What do you miss from childhood?

As a child, I almost never got mail. I was always interested to see what the postman (and they always were men in those days) brought. Finding something addressed to me was a rare occurrence. I wanted to get mail. I don’t remember if anyone ever told me, “Be careful what you wish for,” but I’m pretty sure I did say something to that effect to one or more of my children in the same situation.

As an adult, I get mail. Plenty of mail. Every day. The advent of email has helped cut down on the volume of paper, but I am not lacking for mail, either paper or electronic. Much of the USPS mail goes directly into recycling, a minor annoyance that takes only a few moments. Even less so to delete junk email.

Some of the mail is welcomed, especially cards and other personal notes. Much of it, however, keeps me mindful of adult responsibilities. It often has task assignments. Stuff of which I was blissfully ignorant as a child.

There are things from childhood I don’t miss and would never want to relive. But, at best, my parents provided a shield from many of the cares, frustrations and anxieties of life. I never had to give any thought to getting the furnace repaired or a clogged water pipe opened up. I don’t think I even knew about tax returns. They provided another layer of protection from “the real world,” on top of a child’s naivete.

Of course, I wasn’t completely oblivious to everything going on in the world, and I had my share of childhood concerns and stress. But none of this kept me awake at night. Not even when I was in the fifth grade with a teacher who was overly-demanding. I can remember being on my way to sleep at night when memories of the day or anxiety about tomorrow would creep in. I was able to imagine my bed floating above the classroom as I said: Sorry, I’m in bed now. I’ve never, as an adult, been able to dismiss concerns so easily.

There’s a tendency among some people to romanticize the past. To use selective memory to create a fictitious “good ol’ days.” I subscribe to the Will Rogers quote: “Things ain’t what they used to be and never were.” Still there are good memories along with the less-than-good ones. And while missing something doesn’t mean wanting to go back to it, there are things I miss.

It’s the innocence I remember fondly. I miss not getting much mail.

What are some things without which I could not live?

My children have been posing me some questions. This is the most recent. My attempt at an answer follows.

Literally, of course, I could not live without oxygen, water or food. Probably need to add “sufficient shelter from the elements” to that.


There are things without which I could likely go on living — somehow — but it would be difficult. I would have to devote more time and energy to survival. High on this list are running water, electricity and heat. Occasional power outages give me an idea of what this would be like and help me appreciate what I have.

Though they are not on the same level as these basic needs, I have likened “wi-fi and cell phones” to “water and electricity.” It’s deliberate hyperbole, yet it is unpleasant to imagine living without them. Yes, we got along fine without them before we had them, but I don’t know that we would get along fine if they went away. The same could be said — and perhaps was said before my time — about phones in general, or radio and TV, as well as cars and other mechanical forms of transportation. I suspect that as each modern convenience has been added, many have looked back and wondered, How did we ever get along without that?

I am looking beyond the physical requirements to sustain life as I ponder this question.

What comes to mind immediately is “love.” I doubt I could live without feeling and sharing love, in all three forms — God’s love, romantic love and true friendship. Part of me reacts to my own statement here by noting it sounds almost cliched to say this. But it is nonetheless true. (At a number of weddings, I’ve sung a song that asks, “Is it love that brings you here or love that brings you life?”)

I couldn’t live without my immediate family. Each member is special to me. They are the most significant source of love in my life. They also bring me much joy, which also is necessary to life. (See my essay on perfect happiness: https://www.storyworth.com/user/john-becton/story/what-is-your-idea-of-perfect-happiness .)

Sunshine, though it belongs in the first paragraph above, figures in here as well. It is more than just a physical necessity. The Sun sustains life even on cloudy days, but too many gray days drain the joy out of life.

And while considering joy, I think we can add “laughter” to the list of things essential for life.

I’m not sure life would be possible without music and other art forms. They provide a connection with our spiritual side that I think we need to be truly alive.

Also essential to life, I believe, is a sense of self worth. People need to feel valued. They desire to see how their presence in the world makes some kind of positive difference. They want to believe their consumption of oxygen, water and food is justified.

