My 90 year old friend Phil recently passed away. He was as artful in making meaning of his life as Michelangelo was with brushes. His tools were his wits, smarts and willingness to transform heartache into substantive lessons to empower himself and others.
He was buried with a pin that read, PMA, “Positive Mental Attitude.” Phil in no way lived in denial. He had his share of hardships. Losing a child at a young age, owning a business and struggling to make ends meet for the family. Paying a mortgage or mortgages and supporting others in the family who needed him.
He grew up in the toughest part of town West 30th and Woodland. His father went to war and as an adolescent he learned how to survive by fighting tooth and nail for everything he got. He called it the “law of the jungle.” One day a policeman took him aside and said, “Keep doing what you’re doing and you’re on a path to the electric chair.” It got his attention. He cleaned up his act and tried a different approach in life.
A short stint in the Coast Guard, a stint at college, he dropped out and decided to take matters into his own hands. He bought an apartment complex and named it after his mother, the Florence. He was 21 years old. He rose through the ranks of residential real estate and became a successful commercial real estate broker. Mention his name to others and they often remarked, “Best closer in the business.” He owned his own business.
I met him when I was in sales. I was introduced to him by his father. We would sit in his office, drink Disaranno, watch the ticker and MSNBC Business channel and talk about life. Surrounded by pictures of friends, mementos over the years, he held court for the misfits like myself trying to figure things out. We had lunches every Tuesday – like “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the famous book about the positive sociology professor who lived a PMA. Hang out and take in whatever was given to us and make the moments magical.
We would go to the art museum, or see some Jazz. I’d meet him when he came to California and he would teach me how to part with my money by handicapping at the track “where the surf meets the turf” at Del Mar or offering me stock tips. Every time I met him he had a new take on life. Even when he was losing it at the end, his positive mental attitude brought with it tremendous enlightened glimpses of truth.
Somehow Phil’s PMA translated even when he was in the midst of his dementia. Sure, he had good days and bad days. He went through a period where he was resentful for having to go into a memory unit, but when I saw him that PMA came out in some form and fashion. It was a part of his personality that couldn’t be taken from him.
We are truly alive when we are awake to life. When we know how to channel our adversity into something great. When our instincts are heightened as a result of a deeper understanding, a transcendent mingling in the ethers and awakened sense of what is really happening in life; swimming in divine consciousness. When a person is able to put everything in perspective and come out on top with a smile and joke, something is happening that needs to be noted.
My friend met life on his terms. He discovered that he could conquer purely through a positive mental attitude, and he imparted that to others. Even in the coffin there was a presence of mind that this was a man who lived. “Living is giving,” he would say. More than a few friends relied on his generosity for survival and he never turned them down.
Theologian Dr. Megan McKenna wrote a book on fear, “The Hour of the Tiger: Facing Our Fears.” She noted that the average person could list over five hundred fears in life. That fear is bound to result in neurosis that will rear its ugly head in some form in some way. It is ultimately our undoing.
Maybe, just maybe, the magic elixir of a PMA and meeting life with a wink and a smile is where it all begins. That is the daily test. Maybe that is where alchemy comes in. We take the worst and turn it into gold.
One of the last times I saw my friend in the nursing home, he still had that hopeful glint in his eye. He knew he wasn’t getting out. He still knew my name and was still promoting me and my work. His presence, his wisdom reminded me, “Live for the moment and love for the moment.”
He was still figuring out his next move. “I wanna go to the Derby this year. You with me?”
I could see the memories swirling in his mind – over fifty years of being treated like a king at Churchill Downs; recalling the good times, the funny memories and privileges he enjoyed as a result of his charismatic way and ability to make friends. I thought about the hijinks he shared with me. Arriving from the plane, being cuffed in handcuffs at the foot of the steps, being escorted by the chief of police of Louisville in a cop car. Phil and his madcap friends taken to the front of the gate, so they didn’t have to drive drunk and could enjoy the moments with an eye on savoring life’s every flicker of grace.
“Yeah, I’m with you, Duke.” Somehow, someway, I think he’s going to make that happen because that PMA takes you directly to heaven.