Baubles and Panniers  

We lose our way when we get so caught up in what we want and don’t want that we forget what we have and why we have it.


We celebrated our 10th anniversary this summer (I’ve actually been married 35 years, just not continuously). There were gifts – a set of motorcycle saddlebags for me, a tourmaline, diamond and sapphire ring for my wife – but the best gift we gave and got was a day of just being with each other. I’m not sure why it took a big anniversary to make that happen, but something about the day made us forget to have any expectations other than just enjoying each other’s company and the casual ease of a lengthening marriage.


I commented on this to my wife on the way home from our anniversary night out, and woke the next morning feeling a need to really take stock. I’ve mentioned Brian Andreas’s Story People before in this column. His offering this morning, a paean to someone he loves called Favorite Places, is a good jumping off place: “I’m not that good at being a tourist because I’m always looking at the way the light shines in your hair or the way your dress opens to the wind & my favorite places in the world are places filled with you.”

I can’t speak for everyone, but my experiences of my own and others’ relationships suggests that we lose our way when we get so caught up in what we want and don’t want that we forget what we have and why we have it. I acted in a play this summer called The Dinner Party, a lesser-known Neil Simon show about three divorced couples forced back together at a party under false pretenses.  Near the end, after a complex struggle of emotions, I said “…some of us will take a second look at ourselves, what we had and what we lost…and some may make a decision which would have seemed inconceivable before we arrived here tonight.”  My character goes on to describe the nicest thing his ex-spouse ever did in their marriage, as accepting and loving him for who he was.

What else does any of us need than looking at the person you spend your life with and knowing, despite all the crap you inevitably toss at each other, that this is the person who totally floats your boat?

Carole Lombard & Gary Cooper, 1930

On our tenth anniversary, we each posted a favorite picture on social media from the first 24 hours of our marriage. My wife chose one of our wedding dance and I picked the one of us relaxing at a B&B the morning after (above). We compared the number of “likes” and comments on each other’s feeds several times over the following days, but it was the kind of competition that was mutually enjoyed. (Unlike the Parcheesi game a couple of years ago – yes Parcheesi – that had a friend vowing never to play a game with the us again, and could easily have devolved into an emotional restraining order.)


Neither of us looks quite the same as we did ten years ago, but any disappointment I feel looking at those photos has more to do with my own self image than the way I feel about my wife…”the way the light shines in [her] hair or the way your dress opens to the wind.”


I don’t feel that way about anyone else. I was single for five years between marriages, and infatuated on more than one occasion. Who doesn’t love the electricity of romantic attraction? But the fireball that hit me (and by her report my wife) at our first touch 15 years ago has never and will never come close to being replicated with anyone else. Aging is partly about changes in skin tone and hair color and fluidity of motion, but it’s also about looking at someone asleep next to you with one of those expressions that happens only when we’re asleep, and knowing you’re in the right place. Because if we’re really lucky, and maybe a bit smart, the passage of time enables us to slow things down in a way that enhances the moments. I’m the last person who should be criticizing anyone for rushing through life, given my dispositional impatience, but I really am getting better.


My wife and I are and will always be on different sleep schedules. I wake up hours earlier, she needs a lot more sleep than I do, and there’s no stirring her once she’s out. She once slept, literally, through an Alaskan earthquake.  (We weren’t married at the time, but I don’t doubt the story for an instant.)  It’s sometimes frustrating, because I like the soft-focus scene in lots of movies and tv shows where the couple luxuriates in bed in the morning reading the newspaper and doing other stuff. But oddly enough, I woke up this morning, and find myself more often than not doing the same these days, completely unfazed by spending the morning “on my own,” watering and feeding the dogs, having a bowl of cereal, and sitting down to write. This isn’t ideal for me, but it’s not wrong either, and it’s certainly not a reason to ruin anyone’s day. It just is.

Past is prologue. There’s no changing who we were, what we did, or how we muddled through life’s challenges. But really, maybe it’s all setting the stage for now. I might trade lots of things to be younger, or have more energy or the ambition I once did  – and I might do almost anything if I could have more of my hair back. But the thing that always eluded me, and maybe, just maybe is becoming less elusive now, is this increasingly self-evident feeling of contentment. Sure, there are things I’d like to happen, grandchildren for example being on top of both our lists right now. We’d spoil them mercilessly.

(Actress representation)

But really, what’s better than having bought my wife a ring this summer to recognize an important milestone, to be getting ready to go attach those panniers to my bike, to be looking past the top of my laptop at the sun on the harbor, and to be waiting to say good morning to my sleeping beauty?



Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an intracontinental eclipse, or it’s equivalent, a lot more often than every few decades?

Social Media Today published a description this week of social media habits by age group. (Thanks to Mark D for the link.)  Two-thirds of people 50 to 64 but only one third of those 65+ use social media. By contrast, the overall rate of social media consumption is 86% for those under 30.

Those numbers aren’t exactly surprising, and no one’s going to lose sleep over a bunch of technologically tuned-out boomers, but the follow-on data give pause. The same article reports that while 9 out of 10 boomers are “interested in the news,” only half again as many are interested in the under 30 bracket.  More than half of those 60 and over vs. only 25% of people under 30 go “in depth.” Consumption habits show adults reading digital and online content and the “kids” predominantly watching videos.


So as bad as you thought the problem is with people getting their impressions of the world through sound bites, you have to wonder what will happen when those who can only consume information by video get their hands on the levers of government and industry. My observations as both a manager and an educator (not necessary at the same time) are that we’re becoming, or perhaps have already fully become, a transactional society.  That means acting on the basis of immediate, short-term outcomes rather than taking the long view. It means treating interactions with other people as discrete events rather than as parts of an ongoing relationship. It means losing of threads of human contact and experience which have historically been the ties that bind. Little wonder that someone who views the world as a purely transactional, zero-sum game is sitting in the oval office.

It’s not news that we’re living in a highly fragmented time, and just plain sad that we so infrequently experience common purpose or experience. This hasn’t always been the case; there as a time when it clearly wasn’t.


The last year in particular has seen families and friendships damaged, often irrevocably, by anger and politically-instigated intolerance. I’m not suggesting everybody ought to be friends, or that we normalize a bunch of vicious morons marching through their free country carrying the flags of mass murderers. Or that we act like a bunch of ostriches like a Facebook acquaintance who keeps celebrating her ignorance of world events like the objective is to have a nice dinner party. The damage is there, and it’s real, and I’m not ever going to pal around with a skinhead flying a confederate flag from the back of his truck. But I am happy to discuss substantive problems and solutions with thoughtful people, whatever their political persuasion.

brotherI have no idea how they teach it now, and shudder that there are lots of people who think of the Civil War as the “war of northern aggression,” but when I was growing up in Philadelphia they talked a lot about the Civil War being a “brother against brother” affair. As kids, we couldn’t understand how family members could end up figuratively or literally shooting at each other. It’s sadly not hard to see how that could come about through the dark lens of 2017.

So it was heartening yesterday, to watch the coverage of millions of people in cities across the eclipse’s path sharing awe and wonder, at the simple natural phenomenon of a celestial shadow. People clapped and hooted and exclaimed silly things, and in large measure fell silent as the moon fully “ate” the sun. Really, it was a spectacular day in so many ways. Apart from watching the real-time NASA footage, a lot of us got to play junior scientists with our homemade viewers, and a lot of others got to wear silly glasses that looked for all the world like a 1950’s audience at a 3D movie. It was all quite wonderful in a simpler time kind of way and revealed that there’s still some underlying visceral connection we can all spontaneously tap into…some shared humanity that, at least for a few minutes, renders us all part of the same whole.

watching 3

Maybe I’m a bit of a dinosaur in my thinking here (though 25 years ago I was incorporating leading edge technology into my startup company), but I think social media, an extension of electronic rather than paper or voice communication, has really screwed us up as a civilization. It enables the worst human instincts to propagate at the speed of light, it demands complexity be reduced to 140 character superficialities, it fractures personal interaction into impersonal fragments, it substitutes mass acquaintances for friendships, it causes us all to burrow deeper into isolation rather than collective experience. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an intracontinental eclipse, or it’s equivalent, a lot more often than every few decades? Now that would be one hell of a totality.





It’s not that we spend so much time on minutia, but that we spend so much time on stuff that isn’t nourishing to us.  Minutia are actually pretty great if you attend to the right things.  

  1. a poem or piece of music appropriate to the dawn or early morning.  (In the middle ages it referred to lovers needing to part with the dawn.)
    Strolling to the shore

It occurs to me how far we all come in life.  I came across this poem by Philip Larkin, one of the great depressive geniuses I studied in college oh, about a million  years ago.  It seems at once relevant and a bit shocking, the kind of thing a young person would study without any particular grasp, or at least not a visceral one, of what is really going on in the author’s head (and heart).  Here’s an excerpt (I redacted the really awful bits, since it’s a rumination on death, but you can look it up here).


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.

In time the curtain-edges will grow light…

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse

—The good not done, the love not given, time

Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because

An only life can take so long to climb

Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;

But at the total emptiness for ever,

The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true…

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,

Have always known, know that we can’t escape,

Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Work has to be done.

From this perspective, and not the one I had when I first came across this 40 years ago, I can’t help thinking of this is a call to action rather than an admonishment to acceptance.  What particularly resonates with me is not the idea that the world goes on per se, but the more important one in terms of transitions that a lot of the stuff I (we?) used to worry so much about is pretty irrelevant.  “…telephones crouch, getting ready to ring / In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring / Intricate rented world begins to rouse.”

It’s not that we spend so much time on minutia, but that we spend so much time on stuff that isn’t nourishing to us.  Minutia are actually pretty great if you attend to the right things.  Think about the following passage from a quite different author, someone who is probably unknown compared to Philip Larkin, writing about the simple wonder of a day from the perspective of a pet:

Crystal Ward Kent

When you bring a pet into your life, you begin a journey – a journey that will bring you more love and devotion than you have ever known, yet also test your strength and courage.

If you allow, the journey will teach you many things, about life, about yourself, and most of all, about love. You will come away changed forever, for one soul cannot touch another without leaving its mark.

Along the way, you will learn much about savoring life’s simple pleasures – jumping in leaves, snoozing in the sun, the joys of puddles, and even the satisfaction of a good scratch behind the ears.

If you spend much time outside, you will be taught how to truly experience every element, for no rock, leaf, or log will go unexamined, no rustling bush will be overlooked, and even the very air will be inhaled, pondered, and noted as being full of valuable information. Your pace may be slower – except when heading home to the food dish – but you will become a better naturalist, having been taught by an expert in the field.

Too many times we hike on automatic pilot, our goal being to complete the trail rather than enjoy the journey. We miss the details – the colorful mushrooms on the rotting log, the honeycomb in the old maple snag, the hawk feather caught on a twig. Once we walk as a dog does, we discover a whole new world. We stop; we browse the landscape, we kick over leaves, peek in tree holes, look up, down, all around. And we learn what any dog knows: that nature has created a marvelously complex world that is full of surprises, that each cycle of the seasons bring ever changing wonders, each day an essence all its own.

You will find yourself watching summer insects collecting on a screen, or noting the flick and flash of fireflies through the dark. You will stop to observe the swirling dance of windblown leaves, or sniff the air after a rain. It does not matter that there is no objective in this; the point is in the doing, in not letting life’s most important details slip by.

dog-sniffing-flowers2In it’s simplest form, this isn’t a novel sentiment; we’ve all heard the expression “take time to smell the roses.”  But it’s really more than that, something that is ageless, timeless and offers possibility in a way that we too often take for granted.  For me, it ratifies the conversation I had with a good friend last night, about moving past the urge to be what I was before, to run things the way I did as a CEO, and perhaps a way of subverting or at least taming the sense of annoyance that surges to the surface whenever something isn’t the way I want it.

I did a google search on aubade as I was writing this.  It’s apparently a sexy French lingerie company.  Who would have thought?  Take that, Philip Larkin.

It’s all good.

Upside Down and Inside Out

Wouldn’t it be validation that we really have evolved as a species if we took responsibility for our own causal actions?

I’m thinking today about things that cause other things to happen, vs. things that are a symptom of other things happening. It seems like a pretty basic distinction, but it seems to be one that’s beyond the grasp these days of everyone from students to “high-level” policy-makers. In the business classroom, it’s the difference between a poor strategy or execution, such as a decision to use lower quality materials (the cause) which leads to reduced product reliability, more consumer complaints and ultimately fewer purchases – and the decline in sales itself (the symptom). In public policy (yes, I know I shouldn’t go here but I’m having flashbacks of “duck and cover” this week) it’s the difference between deciding to use impulsive and bellicose language (the cause) that prompts an escalation in geopolitical tensions – and the inability a few weeks from now to find Guam on a satellite image of the Pacific Ocean (the symptom).


