Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Being Mortal

I just read through to the end of Atul Gawande's Being Mortal.  There is a reason that it is a best seller, and indeed that all his books are, and that is that he is not just a great writer, but a beautiful soul. He manages to bring both prodigious erudition and curiosity together with tremendous bigheartedness in pretty much whatever topic he tackles.

In this case, he writes about aging, and dying, and how it can be better facilitated by the medical world.

Around the time I first cracked Being Mortal, I also started reading Graham Greene's 1959 Our Man in Havana, which is basically a spy novel as farce.  You would think that would have been more entertaining.  But no, it was Gawande who pulled me through first, so real was it. It made me think back all too often to my dad's last couple of days.  Difficult though they were, I feel that, ultimately, we made the right choice in not seeking to keep him alive by whatever means necessary.  He had no interest in living a half-assed, half-witted life in some institution.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


I was talking to someone I used to drink with in the late 80s in North Carolina, who ended up getting sober in the West Village in the 90s, unbeknownst to me, while I was doing the same on the Upper West Side.  At some point in time she characterized her path in life, or her current state, in terms of "grace." This is a rhetoric which at one point in time would have been repugnant to me, but where I am in life now, I was right with her.

This morning I went to an AA meeting that I try to get to as often as I can, maybe one week in three on average throughout the year.  In front of me there was a guy who had once shared about killing someone while driving drunk, and the guilt and shame he felt about it.  Afterwards I had said to him that it could have been me, could have been many of us, because he was by no means alone in driving drunk.

Sometime during the meeting someone asked (and this usually doesn't happen in the middle of meetings) if there was anyone there who had less than 30 days sober.  The guy in front of me raised his hand.

And I was brought back around to my incredible sense of gratitude for the fact that, somehow, through submission, however imperfect, to the concept that I am powerless over certain things -- and as I proceed through life my consciousness of my powerlessness increases more and more -- that I have been able to stay away from an ever-wider list of things which harm me: alchohol, drugs, cigarettes, even junk food (an ongoing battle, to be sure).

What's more, I can't help but to recognize that I am of the ruling class, more or less, while this guy does not appear to be. I think about people working through dependence on drugs, alchohol, and other challenges and entering the workforce only to find it incredibly hard to find decent ways to earn decent livings.  Not that it's impossible, but it ain't easy. Nor is a policy solution to it.

It was good to see the guy in a meeting, fighting the fight for today, but it was sad to see him leave before the closing prayer.  I had hoped to congratulate him on his time. It is said that alcoholism is a cunning and baffling disease, and that's no lie.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Service getting better

I went to a business networking lunch a couple of weeks ago for a group that meets in the same place every week.  The service wasn't good.  Particularly when it came time to pay, the wait staff was slow to come give us bills and take our cards.

At the time I reflected that the wait staff was African-American women, and, given that the labor market is pretty tight around here, it was not improbable that they were new to waiting tables.  In fact, that day I remember one of them taking a really long time getting another table's order, right when we needed to get our checks, which is typical of new staff, trying to make friends with every table and acting too much as a "meal counselor."

Net net, it's probably reflective of a healthy situation where new people are being drawn into the workforce and are learning to work with customers, an all-important skill in many if not all types of work.

This last week, things ran much better at the lunch.  They got our checks early and turned them around really quickly.  It may be that the one of our group had spoken to the manager beforehand, whatever.  It's all good.

Monday, September 21, 2015

More on happy endings

I took a bunch of boys to see Inside Out as part of Graham's 12th birthday party.  After the movie, as we were driving home in a borrowed minivan, I heard one of the boys behind me ask "why do stories always have happy endings?"  The boy seated next to him responded:  "I read a book one time that didn't have a happy ending. It sucked."

So, there you go.  That's where we are at age 11-12. I have shared before my growing if not unconditional predilection for the happy ones, so while I'm not 100% down with where the kid was coming from, I still get it.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Graham's 12th

So, Graham's 12th birthday party is almost done, and the most important, and stressful part of it -- the preparation -- was completed hours ago.  This would be the 27th birthday party we have hosted, and though I did fairly well in the run-up to it, there was a moment when I lost track of the Zen of spousal relationship around birthdays.  That is -- don't fight it.  Just do what is asked.  All of the house-cleaning is eventually good in that the house ends up cleaner and more orderly than it was before you started. All the anxiety of preparation is about the fear of looking sloppy in the eyes of other moms dropping off and picking up. This is a fear that must be acknowledged, honored, and moved through. Resistence is futile, nay, counterproductive.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Resisting and appreciating Caro

I keep struggling to get back into Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, which I am about 2/3rds done with, which puts me at having read about 3,000 pages of his in the last couple of years.  I am, to some extent, sick of his style.

But then I read Nicolas Krystof's piece "From Somaliland to Harvard,"  in last week's Sunday NYTimes, in which he described a kid who used to spend two hours a day hauling water from a well to his home, and I really understand what that means to a household when I think back to Caro's chapter about LBJ's herculean efforts under the Rural Electrification Administration to bring electricity to the Texas hill country in the thirties, and how transformative that was for the lives of rural women in particular, but also children.  The ability to pump water up from water sources cuts out that 2 hours or whatever of water-hauling.

So I know that there is so much in Caro for me. I just must muster the patience to take it in.

The kid in the Krystof piece is, of course, the one who has gone to Harvard (with the help of $ from some hedge fund guy), and who plans to return home to Somaliland to try to bring change there. Let's hope he sticks to the plan.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Plot protection

Graham and I are now well past the halfway mark in watching the original Star Trek, and he has already articulated a very important principle that he has observed.  All the main characters, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scottie, and Uhura, are said to have "plot protection."  That is, no matter how dangerous the situation, we know that they will not die.

Now, this is an important learning for a kid to have. I think that in time we all come to realize that this is true of main characters, and it is one of the great assurances, indeed the key functions of narrative of this sort, to instill in us this belief.  That no matter what happens, the hero will survive the episode, the sun will rise tomorrow.  It instills in us the optimism to keep plugging forward, no matter what obstacles life puts in our path.

Actually, Graham is already in touch with the idea of "Deus ex machina" coming in to save the day.

It makes me think back to the time, 5 years and change ago, when we went to see Toy Story 3 (chronicled in this post), and Graham did not have anything resembling this level of trust in the masters of the plot.  So it is good to see what some years of imbibing plots will do for a young fellow's intellectual and temperamental development.

Tonight, it looked not so good for Kirk, McCoy, and especially Spock, who boldly set out in a hovercraft as the Enterprise was being drawn inexorably into the center of a 11,000 mile long energy-sucking amoeba, which was threatening to reproduce.  Luckily, Kirk thought of injecting some anti-matter into the chromosomal core of the thing, based on some analysis Spock had radioed, seemingly with one of his dying breaths.  Luckily, it worked, and everybody survived, and a hearty laugh was had by all.  But it was tense and, it must be owned, a little emotional.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Rally for Recovery

I drove up to Raleigh yesterday for a Rally for Recovery, a public event for people in recovery to come together and celebrate their progress.  It is all connected with a movement to make recovery community more visible to the world, to peel back the layer of anonymity and shame which covers it and help people better understand that:

  1. Substance abuse is an illness, like diabetes
  2. There are lots of success stories
  3. There is substantial ROI in investing in mitigation
I felt like it was important for me to go because I have recently joined the board of a non-profit that works to secure funding for programs around substance abuse and raise consciousness about the issue, and that because my background in this world is so overwhelmingly 12-step that I really don't understand a lot of the rest of the ecosystem of providers, services, interventions, etc.

When I got there, I found that there were lots of people smoking, and that a non-trivial portion of them were drawn from the less-affluent portions of society, including a lot of people of color.  They were giving away free food, which always makes me hungry, but then when I looked at the line for people getting the free food I saw that it was a lot of people who looked like they needed it, whereas I just wanted it.  Particularly one of the sausage biscuits from Bojangles. So I didn't get in line.

The fact of the matter is, I was a little uncomfortable being around people who are not like me.  And I need to get over that, because a lot of this world is people who are in fact not all that like me, save that they are Americans with dreams and problems, but fewer advantages than I've had.

There was tall, skinny, young African-American guy who was standing near me listening to the speakers.  He had gotten a bag of food from the line, and it was at his feet.  It had potato chips, bananas, an apple, maybe other stuff.  Absent-mindedly, he stepped on the bag and tripped a little. He quickly picked up the apple and took a bite, maybe because he wanted to get it in his belly before it bruised, or because he was just anxiously conscious of the fact that he had almost squandered a resource.  Or maybe I'm projecting.

Internal bitching

I was driving over to a client's house in Carrboro an hour or so back, listening to Stephen Malkmus, wearing flip flops, on a beautiful sunny day.  I caught myself moaning to myself that I was working on a Sunday.

Then I realized that I was driving through Carrboro on a beautiful sunny day, wearing flip flops and listening to Stephen Malkmus.  I was, in short, living the dream.  And that I had been entrusted by a client to do something involving a significant amount of trust, which is a great honor.

So, enough already with the bitching.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Durham lawyer

I met a lawyer in Durham today who grew up down the street from my dad, was maybe 7 years younger than him.  He said that my dad came and talked to him about law school when he was considering applying, and that my dad's encouragement was part of what made him choose the law.

Which is funny, considering how my dad came to revile the profession.  Still, it is very interesting to go around Durham and hear all these stories of what dad was like back in the day.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Pine Plains

I talked to my friend Nick yesterday, and it brought back memories of going up to his family's farm in Pine Plains, NY, most often with his brother Tony, in the late 80s and early 90s.  I must say these are some of the warmest memories of my life.

Pine Plains was a pretty Chekhovian place.  Nick and Tony's dad had left Wall Street many years before and bought up 400 acres up in Dutchess County, beautiful land, hilly, with views off into the distance where the Hudson is.  To keep preferred tax status, he needed to generate a certain amount of revenue, and hay wasn't doing it.  He needed cattle.  Meanwhile, the ranch house they lived in had been subjected to what is termed in institutional circles "deferred maintenance."  There was a spot on an old sofa where Tony's dad liked to sit that was dark from dirt from his work clothes.  We called it "the hole" or something like that.

But it was always great to be there. In particular there was one weekend, probably in the fall of '91 or '92.  Their family was ramping up its production of beef cattle, and as part of this effort we were putting up metal fencing around what where to become paddocks.  It must have been late October or November, so it was chilly, and Tony and I were working pretty hard driving posts into the ground.  I remember taking shelter from the cold in the barn, hanging out on some bales of hay.  I was probably smoking a cigarette at the time, like an idiot.

Then there was lunch.  Liverwurst sandwiches. Something like a direct infusion of fat and protein into the bloodstream at a time of great need.  Yum.

All in all, there was just something great about getting away and doing physically tiring work with a clear goal in a beautiful setting with a good friend, during a time of some transition and uncertainty. Which, in retrospect, is just life.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

My prayer

At Al Anon this morning the topic was how people meditate and pray to connect with their higher powers.  Yes, this is how we talk.

I will confess that meditation does me no good, I can only pray, and I try to do it each morning.  We are enjoined by Step 11 to try to achieve conscious contact with "God as we understand him," praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.

Already the first thing in the morning, my mind shoots off on its habitrail of concerns about business, this client and that client and the market and the responsibility of managing peoples' money and funding my family's operations and this that or the other with one of the kids...  It is hard to center myself.  And yet, I try to do it each day.

Having been raised Christian, of sorts, or at least among "Christians", the only way to do this that feels natural and comfortable is more like prayer than meditation.  The problem is, I don't exactly believe in God, and certainly not in the sense of some grey-haired human-looking guy up there in the clouds pulling strings to make things happen and having a plan for everything.

But nonetheless when I try to connect my mental model is that of prayer. And I must confess that, rationally, when I look at the external circumstances of my life, I really can only be grateful, and as I believe I have blogged before, it makes no sense to be grateful to nothingness, and therefore something on the other side of my gratitude is presupposed.

I haven't figured it out yet.

I did think that, having recently read the chapter in Dean Smith's bio about his faith, that if I were to believe in God, that Dean Smith's concept of a deity seems a fairly decent one.  Gotta love the guy. It was appropriate, therefore, that I was sitting at the time in Binkley Baptist Church, where Coach Smith went for almost half a century.

(two days later) Just found a note in a private journal on this topic. In some sense, when I try to figure out the concept of God for myself, to make a firm decision on the existence or non-existence thereof, and/or what a deity looks like/consists of etc, I am trying to outsmart everybody else once more.  This attempt bespeaks insufficient humility before the question itself, which is what I really need to strive after.  I am not going to resolve this question.  I can only let go.

Pascal's Wager remains so pertinent.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The conservative impulse

Watching Man U lose to Swansea the other day, I found myself challenged at some basic, root level. On the one hand, I think it's good for things to get shaken up, and I should like to see a team like Swansea do well.  I have no reason to like Man U in particular.  They are the Dallas Cowboys of soccer.

And yet... something in me longs to see the traditional order of things continue, and it saddens me to see them perform so shittily.  Why should I care at all?  The roster of players has turned over almost entirely.  It's pretty much just Rooney and Valencia left from my early days of watching them, and of the rest, there's very little compelling about them, though I like Phil Jones.

Nonetheless, I kind of want them to win, because they represent a stability of sorts that is appealing to me.  Just because.  I suppose that's kind of a middle-aged white guy way to view the world.