Manfred Steiner will celebrate his 90th birthday this month. He has another reason to celebrate. At age 89, he recently earned his Ph.D. in physics from Brown University. “He admired the precision of physics,” an AP article about him says about his pursuit of his lifelong dream. Steiner’s decision to earn his doctorate in physics followed a career in medicine. According to the same AP article, “Steiner studied hematology at Tufts University and biochemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before becoming a hematologist at Brown University. He became a full professor and led the hematology section of the medical school at Brown from 1985 to 1994.” His interest in science and physics did not magically emerge late in life; he held onto his dream from the time he was a teenager in Vienna, Austria.
So, what does this have to do with John Swinburn? It’s hard to say. I do not have a single, passionate dream I might pursue now, as a man retired from a meaningless career facilitating pointless endeavors. But I have plenty of old wishes and dreams that, had I followed them, would have led me in a radically different direction from the one I took. Veterinary medicine. Human medicine. Law. Linguistics. Criminology. Architecture. Sociology. Psychology. The list goes on and on. But I settled for something less interesting; in part because my interests were quite wide but extremely shallow. “I settled.” That’s the bottom line. Adequate in lieu of exceptional. Okay in place of amazing. I could have allowed myself to be challenged by a world in which failure was just as much of an option as success. Instead, I opted for easy “success” in place of inspirationally earned accomplishment.
But, as Manfred Steiner demonstrated so well, it’s not too late to pursue a dream. The challenge, though, is to identify a dream worth pursuing. The troublesome aim is to uncover the embers that might spark a fire in the belly. That, I’m afraid, might be impossible, because nothing excites me that much anymore. Not that anything ever did; at least nothing has challenged me enough, intellectually, to trigger my passions. So, instead of pursuing a passion, I’ve waited patiently (more or less) for the flames of an overwhelming passion to consume me. I continue to wait for the magic of compelling interest to overtake me. Maybe, I say to myself, I should pick one of my old, passing interests and ferociously pursue it. But that’s as far as it goes.
Oh, I write; so that could be my “fire in the belly” passion. But writing is a pastime for me, not a serious avocation. I don’t take it seriously enough for it to merit more than a nod. I used to value writing far more than I do now until I discovered what writing is, at its core: the rearrangement of previously used letters and words. There’s nothing unique or inherently gratifying about that. Yet there’s nothing especially enchanting about linguistics or law or sociology or architecture, either. No more so, certainly, than bricklaying or plumbing or installing solar panels or sidewalks. Maybe we (I) need to pay more attention to simple satisfaction than to fulfilling fantasies. No, not maybe. Certainly. That’s what we (I) should do. And I will. Perhaps. Someday. Right. Still, Manfred Steiner is a role model.
A Florida Seminole tribe has been fighting for years to get human remains back to Florida for “proper” burial. The controversy has raised all sorts of issues relating to archeology and who, ultimately, gets to decide the fate of the dead and buried. Anyone who has skimmed international news over the past several years knows this issue is not new. The questions about decisions about burial sites, etc. have been brewing for years. I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I understand archeologists’ assertions that buried remains and items found with and near them are important to the record of human evolution and societal development. But on the other, I appreciate familial and tribal insistence on reclaiming control over ancestral remains. But yielding to families and tribes also yields to their religious beliefs; I have some issues with that. On the other hand, even though I am decidedly non-religious, I do not favor discounting religious beliefs simply because they are religious. Yet…and on and on and on. Would that humanity would recognize religion for what it is and, with that knowledge, knowingly leave it behind as an embarrassing mistake in human traditions. That would not necessarily solve the Seminole issue, but it might help narrow the field of possibly solutions.
Today is a Sunday, one of many such days we have so-named. I wonder how many Sundays have come and gone since we first started calling one of the days of the week by that name? If only we knew, we might either gladly waste them on frivolities or worship their power to direct us toward deeply meaningful conversations. Or something entirely different.
Without soap or detergent, where would humankind be today? It’s a legitimate question. I hate to imagine the hideousness of the answer. We could be living in unimaginable squalor. Surgery might be unbelievably dangerous. The death rate of children under age ten could be astronomical, thanks in part to the tendency of young children to spend time in dirty places. Who invented soap? There should be a global holiday in honor of that person/those people. We owe them a debt of more than gratitude; we may, in fact, owe them our lives. Yet we chuckle at the very idea of celebrating a holiday in their honor. We’re a hard-hearted bunch, aren’t we?
Windshield wipers. Headlights. Front window defrosters. Gas take fillers. Modes of opening gas tanks. These are just a few of the items I believe merit Federal government regulation. No, not just Federal government; Global government! No matter what car I enter, I should know how to turn the windshield wipers (and washer) on and off. I should be able to control the headlights. And the front window defrosters. And, without staring at the gas gage in the dash, I should know where the filler is located. And I should know how to open the gas tank so I can deposit gas. These are just a few of the things I believe should be standardized. My beliefs are strong and unwavering. We, the people, should demand immediate and irrevocable action on these matters.