On my walk today I came upon the above scene. Someone had plowed their driveway, and the excess snow had formed two high barriers obstructing the sidewalk. The snow had turned into solid ice, and it was directly blocking my path.
Was the snow left by the home’s owner, or was it left by a plowing service? It doesn’t matter, the result was the same. The individual’s needs were being met but at the expense of the greater good. The driveway was clean and open. The family had access to their garage. Their car could be protected from the elements. It didn’t seem to matter that they were creating a potentially dangerous situation for anyone using the sidewalk.
I had two choices; I could trudge through the snow of the parkway, or risk stepping over the mounds of ice. I choose the later, slipping along the way. The event made me think. In the US we are proud to be individuals. We strive to be independent. We celebrate free thinking. We honor those who we think are successful and powerful. In many ways, our country became great because of our entrepreneurial spirit. We read case studies of prominent business moguls. We recount rags to riches stories. We admire billionaires.
People become successful in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, sometimes it is at the unnecessary expense of others. In this subgroup, there are those who enjoy being in a position where they can make someone else’s life difficult. There are others who simply don’t care; as long as their objective is met the impact on those around them is inconsequential.
This self-centered focus occurs beyond corporate America. We see it in politicians who place their needs, or the needs of a small but influential group, before the overall good. We also see it in self-centered relationships where the individual’s objective is to always win and never to yield or compromise.
In most cases, it is better to think about the total impact of any decision, and to balance that decision based that thought. In the short term, the individual’s gain may be smaller by such a stance, but the overall gain will be greater. As humans, we must be aware of how our actions impact others. When that is not the case it creates unnecessary problems that not only hurt others, but often can come back and negatively affect us.
Removing the excess snow from the sidewalk would have taken a minute or two. A slight inconvenience that pales in comparison to the inconvenience of leaving the snow on the sidewalk. In my life, I want to create paths, not leave barriers, for those around me. I know that in the end we will both benefit.
The weather channel was reporting a potential disaster as Thursday approached. A snow storm was coming. They called it “The Snowpocalypse.”
“Heavy snowfall could make travel difficult to impossible, Winter Storm Warning issued.”
The snowfall would occur during the night and the AM rush hour on Friday morning. You may recall that I retired from my private practice in January of this year. However, I still work three days a week with the underserved in a town about 90 miles away from my home. Two of those days I provide services via a video link, but on Fridays, I drive to Rockford Illinois and provide services face to face.
I decided to walk this morning, despite un-shoveled sidewalks. Initially, it didn’t seem too bad, but after a few blocks I started to feel the strain. It was like I was hiking in a swimming pool.I arrived at my Starbucks and chatted with the barista and the one other patron who was brave enough to come out on this snowy day. As I type this my calves ache. Soon I will need to return back home and ready myself for the day. I am already exhausted.
I had to make a decision yesterday. I felt that it would likely be unsafe to drive to Rockford. I could take the day off, but that would inconvenience many. I could use my Cisco Telepresence video system to provide services by video, but one site that I go to in person does not have this capability.
By 1 PM Thursday I was in contact with the nurse manager of that site, and soon I was contacting IT in between my patients. Crap, the stress of complex multi-tasking. It has never been a strong suit of mine. The original technical solution that I came up with was inadequate for my needs. By the end of the workday it was decided to try a different video platform to reach that campus. That conference system is now in place, but not tested. I guess I’ll find if it works soon enough.
Yesterday’s workday ended and I drove to our local teen center to pick up two of my kids. They volunteer there, mentoring younger teens. They were jubilant as they entered my car as school had been canceled for Friday. We collectively decided to not cook dinner and went to Portillo’s instead. An Italian beef for me, extra juicy with sweet peppers.
“Should we get some emergency food supplies?” I asked. “Yes!” they both responded. The plan was to turn the storm into an adventure. A trip to the grocer followed and we grabbed our personal essentials: peanut butter for me, applesauce for Will, and Gracie made sure we had enough Philadelphia Cream Cheese. We prepared for anything.
Did I make the right decision by staying home? My decision will inconvenience some people, but I will be able to provide services without putting my life at risk. Yet, I wonder if I reacted too strongly to the weather warnings. It is likely that I could have driven to Rockford, but I’ll never know that now. I played it safe and made a decision that provided an assured outcome, rather than a riskier but possibly better outcome. I am not a risk taker.
My decision making about the snowstorm typifies my general stance in life. I have tended to choose less risky choices, which I then modify to maximize their potential. It has worked pretty well for me, but I sometimes wonder if I would have accomplished more in my life if I was more of a risk taker. Now that I am retiring I want to take some risks, but I’m having trouble knowing how to break my lifelong pattern. I have made a few inroads, but they have been limited.
