At dinner, Julie announced, “When Will goes off to school, I’m done.” The words stunned me, and I didn’t know what to say.
Julie has never liked to cook, but with my prior work schedule, she was the chief cook and always made sure that the kids had something to eat for dinner. After 25 years of meal preparation, she felt that she had paid her dues, and she was done.
For those of you who are also my Facebook friends, you know that I’m a competent cook. For years I have posted my weekly adventures teaching my kids to plan and cook a meal, which I listed under the byline, “Cooking With Dad Thursdays.” Therefore, there shouldn’t be a problem with me preparing my own meals once our youngest child was off to college. However, Julie’s cessation of making dinner was a big problem for me. Not because of the mechanics of meal preparation, but for issues more central to who I am.
We all have ways that we express love and concern to others, and we all have ways that we feel the love and concern from those around us. One of the most important ways that I both express and feel love is through acts of service. I think it is nice if someone tells me that they love me, but it is by actions where such claims ring true to me. For me, the act of making dinner was synonymous with love.
Like most humans, I have an intellectual side and an emotional side, and these two personas are not always in sync. Intellectually, I knew that Julie didn’t like to cook and that I was completely capable of fending for myself. However, my emotional side felt differently. Every meal that she prepared was a tangible way of her demonstrating that she cared about me. My emotional side was hurt and confused.
In the past, I would overrule any emotional feeling intellectually. I would convince myself that my feelings were trivial and unimportant. I would shame myself into compliance. However, I now recognized that my emotional self is just as important as my intellectual self. Emotions are not logical, but they are valid.
I didn’t immediately respond to Julie’s pronouncement; I paused. I wanted to know if my emotional hurt would pass; it didn’t. I knew that I had to address my concerns, and these are the steps that I used to resolve my problem:
I searched for my feelings. Why was I feeling the way I did? In my emotional mind, I felt unimportant. These feelings were countered by my intellectual self, which knew otherwise. However, since they persisted, I knew that I had to address them.
I pondered what I needed. Did I need Julie to cook dinner seven nights a week? Certainly not. However, once in a blue moon wouldn’t cut it for me.
What was I willing to give in return? I would be ready to return the favor by making her nice dinners regularly.
How would I approach this problem?
By telling her how I felt.
By not blaming or intimidating her.
By moving towards a mutually beneficial compromise, rather than a win.
By listening to her concerns, and giving her potential solutions equal weight to mine.
I did the above when we both had time to talk and process. It would make no sense to have this discussion when Julie was walking out of the door or when she came home from a long day of work.
When we talked, I acknowledged that my feelings weren’t logical, but they were real. I told her how important it was to have her make dinner for me, and I explained to her that it was a way that demonstrated her love for me. However, I also stated that I was open and willing to hear her feelings and very ready to come up with a solution that was beneficial to both of us.
We looked at our weekly schedule. On Fridays, we always have delivery pizza, so that day was covered. Saturdays we often go out to eat. Also, Julie noted that she didn’t want to cook on the 3-4 weekdays that she worked.
It looked like Sunday and Monday were open. Either day would support both meal preparation as well as time to eat together.
Julie said she would be willing to make dinner on Mondays, and I said that I would take over Sunday meal prep. Now that the kids were out of the house, I transitioned my “Cooking With Dad Thursdays” Facebook segment into one called “Simple Sunday Suppers.”
Last Sunday, I made a tossed salad, pecan-crusted tilapia, fresh green beans, and rice pilaf. It sounds complicated, but it was straightforward. Last Monday Julie made a Trader Joe’s stuffed salmon loaf, roasted asparagus, and a salad. Both meals were delicious, but more importantly, we celebrated them as we ate together.
It is imperative to recognize emotional needs, even if they seem illogical. Sometimes it is not possible to have those needs met, and it is crucial to accept that fact. Often a compromise that meets both party’s objectives is better than a one-sided win. Solutions that benefit all individuals are more likely to be successful than options where one person has to “give-in” to the other.
The best approach to solving an emotional need problem is to thoroughly search your feeling to discover what the core issue is. In my case, it was more about being valuable to Julie than getting a prepared meal. Once you know what you are dealing with, it is then imperative to talk to the other person honestly and respectfully. Always be willing to acknowledge the other person’s feelings and compromise.
I like making dinner on Sundays, and it feels great to have a meal prepared for me on Mondays. I think Julie benefits too. Making dinner one night a week is not a significant burden on her, and she has the additional benefit of having me make her a nice Sunday supper.
“Do you want to go to Houston in January?” Julie said. “I guess, but why Houston?” I replied. Apparently, Spirit Airlines had a cheap fare to Houston, and Julie felt that it would be warmer than Chicago.
I had forgotten about the trip, and then it was suddenly upon me. We needed to leave the house by 3:30 AM on a Thursday and at 9 PM the night before I was frantically packing. Over the years, I have learned to pack both lighter and more efficiently. I keep a Dopp Kit ready to go, so all I had to do was to transfer the liquid items into a quart ziplock bag for TSA. Also, I packed a hoodie, some shirts, an extra pair of pants, my sleep ware, and of course, socks and underwear.
I have a camera case in the style of a backpack, which is my under-the-seat carry-on. Since I use the bag when I’m not flying, I made sure to dump out all of the pouches and pockets. Thankfully, there were no banned items. Into my backpack went a fully charged iPad, a minimal first-aid kit, sunglasses, lip balm, a battery bank with adapter cords, and a few packaged snacks for the flight. The front pouch of the backpack is padded for cameras. In it, I placed my small Olympus OMD EM10 camera with its kit lens, an extra camera battery, a 20 mm F 1.8 lens, and a few other camera accessories. I’m an avid photographer, but I don’t want to haul a lot of extra camera gear.
I usually wake up early, but that is not the case for Julie. Yet, she was a good sport, and we were soon on our way to OHare International Airport. Our gate seemed to be in a different state, but that is what you expect when you are flying on a budget airline. Soon we were boarded and waiting to take off. Surprisingly, the budget carrier’s customer service was pretty good. However, my legroom was terrible, and within about 30 minutes, I started to have leg cramps. I focused on the fact that the flight was only 2 hours; it was a long two hours.
One place that we wanted to visit was the Johnson Space Center/Space Center of Houston, and after a light brunch, we drove through the gates, paid our admission fees, and started our tour. We were approached by a tall black man wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the center’s logo. “Can I help you?” He asked. And with that, he gave us a detailed overview of what to see not only at the museum but also at the adjacent Johnson Space Center. He strongly suggested that we board the two shuttle tours as both of them would take us around the Johnson Space Center’s campus. One of the tours would allow us entry into the actual command center where the Apollo space missions were directed.
I was flooded with childhood memories. I grew up during the 1960s, and the space race dominated my thoughts during those years. That decade was a time of great American pride. There was a feeling that we could accomplish anything, figure out anything, do anything. I watched every single space launch and always held my breath when the giant rockets rose slowly and somewhat crookedly as they traveled up and beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
The 60s were a time when Americans feared that the USSR was going to invade our country and make us slaves to communism. Russia not only had launched Sputnik, the first satellite, it had also placed the first person in space. There was an honest concern that the US would be left behind.
However, on May 5, 1961, Alan Sheppard was strapped into a tiny Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket. He was sent on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight. The Russians had already placed Yuri Gagarin into a real earth orbit one month earlier, but there was a sense that we were still in the game. However, it wasn’t until February of 1962 that we successfully sent John Glenn into Earth orbit on top of an Atlas rocket.
As a kid, it seemed that each new flight offered a spectacular new accomplishment, and in 1965 NASA launched the first human-crewed Gemini capsule, which held two astronauts. Where the Mercury capsules were controlled on the ground, the Gemini capsules were piloted by the crew. The Gemini flights captivated me, and during these missions, astronauts walked in space, docked with other spacecraft, and did many other firsts (for the US) in preparation for an eventual lunar landing.
In 1967 tragedy struck the US when three astronauts were killed aboard Apollo 1. Its pure oxygen-containing cabin suffered a flash fire. Suddenly, my hubris shattered.
In future missions, NASA changed the atmosphere from pure oxygen to a less combustible atmosphere mix, and the number of flammable materials in the cabin were reduced. In October of 1968, Apollo 7 launched with a crew of three, and the country was once again moving towards its goal of landing a human on the moon. Which, of course, happened in July of 1969 with the flight of Apollo 11.
When the first crewed Mercury mission launched, I was eight, and when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, I was 16. Only eight years and so much had happened. In1969 I had a summer job that started early. However, I made sure that I stayed up to see the fuzzy black and white TV image of Mr. Armstrong as his foot touched the moon’s powdery surface. How fortunate I was to witness one of the most momentous events in history!
The impact of the space program went well beyond a lunar landing. It was an inspirational program during an inspirational time. I had already been fascinated by the sci-fi B-movies. I had found a “mentor” in Don Herbert, the host of “Mr. Wizard,” which was a TV show that encouraged kids to do scientific experiments. However, the space program took me from fantasy and the ordinary to the extraordinary. Everything about it was real, yet it seemed unreal. NASA had the coolest on-board computer, the most fantastic space food, and a mission control center that seemed right out of the future. It inspired me to think beyond myself and to believe that I, too, could do anything. I was an American, living during the most fantastic time in history. I thought that the only thing that could stop me was me.
