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Reflections on Three Score

November 30, 2008


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Ted Pack with an eagle on his head Good morning. I'm Ted Pack, your web master.

First, thank you for coming to church this morning. When I was on the Board of Trustees, I went to several new member orientations. Rev. Grace always told prospective members that one of the responsibilities of membership was regular attendance. That keeps the people who spend their time preparing the services from being feeling they wasted their time. You notice sparse attendance more from this side of the pulpit than from down there. It takes about dozen people to put on a service - and a second dozen if the choir sings - and we all appreciate your coming in on a cold and foggy morning.

This is the fourth time in five years I've given the talk on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and I've always called it a "Sermon". I have been wrong. A "sermon" is:
1) A religious discourse delivered as part of a church service or
2) An often lengthy and tedious speech of reproof or exhortation.

A "homily", on the other hand, is:
1) A sermon, especially one intended to edify a congregation on a practical matter and not intended to be a theological discourse or
2) A tedious moralizing lecture or admonition.

Note that both can be tedious, so if this talk bores you the distinction will be meaningless, but my talks tend to be about practical matters, not theological ones.

A warning - if you've had Circle Dinners with me over the years you may have heard one or two of these anecdotes before. I tried to weave amusing or illustrative episodes of my life into one seamless, spiritually rewarding whole. It isn't the first time I've failed at a project.

On to my subject. I turned 60 this year. As birthdays go, it wasn't dramatic. Birthdays usually make me reflect. The ones that end in zero are the ones people as you about; how does it feel to be 30, 40, or 50, people ask. The ones I remember don't end in zero. On my 18th I realized that in two weeks I'd be a freshman at UC Berkeley, where people wouldn't make fun of me if I used big words or liked classical music. My 21st was on a Saturday; I'd planned to spend it having dinner at the Top of the Mark, in San Francisco. Instead, I was at work for the Forest Service at Wheat's Meadow, six miles in from the trailhead, on a schedule they called "ten in, four out", where we worked from Tuesday of one week until Thursday of the next, including Saturday and Sunday. They did this when the work site was a day's walk from the trailhead, so we'd walk in, work for 8 days, and walk out.

I spent my 22nd helping a farmer in Borneo plant hill rice, as part of my Peace Corps training. We worked for half a day, men using dibble sticks, women dropping the seed rice into the holes we punched. We were on a hillside with a view, 14 miles from the provincial capital. As we worked, with tools basically unchanged since the invention of agriculture, we could occasionally watch a Boeing 737 land at the airport in the distance. Borneo was, as they say, a land of contrasts. On my 35th I realized I was too old to join the French Foreign Legion, which had been an option before then. Forty was quiet; my mother had a party for my twin and I on our fiftieth, and now I'm 60.

With age comes privilege. At 16 I could drive, at 21 I could buy alcohol, and now, at 60, I can order the senior breakfast at Perko's. I note that they don't check your driver's license as closely for the senior breakfast as they did for buying beer.

So, I'm older. Am I any wiser? Some.

One of the first things I learned, back when I was in college, was that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. About halfway through my second quarter of French I had what I was sure was the most original idea anyone ever had in the history of teaching foreign languages at the University of California. It was a rare gem, a real peach. If ideas were ice cream, this one would be three scoops, with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a cherry on top. We were supposed to write a sentence with each of our ten vocabulary words. Instead of that, I used all ten words in a poem. It made sense, it had a regular meter and it even rhymed. When the teacher passed back our homework the next day she asked me to stay a minute after class; I was sure it was to compliment me on the originality of my idea.

"Monsieur Pack", she said, "so many people write poems with the vocabulary words that the department mimeographs the best ones every week. Yours didn't make it this time, but it showed promise - keep trying!"

I had a similar experience in high school, when I learned I wasn't as tough as I thought. I walked 50 miles in one day on what was called a "Kennedy Hike". Those of you younger than I may not believe it, but presidents used to inspire young people; in this case, John Kennedy inspired teens to see if they could walk 50 miles in a day.

