Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Sunday musings…9/20/2020

1 Split. Driving home yesterday I watched a couple of young men splitting logs the old-fashioned way, with sledge hammer and wedge. Brought back crazy memories of my childhood home in RI. My Dad decided that my brother and I would split the logs created when the land was cleared for our house. My Dad was a master. Never missed a strike. My brother and I? Not so much.

To this day I can still see the look of utter disgust on his face as we handed him broken handles from our mishits.

2 Open. Today I will watch the final round of the 2020 U.S. Open Golf Championship. Note that this is the first Open held in the fall since 1913 when Francis Ouimet one his first. Beth and Sasha will keep me company, but like the memory of my Dad and our poorly done chore, my living room will be filled with memories of Dad and golf. Even in the years long after I’d left home we would find ourselves on the phone for a bit as we watched the carnage that was the back nine of a U.S. Open.

I’m hoping to hear from my brother later on. It won’t be quite the same of course, and we will each feel that difference. Still, Dad’s spirit will be with us.

3 Expert. “Be and expert in a small subject so that you can make a difference.” –Barbara Judge.

In may ways Ms. Judge states the obvious: it is easier to be a factor if you attempt to move the needle in a very small venue or subject. Still, it is interesting to see how many people spread themselves far afield from whatever area in which they make their first mark. It’s one thing to move sequentially from one small subject on to a next; what is striking is how often it seems “experts” begin to seek to apply their expertise on ever larger subjects upon ever larger stages.

It’s as if eminence is as addictive as power.

In my professional life I find myself doing more and more of less and less. Interestingly, at least outside of the office, the narrowing of my expertise as far as subject goes actually allows me to apply that knowledge more widely across that professional world. An interesting phenomenon that comes from the fact that my “subject” is more process driven than idea specific.

While I didn’t choose my particular professional subject with external impact in mind, as I enter the last few innings of the most active part of my career I am hopeful that Ms. Judge is correct. It would be nice to look back some day and be able to say I did make a difference, however small it might have been.

4 Balance. Last evening I discovered that my life is woefully out of balance. Not the classic work/life balance thing; Lovely Daughter and I are convinced that there is no such thing. Life includes work so that there is no way to balance an element that cannot be meaningfully separated from the whole. One seeks harmony among all of the elements that make up a life, including work.

But I digress. There is, indeed, a significant imbalance in my life. I noticed it last night as Beth and I began to prepare dinner. Per usual one of my tasks was to choose an aperitif. As I got my ingredients together and we mulled over our options I stumbled upon a heretofore undetected imbalance in my life:

My lemon/lime ratio is totally skewed; I do not make enough cocktails in which lemons are the primary fruit.

I know, I know, it’s not much of a big deal. Or shouldn’t be, anyway. But I’m the guy who survived the Great Pandemic Lockdown by “Drinking with John Starr”, going 17 consecutive “5:00 somewheres” without repeating a cocktail. Heck, I have a book outlined about that adventure (wonder if John will let me use that as my title?). My refrigerator is chockablock filled with lemons, and if I have a yen for a lime-based elixir it will have to be one in which just a whiff is all I need.

How could such a thing happen? We don’t drink exactly the same drinks so I have a chance to expand my repertoire even if I’m not the one to enjoy the effort. And yet, there they are. 20 lemons surrounding 6 lonely limes. They’ve been there for a bit, too. No one I know has maintained their inner Hemingway or Faulkner-like pace since we were released from our bar seats-in-place.

My friends, I am at a loss. I am turning to you to help me regain balance in this most important part of life. Help me to realign my citrus priorities by sending me your favorite lemon-based cocktails. Send me a comment on the blog or reply on FB. Do look above your response and check to see if someone beat you to a favorite. Who knows? Maybe we will come up with enough stuff for another book Idea.

“A Life in Balance: when the world gives you lemons AND limes.”

I’ll see you next week…

Three Simple Steps and a Lot of Hard Work: Our 35th Anniversary

35 years! My Heavens, who could have imagined it way back when. My darling Beth and I started dating roughly 3 weeks into my first year of med school. Her toothbrush showed up in January when I got an apartment with a classmate, and pretty much everything else arrived a month or so later. Though the wonder of Facebook, where pictures of our pictures now live, I could look back at us when we were barely our of our teens.

There’s not a single wrinkle between us!

We are winding down from 10 or so days of celebrating our marriage. How does one do it? Stay together for 38 years, 35 of them married? I’ve certainly shed many electrons into the internet talking about this over the years but the simple things we’ve done bear repeating for their very simplicity and what is likely near universal application. There are just three, though of course those three branch out into about 3 million versions if you are the super analytical type. But for me, for us and for the family that came from that first date so long ago, it’s really just three.

Put your marriage, your relationship with your spouse, first. Center your life going forward there. Run every significant decision over which you have some control through the filter of how it will affect this one central facet of your life going forward. Will something enhance the marriage? Pretty much a no-brainer in most cases. Gonna hit the marriage hard? Man, the consequences of not making that choice have to be awfully dire to even need to have a conversation. Neutral, neither good nor bad? These are by far the most common forks in your roads traveled. There’s nothing better in these cases than sitting down together and hashing through what each or you desire. Our strategy was an unspoken agreement to take turns putting our “wants” first.

How do you make sure that things are turning out fairly equally in all of those “toss-up” decisions? That’s where the second of our three essentials kicks in: marriage is not a 50/50 proposition, it’s 100/100! Each person needs to commit 100% to the marriage. You can’t really keep score if you are both committed to the relationship and committed to each other. You’re not meeting halfway in or toward some goal, you are both moving together, 100% in each other’s corner. Believing and living like this makes it pretty hard to be too very selfish on a consistent basis.

And there are some pretty big decisions to make over time, some that will necessitate one or the other of you taking a bit of a back seat for awhile. Where to live? Kids, yay or nay? If yay, does someone stay home? Who will that be? Running and gunning for the big house/fancy car or laying back and chilling with only what you need? Some things will feel way bigger than they really are: Country club or horse stall? Still others will be comic relief: red wine or white? Or beer?! Over time if you are 100/100 you simply can’t help but be happier when you are 100% about being happier together.

