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Archive for December, 2015

On Friendship

Friend: a person who has a strong liking for and trust in a another person. –Miriam-Webster’s

Friendship has been on my mind of late. Truth be told, some version of that sentence accurately describes some part of my day pretty much every day, just a bit more so of late. You can never have enough friends and all. True enough that, but one should reflect a bit on what it is that constitutes friendship, and what it means to be a friend.

Once upon a time in college I embarked on an adventure, a hitchhiking journey to meet up with mates from college, eventually landing on the beach in North Carolina. My Dad was dead set against it. It was time for me to go to work for the summer, and quite honestly the itinerary was more than a little “skinny” on details.

Me: “But Dad, these guys are my friends!”

Dad: “Probably not. In 10 years you may not even know a single phone number for one person who was there. You are lucky if you have a single friend in the world.”

Man, I hated him for that. I left angry and returned triumphant (God watches over fools and Irishmen). Sure enough, only one among that group remains, and he only a warm afterthought. My Dad, of course, was spot on.

Each of us lives in a galaxy of people who swirl around us as if we were a pre-Galilean Earth. Think Brian Regan’s famous “Science Fair” bit: “The big yellow one is [me].” This very center of this solo system is made up of our friends, however few. They are close enough to touch, always in view. Surrounding this inner circle is a slightly larger one filled with friendly acquaintances, people who may once have been friends or may yet become friends, but at present a group of people we are genuinely happy to see but don’t necessarily go out of our way to do so. Next is that mass of people we’ve met, a group not notable for anything; we don’t think of them at all. There are enemies, too, but for now let’s leave them be. All of this floats in a universe of beings we’ve yet to, or will never meet.

What is it that moves one from the orbit of friendly acquaintances into that innermost sphere of friends? The mechanics of it are really quite banal: shared experiences, a kind of proximity (geographic or in our modern world electronic), enough values held in common that you can forgive those that are different. It’s subtle, the difference between a friendly acquaintance and a friend. Heck, you may have some friendly acquaintances who like you, like who you are just as much as your friend. Maybe more. The difference, I think, is not so much in the liking as it is in the trusting and the caring.

Your friend cares about you. Cares what you think. He pauses before he acts or speaks and takes a moment to think about you before he does either. Someone with whom you are friendly might meet you halfway on something, but your friend will go way beyond that toward you because he cares a bit more about what you think than maybe even what he might. While your friendly acquaintance will likely never hurt you your friend will protect you from hurt. Might even take the hit for you and suffer so that you might not.

Because of this you trust your friend in a way that you trust no one other than your closest family. In a sense you’ve pre-forgiven him because you know…you just know…that he not only will he not hurt you, but he will be ever vigilant against doing so even by accident. My Dad was right. You don’t get very many of these. Indeed, most are fortunate to get one at a time.

Your little solo system is ever-changing; people move in and out of orbits, sometimes inward and sadly occasionally out. People grow differently. They change or they move. The work of friendship is hard because it requires looking outward at the same time you allow another to look in. It’s a high wire/high risk enterprise, being someone’s friend. In many ways it’s as if your very soul is in the harness, and your friend is on belay. And in your hand you hold the rope that allow’s YOUR friend’s soul to soar.

Right beside yours.

And in the end came a friend; nothing but a friend. Nothing, but everything.


Sunday musings 12/20/15

Sunday musings…

1) Clishmaclaver. Foolish talk.

Synonym for Sunday musings.

2) Wedding. “The Heir” is hitched! My oldest son, Dan, married his fianc√© yesterday. They are another CrossFit couple–they met at the original Comet CrossFit that Dan and his brother “Lil’bingo” opened 4 years ago. This is the 5th or 6th CF marriage I’ve been a part of but the first one I’ve actually attended. Everything about the CrossFit angle is really pretty cool. There’s no question that you will know how your mate will react to a stressful situation if you’ve met them in a CrossFit gym, eh?

Lil’bingo was Best Man and sent Dan and Brittany off with this final note in his toast: “Join me in today’s Saturday get my Big Bro married WOD in 3-2-1…Cheers!”

3) Miracle. Are you at a stage in your life where you are able to interact with a baby? It’s really quite astonishing, isn’t it? The whole 9 months of making the thing, and they come out just right an unbelievably high percentage of the time. I don’t think it really matters where you are on the almighty deity scale, but the simple fact of a baby is a miracle if you ask me.

Birth is when the fun just gets going. Now, I will admit at this point that I am looking at the whole baby thing a bit differently this time since I am a grandfather to the particular baby I have in mind, not the father. It’s all smiles and cooing and “will you look at that” for me. No diaper changes or fussy gas bubbles for Papi. All fun and giggles and hand ’em back.

Still, even with and or all of that, a baby is nothing less than a miracle. I hope we get a bunch more Chez bingo, but for now I’m filled with joy whenever I see my little miracle.

