Talking to Strangers
💫 Sometimes, life seems to be chocked full of changes. I have noticed as I’ve gotten older, they occur rapidly. Several friends passed away recently, and my wife and I have had concerns about our health lately. Quite a few of our friends and family are struggling with health problems. With all of our issues, as we age, an emerging body of research shows that talking with strangers can make us feel more optimistic, boost our empathy and sense of belonging, and give us a feeling of connection.
That explains why my attitude always is positive. As a younger man, I wasn’t that way. Still, when I met my wife in the early 1990s, I noticed she would unexpectedly start a conversation with a stranger. That may be why she was so personable and easy to be around. I tried it and discovered, to my surprise, that when I did, it made me feel good; some of the stress in my life evaporated, and I had a feeling of self-worth. Thanks in part to my wife and my wiliness to try something different to improve my life, I now have many, many friends, and I feel a vital part of the community I live in. We have several close friends, but many more make us feel welcome to enter their world as we invite them to interact in ours.
I have become a fan of the adage, “Don’t count your money, count your friends.” Talking to strangers is easy and often results in a stimulating conversation. As a young kid with nothing to do, I learned how a friendly chat can entertain and stave off boredom. Still, I outgrew that lesson as a young adult and didn’t relearn it until I met my wife.
Sometimes, my wife kinda wishes I wasn’t so talkative, and I know this because she has told me so 😊. I know what I say is no more important than someone else’s. I often walk away from a conversation thinking that something I said didn’t sound exactly like I meant it to, but that’s a risk you take when you’re guilty of taking too much. I’m guilty of cutting someone off before they finish their thought, and I’m working on improving in that area.
Besides my wife, I know others who talk easily to strangers. My high school classmate, Elsie Dee, whom I still stay in touch with, accomplishes that task easily. My mother was also easily engaged in conversation. I have a few male friends with that trait, my friend Reese being a good example, and so is my friend Mike. All of us must try harder to engage in conversation, whether with a stranger or a friend. We now know there are healthy dividends when we do.
When I think about how much I engage in conversation, this quote comes to mind, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” ~ Blaise Pascal. Hmm, that’s different from what I’m thinking 😊.
💫 Envy is all around us if we stop to notice it. It is way more than a troublesome emotion. Psychologists believe that Envy is an emotion that has existed from the beginning of life, that it’s innate, and must be controlled. I believe that it’s an emotion that everybody possesses but to which no one admits. People readily admit to other emotions, like anxiety, depression, inferiority, etc., but Envy? We don’t admit, not even to ourselves, but above all, we keep our Envy a secret from the person whom we envy. No one I have ever known has profited from Envy. On the other hand, many have been cursed by envy. Do you remember the Biblical Cain? He murdered his brother, Abel, because of Envy. What about Joseph? His brothers sold him because of Envy.
What really is Envy? Envy is a bitter feeling which arises when we see another person has something we do not have, but would like to have. This feeling makes one desire to see the envied person hurt, disgraced, or toppled from his position. Envy is like a cancer which slowly takes over a person’s thinking, so that he feels others’ fortunes are his misfortunes; their profit is his loss, their blessing is his bane, their health, his illness, their promotion, his demotion, and their success is his failure.
It should be noted that Envy isn’t the same as a comparison. Envy involves making comparisons, but to compare is not always to envy. You can compare yourself to another person and yet feel no envy.
Some psychologists believe that Envy is a learned characteristic which children pick up early in life. It is especially prevalent in people who feel they are failures. Envy is almost always an expression of inferiority. Consciously, or unconsciously, the envious person considers themselves inferior to others, and he doesn’t like it when others succeed.
Envy affects our thinking so that we look for faults in other people, and we rejoice when they fail. It influences our speech and leads us to gossip, criticize, and spread rumors that can harm others. It hinders our getting along with other people. What is worse is that Envy separates us from God, and he resents Envy!
I am reminded of this quote by Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is a thief of joy.”
💫 My wife and I recently visited some of my high school graduates living a few hours away. We represented the 1959 (me), 1962, 1969, and 1976 classes. There was, perhaps, a dozen of us, including spouses. We all gathered at the Longhorn restaurant to enjoy a good meal and discuss our hometown and old friends. We were a noisy group, and Longhorn patrons at tables close to us could tell we were enjoying ourselves and tolerated the noise we made. It was great talking with people I knew as a teenager or was raised in or near Oakwood, VA.
