I was sitting next to a man I had not met before, at my new “American” church, in Seattle. So, I reached out with my hand and said, as is my usual style, “my name is Reggie, what’s yours?” He answered, “My name is Rusty.” All of a sudden, all kinds of jokes came into my mind about Rusty, how things get rusty very quickly, rusty nails, rusty humans etc., but this being the first time I met him, I “controlled myself.” And I suspect that maybe he has already heard all the jokes!
Being rusty I guess may not really be that funny. You could admit to others that your tennis skills are getting rusty, and that would be benign. But, someone could take offense if you said that he was “getting rusty,” especially if he was getting on in years. We all know that rustiness means some kind of oxidation, with the implication of deterioration.
I once met the CEO of Chiquita, the company renowned for producing and transporting huge numbers of fruits, like the famous Chiquita bananas, and found out he was clearly an expert on rustiness. He and I were on the Board of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and one day he invited me to visit his company. Most courteously, he explained to me that one of the most exciting things that happened when the “Iron Curtain” in Europe was lifted, around 1989, was to be able to supply increasingly large numbers of bananas into Eastern Europe! You may have heard about “Ping Pong Diplomacy,” when the US Ping Pong Team got along so well with the China Team that it opened the door of the so called “Bamboo Curtain.” Well this was “Banana Diplomacy,” in my view.
It turns out that Eastern Europeans had been literally starving for bananas before that, and nearly all had not had the pleasure of tasting delicious bananas! Practically impossible to believe, for those of us who have lived always with inexpensive bananas around us, not knowing our “privileged situation.” The reason for the banana deprivation was the great difficulty of transporting bananas, from their relatively hot countries of origin to distant lands, without undergoing oxidation, or “rustiness,” or blackening of the beautiful bananas. And he explained that Chiquita bananas have dominated the world, because of their largest ocean tanker food fleet in the world, built to transport easily perishable foods such as bananas, by flooding their containers with carbon dioxide, thus eliminating the oxygen which causes oxidation damage. Successful anti-oxidation on a massive scale.
It turns out that “anti-oxidation” is one of the largest markets in the world, especially for women’s skincare, since no woman probably wants to be “oxidized,” and “rusty.” Nor most men. And the anti-aging industry relies on a lot of hype regarding its fantastic, often unreal, unproven products that supposedly combat oxidation. Anti-oxidation is a very sweet, attractive and lucrative word.
And, while oxidation is not exactly the same as oxygen in the air, it is still a good reminder that many important things in this world are great only within a range, sometimes a very narrow range. We cannot live easily with oxygen levels in the atmosphere far below roughly 20%, but if we give too much oxygen, there are other dangers. For example, if we give high concentrations of oxygen to premature infants, we will damage their eyes.
This discovery was made as the discipline of neonatology (medical care of sick and small newborn infants) was developing. I was privileged to be one of the early “fathers” of the new specialty, in the late ‘60s. After taking the historic first examination for the specialty, written by our generation, we were then “grandfathered in” with special privileges, like no more exams, compared with regular exams for subsequent generations (life is really unfair for some people)! But then our generation had to learn many very basic lessons, from personal experience, the hard way.
Oxygen, of course is very important for the treatment and survival of premature babies, especially those with lung disease. But, previously, premature and sick infants were often given pure or high concentration oxygen, on the assumption that “more is better,” until we discovered to our horror that we were causing harm. The term “oxygen toxicity” became common: some premature infants developed a condition called retrolental fibroplasia, or other retinal damage, which could lead to blindness, from too much oxygen! I lived through this dangerous phase of our understanding for premature infants, vividly. I learned well the lesson to be careful about “too much of a good thing,” for oxygen, and many other treatments for the baby. Oxygen, the agent of rust, had become the proverbial “double edged sword,” and especially should be handled with the greatest respect.
If we leave home for a long period, when we return, we get to see “rust in action.” It’s apparent that “nature has taken over,” nails and metal areas have become rusty, and the house has become rundown, with cobwebs, wild grass and mold. Generally, we like to attribute this all to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, that natural things have a natural way of getting rusty, and run down, that everything actually goes downhill and deteriorates. There is actually a warning by the great Teacher, that indeed everything in this earth, especially wealth, will be subject to “rust and moth.” There is no such thing as a naturally upward spontaneous improvement, unless we do something positive about it. All of life indeed, joins in this “natural order of life,” and we all age, we deteriorate, our systems start failing, and we ultimately die. Getting rusty isn’t a lot of fun.
Rustiness can even be dramatically lethal. During my medical and teaching missions, in mountain minority tribe areas, I cringe when I see kids running around with bare feet in the sand, since they could easily step on the many rusty nails, lying around from construction projects. These rusty nails can cause infections, tetanus, or even death. For a prevention minded pediatrician, it seems like an “accident waiting to happen.” Rusty nails and barefoot kids is not a good combination.
The Great Teacher actually says there is a place with “no rust or moth,” a place at least 50% of the world technically believes in! That would be a good safe place, with no rust at all. Presumably no black bananas, no skin oxidation problems, no rusty nails. I would like that. I have a naturally competitive spirit, and thus I’m even planning on getting there before you, so “popganmi bon sawan,” or “see you in heaven,” in Thai (at least in my rendition)
其实，那位伟大的老师还说，有一个“没有锈蚀和虫蛀”的地方，而世界上至少50%的人在理论上相信这一点！那会是一个安全的好地方，根本不会生锈，想必也没有变黑的香蕉，没有皮肤氧化问题，没有生锈的钉子。我会喜欢的。我天生有很强的竞争精神，于是打算在你前面到达那里——“博甘米 本 撒万”，就是泰语的“在天堂见”（至少按照我的翻译版本）。
For more stories, readers are invited to visit reggietales.org or WeChat at “UncleReggie,” or get the books titled “coffee with Uncle Reggie.”