Since The Constant Choice was published, I’ve been getting a regular stream of responses to the book from friends and others, mostly through email. I’m going to post some of these heartfelt responses, from time to time. Here’s the first, from Charlie Moore:
When I received your notice of the publication of The Constant Choice on January 25, I wrote you a brief note saying that the world needs thoughtful and well written books. I picked up my copy Tuesday evening and began reading it over dinner. I finished the book early this morning, and before I begin my work day in earnest I want to first say thank you for writing this extraordinary and personal memoir. As your search for goodness continues, I believe you can be secure in the knowledge that anyone who reads your book will be the better for it. Whether that leads to greater care, compassion and wisdom in dealing with others as they follow your path of leading a true Christian life will be up to them, but you have presented a roadmap worthy of emulation.
As I get older I have shifted my focus from fiction reading, something I did extensively in my 20s and 30, to the necessary business non-fiction and biographies. A personal memoir such as yours is a different breed of non-fiction since the tendency is for the reader to compare events and thoughts in their own lives to your journey, which of course is difficult to do when most of us have not had as full a life as you have experienced. Nonetheless, while reading your work I was constantly reminded of my own experiences, and as I progressed through the chapters I could not help but compare some of my experiences with yours. First, I was struck by the incredible lives and goodness of your grandparents and parents (and of course Barbara as your constant companion throughout your journey as an adult). The scenes in Romania when you were a boy are harrowing, particularly as a worker in Botoscani. I flagged numerous pages in this story, and made notations in the margins for future reference, since your early life was so at odds with what most of the people we know dealt with as youngsters. My next area of interest dealt with the various guardian angels you had looking out for your best interests, starting with your grandmother, Costa, of course your parents, Frances Payne Bolton, William Saltonstall, Ernest Arbuckle and on and on throughout your career at Y & R. All of us need the help and assistance of others if we are to achieve a modicum of success and lead a good life, but the number of people you had looking out for you is well outside the bell curve of expectations. I particularly enjoyed your revelation when you were responsible for bringing new accounts at Y & R that it always has to be the client who comes first, something every service provider, especially those entrusted with managing other people’s money, should etch in stone. The most personal section of your book in my view, which is saying a great deal since the entire volume is so personal and honest, had to do with your interaction with Andrew, and your recognition that fathers have failings when dealing with their children.
I found your book so fascinating because it allowed me to think about myself as a young man, student, new professional and aging business owner, as well as perhaps a person of faith. I am typically not too introspective, and the past is something I try to essentially learn from, not to dwell upon, but your book, and the epigenetics overlay certainly encourages the reader to take a look back to see how we have become what we are today. In my case, I grew up in Detroit and began working at a very young age at my father’s butcher shop. Not really pleasant work, but a far cry from the cold sewers in Botoscani. My sisters and I were first generation college, and coming from a family of Catholic priests my choices were limited to Catholic colleges exclusively. I ended up at Notre Dame and paid my way through college with various odd jobs, and working at Chrysler summers, a great and well-paying summer job. While at Notre Dame, which was and remains a very Catholic-centric institution, where the issues of God, good and evil are a constant presence, I spent my Spring breaks working in Appalachia, where remarkable poverty was a way of life. When I graduated I choose to be a VISTA Volunteer, the domestic Peace Corps, and spent my time with the Mexican-American Legal Defense & Educational Fund in Texas. These experience tend to stay with anyone, regardless of what they do later in life. After I received my MBA and worked for 3 years at Coopers & Lybrand as a CPA, I ended up at Morgan Stanley. Given my modest, non-Ivy League background it was somewhat of a culture shock, a little like your first view of Phillips Exeter Academy I suppose, but people tend to adjust, and things worked out well for my time there from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. It was while I worked on Wall Street, and finally had a little money, that I became involved in sending inner-city kids to high schools, and in some cases paid for their college educations, something I continue to do to this day. What I learned is that there are a lot of people in this world in need of guardian angels, as you know well, and I believe that it is the clear and indisputable responsibility for those who have reached some level of financial success to use a significant portion of their fortune to better the lives of others. My father never made any money to speak of, but every week he gave $20 to the parish collection, which I knew was more than 10% of his entire income. This is one of my great lessons from my father, a decorated WWII veteran who never talked about the war, worked very hard for his family and others, and I know had many financial disappointments in life. We are all products of our environment, but more so products of our family histories, which is clear on every page of your book.
In the matter of your faith, search for the right God, goodness and the avoidance of evil, I believe this will be the “constant choice” that your readers will reflect on long after they have put down the book. I was interested in your comments on Ken Langone, someone who I know to be the wonderfully compassionate and generous man you describe, although I have never met him. I remember clearly his defense of Dick Grasso, and his hatred of Elliot Spitzer for the witch-hunts he perpetrated on honest businessmen as the New York Attorney General. I also visit the local Catholic church every morning, but I am not a believer in the traditional ways in which the shrinking number of Catholics follow every dictate of the Catholic church. It is my personal relationship with a God I believe to be just, hopefully leading to my own path of goodness. Perhaps you find your now frequent attendance at St. Bart’s assisting to provide this light. I am also a big believer in what Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished, something so brilliantly portrayed in the Taylor Branch trilogy of Dr. King’s life, summarized in At Canaan’s Edge as the final installment. I have also been a long-time fan of Lyndon Johnson, despite his many faults, for what to did to advance the cause of civil rights in our country. I met President Johnson while I lived in Texas at the opening of his library at the University of Texas. He died 6 weeks later, but I feel that our current President is a legacy of Johnson’s efforts to advance the cause of civil rights for all Americans, as much as Obama owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. King.
I would be remiss and dishonest if I did not mention that I miss my interaction with you and Kevin Carton, and I hope that at some point in the future we will have the opportunity to visit again. I promised John Allison that I would help him get his fund operational, and I spent a good part of last year doing so for no financial compensation of any kind, and it looks like no direct thanks from the recipient of my efforts. John has his dream, which I hope is successful, just as I have a business I enjoy immensely and which I have spent 20 years building. The conflicts were clear and real to me, and my only real disappointment is that John never recognized that I had something of critical importance to me that I had to return to on a full time basis if I may be able to continue my support of inner-city kids and my family. We both know that unless you have some financial success, it is quite difficult to do all we would like to do for others. Like you, I believe it is important to ask people many questions and learn as much about them as possible. In this letter you now know infinitely more about my background than John, who never asked given his focus on his own quest for further success. I have found your book a meaningful guide for my own efforts to lead a good life, and for this I will be forever indebted to you.