Passing time is a strange expression. Passing does not imply using or wasting time. Nor does it mean that we somehow move ahead of time itself. When we come across the word, we most often think of hobbies. This comes closer to how we use time that is dedicated to doing something that we enjoy and relaxes us. For me, passing time is more an engagement, a committed work because we have time on our hands, nothing else to do.
This thought comes to me as I am currently reading a fictional life of a nun in Belgium during World War II. The book is “What Did You Do in the War Sister?” It’s written by Dennis Turner who used some letters of an American nun to recreate a narrative based on facts, generalizations and otherwise assumptions about life during World War II. As I read it, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was continuing, and I also had my own research into life of religious during the war. What struck me was how humans pass time in any manner possible and in any circumstance. Turner refers to such time as ‘interludes of normality.’
It is not as if life returns to normal, but even during war time, we pass time by doing what needs to be done. This kind of passing time is an attempt to make time normal and familiar. It is an engagement in time, not an escape from time. Passing time in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic became folkloric. The internet was crammed with ideas of what to do to pass time. Apparently, many people got into baking bread and other such homey crafts.
An interlude of normality is a time to do something, not necessarily because it fun or entertaining, although it can be, but because it helps to productively pass time. The nun in Turner’s book points to passing time to help the girls in the school feel a sense of normalcy even while death and destruction was the ‘real norm.’ In this case, the sisters were asked to take in a cow and a pig from a man who thought his farm animals would be safer with the sisters rather than at the farm where people were starting to, in desperation, steal animals for meat. The sisters and students passed time learning about how to care for the animals. It was a good distraction in order to be normal in abnormal times.
And so, I thought of all the displaced families in Ukraine and those who have become refugees. It’s not normal to have one’s family waiting for a train to Poland while temperatures dip into the freeze zone. How to pass time with no assurance about when the next train will come? As I watch the news, I will be looking for stories about whatever interludes of normalcy come their way. I am sure they will be inspiring.
These days we have heard a lot about words. Most recently, an important story about words concerned a priest who baptized with the formulary, “We baptize…” instead of “I baptize…” In saying ‘we’ there was an error in judgment, which in turn caused an error in intention…if I am understanding the issue correctly. Now, people are discussing the importance of a single word. Some say it is important, if not crucial while others opine that a single word cannot possibly be so important as to invalidate a baptism. Most of us hold an opinion about the matter, but we need competence and authority to render a true judgment. So, having neither, I will leave the matter alone and write about words in general.
The first words we utter are usually auto-reflexive. In other ‘words’, our tongue, lips, and later on our teeth have a lot to do with what we express as sounds that we often take for words. A baby moves lips and tongue and sounds come forth that sound like words. These sounds are congratulated and encouraged and with such positive enforcement, these words are repeated until meaning and not just sound are emitted from an infant. This is how we learn words and sustain them in what is called a vocabulary or list of words.
According to The Economist, the facts about adult vocabularies indicate the following:
Most adult native test-takers have a vocabulary range of about 20,000-35,000 words.
Adult native test-takers learn almost one new word a day until middle age.
Vocabulary growth stops at middle age.
The test-takers were part of a research project at TestYourVocab.com. The Economist published a blog article about this research in 2013. While there are many exemptions and exceptions to these findings, it is true that we learn words as we age and there are lists of words that are called ‘sight words’ or high-frequency words that are appropriate to age groups. We also learn words that are peculiar to our interests and professions. Proof that we often stop learning new words is self-evident when we find ourselves at a loss to understand lexical items that were commonly used by past generations (colloquialisms) and by the current generation of which we are not members (slang).
The most important thing about words is that they have contain meaning. We perhaps lose this fact about words and allow people to say a lot without saying anything at all or permit their easy retraction with the excuse that what was, indeed, expressed was not what was intended. There is a remedy for this: think before you speak. This is more easily said than done for most of regret words we have used. If we are thoughtful, we will learn from our mistakes and become more precise about the words we do use.
