The Way It Was: Part 3 | THE FARM

Introduction from Editor: In THE WAY IT WAS: Part 2 | The Great Depression, Eshrink shared his perspective and experiences during the Great Depression and the 1930s and early 1940s in middle America.

The best weeks of every summer for my brother and me was the time we spent on the farm.  Our Grandparents were welcoming, but I wonder how they really felt about such a rambunctious invasion.  It was well known that one of Grandma’s favorite pastimes was feeding people, especially kids, but she expected some praise in return for her efforts.  She would sometimes manage to put us to work hoeing corn or working in the garden, but those efforts were short lived as we would soon escape to go swimming or fishing in the creek which ran through the pasture.  She would also occasionally recruit us to accompany her on expeditions looking for patches of wild blackberries or raspberries from which she promised to make pies with the portions left over after making a batch of jam.  She was fearless and reminded me of Brer Rabbit in the Aesop fable as she waded into those briar patches apparently oblivious to the pain they caused.  

In those days the family farm was as the name implies primarily for the purpose of feeding the family.  The idea came to fruition several thousand years ago when people decided that it would make more sense to plant and harvest stuff than to go chasing all over the place hoping to find something edible to kill or pick.  Of course, if a person had some stuff left over after the family was fed, he might trade it for a new loin cloth or something.  That concept had changed little at this little piece of land adjoining the village of Irville, Ohio, population of probably less than 100 souls.  During the all too brief time that I have occupied the planet, I have witnessed the demise of the family farm.  As technology and transportation have improved, it has become much more efficient to specialize, which has led the average farmer to sell all he grows and purchase what food his family needs. As the principles of mass production invaded the food industry, families found a can of beans bought at the local grocery would cost less than the materials that would be required to put them in mason jars, not to mention the hours of labor involved in their growing and preparation.  Nevertheless, one could see in Grandma’s eyes a deep sense of satisfaction when she looked at the numerous colored jars of fruits, vegetables, jams, and beef which lined the shelves in her cellar. 

There was one instance in which I remember experiencing that feeling. It happened as I was eating one of Grandma’s “light cakes” that was still warm from her oven, covered with a slab of butter from her churn, and topped with a glorious glob of apple butter and washed down with a cold glass of buttermilk.  In spite of years of diligent searching, I have never been able to duplicate that taste.  There is little doubt that memory is enhanced by the recollection of my participation in the production of this culinary delight, for I was charged with gathering apples from the old tree that protected the back porch and like a giant umbrella, held sway over the well and its pump. 

Fascination with the mechanical apple peeler led me to ask if I could do it, but therein lay the wisdom of that adage to be careful what you wish for, as I soon learned that it takes a lot of apples to fill a five-gallon copper bucket.  A fire had been started in the back yard under the vintage bucket filled with peeled, cored, and diced apples along with a package of cinnamon drops and brown sugar.  I was assigned the job of continually stirring the glob for the next several hours with a long-handled wooden hoe which Grandad had made for the purpose.  I watched as that yellow glob became a rich golden-brown delicacy, some of which would find its way on to Grandma’s “light cakes.”  Sorry Mr. Smucker….you do a good job, but your apple butter does not generate the same feeling as my “home-made” version.  I have no idea why, but suspect it has something to do with belonging (i.e., me becoming a participant in the creation rather than simply a consumer).  I had teamed up with nature to produce something good, and that was very satisfying.

5 gallon bucket for apple butter
The 5-Gallon Bucket Eshrink used to make apple butter now holds plants in my (daughter Maggie & Eshrink Editor) house. Granddaughter Caroline asked her papa if she could have the pail when she read about it in his book, “Reflections for the Future”

With the development of farms limiting their production to only one product such as grain, vegetables, fruit, dairy, pork, or beef, etc,, farming became a business rather than a lifestyle. Unfortunately, for many reasons, the average farmer has found himself ill-prepared to compete with corporate interests which have bought large swaths of land, which when unencumbered by fences or other impediments, make it possible for one person with the help of technological advances in farm machinery to manage many times more land than could the family farmer. Such facilities have been aptly called “factory farms” for they have become models of efficiency by adopting industrial methods. They offer many advantages, but as I have noted in previous blogs, they also have in some cases accelerated environmental problems, and raised the ire of animal rights advocates along with guys like me.

My Grandparent’s farm was certainly nothing to look at. It was only 23 acres in size, with a house that had not felt the caress of a paint brush in at least 40 or 50 years. It was situated in a large valley that encompassed several square miles, which was said to have originated as a large lake formed by the latest glacier.  It had apparently been inhabited by Indians for we kids found it profitable to follow the plow when earth was being turned in order to find arrowheads. The valley was also the site of a large burial mound which had been long ago desecrated.  To find an arrowhead or spear point was a major happening and would elicit wondrous images as to how it got there. 

The farm house had the obligatory front porch with a swing and wicker chairs.  The porch looked out on the main road which ran through the village and provided a front row seat for the family as they watched me nearly meet my maker at the tender age of 4 years old. In my excitement to show off a treat from the village general store, I had broken away from Grandad’s hand to run across the road directly into the front fender of a passing automobile.  I awakened on a couch in the parlor to find Dr. Wells looking down at me, and realized I was in big trouble for this was the only time I had been allowed in this room since my Great Grandmother’s funeral, and the couch on which I was laying was reserved for special occasions.  The good doctor assured everyone that I would be fine and turned his attention to Grandad who had collapsed in the middle of the road after assuming the worst.  This was the second time I had escaped from the clutches of the grim reaper, and it left me saddled with the accident-prone moniker. The other incident involved the well-worn story of my rescue by Dad when I had fallen into the river as we were fishing alongside the Pleasant Valley covered bridge. 

Weather permitting, the front porch was heavily occupied on Sunday afternoons. We kids had learned to pay homage to Grandma’s culinary expertise by patting our midsections and letting out a loud burp or two. The Sabbath was rigidly observed except for those businesses or professions that were deemed necessary for the public good.  For example, it was considered very poor taste to be seen mowing one’s lawn on Sunday, and some more zealous Christians even thought it was a sin to cook on Sundays and would prepare Sunday meals on Saturday.  Nevertheless, the average farmer could hardly consider the Sabbath as a day of rest.  Even with suspension of many activities, there remained much which could not be put off.  Grandad’s day began shortly after daybreak with milking of his four cows.  There were also the hogs to feed and water, along with the chickens which in both cases required considerable effort since it required filling buckets of water from the pump that stood under a large apple tree situated near the back porch some distance from the hog lot or hen house.  Those chores were repeated in the late afternoon.  The balance of his morning was consumed by shaving with a straight razor (I remember watching in awe as he deftly disposed of those white whiskers without cutting his throat).  Meanwhile, Grandma had deftly separated a rooster from his head and her crown achievement of the week, the preparation of Sunday dinner, began.  I never knew them to attend church, but at the age of 96 Grandma still nightly prayed on her knees at the side of her bed. While the kitchen was being cleaned up, there were often horrible screeching sounds emanating from the stable as Grandad sharpened his tools in preparation for the week’s work.  After all that, the day of rest began, but it would be short lived for in a couple of hours it would be time for evening chores. 

The valley ground was fertile and made more so with liberal applications of cow manure which was collected in a large pile to the rear of the stables.  There were 4 cows who would be found standing at the gate awaiting to be escorted to the stanchions at milking time.  My favorite was named Bossy.  She would allow me to ride her to the stable, while a Jersey named Whitey was mean, and only Grandad could handle her.  A small stream that coursed through the pasture was called the run.  It emptied into the creek which found its way into the river where I had nearly drowned and therefore was off limits to us kids.  It was the run however where we spent much of our time swimming and fishing.  At some time in the remote past, a road had been cut through a corner of the farm which left a small corner of ground as the designated hog lot.  It backed up to the local cemetery where my Grandparents, Great Grandparents, and other relatives are buried.  The location was not very convenient as it was a bit of a hike for carrying water and feed to the hogs twice a day, but it did have the advantage of wafting the odor away from the house toward the cemetery.  In addition to the chicken house, smoke house, and corn crib, there was the brooder house in the barnyard where the new chicks could be sheltered until they were old enough to survive outside temperatures. 

The length of the farm workday was determined by the time of the year, since it depended on the number of daylight hours although, with the invention of the kerosene lantern it had been extended even beyond that.  As is always the case, those items of momentous change in our lives eventually become routine and taken for granted.  Such was certainly the case when Dad introduced electricity to the farm.  Milking time needed to be rearranged for at 7 o’clock Grandad could be found with his right ear pressed against the speaker of his new radio with its volume set high enough to chase everyone else from the room while he listened to H.V. Kaltenborn’s news cast. 

Imagine Spinney’s delight when he first walked into the barn and simply flipped a switch in order to be bathed in light.  There was no longer a need to walk to the general store in the village to purchase kerosene, fill the lantern, adjust and light the wick, then find a place to safely hang it where it was not at risk to burn the barn down for there are not many materials more flammable than straw or hay.  He was not one to jump onto the latest invention, preferring to sharpen his tools with a file, oil stone, and an old treadle operated grindstone.  He was not averse to power tools and other modern conveniences, and indeed was intrigued by technology, but simply preferred doing things the old way.  He was quick to adopt the new ways when there were clear advantages.  For example, when Bell the plow horse, had died, Grandad did a cost analysis and determined that he could hire a neighbor to plow his gardens and fields with a tractor much cheaper than he could keep a horse.  I was heart-broken when he subsequently sold the spring wagon for, I had loved pretending to be riding shotgun when he harnessed Bell to the wagon, and we headed to the feed store with me sitting up there beside him. 

