Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Archive for the ‘Random Thoughts’ Category

Apocalyptic Thinking: Wrong Again

It’s astonishing how negative young people’s worldview has become. Let’s say under 35 or so is young. If you chat with them about the world we live in today it’s the rare young one who can bring up more than one or two things positive to say. Get them talking about the future (not a terribly difficult task) and the only variability you are likely to encounter is how bad the apocalypse will be and perhaps when it will arrive. Doom and gloom abound. I really can’t remember any talk about the future with someone under 35, even those who are generally happy, in which they didn’t tumble into hopelessness and despair.

Breaking news: the apocalypse isn’t nigh.

How do I know this? Well, of course I have the distinct advantage of having lived 60 years. Some of them without too very much in the way of income, most of them in relative comfort, but none of them in anything that could be construed as hopeless or a state of despair. Even after my “genius moment” business plan succeeded only in reducing my salary by 80% and wiping out my retirement account in my 40′s, the worst case scenario never included an apocalyptic demise. Yet what I hear from young people at an age at which Beth and I spent our last nickel each pay period is just that: despair and hopelessness.

In our age of blaring headlines always in our face it is impossible to avoid hearing the bleatings  of all types of doomsayers. What we hear is how much better it was before, well, before pretty much everything. And yet everything that has happened in the world basically adds up to a powerful and direct repudiation of all things apocalypse. Deep down I’ve known this, but I’ve been at a loss to describe why I know this in a way that would convince, or would comfort the young who are so distressed by what they think they see in our world.

In my search for a narrative that would convincingly combat the braying of the apocalyptic prognosticators I recently came across an interview with a gentleman by the name of Laurence Siegel. Mr. Siegel has written a book titled “Fewer, Richer, Greener” in which he proclaims “We are on the verge of the greatest democratization of wealth and well-being that the world has ever known.” I’ll share some highlights from the WSJ interview (with Jason Zweig), but I’m sure that I will have much to share after I read the book itself.

Let’s start with capitalism, at the moment the hoariest villain around. Capitalism has been roundly criticized for creating a historically huge degree of income and wealth inequality. In truth inequality of at least this degree has been with us since humans came together in groups larger than families. While it is certainly the case that the richest among us are far, far richer than the poor and middle class it is also inarguable that it is capitalism that has raised up the majority of humanity from crushing poverty. In the past year alone more than half of the world’s population has now become middle-class or wealthier. The defining level of income for extreme poverty continues to rise, and despite that the percentage of the world’s population that can be so described has plummeted. Wealth inequality is real; it’s effect on the daily existence of typical Americans is infinitesimal.

And yet like climate change it is the sheer magnitude of the issue coupled with the absolute impossibility that any one individual can have any significant effect on changing either that seems to be causing the despair I witness. “Young people can’t afford to buy a home” seems to be all the more cause for despair if you truly believe that the world will be near the end before you can scrape together a down payment. But just like in the 50′s when everyone was building fall-out shelters and every grade school kid was taught what to do when the air raid siren went off, life doesn’t come to and end, it just continues to get inexorably better.

Are there huge things out there that really could derail civilization as we know it? Sure. But every one of them is as likely to do so as every one that has come before.What about the environment?  In every country that has come up from poverty the process has, indeed, resulted in a dirtier environment. We’ve certainly seen that in Western Europe and the U.S., and for sure you are seeing it in places like India and China. Siegel: “…as they continue to become wealthier, people start to be willing and able to sacrifice some of those gains to get a cleaner environment. As the world gets richer it will continue to get greener. Switzerland is probably the most environmentally clean country in the world, and it is one of the richest.” As time goes on newly richer countries will behave more like Switzerland.

What matters when in comes to income and wealth is not so much what someone else has, but what you have and what it allows you to do. Mike Bloomberg’s wealth is unimaginable to me; his wealth came from the creation of a business which has created several other layers of wealth, and below those layers still more of middle-class comfort and security. So, too, the wealth of people like Bill Gates. His company is arguably responsible for much of the ease in your life brought about by the modern use of the microprocessor. I don’t choose to communicate with my refrigerator with my cell phone, but thanks in part to stuff that started with Microsoft I could. Bill Gates income and wealth is meaningless to those who type into Word documents like I’m doing right now. Our lives are immeasurably better because we can.

Climate change, wealth inequality, and the other macro issues that cannot be fixed on an individual level have always been with us. It is the fact that one literally can do nothing to change them that seems to be the cause of the sense of hopelessness and despair we hear so much of. But they’ve yet to come anywhere near reversing centuries of human progress. Again, Siegel: “Apocalyptic thinking is a neural mistake based on our need to survive in a cruelly hostile environment that doesn’t exist anymore. Apocalyptic thinking has always been wrong, and it will continue to be wrong.”

The world is a beautiful place that actually may be getting more beautiful by the year. It is safe, and getting safer for almost everyone every year. Fewer and fewer people live in poverty, as more and more people achieve a middle-class life or better each year. While we as a species must always strive to continue doing those things that have brought us this far, our lives would be far, far happier and more enjoyable if we directed our attention toward those things close to us that we control.

To my young (and not so young) friends out there please don’t despair. We’re gonna be ok. The world is still gonna be there when you finally scrape up that down payment, and you’re gonna find a house you’ll like. There’ll be air to breath and water to drink, and we’re neither going to burn up nor freeze. You may not drive the same car as Jamie Dimon but, you know, the way things are going none of us are going to have to drive ourselves anyway. You’re still going to arrive on time.

Life is good. Despite all headlines to the contrary the world isn’t coming to an end. It just keeps on getting better.

Sunday musings…2/9/2020

Sunday musings…

1) Pickle. As legend has it the name of a dog after which the relatively new game of Pickleball is named. About 1 in 4 courts in Florida are now lined and set up for this instead of tennis.