I came across a movement (opexsociety.org) called “Words Matter.” It proposes “being a practitioner of careful, thoughtful and deliberate positive communication.” The central idea of the movement is that words have power and that power should be for the good and not the bad. This movement has a lot to say to our current divisive environment, which often is a swirl of negativity, hateful words. Every once and awhile I am made aware of my own use of negative words, intended or not, when serendipity touches me. The other day, a receptionist was trying to find the right word to describe difficult customers. I suggested “weird”, but she rejected the word for another, “insensitive.” Her word was, I think, kinder.
Them’s fightin’ words is an expression that describes words that are threatening and injurious . Such words are libelous, obscene, lewd and profane and are used purposefully to cause a hurt. The Supreme Court ruled in 1942 that fighting words constitute “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” (Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942) and therefore are not protected by the Constitution. The problem of fighting words substantiates the “Words Matter Movement” which makes us aware of the vileness of mean-spirited, negative, and insulting words. Such words are always testing the Supreme Court’s 1942 definition of fighting words. It seems that the bar is being raised higher and higher as the years pass, yet the Fighting Words Doctrine has never been overturned.
If you are interested in reading examples of what I personally consider to be injurious lewd language that are either protected or not protected by the First Amendment, please see the article, FIGHTING WORDS, by David L. Hudson Jr., First Amendment Center (Updated July of 2009) at the link below:
Today, I am beginning another subject which will have many subtitles in future blogs if I continue to write about other hobbies than plane spotting. This new subject is like the one I started earlier which is called Rabbit Hole. Thus far, however, there has only been one rabbit hole although I think that my blog on immateriality may have come close to being one. The jury is still out.
When people ask me what my hobbies are I usually am at a loss for words. What do I like to do in my spare time? Or, what do I like to do and make time for it? Today, I found myself on the internet watching Yourtube.com. I searched for plane spotting and came across interesting footage of jets trying to land during Storm Eunice at London’s Heathrow Airport, Runway 27L. The action was being caught by Jerry Dyer on his Big Jet TV livestream. This is not the first time I searched for such a topic and so I determined that plane spotting just might be a hobby!
I think I mentioned in an earlier hobby that when growing up, my dad liked to take us on Sunday nights (in the summer) to an ice cream drive-in where we all ordered vanilla/orange ice cream cones. Then we would drive to Johnson-Bell Field in Missoula, Montana where we would watch a plane or two land and take off. The activity, even while subdued compared to huge urban airports, must have piqued my interest because as I now think of it, I do enjoy watching planes. Even from my apartment window here in Panama City, Panamá, I watch a regular flow of jets turning around over the bay and heading for Tocumen International Airport, to the east of the city. I have a couple of apps that I use to identify flights. This is not sophisticated airplane spotting, but it suffices for me. 99% of flights to Panama City are international. Copa Airlines (Panama’s national airline) offers flights to David which is in the west part of Panamá. There are two international airports here, but the main one is called Tocumen International (PTY). Tocumen is the name of the town to the east of the capital where the airport is located.
AVIPEO.COM (AviationPeople) describes plane spotting as a hobby that involves going to an airport to watch planes land and take off. Although this website also adds that ‘plane spotting can be done is various shapes or forms’ most plane spotting involves actually being at an airport (often there are designated areas, which are monitored, for enthusiasts) and the filming, broadcasting, or photographing of planes in their descent or ascent. While this is a pure form of plane spotting, I take my version of the hobby to a distant perspective. Wherever I am, I am always noticing planes.
Airport terminals used to have observation decks, but those have gone the way of the last century. People would visit observation decks for the pleasure of it whether they had a flight or not. Often observation decks were well-equipped with restaurants, lounges and snack bars. These days such plane spotting might be able to be done from an airline VIP lounge (I know that at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle (Terminal 2E) has one for its national airline, Air France). Other sites for plane spotting at an airport are parking ramps (Phoenix’s Sky Harbor is a good example of this), airport hotels (an example is Frankfort International) and, of course, frontage roads and other public byways (almost any airport in the world).
Thousands of people around the world enjoy the hobby of plane spotting. There are many reasons for such an interest. There is certainly the awe of seeing a huge aircraft come from the sky and land on a narrow strip of reinforced concrete. Equally inspiring is the take-off when the roar of engines gives way to a (most-often) gentle lift and then full ascent. These sights are often described as ‘miraculous,’ especially to viewers like I am who know nothing about velocity, thrust and lift, etc.
