A tale of newsprint, dinosaurs and adapting to change

I was 15 years old when I got my start in newspapers as a community correspondent for The Daily Leader in my hometown of Brookhaven.

The year was 2005, and the social media network MySpace had just been established. We were still a few years away from its gargantuan success and the stunning follow-up growth of its competitor, Facebook. Twitter came about in mid-2006, but it would be a while before it made a huge cultural impact.

Absent the strong social media platforms we have today, newspapers were still king of the news landscape, and the Leader boasted a strong circulation and was still – as its name suggests – a daily newspaper. It was a family-owned operation, too, and that made a world of difference.

Back then, newspapers had bustling newsrooms full of reporters, editors, graphic designers and young folks like me who wanted to get into the news business. I learned journalism by typing obituaries and writing a weekly column about my tiny community in rural Lincoln County, and it was the best education one could receive. Newspapers like the Hattiesburg American were still giants, and you’d see people reading the print product as they waited to conduct their business in shops or offices in nearly every town.

There were newspaper carriers in those days, and they were faithful employees who would rise early every morning to deliver the day’s news – and the sales papers with their enclosed coupons – to homes. At my house, our carrier became a friend, and each year, we swapped Christmas cards. People knew about what time the newspaper would come every day, and they eagerly looked forward to it. If it didn’t arrive on time, the newspaper office’s phones would ring off the hook with questions.

I could tell you nostalgic stories like that for days, but those days are long gone, and there’s no point in trying to relive them. The internet – and social media networks in particular – dropped an atomic bomb on the newspaper industry, and few newspapers were prepared for the blast. People now rely heavily on Facebook and Twitter for their news, and online news websites and blogs see incredible amounts of traffic each day. The news cycle never ends, and many newspapers have failed to adapt to this new reality.

The Leader is still being published, but the local owners – the Jacobs family – sold it a few years back to a large newspaper chain. It’s no longer daily and instead publishes a couple of times a week. The once-busy building now sits mostly empty, and the printing has been outsourced to a central facility. The carriers lost their jobs years ago, and the newspaper is now distributed by the faithful folks of the U.S. Postal Service. It’s a similar story for the American, which has been slowly stripped of its prominence by owner and mass media company Gannett. Both of these newspapers have online presences, but much of that content is pulled from news wires and sister properties. The hyperlocal feel is gone.

Newspapers strive to deliver credible information to readers, and their decline allowed holes to form in the news landscape. On social media, everyone can be a reporter, and accurate and nuanced information can be hard to come by these days. I fancy myself to be a newsman, and I’ve adopted certain ethics, such as promising to be an unbiased source of information. “Citizen journalists” on social media aren’t bound by those same creeds, and misinformation can run rampant. Of course, we’ve also seen how online news sources can be manipulated by other countries, such as Russia, for sinister purposes.

The news industry will continue to be revolutionized by the internet in the coming years, and many people expect newspapers to go the way of the dinosaur. This extinction event has already wiped out a lot of newspapers, but there’s still a few bastions of hope. You happen to be reading one of them. The PineBelt NEWS remains a local newspaper, and we’re here to stay. We’re committed to bringing you accurate, balanced and timely news, and we’ll continue to do so until someone pries the cameras and keyboards away from our hands.

Although we publish weekly, we are often the first news outlet in the Pine Belt to break major stories, and we post them regularly on our website. Our social media channels continue to be prosperous, and our news team scours Forrest and Lamar counties looking for stories. Our readers get so much more than just breaking news; they get an intriguing mix of features and other items of interest from all of our local communities. We take the biggest news stories of the day and package them with other items for our weekly edition, which remains a viable and popular product.

Like other newspapers, we face a number of challenges, but we’ve positioned ourselves as a community-oriented newspaper with a strong position to grow. We need your help, though, in the form of advertising and subscription revenue. We need you to encourage your friends and family members to subscribe, to follow us on social media and to read our online stories. Our success is contingent on community support, and we know the Pine Belt is full of people who want to be informed and engaged.