I wish I had spent more time in my life honing some of my other skills. I would like to be a better photographer, a better writer, more creative, more innovative. I still have a burning desire to do more, accomplish more, think beyond the norm, make change, correct social prejudice, leave the world just a tiny bit better. But when the metaphorical snow storm strikes I fall back on my old safe patterns. I know fear blocks me breaking through in some of the areas that I need to change the most.
What will my next step be? I talk to my wife about some aspects of it. I talk to my kids about some aspects of it. I talk to my friend Tom about some aspects of it. The general my goal is the same, but the specifics are different in each conversation. I want to grow personally. I want to rid myself of past baggage. I want to be productive and creative. I want to be a force of some sort. I do not want a life focused on self-indulgence.
One foot in front of the other. Ever moving forward. However, sometimes feeling like I’m trudging through deep snow in the process.
I woke up a bit later this morning. My alarm went off at the right time, but I kept on hitting the snooze bar. Yesterday was the Super Bowl, and I stayed up to watch it. Dear reader, I’m not much of spectator sports viewer. I usually get bored with the Super Bowl and drift away to other interest. However, yesterday’s game was exciting, and I got caught up in the excitement. The game ended, and I was still wide awake. Alas.
My morning time was routine. I cleaned up, dressed, and headed downstairs. Coffee and a light breakfast. Then a good morning, treat, and an ear scratch for the cat. Next a quick scan of my email and an even quicker scan of Facebook. Lastly, a “good morning” text message to my friend, Tom. I consider Tom part of my family, and so such a habit seems appropriate.
I checked my Apple Watch, and it registered a -4 degrees F. Crap, not only cold but yesterday’s light snow had probably turned the sidewalks to an ice rink, walking could be treacherous. But, dear reader, there are no emergencies for those who are prepared.
If you have been following me on this blog, you know that I love to problem solve, and I’m a bit OCD. Overall, these qualities have benefited my family and me. They like to tease me about my backups and backup plans, but they are the first to benefit from them when things go awry. However, there have been times when I have gone (how shall I say this) a bit overboard. The most notable example was Y2K.
If you don’t recall it Y2K it was the day when the world was supposed to end. Older microprocessors were theorized to malfunction as the calendar moved from 1999 to 2000. Many of these older chips were in mission-critical applications, like nuclear power plant control systems.
Initially, I didn’t think much about Y2K, but I work in Chicagoland’s techno-corridor, and I treat a lot of smart people from places like the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Motorola, Lucent, and Tellabs. In 1998 some of them started to warn me about the potential catastrophe ahead. One even gave me information about a safe site on a farm established by him and some of his cohorts.
I started to think, worry and plan. I bought non-perishable food, flashlights, and a 55-gallon drum for water. After all, I had a wife and kids to worry about. I even went so far as to study and obtain an Amateur radio license so I could help if there were a national emergency. To be honest, I did a bit more than that. I taught myself Morse code and studied the theory and practice of Amateur radio. In less than a year, I obtained a Technician grade license, then a General license, and finally the top Amateur Extra license. Complete overkill, but I didn’t want to leave a stone unturned.
Y2K came and went without much ado. My family still makes fun of the 55-gallon drum sitting in our basement. This time I was happy that I was wrong.
Fast forward today. I am determined to walk in the mornings. I know it is easy for me to make excuses to stay in bed. I know that one key to success is to maintain a plan, in this case, to walk in the morning whenever feasibly possible. I know that there will be obstacles that will prevent me from carrying out this plan. I understand that the majority of those obstacles are surmountable. In the case of walking outdoors, the obstacles will mostly be weather-related.
Dear reader, I have a good umbrella, waterproof shoes, boots, hats, scarfs, a rain jacket, a down coat. I thought that I was ready for anything until a few weeks ago when it misted right at the freezing point and turned my several mile walk back from Starbucks into a frozen nightmare. That morning there were over 100 motor vehicle accidents due to the ice. I was afraid that I would be following their same path but as a pedestrian. Every step was challenging. I had not anticipated ice as a potential obstacle. This was a new problem to solve.
The solution came in the form Yaktraxs, spikelike gadgets that are snow tires for your shoes. They stretch onto the soles of your shoes to provide extra traction and safety.
This morning they were stretched to my size 12s. I walked to Starbucks with reasonable confidence and returned the same way. One more problem solved; one more obstacle removed.