A year or two later I joined a hiking club; the registration form asked what was the farthest I had ever walked in a day. I wrote in "50 miles" and felt like I was nine feet tall and covered with coarse hair. About six months later, I was helping file applications, noting there were a lot of "10 miles" in the space for "farthest distance" Then I came to a man my father's age who had "65 miles" in his. Under "Other outdoor organizations" he had "US Army, 10th Mountain Division", which meant not only had he walked 15 miles farther than I had, he had been carrying a full pack, rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition; I'd done my 50 miles carrying a quart canteen and my lunch.

What, you ask, was the spiritual message in my finding out I wasn't as smart or as tough as I thought? Sometimes when people think about "The inherent worth and dignity of every person" they do it with a sense of noblesse oblige, that French phrase that says the noble should be gracious to the commoners. I know I do it sometimes, especially if the person in question is poorer than I am and smells worse. These incidents remind me that for any two people, the first person is better at something than the second, and the second is better at something than the first. Many of the homeless people at the shelter at 9th and D have more social skills than I do, for instance, and some of them dress better. Whenever I'm feeling smugly noble, doing my best to oblige, I'm reminded that "worth and dignity" works both ways; we're all noble at times, and at others we're all common.

Any time you set out to "edify a congregation on a practical matter", you end up giving advice. I consider myself a geezer now, and one of our traits is advice. I often tell people my wife keeps horses, and that asking a geezer for advice is like asking a horse person for compost makings; we both have a lot, and it is free. That doesn't mean people will take it, as the pile in our back pasture will attest. I don't know about you, but having people take my advice is such a rare event that the times they did stick out from those 21,915 days like shining beacons.

One was in 1994, when I went to an evening function at the county Girl Scout headquarters. Their parking lot was normally empty at that hour. Some kids were zipping around in it on those little stunt bikes with 20-inch wheels. The state lottery commission's advertising slogan at the time was "You can't win if you don't play", which helped a lot.

I started slow; I asked them if they had heard the commercial. Yes, they had. Then I asked the cruncher - if the first prize were a broken leg, would they buy a ticket? None of them had ever heard of such a lottery, and none of them would buy a ticket. I repeated myself - even though the chance of winning wasn't very high, would they buy a ticket? Nope, they wouldn't. OK, I said, there are many drivers coming into the parking lot. It was dark, some of them were old and didn't see too well. (It never hurts to let kids feel superior to oldsters, especially if you want the kids to do something.) Every time you zip around a parked car, low to the ground, you are buying a ticket in the broken leg lottery, I said. They got the point, oddly enough, and went down the block to Beyer High School, where the parking lot was deserted.

The lesson here is that your advice works well if you can relate it to something the advisee can identify with. Had I said "One of these drivers may hit you", without any lead-in, they would have said "no he won't" and kept up practicing their BMX stunts.

My wife has a friend who lives in Castro Valley, Joyce. Joyce, in turn, had a daughter, Hilary, who wanted to leave home for college, but could not afford to go away to Oregon State. She came to live with us and go to Modesto Junior College as a compromise. She saw an advertisement for a fast food academy, which promised to teach young men and women all they needed to know to get a job at McDonald's, in return for $250 and five days. She asked me what I thought. I suggested she call the managers of a couple of local fast food places and ask if they had ever heard of the academy. If they said they had, and they looked upon them the way Gould Medical group looked upon graduates from Johns Hopkins, she should sign up. As it turned out, none of the managers had ever heard of the academy. Hilary managed to get a part-time job at McDonald's without spending $250 to learn how to smile and make change.

The lesson here is that your advice works better if you can point your advisee towards experts, instead of giving him or her your own opinion.

You can sometimes fudge if you can't refer your advisee to an expert.

In 2001 our family HMO sent all of its subscribers an official notice. All five of us got a two-ounce letter, at first class rates. I wrote to the CEO, telling him I was a computer programmer by trade, which was true, that I consulted on the side for $100 an hour, which was a stretch; I was ready to do so, but no one had ever taken me up on the offer. Finally, I said I could save him thousands of dollars. I suggested they change the computer program that prepared address labels to print one address per household, instead of one per person. I knew that writing what we call a "summarizing" program is the kind of work programmers do when there isn't anything fun to do; it is about as challenging a task as replacing a carburetor is for an automobile mechanic. I also said if my suggestion saved them money, a suitable reward would be 10% of the savings from the first mailing, split between two of my favorite charities.