I don’t know what the news industry will look like in another 15 years. I’ll be 45 then, and I imagine I’ll still be pecking away at a keyboard and reporting your news. That’s my hope, anyway, and I look forward to adapting to continuing changes. Support us, and check back in with me in 2035, OK?

The name ‘Dahmer County’ has a nice ring to it …

I firmly believe that our country is going through a major makeover, and Mississippi has the opportunity to be at the forefront of those changes.

The May murder of George Floyd by a now-indicted police officer in Minneapolis has sparked a national discussion about civil rights, excessive force tactics utilized by police and the many symbols of the Confederate States of America that are on proud display in many states.

Those symbols are prominent in the Magnolia State, where the romanticized “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy is still rooted in the minds of many residents. Perhaps the most prominent symbol in Mississippi is the state flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem. Significant momentum is building to change the flag, and we have been told that lawmakers are working to make a change either through the legislative process or a statewide referendum.

Locally, the Confederacy is memorialized through a 1910 statue that sits by the circuit court building in downtown Hattiesburg. The statue is dedicated to Confederate war dead and also to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was born in Tennessee. When Forrest County was established in 1908, legislators decided to pay tribute to the infamous general – who was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan – by naming the county for him.

This past weekend, there was a large protest in downtown Hattiesburg by groups wanting the statue removed, and it has become a point of contention between Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker and the Forrest County Board of Supervisors. Angry residents have called on Barker to remove the statue, which is owned by the county. Of course, Barker has no authority to do so, and he has gently encouraged supervisors to consider removing it. I applaud the mayor for his public stance, and I am shocked at the lack of leadership from the supervisors on this issue.

The supervisors met Monday, and they should have made a decision on the future of the statue then. Instead, they squabbled with one another and eventually punted the issue to the polling place. The fate of the statue will thus be decided by Forrest County voters on Nov. 3, the same day of the presidential election. The statue vote will add more fire to an already hot election year, and I believe supervisors have, in this matter, failed in their basic responsibility of making day-to-day decisions for the betterment of the county.

My feelings on this particular statue – and the numerous other historical markers like it that are scattered throughout the nation – are complex, mostly because I was a history major in college and have a particular interest in Civil War history. I find myself to be generally against the removal of these monuments, but I do believe interpretive plaques should be added to each of them. These plaques should provide context and adequately explain the true nature of the Confederacy and its rebellion against the other states.

They should also minimize the heroics attributed to figures like Forrest, who is known for slaughtering more than 300 black Union soldiers following the Battle of Fort Pillow in April 1864. The plaques should be objective in nature and authored by credible historians, not by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A plaque added to the Hattiesburg statue would have been a simple option for supervisors to consider, but they did not explore any alternatives beyond the removal of the statue.

Demonstrators have also asked supervisors to change the name of Forrest County, but that is a complex matter that would not be solved with an interpretive plaque. A name change would require significant action by the Mississippi Legislature, and I doubt lawmakers would consider it while also considering the various motions to change the state flag. However, a man can dream, and I think a name change is appropriate and necessary as we form a new and improved Mississippi that strives to be free of racism and has finally severed its ties to the Confederacy.

Personally, I think our county should be renamed in memory of Vernon Dahmer Sr., the civil rights leader and Forrest County NAACP chapter president who was murdered by the KKK in 1966. Supervisors recently honored Dahmer with a statue near the Confederate monument, so this idea should easily gain traction. By all accounts, Dahmer was a great man, and the county name would be a fitting way to memorialize someone who lost his life while helping his fellow citizens register to vote.

My idea may seem out of this world at this time, but it would be a great way to show the rest of the country that Mississippi is changing. For a moment, imagine the reaction of the world if we changed the name of our county, adopted a new state flag and added interpretive plaques to our Civil War monuments. Our state could be seen as a beacon of progress instead of as a laughingstock and as a place people should avoid.

A bright future is possible, but we have to stop imagining it and instead get to work. Leaders like Dahmer showed us how to make positive change happen, and we can follow in his footsteps to accomplish real and necessary change. Organize, write your legislators and local officials, peacefully assemble, petition … and we can move this state forward.

