WHEN THINGS GO SOUTH

There’s a song by Lori McKenna called “God Never Made One of Us to Be Alone.”

On the one hand, she’s probably right. Humans are social animals after all.

On the other hand, as a lifelong introvert with a deep appreciation for solitude, well, I wonder.

An excellent essay in the New Yorker this week examines the eternal tug-of-war between isolation and integration. In the context of three years of pandemic, the writer Ian Frazier surveys cabin fever both as a psychological phenomenon and as a genre of literature, film, and journalism. He also recounts his own long-ago Walden Pond experiment at a cabin in Montana. And he makes the case that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine stemmed at least partly from personal isolation during Covid lockdown.

For my own part, I’ve always preferred my own company. True, my all-time happiest moments were with — and because of — others. But for all the mundane everyday stuff, I generally select One Player.

I’m sure there are various reasons, including difficulty in setting personal boundaries, fear of intimacy, issues around control. There is also a lifelong habit of self-consciousness around others, which can be tiring.

But even with a strong default preference for solitude, I have a special carve-out for a certain type of conversation — talking with someone in actual crisis.

Usually it’s a person I know well. Other times it’s an acquaintance or even a stranger.

This is not to say that I’m particularly generous (I’m not) or that I greatly help the person in distress (I don’t). It’s more to observe that this particular type of conversation doesn’t leave me feeling drained. It brings out the best in me actually.

Maybe I picked up good listening skills as a young newspaper reporter or later on as a criminal defense attorney. But I think I was probably drawn to those jobs in the first place because I was already good at listening.

One day I was talking to an older, more experienced colleague at a newspaper in Maine. He said he was dreading his next phone call. He was about to call the mother of a man who had died in a confrontation with police. The call was to get the mom’s reaction to a toxicology report showing high levels of, well, whatever it was — alcohol, drugs, maybe both.

I offered to make the phone call myself.

My colleague was taken aback. He was in his early 50s. He had already worked at bigger and better newspapers than I ever would. I was only 22.

I quickly clarified that I didn’t want a byline or anything like that. I would just feed him a paragraph or two.

He didn’t take me up on the offer, but he was curious. How would I handle the call?

For starters, I said the mother might actually appreciate the call. Police likely weren’t communicating with her due to the contentiousness of the death. At bare minimum, better for her know in advance what the toxicology report said before seeing it in the next day’s paper.

Basically I just reframed the phone call. And I said something to the effect of, ‘The worst thing in her life already happened. You calling a couple weeks later, giving her this info, seeing whether she wants to comment … it might be annoying, she might get angry or sad. But compared to her son dying, it doesn’t rate.’

This reporter was a genuinely nice man, not competitive by nature. He and I got along well. He got along with everybody actually. He made the call. It went pretty much just like we’d talked about. The woman thanked him for calling. And then he came over and thanked me.

Maybe my suggestions helped. But really when I offered to place the call, I think I already just knew I was good at this one particular thing — talking to a person in difficult circumstances.

Even at the beginning of my news career, I found I could do that type of interview in a calm, respectful, sort of dispassionate way. I didn’t beat around the bush or pretend everything was okay. I didn’t give advice or try to console. I just let the other person lead the conversation. If I was curious about something, I went ahead and asked it. In those interviews I was older than my years.

I found that I was less judgmental with strangers than with friends, loved ones, or myself. Just by temperament, it was easy for me to see other points of view. No matter how complicated or gnarly a mess the person had landed in, I could always sort of imagine myself having done the same thing.

After the posting in Maine, I moved to a newspaper in central Florida. One Sunday morning I went to the county jail to try to interview a man who’d been locked up overnight for murder. He was accused of shooting a man to death at a roadside barbecue restaurant.

Usually an effort to interview an accused killer went nowhere. But on this day the man not only agreed to talk to me, he told me the whole story and admitted to the killing.