Grandma on the other hand embraced this new technology with a vengeance.  She immediately started saving her egg money for one of those new-fangled electric refrigerators, which was soon followed by a wringer washer.  Subsequent birthdays and Christmases would bring forth a spate of small appliances over which she would marvel. Natural gas had also recently been piped into the house and a brand-new shiny gas cooking stove had replaced her trusty old soot belcher, although the old Florence stove still stood in the midst of the family room where it devoured large chunks of coal in a feeble effort to warm the whole house. 

My Father was a proud person, and it must have been devastating to have lost everything he had worked so hard to accomplish so soon after starting his own family. His assertiveness at times bordered on arrogance, and he was not shy about offering his opinions. Although it was not readily apparent, he was a caring person.  On one occasion, to my mother’s chagrin, he brought a hitchhiker he had picked up, home for dinner, later explaining that the guy was hungry, and he felt sorry for him.  He had quit school in the 8th grade in order to support his family due to his father’s alcoholism.  This in spite of having been promised by a local resident of the village to pay for college if he would stay in school. The only reference I ever heard him make to the poverty of his childhood was when he admitted that the reason he always wanted to be sure of having eggs in the refrigerator was because his mother once sent him with a penny to buy one egg from a neighbor.  He was so mortified that he vowed to always have eggs when he grew up, yet here he was once again with no eggs in the ice box.  In spite of his place as the younger of the two boys in a family of six, he was the one assigned to search local bars in search for his father during his dad’s alcoholic binges. My paternal grandfather was a colorful figure in his own right and had shown himself capable of successes in between binges. Although I have few memories of him, the stories I have heard suggest that he was in spite of his flaws a brilliant person, and I hope to write more about him later.  I only remember my paternal Grandma as long suffering, helpless, and dependent on my father.  In spite of the complex dynamics of his family of origin, Dad showed no signs of bitterness.  He was outgoing, gregarious, and definitely a presence in any group situation.  I recall him saying on one occasion that he had always wanted to be a salesman, and his persona fit that role perfectly.  Later in his life that wish would be fulfilled in spite of his lack of education, and as expected he found success there.  

Mother had grown up in a secure environment in a neighboring small village surrounded by extended family and cared for by hard working parents.  I have hanging on my garage wall her framed diploma from high school which measures nearly 2 feet square.  Apparently in her time a high school education was a really big deal.  Her father was big on education for following graduation she enrolled in a business school which I assume was somewhat similar to present day community colleges.  The curriculum involved bookkeeping, and secretarial skills for although women had recently won the right to vote, career-wise they were largely limited to those professions which involved assisting men such as a personal secretary or some degree of nurturing as nurses, teachers (mostly lower grades), domestic help, waitresses, child care workers, seamstresses, prostitutes, or nuns.  There were a few exceptions: for example, the explosive growth in telephone usage before the invention of dial-phones provided an opportunity for a female to make a living wage saying “number please”.  It was widely recognized that the weaker sex lacked the strength both physically and emotionally to deal with the rigors of management, or the judgement to make rational decisions.  Mother as was the norm in those days feigned acquiescence to whatever decisions Dad would make, yet I know they discussed family decisions before passing them on to us kids.  The one time I saw her openly assert herself was when in later years she told him he was drinking too much.  He never took another drink after that.

The Way It Was: Part 2 | The Great Depression

Introduction: In the post The Way It Was: Part 1 eshrink shared his earliest memories in southeastern Ohio as a child born in 1930. He described the complex world of Jim Crow and race relations from his perspective and his earliest memories. Born during The Great Depression, eshrink (my dad) has first-hand memories of what that era was like for a boy growing up in Ohio. In this segment, you’ll get a glimpse of life, activities, and the experiences that had a major influence on his life. Even more, you’ll get a historic picture of the 1930s and 40s in middle America. Dad doesn’t suffer from revisionist history that romanticizes nostalgia as “the good ole days” and illustrates the struggles as well as the joys of the era from his perspective.
Happy Reading!

There but for the grace of God go I…

As for the depression, I did not suffer, but it was impossible to ignore the beggars on virtually every street corner or the hoboes (often referred to as “bums”) who would appear at the back door begging for food. Much has been written about hunger during the Great Depression, but I don’t recall ever going to bed hungry.  It would be 50 years later when my older brother would remind me that there were times when Mom and Dad told us to eat first.  Likewise, it was long after their deaths that I learned that my maternal Grandfather (Spinney), a carpenter, had built them a house as a wedding present, which they had lost when the factory where my father worked shut down during the depression. 

“Scrappy” was Required for Survival During the Depression

I do recall learning that we had moved four times by the time I was 5 years old, but somehow, probably due to my father’s ingenuity, we managed to escape homelessness.  Dad was not one to miss an opportunity to make a buck and was willing to present himself as having expertise where none existed.  In those days, most houses had wallpaper throughout since interior walls and ceilings were plastered and subject to developing cracks.  Thus, when a more affluent neighbor reported they were looking for a paper hanger he presented himself as an expert though he had never so much as touched a roll of wallpaper.  Likewise, when Roosevelt passed the Rural Electrification Act, there was an immediate demand for electricians to wire houses and barns throughout the country.  He seized the moment, declared himself an electrician and set about wiring houses after consulting with a bona fide electrician friend in order to learn the essentials. 

Homelessness and Hoovervilles during the Depression

The unemployment rate was over 25%, but due to vagrancy laws homelessness was largely confined to the shanty towns constructed of scavenged materials.  Such areas were referred to as Hoovervilles in reference to Herbert Hoover who was largely blamed for the depression.  They were usually located on the outskirts of cities and towns in inconspicuous areas and were at risk for raids from law enforcement.  On the other hand, many unemployed men played a cat and mouse game with local law enforcements wandering from town to town to escape jail time. The vagrancy laws, which were established to control the black population following the Civil War, were resurrected in order to assure that homelessness would be kept out of sight.   Hope was in short supply which many had lost after months of fruitless attempts to find work.  A significant number of these men were veterans of World War I who suffered from “shell shock”, disabling physical injuries, or chronic lung disease resulting from exposure to mustard gas.  Veteran’s pensions proved hard to get and these alienated souls traveled from town-to-town hitch-hiking, walking, or hopping freight trains.  Hoboes developed their own subculture with hidden campsites throughout the country, usually migrating to the south in winter, though it was not unusual for a farmer to discover one who had misjudged the onset of cold weather sleeping in his haymow.  They shared information as to the most tolerant communities, favorable routes, and even freight train schedules. 

A Day in the Life of a Kid during the Depression

In spite of all the problems that surrounded us, we kids were busy doing what kids do. In winter, we prayed for snow and kept the runners on our sleds polished in case it happened.  Since school was so highly regimented, we were out the door as soon as we got home, weather permitting. There were no television shows or video games to keep us in the house, but there were radio programs designed for us such as: JACK ARMSTRONG ALL AMERICAN BOY, THE LONE RANGER, and THE SHADOW.  In the summer there were even more incentives to be outside, since without air conditioning the outdoors was more comfortable.  May 1st may have been a time of celebration for communists, but it was the officially designated time my brother and I were allowed to go barefooted.  It would take us several weeks to get our feet tough enough to handle walking on gravel roads.  Summers were glorious times, and Labor Day was the worst holiday of the year for the next day school resumed.  I used a lot of energy as an unwelcome “tagalong” chasing my brother and his friends.  We ran all day, swam in the creek, climbed trees, rode bikes (I inherited my brother’s beat up version), shot marbles, played cowboys and Indians, follow the leader, and all kinds of kid organized ball games.  We followed the ice truck through the neighborhood looking for chunks of ice that often fell off when the driver grabbed a chunk of ice with his tongs.  There were arguments, which were usually resolved without interference of adults, and times when a kid could learn to enjoy solitude by lying on his back in the grass watching the clouds.  Rainy days were good for making model airplanes and reading comic books.  I memorized the Boy Scout manual for I desperately wanted to be a Boy Scout. However, we never stayed in one place long enough for me to make contact.  There was also the expense of a uniform, which presented a problem. 

The BIG Event: The CIRCUS comes to town

The county fair was a big summer event, but it paled in the face of the appearance of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus.  Even if you couldn’t afford it, it still lived up to its mantra as “the Greatest Show on Earth”. I was able to attend one year and was absolutely mesmerized.  There were other circuses, but none compared to P.T. Barnum’s version.  One year, to my delight, the parade to the fairgrounds, where the circus was to set up, a show unto itself, went down the street in front of the house where we lived. We watched in awe as the elephants, and caged wagons with lions and tigers passed by.  People lined the streets, for the parade was a show unto itself.   Whenever there was a circus in town, we went to watch them miraculously set up the whole operation in a few hours with the help of elephants who effortlessly raised the tent poles to their full height.  Following the last performance, Dad would take us to join the crowd at the train station to watch them load the huge tent, people, wagons, and animals.  That frantic activity would take them into the wee hours of the night until the train pulled out, headed for the next town, where what appeared to us kids as an exciting glamorous scenario, would play out again.  Consequently, threats by disgruntled kids to “run away and join the circus” were not uncommon. 

Newspapers and Paper Routes: The Way It Was

Issued October 1952. Editor’s Note for the “Way It Was” Series: Note Newspaperboys and Busy Boys…Better Boys. Girls need not apply.

Many kids had paper routes, and there was competition for the larger ones with houses close together, although the routes for the morning paper which required one to get up by 5 AM were less popular.  Although many depended on radio for news the newspaper was still the major source of information, and reporters were held in high regard.  To take over a paper route provided a kid with a crash course in business.  His papers were dumped at a designated street corner where he picked them up, folded them into individual rolls and headed off on his route via a bicycle if he was fortunate enough to own one.  The paper boy was in effect a retailor who bought his papers and sold them to his customers.  Collecting the

money for his sales was his problem, and it was not all that unusual for a carrier to be stiffed by his customers.   In other words, when assuming the contract to become a “paper boy”, he had become a full-fledged retail businessperson with all its benefits and problems.

