconfigured. There are cycle lanes that make it possible to get to work and run errands without ever needing a car.

The increased level of participation in the various programs has been almost exponential. As one person gets healthier others are encouraged to see what happens if they also change their ways. Everyone begins to benefit. The city’s longevity age has gone up to 83.1 years while that of the rest of the country is declining. People are enthusiastically embracing the lifestyle movement, even attending discovery classes that provide them with ideas as to how to feel more productive and part of the fabric of  society.

The hope is that the people of Naples will live longer without chronic illnesses or pain and that when it is time to die the end will be quick. In many parts of the world this is already happening, and aside from genetics, the places where this occur share the kinds of lifestyles that Naples is trying to implement for its citizens.

I suppose that I would not mind living to one hundred or beyond like some of my relatives have done. My only concern is that I might become a burden to my family and spend my final years in a reclusive state of pain or dementia. If I were able to enjoy my days as my grandfather did until the last few months of his one hundred eight years I would be eager to hang around for a very long time. Sadly I have too often seen the exact opposite of this where elderly individuals are confined to beds and wheelchairs with little stimulation or purpose day after day for years. They grow weary of waking up to yet another morning of slowly watching the hours tick by. Their children grow old themselves and become less and less able to care for their parents. Often the ancient ones end up all alone and at the mercy of care givers who may or may not be dedicated to making them comfortable and happy. It is one of the big secrets of our society that we tend to avoid because the thought of it is so unpleasant.

My doctor tells me that medicine is making great strides with hundreds of diseases that used to greatly restrict the lives of the elderly. He is confident that even within the next ten years people will be free of illnesses and conditions that now plague us. If that is so then we will need to plan for more and more old people living longer and longer. Hopefully those added years will be good ones.

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I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

Hypocrisy

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Sunday’s readings at church spoke of those who are hypocrites in their judging of others. It admonished each of us to first consider our own shortcomings before pointing out those of the people around us. The word “hypocrite” comes from a Greek word meaning actor. In other words hypocrisy involves pretense, an attempt to show ourselves to be better than we actually are. In today’s world hypocrisy abounds, particularly in the political world. There’s more self-righteousness and judging in society at large than happens inside a county courthouse. Indignation abounds and most of those who participate in such behavior seem to believe that they have the answers to every problem and that those who disagree with them are evil doers who must be stopped. It’s enough to drive one a bit crazy.

While there are times when we must come to a consensus regarding someone’s guilt or innocence most of the time the conclusions that we draw about others are faulty estimates of petty grievances at best. We form instantaneous opinions about all sorts of situations, and don’t spend much time attempting to find the truth or concentrate on excising our own flaws. We see a photo of a teenager looking ominous in a hoodie and wonder what mischief lurks inside his soul. We catch a glimpse of a boy wearing a MAGA cap and what appears to be a smirk and instantly decide that he must be cold hearted and racist.

I remember meeting a man who had a shaved head, very pale skin and a kind of grimace on his face. Without knowing one iota about him I began imagining that he looked very much like a white supremacist. I felt uncomfortable around him and wanted to leave before getting past the introductions. Once I got to know him  I realized that nothing could have been farther from the truth than my initial observations. He was bald because he lost his hair at a early age, he just happened to have a very light complexion, and on the day that I met him he was in great pain because of an injury. Once I talked and worked with him I realized that he was kind and understanding and a staunch defender of the rights of all people. He was a truly wonderful man, and I felt embarrassed that I had been so quick to use a number of stereotypical signals to size him up.

I’ve sadly seen conclusions being drawn about individuals again and again, but even worse is when I see instances of people turning on former friends or even family members simply because they do not share the same beliefs about how to solve the problems that plague us. Often the two sides actually desire the same outcome, but have conflicting ideas about how to accomplish the goals. Examples of abound of such instances whether speaking of income inequality or immigration. The trouble with our present state is that we judge and judge again.

One the the things that most angers me is a kind of two headed monster. On the one hand there are devout Christians who spout hateful rhetoric, and on the other hand there are people pretending to be compassionate champions of justice who slam and poke fun Christian beliefs. Both parties are so busy being holier than thou that nobody appears to notice the contradictions in their arguments. They simply babble on hurling accusation after accusation all the while posing as defenders of righteousness. 