There is a special bond among people with similar pasts. Our group of graduates grew up in a coal mining community, so we grew up being pro-coal. As adults, we know that coal is bad for our environment. Still, when you consider eliminating what was responsible for your survival growing up, you face a severe dilemma. The county I grew up in had several hundred coal mines; now, it has two. Back then, the coal was extracted by going into the side of a mountain or strip mining. Today, they dig a shaft down 1,500–2,000 feet and start the process of coal extraction. Sadly, very few coal miners wear masks, so their health suffers over time. Black Lung reparation is so tricky to get it may as well not exist. Many families lose loved ones in their 50s & 60s.
My father was a coal miner and suffered for 13 years before passing. He had two brothers that were miners, and they suffered a similar fate.
So, all of us at our get-together several weeks ago had something in common; we had members of our family that benefitted from coal mining but suffered the consequences of that association. We prefer an alternative to coal mining, but realize how much that would affect those still depending on it for jobs. Consciously, I say let’s wean ourselves from coal, but my heart says otherwise.
I go back home every year and have done so since graduation. I plan to continue that until I’m 105 and can no longer drive 😊. When I’m there, I’m back in the 50s & 60s, and I’m home. Everyone there treats me like the Prodigal Son and welcomes me with open arms. What a wonderful feeling that is. That’s when the hillbilly in me gets to escape 😊. I think Lao Tzu hit it on the head when he said, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
💫 The current internet buzz is about a new piece of software called ChatGPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer), developed by a firm called OpenAI, with financial backing from Microsoft ($10 billion). It was launched late last year and has been touted as the next “BIG” thing.
Essentially, it’s a software model trained to follow thought and language patterns like a human does. Students at Harvard and Yale are having ChatGPT write their thesis. The sad thing is the professors cannot tell whether the student wrote the paper or the Chatbot. With that in mind, I instructed the Chatbot to write one of the three articles above to test that theory. See if you can spot which one, and if you have the inclination 😊, write me (email@example.com) and tell me which one you think it is and why. I included a quote at the end to make it more difficult since I always do it😊.
Satchell of Memories
💫 I have a large drawing of the coal camp I grew up in (Page) hanging over my desk. An old friend (Reese) gave it to me, and I cherish the memories it triggers. It looks exactly as I remember it. When I make the yearly trek back home to visit family and friends, I always drive up to where that camp was (it was torn down in the late 1950s) and think about the people who lived there. My aunt Beulah is the only adult from that camp still living, and most of the children from there have lost touch with each other or passed away. I still stay in touch with many of my high school classmates, but very few from the coal camp I spent my childhood in. We were stuck between two mountains that only let the sunlight in for about 6-7 hours each day. Our fathers went to the coal mine each morning, and our mothers cleaned the house, washed clothes, and read a lot. We, kids, were always looking for a game to play or something naughty to do. Life, at least to us children, was simple: find someone to play with. My mother would send my brother and me out of the house after breakfast (during the summer) and instruct us not to return until lunch. She was cleaning the house and wanted it to remain that way until dad got home. If we wanted a snack, we snuck in the back door, grabbed a biscuit, and then dashed outside before being discovered.
I recall how slowly time passed during those summers and how eager I was for school to resume. I was also keen to become an adult and make my own decisions. Adulthood arrived quickly. I remember boarding the bus in front of our home in southwest Virginia, headed for San Antonio, Texas, and basic training in the US Air Force (1959). I remember looking out the window of that bus as it drove away and thinking that part of my life was over and a new life was beginning.
Now, I’m sitting here at my desk, looking at the drawing of the Page Coal Camp and reminiscing about my life of long ago. I see myself as a nine-year-old boy with a bag of coal slung over his shoulder, struggling up the hill to our house so there would be fuel for the furnace to keep us warm. That was back when all kids had work assignments, and no one was excluded from contributing to the family’s survival. Those assignments were always in addition to schoolwork and were accepted without protest. I never remember protesting to my parents about a task I was assigned. It would have had a minor effect and likely resulted in a severe tongue-lashing.
