Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Archive for August, 2021

Bucket Lists

This weekend has been filled with investigations of where Beth and I might land for different parts of the year once my full-time work life comes to a close. For some people this is the ultimate bucket list pursuit: where will I retire? Or if you are a Clevelander or denizen of some other locale far to the north of the Mason-Dixon line, where will I spend my time as a “snowbird”? (In case you’re wondering the leading candidate is Bluffton, near our daughter Megan.)

But I don’t really think I have a bucket list. At least not a proper, traditional bucket list filled with items I’d like to check off before I check out. Beth has an informal one (we knocked off fly fishing in July); her really big remaining item is to visit Alaska and North Dakota and thus lay claim to membership in the elusive “50 State” club. The closest I have to a bucket list is my desire to help Beth knocks this one off.

After a lifetime of planning events, packing vacation trips with as much motion as possible, trying to visit the newest, bestest restaurants and “in spots”, now 78I can barely be bothered to answer the question “how would you like your Sunday afternoon to go?” let alone come up with a bucket list.

Duke divinity professor Kate Bowler was handed the terrible news that she likely had a terminal illness. Well-meaning mental health clinicians counseled her to create a bucket list of items to pursue as a way to “find her meaning.” She comes to view this advice with something much stronger than skepticism. “A bucket list disguises a dark question as a challenge: What do you want to do before you die?” She wonders if the focus of one’s life really ought to be the collection of experiences. “[I]t is much easier to count items than to know what counts.”

Our weekend up until Beth’s well-meaning inquiry about my Sunday afternoon desires illustrates what counts for me, for us. On Friday we drove 3 1/2 hours to join our closest couple friends for dinner. Now, anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I loathe driving. But at the other end of that drive was a dinner that our friends Bill and Nancy really wanted to share with us. After a very short night it was back in the car for the drive home so that we could…wait for it…drive an hour to celebrate another couple’s 25th wedding anniversary. What counts for us has always seemed to be more about the “who” than the “what”.

Yet I can see the issue. Feel the pressure. “You must want to do something.” To which my response seems to pretty consistently be “sure there is”, as long as I’m doing it with people who mean something to me. Who count. When I look back I do actually remember what I was doing, but I always seem to remember stuff better if I was doing it with someone I cared about. I once read that we may not remember the details of our experiences terribly well, but we always remember how we felt at the time. Being with the people who count always seems to come with more intense, and ultimately more positive feelings.

A bucket list seems kinda like a scorecard, doesn’t it? Having an elaborate bucket list seems to promote a kind of scoring of the rest of one’s life. At least for me it might. Did your decisions pan out? Especially the big ones, the ones that came at a true crossroads moment. Each one of those decisions put you on the path of a singular life to the exclusion of all of the other lives that might have occurred had you chosen otherwise. Those lives may take place in a parallel part of the multiverse postulated by quantum physics and brilliantly illustrated in the Blake Crouch masterpiece “Dark Matter”, but in our one life each decision effectively ends an infinite number of other lives you might have lived. Is the encouragement to curate the remainder of life via a bucket list of big moments also a call to assess the road that brought you to the first item on your list?

Not for me. At least not by way of scoring or grading the journey, although I do enjoy recalling highlights, or those times when I, or some “we” I was part of, persevered or overcame. In this I find myself in sync with Dr. Bowler: “What strange math. There is nothing like the tally of a life…Our lives are unfinished and unfinishable. We do too much, never enough, and are done before we’ve even started.” On occasion a day may be hard, but for the most part they’ve been either good or great (HT Lance Armstrong, early post-cancer). Therein lies the single item on my bucket list: time. More time. I find myself immensely grateful for the time I’ve had. Profoundly fortunate to have been able to spend that time alongside Beth with people like Bill and Nancy. Our family. What particular moment, what specific experience, what winter’s nest is so special that it warrants a place on a bucket list?

My bucket list is nothing more than to be with the people in my life who count, making whatever time I’m fortunate to have left with them count for us all.

The Tyranny of Expectation

“What would you do if your didn’t live here anymore?”

Sunday morning breakfast on the porch are usually rather easygoing affairs. A little Facebook here, a bit of the Sunday Times there. “What are your plans today” constitutes high pressure conversation. Not so much this morning after my darling Beth dropped this little bomb into my oatmeal!

“No, really, you’re not really content. You’re antsy and I can’t figure out why. We’ve been talking about winters, about the last chapter, where and with whom we’ll be and why. What would you do differently in Florida or Bluffton or wherever?”

Doubling down as that splashed in my coffee. What, indeed, would be any different anywhere else?

To answer that requires me to look in a very critical and brutally honest way at where I am, what I’m doing now, and why it seems to both of us that I am on edge. We have no real roots where we live, at least not the kind of roots that one is tethered to when you are living in a generational location where it’s not just you and subsequent generations that are presently domiciled. With two sons and their families here the seeds for that generation have been planted, and of course the opportunity for us to cultivate that exists. We have friends and acquaintances, most of whom are also not born of this exact soil. In our ever on-the-move society those friendships are the de facto family roots for many.

