Is depression a disease?

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What if depression is more than a chemical imbalance? What if depression and suicide are about despair?

By Jacque White Kochak

OK, there’s been an awful lot about depression and suicide in the news lately. That’s good. Maybe talking about these dark subjects will save some lives. 

I know something about depression and suicidal ideation. Here’s the thing, though. I don’t think I have a disease, and I’m concerned about the “medicalization” of depression. If depression is nothing more than a chemical imbalance, then of course the cure is medical – pop a pill to get those brain chemicals back in sync, right?

But what if depression is about more than a chemical imbalance? Humor me here. What if depression and suicide are about despair?

 I’ve battled spells of depression since my middle teens. I used to wonder whether someone could cut off an appendage, maybe a finger or an arm, and measure the pain. I know what it’s like to feel like I’m wading through molasses to get the simplest task done, and to struggle to get out of bed. I know what hopelessness feels like.

I’ve researched and devised elaborate suicide schemes. I guess I have the cred – and the medical diagnosis, actually. And yes, I’m probably biologically predisposed to depression, just as I’m biologically predisposed to sunburn. I ought to be medicated, I suppose.

But if depression and suicide are about despair, we have the uncomfortable task of looking at this problem in a different way. For one thing, we have to look at conditions in those states where suicide has increased by 30 to 40 percent in the last few years, and we have to look at our own lives and what we can aspire to change. Sometimes, we have to change our own attitudes, ways of looking at the world, and the messages we tell ourselves.

In a shocking recent report on suicides nationwide, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control found that more than half of those who died by suicide did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition. Relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems and job, money, legal or housing stresses often contributed, the CDC admitted.

Still, I keep reading personal accounts of people who have suffered from depression,     pleading, “I have an illness. Don’t tell me to ‘cheer up.’” I’m pretty sure the brand of tough love I’ve imposed on myself is going to get me branded as insensitive, but let me speak my piece.

When I read accounts of depression I say to myself, “But you do have some control.” I ask myself if these people may have experienced something different from me, and maybe they have. But any mental health professional would likely reaffirm my diagnosis. Many in my extended family take antidepressant medication. Some have been diagnosed as bipolar. At multiple times in my life, I would have hit all the high points on a checklist for major depressive disorder. It hasn’t been easy.

So how can I possibly say I’m not sick, and I have some control? On the “sick” part, I know (and most people would agree) that I’m a lot saner than some people I know. And how can something that is so common really be considered a disease, rather than part of the human condition?

Explaining the “control“ part is more difficult. I began grappling with depression at quite a young age, and it was severe. My life was affected, and I’m sure I would be in a different place than I am today if not for my life-or-death struggle with that black dog. The fight took all my energy and destroyed my confidence, and I don’t want to minimize the pain or the destructive effect on my life. But I survived, and over time I developed coping strategies.

I learned to look around me and realize there were a lot of people who had lives a lot worse than mine. I learned to put problems in perspective. I learned not to grapple too long with an insoluble problem, but instead move on. I learned not to ruminate, to take one step at a time, and see the positive. I learned not to think in black-and-white terms and not to berate myself with negative pronouncements about myself. I learned to identify what specifically was getting me down, and see whether there were solutions.

Here’s an example. At one point in my life my time was completely consumed by a man, and when that relationship ended I was destitute. Anyone would have been devastated, of course; the icing on the cake for a person like me, prone to depression, is that I was convinced I was radioactive, all the fault was mine, and no one would ever want to be my friend, let alone be more.

Then I looked around me and saw that almost everyone, no matter how obnoxious, seemed to have a friend. I realized I probably didn’t have to be alone, so the trick was figuring out where to meet people with whom I might have something in common. I put the plan into effect.

That’s a very, very simple example, and probably not a very good one. Since I have a tendency to severe depression, perhaps I should have sought pharmaceutical relief. At some point, however, I discovered my approach has a name, and that name is “cognitive behavioral therapy,” or CBT.

Briefly, CBT can help to restructure negative thought patterns, to recognize the source of depression, and to change the actions that exacerbate it. Study after study has shown that CBT is about as effective as antidepressants, and somehow, through trial and error, I mapped out my own approach.

Consider this: According to the National Institutes of Health, about 20 to 40 people out of a hundred people noticed improvement in their symptoms within six to eight weeks if they took a placebo. Among those who took an antidepressant, about 40 to 60 out of a hundred people saw improvement in six to eight weeks.

