Musings on the Happenstance of my 70th Birthday

Today, at 5:53 AM, I marked the 70th anniversary of my arrival on this planet on Ash Wednesday 1951 in a snowstorm.

I was delivered by an Army psychiatrist making me the youngest person in US history to have been under the professional care of a shrink. Trust me, it has made a huge difference.

Yes, I was an Ash Wednesday baby and if you are Irish you know what that portends. I am a Brennan. Ridiculously, absurdly, insanely lucky.

Last night, I rested calmly in my cozy bed and reflected upon what, if anything, I learned in my first 70 years on our wildly spinning and rotating planet in the vastness of the universe. Though I am but a 1/1,000,000th speck of sand in that universe, I shall share some of those things with you.

Here are 50 musings. I could have gone further, but who wants to read all that nonsense? Not me.

 1. I won the Irish Sweepstakes in the selection of my parents and my sisters. My parents were both World War II veterans (yes, my mother did wear combat boots) and had lived through the Depression. They were tough and that toughness is in my DNA.

 2. The smartest thing I ever did (in which I theoretically had a hand) was the decision to turn myself over to a little school founded in 1839 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia — it was the road less traveled at the peak of the Vietnam War. And, yes, it has made all the difference.

I arrived at VMI as an unformed, misshapen bit of clay which they took into their embrace, deconstructed and ground to dust, mixed the dust with that cold Maury River water at the edge of the Institute, formed me, fired me in a hard, hot furnace, and spit me out Limits Gate four years later with a degree in civil engineering ready to bite the ass off a bear.

Full disclosure: VMI had classes on Saturday mornings.

The finest group of men I have ever been associated with are VMI men and my Brother Rats are the best of that breed. There is no more select fraternity than that bunch.

I used to tease the West Pointers I would take the last graduate in my class before I would take the first graduate in their class — I wasn’t kidding.

 3. I am honored to have served the nation as a combat engineer during a time of great challenge. I was made the better for it and it is the honor of my life to have been entrusted with the sons of mothers and fathers. I was not perfect, but I did the best I could with what I had constrained by time. I saw more than a little of the world.

You grow up fast when you are 22 years old, been in the Army for less than a year, and in a tight scrape fifty men look at you all at the same time to save their asses. If you do it, you will never be the same again.

It will, however, cost you what remains of your youth and you will develop little white crows feet at the edge of your eyes and your mouth will seem a little hard at times.

Jump pay and explosives pay, $60/month in my day, is a good thing, but I would have paid them.

USAA Insurance, with whom I have a 50 year relationship, is a great company.

 4. There is the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way. I learned the difference.

 5. At age 29, I was entrusted with $74MM of other people’s money and I spent it wisely ending up with a huge building at the corner of Sixth and Congress in Austin By God Texas.

When I feel a little blue, I go downtown stand across the street from that building and talk to it. It always laughs at me. Knowing how to laugh at yourself is almost as important as calculus.

Moving to Texas in the late 1970, Austin in particular, was a serendipity I did not deserve, but I rode that pony hard and she has carried me to places I never imagined.

 6. How you treat doormen, waitresses, and taxicab drivers is far more revealing as to who you are than how you treat the Queen of England. [I met and chatted with the Queen when she visited Austin. Very short, but tough as nails. She is also a World War II veteran. I liked her. I did not offer to shake hands as that is verboten.]

 7. The founding narrative of the United States is the most powerful story ever told in the course of human endeavor and, yet, we have stopped speaking of it.

There is not a man who ever lived in America who could hold George Washington’s horse with the possible exception of George Catlett Marshall.

BTW, George Washington had no middle name and was known as the best horseman in the Colonies.

When confronted with this story, GW demurred and said it was his valet, a black man, who served him for his entire life, who was, in fact, the best horseman. He’s the guy standing next to Washington in all those paintings of him crossing the Delaware to attack Trenton on Christmas Day 1776.

