Essay

What I want my children to know about building human connection and avoiding loneliness

My children are adults now, beginning to live their separate adult lives. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own start, and how lonely I was for a while. I had to work hard to make connections with other people. I wanted to give my children some advice from my experience about building and maintaining those connections. I have communicated these thoughts with them.

You know how hard I’ve pursued my career and how much time I’ve spent in my hobbies. They’re important to my life, but they’re not the most important things. Without friends and family, my life wouldn’t be all that great.

My experience tells me that the most important element in your personal happiness is being connected to other people. You will be wise to make a major life focus of creating and maintaining those connections. If you’re as introverted as me, you might not need a lot of connection, but you need some. Without enough human connection you will become lonely, and loneliness is painful and bad for your mental and even physical health. We’re all lonely sometimes, but it’s truly terrible for you to be lonely most or all of the time.

At home on a Sunday morning when I was 22

When I graduated from engineering school in Terre Haute, my first job was in town. Many of my school buddies hadn’t graduated yet, and my girlfriend was from Terre Haute, so I had plenty of people to spend time with.

After about a year, all but one of my school buddies had graduated and moved away and my girlfriend and I broke up. I had no family in town, and my one remaining friend, Michael, was consumed with a troubled marriage. I love being alone, but aloneness soon turned into loneliness. I was unprepared for how acutely painful that would be.

On the air when I was 26

I did some things that really helped. First, I picked up a part-time job as a radio disk jockey. Once in a while I went out for a beer with some of the other DJs, and one of the stations I worked for had popular in-person events that I attended.

Second, I joined the local electronic bulletin-board community. This was how nerds like me connected online before the Internet. After a while we realized we could meet in person sometimes, since we all lived in or near Terre Haute! We started having summer cookouts, which led to us going out for beers once a week. We called that the Tuesday Night Drinking Society, the only rule of which was that we never met on Tuesdays. It was a lot of fun.

Third, I joined a church where a number of singles my age attended. We had lots of fun together. I even invited my good friend after his marriage finally ended. This is also where I met your mom.

You’ve heard me speak fondly of my years in Terre Haute and these people are largely why.

After a few years I moved to Indianapolis and left all of my friends behind. Even though I drove back nearly every weekend to be with your mom, those were some mighty lonely days. I was miserable all alone in my apartment. My life improved greatly when your mom moved to Indianapolis and we got married. But as you know, our marriage didn’t work and then I lived alone again. I had not kept up with my Terre Haute friends, and while I had made a couple new ones here, we were all raising young children and thus very busy. Fortunately your uncle, my brother, had moved here by then, and we saw each other a lot. Having you over on the court-ordered schedule was also a real bright spot in my life.

It wasn’t until your uncle moved to Utah that I realized how much I had relied on him for companionship. Again I faced the pain of loneliness. He moved back after a couple years, but in the meantime I focused on building and rebuilding connection with people I knew. This is also part of the reason I started dating again. I didn’t date when you were young because I wanted you to have my undivided attention. But by this time you were in high school and starting to become independent.

I’m not as good as I want to be at keeping up the friendships I have. I give myself a pass because of the serious challenges Margaret and I have faced since we married; there isn’t enough time for everything I want to do. I don’t even spend as much time with you or your grandmother as I want. But I can’t keep letting this be, as I will always need the connections I’ve made.

I want to encourage you to form friendships, stay connected with your family, consider creating your own family, and cultivate deeper bonds with good people in your lives. Here are some things I’ve learned that I hope will help you.

Friends

Focus first on making and keeping friends, even before you seek romantic relationships.

Making friends involves taking risks. Keeping friends involves investing your time into them.

When you encounter someone in the world and spend enough time with them to realize you enjoy them, to try to make a friend of them requires you ask one simple question: “Hey, I’m really enjoying doing this with you. Would you like to hang out together sometime?”

Most people will say yes, but that’s because some of them don’t know how to say no. Here’s the secret way to find out: exchange contact information and then contact them later to set up an outing with them. If they don’t respond or their response is tepid, take it as a no and move on cheerfully.

