LONELINESS

Many years ago I treated a patient who was suffering from a near fatal case of loneliness.

 

No, I am not exaggerating for this person would later confess that she had come to me in a last-ditch attempt to resolve her problems while promising herself that if I couldn’t help she would hang herself. She was a 20-something attractive and very modestly dressed woman who did indeed look very despondent with the psychomotor retardation and furrowed brow characteristics of clinical depression. When I asked her why she was there to see me, she hung her head, stared at the floor, and tearfully responded that she had been shunned.

 

She went on to tell of how her infraction of the church’s rules (one that most of us would consider a minor infraction) had resulted in her being officially designated as one with whom the entire church should have no contact whatsoever. You may be thinking: “Big deal go find another church.” But her story was more complicated. She had grown up attending this church. It was the center of not only her spiritual, but also her social and family life. Since the church doctrine insisted that only members of their church were true Christians, the members were warned about the dangers of consorting with people outside the church, apparently convinced that sin was contagious. Thus, when alienated from the congregation, which to make matters worse, included her entire family, she found herself totally alone.

 

Such stories are not new as evidenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tear-jerker, THE SCARLET LETTER, but give witness to the importance of relationships and the pain of loneliness. Many religions have used banishment of varying degrees of severity to punish wayward members. The Catholic Church’s policy of excommunication appears to be less stringent and is viewed by the church as a means to save souls whereby one can return to the fold and regain salvation by repenting. Such tools are powerful and their use can have long lasting effects. For example, I recently discovered that my Great, Great, Great Grandfather was shunned and ejected from the Quaker church. It occurred to me that if he had toed the line, I might be a Quaker.

 

AND YOU THOUGHT SMOKING WAS BAD

Solitary confinement has long been used as a means to enhance the discomfort of imprisonment, and is agreed by many to be a form of torture. In a previous blog, WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? I contended that our need for relationships is encoded in our DNA, having evolved long ago as a major contributor to the survival of our species. If one were to accept that premise, it would be logical to assume that loneliness could be a major problem for us. Indeed, according to Vivek Murthy, M.D., the former Surgeon General of the U.S., loneliness has become “a growing public health crisis.” He has said that loneliness is a more effective agent in reducing longevity than obesity, and that its toxic effects are worse than smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Recent research into the prevalence and effects of loneliness tends to confirm Murthy’s assessment. Last year Cigna released a report on a study of 20,000 people age 18 and over as measured by the UCLA loneliness scale.

 

Nearly half reported loneliness as a problem, but even more concerning was that 27% felt no one understood them, and 43% admitted they felt their relationships were not meaningful. One in five felt they rarely or never felt close to others or that there was anyone they could talk to. It was also noted that Generation Z (those born after 1996) were the loneliest of all the generations measured.

There have been a number of studies which confirm the effects of loneliness on physical and mental health. It is not surprising that it could result in affective disorders such as depression, and may help explain the increase incidence of suicide as mentioned in my previous blog, but there is also evidence that loneliness can cause or aggravate innumerable maladies including: hypertension, coronary artery disease, dementia, inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, impairment of immune systems, and even some malignancies to name a few.
A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine sponsored by the National Institute of Health followed 1604 people over the age of 60 (average age 70) for 6 years and measured their physical decline and mortality rate. Their stark conclusion was: “Among participants who were older than 60 years, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and death.” Need I say more about our need to engage with our fellow man?

 

WE ARE NOT THE ONLY LONELY

It turns out that we are not the only nation where loneliness has become a problem, both from a public health and productivity perspective. Great Britain’s parliament has recently appointed a commissioner to investigate remedies for what has been called a silent epidemic after a study showed that 20% of Brits reported they were lonely most or all of the time. It appears there are similar studies in progress in other European countries. It would be helpful to know if loneliness is a worldwide problem or peculiar to our culture.

NOTHING ELSE TO DO

If one accepts the premise that loneliness is a significant problem, the question arises as to how did we get this way and what can we do about it. Prior to the industrial revolution, multi-generational families provided a sense of belonging. Relatives galore, including parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles usually lived in close proximity. With the switch from an agrarian to an industrial society, there had been a migration to cities where houses were built close together, which resulted in the development of neighborhoods usually composed of people with common interests. There was the inevitable clustering of children who interacted with only minimal adult supervision, and stay-at-home moms who could relate to each other in a very personal way. Neighbors were evaluated based on certain standards including friendliness and mutual respect. The lack of air conditioning and television made front porches very popular especially on hot evenings, and provided an opportunity for informal socializing. The only taboo subjects were sex, religion, and politics.