Today is Ash Wednesday in the Christian world. It’s the beginning of Lent and for the next forty days people will try to atone for their bad behavior. Many will pray or make sacrifices by giving up Facebook, or television or sugar. Few will consider engaging in self reflection and asking themselves whether or not they have been too quick to judge others. They will neglect to do the things necessary to first change themselves. The real challenge that we all face is to help even those who seem to be lacking in the characteristics that we most admire. The only way to do that is to first be honest about our own behavior.

Instead of casting stones we should be making stone soup, a savory brew made from the lovely variety of the people in our world. If we want to truly show that we are good we will be slow to anger and hypocrisy. We don’t need to beat ourselves up or wear hair shirts, but we can certainly learn to forgo our opinions until we have truly attempted to understand.

In anticipation of Lent I went to a Mardi Gras party hosted by my dear friends Dickie and
Tim in Galveston. We feasted on Dickie’s famous gumbo and imbibed in wine and hurricanes. We talked and laughed and then gathered on the street in front of the house to watch a parade with bands and floats and hundreds of people from every walk of life. There were smiles abounding and everyone loved everyone else in that moment with no thought of appraising appearance or behavior. It was just a nice celebration that made us all feel warm and happy. In many ways it was a reminder of how we should try to be all of the time, just enjoying the delight of life and taking those images to heart for when we need to refresh ourselves.

On this Ash Wednesday let’s do our best to look first in the mirror and then make a plan to spend the next forty days embracing the people that we encounter. Let’s try to wipe out our own hypocrisy and see if it helps others to work on theirs.

Finding the Love

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I am a believer. I am certain that there is a God, even when He doesn’t appear to be near. I have felt His presence in my heart on many occasions, and sometimes He has required me to be strong and muddle through really difficult problems seemingly without any sign of Him. I also believe in angels and saints. I think they do much of the day to day work of watching over us mortals, and often they are people that we have known who have earned a heavenly reward. I don’t really understand how it all works, but I have faith that it does. I pray knowing that some of my requests will honored in very different ways than I expected. Always I get the sense that I am never alone, even in my darkest hours, even in those times when what is happening seems cruel and unfair.

I get subtle messages during daily routines that ease my anxieties and allow me to carry on amidst the harsh realities of living. I may recall my mother’s smiling face and be filled once again with the boundless love that she always gave to me and my brothers. I may recall a bit of wisdom that I heard in a homily at church. I may look into the sky and realize the grandeur of the universe that tells me that somehow there is something more to the orderliness than the mathematical formulas of physics.

My brother was a fire fighter. He saw things that were tragic and difficult to process. Much like a military man he was affected by what he witnessed, particularly when it involved death. His work led him to God because, as he tells it, he saw many whose lives ended in the course of his efforts to help them. For some the last breaths were agony, but others looked heavenward with a confidence and even joy that radiated total peace. My brother wanted what those people had and found that it was faith in God that had comforted them as they drew their last breaths. It didn’t seem to matter what religion they had as much as their willingness to surrender to belief in something quite mysterious.

I was a teacher and I found over and over again that children being raised with some form of faith in some form of God tended to be more confident and resilient. It didn’t matter as much whether or not they were rich or poor as how deeply they were anchored by a belief in something bigger than themselves. They navigated through troubled times with heavy hearts just as we all do, but they believed that they were never alone and that feeling made their journeys just a bit easier.

I know many individuals whose faith is imprinted on their faces. They do not proselytize or advertise but instead they demonstrate the kind of inner calm that comes from believing with every fiber of their being. They are special souls whose faith is so deep that they radiate joy. They answer all of life’s problems by counseling with their Lord and then doing what they think to be His bidding. They proceed with an unquestioned knowledge that everything is unfolding just as it is supposed to be. I envy them the glory that they have found because I admittedly become far to impatient with the pace of existence. I want to know why bad things happen to good people.

In the western world of today there are fewer and fewer believers. We have become a secular society relying mostly on ourselves to overcome difficulties. There are both subtle and not so subtle criticisms of religion all around us. Well educated and powerful people almost laugh at the ridiculousness of thinking that there is a higher power or a life after death. They see churches and prayers as a waste of time. They suggest that we use our common sense and lean more on science and the manmade laws of justice to solve our problems. There are moments when they make sense, but then I get one of those messages in my heart that tell me that they are wrong. A little whisper helps me realize that there are mysteries that even science can’t unravel.

I see those who believe making it through terrible times intact while those who scoff at such ideas floundering when life becomes overwhelming. I want the nonbelievers to know and feel what I do, I am reluctant to sound like a preacher. I see their eye rolls if I suggest God or prayer. It seems that all that I can do is pray for them just as St. Monica pleaded for her fallen son. It frustrates me that they do not know the kind of joy that believing continuously brings me and I want to share. I know that they will only find what I have when they are ready. I long for the day when they too might embrace the knowledge that they have never been alone. I want them to find the love that I feel so deeply.

