PATHS NOT TAKEN (July 31, 2021)
For this month’s Agile Aging post, I’ve invited fellow seniors to join with me in reflecting about forks in the road on our life journeys. Can each of us recall an occasion when we confronted a choice between diverging routes? What influenced our decision? Have we ever wondered about the path not taken? How might we and our journey have turned out differently if we’d veered in the other direction?
Hugh Foster: ANTIPODES
When we were young, my wife and I lived in Australia. We had a home in Woollahra, one of the suburbs on the east side of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. For the most part, life was almost idyllic. Australia at that time had a population of only 12 million people, many of them involved in pastoral jobs. But the natural-resource boom was starting and economic excitement prevailed. Most of our friends were Australian, and as we started our family, so did they. Our oldest daughter was born there and was christened with the help of Australian godparents. Their daughter was our godchild.
But after five years, we were transferred back to California. At least at first, we were glad to be back. It was wonderful to see family again and to introduce our children to their grandparents. As well as uncles, aunts and cousins. We moved into our second home, but the day our shipment arrived, we watched the movers carry in 12 cases of Australian wine, as well as 13 cases of Australian beer. We put our Australian paintings on the walls of various rooms and placed our Australian coffee-table books as prominently as we could. But somehow, nothing felt right. One night after their bedtime, our two children came down the stairs to where we were eating dinner and asked, “When are we going home?” To make matters even worse, six months after our return I was asked to be the Treasurer of one of the largest Australian mining companies, located in Melbourne.
Nonetheless, we decided to stay in the States. If we hadn’t, we would never have had the opportunity to live in Mexico, where we moved three years later. Nor would I have later been asked to serve in the Reagan Administration. Nonetheless, Australia still has its finger on our pulse. One daughter went to Australia for an experience in overseas living. She stayed for 11 years. She married an Australian and though they live in England at the moment, they plan to return to Sydney at some point in the future. Our eldest son is responsible for a multinational’s business in Australia. Another daughter spent part of a semester abroad there. And the two of us have returned to see our friends many times over the years.
What would life have been like had we stayed in Australia? We will never know. But we still wonder and will always dream.
Hugh’s career in international finance included service as U.S. Representative on the Boards of Directors of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.
Robert Freedman: ALMOST A VOLUNTEER
Despite the familiar admonition that “if you remember Berkeley in the 60’s, you weren’t there,” I was and I do. At least between 1965 and 1968 as a law student. The child of immigrants, born and raised in Los Angeles, my unspoken and unquestioned assumption was that I would return and make a professional and personal life there.
None of this happened.
In early 1968 the effects of twin psychoses set in: (1) preparing for and taking the California bar exam; and (2) coping with the Selective Service Administration.
A too-good-to-be-true opportunity arose. The Peace Corps offered me a position as a visiting law professor at the University of Liberia in Monrovia. This was a somewhat unique assignment for the Corps and bizarrely unique in transnational legal education in that, in 1968, the Liberian Constitution was a nearly verbatim copy of the U.S. Constitution. English was the language of education, and the U.S. dollar was legal tender in Liberia. I saw the path forward: two years in Liberia, a resume enriching professorial experience, and the writing of the definitive text on tribal law in equatorial West Africa.
None of this happened.
The Peace Corps training program consisted of two phases, one-half on the campus of North Carolina College in Durham, the balance in-country in Liberia.
Three things happened in a single week in December 1968. First, my father called me from Los Angeles to tell me that the “thick envelope” had arrived: i.e., I had actually passed the bar exam. Second, the Peace Corps informed me and four other male trainees that we could not actually go to Liberia unless our Selective Service status was “clarified.” This, in turn, resulted in my being appointed by the SSA as “the leader of a group of five men” to travel from Durham to Raleigh to be evaluated at the Armed Forces Induction Center. There we were thankfully all cleared for our overseas posts. Third, the Peace Corps then notified me and my then wife that she had been (to use the Corps’ euphemism) “de-selected.” For us, it was either both go or neither. So neither went.
Looking back on this path not taken, had I actually served as a law professor at the University of Liberia, by now I’d be a retired academic, in my home study, surrounded by unsold copies of the fantasized text on tribal law.
Following 21 years of service as a Superior Court Judge in California’s Alameda County, Robert is a private-sector mediator, arbitrator and discovery referee at the Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Service (JAMS).