The status quo must change, and the state flag must come down

As a history buff, I have always been particularly interested in my family tree.

My mother spent several years compiling an exhaustive archive of information on our family, and some of that information dates back to the 1600s.

We have traced our family connections to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, and we have even discovered a connection to Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States. He served one term between 1837-1841, and he is widely regarded as a below-average president. As you can imagine, I don’t tout my connection to him often, but it seems pertinent to include the president in this article.

My family has been rooted in southwest Mississippi for generations, particularly in Lincoln and Lawrence counties. In fact, my family lives pretty much on the line that divides the two counties, and they’re about 15 minutes away from Brookhaven or 10 minutes away from Monticello.

My parents – and most of my immediate family – live on Perch Creek, which empties into Fair River, on land complete with rolling hills and a nice fishing pond. It’s a great area, but don’t expect cellphone service or high-speed internet.

Anyway, the Wilsons have been there for a while. In fact, many of my ancestors fought in the Civil War, and several of them never returned home from that bloody conflict. We have detailed records on many of those family members, including my great-great-great-grandfather, Lorenzo Wilson, and his brothers.

Lorenzo enlisted as a private in the Confederate States Army on June 1, 1861, and he served his new country – the Confederate States of America, which Mississippi officially joined in February of that same year – for the next two years. He was captured at the Battle of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November 1863, and he spent the remaining three months of his life in a federal prison in Rock Island, Illinois.

The prison was unfinished when Lorenzo and his fellow captives arrived, and the temperatures were below zero. There was no hospital or sanitation system, and those early prisoners were subject to a smallpox outbreak and malnutrition. Lorenzo died, reportedly of starvation, on Jan. 31, 1864, at age 38. He left behind a wife, Jemima, and five children, including my great-great-grandfather, Orlando.

Lorenzo is buried in the prison cemetery, and a white tombstone marks his grave. My grandfather, Jerry, spent years of his life wishing he could reclaim Lorenzo’s remains and bury him with his family in Mississippi, but the cost was prohibitively high and the red tape difficult to cut. The emotional toll of losing someone in the Civil War was still fresh when my grandfather was born in 1926. In fact, Orlando lived until 1944, and he was able to share the memories of losing his father at a young age with my grandfather.

The pain of the loss – along with the anger over Lorenzo’s treatment at the prison – has traveled through generations, and it’s difficult for me to reconcile my heritage with my current thoughts on the debate over the Mississippi state flag. For the record, I want the flag to come down, and I believe it’s a symbol of white supremacy and hate. It features the Confederate battle emblem, and my ancestors fought under that very same emblem. I’m sure they believed their cause to be just, and they died for it. How can I be against that emblem and their cause without being ashamed of them?

I believe this is an ethical dilemma facing many descendants of Confederate soldiers who are aware of their heritage and want things to change for the better. This topic is a painful one for me, and it’s certainly uncomfortable, but it must be explored. White Mississippians must be able to remember their history without worshipping it, and we must be able to memorialize our Confederate war dead without idolizing their cause. We can’t write off our history, but we can no longer afford to glamorize it.

The “Lost Cause” mythos, or the idea that the South had honorable reasons to fight in the war, must end. We must recognize that the Confederacy was a failed state built on the evils of slavery, and its symbols – including the battle emblem – are, to our black neighbors, extremely painful reminders of that fact. We should be aware of our ancestors, and we should honor them by changing the status quo.

Racism has no place in 2020, and the state flag and its divisive symbol must go. The time is now, and I’m calling on my fellow descendants of Confederate soldiers to stand with me, to grasp hands with all of our neighbors and to push this change forward.

Are we the greatest country in the world?

I want to share with you my thoughts on the current state of our country.

I want to, but I’m afraid I can’t quite put my thoughts into words. However, you buy this newspaper or read us online for a reason, and I feel obligated to try and do so. Just bear with me.

