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September, 2010

On Drinking From An Almost Full Glass

by Larry

Warren Buffett, the super-investor who traded places several times with Bill Gates as the richest man in the world, is famous for his folksy quips, among which is that, to paraphrase, he is one of the luckiest people to ever live, for he was born in the very best time and country for his talents. He points out that were he to have lived thousands of years ago, when brutish strength or canny skill with a spear might have been uppermost in one's odds of surviving and making a contribution to his or her community, things would have turned out quite differently for him. He added that he had great parents and teachers and that a host of other highly fortunate circumstances had aided in his success.

While I have less call to express such sentiments, I too find myself to have been curiously gifted with an abundance of happy situations from which to live a life not precisely perfect, but far better even than that of most royalty or tribal leaders throughout our species' history and prehistory. As with Buffett, there is, amid the peculiarities of my existence, a wealth of glad happenstance leading to the conditions today.

Beyond the connecting threads of vicissitude from multiple generations before, even in my own era a set of occurrences has proven felicitous. Penicillin and several other medicines that would prove helpful in my childhood were discovered and put into wider use only a few years before my arrival on the scene. My mother had several pregnancies that spontaneously aborted due to an Rh factor problem. Though I was the second growing life within her womb, this problem spared me. An aunt, my father's youngest sister, died young of congestive heart failure. In infancy, I too showed symptoms of this disability, which my paternal grandmother recognized, and so I got more modern care for it in time. I was born with feet turned inward, so their high arches were facing more toward the ground than were the soles. Corrective measures also fixed this impediment. Severe bronchitis or bronchial asthma afflicted my early years, making breathing at times a struggle. By the time I had learned to speak with pretty good sentence structure, I had as well an embarrassing stuttering problem. There was food rationing, and incomes were still rather low, when I came upon the scene. I have always thought my short stature had been due to the low protein diet and relatively limited calorie intake we had when I was a pre-schooler or in the elementary grades. Only later did I read of studies showing greater average life expectancy for folks with skimpier eating habits in their formative years. When I was a little kid, many children in Britain or the rest of Europe, Russia, or the Far East were killed, left orphaned, or badly hurt in the course of World War II, or in the great privations, purges, and regional conflicts afterward. North America was reasonably saved from all of these in that difficult period.

Like Buffett too, I had good teachers, and my parents stressed the importance of a good education. Dad, though not especially caring about literature, read through a dictionary and apparently memorized many of the words he discovered there. He also completed math books much sooner than his fellow classmates, and then sold homework help to others. My mom (whose academic record actually turned out to be better than Dad's) also emphasized having a good grasp of school subjects, taught me to read before I had started formal class instruction, and encouraged all aspects of being a better student. Until I was about nine or ten years old, we had no television set, let alone videogames, cell phones, or computer sites, that might have proven distracting. So, though I liked to play with neighbor kids till after dark, much of my free time when indoors was spent in learning, and this helped once in regular courses. I have been blessed to have around me at various stages of my life many who were or are highly intelligent. I did not see myself in this way, but from their examples I have also taken more of an interest than I might in serious subjects, including math and science. I seemed endowed too with a certain intuitive ability. Occasionally this came out in interesting dreams. It also seemed beneficial when it came time to take examinations. The results at times thus demonstrated a higher level of achievement than I felt I had actually mastered. In other words, I was often a pretty good guesser.

Later, I showed some budding keenness about investing. As the saying goes, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Once I was married, Valerie and I lived on my earnings and saved most all of her income from teaching private music lessons. Much of this at first was put into mutual funds that did well. When my wife and I had finally acquired a small nest egg, I bet most all of it on margin in the months just before the 1987 crash in the stock market. 22% was lost in market value, and far more than that in our margined portfolio value, in a single trading day. Still a lot more would evaporate before stocks had turned around. Yet this was a blessing for us. The shock of all that red ink convinced me I had to find a safer, better way of managing our savings and equities. This led to a self-taught "crash" course in locating good value in stocks, knowledge that served us well afterward. The 1987 debacle in our personal finances also convinced me, though knowing by then I did not love my work, to stick with it long enough to be eligible for benefits. But for the terrible losses about 15 years earlier, we might not have been able to quit our regular jobs when we did.

Retirement, in turn, has had many rewards. For Val, there are new hobbies, like nature photography and entomology, that now, most every week, bring her tens of hours of pleasure as well as neat new friends with similar interests. For me, there are opportunities for volunteering, meeting new people, going on cool trips, being in a variety of great special interest groups, and pursuing further a certain aptitude for buying and selling equities.

Meanwhile, along the way and besides a fine companionship with Valerie, I have enjoyed the many satisfactions of a large extended family, a still healthy Mom of nearly 88 years, seven sibling households, my spouse's mom and sister and her family, and, so far, 23 unique and splendid nephews, nieces, grand nephews, and grand nieces.

Far from feeling that the glass is half-empty, it is nearly the case that "my cup runneth over," and I can but wonder at how things have developed as they did. I am certainly not special or deserving compared with my fellow men or women today or in the expanse of ancestral time. The odds have simply fallen in my favor. As their beneficiary, it would be ungracious of me not to appreciate and make good use of the set of factors that have brought me so fortunately to this time and place.

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