Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Friendship Revisited: Sunday musings…1/22/2023

What a nice weekend Beth and I have had! Some of the niceness is that we’ve been relatively free from big tasks and thus have been able to say yes to all kinds of fun things. At the moment we are free of illness in and (mostly) around our lives, another rather liberating characteristic of the weekend. With time on our hands Beth had a couple of epic rides on Hero, and I was able to get in all of the workouts prescribed by my fellow CrossFit OG and, you know, all-around Old Guy Bill Russell. We were free to tag along with Randy and Tess on their “wedding venue tour”; the energy of a bride-to-be is a force of nature.

And the pups and I got out to walk 4 days in a row!

What was really special about the weekend was our success in connecting with friends and family. Really connecting. Like handshake and hugs, right there together connecting. Now, if you’ve been reading my treacle over the years you know that the creation and cultivation of friendship is one of my favorite topics, one to which I return with some frequency. Friday night was spent in the company of 2 1/2 couples we’ve known for almost 30 years (one member was home sick, the “almost” part of my “illness-free” comment above). On Saturday we checked out a new restaurant downtown (look at us…driving into the Big City for dinner!) with our equestrian friends. No, we did not get there on horseback! Both nights were characterized by the comfort of being in the company of real friends.

Every couple or three years comes a slew of articles on friendship, specifically friendships in adults. Thus it is that I find myself returning to the topic for the first deep dive in awhile, having been once again bombarded with articles, books, and movies on the subject. My last deep dive was prompted when “Of Mice and Men” was revived on Broadway. Innumerable stories from college reminded me of my brother’s rather humorous story of having bumped into a fellow Eph with whom I was friendly in college (more on that in a bit). Much has been written on the subject, almost all of it a re-hash. But I came upon a significant update on one of the more important lines of inquiry into friendship, a new release of data from the latest directors of the Harvard study of happiness: “The Good Life” by Drs. Robert Wallinger and Marc Schultz.

My last update, oh 7 or so years ago, was equal parts obvious and depressing. The secret to a long and happy life was the creation and maintenance of a minimum of 3 close local friendships. This was especially important for men, a frustrating and daunting finding, what with my oft-told and hard-earned experiences with how difficult it is for men to create new friendships after the age of 30. The magic number is 3. 3 close friends predicts a longer life for men. Sadly in the telling 7 years ago this usually didn’t include your spouse (more in a bit below); the overwhelming percentage of spousal units drifted AWAY from the men in favor of younger women, usually daughters, as they moved through adulthood. 3 close friends and you live longer. Very few folks had more than 4 or 5, an incredibly tight range when you think about it.

It’s become a kind of psychological dogma that men and women make friends in very different ways. Women, it is said, make friends through the sharing of feelings. In person two women who are friends are said to be most often facing one another, talking. Maintaining this kind of friendship is structurally rather easy in our modern age of communication. Feelings can be shared in any number of ways that do not require the friends to actually be in the same room together. Phone, text, Facebook and Twitter are but a few of the tactical and mechanical advantages to a friendship built on an exchange of feelings, and the currency required for the ongoing investment is simply time.

Men on the other hand make friendship a much more arduous affair. Many women would opine that this could actually describe many, if not most things that men do, but that’s a topic for a different Sunday. The picture most often used to illustrate men in the company of friends has them standing shoulder to shoulder, in the act of sharing an experience but not necessarily sharing any internal reaction to that experience. It makes me chuckle to think that a video of the same scene would probably also look like a portrait, nothing moving, certainly not their lips. For men the basis of friendship is the experience and the fact that both were physically present for it. Whether sitting at a Bulls game in Row J seats 11 and 12, or working up a sweat at the Loyola Prep gym playing pick-up hoops, the friendship blooms only from the seed of the experience which is fertilized by proximity. At some point the memories of those experiences, stories re-told dozens, hundreds of times, fail to prompt growth in the friendship without the Miracle-Gro of presence. Eventually even shared “experiences by proxy”, raising similar aged children for example, fails to prevent slack from growing in those friendship ties if you aren’t physically there to tighten them.

A quick review of how I regard Friendship with a capital F: In my mind the universe is divided into a very few groups of varying sizes. Think of your life as kind of like a bulls-eye floating through a vast space. The center of that bulls-eye comprises that small group of true friends, men and women who would drop everything should you have need, and for whom you would do the same. Friends are people you miss if you haven’t had contact for a matter of days, people whose company you actively seek. These are people you go out of your way to see and never try to avoid. Man or woman, they know how you feel. Again, an aside, happy is the couple who have overlap in this innermost circle of the bulls-eye.

The next circle is filled with friendly acquaintances, people who make you smile. When you have an opportunity to be with them in person or in spirit it makes you happy. As I write this today I am also texting with a couple of buddies in Florida in the hope that our upcoming trip to their “neighborhood” will find them available to come out to play. There’s no limit on these, and a reasonably friendly character could have dozens of friendly acquaintances scattered throughout a life. This is the group from which most friends are created, and if you are fortunate someone who is no longer really in that bulls-eye drifts no further out from center than this inner ring.

Just outside the circle of friendly acquaintances is the ring containing acquaintances, people you’ve met and remember but either don’t ever really spend time with or never have the chance to explore a move toward the center. While visiting Williams for a game in which their boys were playing my brother met a someone of mine who has always been here, the humor in wistful remembrance notwithstanding. Your circles of friends and acquaintances drifts through a vast space filled with folks yet unmet, a (hopefully) few enemies orbiting in there somewhere as well.

Returning to “The Good Life” as it recounts the lessons learned thus far in what is undoubtedly the longest scientific study of happiness yet conducted, there is actually a bit of better news when it comes to the friendship stuff. Whereas the 3 friends thing is still mentioned, a greater emphasis has been found on happiness in a marriage. When trying to predict happiness, as opposed to longevity at least, those couples who expressed a high degree of happiness and satisfaction in their marriage while in their 50’s were much more likely to be happy, to be healthy and thriving in their 80’s. And in later life the emphasis on friends alone has evolved into the benefits of enjoying close interpersonal relationships with not only those friends but also spouses, children, and other family members.