I think we as a society used to know this stuff and approach things in a more informed and sober fashion. If you have a problem with your spouse or kids, it’s probably not because they are intrinsically problematic people, but because you have stopped communicating effectively. It you have a problem with your job, it’s probably not because it’s intrinsically a place no one can work, but because it’s a bad fit with your temperament and interests. If you have a problem with the leader of the free world it’s probably not because democracy is a bad idea but because the job is beyond someone with the depth and worldview of a toddler. You might try to solve the first problem with communication or counseling rather than divorce or disinheriting; the second one by figuring out what kind of environment fits you better rather than blackmailing your boss into treating you better; and the third one by invoking Article 25 rather than trying to retrofit the job.

blindspot2I don’t know for sure, but people’s behavior suggests a loss of the ability to distinguish cause and effect. It’s like the guy who swerves out of his lane on the highway and complains about the driver he sideswiped having been in his blind spot. I came across an article some weeks ago that seems to amplify this idea of a blind spot.

“As you travel this summer you may be required to remove your Kindle, paperback book, food and any tech item larger than a cellphone from your carry-on bag….The TSA pilot program is to address an increase in passengers cramming more and more stuff into their carry-on bags…The tight packing makes it harder for screeners to properly inspect bags using the X-ray machine and has increased the number of bags sent on for an additional manual inspection.”

Deconstruct this for a minute. What’s the problem? Well, the immediate one is that bad people seem to have come up with a new way to get bombs into laptops. The secondary one is that carry-on bags are packed too tightly to detect the bombs using traditional airport screening devices. The obvious and painfully superficial “solution” devised by TSA? Coerce people into packing less in their carry-on bags by making the trip through airport security even more miserable than it already is.


What this completely fails to recognize is what’s causing the problem. This isn’t an issue of ability to detect per se but of ability to detect given overstuffed bags. Why are the bags overstuffed? Because airlines make more money from checked bag charges than they do from selling seats. So everyone either under-packs for their needs or stuffs everything they can into a carry-on. Is the solution to this really to further disenfranchise travelers from their belongings by shaming them in the TSA screening line (I mean even further than having to undress and be intimately patted down by a stranger.)


If you’re reading this you’re probably old enough to remember the halcyon days of being treated like something other than a canned anchovy when you travel. When airline employees were rewarded for treating passengers well, instead of herding them like cattle (and dragging the occasional errant one off the airplane). How’s this for cause and effect: if you beat up your employees in the name of efficiency, they’ll take it out on your customers in the name of catharsis. If you force people to protect their economic interests by jamming everything they own into a carry-on, they’ll jam everything they own into a carry-on. If you deregulate to the point of allowing companies to act like jerks in the service of their shareholder dividends and stock price, they will act accordingly.

The financial metrics are of course good. Once-struggling industries like the airlines have consolidated into a domestic oligopoly and are flush with cash. The market is good. Passenger volume is at an all-time high…

And while travel destinations are still as wonderful as ever, unless you have a private plane or the resources for first-class service getting there, travel has become something to be endured. We’ve displaced civility, which it seems to me is a pretty important societal glue, with economic efficiency – which produces stupid group think.

I read something else yesterday, about the way bodies were recovered following the sinking of the Titanic. (I should note that I haven’t independently verified this, but it’s not an unlikely picture of events.) Understandably overwhelmed and distressed, the crew on the rescue and recovery ships were instructed to handle things based on commonly held and generally accepted rules of class hierarchy. They’d register the manner of dress and go through the pockets of the victims and if there was evidence of higher social class, they would be recovered. If they seemed to be steerage, they were chucked back into the sea.


“Passengers chances of surviving the sinking of the S.S. Titanic were related to their sex and their social class: females were more likely to survive than males, and the chances of survival declined with social class as measured by the class in which the passenger travelled. The probable reasons for these differences in rates of survival are discussed as are the reasons accepted by the Mersey Committee of Inquiry into the sinking.”

It has always been the case that older generations have been criticized by younger ones for a rose-colored and objectively inaccurate memory of how things were. I think there’s always been a human tendency to emphasize expediency, but it’s often enough tempered with essential decency that we can characterize the worst offenders as outside the range of acceptable civility. The Titanic story is evidence of changing attitudes toward what is acceptable, but the extraordinary efforts of rescuers over a hundred years ago is also evidence of our better nature.

