For The Love Of Bowser

In 1961 we lived in a neighborhood called Gage Park. Gage Park is a blue-collar community on Chicago’s Southwest Side that consists of small, tightly spaced bungalows that are placed on narrow lots in tidy rows.

Like most Chicago neighborhoods we had our own busy shopping streets, which were located down the alley from our house. They consisted of two blocks along 55th street which were bisected by California Avenue.

Grocerland Foods, Wooley’s Five and Ten, the Cinderella Beauty Shop, Reck’s Hardware, Amoco Gas, Walgreens Drug Store, the Pixie Shoppe, plus restaurants, a branch library, and, of course, several bars. This type of local shopping is typical for Chicago, which was built on the neighborhood concept. You could buy anything that you needed without the benefit of a car. It was common for my mother to send me to the grocer to buy food for dinner, or for me to walk to the branch library to research a school topic.

My sister Nancy was in the 7th grade at St. Clare De Montefalco school in 1961 and spent a lot of her free time hanging out with her girlfriends. On a fall day, she was walking with two of them westward on busy 55th street towards California Avenue. Suddenly she heard screeching tires and honking horns. She looked up to see a jet black creature running across the street, clearly terrified and confused. She looked again and saw that the little beast was a puppy. She went into rescue mode.

The three girls coaxed the puppy to them and hatched a plot. This little puff ball needed a home. Nancy’s friend, Nancy Klimczak was the first to claim her. She pleaded her case to her mother, but it fell on deaf ears. They moved on to their backup plan.

My mother was in our kitchen wearing the mom uniform of the day, a housedress. For those of you who are unaware a house dress is a casual dress that is often in a small floral pattern. It is structureless, loose fitting, and has ample pockets making it both comfortable and practical. A housedress is usually  pulled on over the head allowing a mom to get dressed in 10 seconds flat.

My mother was cooking dinner, and I was sitting at the kitchen table watching her work. I was eight years old at the time.

Nancy entered the kitchen through the backdoor. She appeared to be in a panic. My mother looked up at her and Nancy started to speak in a rushed, compelling way. “She would have been killed if we didn’t save her. She is so cute, and she is only a puppy. She looks hungry and afraid. Can we keep her?” “Absolutely not!” my mother said. We had several attempts at adopting strays, and they all had been disastrous. I recall one instance of my mother chasing a crazed dog who was running in circles around our dining room table.

Nancy moved into tears mode. “Please, Please! I’ll use my allowance to buy her dog food. I get up early every morning to let her out. I’ll walk her every day. You won’t have to do anything. You won’t even know that she is here.” My mother could not resist my sister’s tears. “We can try, but that dog is on 90-day probation, and she has to stay in the basement, she is not allowed in the rest of the house! If anything happens, she goes…understood?” Nancy replied, “Of course, thank you! You won’t regret this.”

With my mom’s OK the little puppy became part of our family. In 24 hours, her domain went from the basement to the entire house. Sweet and smart, she was easy to love, and she had only one bad habit, barking. When anyone would approach the house she would start a rapid staccato, “Wow wow wow, wow, wow,” until she felt that the perimeter was secure. My father hearing this said we should call her Wowser and the name stuck, at least temporarily. Soon Wowser became Bowser, a boy dog name for a girl dog.

Bowser grew to be a medium-sized dog, black with a white chest and some white markings on her nose and paws. Being a mutt, her lineage was unknown, but she appeared to be part Border Collie and part Cocker Spaniel. She instantly bonded to my mother, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear my mom shout “Bowser!” because she had once again tripped over her.

Bowser’s passion was chocolate, and we often gave her little pieces of the tasty stuff. This was before anyone knew that chocolate could kill a dog, and thankfully Bowser was never worse for her indulgences. If I wanted her to come running all I had to shout was, “Chocolate,” and she would soon be at my side. In those days you could find chocolate scented dog toys, including ones that were rubberized versions of favorite candy bars.

In high school, my sister Nancy was dating a boy named Jim Brown. At Easter, Jim gave her her very own Easter Basket. This was a first as at our home we all had to share one basket, and my two brothers usually got all of the good candy. We were heading out to church, and Nancy decided to hide her basket under the bed, and away from my brothers. When we arrived back home, we were all confused as we saw shredded silver foil all over the house. Suddenly, Nancy screamed; Bowser had found her basket and proceeded to eat its entire contents. The foil was from Hershey Kisses’ wrappers that were licked completely clean of any chocolate residue.

Once when we were camping my mother tied Bowser to a small folding table and then went to the camp’s community bathroom. After a short time, she heard shouts coming from the other stalls. The source? Bowser had found her way into the bathroom and was dragging leash and table. Being a logical dog, she was going stall to stall to find my mom, much to the chagrin of other women who were using the facilities. Once found, Bowser was at peace. My mother commented “That dog!” but she was charmed by her efforts.

It is human nature to think that our kids and pets are the smartest, and I felt Bowser was pretty quick. She seemed to understand complex language. Bowser loved my mother, but hated baths. She was resting under an end table in the living room when my mother sweetly called to her from the basement. “Bowser, where are you?” Bowser tore through our shotgun-style house towards the basement stairs which were located at its back. I was next to the stairs when she arrived, and in a flat monotone I said to her, “She is going to give you a bath.” Bowser stopped dead in her tracks, turned around and ran back under the table. I was amazed that she understood what I was saying. My mother was less amazed by my actions.

Although Bowser’s primary loyalty was towards my mother, she had plenty of love to go around. For me, she was my family connection. My siblings were doing their thing. My parents were older and had already raised four other kids. Bowser was my friend and confidant. When I was having a bad day, she would sit with me. When I needed someone to talk to, she would listen. When I was cold, she would warm me up. The bond that I felt for her was great, and that bond continued as long as she was alive.

I was away at college, and my parents said that they were coming up to see me to take me out to dinner. This was highly unusual, and I was pretty excited. They also told me that my two maiden aunts, Mary and Lill, were coming along. I liked my aunts and I was amazed at my good fortune.

My parents arrived with my aunts, and we all went out to eat at “The Junction,” a family-style restaurant decorated in a train theme. Just as the food arrived my mother blurted out, “We put Bowser down.” My father must have noticed the horrified look on my face and started to spurt justifications, “That damn dog couldn’t hold her urine. Her breath smelled terrible. Mike Lawler (my brother-in-law) held her when we took her to get the shot, and he said her breath made him sick.” Dear reader, these are not the right things to say to someone who just lost one of their very best friends.

I was trapped. My parents knew that I wouldn’t make a scene with my two aunts present. That is why they brought them along. However, it was a terrible time for me. I couldn’t express my grief. I couldn’t express my anger. I couldn’t eat. I had to make polite conversation. I was dying inside.

I remained upset about that incident for years, but I couldn’t understand why. Deep down I knew that Bowser was old and that the quality of her life was no longer good. She was a proud dog, and I am sure that she was embarrassed by her inability to control her bodily functions.

Eventually, I figured out why I remained so upset. Once again, other’s feelings were more important than mine. My parents wanted to do the right thing by telling me, but they didn’t want to deal with the aftermath of their disclosure. On some level, I understood this and gave them exactly what they wanted from me, no grief, no anger, just polite conversation. They got to go home feeling like they were good parents, I once again had to deal with my sadness alone.

Events like this have strongly impacted me, but not just in a negative way. Knowing my feelings made it possible for me to understand the feelings of others. Recognizing my hurt allowed me to build on my empathic skills. Having such a strong bond with an animal helped me understand that connections in life don’t have to make logical sense to be relevant and important.

We learn by our victories, but we grow by our disappointments. I will never put my children in a position where they feel that they can’t express their anger to me, and so in some way, the restaurant incident made me a better parent.

Every day we are given lessons, we can choose to learn from them, or we can choose to ignore them. I am learning every day.

By the way, I believe that my sister honored her doggie obligations for less than a week. Bowser was fed, and cared for by my mom. No surprise, I know.

Mike and Bowser

Dr. Mike Buys A New Cooker

I grew up in a 1920s style bungalow before living in such a house was chic. My parents moved into our Chicago home on Francisco Avenue in 1951 and did a minimal amount of redecorating at that time. Interestingly, most of that work actually destroyed some of the house’s natural charm. For instance, the living room fireplace and its two companion stained glass windows were removed to make that room more modern.

The kitchen had undergone the most basic of renovations then and remained the same until we moved to the suburbs almost 25 years later. The floor was redone in red and green tiles that were arranged in a checkerboard fashion, and one wall received “tile work” from its baseboard to its midpoint. The “tiles” were, in fact, a single sheet of linoleum that was molded into a yellow square tile pattern. An example of remodeling on a minimal budget.

My memories of the kitchen are from the 1960s, and at that point, the prior effort to update it just added to its hodgepodge appearance. By then the floor tiles were dull and broken, and the linoleum wall was aged and worn. Against that wall was a 1950s style chrome kitchen table with matching tube chairs. Its grey Formica top had the look of one from an old diner booth, with parts of the surface rubbed off after thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Above the table was a small cheap wall lamp, which was secured by a single screw 2 feet above the faux tiles. The room was illuminated by a bare circular fluorescent ceiling light that gave the space a cold bluish tinge. Directly across from the table was a white freestanding cabinet, its surface enameled steel. On top of the cabinet was an old Sunbeam Mixmaster that my mother used every day to bake the family a variety of treats. To the right of the table was a farm style sink with a built in drainboard. It was mounted to the wall and supported by two cylindrical porcelain legs. The old vessel had a worn down finish. Across from the sink was our single door Coldspot fridge and our Crown gas range, both purchased when my parents moved into the home in 1951.

The Crown range was a point of displeasure for my mother, who was a skilled cook and baker. My father purchased it without her approval, and it was apparently the lines “base” model. It was a 36” wide appliance finished in basic white. Its enamel backsplash featured a small clock in its center that had long ago lost the ability to keep time. The front of the range was split in half, but instead of featuring two side-by-side ovens, it only had one. The other side was for pot storage.

The top four burners were lit by two pilot lights, perpetually burning gas during a time when natural resources were cheap and endless. Its surface scratched by a past run-in with a steel wool pad.

Lighting the oven was not for the faint of heart as the operator had to turn on the gas, light a match, and insert the match into a little hole on the oven’s floor. Being late for even a second would cause a giant whoosh of flames and heat.

The over-temperature was always off by 25 degrees on the Crown, and we all knew to make the correct adjustment. Being the base model, its walls were not adequately insulated causing it to bake unevenly, which was my mother’s chief complaint, the other being the oven’s small size.

The stove had significant imperfections, but it worked. It was the heart of our kitchen, and the kitchen was the heart of our home. There was always a supply of fresh percolator coffee on the stovetop and some sort of freshly baked treat from the oven. Family, relatives, and friends gathered in the kitchen to sit on the old chrome chairs and sip, eat, and talk.

I bought my Naperville home in 1989, and I was fortunate that the prior owner left a stove and fridge. There was nothing wrong with these appliances, but I wanted something more modern, and after a few years I moved them to the basement to be replaced with expensive stainless steel ones.

The cheap appliances from my parents home never failed and never needed repair. Such was not the case of my shiny new appliances. The fridge received many service calls, and the gas stove’s burners lost their ability to be adjusted. After about 8 years both had to be replaced, which prompted a trip to the appliance department at Sears.

I had been playing around with a tabletop induction burner, and I was dazzled by its utility. I knew that I wanted that technology in my new stove. The salesman at Sears pointed me in the right direction, and after an hour of exploration I pulled out my charge card and made my purchases. A Samsung fridge with French doors and a Kenmore Elite range that had both an induction cooktop and a convection oven.

The Samsung fridge turned out to be a nightmare, it was so over-engineered that it constantly broke down. I replaced it with a similar model from Whirlpool last year. The ranged faired better and sealed my love for induction cooking. However, its oven was less reliable, and the unit had a catastrophic failure last month. The stove cost over $2500 when I purchased it 9 years earlier, and now it was heading for a landfill.

My shopping habits have changed in the last decade and with Julie’s OK I bought the new stove online from Costco, based only on pictures and reviews. Being so cavalier with such a significant purchase would have been unimaginable in the past.

On Monday a delivery man took away the Kenmore and installed our new GE stove. It is similar to the Kenmore, but it has few features added, and a few others were taken away. Its backsplash is filled with computerized controls; I now look at such functions as future repairs rather than modern marvels.

My kitchen’s appearance is very different from the one that I grew up in. Modern and efficient, it has every cooking convenience that a chief could want. Instead of a percolator, we have both a Bunn drip pot and a Keurig single serve unit. Instead of a Formica and chrome table, we have one made of real wood. Granite countertops and cherry wood cabinets sit in for my parents’ old enamel one. A deep under-the-counter stainless steel sink takes the place of my parent’s worn farmhouse unit. The recessed lights in the ceiling number 12, and give off a warm and welcoming glow. The floor consists of oak planks instead of worn and broken asbestos tiles. A fancy light fixture from Pottery Barn defines the dining space in place of the dimestore wall lamp that my parents used.

My kitchen is different from the one that I grew up with, but it also very similar. Despite 60 years of separation it still has to serve the same function as the one that my mother cooked in. It also serves the same social functions that my parent’s kitchen did. It is a gathering place for my family, relatives, and friends. There we eat, we talk, we plan, we play games, we entertain. I could comfortably live without our living room, but I would be lost without our kitchen.

Shiny and modern, my kitchen should be advanced in every way from my childhood one, but it is not. Although my parents had imperfect appliances, they worked for decades. Their oven may have been off by 25 degrees, but it never faltered beyond that value. The freezer compartment in their fridge may have been small and frosty, but we never worried that our ice cream would be melted.

My complex new appliances promise fancy advances, most of which I will never use. The new stove is more computer than a cooker. I had to read the manual twice just to understand how to set its digital clock. Yes, my fridge and stove are more energy efficient, but what does that really mean to me and to the environment when I have to replace a costly unit every 7 to 10 years. Planned obsolescence is good for manufacturing companies but bad for everyone else.

I live in 2019, not in 1950 and I have to accept the reality of early appliance demise. However, I can also celebrate advances that range from practical convection cooking to silly wifi connectivity. Our new stove has both, and to initiate it to our kitchen my daughter, and I baked 6 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. We were both pleased with how the new oven worked. However, you may want to check back with me 7 or 8 years from now as it is likely that I will once again be in the market for a new one. That is if it lasts that long.

Stop over sometime for a cup of coffee and some homemade bread with jam. The coffee pot is always on, and the conversation is always flowing. Some things never change.

A stove similar to the one that I grew up with.
My new stove is more computer than cooker.

Six warm loaves, right out of the oven.

Camping On New Year’s Eve In A Winter Storm-Crazy!

“Do you want to do it?” I thought for a minute and said, “Yeah, I think so. You only live once, right?”

My campervan was mostly complete, and I had already had taken it to Colorado and Missouri on separate trips, but those trips were during warmer weather.

Tom’s son wanted to go camping sometime in January, and Tom was inviting me along. This would be more of an experience than an actual trip, and we would be spending only one night in the cold. The destination, Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. Tom has a fondness for Devil’s Lake, it is a beautiful park; its centerpiece being the lake which is surrounded by high bluffs.

After Christmas Tom told me that he decided to go up on New Year’s Eve. I had a concern about this date as I thought that many services could be closed, but it sounded exciting and fun. Besides, we had unseasonably mild weather, so how bad could it be?

The other concern was my homefront. I knew that Julie wouldn’t mind me going on a camping trip, but on this one, I would be away from her on holiday. With that said, I’m usually in bed by 11 PM on New Year’s Eve. I’m hardly a party animal. I asked for her thoughts she said she didn’t mind it if I went.

My friend Tom had to work the morning of the trip, and he suggested that I go up early to secure a campsite. Tom imagined a party like atmosphere with the campground filled to the brim with happy campers excited to bring in the new year, and he wanted to make sure that we had a spot. Only one of the park’s multiple campgrounds is open year round, and that one didn’t take reservations.

Traveling the 3 hours to Baraboo WI solo was not an option for me. In the summer of 2017, we traveled separately to the same campground. I got turned around and wound up at a different site at the opposite end of the park. T-mobile cellular service at Devil’s Lake was almost non-existent, and it was nearly impossible for me to reach Tom. He had arrived hours earlier with both his son and my son. Eventually, we connected which is when I found out that all of the campgrounds were full. Exhausted from a full day of work and a drive to Wisconsin, I loaded William into my car and drove 3 hours home. It was not a warm and fuzzy memory.