Read that again. If you take a placebo, you’ve got a 20 to 40 percent chance of improvement. If you take an antidepressant, you’ve got a 40 to 60 percent of improvement. Them ain’t great odds if you’re struggling with a demon.

This is not to completely discount medication, but I think of antidepressants as being something like aspirin. Aspirin helps the pain, but doesn’t cure the problem (which might not be a “disease”). One friend describes an antidepressant as a way to “take the edge off,” and another requires a mood stabilizer. Neither is a miracle cure, and neither is really enough. A will to change is also required.

Abe Lincoln is often raised up as an example of someone who struggled with severe, chronic depression, so it’s interesting that people usually forget what he supposedly said: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

That’s not the whole story, but it’s something to think about.

 

                                                                                   

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‘No son of mine is going to take charity’

President Trump’s proposal to provide $12 billion in aid to farmers hurt by his tariff policy has got me thinking about where I came from. Words from an old Highwaymen song keep coming to me, slightly altered: The wind blows hard across the Kansas plains, makes some people go insane. Makes still others pray for rain, that’s where I come from.

I’ve lived in western Kansas, eastern Kansas, the New York City metro area and the Deep South. Believe me when I tell you that people’s general character varies by region, and people from the heartland are definitely not like those in the East. I know these people, and I fear that President Trump and most of his advisers don’t. Maybe things have changed since I was young, but we’ll see.

Here’s an example. As generous as he was to others, my Grandpa White had very strict ideas about taking handouts from the government. When Uncle Joe, Daddy’s older brother, was discharged from the Navy as World War II ended, he sought to take advantage of government programs for returning veterans. Part of the GI Bill was the 52-20 Club, which directly paid veterans $20 a week for 52 weeks while they looked for work.

When Uncle Joe walked out of the house to go down and sign up for the benefit, Grandpa White was working in the yard. He asked his oldest son where he was headed, and Joe told him.

“Dad hesitated a moment and said, ‘If you do, all your clothes will be on the front steps when you get back. No son of mine is going to take charity,’” Uncle Joe remembers. “I knew the conversation was over and I said, ‘I won’t go.’”


The settlers who ventured out onto the plains were, by necessity, tough, resourceful and independent. They were able to change their expectations enough to build their first homes from sod chopped from the prairie, and to use buffalo chips for fuel.

 

The lesson stayed with Joe, and Daddy too, I guess. Uncle Joe says that when he turned 67 and went down to sign up for Social Security benefits, he was thankful he didn’t have to face his father—even though Social Security doesn’t fall into the category of a “handout.” And for all the years when I was growing up, times when we didn’t have enough to eat and couldn’t pay the rent, I’m sure it never occurred to my father to accept a government handout.

That self-reliance and disdain for anyone who takes a “handout” are ingrained in the people in my part of the country, the vast expanse of flyover country most people will never visit unless they drive west on I-70 for a vacation in Colorado. After that long trip, they’ll grimace and say the drive is awfully flat and very boring. I was born right in the middle of the United States, where the rolling prairies rise to the High Plains, inching upwards toward the continental divide at the summit of the Rockies. People in the more populous states to the east and west tend to dismiss us, repeating “Kaan-sas?” with mocking incredulity when we tell them where we’re from. That, or they immediately ask about Dorothy and Toto from Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

The treeless, windy North American steppes were the last part of the growing United States to be settled, because the landscape was so alien and barren to a people whose sensibilities were shaped by the wooded contours of first Europe and then the eastern United States. As an editor from West Virginia once told me, it feels like there’s no place to hide. The first time my eight-year-old son accompanied me to visit my parents in western Kansas, his initial reaction was terror at the immense sky and the slanting shadow of a rainstorm in the distance. His second reaction was to ask why they didn’t build some buildings since there was so much empty space.

I find most people imagine that the people who settled the region were losers pushed out of the more comfortable environs to the east. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The settlers who ventured out onto the plains were, by necessity, tough, resourceful and independent. They were able to change their expectations enough to build their first homes from sod chopped from the prairie, and to use buffalo chips for fuel. The luxury of clapboard homes would come later, when the railroads shipped in wood.

The natives joke that you’ll know a Kansan because his grandmother drives 70 miles per hour in a snowstorm. In the Deep South they try not to drive at all in a snowstorm, and that’s not surprising. But they’re also reluctant to drive in New York City, where snow is common. I think that tells you something.

