Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Parting Glass, or The Joyous Life of a Thousand Goodbyes

Oh all the money that e'er I had / I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e'er I've done / Alas it was to none but me
And all I've done for want of wit / To memory now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass / Goodnight and joy be with you all

Oh all the comrades that e'er I've had / are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e'er I've had / would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot / That I should rise and you should not
I'll gently rise and I'll softly call / Goodnight and joy be with you all

Doctor and author Atul Gawande spoke last month at the Bryan Lecture Series about the effects of age, and the effect of proximity of death - really, the increased uncertainty regarding the risk of loss which age and some other conditions bring - on people’s perceived well-being and happiness. Dr. Gawande cites a study out of Stanford that shows fairly conclusively that the closer people are to the uncertainty of life - either to the end of their own life or to situations and circumstances that increase the possibility that life will soon end - the happier they are, the more they appreciate life. If you haven't yet read his book on this topic, "Being Mortal," then I commend it to you. 

I got to hang out this weekend with a fine bunch of Americans - men that don't need to read a book to appreciate the essence of Gawande's insights. Greater appreciation for life results from increased proximity to uncertainty regarding death? I think we call that sometimes wisdom.  It would be an unsurprising observation to many of These Men, no longer quite as young as they once were but still just as fine and full of spirit. 

Reflecting on the weekend, I want to tell them this, in ways that is hard to do over a beer or in a large ballroom: There is really no one else in this country that is as well equipped to live a joyous life as you guys are.  You have been there and you have seen the elephant, and you have come back. And whether it was through your own courage or plain dumb luck or directly due to the sacrifice of another - whether you deserve to be here or whether you do not deserve to be here -  it doesn’t matter.  You’re here.  You have an opportunity to live a joyous life.  You have learned, or had the opportunity to learn, how precious life is, how fleeting it can be, but also how glorious it can be in that uncertainty.  

The new Star Wars movie is coming out, a couple trailers released. I like many other males of a certain vintage have watched with pleasure these trailers and am excited to see the movie come out. I saw the third and final trailer just last week, right before heading to Las Vegas, and it’s a moving piece and it’s exciting.  It stirs the blood partly because you know what came before, you’ve seen all the movies, and to see a saga like that carried on is phenomenal.  But Jesus, there was one scene in that movie that spoke to me in a way that I’m not sure really spoke to many people.  Fleeting scene.  Here it is, cued up to the right spot (1:31):

Did you see - it's only a few seconds, 1:31 to 1:36. Have you ever shaken somebody’s hand in a moment like this?  Have you once been a warrior, walking off to the field of battle, and passed a fellow warrior headed out and stopped and said, "I need to shake this man’s hand one more time.  I need to look him in the eye and say I am proud to shake his hand and tell him to go off and do his job."  Yes, you have.  And the gaze between the two men, burning over the short distance, the clasp of hands pausing in a hectic moment. It was worth your time to stop and shake their hand, and that – whether the director intended that or not, whether he understood that or not, these actors nailed it. Fighter pilots scrambling to alert out on the tarmac; bombing crews huddling one last time before they go to their navigation seat, bombardier stations, ball turret guns; infantrymen leaving the wire on patrol.

You know that hand shake.  You’ve had a last hand shake with somebody. And it was worth it to say goodbye, so many other times when it turned out to be unnecessary.  Because once or twice, it was the last chance you had to shake That Man's hand. The Joyous Life of a Thousand Goodbyes.

It's hard to get together after 10+ years. It's hard to discover - almost surprisingly - that you are as at home with this group as you are with anyone else in the human race, because you know this weekend will be fleeting, and there will then be a void when it is over.  It's even harder still to part ways again, uncertain when in the next decade you will again have the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with These Men. It was overwhelmingly therapeutic to see nearly 100 of our alumni answering this new call to arms: to reassemble and reminisce over scotch, cigars, and warm hazy memories of the finest days of our young lives, and the finest of us that did not return.

Best men I've ever known. Best job I ever had.

Goodnight, and joy be with you all 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Day Without Rain

We have had rain in Greensboro for 31 of the last 48 days. Honestly, I had to check - I don't recall there being that much sunshine since mid September. Perhaps there wasn't - surely several of those days in which no precipitation was recorded at KGSO, the day was nevertheless the sky was cloudy and overcast and the ground was wet.

After spending most of yesterday barefoot, outdoors and in the rain at the James K. Polk birthplace, we lucked out with an overcast and chilly but reasonably dry November day. And for the kids it was like a jailbreak.

We went to the science center, saw the new Pacific Giant Octopus and all of our old friend, the gibbons and fishing cats and tigers and meerkats. Funny how we always run into people we know - I saw a buddy from downtown, Jack saw a friend from his class as Sternberger ("Daddy, I'm too embarrassed to go talk to her." Well, she ran right over to talk to Jack - embarrassment solved).

We bounded over to Guilford Courthouse and spent some time romping through the woods, leaving the path or trail whenever feasible.

Not to call it quits too early, we played a little front-yard soccer and did some driveway chalk art.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

From the Halls of Montezuma...

The opening line of The Marine's Hymn no doubt has its roots, much like the resolution of the Oregon boundary dispute and the annexation of Texas, in the presidency of our Nation's Eleventh President.

James K. Polk, just one of three U.S. presidents born in North Carolina (yes, of course I am counting Andrew Jackson despite South Carolina's claim to the contrary - but yet Polk's birthplace is only a mile from the state line), was responsible for the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846, for which he sought and obtained a declaration of war from Congress. "From The Halls of Montezuma" refers to the Battle of Chapultepec, 12-13 September 1847, during which a force of Marines stormed Chapultepec Castle in a bloody but successful assault.

Today's history lesson was less about war-making and more about pie-making: we trooped on down to the confluence of Sugar Creek and Little Sugar Creek in southern Mecklenburg County, to the original birthplace of President Polk. There, in 1795, little James K. Polk (the first of ten children) was born in an inauspicious log cabin, a recreation of which adorns the site. We were guided in our journey of late 18th and early 19th century American frontier life by the High Docents of the Historical Cooking Guild of the Catawba Valley ("the premier hearth cooking organization of North Carolina"), who regaled us with pumpkin and apple pies, syllabub, "snowballs," doughnuts, wood smoke and history lessons.

From GG's armamenterium of period-specific items we obtained a solid 18th century outfit for both Caroline and Jack and a "good-enough" shift for Sam to wear. I am informed that children of that vintage would have been largely unshod at such an age, so we peeled off shoes and socks and out into the muddy drizzle they ran. It is remarkable how much fun kids can have if you will just let them be kids. Mud is really easy to wash off of bare feet, much more so than from shoes, and any remaining dirt hardly shows on the smooth-hewn wood floor of a log cabin.

The ladies of the cooking guild, who have been plying their craft of "authentic and historically accurate methods of 18th century hearth cooking and other historical foodways" for well over 25 years now, had clearly spent most of the morning preparing a feast for the visitors of the historic site. However, due to fortunate county food code restrictions, all of the food was solely for "display purposes" and none of the visitors were allowed to sample a taste. No such restriction applied to the "reenactors" themselves, our little critters included. So Jack spent most of the day crouched around the hearth or perched over the edge of the table, asking "can I try that?" or "can I have a bite of that?"


Above Left: Caroline, after swiping an apple; Above Right: the kids, sampling "the goods"


Full album of pictures is located here, courtesy as always of Google's Picasa Web Albums: