Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Archive for December, 2009

The Hard Turn At Mile Marker 49

Man, turning 50 has not been an easy proposition. I’ve been turning 50 since the day after my 49th birthday and quite frankly I haven’t been doing such a great job of it. The highway between mile markers 49 and 50 seems to be strewn with all manner of psychological speed bumps and potholes, pretty much all of which I’ve placed there myself.

Why is this? Why so much angst about 50? I didn’t really have any issues with 18, 21, 30, or 40, at least not any that I was so keenly aware of. In fact, I don’t recall ever thinking about the process of TURNING any of those milestone ages, not a minute spent thinking about the run-up to any of those birthdays. I suppose 40 might have presented an opportunity for at least a little introspection, or at least a little taking stock, but “turning40” angst was preempted in the course of a single ride on a chair lift in Utah the week prior to my 40th birthday. My chair-mate, noting his own near existential angst at the prospect of turning 40 several years prior shared the wisdom a priest friend had offered. 40 is when your still healthy, strong, and vibrant body meets the experience and wisdom of your now mature mind. That worked for me! 40 made sense after that.

In a dazzling display of prescience and foreshadowing, my lovely bride Beth responded to my epiphany with “wait ’til he turns 50! That’s gonna be a problem!” Shortly thereafter she contracted the mother of all cases of pneumonia and tried to die on me. Any little bit of an issue with turning 40 got pretty much short circuited in the elation that accompanied her recovery.

And yet, here I am. Turning 50.

What’s the big deal you ask? It’s just a number. You’re a January baby. It’s nothing more than another calendar to throw out.  One more tax return. What’s the problem here? Aren’t you the guy always looking forward, wanting what you have? The “no regrets” guy? Cut the crap! Find your balls. Snap out of it.

To which I respond: sure! There you are going all left-brain/left nut on me. Trying to impose logic and rational thought on what is clearly a right-brain, visceral “feel” kinda thing. It’s all about the right nut, the squishy can’t get your hands around it illogical nonsensical unease that resists both explanation and resolution.

My own left-brain gets it. Hari, one of my Crossfit buddies, nailed the rational aspect of turning 50. According to Hari our first 50 years are all about preparing. We spend our lives preparing either ourselves or someone else for something that is yet to come. We grow and get ready for kindergarten, so that we can prepare for grade school. Grade school begets junior high where we get ready for high school. High school prepares us for college which leads to job and adulthood. We then transition to the task of preparing others, our children, and spend the next however many years engrossed and engulfed in that pursuit. 50 is when we are done with the preparing. 50 is when we we exit Route Preparation and begin our journey on Route Me. At 50 we can learn for the sake of learning, not because we need to knock off a pre-req. We exercise and eat for the here and now, for how we are hoping to feel right at the moment. The first 50 years are about preparing; the next 50 are about living.

Why then, if I get that, am I having so much trouble TURNING 50?

As I’m sure you’ve gathered if you’re spending any time here on Random Thoughts, I am a physician by day. I finally think I figured it out one day in the office when one of my patients mentioned that she was having some issues with turning 60. We took a little detour, talked a little while about our “turning” issues rather than her eyes. 60 meant “old” to her, and old was more than a little frightening. She didn’t see “old” in the mirror, and didn’t want to think about any part of “old”. Her tactic? Classic–She simply decided that she was younger and told everyone she’s  55! How about me, she asked. You’ve made it. Successful practice and a wonderful professional reputation, healthy family, a marriage to be envied. Your biggest problem should be deciding how to celebrate! How will you mark this milestone, this success?

And there you have it. There, in that lovely compliment from a patient I barely know, was the issue. How indeed would I mark this milestone? The cartoonist would have put an enormous light bulb over my head, for here was at once the solution and the problem. I couldn’t say how I was going to celebrate turning 50 because I can’t celebrate in the way that it turns out I always thought I would, and that fact lies at the base of all of my angst, all of my discomfort, all of my difficulty in turning 50.

Physicians play a game early in their lives called “delayed gratification”, a game in which they willingly put up with the hardships of training and postpone most of the trappings of success. Tiny apartments and old clunker cars are OK because there is a world of plenty just over the horizon, a reward for both the sacrifice and the success that students of medicine encounter on their journey. Their preparation, as Hari would say. Once out in the real world, out of medical school and finished with residencies and fellowships, both the willingness and the ability to play “delayed gratification” slip away to be replaced by a sense of pride in having played,  not terribly fond memories incentive to never play again.

There’s the rub–I am once again playing “delayed gratification” and I simply can’t even consider doing some of the things I thought I could think about to mark this milestone. You know, classic 50 year old dumb guy birthday stuff like, I dunno, buying a Porsche. I don’t think I’d actually do that, but I DID always think that at 50 I would have been able to decide NOT to buy a Porsche, even though I could have if I really wanted to. Even the more meaningful stuff I’ve talked about to mark turning 50, stuff like climbing Kilimanjaro with my sons or accepting that invitation from Geoff Tabin to teach native surgeons how to do cataract surgery in Nepal, I’m not going to do those things because I CAN’T, because I am once again playing the game of “delayed gratification”. I might never have done any of those things, or any of a number of other things I might have thought of, but I always thought I’d be able to decide, that I COULD if I wanted to.

