Public vs. Private Lives

I just got done spending a week or so traveling around with my kids and dad in the northwest. Along the way, my dad was reading a terrific book of collected essays by Paul Theroux (a prolific travel writer I’m sort of embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of before).

As we got accustomed to new rooms in new cities, my dad would read me passages from the essays, most notably one about the friendship between Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson. The passages got at the quirky, silly, often warm-hearted affection and loyalty they had for each other. And it made me think about what people do in their public lives versus their private ones. There’s so little we can really know of someone beyond the surface unless we spend time with them in an intimate setting. Another fascinating essay was about Graham Greene who seemed to bounce back and forth between needing affection (read: sex) and needing distance from those he loved.

This, in turn, got me thinking about my own relationship with public versus private messaging. I post things on social media fairly often which anyone can see, and I post things on this blog sometimes too (though I never publicly mention it and only occasionally get feedback about it so it doesn’t really feel public in the same way, even though it’s still available to anyone who seeks it out).

I know people who post a lot on social media but whose personal and private thoughts are a complete mystery to me. I also know people who never post on social media and their thoughts and lives are also a complete mystery to me. And I also know people who share more of their private lives in person and post at various levels online.

There’s the germ of a story in there somewhere. Something comic and satiric maybe, about someone who is a constant and consistent public communicator but whose private life is a hidden mess. I guess I tried to get at that a little bit in the one-minute play I did last year. What about a character who lives a charmed life but never says anything public about it?

ANYway, as an experiment in transparency, I jotted the following things down during a train ride last week, and I thought I’d post them here to see how it felt (and I may retract this). This isn’t super personal, but there’s a little more me in here than usual:

  • I like it when people think I’m funny
  • It’s agonizing to me when people assume they know what I’m like and never get to know me or ask me questions
  • My kids are extraordinarily important to me, and I value them in a way I’d never experienced till I had them
  • I struggle with loneliness even though I know that I don’t have to be lonely
  • I have rarely met a chocolate chip cookie I didn’t like, and this infatuation and love affair may go on till the day I die
  • Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to work
  • Sometimes I wish I’d stayed longer in southern California to become a writer because things might have turned out all right (side note: Eric Douglas was roughly my age now when he died, which is weird to think about)
  • Writing helps keep me sane even though it occasionally also drives me up the wall
  • I like to lie on a couch and let my mind wander
  • I get irritated when I’m asked what I’m thinking about, but I also understand why people ask me that since I can seem sort of opaque from the outside
  • Trying to make myself heard in a group of extroverts rarely goes well for me, but I find myself in that situation a lot
  • I try to be as open as I can but I can still come across as guarded to many people

I talk to my kids a lot and ask them to let me know if they ever have any questions about anything in my life or in theirs, and we’ve had a lot of wonderful, if sometimes challenging, conversations. I wish I’d been able to talk as openly with my parents when I was their age (but I’m making up for it now with my dad). There are still details I learn about my father when I travel with him, usually about his youthful, pre-marriage relationships with women or his uncomfortable stint as a drafted solider in the army. I think he had a much more active social life than I ever gave him credit for. And the fact that he handled live bomb shells in Japan completely cuts against all assumptions I ever had about him.

Anyway, I wish I were able to be as open and transparent with everyone I care about as I am with my kids. The future seems cleaner and clearer when that openness exists.

So if you ever have any questions, please send them my way. I’ll even try to tell you what I’m thinking…

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