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Chet and Ron and the quality of regret


Last updated 2/5/2020 at 4:46pm | View PDF

The small stack of elderly firewood beside my garage occasionally reminds me of Chet and Ron. They were my first two project bosses after I was hired by a management consulting firm, soon after grad school. Guys in their late 50s, Chet and Ron were managers of big consulting contracts for airlines, insurance companies, manufacturers. As a rookie "green pea" analyst, my job was to collect data and run my thinking by them before parading it before a client. My chief task, though, was to learn from them.

Each took an interest in me and I learned plenty, but the best instruction they gave was somewhat inadvertent, given after hours, and had nothing to do with cost control consulting. Out-of-town jobs require proximity, and over dinners, they let me see something of how they regarded themselves as Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda guys - intelligent men who had regrets for paths not taken, things not done, instincts not trusted, and most hauntingly, for family relationships not developed. Nearing the ends of their careers, it seemed apparent that both saw their lives as courses run out of options, as routes unchangeable as they approached retirement.

It was heady stuff, an invaluable exposure offered up courageously and without self-pity to this young man in his mid-20s - a green pea at most everything. And under their tutelage, I became sure of one thing: I didn't want to get to my own late 50s with big-time regrets. I wanted small-time regrets, and so that became a sort of measuring stick for much of what I could control in my life.

And that gets me to that small reminding pile of unburned wood. I had great plans, fireplace-wise, when we bought our house. I foresaw evenings spent in front of a fire, staring into the flames, mulling - well, mulling whatever one mulls when looking at a fire.

Fortunately, my plan was thwarted by better things: kids' sports, school plays, wonderful vacations, a house renovation, running a business, and then later, writing cheesy crime novels and traveling up and down the east coast with Sue, visiting the landmarks of her amazing genealogy, which ran straight back to the Mayflower.

It's old now, that small pile of wood. It's been sitting up against the garage for something like 30 years. I do pay it attention, though, checking it now and then for festive termite parties. Fortunately, bugs of any sort have paid it no attention at all.

But even more, I pay attention to that little pile of wood for reminding me of the life lessons I got almost a half-century ago. I'm now at the age that's often regarded as circling the drain. That, plus circumstances, has nudged me to where I'm more prone to assess my regrets. Sure, some are big; not everything in life is controllable. But I've been able to make many of them wonderfully small, just like that little pile of unburned wood.

Thanks, in part, to good lessons from Chet and Ron.

- Jack Fredrickson of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email him at [email protected]


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