 

BETTER THINGS TO DO?

Soon after World War II ended, front porches began to disappear from neighborhoods, and there was a wild rush to the suburbs where large green lawns were treasured and families had fewer opportunities to be “neighborly.” On hot summer nights, it became more comfortable to be inside the house (with air conditioning) than outside. There were also new-found entertainment devices available – first radio, then TV, movies in the VCR and then DVD Player, video games, and then the internet which gave us social media and streaming. One could go for months or longer without ever having face-to- face contact with one’s neighbors. There was no longer danger of an errant foul tip sending a baseball through someone’s window. Privacy became important, and it was no longer considered a snub to build a fence between houses.  There were no kids playing hopscotch on the sidewalks, as a matter of fact, there often were no sidewalks in these new neighborhoods.

Competing Schedules and Activities

As more mothers joined the workforce and children were exposed to more structured extra-curricular activities, long-held family traditions changed. There was concern about the “latch key children” so named because they would come home to an empty house. The evening meal, often the only time in which the entire family came together, was often disrupted due to conflicting schedules. This led to the so-called crock pot families where the family meal was available to all who passed by…making it easy to just grab a bite and be on your way without any hassle (or conversation).

Forced Socialization in the Pew

Another effective defense against loneliness was the weekly church service. Traditionally, religious institutions encouraged socializing (and in some cases, demanded it). However, attendance at religious institutions has declined in recent years (one study says church membership in the U.S. has declined from 70% in 1999 to 50% in 2018).

 

WHY SO MUCH LONELINESS?

It is ironic that in this digital age when we have vastly improved modes of communication, that we would identify loneliness as a problem. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, insists that he saw his invention as a tool by which relationships could be fostered throughout the world and help dispel feelings of loneliness and dissention, but it appears that it has done more to promote divisiveness and distrust.

 

With the invention of the telephone we gave up non-verbal cues in our conversations, and the trade-off for its convenience seemed like a good deal. Now kids have largely given up talking on their cell phones in favor of texting. Voices from the internet, news media and politicians all conspire to promote divisiveness and paranoia to the point that it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation about many of the issues of the day.

 
Today people are marrying later and living longer. As reflected in the census figures of 2012, 32 million or 27% of Americans lived alone which was up from 17% in 1970. As you might expect, widowhood is likely responsible for many single occupant households, and in another study it was found that 47% of women over the age of 75 lived alone. With aging, comes the inevitable debilities and limitations. The National Institute on Aging reports that nearly half of all people over the age of 75 have hearing loss, which can be a major impediment to any meaningful social interaction resulting in withdrawal from friends and family.

 

It has been said that Americans are losing faith in our institutions, and our political leanings are often shaped by who we hate rather than who we like. Political discourse has hit a new low. Muck raking is no longer good enough, and has been replaced by personal insults a la grade school rants. Respect for contrary opinions has now gone out of fashion. Divide and conquer is the new strategy, and a tactic that seems to have even been adopted by the news media (Matt Taibbi has written an entire book about it, called “Hate Inc.”). We lack heroes. We frequently hear the term “disenfranchised” these days, a synonym for “left out” and to be an outsider is lonely for any herd critter.

ALL IS NOT LOST (stay with me…a little break from “downer” time)

There is some evidence that there may be some efforts underway to deal with the loneliness issue. I was pleased to see a recent article in Psychiatric News suggesting that psychiatrists are focusing more on loneliness as an underlying psychiatric problem (don’t know why it took so long to figure that out). A former president of the American Psychiatric Association has suggested that assessment for loneliness be part of any evaluation or perhaps become a diagnostic category in the DSM 5 (the shrink bible). There is also a growing awareness of a worldwide suicide epidemic which most would agree loneliness all too often plays a part.  Lonely lifestyles also frequently seem to be common with mass murderers.
lonely quote

LONELINESS VS. BEING ALONE

Proximity to other people is not necessarily a solution for loneliness, for it is not unusual to feel lonely in the midst of a crowd. Obviously, some type of emotional engagement is necessary to dispel lonely feelings. Ordinary discourse involves much more than words. Unfortunately, in our digital world many of the nuances of communication are lost. Not only are the tone, rhythm, volume, and timbre involved, but there are multiple non-verbal cues which can modify or even completely change a communication. As a matter of fact, some very significant interactions may occur without any words spoken. In that vein a text hardly measures up to a face to face encounter as a means to communicate feelings.