We boarded the shuttle and made the short trip from the Space Center of Houston to the adjacent Johnson Space Center. The tour guide telegraphed some facts along the way. The land was used for grazing cattle before it became one of the most famous places on earth. The buildings were designed to look like a college campus. The displayed Saturn rocket was the most massive rocket ever built, and so on. As we approached the Christopher C. Kraft Jr Mission Control Center, we were cautioned that the building was still in operation, and we were to remain absolutely silent during our time there.
We entered Mission Control and climbed over 80 stairs to the Apollo command center. NASA had spent millions renovating the room, which echoed a 60s vibe. The space was filled with built-in CRT consoles and huge viewing screens. We stepped into the observation room and took our seats. This was the same room that dignitaries and the press used when the actual flights took place. Even the burnt orange theater-style chairs were the original ones. Our guide started up a video that explained the significance of the room. Then it happened, the entire control room lit up. The computer monitors turned on and started to stream data. The giant screens illuminated showing flight paths and the grainy image of Neil Armstrong as he took his first steps on another world. It felt like I had been transported in time. My heart started to race as I felt my excitement build. The same excitement that I felt on that July night in 1969 when I saw the first video transmission of a human being walking on another world.
As the space program continued, people lost interest. They grumbled that the cost was too high for too little. However, the price isn’t only measured in the gain of scientific knowledge, the discovery of new materials, or political bragging rights. An entire generation of children became interested in science because of these programs. They became computer designers, engineers, medical doctors, researchers, and pilots. I think it is impossible to determine the overall gain that our country made because of NASA and the space program.
The Johnson Space Center continues as a facility that now manages satellites as well as missions to the International Space Station. A new initiative, the Orion program, will return humans to the moon and eventually to Mars over the next few decades.
On the shuttle to the Johnson Space Center, I saw young children. I wondered if one of these boys or girls lives will change due to their visit? A future scientist, engineer, researcher, or astronaut? NASA isn’t a waste of taxpayer’s money, it is a substantial investment in our future. Just like President Kennedy, we need to summon our imaginations to comprehend this fact.
Last month I started a 21 day modified fast. The practice of fasting was mentioned in church as a way to form a closer spiritual connection. I wasn’t sure of the exact reason that I wanted to fast, but I felt that it was important for me to do so, and so I made a commitment to myself to attempt this task.
I journaled most days of my fast and I have decided to summarize those thoughts in this post. I deliberately did my daily writings in a public forum (Facebook) as I thought that some of my discoveries could serve as a seed to grow ideas in others. How successful that latter wish was is unclear.
Fasting was a strain on both my physical and emotional self. I tried to use that vulnerability to access parts of my conscious and subconscious. My fast was accompanied by readings from the Gospel of John. At times my inner self resonated with the reading of the day, at other times less so. However, the readings added another dimension to my process.
Here are some of my thoughts that occurred during my 21 days of fasting.
I was questioning why I was doing the fast and hoping that I would have some sort of a major breakthrough, or gain a better understanding of my purpose in life. My fast consisted of eating only bread for two meals and having a small simple meal for the third. What struck me most during the early days was that my fasting food likely had more calories that what many people in the world normally eat in a given day. I felt fortunate to have been born in this country, but I also had a sense of guilt over that fortune. My sparse rations would have been someone else’s bounty.
The reading for the day was John, Chapter 4. This is the story of the Samaritan woman who asked Jesus for help. Samaritans were outcasts and Jesus showed her compassion and acceptance.
Our current world is divisive. So many groups are marginalized and rejected. We love to watch reality TV shows that humiliate the contestants. We save our compassion for those who look and act like us and show hate and rage for individuals and groups that are different from us. We sometimes do this under the banner of Christianity.
Hate, rage, and damnation are not what Christianity is all about. Jesus accepted others no matter what.
I was feeling hungry and I was examining the role of suffering as a vector for change and contemplation. Certain groups have used self-punishment as a method that would give them closer relationships with God. I’m absolutely not one to self-flog or to wear a hair shirt. However, I feel that a reasonable sacrifice makes me more aware and tuned in.
On a spiritual level, I was thinking about scripture and wondering what its true meaning was. Most Christian believe that you have to be a Christian to have salvation. This is based on numerous passages in the Bible where Christ says things like, “I am the way… no one comes to God but through me.” However, only 31% of the world is Christian. Does this mean that over 4 billion people are going to go to hell? This makes no sense to me. I believe that Jesus was really saying that his message and what he represented was the way. What is that way? To love, to accept, to be compassionate, to help others, to forgive.
Day 6 was a rough day for me. My eating schedule got all screwed up and by dinner time I was becoming hypo-glycemic. In my vulnerable state, I was feeling that my fasting was foolish. I started to question everything, including the existence of God. I feared that my quest for a richer spiritual life was akin to wishing that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny were real.
Was I using the God thing as a crutch to get through life? Yet, I had so many examples where it seemed like I was being directed and guided in my life by an external force. In the end, I decided that is what faith was all about. I also started to think about something that I hadn’t thought about in decades, the Holy Spirit.
This was a weekend day, which allowed me to have two small regular meals. On both occasions, I ate with people who I cared about. I was more aware of how important having others in my life is for my overall sense of well being. This is contrary to the way that I have lived much of my life as an island unto myself. The pattern of behavior protected me from being hurt, but at a significant cost. I know that I don’t need a lot of people in my life, but I do need a select few. Without them, my life would be empty.
The reading today was John, Chapter 8. This is the chapter where John retells the tale of the adulterous woman who is about to be stoned. Jesus tells the crowd that the person in the group who is sinless should cast the first stone.
It is easy to judge, but are we willing to judge ourselves? We make excuses for our behavior, but we are critical of the behavior of others. In many cases, their actions are not our business.
This led me to think about my past behaviors and realize that I can’t change the past, I can try to improve in the present.
The reading was John, Chapter 9 and it explores Jesus healing a blind man, and his apostles asking him if it was the man or his family who were being punished by God. Jesus says it was neither.
This really struck me as I sometimes wonder why things are not going the way that I would like. What did I do wrong? Was I being punished? The answer is, no. Stuff happens, that is just the way that it is.
I had to switch up my meals on day 10 and didn’t have a normal meal until the evening. This left me not only hungry but also fairly non-functional. It made me realize that one of my responsibilities in life was self-care. It is my responsibility to eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, reduce my stress, exercise, etc. It is only then that I’m able to do my best for myself and others.
I had a dream that not only woke me up but kept me up for several hours during the night. This was especially bad for me as I typically only sleep around 6 hours a night. In my dream, my daughter was a young child and I had forgotten her birthday. In a frantic gesture, I cleaned the house and found snacks for a party. The guest were about to arrive and I looked around the room. Everything was neat and tidy. I looked at my daughter who seemed perfectly happy with the arrangements. Then I realized that I had not decorated for a party, and I was out of time. I felt terrible and like a failure.
The dream made me realize how I could be my own worst critic. I did 95% of what I needed to do, but I chose to focus on what was missing instead of what was there.
I want people to love me for who I am, but I realized that I wasn’t loving to myself.
I was up early and had an early meeting with a friend. My thoughts gravitated towards feelings of being fortunate to have people in my life who I truly care about.
I wasn’t hungry on Saturday and went to a cake decorating class that two of my kids gave me as a Christmas present. I greatly enjoyed the class, but I was confronted by a limitless supply of cake, cake remnants, and sugary frosting.
I have not eaten concentrated forms of sugar for almost 5 years, but I decided to “taste” the icing. In short order I was in a full binge. The result was I was not only disappointed in myself but I also felt physically terrible.
Despite not feeling hungry that day it was easy for me to go back into a bad behavior as I was in the wrong environment.
I admitted that I made a mistake and I committed to restarting my fast the next day.
Yesterday’s sermon talked about the fact that the average adult is exposed to 4000 ads every single day. Ads that generally make you feel bad about yourself or your life (in an effort to get you to buy something).
If advertisements make you feel bad, what makes humans feel good? Many things, most of which are free. Number one on the list was good interpersonal relationships.
I picked up my daughter from a study abroad program and was overjoyed to have her back home. Once again I’m struck with how relationships are the key to happiness.
I was aware that most of my 21 day fast was behind me. I started to question my usual problem-solving tactics. I realized that some things in life are just rough, and there is no easy way out. If you can’t change things you have to accept them. Life is sometimes about getting through the next hour, or minute, or second. However, each one brings you closer to some sort of resolution.
Despite being almost neurotic about keeping my distance, I caught a cold from my friend, Tom. I was feeling lousy and I was sick of fasting. I thought more about my pondering from the day before.
It is easy to want the easy way out. It is easy to not take responsibility and to blame others for our unhappiness. It is easy to cast general blame on an entire group. However, such actions leave us powerless to change. I continued to commit to being responsible for my actions and behavior.
Today’s reading was John, Chapter 19 where Jesus is judged by Pilate. Pilate doesn’t want to have anything to do with sentencing Jesus to death but gets manipulated by the Jewish leaders to have Jesus crucified. They tell him, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
By using social pressure they get their way. How many times have I been swayed by social pressure? How many times have I gone against my own principles to avoid being criticized or ostracized? I need to be true to myself and my convictions.
Not a great fast day, but I did my best.
My thoughts centered on trying to be a better person. On trying to think beyond my normal, and to be aware beyond my usual. More thoughts on the fact that things are neither good nor bad, they just are.
Last day. I had to drive my daughter back to school (around12 hours, round trip) and knew that I couldn’t fast for a variety of reasons. I tried to focus on my spiritual life, with only a small degree of success. I decided to listen to a podcast and found a lengthy one on Jeffrey Epstein, the serial pedophile.
How many people turned the other way despite obvious evidence? How many were swayed by his money and power? How many children were sacrificed to meet his insatiable needs? We live in a world where we often look the other way if we think that our own interests are at risk. This made me sad.
What did I learn from 21 days of prayer of fasting? I learned how fortunate I am to have been born in a country with so much while also living in a world that does not have enough.
I explored the reasons why I am a practicing Christian. My religion is not about rules and regulations. It is not about belonging to an exclusive club or having a golden ticket to heaven. It is about being kind to others, loving others, being compassionate towards others, giving to others. My Christianity is a religion of caring, and that was emphasized to me during my fast.
I also became more aware of myself. How I need to have people who care about me and love me in my life. In turn, I need to love and care about them. I must be freer about telling people that I love them, and not worry that such a statement may make me too vulnerable or sound too weak.
I learned that I can be very critical of myself, but I need to love and forgive myself in the same way that I do this for others.
I found that despite effort and ego I can still easily screw up and fall flat on my face. However, I can gain an understanding of my mistakes and recommit to change.
I know that happiness does not come from things or money. Rather it is achieved by connecting and caring for others, loving myself, and doing my best to connect with something greater than myself. I call that something, God.
So, was fasting worth it? What do you think?
This is the link to the audio reading of this blog post
Have you ever been lied to? Has someone manipulated you to get what they wanted from you at your expense? Has someone broken a promise to you without regard to your needs or feelings? How did that make you feel?
What would you think if I told you that you are being manipulated over 4000 times a day? That is the number of advertisements that the average person is exposed to every 24 hours.
Advertisements have been used for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The majority of ads have one purpose, to get you to buy a service or product. And in the new millennium, we have reached a higher level of social intrusion with the advent of customized ads designed to target individuals based on their personalities and weaknesses.
If I want to sell you something, I need to convince you that what you have is not good enough, and I then need to offer you a solution. “Your teeth are not white enough; I have something that will make them look better.” I also need to give you a reason why white teeth are essential. This can be done in a variety of ways. For instance, I can show an unhappy, rejected person with yellow teeth. I can then show a beautiful white-toothed person hanging out with other beautiful people. Now white teeth are associated with youth, beauty, friends, and happiness.
You may think that you can ignore ads, but the evidence suggests otherwise. A researcher had subjects purchase one of two pens. Of the two writing implements, one was superior. The researcher had the subjects watch a video, and in that video was embedded hidden ads for the inferior pen. At the end of the experiment, 60-80% of the subjects choose to purchase the inferior pen, despite objective evidence to the contrary.
Adolescents see up to 30,000 TV commercials every year, and it has been shown that they negatively influence teens to eat more, drink more, and (in the day) smoke more.
There is surprisingly little research on the impact of advertisements on happiness. However, a study was published in 2019 that tracked overall societal happiness compared with total ad money spent in a given country. There was a negative correlation between the two. In other words, more ads mean a less happy society.
I have long been convinced that advertising, in general, makes people unhappy. Many ads make you feel inadequate personally, professionally, or socially. If the ad is convincing enough, you buy the product or service, and in most cases, you find that you are either not happier or only temporarily uplifted. The latter situation is worse because you get a positive jolt that quickly fades. Our brains are wired to identify these good feelings and to seek them. Your brain sees the problem and comes up with a solution. What is that solution? Buy something else!
The average person can continue to buy unneeded things because of another unhappiness maker, easy credit, and the credit card. Some people assume that the “money” that they have on their card is “free cash.” However, banks don’t give out free money. Forty-one percent (average group) to seventy-three percent (higher risk group) of credit card holders don’t pay off their balance at the end of the month. When these individuals use their credit cards, they are taking out very high-interest loans.
The following pattern can emerge. An ad creates dissatisfaction and offers a solution. You buy into the message and purchase the service or product using your credit card. The product temporarily makes you feel better, but that happiness quickly fades, making you buy more items or services. Repeat the above. This leads to an additional problem, unnecessary debt, and all the stress that that brings. That stress leads to unhappiness, so what is the solution? Buy more!… and you are now in a purchase-debt-purchase cycle.
Many want to believe that there is an easy and painless way to feel whole and happy, and advertisers play on that desire. This rapid reward followed by quick removal of reward is a classic recipe for addictive behavior. The shorter the cycle, the stronger the addiction. However, you don’t have to be a compulsive shopper to deal with the negative side of purchasing unnecessary things. Let’s say that you need a car, but you really can’t afford a new one. However, with a little creative financing, you can have the luxury model of your dreams. A sensible used car would indeed transport you to your destination just as well. However, car salespeople don’t just sell cars; they sell fantasies.
When I was younger, most buyers took a car loan that ran three or four years. Now the typical car loan is six years (72 months), and seven-year loans (84 months) are also very popular. Bigger cars are now widespread, and massive SUVs can cost $40,000 or more. I recently looked at new Ford pickup trucks and their sticker prices were in the $50,000 to $70,000 range. According to Experian, the interest rate on a 72-month car loan is between 4.9 and 6.7 percent. The average of those numbers is 5.85 percent. If a consumer borrows $45,000 for 72 months at 5.8%, they will be paying around $740 a month for the next six years.
It was challenging to come up with hard facts, but the articles that I did locate suggested that many cars start to break down when they are around five years old. If you have a 6-year car loan or 7-year car loan, you will likely have to deal with both an expensive car payment as well as car repair costs. That car that made once made you feel happy is now a significant contributor to your unhappiness.
So is stuff the cause of unhappiness? No, stuff is just stuff. You may choose a minimalist lifestyle, but someone else may prefer more luxury. The critical thing to realize is that the buying of unnecessary items will not give you long term happiness, and may have the opposite effect.
So is lack of money the root cause of unhappiness? An often-cited 2010 Princeton study examined the correlation between money and happiness. The bottom line is that if you can’t meet your basic financial needs, you are more likely to be unhappy. As your income increases, you will become happier (generally). However, this effect tops out at around $75,000/year. People who made more money than $75,000 were not happier. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that wealth may have the opposite effect.
Our society also tells us that stuff and money are the sources of happiness. Wealthy, successful people who possess all of the right “toys” are portrayed as happy. However, scientific evidence says that these factors are not the secret to happiness. So what does make us happy? Luckily, there has been quite a bit of research on this topic, and the news is not good for advertisers. Why? Because most of the things that make humans happy are FREE.
Nine totally free ways to become happier
Your mother was right; If you get enough sleep, exercise, reduce your stress level, and eat well, you will be happier.
If you stay more focused, you will be happier. Practices such as meditation can help you focus.
Having free time makes you happier than having lots of money but little free time. No one on their deathbed wished that they would have worked more.
People who slow down and experience their surroundings are happier than those who rush through life. Smell the roses. Check out a sunrise.
Acts of kindness
Volunteering, being a good friend, and other acts of kindness benefit not only the recipient but also the giver. Evidence suggests that the more personal the act, the happier it will make you feel. Volunteering at a soup kitchen will make you happier than writing a check to a random charity.
People with a rich spiritual life and those that belong to a religion are not only happier, but feel more fulfilled.
Will an expensive vacation make you happy? Possibly, but only if you can afford it. However, there are many other activities that you can do that are free. Have a picnic, go to a free concert, take a hike in the woods, have a friend over to watch a movie. Have fun, and you will feel happier.
Stay in the present
I love the saying, “If you have one foot in the past and the other foot in the future, you are peeing on the present.” Are you always thinking about past successes or failures? Stop it! Are you living for the weekends? Stop it! You are where you should be right now. Stay in the present and celebrate the moment.
Spend time with others, connect with others, and genuinely love others.
For the last 80 years, Harvard University has been running a longitudinal study on what makes people happy. They followed both Harvard students and inner-city men over their lifetime. Also, the study is now tracking the offspring of the original participants. They found that happiness not only makes you feel better it also leads to better physical health. So what was the most significant factor in determining a person’s happiness? Was it wealth, social status, profession, IQ, genes? No, the most significant factor that makes someone happy is having close interpersonal relationships.
Bill Murphy Jr cites some sobering facts in his 2019 “Inc.” article.
40% of adults sometimes or always feel that their social relationships are not meaningful.
20% of Americans consider themselves socially isolated.
28% of older adults live alone
Being lonely is the equivalent of smoking ¾ of a pack of cigarettes a day on a person’s physical health.
A close interpersonal relationship is not a popularity contest. A person with 1000 Facebook friends is not necessarily happier than the person with 10 Facebook friends.
Do you have someone in your life who has your back? Someone who you can be yourself with? Someone who is there for you during hard times? Someone who loves and accepts you for who you are? If you answer yes to these questions, you have a close interpersonal relationship. Who the relationship is with is irrelevant. Can it be your spouse? Of course. But it can also be a sibling, coworker, or friend.
We have a right to be happy. Sadly, we are often manipulated down a path that leads to unhappiness. If you want to be happier, examine the above list, and determine ways that you can implement some of the happiness points. Anything that you will do will move you in a more positive direction. Changing behavior requires time and consistency. However, the reward will be great.
One of the most challenging things that we humans do is to change dysfunctional behavior. Yet, it’s something that successful people must accomplish regularly. If you want to move forward, it is imperative to recognize problems in your life, address them, and fix them.
I believe that most of us know this, but many contemplate the need to change without ever acting on making a change. Others force themselves onto a radical path of change, and like a flash fire, they burn brightly, and then they flame out. An example of this is the classic New Year’s exercise resolution, “I need to exercise more.” Drive by any gym during the first week of January, and you see that the parking lot is bursting at its seams. If you want to get a good parking spot, just wait a few weeks for the resolutioners to fall back on their old behaviors.
As a therapist, I often saw patients who claimed that they wanted to change. In some instances, what they wanted was for other people to adapt to them so they could continue their dysfunctional actions. They wanted the world to change for them (good luck to that). However, I also treated individuals who sincerely wanted to take responsibility for their lives and were willing to put forth the effort to make change. It was then my job to teach them the tools to accomplish their goals. Naturally, there are many ways to elicit change so that I would customize my approach based on the person’s needs, personality, and behavioral style.
Today I would like to share with three “generic” change approaches that you might consider. I’m going to do this by citing some examples from my own life.
Pairing a new behavior with things that you enjoy.
I hated exercise. When I was morbidly overweight, I sought the help of a weight-loss specialist. She was a thin wisp of a young girl who appeared to be very physically fit. I wondered if she could relate to me and understand the plight of an old fat man.
She did some quick calculations of my weight and BMI and then scribbled a few numbers onto a pad of paper. Her approach was to talk to me about my need to exercise. Of course, I knew that exercise was important, but any past attempts on my part quickly failed, and I explained that to her.
She was unmoved and told me that I needed to exercise for an hour and a half a day vigorously. By vigorous exercise, she was referring to a cardiovascular gym routine. She didn’t stop there; she also wanted me to do non-vigorous exercise for several hours a day. The non-vigorous activity would include things like walking, swimming, and biking. I tried to explain to her that I had difficulty climbing even a single flight of stairs. I told her that I knew that I needed to exercise, but I hated it and just couldn’t get myself to do it. I told her that I was working 60-80 hours a week, and didn’t have hours to spare during my day. She was unmoved, and instead of understanding me, she told me an “inspirational” story of a client of her’s (a former athlete) who had adopted her strategy and lost weight.
If you are or have been a fat person, you will understand what I am about to say next. I listened to her and felt even more hopeless about my plight; I gave up. On the surface, it appeared that I was paying attention as I nodded in false agreement. I left the appointment feeling worse than when I went in. I never adopted her exercised advice.
Fast forward to 5 years ago. My friend Tom was on his fitness journey and mentioned to me that he would buy me a coffee if I walked to the local Starbucks the next morning. I liked spending time with Tom, and so I was motivated to attempt this request. Further, one of the few exercises that I did like to do was to walk. With that said, I was uncertain if I could withstand the trip, and so I walked the route the night before, just to make sure.
That was five years ago, and I now exercise on (almost) a daily basis. That exercise has varied over time, and for the last several years, I have resumed my early morning walk to Starbucks. I look forward to talking this 3.5 mile round trip for several reasons. First, I love walking in the quiet of the early morning. I think, pray, meditate, and problem solve during that time. It isn’t uncommon for Tom to surprise me with a Starbucks visit, and of course, I enjoy that. However, I now know other regulars at the shop who greet and chat with me, as do the baristas. I bring along a computer on my walks, and I write most of these blogs at Starbucks. Starbucks is where I also write letters and emails to friends and family. By combining exercise with several other things that I like to do, I have transformed a negative into a positive. I certainly can now climb a flight of stairs without feeling like I need to call 911.
Learning from past mistakes.
If you read my last post, you know that I’m currently on a spiritual fast. I have been on many restrictive weight-loss diets, and I have also tried a couple of spiritual fasts in the past, and so I had quite a bit of data to draw on to explore what kind of a fast that I could do that would have the greatest success of completion.
Before I started this fast, I did a mental review of what worked, and just as importantly, what didn’t work with prior attempts to modify my eating. Based on this information, I devised a fasting plan that I thought would be challenging but doable. I’m now at the midpoint of this fast, and so far, I’m reasonably on target.
This technique goes beyond personal growth; it can be applied to all levels of a human’s life. Does it always seem that you are getting the short stick when it comes to relationships? Look at the data. Is your career not moving the way you want it? Look at the data. Are you feeling like others are always taking advantage of you? Look at the data… and so on.
Explore the weaknesses in your behavioral patterns and find workable solutions to change them. If plan A doesn’t work, find a plan B. Reassess both your behavior and progress regularly, and modify as indicated.
Eating the elephant
One of my favorite sayings is, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”
The home that I have lived in for thirty years has both a basement and crawl space. Both have become “junk magnets” over the decades, with the crawl space being the more pathological of the two. Any object that we no longer used but still seemed useful was buried there. The only things that we did need to store there were our Christmas decorations, and these items occupied a small portion of that vast space. The rest was filled to the brim with boxes, bags, and loose items.
It is difficult to get into the crawl space, and once inside, you have to stoop down and crawl on very rough concrete. The idea of cleaning the area out was not only overwhelming to me but also my wife. It was just easier to pretend that it didn’t exist.
However, now that I’m retired I have the time to tackle such a project, but I didn’t want to do it. I don’t like the feeling that I have something hanging over my head, and I don’t like feeling guilty. With that said, it seemed like an impossible task.
What I needed to do is to come up with a plan. What could I do to solve this problem? I wasn’t dealing with a deadline; I had as much time as I needed. My idea was to remove three significant objects from the crawl space every week. An object could be a big box, a large item, or a garbage bag filled with loose pieces. To make it easier for me to navigate the crawl space, I found my old knee pads and my headlight. I place these items by the entrance to the crawl space, so they were at the ready, making my explorations easier.
The purging process went on for months, but doing it was simple — one box per trip, three boxes per week. Since I only had three weekly items, it didn’t even add a lot of work to my “garbage night” haulings.
Instead of thinking about how much more I had to do, I would celebrate that one less box was in the crawl space. I would pat myself on the back for accomplishing my job, which often only took a few minutes. Each “bite of the elephant” seemed trivial, but eventually, I ate the whole elephant.
Some changes in life must be done immediately and wholly. If you want to stop smoking, you need to apply total abstinence to increase your chance of success. However, many changes can be made gradually. Just have a real plan and direction.
So there you have it — three ways to change behavior. There are more ways that I may share with you in another post.
People fast to improve their physical, mental, and spiritual health.
Two weeks ago, a new series started at my church. The series, called “Make Room,” explores how some religious practices can help you make room for the Holy Spirit in your life. The first topic was fasting, and our lead pastor specifically challenged the congregation to consider 21 days of fasting and prayer. This request resonated with me, but I still can’t say why.
In simple terms, fasting is the process of abstaining or reducing some food or drink for a period of time. There are many different ways to fast that range from complete abstinence to a voluntary elimination of some category of food. For instance, the Catholic practice of giving up a food category during Lent could be considered a fast as could the Muslim practice of not eating or drinking from dawn to dust during Ramadan.
I listened to Pastor Dave describe the history of Christian fasting. However, something odd happened to me when he talked about the reasons to fast… I blanked out. After the sermon, I asked Julie to repeat the reasons he cited, and I quickly forgot them. I then turned to the internet and did some reading on spiritual fasting.
Interestingly, I couldn’t recall the salient points of those readings either. I am a professional student who has spent a lifetime memorizing random groups of facts, but I couldn’t remember a couple of them presented in a seron. Why is that? My conclusion is that I’m being compelled to fast for another reason. Not everything in life fits into a set of bullet points.
Here are some of my thoughts on the topic.
What kind of fast should I do?
Simply stated, I should do a fast that I have a reasonable chance of completing. I can’t go 21 days without eating food, in fact, my past history suggests that I can’t go several food-free days without becoming severely hypoglycemic.
I also know that if I only allow myself only a single meal per day, it is likely that I’ll binge eat during that meal. If I eat an entire Thanksgiving Day sized meal, am I fasting? Probably not.
I have gone on bizarre diets through the years in weight loss attempts, and I don’t do well eating only a single category of food, like fruit. In fact, such efforts caused me to transition from my usual sweet self (my personal opinion) into an angry SOB. Making my loved ones miserable seems counter to an exercise done to promote a better spiritual life.
Many years ago I decided to try a bread and water fast. This was likely because I had romanticized the 1918 Eric Enstrom photograph “Grace.” I spent several days eating white bread and drinking water. I found that I was hungry, but I could no longer bear to eat dry bread washed down with incipit tap water. The fast was a failure as all I could focus on was what I would eat after I ended that torture.
Based on the above knowledge, I devised a fast that should work for me. During the workweek, I will continue my custom of eating three times a day. However, for two of those meals, I will only have bread and a non-caloric drink. I made some 100% whole wheat loaves that should be more nutritious than the store-bought stuff. I’m allowing myself to use calorie-free toppings (sugar-free jellies) on the bread as I have difficulty swallowing dry foods. For fluids, I’ll drink non-caloric drinks such as water, tea, and coffee. One time a day (likely lunch), I’ll eat a “basic” meal. For instance, a bowl of soup.
On the weekends, I’ll have a bread meal once a day, along with two small and simple meals. I think that this flexibility is essential for me as a lot of my social connections over weekends involve “breaking bread” with someone.
Prayer and meditation
I define prayer as a conversation with God and meditation as a practice of quieting my mind to become more spiritually aware.
Currently, I do these practices during quiet times during the day, such as my early morning walks. I am curious to see if the quality of my efforts will change with the addition of fasting.
My church has offered to send daily Bible verses via email during the fast, and I have signed up for them. They also have a little video vignette (sort of a mini-sermon) component on these verses. I find the combo much more helpful than just reading a couple of lines of scripture and trying to interpret it myself.
I feel compelled to fast, but I’m not sure why. Further, I can’t remember the part of the sermon where the pastor talked about this. I have concluded that I can’t remember his bullet points because they don’t apply to my particular reason for fasting.
As I start my fast, I am trying to open up my mind to elucidate why I am doing this process. This is what I have come up with so far:
It is an act of discipline.
It is a willingness to commit to do something and to continue to do that thing despite the lack of a guaranteed return. It is a statement that announces that I am more than my physical needs while also admitting that my physical needs and spiritual needs are not separate but connected.
It is an act of sacrifice.
The word sacrifice seems to carry a negative valence and conjures up images of pain and torture in my emotional mind. However, my thinking self understands this term differently. Sacrifice is giving up something for a more significant cause. A sacrifice can be material, such as giving money to the poor. It also can be emotional, as in sitting with a friend during a difficult time. When I sacrifice, I realize that I am not the center of the universe.
It is a way to delay gratification
As a child, I had little, and any luxury item that I possessed was acquired through hard work and diligent saving. This process caused me to value those things. In my current instant gratification world, many things that were once valued now have little value. With a credit card and the internet, it is possible to meet any need 24 hours a day. I can stream a movie at will, or order a pair of shoes at 3 AM. Also, I can eat at any time that I wish as my pantry and fridge are overflowing. Delaying eating despite being hungry is another form of delayed gratification that forces me to be grateful for the food that I eat.
It deemphasizes food
There was a time that I was obsessed with food, and my life revolved around my next snack. Thankfully, that changed several years ago when I gave up eating concentrated forms of sugar. I believe that what I really had was an addiction to sugar, and that addiction drove me to seek it in any way available. It is great to be freed from sugary snacks. With that said, I would like to deemphasize food further. My fasting plan is basic and straightforward. It is designed to provide edible meals that are routine. I know I will eat, but I don’t have to think about what I will eat.
It is a way to have increased awareness of the world around me
Like many, I love a big hearty meal. After I’m done feasting, I find myself lethargic and somewhat self-absorbed. I believe that the converse is true when I eat less. The discomfort that is caused by hunger makes me more alert and aware. That alertness makes me feel connected to the people and things around me.
It is a way to put worldly things in their place
I don’t consider myself ascetic, and anyone who has seen my Amazon shipments would agree. However, I firmly believe that reliance on worldly possessions for a sense of worth or fulfillment is a recipe for an empty and hollow life. A fast is a way to simplify my life and indirectly place less emphasis on “stuff.”
These are the rationale that I have come up with for my desire to fast. Yet, I’m uncertain that they are the right reason(s). As a scientist, I am driven to understand the “whys” of everything. However, I may never find the true “why” of why I feel compelled to fast. It is also possible that I will discover the reason, but that awareness will happen at some point in the distant future. Naturally, I have a secret hope that I will be guided in a significant life direction because of fasting. However, I accept that this likely won’t be the case. Every event in life doesn’t translate into a transparent process with a definable outcome. At times it is vital to act not out of mechanistic rationality but out of faith.
I write this at the start of a new year and a new decade. Today is Saturday, January 4th, 2020. It is 2 PM, and so I’m not at my usual Starbucks writing post. Instead, I’m sitting in an overstuffed leather chair in my home study. On my legs sits my lap table, with its cushioned bottom and bright blue plastic surface. On the lap table is my MacBook with its defective keyboard. It is a computer recalled by Apple, but one that they refuse to fix because I purchased it from a third party. The house is quiet, as only William is home. He is in the family room and busy doing his own thing. My sole contact with him today was to ask him how he was feeling, as he is recovering from a cold. “Better,” was his reply.
Julie is at work in her new office space. Will and I helped her move a few days ago. It was there that I pulled out my back. Although improved, it is still quite sore, and I find that the padding of my comfortable recliner provides better support than the mesh back of my rolling desk chair.
I awoke a little before 4 AM today, but I hit the snooze bar a few times before I got up. While I was in bed, my back felt normal. However, it felt tight and sore as soon as I went from a horizontal to a vertical position. After dressing, I went outside and brushed a light dusting of snow off of my 11-year-old blue Honda Fit. Twelve minutes later, I was in the drive-through line of the Dunkin Donuts on New York Street. “Medium black, and a medium with cream,” I announced into the speaker. I recognized the responding voice as the Hispanic man who usually works that shift. Despite my using a different vehicle, he knew me. When I reached the window, he was ready with my coffees in a carrier, and his terminal out to accept my Apple Pay. We wished each other a good day and drove the three additional blocks to Tom’s house.
Tom was waiting for me, and in his customary fashion, he put his finger to his lips, warning me to be quiet as the rest of the house was sleeping. I always find this humorous, as he is much louder than I am. I gave him his black coffee and sat next to him on the long bench that he uses as a desk chair. Tom is always researching something, and we chatted about his latest discovery before we started to write this week’s post for his construction blog. I had already uploaded a bunch of photos that I thought would be useful. With his approval, we started the composition, which was on repairing a sunroom. I have a love of construction, and after years of listening to Tom describe the process, I can usually compose a post that only requires a few revisions. With edits complete, I published the post to his website, and then linked it to Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, and Instagram.
“Do you want to go to breakfast?” Tom asked. “Sure,” was my reply. I was assuming that we were going to go to Harner’s, a pleasant and cheap breakfast joint in Aurora. So I was surprised when he turned onto I88 and headed into the city. He was taking us to our favorite breakfast spot, The Palace Sandwich Shop. There we were greeted by Brandy, the waitress who asked how we were doing and how Tom’s son, Charlie, was. Tom said that Charlie was excellent and recalled the time when Charlie, at age 5, punched George, the restaurant’s owner, directly in the…let me just say below his stomach. On a previous trip to the restaurant, George told Tom that he would never forget Charlie because of that event.
I ordered two eggs over easy with bacon and a fruit cup. Tom ordered the Western Skillet. Our conversation continued, jumping from topic to topic as we talked about politics, movies, real estate, and food. With breakfast complete, Tom generously paid the bill. Brandy wanted to take a picture of Tom to place on the restaurant’s Instagram feed. He held his hand in front of his face and so the photo only showed his hand and me standing in the background. It is doubtful that I’ll make the Instagram cut.
Back in the car, our conversation continued. I started to offer unsolicited advice, and at one point, Tom called me “dad” in a genial tone. Back in Naperville, he wanted to show me a neighborhood that he is thinking about. Tom feels that his house is too big for three occupants, and he has been considering moving to a smaller dwelling. We drove up and down the streets of this pleasant neighborhood to get a vibe for the community.
I returned home to a quiet house and went up to my bedroom to find Julie just finishing a shower. She was getting ready to go to work. She left, and I was left in a quiet house.
I had productive plans, but my sore back continued to bother me, and despite taking a double dose of Alieve, it was tight and tender. I watched YouTube videos until I reached my saturation point and then headed downstairs to the kitchen. In the fridge, I found the pizza box from the Lou Malnati’s pizza that Julie ordered the day before. It was a deep dish spinach pizza with a butter crust. I put two slices on a little aluminum tray and popped the tray into our toaster oven for 8 minutes. Hot and crispy, the pizza served as an excellent lunch.
Which brings me sitting in my overstuffed leather chair, looking out at the snow, typing, thinking. Soon Julie will return home, and we will plot a course for the rest of the day.
I’m sure many of you are wondering why I am writing about such an ordinary day. There is a part of me that would like to answer that question by stating that no day is average or typical. There is another part of me that would like to say the opposite, that today was indeed ordinary. My stream of consciousness is moving me in the latter direction, so I think I’ll go there with today’s post.