At high-volume airports which are usually international, it is also interesting to see flagships from all around the world. Not all countries have a national airline, but those which do often view their airline(s) with a sense of pride. A national flag is always on both sides of a fuselage, so it is good to know national flags if the airline livery isn’t quite explicit enough. Respecting nations without impartiality, as the pope does, it is interesting to note that the pope, when making an airline trip, leaves Italy on an Alitalia jet and returns to Italy on the national airline (when possible) of the country he visited.
Plane spotting also recalls the precious cargo of the planes we see coming and going, the passengers. It is interesting to think of who the passengers are, and for what reason they are travelling, did they have a long flight and, if so, they must be glad to be close to landing. Thinking of passengers is particularly emotional if you have ever shared in their experience. How are the passengers feeling as their plane rocks and rolls in disturbing air currents? The spotter can see the jets bouncing up and down and they can also imagine what that feels like inside the cabin. I have been on a few wicked landings, go-arounds and even diversions and can share an empathy for passengers.
If you are genuinely interested in the perspective of the passenger during turbulence, you can easily satisfy your curiosity by searching for ‘turbulent landings’ on any search engine. Good luck and enjoy your flight!
Thinking about humor as it relates to the covid-19 pandemic (including the variants), I am not in any way dismissing the seriousness of the pandemic or the personal toll it has taken on so many. Rather, I am thinking about humor as a human response to covid. It seems true of human nature that humor surfaces when we face scary situations. This kind of humor acts as a sort of release of tension and anxiety. It is a coping mechanism.
Of course, it must be said that a lot of humor related to covid was and is quite vile. Some humor was explicit in making a political, social, or a religious statement. Most of these kinds of humorous pieces made the rounds on the internet, being forwarded as often as ‘impartial’ humor. Impartial humor, as I see it, makes light of common inconveniences and otherwise general experiences of humanity during the pandemic.
The pandemic is not over although we all wish it were officially declared so. Still, society is readjusting to a pre-covid lifestyle. However, some of us are mistaking societal movements as medical evidence that the pandemic is clearly over. Here, we need patience, and I am suggesting a little bit of humor.
I have compiled for this ‘pictorial blog’ a series of humorous pieces which reminded me of several things: 1.) The utter seriousness of the covid-19 virus and its subsequent variants; 2.) We are in a pandemic, which means a global illness; 3.) People came together to argue and to fight as well as to help and to comfort; 4.) People fell away from each other either out of anger and distrust or because of care for self and others; 5.) The world experienced effects of what a pandemic can do outside of the physical effects of the disease and finally, the pandemic gave us a lot of time to be alone, and these times were utilized in as many ways as there are people. Here we go…
Remember one of our first reactions to covid-19 was the hording of toilet paper? This is still an unexplained phenomenon, but this reaction has everything to do with rampant fear and self-protection. We seemed to get through this crisis and the experience left some of us chuckling.
Quarantine became quite common and from what I hear, some people continue to prefer and enjoy it. I left France to return to the United States just as covid was taking root in northern Italy. My colleagues who were returning to Israel had to self-quarantine for a couple of weeks while I was left free to roam. Going outside was often considered a last resort while others would do anything to go outside.
Lockdowns and quarantines took their toll on how we tolerate each other. Patience wore thin and the effects of being together under the same roof for weeks on end brought forth a series of humorous and macabre reactions.
Many government offices, schools and churches went underground by way of cancelling, or using such social media platform as zoom. Remember this was, and still is, a daily routine in the working world, but less so in the church world.
A constant during the pandemic was the reminder to wash your hands with soap and water or apply a hygienic gel to them and to wear a mask. We found some humor in the differnce between the warnings and the force of habit.
We also adopted a fearful mindset when it came to being close to someone. Distancing was typically a six foot or a cow length rule.
You might also recall how many people decided to let their hair grow out because barber shops and salons were closed. Some took to the ‘black market’ for private at-home cuts, while others just let their hair hang down or stick straight up…depending on their hair type.
While I am mindful that the pandemic is not yet over, there seems to be a growing sense that covid and its variants are easing their grips. It is good to be reminded that a little humor naturally comes from, as the tired expression goes, these unprecedented times and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. As we have forgotten the pandemic of 1918, this one will also settle into history and become yet another mechanism for coping with difficulty; We will forget it.
Today I ironed three shirts and started to think about this ancient art and task. I don’t know that I was ever taught to iron, but I certainly admit that I watched a lot of ironing in my day. My mother ironed everything from t-shirts to bed sheets to shirts to linen kitchen towels. It is safe to say that she ironed at least five out of seven days. Later, of course, my older sister was indentured into this task and still later and with some encouragement all of us took a share of the ironing detail. I can still hear in my mind the sound of the ironing board being put down and taken up, the sound of the puffs of steam.
Ironing is no longer the task that it was, but still, we speak of it as some sort of medieval punishment. These days, either people use and wash and wear clothes, steam clothes as needed, don’t iron at all, send the laundry out or have an iron ready to press something for a more formal occasion. Just the other day while waiting for someone in my apartment lobby, a load of ironed shirts was being delivered. All those shirts looked so nice, their long sleeves and cuffs hanging at attention in wrinkle-free glory. The sight of it made me think about earlier days when I lived in a rectory with other priests and all our shirts were sent out and returned looking immaculate. Many a woman commented about my exacting cuffs, thinking that it would be nice if their husbands had the same. But that dream would require first and foremost ironing their husbands’ shirts! This is where the wrinkle begins.
When I consider the development of the iron, today’s issue, or displeasure with ironing should not even be entertained. Earliest forms of the iron date back to 401 CE China where flat disks with an upper lip were filled with hot coals and smoothed over material. In the Western world and sometime later hot stones or wood would be used be used to combat annoying wrinkles.
And look where ironing is today. We have tried about everything!
And let us not forget that in the 1970s the clothes iron was not just for clothes, as illustrated below.
Ironing has been around a long time and will likely keep reinventing itself as long as clothes hold on to stubborn wrinkles. Ironing for some is a pre-occupation to rid our lives of unsightly crumples while for others an unpressed shirt is perfectly fine. Some find ironing a horrible task while others find satisfaction, even enjoyment, in taming wrinkles in a shirt.
Elizabeth Berg had the right idea about ironing and the little joys of life.
“There are random moments – tossing a salad, coming up the driveway to the house, ironing the seams flat on a quilt square, standing at the kitchen window and looking out at the delphiniums, hearing a burst of laughter from one of my children’s rooms – when I feel a wavelike rush of joy. This is my true religion: arbitrary moments of nearly painful happiness for a life I feel privileged to lead.”
The title of my blog today is misleading. I try to label each blog with only one word and so it is possible that what I write does not seem to relate well to the blog’s label. But this is how my mind works. One word describes an important feature of the blog’s content, but it does not limit my mind to flutter off in several directions. This is comfortable for me because this is a blog which gives my mind freedom. This is not a journalistic piece nor is it a graduate paper. Years ago, a professor did not appreciate my less-than-academic writing style and thus added in big red letters, “Dis donc,” which means “Just say it.”
This is one of those blogs that begins with a strange concept, immateriality but will, with hope, end up in the realm of material satisfaction. So, my blog begins with me in graduate school. I was studying theology and putting an emphasis on what was once called ‘mystical theology’ and later came to be simply known as ‘spirituality.’ Specifically, I researched intellectualism, which I came to argue was constitutive of spirituality. The only faculty member who supported my research was a visiting Jesuit-priest-professor from Belgium. Also supporting me as far as I was concerned was Thomas Aquinas who made the claim that intellect is immaterial, that is that it cannot be explained in physical terms. In this sense, immaterial obviously does not mean ‘of no consequence’ as we would hear in the world of juris prudence.
Intellectualism is spiritual and therefore a conduit to God who in this world of materiality is not completely understood, but to some degree knowable. An intellectual approach to God means that knowing something about God (a possibility) is far better than understanding all of God (an impossibility). Intellectualism is also not snobbish. Everyone has an intellect and as Thomas Aquinas further teaches, the soul subsists in the intellect. This explains to me why we often think of children as fonts of wisdom because they often say things that stop us in our tracks. Such intellectual prowess can only come from a fresh, open intellect, not from a hardened adult intellect. Of such wisdom, we often say, ‘…from the mouth of babes…’ We recognize a fundamental truth that we do not enunciate with our lips but with which we inherently agree, as if it is an affirming moment for us. This is where I think Aquinas would say the soul expresses intellect.