Which leads me to the last of our three gems, one that we’ve been teaching since we stumbled upon it as comically broke new parents: never stop courting each other. Never stop falling in love. Tactically this is actually pretty simple: never stop dating. We’re a tiny bit famous in our little universe for our rabid devotion to “Date Night”. It started out so small. We were so short of money that we couldn’t really afford a babysitter AND dinner or a movie. Or really anything. Our first post kids date was a single cup of coffee we shared while we held hands in a booth at Burger King. $1.10 for the coffee, priceless for our marriage.

All through our years of raising our kids, building businesses and all the rest, Date Night has stood firm. Makes sense, right? No matter what, we have essentially told the world, and reaffirmed to one another, that our marriage sits at the center of our lives. Committing 100% to Date Night was a proxy for our 100/100 to the marriage. Date Night was often when we banged around our decisions, big and small. When we talked about what we might want, big and small. Whose turn it was going to be. Where we celebrated our successes and, yes, licked our wounds when things didn’t turn out quite the way we’d hoped.

I fall a little bit more in love with Beth every day; it just seems like it’s always been a little bit more on Date Night.

That’s it? Just three things and here we are, 35 years? It’s simple, but it’s not easy. Things that are worth it, things that are important rarely are. Put the two of you at the center of all you do and then commit 100% to you together. Court each other like you’re just starting out; keep on falling in love with each other. Just three simple things you promise to do better than anything else you do in your lives.

That’s it.

Happy Anniversary, Dollie.

Ghost Town: Sunday musings…8/23/2020

He sees my face. There’s a faint glimmer of recognition. You can tell he knows he should know who I am. Still, nothing until I tell him.

I am just another ghost floating through a ghost town. Drifting among the ghosts of my past. Some, like the guy still here in the present day flesh, yet a ghost nonetheless. Time has been reasonably kind to each of us; I can see his ghost in high school as we exchange pleasantries about our mothers.

The houses are haunted. Not just ours, or rather the house that was once ours. It’s all I can do to walk by, to not just walk up the driveway and through the door on the farmer’s porch of my house. No, each of the houses is as occupied by the ghosts of the owners it had as mine is of ours. There’s the Licht house, right next door to the Wilson’s. That stone wall between our house and the Dehimer’s still just looks wrong, even 20 years after it was built. And wait…I thought Barbara moved to South County. You mean those skinny boys chasing around the yard between our houses are NOT hers?

Two little boys, the ghosts of neighbors long past.

Just before I turn the corner I pass the Dunn’s house. It’s funny, that house must hold some sort of power over its owner, or perhaps that’s just Mr. Dunn’s ghost compelling whoever lives there to obsess over the lawn. That house has always had the best grass in town, better than even the greens on the golf course in our back yard. As I walk by I can hear the sound of balls bouncing and sneakers shuffling in the gravel. I swear I see the shadow of Maureen’s hoop right there under my feet as I walk by, but alas it, too, is just a ghost.

Just a skosch longer than 5 years ago my Dad’s ghost visited as I sat on his porch under the trees watching his club mates climb the 14th fairway. Like the citizens of Brigadoon he drifted into view and stuck around for an hour or so. It was magical to have him there, all of him, the Dad I’d known, sitting there with me, chuckling at the golfers who misread the wind and plunked their second shots into our back yard. His stay was altogether too short; the mist reclaimed him after a while and returned him to whatever Brigadoon houses such spirits.

My walk brought me to the church of my youth. It was open so I sat in the very last pew for just a bit, spending a few moments with the ghosts of parishioners I’d known. It’s a tiny church, tinier than I remembered. Probably because of all the ghosts there with me. My sisters were both married there. What fun those weddings were! All of the guests were there with me today. Mom and Dad looked great. I could swear that was Father Ethier on the altar, smiling.

Dad is buried in the parish cemetery in back of the church. Established 1896. I never noticed the sign before. To no surprise I mingle with lots of ghosts on my way back to his grave. He was back there, waiting for me. Four flags surrounded his gravestone, one for each of us. There were a bunch of golf balls on the ridge at the base of the stone, all Titleist 8’s. Later in life Dad always played Titleist 8’s. My vision got kinda blurry all of a sudden so I took a seat in the grass, leaned my head against his gravestone, and just relaxed for a few minutes as my Dad’s ghost settled in next to me. I think I stayed there for quite some time.

So many ghosts. I walked along in the company of my own ghosts from the days when I called this town home. Those were happy days; my companions were happy ghosts. As I walked on my ghostly fellow travelers fell away leaving me alone as my little tour brought me back to the ghosts awaiting, the many ghosts of my Mom watching over her as she napped while I walked. Too many to describe, all there patiently waiting for her to wake up from the nap she’s taken nearly every afternoon for 65 years. They are there. She is there.

And so here I am in a ghost town. Mostly me, but part the ghost of the boy who used to be. Ministering to a Mom who I desperately want to still be mostly my Mom, as the ghosts settle in around us.

Experience: Sunday musings…8/16/2020

1) Ruffle. It’s perfectly OK to ruffle dirty feathers.

2) Auditioning. “Auditioning is like stripping without the money.” Jim Gaffigan.

Most of anything like an audition I’ve had over the last 20 years has happened without me being aware of it. Kinda the opposite of standing on stage and imagining your whole audience is naked. The ambush audition is like discovering that it was YOU who was naked.

3) Shields. It makes me wonder why face shields haven’t gotten more play as safety devices for school kids, especially K-8 or so. Even more perplexing is the directive yesterday from the CDC that there is “insufficient evidence” that they are protective. Meh, the evidence from real, honest to goodness study is paper thin for masks of all sorts that are short of N95 respirators.

Socialization is a key component of early childhood schooling. Indeed, it may be an even more important aspect to high school. It certainly leads to more emotionally healthy teenagers it seems. Seeing the entire face of your age peers, and that of your teacher, is an important part of learning how to occupy your place in society. Why have face shields been so readily disregarded as an option?

4) Experience. “Experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is high.” -Anon

This came across my line of sight around the time someone asked me about an ophthalmic surgeon’s operating peak, like an athletes peak or prime years. Like so many other things there is a confluence of factors that combine to create such a peak. While your hands, your vision, and your physical stamina are considerably higher in your 20’s or your 30’s, the true peak for an eye surgeon comes after 8-12 years of operating, depending on the number of cases you fit into each year. At this point you’ve mostly mastered the mechanics of your procedures. This, combined with the wisdom hopefully garnered by the mistakes you made over those 8-12 years, combines talent, practice, and more importantly the experience that allows you to apply the first two.