The authors return to this again and again in the interviews I’ve watched and read.

As I become an elder in many of my circles it becomes more clear how important it is that we cherish these relationships. That we cradle and nourish them, careful to avoid shaking them lest they disappear. Shattered through acts of either omission or commission, it matters not. We float through the universe in our circles, people drifting in toward the center. In CrossFit we know both a definition of fitness and a way to measure it. Indeed, CrossFit’s founder opined that not only is fitness the most important part of health, but in his opinion it is a precise measurement of the same. He and I disagreed around the margins of that position, at least in part because of friendship and what it does for us. We may not be able to define friendship in quite as absolute terms as those we used for fitness in Crossfit, but I’m reasonably sure we all know what it means to be and to have a real friend.

Read or watch “Of Mice and Men” if you are unsure. I’ve neither seen nor read a more gut-wrenching or powerful depiction of friendship. I’ve often told the story of my Dad’s dismissive position toward the friendships of youth. I was so angry at him when he tried to talk me out of a rather ill-conceived trip to spend a week on the beach with some buddies from college before we began whatever our summers would bring that year. “In 10 years you won’t have the number of a single person in that beach house in your phone book.” He was mostly right, of course, although I still chat with one of the guys I drove down with (we were in each other’s weddings).

And I did rather famously share a drink with another this past spring.

It’s likely that friendship itself, unlike fitness, does not have a precise metric, a measurement of volume or degree. No “friendship across broad time and modal domains” like fitness, if you will. Though I continue to hold this truth, that you can never have enough friends, there is apparently a number that does have some significance. Three. Three friends, real friends, lead to a longer life. Side by side or face to face, the tipping point is 3. No amount of time spent or distance traveled is too much for them.

But in The Good Life we learn that a happier life comes from nurturing ALL of our close interpersonal relationships. Friends, spouses, and other family members. It turns out that the better we are at doing this in mid life, our 50’s and 60’s, the happier we are in our much later years. And just like the importance of including well-being in any definition of health, including happiness in our discussion of lifespan is a part of what becomes our “Healthspan”.

While not specifically in the book, I’d bet that the authors would say it’s never too early, or too late, to start nurturing all of those relationships.

I’ll see you next week…

63? Could Be My Lucky Year! Sunday musings…1/8/2023

1 Concubine. Hard shelled porcupine. Dunno why, just love this one.

2 Flaneur. One who wanders. Specifically in some definitions, a French wanderer. The French Surrealists were known to ride the trolley to its terminus just to see where they ended up.

Again, don’t really know why I like this one, either.

3 Qualia. The internal perception of sensation. For example, how you perceive the first taste of that 30 year old Bordeaux your wife, daughter, and son-in-law got you as part of your surprise birthday wine tasting.

I know what that means, I just didn’t know that’s what delicious was called.

3 63. Yup, last Saturday was my 63rd birthday. Are you like me? Do you look at a particular age number and play around with it. Try to find some significance in your age at any given moment? For example, when I was 61, a prime number, I told everyone who asked (and quite a few who didn’t!) that being 61 meant that I was in the prime of my life. A bit of a stretch, I will grant you.

And 63? Seems rather unimpressive on first blush, eh? Ah, but don’t discount my number quite so quickly. 9 x 7 = 63. The number nine is a lucky number in Japan I am told, and seven is lucky pretty much everywhere else. That’s a lot of luck in one number! I’m going with 63 being my lucky year.

I mean, after last year and all…

4 Enough. So, how am I gonna approach this upcoming year now that the calendar has turned for me? Most folks do the whole evaluate and adjust thing for New Year’s. I know it’s only a week later, but I try to use that week to take my own pulse as it were. As a way to do this each year I return to a little thought experiment that measures, at least for me, whatever declines I may have experienced, and those gains that I have (hopefully) made.

You are given the option of taking a pill that will halt the aging process. At what age would you decide that the balance of physical prowess and mental acuity, and age-begotten wisdom, was optimized?

Each year after a certain point that is different for everyone, each human begins to experience an inexorable decline in their physicality. Strength, speed, endurance, balance. Pretty much all of our physical attributes will show a net decrease over time. In a similar way, we become less “sharp” mentally. We may still maintain possession of our memories, our internal hard drive if you will, but we begin to experience slower access to them. Our computational abilities decline as well. Now, to be sure, this is not a straight-line decline, not like an airliner on the glide path. It’s more like descending through a rolling hillside on the way to the valley below: both physical and mental prowess can be enhanced, at least temporarily, through purposeful action.

On the flip side of this we have what we would all understand as “wisdom”. Wisdom is something more than simply experience. It’s more like, I dunno, actionable experience I guess. It’s a kind of knowing, a confidence leavened by compassion, in the act of decision making. If you are fortunate your wisdom is a source of comfort for some of your people. Having you, and your wisdom, makes their lives better. Along with this comes a deeper type of happiness that you hopefully gain by ever closer relationships with those same people. Family, for sure, but close, loyal friends as well. Another year has hopefully brought you deeper, more positive interpersonal relationships that result from your wisdom (As an aside, I plan to read the latest findings from the famous Harvard study on happiness over a lifetime: The Good Life by Waldinger and Schulz).

One very important aspect of that age-begotten wisdom is the ability to take a gimlet-eyed view of the decline. Blake Crouch in “Upgrade”: “If we all had perfect memory, we would all grieve the older version of who we used to be, the way we grieve departed friends.” Grieve yes. Pine, no. To pine for that earlier version is to regret not figuratively taking that time-stop pill earlier. Our wisdom will hopefully allow us to take the occasional trip back in time for the pleasure of watching a less-wise but almost surely more exciting version of ourselves.

