Monday, November 28, 2011

November Reflections and the Passage of Time

We live, but a world has passed away
With the years that perished to make us men.
--William Dean Howells
It is late November and the leaves have fallen. The trees stand upright, their branches naked and awkwardly extended, but the sun sets early now. The weather was unseasonably mild this past Thanksgiving, the Pennsylvania air providing a warm respite from the cold chill of winter that waits quietly, ready to strike, with the change of seasons. The geese have yet to depart from the lake at Alverthorpe Park near my home, as if wisely discerning nature’s shifting currents. It is a physically peaceful time of year, disguising the anxieties of a weak economy and a troubled world.

In spending time this weekend with my daughters, their friends, and Andrea's sons and nieces, I was provided an opportunity to hear the voices of college seniors discuss their studies and hopes for the future. Soon to embark on a new stage of life, one filled with career choices and financial independence, these young people collectively expressed the same concerns; a deep-seated anxiety permeates the atmosphere. As final exams and papers await their return to campus, more pressing concerns linger; the need to secure a full-time job upon graduation, the advent of adulthood, and the notion of what to do with one’s life. It seems as if not so long ago I stood in their shoes; and yet, I have lived nearly three-fifths of my life since then. The times may keep changing, but the anxieties remain the same.

“Time is not measured by the passing of years,” said Jawaharlal Nehru, “but by what one does, what one feels, and what one achieves.” In talking with our collective children, I am anxious to dispense advice, to show that I am a sage possessed of wisdom and profound insight. But I soon realize that my counsel consists of words with no guarantees, adages and maxims intertwined with the unstated reality of my own life, of choices made and opportunities lost. It seems like only yesterday when my children were just entering school, the canvas of their lives yet to be painted. As Jennifer embarks on her final months of college and Hannah prepares for her college years, their father’s input is filtered through an independent lens. They are young women now, with career paths and friendships distinctly separate from the young girls who once sought their father’s time and attention. I would not have it any other way, but I wonder where the time has gone.

“Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation,” said Albert Einstein. “For they are us; our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.” It is a comforting thought when I reflect on how quickly life passes us by. Try as I might not to live in the past, I nevertheless think back on decisions made and paths chosen; on what might have been had other avenues been traveled. Living in the present, my time occupied by work, financial responsibilities, and the everyday realities of life, I cannot help but feel that something is missing, that the years run too short and the days too fast. As I grow older, I long for the days of my youth, when backyard football games and basketball shootouts in our family’s makeshift court by the garage occupied autumn afternoons. With the passage of time, those days appear simpler, distant memories replaced by the serious stuff of life; the demands of careers, the costs of medical care, rising mortgage payments and tuition bills.

“Time is a cruel thief to rob us of our former selves,” wrote Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, “We lose as much to life as we do to death.” But words are cheap. It is easy for me to advise others to make the most of life, to take risks for lives of passion and adventure. Looking back, did I do the same? Or have I simply chosen the paths of least resistance? “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,” admonished Henry David Thoreau. I would like to tell these idealistic, bright-eyed college students to do what makes them happy, that happiness and success awaits them if only they pursue their dreams. And yet, there are so many things I have wanted to accomplish, so many dreams yet fulfilled.

My greatest obstacle has always been the limits of my imagination and a strong aversion to risk. Many of my career choices have been wise and satisfying; my decision to attend law school, my career as a federal prosecutor, even my present career in corporate investigations. I have successfully evaded life in a big law firm, or as a managerial bureaucrat in a large, vastly impersonal corporation. But at the end of the day, have I not merely served the interests of the property classes and status quo? Certainly, my career choices were not risky. And I am as incapable today of predicting the future as I was thirty years ago, when I stood in the shoes of a college senior.

We journey through life in search of meaning and purpose. Bounded by conventional thought, the practicalities of life often stand in the way; concerns over money, the cost of insurance, the strictures of time. I occasionally wonder if life would have been more meaningful as a writer, or teacher, or legal aid lawyer. Is it too late to do these things now, to alter my life’s course? For a moment it sounds grand, and then, conventional thinking sets in and the inevitable, practical and necessary questions arise. How can I make writing, or teaching, or serving the poor my life’s mission and continue to support my children’s education and pay my mortgage? Perhaps if I was truly committed, I could make it work, somehow. The choices I have made in life are my own and, like most, I choose to protect my own interests, and that of my family, first. I don’t apologize for these choices, for the necessary compromises of life, but I cling to the hope that there remains time to accomplish more, to complete my canvas with the colorful brushstrokes of a life well lived, a life of meaning and purpose.