The tuition the anonymous author refers to is the anguish that accompanies the learning that accrues from both mistakes and from difficult situations that arise even when you haven’t deviated from known best practices.

I’m hard pressed to think of any aspect of life that can’t be viewed through the same prism. Think of the fine balance between the skillset of a modern NFL quarterback and the knowledge of the game that can only come from taking thousands of snaps under game time pressure. Or a front line, sharp end of the spear first responder like a police officer or warfighter approaching a dodgy situation in the field. The hard-earned experience of prior engagements will carry the veteran to a win even when he/she has started to experience a decline in physical skill. Even less martial examples, leading a salesforce for example, prove the principal. Woe be to that manager who continually makes the same mistake when deploying their people into the field.

It’s fascinating to look at purely intellectual pursuits through the lens of experience. Authors and academicians are certainly not physically taxed the way that athletes, peace officers, or even surgeons are. Yet rare is the person in these more cerebral fields who doesn’t get better at what they do with time and experience. Where the athlete or the surgeon may eventually break down physically to a point where no experience will carry them further, the intellectual can continue as long as they don’t lose their ability to think. Indeed, like the stiffening of joints in the active pursuits, failing to learn from experiences as they age leads to an ossification of thought, an inflexibility that hinders further learning. Here, too, the metaphor is apt.

There is, of course, a point of diminishing gains as one piles on the experiences. Not that one can’t continue to learn. More that the increments of learning garnered from new experiences, or more specifically their effects on the forward-going performance of the learner, necessarily shrink over time. An eye surgeon, for example, can remain in their operating prime (absent illness) well into their 60’s and even beyond. At a certain point experiencing something new and different is such a rare event that it brings equal parts shock and pleasure.

But the unknown sage who first uttered the words above was doubtless not talking about the crusty old surgeon or academic. No, he or she was almost certainly speaking to a much younger audience, and perhaps if they are very young themselves, the parents of that audience. In the pursuit of living making a mistake is only failure if it does not lead to learning. Failure need only be temporary if it is used as the springboard to the next experience, and the next, and the next.

Tuition charged by experience is most expensive when what is taught remains unlearned.

I’ll see you next week…

The American Dream Part 3: A Critical Review of the Georgetown Study Shows Academic Achievement is Still Key

A few weeks ago a study from Georgetown University was published that purports to show that access to the American Dream lies through existing family wealth and not academic achievement https://1gyhoq479ufd3yna29x7ubjn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/FR-Born_to_win-schooled_to_lose.pdf . On first glance their conclusion seems to have some merit. For example, children in the lowest socioeconomic quartile of socioeconomic status (SES) who score highest in 10th grade math are less likely to end up in the upper half of SES than 10th graders who begin in the upper half and score lowest in 10th grade math. In other words high achievers from low SES are less likely to rise economically than low achievers from high SES are to remain at the higher SES where they began.

My initial reaction to this finding (prior to reading the full study) was to accept the conclusion at face value for the years studied (2002-2018). While doing so it seemed plain to me that, if true, this represented a substantial change in how today’s young participated in the American Dream in contrast to Americans born during the Depression and, subsequently, their children. If true it seemed to me that there had to be a tipping point, a point in time where participating in the American Dream and rising economically through academic achievement was no longer the prevailing route to success.

My supposition, where once academic achievement was more important than SES and then at some time “flipped”, was met with varying degrees of derision and scorn on the social media platform on which I originally encountered the study. I decided to more deeply investigate the study by looking at the American Dream over time. In Part one of this series I told the story of my Dad’s rise from poverty: The Cardboard in the Shoes Kid. My father rose where his siblings and most peers did not through access to college afforded by scholarships and the GI Bill. Part 2 was my story and that of my peers, as well as a re-telling of Gen X Senator Tim Scott’s American Dream success. In the absence of comparable studies that examined earlier times in U.S. history I sought first to demonstrate that, at least through prevalent oral history, academic achievement was an integral part of the American Dream prior to 2002.

As I started to organize my thoughts for this analysis I met a fascinating gentleman with a very helpful perspective regarding Baby Boomers. Our discussion prompted me to be a bit more skeptical about my assumptions. Bruce M. is an African American who recently retired as a very senior executive in the banking industry. His journey began much like my Dad’s with an athletic scholarship followed by grad school. I explained my issue with the study, its conclusion, and the near universal opinions on social media that childhood SES has always mattered more than academic achievement. After sharing my anecdotal analysis and noting how his own journey fit my hypothesis he offered the opinion that perhaps I had done nothing other than identify outliers, the extraordinary.

One of the classic biases introduced in research based on anecdote is that the researcher only finds stories that fit their hypothesis. In Part 2 I explicitly acknowledge this. Bruce M.’s perspective made me wonder if I was correct in my assumption but perhaps not quite as correct as I’d thought. Perhaps the “flipping point” was actually much earlier in time, much closer to 1960 than 1980.

So I did what I always do, and teach others to do, when engaging in these types of inquires: I returned to the source material to review the definitions that were used to determine what was being studied. Here, at the most basic level, the authors are studying the impact of pre-existing wealth (or its absence) and academic achievement (as measured by math scores in 10th grade) on achieving the American Dream. My reevaluation of their premises shows that their definition of the American Dream appears to be at odds with how most people understand it: simply being in the upper half of SES strata within 10 years of college graduation. What directed my inquiry and led me to decide that their ultimate conclusion does not seem to apply to earlier times is the more commonly understood definition of the American Dream: to RISE into a higher SES than that of your upbringing. Indeed, I would hazard a guess that most Americans would not consider simply maintaining the SES of your youth being the American Dream.

Rather, the opposite likely stands, that falling out of the SES of your upbringing would be considered a substantial marker of failure.