Is this the year that I would find myself in that “optimized” state? Remember, to make that call you would necessarily have decided that you have peaked on the wisdom thing. Perhaps gone a year without gaining any significant actionable experience. 2022 was a tough year for me. Without question it was the year that brought me more physical decline than any other as far as I can recall. I learned what chronic pain meant. I got a glimpse of the kind of inward vision that is necessary to endure under that cloud. Those positive interpersonal relationships can become less give-and-take and more one-dimensional.

But there was wisdom to be gained there, as well. In that space filled with physical decline what I found was compassion. Unfailing, unflinching, continuous compassion streaming toward me from my people. The same from the many folks with whom I have only the most superficial relationships. But I also felt a greater ability to feel compassion myself. To extend compassion not only within my closest circles but toward those who simply orbit my being. Would this have happened if I hadn’t gotten better? If the pain had not subsided and I’d reached a new, dramatically reduced physical state? Meh, who knows. Blessedly the pain went away and I am once again climbing one of those rolling hills back to a slightly greater physical acumen.

But I DID learn. I am wiser, and will be able to apply that wisdom in any number of ways, with any number of my people, because I learned more about the importance of a compassion that can extend beyond your innermost circles. I am still making meaningful gains on that side of the ledger, ones that feel like they are greater in magnitude than whatever declines I may have experienced in physical prowess or mentation. It is apparent that wisdom is so valuable that to stop the clock now seems like I would be missing out. That I’m not quite yet optimized.

Ah, it’s all a game anyway, right? My little thought experiment. The aging process proceeds unabated. The best we can do is fight to slow whatever declines are in the cards such that we can benefit from what we can hope will be ever-increasing wisdom. Who knows if my calculus is accurate. If I’ve actually gained greater wisdom than any prowess or acuity I’ve lost. Anyone who knows me would smile and chuckle and question if I am capable of ever recognizing that tipping point.

But one must wonder, even if one has the perspicacity to make that call, is it wise to do so?

I’m happy to begin another year, and to see you, once again, next week…

Rain Falling Through Sunlight: Sunday musings…New Year’s Day 2023

“What do you call a heart that is simultaneously full and breaking? Maybe there’s no word for it, but for some reason, it makes me think of rain falling through sunlight.” –Blake Crouch “Upgrade”

2022 seemed like a very hard year for us. But was it, really?

As I retired for the year last evening I took one last look at the inland ocean, the shores upon which my darling wife Beth and I live. The seawall and pier were surrounded by what can only be described as icebergs stretching as far north as my floodlights allowed me to see. My little oasis was choked off from the rest of Lake Erie by massive chunks of ice tattooed with the detritus of the lake’s year past. My view was dark despite the lights above the pier.

A rather apt metaphor for 2022, eh?

There’s been a rather pervasive gloom in the air of late. Doom and gloom fill our comms, whether they be traditional (newspapers, network news) or the radical disrupted streams of social media. It is well known that we are, as a species, hardwired to overweight and therefore over react to the negative. Tragedy writ small lands a direct hit on our psyche. Think local child lost on a frozen lake. The great Robin Dunbar the evolutionary psychologist believes that humans as presently evolved can maintain a personal connection with no more than 150 discreet individuals at any given time. Tiny (in number) tragedies lend themselves to familiarity when we transpose one of our 150 onto tragedy of limited scale.

The doom and gloom of our larger collective psyche can be laid at the feet of tragedies that are simply too large for us to find a way to relate to them in any meaningful manner. The slaughter of thousands of Uyghurs in China or the displacement of, what, 5 million Ukrainians are of a scope that is not calculable. We respond, if we can at all, by being engulfed in the gloom. We cannot process calamity writ so large. It blinds us to the sunlight, and we see only the rain.

And yet the reality is that our world is remarkably better in almost all ways today than it was any number of yesterdays. (One notable exception that should be pointed out is a stark increase in deaths of young Americans to drug overdoses, whether purposeful or accidental.) For the most part the world has continued its inexorable march toward better lives for nearly all of its citizens. There are actually FEWER wars today than there were 5 years ago, Ukraine notwithstanding, and along with that fewer deaths by warfare. Fewer revolutions and therefore more stable governments in more parts of the world. Indeed, the one very notable revolution in waiting is one much of the world would welcome: Iran.

Again, COVID notwithstanding, we continue to march toward better treatments for more diseases. There is much less hunger in more of the world than just 5 years ago, and this continues to be the trend. A greater percentage of humans live in a world that is warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. Indeed, as we consider how our climate may be changing we must take care to remember that it is cold that kills; five times as many people died this year from exposure to cold than those who died from the heat. Access to the internet, while not universal, continues to grow at a pace that is not quite exponential, but feels that way. Do newcomers to the web have experiences similar to those we all had in the days before social media? One wonders. Still, the world of the connected grows.

In retrospect, was my year, our year, really as hard as it seemed?

Beth had a cancer scare. The surgery was a success; no cancer remains. She had an injury and lost her voice for a couple of months; she got better and her sweet voice, the voice that told me she loved me 40 years ago sings to me of love, still. My other hip, the “good one” crashed and burned. Surgery cured the pain of a hip denuded of cartilage. I was injured as a result of the surgery, and the pain I’d had prior to surgery was simply “transplanted” to a different part of my leg. I learned what it means to have chronic, unremitting pain, but I have nearly recovered. Beth and I are just sitting down after a long walk with our dogs and I am only mildly sore. It seems as if this, too, will be cured.

These things were hard. There were other hard things happening in our closest circles, in our families. Things that ended. Others clearly on the glide path to the end. And yet, each of them was actually surrounded by beginnings. Growth outpaced decline. There was darkness and there was gray, and for however much we as a creature may be hardwired to see only the rain, it was surrounded on all sides, up and down and in front and behind, it was surrounded by light. By good and easy. It’s all there, like a perpetual dawn breaking through the dark, sunlight free of rain, until it is once again, and still, a glorious noon with the sun on high.

What was hard was nothing more than a bit of rain falling through the sunshine.

