Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Archive for December, 2023

Meditation on Immortality, A Version for Mom

My Mom is gone, at least the version of my Mom that we knew and loved. While her body lives and a life she just can’t seem to get a firm grasp on now transpires in the back yard of my office of all places, the Mom of my memories seems to have died, at least in spirit, when she could no longer be safe in her apartment 2 years ago. There’s life here, for sure, but most days it seems more like survival. As if the final tomorrow is simply defeated one more time each day that a tomorrow arrives.

Like my Mom it turns out that I will also be dying tomorrow; you will too. Again, like my Mom, and my Dad before her, we will probably just not die all the way all at once. This has prompted quite a lot of thought about death and dying, but more thought frankly about living. What part of living constitutes being more than just alive? What, and how much of “what” is necessary in a day to qualify as living. And as with my meditations over my Dad’s long, slow departure, is there such a thing as immortality?

My memory is a bit hazy on when exactly Mom started to slip. She’s been here in Cleveland for about 4 months now. A recent viral infection seems to have brought about another pretty big step down, especially since she insists on taking her oxygen tube off (which drops her O2 levels frighteningly low). When in town, which is most of the time, one of us typically drops in for at least an hour each day. While not a huge amount of time, this is dramatically more company than Mom had in the assisted care facility in Rhode Island. Of late she has spent more time in the “company” of Dad and old friends. Outreach from her oldest friends, be it a card or the odd phone call she manages to answer, seems to bring her the same kind of comfort Dad got from his friends’ visits once upon a time.

While immersed in this line of thought, so similar to when I was thus engaged with Dad, I returned to a very famous poem by Thomas Gray, “Elegy in a Country Graveyard.” We are each but mortals. Billionaire or barkeep, the vessels of our voyage will all come to rest as deeply, as empty. Born low or high we shall all be bourn aloft or below, our sails forever furled. Shod in buckles and bows, or like my Mother, in the blemished “seconds” bought at the local discounter Ann & Hope to save money she no longer needed to save, each will enter and exit barefoot.

Not one of us will be spared.

And what of immortality? There exists a path, at least of a sort. However shod, however adorned our vessel, the course of our travels is forever marked by their intersection with that of our fellow wayfarers. The power and character of that immortality depends on the depth and character of those encounters. That my Dad was not only in mind but also of a calmer mind knowing that his memory lived bares this out. As my Mom’s memory fades will she, like Dad, be of a calmer mind knowing that she, too, will be remembered?

Are you familiar with the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead? A nice introduction is the Disney movie “Coco”. Lovely story. Typically cool animation. Anyway, no one is truly dead if there is still a memory that they lived. As long as someone remembers you, you live forever. Who will remember you? How will you be remembered? As your vessel slows, becalmed in an ever shallower breeze, will you be accompanied? Have your travels brought other vessels closer, tenders still knotted? How large was your fleet? At the end will your vessel or your voyage be the memory? Your shoes or your footprints? Again, Thomas Gray:

“Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.”

Out of view yet not out of mind, the Dad who left us in 2015 lives on through his connections. The Mom who left Rhode Island has connections. Family and friends who will remember her. Who she is now is tempered by the memory of who she was to all of us and them. A family’s memory is powerful, but its reach is limited, doomed to dim in the shadows of yesteryear cast on the lights of today. There is something about a friendship, though. The reach of friendship seems so much larger. Longer. Brighter, even. The memories contained within a long friendship seem to be inoculated against whatever disease may suppress the present.

Whatever immortality we may have lies not so much in ourselves but in those memories and the friendships that carry them. A typical New Year’s resolution revolves around the things one might do to lengthen your voyage. I imagine that I will make at least a few very concrete efforts toward that, as it seems I do every year. However, this year I think I will also consider immortality, making a conscious effort to concentrate on the other vessels in the fleet that are accompanying mine on our journeys together.

My single New Year’s resolution is to follow the example set by my parents, my in-laws, and those who remember them, to deepen the ties of the friendships that they may carry memory of my voyage, long after my vessel has reached its final shore.

I’ll see you next year…

Merry Christmas from An Olde City Bar

Once again on this day of days I offer this verse from “An Olde City Bar” by the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

“If you want to arrange it

this world, you can change it.

If we could just make

this whole Christmas thing


By helping a neighbor,

or even a stranger.

To know who needs help

you need only just


Merry Christmas my friends. May the Eastern Star light your life today, and every day.

Santa Claus Will Always Be Real

1 Cookies. Ninjabread Men. Oh yeah.

2 Family. ‘Tis the Christmas season in the Christian world. If ever there’s a time we seek to connect this is it. Planes, trains, and automobiles, we move Heaven and Earth to get ourselves together. Not Facebook or Twitter or Email together, either. Nope, real live, honest to goodness, reach out and touch connecting.

I like to think of it as “hugging distance”.

On Christmas Day I will be in the Low Country of South Carolina. Our daughter, Megan, informed us that despite our annual pre-Christmas tradition of baking cookies together it has been nine years since we have celebrated Christmas Day itself together. Oh my! My siblings and I have historically hosted our folks in turn, each of us having the privilege of their presence every 4 years. Now unable to travel, in order for my Mom to connect we four must go to her. This year my sons Dan and Randy will pinch hit until my brother and I arrive for just barely post-Christmas visits in her new Cleveland home.

If you are very observant you might have noticed a couple of connections missing from my list above. Postal service and phone calls are how the extended White family has always communicated. Once upon a time my Mom sent each of us a postcard every day. That’s every single day. Four of us. We called and talked on the phone, all of us. We still call and we still talk (you young’uns might have a fleeting knowledge of what that green “call” button on your texting instrument is there for), but the postcards have stopped, and Mom needs someone with her to both make and receive calls.

Aged and bent, very nearly (but not yet quite) broken, Mom’s life has shrunken to the point where nearly all that is left is that most intimate of connections, the one that can only be made by walking through the front door.

For most of us we actually have two families, the one we were born into and the one we choose, and that chooses us. If you are still working you have a “work family”. Heck, a few of my close professional colleagues have “work spouses” and they travel to conferences together. But typically your work family is chosen for you.

Once again I’m thinking about friends here. Your friends, especially your close friends or those in the circle just outside “close”, are what one thinks about when describing your chosen family. This week Beth and I hosted one of our “families” for a Holiday dinner. We have have done this in some form since our children were pre-schoolers when we all got together as families to sing Christmas carols and eat cookies. Now all of our kids have fledged. Some have children of their own. Yet, still, this group of friends continues to choose each other. We are friends, but we are something more.In this moment in time when we live close we have chosen to be a kind of family.

This is not one of those wistful “oh I wish” or “oh if only I had” posts. Our lives proceed as they will. As they have. We connect and we disconnect. Sometimes quite deliberately, on purpose, and sometimes quite simply by accident. At any one time, though, we are connected to some someones, and our connections might still include a Mom and a Dad. Anyone who’s been here awhile and read any of my nonsense might remember my posts around this time in years past. I travel on Christmas this year with one part sorrow at the leaving, and two parts joy at the destination. This year I still have a child’s front door to open, with the love of my life holding my hand as we walk through.

My Mom waits in her new home for my return where one more time, to my great surprise and delight, “[W]e’ll get together then, Mom. We’re gonna have a good time, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll see you tomorrow, on Christmas Day…

Shades of You: Sunday musings…12/17/2023

1 Playlist. Where once upon a time I had a 25 disc CD changer locked and loaded and ready for the Christmas season (and brought 6-10 CD’s with me to the OR each week), I now have a 5 hour Spotify compilation of the season’s best: Christmas at Casa Blanco!

And I still–STILL–cry every time I hear “An Olde City Bar” from TSO.

2 Pusillanimity (HT Daniel Henninger @WSJ). Cowardice. Cravenness. Gutlessness. Spinelessness. Poltroonery.

Learning the word “poltroonery” might be the most educational thing that has come my way from the university community in awhile.

3 Flow. Like so many other professions the end of the calendar year is filled to the brim for physicians of all kinds. My office and my OR’s are always stacked wall-to-wall with “work” that feels like it just has to be completed before year’s end. It’s certainly not something that is unique to medicine; my older son, an attorney, always seems to have too many irons in the fire with a 12/31 deadline each year.

The goal is simply to keep one nostril above water.

4 Evolution. “If we all had perfect memory, we would all grieve the older versions of who we used to be the way we grieve departed friends.” Blake Crouch, “Upgrade”.

Who we are changes over time. It’s not so much that we forget who we’ve been over the years as much as it is that what and who we remember becomes less and less about who we actually were. We’ve created a narrative that covers what we remember, and often what we wish to remember. Our memories of who we were, and of how we came to be who we are today are less a recitation of the play-by-play than a continually evolving color commentary of our “origin story”. (Apologies for the sports analogy; Browns game is on in the background).

Sometimes, if I’m being honest with myself, I’m not sure where the facts run out and the desire for a supportive story fades in.

What is it that brings along a meaningful, major change in who we become? Sometimes it is an external event, one over which we had no control and one to which we could only react. The death of a family member or a friend. A business failure. Act of God. If you think about it these circumstances are interesting in so far as they give us some insight into our individual resilience, especially if we encounter more than a couple of them. They might even say something about our imagination, what we are able to conjure out of the chaos of these moments. It strikes me that people who are forced to change under these types of circumstances are more likely to mourn the older version of themselves.

What seems to be more interesting, at least to me, is the change that someone chooses to make. Who does that, and why? What does it take to be the kind of someone who surveys their life, takes their own measure, and decides that it is time for a change? There is a comfort, a sense of security in the familiar and the same. Heck, it can be daunting to change up your breakfast menu, let alone set about the task of personal change. In a very interesting interview in today’s NYT Magazine the musician David Byrne of the Talking Heads and columnist David Marchese wonder if the critical characteristic is curiosity. I read that this morning and have been chewing on it all day. Honestly, I can’t really get on board with it. To willingly pursue a change in who you are because you are curious about who you might yet be?

I’m not sure I’m on board with that at all.

At some point in a life, if you are lucky, I think you find a certain part of you that could be better. Not a skillset thing, even a super important skill like being a parent, but more a certain something that is more global that, once acquired, would lead to improvement in a broader collection of skills. Perhaps you are an introvert by choice. Your default is to hold yourself at a distance in most circumstances. One day you realize that even a tiny bit more effort at engagement might enhance your friendships for example, or garner new friendships to add to the fold. Or perhaps it’s a bit of the opposite: you really like to talk, often at the expense of listening. Even a small increase in the time that you spend listening might make parenting easier and more enjoyable, and you may very well be a better partner or friend.

Whether we are mindful and purposeful, or simply reactive and moved along by the flow, who we are at any particular time is going to be someone different from who we once were. Can’t be any other way, right? The someone we once new as ourself will be but a portrait drawn by the parallel forces of memory and imagination. Are we better? Are we somehow worse? Who could ever know in the here and now? Our internal narrative paints our picture. If we are fortunate the external forces to which we must react are gentle and kind. If we see an opportunity to grow, through curiosity or need or simply desire, we take control of that narrative, at least for a moment, and hope that change has been for the better.

No message today I’m afraid. No pithy conclusion where I tie it all together in the end. Maybe just a tiny wish that the story I tell myself about who I am and how I got here is more accurate than not. That who I have become is a little better in more ways than not, so that there is no need to bemoan my imperfect memory, or to mourn the who I was at some time before.

And that those of you who are still along for the ride have enjoyed more of it than not.

I’ll see you next week, whoever I’ve become by then…

Friendship Adds Up: Sunday musings…12/3/2023

Anyone who has spent a minute around this little corner of the interverse is familiar with my deep interest in friendship. What does it mean? What makes a friend? A best friend? Does your spouse count when you are adding up the numbers of friends you have? What are the rules–are there any rules–regarding geography, means of contact, stuff like that? I love to read about all of this stuff whenever and wherever it comes up. The November 11 WSJ “Numbers” column brought a little bit of new science to my quest.

A quickish review of some of the stuff I’ve droned on about would start with my own definition of the concentric circles that define and delineate friends. At the very center one finds close, sometimes best friends. In my opinion this can most definitely include your spouse/significant other. This is typically a fairly small space, or probably more accurately a space that has a small number of occupants. In this life I think anyone who has a single best friend is blessed; those with more than one close friend live lives of emotional bounty. These are friends with whom you share pretty much everything. You would drop whatever you are doing in they were in true need, and they would do the same for you.

Surrounding this inner circle is our circle of true, or real friends. This group knows an awful lot about you and what makes you tick. You share with them a mutual desire to be together, and you both make concerted efforts to do so. These are the folks who invite you to dinner and accept nearly all of your invitations in return. There may be easily parsed shared experiences or circumstances that both brought and keep you together. Think parents of classmates who travel through the school years together, or the folks sitting with you in the crowd at soccer games or dance recitals. A couple or perhaps a few “graduate” with you and you stay on each other’s invite lists. With any luck next life phase friends enter this zone and your roster remains robust and dynamic.

This is the group that forms your first sports fantasy league, and these are the first people with whom you play pickleball!

Robin Dunbar, the famous British anthropologist, gets credit for the next circle of people orbiting your life: quality relationships. This group knows more about you than just your name or what you do for a living. Based on his research on brain size and other metrics Dunbar estimates that this number is no more than 150. “Dunbar’s number” does not apply to acquaintances, but rather that group of people who’s name triggers a picture in your head and a virtual bio or status report on their connection to you. Think co-workers or professional colleagues, neighbors, and perhaps those folks who didn’t get carried in your group of “true friends” at graduation.

This is typically where the science, the math of my investigation of the topic would run out of steam. Surrounding your “quality relationships” was a much larger sphere defined as “acquaintances”, a group for which I previously had neither a tidy description nor an estimate of its numbers. Here is where Josh Zumbrun, the author of the “Numbers” column comes to the rescue. Tyler McCormick, a professor at the University of Washington, defines an acquaintance thusly: you know them and they know you by sight or by name, they live in the United States, and there has been some sort of contact in the past two years. Now I admit that I have not yet read the source material so I cannot say for sure what “contact” means. Call, text or email for sure. Comment on a Facegram TweetTock? Dunno. Still, it’s a much tighter definition than my “much bigger group of folks circling your friends who you’ve met once or twice” stab at it.

Here’s the fun part: McCormick and his co-authors devised a method to determine how big this group is for any one individual. 611. Really. The average number is 611. Four times Dunbar’s number. Wild, huh? They came up with a really cool workaround so that their subjects didn’t need to do a deep dive into every single contact list. Each subject was asked to count how many people they knew named Michael, Stephanie, James, or 9 other common names. For example, about 1% of Americans are “Michael’s”; if you know 6 Michaels you probably know about 600 people. Remember, this gives a round number, but it’s probably pretty accurate. If you are a bit of a hermit with few acquaintances there could be an over counting depending on the name game, and conversely if you are one of Gladwell’s “super connectors” (from his book “Tipping Point”), you may find your circle got cheated.

Either way, the math is cool. Three or fewer close friends centering your life, maybe one or two dozen good friends, with 150 quality friendships orbiting them, all surrounded by 600 or so acquaintances, your little concentric circles hurtling through a universe of people yet unmet.

There is movement into and out of your little little galaxy in that outer layer, and movement within as people move between levels. If you are fortunate your close friends remain close; if there is movement in the middle it is only inward. Of course this is not a given. People move in and out for countless reasons, but the math appears to be agnostic. Still, I think the conclusion to this tiny musing, however clever McCormick and Dunbar and the muses still running “The Good Life” research on happiness may be, remains the same as that which brought each of my prior investigations on friendship across the finish line: these numbers are not unbreechable limits on any of us in our own tiny friendship universes.

You can never have enough friends.

I’ll see you next week…

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