Without all these things, it would not be life. It would, at most, be existence.

Things can go, without saying

One of my favorite poems begins, “Because of all that goes/ without saying. . . .” The writer was one of my mentors in college, Charles David Wright. We discussed the poem, “The Goodnight,” one day in a poetry-writing seminar he taught.

He explained that “goes without saying” doesn’t just mean “needless to say.” His concern in this poem is the danger that some things can go away if not said for too long — i.e., if taken for granted.

He refers specifically to feelings between life partners. As I recall, he told us he came home from a meeting late one night and wrote this as a note to his wife, leaving it on the refrigerator for her to see first thing in the morning.

The point is also applicable to other relationships as well. Over time, without affirmation, neglected bonds can wither. Without saying they can go.

Here’s the whole poem, from the collection Early Rising, University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

.

“Samaritans” today

Even many people who’ve never set foot in a church are familiar with the phrase “Good Samaritan,” and many have at least a rough idea of the story. “Samaritan” has come to mean “a charitable person.” Thus, much of the original point of the story is obscured, if not lost altogether.


For those to whom Jesus told this parable, “Samaritan” did not have a positive connotation. They considered Samaritans to be inferior, half-breed people to be avoided. Sure, the listeners probably got the point about how we should help others, but they may have been taken aback when the hero of the story was “one of those people.” Yet, Jesus told the story in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? He was expanding the definition of “neighbor.”


In the ’60s, there was a version that was popular with advocates for racial integration, of which I was one. In it, the man robbed was white, those that passed him by were church leaders and the “Samaritan” was Black. Once when I heard it told, someone suggested that the victim could be a white liberal and the Samaritan a “redneck.” Indeed, Harry Chapin, in his song “What Made America Famous,” offers a similar approach to the parable.


I find it helpful to look at the 1997 movie, “As Good As It Gets,” with The Good Samaritan story in mind.


Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, is racist and homophobic. He earns his living writing trashy romance novels. He won’t bother to take his OCD medication, which would help him be less annoying. He doesn’t seem to like other people and doesn’t seem to care whether they like him.


Greg Kinnear’s character, Simon Bishop, is Udall’s neighbor. He is an artist who is gay. Udall verbally spars with Bishop and with his African-American agent Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr,), making no attempt to hide his prejudice toward both.


Then Simon is beaten and robbed in his apartment. He’s left seriously injured, and on the verge of bankruptcy. He’s not able to get help from his family nor from anyone on a long list of friends and fellow artists.


Melvin takes him in to his own apartment, to give him a place to live as he heals from his injuries and gets back on his feet financially. It’s a more expansive understanding of being a neighbor.

My like-dislike relationship with social media

Facebook is the only social medium in which I participate, unless you count group texts. I suspect that many of these thoughts, though, might apply to other forms of social media. Most do apply to group texts, as well as communication (or attempted communication) in general.

There are things I like about Facebook: being in touch with long-time friends; photos of kids, grandkids, nature, meals; inspirational posts; genuinely educational posts. I also appreciate being able to vent.

Here I want to vent about comments I don’t like to see on Facebook, whether in response to one of my posts or those of others, as well as to others’ responses. These comments fall into two categories: non sequiturs and trolling.

A common cause of a non sequitur is that the person responding didn’t really read the post (or previous comments) first. In this category are those comments that miss the point of the post. The commenter may pick up on a minor element or even a phrase not on-point and change the focus of the conversation. At the extreme are those who hijack the post, making it about them or their own agenda.

While there are “professional” trolls intruding on almost all public pages, I’m bothered more by trolling by friends. Some individuals enjoy playing “gotcha” and engaging in trash talk. At some point, though, “kidding” can become annoying, if not hurtful, because of intensity or frequency. Closely related: making the conversation into a competition and seeking to one-up the poster or another commenter.