To start, I’ll quote from a monologue in the pilot episode of “The Newsroom,” an HBO political drama that aired from 2012-2014. Jeff Daniels plays the lead character, Will McAvoy, who is the anchor of a fictitious nightly news broadcast.

The episode starts with McAvoy addressing a large crowd in an auditorium. He’s asked by an attendee why he thinks America is the greatest country in the world. His response, “It’s not the greatest country in the world,” creates a media firestorm, and much of the first season revolves around the fallout from those remarks.

Of course, those remarks were written for dramatic effect, and they’re certainly controversial. They were a great hook for the beginning of the TV show. Unfortunately, though, the writers of that outstanding monologue were right.

We’re not the greatest country in the world. We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we are. We like to portray ourselves as an enlightened people, and we love to pretend that we’re much better than we actually are. That smug sense of superiority has caused us to rot from the inside.

Consider the fact that more than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and there’s been no national day of mourning. In fact, many of us have decided the virus is just an inconvenience, and we’ve moved on with our lives. Damn the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions; they’ll have to fend for themselves, right? After all, this world is survival of the fittest, and we care only about ourselves.

Of course, that’s only one problem facing our country. Millions of Americans lack basic access to health care due to high prices and lack of insurance. Poverty remains a huge problem even as we add billions more to the coffers of our nation’s richest citizens. Our political system, the two-party republic, is utterly broken, and politicians seem to do nothing but bicker. The president adds fuel to every fire we have, and local leaders (I’m looking at you, Hal Marx) take their cues from him.

We allow hatred to go unchecked, and discrimination occurs for bafflingly stupid reasons such as sexual orientation, gender identity or other factors. Racism still runs rampant, and our minority populations deal with inequalities at every level. Black Americans are dying at much higher rates from COVID-19, and they’re being murdered in the streets by corrupt police officers.

The saddest thing is that many of us refuse to see these harsh realities. We instead see the government asking us to wear masks in public to prevent the spread of a dangerous virus as oppression, and we cry out in protest over it. We’re a selfish people, and that selfishness has been on full display throughout this pandemic.

I don’t know the solution to our country’s problems, but I think the first step in solving them is at least recognizing them. If we’re all truly patriots like we claim to be, we should acknowledge our faults, come together and resolve to fix them. With the current state of our country, I don’t know if that’s possible, but I don’t see another way forward.

I’m gravely concerned about our country’s future, and all I know is that I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Will you join me?

Medical school ranking should be point of pride for Hattiesburgers

Last week, we reported that the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is headquartered in Hattiesburg, was recently ranked third in the nation in producing primary care physicians by U.S. News and World Report.

The top three schools in the list were separated by barely more than a percentage point, and the ranking is a tremendous achievement for a relatively new medical school.

The medical school admitted its first class of students in 2010 after years of careful planning by the university administration, and that first class graduated six years ago. The most recent class graduated Saturday, and they joined the ranks of more than 600 doctors of osteopathic medicine trained by William Carey.

Those doctors are practicing across the country, and many have remained in Mississippi or surrounding states.

The ranking is also the fulfillment of a promise made by the William Carey administration when they announced the opening of the school at a press conference in Jackson in 2008.

The school is the second medical school in the state, and it was established, in part, to train doctors to serve underserved populations, particularly in the Gulf South region. Administrators promised to improve access to health care in Mississippi, and part of that pledge included graduating more primary care physicians.

To that end, the university recently reported that 78 percent of its graduates have entered primary care residencies over the past three years. Instead of resting on its laurels, the school is doubling down on its commitment to produce much-needed doctors.

Administrators recently announced plans to double the size of the medical school’s incoming class over the next three academic years. Currently, the school accepts 100 new students each academic year from a pool of several thousand applicants.

In the upcoming academic year, the class size will grow to 150 students, and an additional 25 students will be added for the 2021-2022 school year. In the 2022-2023 school year, the school will accept 200 new students for a total enrollment of 800 students.

As a William Carey alumnus, I’m particularly proud of the accomplishments of the medical school, especially since I was a student and later an employee at the university during the school’s early years.