Why, then, the angst? Why not satisfaction, even a sense of triumph? As a couple we chose to forge our own path away from family at near and successfully launched 3 offspring into the world with no local assistance (note: we chose this; there is no criticism whatsoever of either of our families in that statement). We survived my leap beyond the leading edge onto the bleeding edge of business models in the world of my day job, avoiding ultimate financial calamity and arriving at a place of comfort and likely security. The whole “where do you want to be” and most of “what do you want to do” is possible because of this.

We spent a couple of hours this morning pondering this. Every place we might go there is something that Beth does, something she knows and loves. there to be had. As we went round and round looking at me, my choices as well as changes that feel like they were forced on me when they arrived, we inexorably return to the same conclusion: location, for me, is irrelevant. What matters is only what I decide to do there. And not only in those hours of the day when I am solely responsible for the filling, but also as the day carries over into our shared time as a couple. After all, the happier and more fulfilled and content I am coming out of those “solo” sojourns, the happier and more content I will be as a partner.

So what is it then? Could it be regret? Has my happiness urn stealthily been aerated by regret and become a sieve? I don’t think so. Regret, at least to me, seems incompatible with any happiness at all, and to be honest I am more happy more often than not. I’ve done one really big thing really well over the years and that’s my part in our marriage, our partnership. That makes me happy every day. It’s the kind of partnership where one of us can look at the other and say “what’s wrong” and not have it sound like “what’s wrong with you.”

No, I think it’s one of the other scourges that probably would get classified under the Great Seven Sin of coveting: expectations. I think that deep down I have a case of miss met expectations that are quietly gnawing at me. Again, these are not, and I certainly do not look at them, as true hardships. Not in the classical manner of hardships. Nobody has died prematurely. Not only do we have a roof over our heads, but that roof faces an inland sea. I eat well, and I eat of my own choosing. Heaven knows I drink well. These expectations are not existential. They are personal, emotional, almost entirely self-centered, and in many instances so nebulous that even the most caring, selfless and generous soul would be completely thwarted in any effort to resolve them.

These expectations exist despite a lifelong effort to live without any expectations whatsoever. Disappointment is a metaphor for miss met expectations. The more I think about it the more it seems like my state of mind is being driven by disappointments that have been created by expectations that I have either consciously or unconsciously created for myself and others. Some are nothing more than bad luck; I trashed my right shoulder in 2008 and haven’t been pain free enough to swing a golf club until very recently. Without a private club to call my own, I very much still had the expectation that I would continue to have golf as a core activity that would not only bring me joy, but also bring me people who brought me joy. Not only that, I very much expected that a I would continue to be a very good golfer. Not playing golf separated me from an experience I had expectations of continuing. I don’t know what to think about playing post-injury, just that I know it’s not what I expected.

I’m disappointed to find myself in the position of having to work. Sounds rather arrogant when you put it that way, doesn’t it? Still, the reality is that I have made a couple of decisions about my working life and work circumstances that were epic disappointments. If they had all turned out as planned would I still be working? Probably. I really do like what I do, and it’s always satisfying if you are not only good at what you do but are continually thanked by the people you do it for. What is disappointing is that I can’t really do it just for the pleasure of doing it, you know? All of the regulatory BS and the manufactured nonsense about what’s “wrong with medicine” would be so much more palatable if it wasn’t forced down your throat because it’s a job you need. Subtle point to be sure, but looking back it seems like I had a quiet expectation beginning very early in my adult life that I would be able to walk away at this stage if I chose to do so.

What’s next then? It’s a bit scary to be honest since so many of my expectations about where I’d be, what I’d be doing, and with whom I’d be doing them haven’t come to pass. Lives evolve and the game board changes, eh? We never lived around family and now we do. What’s that gonna look like? Likewise our friendships here in town and elsewhere. Everything changes as I’ve said so many times, and yet the most honest assessment I can offer is that I’ve probably expected that they would all stay the same as they were when our kids were in grade school. Or maybe they’d be like the ones my folks had, a stable group of couples who congregated around a couple of similar interests and a bucketful of shared, or at least similar experiences. What are ours really going to look like? Beats me. Past performance means that at least some of my unspoken expectations are already way off the mark.

So my Dollie, the answer to “why?” is disappointment. Expectations I barely knew I had weren’t met and I’m disappointed. What am I going to do about that, here at Casa Blanco, in South Carolina or wherever? Well, I’m not gonna get anywhere unless I man up, face the fact that disappointment is a damaging as regret, and move on. Like Rafiki said: it doesn’t matter; it’s in the past. I can swing a golf club without pain, however poorly, and that means I can hang out around golf and golfers again. My job is enjoyable, bureaucratic BS notwithstanding, I can see the fruits of my labor, and I come home with thankful people in my wake. Not everyone can say that. We have children and grandchildren to fill our days with wonder and love. Friends with whom we do, indeed, have shared memories and experiences upon which we can build, and a lifetime of practicing our philosophy that you can never have enough friends.