Walt Hays: AT HOME OR ABROAD
I’ve always been interested in law, government, the environment, and foreign countries. At Stanford, I majored in Political Science and told people I wanted to go into the Foreign Service. Then, as a junior, I took a course in Constitutional Law and absolutely loved reading Supreme Court opinions. I clearly remember thinking at that time that, before I went abroad, I should first learn more about my own country. So I decided to go to law school.
Before doing so, I applied for a year’s fellowship in Germany, and I remember stating in my application that my goal was to be Secretary of State! Upon returning from Germany, however, I plunged into law and never looked back during 32 years of litigation practice. (Somewhere along the way I learned that Warren Christopher, a Senior Partner in a major L.A. law firm, was “called” to serve as Secretary of State. I told people “I’m just waiting for the call.”)
I served on the San Jose City Council from 1969-73 and was active on environmental issues there, continuing when our family moved to Palo Alto in 1976. I did, however, remain interested in foreign affairs. Upon joining the Palo Alto Rotary Club in 1994, I persuaded the club to engage in the program called World Community Service. Stateside Rotary clubs apply for grants from the Rotary Foundation to support hands-on humanitarian projects in developing countries. During my involvement, our club attracted grants totaling more than a million dollars.
In retrospect, I think I chose the right path. My real passions are the environment and local governance. So while I was inspired by the international projects we did, I would obviously not have become Secretary of State. And I loved the other things I was doing more.
Walt’s Rotary International activism carried him on project-inspection tours to Central America, Asia and Africa. In Palo Alto, his local public-service commitments included pioneering work on “Sustainable Schools,” promoting energy conservation, recycling and waste reduction.
Susan Lieberman: LATE TO THE LESSON
I facilitated a discussion group. One month the topic was regrets. It surprised me to hear several people assert that they had no regrets because everything happens for a good reason.
Not my take on the world. It feels impossible to lead a rich, busy, diverse life over decades without regrets. Regrets have flavors. My bitterest come from lack of empathy or foolishness. Less bitter but still with a sting sometimes are regrets born of ignorance. If only I had known then…. My most interesting regrets come from having had to choose and wondering what would have resulted from that other choice.
One of my biggest, most painful regrets came just recently, while locked away in
COVID isolation. It fell, with an uncomfortable hammer-hit to my brain, from the confluence of reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, paying attention to what was killing Black men and women in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, and many Saturdays discussing Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist with friends on Zoom.
How could I, who so modestly considers herself smart, thoughtful, informed and compassionate, be so stupidly blind to the racism around me? How could I have been so oblivious to the raging inequities in organizations and institutions I know and thought I understood? How could I not have had an awareness of the acute privileges of white skin? How could I have so unknowingly harbored harmful, hurtful prejudice and myth?
I was stunned to find that, No, I didn’t “get it.” Even with sustained effort, I still struggle to “get it.” Maybe my Black friends are right and I will never “get it.” But I sure as hell will no longer regret not working hard to understand, speak out more and find time and resources to resist racism.
Susan is an author, life coach and end-of-life consultant. Her 11 non-fiction books explore topics ranging from family relationships to secondary education to democratic participation.
Russell Sunshine: SEEKING SHANGRI-LA
The Himalayas beckoned as early as childhood. I poured over my parents’ back issues of National Geographic, tracing routes of Mallory and Harrer, Hillary and Norgay. Entering my teens, I was mesmerized by Kim and Lost Horizon.
College and law school interrupted this infatuation, but a post-graduate fellowship in India brought my target within reach. During breaks from my field research, I loaded a backpack, boarded Third-Class train compartments and headed for the hills. In Himachal Pradesh, I visited Simla, the former summer capital of the British Raj, and Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s capital-in-exile. Climbing over the Rohtang Pass, I trekked through isolated Lahaul and Spiti as far as the 1,000-year-old Kye Gompa. On a separate vacation, I hitched a ride from Darjeeling up into the mountain kingdom of Sikkim.
Most of this enthusiasm was naïve romanticism. But I also developed a more serious interest in Buddhism — Zen as well as Tibetan and Lao — reading deeply and practicing meditation for years.
In my international-development consulting career, I began to approach the Himalayas from a professional perspective, studying in particular Bhutan’s efforts to protect its culture and borders while promoting high-value ecotourism to earn needed foreign exchange.