I enrolled at the university in 2010 at the same time the school admitted its first class, and, as a member of the university’s public relations staff in 2014, I helped that inaugural class of 94 doctors celebrate their graduation. In fact, I was reminded of that event just last week through Facebook’s “Memories” feature.

It was a happy time for all involved, and the university staff breathed a collective sigh of relief after a rigorous but successful accreditation process.

Dr. Italo Subbarao, dean of the medical school, and his faculty and staff members, along with university administrators, should be commended for staying true to the mission of the medical school and for putting such an emphasis on improving the health care of Mississippians.

The ranking is a testament to a lot of hard work, and Hattiesburg as a whole should be proud of the school. It’s a fantastic addition to our city, and I look forward to its continued growth and success.

Congrats to Class of ’20; now, go do great things

Each year, The PineBelt NEWS publishes a special section recognizing our area’s graduating high school seniors, and we’re currently preparing that section for release.

I’ve been working with local high schools to gather a roster of the graduating seniors and also their individual portraits. There are 11 high schools in Forrest and Lamar counties, including eight public schools and three private schools, and they’ll graduate approximately 1,600 students this academic year.

These students are entering the “real world” in a time of great uncertainty, and my heart goes out to all of them. Instead of spending their final months in high school worrying about prom dates and final exams, they’ve been worried about COVID-19 and if they’ll even get to have a graduation ceremony. They’re resilient, and we’re certainly proud of them.

Former President Barack Obama gave a virtual commencement address to the Class of 2020 on Saturday, and, as usual, I was inspired by his prose. Obama said the graduating class would have to “grow up faster than some generations” because of the world’s uncertainties, and he provided the class with three pieces of advice that I think are helpful.

The former president’s first piece of advice for the graduates was “don’t be afraid.”

He noted that America has gone through tough times before, and the country has always come out stronger as a result.

He said this is usually “…because a new generation, young people like you, learned from past mistakes and figured out how to make things better.”

Obama’s second piece of advice was for graduates to “do what you think is right.” He added that “…you won’t get it right every time, you’ll make mistakes like we all do … but, if you listen to the truth that’s inside yourself, even when it’s hard, even when it’s inconvenient, people will notice. They’ll gravitate towards you … and you’ll be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”

His final piece of advice for new graduates was to “build a community” because “no one does big things by themselves.”

He urged graduates to “be alive to one another’s struggles,” to stand up for one another’s rights and to ditch old ways of thinking, including sexism, racial prejudice, status and greed.

Obama ended his speech by saying the graduating class is already full of leaders, and he’s excited to see the great things they accomplish. I’m excited, too, because I know our graduating classes are full of talent and promise. I’ve been privileged to interview several of them, and they’ve filled me with Pine Belt pride.

Consider Lorin Brown of Petal, who I wrote a story about this week. Lorin’s high school career was filled with success, and she’s been widely recognized as a student leader and for her academic accomplishments. However, I was most impressed by her sincere desire to help others as she pursues her dream career.

Lorin wants to study psychology and fight disorders like autism and dementia. She’s not seeking vast fame or fortune, but she’s looking for meaningful ways to help others in her community. I know she’ll continue to do great things, and I’m ready to write about them.

The Class of 2020 is filled with people like Lorin, and they need our support as they embark on their next chapters. Let’s rally behind them and be their biggest cheerleaders.

Congratulations, graduates. Go and do great things. We’re behind you.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

I was 14 years old when I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

I remember the day well, even though it’s been 16 years ago. I was sitting in my family doctor’s office, and both of my parents were there. Something was obviously wrong with me, and no one really knew what to do about it. I was often physically ill, and I would go days without wanting to do anything other than sleep.

I was missing days upon days of school, and I was always exhausted. I was usually a great student, but I was falling behind in my courses. In fact, I was falling behind in everything, and I was quickly descending into the vice-like grip of depression.

I wish I could tell you that the doctor found the root cause that day and that he prescribed a miracle drug that cured all of the symptoms. That isn’t the case. He gave me a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, and, after a while, the edge was gone. I was still anxious and depressed, but I could again see the light.