I don’t think the “where” matters. Not as long as I leave behind disappointments however big or small they may seem. Like regret, now that I’ve identified the issue of expectations I can address it. Go all Timon and Hakuna Matata on it. Or channel Myamoto Musashi: “Accept everything precisely as it is.” “Where” isn’t an issue as long as “where” finds us together. I’ll figure it out and I’ll make it work wherever it is we happen to be at any time. Because nothing about us has ever been a disappointment and no matter where we’ve been everything about us has always made me happy.

I feel better already.

Slimed by the Hedge Language

There are words in any language that have been co-opted in a great conspiracy. Actually, they’ve been co-opted into every conspiracy, whether great or small. I’m talking, of course, about all of the hedge words like “may” or “might” or “could”, words that can be inserted into basically any statement and simultaneously present a point of view while distancing the writer or speaker from any responsibility for either that POV or the consequences of writing/stating it. You know what I mean. Simply take a look at the Sunday papers and read a headline or two. “The election may increase blankety-blank in thus and such.” “So-and-so said blabbity blah which could result in a decrease in the weinerschitzel index.” “We think CrossFit might cause a significant change in the daily usage of pitbull greenhouse gas effluent.” It’s the same with all of the bloviation about COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic. Nothing but “may” and “could” and “might” in the headlines and on SoMe. Stuff like that simply litters our information pipeline.

A defining characteristic of statements like these is that the exact opposite may also occur. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the obverse is actually more likely to occur. Accuracy of this sort is precisely not what the speaker or writer is interested in, though. No, what people who write or speak like this are interested in is the projection and proliferation of a worldview that likely won’t stand up to either data or reality. Even more so, they are doing this without regard to the consequences for those who may share the sentence with the slippery and slimy hedge words. The reality is that they typically mean some sort of harm to that person, institution or idea.

They just lack the courage to not only place their flag in the sand, but to also stand next to it, defend it, and face the consequences.

Come on. Anything COULD happen. There is certainly enough uncertainty in the world that any statement with “might, could, or may” in it would turn out to be accurate. The reality is that we also live in a probabilistic world in which data can be used to give a bit more guidance. In so doing we can put the fire to the feet of those who are so careless with their regard for the effect of these words on others and too cowardly to willingly step on the fire.

How many times have we read or heard someone look at a CrossFit WOD like Deadlift 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 and say: “CrossFit may be dangerous; it might cause injury in individuals who are lifting heavy weight.” A fact-based examination of this WOD would certainly acknowledge that injury is a possibility, but the more likely outcome is that “athletes who perform a full-body functional movement like the deadlift with proper technique with relatively high intensity will gain strength.” Will. Flag firmly planted. Data available to date shows that vaccination with any of the 3 vaccines available in the U.S. will reduce the likelihood of severe illness and death by 2 ¬†orders of magnitude. Not “may” or “could” but WILL.

Flag planted.

There most definitely IS a lesson here: statements with “may”, “could”, “might” and similar hedge words are a warning that you are reading or listening to someone who is either unsure of what they are stating, or that they are very sure that they can neither prove their thesis nor defend themselves if it is shown to be false. An agenda too often lurks behind these words, and it behooves us to look for that agenda whenever we are triggered by these words.

Sadly, there is no safe space in our connected world for us to escape this kind of slime.

Memory Serves

“I used to remember everything, but now I only remember the things that never happened.” –Mark Twain.

Twain never disappoints, does he? There’s all kinds of meat on that bone. Is he saying that he no longer remembers things that really happened, only those things he imagined at the time, or imagines now? Or is he rather saying that looking back on his life he only remembers those things that SHOULD have happened, but didn’t?

Knowing Twain, my bet is that his answer would be:”yes.”

Memory is a funny thing. Partly accurate reportage, one’s memory is leavened by equal parts wishful thinking and regret. At least according to Twain. Think of your own narrative, the telling of your story. How much is fact, how much is embellishment (never let the facts interfere with a good story!), and how much is what you wish had happened? We were telling stories at dinner the other night, stories we all knew, ones we’d all taken part in creating and ones we’ve told countless times. Each time they are told they get a little better. Does this happen with you? Some of the stuff in our stories probably never really happened, but we remember it just the same.

But Twain also touches on regret in this quote, don’t you think? Things that could have been, or should have been, but for one reason or another, never were. Dangerous ground, that. Regret can turn the urn of happiness into a sieve. In his later years Twain was said to be increasingly bitter. One wonders if his regret fertilized the weeds in the garden of his memory.

Ticking time bomb, or soothing balm over time. Memory serves.

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