 7A. Never forget we are a country who if you fuck with us, we will cross a river in the snow and ice in the middle of the night on Christmas and kill you. We did that at Trenton. Never underestimate the power of pissed off, free men with guns.

 8. Checking, double checking, re-checking plans is a very good idea. I have slipped past trouble on the “re-check” more times than I care to admit.

 9. Stopping to smell the roses is good, but planting roses (or azaleas) is better.

 10. Your real friends in life don’t give a hoot what your politics are. They didn’t befriend you or you them because Dwight Eisenhower balanced the budget for 8 straight years in the 1950s. They just like the cut of your jib.

 11. We learn more from those with whom we disagree than those with whom we agree. It takes a little courage to admit that, but it is true.

 12. People will tell you “change is the only constant” but that is not true. The basic truths of not lying, cheating, stealing do not change. I learned this at VMI. That is the entire Honor Code and it has stood for almost two centuries.

A gentleman has only one mission: to make others comfortable in his presence. Nothing more.

 13. The world is 2% doers, 98% bullshitters and the bullshitters all control the media and social media.

 14. When you grow up or develop as a person, you grow in small steps that you don’t notice until you look backwards after 5 years and say, “Holy smokes, look at how far I’ve come.”

 15. I have eaten at the world’s best restaurants, but when I could have anything with which to celebrate my 70th birthday, I had a Taylor Pork Roll sandwich with cheese on a roll with a pat of butter. Cooked the Taylor Pork Roll on a grill and laid crisscrossing char marks on it.

You will not find Taylor Pork Roll on the menu at Jean Georges in NYC.

 16. Somebody at the scene of a catastrophic fire in the middle of the night is the guy who set it. Make sure it is not you.

 17. Any kindness you ever unleash in business or life will come back at 10X, if you just wait for it.

People will remember stuff you said 50 years ago if you look them in the eye, speak directly to them, and tell the truth.

 18. In every endeavor, you are betting on the people. In the jockey, horse, course business — the jockey is the most important thing.

I have met great jockeys on mediocre horses in the winner’s circle so many times as to make me laugh. I have never met a mediocre jockey on a great horse.

 19. In your whole life, you will bump into half a dozen soulmates. Marry one of them, if you can.

 20. Kids cannot raise themselves and you never know how you did until they’re about 30. You will find out you did fine.

 21. Failures in “big discipline” are all the result of long revealed failures in “small discipline.”

 22. Being able to write well is a result of being orderly in your thought processes. Economy of words allows the truth to be seen more clearly. Great speechifiers are rarely great doers.

 23. Be careful showering promises around, folks have a tendency to remember them and want you to actually perform on them.

 24. TexMex and Texas BBQ alone are sufficient reason to move to Texas, which also has no personal income tax. Where you live and the taxes you pay are related to your IQ.

 25. We are not going to lose our freedoms on one afternoon at 2:19 PM in a torrential rainstorm. They will begin to disappear, a sentence here, an emergency there, an Executive Order nobody notices, a little at a time, but one day you will suddenly realize we let them slip through our fingers because we were lazy.

 26. You can learn from success, failure, anything if you are ready and willing to learn. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” is true.

There is no success that with a fierce debrief afterward cannot be improved.

 27. Cultures are built on values. If you have no values, then you cannot build a genuine, authentic culture.

If American values erode, then our culture is leaving on the same train.

 28. You cannot say you revere life if you can turn a blind eye to 63,000,000 dead babies since 1973. I’m not speaking of abortion as a political talking point; I’m saying there is one of those dead babies who deserved the same chance in life I got. He/she was better than me. It has to be statistically true.

 29. No amount of coaching can improve a dummy who does not want to be coached.

 30. Listening is the greatest gift you can give someone who is in pain, hurting, depressed, or struggling. It is hard to do which is why it is so damn valuable. Sometimes all it takes is a shoulder, a hug, an ear, a word of encouragement.

Tiger Woods at the top of his game had a swing coach. If you seek counseling, you are making a Tiger Woods move. It takes courage to ask for help. Doing nothing is cowardly. I went to counseling for 3 years. Superb.