This morning I awakened to a bright and shining new year. I awakened refreshed, as I should be, having lived another year in a life which is, has been, filled with so much more light than dark. So much less that is hard than that which is not. Surrounded by a larger world that continues to be lighter with each passing year. A light that we can see if we choose to. If we choose to look just the tiniest bit to the side of the doom and the gloom, for the light is there, and it is so very much more.

Like the icebergs that surrounded us this past week. In the light of day they were no less there, no smaller for the light. And yet in the light one could see that beyond them lay the magnificence of the lake. So much more lake than the ice that had been soiled by its travels. I went to bed last night surrounded by icebergs that obscured my view, like those things that had been hard, had made last year seem like such a hard year. I awakened and gazed upon a magnificent inland ocean. The icebergs? Well, they’d melted of course. Nothing but ice cubes floating harmlessly by as I began another day in a world with but a bit of rain falling through the sunlight.

I have just one resolution this year: there will be sunlight and there will be rain; I will look for the sun each time it rains. I will believe that each storm will pass. I will choose to live in the sunlight.

I wish for you and yours a Happy, sunny New year. I’ll see you next week…

Merry Christmas From An Olde City Bar

Christmas is a holiday of giving. Santa is the spirit of giving. As I have done for many, many years I send you Christmas greetings with this verse courtesy of Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “An Olde City Bar”.

“If you want to arrange it, this world you can change it.

If we could just make this whole Christmas thing

Last.

By helping a neighbor, or even a stranger.

To know who needs help you need only just

Ask.”

Merry Christmas my friends. May the Eastern Star light your life today, and every day for many years to come.

Santa Claus Will Always Be Real: Sunday musings…12/18/22

1 Soccer. It’s what’s for breakfast.

2 Messi. I admit that I am lightly cheering for Messi to win his first World Cup title. I also admit that I rather like the “new” Messi. Gritty. Confrontational. Edgy.

3 Cookies. Yesterday was Christmas cookie day at the White house. Beth and I come from two vastly different families in some ways, but in one very special, important way the White and the Hurst families have always been the same: we have Holiday traditions that include an activity around which we all gather. Beginning with Beth’s Grammy, passed on through my mother-in-law Sandy, and now practiced in the homes of all three Hurst girls.

The house was warm. Casa Blanco is tiny. Much smaller than even the once-upon-a-time one-room schoolhouse that became the Hurst family home. Kids and adults were crammed into the kitchen as the little ones sat elbo-to-elbow decorating the sandtarts. We managed to hold off on the first glass of wine until dinner time. All of us except Beth, that is: her Grammy always capped off a successful cookie baking day with a glass of red wine, and so, too, did our own Grammy, Beth.

I watch what I eat 50 weeks out of each year so that I can eat pie at Thanksgiving, and cookies at Christmas.

4 Rhode Island. “Rhode Island underpromises and overdelivers.” John “Buda” Dell’Arerio.

Beth and I will travel to Little Rhody, the state of my youth, to spend the Christmas weekend with my Mom. There are 4 of us in my generation. Each year one of us (and our sainted, in this case, spouse) has hosted Mom, and when he was alive Dad, for Christmas. Have I ever told you how this came about? Forgive me if this is a repeat.

Many years ago, after all four of the White kids had fledged the nest, we all casually asked my folks what their plans were for the Christmas Holiday. Each of us, in our own way, said something along the lines of “we’d love to have you come visit us.” Not hearing back from our parents accepting what we all thought was a heartfelt invitation we each just assumed that Mom and Dad had accepted the invite from one of the siblings and went about planning the Holiday with only our own nuclear families in mind.

A week or so before Christmas my younger sister Kerstin, so much younger than we older three that she had been a quasi only child, just as casually asked my Mom what she and Dad were doing for Christmas. Mind you, Kerstin was expecting to hear that they were going to a sibling’s house, but what she got was equal parts hilarious and shocking:

“Your Father always wanted to see the Rockettes’ Christmas show so we are going to spend Christmas in New York.”

Now this was outrageously out of character for my parents, and Kerstin wasn’t quite sure where Mom was going with this: “Oh…that sounds nice! How are you getting there?”

SNAP! Mom closes the trap: “Oh, we’re taking a bus, along with all of the other parents who weren’t invited to spend Christmas with any of their children.”

Ooo, ouch. Kerstin doesn’t quite recover quickly enough and continues with polite conversation: “What are you doing for dinner?”

Mom moves in for the killshot: “Typical Christmas stuff. There’s a very nice brown bag turkey sandwich dinner that we will have on the bus. With all of the other parents who didn’t get invited to Christmas dinner by one of their children.”

By this time Kerstin is equal parts incredulous, offended, and just plain pissed off. “That’s total BS! You were invited by every single one of us. That’s it. From now on you will be assigned a child to visit each year. I will PERSONALLY tell you at Thanksgiving where you are going on Christmas.” And thus began the “Christmas Rotation” for Anne Lee and Dick.

Mom is no longer much of a traveler, and thus Beth and I will find ourselves on the road for this year’s Holiday. Having lost 3 of our 4 parents I, we, are both so very pleased to still have this chance to spend Christmas with Mom. Who knows if we will get another…

5 Santa. Once again I re-post this gem from years ago with a tiny bit of editing to keep it current.

“Santa is the Spirit of Giving. He is always real.” –Beth White

Once again my darling wife Beth knocks it out of the park. We have a couple of little ones again in the White house, and because of that we will have a healthy dose of Santa in our lives. While I realize that Beth and I will not really have a say in whether or not the whole Santa Claus story plays out in our grandchildren’s houses, what he stands for is important. Important enough for us to have had him in all his splendor and glory when Dan, Megan, and Randy were growing up. Important for us to draw out the time before Randy came to the realization that Santa was not a real person for as long as possible, so deep was his love for the furry fat guy he called “Key Klaus”.

Rest assured, the parental units in Clan White did struggle with how to handle the inherent subterfuge that is necessary to have the Santa Claus story as part of our childrens’ upbringing. From the very beginning, though, the message was about the giving, about generosity and caring enough about someone else that you not only gave them a gift, but you gave them a gift that let them know how much you cared about them. You know, the “spirit” in the Spirit of Giving, if you will.