Defining the American Dream in this more conventional way alters the sensational “headline” conclusion of the Georgetown study. While this makes it much less attractive as “click bait” on social media it is my opinion that it actually makes it a more important study. When one seeks data to support substantive societal changes that expand access to this truer iteration of the American Dream, the studies findings actually point the way. While doing so it makes me wrong: it is likely that the influence of family wealth has always been a very strong marker to predict eventual occupation of a slot in the upper SES, the precise interpretation of the study data. It also makes me very right: rising to that new, higher SES, the true definition of the American Dream, is driven by academic achievement. Let’s look a bit closer at the details of the study through this more culturally accurate lens.

Much is made of the finding that low SES students with above average math scores have a lower chance of rising into the top half of SES than high SES students with low math scores have of remaining in that top half. While we see fewer high achievers in the high SES segment falling out of the top 50% than low achievers, we do not have any data for the converse, high achievers who rise still higher within that top SES segment. Is it possible that even in the highest quartile, that academic achievement is a stronger factor predicting a rise in SES? Even families in the top 5% SES hope and plan for their children to rise into a higher segment.

Defining the American Dream as simply occupying a space in the top 50%, or even the top 25% SES, is a radical departure from what is regularly quoted as the American Dream. Whether you are native born or an immigrant to the U.S., the American Dream is one of economic rise. Therein lies the essential problem with the Georgetown study and its flashy title (“Born to Win; Schooled to lose). Since SES is essentially a Bell Curve someone in a higher SES must drop lower in order for someone in a lower SES to rise. Occupancy is a term of stasis; the American Dream is a term that implies movement, specifically upward movement.

Why is this important? Why gild this lily so completely? The authors clearly wish to cast aspersions on what they presume are the unfair tactics that upper SES families use to help their offspring remain in the SES of their birth, regardless of academic achievement (a proxy presumably for merit). Thus, the emphasis on the “staying power” of the lower achievers in upper SES. Yet such a conclusion has no chance of effecting change. How does one prevent a parent from doing whatever it takes to support their child? There is no measure of movement within that top half and therefore no way to measure the effect of academic achievement within smaller bands. There is no way to create policy or make recommendations that would assist young people in lower SES quartiles based on the authors’ conclusion.

Happily, the true finding of this study is precisely the opposite of what they conclude, and most assuredly the opposite of their splashy click-bait title: the most direct route to achieve the American Dream, to rise economically, is precisely through academic achievement. While I think my new acquaintance Bruce M. is partly correct, that I simply identified the outstanding in Parts 1 and 2, I believe he is also as fundamentally incorrect as are the authors of the study. The outstanding rose. Like him, and my father and Senator Scott, the outstanding rose economically by utilizing their academic achievement. The American Dream is about rising up economically.

More importantly, if you come to this conclusion, that the study actually shows that upward movement is the result of academic achievement, you create a very strong case for change in how we educate our young. There is an especially strong case for how we educate the young who are born into the lower half of SES. The study shows that there is a significant drop off in performance or progress at both points where math aptitude is measured. At these pivotal points further achievement (continued excellence in the 10th grade, attendance in college, college graduation) is derailed. After demonstrating that academic achievement is the key, THIS is the real finding.

The derailment of academic achievement simply cries out for investigation to determine WHY this happens, followed by HOW it can be prevented.

Finding that existing family wealth protects the children of the better off from occupying a lower SES later in life than academic achievement is a non-actionable finding. The kids themselves would likely shrug: “Duh”. What this study actually shows is that my muse, the economist from Harvard, need not be so concerned about the country his daughter will grow up in. She will be surrounded by acquaintances who have risen from lower SES through academic achievement as was shown in the study. How many rise will depend in part on a more enlightened and opportunistic re-evaluation of the data affirming that academic achievement continues to be the vehicle that drives the true American Dream.

Those who are born to rise are derailed by our educational system, not our economic one. This is the true finding of the Georgetown study. This finding is amenable to action.

A RETURN TO THE RING; FAREWELL TO THE BEACH: Sunday musings…8/9/2020

1. Incandescenceness. Something more than incandescence. Maybe the essence of incandescence. Heard at a horse shoe.

Should be a word.

2. Distance. Same horse show. Only 2 people allowed around the ring for each horse, one of which is the rider. Mind you, horse show. Outdoors. Everyone masked. 100+ acre property and 50M ring.

How do I know? Got spanked for too many “followers” at one ride while distancing 6 METERS.

3. Era. As in beginning of a new one. Beth is a competitive rider again! This weekend for the first time in 6 years we went to a horse show and Beth rode. Did pretty darned well, too! On the one year anniversary of our big boy Hero arriving from Spain he is finally healthy enough, and he and Beth have worked together enough, to enter the ring.

As I’ve said for a couple of decades now, it is nothing short of thrilling to see someone doing something that they love. To see someone engaged in something that they are passionate about. Brava Dollie!

4. Era. As in the end of an era. The end came not for any personal reasons. Not for any inconvenience or lack of interest. What broke our 28 year win streak of gathering this week on Cape Cod was how daunting it was going to be for us all to travel from our respective homes during this pandemic time in order to be there. That, and the amount of anxiety that my Mom was experiencing just thinking about the process.

It’s sad for a million reasons, some big and others small. In a funny way this could have been one of the biggest groups in recent years with so many of the grandchildren (our kids) working from home. Heck, they could have worked half days and not even had to use up a whole week of time off. Yes, yes, we’ve been plagued by spotty internet access over the years and “work” from the Cape would have posed a challenge if this remained the case. Still, there was a little buzz about this lockdown thing actually making for a better trip.

T’was not to be.

So here I am at a horse show, actually thrilled to be here, but kinda bummed nonetheless. I mean, as a family, a significant group had made it to the same house on the same beach for 28 uninterrupted years. Two years ago we had babies on the beach for the first time in 14 years. There were even a couple of changes in “traditions”; with only a few of us still there on Friday the last couple of years we opted out of pizza in favor of lobster meat and a big, buttery chardonnay (our traditions evolved in a very positive way).

And yet as sad as I am about not being on the beach, what I really am is filled with gratitude for all of the years we DID get. In year one we all crammed into one house, one bedroom assigned to each little family. Our caboose, Randy, was 6 weeks old. Man, I sure wish I could find the iconic picture of him with our Sunday night dinner, dwarfed as he was by a 15 lb. lobster. There were only 6 grandchildren that first year. One of the beautiful things about Cape week was how it allowed our eventual squad of 10 cousins to get to know each other despite the fact that none of my generation ever lived within easy visiting distance from one another until my youngest sister moved to Connecticut. Randy and his close-in-age cousins Darric and Tim forged a lifetime friendship from their days together on the beach.