In the past, I was always busy, and I always felt like I didn’t have enough time. However, I have been fortunate as of late to have time, and with time I have discovered an entirely new dimension to life. I find a particular joy in the fact that the Dunkin Donuts man and Brandy, the waitress, know who I am. I celebrate that I can spend long periods with my friend, Tom, and never get bored. I have the time to look forward to when Julie will return home. If she is excited and wants to do something, that would be great. However, if she is tired and crabby, I’m OK with that too.
Since I have allowed myself to slow down colors seem more vivid, sounds are sharper, tastes have become more intense. I don’t feel like I’m wasting time, I feel like I’m experiencing it more naturally. I am more connected and grounded to the world around me.
I have stopped asking myself the question, “What will I do when I grow up.” I’m no longer frantically seeking my next career. Instead, I’m trying to listen to my heart, and I’m trying to allow God to act through me. That latter point is a bit scary, as I’m a bit of a control freak. However, when I stop trying to control everything around me, stuff happens. I have become ever more aware that my talents are best utilized on a small, one to one scale. I always thought that I had a higher and more grandiose purpose, but now I embrace the above reality.
I feel moved to slow down enough so I can see the next steps that I should take. My current back issues have forced a further slowing, and so I embrace the pain as it allows me to listen to thoughts with greater clarity.
If I can’t be a good father, husband, friend, or customer, can I be anything authentic? These roles define me. They are not roles that take me away from my life’s mission, they are my mission. I feel that additional tasks and drives will present themselves as long as I keep myself open, willing, and authentic.
In a day, I will start a modified fast, which will consist of one meal a day with bread and water for the other two. I hope to continue this plan for 21 days as I pray and meditate to open myself to the will of God. I can assure you that the thought of me giving up control to anyone is a frightening thing to do. I will try to use the support of those people who love me as I attempt this difficult challenge. I know that I will need to continue to slow down and “be.” I’m not expecting a radical transformation. To be honest, I don’t know what to expect.
My retirement has been different from what I initially envisioned. It has become more personal and rich. I wish I could describe this to you in a more elegant fashion, but the words to do so escape me. However, dear reader, I am not static, I am definitely moving forward.
I savored the trinity of holidays when I was a kid. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This triple threat commenced with the relatively unimportant Halloween, then moved to the more significant Thanksgiving, and culminated in the ultimate holiday, Christmas.
I have both good and bad Christmas memories. Still, my overall reminiscence of the season was one of excitement and joy. I enjoyed school, but the idea of getting two weeks off from it at the height of winter was exhilarating. However, it seemed that the week that preceded winter break expanded to infinity, moving ever slower as each day inched towards the holiday weekend.
The first few days off of school were magical, and all possibilities appeared to be within my grasp. I could stay up, I could sleep in, I didn’t have homework to weigh me down, and school seemed like a lightyear away.
Christmas Eve celebration took place at my grandparent’s walk-up flat on Chicago’s West Side. I didn’t like going there as it smelled strongly of garlic and BenGay. Worse, everyone spoke in Slovak, a language that I could neither speak nor understand. However, Christmas Eve was different, as all of my cousins were in attendance. The family was packed into the tiny place as we laughed and celebrated. My grandmother was an excellent ethnic cook, and we dined on her Christmas cabbage soup, which was accompanied by homemade rye bread, kolacky, and yeast coffee cakes filled with sweet poppy seed or fruit fillings. The kids would be relegated to a makeshift table in one of the bedrooms that was adorned with mismatched plates and bowls. Before we started our meal, a thin host like wafer would be passed among us. Each of us would break off a piece, which we dripped in honey and ate. I’m unsure of the significance of this wafer, which was called Oplatki. I thought it had something to do with Holy Communion, but that is just my conjecture.
Sometime after 11 PM, we would put on our coats and go to Assumption BVM Catholic Church for Midnight Mass. This was an ethnic church, and so the service was in Slovak. The place would be filled with parishioners, and once again, my nose would be assaulted by the smell of garlic, this time punctuated by the pungent odor of mothballs used to prevent insect destruction of the congregations’ wool dress coats. It was not uncommon for one of my siblings to start to laugh, and like a wave, their mirth would spread to the rest of us. Each child desperately trying to stifle their sacrilegious giggles. Of course, that was impossible, and the more we tried, the more we laughed. Although we were met with angry glares, I remember those incidents with full satisfaction.
After services, we returned to my grandparents’ house for another meal. Our Christmas Eve dinner was meat-free, but our 1 AM meal was not. I don’t recall everything that we ate during that meal. Still, perogies and a delicious Slovak sausage called Droby stand out in my memory. My grandmother would bake the latter with bacon until both the bacon and sausage casings were crisp and delicious. Stuffed to our limit, we would then pile into our respective cars and return home. Christmas Eve was a day where a young kid could stay up ridiculously late without being scolded by a parent.
Thanksgiving and Christmas Day were the only times that we ate in our dining room, and they were also the only days that we used our good china. Our china consisted of thin white porcelain dishes that had a silver ring around their edges, and an outer margin decorated with pink roses. I thought it was very fancy. Typically, we would eat our meals at our old Formica kitchen table using worn melamine dishes, so eating in the dining room was very special.
My mother would make a massive feast for Christmas Day. We would start off with a small glass of tomato juice and some canned fruit salad and then move onto the main course, a full Thanksgiving-style meal plus dumplings, pork roast, and Polish sausage with sauerkraut. There would be more kolache and yeast coffee cakes. Also, there could be a pie, cookies, nut cups, date bars, and other delectables.
My two maiden aunts always celebrated Christmas dinner with us. So we weren’t allowed to open presents until dinner was over. This could be agony for me as all of my friends opened gifts either on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.
Despite having a pile of presents under the tree, the actual number of gifts per person was small and mostly unremarkable. Usually, the best gifts went to my parents’ Godchildren as my folks didn’t want to seem cheap to the other relatives. I often bought my gifts from the Spencer Catalog, a mail-order house where you could get fabulous items for $1 to 3 dollars. Most of the gifts that I received were functional and not very inspired. However, there were a few standout years that I remember.
I started to listen to the radio when I was in early grade school. I would tune our old Aiwa kitchen radio carefully to pick up far off cities as their amplitude modulated signals ebbed and flowed with the shifting ionosphere. Discovering these hidden signals was seminal in broadening my overall view of the world around me, and I wanted a radio for my very own. Christmas was approaching, and I remember telling my mother of this fervent wish.
That year, my mother decided to wrap presents early, and to prevent package prodding, she used a “secret code” to identify whose gifts were whose. This didn’t stop me from investigating the wrapped packages, and I found one rectangular box that was just the right size and weight for a little tabletop radio. I could hardly wait for Christmas.
Christmas arrived that I was given my present to open, it was THE box! I started to carefully rip the wrapping paper, which revealed the word “Westinghouse.” Holy cow, I was really going to get a radio! I now tore off the rest of the paper and literally started to shriek, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I really wanted this, thank you!” My mother had a puzzled look on her face, and took the box from me. “This is for your brother.” She had read the wrong code, and I got the wrong gift. True story. Later, as a teenager and adult, I collected radios of all sorts, eventually owning dozens of them… I’m sure this is only a coincidence.
When I was in 6th grade, my oldest sister Carol married. That Christmas, she gave me a little wrapped box for my gift. It was so light that I thought it was empty. I opened the box to find a note, that note led me to another note, which led me to another note. Eventually, I found myself outside of the house, marching down the street to my sister and her husband’s car. The trunk of the sedan was partially open, and sticking out of it was a huge rectangular box. The box had a little piece of a scrap of paper taped to it that said, “For Michael.” I was utterly bewildered. I started to rip a corner off the box only to find metal parts inside. I tore the box further, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Carol and Bob had bought me a bicycle. My current bike from my parents was a cast-off from one of my cousins. It was so old and worn that I couldn’t even turn the crank arm, and so it sat in the garage unused. Now, I had a brand new, bright red bike! It also had a battery-operated headlight and a package rack on its back fender. I had never received such a generous gift, and I was utterly overwhelmed. My eyes filled with tears as I tried to pull it out the trunk of the car, but my young body didn’t have enough strength. I looked up to find Bob and Carol standing next to me, and with one pull, Bob lifted the box and carried it inside of the house. I rode that bike for many years and even wore out multiple sets of tires on my travels. That Christmas was the best Christmas ever.
My early Christmases all followed the same prescribed formula. All of my family would gather, and the same rituals were followed every year. There was stability and predictability during the holiday during those times. The routine felt good.
On Christmas Eve, we attended the 5 PM service at Community Christian Church and then immediately headed to our final Christmas party at my nephew Tommy’s house. Since I get up at 4 AM to walk, I was ready to leave the party once the clock chimed nine.
Julie and I both agreed that we would have a low key Christmas Day this year. After attending a variety of pre-Christmas get-togethers, our introverted selves needed some time to recharge. Our two remaining kids were in agreement with scaled-down Christmas plans, and we all relished the idea of staying in our PJs as long as we wanted to on Christmas Day. For many years our family has been somewhat fractured on Christmas, as my oldest daughter was typically unable to travel and celebrate with us. However, this year things would be even worse. My second oldest was now in the Peace Corps and serving in Africa. Not only would we not see her, but we weren’t even sure if we would hear from her due to connectivity uncertainties.