4) Passages. A pop psychology author, classmate of my parents, once examined life’s stages in a book titled Passages. While I am no fan of her work (somewhat shallow and bereft of any real insight), her choice of a term for major phases of our lives is pretty good. “Passages”. Kind of evokes a journey of sorts. That part of her writing was pretty good.

Our family wedding this weekend has me thinking a bit about those passages as we careen north on one of Ohio’s super highways. Young people truly become a kind of real adult when they take on the responsibility of nurturing a third entity, their marriage. Mrs. bingo and I used to joke that we would feel like we were “real” adults when we owned our own washer and dryer, but really, we’d gone and grown up as soon as we consciously put our marriage ahead of either of our individual selves. This realization is all we really ask of our young marrieds in their middle passages.

Many of our tables at yesterday’s wedding reception had empty seats, or seats that emptied early. That final passage demands as much attention as the first one, it just doesn’t really end as well. Still, it’s also a miracle that we go so very long before that last passage begins. I was struck throughout the day with a single thought: slow down and stay. Stay tiny. Stay young. Stay vibrant. Stay.

In the end those passages are a one-way trip. You never back up. There’s really no such thing as a Mulligan or a do-over. It’s amazing how much help we need as we start our journey and then again as our journey comes to an end. In the middle, well, we have control. Dwelling in either the past or the future diminishes our present. Doesn’t it make sense to look at each day as its own kind of little miracle? Perhaps aware of what came before (a baby) and conscious of what lies ahead (an empty chair), all the while rejoicing in the miracle of right now.

Now is what you have. Treat it like the miracle that it is.

I’ll see you Christmas morning…


Erase the Past? Shame for a Collective Past? Calling Out Williams College

My alma mater, like so many of its ilk, is at present engulfed in a paroxysm of guilt over centuries of success. It, like its brethren institutions, is consumed by the frail sensitivities of the micro-aggrieved. The administration is overwhelmed by the manufactured obligation to prevent even the slightest of emotional discomfort in a single one of its young charges. The most recent “trigger” is a decades old mural of Col. Ephraim Williams and a Mohawk Chief. As we know this is but a mirror of what is happening in our society at large, so fearful are we supposed to be of hurting someone’s feelings, so badly are we to feel if we are–gasp!–successful. Williams College is being asked to rid itself of any historical figure or image that raises a discordant note in our modern societal symphony. While it, and its students and faculty, profess to want honest, open, inclusive dialogue on topics that have the offended seeking a sponsored safe place, they have pre-judged this and other issues while seeking to nullify the contributions of large parts of the College’s community based on gender and race.

I call bullshit, and I’m neither sorry nor ashamed to do so.

Let’s take two of the issues raised by the Williams administration, similar to those at Amherst College (spawned, incidentally, from Williams in 1846), Princeton, and elsewhere: the attempt to cleanse the campus of any references to historical figures or events that do not fit in our modern philosophical canon, and the notion that some monolithic groups are somehow not entitled to success, not worthy to have their opinions noted, and that they must somehow atone for a sort of sin of being.

The first, that history that does not jive with present sensibilities should be expunged, should be such a revolting concept that it is beyond amazing that it is even considered. We may rightly recoil from any modern version of conquest that necessarily includes the subjugation or destruction of the vanquished, but we simply cannot escape the fact that our country as it is today was built upon just such a campaign. It was called “Manifest Destiny”, and you can probably only find mention of it now in used history texts pre-1970 on Amazon.com. ¬†How can we learn from history if history is varnished to remove the stains of lessons we ought not learn again? Is there not a profound lesson for today’s leaders in the devastation wreaked upon the Mohawks of New England by Lord Jeffrey Amherst when he “gifted” them with smallpox infected blankets?

There appears to be no evaluation of the net contribution of historical figures, only room for condemnation of their very real faults. Woodrow Wilson was an unrepentant racist, and yet it is the height of intellectual dishonesty to disregard his monumental contributions to not only Princeton but to his country in spite this. Removing his name from Princeton for his racial views is as silly as renaming Amherst College because of Lord Jeff’s actions in a declared war, and almost as silly as renaming the eponymous town in which Amherst resides. We study the flaws of historical figures so that our contemporary leaders might be equally profound but less flawed. Historically significant individuals such as Woodrow Wilson, and historical images such as the meeting between a Mohawk Chief and Ephraim Williams hanging in the Williams’ college pub, should be pushed front and center for just such historical consideration. They shouldn’t be shunned or covered in sheets.

As far as the second goes, that large groups of Americans need to somehow overcome some sort of “original sin” that makes their success illegitimate and nullifies any opinion they might hold, well, perhaps we should take a look back at the evolution of that group a bit before we decide to lay on a mandatory guilt tax. It turns out that “white males” is not such a monolithic, homogenous group at all. Done any reading on the Irish in the Northeast in the 1800’s through the late 1960’s? Funny though, although certainly not a people of color, there didn’t seem to be a whole heck of a lot of privilege coming the way of the Irish in their first 100 or so years on our shores. Not only was it tough to get a job if you were Irish, there were neighborhoods that were off limits and colleges that all but had a “No Irish Need Apply” sign on the front door. In the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s lunch in the White house in Waltham, MA was more often than not a “wish sandwich”: two pieces of Wonder Bread and you “wished” you had some meat to put in the middle. White privilege? Hardly. My father was the first member of his family to go to college, the only member until my generation came along. Dad was the first to “shower before work”, the first to make a living with his mind rather than his hands. His generation lived as what we would now call “working poor”. No privilege to be found there.

How, then, am I supposed to feel guilt about my own success, built as it is on the foundation of one man’s climb? Despite his success my father faced subtle but real discrimination throughout his entire working life. Richard White was blackballed for his entire career from a number of business associations because he was Irish Catholic, discrimination that affected his livelihood. Why is the fact that the discrimination that my father faced through the 1990’s is now nearly gone, that for a single generation white Irish males do not feel the sting of discrimination somehow now my shame to carry? There is a danger in the broad-brush approach to assigning anything to a group as superficially defined as Irish. Or even white. Or male. The fact that the Irish in America no longer fear discrimination is a victory to be savored by Americans of all colors, a badge of honor for our society. It is not some sort of scarlet letter, not a collective shame or sin for which the Irish are now inherently guilty, a stain that nullifies my very right to opine or renders illegitimate the success of the men in my generation.

The fact that we no longer see prejudice agains the Irish does not in any way diminish the fact of the existence of discrimination against other groups. Discrimination is real and exists today. There is a larger point, however. Without historical context we risk applying the same type of unacceptable bias and prejudice to any group whatsoever–in this case white males– to whatever bias and prejudice we are attempting to prevent. The notion that I have no standing in the conversation about cultural issues at my Alma Mater is just such an example. It is this backward-looking effort to somehow atone for historical wrongs, and the energy expended in the effort, that so hinders our more laudable goal of removing all barriers placed in front of any group defined by how they look, or where they came from, or who their parents are, or where and how or if they worship. The feel-good notion that we can somehow make the forward-going efforts easier by cleansing our environment of the mention of past wrongs, misdeeds, or unsavory beliefs is at best naive and at worst an Orwellian trap that should be inconceivable in our country as a whole, let alone on any college campus. To compound this wrong-headed approach by questioning the legitimacy of the successes of any group simply by dint of their existence is not worthy of those who claim the high moral ground on behalf of those who may truly suffer real discrimination today.

Neither erase nor forget a difficult past. Do punish present day acts of real discrimination or moral decrepitude, but do not shield the young from the discomfort created by history and historical remnants of either. Hold them up to the bright light of the day and learn from them lest we see their faults and failures repeated. Cherish and champion the successes of any and all. Forgive a past over which your peers had no influence and move forward together.


There’s (Still) No Place Like Home

From Sunday musings…

The unforeseen consequences of otherwise positive trends can be quite interesting. Like a pebble dropped into a pond, one never knows where the ripples will end up and how powerful they will be when they get there. For example, our mobile economy has largely liberated our young people from place. In turn, despite historically “easy” mortgage money, the prevailing trend in our young people is away from owning a home and toward serial rentals.

Domiciles as opposed to homes.

What makes this all the more poignant is watching how desperately our parents’ generation clings to their places, how they cling to their homes. It’s more than staying in their home communities; they hunker down and bunker into the physical space that is the home itself, oft times beyond the point of reason. Clan White witnessed this as my Mom and Dad dug in and insisted on staying in the same house in which they raised their kids long after it was actually unsafe to do so. Sadly, Beth and I are about to embark on a “Groundhog Day” journey after a dismal diagnosis was announced this weekend and her folks hunker down in the home.

Why is it that a house becomes so much more than just an address, a place to lay one’s head? Why does it become so hard to leave a space even after it is clear that the space itself has become a problem? At least a part of this is quite simple and straightforward, and holds an important lesson for our young transients. There is a substantial emotional commitment to place when you own it. Once you’ve made that commitment the four walls of the house come to contain not only the life you are living but also all of the memories of the life you lived.

It’s funny…even houses that folks really don’t like become so full of memories that they become almost impossible to leave. The house of my youth long ago outgrew my parents’ life, and yet there remains my Mom, bouncing around like the BB in one of those big glass box mazes. My in-laws live far, far away from the people and the things they will need, but for the moment they, too, have dug in their heels. On balance the comfort of home trumps all objective reasons to leave a house.

And the lesson for those of you who are early in your journey? At some point it clearly seems that finding your place is important, and once having done so making that commitment to the physical space that will become your home appears to be important, too. The details about the space may very well be irrelevant. Heck, as our folks demonstrate the physical attributes may even be a net negative at some point. Still, there’s just something about having a space of your own, something about everything that goes into actually owning your home.

As trite as it is, our parents are holding fast to this to the very end: there’s no place like home.


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