Trolling also can include value judgments of another’s personal likes/dislikes, “witty” comments that get only halfway there, feeling a need to explain an implied joke, dedication to “yes-but” responses and proclivity for putting a negative spin on a positive post.

The earliest major news story I remember

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been answering various questions my adult children have posed. Some would be of little or no interest to the general public; a few feel too personal to share outside the family. A recent one was “What’s the first major news story you can remember living through as a child?” It might resonate with others.

The earliest major news story I remember now as being a current event rather than history was the presidential election of 1952. I don’t remember hearing about anything else outside my little sphere at that time or before. I probably did, but paid little or no attention. Likely, I didn’t understand. The election, however, somehow grabbed my 5-year-old attention.

I was surprised years later to learn that the Korean War had taken place in my lifetime. Yes, I was very young. Also, we — like most people — didn’t have a TV. And even if we did, it wasn’t until Viet Nam that wars were “streamed” on TV news nightly. If my parents ever talked about it, that didn’t register with me.

I must’ve known that the current president’s name was Harry Truman, but I don’t recall being conscious of that fact. I’m not sure of the first time I heard that two men were running for president, but I clearly remember seeing on a cereal box photos of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. (This may be what imprinted the event on my brain.) I knew nothing about them, but Eisenhower was smiling and Stevenson was not. So I repeated a campaign phrase I’d begun to hear and said cheerfully to my parents something about wanting to share the phrase, “I like Ike!’ To which my father immediately said — not cheerfully — that it should be, “I don’t like Ike.”

So I learned that we voted for the Democrat, not the Republican. It’s kinda ironic now, considering how unlike the current Republican Party Eisenhower was. The majority did like Ike. When he was inaugurated, a few weeks before my 6th birthday, I understood the significance enough to go next door and watch the ceremonies on TV. I never heard my parents say anything negative about him after he became president.

This wasn’t long before the second major news story I remember. I was very aware of it because it affected me directly. That was the polio epidemic in the early ‘50s. I was aware of a lot of discussion of it, reports of people’s lives being changed by getting it, photos of iron lungs. I remember a summer in which we hardly left the house at all. We played a lot of Monopoly on the front porch.

Then there was the Salk vaccine. I wavered at first, fearing shots, which did hurt more then than they do now that needles are made of harder metal, which can be sharpened more finely. But I feared life on crutches or, worse, in an iron lung even more. So I was part of a major news story when they began giving shots to school children. A few years later, we got the Sabine vaccine, administered on a sugar cube. Without hesitation, I took that, too.

Somewhere in there were news stories about the dramatic drop in polio cases nationwide from year to year. The total in 1956 was a little more than half that in 1955. Then in 1957, there were about a third as many as the year before.

30th anniversary of our new home

Thirty years ago — July 22, 1991 — my family moved into our new house. It was, for me at least, our dream home. Still is.


The family included a high school student, now a marketing professional in New York City and the mother of my grandson; a daughter entering middle school, now a physician in Philadelphia and the mother of my three granddaughters; and a kindergartner, now in Austin adding a Ph. D. to his two masters’ degrees.


We have a 10.6 acre, wooded lot in a neighborhood with 12 other similar lots. The logical spot on which to build — where the house wanted to go, according to one of the architects — turned out to be pretty much in the middle.


My wife and I had our bedroom put on the ground floor, realizing that some day, we wouldn’t want to be walking up and down stairs a lot. It’s been “some day” now for a few years. We were required by code to put a rail on the front steps. We ignored that rail for a long time, but now we understand the reason for that requirement only too well. Similarly, there’s a stool in the kitchen that fits under one corner of the island. It rarely left that spot for many years, but now I sit on it as much as possible while preparing dinner.


Some of the ideas I had for its design dated back to my early adolescence. When I was about 12, I enjoyed looking at the “house of the week” in the Sunday newspaper, as well as sketching out various floor plans I imagined. Eventually, I “designed” my dream house. I don’t know what became of that sketch, but when I was in high school, I recalled it to mind and put it on graph paper, to scale.