 31. Knowing how to tie the Monkeys Paw is a skill that separates you from the masses. I can tie the Monkeys Paw.

 32. Catching a fish, shooting a deer and eating it puts you in touch with your caveman who turns out to have been a Hell of a guy.

 33. No man has ever lived up to the regard in which a dog holds him, but you have to try. Can you imagine how great it’s going to be to see all those dogs in Heaven?

 34. Luck plays a part in everything. You can do the same thing as the other guy, but you were too early, too late, or it was the wrong color.

The earlier I get up, the later I stay, the harder I work, the luckier I get. Funny how that works. We make our own luck.

 35. Few people arrive at wisdom and it is a damn shame because it is easy AF.

Wisdom is the application of good judgment over a period of time.

Good judgment is the product of experience, broad, expansive experience.

Experience is often the product of bad judgment.

All you have to do is to get out there and do things. Don’t worry about your bad judgment, that’s the path to wisdom.

 36. Whenever you can, rent experience. It is way, way, way cheaper than paying full tuition.

 37. Eventually one of the things that can kill you will. Be careful.

 38. There is nothing wrong with favoring fishing, hunting, skiing, landscaping, power washing, painting, and driving around in a convertible with the top down and your hair in the wind more than opera, ballet, symphony, and theater.

Get some of both, but don’t be afraid to say that your church is floating in the ocean as the sun goes down on a warm August evening.

 39. Time spent at the beach or in the mountains gives your brain a chance to get rid of the noise, jettison the toxins, cleanse itself, and to think big thoughts.

Not 5% of America has spent more than two minutes thinking in the last ten years.

 40. Taking the training wheels off in any endeavor is just the beginning of the learning process.

There will be bruises, scrapes, but eventually you will learn to ride a bike and it will take you places you never imagined. [This is a metaphor.]

 41. There is nothing sweeter in the world than a dog returning a thrown ball for an hour, releasing a fat trout that took your fly, a stolen watermelon, or a warm naked woman voluntarily in your bed in the middle of the night. Pro tip: all women revere cuddling.

Arriving at church an hour early, sitting on the baptismal side (where the AC is colder), closing your eyes, and whispering to God, “OK, God, I’m listening,” is right up there.

 42. Accepting praise and giving a good apology are equal strengths in a man or woman. Becoming good at the game of life requires practice. The world can smell a phony across state lines.

 43. Never, ever, ever get on a horse named “Black Assassin” even if you’re from Texas and everybody in Texas can ride anything with 4 legs and hair.

 44. There has never been a snake handler in the history of mankind who did not get bitten.

Be careful with the class of folks with whom you associate, particularly if you fancy yourself a snake handler.

 45. Listen to and write down your father’s stories because your grandchildren one day are going to want to know from whence they came.

 46. I can judge a man by looking at his car, his desk, seeing if he wears a pocket square with a navy blazer, watching how he treats his dog, and listening to the story of how he met his wife.

 47. Steer clear of people who have no sense of humor, do not think there are such things as UFOs, or who don’t believe in miracles or magic. Life is magic. Life is a miracle. You have to be a believer.

 48. There is an end to every argument. If you don’t see it anywhere, then you make it.

 49. If is perfectly fine to break a few rules as long as you know what they are, know you are breaking them, know whether they’re felonies or misdemeanors, and you know the statute of limitations.

 50. Almost every compliment that has a “but” in it is really a poke in the eye with a thumb.

 51. In every human endeavor in which you are a part, you are either a source of energy or a consumer of energy. Know the difference. Run away from the consumers of energy. Fast.

OK, I promised you 50, gave you 51, and that is how the cow ate the cabbage on the 7th of February 2021.

I am well, happy, inspired, and will see you on the ramparts for another 70 years. I will get up earlier, work later, work harder. That sound you hear early, early in the morning? That’s me eating out of your chili bowl, mate.

God bless us all.