 

Emotional tone is less relevant, for even an argument can dispel lonely feelings.
Although, until recently, there have been few attempts to measure the extent of loneliness, there is definitely a consensus among sociologists and mental health professionals that there has been a definite increase. Employers have taken note of recent research which has shown that employees are more productive when they are encouraged to interact with each other. As a consequence, in many cases the traditional office cubical arrangement has been scrapped in favor of a more open environment, teamwork is encouraged, and brief chats at the water fountain are less likely to result in a dirty look from the boss. Since most workers spend nearly half of their waking hours in the workplace such changes could be very beneficial for large segments of society.

 

GO TEAM

The needs for engagement with other humans has long been addressed by the formation of millions of organizations that bring groups of people together with myriad goals, but which also provide an opportunity to relate to others. The sense of belonging to a group is a powerful antidote to loneliness. Young people who feel neglected or alienated are more likely to join street gangs (easier to radicalize for terrorism and/or recruit for “religious” cults*). Athletic events and concerts attract millions, most of whom “show their colors” and cheer as one. One of my all-time favorite TV shows was Cheers which identified the locus of the show as the place “where everybody knows your name.” Organizations of all kinds including sports teams, military, and political groups or for that matter any group of people with a common goal make use of the need to belong which at the end of the day is an antidote to loneliness.

THEY NEED EACH OTHER

AARP sponsors a very interesting and apparently successful program called “Experience Corps” in which volunteer over 50 are enrolled in a program where they are trained to help children develop literacy skills. They spend 6 to 15 hours per week working with K-3 students with spectacular results including as much as 60% improvement in reading skills, fewer behavior problems, improved attendance, and increased graduation rates  The AARP foundation at last report had 2,000 volunteers throughout the country serving over 30,000 students. However; it appears the volunteers may be benefiting more than the kids from the program. A University of Michigan study reported a statistical decrease in depressive symptoms and functional limitations among the volunteers after two years involvement in the Experience Corps. There may also be a secondary benefit in that some kids may learn to venerate rather than denigrate us old folks. (Score 1 for the Old Farts!)

 

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

None of this should be interpreted as an attempt to diminish the value of solitude. Certainly, this need to relate can be overdone, and in some cases become pathological. In many cases of marital therapy, for example, too much togetherness can be identified as the problem. In testimony before Congress, Prof. Julianne Holt-Lunstad defined loneliness as ” the perceived discrepancy between one’s desired level of social connection and their actual level of social connection.”  She explained that some people who are socially isolated don’t necessarily feel lonely, and some people who are lonely are surrounded by people who make them feel more alienated.

 

One’s work may require so much contact with others that it can become oppressive, and some personalities may cause anal pain of the worst kind!  Nevertheless; before you make plans to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island or join an order of non-verbal monks, be careful what you wish for. Time-alone can be refreshing, relaxing and creative, but as with most things in life, it can be overdone. Alone can be good, but lonely can be very bad. In this time in which we are all mutually dependent, it has become even more necessary to have relationships than we did in those days when we needed help to bring down a woolly mammoth. It is difficult nowadays to survive in this world as a loner. We face enormous problems including an increased global population, competition for resources, and degradation of our environment. It is once again time for us to hang together or hang separately.

WHAT MAKES THEM TICK?

The ability of the human race to relate to each other has allowed us to survive and to thrive.  We need to exercise that talent now more than ever.  As I finished writing this, once again two hate-filled young people described as loners committed horrible atrocities within hours of each other. It goes without saying that we need to take logical steps to limit access to those instruments designed to kill people, but the prevalence of these kinds of behaviors also require us to learn more about the milieu in which they occur.  For example: are there genetic influences involved, does our society in some way generate such hatred, are certain personalities more easily recruited to violent organizations, is shyness a precursor, and finally does the hatred cause the loneliness or vice versa?  We need to understand more about how these people end up the way they are if we are to have any success at solving the problem.

FAMILY

Does parenting make us unhappy?