I always wanted to combine these professional and personal interests by working in Bhutan. In 2002, I put out feelers to a former Laos colleague, Renata Lok, then serving as UNDP’s Resident Representative in that kingdom. My wife Nancy was fully supportive, having herself worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But first came a UN invitation to help Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister secure a precarious cease-fire in his country’s 20-year civil war. The premier’s goal was to persuade domestic and foreign businesses to actively engage in peace-building. I travelled to Colombo, designed an “Invest in Peace” program, and accompanied the PM to UN Headquarters in New York where he presented his peace agenda to the General Assembly and to Sri Lankan diaspora investors.
Back in Colombo, everything happened at once. On a Monday, the Prime Minister asked the UN for technical and financial support to implement our Invest in Peace program. On Tuesday, the UN offered me a two-year residential contract to direct that program, with a response required in 72 hours. On Friday, after long-distance communications with Nancy in Italy, I accepted the offer. The next morning, the UN in Bhutan invited me to fly to Thimphu to discuss my taking up a resident position as that government’s foreign-investment advisor.
I was so torn by this fork in the road that I brazenly asked the UN’s Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka if I could have two weeks’ leave before starting work, to conduct “post-Sri-Lanka” discussions in Bhutan. He must have seen the gleam in my eye and flatly refused.
Twenty years on, I’ve never stopped wondering about that path not taken. Our Sri Lankan project did make respectable contributions to the peace process. But then the President deposed the Prime Minister and restarted civil war, causing 60,000 more civilian fatalities. The country has since suffered corrosive governmental corruption, sectarian assassinations and Chinese domination. Meanwhile, Bhutan has continued to prosper, receiving global accolades for its balanced development management and sustained environmental conservation. The Kingdom has achieved a remarkable 90% adult-COVID-vaccination rate, despite the extreme remoteness of its dispersed population.
What might have been if that invitation from Bhutan had arrived one day earlier? Had I headed back up into those high mountains, I might never have come down.
Russell worked in 40 countries as an advisor to foreign governments and international organizations. His Himalayan excursions, along with other recollected encounters, may be sampled in his memoir, FAR & AWAY: True Tales from an International Life.
Donald Van Doren: NO STETHOSCOPE
Much of my family’s history has been wrapped up in the medical and dental professions. While I was growing up, it was assumed by my elders and then by myself that I too would become a doctor. At Yale, I started out as a biochemistry major and did well in those courses. Then it dawned on me that I would be retaking a similar curriculum in med school, so this was the time to explore. I wanted to take all those great survey courses that everyone else was taking as electives – History of Art, Politics & Culture in 20th Century America, the Great American Novel. I wound up as an American Studies major and took all my science courses as electives.
Senior year, I applied to and was accepted by Cornell and Columbia medical schools. Then in the spring I got to thinking seriously about this career choice – probably for the first time in my life. I had done a major paper in one class analyzing Britain’s National Health Service. My conclusion at the time was that the NHS wasn’t working very well and it would be unfortunate if something similar crossed the pond to our shores. Closer to home, the prospect of refracting eyes (or something) in one town for the next 50 years was increasingly unappealing. But my underlying hesitation, I suspect, was that I was tired of school.
I knew nothing about any other career so I took a management-trainee job with Scott Paper, a major consumer-products company. After a few years, I left to earn an MBA and embark on a life of consulting – clients all over the world and new challenges every day. That choice has been continuously rewarding. I’m still working a much scaled-back schedule at the company I started in 1980.
But somehow, as much as I’ve enjoyed my consulting career, I think I could have been a good doctor – that path not taken. I wouldn’t have wound up refracting eyes but might have fashioned a career harnessing the exciting technology-driven changes that have come to drive that profession. That would have been a fine life too.
My vocational choice may have contributed to another fundamental personal change – my divorce from Emily after four decades of marriage. Emily’s father was also a doctor, had a practice in our town, and frequently came home for lunch. Emily and I were both invested in my medical future. I suspect she preferred her father’s lifestyle, rather than the prospect of my constant traveling. My sudden announcement to “try out” business for a year or two certainly took her by surprise. That surprise became our reality. I was traveling three to four days many weeks, leaving Emily stuck at home with two kids. I was largely oblivious. She, a middle child, said little and buried her growing dissatisfaction. It became one factor pushing us in different directions. Eventually, we separated, then divorced. I met Diane and she and I have become long-time partners. However, Emily and I still care about each other. We have remained close and she has accepted Diane into our family. We all get together for holidays and other events.
Don and Diane live off-the-grid on 70 remote acres outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, “generating our own electricity with photovoltaics, catching rain and snow off our roofs for underground storage.”