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Jay Paterno: Root Canal Thoughts

by on September 13, 2012 6:49 AM

Tuesday morning I had to undergo a root canal. Time in Dr. Eddie Kotary’s office can be good for thought — not exactly Yoga meditation but it works. A dentist chair is unlike a barstool or a barber chair where the barstool or barber chair occupant can engage in a conversation with the man or woman pouring the libations or cutting their hair.

A preponderance of dental instruments restricts us to grunting answers. The world’s dentist offices may be where anthropologists can study the speech patterns and communication systems of prehistoric cavemen— (before Geico taught them to speak English, sell insurance and order “The Roast Duck with the Mango salsa”).

My mind was wondering before the procedure had even started.

“I wonder how the election will play out?”

“Is Peyton Manning really going to be as good as he was?”

“Do I smell something burning?”

As I signed a form and dated it 9/11 I remembered being in a Tuesday morning staff meeting 11 years ago. We heard that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. It became pretty obvious at that moment our country was under attack and where football ranked in importance to world events.

By that afternoon Joe Paterno canceled practice and told the team to go home to think or pray about the people in the towers, in the Pentagon and the people on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. This was a man with perspective; he remembered a family radio Sunday news flash two weeks before his 15th birthday. Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

Thoughts about the people aboard United Flight 93 brought to mind the best of this country. Those passengers were aware of what was happening that day and knew a similar fate probably awaited them. Knowing they had a slim chance to save themselves, they selflessly acted knowing that they might save others.

Those people on that plane refused quiet acceptance of their own fate, sacrificed their own lives so that the lives of other people they’d never know would be spared. There was recognition of a collective good, that the work of some can save others. There was recognition of the fellowship of humanity.

My mind turned to a quote from First Lady Michelle Obama.

“If any family in this country struggles, then we cannot be fully content with our own family’s good fortune. Because that is not what we do in this country, that is not who we are.”

That is not who we are, but what will the future bring? What will we be? In this town there is certainly a lot of talk of the future. As humans we are drawn to the days ahead, we are drawn to the next big thing, but often do so carelessly ignoring lessons that could guide us as we walk on.

In 1991 when I worked for him at the University of Virginia, Hall of Fame Football Coach George Welsh once shared an old Russian proverb with his staff and team.

“Dwell on the past and you will lose an eye; forget the past and you will lose both eyes.”

The past is a tricky thing; you can never go back, but you most certainly must never forget it. Forget it at your own peril. In World War II the Germans (thankfully) ignored the lessons of Napoleon’s ill-fated foray into Russia. Since the times of Alexander the Great, how many nations have tried and failed to invade and conquer Afghanistan?

But the past is there; it lives and breathes. William Faulkner often wrote about the “ghosts” of the past as he lived in Mississippi. He was raised on and heard oral histories of his family and the Civil War.

In his book Requiem for a Nun he wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

While thinking about that quote I was startled by something that looked like smoke coming out of my mouth. That jolted me back to reality but my hour of stream-of-consciousness thought certainly took me on a wide-ranging journey.

Often our best thoughts come from letting go of a moment and allowing the inner workings of our brains to open doors and see what may be behind them. It is how we look behind the façade of a story to find the truth behind it.

As I finally rinsed and stood to go, I thought about something I had seen written by Thomas Jefferson in an article I was reading on my iPad in the waiting room. It was from a letter he wrote to British Historian William Roscoe describing the goal of his newly founded University.

“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."

Sounds like a great mission for our minds, our souls and certainly in the pursuits of every great University.

And no I was not on the nitrous oxide gas for this procedure.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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