No matter how you massage it, that day of reckoning when your child finally realizes that the character Santa Claus is nothing more than the figurative representation of the giving concept can be fraught with all kinds of emotional trauma. For sure you might get a dose of “you lied to me”, but in my now decades of experience being around parents it’s actually rather rare for this one to pop up. What you generally face is sadness, with maybe a touch of disappointment and even mourning tossed in just to add a little sting to the moment. Like so much else about parenting, or even just about kindness, these are times when you get to talk about and teach really important lessons. Here the lesson is about giving of yourself, with or without a physical gift to actually give.

While thinking about this we stumbled upon a lovely little story about how one family handled both the “Santa isn’t real” revelation and the “Santa is real” in spirit thing. Heck, the story may even be true! A Dad sensed that his son was pretty much on the cusp of discovering that the guy in the red suit wasn’t the real deal. His approach? He talked to his son about how he sensed that he, the son, looked like he was not too sure about the Santa Claus character. The Dad complimented his son on being a caring young man: “Everyone who cares, who is generous can be a Santa. I’m very impressed by how kind you are. I think you are ready to become a Santa, too.”

The Dad went on to ask his son to think about someone in his world who looked like they were sad. Maybe a bit lonely even. He tasked the boy with thinking very hard about what that person might really like as a present. Something they needed, and something that would express that whoever gave it to them realized this need, and cared enough to give them a present that helped to meet that need. There was a catch, though: the recipient was never to know who gave them the gift. For the son the satisfaction was in the caring and in the giving, not in the recognition and praise that might follow.

It doesn’t really matter who the child chose or what he gave; you can trust that the story–true or not–is just lovely right to the end. What matters is that this very young boy is escorted through what can be a very sad stage in a young life by a caring and thoughtful parent. On the other side of this journey emerges a young man who has learned the true meaning of Santa Claus in the secular Christmas story. He has learned that what matters about Santa Claus is real indeed, and always has been.

Santa Claus is the Spirit of Giving. He will always be real.

I’ll see you next Sunday, Christmas day…

The Man In Many Mirrors: Sunday musings…12/11/22

We see ourselves reflected in so many more mirrors than the one before which we brush our teeth every morning. We are, and have ever been, many things to many people. Indeed, we have also always been many things to ourselves. How, when, and where we look in the various mirrors that surround us likely determines which version of ourselves we see.

Still, rare is the mirror that reflects all of who we feel we really are.

Yesterday was mostly spent in the company of strangers. A travel day on the back end of a short weekend spent with many of my closest professional colleagues. Among the masses in the airport I was reflected in the most basic, banal version of that which I am: a middle-aged white male of little note, moving confidently through an insignificant slice of travel. No indication of my destination. Nothing to denote whether I was inbound or out. Just one more body moving through space. Any mirrors present were too far away to provide enough focus for anyone to see beyond the curiosity of a bright orange vest.

And by the same token, too far away to see what version of myself might be reflected in those around me.

My weekend meeting, on the other hand, was another story. There is a tiny little group in my world made of people who do what I do professionally. More so, the longer-tenured members of this group make up my circle of professional friends, people with whom I would go our of my way to see and spend time with if they were within 100 miles of my house. Among the many younger newcomers invited to join us there are a few with whom I am also forming friendships that feel quite comfortable, quite real, if you will.

I shared a car with one of the lovely younger eye doctors from the airport to our hotel. Himani and I are forging a very nice friendship around things that are outside of our shared profession. During our drive we talked about our marriages, how they came to be, and how they developed in the context of our larger families. I learned a new word, propinquity, which means the effect of proximity. One of the execs on the industry side of my profession gave me a ride back to the airport. Arthur and I were airlifting out early to get home in time for the back end of the family weekends. We also talked a little about family and marriage. My conversations with Himani and Arthur about marriage and family showed us that we had more in common than our profession despite being decades apart in age, with vastly different propinquity at work in how our own little families came to be. My reflection in their faces was one of genuine interest, kindness, and care.

While not a complete picture of who I think I am, my reflection in our growing friendships is based on parts of me that are real; they result from a genuine effort to be better and I was delighted to see them there.

Esquire had a cover article on Bruce Springsteen that I was slowly working through when we had a couple of our grandchildren staying with us for the weekend. It was one that spent quite a bit of time on Springsteen’s lifelong quest to figure out who he really is. He has a funny little quirk. Each time the writer asks a question that requires a deeper bit of self-awareness Springsteen looks into a mirror in his office before he answers. It’s as if he needs to be reminded that he is answering as Bruce, or supposed do be answering as Bruce, not BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. Almost like he is parsing the question “who am I when it’s just me looking in the mirror” before each answer.

Making this an even bigger challenge, the whole “who am I” thing keeps changing. The longer we live the more versions of ourselves emerge. Some of them even real! Returning for a moment to our weekend with the little ones, “Papi” really is a different but altogether real version of who I am at this moment in life. For sure I am no less frustratable when dealing with the blocking and tackling involved in raising little ones, and I probably don’t really have all that much more patience than I did as “Dad”. Oh no. I feel all of that now, too. The difference is that for whatever reason I have now essentially embraced these and other feelings as an essential part of an activity that I truly want to engage in. Today I acknowledge their presence and experience rather than avoid them as I am sure I did as a younger man.

Who does this make me now? Who am I after years of trying to be kinder and more present in my friendships? Springsteen had a famously fraught relationship with a father who never really accepted who he, Springsteen, was as a child and a young adult. For the record there was nothing of the sort in my relationship with my Dad at any stage in the lives we lived together. As a father himself Springsteen learned to be present in the lives of his kids, and to at least try to accept them for who they are at any given moment in their lives. No matter how well or how poorly we may be at either or both of those with our kids, grandchildren give us a Mulligan. A do-over if you will, at least if you are fortunate enough to have a chance to be in their lives.