Not that there had been much doubt of his guilt. There were plenty of witnesses to the shooting. And I tell the story here not to brag. In fact in this particular case, I feel the opposite; I feel embarrassed and ashamed.

Today I recognize that there was a big power differential between the two of us that day. The accused was an elderly, low-income African-American man with little formal education. He lived in a rural area and likely had little experience with reporters. He was probably fighting the mother of all hangovers that morning. In a frank, rueful way he told me the whole story. He regretted the shooting, he said. He wished he could go back in time.

I listened quietly and took it all down. I put it in the next day’s newspaper. The article wasn’t sensational. It sought to lay out events as accurately and objectively as possible, taking into account not only the man’s version but those of witnesses and the victim’s loved ones. Still, I realized that my skilled listening at the jail had produced an article which unquestionably worsened the man’s legal exposure. If nothing else, the article weakened his position in future plea negotiations.

I wish I had told the man, ‘Look, I’m supposed to ask for an interview, but you really shouldn’t talk to anyone till you get a lawyer.’

It wasn’t my job to give him legal advice or walk away from a scoop. But on a human level, as a question of basic decency, I wish I had.

I also wish I’d stopped right then and thought, ‘Hold on, maybe I should be going to law school.’ I didn’t end up doing that until 10 years later. By then I really saw the world as a reporter, not as an advocate. There’s a big difference.

One notable exception to my alleged listening skills was in relation to my children. Especially when they were younger, if they were in distress, it was hard for me not to slide into fear, judgment, or fix-it mode.

A final anecdote, from my very first newspaper job.

When I was 19, I worked as a summer intern at the Cheboygan Daily Tribune in northern Michigan. At the end of the internship, I got a visit at my desk from the newspaper’s legendary longtime reporter Gordon ‘Scoop’ Turner, who was still filing stories daily at age 82.

He said that in his opinion my best story of the summer was my interview with a woman whose baby had been born with the intestines outside the body.

I had written so much other stuff that summer. I’d written about city government, local sports, a Bob Dylan concert, scuba divers exploring a shipwreck in the Great Lakes. I was more proud of those stories. But Turner singled out the one about the mother and child. He said the article had a lot of heart.

I remember my afternoon with the woman and her baby. The apartment was hot and stuffy. Back then I thought reporters needed to dress up for work. So I was overdressed and just physically uncomfortable after the photographer left and the interview went on longer and longer. But even in my discomfort, I was curious about this medical condition I’d never heard of, about the surgery to try to correct it.

Sitting in my sweaty clothes, filling up the pages of my notepad, I was astonished by the composure of the woman. She patiently answered all my questions even as she tended to the post-operative infant.

She was a single mom. She wasn’t much older than I was. But in life experience, in terms of setbacks, she was a lot older. On top of that, she was dealing with this highly inexperienced, sweaty mess of a reporter who meant well but was brand-new to the job. She’d probably been expecting an old pro. She’d probably expected the 82-year-old Turner.

Sometimes I wonder what the ideal situation is for me nowadays, a middle-aged hermit who in a pinch — in a legitimate crisis — can be a good listener.

A friend suggested I go back to school yet again, this time to become a therapist. But as a general matter I feel drained by social interaction, by everyday conversation. I can rise to the occasion in an actual crisis. but all the typical day-to-day bullshit, I’d be no good at it. I’d be distracted and easily annoyed by repetition or complaining.

Plus, I’d have to learn a whole new set of professional rules, buy insurance, work in an office. I prefer to be outdoors as much as possible nowadays.

It reminds me of Lucy’s therapy booth in the old Peanuts cartoons. Maybe if I changed those trees to pine trees and put the booth way up in the mountains somewhere.

I’m not sure what the hours would be or how people would find me. But I wouldn’t charge a penny. Nor would I slap the conversations on the front of the next day’s newspaper. One thing I did learn from being a lawyer was strict adherence to confidentiality.

A conversation goes better when you can honestly say, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to help you, but I’ll keep to myself anything you tell me.”