The painting, The Starry Night over the Rhône at Arles is Van Gogh’s intellectual interpretation of his experience of The Rhône River which passes through Arles, Van Gough’s place of refuge where he could find peace and quiet…these coincidentally tend toward intellectual sensitivity and prayerful expression. Of this piece Van Gough wrote that the peaceful night brought about “a tremendous need of —shall I say the word—religion…so I go outside at night to paint the stars.” And so, he painted the stars and a brilliant study of the gas lights on the other side of the river and their glow in an assortment of colors. Again, this piece, like a child’s honest wisdom, evinces the mind and soul working in tandem.
This blog began with a defense of how my mind moves in various directions. The title of the blog is, however, immaterial. I defined what I mean by this word and then I went about assuming that intellectualism and spirituality are not contradictory but complementary. This is nothing new, but a constant fascination for me. Thomas Aquinas explained that the eternal soul finds its home in the intellect complete with its associations with the senses, virtues and vices. Origen, the great Christian scholar of the late second century referred to the soul as the chamber of justice. His spiritual writing about the soul led Aquinas to teach about intellect, which produces virtue and vice by means of the human body, but it is only the soul that judges our behavior. Hence, the expression ‘listen to your soul.’
The world of advertisements is filled with mascots, those loveable, trustable images that represent any one of thousands of products. Sometimes, they are called product reps or a spokesman (a spokesperson?) Generally, mascots should be cute and endearing so that we feel a kind of friendship with the mascot. This friendship brings with it a preference and a loyalty both of which are key features of any friendship. Parents understand this when it comes to trying to substitute a lower cost mascot-less cereal for one that features well-known cereal mascots such as Cap’n Crunch, Tony the Tiger or Toucan Sam. Choosing a generic brand most likely upsets the bond of friendship the child feels with any one of these mascots.
Mascots are not only for children. We adults also pick and choose our mascot friends and remain loyal and preferential to them. Some of these mascots are on our shoulders as we grow from childhood into adulthood. Most adults will choose an easy-bake product mascotted by the Pillsbury Doughboy over a generic brand. Adults looking for their preferred liquor are most likely to choose The Jägermeister Stag and Johnnie Walker’s Striding Man.
I’m sure that lots of trials and tests are used before any mascot is presented to the public as a representative of a product. Afterall, a mascot can make a break a product. Mascots need to be universally appealing because most products are available worldwide. Colonel Sanders is as popular in Japan as he is in the United States. A Forbes magazine article (The Rise of the Non-Human, Non-Living Product Spokesman, Todd Wasserman, 5 August 2020) is about Colonel Sanders appearing now in Tokyo as a plastic model which is placed on the street in front of a KFC store. There, he can be seen from a distance and his friendly smile beckons his hungry and faithful friends to walk toward him and enjoy the friendship. The article mentions that the plastic model also bespeaks an embrace of technology in a very tech-oriented society. I personally am not a teckie and so I don’t associate Col. Sanders with technology. I guess this goes to show the power of representation. The concept of Col. Sanders speaks to many generations and cultures.
Mascots come and go as sensitivities and association-meanings in society change. For example, Mia the native American woman who sold butter was quietly removed from the label of Land-O-Lakes dairy products. Frito Bandito was also removed from Frito-Lay products after years of complaints. After forty years of brand mascotting, even Tropic Ana no longer spoke for our friendship with orange juice. Ther charming singing trio called the California Raisins also came to an end because they were just too expensive and time-consuming to use.
Last year, the Mexican government took a stand on the use of mascots in product advertising for children. Faced with a national obesity problem for children, the government banned the use of cute, adorable mascots. It seems that friendships with certain mascots added additional pounds to Mexican youngsters. A farewell was therefore announced to such mascots as Osito Bimbo, Gansito Marinela, Chester Cheetah and the dancing penguins. Kids loved these so much that they were influenced to the detriment of their health.