I didn’t know that version still existed when we were working with the architects, but not long after we moved in, I found it in some old papers. There were similarities between it and the real blueprint that were striking.


We put the girls’ bedrooms and bath on the second floor, with a separate HVAC system. Once the second one entered college in 1998, we began closing off the upstairs when no one was at home there.


A year before we moved in, we went to a potluck for the high school cross country teams and families. The hosts had been in the newly-constructed house about a month. I thought it was nice of them, but maybe not so smart. A month after we moved into our new home, we hosted that year’s potluck. Area carpets in rooms with wood floors were remnants from carpeted rooms. I hung the art work the night before the event. The kitchen had no back splash.


A year later when my daughter and her coach decided we’d host again, I realized people likely cut us slack the first year, but now we had no excuses for a subpar event. We finally went out and bought real area carpets a week or two before the gathering. The back splash was in place, but I felt more pressure to be a good host than I had felt the previous year. (It went well, as have other such events through the years.)


Ours was the second house to be built here. The first was next door. We had begun getting to know those neighbors a year earlier when we had bought our property and they had begun construction. Over a few years, other lots sold and houses were built. In each case, by the time the new neighbors moved in, we had become good friends.


In recent years, several of the houses have changed ownership. We meet the new neighbors, but our friendships don’t have the incubation time that original construction provided. The ambiance of the neighborhood has changed over time.


The neighborhood was created by a long-time friend from a section of land that has been in her family since colonial days. The acreage she retains and on which she lives is adjacent to our neighborhood. We can walk to her house through the woods.


Even after 30 years, we haven’t grown tired of seeing deer close to our house frequently. We also have foxes, ground hogs, raccoons, ‘possums and, now, interloping coyotes, though we don’t see these regularly. Squirrels, on the other hand, run around and over our house constantly. Well, we do live in an oak forest. We have a good variety of birds. There are rabbits in the neighborhood, but I’ve never seen one up on our hill. So far, no bear sightings here, but there are some in the area.

Easing back in

When COVID restrictions were finally eased enough so that I could get back into the gym, I struggled to complete “workouts” that before the pandemic had been “warm-ups.”

In my younger days, my primary and preferred way of staying in shape was running outside. That begin being more difficult in my 60s and nearly impossible in my 70s. My knees and back rebelled, and with age came less tolerance of cooler and warmer temperature. I did more walking, which can be boring to a runner. Another drawback is that it takes longer to burn off calories than running. And that too has to be restricted to my ever-narrowing window of comfortable weather.

So I’ve grown to depend on the climate-controlled gym, with its variety of equipment that allows me to measure how much work I am doing. During the pandemic, it became too easy to vegetate. I began to enjoy being lazy. Eventually, though, I did not enjoy getting out of breath merely walking up a few stairs nor the extra pounds that far exceeded any amount I’d ever imagined possessing. Then I began to remember and miss how good I used to feel after a thorough physical workout.

Yet, of course, I couldn’t pick right up where I left off. The less exercise you do, the less you can do. I had to start slowly, increasing workouts by small increments. I don’t have a timetable for getting all the way back to where I was, but I’m moving toward it.

The experience is similar as I am becoming able to shift from Zoom to in-person encounters with others of my species. I’ve always enjoyed interacting with other people in a variety of contexts, but I’m among those whose social interaction batteries run down more quickly and need longer to recharge. I find now that, just as with my heart, lungs and muscles, my battery needs to build back its strength. I can’t immediately fill my social calendar as full as it was before the days of sheltering in place. I’m sure this is true for many other people.

I admit that the sheltering may not have been as difficult for me as for more extroverted individuals. It was, to an extent, a respite from social anxiety. Eventually, though, I began to miss specific people and specific activities. I remembered how good it felt to be together in person. I’m sure you know what I mean.

So as I gradually increase the time on and speed of the treadmill, bike and elliptical machine, I’m incrementally increasing the frequency and length of opportunities for human contact. In both cases, getting back into shape to be able to enjoy it once again.