When we lived in the New York suburbs, a little lake up the street froze over every winter, metamorphosing into a natural ice-skating rink. The sport’s popularity was a revelation to me, because in Kansas the wind is too cold and too piercing to ever enjoy outdoor activities. I was awed to learn that below-freezing weather isn’t particularly unpleasant when the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and there’s no such thing as a wind-chill factor.

School tended to be canceled with only the slightest dusting of snow, however, and one snow-day my young son wanted to invite a friend to ice skate. “Oh honey, none of these mothers will drive in this weather,” I cautioned. Joe called his friend Will anyway, and a half hour later Will’s mother turned up on my doorstep, her son in tow.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” I ventured.

“No—Western Slope, Colorado,” she proudly replied. I nodded in recognition of a kindred soul.

My friends in the Deep South avoided driving in the snow because of lack of experience. In New York, however, the attitude was different. People seemed to wonder how Mother Nature dared to be so impertinent. In the Kansas of my youth, by contrast, people had few illusions about their importance or their right to expect anything of the weather. They didn’t think they were entitled to anything, ever, and so were thankful when their hard work brought modest rewards.

My roots twist deep into the black prairie soil, and I’ve got dust in my blood. I was born a Kansan, and Kansas is the reddest of the red states. The Big First—the sprawling congressional district that encompasses western Kansas—is one of the most conservative districts in the entire country. These are the people liberals love to hate, and by all rights I should be one of them. 

I’m not, but I think I’m beginning to understand why rural people don’t trust those big city folks and their self-serving plans to fix all their problems. Indeed I do.

— Jacqueline White Kochak

Remembering the World Trade Center

This was written one day after 9/11 and published two days later. I think it is worth remembering the raw anguish of that terrible day.


By Jacqueline Kochak

I want you to see the World Trade Center through my eyes.

I lived in metropolitan New York City for 17 years. My children were born there and grew up exploring lower Manhattan. I want you to see the World Trade Center through their eyes.

To understand the importance of this landmark to the city—we always called it “the City,” with a capital C—you have to understand the geography of Manhattan.

Manhattan lies at the center of a vast metropolitan area, stretching west into New Jersey, north into the foothills of the Catskills and east onto Long Island. The other four boroughs are congested and heavily ethnic, full of neat small homes bursting with barely assimilated Italian, Polish, Jewish and Irish families, along with a smattering of Germans and a little bit of every other nationality on earth, just for spice.

If you’re a fan of old movies, think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, not Woody Allen in Manhattan.


I hear that Liberty Park, where we once boarded the ferry from Jersey, is a morgue now. Those rude cabbies, Americans after all, are ripping out their back seats to carry bodies to the ferry.


The island of Manhattan is different. Manhattan is the city of our dreams, the city we love to hate, where skyscrapers rise to breathtaking heights and green space is limited to a generous series of parks. The streets are clogged with honking cabbies, trucks belching exhaust fumes and exasperated businessmen trying to get across town.

Manhattan is raucous yet refined, bumptious yet big-hearted. This is a young, vigorous city that has welcomed immigrants since its birth. Those immigrants have produced offspring just assimilated enough to move to the suburbs, and their descendants have percolated out into the rest of the country.

Every language on earth can be heard on the streets of Manhattan. You’re lucky if you catch a cabbie who speaks adequate English, but the street vendors selling pretzels, Nathan’s hot dogs, knishes and exotic delicacies are priceless.

The city itself is a patchwork of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct personality. To the north, along the East River, is the tony Upper East Side, home to the wealthy. Across vast Central Park is the funkier Upper West Side, home to the up-and-coming. Below Central Park, the broad boulevards of a great metropolis sweep southward. At the heart of Midtown is Times Square.

After running straight as an arrow from Harlem south, the boulevards lose their confidence somewhere below 14th Street and prove no match for the tourists’ favorite haunt, Greenwich Village, or its grimier cousin, the East Village. Lower still, there’s little planning in Chinatown or the Lower East Side—and stay out of Alphabet City, locals will warn you.

The massive bulk of the World Trade Center’s twin towers once loomed over lower Manhattan, shading the world’s financial nerve center, Wall Street. The buildings were so enormous, so dazzling, so overwhelming that only American wealth—and American hubris—could have dreamed them and built them.