Many years ago I wrote about a long weekend spent in the mountains of Colorado in the company of friends at that time. Adult weekend we called it. What I recall was a rare feeling that for pretty much the whole weekend I felt like I was exactly who I thought I was when I looked in the mirror. At least the good parts of who I thought I was back then. Pretty cool weekend. Interestingly it was a pretty easy weekend, too. No posing. No trying to anticipate what others expected, wanted, or needed. I just woke up and gave everyone whatever felt like the best part of me available at a given moment. Though I had no idea of the changes that were about to occur in my life I had a pretty good idea of who I was that weekend.

Now? Ha! I can’t even figure out what the mirror even is right now. Is it truly the mirror over my sink, the one that reminds me of all the miles I’ve traveled and hours I’ve flown in the memory lines of my face? Could be. Probably always has been. Still, it may never have really been that at all. The mirror in the mountains may have been my friends, and Beth, and how we were, all together. Today it may be the face of the children, or of Beth, as we made our way through that hectic weekend with the grandchildren.

The face of my young friends Himani and Arthur in the car, and the faces of the friends I’ve known so much longer who were there with me this weekend and who have been there through many of my different “reflections”.

Or it’s all of those. That’s probably it. All of them. The mirror in the bathroom is the measure of where we are at the moment. It’s a good thing to know who you are at any given time. There are mirrors all around us that show us where we are going (like the airport), or perhaps where we should be trying to go. I really would like to be enough for my Littles, but there are times when it will be someone else who they will need to be their “enough”. My role there is to be ready if it’s ever my turn. Their faces tell me if I’ve learned enough patience, or if I’m as “in the moment” as I think I am. The mirrors that are the faces of my friends this weekend tell me that I am becoming a better friend each time we see each other. That I may be someone with whom they would like to have a new friendship. None of the mirrors lie to you, at least they don’t if you have your eyes open.

As the years have gone by I’ve become better at knowing who I am at any given moment when I look in the mirror. ¬†Who I still need to become is there too, if I look hard enough.

Sunday musings…12/4/2022

1 Browns. Anyone think the choice of an 11 game suspension which made DeShawn Watson’s debut come against his old team was a coincidence?

2 700. Number of days since DeShawn Watson suited up and played a live football game. Anyone surprised that he was terrible?

3 Jets. Every time I think about how depressing it’s been to live in a city where the collective regional mood on 20 or so Mondays is determined by such a crummy football team, I remember that I could live in an enclave of Jets fans.

4 Parade. In yet another example of the slow, agonizing death of what used to be the center of Cleveland media, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has stopped paying to add Parade Magazine to its Sunday paper. I learned what mattered to Cleveland and to people who lived in Cleveland by reading the PD cover-to-cover every day when I moved here in 1991.

The demise of the once meaningful daily newspaper is neck and neck with the de-hubbing of what was once the largest airport in the country as emblematic of a city still in decline.

5 Endure. Do you have elderly relatives who are still in possession of their faculties? If you do I can’t encourage you enough to sit down and engage them on pretty much any topic they wish. Early days in their life? For sure. Learn about the history of your family. What it was like to live in dangerous times? times of privation? Absolutely. Regardless of what you may hear or read we are living in an era of unprecedented prosperity in a historical context. Hunger? Climate impacting the lives of Americans (not just their anxieties about the future)? Ask your eldest elders about the Great Depression or the Dust Bowl days.

It’s quite obvious that The Grapes of Wrath was not on the high school reading list of most climate warriors.

We could do worse that to ask to be adopted for a bit by my colleague John Berdhal’s grandmother. Annabelle Loken, R.N. is 97 years young, and according to John she is more than happy to dispense some hard-earned wisdom to any young’uns who are willing to listen. That would mean pretty much all of us. No less than the great Dick Lindstrom, the most famous living eye surgeon and one of John’s mentors, found Ms. Loken’s wisdom so compelling that he quoted her in one of his bi-monthly essays:

“Enjoy when you can. Endure when you cannot.”

This is just gold. Remember, this woman is 97 years old. She was born after WWI but was a teenager during the Great Depression. She came of age, was educated, and started a family during WWII. I believe she lived most of her life in South Dakota, hardly a go-go metropolitan city life. And yet she leads her admonition about life with joy. “Enjoy when you can.” No looking over your shoulder to see what might be gaining on you. Enjoy your life when life allows you something to enjoy. No waiting for the sound of the other shoe dropping. Nope. Listen instead for the beat of the band as both feet dance with joy.

I find the words she choses in her second sentence very interesting. Think about “endure” for a moment. Not fight. Not “carry on” or the like. No, endure is what she chooses. This is clearly a woman who has had less at times over her lifetime. I sense that these were times that she considered “between” times. Between the times when joy might be there to be had. She chooses “cannot” rather than “must” in the second sentence. It’s not that you are forced to endure, you are simply living in a time when you cannot enjoy life, and so must endure until that next period where you do, indeed, enjoy what life has brought you.

Ms. Loken seems to be a very optimistic person, don’t you think? I mean, any time you have a chance to enjoy she is saying that you should do just that. My bet is that if you ever had a chance to chat with this extraordinary person that she would say that you MUST enjoy if joy is there to be had. Those times where enjoyment is scarce? Times of hardship like those Dust Bowl days in the Great Plains, including South Dakota? Well, those we simply endure in the belief that they will pass.

So many of Beth’s and my elders left us without telling their stories. For sure, some did share wisdom. My Mom called while I was writing and offered a couple of pearls as is her wont (Mom is still an active parent!). I’ll have to ask my friend John if his Grandma Annabelle has shared stories to go along with her wisdom. If that little bit of poetry she did share, “Enjoy when you can. Endure when you cannot”, is any indication, it’s easier to understand how it is that John has turned out to be the extraordinary person that many of us are privileged to call our friend.