If they do respond well, choose something simple like going out for a coffee or a drink. If you know of some activity you can do side by side that allows you to talk, such as going to a car show or a street fair, do that. Especially for men, the stakes feel lower when they do things side by side.

Me and Michael in 2007, friends since 1985

It’s much like asking someone on a date, except you want to build a friendship, not a romantic relationship. But you have to start somewhere, and this is a low-stakes way to do it. You will face some rejection, but the sting is light.

A hidden tactic is to look for people who appear to need a friend even more than you and make a point of doing something alongside them where you can ask them the simple question as well.

You will notice that I’m talking primarily about making friends in the “f2f IRL” world. Online friends are great and I have several. One is an inner-circle friend to whom I would tell anything, and we’ve carried on primarily an email friendship for 18 years. But you need “f2f IRL” friends much more.

This means you have to go out into the world. Put yourself in places where there will be people with similar interests to yours — join groups, volunteer, and find a church. It’s classic and corny, but you can make it work.

You can also make friends at work, but take it easy. Friendship can be messy, and a friendship with a co-worker that goes south can be challenging because you have to work alongside them every day. That happened to me once in my early 20s and it was very unpleasant. Since then, I keep work relationships light. But we all eventually change jobs, and when we do it’s great to reach out to former co-workers we enjoyed and ask them the simple question. I have made a couple good friends that way.

Partners

Your life partner should be your closest friend, confidant, and companion.

I know a few people who had it easy finding a life partner, but I think for most of us it takes time and effort. It sure did for me. You’ll have more than one significant other before you find the one you keep.

When you are seeing someone, you will want to spend a lot of time with them. You might even find yourself inadvertently ignoring your friends in favor of your significant other. It’s counterintuitive, but people you date come and go, while friendships are more likely to last. Make sure you spend some time with your friends so they’re still your friends should you break up with the person you’re seeing.

You are likely to become friends with some of your partner’s friends. Making friends this way is wonderful, but if you and your partner ever break up, you are almost certain to lose those friends. If you have friends already before you enter a romantic relationship, they will likely still be your friends when it’s over. If you don’t have your own friends, after a breakup you lose your whole social circle.

This is why I say to focus first on building a satisfying network of friends, and then on finding a partner.

It is a valid life choice not to date and/or not to choose a life partner. Not having a partner gives you time to pursue so many interesting and fulfilling things. Just understand that you are trading away that deep connection and ready companionship.

The family you grew up in

The family you grew up in is far from perfect, as you well know. But I think you’ll agree that we love and accept you. We have our quirks and shortcomings, but it is basically healthy for you to be around us.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a healthy family that loves and accepts them. Such people may find it necessary to limit or eliminate time with their families. It’s a real loss.

The family I grew up in – I was 5

Anyone who experiences love and acceptance from an overall healthy family is wise to keep investing in those relationships, because family can be an ongoing source of love and support. It also feels good to hang out with your family because of the long-term bonds and the innate feeling of belonging.

You are like your mother and me in many ways. We understand you, and we love you. I want nothing more than to see you do well in your lives, and I feel sure your mom feels the same way. I also really enjoy hanging out with you!

The family I grew up in has been a huge source of support for me. When your mom and I split up, I leaned hard on your grandparents and your uncle. Those were incredibly hard times which would have been much harder without my family. They listened to me as I ranted and cried, and they offered advice (some good, some not, but so it goes with advice). Also, your uncle let me live with him for a while, and your grandparents loaned me money so I could get by.

Even in less challenging times, such as when you’re just having a bad day, your family can commiserate with you, and even lift you up and encourage you.

It’s wise, I think, to live near enough to your family that you can see them when you need or want to. I lived a four-hour drive away from my parents when I was in my 20s, and it proved to be too far for me to see them often enough. On the other hand, I was glad to not live down the street from them so I could more easily establish my independence. It would have been nice to live maybe an hour away.

It’s not like I deliberately chose to live so far away from my parents. I wanted to pursue a career in software development and I couldn’t find work in the field in my hometown. Even now, I am sure I made the right choice. Where you live is your choice, as well. Just understand that the farther away from family that you live, the more you trade away these good things.

Your children

Your children can be a source of deep connection and, when they’re adults, support.

You shouldn’t have children because you’ll receive these things from them. Rather, have children because of the innate drive to do it, because you have the means to provide for them, and because you have love to give them. Simple love and acceptance is the number one thing to give your kids for them so they can be whole and healthy as adults. I wish I had figured that out far earlier in your lives!

Us, when you were about 1 and 3, making a memory

Raising children will challenge you and make you grow in profound ways. Also, it’s truly lovely to make good memories with your children. Family bonds just feel wonderful! There is no substitute.

But if you raise your children well and they feel your love and acceptance, they are very likely to want relationships with you when they are adults. It’s great! These fully formed people who are a lot like you and share so many common memories with you will come around and see you.

This is especially important as you age. I’ve watched my parents and my wife’s parents go through this: your friends and age-peer family start to die, and your circle of connections shrinks. It’s important to keep making friends at every stage of life. But if you have children, they become a much more vital source of human connection. They can also really help you navigate the changes that come when you’re older, both in talking them through with you and physically helping you with things you need. Margaret was of huge support to her parents when they could no longer manage living independently. She found them assisted living and did a huge amount of work to put their house on the market. Your uncle has given your grandmother a great deal of emotional and physical support since your grandfather died. Your older years will be a great deal harder without children who love you and come around to see you.

It is a valid life choice not to have children. You will have greater freedom and money to pursue other things that interest you. Just understand that you are trading away the personal growth that parenthood brings, the potential for good and deep relationships with your adult children, and the support your children can give you in old age.

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It’s surprising how hard your 20s are as you adjust to full-on adult life. You are busy enough working and doing the routine stuff of life that it might be hard to consider adding on seeking and cultivating friendships. But don’t put it off. The more you invest in it now, the happier your life will be in the years and decades to come.

Articles in The Masculinist newsletter and blog have influenced my views here and were a driver behind me writing this essay.

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Essay

Is this man given over to hero fantasies?

My wife and I stopped at the restaurant at Fair Oaks Farms in northwest Indiana as we returned from a long weekend in Chicago. That restaurant is at about the halfway point of our trip home and has become a Chicago trip tradition.

photo of man in black holding a gun
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

We got a seat in the bar and presently a couple was seated next to us. The fellow openly carried a semi-automatic pistol on his hip.

It was overwhelmingly unlikely that he would have any reason to use his gun that Sunday afternoon. Fair Oaks Farms is a quiet place families like to visit, in open Indiana farm country. It’s not some sketchy bar in a bad part of town.

But I don’t know anything about this guy. Does he have any idea how to use his gun? Is he prone to hero fantasies where, at the first sign of trouble, he leaps into action like Captain America?

Or is he well trained with his firearm, of mature and calm demeanor? Is he perhaps a law enforcement officer?

It could have been either, for in Indiana it’s easy to get a carry permit. Unless you’re a felon, or have a conviction for domestic battery, you need only apply, register your fingerprint, and visit your local law enforcement office. You can then carry anywhere in Indiana except in a school, at the Indiana State Fair, in courthouses, in the Indiana Statehouse, and at lakes managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

As I’ve written before, I feel safe in my world and see no need to own or carry a weapon. I don’t understand people who feel that need — but I also don’t know anything about their lives. Perhaps they legitimately don’t feel safe in their worlds. As a result, I choose to live and let live.

But that doesn’t mean I have to feel safe when I’m around a stranger who openly carries.

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Essay, Photography

Cameras and composition are only part of the photographic equation, but they’re my favorite part

Photography has changed a great deal in the last 40 years. If you think back 80 years, photography then had more in common with photography 40 years ago than photography 40 years ago has with photography now. Technology has changed so much about it, and I don’t mean just the advent of digital cameras. Technological advances let us easily make photographs now we couldn’t 40, or 20, or even 10 years ago. We can manipulate our photographs with software in ways that wet-darkroom artists of yore couldn’t fathom. How we view photographs has changed radically as well, given that we look at most of them on screens now!

40 years ago, we had film, film cameras, and the darkroom. I was in high school 40 years ago, and oh how I wanted to be in the Photography Club! But to enter you had to take at least one photography class, and to take that class you had to buy an SLR camera. I was so sure that camera was out of my working-class family’s reach that I didn’t bother asking.

I came upon an Argus A-Four, a 35mm viewfinder camera, at a yard sale for four bucks. I puzzled over the controls, as I didn’t know the first thing about exposure. One of my friends was in the Photography Club, so I asked him. “f/8 and be there,” he said as he gave me a bulk-loaded cartridge of Plus-X from the club stash. He told me to shoot the roll, and then he’d teach me how to develop the film and make a contact print in the school darkroom.

I found developing and printing to be tedious and boring. It was sort of cool to see my images materialize on the contact sheet, but the work to get there held no interest for me. I realized that perhaps it was just as well I couldn’t get into the Photography Club, because everybody had to develop and print their own work. I realized that I really wanted only to learn about the camera and about composition.

The majority of the photos members of the Photography Club took never found an audience outside the Photography Club. There was an annual photo contest at the school, and the winners’ prints were displayed in the hallway. Some Photography Club members also made photos for the school newspaper and the yearbook. Occasionally a club member would find their work selected for display at the Art Center downtown.

I still have the negatives and the contact sheet (sadly cut into strips for easier storage). I’m very happy to have these images! I scanned the negatives a few years ago. Here’s my favorite photo from the roll. Meet my friend Karen, who used to drive me home from school every day in her big Chevy.

Karen and her car
My friend Karen and her car. Argus A-Four, Kodak Plus-X, 1984

Now that I’ve started developing my black-and-white film and scanning it at home (to save lab costs and get images faster), I understand well what many photo bloggers I admire have written for years: a negative holds so many possibilities. That’s why the high-school photography class required students to develop and print their own work, so they could experience and understand that for themselves. Knowing how to use a camera and compose interesting and pleasing photographs is only half the equation. Processing the film to get a good negative and knowing how to print (or scan) that negative well is the other half.

Technology has given us enormously capable digital cameras today, removing the messy and occasionally smelly chemicals from the process. Slip your SD card into your computer, fire up Photoshop, and you can do a great deal of processing even to a JPEG to conform it to your vision. If you shoot RAW, you can do a great deal more with your images.

But little has changed for me: I will probably always be happiest when I nail the image in the camera, and then nail the development and scanning when I shoot film, so that I need do little or no post processing to get the image I want. Given my documentary style of photography, I’m looking to capture the scene as I saw it. When that’s not possible, I’ll settle for an image that looks like the scene could look that way in real life.

Meanwhile, I will keep sharing my work here for you to see. The folks in the Photography Club probably would have died and gone to heaven over having that option.

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Essay

Time has come today

Time has come today

Even though Indiana has observed Daylight Saving Time only since 2006, it still feels like just a couple years ago that we started. The spring-forward transition still hits me like a sack of cement each year. I’ll be groggy and grouchy for two weeks while I adjust.

Life was good when we stayed on standard time year round. I recommend it. We never changed our clocks, and we never had any interruptions to our circadian rhythms.

But in these 15 years that Indiana has observed Daylight Saving Time, I’ve come to enjoy how the sun sets well after 9 pm come June. The long sunny days are outstanding.

I’m sure the people of Bangor, Maine, 1,183 miles away from where I sit now and with whom Indiana shares a time zone, might feel differently. While I’m enjoying 9:30 sunsets, they are enjoying 4 am sunrises. I’m sure “enjoying” is too strong a word.

A couple of U.S. Senators have written the “Sunshine Protection Act of 2021,” which proposes to keep Daylight Saving Time permanent across the United States. I’m for it. But I’m sure the people of Bangor wish we’d go on standard time year round, so they can sleep in a little.

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Essay, Photography

The lifespan of a family photograph

It always makes me very sad to find old family photographs for sale in an antique store or at a flea market. I want to rescue them all. Space is tight in our home, so I refrain. I’m not sure what I’d do with them anyway. But it is a shame that those family memories lost their connection with the family that made them.

Me and my brother on Grandpa’s lawn tractor, 1971

When I was a kid, mom made all of our family photographs. She had a big 126 camera with a built-in battery-powered flash (quite unusual in the early 1970s). I think she bought it with green stamps! She used it through the late 1980s.

I’ve never seen most of those photographs, except for an album she made and gave me of my preschool years. She took the pictures, had the film developed and printed, put the prints in boxes, stored the boxes in the closet, and that was that. I asked about them a couple years ago and she said she had been working through them to get rid of duplicates and bad photographs. She also said that she was throwing away the negatives as she went. Ack! I asked her to cut that out, as I want to be able to scan those negatives someday.

My sons on my lawn tractor, 2001

But what of those images after my brother I are gone? Will my children care? They won’t even know most of the people in those photographs — cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents they’ve never met. One day I will show them those photographs, tell them my memories of the days they record, tell them about the family members in them. I hope they will appreciate those stories, and through them gain some feeling of connection to the family.

It’s the same for me with the few photographs my mother has of her family. I sometimes recognize my grandparents in them as young adults. A few other people in those photographs lived into my early childhood, and I’m told I met them, but I don’t remember them. The people in Mom’s family photographs are strangers to me. Mom knew them and loved them, and has sometimes told me her stories of them. I’m glad to know those stories, and I can try to remember those memories to share them with my children. But will they feel any connection to these distant ancestors who lived in another place and time? A tenuous connection at best, I feel certain. So, what of those photographs after my mother is gone?

But then there are moments like this. Not long ago my cousin Barbara shared a photograph of my great grandfather, John Eugene Grey, when he was a young man. I never knew him, my father said little about him, and I’ve seen few photographs of him. But when I saw this one, I was struck by how much my son Damion resembles him. That’s John Eugene on the left, and Damion on the right. Damion was 19 in his photograph, and I’d guess John Eugene was within a year or two of that age in his photograph.

Remarkable, isn’t it? Finding something like this is why it’s valuable to keep family photographs. It reminds us of where we came from, and gives us a full sense of our families through the generations.

But how do you keep generation after generation of family images — hundreds, perhaps thousands of them? In enough generations they’d snowball into a genuine storage problem.

I think they key is editing. Mom and I can sort through our family’s photos and keep a small but carefully chosen subset of them — ones that best show family memories and family members. We should write on each photograph what it depicts, where it was taken, and who’s in it and how they are related to us. This should deliver a manageable number of photographs for following generations to keep, and hopefully appreciate.

It will also be a big project, the kind that many families talk about but never get to. It’s why so many family photographs show up in flea markets and antique stores.

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Bee rider

Bee rider
Canon PowerShot S95
2011

What are your thoughts about photographing children on the street?

Before I moved out of Indianapolis, I went to the State Fair every summer. I enjoyed it in its own right, but I also enjoyed practicing street photography there. Lots of people bring cameras to the State Fair, so I never stood out. I prefer not to be noticed when I make photographs in public.

The midway rides offer good opportunities to catch faces full of emotion. Most of those people are children. I didn’t used to think anything of photographing children, but I’ve since changed my mind. I finally realized that if someone had photographed my children on the street when they were small, I wouldn’t have liked it one bit.

It comes from a fatherly feeling of needing to protect my children. But protect them from what? Someone on the street with a camera probably has positive intentions and is harmless — like me, by the way, if you ever see me on the street with a camera! I suppose some creeps might photograph children on the street for their own sick purposes, but I can’t imagine it’s the common case.

As an adult, if some stranger photographs me on the street and I don’t want to be photographed, I can do something about it. I can ask them to stop, or leave. I suppose I could tell them off, or punch them in the mouth, or call the police on them — probably not the best responses, but you get my point: there are things I can do.

Children lack that agency. When I aim my camera at them, they are at my mercy. So I don’t do it anymore. I will photograph scenes where children happen to be in it, along with adults. But I don’t make photographs like this one anymore.

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Essay, Photography

single frame: Bee rider

A girl riding at the State Fair.

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