Here, the American colossus flexed its muscle. American business ruled the world—still does, I guess—and the World Trade Center was a shrine to newness, bigness, brashness and brawn. Underneath the giant towers, the subways converged at a major station. Above, several floors of shops and restaurants comprised the ultimate shopping center. Above that rose floor after floor of offices occupied by the best and brightest of the business world.

The top of one tower was a favorite destination for tourists and school groups. I can’t forget the clusters of schoolchildren who made regular pilgrimages up to the observation deck, to “ooh” and “aah” at the spectacular skyline.

The air in lower Manhattan is salt-tinged, because the island juts into New York Harbor where the Statue of Liberty raises her beacon. I hear that Liberty Park, where we once boarded the ferry from Jersey, is a morgue now. Those rude cabbies, Americans after all, are ripping out their back seats to carry bodies to the ferry.

People keep comparing this to Pearl Harbor. They’re wrong in a way, because the casualties are much higher and they’re civilians. They’re right in a way, too, because Pearl Harbor woke up a sleeping giant. Once again we are feeling our power.

 

My cousin Paula

On Sunday mornings, strange thoughts waft through my cluttered mind. Oh, the blood (and DNA) will tell!


Jacqueline White Kochak

I do my best thinking about people when I’m sitting in a choir stall at St. Michael’s Catholic Church on a Sunday morning, gazing out at hundreds of mostly white faces. I’m euphoric as my choir mates and I sing, but then my mind wanders. I know I should be minding Father Bill’s pithy homily, but the temptation to ruminate about people and their foibles, with such a wealth of examples laid out before me, is irresistible.

I watch a trim, handsome widower as he links arms with a young woman who once attended Mass with her former husband and their young son, and I wonder how the transition came about. I look for my friends. I wonder why that skinny teenager is dressed as though she is going to the beach. And often, the thought that wafts through my cluttered mind is that I’m more closely related to Paula Whatley Matabane, a “black” woman, than I am to any of these parishioners.

Most of the people in my church are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Polish and Italian and Irish and German immigrants from Europe, the Catholic refuse that washed up on America’s shores. I am separated from these people by many, many generations, and we share little but pale skin. My family, on the other hand, has been here since the 1600s and early 1700s, fanning out from Virginia and moving west.

I am separated from Paula by a mere five generations, and my mother is even closer to her—and my grandmother closer still. We both know the sad history that made us distant cousins, and that is another thing I ruminate upon. How could I, in my amnesiac present, not know that my family owned slaves? Many slaves, apparently.

I’ve seen their names in my forebears’ wills, parceling out Sally to a daughter, Tom to a son, sometimes with specific instructions that one not be sold, but that her “increase” be divided among the heirs. The passage of many years and many miles is part of the reason my family has been blessed with amnesia. Otherwise, the understanding might be unbearable.

Editor’s note: The artwork is from my daughter’s current show in Miami. Paula and I are writing down our thoughts about our new relationship, so I might share a few of them here. You can learn more about Natalya Kochak’s project here. And here is an interesting article on the subject of skin color. 

Football, cheap grace and the banality of evil

I am deeply offended that Kid Rock wears the American flag as a cheap, in-your-face costume. I am not offended that American football players ‘take the knee’ to protest what they perceive as injustice.


I’ve never been interested in football. My head is full of every kind of trivia except sports trivia. Until this last weekend I was only vaguely aware of a guy named Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling protest, and my impression was that perhaps he was somewhat melodramatic and self-promotional.

Then Donald Trump brought himself down to the state where I live, Alabama. In a rambling speech, the President of the United States mused, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when someone disrespects our flag to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired.”

I was shocked, and ashamed. On Sunday, other football players followed Kaepernick’s example. Some of them explained why, in eloquent terms. Their actions ignited a firestorm of controversy, including on my Facebook page. One casual friend sanctimoniously posted, “Memo to the millionaires of the NFL from Americans who understand the price of freedom: Fallen Vet Lives Matter. That’s what the flag represents to all who have been handed one after it was draped over the remains of their loved one.”

For the life of me, I couldn’t see what the protest had to do with “fallen vets,” and I’m willing to bet she’s never known a single one herself. To me, football players kneeling quietly didn’t seem disrespectful, but I get it. I understand that for some, the protests were inappropriate. Still, “fallen vets”?

Being the mouthy troublemaker that I am, I posted a picture of an unkempt, stringy-haired Kid Rock dressed in—you guessed it—an American flag. “Tell that to Kid Rock,” I said, noting that he had been invited to the White House.

“I don’t know a thing about Kid Rock, but if I see someone clothed in a flag or having a flag draped over their dead body residing in a coffin, I think ’That person is passionate about the survival of this nation and what our founders stood for,’” she responded.

Come again?

I was dumbfounded. Foul-mouthed Kid Rock, who used the “f” word in announcing his interest in running for the U.S. Senate, who starred in a 1999 sex tape, who has used the Confederate flag as an on-stage prop, was “passionate about the survival of this nation and what our founders stood for.”


I know my acquaintance isn’t evil, but her willingness to pretend Kid Rock was somehow admirable while excoriating a bunch of kneeling, mostly black football players was deeply disconcerting.


I am deeply offended that Kid Rock wears the American flag as a cheap, in-your-face costume. I am not offended that American football players “take the knee” to protest what they perceive as injustice.

So who is the patriot? I’ll put my credentials up against hers any day of the week. My ancestors fought in nearly every war in this country’s history, including the American Revolution. In fact, some of them brought their anti-English sentiments and penchant for independence with them when they were transported as Scottish prisoners of war.

Some claim that one of my forebears, an Overmountain Man by the name of Samuel Shannon, fired the shot that killed Major Patrick Ferguson at the pivotal Battle of King’s Mountain in the American Revolution. Another ancestor worked as a surveyor with George Washington, then joined the young general at his request when the spirit of rebellion spread. My family were the rough frontiersmen who pushed west so my friend’s family could immigrate many years later and live in comfort. They fought on both sides in the uncivil Civil War, and in almost every war since.

And who respects veterans more? My grandfathers were veterans, and my father. So are both of my brothers, my sister-in-law, my nephew and my son. I deeply resent the suggestion that I am somehow less patriotic because I don’t agree with people who are promoting what I believe to be a false narrative, who have cynically co-opted the flag and fallen heroes as their own symbols and told me I don’t belong in their club.

These super-patriots, without exception, identify themselves as “conservative,” and spit out “liberal” as if it were a dirty word. They’ve also frequently donned the cloak of religion, and that brings me to the idea of cheap grace, grace without paying a price.

The grace of some of these “football patriots” is cheap and easy; they may be Christians who have been forgiven, but they are not Christians compelled to examine their own lives or follow the narrow path of loving one another, even when it is difficult.

They’re comfortable, wrapped in their flags. And that brings me to Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil. In writing about Adolf Eichmann, Arendt described his absolute and thoughtless symbiosis with Nazi norms, which allowed him to commit unspeakable evil as the man who managed the logistics of transporting Jews and others to their deaths. Within those warped norms, Eichmann was deserving of respect and approval.

I know my acquaintance isn’t evil, but her willingness to pretend Kid Rock was somehow admirable while excoriating a bunch of kneeling, mostly black football players was deeply disconcerting. To protect her worldview, she was able to distort reality, moving pieces around until they fit in a way she wanted them to fit. She needed to pretend that somehow the President was justified in his statement—no matter how offensive—and therefore the football players had to be bad.

What could be worse than disrespecting fallen veterans? Never mind that not one of the protesters ever suggested such a motive, and some are veterans themselves.

For that brief Facebook moment, I believe my acquaintance abandoned the critical thought and questioning mind that are fundamental to authentic morality. And for that brief moment, I understood that unquestioning allegiance and a sense of righteous zeal can be an ugly combination. I glimpsed a place I’m afraid to go and a person I’m afraid to know.

Editor’s note: So yeah, I overthink things. My acquaintance is, in fact, a good and caring person whose unthinking comment sent me to a bad place. Most of the conservative Christians I know are kind, sincere people, and so are most of the liberal Christians of my acquaintance, as well as the non-Christians. I had a bad day.

The Ghost

By Jacque White Kochak

A ghost has haunted my dreams for more than 30 years. He is evanescent and ephemeral, in the way of dream figures. Unlike most ghosts, however, today he exists somewhere, most likely balding, with a pot belly.

Long ago, I knew him well. His name was Tim—still is, I guess. He was a frat boy with a houseful of Beta brothers all bound for law and medical school. His daddy was a doctor, and the golden boy was on the same track. He had a loving family, with two sisters, a brother…

Read more at purpleclover.com

My brothers were a handful

By Jacque White Kochak

It’s been a scorching Kansas summer day, 103 degrees in the shade in the days before air conditioning. You can’t get in the car wearing shorts because the vinyl seat is too hot, and you can’t walk barefoot on asphalt or cement or you’ll be sorry. If you are out in the country, you’ll see water shimmering where the highway meets the horizon, but you know it’s a mirage.