I still have some finishing touches to do on my campervan, but it is functional. However, I had removed most of its storage boxes, as we were in the process of building out a large container that would reside under the camper’s platform bed. I debated if I wanted to return the contents to the camper. After all, I was only going for a day. At the last minute, I tossed the bins into the van. “Better safe than sorry,” I thought.

We left together, me in my campervan and Tom and his son in his 4×4 Dodge Ram dually. It was around 35 F, and it was lightly raining. We started our drive north, and the rain got progressively worse. I kept looking at the outside temperature readings on my Promaster’s dash. Thirty-five degrees, then 34F, then 33F, then the dreaded 32F. Thirty-two degrees, the point where rain turns to sleet. Thirty-two degrees, when the wet pavement turns to black ice. Initially, the van seemed to handle the change in conditions, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

We turned off the Interstate and onto a county road. Google maps said we had about 26 miles to go until we reached the park. By that time the sleet had turned to snow, and it was coming down hard. We were on a 4 lane road (two lanes per direction) that was winding up a hill. I could see that Tom was having a bit of trouble as the back of his truck was wiggling. I could feel that my traction was also slipping. There was no option, so we moved on.

As we turned a curve, the traffic suddenly slowed down to a near stop. In the middle of the right lane was a sedan with its flashers on. I thought that the owner was having car trouble, but I wondered why he had foolishly stopped directly in the middle of the right lane. I drove a little further and saw another car in the right lane, its flashers blinking. Then another, and another. The higher I drove up the hill, the more cars I saw parked in the right lane. I could see Tom’s truck ahead. He was moving forward, but his Ram has 6 tires of traction. The sedan in front of me was lurching forward, sometimes sliding sideways, sometimes almost stalling. I could feel my traction failing, and I started to panic as I imagined having to spend the night in my van as it sat directly in the line of traffic. By some miracle, I made it up the hill, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

The road narrowed to a single lane, and the snow continued to fall. It became impossible to determine if I was in the correct lane. I made a conscious effort to stay in the tire tracks that Tom’s truck made, using his four rear tires as my personal snow plow. I was in the middle of nowhere, it was getting dark, my van was struggling, I was feeling sick to my stomach. My doctor’s training has made me good at handling crises, but I was still feeling the stress. I willed myself to move forward.

Tom pulled into the broad entrance to Devil’s Lake State Park, and I followed. The road past the entrance went down at a steep angle and instinct told me that I should stay put. I told Tom that I was not going down. He felt that his 4 wheel drive could do the job and said that he would make the loop drive to explore the park and then come back to pick me up. He gave me an alternative route to the campground, just in case. Time ticked on, and I thought about the possibility of staying put at the entrance for the night. That option would certainly be better than getting stuck in the middle of a road.

Tom returned and said that my van would not have made it down and back. We took the alternate route to the campground. We traveled another quarter mile and took a right turn on an unplowed road with a slight incline. I could see that Tom traction was struggling again and I could feel my van straining. The only way I was able to move forward was by running my engine at 30 miles per hour. This constant acceleration moved the van at a jerking 5 miles per hour. I prayed that I wouldn’t have to stop as I knew that I would not be able to move forward again.

Although we only traveled a few blocks on that road, it seemed like miles. I’m glad that Tom was so familiar with the park, as I would never have seen the entrance to the campground. He pulled in, and I followed. The campground was completely empty, and its roads were unplowed and deep in snow. I thought, “Find a spot close to the entrance,” but he continued to drive as if he was looking for the perfect campsite. He eventually stopped, and so did I. When I tried to move forward again it was clear that I was stuck. Stuck in the middle of the road in an empty campground, and it was definitely getting darker.

I signaled Tom, and he said that he would loop around the campground and come up on my rear. I wasn’t sure what his plan was, but I was grateful that I wasn’t alone. He got back into his pickup and drove out-of-sight. My mind moved into solution mode, and various ideas and contingency plans flooded me in multiple data stream. I wondered if I could rock myself back then forward. I tried to back up, and surprisingly I was able to do this. However, I could not move an inch forward, as the road ahead was on an incline.

I got out of the van and scanned my surroundings. Despite the heavy snow, I could see the boundaries of level places, which were intended for the camper’s cars. I made some quick calculations and came up with a crazy plan to back up my van several hundred yards in reverse and then turn into one of the almost invisible parking slots. If successful I could take that move into a three-point-turn and point my van in the opposite (and downward) direction towards the campground’s entrance. I felt that I had nothing to lose.

I could feel my tires slipping as I started the backup, but I continued. I made another mental calculation and decided that I should be close to a flat spot and quickly turned my wheel to the right as I wanted to keep my momentum. The van tracked into a parking spot, and I had a sigh of relief. After a 10 second pause to catch my anxious breath I shifted the gear selector into drive and gently pressed on the accelerator. The van moved forward!

I was now going downhill and towards the entrance to the park. Tom was nowhere in sight. I could finally see the entrance, and then I saw Tom. He had been delayed because he got stuck and almost slid into a tree.

We were committed to camp, and frankly, we had no other options. Tom pulled into a spot, and I asked him if he would park my van next to his truck. I was exhausted and didn’t need any more challenges.

Tom had brought a wheelbarrow of firewood in the bed of his pickup, and he set about the task of starting a fire with a Bernzomatic torch. While he was doing this, I spotted the sites power pole and wondered aloud if the juice was still on. “They use GFI outlets, why don’t you check,” Tom said. I walked over and lifted the heavy metal shroud that covered the outlets. A tiny green LED blinked back at me. Being a good Eastern European type I had brought enough food for at least two days, now we also had power. I was jubilant. I opened the back of the Promaster and started to search the storage boxes that I had tossed in as an afterthought. Yes, here was the 30 Amp power cord, and there was the 30 Amp extension cord. In another box, I found the $18 little black electric heater that I bought at Walmart months earlier. I called Tom’s son to be my gopher, and in about 5 minutes I had AC power in my camper. I plugged in the little heater and turned it on. The temperature was quickly dropping outside, and I wanted to capture every BTU that I could.

Tom was busy setting up a tripod stand to hold the cast iron Dutch oven that he brought. In it, he had chunks of steak, onions, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage. The fire was now blazing, and he was adjusting a chain that was supporting the Dutch oven. Lower into the flame for hotter, higher away from the flame for colder.

We had food, electricity, some heat, and a fire. I was content and my panic from earlier in the day had washed away. I was now in my 12-year-old boy mode and was feeling like a great explorer in an unknown wilderness. I asked Tom’s son if he wanted to go on an adventure walk with me. He did, our main discovery was that the pit toilets were unlocked! Now we could definitely weather the storm. I had a down coat from Cabela’s, my rubberized Bog boots, and a new pair of fancy Gordini gloves that Julie had given me for Christmas. On my head sat a red stocking cap. Over the hat was my jacket’s hood. The fire plus my outfit kept me surprisingly warm.

The three of us stood, then sat around the fire talking. Despite being an introvert, I have no problem talking to Tom for hours. With that said, I can’t honestly remember much of what we were talking about. That’s the way it sometimes goes with best friends, the contact is more important than the context. At one point Tom decided that he was going to pick up a bottle of wine to help me relax after my harrowing drive. Although I initially protested his plan, I eventually gave in. I am not much of a drinker, and Tom doesn’t drink at all, but he got into his dually and drove to a local gas station that had liquor service. I had seen a plow go down the street in front of the campground and I was anxious to get a road report. If anyone could navigate in the snow, Tom could with his 6 wheels of traction.

Tom return, and I opened the bottle with my Dollar Store corkscrew. I bought it for a $6 camper supply “buying frenzy” several months earlier. I poured some wine into a stainless steel camping mug and took a sip. We continued to talk. Eventually, it was deemed that Tom’s stew was done and he pulled the Dutch oven off the fire. I contributed some paper plates, bread, salt, and a black garbage bag. Not much of a contribution, but at least I felt the I was doing something.

There is nothing quite as delicious as hot food when you are standing out in the cold for hours. I felt like I was dining at a 4-star restaurant. I ask for and received seconds.

Tom’s son was starting to fade and wanted to go to bed. Tom set up a bed in the back seat of his truck’s cab and off he went. Tom and I continued to talk for several more hours as even a single glass of wine can turn me into a philosopher. At some point, I started to talk about the existence of God. Eventually, we both felt the need to call it a night. Tom set up a place in his truck for him, and I fluffed the blankets in my camper van for me. My Walmart heater was definitely warming the van, and I was grateful, as I knew that it was going to drop to 19F during the night. Bedtime, 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve.