The printed word was an important part of everyday life since it was virtually the only source of information about the goings on outside of one’s own neighborhood.  There was intense competition, as was seen in my small town where there were at one time three separate daily papers, while some surrounding counties also had their own weekly papers of mostly local news.  The printing of a paper was very labor intensive, requiring the services of not only the men who operated the huge presses that produced the paper, but a cadre of skilled workers called typesetters who were responsible for arranging all that type to form words.  Speed was of the essence for as the name implies if it is not new it is not news.  Consequently, most daily papers were capable of producing at a moment’s notice “extras” (i.e., special editions featuring important events).

Many foreign correspondents who covered WWII became famous.  Ernie Pyle who was killed while covering action in the South Pacific gained fame for his interviews with ordinary soldiers on the front lines.  Walter Cronkite would end his career as an anchor man on television and was hailed as the nation’s most trusted source of news.  Edward R. Murrow who would later be credited for helping bring down Joe McCarthy, (perpetrator of the red scare), broadcasted from allied planes on bombing missions while on assignment in London during WWII.  Bill Mauldin’s cartoons featuring G.I. Joe portrayed the pathos and humor experienced by foot soldiers.  Photojournalists also became more important as magazines such as Life and Look gained wider circulation. 


Although during my childhood, newspapers remained the most popular source for news, radio had gained a strong presence in a few short years.  I remember listening to station KDKA in Pittsburgh, which bragged that they sent out the strongest signal in the nation.  They were the first to broadcast to large areas of the country.   Although the technology had existed for some time, such broadcasting had only begun in 1920.   In the 1930s, owning a radio became a high priority, and a new Fairbanks-Morse radio was the centerpiece of the average family’s living room.  It would be many years before FM radio was available and AM had many limitations.  Foremost was the fact that AM reception was affected by weather, and the signal strengths of other stations, which could sometimes intrude on other frequencies.  It was not until 1926 that the first radio broadcasting network, (NBC) began the process of linking local stations so that programs could be transmitted nationally. 

It didn’t take long for politicians to recognize the value of radio as a communications tool, and I recall listening to FDR giving one of his “fireside chats”.  Although I had no idea what he was talking about, I was fascinated because everyone was listening attentively to his every word.  I even remember listening to the infamous antisemitic Catholic priest (Father Coughlin).  His Sunday evening broadcasts of fascist rants attracted millions of listeners and was felt by many, to have contributed to the initial reluctance of many Americans to support Britain in their struggle against Hitler.  During its hey-day in the 1930s and 40s there was something for everyone on the radio.  With the overwhelming majority of women spending full time in the home, the so-called soap operas found a ready audience during the day, and many mothers arranged their work schedule around their favorite shows.  The serial format of those broadcasts assured that the listener would return the next day to find out how the latest crisis had been resolved.  Late afternoon was time for the after-school programs.  My favorites were the Lone Ranger and I Love a Mystery.  As was chronicled in the TV show, The Christmas Story, there were all kinds of gimmicks designed to attract kids.

Evenings were difficult, for in our house much of prime time was taken up by Lowell Thomas who was dad’s favorite news commentator.  I thought he was really cool due to his involvement in the glamorizing of T. H. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).  I can still remember his soothing baritone voice as he signed off with the words: “So long until tomorrow”.  H. V. Kaltenborn had gained a large audience and was said to broadcast his news and commentary without benefit of a script.  Walter Winchell was an ex-vaudevillian who gained fame as a gossip columnist, but later was credited with destroying the careers of multiple famous Hollywood personalities by supporting Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.  Winchell’s Sunday night broadcasts were rapid and staccato.  His opening intro was: “Hello Mr. and Mrs. North and South America and all the ships at sea”.  I could never figure out where that thing about the ships at sea came from.  He was indeed a colorful figure who was alleged to consort with criminal elements during prohibition, but later in his career became a snitch for Hoover’s G-men. 


Radio must have been a boon to professional sports, as sporting events could now be reported upon as they happened.  In those days baseball was dubbed “the national pastime”, Babe Ruth was everyone’s hero, and towns of all sizes fielded their own teams, which provided opportunities for sports aficionados, such as Ronald Reagan to become play by play announcers.

Boxing was also very popular, and one of a few professional sports in which African Americans were allowed to participate. The myth of racial superiority of white people had been damaged when Jack Johnson (nicknamed the Galveston Giant) became heavyweight champion a few years previously.  His win spawned riots, and he further infuriated us bigots by marrying a white woman.  In the 1920s, white Jack Dempsey was everyone’s hero, but in the 1930s along came a black fighter named Joe Louis who is widely regarded as the greatest fighter of all time.  I recall lying on the floor in front of our Zenith radio listening to the play by play of his fights which usually did not last long as he had a string of knockouts in early rounds.  Louis was spared from the vituperation endured by Johnson as circumstances would lead this man of humble origins to become a national hero.  In the late thirties Louis had lost to Max Smelling a German, and Hitler crowed about the superiority of the Arian race.  In a rematch, Louis knocked out Snelling in the first round, and became an instant geopolitical hero even though there remained a significant number of Americans who continued to hope for “a great white hope” to unseat him.  Nevertheless, Louis had further discredited Hitler’s myth, which Jesse Owens’s had trashed in the 1936 Olympic games.

Radio Dramas and the Attack of Aliens

Prior to the development of television, in addition to news and music of all kinds, drama was an important part of radio programming.  Many programs were live, and for actors to play roles without benefit of audience or set presented many problems.  Some were even able to play two separate roles at the same time.  Sound engineers became proficient at providing sound effects, which in one instance, caused a near panic nationwide.  In 1938 a young Orson Welles presented an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, which was so realistic that thousands of people, me included, thought we were actually being invaded by aliens, and panic ensued in some cases.  Fortunately, Dad was able to reassure me that it was not real.  As with most people, I am a big fan of television, yet there are times when I yearn for those days of yore when listening to the radio forced me to use my own imagination to picture the action. However, the best week of our summers were the ones my brother and I spent at our grandparents’ farm.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for How It Was: Part 3 for a glimpse of farm life in the 1940s with my dad’s favorite past-time highlighted: eating (he was a “foodie” before it was cool).

Cane Therapy

This is Eshrink (my dad) with his cane while he, mom, me, and Annette (pictured) had appetizers and happy hour on their patio last week. Annette is my high school and lifelong BFF. Dad always (and still does) called her Mort (short for Moritmer).

         For the Past couple of years I have been using a cane.  I am an old white guy, but I can’t help that (even though I realize that old white guys are not very popular these days).   As a matter of fact, by today’s standards, I am a very old white guy, which gives me license to use that cane as an alternative to falling because we old guys of any color are prone to take a tumble…and the old gals, too.  Falling is not a trivial event for old guys.  Two of my closest friends, both old guys, have died from falls.  According to the CDC the annual death rate from falls among those age 65 or above is 64 per 100,000.  For those of us 85 and over that number is increasing by 4% each year.  Falls are now the leading cause of accidental death in us old people in addition to massive numbers of debilitating injuries.  I have fallen a couple of times in the past year, but fortunately have escaped serious injury.  

           That leaves me with little doubt that my cane has saved my life on multiple occasions by preventing me from falling, and since I very much like being alive and able to ambulate on my own, there is little wonder that I feel great affection for my cane.  However, it serves a secondary, but no less important function.  It facilitates love.  My use of a cane has changed my relationships with my fellow humans in a very positive way.  As an old, retired shrink, I am accustomed to observing other people while monitoring my own feelings, and I can attest to the fact that you are noticed when using a cane.  I have been amazed at how often people will open a door or stand aside and motion me to move on ahead of them when in a line.  If you appear to struggle a bit getting out of a chair, they frequently offer to give you a hand. 

           In my case becoming an old guy sneaked up on me, and I guess I was in denial for I had become rather gimpy before I finally relented and purchased a cane.  There was also an unwillingness to accept help from strangers and a tinge of resentment for I am not only an old guy but consider myself to be a tough old guy!  Who in the hell did they think they were by judging me to be a helpless old goat? 

Could Caring Explain How Human Beings’ Dominated the Planet? Is it in our DNA?

Then one day I had a serendipitous experience in of all places a mall parking lot.  With the help of my cane, I was attempting to pry myself from my car (which is always a struggle since my car is low to the ground) when a guy showed up asking if he could help.  He quickly unstuck my foot and offered his arm to lift me out.  I looked up to thank him and noted a look of what seemed genuine concern when he asked if I was OK.  I was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude that this guy had gone out of his way to help me simply because he cared.  I had a sense that he also felt good about the experience.  I was left with a life changing insight (we shrinks like to use that word), as it suddenly occurred to me that without this type of interaction we humans would never have been able to survive let alone dominate the planet. 

Who would have volunteered to help kill a mastodon if he didn’t think his buddies cared enough to cover his back?  A few thousand years later, we are now even more dependent upon others in order to survive the vicissitudes of modern life in a complex society.  We have evolved to the extent that concern for our brethren has become a part of us and is encoded in our DNA.  In that vein, I found it interesting that in a study of recipients of the Carnegie Medal for Bravery, all reported they acted upon impulse without thought of the consequences. Check out the article and videos here.

Human Connection Saves Lives

It has also become an important factor in our emotional and mental health.  The feeling of being unloved was at the heart of many of my patients’ troubles often leading to poor self-esteem, depression, and unhealthy relationships, even anger and violence, but even worse is the conviction that one is unlovable which may result in the hopelessness we associate with suicidal behavior.  I find it interesting that many of the mass killings we witness are perpetrated by males who are characterized as “loners” (i.e., those, who for whatever reason, feel alienated).  It has been shown that total isolation for even a few weeks may result in psychotic decompensation even in apparently healthy individuals.  Politicians are only successful when they convince voters that they care about them. 