In a recent conversation, I heard about a young couple who was quoted as saying that they had decided not to have children.  They had allegedly made this decision based on their belief that childless couples were happier.  It is true that one gives up a lot of freedom when they choose to become parents. Children are a long term financial liability not to mention the fact that at times they can drive you crazy.   In spite of the downsides, I strongly disagree with the premise that parents are unhappy because they have kids.  Granted, as children go through the terrible teens, they may not seem to be very interested in their parents’ happiness.  Nevertheless; in the many years I have spent attempting to help people deal with unhappiness,  I found those without children were by no means happier.  One of my patients who had never conceived once said to me that she felt “incomplete.” Conversely, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say they regretted having children.

The benefits of parenting.

Some may suggest that the urge to reproduce is simply due to a pursuit of sexual satisfaction; however, I submit that the need to nurture is an even stronger emotion.   My wife frequently mentions the wonderfully warm feeling she experienced when those little guys had been bathed and tucked in for the night; although I recall she looked exhausted.  We were fortunate that it was possible for her to be a stay-at-home mom until the kids reached an age of relative independence (a situation that is frequently impossible to implement in today’s families).

Children are also useful in helping enhance our personality development.  I have long insisted that having a child is the most effective treatment for narcissism.  They teach us to look outside of ourselves.  They provide us with an opportunity for a “do over” to correct our mistakes and to vicariously act out our failed accomplishments.  Although they often disappoint and anger us, we continue to care about them, protect, encourage, and sacrifice for them.  These qualities are ones that I once read somewhere as the definition of love which went like this: “love is caring for another as much or more than for oneself with knowledge and without compulsion.”    Nowhere is this statement more apropos than in the feelings we have for our children.

Oh yes, there are glaring exceptions and I have witnessed the crippling effects of child abuse, but even in the most abhorrent of these cases one often finds examples of love gone awry.   One horrible example of this received my attention when a mother was brought to our hospital after she had drowned her two children.   She had a history of mental illness, but had always been overprotective of her children.  She turned out to have been delusional and convinced that demonic forces were coming to sexually abuse and torture her children, and that their death was the only way to protect them from the horrors which she thought were inevitable.  As has been noted by many, victims of child abuse frequently become abusers, but one might consider that by being denied a loving relationship with their children, second or third generation abusers continue to suffer by being denied the most gratifying experience of life.

Children become even more important to people like myself who have been fortunate enough to reach a “ripe old age” (when I hear this phrase I am not comforted by the thought that when things ripen they soon begin to rot).  As our limitations increase and we find ourselves spending more time in doctors’ offices and funeral homes, we become more dependent on others.  I recall responding to a young man who said he did not want children with,  “Who will come visit you in the nursing home?”  An occasional visit from social worker types is not the same as one of your own flesh and blood. The idea of growing old alone is very frightening to many people (myself included), but even when their offspring are not particularly attentive, older folks seem to find some solace in the knowledge that they exist.  Even those who have been totally neglected may continue to have rescue fantasies, and even in the midst of their angst often make excuses for their children’s neglect.

Our brains are hardwired to repress most painful memories; consequently, if you want to know what is most important in life, ask an old person to reminisce.  You will find them to be very accommodating: reminiscing is a favorite pastime for us old folks.  In most cases their reminiscences will be largely dominated by the good times in their lives.  You will also note that many of these resurrected memories will be times with family.

Family vacation

It was during a time of my own reminiscing that I was motivated to write this essay.  The process was triggered while planning for our family’s annual vacation which has become a tradition with my gang, but has become increasingly difficult to initiate as grandchildren grow older and develop more commitments. This year was especially difficult as it turned out there was only one week in the entire year when everyone would be able to attend, and then only after manipulating schedules.  At first it had seemed unlikely that everyone would be able to go, and we might be forced to cancel.  I found that thought very depressing.

Now that everything has been ironed out, and I am trying to decide whether to pack my bathing trunks and risk the derisive comments of the kids about my less than magnificent corpulent body, my thoughts have turned to all those prior vacations.  It has been over 50 years since the first, and it was monumental.  We checked into a hotel with its southern traditions intact in Nags Head.  This was a place where the family was introduced to their waiter who would care for them the entire time they were there, and dinner was a grand affair with everyone expected to “dress.”  Barb was in her glory, dressing up the kids  and showing them off.   Later there would be trips with four kids in a station wagon without air conditioning or video games, but the misery of getting there was dwarfed by the excitement of finding a motel with a pool.

Vacation from hell.

It has been more than 40 years since we went on our last sightseeing type vacation.  I had terminated my general practice, and we had decided to have a grand adventure prior to my starting a psychiatric residency.  It was destined to go down in the annals of Smith history as an unforgettable experience, and indeed to this day remains a topic often mentioned when we are all together.  The kids refer to it as the “Vacation from Hell.” It all began as most disasters do, innocently, when a friend showed me his new motor home.  Now at that time this was a new innovation in the travel business and I was most impressed.  It presented an opportunity to be closer to the flora and fauna, and would save money on hotel and food expenses.  I also was naïve enough to think that with more space when on the road the kids would fight less, and I would not need to scream as much.  Indeed, I pictured us becoming an on the road version of the Cleaver family.

Further  investigation revealed that these motor homes were very expensive.  I was convinced  I could build one myself for much cheaper.  With that in mind, I bought a retired dry cleaning truck and set about to make it habitable.  After the installation of a stove, refrigerator, and toilet, it suddenly looked a little tight spacewise.  I think one of the kids used the sardine analogy  to describe it.  There would be many other smart ass remarks before this trip concluded.   Nevertheless; the vehicle (which would come to be known as Smith’s folly) was packed and stocked with  provisions .  As an added measure of security, I hung my  motorcycle on the back and we were on our way determined to explore all points of interest in the wild west.  Unfortunately, this trip would rival that of the Griswald’s in the Chevy Chase movie Vacation.

We made remarkably good time our first day on the road.   We made it past Chicago, and I was feeling vindicated.  The kids had engaged in only minor fisticuffs, but that may have had something to do with the fact that we had managed an early start, and they had slept a good part of the day.  We had lunch in the “motor home” (some might suggest that I use that term lightly),  and the self-contained facilities solved the problem of poorly synchronized bladder functions.   As we were looking for a place to hook up to water, electricity and sewage disposal, it suddenly became very cloudy and we found ourselves in the midst of a thunderstorm with rain so heavy that it was difficult to see the road.  Suddenly the idea of spending the night in a campground lost its appeal, and we checked into a motel.

The following day began uneventfully.  It was bright and sunny, with not a storm cloud in sight.  All went well until the late afternoon when we decided to pull off the highway in Galena, Illinois, the mention of which never fails to elicit a chuckle from Barb.  Like most vehicles of its vintage, ours had a gear shift lever attached to the steering column.  While pulling away from a traffic light, I attempted to shift gears, and found myself holding the unattached gear shift lever in my hand.   Even in the face of this catastrophe, Barb was overcome with laughter at my facial   expression as I struggled to understand what had happened.   With the gear shift lever broken off at its base, the truck (at this point I no longer addressed it as a motor home ) was stuck in low gear which created some significant problems for the traffic following us and not surprisingly, they became impatient as our top speed was about 10 miles per hour.

It turned out that God had not totally forsaken us, for we stumbled upon a Chevrolet auto agency after “driving” only a few blocks.  I must have still had a silly look on my face for as we pulled into the service department, the mechanic who greeted us supressed a smile as I held the lever in my hand and asked if they had one of those.  Of  course they didn’t, but I was told they could probably have one by the following day.  With that we limped at 10 mph to the closest motel.  Although the savings I had projected by sleeping in Darell’s folly was taking a hit, the kids were happy because the motel had a pool. The replacement part arrived later that next day, and we were back on the road after our second night in the motel.

Are we there yet?

If you are thinking it could not get any worse, you would be wrong.  After a few hours on the road the sun disappeared never to be seen again for the next three days.  As a matter of fact, it became dark enough that I decided to switch on the headlights. One black cloud to my left looked particularly ominous, and as its funnel shaped appendage moved down towards the earth, I figured correctly that we were in big trouble.  Now, as a native of the southern Ohio hill country my acquaintance with tornadoes was limited to what I had read, which wasn’t much.  As it advanced straight across the cornfield toward us, I attempted to tone down the terror from my voice to utter some hollow platitudes. Of course as every parent knows, kids read us like a book and my attempt to reassure them only caused more fear.

It only made sense to me to seek some shelter, so I stopped under an overpass, but was soon interrupted by a siren and flashing red light which had pulled up next to me.  I was thinking, “Can this guy be serious about giving out tickets in this situation?”  Then I noted that he was waving and pointing ahead apparently wanting me to move on.  I was angry that he was forcing me to go back out into the storm, but being a law abiding compliant soul, we struck out again.  I would later learn that under a bridge is the worst  possible place to be in a tornado, and perhaps that patrolman saved our lives.