I can’t say that I slept perfectly, but I did sleep reasonably well. The morning came, and I could hear Tom’s diesel running. He started his truck at 2 AM, as the cold was beginning to make his feet numb. It was time to break camp. The firewood had done its job, and all of it had been consumed. Without the fire, we would have never have been able to spend hours the night before standing in the freezing cold

“Breakfast?” Tom said. “Of course,” I replied. It was now the moment of truth. Would the Promaster be able to navigate the snow and drive out of the campground? Tom backed it out, and then I climbed into the driver’s seat and shifted the gear selector into drive. I lightly, but purposefully, pressed the accelerator and the van moved forward. Down the snowy path I went. Soon we were back on the road that had been so treacherous the night before. However, it was now plowed and sanded. Off to Baraboo.

There is a little breakfast joint in Baraboo that resides in an old diner. The diner building was once located somewhere in New England. Apparently, it was disassembled and stored for decades in a warehouse in Ohio. It was discovered there and reassembled in Baraboo, piece by piece. The inside of the restaurant is in a classic diner style, replete with green vinyl upholstered booths and an abundance of chrome. We have eaten there in the past, and I knew that they served a hearty breakfast.

We pulled up to the diner, and I was happy to see that it was open on New Year’s Day. Inside we found an open booth, which was easy as only one other table was occupied as was one chair at the counter. Tom and his son went to wash their hands as the waitress came over. She reminded me of Flo, from those Progressive Insurance commercials. The back of her T-shirt proudly proclaimed, “Body By Bacon.” I knew I was in the right place. Tom and his son returned, and we placed our orders. Both of them ordered omelets. I went for eggs over easy and sausage links. By the time our order arrived, I was well into coffee, but I had to consciously control my consumption as I would soon be on the road. I didn’t want to have to stop every 30 minutes. We confidently noted that we were the very first people to use a campsite at Devil’s Lake State Park in 2019. We did this with the vibrato of Lewis and Clark explorers.

With our bellies once again full it was time to start the journey home, and after a few directional missteps, we were on the newly plowed and salted Interstate heading south. Tom called me and noted that he was going to exit as his son wanted to explore the sporting options at Cascade Mountain. I wished him well and drove on.

I made a call to Julie to let her know that I was safe and heading home. I traveled the rest of the trip in silence and entertained myself with memories of the last 24 hours. I was grateful that I brought the right clothes, enough food, and the right van equipment to weather the storm. I was thankful that I had traveled with my friend, Tom. He thought to bring some things, I remembered others. Together, we had enough.

The nausea of the drive in had long passed, and the pleasure of the trip was present in my mind. I don’t think I would have gone if I knew that I would have had to travel in a snowstorm, but that was behind me, and I was left with the sweet memory of a crazy camping trip where only three people filled a huge campground with their adventurous spirit. It was a great way to start the New Year and to kick off my impending retirement.

Happy New Year, dear readers.

Me, in the snow.
Tom building the fire.
Dinner cooking!
Winter Camping!
We had the campground completely to ourselves.
Peaceful.
The next morning, eggs, sausage and toast for breakfast…and of course coffee.

Christmas In Cold Minnesota

I could see the outline of the Minneapolis-St. Paul skyline from my window seat as the plane banked to the left. The year was 1989, and I had just finished taking part II of my Psychiatry Board exam at the Hennepin County Hospital in Minneapolis. I felt that I had done well, and I was feeling a sense of relief.  This was my first time visiting the Twin Cities, and I remember thinking that this visit would be not only my first but also my last. There was no reason to return.

December 1991, I packed two suitcases into the tiny back seat of my 1988 Mustang GT convertible. My Mustang had a brilliant white body, accented by a dark navy blue ragtop. She was sleek, sexy, and very fast.  The GT drove like a dream on dry pavement, but it could be treacherous with the slightest bit of snow. This latter fact concerned me as I was about to embark on a 450-mile trip up north.

I started the car’s engine and rotated the heater knobs to warm the cabin and defrost the windshield.  I reached over the passenger seat, grabbed my yellow window scraper, and started to hack the ice and snow off the windshield.  I waited for the car to warm up before going back into the house to get my girlfriend. I was already feeling anxious.

She was also feeling nervous, but we were both playing it cool.  Soon we were whizzing down I-88, then I-39, then I-90. We made random conversation and tried to appear calm.  Our hidden anxiety evidenced by our frequent detours to interstate rest-stops. I would have to stop, then she would.  Our suddenly overactive bladders were providing a window into our inner emotional state.

We had started dating in July, and a few months later she had asked me to travel north to spend Christmas with her family who lived in a rural town outside of the Twin Cities. I had given up on all dating for almost two years before that July. I had decided that the whole courtship process was too stressful and I had made a commitment to myself to live a single life. I was happy with my choice, but I also felt like something was missing. I met her at a random meeting one week before she was to leave our workplace to return to graduate school. We sat next to each other at that meeting, and we started to chat; a week later I asked her out on a date… now we were driving to Minnesota.

The drive was long, the air was frigid cold. We drove through the Twin Cities and got onto Highway 55, traveling west towards the town of Buffalo.  My heart was beating faster as we drove down the narrow road, past farms and frozen fields. Finally, we arrived at Buffalo, the county seat of Wright County.  A town of 10,000 surrounded by Buffalo Lake, Lake Pulaski, and Deer Lake. Julie’s parent’s house was on Buffalo Lake. We pulled up a large circular driveway at the back of the house.  There were cars already parked, we were not the first to arrive.

There was no need to knock, and Julie opened the back door and walked in.  I followed with my suitcase and a large gift basket that I brought as a hostess gift. We were greeted with welcomes and hellos.  Everyone was excited to see Julie and curious to meet me. I was satisfied with smiles and the smell of dinner cooking in the oven. I’m naturally shy, and I quickly donned my more social alter ego.  A smile on my face, I moved forward boldly.

The day consisted of polite questions, good food, and parlor games. At some point, Christmas gifts were opened. Julie’s father, Bob requested that she play a piano duet with her sister Kathy.  They dutifully banged out a few Christmas carols. At some point, Julie and I walked to Buffalo’s downtown, which was only a block away. At the town’s grocery store Julie ran into several residents, all of them wanting an update as they looked at me with questioning eyes. At another point, Bob loaded me into his old Lincoln and drove me directly onto Buffalo Lake.  As a city boy, I was confident that we would plunge to our deaths believing that the weight of the car would crack the ice beneath its wheels. It did not, and I lived another day. That night the temperature dropped to -19 F, I got ready to go out and warm up the Mustang to make sure that it would start the next morning. Julie’s brother-in-law, Karl quizzically looked at me, “Why are you starting the car, it is only -19?”  I was definitely in Minnesota!

Despite my shyness, I soon felt comfortable and fell back into my real personality.  Julie’s family is very Swedish, and I’m Eastern European by heritage. Some of their customs were different than mine, but I was more aware of our similarities rather than our differences.  I wondered how many men she had brought up to Buffalo through the years. I found out later that I was the first, and only one.

Today is December 25, 2018. I write this post from Burnsville, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.  I arrived here yesterday with Julie and our three children. Running late, we traveled directly to Faith Covenant Church, My sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s home church.  There we met the rest of the family as we celebrated Christmas Eve with a candlelight service.

After church, we returned to their home. We had interesting conversation, good food, and played games.  We caught up on each other’s lives. This morning we opened gifts, ate more, talked more, and played more games. As I write this some of us are reading, some are playing the board game, “Risk,” two are finishing the construction of a Christmas present, two are completing a jigsaw puzzle, I am writing this post. Today I learned that Oregon produces the most Christmas trees, and the dentist elf in the TV special, “Rudolf The Red Nose Reinder,” name is Hermie. Knowledge is power!

I have been traveling to Minnesota for the last 27 years, not only for Christmas but for other events too. I have long lost any anxiety when visiting my wife, Julie’s side of the family. After all of these years, her family is my family. In 1989 I thought that I had completed my one and only trip to Minnesota.  Twenty-nine years later I have been here over 100 times. Dear reader, life is full of surprises.

Why I Write A Christmas Newsletter In 2018

When I was growing up our dining room table served many essential functions, and most of them didn’t involve eating. Yes, we did serve Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner in the dining room, but that was about it for our culinary experiences there.

During normal times the table was a repository for coats, packages, and books. It is where I did my homework every night in grade school. It was where my mother would be up all night typing my brother Dave’s college term papers. And it was where we wrote out our Christmas cards. I know my mother was the family’s principal card writer, but I have a vague memory that my father was also involved.

Our dining room table was in the Duncan Phyfe style, and it was huge, old, and dusty. It had a sheet of glass on it that protected its non-Formica top and gave it a cold and hard feeling when touched. Around it was 6 creaky chairs. The rectangular dining room of our 1920s bungalow held the table along with an equally old and ugly spindly legged buffet. Kitty corner from the buffet was my mother’s sewing machine, housed in a boxy imitation mahogany cabinet.

My mother bought the machine at Goldblatt’s department store on a special where the machine’s “furniture” cabinet was thrown in to sweeten the deal. The device was made in Japan at a time when this did not mean quality. It was a constant source of frustration for my mother who always complained that its tension mechanism was too tight.

Early in December the dining room table would be cleared of its holdings and repurposed with boxes of greeting cards, rolls of stamps, and sheets of return address labels. A long evening followed with my mom (and possibly my dad) signing and addressing dozens of cards. We didn’t have self-stick stamps or address labels in those days, and I would usually be employed as the licker.

We tended to buy off-brand of cards as Hallmarks were too expensive. The card’s style varied from year to year, sometimes religious, sometimes Santa-ish. My mother’s goal was to get the most beautiful cards at the most reasonable price.

I would sit and watch her expertly sign and address each card, amazed with her neat and precise handwriting. My handwriting was terrible, so bad that a nun once tried to humiliate me by making me write my assignments on control paper. That is the multi-lined stuff that primary level kids use to make sure that they correctly spaced their uppercase and lowercase letters. I remember watching my mom write while thinking to myself., “When I grow up I’ll have neat and precise handwriting too.” Well, I grew up and became a doctor, and those stories about doctor’s handwriting are all true, sorry nuns.

Christmas cards were a big deal in the 1960s, and they had to go out on time. To have them arrive after Christmas would be insulting to the receiver. Some of our relatives were in better financial positions than us. From them, we would receive cards with their names printed instead of handwritten. At the time I thought that this was the height of class; as a kid, I was easily dazzled.

We didn’t receive many Christmas newsletter, but my married sisters did. Generally, they were perceived as a tacky vehicle to brag. In fact, in those days there was a counter movement of letter writers who deliberately and humorously wrote newsletters that dramatized all of the bad things that happened to them in the previous year.

My wife, Julie is from Minnesota, and it is common practice with her family and friends to include a photocopied newsletter in their Christmas card. I enjoy reading these newsletters which chronicle everything from the births and deaths to the successes and failures of the sender’s family. I especially like the ones from Ag families that document the year’s crop yield, or the latest livestock venture. As a kid, I thought names printed on Christmas cards were good, and newsletters were bad. Now I feel the opposite. Maturity does these things.

In the 1990s I started to write a Christmas newsletter every December. In those days I was into desktop publishing, and these skills were the perfect foil for my holiday writing aspirations. Early on I decided on an “all inclusive” format that would include at least one photo, a written year in review, and a recipe. I have kept that format to this very day.

I bought my first laser printer for newsletter printing, and then my first color laser printer. To get the best photo I purchased my first digital camera in 1996. My Kodak DC-40 retailed for $1000, but I got it at the bargain price of $800. Incredibly primitive by today’s standards it took photos at a maximum resolution of 0.4 MP (less than one-half of a megapixel). Most new cameras have a resolution of 24 MP to 50 MP, which contains 60 to 125 times more image detail then my original camera, Despite the Kodak’s limitations it was the start of my obsession with digital cameras and digital photo editing. I find it interesting that the primary task of writing a Christmas newsletter could improve my both my desktop publishing skills and my technology skills as it also spawned my interest in digital photography. One little twist in your life can lead to many turns.

Over the last few years we have received fewer and fewer holiday cards, and it seems that the trend of sending them is becoming passe. Besides, Facebook has made the yearly update style of a Christmas newsletter somewhat obsolete. Based on these facts I have thought about stopping the practice of writing one. However, after some deliberation, I have decided to continue the tradition. However, I may deliver future copies in a more limited manner.

I have come to realize that I don’t write “Christmas Time” for others, I write it for my family. A copy of each year’s letter is saved in a special Christmas book that will be handed down at the appropriate time. The letters have chronicled our lives in pictures, words, and recipes. It gives me pleasure to think that grandkids, who may never know me, will read my words and make Julie’s recipes. I hope that these newsletter and other things that I’m creating will allow them to know me on a personal level, instead of just viewing a blurry photographic image of me.

I know that it is essential for me to be remembered by my family, and the best way that I can do this is by my writing and photography. Why is it important? I’m not sure, but I know that it is important, and that is enough reason to do it.

Happy holidays, and Merry Christmas dear readers.

My first digital camera, the Kodak DC 40. Purchased in 1996.
Writing this year’s Christmas newsletter.

Baby It’s Cold Outside-The Controversy

I really can’t stay (Baby it’s cold outside)
I gotta go away (Baby it’s cold outside)
This evening has been (Been hoping that you’d dropped in)
So very nice (I’ll hold your hands they’re just like ice)
My mother will start to worry (Beautiful what’s your hurry?)
My father will be pacing the floor (Listen to the fireplace roar)
So really I’d better scurry (Beautiful, please don’t hurry)
Well maybe just a half a drink more (I’ll put some records on while I pour)  From “Baby It’s Cold Outside”  by Frank Loesser in 1944


A few weeks ago I was scanning Facebook and came across a comment from my friend, Mary Jo.  She was wondering why the holiday classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was being banned by radio stations across the country.  I also wondered why. It turns out that radio disk jockey Glenn Anderson of Cleveland’s WDOK-FM listened to the lyrics of the song and found them, “Manipulative and wrong.”  

We now live in a protective bubble world.  A place where our interpretation of something trumps its actual meaning or intent. We are supposed to live politically correct lives, at least on the surface.  

I can understand how some things that we once thought were acceptable are now considered offensive.  When I was growing up, it was common to see a small statue of a black coachman at the entrance of a suburban driveway.  As I kid I didn’t think much about this, but I am a white male. Many blacks felt otherwise, and these creepy statues have long disappeared.

This is a world of extremes and absolutes.  Concepts that have merit can be neutralized by applying their intent in such a broad way that they become meaningless. #metoo brought to the world’s attention the atrocities of men in power who used that power to abuse both men and women sexually.  Bringing these practices to the forefront was both essential and necessary. However, as this hashtag caught fire, it spawned an ever-broadening set of things that offended. Dear reader, there is a big difference between masturbating in front of an unwilling underling to telling someone that you like their outfit. If this common courtesy offends the recipient, I believe that they should say to the commenter that they would prefer not to hear such things.  This empowers the individual and clearly lets the complimenter know the rules of the road for that individual.

We need to be respectful of individuals, but we also need to acknowledge that something that offends one person may actually be appreciated by another.  I am delighted on the rare occasion when someone tells me that I look nice. I make an effort to tell people (both men and women) when I think that they look nice. Conversely, I have gotten negative feedback when I have failed to notice changes. My kids will often remind me when my wife has gotten a new haircut.  Once alerted I do see the difference and I’m happy to let my wife know.

I understand that there are readers out there who will be offended by my opinion. They may cite instances where someone’s outfit comments were clearly out-of-line. I once heard a female speaker at a conference refer to her tall leather boots as, “Come f**k me boots.”  However, it is unlikely that she would appreciate it if I said to her, “Hey, I really dig your come f**k me boots!” Common sense in all things.

It is not just what is said, it is the context in which it is said.  We now converse with each other by text message, and individuals who have been raised on this type of communication have less exposure to the nuances of communication. We are no longer listeners, we are readers. How many times have you read someone’s text and wondered, “Are they being funny or serious?”

So is “Baby Its Cold Outside” an innocent flirtatious love song or a date rape anthem?  The song was written by Frank Loesser in 1944 as a call and response duet. He wrote it for his wife and himself so they could perform it when then were attending friend’s parties. “Hey honey we don’t need to bring any nacho dip, I decided to write them a hit song instead.  Good thing that we can both sing.” (not a real quote) The song was featured in the 1949 movie, “Neptune’s Daughter.” However, the version that seems to be most popular on the radio was recorded by Dean Martin in 1959 (using a chorus for the female part).

In the American culture in the 1940s-1960s, women who were more open about their sexuality were considered tramps or sluts. The ideal woman was called a “good girl.”  Chast, pure and absent of any libidinal urges until those feelings were unlocked by that special someone. Romantic communications were more indirect, and part of courting involved gentle persistence and resistance. I’m not endorsing or condemning this style, I’m just stating that was the way it was. If you are 30 or under, you may not believe me. If you are 40 and older, you know that that was the case.

You see these behaviors played out in “Baby Its Cold Outside.”  The suitor continues to suggest that his date stays longer (likely for the night).  Her main reason for not staying is not that she doesn’t want to, she is concerned what other people will think of her if she does,  “My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious… So really I’d better scurry.” She is representing the popular concept of a good girl. In that role, she is offering gentle resistance to his pleas.  She tells him how she is expected to act, while she also tells him what she is really thinking. “I ought to say no, no no, sir. At least I can say I tried.” She delays leaving a number of times in the song with lines like, “But maybe just a cigarette more,” and “But maybe just a half a drink more.”

Good girls were supposed to be sexy and sexless at the same time.  When they acted outside of this contradictory set of rules, it was expected of them to blame external influences or events. We see those mores played out in lines like, “I wish I knew how to break this spell,”  and “Say what’s in this drink?” The song ends with both parties singing in unison, “But, baby it’s cold outside!” After persuasion and resistance have played out, they are now allowed to do what they intended to do, reputations intact.

“Baby it’s cold outside.” is a fluffy little love song that was correctly understood by the audience that it was intended for. To make it into something else shows how limited we have become in our critical thinking skills.  Sadly, this lack of critical thinking extends to broader and more important issues in our lives and the world around us. It is important to understand things not only from our viewpoint and frame of reference but also from the perspective of others. Unfortunately, the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes has gone from commonplace to exotic.

The video below has two version of this song.  The first one is from the movie, “Neptune’s Daughter.”  The second is the comedic Red Skeleton version. Both give you an idea of Mr. Loesser’s intent. However, the comic Red Skeleton version gives you an even clearer view of what the song was really saying by reversing gender expected roles.  Give the video a watch.

Droby Fest 2018

Saturday night, December 1, 2018, we pile into my red Ford Flex. It is cold, just above freezing. Rain is falling, and we are all chilled. I tap directions into my iPhone, and off we go to Droby Fest. At this point, you may be thinking that Droby is the name of a band, or that Droby Fest is a community event, it is neither.

A Droby is a fresh Slovak sausage. Our family’s version is made from pork, organ meats, rice, and potatoes. It is seasoned with marjoram. There seem to be many renditions of this peasant sausage. However, they all have meat and potatoes in them.

Droby sausages are not bought, they are homemade in a laborious process. As a child, I had the job of grinding ingredients. My father would clamp a meat grinder onto a tall wooden stool. A large blue speckled Granite Ware roasting pan was then placed below the mill to catch the product of my efforts. I would feed chunks of raw meat and peeled potatoes into its nickel-plated hopper, as I cranked and cranked. When making Droby, you start with a coarse grinding plate and reprocess the mixture with successively smaller plates until it is the right consistency, relatively smooth with just a little bit of chunkiness. At home, we made our mixture casserole style, right in the roasting pan. However, my grandmother made her’s the traditional way, in sausage casing.

My extended family would meet at my grandparent’s south side walk-up on Christmas Eve. Their small residence consisted of a living room, a kitchen, three very tiny bedrooms, and an unheated back porch. Clean and neat, it appeared to be a homage to the 1940s, as most of it had never been modernized. Extremely tiny by today’s standards, it was the home where my grandparents raised their 6 children.

Our festivities would start with a meatless Christmas Eve meal. After a blessing, we would dine on Oplaki (wafers with honey), Opekance (steamed bread balls with poppyseed), and my grandmother’s delicious dried mushroom/sauerkraut soup. Sweets were aplenty, and there were endless supplies of kolacky, drop cookies, and homemade yeast coffee cake. I had to sample all of them.

At 11:30 PM we would go to midnight Mass at Assumption BVM church, a small Slovak Catholic church that was a few blocks away. The church would be packed with parishioners wearing their finest clothing, which were often items that had been removed from mothballs only hours earlier. The smell of mothballs mixed with onions and garlic is a distinct, if not wanted, memory for me.

After Mass, we would return to my grandparent’s for a second feast. My teetotaling aunts might sip on a glass of sweet Mogen David wine, getting a little silly in the process., My father and his brothers would do shots of whiskey, and become more boisterous. We kids would talk, play made up games, and continue to eat sweets. It was then time to eat again, although everyone was still completely full. I don’t recall everything that the second meal consisted of, but I do remember my grandmother’s light rye bread, baked ham, hard-boiled eggs, and Droby. Her bacon wrapped Droby sausage was baked until the casing was deliciously crisp. Yummy!

My grandparents died, and over the years our families grew apart. I recall going to many extended family parties as a kid, but very few by the time that I was in high school. With the loss of get-togethers came the loss of ethnic foods. I tried to make a dish here and there, but I had neither the time nor the skill to move past the most basic recipes.

And then there was a funeral…

When families drift, it isn’t uncommon to only re-connect at funerals and weddings. Such was the case of my extended family. At my Aunt Suzie’s funeral, my sister Nancy struck up a conversation with my cousin Ken. During that conversation, it was suggested that the family have a reunion picnic. At that picnic, it was determined that we needed other opportunities to reconnect, and a variety of get-togethers were eventually created. We now get together a number of times during the year. My cousins Ken and Kris are our family organizers. Their dedication to the Kuna cause is steadfast, and I am very grateful for their efforts.

Droby Fest is our cousin Christmas party, and it is held in the community room of the small Lutheran church where my cousin Bob attends. The building is tucked away on a side street in a quiet neighborhood in Palatine. It appears to have been built in the 1960s, and I would describe its architecture as functional.

The room where we meet is a large, bright rectangle. The walls, a utilitarian blue, the floor basic linoleum tiles. At the far end of the room is a large painting of Jesus with outstretched arms, floating on a cloud. Long folding tables stand in rows, each dotted with folding chairs. Seating is not assigned.

When you enter Droby Fest, you can feel the energy of the crowd. People mill around to connect with each other in a fashion that appears both random and purposeful at the same time. Smiles are everywhere.

As with my grandparent’s parties, food is at center stage. A long row of tables on one wall serves as the buffet bar for the main meal. Another table on an opposite wall serves as the dessert bar.

Everyone brings food, some homemade, some ethnic, some store-bought; it really doesn’t matter. This year the offerings ranged from Slovak chicken paprikash with haluski dumplings, to meatless Shepherd’s Pie for the vegetarians, to gluten-free perogies for those with gluten intolerance. There was something for everyone. My cousin Ken always makes Droby sausage in enough quantity to feed a small army.

The dessert bar is enormous and offers up a wide variety of store bought and homemade sweets. I no longer eat concentrated forms of sugar, so I drool as others sample a little bit of this or that. Alcohol is available, but only a few imbibe, and those that do seem to limit their consumption. This is a far cry from my father and my uncles drinking whiskey shots from the days of yore.

There is no rigid format at Droby Fest. Attend if you can, if you can’t, you will be missed. Talk to whoever you choose. Do whatever you want. Guilt and shame are off limits. We have long transcended peacocking. Victories are celebrated, losses are comforted. There are handshakes, smiles, and hugs.

I am proud of my extended family. Our grandparents arrived from Europe with nothing. Our parents were blue collar workers who wanted more for their children. My generation is highly educated and professional. America really is the land of opportunity!

Droby Fest now extends to three Kuna generations. My kids have tasted Slovak food, and they enjoy it. This Thursday I’ll cook Chicken Paprikash and Haluski with my son Will. He tried this dish at Droby Fest, and he was interested in learning how to make it. Our heritage lives on.

My cousins are kind, generous, interesting, and smart. What a privilege it is to spend time with them. How proud I am to be part of the Kuna family.

Next year we will celebrate 20 years of Droby Fest. We are no longer drifting apart.

Food, the heart of any gathering involving
Eastern Europeans.
Just some of the desserts.
Older connecting with younger.
A new generation of Droby eaters.
Julie, Will and me.
Family
Cousin Bob makes 60 loves of cinnamon bread by hand!
Getting ready to say grace.
Family gathering together.

Thoughts On Christmas Presents

The questions start in November and continue well into December. “What do you want for Christmas?” A query posed to my kids, to my wife, and to me.

When I was a child, this was an easy question to answer. I had very little and had many wants. Unfortunately, family finances were limited growing up, and receiving my desired gift was in no way a certainty.

We opened presents after dinner on Christmas day. This time was chosen so we could include my two maiden aunts, who ate Christmas dinner with us. Most of my friends opened their gifts on Christmas Eve, or Christmas morning, and waiting until 7 PM on Christmas Day seemed like a cruel eternity. This delay also heightened my anticipation for what I could possibly receive.

One Christmas I asked for a radio. That year my mother decided to wrap presents early, and she used a “secret” code to identify the gift recipients in an effort to prevent prying eyes. Unfortunately, she forgot the system by Christmas and had to use other, less than perfect, identifying skills.

She handed me my present and I took it with great anticipation. The size of the box was right, the weight of the box was within specs. I was very excited. I opened my present and burst into a, ”Thank you, thank you,” cry. Under the wrappers was a box that contained a Motorola AM table radio. I wanted something a little more sophisticated, but I was overjoyed getting this approximation. I looked at my mom and saw a disturbed look on her face. “Michael, that radio is not for you. It is for your brother, Tom.” I handed it over to him. There was no radio for me that Christmas.

During my post-divorce/pre-remarried period it was common for me to get little or nothing at Christmas. Yes, there were those times when I was dating someone, and we would exchange gifts, but there were other times when I was “single” and alone. I no longer had the desperate wants of childhood, but I still felt sorry for myself.

I have been re-married for many years, and with this union, I am assured to receive Christmas presents. Early in our relationship, we would shower each other with extravagant gifts. When we had kids we scaled back on our gifts, putting more effort into their presents. Over time, we also scaled back on those gifts.

Gone are the days when Christmas morning meant getting a pair of desperately needed shoes, or a new winter coat. We buy things as required year round. If my kid’s phone goes down I don’t expect them to wait 6 months to get a new one.

Every year my wife and I talk about scaling back further on our purchases, and we have had some success in that endeavor. Yet, we still can buy each other gifts that are forgotten as soon as, “Thank you,” leaves our lips.

This is possibly the point in the post where you may think that I’m going to say that in a moral cleansing effort I have decided to donate all of my gift money to charity. I am sorry to disappoint you, but that is not the case.

We do give to charities, and we also participate in a gift mart where we buy gifts for kids less fortunate than ours, but we still plan on buying gifts for our kids and each other.

After many years of not having anything to open on Christmas day, I want a present or two. It symbolizes to me that someone cares enough about me to make an effort to do something for me. In fact, we encourage our kids to give gifts, not only to their friends and siblings but also to us. It is vital for them to learn that their lives should be more about what they can do for others, rather than what stuff that they can get for themselves.

Through the years I have received many cherished gifts from my children. A red marble from William sits on the desk in my study, a piece of homemade pottery from Kathryn adorns my Rockford office, and a decorated flower pot from Grace serves as my pen and pencil holder at the Ware Center.

Back to the question that I posed in the first paragraph of this post. Since we have few wants, it can be challenging to find a gift that is meaningful to its intended recipient. It has also been vital for us to acknowledge that we are individuals, and we need to be respectful of each other’s desires.

A few years back my wife felt that as a family we should give each other experiences instead of gifts. That sounds great, but the kids and I wanted things to open on Christmas. A favorite gift for me is the gift of time. In other words, taking over one of my household chores for one or two cycles. This kind of gift would be meaningless to my kids, but they, in turn, would appreciate homemade cookies made by one of their siblings. What I’m saying is that it is important to include everyone’s feelings when making a global decision about holiday gift giving. You may think that donating the family’s gift money to charity and spending Christmas Day dishing out food at a local shelter is a fantastic idea. However, your spouse and kids may feel differently. Consideration in everything.

I do feel that gift giving has gotten out-of-control in many families. It makes no sense to go into debt to buy things that you absolutely don’t need. At the same time gift giving is a national tradition during the holiday season. The secret to success is a balanced approach and a doable budget. This balance/budget idea should be extended beyond our immediate families. I have talked to many a patient who was sick with financial worry after buying expensive gifts for relatives because “It was expected.” A frank discussion at Thanksgiving can preserve both your mental health and credit rating. Most extended families are grateful to move from debt spending to a simpler and cheaper option, such as a grab bag or white elephant gift exchange.

As I have already said, few people remember the gifts that they receive a month after getting them. However, most will remember time spent together. Having a happy and low-stress holiday returns the true spirit of that day. Imagine opening up your January credit card statement with relief, instead of dread.

So what did I asked for Christmas this year? I requested a good wool blanket for my campervan’s bed. A quality blanket is something that I would not likely purchase on my own, but once owned I would gratefully use it for years to come. It is lovely to be remembered at Christmas, and it is terrific to be toasty warm when camping on a frigid morning.

A snowy winter.
Christmas tree near downtown.
Christmas lights downtown.

Thanksgiving Day

I started doing it 25 years ago, as a request from my wife. I initially took on the job out of brash self-confidence, but it now has become an annual tradition. The job? Roasting the Thanksgiving turkey.

I woke up at 6 AM on Thanksgiving Day. A late morning for me as I’m usually up by 4 AM. I went to bed the night before at my usual time, but I was quickly joined by my wife, and minutes later three of my kids appeared at my bedside. Two of them had been away at college, and there was still a need to connect and catch up. Even Mercury, the cat, made her way to our bedroom. The conversation delayed my sleep, which in turn stalled my wake time.

I took my walk downtown but didn’t stop for coffee as I had things to do. Back home I plugged in our 25-year-old Nesco electric roaster and preheated it to 400 degrees F (205 C). I went out to the garage, which was serving as a temporary refrigerator on this frigid morning. We had brined our 18-pound turkey overnight in a slurry of herbs, salt, and water. I now had the task of draining off the water without spilling it all over the floor. Drained, rinsed, patted dry, it was now time for the turkey to get a butter bath in preparation for its roasting.

The remainder of the morning consisted of a familiar pattern of cooking, directing helpers, and cleaning up one task before starting the next one. Daughter Kathryn, Grandma Nelson, and Aunt Kathy peeled a mountain of potatoes, Julie ran back and forth serving many roles, Will and Grace helped set the tables, Aunt Amy did finishing touches. Together we were a team with a clear goal to get dinner on the table by 2 PM. There was no sitting down for me from the start of cooking to the saying of grace.

We have made the same dishes for Thanksgiving every year for the over 25 years that we have been preparing this dinner for Julie’s side the family. It is a celebration of starchy, high-fat foods, punctuated by sugary desserts.

Turkey, dressing, whipped potatoes, sweet potato casserole, corn casserole, green bean casserole, gravy, cranberries, herring, jello salad, rolls/butter, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie… and I am likely forgetting something. Thanksgiving dinner is not for the faint of heart, it is a calorie bomb designed to put any eater into a prolonged food coma.

This year our dinner was smaller, with only 15 attendees. Our nephew was in Rome. Two nieces and their spouses, my brother-in-law, and sister-in-law were elsewhere. At grace, we acknowledged and prayed for all of them.

We have long used a buffet style of serving the meal, always starting the food line with my wife’s parents and ending with Julie and me. Our wedding china makes its yearly appearance, as does various other serving dishes, some are antique depression glass, others simple 9 x 13 Pyrex dishes.

It is almost a requirement to try each food. Many of them are doused with a coating of gravy, and the resulting meal resembles a stew rather than a variety of separate dishes. Diving into all those carbs can be heavenly, but after the plate’s half-way point, the food becomes a potent sedative. Despite meal participant’s acknowledgment that they are bursting at the seams, most opt for dessert.

Conversation is lively during dinner, we catch up on each other’s lives. I have noticed a lack of political discourse over the last few years. A wise move as guest’s beliefs range from conservative to liberal. As far as I’m aware, no one has ever changed their political view during Thanksgiving dinner.

Every year we go around the table stating what we are thankful for. A beautiful affirmation of the blessing that we all are given. One thing that I’m grateful for is that some of the guests usually pitch in during cleanup duty. Despite my efforts to “clean as I go” there are still mounds of items after feeding so many people. The serving dishes alone fill the dishwasher.

