Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Archive for May, 2023

Memorial Day, 2023

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.”

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”~ Tecumseh

This week on the Today Show Harry Smith told the story of a young pilot who flew his disintegrating B-17 upside down over Germany so that his crew, his friends, could eject and live. Just this year his remains were found, and he returned home a hero. His funeral was attended by his little sister, now 93, and the son of one of the crew members, a man who never exists but for the heroism of that young pilot whose funeral gave life to his story.

It’s the stories, right? I mean, after all, without the stories what even mattered? The stories matter. Whether they died in the heat of battle or in the cold of infirmity, the warriors all have stories. The stories are all important.

It’s remarkable how difficult it is to get at those stories, though. Read the newspapers today, all of the stories about those few remaining soldiers and sailors and airmen from WWII. There’s a common thread; each of them at some point, in some way, says something along the lines of “I’m not a hero”, or “I don’t consider myself a hero”. And so the stories that were the most formative, the ones that turned that one soldier or that one sailor into who s/he became, they tend to be slow in coming, if they come at all. Yet those are the ones that matter most.

The warriors still among us tend toward silence. For sure my Dad did. It’s not so much a secret thing (although there is a small group who simply mustn’t tell their stories) I don’t think, as it is a continuation of the protector role our airmen, sailors, soldiers and marines assume. They don’t so much keep the stories secret as they shield us from the effects of the stories, so powerful were those effects on them when they happened. Yet again, to understand those who remain, and to try to know those who have departed, the stories matter.

I drive by a cemetery filled with the graves of those who fought, some who died in the fighting and others like my Dad who tried to bury the fighting they left behind. I try to conjure their stories. It’s pure folly. Dead men tell no tales, eh? Humanity learns of conflict and war from the stories told about both, and humans learn about each other the same way. Asking to hear the stories is an act of respect. Listening to the stories can be an act of love. Telling the stories is a little of both. The stories of the men and women who have fought our wars are important.

A friend from my youth, a coach not too very much older than I, once broke down and cried over his story. A very junior officer, his story of leadership and loss comes to me every year on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. I know him so much better, understand who his is so much better because I heard his story. So, too, is my knowledge of the men and women younger than I who have served and fought and graced me with their stories.

Life is long unless you are unlucky, but even the lucky run out of time. We have no Civil War survivors, no one from WWI to tell their stories. Those few from WWII still here are reticent, and time grows short. Even Korea fades ever quickly to time’s passage. Dad was once marooned by his illness somewhere between 1947 and 1974; much of his “time” then seemed to be spent in Korea. The smallest of consolations for us, his progeny, was that we learned a bit of his story.

This Memorial Day let us all remember not only those who served and those who died in that service, but let us all remember their stories as well. Let us ponder the lessons those stories teach about not only humanity but also about the warrior, the person we remember. Let us encourage those who still walk among us, especially those whose journeys have been long and must be soon ending, to tell us their stories while they still can. Let us listen to those who know the stories behind each headstone as we gather in their honor. We have much to learn from the stories, about war and conflict, about the people who fight, about ourselves.

The stories matter.

I’ll see you next week…

Jim Brown Lived A Long Life: Sunday musings…5/21/2023

1 Arhoolie. Field hollers. Now, I have no idea what a field holler is (Google is kinda cheating if I’m pulling these musings out of my own Restless Mind, eh?), but that’s just a very cool word.

2 Phonics. “Fa-aw-nah-icks been good to meh. Meh.” –Brian Reagan

NYC schools will return to the use of phonics to teach school children how to read. After some 30 years of using something called “balanced literacy”–what does that even mean?–the country’s largest public school system will return to the program that turbocharged the increase in American literacy in the 50’s through the late 80’s. Heck, we were taught how to read French in middle school using phonics.

‘Bout damn time.

3 Reunion #1. I had a chance to chat with the third leg of my friendship triumvirate in college yesterday. Ricky V was in CT visiting his MIL, who is sadly preparing to shrug off the chains of our earthly lives. While there he dropped in on my closest friend from college, Rob, and the two reached out on Facetime.

It was a wonderful visit.

Tiny lesson here: never let go of the memories of a wonderful friendship, no matter how long it’s been since you were able to actually, you know, be IN the friendship. Always take the opportunity to reach out if you happen to be randomly in the vicinity of an old friend, and always say “yes” if an old friend calls up and asks you to get together.

I’m really looking forward to seeing Ricky (and Rob) in real life, soon.

4 Reunion #2. My closest friend from high school, Tom, called me out of the blue yesterday morning. I’m home, minding the dogs while Beth celebrates her middle sister’s 60th birthday in VT (Happy Birthday Lisa!!). Tom and I had spent a few seconds texting about a possible trip to his summer home and he grew frustrated by the act of the text, picked up the phone and called.

Lesson: calling trumps texting. Not even a close contest.

