Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hire a Teenager, While He Still Knows Everything!

Thanks to all who responded to the previous post. Several suggested that if I really wanted to understand the theology behind felix culpa, all I needed to do was consult Wikipedia. (After all, if it's in Wiki, it has to be true.) So I did, and I was interested to read the following:

Felix culpa is a Latin phrase jOjO wAz HeAr that literally translated bRiTtAnY rOoLz means a "blessed fault" or "fortunate fall" hi booboo.

Anyhow, on to today's topic.

In my high school yearbook, the saying I chose for myself, while not original, expressed my sentiments to a T. I wrote: Hire a teenager, while he still knows everything!

I'm getting old. Physically I may still be "sound of wind and limb." But I no longer know everything like I did when I was young. My sons know everything. Ask a five-year-old, "What flavor ice cream would you like?" He says, "Chocolate!" You say, "Are you sure you don't want strawberry?" He says, "No! I want chocolate." Ask me what flavor I want. "Well ... I really should have gelato, that's healthier ... Ice cream ... all the cream ... and my glucose is a little high ... well, I can cheat every so often ... but how often is often? ... Well, as long as I have a 'reasonable quantity.' But how many scoops are 'reasonable'? How many ounces are in a scoop? And should I get strawberry? Then at least I'd be eating something in the fruit family. Hey, maybe I could get 'low fat' ice cream. But is it really 'low,' or just 'mildly reduced?'"

That is why five-year-olds don't have psychiatrists.

A squirrel collects nuts. If it were me, I would say, "Why do I collect nuts? Am I going to collect nuts for the rest of my life? I'm tired of collecting nuts. Couldn't I get my secretary to collect them for me? Can't I just have one week off, just one week, during which I don't even have to think about nuts?"

That's why squirrels don't have psychiatrists.

The difference is that squirrels never grow up, at least psychologically. Something happens to us humans, however. We reach a certain age, and all of a sudden we're "practical." When I was 16, if you asked me to design a pipe organ for a given church, I would sit down and within 15 minutes you'd have a stoplist. Today, if asked the question, all I'd be able to think of would be: How much would it cost? ... Who would be on the Organ Committee? ... How much convincing, fighting, cajoling would I have to do? ... And in this economy ... And whom would we ask to build it? Or should we buy an old organ, orphaned from some closed parish, and restore it? But then where would we store it? And how many years would it take? What if it takes 10 years? Where will I be in 10 years? ..."

I can still write up a stop list. But the inner dialogue is completely different. At age 16 it would have been, "Principal 32' -- yes! Untersatz 32' -- yes! Octave 16' -- yes!" Today it would be, "Principal 32' -- The ceiling isn't high enough. It's futile. Untersatz 32' -- Do we put it in the front or in the back? It's futile. Octave 16' -- Maybe there should be a Principal and a Violone? It's futile."

I started making a list entitled, "Everything I Was Right About When I Was a Teenager." I can't find the list. At 18 I would have put it in a special drawer in my desk. At 38 I couldn't even tell you what city this piece of paper is in. But I do remember a few things on it. I remember my reasons for switching from the piano to the organ at age 15. (Later I brought the piano back. Now I play both instruments equally ineptly.) I remember my reasons for not finishing my degree at age 18. I remember all of these big decisions and the things that were going through my mind. I was right on every single one of them. And I didn't deliberate over these decisions. I had my reasons, they were clear, I jumped in. The years have vindicated those decisions.

Today, I can't decide what to have for breakfast. Often I skip breakfast, because the indecision pain is sharper than the hunger pain.

This realization of how "old" I've become occurred last Sunday, as I played for the Confirmation Mass. Bishop Robert Hennessey presided. What a sermon! There was something of Pat O'Brien in the way he spoke to those kids, eloquently but clearly, in a language they could understand. The language sounded almost foreign to me; yet, I used to speak it every day. The Bishop simply told of his own scholastic struggles during those difficult years -- failing math, hating the other kids who passed, showing the sullied report card to Dad. Many of the kids had their eyes fixed on him. They were listening to him. It warmed my heart to think that maybe, just maybe, one of those kids might remember a couple of words from that homily.

Yet when I come in contact with teenagers today, I'm barely able to croak out a "hello." Their language is a forgotten dialect of my past -- even though, inside, I have probably changed little since I was 18. I'm calmer, I choose my battles, but I feel the same frustrations with "authority." I've simply trained myself to be less angry less often at fewer people. In other words, I'm less alive.

"Alive" is the 16-year-old who says to Authority, "You can't do that!" "Less alive" is the 38-year-old who says to himself, "Oh well, they're gonna do it no matter what I say or do. Don't want to burn my bridges. Now, what shall I have for breakfast?"

Between ages 16 and 20, I burned almost every bridge that came before me. But there was something more important: I was a good swimmer. Today I'm not sure I remember how to swim.

So I walk over the bridge. Or I let someone take me over, as I relax. I do it the easy way. And that's exactly what Bishop Hennessey exhorted those kids not to do. "Whatever you do, the most important thing is: don't go a certain pathway only because it's easier."