Births, marriage proposals, weddings and sadly deaths were all a part of our Cape Cod lives. We kept our trip alive through illnesses in the oldest and youngest generations. Through high school and college graduations, job changes, and major moves. Some time around year 4 or 5 we just got too big to fit into a single house and spread into one of the next door cottages. Pretty much every waking moment was still spent either in the “Cape House” or on the beach. Like a bunch of 6 year olds playing soccer we moved through the week as one.

I am so very grateful that my son-in-law and both of my daughters-in-law got to experience “our” beach. Two of my soon to be five grandchildren got to play in the same sand that all 10 cousins did. Will we head back when times are simpler so that our other three babies will build sandcastles and chase hermit crabs in their parents footprints? Ah, who knows? For today I am happy that so much more of our family can say they were “on the Cape”.

All things come to an end, and we never know just how or just when that will happen. Our streak is over, felled not by any internal family decision but by a pandemic. Perhaps that is fitting, that such a monumental family institution could only be interrupted by a phenomenon that has literally bought the globe to a standstill. Will we return? Return to our little slice of Cape Cod, a place we came to be welcomed as if we were “locals”, so long had we been coming? We shall see. There are other changes, other transitions yet to come.

For now, for today, I am sad that I am not writing this as I travel home from Cape Week. But I am now and forever grateful beyond words that my own family beach journey, begun in Mannesquan with Gamma and Gramp, spanned so very many years, from being the baby on the beach myself to welcoming two more generations of babies to join me. For today it is enough that I had that journey. Like so many waves we body surfed, it’s been a great ride.

I can almost feel the grains of sand between my lips from my last farewell kiss.

I’ll see you next week…

Passages: Sunday musings…8/2/2020

“I don’t think you’re doing this hobby thing right Dr. White.” –Concerned Patient in office last week.

Author Gail Sheehy is most famous for her earliest work, notably “Passages”, in which she chronicled what she viewed as typical life stages for American men and women. Our family has always been a bit more interested in her work since she went to college with my parents; all three graduated from the University of Vermont in 1958. I read “Passages” in a psych class at Williams. The professor led our discussion with a disclaimer that Ms. Sheehy had been accused of plagiarism in some of the relevant work making me somewhat skeptical. My Mom was a bit salty about Ms. Sheehy’s body of work until very recent years. She felt that there was a consistent thread of disrespect for women who made a conscious decision to stay home and raise their children rather than enter the “work world”.

As you know from my recent stuff I have been spending an inordinate amount of time in the space between my own ears. With our various lockdowns and social distancing efforts it’s been harder to get out, both literally outdoors and figuratively outside of my own head. My little Aussie is not much on conversation when we walk. Even my daily sojourn exploring the migratory patterns of the local dog population through the wonder of her nose has been spent largely in the company of my own thoughts. Kinda like if your brainspace was not only accessible in your favorite chair but also in a mobile home.

Dangerous ground, that space.

While not therapy in the strictest sense, writing for me has nonetheless been somewhat therapeutic over the years. Rather than continually rehashing challenging events or ideas, writing about them has more often than not allowed me to disgorge them from my “internal hard drive” and move on. Writing has opened up room for new ideas or the time to work through a new challenge. Some of those challenges over the years have been so common, shared whether I knew it or not with nearly everyone my age with a similar upbringing, that they ended up in the work of pop psychologists like Gail Sheehy.

By and large, with the exception of my challenging journey to turning 50 (The Hard Turn at Mile Marker 49), all of my passages have flowed rather seamlessly from prior to next. School transitions all passed so uneventfully that I don’t have any memory of even the faintest bit of stress in those journeys. Looking back I barely sensed the fact that I should be anxious about the whole school thing until I found myself agonizing about the outcome of my oral board exam at age 31. At age 60 I realize how not normal that may very well be, and I am quite grateful for that.

School on to marriage, children, and career have mostly seemed the same. Oh sure, we made a less than optimal call on my first post-training job, landing in an area that was a bit more rural than we expected. And for certain the decision to leave a thriving practice to start from scratch turned out to be a major challenge because I chose to do it just in time to get crushed by the Great Recession and a paradigm shift in medical economics brought about by the Affordable Care Act. But there always seemed to be a logical next step in each of those circumstances. Almost as if there was a map or a guidebook. Perhaps a chapter in “Passages” even.

Once again, on closer inspection, the one constant through every one of my passages since graduating from college is probably the reason that each one was traveled without much trauma. Our marriage has been the touchstone, the compass that has continually kept us moving through life’s stages with confidence and conviction. Potty training and the joys of pre-school? No problem. Beth was on it. Adolescence and the turmoil of junior high school and early high school? Turns out I was pretty good at taking the lead during that phase (at least as much as I could being at work all day). Moving on to post-graduations, marriages, and the arrival of grandchildren? It seems like we’ve found a natural rhythm to our intersecting roles there, too, finding our comfort zones and trying to help each other stay in them.

There’s no reason to expect anything different as we begin to move into another “passage”, as we move from that magical part of life where one is near a peak in everything. Knowledge built up over decades of study leavened by the wisdom of simply having lived for those decades. Physical health and prowess not nearly at the level of that in our 20’s and 30’s but still more than adequate to be active and to enjoy that activity. The next passage is as daunting psychologically and emotionally as it is as inevitable, the proverbial boulder starting to roll downhill. Here, though, for the first time since Turning 50 I find that the space between my ears is anything but tranquil.

Why might that be? Thinking back of all of the previous”passages” of my adult life the theme has been teamwork. Well, a bit more than that. Teamwork born out of love and respect, borne aloft through times of all sorts by a deep commitment to both the desired outcome and the health and happiness of my most important teammate, Beth. No change there. I’ve come to understand that my challenge is that for the first time in a very long time I can’t really see the print in the figurative guide book; the map seems to be all fuzzy. I know that successful passage into and through this next phase requires the continual development and nurturing of not only our shared spaces and pathways but also ones that are more individual in focus.