For now, I can only impart to my children and their friends the wise counsel of Carl Sandburg: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” Too often we fill our time responding to the demands of others, fulfilling societal expectations. In the end, however, we must satisfy our own longings for a life of love and integrity, service and sincerity. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Education of a Guinea Pig: On Love, Loss, and Pringles

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. – Anatole France.
When I was two years old, I stood by the front door of our house in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, and watched helplessly as our dog, a small toy fox terrier named Skippy, chased after a squirrel and crossed the street as a car sped past.  He was struck and killed instantly.  I can still picture the young driver, a teenager with grease-backed hair, remorsefully carrying Skippy from the street after wrapping him in a blanket. “Car kill ‘kippy, Mommy,” I allegedly repeated for several days thereafter, too young to understand why something that I loved and cared for, a member of the family really, could be taken away from us so suddenly. It is my earliest living memory.  I discovered at a very young age the pain that comes from a willingness to love what death can quickly erase.

The next year we welcomed a new dog into our lives. Peppy was a little chubbier; a black-and-white terrier with no tail, he looked a bit like a pig with a large nose. For the next sixteen years, Peppy and I lived under the same roof. He was the first to greet me when I arrived home from school each day, and he kept me company whenever I sat in the big chair in the living room or watched television in the family room. I took him for walks, snuck food to him under the dinner table, and played tug rope with him on the kitchen floor. We understood each other and hung out together almost every day. When he died, during my freshman year in college, it was like losing a brother.

Anyone who has ever connected with and loved an animal understands the emotional bond that forms between people and their pets. Last week, Pringles, my daughter’s guinea pig, had to be put to sleep at the age of six – a good life for a guinea pig, but a difficult and sad day nonetheless. Pringles’ intestines had started to fail and, despite the best efforts of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, there was little they could do for him. Hannah and I were heartbroken. The death of a special pet is like the loss of a good friend.  In the words of Kabril Gibran, “Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

As small and insignificant as it may seem to speak of a guinea pig, we loved Pringles. He was a member of the family and, while he could not communicate with the same emotional clarity as a dog, or demonstrate independence and contempt in the manner of a cat, deep down I know he loved us back. He regularly cuddled with Hannah, laying against her chest as she rubbed his chin or stroked his neck and back. He was extremely sociable and loved being with people. For the first few years of his life, we let him run around the living room floor and explore the nooks and crannies of the furniture as we talked, read, or watched television. He never ventured far from us and seemed to appreciate the freedom and trust we bestowed on him.  This past year, he slowed down considerably and became increasingly affectionate as Hannah, Andrea and I took turns holding him as he breathed contentedly and occasionally squeaked with delight.

I am convinced that Pringles was a Cardinals fan.  He was our good luck charm during the last two months of the baseball season and his presence helped jumpstart many late-inning Cardinals’ rallies.  I kid you not.  Forget the Rally Squirrel, we had the Rally Pig! Leaving nothing to chance, we ensured that Pringles was with us for several innings of Game Seven, an insurance policy against a potential Rangers comeback that paid dividends as the Cards put the final touches on their World Championship. Although I will confess that Pringles seemed a bit perplexed when I attempted to fist pump him during the post-game celebration.

“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful,” said Russian born author Isaac Asimov, “It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” I do not question the necessity of our decision to let Pringles go. It was peaceful and painless and best for Pringles. And I am grateful that he was allowed to spend the final moments of his life in Hannah’s arms, happy and content. But we were unprepared for the decision. Hannah and I brought him to the veterinary hospital because we thought, we hoped, that he could be treated, perhaps given some medication or other remedy that would make him better. When confronted with the prognosis, we were caught off guard and forced to choose between the selfish desire to hold onto our friend for a little while longer and the selfless decision to let him go, in peace.

As our memories of Pringles live on, we can obtain a small degree of solace knowing that, for six full and engaging years, this small, furry rodent connected with us, and we to him. “The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief,” noted teacher and author Hilary Stanton Zunin. “But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love.”

Each morning this past week, upon entering the kitchen, I have experienced a void left by Pringles’ absence. Life seems a little lonelier now. He no longer greets me in the morning as if to say, “It’s about time, bud. Now what’s for breakfast?” He is no longer there to keep us company as we prepare dinner. In a small but significant way, he touched our lives, and we touched his, and each of us was made better because of it. And while I would like to believe that, in the words of Lord Alfred Tennyson, “God’s finger touched him, and he slept,” I know for certain that he will be missed.