The TSA’s new policy is the opposite. I know it’s a rhetorical question and the answer is “probably not,” but wouldn’t it be validation that we really have evolved as a species if we took responsibility for our own causal actions, and stopped putting the burden on the victims?


The Intrinsic Worth of Gratification

Nevertheless, I am feeling a strong need to do something with the rest of the time, and an equally strong need to break with the things that formerly defined me. Those have always been work, integrity of intent, and despite an equivocal ability to consistently demonstrate it, a desire to take care of other people.

So here I sit at the cusp of something new. I haven’t figured it out yet, and I’m afraid that AARP’s Life Reimagined doesn’t quite cut it for me personally, though the concept is probably on point. Not going to get overly political here, but the news this week continues to highlight an administration swirling in chaos, one that abuses our allies, struts with imperialist privilege, and is apparently happy to pitch our entire democracy in the dumpster if it’s good for their personal business interests. I’m pretty sure they executed the Rosenbergs for a lot less.

That’s not the point of this post, though. The reason I mentioned it at all is that it fired off some synapses in my head about the future. More specifically, the future my children and their yet-to-be-born children will inherit. And what I want to do with the remains of an hourglass that has undeniably drained more than half it’s sand. While I was ruminating, a commercial came on for Campaign for Nursing’s Future.


Sponsored by Johnson and Johnson, beautifully crafted with just the right touch of hope, humanity and pathos, about a nurse helping a little girl through an administration of chemo. I got a dopamine surge (or whatever it is that causes chemical surges in the brain of a need to do good), and not for the first time decided that I want to do something to help children who are in trouble.

Now this impulse isn’t exactly Gandhi-level philanthropic. The fact is, I love my own children more than life but I really am not overly enamored of other people’s kids. Babies are okay, because they don’t cause much trouble, and they’re often cute and I get whatever the male equivalent is of maternal feelings when I see them – up to about the age of two. After that, they really do need to accept responsibility for their sometimes awful behavior, and intrusion on my own peace and contentment.

children-at-restaurants-featured.jpgI once told a little boy who was bouncing around a restaurant and repeatedly interrupting a dinner I was having with friends, because his laid-back parents couldn’t be bothered to contain him, to go back to his parents. This of course set him off crying, and as they finally, mercifully got up to go the father called me a prick as he raced for the door.

Nevertheless, I am feeling a strong need to do something with the rest of the time, and an equally strong need to break with the things that formerly defined me. Those have always been work, integrity of intent, and despite an equivocal ability to consistently demonstrate it, a desire to take care of other people. Here’s the thing: The work doesn’t carry the same gravitas with me anymore. Sorry, clients, but it’s not my life’s highest priority whether your new device does whatever it is your new device does. I’ll do a great job, but I’m not invested in your mission the way you are, especially if it has more to do with dollars than improving lives. Nor has teaching, my nominal adjunct “second career” proven much of a panacea.   The give-back aspect is appealing, and I love the classroom, and there are a few really outstanding students that make it all worthwhile, but far too many of them just aren’t worth the expenditure of brain chemicals and oxygen.


So what to do?

I’m not brave or adventurous enough to go solve world hunger in under-developed nations, and I’m disinclined to try to reverse the catastrophic effects of negative socialization in the inner city.  Too much like tilting windmills. But I read the Vanity Fair cover story about Angelina Jolie this morning, and whatever else you might want to say about her, she is a woman who has dedicated a tremendous amount of time and wealth to a mission. There really is something to helping other people.

Angelina-Jolie--Vanity-Fair-2017--04-662x1007Look, I’ve got a theory – no, make that a conviction – that philanthropy isn’t the selfless thing people assume it is. We are all the victims of being the species we are, and for humans that means we seek gratification in the things that light up our pleasure centers. Sometimes that means some of us do extraordinary things that make a dent in the goodness ledger of the universe. But even Mother Theresa, selfless as she was, did it for a reason, and my theory is it lit up the gratification centers in her brain.

So I’m struggling to sort this, like so many of us are, and I think I’m on to something of a clue. I’m going to find something that involves helping those who are hurting and blameless in their pain. So no, I won’t give a helping hand to the 14-year old with a zip gun; I’m thinking more about that little kid getting chemo in the J&J ad. It’s not inconsistent – I’ve spent my professional life helping to commercialize medical advances because they carry an intrinsic good. It’s just a small door of insight, but I’m going to try to crack it open.



“Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open”   

~John Barrymore