I can’t, and I find that I resent that. It makes my sad, and both of these feelings make my left-brain more than a little unsettled, for there is no rational response. No solution. No pithy sentence to conclude this particular Random Thought on an up note. At the end of the day there will be nothing other than sucking it up, moving on, and getting over it, getting over myself. There will be nothing other than trying to play the game of “delayed gratification” just as well at 50 as I did as a much younger man, for in the end I really have no other rational choice. I will have to hope, to try to be much better at BEING 50 than I have been at TURNING 50.

Because I’ve really sucked at turning 50.

It’s Not About The Money. No, Really!

Admit it. How many times have you heard or read a professional athlete utter the words “it’s not about the money” and forced yourself not to gag? Seriously, it’s ALWAYS about the money.

We hear this ad nauseum during the free agent season in every professional team sport as players from superstars on down to less-than-super subs angle for the biggest payday possible. The phrases “max contract”, “salary cap”, and “veteran exception” vie for our attention with batting averages, rebounds, and sacks. We the fans are spectators not only to the games but also to the gamesmanship between owners and players, each trying to maximize their piece of the pie. It’s ALL about the money.

The realist in me wants to acknowledge that this is simply the labor/management battle played out on the front page of the Sports Section. How, I ask, is this any different from the headlines in the Business Section where the “Masters of the Universe” keep score with their multi-billion dollar spoils?

But then it hits me…in the board rooms and the banks how much money you make is the ONLY scorecard. There is no other way to rank the players or the teams. The person with the highest salary wins. That’s it. Nothing else. The company/bank with the highest profit is the “best”. If Goldman Sacs makes more money than JP Morgan then Goldman is the better bank and Lloyd Blankfield is better and smarter than Jamie Dimon. Money is the only metric, and no one sits at home playing Fantasy Wall Street or cheering for their home town Hedge Fund.

And there’s the rub–the games we watch all have a scorecard, and we keep the score of the games the same way whether it’s the Cleveland Browns vs. the Miami Dolphins in the NFL, or the Shaker Heights Eagles vs. the Southbridge Mass Ponies in Pop Warner. A free throw is one point whether it’s Bingo Smith at the line in the NBA or bingo (yours truly) at Tri-City Park in Rocky River. If you’re playing the game in the back yard, or if you’re a fan of the pro game it doesn’t really matter. What you care about is winning. Period.

When was the last time you heard the words “it’s not about the money” from a big-time athlete, spoken or unspoken, and you believed them? I can come up with exactly one, and I’ve been following pro and college sports since I could turn on a TV. I really did believe Tim Tebow, the kid from Florida, who came back for his senior year to play quarterback. I mean, what did he have to gain money-wise by doing that? Heisman trophy winner. Leader of two NCAA champions. Top five pick in the draft whenever he came out. I really think the kid just loves college and being a college student and football player. Other than him? Shut-out.

But there’s something really interesting blowing in the winds of the NBA. You know that place, home to the “Bird Exception” that allowed the Celtics to pay Larry $33 Million in his last season. Where Michael Jordan took home a cool $30 Million despite making somewhere north of $50 Million in endorsements each year for 10 + years. Some upper mid-level power forward–I can’t even remember his name–agreed to hold off on signing his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, promised a huge raise and the chance to play with LeBron James, only to exile himself to Utah when an offer of more money arose. I DO remember what he said in the paper, though. Yup…you guessed it…”it’s not about the money.”

Still, there it is, a whisper dancing just outside the conversation. Someone, a very important someone, has a chance to utter that fateful phrase, “it’s not about the money”, and really mean it. Here now is LeBron James, a free agent at the end of this NBA season, who has the opportunity to sign a contract that is all about his team winning. LeBron, who makes somewhere in the vicinity of $80 Million in endorsement money, can sign a “max contract” that will pay him around $100 Million or so over 7 years, maximizing his income from playing the game but also maximizing the difficulty that General Manager Danny Ferry will have gathering talent to surround LeBron in order to win. Win like you and I think about winning, as in winning NBA championships.

It’s just the tiniest of breezes now, barely enough to tickle what’s left of the leaves on the trees in Cleveland, not even enough to rustle the top sheet of the Plain Dealer as it sits in your driveway. LeBron could sign for the veteran’s minimum, about $2 Million per year. The $2 Million wouldn’t even count against the Cav’s salary cap! Doing this would free up, what, $20, $25 Million per year? That’s enough to sign not one but TWO major players, especially if they, too, sign on just a little bit to “it’s not about the money”, it’s about playing with LeBron and WINNING. Dwayne Wade AND Chris Bosh in Cleveland with LeBron James. In Cleveland, playing to win.

It’s still about the money, of course. I’m not naive enough to think that there wouldn’t be massive positive PR for LeBron if he took a minimum contract and stayed in his hometown city and then won. I also know that he can revisit his max contract option in 2 or 3 years and get pretty much the same number he would get now, even with the massive increase in off-court income likely to come his way if he played it my way. But still, a chance to say “it’s not about the money” and really mean it, even if it’s only for a couple of years? It’s man bites dog stuff.

Who knows if it will happen but I get a little smile as I think about the hurricane that will tear through the Player’s association if LeBron does this. I love thinking about David Stern’s office after the tornado plows through if LeBron comes out and says “it’s not about the money” and means it. If LeBron James is the first professional athlete in modern sports history who literally puts his money where his mouth is.

Hey…anybody out there have Maverick Carter’s cell number?

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