This is the same kind of campaign developed by the American Medical Association in the 1970s to fight against the use of Joe Cool as a cigarette mascot. This cartoon appealed to children and surveys indicated that children ages 3-6 recognized Joe Cool more often than Mickey Mouse, Fred Flintstone and Bugs Bunny. The campaign was successful because no one has seen Joe Coll since 1997. As I mentioned earlier, mascots come and go.
Here are some beloved mascots that have been around a long time.
Finally, it must be said that some mascots should never speak. The Bejing 2022 Winter Olympics mascot Bing Dwen Dwen nearly lost his job when he opened his mouth, shocking and disillusioning many Chinese. Bing Dwen Dwen was a much-loved cuddly mascot until a deep-male voice came from his mouth. The voice surprised many people who later lost their admiration for Bing, the Panda. Bye-bye Bing.
I am home in Panamá after three weeks of seeking information in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is not to say that I found the necessary information in Scottsdale, but that this resort city was the homebase from where I sought the information in person and on the internet. Information is everywhere!
The first batch of personal information I received was years ago when my mother handed me a packet of information that, as a good mother, she had gathered and safeguarded on the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet. The exchange was unceremonious, but meaningful. It was like a rite of passage wherein I became more conscious of information that had been collected on my behalf and for which I was now responsible. I could no longer ask my mother for my birth certificate, sacramental records, and other vital statistics.
Now, for the last 45 plus years, I have lugged my personal information around with me. It’s as safe as it ever was in my growing-up-home, now placed in a black banker’s bag! Ha! I know that I have such information scanned and/or in some photographic form, but I really should bring it all together in an electronic form so that I can easily pass it on to the next person who will want and need ‘my information.’ This is my nephew, the poor guy. My attorney should also get a copy of such important come to think of it.
Retirement has also brought with it a myriad of information for which I am now also responsible. Medicare enrollment happened pretty much automatically because it is mostly a case of the federal government knowing if I am alive and, if so, into which year I am. This information about me had been stored for years by the Social Security Administration. I also supplied my gross annual salary information every year to my accountant who then gave the information to the Internal Revenue Service which kept track of my salary information during the years of employment or unemployment. This information was recalculated every year so when I chose to retire, the Social Security Agency would know how much of my deducted untaxed revenue I would receive and for which I would begin to pay the retirement income tax for the rest of my life.
Choosing to retire in Panama requires more information. I submitted my fingerprints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation only to find that there exists ‘no prior arrest data’ at the FBI. Feeling ‘justified’ on a federal level, I also note that ‘This [clearance] does not preclude further criminal history at the state or local level.’ The FBI’s information or lack thereof about me apparently satisfies the Panamanian government that I will be a safe, law-abiding resident.
Panama also requires that I provide them with an authenticated copy of SSA form 2458. This form substantiates the amount of social security I will receive each month for the rest of my life. This information is officially acknowledged by the Social Security Adminstration after all monthly deductions are accounted for. For the many years of my employment the federal, state and city governments have been collecting this financial information so that each could have a share while I worked and I would still have something left over to be be taxed when retired. Isn’t there an expression about death and taxes?
Of course and thus far, I have just reviewed a tiny portion of my accumulated personal information. These days when I fly out of Panama, I need information related to my covid positivity or negativity status; a passport number; a destination address; luggage claim information; a flight confirmation number; flight numbers; a seat number; a class code; a terminal number; a gate number; etc. Most airlines keep this information stored with my permission in what is called my profile. This profile contains further information such as credit card numbers; e-ticket credits; fidelity program statistical information; emergency contact information; seat preference; upgrade information; past, present and impending flight information; priority status information; TSA information; etc.
To spare the reader the time to read further, I need only mention medical records and on line portals, insurance information, licensures, telephone directories and the dreaded compliation of passwords and other codes. Clearly, we live in a world justified by information. So, if we are anything, we are fonts of information, some of which we know such as our names and some of which we may not know until it is our age-given right to know, such as our confidential social security benefit information.
Now that most holidays are over and gift giving is focused mainly on birthday gifts, I started thinking about gifts. These are something that we give to each other, but the rules, customs and items vary enormously…to the point that some variations on the theme are not considered gifts at all. These variations include such common practices as re-gifts; repurposed gifts; reconditioned gifts. I wonder if it is true that all gifts are judged as soon as they are opened?