After vacating what I thought was a safe haven, I found I could only see where I was going by straddling the center line. The wind was so intense that it blew water right through the rubber seal of the windshield. Then suddenly I realized that we were traveling on the berm  of the road.   The highway was  perfectly straight and I had been white knuckling the steering wheel to keep on that white line; consequently, I was confident that we had been simply lifted off the road and set gently back down on four wheels.  In a short time the wind died down, and it was evident my promise that this trip would be a grand adventure was being fulfilled.

The tornado had moved on, but the sky still looked  ominous and once again the idea of sleeping in the camper lost its appeal.  Clouds and rain continued to dog us for the next couple of days and we continued to hear that conditions were right for tornadoes. These announcements were meaningless to us as we had no idea where we were, so the wisest thing to do seemed to be to turn off the radio and hope for the best.  The kids were not impressed when we drove through the badlands.  We did manage to catch a glimpse through the fog and mist of Mt. Rushmore but the kids were still not impressed.

Soon the sky would brighten and I was convinced that we would still salvage this vacation.  I was hopeful when we got to Wyoming, bought cowboy hats all around, and stopped at a dude ranch which advertised trail rides for five dollars.  It turned out as you might suspect: it was a short trail, which became shorter when I heard Barb scream for help.  She was bringing up the rear and her horse decided he would rather go back to the barn at a rapid pace.  Unfortunately, there was no dashing cowboy on a white charger to run her horse down and rescue her. I was having my own problems hanging on.

Our next major attraction was to be Yellow Stone park, and I was looking forward to finally testing the sleeping accomodations of the camper and awakening to the smell of bacon frying.  It was a gorgeous night and after getting the kids bedded down, Barb and I decided to sleep under the stars.  I quickly fell asleep, but was  awakened by loud clanging sounds. Upon closer observation, the sound was coming from bears on a foraging expedition and had knocked over all the garbage cans they could find. Barb beat a hasty retreat to the camper with me close behind.

At that point, we decided we had experienced enough adventure, and after an uneventful swing south to glance briefly at the Grand Canyon, and an equally brief visit with Barb’s brother in Phoenix,  we headed back north for home.   Through all her travails our trusty land schooner had performed admirably, save for the minor gearshift problem. As we rolled along Kansas, confident the rest of the trip would be smooth sailing, I noticed a lack of responsiveness when I depressed the accelerator.   It soon became apparent the clutch of the “motor home” was going out.  This did not present much of a problem in the flatlands, but as we got into the hill country , the steeper ascends were a challenge.  With the clutch slipping, and the engine racing we were barely able to top most of the hills.  In  spite of this minor impediment we were finally relieved to arrive home with no  lives lost.

Flashforward

Since those days our group has doubled in size and family vacations have consistently been for me the highlight of each year.  They were suspended for the past year following the untimely death of my oldest, yet the family T shirt commemorates this one as the 21st of such get togethers.  They have all been deliciously chaotic affairs, but none that could match the “ vacation from hell.”  We were forced to leave a day early from a South Carolina beach due to a hurricane, and there have been the usual sunburns, jelly fish bites, a broken leg, a sizeable gash from attempts to break up a dog fight, and a fall down the steps resulting in my eyeglasses having impaled my head; otherwise, they have been relatively benign afffairs.  Most have involved a week at a beach and they have all been at different places as we always seem to wait too long to make reservations.

This year’s family vacation is only a few days away, and I find my feelings analogous to those I experienced as a child a few days before Christmas.  I always look forward to seeng the progeny of course, but to witness them all together interacting not only with me, but with each other is a most exhilarating experience.

photo

Here I sit three days later with a magnificent view of the Gulf.  The trip down here was relatively uneventful.  There was a minor issue in a parking garage in which one of the grandkids who is learning to drive ( and who shall remain nameless ) backed into a parked  car.  Her Mother violated every tenet I had ever taught her by leaving a note with her phone number.   Well maybe I might have inadvertinately mentioned that “honesty is the best policy” rap when she was little, but never thought she would take iit seriously.  Meanwhile the kids have managed to trash the place in short order.  They are at times loud, argumentive,  constantly in motion, and in short wonderful.

By the way, I feel compelled to mention that one of those guys who said he did not want children was my son who is on course to be nominated as Father of the century.