On Christmas Day, I kept my early walk tradition, but the rest of the family took their time to rise from bed. Julie was the first one up. She poked her head into my study to wish me a “Merry Christmas” and then headed into the kitchen. Soon I heard the whir of our coffee grinder and then the electronic beeps of the oven as Julie programmed it for 350F. She had assembled an overnight egg dish the day before, and she was getting ready to bake it for our Christmas brunch.
She brought me a cup of coffee, and we chatted for a moment before she returned to the kitchen. Slowly Grace and Will emerged from their respective bedrooms. It was time to open presents. We had texted Kathryn, our Peace Corps daughter, and she said she would try to call us on Christmas morning. That is if she could set a good enough internet connection. As we started to open our gifts, Julie’s iPhone rang. It was Kathryn calling on WhatsApp. She had a good enough wifi connection for a video call! She was able to stay online until we completed our openings as we chatted with her and showed her our presents. It almost seemed like she was with us.
That evening we changed things up by going to our first ever Christmas Day movie. We all enjoyed, “Knives Out,” a who-done-it mystery. Then after a day of rest, we traveled to see our oldest child, Anne. She had an appointment in Normal, IL, and we decided to meet her and our grandkids at a restaurant there. We ate, talked, and laughed as we opened presents and took pictures. Another non-traditional meeting for us, but it was great none-the-less.
I write this on New Year’s Eve. Our non-traditional Christmas celebrations are behind us, as we face not only a new year, but also a new decade.
I did enjoy the routine and traditions of Christmas past. However, it was not possible for my family and me to have a classic Christmas in 2019. What were my options? I could have demanded that all of my kids be present, but that would have been ridiculous. I could have sulked and felt sorry for myself, but that would only make the situation worse. I choose option three, to not only accept the change but to make the most out of it. By being flexible, I was able to have contact with all of my kids during the holiday. I had an enjoyable Christmas Day punctuated by a first, a Christmas Day movie. It was all excellent.
It is easy to get locked into a rigid holiday tradition, which can serve as a point of disappointment or conflict if the exact requirements of that expectations are not met. However, such stiffness serves no purpose. I choose to be grateful for what I have instead of being resentful for what I don’t.
We were already running late; we had a seven hours drive ahead, and I was feeling a need to get going. The family would be away for only three days, and we had gotten good at packing light. However, each of us wanted to have our space-occupying suitcase.
I started to pack Rosie, our red Ford Flex. First went the suitcases. On top of them, I carefully placed Tupperware containers that held the snowman cupcakes that Grace, Will, and I made. We had decorated them the night before by piping buttercream icing on vanilla cupcakes and making snowman heads out of marshmallows. We then added mini M & Ms for buttons and pretzel sticks for snowman arms. They were attractive, and I wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t be destroyed on the long trip to Minnesota. I found a nook next to the Tupperware for Julie’s Almond Pound Cake. She found the recipe for this dessert in a church cookbook 25 years ago, and it has become a Christmas staple in our house. Next went a bag of Christmas gifts. On top of the entire assembly, I placed four pillows, one for each of us. We would be sleeping at the Peterson’s, and I thought that having something familiar would add a little comfort.
When I drive to Minnesota in the winter, I like to be prepared, and so I tossed in two sleeping bags on top of everything. The bags were tightly wound like Swiss Roll cakes but squishy enough so I could squeeze them into two tight spots. Next, I added additional emergency travel items. Finally, I put our car-food bag in the front passenger seat. The car-food bag concept is Julie’s contribution to our family travels. This time it contained various chips, pretzels, and a few sweet treats for interstate munching.
I went back into the house and ground Dunkin Donuts beans and made a pot of coffee in our Braun drip coffee maker. I poured coffee into my reusable Starbucks travel cup and some into my little S’well thermos. Now back in the car, both items found spots in front seat cup holders.
I started the engine and pressed the on-screen buttons on the Flex’s control panel to adjust the heat. I activated the fan button, and nothing happened. I reset the car’s computer and tried again…nothing! I had just replaced the heater’s fan, and it was malfunctioning again! We could not drive the Flex to Minnesota for Christmas without a working heater. It would not only be uncomfortable, but it would also be unsafe. Our other travel-worthy vehicle, Violet, the campervan, was not a possibility as she only has two seats, and we had four passengers. The prospect of seeing our family for Christmas was looking grim.
Cars don’t hold much romance for me, but at times I have succumbed to their advertised hype. When I grew up in blue-collar Chicago, most people drove used American-made cars, Fords, Chevys, Plymouths, and the like. However, there was a house in my old neighborhood that had two Mercedes Benz sedans parked in the back. A friend told me that these were luxury cars and very special. Somehow that message has stayed with me into my adulthood.
I usually buy functional cars; however, there have been a few notable exceptions. When I finished my medical residency, I bought a speedy Mustang convertible. It was a fun car in good weather, but utterly treacherous with the slightest bit of rain or snow. After a few years, I sold it for something more practical, a Ford Explorer. Other rational cars followed the Explorer, that is until I turned 50.
By that time, I was an established physician, and there was a part of me wanted to show off my success. I had an urge to buy a Mercedes, but it seemed like a wholly wasteful purchase. I delayed my desire for over a year, but I finally could not resist my childish wish. I bought a hunter green Mercedes sedan with a tan leather interior. I remember the feeling that I had when I drove out of the dealer’s lot. A blue-collar kid from the south side of Chicago has arrived! I felt like the world was watching me and giving me a nod of respect. Despite knowing that my feelings were ridiculous, I held onto them. Why? Because they felt good.
In reality, a Mercedes is just a box on wheels, and my hunter green one wasn’t a very reliable box at that. The car made frequent trips to the dealership for repairs that ranged from disconnected door handles to defective computerized displays. In the beginning, these repair trips were OK, as I would always get a new loaner Mercedes to check out. However, this joy ended with the conclusion of my warranty. Post-warranty it wouldn’t be uncommon to bring the car in for a simple oil change and leave with a $1000.00 repair bill. My Mercedes went from being a classy status symbol to a financial anchor around my neck.
Fast forward to 2008. I was in the process of getting a new job in far off Rockford, and I wanted a car that was both reliable and economical. My radical move was to buy a Fit, Honda’s smallest and cheapest car. I can’t imagine that many people trade in a luxury car for a Honda Fit, but that was precisely what I did.
As compact cars go, the Honda Fit is very…compact. Its tiny engine sips gas at 40 MPG, and its small interior tries to eke out extra space with fold-down seats. At 6’3,” I fit into the driver’s seat, but I wouldn’t call the experience spacious.
The Honda commuted me for many years to my Wheaton private practice and my job in Rockford. The 80 mile trip to Rockford could be treacherous in bad weather, and so I had equipped the little car with all of the survival basics, jumper cables, a first aid kit, a sleeping bag, a change of emergency clothes, and even a towing strap. Being a solo traveler gave me plenty of packing space despite the car’s diminutive dimensions.
I loved the Honda and thought it looked attractive, but others felt it was too tiny for a man of my size. One case in point was my brother-in-law. He referred to the Fit as my “clown car.” The title referencing the tiny autos that are used as circus gags. A clown car would pull up in the circus’ center ring, and from its claustrophobic innards, six or more clowns would emerge. How they packed them in there, I will never know.
Five years ago, I drove my daughter Kathryn from Chicago to the University of Arizona in the Fit. We had pushed down the rear seats, and with precision packing, the Fit successfully transported the two of us and all of Kathryn’s college belongings to her freshman dorm at the U of A.
I was solo on the trip home, and the roads were plagued by an enormous amount of road construction. New Mexico was especially bad, and the highway would frequently transition from double lanes to a concrete barrier single channels. Large signs would announce, “Construction Speed Limit Strictly Enforced,” at the start of these channels. So I would set my cruise control to the appropriate speed limit to avoid getting a ticket.
I was driving through one of these construction channels in the middle of New Mexico. Suddenly, I had a strange feeling of danger overtake me along with a physical tingling feeling at the back of my neck that forced me to look up and towards the rearview mirror. What I saw horrified me. All I could see in my rearview mirror was the giant grill of an 18 wheeler. The truck was so close to me that I was invisible to the driver who was gaining on me. If I had not looked up at the very moment, the 18 wheeler would have run over me in the next 30 seconds. I could not escape the lane as the road construction channel was cordoned off. Honda Fits are not known for their powerhouse acceleration. Still, I had no other option, so I stomped on the accelerator. The car started to pick up speed but at an agonizingly slow rate. By this time, I was sweating, and it felt like my heart would jump directly out of my chest. I looked up and saw that I was now going slightly faster than the truck. I was pulling away.
Eventually, I cleared the barriers and pulled into a different lane. I looked back to see the truck in my rearview mirror. He was staying far behind me as he was now aware of what almost happened due to his distraction.
That incident stayed with me, and for some time, it felt like a PTSD experience as I would go into a near panic when I was surrounded by trucks on the expressway. I had to overcome my fear as I needed to drive the Fit to Rockford every week. So I eventually convinced myself that driving it was safe. However, I never took the Honda on long road trips after that, as it was just too stressful, and I was too fearful.
Cars don’t age well, and over the 11 years that I have owned the Fit, it has gained a bit of rust, and its paint has seen better days. Now with almost 130 thousand miles, the Fit has become our spare/kid’s car. It remains a perfect “around-town” vehicle despite its loss of beauty. I now mostly drive Violet the van, and we have the big Ford Flex for our other needs.
“The heater/defroster fan isn’t working. It would be dangerous to take Rosie to Minnesota.” I announced in a solemn tone. I scanned the living room to witness a sea of wide eyes and dropped jaws. “The fan sometimes comes on when you drive her a little bit,” Julie offered. “That’s not reliable enough. What if we were stuck in a storm on the way and had no heat or defrost air.”
It was clear that everyone was very disappointed. What were the other options available? The only reasonable one at that late time was to drive the Fit. And although a solution, it was a pretty terrible one.
The Fit is fine for a lone driver, OK for a single passenger, but miserable for four adults that included two males who are both over 6 feet tall. Also, we had luggage, presents, food, and emergency items. I checked the weather for Minneapolis, which indicated that on our commuting days, the temperatures would be above freezing. We could probably forgo our emergency gear.
I mentioned the possibility of taking the Fit on the 7-hour journey, and there was a general nod of agreement. All of us unloaded the Flex and loaded the Fit. We left behind many items, but the hatch area was still very tight.
I also had to face my fear of driving the Fit on a long interstate trip full of 18 wheelers. I did my best to implement some self-CBT, took a deep breath, and plopped myself into the driver’s seat. Julie sat opposite me, and the kids each took spots in the tiny second row. We were off.
To keep ourselves sane, we took a few extra rest-stops on both the destination and return trips. I wanted to be as alert as possible, so I made sure that I drank my coffee. I keep my attention high when faced with construction zones, and made sure that we had plenty of gas. These were all small things, but they helped ease some of the stress.
The trip was challenging, but we accomplished our goal because we faced our problem with a realistic and positive attitude. None of us complained; we all did our respective jobs. So why didn’t we just cancel?
If you want to do something, you find a way.
If you don’t want to do something, you find an excuse.
Those two lines give you our answer. You may want to think about them the next time you need to make a decision, or wonder what another person’s real motivation is.
There have been times in my life when I felt that I couldn’t catch a break. Things were not going my way, and sometimes it believed that I had no way out. These dark times could last anywhere from a few hours to longer than a few months. Some of these traumas were due to my actions, and others felt like they were random acts. During these later experiences, I often felt like I was being punished for some unknown offense. Being a problem solver, I would do my best to come up with solutions, and sometimes I succeeded. However, there were other situations where the right answer could not be found. Although I couldn’t always find answers, I could still learn from my experiences.
I thought I would share with you some of the lessons that I learned from hard times.
If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger (most of the time)
My graduate school days were a time of growth. The main project of my thesis was to purify and characterize an enzyme found in bacteria. To do this, I initially relied on conventional procedures and the advice of my graduate advisor. Despite trying many different variables, I could not successfully isolate my enzyme from all of the rest of the bacteria’s cellular proteins. When I returned to my advisor for help, she would tell me to try again, but the results were always the same. I knew that I was doing my procedures correctly, and so finding a solution seemed hopeless.
I was in the university’s science library late one night reading journal articles. I hoped that I would locate a new technique that would solve my problem. All of the articles seemed useless, and I found my thoughts wandering. I decided to clear my mind from everything I had read. Once I freed myself from those limitations, I started to have other opinions. Those thoughts cascaded into an avalanche of ideas. Eventually, I came up with a novel way to approach the problem that was the opposite of what I had been told to do. That opposite way worked and was a crucial step in the purification of the enzyme that I was isolating. The trauma and frustration of my failures forced me to think outside of the box, and in the process, I became a better scientist.
The purification of the above bacterial protein was a long and tedious process. After working for almost a year, I was ready to scale up production so I could obtain enough protein to run my characterization experiments. The build-up to the final step of the purification took weeks. I had to grow massive amounts of bacteria, lyse the bacterial cells, and go through many steps to remove impurities from the lysate. At times I was sleeping at my office desk as I had to run some of the procedures overnight. The final step of my purification involved a technique called chromatography. The chromatography needed to be run in the lab’s walk-in cooler. I set up the purification on Friday afternoon with the expectation that the process would run through the weekend.
Finally, I would have enough of the enzyme to start the second phase of my research! I rushed back to campus on Monday morning and immediately went to the cold room. When I opened the door, I was met with a blast of hot air! The cold room had malfunctioned, and it was a balmy 90 degrees inside. The enzyme was destroyed.
Naturally, I felt sorry for myself, and it took me a few hours to re-face the problem. Since I had to redo the entire experiment, I decided to streamline some of the steps that I developed, which turned out to be a good thing. A few weeks later, I once again faced the cold room, but this time I achieved my goal.
Sometimes you do everything right, but things still go wrong. Your only choice is to pull yourself off the floor, re-evaluate the situation, and, if warranted, start over again.
Turn a disadvantage into an advantage
As humans, we love to put things into categories, and one of our favorites is whether something is good or bad. I would like to challenge this categorization.
As you know, I have brain processing issues that I describe to others as dyslexia. This definition only loosely defines what happens in my head, but it is understandable to others, which is why I use that term.
The reality is that (at least by my observation), my brain works differently than most “normal” people. I get confused by letters (an h looks like a b, and so on), I have difficulty seeing the space between words, and the lines between sentences in a paragraph. I have trouble memorizing random strings of numbers or remembering definers, like a person’s name.
My processing issues don’t stop there. It has become clear to me that the way that I think is different from the way that most people think. My natural way of thinking is not linear (although I have taught myself how to think in a sequential pattern). I see aggregates of ideas that connect with other aggregates of ideas. I tend to see connecting points between things that on the surface seem to have no connecting points. In my way of thinking, everything is joined to everything else. The way that I process information is hardly efficient in a 2019 “cause and effect” world. Most people would think that my brain (your mom has called it autistic-like) would be a significant disadvantage to me. It certainly has made some parts of normal life more challenging. However, my unusual thinking has advantages. Since I see connections and patterns everywhere, it is often easy for me to understand concepts that others may find challenging. Chemistry is no different to me than cooking. Immersing myself in learning web design is no different than immersing myself in a novel, and so on. By embracing my brain, I have been able to take a potential disadvantage and turn it into a definite advantage. There is bad in good things and good in bad things. How you view something can make a difference.
We all make stupid mistakes
A few years ago, I was in our basement, and I noticed that one of the air returns ducts was disconnected. I reached up to reattach the duct, but it was just out of my reach. I needed to be a foot higher, and I looked around the basement to find something to stand on. An old kitchen chair caught my eye. The chair had found its way to the basement as one of the legs was partially detached. I thought that I could carefully balance myself on the broken chair and fix the errant air duct. For some reason, this seemed like a brilliant idea, even though a step ladder was only 20 feet away. I carefully positioned the broken leg and climbed on the top of the chair’s seat. I extended my arm, and just as I reached my most vulnerable position, the chair collapsed, causing me to hit the hard concrete floor with great force. The wind was knocked out of me, and I felt dazed. My foolish actions resulted in having a sore back for weeks and an ability to predict changes in the weather for months. I would like to say that that was the last stupid thing that I have done, but that would be a lie. However, I am now much more careful when it comes to choosing something to climb on. I did learn from my wrong actions.
You will do stupid things in your life. Learn from them and don’t repeat them.
Relationships don’t always work out, and that’s OK.
It is hard for me to give you a specific example here as I don’t want to tell a tale that involves another person. However, I can tell you that I have made mistakes with relationships in the past. When I was younger, I tended to find people who needed me to take care of them. In my mind, I felt that I was a good person and a true friend. However, I now believe that there was a more sinister side to my actions as I think that low self-esteem was at play. I was finding people who needed me as this made me feel worthy. Unfortunately, these relationships were one-sided and not equal partnerships. Besides, once a dependent person realized that their needs were not being utterly met by me, they became angry and resentful. Over time I came to understand that these types of connections were not good for me, and I now form bonds with healthy peers instead of needy dependents. Although I have been hurt, I now know that I don’t have to stay in bad relationships. Recognizing what a bad relationship is has shown me what to look for in a good relationship.
Keep your eyes and ears open
My medical school class had over 140 students, each one selected for being at the top of their respective classes. We had some students who viewed their success in terms of their performance compared to their classmates. These kids always sought to get the highest scores on every exam. In one particular case, the student’s efforts were so stressful to her that she had to drop out of med school.
I saw med school as a tool to achieve a goal. That goal was to become a physician. If I got a 95% on an exam and someone else got a 98% it made little difference to me. We were both going to be MDs at the end of 4 years. My more balanced approached paid off, and in the end, I got the degree that the poor super-achiever did not. You can learn from an observed trauma just as much as one that you personally experience. Keep your eyes and ears open and let others teach you not only by their successes but also by their failures.
Many things happen in our lives, and some of those things may upset or hurt us. However, every event can be a learning experience that you can use to become a better and stronger person.