I was working in Paris for a couple of weeks just before Christmas and my evening routine involved snuggling into my warm bed to watch some television programming before falling asleep. I considered this a kind of gift to myself for a day’s work well done. French programming of major programs is set at approximately 8:00 PM (news and weather); 9PM (movies and talk shows); 11:00 (educational shows and American police shows); 1 AM (movies). The gifts I gave myself came at 8 and 9:10.
Between programs are ten minutes or so of advertisements. Sometimes, these publicities are repetitive to the point that one starts to pay attention to them. A recurring theme during my stay was the suggestion to spend less money on more of a gift. The constant example of giving reconditioned gifts was portable phones. The idea is that you will give ‘more bang for your buck’ if you give a reconditioned iPhone from two generations ago. It makes sense to me, but it doesn’t consider the immediate judgement of the recipient. I’m thinking that someone who is expecting to receive a cell phone would be expecting to receive the latest, the greatest cell phone. Instead, the advertisements showed absolute pleasure with a reconditioned product. Really?
I understand the concept of buying reconditioned gifts, but tradition has it that they are a personal choice and experience. I choose to buy a reconditioned phone, a used car, day-old bread, but I don’t typically give them as gifts. I am reminded of being a young boy when my dad took me to a store to buy a bicycle. Of course, I was expecting a shiny, new 10-speed bike, but instead we went home with a used bike with embarrassingly fat tires. There was nothing wrong with the bike, to be sure, but in my mind the gift was going to be something completely different. You see, my immediate judgement impaired my gift-receiving ability, not the gift itself.
Years ago, a classmate in Paris was given approval by his dad to buy a moped. I joined in the excitement by looking around in what was at the time the area to buy motorcycles, bikes and mopeds, the Avenue de la Grande Armee. We looked and looked, and the only requirement of my friend was that the moped should be brand new. I suggested that a used one might give him what he wants at a lower price. His response, “My dad said that when you buy a used product, you are buying someone else’s problem.” I have always remembered that advice but have not always followed it.
Judgement of gifts is not what we are taught as children. Most children are either so enthralled or shocked by the gift they open that mom or dad must encourage a word of gratitude. “What do you say?” the child would hear in a gentle tone. Well-trained adults should be aware of the gratefulness that is to be expressed, but it is true that we often miss the magic word. This is the case whether we receive a gift that is brand new, reconditioned, repurposed or regifted.
Judgement of gifts comes with growing up and this is what makes gift giving difficult. We want to give the best possible gift to a child, but their reaction tells us right away that we missed the mark. Some children toss the gift aside and dive into another. Some kids start to cry with disappointment and even anger. This kind of behavior is not necessarily taught, but it reveals the pure emotional result of judgement.
Some say that gifting is impossible because no one in some societies really needs anything. Hence the question, “What do you give the person who has everything?” Strangely enough, this is also an introspective question, “What do I want or really need?” The honest answer in both cases is probably ‘nothing.’ Yet, the impulse to gift remains.
This year for Christmas my sister played along with my request that I receive nothing because I was travelling and would have little spare space in my luggage. The other side of the agreement freed me from having to pack gifts to give. It was liberating. Of course, as impulse would have it, I received a few gifts from my sister and her husband and even from their two dogs! All the gifts were edible and could be shared during my stay. What a perfect set of gifts! We enjoyed them during my stay.
Of course, a gentleman of sixty-six does not need or want too much more after a life of attaining and of ridding. As the expression goes, “Christmas is for kids.” This does not mean that gifts are no longer a means of expressing love, but it does mean for sure that love is the best gift. Symbols of love, like gifts, eventually wear away for adults. Symbols are no longer needed, but only the mystical expression that it is.
To this end, one of the themes I often preached at weddings would be taken from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: He wrote, “Strive eagerly for spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way (I Cor 12:31). To summarize Paul and to speak to the bridal couple, I said that they would be receiving lots of gifts like toasters and blenders, but it would be up to the couple to eagerly strive for the higher gifts, the gifts that are invisible yet always available to those who have the stature (the desire to receive) to reach for them.