NOTE FROM ESHRINK’S Editor. We recently returned from our 21st Annual Smith Family Vacation (these are the vacations dad discussed above…a tradition started when Simon and Carter were babies in 1994). Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures from the “vacation from hell” but I’ve added some pictures for family of previous trips during our 21 year vacation history.

vaca2010 group shot

This is the vacation where dad impaled himself with his glasses when he fell down the steps. Jim pulled them out, and we took the picture BEFORE dad went to get stitched…we Smiths don’t let anything get in the way of the family photo 🙂 but maybe that’s why the picture is so blurry.

 

 

This was vacation we took in Michigan. Jim proposed to Trudy on this vacation. I think it was 2005.

This was vacation we took in Michigan. Jim proposed to Trudy on this vacation. I think it was 2005.

 

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Horseback riding at the ranch. Summer 2007.

Horseback riding at the ranch. Summer 2007.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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COMPUTERS: FRIEND OR FOE?

computer-rageMy computer and I have a love- hate relationship.  It does wondrous things for me, but also frustrates the hell out of me on a regular basis. As I write this on my laptop, I hearken back to the times I spent with my Smith-Corona typewriter, and the number of times I needed to start over for there was no way to correct a mistake.  But its abominable replacement corrects my spelling mistakes.  It allows me to communicate with people all over the world for free, or send them copies of documents, without buying a stamp and trekking typewriterto the post office.  It has made carbon paper and mimeograph machines obsolete as I can now copy anything simply by sticking it in my printer, and pushing a button.  Inside my steno-notebook sized kindle resides more books than I could store in all the bookshelves in my house. Were I to print all the information in my computer, I am certain it wouldn’t fit into the 3 drawer filing cabinet that sits by my desk. I realize that for you young bucks this is all mundane, but we old folks look at all this stuff, compare it with the way we used to do things, and say, wow!!!

Admittedly, my learning curve has been flat, so by the time I had learned how to turn off my computer (back in the ancient era of DOS) without deleting my hard drive, the smart phone entered the scene and I was once again humbled.  It does everything except wash the dishes, but I am sure someone is working on an app to add to its repertoire as we speak.  My youngest granddaughter has given me lessons on how to use mine, but she has now moved on to adolescence and has better things to do with her time than waste it on a digital illiterate who can’t even speak computerese.  I do find it difficult to learn when I don’t understand the language.

Translating Computer Geek

This translation problem became apparent when Barb and I bought a new car recently. My troubles escalated.  She was enamored with the one we chose because it featured a heated steering wheel.  That steering wheel was also covered with a bunch of little drawings.  I can’t believe the computer gods insist 2015-Cadillac-SRX-SUV-interioron calling those primitive drawings icons, but the salesman spent a great deal of time explaining what all those things would do.  I was so completely awestruck, I promptly forgot all his instructions.  There was a plethora of other gadgets on a lighted screen, most of which I am still trying to figure out.

The Computer Rules the Road

This premium package model we purchased came equipped with a backseat driver, thereby assuming many of Barb’s responsibilities.  I discovered the steering wheel button that allows me to talk to Barb’s electronic replacement.  She responds with a pleasant enough voice, will tell me how to get where I want to go, and find my favorite radio station among other things.   Our relationship is currently strained however, following a rift over getting directions to a friend’s home.  I told her I wanted to go to an address on Westchester Court and she gave me directions to West Chaucer Ct.  After repeating my request several times with the same response, I became frustrated and called her a very bad name.  Fortunately Siri was with me and she came through with the correct directions.

Other backseat driver duties include warning me when I stray out of my lane, am too close behind, or about to sideswipe another car.  It turns on my lights when it gets dark and dims them when another car approaches.  Computers do so many things that much is taken for granted like checking the air in my tires,  telling me when I need an oil change telling me my average speed, and how many miles I can go before refueling. When there are engine troubles with a modern car, don’t expect a mechanic to tell you what is wrong: a computer will.  About all that is left for me to do is operate the gas pedal, brakes and steering wheel, but I am told that will soon be unnecessary when computers take total control.  If you think that is farfetched, must I remind you that your next plane trip may be completed with the controls untouched by human hands.  I know I am old fashioned, but the idea of that pilot napping in the cockpit while some little box runs the plane is somewhat disturbing to me.