At my booth way up in the mountains, I think the doctor would be OUT most of the time. But in cases of real emergency? He’d be totally in.

In other news, here are garden updates from the last couple weeks

  • I rescued an alarmingly long Southern alligator lizard which had fallen in the pool. It recovered fine and scooted back to the dead leaves beneath the bushes.
  • I rescued a bunch of bees and flies from the pool, plus two ladybugs.
  • I found an abadoned egg which appeared to have fallen from a nest in the pine tree out front. I decided against trying to incubate it myself using a heat lamp. It was depressing to realize this one would never hatch. But at least it will provide food for some other animal, whether rat, raccoon, or eventually just ants and flies.
RIP
  • A new hummingbird dive-bomber materialized in the backyard. But this time I realized exactly what was going on, that there must be a nest nearby. Indeed there was. As I write, the mother is sitting on eggs in her tiny teacup of a nest just off the back porch. I’m not posting a photo, though. The nest is in a darkened recess of leaves and flowers, and the camera on my iPhone8 sucks. I don’t want to disturb the mom by trying to get closer. She already watches me closely even at a distance.
  • Some more pictures:

About Kit Troyer

Kit Troyer lives in Los Angeles. He worked previously as a newspaper reporter and a criminal defense attorney. For the last 15 years, he has been a stay-at-home dad. But that gig is running out. Kids will soon be moving out and moving on.
This entry was posted in UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to WHEN THINGS GO SOUTH

  1. What a fabulous read Kit, and an amazing history. “a lifelong habit of self-consciousness around others, which can be tiring” – I totally get that! Love the garden photos too.

  2. Dwight Hyde says:

    Love your honesty and growth😊

  3. Ann Coleman says:

    I really loved your honesty in this post! We all have times when we look back and wish we had done something differently, but I can understand why you continued with the interview with the man charged in murder. It was your job, so you did it. We don’t think about the after-effects until later. And honestly, I think being a good listener is an asset in almost any field!

  4. Great post! I think you will be successful at whatever you decide to do.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. How Zen of you to rescue reptiles and bugs! You have a great eye for Nature. 🌞

  6. david yarnell says:

    Your comments always touch me….complete honesty with no trace of braggadocio. The world needs more of you and your attitude …. Please keep on writing it is important to us………………….As for me, I’m on a slow downward spiral, weakening physically …..I don’t let on to Toni. Like you, I feel better hanging out with myself indulging in pleasurable pursuits of reading and watching quality stuff on TV…. I will reach out for your company when I can be more stimulating. On rereading my message…. I’m not as despondent as it sounds…. Not nearly.

    • Kit Troyer says:

      You don’t have to be stimulating! We can just sit and watch TV! Or bitch about our spouses hahaha.
      Tell the boss I will wear my mask whole time.
      Getting my 2nd booster right now. Honestly, i could just stop by and give you a hug and say hi. Five minutes max

    • Kit Troyer says:

      Been thinking about you lately because I followed your suggestion and started dipping in and out of Plutarch’s Lives. Wow. You were right. Incredible it was written 2000 years ago. All the same human stories and flaws and character traits and tragedies we see around us right now. Great recommendation

  7. Thanks for this great piece (and I can vouch for you in a crisis!).I always totally relate to what you write about! Lately I’ve been testing my introvertedness (I’m right on the line between introvert and extrovert) to see if I do in fact get energized by being around other people but just find it hard to gear up for it. Surprisingly about 80% of the time I’m glad I socialized (about 20% not so much). How about you? Maybe we’re all just out of practice?

  8. mitchteemley says:

    Love learning more about your background, Kit. And a fascinating one it is!

  9. Thank You, Kit, for helping the sweet little critters!!! 😃💖😊

  10. Loving the garden updates, and especially the news of another mother humming bird! ^_^ The stories you told in your post though definitely are the star. Thank-you for sharing so openly and giving us another glimpse into your life as well as a small look into the lives of a few others through your writing.

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