_______________________

UPDATE, Oct. 19, 2021:

Easing back into exercise is going as well as I’d hoped. Easing back into in-person encounters is more difficult, so far, than I had hoped. No major problems, but more social anxiety at times than I’d prefer. And my interaction batteries aren’t holding a charge very well.

I posted a brief comment recently on Facebook, referring to this blog post and noting that it is proving more of a challenge to return to social interactions than to get back in the gym regularly. I took it down after the first two people to react used “ha-ha” emojis. This told me I had not communicated well. I failed to make it clear that this is a disappointment rather than a whimsical comment. I don’t find any humor in the struggle.

Insufferable suffixes

As most people know, the word “alcoholic” as a noun means “someone addicted to alcohol.” This usage is older than any of us. It’s easy to see that the word was created by adding “-ic” to “alcohol.” (It was repurposed from the even older adjective “alcoholic,” meaning “pertaining to alcohol.”)

In more recent times, it has become fashionable to indicate craving for, obsession with or indulgence in whatever by adding “-oholic” or “-aholic” to the end of said object. Not “-ic,” but “-oholic.” It keeps part of the word “alcohol” though not referencing alcohol.

A popular one is “workaholic.” Addicted to workahol? Also, “chocaholic.” Shouldn’t that be “chocolatic”?

And we have “shopaholic,” “sexaholic,” “foodaholic” and many others. I’ve recently seen “musicoholic” and “dogoholic” groups on Facebook. I once heard someone try to coin the term “theateroholic” to describe a — well — theatric person. In response to a question in a Facebook post about dependence on driving, I commented, “No, I’m not addicted to gasohol.”

Indeed, few, if any of these cases of “-oholism” are addictions on the order of alcoholism.

Another overworked suffix that broke into our language (by dark of night?) in the ’70s is “-gate.” You know the story. Some people wanting to ensure the re-election of the current president broke into the national headquarters of the other party. That office happened to be in the Watergate Office Building in Washington DC.


Within a couple of years, William Saffire began coining “-gate” terms for a variety of scandals. And the — er — floodgate was opened: Vietgate, Irangate (or Contragate), Billygate, debategate, emailgate and nannygate, to name just a few.


And the phenomenon hasn’t been restricted to politics. Scandals in entertainment, journalism and other areas have been tagged with the “-gate.”


In the sports world, we’ve had inflategate, bountygate and Astrogate, among others. I once was part of a “vendingate” controversy, which I described in a previous blog post, “A Boost in Status.”

The Wikipedia article “List of ‘-gate’ scandals” provides a long list.

All because of the name that had been given to the building where one political party happened to rent office space. One could wonder: What if it had been called the Amsterdam Building? Or the Suffolk?

Are we faced with a gateaholic crisis?

What I might say about my mental health

If I wrote my own mental health confessional, I would begin by saying I’ve struggled with depression most of my life. I would note that for many years this condition went undiagnosed, but therapy brought to light indications of the illness going back at least to when I was 9 or 10. I guess I would admit that the first time I seriously considered suicide, I was 10.

I would talk about difficult feelings I was having by the fourth and fifth grades and beyond, even up to the present. About making decisions, some more significant than others, that weren’t the best choice, even though on some level I often was aware they weren’t the best when I made them. About feelings of despair and low self-esteem. About difficulties in processing feelings and accessing relationships. About hurts that lingered.

I would include something about the unhelpful things I’ve heard from an early age. One was a bemused “Now, don’t be bitter.” Another, “You’re too sensitive.” How about “we’re not laughing at you; we’re laughing with you” — when I was not laughing? “Snap out of it,” was the commonly suggested cure for people with conditions such as mine. Similar are “get over it” and “suck it up.” One parent once lamented, “I don’t know why you have to be so different.” The other once complained that I was “always miffed about something.”

I might mention but would not describe an incident in early adolescence when I was feeling so bad about myself that I expressed it in a way that engendered anger, making me feel even worse about myself. It left a deep scar. I’ve shared details only with therapists and my spouse. Therapists have said it was an obvious red flag. The first time I shared it with anyone was with my spouse. I became emotional and had trouble getting through it. That may have made it easier to talk about later in therapy.

Adventures in therapy

I would describe the first time I tried therapy and what led to it: During my sophomore year of college, I started noticing I was tired a lot, even for a college student. I continued to feel that way during the summer, the last summer I spent in my childhood home.

A doctor determined it was nothing physical and gently suggested seeing a mental health professional. When I returned to college for fall semester, I jumped through assorted hoops at student health, eventually landing weekly appointments with a psychiatrist.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the tiredness was a manifestation of depression, but you never heard much about depression in those days. It was not my diagnosis at that time. The doctor listened to me for 50 minutes each week for most of the school year, asking leading questions but offering few reflections on what I said. I got much more from one session with a college chaplain that summer. He was the first person who ever said to me in all my 21 years, “That must feel bad.”

As I would continue telling my story now, I would include reports of helpful therapy sessions. The first came many years later, when I finally shared with my family doctor how I often felt. I told him of the feelings listed above, as well as how I was no longer enjoying a number of things that had given me pleasure in the past.

He immediately diagnosed my condition as depression. My first thought? I was glad to know that I wasn’t crazy. That there was an identifiable reason for what was going on with me. A definable disease for which there was treatment. I knew intellectually that I “shouldn’t” have a lot of the feelings I did. This diagnosis provided an explanation.

So at this point in my imagined essay, I would talk about sessions of nearly a year each with three different psychologists spaced over several years. All were helpful, especially the first and third. I was not “cured” by any, though I gained some tools that helped me cope better. In time, I’ll go back for another tune up. Yes, I tried many prescribed anti-depressants, but I’m in the 40 percent for whom such medications are not effective.

I would want to note that someone with depression is not always down. We smile, we laugh, we enjoy. At times.

What would be the reaction?

It seems that more and more well-known people, including entertainers and athletes, are opening up about their own struggles with depression and other mental health issues. They want to help destigmatize mental illness. Some say it’s also therapeutic. As each comes forward, I ask myself if I would do well to do so, too.

Yet, I worry about how people would take it. What would they think of me? Would they treat me any differently? I wonder these things, even though I think more of people who share their struggles. And I don’t treat them any differently.

Or would they make light of it? Maybe the reactions would be similar to the unhelpful words I listed in the third paragraph above. Or similar to a reaction I often get on the rare occasion I dare to mention a physical health concern — i.e., “I have (or someone I know has) the same problem, only worse, and have (has) had it longer.” This response seems to devalue my concern.

Would I end up feeling better or worse?

Another barrier is that I haven’t completely stopped buying into the very stigma I want to counteract. That’s a little ironic, I guess, as is the fact that my depression-nurtured lack of self confidence makes it difficult to take this step.

The S word

If I did take it, I might mention suicidal thoughts. Or I might not. Or maybe just say I wish I didn’t know as much as I do about what it’s like to have them.

I could share significant difficulties I have with light deprivation. Or difficulties getting out of bed sometimes. Times of feeling bad that I feel bad. And how motivation can be a problem when feeling “what’s the use?” or struggling with low self-esteem. I could talk about a well-developed sense of “don’t belong,” which can crop up in almost any context.

That would probably lead to an acknowledgement of ever-present social anxiety. I could admit to worrying before a social event that I’ll say something stupid; worrying during that I am saying something stupid; worrying afterward that I did say something stupid. (Worrying now that this all sounds stupid.)

Then I might note how easy it is to be embarrassed by things others would just laugh off and humiliated by things others might just find a little embarrassing.

I would, if I could muster enough self-confidence, claim some ability as an actor. For the past few of my infrequent appearances in a play, when writing a brief bio for the program, I’ve thought of adding this to the list of past performances: Has portrayed a mentally-healthy person in everyday life 24/7 for many years. If I wrote my own mental health confessional.