Soldiers who have been in combat often demand to be sent back into battle with their former comrades because of their concern for them, and that killing enemies is necessary to protect their buddies.  We learned from the debacle of the Romanian babies born in orphanages behind the iron curtain that children cannot thrive in an atmosphere without personal loving interaction.  We even have empathy for those poor souls more than a thousand miles away in the Ukraine.  However, these are only a few of the myriad ways that caring about each other enters virtually every aspect of our lives.  Furthermore, they provide evidence that such interactions are not only pleasurable but essential for our well-being and to life itself.

Love. Lust. And Caring.

Love is an oft used word which is used and at times misused to describe feelings of affection.  Poets, philosophers, theologians, musicians, artists, and shrinks of all stripes have long been attempting to define it.  They categorize it according to the initial stimulus which precipitated the feeling.  For example, one would not equate lust with love unless it was accompanied by a feeling of affection i.e. caring for more than just the person’s body.   Nevertheless, it is often lust that gets the potential lover’s attention.  As he investigates further, he may find other things he likes, and the courtship begins which is his attempt to demonstrate that he is loveable.  If he is successful, they fall down the rabbit hole together and live happily ever after (excuse me for using only one gender for any combination may apply).  The lovers have learned to enjoy and consequently value each other’s company.  In other words, they care about each other. 

Although I don’t mean to equate my cane to lust, the cane does get people’s attention, and is the impetus to a brief but caring relationship, which I submit is the basic ingredient of love.  Most religions extol the virtue of loving each other, and it is true that to do so would solve many of the world’s problems.  To that end perhaps we should produce fewer guns and more canes.

P.S. Irony is alive and well at our house for in the midst of writing this elegant essay, I heard a loud scream and found Barb flat on the floor with a fractured wrist (the second time for that one), but she is doing well mow.  Obviously, she pays little heed to my admonitions to be careful and not fall.

Mom looking spunky as ever after her “spill” that dad referenced above. A cane is on its way 🙂

Editors Note: Eshrink wrote this blog weeks ago and I have been derelict in my editing/posting duties. When I visited mom and dad last week after the my BIG 40th High School Reunion Weekend with Annette, I took mom to follow-up appointment from the fall she had 4 weeks ago. She is healing well and such a trooper!

The Way It Was | Part 1

Introduction: Although three generations apart, my high school English Literature teacher and my editor are of like minds for Maggie and Miss Higgins have both encouraged me to write about things of which I have first-hand knowledge.  I have found that advice to be limiting since although I know a little bit about several things, I don’t consider myself an expert in anything, or as Orrie (a co-worker from my pre-college days working in a glass factory) said of me, I just knew enough to be dangerous.  Since I am now a bona fide member of the old geezer’s club, it follows that I should have some knowledge as to what things were like in times past.  Consequently, Maggie has suggested I write about what things were like in the “good old days.”

 Likewise, son Peter, the historian extraordinaire, recently commented that he would like to know what it was like during my earlier days as he felt first-hand accounts were more informative than were typical historical descriptions.  With all that in mind, I have decided to forego my usual rants about things of which I know little to launch a series of stories about what it was like to live in earlier times.  Unfortunately, to do so will result also in subjecting you to boring autobiographical stuff. 

In psychoanalytic lingo, the term repression is used to indicate an unconscious mechanism in which painful memories or feelings are hidden from us.  This accounts for the fact that uncomfortable memories are often clouded or forgotten.  The term is to be distinguished from suppression which is a conscious act.  Repression is helpful as it allows us to put aside or distort uncomfortable memories, and multiple studies provide confirmatory evidence that memories are unreliable.  Of course, this process is overwhelmed in the case of extremely painful experiences which can result in what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a malady that under different names has always bedeviled soldiers. Thus, the reader should be forewarned we old folks usually view our childhoods through our own personal brand of rose-colored glasses, and this paper is the result of an old man’s reminiscences rather than a carefully researched historical document.

My parents were married in 1925, and my big brother was born a year later.  He was only 3 years old when the stock market crashed ushering in the world’s worse recorded depression.  My first glimpse of this world and of the wonders that awaited me occurred on a warm September day less than a year after that fateful day.  Although some people insist they remember being born, psychologists who study such things, tell us that we don’t remember anything before three (3) years of age.  Though I don’t remember the blessed event, I have heard a lot about it. 

Front page of the Times Recorder the day after the infamous “Stock Market Crash” on October 29, 1929.

The Early Days: Little Spinney Enters the World

I was birthed in the latest of high-tech facilities by Dr. Wells in his hospital, which was actually the back room of his office where he had a hospital bed.  His “hospital” was located in the village of Nashport, so named as it had been a port on the Ohio canal, where years later I would spear carp in its remains.  In those days, there was a physician in most all midwestern villages, and apparently Dr. wells was progressive in his eschewing of home deliveries.  He even enlisted the aid of my father in administering an ether anesthetic, in spite of which both Mother and I survived.  The whole thing apparently was without complication and as I arrived Dr. Wells commented: “Look at those ears, he is a little Spinney” (the nickname for my maternal grandfather who was well known for large protruding ears at odds with his serious hearing deficit).  In spite of being long and skinny, I weighed in at a whopping 13 pounds.  I would endure that description of my body type and those ears through most of my life.  As a matter of fact, later when in the sixth grade we read Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I strongly identified with Ichabod Crane.  Ninety years later, I still have the ears, but am no longer skinny.

Psychiatrists often ask a new patient to relate their earliest memory with the idea that such memories may be indicative of their lifestyle, values, or how they view the world. I believe my earliest memory occurred around the age of 3 or 4 which would have put it in the midst of the depression.  That time was confirmed by my mother who happened to recall the miniature sailor suit which I remember wearing then.  It certainly was a momentous happening in my life for while sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game I was treated with my first box of cracker jacks.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember what the surprise gift was, but I assume it must have been a dandy for me to have remembered the incident for 86 years. Although I have no idea what a box of Cracker Jacks cost in the early 30s, it must have been a luxury for a father who would mow your lawn with a hand powered mower for pennies.  With bread at 8 cents per loaf even a dime would make a big difference in our diet.  You are probably wondering how I would interpret such an earliest memory.  You may rest assured that I would take the 5th amendment.

Speaking of lawn mowers reminds me of another episode of my toddler days.  Any young whipper snapper who happens to be reading this will probably not be aware that when a vintage push mower is turned upside down the blades do not rotate.  This particular memory is of me riding on such a positioned mower with my Dad’s jacket laying on top of it.  I assume he was going house to house attempting to get a lawn to mow, and suspect that he was not above using a cute little guy like me to elicit sympathy from potential customers.

Map that shows Eshrink was born (Nashport) and the areas surrounding Zanesville, Ohio, where he grew up.

Although we moved a lot, we never went very far.   Except for a brief stint in Akron, (more about that later) we were always living in Zanesville, Ohio, or surrounding areas within 12 miles.  Zanesville was a town of 30,000 people located on the fringes of Appalachia, and known for its manufacture of art pottery.  It was located at the junction of 2 rivers which had provided passage for river boats from the Ohio river.  During my childhood it was traversed by route 40, then a heavily traveled transcontinental highway which went directly through the center of town thus gaining Zanesville fame for its traffic jams. 

Race Relations in the 1930s & 40s

Even though Zanesville had been a station on the underground railroad, it was split on the slavery issue with those on the south side of the river known as prominent abolitionists.  They included pastor William Beecher whose sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Frederick Douglas had spoken at Rev. Beecher’s church and there was a great deal of animus from north of the river, which was largely pro-slavery.  During my childhood, Lincoln was widely hailed for ending slavery which everyone in my orbit condemned, but the “separate but equal’ philosophy was still alive and well.   For example, although or schools were not segregated officially, I can only recall one or two black kids in my classes until the eighth grade. Sadly, I don’t recall making any effort to befriend them. 

This a sign from 1931, but this is a picture from an Ohio pool in 2011. The Cincinnati woman who hung the sign on her pool didn’t think there was anything wrong with it and described it as a historical piece. This is the link to the article.

When the city fathers decided to build a municipal swimming pool, they found it necessary to build a second one for black folks.  The local skating rink only allowed black kids in on Monday night, which just happened to coincide with the nearby ice cream parlor’s decision to be closed on Monday.  I assumed that black kids liked to sit in the balcony because they wanted to be together.  Little did I know that the ushers who were present in higher end theaters were tasked with deciding where people should sit. 

Oxymorons such as “I don’t have anything against niggers, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one” or “I wouldn’t want one to live next door” were common in the rare conversations about race.  As I recalled in a previous writing, my first awareness of the degradation suffered by African Americans occurred in my teenage years while working at my father’s filling station.  A black family with an out of state license plate pulled in and after gassing up, the father walked across the street to the back door of a neighboring restaurant to get food for his family.  I was left with a feeling of sadness as I tried to imagine what he must have felt.  That memory has remained etched in my mind for75 years.

This is a picture of a restaurant in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1938 from the Library of Congress. “We Cater to White Trade Only” sign. Ohio, like most of the North and West did not have de jure statutory enforced segregation (Jim Crow laws), but many places still had (de facto) social segregation in the early 20th century.

It is a tribute to the powers of rationalization that we were aghast to hear of lynchings in the south and to see pictures of their “white only” signs as we continued to discriminate against our non-white brethren in less obvious ways, while simultaneously denying our own bigotry.  During my childhood I recall no discussions concerning racial issues, which is understandable when one considers that segregation activates the “out of sight, out of mind” mantra.  I was reared as a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).  My tribe was a majority, and obviously wanted to keep it that way.  Segregation was accomplished without formal declaration.  Other than in the area of race relations, high ideals such as honesty, truth, and honor were highly praised, and unresolved racial disparities were the only stain I recall on what came to be called the Greatest Generation however; our sons and daughters would awaken to the problem, and progress has been made in at least accepting that there is a problem.  The fact that the subject is now openly discussed is encouraging.  Moreover, were I to have predicted 60 years ago that I would now be sitting here celebrating a national holiday based on the life of an African American civil rights leader, my sanity would have been questioned. 