However, to this day, I struggle with the black cloud of depression and the pain that is anxiety. I have a great life now, and I had a great life when I was first diagnosed. Sure, I was dealing with the usual school bullying (and, of course, I still deal with bullies these days, too), but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. My parents were fantastic, and I had a stable home and even a supportive church family.

So, why the depression? Why the anxiety? I’ve spent years – and thousands of dollars on doctors and prescription drugs – trying to figure out the answer to that question. It turns out there’s no easy answer, and there’s definitely no easy solution.

A few years back, I was finally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is the “trendy” mental health disorder everyone likes to say they have when they prefer a tidy house or tidy car. While I do have some of those compulsions, I am on the side of OCD where you obsess with worry over things. It keeps me up at night, and it burns holes in my stomach. It strangles my energy and can be so overwhelming at times that I struggle to get air into my lungs.

Mental illnesses are invisible diseases, and they are like cancers in the sense that they spread and consume you over time. Unfortunately, some people do not survive these illnesses. I’m fortunate enough to have a strong support system, and I have been vocal enough about my struggles to where my friends and family members can see when I’m drowning and rescue me. I’m fortunate enough to have health insurance and the ability to see a doctor and have medication that dulls the most severe of the effects.

Millions of Americans aren’t so lucky. The cost of mental health care is tremendous, and the stigma associated with these illnesses and seeking treatment is strong. As a result, many people choose to dull their pain with alcohol or illicit drugs, and, when the pain becomes too great, they can be lost to suicide. They become another statistic and a casualty of a broken health care system.

May is recognized in the United States as Mental Health Awareness Month, but it’s nothing to celebrate. Instead, it’s a time for us to recognize that nearly one in five Americans live with a mental illness, and estimates suggest that only half of people with mental illnesses receive treatment. In other words, we’re losing the war against these illnesses.

This year, the situation is even more dire. Experts have warned that a national mental health crisis, brought on by the stress levels associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, is looming. Dr. Jonathan Porteus, a psychologist who oversees the crisis and suicide hotlines in Sacramento, California, recently told WebMD that “…our society is definitely in a collective state of trauma,” and there will be significant psychological fallout.

So, how do we reduce the fallout and start winning some of the battles against mental illness? First, we must challenge – and defeat – the stigmas associated with such illnesses and their treatments. According to a study in World Psychiatry, “…many people with serious mental illnesses are challenged doubly” due to fighting both the symptoms of the disease and the stereotypes associated with it.

These stigmas can be diminished through proper community education efforts and interpersonal contact with those who suffer from mental illnesses, said the study. It’s important to realize that people who suffer from these illnesses are your friends and your neighbors, and some of them could be suffering in silence. Being an open resource to them can make you an invaluable and trusted ally in this fight.

Second, we must allocate proper resources to this fight. As it currently stands, our health care system is broken. Many people who need care can’t afford it, and that’s disgraceful for a country of our size and stature. We should immediately take steps to reform the system and make it more affordable for all. Affordable health care shouldn’t be a political issue; instead, it should be a human right.

Finally, we can all strive to be a positive force in someone else’s life. I was telling someone the other day that it seems pointless to smile at someone if you’re wearing a mask (thanks again, COVID-19), but I was quickly reminded that people can see your smile through your eyes. Smile at someone. Offer them an encouraging word. You’ll never know how far that goes when someone’s having a rough time.

We must stand together against mental illness, and not just during Mental Health Awareness Month. Together, we can create real change, and we can make things better for generations to come.

Finding a motto for 2020 in a strange place

About a week ago, I was tossing out old papers on my desk when I stumbled across my 2020 planner, which has to be the most useless invention in the world at this point.

Each year, I buy a paper planner and promise to use it, and it never turns out well. I usually abandon it a few weeks into the year, but I was particularly proud of this year’s planner and had been doing a good job with it. I paid too much for it, and the retailer even embossed my initials on the front cover.

The thing came with stickers and everything, and I was a planning fool for a while. And, then, you know … COVID-19 hit.

