Friday, January 06, 2006

Busy signals

When men of a certain age and spirit look back on their lives, they see long periods of continuity separated by a few key decisions. One such man awoke early one morning and reflected on some of those decisions. He remembered that day 21 years ago when his eldest son was born. As always, the memory brought a smile to his face. And now, after 21 years of feeding, housing, clothing, washing and nurturing this man's son was now ready for a centuries old family tradition.

The man remembered the day of his 21st birthday, when his father woke him up and took him for a surprise walk to the old town spring. On that walk his father emerged as a person to him for the first time, a man who was telling his son that from now on they were equals-from now on the son would become a man, responsible for his own actions, good or ill. To help him in that quest, members of the family had come up with a set of rules which, if followed, created the best chance of being a good man. The list had not been changed in 150 years.

The rules on the list weren't unique in that they could be derived by careful study of the great religions' primary texts. Yet when the man thought of his ancestors, those without whom he would not be, writing the rules down for posterity, they came alive for him. Although he had been too caught up in the magic of the moment to notice it when he received the list, the coming of age tradition sanctified the words. As he had matured as a husband and father, the magic of the rules faded but their wisdom was, by then, clear.

Today, he would give this precious gift to his son, now ready to become a man. So he quickly dressed and went to his son's room. Through the partially open door he could see his son's body slowly rise and fall in the rhythm of deep sleep.
On a desk near the bed a computer screen flickered, a prize his son had won in a math competition.

Mixed emotions passed through the man's mind as he looked at the computer. Pride at his son's almost innate skill with symbolic logic fought with a nagging sense that the copious praise earned by that skill had kept him from discovering the literature most family members loved. Yet those skills had already landed his son a job as a programmer, a model builder to be precise, as the man had been proudly announcing to his friends around town

His son awoke as the door creaked in its hinges. "What's up, Dad?" he asked.

"I'd like to take a walk with you this morning, son. I have something to give you," his father responded.

"OK," the son replied but with a look as if he would just as well sleep a few more hours.

Once outside in the country air, the man and his son walked together on the same path to the spring he had walked with his father. Years ago the path had been well worn but lately the grass was fighting its way back as fewer and fewer visited the spring.

After a few minutes of walking in silence, wondering how to begin, the man was almost startled to hear himself using the same words his father used those many years ago. Lost in the comfort of tradition the man didn't notice his son's expression at first. He was looking at the parchment of family rules, now covered in plastic for protection, as if he didn't want to touch it.

"Why didn't you just email it to me?" he asked, not noticing, as 21 year olds are wont, the seriousness of his father.

The man stopped short, almost stunned. "But..but..these are rules our family has tried to live by for years," he said, confused.

"You know, Dad," the son interjected, "you've been talking most of my life about being a good man and I have my own solution."

"Really," his father answered, torn between pride of his son's mathematical skills and his long held faith that the rules worked.

"Yes," the son answered, "I call it a goodness index. You see," his son went on, "I'll just keep track of what happens to me, good or bad, and change my behavior whenever things start going bad, just like I've done around the house."

The man thought about all the electronic meters his son had installed around the house. He had to admit, it was great to find out that he needed new light bulbs, or that his furnace was operating with decreasing efficiency without checking on these things by hand but something nagged at him.

"Are you sure you don't want the rules?," he asked again.

"Just email me a copy and you keep the paper, I know you like old stuff like that," the son responded with a smile. "Let's go back to the house, I don't really want to walk all the way to the spring."

They walked back in silence at first. The son, formerly dragging his feet was now in the lead and the father's sure, steady gait had become halting.

Without turning back to look at him the son told his father, "you really need to get into the 21st century, Dad."

His father replied, "I'm not so sure," but the son was too far ahead to hear.