Sign for “colored” waiting room at a Greyhound bus terminal in Rome, Georgia, 1943. Throughout the South there were Jim Crow laws creating “de jure” legally required segregation

Nevertheless, hate-speech is now common in political discourse, we have witnessed an upsurge in violence against minorities, there are assaults on our seats of government, and we are told that domestic terrorism is now the greatest threat to our country.  All of this seems to be fueled by a propaganda so ridiculous as to be laughable were its results not so serious.  The most frightening of all is what we are learning as to how the January 6 assault nearly succeeded in reversing the results of an election or worse.  Even though in the years leading up to WWII, the economy was improving, the Depression had provided an opportunity for anarchists of all stripes to get into the act, and of course hatred was their favorite recruitment tool. I was too young to understand its implications, but from my spot under the coffee table I recall hearing Dad’s friends vilify the “damned New York Jews” whom they blamed for the depression.  Radio newscasts made frequent reference to the German American Bund, an organization of German American citizens promoting fascism.  There was also the unlikely supporter of anti-semitism who had reached a large radio audience in the person of a Catholic priest (Father Coughlin).  Capitalism was under siege and strongmen like Hitler, Mussolini, Tito and Stalin were all purging the ranks of adversaries whom of course they accused of causing all the world’s problems. 

Getting a Front Seat to the Acceleration of Innovation

The midst of the most severe depression the world had ever known was certainly not a convenient time to usher in a new member of the Smith family, but for me there was not a more propitious time to have been born.   Although a massive worldwide depression had impeded the industrial revolution, it had largely recovered by the time I reached adolescence, fed by an explosive expansion of the manufacturing section of the economy during World War ll.  That war would also be the impetus to an unraveling of more mysteries as to how things work than has occurred since people first inhabited this planet, and I would marvel at how it all fit together.  Thus, science would gain respect, and previously undreamed-of technologies would become routine.  During my lifetime I would witness the invention of amazing things both great and small which would make life more comfortable and work less arduous.  It was a time when such discoveries would give us an appreciation for the complexities of life and the environment which sustain it, though we were largely oblivious to the untoward side effects such massive progress would cause to our planet. It would also set a pigeon toed long skinny kid with big ears on a journey which would lead him to the most satisfying career one could imagine.  

 However, that war would exact a horrible price.  It was the bloodiest in history.  Although it is impossible to glean an accurate account, some estimate that 85 million people may have been killed not to mention untold numbers who suffered permanently disabling physical or psychological problems. Fortunately for me, I was surrounded by vast oceans which protected me from those horrors, but my family would not totally escape its reach.

Responsible Gambling?

A few days ago I received my copy of the PSYCHIATRIC NEWS wherein there was an article by Dr. Jon Grant, professor of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago entitled: Gambling Disorder Not Uncommon but often Goes Undiagnosed.   A couple of days later the following slick little brochure from the Ohio Lottery Commission showed up in my mail:

Play the Games and win the CASH that IS going to let you live like a KING

It even came with a coupon which could be worth $500 when turned in along with your latest “scratch off” ticket purchase.  With the aid of a magnifying glass, I was able to read the fine print at the bottom of the brochure and noted that 1 million such brochures were printed. I believe it is reasonable to assume that there would be one out of that 1 million who would get the 500 bucks if in the unlikely event all the coupons were actually turned in. 

There was also inscribed in that fine print the Lottery commission’s oft repeated oxymoron to “play responsibly.”  That phrase, which also accompanies their ads on TV, always takes my blood near the boiling point because I don’t believe my government should be in the business of promoting addictions.  I also believe that any behavior with the potential to do harm and even destroy lives should not be encouraged. Gambling is by its very nature irresponsible. 

Afterall, we don’t instruct people to take heroin responsibly.

Yet even Dr. Grant who is editor in chief of THE JOURNAL OF GAMBLING STUDIES , says: “When done responsibly gambling can be fun, thrilling, and potentially rewarding, yet hiding in plain sight are millions of people struggling  with gambling disorder.”   However, Dr. Grant does not share with us how we can be certain that we are immune from developing gambling disorder.  I doubt there are many gambling addicted people who begin gambling with the intention to gamble irresponsibly, or who start gambling with the intention to become addicted. 

During my career I saw many patients who admitted to having gambling problems, and probably many others whom I did not diagnose for those afflicted frequently focus on unrelated symptoms, embarrassed to admit to a gambling problem.  Others may admit to gambling, but deny it is a problem.   Related financial problems are written off as a string of bad luck and denial is expressed by the typical addict’s mantra of “I can quit any time”.  They may see their only problem as simply a string of bad luck which can only be overcome by continuing to gamble in order to recoup their losses. 

One patient who comes to mind was a very pleasant 40ish single mother whom we shall call Alice.  I had been treating her for depression for several months with little success.  She had gone through a nasty divorce from an abusive husband which had taken a toll on her self-esteem.  Alice had married young, had few skills, took a low wage job, and managed to barely survive financially with minimal and erratic child support from her ex-husband.  As is often the case with those of poor self-image she became involved with another poor choice long enough for him to introduce her to the joys of gambling by taking her to a casino where she became enamored with the slot machines.  Following the breakup of that relationship, she discovered the bingo games at her church and would often do 4 or 5 cards simultaneously.  Scratch off cards and lottery tickets consumed every dollar she could find.  There had never been any mention any of gambling until she arrived for a session one day, tearful and overwhelmed with guilt. 

She confessed that she had stolen money to gamble from her teenage son.  Her intent of course was to put it back when she won, behavior all too common with those who are addicted.  Alice was referred to Gamblers Anonymous, and continued in treatment for her depression until shortly before my retirement.  When last seen she was doing well, however relapses are common.  Alice was typical of those with a significant gambling problem in that she also had another psychiatric diagnosis which leaves one with the traditional chicken-egg controversy – did gambling cause the depression or was the depression the result of the gambling problem.  

It has been estimated that 1% of the population is suffering from gambling disorder as it is described in the American Psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM), although accurate statistics are difficult since many cases go undiagnosed, and are often not discovered until a family crisis uncovers the problem as had occurred with my patient.   In addition to family disruptions, bankruptcies, and homelessness, addiction to gambling also carries with it a significant mortality rate.  Rates of gambling related suicide attempts have been rated as between 12% and 30%.  Such a variation suggests we don’t know the real number, and indeed we know suicide rates are underreported due to kind hearted physicians who wish to spare families embarrassment due to the social stigmata attached to the act and to ensure that life insurance policies will be honored.  

The gambling capital of the U.S. is also according to Michelle Trudeau of National Public Radio the suicide capital of the country averaging one daily.  She reported on a Harvard study in which residents of Las Vegas had a 50% higher risk of suicide than the rest of the country and that visitors to the city were twice as likely to kill themselves.  The coroner of Las Vegas ascribes this to the fast pace of life in a boom town and downplays the effects of gambling – surprise, surprise. 

According to our Attorney General we have four different commissions that regulate gambling in my state (Ohio).  When I was a kid, gambling was illegal with the exception of horse racing which could only be wagered at the track.  In 1973, the Ohio constitution was amended to allow a state lottery.  It was passed with a great deal of ballyhoo that the profits would be used to fund schools, and who could be against such a worthy cause? However, 50 years of the lottery does not seem to have done much to change financing of education.  At least I didn’t notice any decrease in my property taxes. 

10 years ago, our first casino opened.  The rational given for legalizing such facilities was that our neighboring state, Indiana, was attracting gamblers from Ohio consequently; would we not rather have them spend their money in Ohio?  Recently, our Governor signed a bill allowing betting on sports with no rationale I could find other than they are already doing it, so why not let the government in on the action?  

It seems that gambling of some sort has always been with us, and that fleeting euphoria which overtakes us when we beat the odds seems to be hard wired.   It may be simply another example of the “pleasure principle” which Freud talked about or perhaps a feeling of superiority for after all gambling is a kind of competition.   However, gambling has a significant advantage over other forms of addiction in hooking us.  B.F. Skinner demonstrated conclusively that behavior can be modified more effectively with what he called “intermittent positive reinforcement” which is the essence of all gambling.   His experiments with rats are replicated whenever someone plays a slot machine, for as did Skinner’s rats we wait for a reward each time we pull the handle.  He demonstrated that his rats were more highly motivated when the rewards were intermittent rather than when predictable, and that such was the case with all creatures tested including humans.  He also noted that the behaviors elicited in this manner were very resistant to being extinguished.  The same principal applies with gambling which is further amplified by increasing the possible amount of the reward. 

Prior to the time when I kicked my addiction to tobacco, I frequently stopped by a neighborhood convenience store to refill my stash of pipe tobacco.  On one such occasion, I was preceded into the store by a middle-aged man who appeared to be of modest means.  He had arrived in a pickup truck which had seen better days, and the state of his bib overalls showed signs that they had also endured some tough times.  His overall appearance and demeanor suggested this guy was a working man with emphasis on the type of work which tests one’s body.  It was Friday and I assume it must have been payday, for he grabbed a six pack of Bud light, asked for a pack of Marlboros and a scratch off ticket of some kind.  He scratched off the seal, threw the ticket down and asked for another one.  Meanwhile the line behind him which included me was stretching so he stepped aside.  As I was leaving he reinserted himself in the line and bought another ticket. 