Back to My PC: the good, the bad, and the ugly

My computer is a treacherous little devil, for while it is doing all this good stuff for me, it betrays me by sending personal data to people I don’t even know.  It allows things the geeks call “cookies” to be placed in the machine, which in turn lets it to do all kinds of things without my permission or knowledge.  Sometimes it seems to have a mind of its own and refuses to do what I want it to do.  At other times it scares the hell out of me by telling me that if I do this or that, data may be lost.  This usually occurs soon after I have decided to trust it and not make hard copies.  Then there is that other sword of Damocles, the hacker who is a constant threat. As a psychiatrist, I’m still trying to understand why anyone would get such a kick out of screwing up my life. As my daughter used to say back in the 80s, “Get a life, dude.”

computer rage 2Barb (my wife) says she hears me swearing a lot when I am in my little room using the computer, and I must confess that much of my frustration is because I don’t know what I am doing.  She has suggested that I take some lessons, but I tried that once and it didn’t help.  My guru, Tom, attempts to reassure me that I do well for someone my age.  I suspect he means that soon I may progress to the level of competence of your average four-year-old.  The way mechanical things work has always fascinated me, but in spite of what I thought was some mechanical aptitude I remain electronically challenged.  It seems clear now that how all that stuff got stuffed into that little box will always remain a mystery.

I can think of no areas of our lives in which we are not impacted by this high tech stuff.  We have become more and more dependent upon computers to operate our world.  It has been said that without computers and a functioning internet not only would the world’s economy, but our very existence, be at risk.  Commerce as we know it would be paralyzed.  Electrical grids and other utilities would be affected.  Transportation problems would likely interfere with the availability of food supplies.  It is hard to think of many human activities that would not be affected.  For these reasons, it is predicted that cyber warfare would likely affect the entire populous and not just the military establishment. Computers have been important in the search to find ways to kill people more efficiently and with greater precision, which might be considered a good or bad thing depending on one’s point of view.  For me, it is sometimes a stretch to see that glass as half full, but most of the time I feel the good outweighs the bad. For example many of the marvels of modern medicine could not have been achieved without computer technology.

The other day I read an article in Scientific American by John Pavlus about the latest research on evolving computer development, and decided to put forth a final effort to unravel some of the mystery of these gadgets.  I was also motivated by the movie “The Imitation Game” which chronicled the invention of v3-turing-rxthe first computer by Alan Turing, and my own peripheral involvement in its further development only a few years later.  After completion of my internship in 1958, I joined the Navy as a general duty medical officer and was stationed at the Naval Proving Grounds in Dahlgren, Virginia.  It was located on the Potomac River at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay with a primary mission of testing the big guns used on battleships of that day.

Since the large guns of battleships were charged with hitting a target several miles away, the calculations to determine trajectory and other factors required precise mathematical calculations.  To that end IBM had constructed the NORC  (even then the feds were fond of acronyms) or Naval Ordinance Research Calculator.  A large two story brick building was built to house NORC, and it was powered by vacuum tubes very much in the manner of Turing’s machine.  People were amazed at the calculations that could be completed in a matter of seconds by this monster, which probably had 1/10 the power of my iPhone.

Obviously computers have come a long way since NORC.  I have heard much about “artificial intelligence,” and although I don’t know what that term means, it seems computers are getting smarter all the time.  What does it mean when a computer can win at Jeopardy, and the world’s best chess players are defeated by computers?   Much has been said about the supposed inability of computers to replace the human brain so I found it quite interesting when Mr. Pavlus reported that a group at IBM is at work to develop a chip “aimed to mimic cortical columns in the mammalian brain,” while researchers at Hewlett-Packard  are also hoping to design one which will function “more like a neuron.”  These chips are said to contain 41/2 and 5 billion transistors respectively.

I recall when transistor radios came on the market with a great deal of fanfare. Prior to that time the smallest radios were about the size of a picnic basket, and although I thought the idea of a radio which you could carry in your pocket was cool, I had no idea what a transistor was.  With the help of Mr. Wikipedia, I can now report that a transistor is a switch which can be turned off or on, and that a chip has lots of transistors and is attached to a printed circuit board.  The computer processes all that information by flipping those little switches, some smaller than a virus.  Now that I know all about computers, I am sure I will never call mine a bad name again.

Computers are a good example of the good, the  bad and the ugly.  They do wondrous things for us, but also invade our privacy, and pose newfound threats to our well being.  But for all man’s endeavors, no matter how spectacular, there seems to have always been a down side.