Not developing or nurturing those puts a ton of pressure on the rest of the team to somehow fill empty timespace and emotionalspace. To be a good teammate, a good partner, one must carry some of the load, eventually. There’s really no mystery about what is needed. Heck, I’ve even written about it (The Secret to Happiness? Three Friends). A couple of Harvard sociologists looked at men in the Harvard Class of 1955 to see what the happiest of them had in common. Two things came out in the end: love (those who were married were happier) and friendship built around shared interests. More than that was the finding that those friendships didn’t include your spouse, and that three was a magic number. It didn’t matter what you did with your friends, what mattered was that you had three or more.

Reading their stories it was clear that the majority of those male friendships included a common interest that had been shared across the various passages they’d had throughout life. Golf, travel, chess, Bridge, whatever. Beth has had this kind of interest through her decades long love affair with all things horse. In my 40’s I assumed that golf was my ticket. It sure worked for my Dad, and my brother has had year after year of joy and friendship through playing. A wrecked shoulder at 48 and the financial strife of the Recession made it a bit too easy to walk away from golf. Then there was CrossFit, both at home and country wide. For a time it looked as if all things CrossFit would fall in line as the next passage “easy button”. Alas this, too, fell away for reasons that seemed out of my hands both at the time and in retrospect.

Of course I really do know not only what I’m supposed to be doing but also how to do it, right? Where I’m really finding the challenge is in the reality that I haven’t done enough through this most recent passage to make the transition to the next one as seamless and imperceptible as those earlier in life. Some of that lack of effort can certainly be traced to my disappointment, my sadness at the demise of the seamless continuation of my golf and CrossFit lives. But still, when presented with the reality that CrossFit changed and went away, I turned away from the work of finding its replacement.

What I did was go to work. My patient nailed it. When she asked me about hobbies I was looking forward to in retirement I’d mentioned my professional speaking and consulting. Hardly hobbies, and for sure hardly the type of shared activities likely to allow me to create and foster those friendships so crucial to happiness at this stage in life.

Continued happiness, the kind of happiness I’ve enjoyed for pretty much my entire life, does not live in the office or the OR. Nor is it internal; it lies outside the space between my own ears. As easy as it is to simply remain there surrounded by my own thoughts, it’s time to get outside. Will outside be a golf course? I really do miss the company of golfers. Who knows? Might be something entirely new, though I have a sneaky suspicion that there’s an easy button hiding in the plain site of something I already know. Funny though, isn’t it? Just like my last rocky passage at age 49, once again it’s a tossed aside comment from one of my patients that has opened the guidebook and brought the map lines into focus.

It’s time to get out and live a little.

I’ll see you next week…

THE AMERICAN DREAM Part 2: Post Baby Boom Achievement

Stories abound about members of my Dad’s generation who rose up economically through education. As I recounted in “Part 1: The Cardboard in the Shoes Kid”, Dad rose far above the economic level of his upbringing and left his many siblings and their families behind through his academic achievement. Using a combination of a partial athletic scholarship and the GI Bill (Dad fought in Korea), his story personified the American Dream. In his 40’s he and two partners bought the company that he ran and all became very well off.

The economic policy followed by the federal government in the 1980’s brought a historically high dollar value to international trade. This decimated the American optical manufacturing industry in which my Dad had worked his entire career. Optical frame manufacturing went overseas. Where once there had been more than 100 domestic manufacturers of spectacle frames, Martin-Copeland was one of just 3 remaining businesses when it fell. Despite that, Mom and Dad saved enough to weather this little known episode of American economic history. Forced to give up his company, Dad nonetheless enjoyed a comfortable retirement that began at age 57.

From what I can see in my daily interactions with my Dad’s generational peers in the Midwest (I am an eye surgeon; my daily fare includes caring for children of the Depression) my father’s life story is far from unique. There is a clear division in his generation when it comes to the accumulation of wealth over a lifetime: the greater the academic achievement, the greater the wealth. Countless examples of this can be found in the most casual reading about (mostly) men born just a bit too young to have fought in WWII. Another example from the Northeast is Joe Corcoran whose obituary I read in the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Corcoran’s father was a housepainter, his mother a homemaker. A graduate of Boston College he went on to amass a fortune building affordable housing in the greater Boston area.

For the generation of Americans born after 1930, academic achievement was the dominant factor in generating next generation wealth.

What can be said of that generation’s children? Again, let me begin with a personal observation (there does not appear to be a study similar to the Georgetown study that looks at my era). Like my Dad, my siblings and I went to public schools. As the children of two college graduates it should come as no surprise that all four of us went on to graduate from college. When the three older among us matriculated our parents were just beginning to reap the financial benefits of my father’s economic rise. They owned one house (with a mortgage), belonged to a nice golf club, and had two cars. College expenses were quite different than today. In 1978 Harvard cost approximately $14,000 for tuition, room, and board. I attended Williams College, a small liberal arts college founded in 1793, for the grand total of $7,200 my freshman year.

There was wealth at Williams, to be sure. Some of the grandest names in American history were represented in the student body when I was there, as well as the children of quiet, though substantial, wealth. If memory serves the ratio was 50/50, prep/public school. Notably, some of the students with the greater financial needs at Williams had attended some of the most expensive prep schools; both Williams and the east coast prep circuit were early in on scholarship aid, however shallow the effort may have been.

You could describe me as second generation academic achiever, but many of my friends and acquaintances were, like my Dad, the first in their families to go to college. Thinking about the group of classmates who did not come from wealth, who would have no family money to fall back on should they suffer an economic setback, each and every one of them rapidly climbed the economic ladder to a height that exceeded the peak of their parents’ economic achievement. As far as my parents offspring, all four of the children in my family have equalled or exceeded the economic outcome our parents enjoyed at the peak of my father’s success.

One can say that my story thus far suffers from a strong northeastern bias. Both my Dad and Mr. Corcoran were the sons of Irish immigrant families. While several of my very successful friends at Williams are Black, the Williams College student body of the 70’s and 80’s was largely White. This is also a legitimate criticism of a narrative “verbal history” approach to the question at hand: narrow frame of reference bias.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina has been much in the news of late for his efforts to spearhead police reforms around the issue of race. My daughter and her husband live in South Carolina so I confess to spending perhaps a bit more time reading about its state politics than might be normal for a citizen of Ohio who grew up in Rhode Island. Senator Scott is 54 years old, 6 years younger than I am. He was raised with two brothers by a single Mom who worked double shifts as a nurse’s aid to support them (the older brother is a Sergeant Major in the Army, the younger a Colonel in the Air Force). Like my Dad he began his college experience on a partial football scholarship.