Dinner tasks completed, exhaustion sets in. This year I gave myself 30 minutes to lie down to rest and digest my food. Post nap, Julie and I elected to go on a walk, and we were joined by family and guests as we meandered on the Riverwalk to downtown. The holiday lights were lit making our journey Christmas festive.

The rest of the evening was filled with TV sports, conversation, and games. At the end of the day, I asked Julie, “Do you think the food was good?” She replied, “It was great!” For some reason this affirmation of my cooking allowed me to relax and fall asleep.

Many of our guests are from out of town. They arrive on Wednesday and leave on Saturday. However, those additional meals are easy in comparison to Thanksgiving dinner.

Friday and Saturday fly by and before I know it our last guest has left. Another Thanksgiving concluded.

Why is it that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday? Despite the looming specter of Black Friday, Thanksgiving has remained a non-commercialized event. It centers on spending time with people you care about and sharing a meal with them. I cherish each aspect of the day, from the morning conversation to the after-dinner walk, to the post-meal activities. Thanksgiving is a celebration of connection and a time to reflect on those things that we are grateful for.

We live in a society of want. We feel deprived because we have last year’s computer, or that we are wearing last season’s color. As I write this, I’m sitting in a warm house, and I’m sipping on a nice cup of tea. In the next room, I can hear Julie talking to a friend from New York on the phone. Son, William, is playing a video game. Both of my college-age daughters have texted me that they have safely returned to their respective schools. My oldest daughter and her family are back at their home in central Illinois. Life is good.

I always feel happy at Thanksgiving. I know that this is due, in part, to the fact that I am focused on gratitude rather than dissatisfaction. I don’t need to eat a starch laden turkey dinner every day, but I do want to be thankful daily. I want to celebrate my life, and I want to focus on my “haves” rather than my “have-nots.” Dear reader, please join me and celebrate your daily thanks.

Carving the turkey.
Family help in setting the table.
Time to catch up!
A walk downtown.

Simple, Complex Dr. Mike

At 6:20 PM I exited the house and pulled myself up and into my freezing Ram Promaster campervan. I switched on the ignition and started my drive to Panera Bread on the other side of town. It took me about 15 minutes, and the van was still cold when I arrived. Once inside I used the restaurant’s kiosk to order a diet coke and a bowl of squash soup. The restaurant was busier than usual, and my favorite booth was already in use. I sat at a corner table instead. My sister Nancy arrived, and we sat, talked, and ate. This was our weekly creativity night. A time to catch up on each other’s lives and to focus on our writing.

The meeting concluded, and it was time to come up with a writing topic for the next week. I was dry of ideas. Nancy thought of a few for me, but none of them rang true. We Googled “interesting writing topics,” but the suggestions seemed trite, and not very interesting.

With a shortage of ideas, I decided to fall back on me, and the odd way that I approach life. I’ll call this piece “Simple, Complex Mike.”

I’m one of those obsessive people, who really enjoys his obsessiveness. I tend to become interested in something which then starts a sequence of events of learning, experimenting, and doing. This sequence can vary depending on the circumstance, but it is consistent enough to identify it as a pattern.

You may think that this “scientific” approach to life was developed when I was a microbiologist (Ed note: I was a scientist before I became a medical doctor), but it has been with me since birth. My wife, being a conservative Swede, didn’t understand this aspect of my personality and for many years and it was a source of endless frustration for her. I become obsessively interested in a topic, and part of that interest involves comparing things to understand their similarities and differences. I have multiple cameras because I like to explore their pros and cons. I know many ways to make a pie crust. I am comfortable using a variety of computer operating systems. The list goes on.

In most cases, I discover that similarities exceed differences in any given area of interest. A fact that I also find interesting. I have a small room in my basement full of various objects because of this comparison obsession. Julie has gone from complaining about my “junk” to merely shaking her head. This is one of the great things about knowing someone for decades, you start to accept the person for who they are instead of trying to change them into something that you think that they should be.

I see these same behaviors in my siblings, although they are expressed differently. We are all just a little bit crazy but in a harmless way. It must be a genetic thing.

My recent obsessive “energy” has been spent on my van to campervan conversion; its actual construction almost complete. One of the final stages is to convert the open space under the platform bed into a more usable storage area. I had some ideas about this, and I asked my friend, Tom, for his construction expertise. Tom, being a creative guy and general contractor, developed a grander and more comprehensive vision, and my garage is now filled with plywood slabs that are waiting for the next phase of construction. He is currently working 7 days a week, to completes a major project, and I am especially grateful for any bit of time that he can find to help me. However, since he is often busy I now have time to think about other things. I always have a “Plan B” at the ready. In this case, my brain has switched from storage construction to van kitchen completion.

I have been camping all of my life and have owned travel trailers. Based on this it should be easy for me to come up with a simple cooking system for the van. However, that is not how my brain works. In my mind, this is an opportunity to learn more about cooking systems and methods. I’m sure that some of you are shaking your heads and muttering, “Dr. Mike you have too much free time on your hands.” This may be the case, but I have always approached life this way, even when I was working 80 hours per week.

The question at hand: Can I use free solar energy to cook my food? This question has pushed me to learn about solar panels, batteries, charge controllers, amp hours, efficient appliances, and so on. You may be thinking, “Just get a camp stove and be done with it!.” That is a good suggestion, and it may be my eventual decision. However, my brain exercise is as much about learning as it is about implementation. It is exciting for me to acquire new knowledge and to pass on that knowledge on. In this case, I’ll probably produce a video to help other new campervan builders.

You would be right in surmising that many simple issues turn into complex problems for me because of this. That is true and OK by me, as solving problems is one of my favorite activities. You may also be confused by the fact that I’m building out a very simple campervan. A place of simplicity that is spare when it comes to material objects. Welcome to Dr. Mike’s bipolar world. I have these two very different sides. One pole creates complexity when it isn’t necessary. The other pole pushes for simplicity and eschews complexity. You may think that these converse positions pull me apart, but in reality, I’m quite comfortable with this duality.

Simplicity is the counterpoint of my self-imposed complexity. An emotional island to travel to for some mental R and R.

My van is simple, its contents are spare. The interior of my Promaster is considerably smaller than the square footage of my master bathroom. I have 2 pots, and I pan. One sleeping bag and an extra blanket. A few basic tools. Yet, it is enough. It is enough because my needs change when I’m vandwelling. My life becomes simple, and make do with what I have. When I camp I never feel deprived, instead I feel blessed. My behavior calms. I slow down. I savor simple meals and simple pleasures. Nature gives me peace.

As humans, we tend to categorize the people around us quickly. It is so easy to judge someone by their appearance, demeanor, or vocabulary. We put individuals in slots that determine not only what we think of them, but also how we treat them. Have you ever given someone you initially rejected a “second look” only to find a remarkable and faithful friend? Conversely, have you been dazzled by someone only to discover that they were empty, self-centered, and self-serving?

We are all complex and simple at the same time. The way that we express these poles vary from individual to individual. However, if you insist on judging a book by its cover, you will likely deprive yourself of many wonderful relational adventures.

I am fortunate to have the title of doctor. Those six letters instantly give me a level of status and acceptance. This is in contrast to young Michael, the kid with one pair of pants who had to sleep on the back porch. However, Doctor Mike and little Michael are the same. My drive to learn is the same. My caring for others is the same. My quirky personality is the same. How is it then that people treat me so differently just because of a title?

I believe that we need to not only accept others for who they are, but we also need to love them for who they are. Does someone have a different political belief than you? Are they a different race? Do they have a different sexual orientation? Are you judging them because of these things? If so, you are depriving yourself. You are demonstrating your limitations, rather than theirs.

I spend my time comparing and contrasting things, and in the end, I almost always discover that those things that I compare are more similar than different. Similarities are necessary for continuity, but in differences, I find new ideas and more creative ways to think. Similarities may make me comfortable, but differences make me grow.

Let’s celebrate our similarities and differences. I ask you to love me based on who I am. In turn, I will do the same to you.

Peace

My campervan’s very simple interior.
Best friend, Tom and a garage full of plywood.
The initial box that will eventually be partitioned into useable storage space.
Experiment: Can I successfully cook chicken using a 12-volt battery?
Experiment conclusion: Yes!
Experiment: Can I make a complex meal using a simple rice cooker?
Answer: Yes!

 

Random thoughts and my philosophy of life.