We caught up on our kids, my grandkids, and his now three year old relationship, the first real one since losing his wife to pancreatic cancer some years ago. You may recall my pieces here about my friend Ken, lost to the same cancer in his 40’s. My FIL and his best friend both died from variations of pancreatic cancer, and in a very strange coincidence the woman Tom is dating lost her husband to, yup, pancreatic cancer.

Even though this was a very tiny part of our delightful 45 minutes or so together, it does give me an excuse to tell you about a new genetic test that can detect markers for some 50 of the most deadly cancers, including pancreatic cancer. Tom and I had both read the same letters to the editor in the WSJ that describe both the test, Grail by Illumina, and the idiocy transpiring at the FTC surrounding a merger that would make the test more widely available. The test is not covered by insurance, and since it’s pretty expensive I’m not sure how I feel about that. But if you have pancreatic cancer in your family, you should know about Grail.

5 Encore. “What ya gonna do when the music stops?” Encore, Graham Nash.

I’ve reached the point in my life and career where seemingly everyone wants to know when I will retire. Patients concerned that I’ll lay down my diamond blades and sit back from the laser before I can operate on them (a sentiment I’m personally familiar with since my hip surgeon retired before my second hip was ready to go). Industry partners who feel I’ve made a contribution to new products and would like me to remain relevant by staying in the game. Friends and family who very kindly and sweetly have made it known that my day job is interfering with their plans for us to have fun together. It’s all very nice, and it makes me feel good to by honest, to be asked in this way.

I just don’t know what’s next after the music stops.

John H., a very famous cataract surgeon some 15 or 20 years older than I, started to experience the same phenomenon in his mid-60’s. When an industry friend asked his response was, at least to me, rather sad. “I don’t know how I can ever give this up, Tom. I’m only special in the operating room.” Like the musician in Graham Nash’s song, Dr. H. only felt truly alive, only felt that he was seen and that he mattered when he was sitting at the microscope doing surgery.

Jim Brown died this weekend. Arguably the best running back in the history of football (with a nod to the greats Gayle Sayers, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders), and with at least a seat at the table of the greatest football players irrespective of position, Brown was a man who was much more than just a football player. Athletically there are still those who argue that he was the best college lacrosse player ever, though it’s very hard to compare players across literally centuries in which the game underwent substantial, fundamental change. Brown played professional football because it gave him the means to live the rest of his life.

This was a man who walked away from the endeavor that brought him fame and fortune, literally while he was at the peak of his skills. Unlike Sanders, who also retired when he was the undisputed best pur running back in the game, Jim Brown did not just fade away. On the set of The Dirty Dozen, his first major acting job, he was given an ultimatum by Cleveland Brown’s owner Art Modell: abandon the movie (it was running way behind schedule) or face daily fines until you show up. Aware that he could very well have a long life ahead of him, and that he could act for much longer than he could play football, Jim Brown called Model’s bluff and retired. He would go on to make some 50 films and make 30 or so television appearances before leaving his SAG card in a sock drawer.

Jim Brown always had another encore in him.

While still acting Brown became deeply involved in the Black power movement of the 60’s and 70’s. he is famous for organizing and participating in the so-called “Cleveland Summit” of Black athletes supporting Muhammed Ali, ne: Cassius Clay, when he declined to report for service after being drafted. Standing alongside the likes of Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar ne: Lew Alcinder, and Bill Russell, Brown launched himself into both the “big ideas” arena of race relations, as well as the tiny gritty details of the daily struggle (he is famous for directly, personally engaging gang members in an effort to reduce gang violence).

Jim Brown was hardly a saint. His legacy is marred by allegations of physical abuses, and he admitted his problems with anger, and expressions of anger. This part of his life is beyond the scope of my Sunday Ramblings. If interested in a deeper look into more things Jim Brown you would do well to Google “Tim Layden Jim Brown” and read the 2015 Sports Illustrated interview.

What interests me about Brown and his life is that he seemed to sense something that I’ve been thinking about, and writing about, as I start to think about what my next act might be, whenever the encore may be called for. Jim Brown somehow knew that life is long. That he, we, might live a very long time after he retired. After each time he retired. Like Dr. H. above but on a much grander scale, Brown felt the adulation of an admiring crowd, a crowd that, for him, never dispersed. What of the rest of us, though? What will be next? Will we also be called back to the stage for an encore, or two, or three?

“How you gonna feel if the music dies? How you gonna live with the soul sadly sighing, into the wind that is our life? Encore. Encore. The last song is over.”

I don’t yet know what my next act will be. What song I will play if I am called to do an encore.

I’ll see you next week…

The Orphans: Mother’s Day musings…5/14/2023

It’s Mother’s Day here on the North Coast and elsewhere across the land. A day widely acknowledged as the invention of a greetings card company in pursuit of a card-giving occasion, and despite this a day equally accepted as one worthy of the observance. In years past I have encouraged the tiny, but meaningful option of re-naming it “Mommy’s Day”; those who actively pursue the state of active mothering, Moms, in my opinion more deserving of the adoration of the day.

Do you still have a Mom? If so you’ve already called her, right? Come on, it’s way late in the day for me to be typing this, and if you haven’t called what the heck are you waiting for? I just took a quick look at Facebook and the first thing that came up was an acquaintance, Geoff, whose Mom made it to today before she shrugged off the chains of this life. All of her kids were there to wish her a happy Mother’s Day as she went on her way. Crazy, huh? They got to say a final Happy Mother’s Day just before they all became orphans.

And you’ve not called your Mom because, why?

If you think about it at all, it doesn’t matter when it happens, but the death of your only remaining parent makes you an orphan in the most traditional sense. Even if you are 40, 50, or 60+, losing your last parent means that you are now an orphan. When Beth’s Mom passed away some five years ago, not too very long after her Dad, Beth became an orphan. However trite, however commercial it might be, we all feel the tug of our Moms on Mother’s Day.

From what I’ve observed over my lifetime, there are sadder ways to be orphaned. We have more than several friends who were abandoned by a parent early in life, leaving them with only one left to lose in the more “traditional” way. A couple of special people in our lives were “left” by parents who may as well have died, so dead did they become by leaving behind their child or children. One wonders if it is the same as losing that last parent to death. I confess that I’ve not been brave enough to ask.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote about my visit to see my Mom. About how small everything seems now. It’s as if my siblings and I have to pay ever closer attention lest she shrinks until she just disappears. What a joy it was to hear her voice today. Hear how strong, how BIG it sounded. Having lost my Dad some 7 years ago I know that one day I, too, will become an orphan. But not today, you know?

Not today.

There’s no lesson here. Well, at least not much of a grand lesson anyway. It’s almost dinner time on the East Coast, and it’s still Mother’s Day. I hope that you, like me, like Beth, were blessed to grow up with someone who was Mom, or Mommy. No matter how old you are today, I hope that you still have her, and that she is not only alive but not yet small. Still big in your life. Today is not a day for the conveniences of our modern world. No texting, no snapping, no WhatsApping. Pick up the phone and call your Mom.

No one is there to answer the phone once you’ve become an orphan.

I’ll see you next week…

Lives Lived are Never Small Lives: A “Sunday musings…” Repost

“But players don’t feel like bit players in their own lives.” –Richard Russo

Oh man…how good is that? Every life is just huge if it’s you who is living it. Every story suffers or soars depending on the frame of reference of the author. The eyes and ears of the storyteller only catch so much, and some of what is seen or heard never makes it past the “bit player” level in the story that is eventually told. This is what Russo refers to. There are short stories, but there are no small stories. There are quiet lives lived with little or no acclaim, but there are no small lives. There are people who move as if shadows among giants, but there are no small people.

Misplaced, lost, or cast aside, the skeletons of friendships past walk with me, still.

We are blessed, fortunate beyond measure, if we can count among the masses a single friend. One to whom we can always turn, from whom we withhold nothing, who will give to us everything. To have more than one friend such as this is to have a kind of wealth that beggars description.

If we are lucky enough to have friends they are joined in the garden of our lives by that next best thing, friendly acquaintances, and these in turn are surrounded by acquaintances, the entire garden encircled by farmland that lies, for the moment at least, unexplored.

The garden analogy is an apt one for friendship. A garden requires tending and so, too, does a friendship. Left untended, left to chance, it is certainly possible for a garden to flourish, but all too often both gardens and friendships ignored too long have a beauty that is but a cherished memory, seen only with the mind’s eye.

Friendship, like a garden, grows best when exposed to both sun AND rain, albeit for different reasons. A friendship that has known only sunny days may weather that first storm; a friendship that has known both sun and rain is steeled against any and all weather, especially if we gardeners were active in the tending despite the elements.

Who is your friend? Who is there for you in both sunshine and rain? From whom do you wish only friendship, and who asks only the same from you? Have you done your part? Have you tended your garden in both sunshine AND rain?

“I have given up all hope of a happier past.” A better, more poetic version of the lesson Simba “absorbed” from Rafiki about longing for the past or hoping that it will change if one wishes just a little harder. Alas, the ball STILL goes through Buckner’s legs each time I watch the replay.

The moment is NOW. Now is what we have. We have learned from the past, and we plan to apply what we have learned to the future, but what we have is “now”. Now is all there is. Pay attention. Now is important. The people you are with, the task at hand, the place you occupy NOW are what you have. Pay attention; don’t miss the moments now.

In the end “[all] those moments will be lost in time. Like tears in rain.”

I’ll see you, from home, with new “musings…” next week…

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