That vignette of the sweaty guy in bib overalls throwing away money that was undoubtedly earned the hard way is replayed in my mind whenever I hear that those who gamble should “play responsibly”.  During the last few years of      my career, I worked in a clinic with patients mostly with very limited incomes usually through no fault of their own.  They often shared not only their fears, and troubles, but also their yearnings.  Perhaps, the most knowledgeable people about influencing human behavior are those in the advertising industry.  They know all about Skinner’s and other experts’ research, and I confess they hit the bulls eye with that cute little pamphlet I mentioned in the beginning of this diatribe, for who living on the bottom rung of the economic ladder wouldn’t like to have the “CASH that is going to let them live like a KING?” 

Madeline Albright | Freedom | War | Peace

Book cover of Madeline Albright book entitled THE MIGHTY and THE ALMIGHTY: A New York Times Best Seller. Madeline Albright was the first female Secretary of State for the United States of America

Yesterday I learned that Madeline Albright died. On my list of favorite diplomats, she was second only to George Marshall, whose policies were largely responsible for maintaining peace in Europe for 70 years and turned our enemies into allies. Her personal encounters with the evils which exist in our world have undoubtedly enhanced her appreciation for the freedoms afforded by democracy. Several years ago, during the post 9/11 years, we learned about the torture of our prisoners. Of course, the “T” word was never used to describe “enhanced interrogation, waterboarding, or even worse, rendition” which involved sending prisoners or kidnap victims to other countries to be tortured. She was asked to comment and responded that she felt the greatest danger to our democracy was the loss of our ideals.

It seemed clear to me from her comments that she felt the moral high road strengthened a nation and that we must be eternally vigilant and stay the course in order to survive. Her family had twice fled their native Czechoslovakia to escape totalitarianism. Although raised as a Catholic, later in her life she was surprised to learn that she had been born into a Jewish family and that many of her relatives had been victims of the holocaust, which must have further strengthened her resolve. She cautioned that since democracy was fragile it required constant vigilance, but in spite of what she saw as threats to our way of government, recently expressed confidence in its survival. The current political climate characterized by hate-speech, conspiracy theories, disregard for truth, and actual attempts to subvert democracy will certainly put that assessment to the test.

As if that were not enough, we now find ourselves between the proverbial rock and a hard spot with another testosterone-overdosed dictator deciding to kill a few thousand neighbors. Former president Bush had assured us that he had looked into Putin’s eyes, had seen his soul, and was reassured, while Albright had described his eyes as “cold almost reptilian.” Putin’s behaviors for the past few years have corrected that disparity, and we now face 2 unpalatable choices, i.e. directly intervene and risk nuclear war or stand by and watch the carnage of innocent people. So, here we go again with another stupid war. But then again, aren’t all wars stupid? World War II has been referred to as the “good war” although I find it hard to believe there is a lot good about 73 million deaths and only God knows how many injuries and how much suffering.

We now hear debate on the TV and social media about war crimes, yet isn’t killing people always criminal, or does permission granted by Putin or Biden make it OK? Was there a footnote somewhere that listed exceptions to the rule? I am told that there are some Bibles in which the phrase is thou shall not murder rather than kill which would refer to the legality of the killing, but is God actually a lawyer? Does the proverb I often heard my Grandfather use, “it depends on whose ox is being gored?” apply? During World War II Dresden was destroyed with incendiary bombs resulting in a firestorm which killed at least 35,000 people mostly women, children and elderly. There were no military targets. Likewise, Germany’s blitzkrieg of London specifically targeted civilian populations, but we got the prize by killing 226,000 people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and leaving other thousands behind to deal with all sorts of radiation caused illnesses.

Those who have been in combat will almost always say that “war is hell.” They often witness horrors they will never be able to forget and sometimes do things which leave them guilt ridden for life. I can see nothing good about any war, yet we continue to glorify it at the behest of our leaders. Were we to simply declare war illegal, it would greatly simplify the UN’s work at the Hague, although it would be quite stressful for those companies who build machines designed to kill people.

Madeline Albright being sworn in as Secretary of State by Vice President Al Gore in 1997. She was the first woman to hold the "top diplomat" position in the country's history
Madeline Albright was sworn in as Secretary of State by Vice President Al Gore in 1997. She was the first woman to hold the “top diplomat” position in the country’s history.

Learn more about Madeline Albright: This is link to an article in TIME Magazine

This is article from NPR

This is link to Wikipedia entry


Tomorrow it will be exactly 70 years since, I sat in Mr. Davidson’s 5th grade class and listened to FDR’s speech over the Munson school P.A. system as he said December 7th was a date that would “live in infamy”, yet this day is half over and there has been barely any mention of that date. That day bonded the people of this country into a juggernaut totally committed to preserving our country’s freedom. To be certain, there was disagreement about many issues, yet in those few hours on an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning those differences became irrelevant.

Historians agree that the war was the bloodiest in history with so many millions maimed and killed that an accurate assessment is not possible. It was a terrible price to pay. Was it worth it? No doubt those liberated from the Nazi death camps would say yes. Patrick Henry is alleged to have said: “Give me liberty, or give me death” and thousands of our young people echoed that sentiment as they stood in long lines to volunteer while I was being mesmerized by Roosevelt’s speech. One could argue that the Pearl Harbor attack initiated the last war we have fought in defense of our liberty.

There is general agreement that we are now more divided than at any time since the civil war. Those we hire as a team to manage the country don’t even talk to each other, but rather talk at or about each other. One does not need to be a Psychiatrist to understand that without conversation differences can never be resolved, and anger ensues. When anger meets anger escalation follows, often culminating in rage – what has been called the Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolfe Syndrome.

Historians point out to us the fragility of democracies. They also tell us that when they fail, as they often do, it is from within. John Adams warned us about that in the very beginning of this saga, and seriously questioned how long his new democracy would survive. There are now unmistakable signs confirmed by our intelligence agencies that there are powerful forces plotting to undermine our government while we who care bicker with each other.

The latest death of a famous member of the greatest generation, Bob Dole, whom all seem to agree was a real patriot should inspire us to value what he and others like him gave us. I wonder if he shared the same feeling as did I on that fateful December day in 1941. Since then, there has been nothing like that sense of commitment to a righteous cause shared by millions of others. What a shame that it took the horrors of a war.

For years Pearl Harbor Day was a somber time for reflection. It was set aside to honor those who were lost, and to hear stories of bravery. It seems now to be treated as a mere footnote in history which makes me sad. It seems to me that we could use some inspiration these days.


Editor’s Note: One of my favorite shows right now is CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley. They do such a great job at presenting interesting topics in a meaningful way. When I saw the spot about the promising treatments for depression, I thought of dad (eshrink) and knew it would be a great topic for eshrink’s blog. This post is a wealth of information on depression and Eshrink FINALLY weighs in on the TV program that prompted me to have him write it (that’s a little sarcasm that you’ll get when you read his blog) That’s just how we roll 🙂 Here is link to the spot that aired. SAINT: Hope for new treatment of depression – CBS

My slave driving editor who sometimes masquerades as a loving daughter has directed me to write a critique of a Jane Pauley TV show that featured information about a newly discovered treatment for depression. Maggie’s interest comes naturally since she had worked in my office as a receptionist when she was in high school, and her interest was undoubtedly enhanced by the presence of depression in our own family. There is no doubt that what we call Clinical Depression is a very common disabling and often fatal disease. Unfortunately, the word depression is also used for less serious mood deviations which often leads to a lot of misunderstanding. It is estimated that over 1 million people worldwide commit suicide each year and no ethnic group or race is immune from its paralyzing grip. Nearly all these victims are suffering from depression.

In 2017 there were 9.6 million people receiving treatment for depression, never mind the millions who were not treated. According to data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 17.3 million adults in the United States—equaling 7.1% of all adults in the country—had experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.

There is said to be an alarming increase in suicide rates in the United States over the past decade however; such stats must be viewed with caution for in the past, coroners, who in order to spare family members the stigma of mental illness, would often rule suicides as accidental or from natural causes. Unfortunately, the stigma persists although there has been considerable progress towards classifying depression, the major cause of suicide, as a medical illness.


It seems as if depression has always been endemic in human populations. There are multiple Biblical references offering solace to the despondent, and fables from even older times suggestive of unwarranted sadness. Perhaps the high level of consciousness afforded us by our massively complex brains has in some way contributed to our vulnerability. Throughout history, there have been endless speculation and theories put forth as to the cause of depression including: moral failure, demon possession, witchcraft, sinfulness, masturbation, or sexual deviancy to name a few. Most of these theories blame the victim, which further contributes to the self-loathing that typically accompanies the disease. To this day there are those well-meaning souls who unwittingly aggravate the depression of the one they are trying to help. In my practice, I had some patients with a strong spiritual orientation who become depressed,  sought help from their pastor who diagnosed the problem as lack of faith, and suggested they pray harder.


In medicine, as with most things, transparency minimizes speculation. There is little doubt in my mind that an understanding of the causes of mental illnesses would go a long way towards eliminating the stigma associated with psychiatric illnesses. There is also the maxim in medicine that prevention is preferable to treatment of a disease. It is my belief that since it comes in many different shapes and sizes, depression is not a single entity, but more likely a cluster of illnesses producing similar symptoms, much as we see the symptom of fever in many different types of infections. Depression also takes different forms as for example, some patients suffer from severe insomnia while others find escape from the horrible feelings of hopelessness by sleeping for days.

Although depression often occurs spontaneously, it can also be precipitated by extreme stress or loss. For example, grief presents with symptoms indistinguishable from depression. Seasonal affective disorder with its recurrent depressive episodes appears to be related to disturbance of circadian rhythms, and one could make a case for it having resulted from the migration of humans to temperate zones a few hundred thousand years ago. As a matter of fact, depression frequently accompanies a variety of mental health syndromes, not the least of which is bipolar illness in which a manic episode is frequently followed by extreme depression. There is even a separate category of bipolar illness where those afflicted only cycle to depression and don’t experience manic episodes.

