When I was growing up in the 60s, we never had a family calendar. Never needed one. After school, days for my brothers and me consisted of walking out the front door and playing ball with kids from the neighborhoods other calendar-less families. The games always ended slightly before six oclock so Mom wouldnt yell at us for being late for dinner.
Today, its so different for my children, Lauren, 12, and Jesse, 8. A week or so before the start of every month my wife Deb spends an evening, sometimes two, at the computercramming all of our activities into a calendar template. The finished product, in color with graphics, gets top billing on the refrigerator door. With soccer, basketball, dance, chess club, play rehearsal, and a host of other after-school activities, theres not a day on the calendar that isnt busy.
I know in the media there has been much squabbling about which of those two childhoods is healthier. To me, its a pointless debate. There is no choice involved. The calendar-less family, as best I can tell, is extinct.
So rather than grumble about who has to be where at what time, I coordinate with Deb to make it happen. Its not always easy because an activity that includes all four of us in the same place, at the same time, doing the same thing is kind of like a solar eclipse. It doesnt happen too often.
Yet, not long ago everything in the universe must have been aligned just right because Deb, Lauren, Jesse, and I were in the minivan heading to do something together. We were on our way to a UPMC hospital to visit with patients and hopefully brighten their day.
For two hours we chatted with a dozen or so patients. Some lay in bed. Some were seated. None complained about why they were there. They were more concerned about us. How old are the children? What are their favorite classes in school? It was like visiting long-lost aunts and uncles.
Our last stop made the biggest impression on me. As we did with the others, we knocked first and asked the patient inside if he wanted visitors. Sure, he said with a welcoming smile. The man, probably in his mid fifties, sat by the window. Like the other patients, he wasnt dressed for company. He wore pajama bottoms with a white undershirt that covered, but didnt camouflage, his spare tire. His hair was going in many directions and he needed a shave. Yet, the oxygen tubes disappearing into his nostrils were the only real clues that he wasnt well. After a few minutes of colorful conversation, we bade our farewell. On the way out he offered some unsolicited advice.
Dont ever smoke, he warned. We shook our heads in agreement. Then just as we reached the doorway, he added, Drink lots of beer, though.
Deb and I chuckled. So did he. Lauren and Jesse looked a little confused, but they didnt ask for an explanation so I didnt offer one.
On the way home, I thought about what he said and how he said it. It was clear life hadnt turned out how he would have liked. Yet, it didnt seem like he was letting it destroy him. That kind of attitude reminded me of Pitt Mens Study participant August Buzz Pusateri, whose battle with AIDS for the past two decades is featured in this issues cover story.
As for following the dont-smoke drink-beer advice, except for a few rebel-without-a-cause years in college, Ive never been a smoker. Im not much of a beer drinker, either. But I must admit that night after volunteering, I had one with dinner.
Robert Mendelson, Editor in Chief