After graduating from Charleston Southern University Mr. Scott became a successful insurance entrepreneur. He was interviewed in the WSJ shortly after introducing a Senate bill meant to establish national standards for policing, especially with regard to the use of force by police officers. In that interview he flatly stated: “I am living my Mother’s American Dream.” He was quoted as saying that “advancement comes through education.”

I do not know Senator Scott. If I were fortunate enough to do so I would ask him if his experience, and that of his peers, contradicts the conclusion of the Georgetown study that, on balance, the existence of modest family wealth (occupancy of the upper 50% socioeconomic status) is more important than academic achievement as a determining factor for a generation to rise above the economic level experienced by their parents. My guess is that Senator Scott would first point out the very real, very substantial barriers that children of color face in addition to economic status that must be addressed in any evaluation of the original question.

However, from what I have read and what Senator Scott has said, I believe that he is no more an outlier than I was, or for that matter my father or Mr. Corcoran. Even if we accept as true the conclusion of the Georgetown Study that family wealth is a stronger predictor of economic outcomes in the years beginning in 2002, as recently as 1990 when Senator Scott was building his business, academic achievement was still the significant driver.

For at least the younger members of Gen X, it appears that academic achievement was still the path to the American Dream.

Next: If the paradigm did flip, when did it happen and why?

The American Dream Part 1: The Cardboard in the Shoes Kid

While fooling around on social media I came across a post from a prominent Harvard economist about the American Dream. Now to be honest that’s not a phrase he used in his post, but that is precisely what he was talking about. He lamented the findings in a recent study from Georgetown University that evaluated whether academic achievement or existing family wealth was a better predictor of eventual economic success. https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/schooled2lose/  The study looked at demographic and academic data from publicly available sources for the period between 2002 and 2016. It concluded that existing family wealth was more important than acadeemic achievement in predicting rather modest income and wealth outcomes. https://1gyhoq479ufd3yna29x7ubjn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/FR-Born_to_win-schooled_to_lose.pdf (See part 3).

While the finding over the period studied does not really surprise me all that much (although I’d love to see the raw data to see if it was cherry-picked to produce the outcome), there was a paucity of deeper inquiry in the downstream responses to the Harvard academic’s post and lament. Indeed, each post clearly either assumed or stated outright that this is, and has always been, the great stain on the American Dream. But is that actually true? Has preexisting family wealth always been more important than academic achievement in determining next generation financial success? Seems like a logical question to ask; our culture, indeed our national personality is deeply invested in the opposite outcome. And so I asked the obvious (to me) question: if this has not always been the case (my premise), at what point in U.S. history did the factor “flip”?

You can imagine the scorn that my question received and the barely concealed contempt with which those who responded held for both the question and the person asking it. But seriously, even if you take for certain the conclusion of the Georgetown study, our history is just filled with both micro and macro evidence that shows that academic achievement was the singular driver of next generation wealth for decades beginning no later than 1920. You need look no further than the GI Bill post-WWII and the explosion of the America’s middle class that followed to see the evidence that family wealth was not the predominant driver. Heck, there just weren’t that many upper middle class families in the U.S. prior to the late 1970’s, let alone truly wealth families. The Doughboys using the GI Bill didn’t get their nickname because they were rolling in it.

Unfortunately companion studies looking at this question during earlier times are proving rather difficult to find. In a right and just world I could go look at decade vs. decade analyses to see if my sense that the traditional notion of the American Dream (do well in school, do better in life) was indeed a real thing. We all know that such a scenario is the best possible one in that we could head off charges of bias, etc. While I will continue to search for such research, allow me to present a couple of examples of why I believe that there was a time when our traditional notion of the American Dream did, in fact, exist, when I think it may have “flipped”, and a hypothesis to explain why.

Absent formal data all we have are stories. One hopes that the stories you choose to tell are indicative of more than just one life’s experience. In this case clearly I feel this is true. My thesis starts where it should, at home, in the history of my own family. In my father’s story. Mind you, this is not only anecdotal, this is coming to you in the classic tradition of oral history passed down through inter-generational story telling. Is it all true? Meh, define “true”. It’s true enough for both our family and for the purpose of placing the American Dream along a timeline. Like most family history it is true in spirit, true in context. The details may just be a tiny bit fuzzy, especially now that all of the principals are gone.

My Dad was a classic child of the Depression, a “cardboard in the shoes” urban (as opposed to “Grapes of Wrath” rural) version. The children of the working poor (and certainly those of the unemployed) rarely got a new pair of shoes unless they’d drastically outgrown the pair they were wearing. If one should encounter the misfortune of a hole in the sole of the shoe one did not replace or resole the shoe, one simply put a piece of cardboard inside the shoe under the footbed. Of course this required a steady supply of cardboard outside of the Dust Bowl, since even the most trivial rain storm was enough to necessitate another “patch”.

Dad was the fourth of 6 children, smack in the middle of the family. I never knew my grandmother, Dad’s Mom. She passed away (we think from Rheumatic Fever) when Dad was around 12.  Some time soon after my grandfather remarried; Kay had at least 4 children of her own to add to the mix. While Grampa White was always employed there is pretty solid evidence that he struggled with the bottle. Payday always seemed a bit more spare than his income should have made it according to family lore; lots of temptation on the walk home. Still, even though it was often nothing more than a ketchup sandwich, none of the kids in the White house ever talked about being hungry.

This being the 30’s and 40’s the children of the working class were placed in the “trades track” in school, my Dad included. The oldest in the family, my Godfather Uncle Larry, graduated from Waltham High and went directly into the Army. He would be on a ship ready to participate in the invasion of Japan when the bombs landed. Going to college was never a consideration for him; not a single teacher was said to have even broached the subject. Dad’s twin older sisters were expected to learn the skills of running a household to prepare to marry and raise the next generation. They, too, gave not a moment’s thought to college.

