Living Richly in the Real World
By Roger Larson, CAE | Executive Director
“The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.”
– Wallace Stevens, 1944
It may well be true that physicans’ lives and livelihoods are defined too little by poets and too much by insurance executives. Which makes the lines above fit perfectly into this “Goldilocks Year” of too little, too much, just right. The line is taken from the final stanza of a poem by Wallace Stevens, Esthétique du Mal, first published in the Kenyon Review in the Fall of 1944. One of the greatest of modern American poets, Stevens put bread on his family’s table – a lot of bread – working by day as a vice-president for the Hartford Company in the mid-Connecticut “Insurance Capital of the World.”
The poem is a study of counter-balancing abstracted evil with reality, the “real” beauties of the natural world. Stevens began writing it in 1943 but saw it published midway through the bipolar hopeful and tragic year that followed, a year when many Americans, horrified by the high cost paid in June on the beaches of Normandy, but hopeful that the Allies successful invasion might signal the return home of soldiers by Christmas, found themselves briefly frozen in horror and dismay again in December, their premature relief and euphoria arrested by the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes, more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest and costliest battles in American history.
If that rapid roller coaster ride from dread to hope to dread again in a brief period of time sounds familiar, maybe even a bit arch, it is meant to. For all that they deserve the moniker, “The Greatest Generation,” Americans of that era were not all that markedly more focused and patient in matters public than succeeding generations. Franklin Roosevelt’s greatness had less to do with pugnacious resolve than it did his peerless ability to guage the public’s mood, to monitor their collective Goldilock tendency to impatiently move from too little or too much, too soft or too hard, too hot or cold, before finally arriving at “just right.”
As a country, we are where we are in the Fall of 2021 because we still cannot settle among ourselves whether collective measures meant to combat and contain the pandemic are too little or too much. We moved with dizzying imprecision and distraction from polarized positions of amorphous anxieties and real fear to premature celebrations of crested curves and resumed rituals too eagerly embraced as feeling “just right.” In that 18-month shuttle between being too isolated and too immersed, too fearfully masked and remote to too recklessly familiar and unmasked, we lost all sense of being grounded in physical reality. Having become too habitually disembodied in a virtual world, some of us lost all hunger and savor for the real world.
So here we are. Who knows how risky our resolve to meet in Boston really is? The yearning we have felt for years now to celebrate that once-in-a-lifetime milestone, our 50th Anniversary Meeting, and along with it our calling and identity – our Past, Present and Future – was made to seem all that more urgent and compelling having missed out last year on the once-in-a-generation chance to bring all the child neurologists in the world together in San Diego. Good as it was, the virtual meeting felt a bit, well, “too little.” Much as we all want to regather in Boston, rising curves and ominous variants, coupled with variable attitudes toward vaccines, masks, and sensible socializing make some feel as though jumping back into a medical meeting in an urban environment is simply “too much.” I have no idea – do you? – what “just right” might look like or actually be.
And so, we have tried, the CNS Board of Directors and National Office, to come up with a range of options. For some, a virtual meeting might be too little, for others, a live in-person meeting in Boston, too much. A hybrid meeting is a plausible “just right,” I guess: live-streaming content from the comfort of home or office that those comfortably (or uncomfortably) gathered in Boston are interacting with face-to-face. When, we all wonder, can we claw our way out of the soulless impoverishment of the screen-world we have inhabited for the past 18-months and regain contact with the soil, sunlight and soulfulness of the real, physical, relational world we relish and need?
That you, that any of us may yet be able to experience, embrace and celebrate this milestone 50th Annual Meeting together or apart, in Boston or on-screen, is greatly owing to the drive and discipline demonstrated daily by a remarkable, and remarkably small cohort of CNS National Office Staff members and a handful of familiar and reliable service contractors. Chief among them, of course, is CNS Associate Director, Sue Hussman. I first met Sue in 1994 when Mary Currey and I realized that putting on a joint meeting with the International Child Neurology Association in San Francisco would require a lot more professional savvy, experience and muscle than the two of us could muster. I remember being so impressed, dazzled even, by the sales pitch made by one of the executives and part-owners of the general service contractor in town who promised to raise the big tent for us and put on a big show. I looked forward to meeting him the following week to get down to the nuts and bolts of planning the CNS-ICNA conference. Instead, this prim, petite young woman walked through the door and politely introduced herself. I could almost feel the air go out of the big tent and my confidence sag like beer-and-peanut perfumed canvas all around me. What, I wondered, could she possibly do to help us?