Anyway, I flipped back to the front of the planner and read my New Year’s resolutions, which filled me with a strong sense of frustration. The new year – and the new decade – had started with such promise, and now it was already May, two months into the time period I’ll refer to from now on as “The Age of Coronavirus.”

It feels like five years ago, but yes, the virus made its first impact in Mississippi on March 11. If you’ll remember, the first case was found in none other than Forrest County, and yours truly has done nothing but cover the virus since then. My planner, with its dumb stickers and optimistic phrases on each page, was getting good use as a paperweight, and those resolutions, scribbled with such passion in December, had long since been forgotten.

I was throwing the planner away when a sheaf of papers fell from it and hit the floor.

“It’s mocking me by shedding all over the house now,” I thought as I tossed the planner in the garbage can and picked up the scattered papers.

They were meeting notes from a webinar I’d attended earlier in the year. I barely remembered the event, and I quickly reviewed the notes to see if there was anything worth keeping.

In the margins of one of the pages, I’d written – and underlined – this phrase: “Don’t be so hard on yourself. No one else knows what they’re doing, either.”

I don’t recall if this is something one of the speakers said or if it was just an observation I’d made, but my goodness, what a fitting statement for 2020, I thought. I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the note out to keep. I may frame it as my motto for the rest of the year.

Indeed, we’re living in unprecedented times, and we should all strive to be easier on ourselves and on others. I was talking with a co-worker earlier this week about how everyone in our society seems to be on edge and full of anxiety. COVID-19 has disrupted our daily routines and our safety nets, and it has us living in fear of the unknown. If we’re not careful, that fear can manifest itself into anger and even depression.

So, be kinder to yourself and to others. Don’t worry about those New Year’s resolutions, and don’t let an idle 2020 planner bother you. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and soon, we’ll be back to complaining about how busy things are and how packed our schedules can be. Personally, I look forward to those days.

Words of wisdom (from me to me)

On April 27, I turned 30, and it was just another day in the life.

Sure, I received gifts, a lot of calls and messages, and even a birthday cake (Oreo cookie, if you’re wondering), but a magic switch didn’t flip. I don’t feel any differently than I did at 29. There was no sudden crisis or realization that I’m getting older.

I can’t say I don’t feel any differently than I did when I was 20, though. I know I look different; I have less hair, for sure, and substantially larger bags under my eyes. My bones pop and sound like a symphony orchestra when I get out of bed in the morning, and I can’t pull all-nighters anymore. Heck, I can barely pull an all-dayer.

However, all in all, I’m doing pretty good, but there’s so much I wish I could tell the 20-year-old me. The last decade provided me with a lot of wisdom and perspective, and I wish I could pack it all into a data stream and send it back in time to that bright-eyed kid with long, shaggy hair who always wore a white ballcap. Back then, I was ready to take on the world, and I had an ego a mile wide. No one could tell me anything, so the data stream would probably be ignored, anyway.

If I could get in touch with that kid, though, I’d give him an earful. The first thing I’d tell him is that not everyone is his friend, and that’s fine. It’s better to have a small circle of close friends than an army of acquaintances. I’d tell him that close friendships require a lot of time and effort, and he must keep them nourished to keep them alive.

I’d tell him not to be so hard on himself. I’d tell him that mistakes will be made, and those mistakes won’t be the end of the world but instead will be life experiences meant to move you forward. There’s no reason to beat yourself up over them; acknowledge them, learn from them and file them in your memory. Move on after that. Constantly rehashing something in your mind does nothing but keep you a prisoner in your own skull.

I’d tell him to be more patient and understanding with others and with himself. Patience is a virtue I still haven’t learned, and I’d urge younger me to practice that skill. I’d also tell younger me to spend the decade working on a thicker skin; the world can be a cruel place, but most of what people say to you or about you doesn’t matter in the long run. I’d tell him to watch out for the signals and ignore all the noise.