A Little Shrink History

It has been my good fortune to have been involved in the shrink business during a time in which there has been more discoveries leading toward an unraveling of the mysteries of the mind than have happened since the beginning of time. For centuries a cure for what was called “the black dog” by the Roman poet Horace and later repeated by Churchill occupied the greatest minds to no avail. Hippocrates was the first to identify the brain as the major control center of the body. The pseudo-science of phrenology became popular in the 19th century, which was the idea that one could diagnose problems, estimate intelligence and diagnose personality types by measuring the size of the bumps on their skull. Although it was soon discredited, its proponent, Franz Gall, is credited for advancing the idea that there is localization of brain function. He identified 27 different areas of the skull which he said controlled different functions.

Franz Gall diagram that identified different areas of the skull that he said controlled different functions.

In the early 1900’s along comes a Viennese neurologist who would influence thinking about the entire field of psychiatry and psychology for a half century. Freud’s focus on sexuality, in a Victorian society in which even uttering the word sex itself was considered in bad taste, gained him much world-wide attention. He developed a form of treatment both lengthy and intensive which he called psychoanalysis. Even now that many of his theories have been discredited, many terms which he introduced have become part of our every-day lexicon.

The Pharma Era

Fast forward a half century and I was in medical school witnessing miraculous advances in medicine almost daily. Following Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin there had been a rush to develop antibiotics that might be effective in treating organisms refractory to penicillin. Among those was isoniazid which had proven to be effective in the treatment of tuberculosis. In those days total bed rest was required as essentially the only treatment for TB consequently; patients who were confined to continuously stay in bed for months at a time often became depressed. However, following the use of isoniazid, moods of patients in TB wards often brightened, they became more verbal, less angry, and even happy. This led to investigation of similar compounds and the first group of antidepressant compounds called Monamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOs) were developed. These drugs were effective for some, but not for all patients. They also required great care in their administration as they interacted with many other drugs and there were severe dietary restrictions.

Depression and Pharma

1956 was my junior year in medical school and it was a banner year for the pharmaceutical industry. It marked the development of broad-spectrum antibiotics, i.e., those effective against penicillin resistant organisms. Thorazine, the first drug to ever prove effective in the treatment of schizophrenia was introduced. Within a year more than 70% of patients in psychiatric hospitals in the US were discharged, and there would be no more barbaric lobotomies performed. A group of antidepressants called Tricyclics whose side effects were less onerous than with MAOs came on the market at the same time. The response to these antidepressants, even though understanding of their mode of action was largely theoretical, led to the development of what came to be called the catecholamine hypothesis of depression. It theorized that the symptoms of depression were due to defects in the transmission of chemicals called neurotransmitters which were necessary to transmit electrical impulses between nerve fibers.

No Silver Bullet

Despite all these treatment, relief from depression was still elusive for many patients. Electroencephalography had been around for nearly 20 years, and it had become more sophisticated and especially valuable in the treatment of seizure disorders. Before Freud, there was a guy named Bleuler who wrote a widely quoted book on schizophrenia. As a matter of fact, he is credited with coining the term. He noted that he had never seen schizophrenia and epilepsy coexist therefore concluded that seizures must protect against schizophrenia. With that in mind several people set out to induce seizures as a treatment for schizophrenia by giving drugs known to cause grand mal seizures. The problem was that response to the drugs was unpredictable and the mortality rate was too high even in a non-litigious time. They also noted that although seizures did not have any effect on schizophrenia except for those in a catatonic state, it did seem to be remarkably effective for those who were depressed.

In the 1930s Italians Cerletti and Bini found they could induce seizures by passing an electric current through the brain. This method allowed for better control, and proved to be remarkably effective in cases of severe depression. Electroconvulsive Therapy or ECT as it is called, was widely used throughout the world and I saw firsthand how effective it could be to treating depression that was resistant to drug therapy. It got a bad rap due to the type of complications that could accompany it, such as broken bones, and the movie ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. Additionally, ECT was sometimes used in cases where it was not indicated, yet were we in the shoes of those guys would we not be willing to try it if it were our only tool? Recent developments of anesthetics and muscle relaxants have made it much safer and better tolerated, but it is still mostly reserved for antidepressant resistant cases, yet there are some cases of depression that don’t even respond to ECT, which has been designated the last line of defense.


After years of research, primarily investigating the neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and dopamine, researchers had become interested in another neurotransmitter, serotonin, which eventually led to the breakthrough development of Prozac in 1987. I vividly recall the first person for whom I prescribed Prozac. He was a very depressed young man in his mid-20s who had been an outstanding athlete and valedictorian of his high school. Unfortunately, he had become severely depressed, and developed a disabling social phobia. He rarely left the home where he lived with his parents, except to keep his appointments, and requested to be allowed to come in via the back door of my office in order to avoid occupants of the waiting room. I had been seeing him for some time, but my efforts were to no avail. On this particular day, a drug rep had left a sample of this new drug called Prozac which had just been approved for general use, and I thought “What the hell, I ‘ll give it a shot!” Two weeks later, David (not his real name) bounced into the waiting room and with a broad smile announced to the receptionist that he had arrived. Indeed, he had. He was proud to inform me that he had just come from a theatre where he had enjoyed the first movie he had seen in several years. My first thought was, “Could I have misdiagnosed this problem, and this guy is actually bipolar?” but he continued to improve and said: “I have finally got my life back”. The last time I saw him he was a sophomore studying engineering at Ohio State University.

Needless to say, David sold me on Prozac. It proved to have a remarkably good side effect profile other than for occasional sexual dysfunction which most people thought was a small price to pay for relief from the horrors of clinical depression. There would follow, as always is the case, a number of other “me too” drugs all of which came under the heading of SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), and after prolonged usage would sometimes lose their effectiveness a phenomenon called Prozac poop out, but in my opinion they have remained heads above other treatments. Unfortunately, the SSRIs as with other antidepressants are only effective about 70% of the time, and psychiatrists are often forced to make use of the trial and error method of finding an effective medication.

Seeing is Believing

Other than the unraveling of the human genome, nothing has impressed me more that the development of scans. They always remind me of the STAR TREK physician Bones who could diagnose and simultaneously treat any problem by putting people in his scanner. I am in awe of those engineering types who figure out all this stuff. The Curie’s invention of the x-ray was monumental, but the enhancement of that technology with computers to produce a cross section view was over the top. It was called Computerized Axial Tomography (CAT or CT scan) and provided a much more detailed look at the brain. In addition to hundreds of other medical uses, it was a valuable tool for brain research and a straight forward way to eliminate brain tumors and other brain diseases which often mimic psychiatric syndromes, a problem that had bedeviled psychiatrists forever. It was not long (the late 70s) when along came the PET scan with which one could actually visualize brain function. Even more fascinating and incredulous to me was the MRI which use a powerful magnet to actually turn protons on end to produce an image from the energy given off when they return to their normal position. They produced amazingly detailed pictures especially useful to orthopedists.


There has long been interest dating back 200 years or so on the effects of magnetism on the human body. In 1989, after studies suggested that magnetic energy could be effective in the treatment of depression, the FDA approved TMS (trans-magnetic stimulation) as a treatment. It was a very benign procedure that involved placing a 2-pronged electrical coil which produced a weak magnetic field on the patient’s head. The procedure was simple, painless and without side effects, and could easily be performed in a doctor’s office. Analysis of effectiveness of treatments for depression are difficult due to the placebo effect, but double-blind studies (clinical trials in which some administrations are real, others shams, and neither the patient or the physician is aware of which treatment is real) demonstrated effectiveness in some patients, but not all. In general, responses were not seen as very robust, and it was used mostly as an adjunctive therapy along with antidepressants.

This paper is in no way meant to provide comprehensive review of past and presently available treatments of depression, but believe me they are numerous and sometimes bizarre. In the November 13, 2021 issue of PSYCHIATRIC NEWS, Charles Nemeroff MD, PH.D in his review of treatments for depression, notes there are currently 26 medications approved by the FDA for the treatment of depression and another 12 in the pipeline. There is one study published in the May 2020 American Journal of Psychiatry regarding the use of psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin in the treatment of depression. Who’d a thunk it? In addition to the many types of psychotherapy, there also are always a plethora of non-medical procedures touted to be effective. Lest I get carried away and in deference to my editor who is by now tearing out fists full of that beautiful red hair as she screams “When in the hell is he going to talk about the spot on the TV show?” I will proceed to offer my humble thoughts.


After watching the Jane Pauley show about the Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy or SAINT (thank God for acronyms), I found the original publication that described their novel treatment of depression to be in the August 2020 issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry which I had discarded long ago. Since I am a lifetime member of the American Psychiatric association, I continue to be automatically subscribed, but I must confess that since my retirement eight years ago, I tend to scan rather than peruse journals in much detail. Frankly, because the rapid changes in the field with its increasingly complex technologies have left me often wondering what they are talking about. Nevertheless, the Stanford U website reported an astonishing 87% recovery rate in the treatment with this new procedure named SAINT. Even more impressive, was the fact that these patients had all failed on other conventional treatments. Dr. Nemeroff mentioned in his review that the effectiveness of SAINT had recently been confirmed by a double-blind study which lent even more credibility to the reports of its effectiveness.

SAINT: What it is

The procedure involved is a much more complex, powerful and targeted version of the TMS mentioned previously. The researchers (Dr. Cole et al) were able to direct a burst of very powerful magnetic energy to the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex (you must look that up in an anatomy book if you plan to do this at home) of the brain for 5 minutes per hour for 10 hours daily times 5. They are convinced that their success is dependent on their ability to target that particular area of the brain which has long been suspected of playing a prominent role in mood regulation. The patients and their families who were interviewed on TV were absolutely euphoric in their endorsement of the treatments. They used the phrase “game changer” and one was convinced this procedure would change the world, and I guess it has changed her world. I agree that this treatment holds promise, but think changing the world may be a bit over the top.