With apologies to my buddy Ralph the tennis pro, this looks like the next adventure for yours truly.

2) Season. As in “high season” and seasoning, the act of moving lock, stock, and barrel to someplace other than home during that place’s high season,.

Beth and I headed to the southwest coast of FL to see what the big deal is. Many of our friends and acquaintances have headed there over the years, primarily the west coast and particularly the area around Naples. It was pretty nice. Lots of varied choices for how you live. We were particularly taken with Sanibel Island and its low-key style.

Still, all in all, there is too much for us here in our little NE Ohio home, even in winter, to consider “seasoning” for weeks at a time anywhere, even during the teeth of our winter.

3) Decline. I wrote an essay some years ago about my Dad and how he had become physically smaller as he aged. He was so big, big in all ways both physical and metaphysical. You know, big like you were always safe in his shadow big. Remember? As he got older everything about him go so much smaller. Mom, too, but you always notice it more with your Dad, I think.

Do you remember that famous poem “To an Athlete Dying Young”? “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. Visiting an area that is famous for its retirement communities and amenities is to visit a bit of your own future. It begins as you step off the plane and see 5 or 10 or 15 wheelchairs lined up in the jet way awaiting their passengers as they deplane. Restaurants and shops are all “accessible”. Decline is on display. Beth: “It’s as if you can see your future.”

Ah, indeed. But which version of the future is yours? We saw some folks who had aged very quickly. Again, Beth: “It’s almost embarrassing, like we are intruding just looking at their decline. Like we’re invading our own space, they’re so close to our age.” Yet there are others like our hosts Beth and Steve and my close friend from high school Tom who push back against age and infirmity. They meet each aging milestone or setback not with quiet resignation but with firm resolve. Perhaps not “raging” but rebelling. Not today, not this year, not yet.

Those who seem to do that best, push back at the inexorable pulls of time and gravity, seem to do so not so much from plotting and planning as they do from a kind of purposeful daily pattern. A bit of movement, whether it be what one could call exercise or not, but enough to battle both gravity and gravy. Something that makes the neurons move a bit, too (I learned how to play American Mah Jong), enough to fight off the pull of the familiar. The folks we watched who seemed to stay the youngest did both in a way that seemed altogether natural. Less rage and more routine. A routine of physical and mental movement.

One need not “season” to adopt the lessons of those who season well.

4) Mature. “I love the way you two talk to each other.” Our friend as Beth and I worked through the complexities of a little family crisis.

When you think of love what almost always comes to mind first is that fiery, fierce love in the beginning of the affair. I don’t have to describe what that is, right? After all, this is a PG blog and my Mom reads it, too. Any movie about love seems to be mostly concerned with that early stage, no matter what age the characters may be at the time. Some folks never get past that stage, always and ever chasing the next endorphin rush in the barrel at the expense of the tranquility and beauty that lies just behind the breaking wave.

It’s a shame, really. There is so much beauty in the quiet, tender acts of a love that has been years in the making. The quick squeeze of a hand as your loved one walks by. A tiny, knowing smile you share when you both have the same exact thought at the same time and you just know that he was going to be in the same exact mind space you were right then. You communicate with a gentle honesty that allows for complete understanding. Your happiness is magnified if she is happier.

Love over time seems to be about space. Sharing enough space so that there is no room for loneliness, and yet leaving enough space for each of you to continue growing. It’s a cliche, often a hilarious cliche, the couple who find themselves struggling when one retires and takes up too much of the other’s space. No room to grow if your recently retired husband Velcro’s himself to your hip. On the other side Beth and I saw the sorrow in the solitude of friends who are alone, no matter how it is that they’ve come to that place. All the more poignant when you saw that loneliness in a crowd. To a person each says it’s not the fire or passion they miss but the shared passage leading to those quiet, tender acts of a love that’s grown over time. Riding the waves. Flowing with the tides. A love that’s growing, still.

As we age, growing smaller by the day, it’s that quiet love shared over a lifetime that pushes back against the decline. The love that lives on in the eddies behind the surf. A love that continues to grow. One that will carry us home.

I’ll see you next week…

 

 

 

Sunday musings…2/2/2020

Sunday musing…

1) Palindrome. 02022020. Apparently the first time in 900+ years.

Just thought you should know that.

2) Unwind. Pretty sure this is a synonym for fart.

If not it certainly should be.

3) Super Bowl. Pretty sure it’s today. Right?

Admit it, you’re just like everyone else…it’s really all about the commercials. You don’t GAS about who wins.

4) Lanai. At the moment I am sitting next to Beth x 2, a gentle sea breeze kinda sliding over me as we gaze out over the Gulf in southwest Florida. Frankly we’ve never really gotten the whole “head to Florida” thing. Seems like half of our age group just up and emigrated to the Naples area around January 2nd each year. Since we are not in Mexico (long, boring, self-indulgent story I won’t bore you with) this seemed like the  perfect time to accept Beth and Steve’s invitation to come hang out.

Super glad we did.

After a walk to the oldest continually active lighthouse in America we are slowly sliding toward a leisurely lunch as we prepare to watch commercials. Sanibel Island may also have one of the oldest bike trails in America, our next activity. Seems you can pedal pretty much anywhere here. So it’s off to the farmer’s market just because.

Is this how it is behind the scenes of all those fancy travel posters advertising the island life? I doubt we will ever know for sure. But at least for the moment it’s terrific fun to pretend that we are retired pirates, putting up our feet on tables made of wood from reclaimed shipwrecks, now only doing battle with various sea birds over the day’s catch. The best writing seems to come from some sort of hardship or misfortune.

I’m gonna write anyway. Given the circumstances I’m just gonna have to be ok with a mediocre “musings…” today.

5) Retirement. It’s interesting how often people ask me if I’m going to be retiring soon. Especially those who are aware that I just turned 60, but even patients who’ve just been in my care for a long time (usually right after remarking  on how young I look) are wondering. Lots of docs my age really are starting to bail. Heck, some of my buddies from college are already on their second stab at retiring. The topic comes up so often that I have to admit that it’s made me give it some thought.

What is it that makes some folks rush into retirement/out of the workforce, while others seem to be inexhaustible? What it is that one does for work doesn’t seem to be a factor. We all know doctors who have retired seemingly right after they finish training as well as those of all kinds who are still going strong at 70. Why are guys like Carl Icahn still in the game, striking fear in execs decades younger when they learn that they are in Carl’s bullseye? Ross Perot, or the guy who was forced out at AIG at age 90 or whatever, Sumner Redstone and all the rest. What drives these people to not only work but to work as hard as they did when they were in the process of “making it”? As I sit here with my Better 95% and our friends watching the neighborhood osprey “make” lunch I can’t help but wonder what’s missing from their lives that they don’t perceive the value in my present circumstances. Where are they finding joy?

On the other side of the ledger are people who make just enough, however much that may be for them, and walk away. The hedge fund guy who makes a killing and hangs it up at 30 or 40. Your sister’s best friend who has that one killer idea, turns it into a business, and then sells it all so that she can send the jet to pick up your sister for lunch. This weekend, heck right this minute on the lanai looking at the Gulf, it’s a little easier for me to understand these folks, the ones who literally don’t need to work in order to have what they need and do what they want. Still, I have this little bit of unease kinda gnawing at the back of my brain: what are they really doing all day. Where are they finding purpose?

As I work through this I can’t help coming back around to Lovely Daughter and the concept of “Harmony”. After all, life after we leave the workforce, or while we are leaving the workforce, is still, you know, life. There’s no real balance involved; the false construct of discrete entities put on and taken off the sides of the proverbial scale is as false later in life as it is in the teeth of your working life. Moving in and out of what we can think of as our “working lives” is in need of Harmony as much as any other stage of our lives.

So what’s the answer? Am I going to be retiring soon, as so many people seem to wonder? Well, my little taste of “retirement” as I recovered from my hip surgery in April leads me to believe that my life is much fuller, all my pieces parts in a much better state of Harmony, when I have as much unstructured times of greater leisure as I do times that are tightly structured and outcome directed. There was not enough work and too much free time on my calendar. Both seem to bring me joy, and neither on its own seems to be enough to fill me up. Harmony, for the moment, requires both. Pleasure and purpose.

Speaking of which, I’m about to hop on a bike along with”The Beths” for a little ride. We’re off to see some sights, sample some ice cream from an ancient island standby, and pick up some fresh vegetables at the Farmer’s Market for our Super Bowl dinner. More pleasure than purpose to be truthful, but likely to be a joyful experience nonetheless. Go whoever! Beat the other guy!

Enjoy the commercials.

I’ll see you next week…

Thoughts on Inequality

“Life’s not fair.” –Scar

What does equality mean? What does it mean to be equal? This came up this week in my day job. A study was done that proports to show that male and female eye doctors are paid unequally. The conclusions are false at the outset in this particular case because by law, services in this particular arena are paid exactly the same no matter who performs them, when or where. Unfortunately, the sensational lede taps into all kinds of notions of fairness, and all kinds of perceptions about what people assume must be true, that women make less than men for equal work. There is no question that this is the case is some walks of life, but interestingly the data (some of which the authors ignore in their quest to prove their preconception) proves otherwise in medicine. An opportunity to examine real differences in how men and women practice medicine is thus lost in the pursuit of an examination of the spiritual quest to combat inequality, even where none exists.

Is this the unicorn of equality? Is payment under government programs the only place where equality actually exists? Heck if I know. What interests me is the fact that the first assumption is that inequality is present. Inequality is the default setting. That there is an inherent degree of unfairness in pretty much any and every setting. Know what I think? Equality doesn’t exist. It cannot exist if we are to have an ever-improving world. There is nothing unfair about that in the least.

A just civilization establishes a floor below which allowing people to live is ethically wrong. For example, in healthcare it is my contention that we have a moral obligation to see that every citizen has access to care when they are sick. Inherent in this contention is that there is a basic level of care that meets this moral obligation by ensuring the same outcome as any other level of care. One could apply this same concept to food, clothing, and housing without missing a beat. We can think of the rights enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a proxy for this baseline if you’d like. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness make a very fine baseline.

One’s right to “life” necessarily includes a right to be fed, would you agree? Equality would mean that if one among us dines on Beef Wellington, than each among us must do so as well. This is where unthinking and unquestioning fidelity to “equality” brings you. In so doing it forces everyone to expend energy protesting “inequality” better put toward fulfilling the moral obligation to see that no one goes without protein. In healthcare we see all kinds of protests againts the inequality of care demonstrated by the horror of a VIP of some sort or another recuperating from a procedure in a luxury suite, while the proletariat must recover in the equivalent of a Hotel 6. The reality is that the outcomes will be equal; the moral obligation has been fulfilled. Above a basic level in pretty much any domain you wish to examine, equality does not exist. Sorry. Scar is right. Life’s not fair.

Is he really though? Saying that it’s not fair is the same as saying that inequality above that level at which everyone has a right to live is wrong. Here is where I part company with those who hew to this viewpoint. What does it matter that someone drives a Cadillac while another drives a Kia? Do both not get you to work on time? Or that Beef Wellington again: do you not get the same amount of protein from a hamburger? The example I am using in another conversation about equality in healthcare is similar: if a medicine is effective taken 4 times a day, is the fact that someone can pay more for a version that must only be taken once a day a measurement of unfair inequality? I vote “no”.

My strong feeling is that energy spent in some way protesting “equality” is energy that is not expended on the much more important task of fulfilling the moral obligation of raising everyone to that acceptable basic level. In may, in fact, work against that effort. That constitutes unfairness in my opinion. Advocacy and protest should be directed there, toward making sure that everyone has that most basic obligation covered. Once universal entry is accomplished across all applicable domains, the next task is to continually raise that basic level for everyone, no matter how far the gulf may be between that level and whatever the “sky’s the limit” level might be. One need only look at “poverty” or “hunger” and how the bar has moved ever upward there to see how this might work.

We have a moral obligation to see that true rights are available to all. It is unfair to those who have not yet achieved that most basic level when efforts to help them are diverted to the pursuit of an unachievable conceptual goal that neither feeds nor clothes nor cures those in need: equality.

Enduring Friendship: Sunday musings…1/26/19

Sunday musings…

1)  Capitalism. “Capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all of the rest of them.” Winston Churchill

2) Randy Newman. While I was surfing around Facebook the other day I came across a page where Three Dog Night was singing their hit song “Mama Told Me Not to Come”. It turns out the song was written by Randy Newman.

Of course it was.

3) Friendship. I have been asked many times over the years when it is that I actually write “Sunday musings…” That question has always puzzled, and frankly amused me. I mean, it is called SUNDAY musings, right? I sit down on a Sunday morning and think back over the week just past and pull out the things that were interesting to me. Or things that made me think. Or things that I hadn’t quite figured out yet. But I really do sit down on a Sunday and put down my thoughts on that day.

This week I was planning on writing about CrossFit, and where CrossFit finds itself as a movement in the year 2020. I also stumbled across an article on the dangers of early specialization in young athletes. Poor Zion Williams looks like he is the most recent victim of this phenomenon, having experienced a knee injury at the tender age of 19, suffered in the act of plying his trade. Now for sure I will eventually take up both of these topics, but as is so often the case something is a little bit more important, or at least high enough on my priority list that it will bump everything else and become this week’s “Sunday musings…”

Friendship is once again foremost in my mind this morning.

Last night Beth and I hosted a group of couples we first met when our family moved to Bay Village Ohio in 1992. Bay Village is a pretty interesting place. People are born there, go to school there, return, and raise families. It’s not unusual for Cleveland natives to live in a social circle which was formed in kindergarten. This is not only particular of Bay Village, but seems to be a thing across the entire Northeast Ohio region. I have friends who went to Catholic elementary school, junior high school, high school, and then college, who will see their best friend from age 5 on a weekly basis for a beer. The particular group we had dinner with last night is not like that at all. We were all transplants from somewhere else raising our families in Bay.

Beth and I have watched this phenomenon now for several generations, as parents ourselves watching our children, but also watching some of my younger colleagues in the healthcare community. The preschool PTA group we hosted for dinner last night all had children within a year or two of one or several of our three. Most of the moms were stay-at-home mothers, a surprisingly common state that women in our generation found themselves in during the early 1990s. As an aside, the death of the stay-at-home mom was proclaimed quite prematurely, at least in the greater Cleveland area. As is so often the case the men involved became friendly as a side effect of the lives that our wives were living while they were raising children.

For the seven couples arranged around our table last night it has been at least a 25 year journey in friendship. Support given and received during the tumultuous years of raising children has evolved into the kind of friendships where trust is a given. It’s funny how these friendships built through our children are the friendships of our adult years. I have often noted that men are very bad at the game of making friends after we leave school. Particularly after the age of 30 men don’t do a very good job at making friends. Women tend to make friends by sharing experiences, sharing emotions. This can actually be done over the phone, by FaceTime, even through texting and messaging. Of course, it’s always better when done face-to-face. Men, on the other hand, are well known to make friends standing shoulder to shoulder. Our friendships are typically based on shared experiences.

Our particular group of men has bonded over the game of golf. I was really the only real golfer in the group when we started. As I have written before my dad gifted the game of golf to my brother and me when we were very young. All of the other men in our group took up golf later in life. Sessions at the driving range and rounds played at public courses all over Ohio and on trips to the South were as much about time spent together as they were about time spent playing golf. My sides and my stomach ache this morning from all of the laughter we shared last night retelling the same stories we’ve been telling now for 25 years about adventures on and around golf courses; adventures in friendship more than really adventures in golf.

What’s the point, you ask? Well, I think the point is really most about the value of these long tenured friendships. Tending to these friendships like one would tend to an ancient garden. You know in your heart that the garden will still be there if you happen to travel, to spend time away from it. And yet time spent in the garden, tending the flowers, judiciously weeding out anything that might harm the garden makes it so much better. The effort to do so really doesn’t feel like work at all, does it? The joy one gets from being in the garden is so great that the work it takes to tend to the garden just doesn’t feel like work at all. Friendships like that are a gift.

Last night we ate too much, consumed at least enough wine, and left no dessert behind. We listened, we laughed, and we loved. I guess “Sunday musings…” today is really just a long and rambling “thank you” to our friends for, well, being our friends. I always wake up every morning thinking how lucky I am. Over the course of this weekend at dinner on both Friday and Saturday nights Beth and I were embraced by our friends.

This morning I woke up feeling just a little bit luckier.

I’ll see you next week…

The Slow, Easy Curve at Mile Marker 59

Turning 50 was awful. I stunk at turning 50. From the minute my 49th birthday was over I began turning 50 and I was simply terrible at it. In short I had popped off in my early 40′s about all of the magnificent stuff I was gonna do when I turned 50–climb Kilimanjaro, teach cataract surgery in Nepal–but when push came to shove my life was crammed with stuff happening right here at home. And I was broke. I spent almost the whole year in a tight little angst bubble until one of my patients tipped me off to the problem as we discussed her upcoming 60th. You can read about the details in “The Hard Turn at Mile Marker 49″ if you wish (as it happens it’s actually one of my better pieces. Go figure.).

My birthday is in two days and I will be 60. What’s it been like this past year, turning 60? Funny you should ask. In truth it’s been a tumultuous year of change, challenge, and loss. It should have been a real trial, to be honest. In fact it’s turned out to be kinda easy. Like it was just another year. Just another meaningless romp around the sun. If it wasn’t for all of the folks asking me about it I probably would have had it sneak up on me and all of a sudden appear in the windshield..

How come?

This year should have been the one filled with angst. Seriously, there was so much illness and loss I should have been buried. Every positive milestone, whether it be personal or professional, was paired with some sort of emotional speed bump. When I was turning 50 any one of those speed bumps might have launched me over the edge of the highway, but this year they were strangely tolerable. We lost my mother-in-law Sandy just before my 59th, and Beth and her sisters spent months cleaning up the estate. Both of Sandy’s brothers passed as well, in 13 months wiping out the entire generation of Schaefer’s. My Mom had one medical challenge after another, in and out of ER’s and hospitals and finally out of our family home and into an apartment nearby. Sadly, even though her living situation is much safer, much more appropriate to her life stage, the medical itinerary didn’t change all that much. Maybe it’s just that we’ve all had so much practice at handling the challenges of the generation before us (as opposed to those of the generation that follows us when I was turning 50), but it all passed in a rather matter-of-fact fashion.

More than that, the speed bumps didn’t take away from the joys that found us this year. What would have totally derailed me, and stolen all of the sweetness of whatever lovely stuff was happening, just kinda rolled by in a “handled mode”. Now I will admit that stuff that was happening with my grandchildren still made me anxious, and there was plenty of that. Still, the good things were really good, and I felt that goodness while it was happening. I needed a new hip (not so good), but it went off without a hitch thanks to a great surgeon and the fact that I still control every bit of my schedule. Coming back to the office was a breeze, even though we ended up being crazy busy out of the gate. Instead of pushing back against the extra work my entire team reveled in the fact that we were doing great and stepped up big time. So did I! All of my Dad’s (and Gramp’s) genetics caught up with me this year; my doctor friends all insisted that my CrossFitty lifestyle needed a little boost from modern medicine. Even this passed with little more than a tiny shrug since all three of them, dear friends, softened the blows with heartfelt hugs.

Why so much better at 59 than 49? It all kinda made sense. Middle-aged guy medical stuff? Of course there was. I think it was also about expectations. I don’t think I really had them this time, which left me free to not only see all of the roses blooming along the path to 60, but step off the road to smell them, hang out awhile among them. Seriously, I have no idea why all of the indignities of getting older were little more than a passing cloud in otherwise blue skies.

Actually, yes I do. I am openly grateful for each of the good things in and around me. Those surprises that shocked me at 49 are almost all really nice surprises this time. Seriously, is there anything better than the sound of a grandchild’s excitement when they realize you are home?The warmth of a child’s embrace as if it’s been a month of Sundays since you were last together, and it’s been less than an hour? Without conscious effort I have begun to stop and take a moment each time something is good, someone is nice, things look up, and just enjoy it. Enjoy it and be glad for it. These things are mostly small, almost insignificant (the first time I deadlifted after my hip surgery; my Man Cub writing his name for the first time in my notebook), but some of them were, in retrospect, kinda big (gonna have to trust me on these). But large or small, this time I am openly happy for the happening and grateful for that happiness.

Whereas turning 50 seemed like coming upon a hard turn while speeding along the highway, turning 60 was a nice easy cruise with my darling Beth along a gently winding road with mostly killer views. I was terrible at turning 50 but pretty darned good at actually being 50. Will I be as good at being 60? Who knows, but I have a good feeling about 60, just like I ended up having a good feeling about 50. It’s great to be here, great to have so many of my loved ones still here, so many living so close to me, those not closer wishing they were, so many genuinely happy to be with me. I have what I need and I want what I have; it’s been like that for a really long time and turning 50 seems to have awakened me to that fact.

I’m rounding an easy curve at mile marker 59, arriving at 60 in two days, and I’m very grateful for the ride.

 

2020? the Kid’s Alright: “New Year’s musings…”

On the surface there seem to be so many similarities. Between 1920 and 2020 that is. A soaring stock market. Companies setting profit records every quarter. Essentially full employment across all industries and economic strata. Technology coming on board that promises to continue to move all of these needles forward. Americans were generally not just positive about the economy and the state of all things American, their bullishness knew few bounds. Of course, there was the little, pebble-in-the-shoe issue of a growing chasm between the “common man” and the ultra-wealthy, a tiny gnawing ache in the soul of the country. Still, there was so much positive stuff, so much momentum.

What’s it gonna be in the 2020′s?

Now the cynical, the naysayers and the glass half-empties would look at our world today and say that there is a fundamental difference between then and now brought on by a single man in power. More contemplative members of this camp are a bit more sanguine about the provenance of this feeling; they would say that it was there for quite some time, perhaps as far back as our last Democratic President, and the latest ass to occupy that particular seat is simply the personification of a movement long present in our midst. No matter. If one were to look back at the 1920′s and peer just barely below the surface one would see a seething caldron of conflict between classes (and races) that would erupt soon enough. After all, the abuse heaped upon the working classes by the ownership class resulted in the great wave of the original labor movements, right? From farm to factory to union hall, and now to Twitter. The times, they don’t feel all that different when looked at through that particular lens, do they?

It could be argued that what made the 1920′s a time of explosive growth is precisely what is happening now. Cheap money available to those who are already moneyed, coupled with an economy based on influence peddling and self-dealing not available below the most rarefied levels of the economic food chain are the common links. Where once we had Big Oil with an outsized finger on our economies we now have internet information platforms without which commerce seems impossible. Banking monopolies, real and virtual, are now represented by the likes of Amazon, without which commerce now seems impossible. And the fortunes! The rich are as idolized and romanticized today as they were in the days of Gatsby.

Where are we in the cycle? Are there 9 years left and then a crash? Or is the apocalypse nigh, right around the corner, ready to take society with it again? Man, who even knows? For sure I don’t. Nor do I have any intention of pretending to know. For whatever it’s worth I do have a couple of thoughts about how to be thinking about it, though. You know those disclaimers in the ads for mutual finds that say stuff like “past performance is not indicative of future gains”? That. There were plenty of the same macroeconomic factors at play just before and after the tech stock meltdown of 2000 and the real estate driven Great Recession of 2008-10. Indeed, we had a leader who was reviled by a majority of not only the national intelligentsia but the non-elected careerists in our government. And yet, no societal collapse.

The second thing is one of attitude. Point of view. What one chooses to look at or emphasize when one analyzes the landscape, so to speak. Last night we listened to a young singer who is best described as nihilistic in her worldview. Everything is so terrible, so riddled with dysfunction and despair, that to make even a perfunctory effort to address the future is a hopeless, worthless gesture. Stephen Pinker, the noted societal observer and philosopher, vigorously disagrees. He has written a book called “Enlightenment Now” in which he makes the case that the world is by far and away better now than it has ever been at any time in history. In almost all ways, every aspect of life is better for pretty much anyone at any level of society today in comparison to any other era we might consider. Because of this every day is, or should be filled with boundless hope. If not for better than at least for more of the same.

So who is right? The 20-something who is not a progressive dreamer committing herself to changing the world but a fatalist who sees nothing worth fighting for? Or the philosopher who sees not a glass full world but one in which the glass continues to be so full that we need to build ever larger glasses to contain society’s bounty? Well, anyone who has read any of my drivel knows right away that, if forced to choose between the extremes I will choose Pinker every time. Our daily existence may or may not be as good as Mr. Pinker describes (although an objective view of the data surely looks like he is on point), but a 20-something living a 2020 version of the bohemian 20-something of the 1960′s barnstorming the Pacific Northwest in pursuit of musical fame and fortune who espouses an existentialism that would make Sartre blush is surely missing not just the point, but a heckuva life to boot.

Only time will tell if we experience yet another come-down from an over-the-top Roaring 20′s peak. In the meantime I, for one, will continue to find comfort as well as encouragement in the oft-expressed sentiment shared by Warren Buffet when the question of how best to prepare for whatever hangover might be on the way: never bet against the United States of America.

I’m betting it’s gonna be a Happy New Year.

We May Disagree. We Are Not Enemies.

I wrote the essay below some 7 years ago. If you substitute “disagree” for “different” or “other” everywhere it turns up this very much applies to our present day world where single issue differences threaten to divide people who should actually be joining together.

 

“The original “word” for this thought was to be “enemy”, but the more I thought about it the less that seemed to apply. You see, “enemy” is really a very simple concept, one that is just too black-and-white in this world of grey in which we live. An enemy is nothing more or less than someone who has openly declared intent to do you harm. Nothing too very ambiguous about that.

This is very different from a person who dislikes you, or someone you dislike. It’s fundamentally different from someone who is angry at you. These folks can simply be ignored; they can be consigned to the trash heap of indifference. I’ve been known to say that it’s perfectly OK to make an enemy as long as you’ve done it on purpose so that you can assess the ramifications beforehand. Re-thinking this in light of a more accurate definition of “enemy” probably changes my tactical advise to “it’s OK to make someone angry at you.”

This is important today as we traverse our lives with our “situational awareness goggles” on high, important when we identify someone who is better described as “other” as “enemy” or “possible enemy”. By any measure we actually live in a world which is incredibly safe. We are not surrounded by legions of enemies but rather by “others”, people who stand apart for one reason or another as different. Maybe even odd.

If we view our world as one which is inhabited by only friends or enemies we are at risk to categorize these “standouts” as dangerous until proven otherwise, all data to the contrary. We are at risk to extrapolate the actions of one “other” to all, even those who share nothing with those villains besides their “otherness”. Is this really necessary?

Frankly, my worldview as a young man was very narrow, my willingness to even let the “others” be “something” less than zero. No, “others” were to be feared or ridiculed; they were certainly not meant to be ignored, let alone accepted. Now? Most of the “others” are just varying degrees of different, nothing more. Pick a number…99point whatever % are just that and will never be anything more diabolical or dangerous than a friend might be. They will never be an enemy, no matter how much their “otherness” sets us apart.

For most of us the world is filled with friends and others. We just don’t have that many enemies known or yet to be discovered. I do not advocate replacing our “situational awareness goggles” with “pollyanna specs”, but we really don’t need to have the setting on “high alert”. The risk of the false positive, the risk of identifying an “other” as an enemy is very, very high because there really are very, very few real enemies. Very few people who mean you, or anyone, true harm.

Don’t let the cacophony resulting from the rare sighting of an enemy, of evil, blind you to the fact that those who will not be your friends are almost always just “others.”"

 

We may disagree. In and of itself this does not make us enemies.

“Up By Your Bootstraps”: An American Success Story. Sunday musings 12/22/19

While fooling around on Twitter the other day I stumbled upon the latest beauty from Robert Reich, the Nobel Prize winning economist who has been making a mockery of his earlier achievements as a present day pop-culture economist: 60% of wealth in the U.S. is inherited. Now if that is even true it is at best brutally misleading, verging on dishonest. If even 60% of the dollar value of wealth was inherited the reality is that over the last 30 years whatever the original value was of that inheritance it  has increased many, many times over, falsely elevating its percentage level. What is much more misleading though is the purposeful effort to let readers assume that 60% of the people who would be considered wealthy (pretty low bar to be wealthy but that’s a topic for another post) got that way by inheriting their money. That’s just not true; a super-majority of the global value of wealth in the U.S. is actually concentrated in a very small cohort of super-rich.

What makes Reich’s clickbait headline and lede even more galling is that he uses his little bit of data sleight of hand to dismiss the cherished “up by your bootstraps” (EBYB) story line that underlies the success of literally countless narratives told by American families about their rise from poverty. Indeed, the possibility of EBYB success is a large part of what continues to drive people from all over the world to seek a new beginning by emigrating to America. Reich is calling BS on the entire EBYB path to success and in doing so saying that to seek an EBYB success is a sucker’s game.

Reich is just the latest and most famous non-practicing celebrity economist to let his fascination by, and revulsion at the super-rich blind him to the day-to-day reality of middle class success.

It is the rise from poverty, the elevation from being among the working poor and taking an UBYB approach to leaving both of those states that matters. The creation of super wealth, even the creation of entry-level wealth, is little more than a pipe dream for almost everyone who desires to  rise from whatever financial straights exist at the beginning of their journey. What matters, and what Reich casually nullifies, is not the immigrant who amasses a billion dollar fortune by becoming the owner of the largest yogurt company in America, but the thousands of immigrants who scrimp and save and buy a retail outlet that sells yogurt and at which they will toil for endless hours in order to support their families. It’s not the second generation that takes over the family-owned car dealership but the hundreds of tiny entrepreneurs who buy a NAPA franchise in order to create a little nest egg that can’t be formed as a line worker at Ford. In that 40% of wealth lies a super majority of small “fortunes” consisting of the fruits born from UBYB success stories.

At the risk of being accused of substituting anecdote for analysis (albeit looking at the flip side of Reich’s own story coin) let me tell a couple of stories to illustrate that UBYB is much more than myth. My Dad was born into a family of the working poor during the teeth of the Depression. One of six children his family expanded (to 10? 12?) when his mom died and my grandfather remarried. Dad was a “cardboard in the shoes kid”; when your shoes got a hole in them you neither got new shoes nor a new sole, you stuck a piece of cardboard inside the shoe to cover the hole. Family lore has it that Dad was plucked out of the trade path in high school by a teacher who saw in him the potential to rise. Upon graduation he went to UNH on a football half scholarship, whereupon he promptly starved for lack of money. Like so many young men of the time he joined the Army. During his enlistment and his years fighting in Korea he rose to the rank of Sergeant First Class. After mustering out he went to UVM where a combination of another half-scholarship and the GI Bill got him through school. Dad graduated with a degree in what we would now call industrial engineering, the only member of his family to get a degree.

Our life in the early days of Dad’s career (Mom stayed home after I was born) was one of “enough”. We had risen above the level of working poor, but the most charitable description of our status would be to say that we clinged to the lowest rung of middle class. But my Dad was a true believer in the UBYB dream. He put himself through Business School as he slowly rose among the ranks of middle management at the company where he began his career. When that company was sold and much of the lower and middle managers were let go Dad caught on with a much smaller, older, family owned enterprise. After quadrupling sales at the new company he and two other senior mangers bought out the founding family. For 15 years of so our family was comfortably in what at the time would be the upper middle class. Mom and Dad prepared a wealth starter kit in the hopes that their good fortune would continue on the same upward trajectory.

Did we become wealthy? Did my siblings and I enjoy the fruits of my Dad’s success with a big inheritance or a big infusion of start-up capital at the beginning of our own journeys? Sadly, this was not to be. For all of my father’s brilliance at running a small company he was not equally adept at divining the effects of large macroeconomic trends. The 80′s brought crushing interest rates, inflation, and an artificially inflated dollar, all of which conspired to destroy not only my Dad’s company but the entire domestic industry of which he was a part (there are no manufacturing companies in the U.S. remaining in his industry). There will be no generational transfer of wealth; Mom just sold the family home and hopes that the sale will support her for the rest of her life. Was Dad’s UBYB story a failure? Of course not. My parents sent four kids to college, all four of us debt free on graduation. We are all economically independent and have been since graduation. We would all be counted among that 40% Reich dismisses.

Cynical readers, especially the young, would say that my parents’ story has nothing but historical relevance. Such an UBYB story was little but a historical footnote by the time my Dad bought his company. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have two very close friends, men I’ve know since school days. My oldest close friend grew up in a family that was devastated by mental illness. He and his father shared a one bedroom apartment, taking turns between the single bed and a couch, floating just above the poverty level of the 70′s. Mother and Father were high school grads; there was little familiarity with college as a goal. Like my Dad my friend was raised up by teachers and the parents of a couple of classmates and put on a straight shot to a college degree. He got some scholarship aid and took out a bunch of loans and graduated from a highly selective college. My friend has taken himself UBYB to where he now has generational wealth. None of it was inherited. There was no wealth to disburse when his Dad died a couple of years ago. Indeed, I think he paid for the funeral.

As an aside, as this is the Christmas Holiday season, my friend is the most grateful human being I know. His Birthday is on Christmas Eve. You know how some Christmas babies always resent the fact that they have to “share” their day with Christmas, complaining that they get shorted because of the overlap? Not my friend. There wasn’t anything under the tree or wrapped up in a “Happy Birthday” package; there wasn’t anything at all. To this day I have never heard a single word of resentment from my friend. He is grateful for every tiny blessing that comes his way, even if it has come because he bought himself up by his bootstraps. My Dad was like that. They are both inspirations.

So you see Mr. Reich, even if your data is accurate and tells the story you’d like us to think it does, it still doesn’t render moot the power of UBYB wealth. Wealth, it turns out, is sometimes better measured in smaller ways than those that catch the attention of starry eyed celebrity economists. Sometimes it is something as small as being able to resole a shoe or order a new pair of sneakers without worrying about the rent. UBYB might mean the next generation goes to college. Maybe they even graduate without debt. Where once there may have been inherited wealth for my siblings and me to look forward to perhaps there will be that kind of wealth for our children and/or grandchildren.

“Up by your bootstraps” wealth is about people, and there are many, many more people in that 40% you deride than those fortunate few who have assembled the 60%. The opportunity to raise yourself “up by your bootstraps” within sight of that 40% is still the American Dream. It is still the hope of a nation, the antidote to the pithy observations of economists enthralled by the super rich, the engine that lifts countless families out of poverty. “Up by your bootstraps” is no myth.

 

 

A Lesson About Customer Care: Sunday musings…12/15/19

As hard as it may seem to believe this, I learned a valuable lesson about taking care of patients from an airline. Granted, this occurred because I had an unpleasant (for me) interaction on a rather long flight because a flight attendant had an unpleasant interaction (because of me) at the very beginning of that flight. My lesson can be applied any time one finds oneself on either side of the service continuum.

We should give a patient who may be having a hard day the benefit of the doubt.

This weekend I was in Las Vegas for a meeting with my very favorite people, fellow members of the small professional group called CEDARS/ASPENS. It’s a lousy time of year to be traveling, to be away from home. At my best I am a reluctant traveler when I am away from Beth, and at this time of year I’m also a little tired and cranky. Couple all of that with a late night prior to a very early morning flight (and a 3 hour time change to boot) and I was pretty much one big exposed nerve getting on the plane.

Knowing this would be the case Beth had helped me out by booking a bit of extra leg room, purchasing a carry on slot, as well as early boarding. On the outbound leg I had all of this too; I arrived at the gate a bit tardy and ended up with my roller bag 7 or 8 rows behind my seat. My bad, since I was a bit too casual getting to the gate. But on my return flight I was chilling in the gate area for area for an hour; when I got trampled by folks rushing to get on board first in that early boarding group my mood started to darken. Naturally all of the overhead bins around my seat were filled. My attempt to jam my bag in was unsuccessful. Once again I ended up with my bag several rows behind my seat. The flight attendant asked if that was OK and my instant, out loud response was: “nope. Not OK. Not even a little OK.”

I instantly regretted it.

You see, my tiny moment of petulance, during which I was admittedly behaving like an entitled brat, resulted in that flight attendant punishing me for the rest of the flight. For the next 4 hours she effectively ignored me. Not subtly, either. I sat with a credit card out to buy a drink and a snack while my row mate got a coffee. She failed to acknowledge this obvious cue that would otherwise have had her jumping to sell me something (and garner a tip). Newspapers piled up around me as she scooted by with the trash bag, and the beverage cart glided past my row during each trip down the aisle. Thankfully one row mate was sound asleep for the whole trip and the other only had that one coffee request. They did not suffer for my transgression.

Was I badly treated? Yes, of course I was. But I knew in a nanosecond after my micro-tantrum that it was going to happen. The flight attendant was not having any of it, and she was either unaware of the downstream risk she might be creating, or was willing to use her position of power while in flight to deal with any reaction I might have had to being “shunned”. Why didn’t I assert myself and request the same service offered to those around me? After all I was hungry, thirsty, and under-caffeinated. Looking back I am sure that I did not “raise my hand” because it was  obvious that my flippancy had created an enemy. I have spent so many years evaluating the micro details of the customer care experience from both sides that my reaction was to observe and analyze.

Which of course leads us to the question of where does the lesson lie and for whom is it meant? There is certainly a lesson for the young flight attendant but it is not for me to provide. I will tag the airline when I link this on Twitter in the hope that the lesson I learned might be shared with all of their flight attendants. I will not identify my flight; after all, the “original sin” was mine. Rather, I will look at this for an insight into how we as physicians and our staff might be better able to serve our patients when circumstances may not be optimal. Realizing how hard it is to be always “on” for passengers I am almost always solicitous and bring minimal demands to flight attendants. Most of our patients behave like this when they come to see us.

It is where a patient, the “served” individual in the service continuum, behaves less than perfectly that the lesson for me lies. An edgy or unhappy person should be given the benefit of the doubt as long as they do not persist in angry or unhappy behavior.  The young flight attendant whose job it is to provide a service did not give me the benefit of the doubt. My behavior after being seated was impeccable. I neither pouted nor complained. How often do we see a patient who comes into the office and instantly pops off to the reception staff about something trivial like filling out a form? You know, the equivalent of having to place your carry on a few rows behind your seat. Or in the exam room is a little aggressive with the first question? Do we as healthcare providers, doctor and staff, treat them from that point on as if they are the passenger who won’t hang up their phone, put their seat back up, or stay out of the aisle for the entire flight?

Or because we don’t know anything about what else is going on for them do we instead give them the benefit of the doubt? Allow them a few moments to demonstrate that their first little outburst was just that, a trivial anomaly, and not an indication that they are going to be an ongoing problem?

That’s the lesson I learned from the 4 hour punishment for my tiny, brief moment of pique. When presented with a patient who is on edge, who may be less than cuddly on first blush, we should offer them the benefit of the doubt. At least until they demonstrate that they are going to double down on their petulance rather than move beyond it. While I was pretty hungry by the time we landed, in the end I am thankful for the tiny lesson in customer care I received while flying home from Las Vegas.

 

 

You are currently browsing the archives for the Random Thoughts category.