Paul teaches that these spiritual gifts come without judgement of the recipient and that the recipient’s positive judgement of them is simultaneously evident as they are sought. In other words, we would not grasp these gifts if we had not already judged their value. Paul also makes it clear that the ‘still more excellent way’ to reach for spiritual gifts is the ‘way of love.’ The gifts we receive and give during our lives then are reminders of what really counts as a gift, love. Gift giving is a wonderful thing.
This morning, the morning of Martyrs’ Day in Panama (observed), the photo found above would have only piqued my curiosity. But, either thanks to wanting to learn or to curiosity (which is said ‘kills the cat’) I needed to find out what the Panamanian flag, a streetlight pole, and a boy have in common.
My learning experience started this morning when I awoke at 7 AM. Before, I went to sleep, however, I opened my bedroom, living room and kitchen windows to allow a cooling 70-degree ocean breeze to take the place of an air conditioner. I slept soundly and, as I said, awoke at 7 AM. This is about an hour later for me to naturally awaken, but I attributed the extra hour of sleep to adjusting to recent travels. The morning routine was the same: church bells rang the Westminster chime while I made my first cup of coffee. From the windows, however, I could hear and see that the city was unusually quiet. The normal things I would see were different: the taxi stand on Via Espana only had three cabs lined up and normally there would be a dozen; buses were few, cars were few, pedestrians were sparse and the rooftop parking level at the nearby government office was void of cars!
Something was different. This government and banking area was just too quiet and so I went about the task of investigation to learn why the city was so quiet and then to learn of the explanation. Today is the Martyrs’ Day Off of Martyrs’ Day, which is officially on the ninth day of January when the first martyrdom occurred.
Yesterday, back in 1964, the first of 28 Panamanians and 4 American soldiers was killed in skirmishes that were to last three days. All the history is complicated and marked by various perspectives, but for my purpose, it begins with the raising of American and Panamanian flags in the canal zone. President Kennedy had earlier agreed to allow the Panamanian flag to fly along with the American flag at any area of the zone that was not an American military base. Kennedy was of course later assassinated, and the American governor of the zone rescinded the agreement saying that neither the American nor Panamanian flags could be flown in the zone.
However, it is said that some Americans living in the zone were enraged and started to hang American flags anywhere they could, which of course, incited some Panamanian students. Some 200 Panamanian students alerted zone authorities and their school principal that they were going to march into the zone and hang the Panamanian flag alongside the American flag at Balboa High School. Zone police agreed to this, but to control the crowd police only allowed a small group of students to go to the flagpole.
Angry residents of the Canal Zone, called zonies, resented the police-student agreement and scuffles pursued. Protests of the first shooting (martyrdom) bled into Panama City and the rest is history. At noon on 31 December 1999, President Carter ceded the Canal Zone to Panama, breaking an agreement to pay Colombia (former owner) 250 thousand dollars annually (after a ten million initial payment) in perpetuity.
Part of the violence was captured by photographers who seized the image of three students who crossed a wire fence (often referred to as a ‘wall of shame’) to enter the zone to hang a Panamanian flag on a light pole. The pole was just inside the zone and the fence was meant as a protective barrier against a busy highway. Life magazine featured a photo of this incident on the cover of its 24 January 1964 issue.
I was only nine years old in 1964 and yet 58 years later, I awoke to learn about a significant event that shaped world history. Today, no other flag (aside from embassy flags) flies in what was called the Panama Canal Zone. A huge Panamanian flag flies atop Acon Hill (highest point in Panama City area) and a life-size replica of the light pole incident stands in front of the Legislative Assembly. The sovereignty of the Republic of Panama is symbolized on each ship that passes through the canal. The flagship always lowers its home country’s flag and is replaced by the Panamanian flag and the pilot in control is always Panamanian.
Learning all this today was a choice which was prompted by a noticeably quiet city this morning. I am happy to have learned this today because I now live here and see Ancon Hill (Cerro Ancon) on an almost daily basis. As an old priest-friend once said and said often, “Today, I will go to bed less stupid than when I awoke.” Now, the silence of the city I experienced this morning seems a most appropriate solemn commemoration of an especially important day.