So do yourself a favor. Seek out the oldest members of your family. If you are a little short on older relatives go find someone else’s elders and bathe in the poetry of their lives, of their wisdom. Annabelle Loken is 97 years old. How fortunate that I got to share a tiny bit of her wisdom while she was still here to share it.

I’ll see you next week…

Thanksgiven: Sunday musings…11/27/22

1 Thanksgiven. What you’ve accomplished over the Thanksgiving weekend if you’ve done it right. Should be a word.

2 Hurt Locker. One of the things I am thankful for is that my IT band appears to have forgiven me, and my surgeon, for initially making my right leg almost an inch longer. My IT band and all of the muscles that reside in the vicinity of the Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL), the muscle that tenses the IT band, have been in full revolt since post-op day 9. That would be 10+ weeks ago for those of you keeping score at home (or suffering along with me).

What turned the tide? Beats me. Might be stopping all of the traditional PT I’d been doing, all of which was particularly vexing to that rat bastard, the TFL. Perhaps it was my dedication to using the very space age red-light laser gifted to me by research partners at the time of my left hip replacement in 2019, or the professional grade ultrasound unit I’ve been using on the daily for a couple of weeks. Beth has continued to lend her elbow for some (VERY) deep tissue massage each night.

More than likely it’s the fact that my right leg is now at least a quarter of an inch shorter than it was right out of the gate after surgery. Less lengthy seems to equate to less cranky. All I know is that it only takes 5 minutes for the “wake up pain” to subside now, and I can walk all of my required daily distances without pain.

Now if the pesky groin muscle I pulled while putting on my socks would just let me get on with my life…

3 Ritual. Another Thanksgiving weekend has come and gone for the White family. By most measures it was quite a nice weekend, thank you very much. We had our entire little family together for a couple of hours on Thanksgiving Day, complete with all of the grandchildren, and even our “extra son” Alex. There were lots of opportunities to spend time with smaller groups over the weekend as well. Beth timed everything perfectly, and the amount of food was so dialed in that we will be through all of the leftovers by the end of dinner tonight.

Pretty much crushing the post-Thanksgiving dining rituals of days on end of turkey, stuffing, and pie.

As I wrote in the “Thanksgiving musings…” we are a family of rituals. Do something twice and it’s a tradition; once more and it’s as much a ritual as anything you see on the altar at Sunday mass. Many of the White Family rituals were observed at my brother’s house this year as he hosted my Mom and one of my sisters and her family.

Here? Bit of a mixed bag to be honest. Change is the order of the day as our children and their families grow. However, the one ritual that remains in place is the ritual of coming together in real life. Being together in “reach out and hug” distance as much as possible over the weekend. For all of the wonders of our modern modes of communication, assembling as a family on this Holiday of thanks remains, for now, the essential ritual of Thanksgiving.

May we always have Thanksgiven for this.

I’ll see you next week…

Thanksgiving musings, Revisited…

Sunday musings…

Here is my annual Thanksgiving “musings…”, lightly edited to be up to date.

Thanksgiving is by far and away my favorite holiday. Not even close. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had so much to be thankful for, always had pretty much everything I need and at least a bunch of what I (thought I) want. Seriously, I can’t really remember a single Thanksgiving in my entire life where I thought the ledger was tilted to the minus side, where I just couldn’t find so much more to be thankful about than not.

You?

Oh sure, there’s always something to gripe about. I’m not really sure what it is at the moment, but Beth called me out last night for basically being an edgy grump. Guilty, but cluelessly in retrospect, even though I managed to come up with a reasonably coherent attempt at an explanation at the time. Still, it’s almost Thanksgiving, and I’ve gotta get my…ahem…stuffing sorted out.

One of the attractions for me to the day is that there are no real obligations. No gift giving. No “X shopping days until” stuff. Heck, I’d love to see a bit of Thanksgiving cheer around town, in stores and restaurants and such. Like we didn’t know all of those Christmas lights were already up the week before Halloween just because you didn’t plug them in?! Sheesh. Throw me a bone. Gimme a turkey and maybe a pilgrim hat in the window, just for a couple of days. Let me revel in the holiday where there’s really no revelry, just for a moment.

Oops…edgy grumpy again. Sorry.

Thanksgiving is so much more precisely because it’s so much less. Your family, such as it is at any given time, gets together and you eat turkey. Simple. You gather around a communal table, pass around whatever traditional fare constitutes your family’s meal, and talk all over each other with your mouth full. Everyone is more pleased to be together than not, even your cranky aunt who always–ALWAYS–tells you to swallow your food before you answer. Even she is OK on Thanksgiving.

There’s a sameness to Thanksgiving, at least in our minds, and I think that’s part of the joy, the comfort of the holiday. Close your eyes, sit back, and just for a moment think about Thanksgiving at your house. Don’t pick a particular life stage, just let it happen. What do you see? Man, it’s like seeing my life scroll out before me in countless little pictures and video snippets. My timeline is notable for one very important thing: at no point, in no image that flashes before me, am I alone.

What do you see? There’s football in mine. Lots and lots of football. The first memory in line is football. It’s so cold at the Southbridge/Webster HS game my hands feel numb typing. I had my first cup of coffee that day; they were all out of hot chocolate. You played and then came home, or went to the game and then came home. Yup, football and fires in the fireplace, and so, so much food. And there’s always that one, strange, once-a-year food, right? Peanut butter filled dried dates, rolled in pure sugar for us. Like a bite-sized PB&J. That’s the one I remember. It was always up to just one or two of your family members to make that weird little treat, too. I flash on my youngest sister as she rolls the dates in the sugar, feigning anger as her siblings snitch them off the plate as quickly as she rolls them. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth at the memory of those little sugar bombs.

As you sit there and move through your Thanksgiving montage you begin to notice something, though. At intervals that are not really regular, but they are there just the same, something changes. Maybe you moved, and the dinner table is different. There are some new characters around the table, a girlfriend here, a husband there. Sometimes something is missing. You run back the tape. You look and you look, but try as you might, someone isn’t there. All kinds of reasons for this, of course, but the first time you scroll through a significant change–venue, menu, cast–it shakes you a bit, right? Your brother got married and has to share the holiday with another family. Your sister was deployed; no Skype, FaceTime or Zoom back then to sorta, kinda, fill the space. Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, someone is no longer here to be there at all.