Dear reader, it is unlikely that you care about my shoe accessories. But that is not why I am writing this post. As a doctor, I am fortunate to be allowed into my patient’s lives. I have some patients who are impulsive and reactive. They often don’t plan their actions, and instead, hope for the best. They do what feels good at the moment, without looking past the immediate gratification that they hope to obtain. When things go awry they stress and scramble. They often have to rely on others to bail them out. This impulsive pattern usually repeats itself in many areas of their lives causing significant issues that range from problems in their finances to problems in their relationships. They are not thinking about Y2K or potential icy sidewalks.
It doesn’t take much to spend a moment to pause and think. The majority of problems can be avoided with just a little common sense. For most life situations it isn’t necessary to get an Amateur Extra radio license, but it is a wouldn’t hurt to have a working flashlight and a few cans of beans on a top shelf. In other words, even a little planning can make the difference between a good and poor outcome. Life can sometimes be difficult, and as humans, we need to do the things that we can to make it easier for ourselves. If you often find yourself regretting a quick decision or impulse, think of me and my Yaktraxs, but I would sincerely appreciate it if you forget about the 55-gallon water drum in my basement. I already have my kids to remind me of that!
We found a parking space off Union Avenue, and I got out of the car. The weather was cold and icy; for some reason, I thought Memphis would be warm in January. The neighborhood was nondescript. I was excited, and a bit bemused. I had no idea what to expect. By outward appearances, I gauged that I shouldn’t expect much.
We walked up the side of the building, and I ask my friend Tom to take my picture in front of the building’s facade. I wanted to look back at the image when I had more time. Certainly, there would be aspects of the building that would make it special. I just had to study it a bit harder.
Now inside, I buy my ticket. In front of me is a gift shop formatted as a 1950s diner. I wandered around, as my tour is scheduled 20 minutes in the future. Old vinyl records, boxed CD sets, and t-shirts. To the right is a soda fountain complete with real glass bottles of Coca-Cola. So far a store with a theme, nothing more.
Our guide gathers us like a small herd. We crowd as she motions us up the stairs to a museum of sorts. Photos, ancient recording devices, the control panel from an old radio station. She starts. She talks about Sam Phillips. How he was an engineer at a local radio station but gave it up to start a little business. She talks about Marion Keisker, Sam’s secretary, who was more of a business partner than her title would suggest. We listen to her recitation interspersed with sounds clips of early recordings. I start to feel it. I start to get it.
We move down narrow stairs and into another space. Now we are in the actual Sun Records studio. A small front office with a desk welcomes us. Then a larger room paneled with acoustic tiles and anchored by a dull beige floor. Photographs on the wall remind us of the importance of this nondescript space.
Sam Phillips had an idea. He wanted to record the music that he liked. He wanted to record the music that moved him. He was outside of the mainstream in the 1950s, a time dominated by giant corporate record companies. Sam would cut a personal record for a few dollars. He would travel out into the field to record a speech for a small fee. He needed to pay the rent. His mission was to record the blues, an entire genre almost completely ignored by the mainstream. BB King, Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas. Jackie Brenston created what is considered the first rock-and-roll record in Sam’s Sun Studio.
And then there were the singers who were able to bridge the gap to a wider and richer white audience. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and others. They began their recording careers in that little studio. Each taking a piece of history and making it their own.
I stood on the old worn floor, I looked at the aged acoustic tiles on the walls and ceiling, I saw the “X’s” designating where the performers should stand for optimum acoustic balance. At the end of the tour our guide brought out an old Shure vocal microphone. It was one of 5 that the studio owned, and so it most certainly was used by every major performer who recorded there. “If anyone wants to take a photo with this famous mic, feel free to do so.” I was third in line.
The building was nondescript. The actual studio was small, simple, and a bit seedy. Mr. Phillips goal was to record a form of music that was under-represented. His goal was to make a living. There was nothing special about his studio or equipment. He wasn’t a prophet or a visionary. But his actions transformed music, impacted culture and likely contributed to the emerging power of teens and young adults. That power extended to the protests of the Vietnam Era. That power extends to this very day.
It is foolish to disregard the power of the few. It is foolish to think that change can only occur when money, position, or establishment are involved. It is often the opposite when it comes to change. The person with a vision or passion. The group that questions the establishment. The whistleblower who is willing to risk all to bring injustice to light.
When we feel powerless, we become powerless. Unfortunately, it is easier to feel powerless than it is to believe in yourself.
Dear reader, people told me that I was supposed to do great things. In the end, I just became a country doctor. I still feel that my story isn’t over. I feel that there is more ahead. This feeling may just be my grandiosity. Ego, to fuel me forward during this transitory part of my life. But, I do feel it. My direction remains obfuscated. I don’t think that I’m destined to change the world. I am not Mahatma Gandhi, I am not even Sam Phillips. I just know that there is more for me to do. I can still contribute to the greater world. I accept that my contribution may be small, perhaps tiny. A life that only uses resources and takes from others without contributing has little meaning. I plow forward. Right, left, right, left. One foot in front of the other I stumble forward.
