On Staying Engaged in Life

A funny thing happened to me just after leaving DeVry's Merrillville Center last Friday. I had taught a humanities class there the night before and left my treasured and priceless drinking mug in the classroom. I got that mug years ago at a gas station on my way to a class that I was teaching. Granted, its monetary value isn't large, but the sentimental value is immense. My fear was that someone would think that the mug was just some left-over old mug and trash it. That is the reason for being there before 9am on that Friday morning. I said hello to the coordinator at the front desk as I rushed by to classroom #3. The door was open and my heart sunk. I thought that someone had already cleaned up the classroom. However, as I entered, lo and behold...my mug was still sitting on the lectern.

As I returned to the front desk, Deb, the Operations Support Coordinator, asked me what was wrong. I sheepishly recounted my mistakenly leaving my mug in my classroom the evening before. I explained the embarrassing situation of forgetting my cherished mug. I told her that in my old age that I was turning into my father. My brothers and I use to laugh at him for still wearing some of his old military clothing from WWII. His boots and clothing at that time were two decades old, and here I am longing for that old worn coffee mug.

After my attempt not to look too silly, I left the office and started down the hallway to leave the building and just happened to be walking next to a mother and a cute little toddler. The little girl was the same age as my grandson. The little girl was bundled up for the bitter cold weather into which she was about to go. I said hello to the little girl who smiled and then made my normal funny face. She smiled but then toddled off with her mother. She looked very determined as she continued on her way. She didn't want to waste time smiling at some old man making funny faces.

As she and her mother went back into the world, I also returned to the bitter cold. I got into my car and drove off thinking about that little girl all bundled up with her smile and determination to complete her task of walking next to her mother. It took a nanosecond to realize that my grandson, Jack, is just like that little girl.

Al and Jack on the beach

When Owen, Jack's six month old little brother, sees us arrive in Indy, in a second or two, he remembers and gives us the cutest and warmest smile of acceptance. He is happy that Papa and Ya-Ya are there to play, feed, and change his diapers.

Al, Jack, and Owen on the floor

Baby Owen

However, Jack is 2 ½ going on 10. He has had a much longer history with us. The family has a cat called Einstein. It won't be long before we will be calling Jack, Einstein II. Jack has a routine with us each Tuesday. After saying hi to Ann, he says to me, "Let's play trains."

Al and Jack playing with trains

Jack puts a train on Papa's head

After driving the trains around the track for a while, Jack decides to drive his car on papa's gray interstate highway.

We rearrange the track, change the various positions of the cars and the other things around the track. While we have played trains each week for several hours, he seems to see things that need to be done and makes those changes on his train track.

When we aren't playing trains and depending on the weather, we will walk down to our favorite restaurant, to a Tibetan store, to the zoo, or just sit and talk or watch Disney Jr. on TV. Regardless, what we are doing, he wants to know and to understand what is in front of him. His toddler's mind is like a small little vacuum cleaner pulling in data and the data that he doesn't get, he asks for its meaning.

I have similar feelings when teaching, writing, or traveling overseas. I also want to know why. If I already know something, I want to know even more. I can understand and relate to his urge. However, his view of his wondrous world and questions about why are more intense than mine or most other adults. Jack is wired about the wondrous world around him.

For at least the past year, the computer fascinates him. He'll sit in front of my laptop while I am writing or teaching online. He will want to explore the keyboard and watch which key causes what to happen. His parents have an iPad, which he knows more about than I know.

Al and Jack looking at the computer

When Jack gets up from a nap, the order of the afternoon is to explore any genre that floats by his questioning eye. He is halfway through the learning methodology of potty training. You can see him process the issue and what is an appropriate response to this new learning and leave diapers for his baby brother, Owen.

Both Jack and Owen wake up from sleeping with the wondrous world in front of them...all the stuff new and old. Things that they understand and things that they haven't been able to process. Nevertheless, they are processing it, questioning things, asking older family members about things. However, they are awake and alive to the world.

Amid the revelry Ann and I enjoy watching Jack and Owen begin the exploration process of the world in front of them, the reality is that they like all of us will in time slacken off of the determined exploration of the wondrous world that lies ahead of us. I see it in my own life. Even though I love teaching, writing, and traveling, there are many times that I slow down and question is it worth the effort. It seems like at the age of 70, I should be slowing down.

In addition, many of my students, okay, nearly all my students have slowed done...and they aren't 70. They want to get a degree and to ease on down the proverbial yellow brick road. Someplace in all of our journeys, we all don't see the world quite as wondrous as Jack, Owen, and the little girl at DeVry. We come up with reasons for not going gung ho in our journey. Whether our excuses are real or made up defense mechanisms, it doesn't really make any difference. We have had the air taken away from our sails.

The question that Jack and Owen ask about the wondrous world of why is also my question to all of us adults...the wondrous world of why aren't we as adventuresome as little kids?

While Jack figures out all of the intricacies of potty training and moves on ahead to even unimagined questions, I realize that I have given up or give in to things that I don't understand. And there are two things that I have learned about life.

Jack and Owen have reminded me that the world is wondrous. That is a joyful learning experience. Thanks to the two of you, I am a better person. The other learning experience is unlike many of you who have time to mess up and waste time, I don't have limitless time left in my life. Of course, in reality, neither do you, but you don't know that. I do. Thanks to dancing with death, I reallllly do know that reality.

So I'll send this article to my webmaster, China, and get back to teaching and prepare for the next class and the next course. I have dozens of articles in my computer file called PENDING. Then there is finishing up the itinerary for going to Scotland in a couple months. Then there is the trip to Burma at the end of the year.

My wife isn't excited about going to St. Petersburg, Russia in December 2016 on the 100th anniversary of Rasputin's assassination, but I still have several years to convince her that having a beer celebrating the Mad Monk's demise would surely be a part of my wondrous world.

If you wish to join us in St. Petersburg, just email me. Perhaps, we could get a lot of revelers to meet there at the Moika Palace along the river to toast the Mad Monk. That is where the assassination process began.

Moika Palace

Moika Palace

In the meantime, look out on the wondrous world of why and enjoy the journey.

Dancing with Death

Dancing with Death

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