This morning I was worried about people that I see struggling. They are souls lost in a storm at sea. They battle the waves mightily but find themselves being pulled under the water where they choke and feel on the verge of losing hope. I see them fighting for their lives without the benefit of knowing that God is indeed watching over them. They do not sense His comfort. They are angry and hurt. I prayed for them and even that they might one day find the kind of peace that courses through my body and my mind. I needed a sign that my words were being heard, and then I began to see things that set my heart at ease.

There was a message on Facebook from one of the most faith-filled persons that I know. He was calling his many friends to prayer and his pleas included a photo of himself sitting in an empty church waiting for us to join him. Yet another post featured an image of a sunrise over Virginia. As I gazed at the magnificent horizon I found myself thinking of my grandfather and wondering if he had seen such sights as a young boy growing up in that part of the world. I remembered his long and optimistic life and once again recalled his wisdom and how comforting it had always been to me. Somehow I felt as though he was an angel sending me the message that things will ultimately work out and reminding me to be faithful and patient just as he always was.

I am a believer. I so wish that the gift of faith that I received first from my mother might comfort those who feel so lost and alone. There is a God. There are angels and saints. We are all part of a glorious plan that does not assure us that we will never suffer, but does guarantee that we will find the strength that we need to face our earthly challenges and find the love that will sustain us. 

Shout For Joy!

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Christmas is my favorite day of the year. For me it is a time to pause from the hurry of life and to contemplate my many blessings while in the company of the family and friends that mean so much to me. As a Catholic it is also a reminder of the birth of our Savior, a humble beginning of an incredible story that resonates with millions and millions of believers and even non-believers across the world. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a stable on a cold winter’s night and would grow to become one of the most influential voices ever heard on this earth. Even without the religious overtones of His preaching, the kind of life He advocated is beautiful in its simplicity and its immense love. It is so fitting that we still acknowledge His impact on the world over two thousand years after He walked and talked among the people of His time.

I’m not one to proselytize. I think that each of us has a right to whatever beliefs suit us, but I am eternally gratefully that my parents, and particularly my mother, taught me about Jesus and encouraged me to accept His teachings. I was baptized at All Saints Catholic Church by Father John Perusina. My godparents were my Aunt Polly and Uncle Jack. I was an infant then and recall nothing of that moment, but I do know that my godparents took their vow to guide me in my religion very seriously. I understood that I would be able to count on them to be like two guardian angels quietly watching over me. They and my mother and father modeled the essence of being good people, the kind that Jesus said that we all should be. Following His word and their example has brought much happiness to me and taken me through the most difficult of times. I truly cannot imagine my life without my faith to sustain me.

I understand that the world is comprised of a vast diversity of beliefs. I try to honor the opinions and ways of thinking of others. I value their right to view the world through their own unique lenses. At Christmas time I know that my Jewish friends are just as sincere in their religious philosophies as I am in mine. So too it is with the Muslims that I know, the Christians of other sects, and even those who choose not to believe in a higher power. Still I would argue that Jesus was a good guy with very brilliant thoughts that if followed even in a secular sense would make for a glorious world. After all, what can possibly be wrong with following His mandate to love one another? I suppose that is what Christmas means to me.

At this time of year I am reminded to stop long enough to share my own bounty and joy with others. I know that mine has been a wonderful life, mostly because of people who have followed the ways of Jesus, even when they did not adhere to Christianity. I have mostly encountered and been surrounded by individuals who did their best to be kind and generous, honest and loyal. In that regard I suppose that I may count myself as rich. In the end not a single one of my possessions is even remotely equal to the value of the family, friends and acquaintances that I have met in the journey that has lead to my seventy first Christmas. The gifts that I give and receive are but symbols of the love that surrounds me. In this regard I have been truly saved.

At the center of all of our Christmas revelry is a man who was willing to give his life so that we might all be saved. Even if we do not believe that he was not anymore godlike than the rest of us, he left us the treasure of his way, truth and life. Surely everyone must admit that it was a glorious gift that has indeed saved millions of us throughout the ages. I know that it has been my hope and salvation.

So on this Christmas Day I shout for joy! The Lord has come and He has been my Guide and my Savior.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! May each of you find the words and the teachings that will anchor you to happiness throughout the days of your lives.