CAUTION: With Experience Comes Pragmatic Skepticism

Members of my illustrious family have accused me of being pessimistic by nature, while I insist that I am simply a realist, and much too naïve to be a bona fide pessimist. In spite of this alleged cynicism, Maggie has asked me to share my opinion of this SAINT thing, and I do find it promising however; all those years practicing medicine have taught me that although all people are the same, they are also all different, or as Grandma used to say: “One size doesn’t fit everybody.” Time after time I have found the initial exhilaration associated with ground breaking discoveries in medicine are later tempered by experience. I do feel this may well be a large step towards conquering this dreadful disease.

Nothing that I have written here should be construed to mean that I believe pills or procedures alone are the answer to the problems of mankind. At best I feel that medications or other somatic treatments enhance the therapeutic benefit of human intervention. Pills are important, but so is the hand that dispenses them. I have been heartened by a trend towards more balance in the nature versus nurture debate which has persisted for generations, for in recent years neurochemistry has dominated the psychiatric literature. Those of you who have read some of my other blogs probably know that I have strong feelings about that subject. Again, one size doesn’t fit everybody, but the more tools (based on scientific research) that psychiatrists have to treat the black dog of depression, the better off the world will be. The brain is a wondrously complex organ and the acceleration of knowledge is promising indeed.

Drama at the Bird Feeder

An Oasis in the Backyard

It was a beautiful balmy summer afternoon and the gang was busy making preparations for granddaughter Emma’s surprise birthday party. There had been a temporary hiatus in the COVID warnings and such get togethers were no longer frowned upon.  I had escaped the chaos and responsibility associated with major decisions like whether the balloons should be tied down or allowed to escape to the ceilings by sneaking out to the back deck.  I settled into a comfortable chair hoping for some peace and quiet.  My favorite son-in-law (I can use that term without offending anyone since he has no competition for that honor) devotes nearly every minute of his spare time working in his yard.  The result is a carefully choreographed weed-free wonder of plants and flowers surrounded by patches of manicured grass in the front of the house, but my favorite place is the back yard which he has converted into a beautiful wildlife-friendly oasis.  It all began when he planted some shrubbery and small trees around his back lot line in order to provide some privacy.  As is his style, he soon immersed himself in learning all about landscaping, and the fence line around his backyard began to widen at the expense of the lawn due to the addition of more varieties of flora.  The diminutive pond fed by a trickle of water, at Jim’s behest, now got its fill from a more substantial flow which emitted a mesmerizing lullaby as it cascaded over a series of carefully placed stones into a small pool stocked with koi.                                                                                                                                                  

Indeed, as I settled into my adirondack chair, I felt at peace and somehow comforted. My knowledge about flowers, plants and trees is very limited, but I was impressed that all this stuff seemed to look as if it belonged.  There was all manner of shades of green in various shapes and sizes.  There were delicate ferns dwarfed and shaded from the assault of too much sunlight by their taller brethren who turned their leaves to face the sun’s rays head on, gratefully absorbing all they could get.  In the midst of this sea of green was the contrast afforded by those plants who seemed to compete for attention by showing off their ability to produce vividly colored flowers.  Presiding over this show was a backdrop of several varieties of tall trees silently dominating the scene. 

Let the Games Begin!

The quiet was soon interrupted as mother nature raised the curtain and the show began with the clarion call of a squirrel who was barking at me from his safe perch high up in a tree.  He was staring at me and his bushy red tail was swishing back and forth as he told me in no uncertain terms that I was invading his space.  This guy, I will call him Sammy, soon lost interest in me when a smaller version whom I named Freddy appeared on the scene. 

Freddy was aggressively attempting to access all those goodies in the bird feeder.   Never mind that the feeder was designed to be squirrel proof, Freddy was not to be denied.   He initially decided to attack from above and slid down the wire which suspended it, but with nothing to hold onto, slid off the top and fell to the ground.  Undaunted, he immediately was back up the tree.  Having changed to a strategy of frontal assault, he opted to leap from the trunk of the tree directly onto the feeder.  This time he appeared to have some success even managing to briefly reach paydirt by contorting his body around the feeder, but alas with nothing to hold onto and with the feeder swinging back and forth wildly he once again did a backflip and hit the ground.  However, his efforts had not been in vain for bird feed now littered the ground.  His good fortune was short lived however: as Sammy who had been preoccupied with my presence suddenly became aware of what was happening directly beneath him. 

Sammy had apparently decided that the immediacy of Freddy’s attempt to steal his cache of sunflower seeds and stuff represented a greater threat than did my presence consequently; he attacked poor little Freddy who was barely half his size.  Since I had been bullied as a kid, I had great sympathy for Freddy, and was rooting for him to kick Sammy’s butt, however Freddy was no dummy and took off running with Sammy in pursuit.  Their speed and agility was amazing as Freddy raced through the trees with Sammy on his tail.  Freddy’s diminutive size allowed him to leap onto small branches which would barely support Sammy, advantage Freddy. 

While those two were fighting, a flock of sparrows saw their opportunity and swarmed around the feeder determined to take advantage of the absence of those hair covered monsters.  In order to lessen the chance of being grabbed by some predator hawk or eagle, these guys opted to land, take a bite, and quickly fly away to seek refuge in the foliage of a tree.  Speaking of bullies, at this point a couple of blue jays showed up squawking and shoving the smaller sparrows out of the way, but it was not long before Sammy, after dispatching his adversary, was back at the bird feeder determined to reclaim it as his personal domain. This time he used his size to grab the birdfeeder with his front paws and somehow anchor his rear legs to the tree, thereby gaining access to the goodies.  It appeared to be a successful strategy until my little hero, Freddy, reappeared.  He slid down the wire and holding onto it with his hind legs was able to hang on since Sammy had stopped the feeder from swinging back and forth.  Needless to say, Sammy was a very unhappy rodent.  He reacted by attempting to reach Freddy, but in the process lost control and the feeder began swinging loose again.  You guessed it Sammy and Freddy both fell to the ground and took off running up, around, and through the trees.  They had barely disappeared from view when Charley the chipmunk showed up to clean up the spoils of war which had been left on the ground. 

Soon the sparrows who had been waiting unseen in the trees also showed up to share in the bounty.  Charley seemed to have no problem in sharing his find, and the birds seemed comfortable with him.  I guess they all felt there was enough for everyone.  I sat in place for a time waiting for Act 3 to begin, but neither Sammy nor Freddy showed up, besides it was time for me to return to my nest where I could participate in a different life drama which would be equally loud and raucous, especially following the arrival of the guest of honor.    

The Miracle of Life

The drama that I had witnessed on the patio merged with the realization that Emma the birthday girl was to be honored for 30 years of life, barely one third of the time I had been alive.  There was of course nothing new about this revelation, except that it awakened me from my usual lack of appreciation for the miracle of life in spite of the fact that our environment is teeming with it.  I believe most of us take our own lives for granted except for those of us who are more at risk of finishing our stint such as old men like me or those suffering from other possibly fatal conditions.   It has been said that awareness of our mortality leads to a more zealous appreciation of life, and my own personal experience confirms that to be true. 

In spite of endless speculation, observation, research, meditation, and spiritual inquiry, there is much about life that remains unknown or perhaps even unknowable.  There is not even agreement as to its definition.  I have spent nearly all of my life studying various aspects of life and the more I learn the more I become awed and humbled by its complexity.  We are told that life had its origins over 4 billion years ago, only a mere 250 million years after the earth was formed.  It is said to have originated from random chemical reactions to form amino acids which combined to form proteins. The proteins coalesced, and became encased in a semipermeable membrane.  Thus, the cell, the basic building block of life, was formed.   

Those “Why” Questions

Evolutionary biologists have provided extensive evidence as to how life has progressed from one cell to its current state of development, yet do little to explain why it all happened. Why questions only lead to more why questions and in the end can only be answered by God.  Reproduction is Job One for all living things, including the participants in Jim’s backyard drama, in order to assure the continuity of life.  An individual’s life is finite, but life goes on, at least it has on this planet. Since life began on earth there have been 5 cataclysmic events that have resulted in mass extinctions, but some type of life has always survived.  Some ecologists suggest that we are now entering into a human caused period of mass extinction. They base that conclusion on the large number of animals that are now seen as endangered mostly due to loss of habitat and climate change.  Some feel that all life including that of homo sapiens is at risk. 

No matter the current threats to our lives we need to remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote:

The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.

Eleanor Roosevelt

To follow that admonition is likely to earn one the epitaph of a life well lived, but for millions throughout the world such reaching out proves to be very difficult.  Ben Franklin who had something to say about everything was only 40 years old when he wrote in POOR RICHARD’S ALMANAC: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time for that is the stuff life is made of.” When Ben wrote the almanac, the average life span was 33 years old so I’m sure 40 must have seemed old to him.  As a bonified oId guy, I can personally attest to the brevity of life and to the urgency one may feel as one’s time winds down. 

As a physician who wore many hats, first as a general practitioner and later as a Psychiatrist I have been witness to many deaths, all of which were sad, but perhaps none more so than those who died from suicide.  It is true that in spite of its wondrous qualities, life can present us with pain that can be so intense as to be intolerable.  There is also the recent phenomenon of the so-called suicide bombers who are conned into killing themselves along with others for political reasons. We Christians honor life, but ignore the Biblical commandment “though shall not to kill” by sanctioning executions and wars. 

In spite of its difficulties, life is a marvelous state of being as evidenced by the fact that even those whose lives we consider to be horrible cling to it.  As a matter of fact, during my stint as a shrink I witnessed so much unremitting pain that I was surprised there was not more suicide, but nothing was more satisfying than to see one who had suffered that torment return to experience joy in their lives. The human spirit is indeed resilient.

As for me, every morning I look on the wall of our kitchen and read a plaque which was given by a Grandson.  It is the best advice I have ever been given: