I don't know how far to drill down into this subject, but boy, am I under stress this week.
I do not deal with stress well. Never have. When I taught high school, a field trip was enough to send me into mild panic state. Responsible for thirty children—other peoples' children—me? Something had clearly gone awry in arrangements. The kids would of course be fine out in the big world, but I'd be a Woody-Allen-level neurotic mess, fantasizing kidnappers, pederasts, terrorists, and sundry open manhole covers—and what the heck, meteors—and coming back three or four short in the head count. I remember an unidentified voice from the back of a field-trip bus: "Look at Mike, he's all frazzled, the poor dear." Pronounced "fuh-razzled" with that peculiar teenage inflection. Impertinent, but correct, and funny.
As a parent volunteer for a school zoo trip when my son was five, I was responsible for him and only two other five-year-olds. Easy, right? Not so fast. One of the other children was presented to me in a harness, on a leash. I was quietly a bit appalled at this—he's a child, not an animal. Well, an hour later, if any of the teachers had tried to take that leash away from me, I would have (speaking of animalism) bared my fangs and growled. That kid was such a pinball it took every ounce of concentration I had to keep up with the three of them—at least Whirling Dervishes keep one foot planted—and you couldn't let your guard down for twelve seconds. Zoo? No, thanks. You go. The thought of zoos still kinda makes me want to sit down and rest, to be honest.
The great pioneer of the biologic effects of stress was Hans Selye, an endocrinologist. His idiosyncratic and rather charming book The Stress of Life was an early classic. Interestingly, the term "stress," which Selye coined, and which is almost universally accepted today in many languages, was supposed to be "strain"—Selye blamed his poor English for the fact that he came up with the not-quite-right word! It's the right word now, of course, because usage has made its meaning clear.
I do need to write the story of Zander's birth someday (can't do it as a blog, as I had earlier hoped—just too difficult that way. Gave that a good try, though). It was by far the worst stress (and strain) I've ever felt. This week is mild by comparison. But still, I can feel I'm wrapped about three times too tight right now. Not quite myself.
In school a long time ago we were asked to specify an ambition, and I wrote a little set piece about wanting to find a small tree, on a grassy knoll, on a hot but pleasant day, and sit there, in the shade, and watch the fleecy clouds go by, and do nothing but think. I meant it as a joke, at the time, but I've never forgotten that vision I conjured for myself of that state of happiness. It has some power for me. It does appeal.
The old man he catches the fish in the morning
He rides the river every day
I sit on the bank and I holler when he passes
"Hey, old man, are they biting today?"
I wake up in the morning, thinking 'bout my troubles
I go down to the water and they pass away
And when the old man comes a-floating down the river
"Hey, old man, are they biting today?"
Now here we've got a thing that keeps on rolling
It ain't heavy, don't take it that way
The old man and me, we got a good thing going
He gets his fish and I sit all day
He gets his fish and I sit all day.
—J.J. Cale, "The Old Man and Me"
Amazon reviewers recommend The End of Stress As We Know It as a much more up-to-date treatise on biologic stress than Selye's now out-of-date book. I'd like to read that, and I will...when I'm good and relaxed, and have lots of free time and nothing to worry about. It's so much easier to read about anything, including stress, when you're not under stress.
"Open Mike," usually off-topic, was on-topic today in the original post (see below) so I thought I'd add another that strays off-topic like this feature is supposed to. I suppose I shouldn't stress about it, though.
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Featured Comments from:
Roger: "Back in the '70s a friend of mine taught what I think are called ADD kids today; many were taking Ritalin. Not thinking things through I agreed to be a chaperone for a trip to Magic Mountain. A day of petty theft and general mischief was topped off by one of the boys developing a case of appendicitis. That was my first and my last role as a volunteer chaperone."
Bill Tyler: "As a purely linguistic note, I actually prefer 'stress' rather than 'strain.' In mechanics, strain refers to the amount of deformation experienced by some object, whereas stress refers to the force being applied. The same amount of stress produces quite a different quantity of strain when applied to a rubber band instead of to a steel cable. Strain is readily measured with a strain gauge—a device that is affixed to the system being measured, and which changes electrical properties as it is stretched. One might attach a strain gauge to a bridge beam to determine how it's deforming under load. Measuring the stress would be quite a bit harder. Coincidentally, the strain gauge attached to the bridge would contain an electrical circuit also known as a bridge. Pedantically, Bill."
Mike replies: That's my understanding of the distinction too, Bill, although you've put it far more eloquently than I could have with your elegant association to mechanics. But my understanding is that "strain" might have been a better word for precisely the reasons you describe—biological stress measures the effects on a person's health and well-being, and if you think of it, people show markedly different levels of "strain" under similiar levels of "stress"—one person might be cool under gunfire or be able to walk nonchalantly across a girder on a skyscraper under construction, while another person dreads answering the phone or breaks out in a cold sweat and feels faint at the prospect of a conference with the boss. It's the "strain" that's of interest biologically.
It's a moot point, of course, and of course I'm very far from an expert, but I share your curiosity about the linguistic niceties.
Yvonne: "My husband grew up near Montreal, where Selye worked. As his ambition was to become a doctor, his mother encouraged him to apply for a summer job at Selye's lab. He got the job and I imagine it looked great on his medical school application. (He's been in medicine for more than 40 years and is now partially retired.)
"I feel for you on the stress issue. I have the problem too and wish I had some magic to offer. Unfortunately, in my experience it doesn't improve as you age. I find travel terribly stressful, and guess what the newly retired physician loves to do. Fortunately, he's independent and a loner, so I don't always go with him, especially not on long trips."