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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Archive for August, 2023

Home Comes to Us. Sunday musings…8/27/2023

Where do you live? Morgan Freeman: “Everyone lives somewhere.” Do they? Do you?

Where you live is more than where you are domiciled at the present moment. The distinction between “house” and “home” is real, is substantial. Home requires effort; house requires a checkbook. A house demands upkeep of the walls, the various and sundry systems and furnishings, but a home demands an on-going commitment to what is contained within those walls.

Home also seems to contain a notion of place. A “where are you from” kind of statement or sense. You’ve committed to a certain zip code, learned the rules of the road so well that you move through that larger space in a continual comfort zone. It might be described as simply as knowing where to find eggs for emergency muffins on a rainy Sunday morning, this notion of “home in place”. Beth and I pretended to look for a “retirement home” once upon a time. In addition to the fact that so many good friends live within 10 mile of our “regular home” we decided that instantly being able to call up the backup pharmacy or emergency wine store was worth retiring where we live.

I wonder, and I readily confess that I worry about my friends who have multiple “homes”. Does home travel with them from place to place, simply injected into the particular space they occupy at any given moment? Maybe. I know that I am always “home enough” whenever I happen to be accompanied by Beth. For instance I am never too very uptight if I’m delayed or even stranded while traveling as long as we are together; I’m already home.

“Everyone lives somewhere”, but is somewhere home?

My 45th High School reunion is coming up in Rhode island. I don’t think Southbridge is doing one. it’s next weekend, Labor Day weekend, dates chosen at least in part so that “ex pats” like me living elsewhere might have a chance to attend. It would hav been a bit of a layup: go to Reunion and visit my Mom. except for one really substantial detail:

Mom just moved to Cleveland.

Not gonna lie, there is just so, so very much to unpack about this that it may take weeks of musings to sort it all out. Let’s start with this: for the first time in 49 years not member of the White family is living in Lincoln RI. No one. Dad is gone. We all fledged decades ago. None of the grand children settled there. And now Mom, having been terrifically let down by the retirement home she chose in town needed to move closer to some part of her family.

Once upon a time this would have been a non-event. No family just up and left their ancestral home en masse. Someone always stayed behind, and if they didn’t your parents bailed, too. Maybe they migrated nearer to one of their chicks, or maybe they struck out to a fairer clime, but by the time they needed to have someone near they were already, well, near.

Home, then, became a much more complex thing. Was home where your parents lived? Think about that for a bit. Even if they stayed in your “hometown”, if they moved from the building that housed your primordial bed, was their new address home? We, well actually Beth, gave this a bit of thought as we were deciding to downsize. It’s been 10 years (Ten. Years!). Turns out we moved early enough that our 4 kids have come to see our home as the family home. Beth’s Dad insisted on dying in the ancestral home, a former one-room school house that had been in the family for 4 generations. When the three Hurst girls think of home now it means the place where their own mail gets delivered.

And now my Mom no longer lives in Lincoln.

Where, then, is home? Well, my home just became a bit more “home” to be honest. Mom could have gone to Connecticut or south Carolina to be near my siblings, but our little version of home here is at the moment the one with the largest concentration of family members, what with 2 of Mom’s grandsons and their 7 children all here. There was a certain logic in this that made Cleveland a rather obvious choice, however much our 80 year old version of Mom would have discounted it out of hand, but at 86 it was obvious. More family members means more visits. More little slices of home.

Home is still here, for me, at Casa Blanco with Beth, near to my sons and their families and a quick direct flight for my daughter and son-in-law. But it has become a bit more. Whatever remains of my “ancestral home”, the domicile that housed the “primordial” bed from which rose whatever it is that I evolved into, has now moved to a building that shares a strand of fir trees with my office. My mother has moved to Cleveland to spend the rest of her days here, with me and with Beth and with the rest of our little slice of the family. Everyone lives somewhere, and now my Mom lives here, in Cleveland, with us.

Home has come home to me.

I’ll see you next week…

What Happened to August? Sunday musings…8/13/2023

1 Boredom. “The cure for boredom is curiosity.” Dorothy Parker

Saw this at the town pool and town beach this week watching school kids explore.