Better to be outside than indoors, though, because in western Kansas there’s always wind, sending tumbleweeds scuttling down the side of the road. I’m not talking about a timid little breeze, flirting with the treetops. I’m talking wind, always wind, a familiar companion like a lullaby that eases me to sleep at night.


‘My twin brothers were like that, always with their fearless shenanigans. One time I came home from school at Sunnyside Elementary to learn they had shimmied up the television antenna by the side of the house, climbing as high as the porch roof.’ 


I’m alone in the backyard. I’ve used a slender tree branch to draw a circle in a patch of dirt beside the sidewalk that leads to the back porch, and I’m sitting inside the circle with my skinny legs crossed. This is my teepee, and I’m an Indian maiden. It’s getting towards suppertime, and Mother is in the kitchen cooking. Probably biscuits with dried beef gravy, because we ate a lot of that in those days.

Daddy is away, as usual, and my sister Kelly and brother Steve must be inside playing. Mother comes out on the screened back porch, pokes her head out the door, and asks, “Jacque, have you seen the twins?”

No, I haven’t, so she shakes her head as she wipes her hands on her apron. “Well, you better look for them. Those boys are going to give me gray hair,” she says.

So I unfold myself from my teepee and gallop across the yard to look behind the old outhouse. I crawl through the hole in the wire fence behind the outhouse and search around the rusty, decrepit farm equipment behind the barn. We are trained to stay away from the ramshackle chicken house and the barn’s interior, so I don’t check there. I don’t figure they’d dare go inside.

Deciding they must not be outside, I move my search indoors. I look upstairs, systematically checking each one of the four bedrooms and their closets. I return to Mother’s tiny kitchen, where Bruce and Brent have been known to race ants across the counter.

“Mama, I can’t find them,” I say tentatively, knowing I should have been watching them.

Consternation etches her pretty face, then anger. I cringe, because I know how my mother’s anger can escalate, culminating in a session with the pink plastic hairbrush, its bristles bent from contact with our bottoms and other tender parts. She’s too worried to waste time on me, though. My brothers are a handful, and there’s no telling where they’ve gotten to.

The mystery is soon solved. The doorbell rings, and a policeman looms in the front door, blocking out the bright late-afternoon sun. Bruce and Brent are in tow, their faces dirty and their bright blue eyes intent as they gaze at my flustered mother. They contentedly lick chocolate ice cream cones, with just as much ice cream dripping onto their t-shirts as makes it into their mouths.

“Mommy, wook!” says Bruce as he shows her his melting ice cream. They are about 3 years old, and their speech is a little hard to understand. In fact, they have their own language between them, a language that nobody else can understand.

The tall, kindly officer explains that the boys turned up at the drive-in restaurant located a block away and across four-lane South Second Avenue. I know he is kindly because, after the bemused owner called the law, the policeman showed up and bought my errant brothers ice cream before he brought them home. I see this as patently unfair, because they got in trouble, tempted fate by crossing a busy street, and received a reward for their daring.

My twin brothers were like that, always with their fearless shenanigans. One time I came home from school at Sunnyside Elementary to learn they had shimmied up the television antenna by the side of the house, climbing as high as the porch roof. When they were younger my mother tried attaching them to the clothesline with dog leashes, but they undid the latches.

As teenagers, Bruce and Brent often preferred to sleep on the floor, and they made their own bows and arrows from Osage orange, common on the Great Plains. The big green fruit, bigger than a softball, is known as a hedge apple because the Osage orange, like the cottonwood, is common in the windbreaks that stopped the wind from stripping the fields. The heavy, fine-grained yellow wood is prized for tool handles, fence posts—and bows. In the early 19th century, a good Osage bow was worth a horse and a blanket.

Don’t ask me how my brothers knew this, but they knew a lot of things that didn’t make sense for them to know. Once Brent told me that he and Bruce were reincarnated Indians, and I half believed him. Now, he says he doesn’t remember saying any such thing.

As the oldest child, I was usually nominally in charge when we played in the yard. Once, Kelly and Steve got into a giant ant pile, which left them screaming and crying as the ants stung them. Mother, enraged, demanded to know why I had let them get into the ant pile.

“And why did you get in the ant pile?” she also demanded to know of them. Kelly and Steve told her Bruce and Brent were playing in the ant pile, so she asked them why they would do such a thing.

“The ants are our friends,” the 4-year-olds replied. And the truth is that the ants were their friends, never stinging them—just one more thing I can’t explain about my brothers.

Steve’s last days

I didn’t know my brother was gay until close to the time he died. When AIDS stole his life, I was advised not to tell.


By Jacque White Kochak

When my brother died of AIDS, I was advised not to tell anyone. My adviser was a parent at my son’s school. A well-meaning pediatrician, he was short and round, with glasses and a single tuft of hair on his balding head. I figured he knew what he was talking about, so I took his advice.

I was living in the suburbs of New York City, and the year was 1995. The AIDS epidemic had settled in; at that point, some 500,000 cases had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta…

Read more at PurpleClover.com

Painting by Natalya Kochak

The memory that haunts me

This column by Gillis Morgan was first printed several years ago in The Auburn Villager and won first place for commentary that year in the Alabama Press Association Better Newspaper Contest. I am reprinting the column in honor of Gillis’ receiving a 2016 Auburn Journalism Honors award this month.


By Gillis Morgan

Sometimes I can think of more reasons not to write about a heavy thought or a dark memory, and I have found that not to write about something is simply a way of running away from it.

But it always catches up with you.morgan

So right now I have decided to write about the darkness of a memory I have been running away from for 58 years.


The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes.


It was in June of 1952, about a week or so after my high school graduation from Evergreen High in south Alabama.

My plan was to join the Navy, get the GI Bill and then attend college to study journalism. My father was lobbying for chemical engineering, but we would have more time to think about that after four years in the Navy.

“You’ve got about two weeks before you join the Navy, so you have time to get a job,” Dad said. “Try the bus station. They’re always looking for somebody to pump gas.”

Dad was always saying that “a man without a job is not a man,” so I got the 8-to-midnight shift at the Greyhound bus station pumping gas. A character named Slim was the night manager. He was over six feet tall, lean and wiry, and had tattoos, which back then left a man’s character open for question.

I had been there a week, when about 11 p.m. on a Friday night the bus from Montgomery roared in, air brakes pumping and loaded with passengers. Evergreen served as the rest stop between Montgomery, 94 miles on north on U.S. Highway 31, and Mobile 113 miles south.

As the passengers were unloading to make their way to the station café, I was walking away from the pumps. Slim was standing outside the café door, and I was walking toward him when a young black man got off the bus, stretching and yawning his way to the café door.

I saw Slim reach into his pocket to grip a leather scabbard that held his ticket puncher.

At the black man approached the door, Slim snatched out the scabbard in his right hand and then slapped the young man on the left side of his mouth, and I could hear Slim saying something but I could not make out the words because of the roar of the bus motor.

The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes. As he tried to stand, Slim charged again and slapped at him with the scabbard as the man backed up and began to stumble his way back to the open bus door. He got on the bus. The bus driver and the passengers were still inside the café.

Slim opened the café door and went inside. There was no one else out front.

I looked at the bus, and I turned away. I didn’t check out from my shift. I just started walking home, all the while thinking: “I didn’t do a damn thing.”

All these years, and I still feel guilty.

§

I never told anyone about what happened that night at the bus station—not my folks, not anyone.

After I joined the Navy, went to college, majored in journalism and started working, I never told anyone. Even when I was covering the Selma-to-Montgomery march I never told anyone.

It was only after I came to Auburn in 1977 that I told someone.

This past week was the first time I have ever written about it, and I rewrote it at least three times.

I never saw Slim again. Nor in all my visits to my hometown did anyone mention that night. I don’t know if anyone else knew about it.

And I figured the young man who got attacked then got back on the bus just went on to Mobile or Pensacola. It was 1952, and I don’t think he would have gotten much attention with his story.

Was I scared of what I had seen? Of Slim? I think I was scared, but I didn’t run home that night. I walked.

And after thinking about it while writing about it I think what I felt was mostly shock. And I have always felt guilt and pain. A whole bunch of guilt and pain.

After I decided to send this in to Jacque, my editor, I sent a copy to a friend who grew up in Evergreen but now lives in Huntsville. I asked him if I could include his letter and use his name—James Daniels.

It is a beautiful letter, and it made me feel better. Here is the letter.

§

Gilly: Thanks for that painful, heart-rending story. I know that, like all of us in our younger years in older times, you suffered from shame at your own inaction. But also, as we all did, there was the inertia of the soul that kept us from reacting in accordance with our conscience in black-white relations.

It was just the way we all were, like our parents, like our neighbors, like our friends, like the whole white South…and yes, like the blacks themselves, just bogged in our cultural swamp. As youths in that overwhelming noxious atmosphere of white adult prejudice, we felt the absolute helplessness of any overt response that would be counter to the norm.

I, too, saw acts similar to the Slim incident on a number of occasions, even among my own kin. And, of course, I was hypersensitive to the constant lesser incidents, where I did not speak up or express my own evolving sentiments. I don’t excuse myself, Gilly, for not acting, for not standing up for my own conscience.

And, today, I don’t dwell on regrets and self-flagellation for my guilt. Yet, like you, I still can’t erase from memory such childhood failures to protest prejudice. But I find some solace in the fact that I did at times at least raise objection to my parents and some few adults.

And I know that in my adult years I have stood up for my convictions on a number of occasions. Of course, the climate of change and the protection of law had become prevalent by the time I started openly holding my stand.

Gilly, we need never regret nor dwell in self-condemnation for the timidities of our youth. Be proud, good friend, that in the soggy, foggy environment of our birth and childhood that we saw the light of right, anyway, and threaded our way through childhood thickets and found the dry hummocks through swamps of our youth toward the brightness. And that, today, though shadows still fall all around us, we live in the light.

And don’t forget that “the child is father of the man.” And you are today a product of all that you experienced as a child and a youth—the good, the bad, the indifferent. And, be grateful to the Creator for the cards he dealt you. You have played them well, my friend.

Now, my children, my sermon next week will be on sin and all the pitfalls therein!

The Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council presented the annual awards during a luncheon at the AU Hotel and Conference Center on Sept. 9. Also receiving awards were Rick Bragg, David Housel, Philip Marshall and Ken Hare.
Artwork by Natalya Kochak

 

You can go to war, meet your ancestors and even play Indian at the local library

By Jacque White Kochak

(This article first appeared in the Auburn Villager)

I’m a nerd, and proud of it. God bless Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish industrialist and philanthropist whose largesse built more than 2,500 libraries in the U.S., Great Britain and Ireland.

Thanks to Mr. Carnegie, I was able to spend long, hot summer afternoons in the cool, domed Dodge City Public Library, located on the western Kansas plains. My child’s body rarely traveled past the stockyard and feedlot at the edge of town, but my mind was free to explore foreign countries, spend a season with a Bedouin or see the world through the eyes of a French madame. My goal was to read every book in that little library.

I have always said that if I suffered a mid-life crisis, I would disappear into the bowels of a library to study ninth century marriage customs or some such esoterica.

And God bless former Auburn University President Ralph Brown Draughon, the moving force behind construction of the Auburn University libraries that bear his name. The libraries—there are several—boast combined collections of more than 2.7 million volumes as well as 2.6 government documents, 2.5 million microforms and some 148,000 maps. The libraries also receive more than 35,000 current periodicals, many available online. And the libraries provide access to more than 227 electronic databases.

I have always said that if I suffered a mid-life crisis, I would disappear into the bowels of a library to study ninth century marriage customs or some such esoterica. And this is the place to do it.

I tend to become enamored of a subject and research it thoroughly. Where else can you find the Colonial Records of South Carolina volumes relating to Indian affairs? I have perused the pages of a master’s thesis about the history of the old Drake Infirmary and wrestled with microfilm to read issues of the Opelika Daily News from the early 1900s. You’d be surprised what constituted news in those days.

I’ve even fended off the advances of a 30-something graduate student. I was carrying a volume about South Carolina’s old 96 District, and I guess the fellow—a history student with a passion for the Revolutionary War—thought he’d found a soul mate.

If genealogy is your thing, check out the archives in the basement. The staff was quite helpful when I begged them to find mention of my great-uncle, an early barnstorming pilot, in their collection of aviation memorabilia (unfortunately they weren’t successful).

The building is imposing, parking is difficult and townspeople may feel they’re not welcome. That’s not true. All bibliophiles are the same, if you ask me. Rich or poor, young or old, they’re all seekers.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got someplace to go. James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokees is calling my name.