I recall telling my dad that I wanted to play high school football (9th grade), and his automatic answer (continually) was, “No!”. I immediately walked down the hall to the kitchen and implored mom to convince him to change his mind. In a few minutes, he called me back to the living room and said that I could play football, but “It damn sure better not interfere with your chores!”. I hastily assured him it would not. On a lot of nights, they were finished at 10 pm. No, I didn’t feel sorry for myself, that was just the way life was. I felt my father was justified in expecting me to carry my part of the family load.
So, I’m left wondering why I choose to think about “the good old days?” Maybe, it’s not because they were better than my life as an adult, but because of an inner need to believe that my core values were derived from that period in my life, that morals were better back then, people were more honest, friendships more lasting, religion more ingrained, and happiness was always just around the corner?
That certainly begs the question, would I want to return to that life? After all, moving back to my hometown has always been within my power. Why haven’t I done so if my life back then was much better than it is now? Of course, the answer has to be that life wasn’t really better; it was only so in my memories of that time.
Janet Malcolm said it eloquently, “The past is a country that issues no visas.” I agree with Janet, except to say that it issues large satchels of memories 😊.
💫 I was watching “Yellowstone” on TV the other night, and one character, a cowboy, told another cowboy, “We’ve all been thru things that other people will never understand.” That’s a pretty astute observation for a cowboy. I understand he was only repeating a line of the script, but someone thought that cowboy was up to making a point in that way. Most of us are guilty of thinking anyone with a cowboy hat and a horse is a genuine cowboy. Probably, some people walking around with just a cowboy hat on, never having ridden a horse in their life, think they are the real McCoy. The same could apply to a young man that drives a pickup truck, wears jeans, and speaks profanely, thinks he’s a “Redneck.”
Many of us go thru life wanting to be what we’re not. It could be the aforementioned cowboy/redneck, a sports coach, or the most essential, hard-working person in your office. Then the time for a layoff comes, and you are one of those included to receive the dreaded “pink slip.” If you’ve ever received that piece of paper telling you your company no longer needs your services or tells you the college you wanted to attend has rejected your application, then you’ve been thru something many people will never understand. If you call your father to wish him a happy 89th birthday and he says the doctor told him he has two months to live (that actually happened to my wife), you know he’s going thru something you will probably never really understand, unless something similar happens to you. That’s when you know you’re in over your heart. That’s when you feel guilty about acting like a nice person instead of being one, knowing you should get in your car and drive the eight hours to be with him during his time of need.
Thomas Wolfe said in “You Can’t Go Home Again,” “Something has spoken to me in the night… and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: Death is to lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life, you have for the greater life; to leave the friends you loved for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.”
Many of us go through life wanting to be important, achieving great things at work, being a good spouse or friend, and helping those in our lives who need us. Eventually, as we travel through life, we reach the age where we look back and recognize the folly of life’s many stages. Wanting to be a “Redneck” or “Cowboy” is undoubtedly a prime example of immaturity.
C. Adichie said it best, “I think you travel to search, and come back home to find yourself there.”
Every Child is an Artist
💫 “Every child is an artist until they are told they are not.” I read that quote by John Lennon and wasn’t sure that I agreed with it. I yanked back into existence memories of my childhood that had long ago faded away, and I distinctly remember wanting to be an artist, to draw the cartoon characters in my comic books. And I remember the moment of reckoning when I realized I did not possess that special talent: I was on the floor in my bedroom with my drawings of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and Yosemite Sam spread everywhere. I never showed my drawings to my brother, parents, or friends. It was easily discernable that they weren’t good
As a young boy, I had a grand collection of comic books, almost as tall as I was, and I took excellent care of them. My attempts to recreate the characters within and put my own words into their mouths failed dismally. No one had to tell me I was a terrible artist. I knew it, so I abandoned my desire to become one. When I was a kid, adults did not heap praise on a failed effort. If you weren’t good at what you were attempting to do, you would be told, and it wouldn’t be done politely.
Sigmund Freud (the id, ego, & superego) gave us a lot to think about, but it led us down the path to thinking we had to always encourage our children by telling them they were great at whatever they were attempting to do. My mother and father never succumbed to that tenet, and I didn’t with my two children. If my brother or I came home with poor grades, it usually ended up with a whipping. Those same rules applied to my children.
My son and his wife (JoAnn) have three daughters. I remember him telling me when they were three/four years old that they were going to raise them without spankings. I applauded their efforts but secretly believed they would fail. I was wrong. Three wonderful adult granddaughters are what I have now. I am unaware of how they feel about it: was the replacement punishment worse? My dad only spanked me (whipped) twice as a kid, but in its place, he would get mad at us and stay mad for weeks. Mom would whip my brother and me, and that was the punishment. After a good night’s sleep, she was back in love with us again. I was grateful for that. But my father withholding his love from his children for 3-4 weeks, to me, was unconscionable. I promised never to do that to my children.
Neither of my two children have expressed to me their opinion on how their mother (deceased) and I raised them. I don’t know why I would expect them to. I never told my father how much I disliked his punishment for my brother and me. Florence Nightingale said it well, “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.” Flo may be on to something.
💫 I read recently that you form your first permanent memories around age four, and I agree with that. But I believe I can go back earlier. I can recall my mother nursing my brother, who was fifteen months younger than me. That is quite a bit younger than four. Science has yet to figure out how we store memories. The human brain is the least understood part of our body. When things start to go wrong with it, the psychiatrist chosen to correct the problem seems to guess. I have a close family member that needed their help, and it consisted mostly of being doped up all the time and walking around in a haze. The medicine had side effects, and they were required to take other medicines to counteract the side effects.
I believe we need a psychiatrist/psychologist, but we must monitor what they do closely. They will never say you are well, and the bills will just keep on coming. I know I cannot control the involuntary part of my brain, but I’m guilty of believing I can control the conscious part of it. I know I can control what I choose to think about, and if any unwanted thoughts creep in, I can toss them aside. What I can’t control is what I dream about, but I have tried to have only good thoughts before I drop off to sleep. Sometimes that works, and other times it doesn’t. Often, I get up in the middle of the night to follow the obligatory bathroom adventure, go back to bed, and resume the dream I had before waking up. I’m still trying to figure that one out.
Here’s my plan; My mother used to sing to my brother and me as youngsters before we dropped off to sleep, and I never had a bad dream when that happened. I am going to attempt to persuade my wife to do the same as an experiment and see if it holds true with her. I’m not sure she will do it because I take much longer to go to sleep now 😊. John Rockwell said, “There are times in life when nothing happens but in quietness the soul expands.” That seems like something I should try.
💫 There are stories I tell myself about myself. You’re probably wondering why I need to do that since I already know the story, but that’s not entirely true. I have to tell myself the story to focus my mind and force it to recall whatever it is I want to remember. True, sometimes things from the past will just pop into my mind, but that’s always at the mercy of something triggering the thought/thoughts. Recall that in the previous paragraph, I told you about my mother singing to my brother and me before we dropped off to sleep. That memory came alive because I forced myself to recall it. As I was telling the story to myself and you, the memories came rolling in. I often tell stories from my past at our dinner table, and I’m quite confident that my wife and our two constant dinner companions (Nancy & Richard), tire of hearing them. My tales from my youth are meant to entertain them, but I must admit, they also entertain me. I try not to repeat my favorite ones, but I’m sure I do. My mind is not as agile as it was, and so family and friends are forced to endure my musings. I doubt my wife and dinner buddies have noticed, but I have an alter ego, and I have given him a name. I will tell you, but you have to promise not to tell anyone else. My alter ego is aptly named “Fat Boy.” This fellow is nested as far down inside me as I can stuff him, but he’s always fighting to get out. He puts up his most fierce battles when I’m looking at the dinner menu or gazing out over the dessert table. Buffets bring out the beast in my alter ego, and he enjoys dancing on my shoulder as he encourages me to put some of everything on my plate. Before I go to bed, he sometimes tries to force me to get a handful of the peanut butter-filled pretzels my wife has stored in the drawer beside my coffee container. I’m always aware that “Fat Boy” is fighting for survival, but I also know that his survival is not good for my survival. Like everyone else addicted to calories, I’m looking for the “silver bullet” that will put an untimely end to his existence. Every time I approach our scale to weigh myself, I can hear it screaming, “go away Fat Boy.” Oops, even the scale knows the name of my alter ego! I have to get rid of it and buy one that doesn’t know my alter ego’s name. Stephan Sagmeister said, “Everybody who is honest is interesting.” I sure hope that’s true. If not, I’m a really boring guy 😊.
A Tribute to My Friend Jerry
Recently, my good friend, Jerry, passed away. I have only known him and his wife (Ruth) for 18 months. Still, during that time, we became best friends, eating dinner together each day in the dining room of our retirement center. He wasn’t tall, perhaps 5’8″ or so, but he made up for the lack of height with brain power and personality.
At our dinner table, we often talked about the game show Jeopardy. One evening, after a good meal and great conversation, he invited us back to their apartment to watch our favorite 7:30 pm game show. Usually, I can answer five or six questions out of the sixty-one asked, but Jerry answered about 35-40 during our visit. As we prepared to leave, I kindly informed him never to invite us back again to watch that show. That brought a big smile to his handsome face.
Jerry was a wealth of knowledge, having traveled the world as a colonel in the US Air Force, and had countless stories to tell, which always made dinner time more enjoyable. A remarkable quality of his was to somehow not make us feel inferior. If there was something on the menu for the night and we did not know what it was, he was the person we asked and always knew the answer. If we couldn’t pronounce the name of a meal, he was our “go-to guy.” We still wish he was with us when we encounter those situations.
The kindness and attention he gave his wife also touched us. Ruth has health issues, which eventually got to the point of him having to feed her. Each day he wheeled her to the dining room in her wheelchair, her hair neatly combed, and her clothes and jewelry always matched. We complimented her on how pretty she looked, and Jerry would describe to us when and where he bought each piece of jewelry. Typically, it was overseas somewhere. That was our opportunity to interact with Ruth.
He and I attended a “New Car” show over in Norfolk (30 minutes away) back in January, and it was a great “guy bonding” experience. He loved cars, as do I, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time together. We made plans to attend a stock car race at our local track (Langley) this past summer but had to cancel because of Ruth’s health issues. I surely regret, looking back, that it didn’t happen. I would have enjoyed that time with my buddy.
Then, on September 15th, he and Ruth failed to show up at our 6 pm dinner. Usually, there are six of us, including our friends Nancy & Richard. We weren’t alarmed because we occasionally had a reason to be absent. We were later told that Jerry was in the hospital with gallstones. Although painful, we knew he would survive and probably weave his experience into an exciting story, which he could do easily when he returned.
After a few days in the hospital, they sent him to our Health Care unit on campus with medicine to get rid of an infection, after which he would return to the hospital. They would then perform an operation to remove the gallstones. Jerry called me and requested I bring him a pair of my “Fat Boy Pants.” I often kid that my wife calls me “Fat Boy” when I overeat (she doesn’t). He said he couldn’t stand anything tight on his stomach, so we took him a pair of my largest. We sat by his bedside, talked for about 15 minutes, and left, easily discerning that he wasn’t up for company. I had absolutely no idea that would be my final words with him.
Upon hearing of his request for larger pants, our friends Nancy & Richard went to the store, bought him a new pair, and sat them inside his door, not wanting to awaken him. A few days later, we went back to visit again, and there was a note on his door that said he only wanted the family to visit. That was our first sign that he was much sicker than we thought. Before long, he was back in the hospital in critical condition, insisting that only family could visit.
Eventually, to our surprise, we received word that he was under Hospice Care. Then, upon accidentally meeting his daughter during a walk around the retirement compound, we were told that Jerry was in palliative care. His doctor said the end was near. A few days later, he passed away. We were heartbroken. Grief sets on my shoulders like it is an old friend. Occasionally, I knock it off with a clenched fist, but it always clambers back in place.
I have a picture of my good friend sitting in a prominent place in my den, so I see him each time I walk by. It sits beside a picture of my son, who passed away in 2018. It will be there until I stop grieving, maybe even longer. I’m dismayed with him for not allowing us to visit during that painful part of his journey. His daughter said he didn’t want anyone to see him in his condition. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my friend. I hope to do better with my friends when it’s my turn. But who knows, maybe I’ll do the same thing. I hope not.
Jerry, old buddy, if you’re listening, Amy still has a shot at being the Jeopardy champion for 2022 😊. The Gang misses you and Ruth. Oh, by the way, can you tell me how to say this item on the menu?… your friend, Tommy.
God is my Boss
March 11, 2023
2023, Tommy's Current WoW, WoW
💫 Each day around 6 pm, my wife and I dutifully tread the 500 feet from our cottage to the dining room in “The Big House.” That is the nickname the residents of our retirement community call the enormous building that is the home of most of our residents. The people that staff the dining room are always polite and eager to serve, trying to make our dining experience enjoyable. The average age of our community is 82, so they are dealing primarily with people that like to complain. I know this because I am on the Dining Committee, so I often am told what is wrong with the service, the food, and how long it takes to be served.
All of us in our community are aware of how blessed we are, and yet we still complain. My wife hasn’t cooked a meal in almost two years. I have absolutely no home maintenance responsibilities, so I get to spend my time doing what I want. I play chess, practice guitar, walk the local tracks, and work out at our gym. Constantly, I have to ask myself, what have I done to deserve the happiness that follows me daily?
Is it because of hard work, making good decisions, living a healthy life, and choosing the right person to spend my life with? I know it’s more than a combination of all those things. I know it because I have seen others do the same thing, and their lives turned out vastly different. So, why me? Why have I prospered when others did not?
I believe it’s because I have always chosen to work like God is my boss. I have stumbled along the way, but I have always worked my way back to that concept, and he has blessed me immeasurably. I have had my share of bad luck, and I have the wounds to show for it, but I have always kept sight of who controls my life, and I depend on Him daily. Winston Churchill said it so well, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Well said, Sir Winston.
💫 I read recently that depression is a malfunction of the instrument we use to judge reality. I think most of us have suffered from depression at various times in our lives. Often, it is of our own making. Other times not so much so. We become good at masking our sadness so others can’t see it, but it’s like the hidden hot water heater on the upper floor; eventually, everyone notices it’s leaking.
That begs the question; if depression is a malfunction of something internal, is happiness also a malfunction? We have all been around people who seem eternally optimistic, never letting negativity or sadness into their lives. I desperately try to be that person with moderate success. It’s because I monitor the news daily, and I see the devastation in Ukraine, the callousness of Russia, and the many people worldwide who have trouble getting enough food every day. When you notice those things, enjoying the fruits of your life becomes practically impossible.
I prefer to think that cheerfulness is my normal default state, but that is not always true. I have concluded that life is filled with trade-offs, that they are everywhere and inescapable. How we navigate these trade-offs, rather than ignoring them, is what we need to do to have a good life. Octavia Butler said, “No single answer will solve our future problems. There are thousands of answers, at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”
💫 In my missive last week (Talking to Strangers), I included an essay on envy written by an artificial intelligence chatbot. I asked the readers to determine which one of the three included articles was written by the chatbot. My daughter-in-law (JoAnn) responded best: “When you write, I read every word with interest. When I read the one about envy, I got bored halfway through! It held no warmth; it didn’t feel personal”.
I have only been contacted by a few people, so most people can’t tell when it’s me or the chatbot. Or, as some may think, they don’t care. I hope that’s not the case 😊. With the newfound abilities of the chatbot, I could have it write my missives for me, but that would be a waste of everyone’s time, including mine. My articles are meant to be a record of my thoughts at this particular time in my life. My goal is to have family members read something that I wrote 25 years from now and be able to say something about me and the life I’ve lived. A sort of family history. One of my granddaughters has expressed an interest in keeping my website going upon my transition to the other side, and I’m confident she will.
I don’t have a single letter from my parents or grandparents that I can read. Nothing that lets me know what they were doing on any day of their life and how they felt about their life. My family can never say that about me. I have missives on my website all the way back to 2007, plus I keep a daily journal that goes back to 1998. That would be too much about me for anybody, but having too much is better than having nothing at all. Oh, how I would love to have a letter from my mother or father. I have always known they loved me. I just wanted to see it in writing.
Dolly Parton said, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” My family will know who I am, and I’m doing it on purpose 😊.