Friends and mentors

I dreamt about an old friend and mentor last night.

I remember meeting Les when I was in high school. He and my mother went to the same high school, years before, and he was her attorney the few times she needed one. When I went off to college, Les and I started corresponding.

On my own for the first time in my life and at a university, I was full of new ideas. As a sounding board, Les encouraged my armchair exploration of philosophy. I loved to “argue” politics with Les, and our letters would banter back and forth in a good-spirited way. He would tell of his involvement in politics and the first war crimes trials in Germany at the end of World War II. He was writing a book and kept me abreast of his progress – or lack thereof.

My last year of college, when I ran out of savings, Les loaned me what I needed to cover tuition and graduate. After, I was off to establish my career and life as an adult. Nonetheless, Les and I continued our friendship and correspondence until his death.

Isaac Newton wrote “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Whether or not we see further than others, our lives are shaped by those who come before us and whose personal example makes a lasting impression, one that influences our character.

Because of Les, I came to better understand the importance of altruistic service and integrity to principle. Those are two good values to have.

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Words of wisdom

The December 27th edition of Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith featured an enlightening and inspiring interview with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. Dr. Remen is Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine and author of the books Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings.

Here is a sample of the wisdom I heard from Dr. Remen, whose perspective has been shaped by her personal experience facing Crohn’s disease.

“Science defines life in its own way, but life is larger than science. Life is filled with mystery, courage, heroism, and love. All these things that we can witness but not measure or even understand, but they make our lives valuable anyway.

“I have no answers, but I have a lot of questions, and those questions have helped me to live better than any answers I might find.

“The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers, but the questions themselves have healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places. Life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road. (From Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal).

“Sometimes what appears to be a catastrophe, over time, becomes a strong foundation from which to live a good life. It’s possible to live a good life even though it isn’t an easy life.

“The view from the edge of life is so much clearer than the view that most of us have, that what seems to be important is much more simple
and accessible for everybody, which is who you’ve touched on your way through life, who’s touched you. What you’re leaving behind you in the hearts and minds of other people is far more important than whatever wealth you may have accumulated.

How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world?”

If this sounds engaging and inspiring, I suggest you listen to the program.

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Just one of those days

Boston Common from my hotel roomNor’easter coming up the coast, meeting cancelled, I spend most of the day in my hotel room at the Ritz Carlton, overlooking the swirling snow and the Boston Common.

While business meetings and traveling are staples of my life, a series of improbable events lead me to this place at this time.

How many people in the world stay at the Ritz Carlton? How many in the hotel get a room with a view of the Boston Common? How many happen to be here on a snowy day, with time to ponder the swirling snow?

Photo courtesy of my Blackberry.

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NH Presidential Primary

Voting dayThe 2008 New Hampshire Presidential Primary is over.

The votes have been counted — although they will likely be recounted; the candidates have flown off to Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina; the phones have stopped ringing with messages from the campaigns and pollsters; the daily mail is noticeably thinner and lighter; some candidate signs have disappeared from the lawns; and it’s probably easier to find a hotel room these days.

About the only echo from Tuesday’s primary is the continuing discussion of why the polls were so wrong in predicting that Barack Obama would sweep the Democratic vote, when Hillary Clinton prevailed by almost three points (39.0% of the Democratic votes, versus 36.4%).

Beyond the theater of the primary season, which is always interesting and entertaining, it’s amazing to watch and participate in the process of selecting a presidential nominee. From my life experience, rarely does one have the opportunity to have personal access to a man or woman who may one day be the President of the United States. It’s quite a different perception from watching the 30-second attack ads and having the troubling sense that “we the people” no longer have access to our national government.

The rest of this year’s primary will test the historical importance of New Hampshire having the first primary in the nation. While the small size of the state and a strong tradition enable retail politics, the lack of diversity has been cited as a reason for allowing other states to have early contests (e.g., Nevada) or moving to a national primary (e.g., Super Tuesday). Whether this debate was a factor or whether it was the wide open race and the importance of the upcoming presidential election, it is very gratifying that 526,000 turned out to vote in New Hampshire. That eclipses the previous high turnout of some 396,000 in 2000.

New Hampshire set a good tone, and I am hopeful for the country.

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Perfect morning

An ideal start: a run through the Boston Common and along the brick streets of Beacon Hill, on a crisp and clear morning, the temperature around 40.

Conveniently ending across from Starbucks — one of my habits — then watching the people come and go. They are beginning their days, and I wonder about their lives and commitments.

Walking back to the hotel, I enjoy a long, hot shower. Along the way, I check in with Andrea, Grant, and Lori, wishing each of them a good day.

This morning, I have plenty of time before the meeting, time to think about what is important and to enjoy the gifts that have graced the beginning of my day.

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New Year’s Eve reflections

Kitchen windowIf she were still alive, my mother would celebrate her 88th birthday today. A member of what Tom Brokaw termed the greatest generation, her youth was framed and her world view shaped by the Depression and World War II.

Although a very intelligent woman, my mother did not attend college. The limited career options for women in the late 1930s &#151 teaching, nursing &#151 did not appeal to her, and she respected her parents’ limited means too much to spend their money unnecessarily. This was unfortunate, as I sensed that she forever felt a stigma that she didn’t attend college. The lack of a degree certainly did not reflect a lack of capability, nor did it hinder her. She ran a business, successfully passed her real estate and broker’s examinations, sold real estate, was active in the community and her church, and read and wrote voraciously. She even migrated from a PC to a Mac at age 85.

Divorced after an abusive marriage, a marriage she never regretted because of me, she had to make her own way in the world. This was before equal rights for women emerged in the national psyche or had been codified into law. Nonetheless, she quietly pioneered her way and, although sympathetic to the principles, never endorsed the women’s liberation movement. She felt she had achieved her goals without all the “hoopla.”

After I was launched into college and career, my mother lived an independent and contented life. I always hoped she would find a Prince Charming to share her later years; she had opportunities, yet preferred living alone.

Mom, I miss your e-mails, our chats and visits, and your wide-ranging commentary. You were so engaged in the world’s affairs, a trait I have inherited. We didn’t share the same perspective on politics, though, much to our mutual frustration at times.

As I mark this anniversary of your life, there is so much for which I am thankful. I think of your constant encouragement and, particularly when I was young, your willingness to let me pursue my dreams and support me along the way. In later years, you confided that you had doubts about those dreams from time to time; yet I didn’t know it. As a parent myself, now, I have a much, much better appreciation for all you did.

Bless you. And Happy Birthday.

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Glimpse of a parallel world

Drying off after my morning shower, I raised the shades and glanced out the window overlooking the yard between our house and the neighbor’s. Bare trees, snow, sunlight, and the motion of what I initially thought to be a neighborhood cat. A return glance revealed a reddish figure with a long, fat tail, a figure much larger than a cat. A red fox was casually and gracefully sauntering through the trees to the neighbor’s back yard.

For just a few moments, I caught a glimpse of the parallel world of the wildlife that share the neighborhood. We’ve seen fox before, as well as deer, fisher cat, opossum, skunk, and wild turkeys. The sightings are infrequent and don’t last long, yet they leave me with a renewed sense of humility. Thankfully.

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Emily’s home

We learned last night that Emily came home from the hospital on Friday, over six months after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had surgery to remove it.

We met Emily the morning after Andrea’s second surgery, when the hospital staff asked Andrea if she would be willing to meet another 14-year-old who was facing surgery and was quite anxious. Emily was nervous. I’ll never forget her wide smile and big eyes, as well as the tears and fear in her parents’ faces, as they tried to comprehend what no one knew. Prescient, perhaps.

Emily’s tumor was malignant, complications kept her in ICU for weeks, and then she faced what turned into months of chemo and rehab. We saw her from time to time, Andrea wrote letters, and we donated blood. And we wondered how any family could cope with what they had no choice but to deal with. Our own eight day experience in the hospital seemed trivial, in comparison.

While Emily’s ordeal is not finished — she begins radiation treatments next week — the news that she is out of the hospital, is again sleeping in her own room, and that her family will be together in their home this Christmas is joyous. There’s no better Christmas story or gift than this.

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Morning run

Fall leavesOut for a run on a crisp (35 degrees), clear Sunday morning.

The sun and blue skies give no hint to the rain and wind from Hurricane Noel, which passed along the New England coast yesterday.

The leaves that remain on the trees have all changed to their fall wardrobe. Surely within another week the limbs will be bare and stark; for a few more days we’ll enjoy their beauty.

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Coming in last

Blessed are those who come in last.

Thoughts inspired by watching a middle school cross-country running meet.

The gun goes off, the crowd of stationary runners becomes molten, they disappear into the woods. After endless minutes, one lead runner emerges from the trees to begin the final lap to the finish line. Then a second, a third, then clumps of runners.

Well after the lead runners have cooled down and are, perhaps, already thinking of next week’s race, the stragglers emerge from the woods. Not lithe, often walking, they are encouraged by parents and team mates to run the remaining distance. Exhausted, nonetheless they muster the will to pick up the pace. Many minutes after the race started, as most runners and their parents have dissipated, as the race organizers prepare for the next age group, they cross the finish line.

Blessed are those who come in last.

They surely are not motivated by winning. Whatever it is — bettering themselves, perseverance, internal resolve, courage in the face of negative feedback — is inspirational. May they carry that with them throughout their lives. And may the rest of us, who carefully judge our odds to avoid “losing,” reconsider. Character is not borne just from being first.

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