2 Curiosity. “There is no cure for curiosity.” Also Dorothy Parker

Thank Heavens for that, eh?

3 Drift. No, not the thing radically cool kids do with otherwise normal appearing automobiles, but rather a newly minted term to describe the oddity that is machine learning in AI. It turns out that AI engines don’t learn the same way that we humans do. Everyone, including computer engineers in the field, has assumed that AI machines learn by adding on in a “building blocks” progression, similar to how our brain works. Doing so leads to the accumulation of knowledge and skills that add up like so many wooden blocks in a child’s playroom.

Only that’s apparently not what’s happening.

“Drift” is the phenomenon in which an AI gets progressively worse at a task at which it was quite adept at the same time that it is acquiring excellence in something altogether different. It’s almost as if these supposedly infinitely capable systems are actually “zero-sum” entities: progress in one domain can only be achieved at the expense of another.

Long-term readers will recall that “Sunday musings…” was created as an outlet for my thoughts on all kinds of things, but mostly in the context of physical fitness. CrossFit fitness defined as “work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” CrossFit held (does it still?) that to be as fit as possible one must have equal capacity in the 10 essential fitness domains (aerobic, strength, endurance, etc.). Over-emphasizing one came at the expense of all of the others. Muscle-laden powerlifters who got out of breath after climbing a flight of stairs contrasted with ultra-endurance athletes who struggled to carry a bag of groceries.

Is machine learning-driven AI like fitness? I don’t think anybody really knows. Ya gotta admit though, it’s pretty weird when you think about it. I mean, a transformative technology that gets better and better at answering inane questions on a customer service phone line that simultaneously loses the ability to do math.

It’s like a kind of “skinny fat”, AI version.

4 August. Jason Gay, the excellent sports columnist/satirist at the Wall Street Journal asks “What happened to August?” in a typically perspicacious essay this weekend. It was a great question to contemplate as I’ve worked on unpacking my radically different summer of 2023. No more Cape Week. My Mom is due to move to Cleveland…Cleveland!…in a week. The overwhelmingness of everything that was our Alaska trip. As an aside I am still so filled with so much happiness and awe over our time together in Alaska that I can’t organize my thoughts well enough to write about it. I mean, my little antique Boston Whaler is still doing lawn art duty in front of my house instead of sitting on our launch, ready for adventure.

In August!

To be honest without kids of my own still hanging around the homestead August just feels like, well, August to me. I think Jason is in his late 30’s or so. His kids are only a tiny bit older than my grandchildren. He might be old enough to remember a different August. More likely he is just old enough to have some sense that August was a bit different for the “big kids” in his neighborhood when he was growing up. That August lasted a full four weeks, of course. Everything about summer was inexorably changed when the universal post-Labor Day start to the school year was dialed back to the third week of August, stripping off almost a quarter of summer.

When Beth and I were kids, and for that matter when our parents and grandparents were kids, summer began around June 15th or so. We’d get in two weeks of swimming lessons and Little League baseball, and then everything would shut down for the first two weeks in July. It seemed like everyone in the country who went to work Mondays through Fridays got 2 weeks off that included the 4th of July. Little league shut down. Station wagons were packed and trips were made. I know intellectually that not EVERYONE went on vacation then, but as a kid it sure seemed that way. Stuff kinda changed when we got old enough to have summer jobs–no more trips–but school still didn’t start until the Wednesday after Labor Day.

We got us a whole August every summer.

Jason Gay is right about the intensity of summers today, though. Our kids certainly experienced a bit more of that than Beth, our siblings, and I did. I vividly remember long lazy days where there were literally no plans at all. Maybe we had those swimming lessons in the morning, or perhaps the rec system had some baseball, softball, or basketball games lined up, but our afternoons were pretty free. Beth and her sisters went to a pretty cool day camp, and graduated to become counselors if memory serves, and we certainly heard stories about kids who spent weeks at sleep-away camps, but not my siblings and me. Mom just stuffed as many neighborhood kids as she could into the Chevy wagon and headed to the local little lakeside beach, spread out a blanket, and opened up a book.

We kids were left to amuse ourselves. No travel sports to rush home to. Summer enrichment programs? Pshaw, we all opened our summer reading book on Labor Day and crammed it in while we made up stuff more exciting than same beach with the same kids doing the same thing everyday for 6 weeks. All of that extra, more high intensity stuff that Jason decries started to show up for some of our kids who showed some aptitude for stuff like hockey with its summer camps and football with its mid-August two-a-days. Even at that, at least for our family, the over-arching prioritization of Cape Week made attendance at many of those activities impossible.

Yup, those were different days for sure. Most families had a non-working Mom, or at least one who got summers off. Neighborhoods were filled with an “it takes a village” ethos where whichever Mom was available just grabbed all of the kids and performed a kind of kid-wrangler function. And you know what? Even without a summer filled with elite travel teams or weekly tournaments every kid who was destined to play a sport at a higher level did just that. All of the super bright kids who were destined to end up at highly selective schools managed to land just where they belonged without checking in to a Kumon to be “enriched”.

Nope, instead we dug for worms, and if we were lucky enough to find a few we went fishing.

Who stole August? I’m afraid that the whole “back to school after Labor Day” thing is probably a lost cause, but frankly the blame for all of the intensity, the frenzy of activity, purposeful activity, lies squarely at the feet of the parents. If you and your spouse both have jobs you get a weekday pass; an early start to the school year is probably a huge boon to families in which both parents work, actually. But the whole travel team, weekend tournaments, and lack of lazy days of summer time? Sorry Jason, you and your peers own that. Some younger Boomers may have started the whole thing, and while my own family bears no guilt there I will nonetheless apologize on behalf of those in my generation who did.

But it’s parents who for some reason can’t seem to abide the non-purposeful minutes, let alone hours, spent by their children in the pursuit of the benefits that August once brought. It’s as if they have boredom by proxy, forgetting that boredom was once the gateway to some of the best things they experienced in their own Augusts past. Where we once packed most of the excitement of vacations into the first two weeks of July, kids are now pedal to the metal all summer long. That kid who’s good enough to play D1 soccer? S/he is gonna do that whether or not s/he practices every day school is out and hits up an elite tournament every weekend. Parents are supposed to make that kid NOT play soccer for a few weeks.

All is not lost, for Jason Gay or any other parents who may feel as he does about August. The solution lies in the wisdom of Dorothy Parker: let your kids have a summer filled with boredom. Time when they get to figure it out. Let their curiosity loose. With as little adult supervision and electronic assistance as possible. More parks and fewer plugs. Parents hold the keys to an August reminiscent of Augusts past, however shorter August may now be. The lakeside beaches of my youth are still there. There are still plenty of worms to dig up, fish to catch, friendships to foster. And boredom, the biggest gift of August.

Boredom can bring back that bit of the August we seem to have lost.

I’ll see you next week…

Cape Week

The winds of change blew over our beloved Cape Cod beach. They blew across the dunes we traversed each day for 31 years. Across the back porch of our neighbors, the family that annually gifted us free reign over their beach toys. Past the driveway filled this year with someone else’s cars. They blew all the way to northern Rhode Island, gently caressing our matriarch, my Mom, as she lay in bed, no longer able to make even a brief ceremonial visit to sit with us in the sand.

After 31 years the winds of change have finally closed the doors of the house and the cottage we called home during Cape Week.

Can you imagine? 31 years! Over time we’ve met a handful of other families with similar stories (including one of the docs I work with), but only a handful. Today would be the day that I would usually re-cap Cape Week, parsing this year’s edition. After year 25 things had changed. Dad had died. The grandchildren had busy lives with jobs that kept them away for some, or all of the week. Great-grandchildren added to the mix to create a joyful obstacle to travel, further winnowing down the size of our group. For the better part of 6 years of so we’d been able to handle the crew with only the main house and the occasional room at the Lighthouse Inn.

It was clear last year that when we finished cleaning the house and closed the front door that year 31 would be the last. The 50 yard trek to the beach had become insurmountable for Mom, even with the comically capable balloon-tire equipped off-road wheelchair we found. Tears streamed down my face as I bent down to kiss the beach in thanks for another year, a ritual I’d begun in year 2. Those tears had been tears of sadness in year 25 as I mourned the passing of what I’ve come to think of as “Cape Week Classic”, those years when our family of 20 mostly attended en masse. My tears last year had a touch of sadness, for sure, but they were really as much tears of joy, thankful tears shed upon the sand that had brought such joy to our families. Like the tears that I am struggling to see through as I write today.

What could have been a time of melancholy was transformed into a joyous adventure. One night after dinner last summer my sister Tracey and Beth were chatting about trips they wished to go on. Tracey’s family has been on a quest to visit national parks, and the parks of Alaska were next on her list. As it turned out, Alaska was one of the two remaining states for Beth to visit to finish her 50-state lifetime list. Would we like to go together the following summer? When my other siblings and their spouses caught wind of the idea Alaska 2023 became a real thing. 4 of the cousins (and 3 of their significant others) signed on, and here I am on the first Sunday after what would have been Cape Week, writing.

About Cape Week v3.0, Alaska!

I’m not really going to write about Alaska today. It was a really big trip, a big deal all on its own and it deserves of my “musings…” attention all by itself. What makes it special today, though, is that my siblings and I, and our spouses, once again chose to spend a week together. If you’ve read my stuff over the years you’ll recall the Cape Week backstory; please forgive me for recounting it yet again for those who may not.

Beth and I are both firstborns, and as such we did all of the standard-issue life stuff first. First to marry, and therefore the first to acquire in-laws and all that pertains. We had children, sent them to school, married them off and welcomed grandchildren first. Holidays had become a challenge as we all tried to balance our desires to spend time with our expanded families. Cape Week was born as a way for the extended White family to convene at least once every year. And so we have, with the exception of illness each year, now for 32 years.

What will become of Cape Week? I sure don’t know. What could have been a week of melancholy filled with the emptiness of loss turned into something else entirely. The winds of change blew us thousands of miles across North America, about as far from Cape Cod as you can get and still be in the United States. We are all bathing in the glow of an epic collection of family adventures, each one capped by dinner together aboard the huge “floating hotel” we sailed between ports. The best part of Cape Week, the part that stayed most the same over those 31 years, came with us to Alaska. Each night we met for drinks somewhere on board on our way to the restaurant where we dined together, just like we’d done every night in the Big House at the beach. It was all really quite lovely.

Mom and Dad would have been so very happy.

Who knows where we go from here. Perhaps the “Super 8”, as one of my sisters dubbed us, will find a way to do something together each summer around the time of Cape Week. Perhaps some of our children will come along like this year. Or not. Maybe this was it. Maybe this was Cape Week bowing out with a bang, giving us the trip of a lifetime as the cold winds of Alaska usher in the end of an era. We will know soon enough.

What I do know is how very fortunate we have all been these last 32 years. And how grateful I am for each of them. My deepest thanks to Beth, Joanne, Steve and Jimmy, our spouses, for making this all possible. Without your collective “OK”, and more than that, without your continued willingness to make the herculean effort necessary to pull this off for the sake of someone else’s family, we don’t get past year 2. Likewise, thank you Dan, Megan, Randy Pat, Darric, David, Tim, Jen, Nick, Mathew, and Ryan for giving up a week of your summer for so many years and spend it with your grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It would have been fun if just the “Super 8” had gathered, but with the 10 of you around it was just a blast!

Especially after you all got your driver’s licenses and brought Sundae School treats back to the house for “the adults” every night!

And finally, thank you Randall, Tracey, and Kerstin for, well, everything. I can barely see my screen right now, but if I close my eyes I can see each of you, all of us, on the beach and beyond. There we are on all of the many beaches of our lives, together. There we are, with all of the kids, surrounding Mom and Dad on the porch at the Cape. Close your eyes and look with me. Look at the smiles on Mom and Dad’s faces. So many years; so many smiles.

Thank you all for Cape Week. May the winds of change continue to blow us ever together…

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