I’d tell him that, shockingly, he doesn’t know everything, and he needs to absorb the knowledge and wisdom of those who offer it. I’d tell him to be more grateful for mentorships and for those who reach out a helping hand.

I’d tell him to be true to himself, and don’t spend any time pretending to be someone – or something – you’re not just to impress or please others. I’d tell him that you must build your self-confidence independently of what others say, and you must learn to be comfortable in your own skin.

Finally, I’d tell him that life is going to be pretty good, but he needs to put a few more dollars in the savings account each pay period … and maybe lay off some of the pizzas and sodas.

Anyway, 30-year-old me is ready for the next decade of life with all of its challenges, lessons and rewards. However, if 40-year-old me is reading and is ready to send current me a decade’s worth of wisdom, I’m all ears.

Oh, the things I miss …

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I’ll do when the COVID-19 threat passes. I’ve also been thinking about the many things I miss.

I have a lot of time on my hands, as we all do, so I’ve spent some time considering these subjects, and I think the first thing I’ll do when all of this is over is give someone a big hug. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to hug or shake hands, and, for us southerners, that’s been really difficult.

I also know I’ll never take my weekend shopping trips – to Target and Corner Market – for granted again. I never thought the idea of roaming the aisles at Target without a mask – or without a sense of urgency to get in and get out – could make me teary-eyed, but here we are.

Another big casualty of the pandemic for me has been the loss of movie theaters. On a Friday night or a lazy Saturday afternoon, I can typically be found reclining in one of the chairbacks at a theater in town, munching on popcorn and sipping an overpriced alcoholic beverage. There’s something magical about movie theater popcorn, and I miss it, but I mostly miss the entire experience of visiting a theater and seeing a great film. I’d settle for a lackluster one at this point.

I miss my Sunday breakfasts at either The Depot or SouthBound Bagel & Coffee Shop in downtown Hattiesburg. The Depot closed its doors shortly after all this started, and I greatly miss my typical coffee and granola dish. I’ve ordered takeout from SouthBound (too many times, according to my scale), but a genuine SouthBound experience isn’t complete without enjoying your meal in the cramped confines of the restaurant.

My scale, by the way, has just about given up on me. We’ve ordered a lot of takeout since this started. I tell people it’s because we support local restaurants, and that’s partly true, but I’m also lazy and don’t want to cook. I consider this killing two birds with one stone, but it’s been damaging to my weight loss efforts. I miss my gym and the trainers, and I hope they don’t run away from me in shock when I’m back at it. I promise I’ll get back to my routine when the pandemic passes.

I especially miss seeing people at church. Virtual services are great, and the pastors in our area are to be commended for the way they’ve adapted to a tough situation, but it isn’t the same for me. I miss the ritual of going to church, and I especially miss the beautiful music. I miss the comfort of greeting others, and I miss the feeling of accomplishment I always earned by actually getting up and making it to church on time each Sunday.

I even miss traffic on Hardy Street, to be honest with you. In the nearly five weeks since this all started, I’ve ventured to the west side of town a few times, and it’s no fun navigating Hardy when the traffic is so light. I miss yelling at people for not using their blinkers or for cutting me off in traffic.

The list of things I miss can go on and on, but I mostly miss social interaction. I’m used to getting together with my friends multiple times each week and enjoying a sit-down meal at one of our local restaurants, and that’s an experience I’ll never take for granted again. I haven’t been able to see my family in weeks, and it’ll be nice to visit with them again, too.

I’ve also been working on a list of things I won’t miss, and the daily casualty reports from the Mississippi State Department of Health top that list. Those reports are a reminder that we must continue to take this illness seriously, even though our adjustments are uncomfortable and have us missing our creature comforts. We must continue to keep our guards up for now, and we must listen to the experts.

We must wear our masks and practice social distancing. If we get complacent and adjust back to normal life too soon, then we’ll be back in this same situation – or in a worse situation – for many more weeks.

It’s OK to miss things, and I certainly do, but we can all take comfort in the fact that this, too, shall pass, and things will roll back to normal once again.

Until then, friends, I’ll see you from a safe distance. Stay healthy.