But Dad was apparently different, talented enough to catch the attention of several teachers early in either high school or junior high. One teacher in particular, Miss Nolan, is said to have literally plucked him out of the trades track and demanded that he be placed in college prep. From what we know from stories told by aunts and uncles Dad thrived in class, and like my Uncle Larry he was a star athlete as well. Armed with his diploma and wearing a pair of new shoes purchased by Miss Nolan for graduation, Dad headed off to the University of New Hampshire on a football half scholarship.

Things get a little fuzzy here to be honest. The mythical version of what happens next goes like this: Dad did great in football, was holding his own in class, but a half scholarship didn’t provide enough support for a kid from a working poor background to pay for school, room and board. Legend has it that Dad essentially starved out of UNH and joined the Army rather than head back to Waltham with his tail between his legs, not able to make it as a college boy. My Mom tells a different story. In her version Dad simply partied his way out of New Hampshire, spending all of his post-football time drinking beer with his buddies.

I like the family lore version way better.

No matter, though. At least as far as proving my point about the American Dream. Dad entered the Army and went on to serve in the Korean Conflict. Battle time promotions come quickly during wars. When he mustered out after his 3 or 4 year hitch (the details on that are a bit fuzzy, too) he had risen from E1 (buck private) to E6 (Staff Sergeant). Now funded by the GI Bill and another half football scholarship he headed off the the University of Vermont to finish the challenge he’d started with Miss Nolan’s help. Those times were still pretty tough. In order to get enough to eat after football season’s training tables were no longer available Dad worked as a short order cook: two squares and a small wage per shift. As a junior and a senior he was the house manager at his fraternity. Pay? Room and board. Not one iota of wealth in his back story.

You know where this is heading. Mom and Dad were married after graduation and they moved to a tiny town in central Mass to begin life together. Dad and a bunch of buddies trucked themselves off to Springfield and American International College. They put themselves through business school. Yup. That’s right. Not only was Dad the only one in his blended family to graduate from college, he also had an MBA. I should note that college was such an unthinkable path for kids from working families that my Dad’s younger brother turned down a scholarship to Harvard despite my Dad’s pleas from Korea. My uncle died a bitter man, resentful of every college kid who joined the company where he worked and become his boss despite my uncle’s superior intellect.

So what happened to my Dad? Well, this is America in the 60’s and the 70’s. My Dad made it. He ended up buying the company he was running, employing at its peak 800 people and setting himself and Mom up to be comfortable even when the strong U.S. dollar of the late 80’s destroyed the entire domestic industry in which he worked. Forced out of the company he owned by an ambitious banker with only ~10% of his loan remaining Dad essentially retired at 58 after raising 4 college grads and sharing parts of his fortune with his siblings and their families.

What’s the point? Simple. It was academic achievement that brought my Dad his financial successes. His siblings lived lives that were slightly better than my Grandfather. My Dad soared. More than that, he was not unique. Not even a little bit. Thousands of working class kids rose to prominence and acquired wealth accessed by attending and excelling in college. Somewhere there is a WSJ article that cataloged the colleges attended by Fortune 500 CEO’s in the 90′ and 00’s. The number one Alma Mater was not Harvard or Yale, not Stanford or MIT, but Wisconsin. Indeed, if memory serves only a single digit percentage of those CEO’s had attended the playground colleges of the wealthy.

No, my Dad was typical of those who grew up during the Depression and went on to acquire wealth. Some how, some way they found themselves in college. This, not preexisting family wealth, was the more important factor driving financial success. Into the 1980’s at least wealth seems not to be the most important factor. It was time when a “cardboard in the shoes kid” could rise through academic achievement.

Next: Post-Baby Boom Academic Achievement in the South.

A Brief Father’s Day Visit From My Dad

Today, Father’s Day, my Dad would have been 89. I think of him often, as I do my Father-in-Law who passed away in 2017. Here is what I wrote after visiting my Dad on Father’s Day, the last time I visited him for his Birthday, re-printed as I’ve done each year since:

 

My siblings and I only need to remember one weekend each year when it comes to celebrating my Dad. His birthday almost always falls within a day or two of Father’s Day. So it was that I found myself in Rhode Island the past couple of days, in the company of my Mom and a guy masquerading as my Dad, a guy who was very curious about the new fella who’d dropped by for a visit.

Getting old is not for sissies, my friends.

Somewhere inside, deep inside, there’s still some of my Dad in the jumbled up connections of his mind, carried by the body that failed him in such spectacular fashion 2 ½ years ago. Dad is extremely intelligent, the only family member in his generation to have gone to college. Quite the athlete, he used football and the GI Bill to pay for school. Like so many in his generation he then worked, raised a family, and put himself through grad school. He won his club championship in golf twice at the ages of 50 and 60. No typo. Beat the reigning RI State Amateur champ on his home course for the first one.

As we sat on the porch of his house overlooking the par 5  14th hole, I had an ever so brief visit from that guy. From my Dad. Like a citizen of Brigadoon he came slowly through the mist of his mind to join me for a bit. We’d always bonded over golf. My brother and I never turned down an invitation to join him on the course, either as partners or as caddies for him and his buddies. It was quite a privilege to do either; my Dad’s most elemental essence was expressed on the golf course.

A light breeze was blowing through the forest in the back yard just beyond the rough. We chuckled at the golfers who failed to take the wind into consideration, sheepishly trying to sneak into our yard to retrieve their out-of-bounds second shot. Dad talked about caddying as a kid in the Depression. We both noted the absence of caddies as the foursomes passed in and out of view. It was really very nice.

I quite like the Dad of my adulthood. Quick to smile, slow to anger, unfailingly loyal and kind. It’s hard to imagine now how distant he was when I was a boy, his friendship as an adult is so easy. I’m not sure how long we sat there to be honest, nor when I noticed that he was slipping away. As surely as the village of Brigadoon disappears, the mist had returned to claim him. I got up, walked over to his chair, held his hand and gave him a kiss. I wished him a Happy Birthday and a Happy Father’s Day, hoping that I’d made it on time. That he was still there. That he knew it was me, Darrell, his oldest child. I told him I loved him.

He smiled and gave my hand a little pat as he disappeared into the mist.

 

I really miss my Dad.