Here, I think, is where edgy, grumpy Darrell is probably coming from. If you’ve been around long enough, and Heaven knows I certainly have, you’ll scroll through more of these changes, these inflection points if you will, than you really realized were happening at the time. New families. In-laws. Another generation arrives. If you could somehow go back even further, before your own little Thanksgiving memory tree started to grow, you’d find that there’s nothing really unique at all in this little part of Thanksgiving.

Change, growth and change, are also part of the magic of the Holiday. What was it like for my Mom to move with her new family to a Thanksgiving in her own home? Family lore has it that my Dad’s family was more than a little unhappy with his move all of one county away from the hometown that still housed his relatives. What was he thinking those first couple of Thanksgivings at my Mom’s house? For that matter, what was it like in their homes at Thanksgiving when they were the same age as their grandchildren are now?

Did they have peanut butter-filled, sugar-rolled dried dates?

Every day is new. Each one is different from the last, and Thanksgiving can be no different. This week there will be much that feels like so many Thanksgivings of yore, yet it will be new as well. New babies and new lives and new places. New additions brought into our oldest traditions. Things and people to adopt and love as much as all we’ve loved before. Edgy? Well, it’s almost certainly because so very much will be new this year in our little Thanksgiving at Casa Blanco. New brings a bit of uncertainty, doesn’t it? Yes, for sure, it does.

But with certainty I can say that once again, as with every Thanksgiving, I will have much more to be thankful for than not. The ledger will be long on thanks, needs comfortably covered, wants undoubtedly as well. I will be surrounded by those I love; when the scroll is run in the years ahead I will see my people. Of this I am quite certain.

And there will be dates. Sticky, gooey memories to begin the next generation’s Thanksgiving story.

Happy Thanksgiving. I’ll see you on Sunday…

At Work: Sunday musings…11/20/2022

1 Rafter. The name of a group of turkeys. Another nonsensical, can’t make it up animal fact, however appropriate the timing.

2 Bullseye. “That’s like drawing the bullseye after you already shot.” Dr. Vinay Prasad.

It almost doesn’t matter what facts you are espousing, this one rings true, especially in this fraught world in which even basic science has been politicized. Prasad was discussing research on cancer in this instance; he is a noted scold of the scientists and physicians who have been in the public eye with all manner of science driven by expedience, not the scientific method.

This applies to any and all research. Literally anything you can measure or test. Science, real science, is declaring your hypothesis, your target if you will, BEFORE you shoot.

3 Diversity. Oh my. Oh my, my, my. As quoted in the WSJ on November 5th, David Lat said the ultimate “quiet part” out loud on diversity in highly selective schools at all levels. In an essay first published on Substack.com he describes what “diversity” actually means for elite preschools and elementary schools in NYC, ancient prep schools in New England, and the likes of Harvard and UNC which are now appearing before the Supreme Court defending their diversity efforts.

These schools are seeking “visual diversity”.

Mr. Lat has done the heretofore unthinkable by saying this out loud and giving us his thoughts at a skin-deep level (Mr. Lat is Asian-American; he opines that White-Americans have greater visual diversity than do Asian-Americans and other people of color). I’ll let you search for the essay on WSJ or Substack if you wish.

4 4-day. As in 4-day work week. Or, for that matter, remote work. Pundits of all sorts have been bleating about the elevated “humanity” of the 4-day work week and remote work. As if any employer who fails to acknowledge that their workers can achieve whatever their job entails in less than 5 days each week is somehow inhumane. That the workers will be more empowered, more “seen” if they can do their job from whatever spot on the planet they may find more to their liking than the home base of their employer. I’m calling BS on this point of view coming from the navel-gazers of the intellectual crowd, the “digital class” who simply refuse to acknowledge that a massive percentage of people with jobs do not simply sit in front of a computer and think.

Like the lovely woman who did such a fantastic job cleaning the hotel room I stayed in last weekend in NYC.

I work in healthcare. My day job is eye surgeon. Like almost everyone in healthcare, in order to do my job I must be physically present. There is nothing inherently of greater importance or somehow more noble about my particular “gotta be present” job. The EMT who was killed in Cleveland last night, run over while tending to a car accident victim, could not have done his job from behind a screen at home. The police officers at the scene, likewise. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick makers? Ditto. And if we all only go to work 4 days each week instead of 5, either someone else must fill that slot or the work doesn’t get done.

This has been sticking in my craw for a very long time. There is an unspoken but very real dismissal of work done face to face by at least the most outspoken of the digital class. It borders on contempt in some instances. In the command and control world that these folks wish they were running it’s as if each one is the proverbial engineer designing the cockpit for a new fighter jet and failing to remember that in order for it to fly there needs to be a pilot sitting in that seat. Woe be it unto the test pilot who is the first one to point out the effect of this oversight to those same engineers.

We may begin to make more stuff in the United States now that all of the keyboard captains of industry have realized that a far-flung supply chain may not be in their, or the country’s, best interests. Surely there will be more robots in the factories that build our stuff than there was at the start of the Industrial Revolution, but to make the factories run men and women will need to come out from behind their screens and, you know, build stuff. With their hands. Right there, on the line, in person.

They matter, too.

All work has nobility. If one worker works less, another must be there to complete the job. In the service industries such as retail, hospitality, and yes, healthcare, on location is where the job gets done. Please don’t try to tell me that we should be more concerned about how inhumane it is to make an engineer at Facebook–I’m sorry, Meta–work 5 days a week in the office. Doctors and nurses, firefighters and police officers, and that lovely woman who made my stay in a tired, old Mid-Town Manhattan hotel a bit brighter all deserve to be acknowledged, supported, and celebrated.

We are all there when you need us.

I’ll see you on Thanksgiving…