Dear reader, do you have a passion? Do you see injustice around you? Are you moving the world in a more positive direction, no matter how small that movement may be? I am not a preacher, and I am not qualified to preach to you. I am not a judge, and I am not qualified to judge you. I am just an old doctor who tends to think too much. Think with me. Perhaps the answers will come not only for me but also for you.
As humans we like binary options: yes/no, good/bad, happy/sad. Unfortunately, life is more complicated than off and on solutions. Sometimes good is also bad, and happy can exist with sad. With today’s #metoo awareness I won’t say, “no can be yes,” but hopefully you understand my point. We don’t live in a world of black and white; we live in a world of shades of grey. And so it with that backdrop that I write today’s post.
A recent article listed the school district that my kids attend as one of the best in the nation. The community that I live in is often cited as one of the best places to raise a family in the US. I attended one of the best medical schools in the country. This is great.. right? Our society loves winners. We strive for being the best, for having the best, for experiencing the best.
On many levels, Naperville schools lead the nation. Their students perform exceedingly well on national tests, they win awards and championships, they matriculate to excellent universities. But they also deal with stress. Rates of depression and anxiety are high. One of our four high schools had two completed suicides last year; another goes by the nickname “Heroin High.”
My son loved Marching Band until a new band director took over. The new director appeared to have a singular goal, and that goal was to win competitions. In short order, my son went from loving to go to practice to hating it. He told me, “Dad, it is no longer any fun, all we do is drill, drill, drill.” An extracurricular activity teaches many things, but marching band went from many growth goals to a singular win goal. I allowed him to quit.
Naperville is a wonderful town that has gotten progressively wealthier in the 30 years that I have lived here. Average suburban homes on typical lots are being torn down and replaced with giant residences, some costing over two million dollars. Last week I saw a block-long line of kids standing in front of a store selling trendy clothing and $300 designer shoes. Teenagers drive expensive cars. Families go on exotic vacations. If you can afford it there is a lot of pressure to “keep-up” with the Jones. If you can’t afford, well then you have to deal with that.
We all want the best doctor, but what does that mean? The one that attended the best medical school? The one with the most board certifications or published papers? The one who is most popular? The one with the fanciest office? When I retired from private practice patients consistently told me what they valued the most about me was the fact that I listened to them, I accepted them, and I didn’t judge them. Things that I was never taught in medical school.
I went to my physician for a physical examination. I had not been for a bit, and he was surprised by my weight loss and improved blood chemistries. “Are you exercising?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. I go to the gym or I walk. Lately, I have been walking.” “How many days do you go to the gym?” he asked. I repeated, “Lately, I have been walking about 4 miles a day, six days a week.” “So you are NOT going to the gym??”… I started to feel guilty and ashamed. Apparently, walking 4 miles a day was not good enough.
The next morning I started my morning walk thinking. Yes, going to the gym would give me a better workout. However, although walking offered less physical activity, it gave me many other benefits. I walk before dawn and my mind settles in the quiet darkness. It is a wonderful time to think, to pray, to meditate. I break up my walk with a stop at Starbucks. The baristas know my order and often offer up a little conversation. I bring with me a computer and a book, and I’ll typically spend some time reading or writing. Frequently, my friend Tom will stop by for kaffee klatsch. Yes, going to the gym would be the best as far as exercise goes, but walking has many additional benefits. Those benefits make it easier for me to get up at 4 AM as I look forward to the total experience.
Dear reader, I would like to challenge you. When you are planning your life first examine you global goals. Do you want to be happy? Do you want connections with others? Do you want good relationships with your family? Do you want financial stability? Do you want to be healthier? Would you like a more meaningful spiritual life? … and so on.
Stop and examine your actions to see if they are compatible with your goals. If you are laser-focused on one or two goals, you are likely ignoring others. If you are exercising 3 hours a day for health, it is unlikely that you are spending quality time with your loved ones. If you are working seven days a week for financial security, you are probably ignoring your health (or some other important aspect of your life).
Dear reader, if you believe that I am saying that I have chosen a life of mediocrity, you’re wrong. I accomplish things. I set goals. I achieve successes. However, my goal in life to not to win, my goal it is to achieve my global goals.
Think about balance and strive for it. Modify your life and activities accordingly. Correct your course as needed. Change your course when necessary. In the future, I may want to mix up my walks with some trips to the gym. Just because an action is correct for today doesn’t mean that it will be correct for tomorrow. Flexibility is one of the keys to life success, and flexibility is difficult to achieve if your goal is always to be #1.