I have been wrong many times over the years, but never more so than in that first meeting when I asked myself the wrong question. Rather than ask “what can she do?” I should have asked, “what can’t she do?” I’m still trying to find out. As I have told countless people over the years, Sue Hussman is flat out the best service person I have ever met. She defines the word “service”. Whatever needs doing, she will do it. Within reason. Which is the other, harder thing I have come to learn and mostly appreciate over the years of working closely with her. If what you are asking is unreasonable, is something that for some reason can’t be done or shouldn’t be tried, she will tell you, straight up. If planning three separate meetings – which is what, essentially, this year’s hybrid meeting involves – can’t or shouldn’t be done, she would have told me. Instead, she has done everything in her power to make it happen, using every trick in the book she has learned over three decades in the business of managing meetings, along with a bundle of new tricks she picked up in the last 18 months adapting to the new realities ushered in by COVID-19. We are all moving into unexplored territory in the next few weeks. Be glad we are following Sue’s lead. Be grateful, as I am, and tell her thanks, as I fear I don’t do clearly and often enough.
She has not done this alone, of course. Kathy Pavel has provided unflagging support for a dozen or so years, both for Sue and myself. There may be times when Kathy thinks the only thing I know how to say or write is “remind me,” “tell me again, “or send it again.” And there have been many times when someone less kind and genuine might have told me what I could do with the new website and member database I made her learn and adapt to while working from home in the middle of a pandemic. If anyone approximates Kathy’s matchless good cheer and willing support, it is Emily McConnell. But I don’t need to tell many of you that. Members of the Scientific Program Committee, and especially the chairs, Carl Stafstrom and Yasmin Khakoo, all know how organized, thorough and efficient Emily is. And how kind and patient: I don’t think she and Kathy have formed a support group where they get together and tell stories about how many times they sent Roger the same d___ file (except neither of them would swear, ever). But they could. Our accountant, Bill Cranford, could join them. I’m not sure Bill believed me when I confessed upon first meeting him nine years ago that I had never balanced a checkbook. That the CNS is not just solvent, but financially thriving is due in no small part to his acting as though that might be true, and being doubly conscientious about giving me advice that I clearly understood. He and Rachel have made your past several meetings more relaxed and pleasurable by processing your posters and taking that worry off your shoulders as Bill has taken the stress of monthly financial reports off of mine.
All in all, if you think navigating the swirls and eddies of my long sentences is hard and often pointless, try translating my wooly thought process into processed applications and dues notices, CME surveys and committee agendas, floorplans, exhibit booths and PR requests, food & beverage orders, presentation guidelines, hotel and convention center deliverables, signs, walk-in slides, support staffing and million dollar contracts. Sue, Kathy, Emily and Bill have all done it for years, largely without complaint. I couldn’t have gotten through the past 10 (let alone 27) years without them.
Nor could they have maybe gotten through the past 10-15 years without the support of others, like Laura Laflin, who has calmly and uber-competently overseen registration since 2012; or Jeannie Ordoyne, Sue’s “Sue” at Freeman who has quietly and comprehensively had her back – and mine – for 15 years; or Gary Ellegood, who worked our meeting and the AAN’s for many years with PSAV and now is our primary AV consultant; or Richard Kearney, the videographer I first met in Boston in 2020 when we videotaped 15 conversations, then later recorded and edited 200+ presentation for last year’s CNS-ICNA virtual meeting and came back again this year for more. And then there is the incomparable Suzanne Shaff, who has taken our annual meeting photos for the past eight years; try imagining the 50-day Countdown to Boston without benefit of her 5-7 photos featured daily. There would not even be a Countdown to Boston, or CNS Connections, or a new CNS website without the incomparable gifts of our longtime graphic designer, Kim Weeks.
Finally, there is Theresa Trapilo, a dear friend to me and to so many of you, whether you knew and worked with her at Boston Children’s Hospital, or met her at one of the CNS Annual Meetings she helped staff going back to 1994. (I have known her, and prized her friendship, as long as I have known Sue and prized hers.) Theresa and my daughter, Mekea, organized and ran the podcast recordings together at CNS meetings since 2015; the two of them bonded, their sunny demeanor, kindness, intelligence, ready wit and sparkling laughter being so well-matched and so well-suited to the task of “herding cats” in a yearly four-day race against time. I always told Theresa that when she retired I would retire. Theresa, as many of you know, passed away in early September. To come to Boston and not see her again is virtually unimaginable. I am glad that I will at least be able to see – to physically greet – so many of you who she and I both knew and spoke warmly of, always with an admixture of appreciative levity and deepest regard. She was very “Boston” and very “real.” And we are all richer for having known her.