Six months later I got a letter from the CEO telling me they had implemented my suggestion. They had just mailed 100,000 letters instead of 166,000. It saved them $32,340, 10% of that was $3,234, so they were sending checks for $1,617 each to the Muir Trail Girl Scout Council and the Leukemia Society.

I put the part about $100 an hour and the thousands of dollars in savings in the first paragraph of my letter, to grab his attention. Most of us are experts in something, be it computer programming or heirloom recipes. If you are going to give advice in your area, tell people your qualifications.

None of our seven principles cover giving advice, I'm afraid.

Our seventh principle is "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part," which fits with the next lesson I've learned.

I've learned that in some respects, life is like walking along a trail with a knapsack of rocks. These "rocks" are the little chores you don't particularly like but have to do. Some people stop along the way to collect more rocks, and some look to see which ones they can throw away. For instance, I went to college in Berkeley, a pleasant but crowded city. I met people there who decided they needed a dog. This meant that at the busiest, most exciting time of their young lives, they had to take at least 20 minutes, every day to walk the dog. They also automatically disqualified themselves from living in any dormitory, fraternity or co-op, and from 9 out of 10 apartments, in a city that was already notorious for high rents and low vacancy rates. There were other people, like me, who bought 15 pairs of underwear and 15 pairs of white socks. We only had to do our laundry once every two weeks and never had to worry about finding a matching pair of socks. Our wardrobes were dull, but our lives were simpler.

Some of those rocks are in your wardrobe. Some of you may have noticed I don't have any short-sleeved dress shirts. Come warm weather, I pick the first clean one out of the laundry basket, just like I do in the winter, brush off the cat hair, put it on and roll up the sleeves. My shoes don't always coordinate with the rest of my outfit, either, since I have four pair of dress shoes, two brown, two black.

I personally have never been tempted to buy shoes in pastel shades, or any shade of brown other than regular, but I know some people know what lavender, mauve or taupe are, and some even have shoes in those colors. Every pair of purple shoes you decide you can do without, every shirt you can wear in all four seasons, reduces your impact on that interdependent web; not by much, admittedly, but by a little. It makes your life simpler, too.

Some of those rocks are outside your wardrobe, too. Think about it the next time you are tempted to buy something you've done without for a couple of years. Sign up on the 1-800 do not call list. Write to the direct mail association and ask to be taken off the mailing lists.

You may think it odd for me to drawing life lessons from my wardrobe. Consider this; whenever we have guests from out of state who want to go to San Francisco in the summer, I always tell them "Take a sweater; it is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it." Now think about CPR lessons, a fully inflated spare tire and a flashlight next to the telephone. It's better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.

Finally, I've learned that not everyone is as inquisitive as I am. I always look at the inside cover of my hymnal, to see who donated it to the fellowship. Some people don't. I liked "Comfort Me" well enough that I donated some of the teal hymnals to the fellowship. I didn't want to brag about it, but I didn't want to be entirely anonymous, either, so I used false names. Those of you who know me will probably recognize the ones I donated. I thought the secret would be out, with gentle chuckles all around, in weeks. It is still a secret to many of you. Marian Eriksen keeps asking me to stop hiding my light under a bushel, so to speak, so take a moment now, if you haven't, to peek at the inside of yours. [See a list of the false names.]

[Delivered November 30, 2008. In 2008, my wife and I went to Peru to visit our daughter, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer. While we was there we met a gentleman who rented out his Andean black-chested eagle-buzzard, one nuevo sole (35 cents) for five minutes, to tourists who had always wanted a picture of themselves with an eagle on their heads. Who could resist?]

This is one of a series of homilies I wrote for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, in Modesto, California, from 2003 - 2014.

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