Friday, November 27, 2009

My One-Time 'Encounter' with Uncle Frank

It was the Summer of ’72. School was out, but the livin’ wasn’t exactly easy. I had just finished my second of three attempts at completing the tenth grade. Needless to say, I needed a diversion in the worst way.

Enter dear old Dad—Henry F. Cooney. Pop was not saying much, but I could tell something was brewing. For several days he kept checking the weather station telex for cities from Williamsburg, Pennsylvania to Grand Island, Nebraska. I had learned from years of “stand-up, speak-up and shut-up” indoctrination, however, not to ask questions.

Usually Pop and I would just fly to New Haven or Keene, New Hampshire, have a cup of coffee and turn around. But the clues were all around that a longer trip might just be in the offing. He upgraded to a bigger ‘ship’— as he liked to call his plane. A Cessna 182 with variable pitch prop! (I still don’t know what that means.) The incessant weather checks for all points west and the conspicuous reminiscing about his family and the old neighborhood further aroused my suspicions.

Sure enough, as soon as the moment was right, we took off from Brainard Airport on the wings of that old adage, Go west young man. Except Pop wasn’t so young anymore—and neither was his brother Frank who, as it turns out, was clinging to what was left of his life in a VA hospital bed in Colorado Springs. Without even telling him we were coming, the race was on to surprise Frank with a visit before his time would run out.

The trip west was almost uneventful. Severe thunderstorms chased us to the service ceiling of our aircraft before Pop finally gave up and asked Cleveland Control to vector us down through the muck. Plus a landing gear problem held us up for a day in Omaha. We sure didn’t need the delay.

The vastness of the Plains gradually gave way to higher elevations until, almost suddenly, the majesty of the Rocky Mountains was upon us. After a parallel runway miscommunication nearly landed us on the windshield of an oncoming DC9, we settled in for the night in Denver.

The final leg to Colorado Springs was a short one. The terrain between the two cities tops off at nearly 9,000 feet! Any higher and we would have had to find another mode of transportation. We rented a car, got directions and made it to the hospital without a hitch. The suspense was beginning to build. When Pop asked what room Frank was in—and managed to get an answer—we figured we had beaten the Grim Reaper to the punch. We figured right.

Upon opening the door to Frank’s room, we saw a frail old man sitting on the edge of his bed, facing the wall and clinging to his oxygen mask. Henry quietly moved closer until he could tap Frank gently on the shoulder. In a flash, Frank tossed away his oxygen mask, sprung to his feet (well, kind of sprung), looked in disbelief at who it was and greeted him with, “Henry, you old son of a bitch! How the hell are you?” I learned that day that swearing at your brother under some circumstances was a good thing. The two then embraced in a kind of bear hug only brothers know how to give.

When Frank noticed me on the other side of the bed, he asked Henry, “Who’s that?” My Dad simply replied, “Don’t mind him. He’s just the co-pilot.” At that point I figured my home for the next half hour or so was sitting in the chair—on the other side of the room.

I listened in amazement as the two aging brothers went on about the old days and how nearly everyone they ever knew had already died. It was clear Frank knew he was soon to be gone as well, but that reality only served to make this reunion all the more special.

To this day, whenever anyone asks me if I ever had occasion to meet Uncle Frank, I usually tell them “meet” is such a strong word, but that I was once in the same room with him.

The chair in the corner was my place that afternoon, but more importantly, Henry and Frank found their place on that special day—in each other’s arms.

Brotherly love is such a cool thing.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Skepticism: The Critical Commodity

In the world some of us grew up in, obedience and conformity were the rule. Questioning authority was a sin. Was that the way it really should have been?

As it turns out, obedience and conformity are necessary when the only sustenance being offered one's intellect is wrapped in dogma. Anything less is insubordinate. Rather than eagerly engaging a child when he or she invokes his instinct to question everything, those who value conformity over skepticism will instead say, "Because I am your mother, and I said so." Putting aside the fact that one's parents have decades of experience with life and, as a rule, know better than a child what is best for him or her, great pains should nonetheless be taken to indulge a child's inquisitiveness to the greater end that its natural sense of skepticism be cultivated rather than quashed. Critical thinking is not just for grown-ups.

This kind of free thinking, however, is anathema to god-driven ideology. Recalling the Jesuit master who proclaimed that as long as he had the attention of a child for the first seven years of life or thereabouts, his mind forever after belonged to him, the nefarious nature of compulsory religious education of the young is brazenly exposed.

How best then to pass down accumulated wisdom if not via the rigidity of dogmatism? When a child is told to repeat, "five times five equals twenty-five" one hundred times, odds are he will assimilate this truism. Why not the same methodology for learning about life? Compel one to memorize The Ten Commandments and he may well trust that these, too, are based on a truthfulness worthy of ritualization.

A much better approach is to instill values, and values are best shared by example. But isn't conformity a value? Yes, but the essential aspect of conformity as a value is that it functions only when not held up as a value of dimensions so nearly absolute it serves as little more than an end unto itself. Conformity at the expense of one's uniqueness is abhorrently dysfunctional.

A natural skeptic questions vigorously even those whom, and that which, he is predisposed to agree with. Being of the liberal political persuasion, I might be inclined to go along with a public health care option, but I am highly skeptical when the president claims his plan will more than pay for itself over the life of the bill. Likewise, when a conservative denounces a government health care option—for reasons other than the inane—I am immediately suspicious of my own instinct to dismiss him. If skepticism is a worthy value for one, it should be just as worthy a value for the other.

An unquestioning faith in anything, whether religious or secular, is not a value worthy of passing on to those whose intellects we are charged with nurturing. Rather it is an invitation to denigrate that which should be cherished: an independent and inquisitive mind.

In the pursuit of knowledge, skepticism most surely is—the critical commodity.